Perfectly Centered

It had rained during lunch. I remember looking outside when I had entered the lunch room. It was just trickling. By the time I made it to my chair alone, it was pouring. And I had sat there alone, not eating, not talking, but just listening to the rain. Now though, it's after school and I'm waiting and it's not raining.

I want to be inside. I want to be home. Warm and not feel the wet cement step that's under me. I don't want to see the clouds coming again because this time I'm not inside. Because this time I don't know if my mom is coming. And I can hear dogs barking in the distance. I don't know why they're barking? And I can watch the cars pass by. None of them being my mother. And as each moment passes, the dogs bark a little louder. And I can see the cars drive by with their lights on, because they knew it would rain. I don't want the dogs to come where I am. I want a car to stop and have my mom pick me up. The dogs must know that I'm alone. I want to be brave but can't. Dogs know when you're afraid. And they'll come and attack you.

I just sit there and Samara walks up to me and sits next to me. Samara's in my English class and usually she just sits and stares out the window. But this time, when she walks up to me, she doesn't stare. She looks at me and talks.

"Hey, you're in my English class."

"Yeah," I say. She wears this skirt mid-thigh and tight. The shirt she wears fits snug. It's red like the color of ketchup. Like the color of her lipstick. She's got breasts. Real breasts not like mine. The kind of breasts that would hurt if she ran without a bra.

"What are you waiting for?"

"My mom. I like guess she forgot."

I don't really want to talk. But she's there, and I guess, that's nice.

"Are you waiting for your mom too?"

"No I just walk home. I don't feel like going home just yet."

Samara squints because a drop of rain has fallen on her face. Her eyelid wipes it away. I pick at the little grass growing between the concrete cracks.

"So do you like English?"

"It's all right, I guess."

I don't look up as I say this. I still pick at the blades of grass, thinking that by the time there are thirty blades maybe mom will be here to pick me up. Samara's not looking at me. She stares at the tree in front of our English class.

"So do you have a date for Cotillion?"

"No, I don't. No boy's really asked me."

"Well do you like any?"

"Not really."

"So do you like a boy then?"

"Well there's Danny. But he's already got a date probably. Like, I guess."

"How do you know?"

"Cause he does. I know. And even if he didn't, why would he ask me out?"

"Well you've got to make him notice you."

"What do you mean?" I've stopped picking at the grass. And I look at her. Except I'm too short to look straight into her eyes. Instead I look at her breasts. And I can see on a couple more drops of rain on her neck.

"All you really have to do is move your hair away from your face."

She reaches for her purse, a duffle bag, big and green with leather trim. It's a Dooney Bourke and it's not fake. She pulls out two butterfly clips. She pins each side of my hair away from my face.

* * *

The next day in the cafeteria, I find my usual seat. I sit at the end of the table with people that I somewhat know. I put my backpack on the table in front of me so people can't see me. So people can think that someone is going to sit next to me. So I can't see other people who might look at me. My lunch is in my backpack. I never take it out. My mom packs my lunch in the small brown-paper bags that you pack your groceries in in the grocery store. My mom packs my lunches in these too big bags. So my lunch hides in my backpack, crumpled. I have to dig real wide to get my food. Lindsay and Holly sit beside me and talk to each other. I sit next to them and I listen. Lindsay talks about Davy. Holly talks about her Science Fair project. I try not to get the juice of my orange to squirt onto my hands. Holly tells Lindsay that she thinks Davy will ask her to Cotillion. I try to spit the seeds out of my mouth slowly. Lindsay says that Holly is probably right.

Samara walks past me with her lunch tray and smiles. And I smile too. Except my backpack's there in front of me, and I'm not sure if she sees.

When Samara passes, Holly leans over to Lindsay and says, "You know, Laura says she made out with some guy on the mini-mine train at Six Flags last weekend."

"No way!" Lindsay says, "Is Laura for sure?"

