by request of my mother-in-law, “Truth” (working title)
The dark-haired girl just stared at me. The intensity of her glare was frightening, but I couldn’t bring myself to turn away… not yet. Her bright green eyes were free of any emotion, and no matter how long I continued to stare, I could find no trace of hope in them.
Ah, hope. An emotion I was sure I had felt, once. An emotion that had been ripped out of my heart that rainy night, two years ago, when the cream station wagon collided with that yellow semi-truck. We had been on our way to get ice cream, a ritual implemented by my mom for her and I to spend quality time together. Mint Chocolate ice cream. The light had been green, I was sure of that even as the eyes that looked into me now reflected the startling color. The shattered glass shimmering like diamonds on the black asphalt had been my first memory without her. “Dead on Impact” was the phrase the paramedic used. And I had conveniently been thrown through the windshield with little more than some scrapes and a concussion. Justice. That was another thing that was ripped apart by the yellow semi.
The girl in front of me tilted her head to mimic the sorrowful look my face had taken. Her green eyes suddenly became liquid and the light caught in a sparkle, slowly flowing down her cheek in a pitiful tear.
I wiped it away in a swift motion and turned my back on the mirror in my room. I was definitely going to be late for school if I stood there looking into it for any longer.
The fact that the High School in this small town was located a block from my house was not unusual. There was nothing in Miles, Texas worth visiting that wasn’t within walking distance. For school this meant that I thankfully didn’t have to catch a ride with my dad or take public transportation. The fact that Miles even had a Bus route was a joke, seeing as how the entire city couldn’t be more than 10 miles wide.
Miles has always been my home, but ever since I was old enough to know other places existed, I’ve wanted to leave. It wasn’t that I hated this town with its dirt roads and grassy fields. Any sane person might think it was charming. But I just wanted out. You would think the event two years ago would have just fueled that fire, but all drive and determination had dissolved with the rain. It was odd, to have such a desire to run, yet unable to move your feet. If the motivation ever came through I might be able to escape.
I stepped out of my house into the streets and took the path that would lead me to school. My dad’s blue pickup was already gone from the driveway. This new construction job he was contracted out for was turning out to be a good thing, even though it meant not seeing him in the mornings and not till late at night. It wasn’t that I didn’t love my dad or want to spend my last year of high school with him, but I found that my conversational abilities had been lost along with my hope. It was manageable with the other kids at school, but not acceptable for my dad.
So I plugged my ears with whatever shuffled onto my playlist and began the walk to school. The streets of Miles were slowly waking up. Stores opening for the day, people on their way to various destinations, and me pushing my way forward. It was Friday, and I sighed in gratitude. One more week down.
I walked into first hour English right as the bell rang, which made me smirk with relief. With a student count of a mere 253, someone was bound to start a conversation if you weren’t careful. And with graduation on the horizon, everyone had suddenly become nostalgic. That dark shadow, a mere month away, kicked my flight reflex into overdrive, while everyone else seemed to want to stay here forever and meditate on the past four years. I could live without revisiting every part of high school.
Mr. Jameson began his lecture as I opened my spiral notebook to yesterday’s notes. There the lines of my page had become waves in an ocean far away, with the margins serving as flowerbeds to my imaginary world. I picked up my pen and started making the bullet points of the few notes I had taken into eyes. It wasn’t that I didn’t like English. It was probably the least dreadful part of my day next to Art, which ended it. A sigh escaped my lips as I thought of the meaningless hours I would have to endure today, and my pen moved to start on the eyebrows of this newly created eye.
“Miss Scott?” My head jerked up at the sound of my name, coming from Mr. Jameson, perched atop his stool at the front of the classroom. “Would you please pick up where Mr. Tyler left off?”
He looked at me with the same expression all the teachers (short of Mrs. Martinez, the Art Teacher) had permanently glued on. It was a mix between pity and patronization. I gulped as the silence broke with some muted giggles behind me. I turned my head to look at Benjamin Tyler in panic who wasn’t even looking at me, and I felt my lifeline dissolve. He was still staring at his book, waiting, like everyone else.
