My dad and our live-in housekeeper, Emma Mae Ransom, square off across the kitchen island, a plate of freshly baked peanut butter chocolate chip cookies cooling on the counter between them. Dad’s expression says he’s calculating his chances. Emma’s dares him to try. She stands, her fly swat at the ready, and glares him down. Or rather glares up at him. John Reed stands a full head taller than the little bit of Irish fluff that is Emma. Her red hair gives testament to her temper and if Dad so much as tries to snatch a cookie, she’ll lay him into him.
His chances? Slim to none. Jason and I have been on the receiving end of that fly swat more times than I can count growing up. Emma is faster than Speedy Gonzalez when it comes to protecting her baked goods.
I have to grin watching the two of them. It really is funny. Secretly, Jason and I both believe the two of them love each other, but neither will admit it. Its times like now, that you can see it, when they are playful and think no one is watching. I wish they’d just fess up and admit how they feel about each other openly.
“Give it up, Dad, you’re not getting one,” I tell him, coming into the kitchen. “Emma will defend those cookies with her last breathe.”
“Alex!” The front door slams shut.
I close my eyes and wince at the distress in my brother’s voice. I’d hoped to avoid this until later. He must have skipped football practice to check on me. I know he’d heard the rumors because he’d texted me nonstop all day.
“Are you okay?” he demands, his concerned filled blue eyes search my face.
“I’m fine, Jase,” I assure him, shaking my head ever so slightly to warn him to shut up.
“What?” Emma’s eagle eyes zero in on us. “Did something happen at school?”
Both Emma and my dad look worried. They’re afraid I’ll crack again. I’m a little afraid I will too, but thanks to Saidie and Morgan, I survived my first day. I didn’t crack. Mostly. And I refuse to go back to Compton Academy. I refuse. I’d had a bad moment earlier at school and thought about going back, but I’m better now. I don’t need to be there. I want to be normal.
“Yeah, actually something did happen at school,” I tell them and warn my brother with my eyes not to say a word. “I met some really nice people and one girl is actually in all my classes. I had a good day.”
“But Jason sounded so worried…”
“Only because I didn’t get to check on her today, Dad,” Jason interrupts him. “It’s cool.” He frowns slightly, but he doesn’t want to see me go back to Compton any more than I do. He knows Emma and Dad will ship me off in a heartbeat if they think I can’t handle this.
Both of them stare at us, not sure whether to believe us or not. Emma’s eyes are sharper than Dad’s. She raised me and Jason and knows us better than anyone. She sees through me. I can tell by the look in her eyes. I plead silently with her to not say anything. My eyes beg her. She purses her lips, but nods faintly. I let out a sigh of relief. I also know I am going to get the third degree later.
“Aren’t you supposed to be at practice?” I ask pointedly. Jason is the quarterback of our football team.
“Yeah, well, Coach’ll deal. I wanted to make sure you were okay…OUCH!!!!!”
I laugh. He’d tried to take advantage of the fact Emma was distracted and sneak a cookie. The fly swat was faster.
“You’ll ruin your supper, boyo. Now go clean up. Since you skipped practice you can help me with supper.”
I laugh and go to move around Dad, who is reaching for the cookies. Emma’s fly swatter comes down full force. I reach around him and snag two cookies and run.
“Alexandria Nicolette Reed!”
Jason and I tear up the stairs, laughing at Emma’s cries of outrage. We come to a halt in front of my bedroom door and I hand over a cookie. His eyes close when he bites into it. Emma’s cookies are delicious. I waste no time devouring my own.
He turns serious. “Alex…”
“I promise you I’m fine, Jason.”
“I heard the rumors, you can’t be fine.”
“Honest, I had a good day. I met some people and it made it easier. I’m not twelve anymore. I can handle it.”
“You made some friends today?” His eyes hold a glimmer of hope.
“They didn’t seem to mind the rumors and stayed by my side all day, so yeah, I think maybe I did.”
Relief floods his features. His biggest fear is that I will revert back to the way I used to be and it’ll be a repeat of junior high. I’d heard him pacing all night. Then this morning, he’d barged into my room at the crack of dawn to tell me to call if I needed him and he’d be there. Just call and he’d take care of everything.
“Don’t worry so much,” I smile. “You’d best go change before Emma comes looking for you.”
He rolls his eyes, but moves quickly to his own door. Emma rules our house with an iron fist and you do not mess with her. Even Dad stays out of her way. Jason knows better than to make her come looking for him. I give him one more quick smile of reassurance and then go into my own room and collapse into my favorite, over stuffed cushy chair, exhausted.