"Well Laura said like she didn't see it. But she said that she was waiting in line. Samara was like in line in front of them with some guy. They were all groping each other. Like major PDA. Laura says that it was pretty gross. Well, they went into the mine train all feeling each other. And when the ride was over, Samara was wearing the guy's shirt and the guy was wearing hers."

"No way! They like switched shirts?"

"Well, Laura didn't see that, but you can guess whatever you want."

* * *

In English, Samara sits and stares out the window. She stares the way people do when they wonder. And I wonder too. What is she looking at? What is she staring at that each day her eyes drift to the window and stay. Samara, do you wish that you were far away from this school? From this room and textbooks and kids? Do you want to be away from the questions and the stares that all the other girls give? The girls say that you are too fast. They say things like you do things in the back of the car. The boys say that you will do anything. And when they say anything, they say it with emphasis. What does that mean?

* * *

After school, I wait for my mom to pick me up. Mom said that she would have to work late for the rest of this month, so I would have to wait. Samara sees me and walks over to me. She sits next to me.

"Are you waiting for your mom again?"

I look up from my book, "Yeah, she can't pick me up until 3:45."

"What are you reading?"

"The Mountain of Magic."

"Is it good?"

"I guess."

I put the book down next to me.

"Well what's it about?"

"I don't know. It's like about this place where these kids meet. Well, it's okay, I guess."

"Oh," Samara says.

"I see that you kept the clips in your hair."

"Yeah," I say and smile.

Samara stops looking at me and looks at her hands, one on top of another, lying in her lap. There's a ring on her finger. Silver and black and rather fat. In the middle there's this green stone. Circling the stone is some lettering that I can't read. She twists the ring slightly so that the green stone is perfectly centered on her finger. She looks up.

"You know, my boyfriend gave this to me yesterday," Samara says.

"Wow."

"He picked me up from school and we went to the park. I still had my sandwich left over from lunch. I was feeding pieces of bread to the ducks."

"You didn't go home? Didn't your parents freak?"

"I was only a little late. That doesn't matter. I told him about last weekend about how my Dad yelled at me when he saw me talking to some boy. When I told him that, he took off his ring and he told me to wear it. He asked me if I ever wore mood rings, and I said I had but I had lost it. He asked if I knew how on mood rings green always said that you were happy. I said yeah. He told me that the stone in the ring was always green. So wearing it, I should always be happy. Isn't that the sweetest thing in the world?"

"Yeah."

"What time is it?"

"3:35."

"I better go."

Samara walks away from me and pulls her skirt down. She wipes her lipstick off. And she wipes away the eyeshadow that had once made her eyes shine. Now, her eyes hide underneath the smears of eyeshadow. She's no longer the Samara that girls talk about at the lunch room table. She becomes a shy Samara, without the loud colored lips, without the golden-glowing-eye-shadowed eyes. And though she stands at the bottom of the steps, I can still see her green-grass eyes. Her eyes, though, look far away. And I think that they're looking for something.

* * *

The next day, I wait after school, Samara comes and sits next to me.

"Are you still reading that book?"

"Yeah."

"Oh," Samara says.

It's quiet for awhile. I don't know what to say. I sit and pick at the little grass in the same crack. I wonder if I can pull all the blades out. Even if I did, it would all grow back. What's the use? I take a long blade that I have just pulled out and try to twist it into a knot.

"You know," Samara says.

I stop playing with the grass.

"You know that tree outside the window in English class."

"It's pretty," I say.

"No, I think it's ugly. It's getting too stuck in its position. I mean the leaves fall, but it's still there."

"Oh," I say and I go back to playing with that one blade of grass that I found. Samara looks away and waits.

"You know it's good that you read. I wish I read too. I look at you in English and you're always doing your work. You always have your homework."

I smile inside and try not to show it on my face.

"It's like you know what to do."

I don't know what to say to this. One of the cars that pass by stops. The music playing in it makes it bounce up and down. The guy leans from his seat to the other side of the car and opens the door.