“W-where was that again?” I whispered, my voice cracking from not having spoken today.
“Page 23,” Mr. Jameson sighed, then stood from his seat and walked around to sit atop his big cedar desk. “Starting with ‘He had one’.”
My fingers flipped to the correct page, and my heart quieted when I saw it was a short paragraph. I cleared my throat in hopes that all the croaks were gone, and took a deep breath as I began the quote.
“He had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced, or seemed to face, the whole external world for an instant and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself.”
“Thank you Miss. Scott. Mr. Andrews, would you care to explain this to the class?”
I breathed, probably too deeply, with relief. It wasn’t often I was called on in class. Mr. Jameson must be feeling charitable today.
I looked over, again, at Benjamin Tyler with betrayal, but he was still staring intently at his copy of The Great Gatsby, while Jameson had moved on to discussion time. English and Art were the only classes I had with this pale haired boy, a rarity in a small school. He was taller than most of the boys, but not lanky. In the past few months, he had become noticeably more muscular, and it shown beneath his light gray shirt. The rumors circulated: steroids, or maybe a secret modeling contract. I could almost believe the last one. He was beautiful. His jaw had also become harder, straightened, more adult than teenage boy. My eyes were making their way back up to his face when they met another set, these deep blue and confused. I quickly looked down and felt my face flush with embarrassment.
If the past two years had taught me anything, it was to avoid eye contact, a pattern picked up while shaking hands at the funeral. The service was a blur, and I was mostly numb to any human contact. But when I looked in each of the mourners’ eyes I saw my own reflection and it threw me deeper into the pit I had stopped trying to crawl out of a long time ago.
So it wasn’t often that I looked anyone directly in the eyes. I don’t know what had provoked this event, it wasn’t as though I liked Ben Tyler, and I barely even knew the guy.
For one moment, I thought I might want to. His eyes had not pushed me deeper like I thought they were going to. I relaxed the muscles in my neck as I realized how tense I had been, waiting to go deeper and I gulped at the terrible mistake I had almost made: Allowing myself to believe, even for a moment, that I could allow anyone into my personal torture. I had learned very quickly how to keep people at arms length, for my protection and for theirs.
When lunch came, it was almost too easy to grab my food and sit alone, at a table I’d claimed with my gray storm cloud at the middle of last year. I remember that day only from the effects of it. My anger bubbling, taking it out on everyone who dared talk to me, the kids I normally sat with staring at me in confusion as I sat in the back of the room, alone. I could not make anything of my old life matter anymore, not the pep rallies, not the clubs I managed, not even my basketball team. There was no more room left in my heart for them.
I remembered my poor dad, that day I decided I’d had enough, packed a backpacks-worth of clothes and caught the first Greyhound out of Miles. Getting off in San Angelo, hanging out at the diner there, and just beginning to figure the rest of my plan when the blue truck pulled up. He had not been happy.
I pushed the tray of untouched food away, nauseated at my failed attempts for freedom, and pulled out my spiral notebook again. I put my headphones in and turned up the music until it was just below hurting my eardrums, trying to drown out the memories.
History was easier than English to zone out, and, though I had to force myself to pay attention during normal classes to save long talks with dad about my grades, today was a movie day, so I worked on finishing the portrait I started in English. The girl now looked at me with one eye, one eyebrow, and hair flowing down to the dolphin jumping in the ocean below her.
As I started on the other eye, my mind floated to Ben, again. Over these past few months, I had never seen him so depressed, though I was sure one to talk. He was quiet, sure, but there was always an inner peace to him I could never place my finger on, even when I wasn’t paying attention to things around me I had noticed. I forced my thoughts back to that life to try and remember his smile. Warm and inviting, probably the one reason every girl in the school had tried to date him at one time or another. That and the fact that Ben Tyler had never dated anyone in the five years he’d been in Miles made him unattainable, and naturally girls flocked to him. It only took a few months for them to get the hint and stop even trying. I had been too self-absorbed during that time to realize anything about him other than the gossip I’d heard.