I’m not fine, though, not really. I’d started to get a little shaky on the ride home. I felt drained. The stares, the whispers, they’d all come back to me as I drove. That old familiar sense of the walls closing in surfaced and I’d nearly choked from the panic it caused. It had taken everything I’d learned in the last five years to find the courage to sit through those classes and keep my emotions under control. I’d lost control in the car. There was no way Emma and Dad could see me like that, so I’d sat in the car when I got home until I could breathe normally.
Janna hadn’t been too far off in her claims of a mental institute, I thought bitterly. Compton Academy was a private school that catered to kids with “instability challenges” as they liked to put it. The politically correct way of saying we were all nuts in some fashion or other. I’d ended up there after my breakdown in middle school.
And I blamed it all on Janna Davis.
In fourth grade, she’d moved to town. From the very first moment I’d met her, I’d seen the mean, malicious look in her eyes. The fact that I wouldn’t talk to her made me her prime target. The other kids had pretty much left me alone before Janna. Under her persuasion, they’d set out to make my life torture. I’d become the brunt of jokes, was constantly made fun of, and they’d even made up songs to sing about me. All at Janna’s urging.
I’d been miserable.
It wasn’t just school though. School only added to what was already seriously wrong. I’d started having nightmares when I was little, right after The Event, really awful, terrifying ones. I could never remember anything but flashes from my dreams, but they’d been enough to scare me silly.
As I’d gotten older, the nightmares worsened. The doctors had diagnosed me with having Night Terrors, not uncommon in a child who’d gone through what I had, they’d assured Emma and Dad. Their solution was to send me to a child psychologist. It hadn’t helped, but I’d dutifully gone every week.
By the time I hit middle school, I barely slept. I’d started to panic all the time and I couldn’t understand why. Between the constant panic and the nightmares, I’d developed insomnia. When I did manage to nod off, I’d wake up screaming. Emma and Dad had been at a loss as to how to help me and even Dr. Sayer, my psychiatrist, started to worry about my condition. Nothing seemed to help.
I still vaguely remember the day I’d cracked. Not the events, at least not clearly, but I can recall the emotions: the fear, the pain, the panic, and the rage.
I’d been running to my locker for some reason or other, but I’d stopped short on seeing Janna and her cronies waiting there. Janna’s had been turned away from me, but she was motioning people over and showing them something. People had been laughing. One of her friends had seen me standing behind them and alerted her. She’d turned, that hateful smile on her face I’d come to dread.
“Alley Cat, did you lose something?”
She was holding up my school planner and instantly the panic I’d barely kept at bay surfaced. She knew. She knew about my shrink. Not only did she know, but she was showing anyone who’d stop and look. I’d kept the appointments scribbled in my planner so I wouldn’t forget. Everyone had been staring and laughing at me. Before the end of the day, I’d known it would be all over school. The panic had hit hard, forcing the air from my lungs.
Janna had leaned close to me and whispered something in my ear. To this day, I still can’t remember what she said. The doctors said I’d blocked it. Whatever it was though, had caused me to snap. Fear and panic were replaced by a blind rage unlike anything I’ve ever known. I’d almost reached out and grabbed her. The urge to hurt her had burned like a desperate need. Images from my nightmares had crashed into me like an ocean wave hitting the rocks at high tide. Flashes of sharp, snarling teeth had overwhelmed me. All I’d felt was the need to hurt her, to do something really terrible to her. It had scared me so badly, I’d flung myself away from her and ran out of the school, unaware I was crying.
Jason had found me a few hours later in the park below our house. He’d gotten me home, but I’d been hysterical with fear at what I’d almost done. The images from my nightmares wouldn’t go away. They were all I’d been able to see at that point and were so real to me that everyone and everything else had been a vague dream. Emma had taken me to the hospital where they’d sedated me to calm me down. When I woke up a few days later, it was all I could do to just breathe. I’d been in a constant state of panic. I couldn’t get past the thought that I’d almost hurt someone.
Compton Academy had been Dr. Sayer’s solution. It was essentially a high class mental institute masquerading as a school. I hadn’t put up a fuss about going. Even I’d known something was wrong with me and I needed help. I’d spent the next five years learning ways to calm my panic and act normal. I’d learned a lot at Compton, yes, but I would not go back there. It had been like a prison, my every move watched and analyzed. In order for them to let me out, I’d needed to prove to them I was getting better. I forced myself to learn to stay calm. It worked and they’d told Dad I could come home.
I’m home now and I will never go back there, no matter what I have to do.