Samara walks down the steps and gets in the car. Her lipstick still loud. Her eyes still eye-shadowed and her skirt still tight and mid-thigh-high and gets into the car. She looks out the window and whispers good-bye. She looks out the window and stares. And I stare too. Wondering if she thinks that there is something that will rescue her. Wondering if there is something, somewhere that will whisk you away. Like a fairy tale they say. Some prince, some man in some car somewhere. Somehow to be free in a guy's arms. Tight hugs and warm caresses. Free to love and be loved.

* * *

The next day, Samara doesn't come to school. And the day after that, I wait for her at the schoolyard steps, but she doesn't come that day either. The next day, Danny asks me if I want to go to Cotillion. And I don't know what to say, but I say yes. And I want to tell Samara this but she's not there.

I don't know why she's not at school. She didn't seem sick the last time I saw her. In English, the teacher goes over the roll. She hasn't been in class for three days. She gets to Samara's name on the list.

"Samara."

Samara's seat is empty.

"Samara," the teacher says, and she looks over to Samara's empty seat.

"Class do any of you know what happened to Samara?"

No one says anything. Laura giggles.

"No one knows? Okay."

The teacher goes through the rest of the roll. And she tells us to get out our English books, so we can go over last night's homework. I get my book out and slide it into my lap. Inside it, I hide my copy of Mountain of Magic.

Laura nudges me, and she tells me to pass a note over to Holly. I make sure that the teacher isn't looking, and I pass the note over to Holly. When Holly sees it, she gasps and looks over to Laura. Laura nods her head and both of them scoff.

* * *

At lunch, in my normal spot, Holly looks over at Lindsay.

"Laura told me what happened to Samara."

"What happened? She's been gone forever. Is she messing around with her boyfriend everyday?"

"Well let's just say that she missed her period."

Lindsay's face turns white.

"Oh my god, what a slut. How does Laura know?"

"Well, it's like she hasn't been in school for three days. Why else would she be absent?"

I eat my lunch. What's the big deal if she's missed her period? Maybe Samara's really really sick and in the hospital.

Laura comes over to Holly and whispers in her ear.

"Julie said that she thinks she's pregnant too. I mean why else wouldn't she be in school."

I don't feel like eating anymore. The last bite of my sandwich is stuck in my mouth. The bread is too soft and the bread just sticks to the roof of my mouth and I want to gag. But my tongue slides under the bread and lets me swallow the sandwich. I feel this pin in my throat that makes my throat itch and makes me want to cough. I don't want to cough though. I don't want the girls to looks over at me. I can't cough. Samara can't be pregnant? But I cough quietly. But that's not enough. I still feel the pin. I smell the lunch room with its bleached forks and bleached table. The table beside me is still wet, because a lunch lady came and cleaned it with a rag because someone spilled carrots and peas there. I want to cough again. I don't want to be in the lunchroom. The table next to me still smells like soupey vegetables. I can feel the sticky juice from the orange on my hand. And I cough normally this time. The smell of the lunchroom table reminds me of the way beans smell when you've just opened the can. I close my backpack. I think of the liquid that's at top of the can when you open the beans. It's all whitish just like the water the lunch ladies use when they clean the tables. I pick up my backpack and go over to the bathroom. I wash my face and cough. And cough all that I want.

* * *

Samara comes to school the next day. This time she's not wearing her lipstick. She's not wearing the eyeshadow. I don't see the Samara I know on her face. The Samara I know is washed away. She's the Samara I see when she walks home. She sits and stares out of the window in English, but this time she doesn't wonder. She just stares.

After school, she comes and sits next to me on the steps. She doesn't talk.

"You haven't been to school? Were you sick?"

"No. My father said that he didn't want me to go to school here anymore."

She turns her head away from me. Slowly, like it hurts to turn her head.

"He doesn't want you to go to school here anymore?"

"Yeah."

And I want to ask her why, but I think I shouldn't. I see tears in her eyes. I want to hug her. But I look away. Samara looks at her ring. I pick at the grass in between the cracks. She twists the ring so the green stone is perfectly centered. I blink hard. I pull the grass out of the concrete cracks. And I swallow slowly.

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