Five years ago, Benjamin Tyler and his foster parents moved into the tiny blue house on the edge of town. I don’t know how long he’d been in foster care. The rumors said since birth, but I doubted that. Surely someone would’ve wanted the beautiful, fair-haired baby he must’ve been, and I couldn’t believe he was any trouble as a baby, considering his demeanor in school. His foster parents seemed nice enough, but I’d only met them once, at the funeral.
I compared the face I had seen today with the one last semester, and it was subtly different. But I’m sure if I tried to compare my two selves, it would be drastic.
I finished the second eye and looked over the set. They stared back at me in an apology, and I slammed my notebook closed right as the bell rang.
School flew by in the blur I had become used to, and even welcomed, so before I knew it I was sitting in a circle of art easels. I was the last to enter the class, and not surprised to see the person sitting across from me was Ben Tyler. The universe had played jokes on me before, so I just grimaced and took the seat. I tried to sneak a look at him, telling myself I was just curious about his behavior in English, but I found him staring at me with the same curious expression. I shifted in my seat, trying to look unaffected by his deep blue eyes. Who was this boy who thought he could look at me like he was? The way he stared at me reminded me of the green eyes I had encountered this morning: Searching, probing, and finding nothing. Had he been able to find anything left in my eyes?
My brush dipped lightly into a cadmium red, and then a bright white. I used the plastic plate Mrs. Martinez provided us with, and paled out the red till it was closer to the shade of the apple in the basket in front of me. Still life was most definitely not my forte, but I was willing to paint anything to get my eyes away from those searching blue ones.
Art had always been a part of my life, ever since I was a baby. My mother was a gallery owner, which is funny now since the town of Miles is the furthest thing from a growing art town, but she had been fairly successful. I would spend every afternoon in her gallery, with my crayons and blank paper as a kid, and sketch book later, lost in the world known as my mind. My feelings towards art were all learned traits from her teachings. “There are no mistakes in art”, “Paint what you feel, not what you think”, and “Pain is an artist’s muse” If only there had been pain left in me, I could paint my way out of this hope-starved town. But she left me no pain when she died, only emptiness.
“Um, interesting, Audrey, but I thought apples were round?” Mrs. Martinez’s voice whispered behind me.
I snapped back from my thoughts and peered at the canvas in front of me. A small, long, pale red rectangle peered back at me against the stark white.
“What were you thinking of?” She laughed in a friendly tone.
“Surrealism.” I smirked quietly as she moved on to the next student, whose apples looked much better than mine, even though they were an orangey brown. I sat in amusement at what my mind had conjured up until the bell rang.
The short walk home was all it took for me to realize I was starving. I popped some hot dogs into the microwave and ran upstairs to change for work. My white polo and black pants were in the same spot I had laid them after work yesterday, and I threw them right on again. I grabbed my snack and headed out the door. The bank was a somewhat longer walk than the school, but I put my headphones in, turned the music up and was clocking in before the third song.
“Hi Audrey,” the curly red-head greeted me lazily, “How was school?” Sarah, the other teller at First Texas Mutual was a single mom, and even though working the day shift meant putting her little girl, Ella, in daycare, there weren’t a lot of other employment options in Miles. Her personality matched her unnaturally red hair. It was a great distraction from my inner world.
“Same old, same old” I replied, trying to feint enthusiasm, and failing. A long line was formed behind Sarah’s window, a usual for Fridays, and I opened my window to eager faces. “I can help the next person!” I called, and began to shorten the line. After a while the faces started to blur, as I watched the clock tick off the minutes.
I guess I was a little more than zoned out, because the sound of his voice was like a shockwave to me.
“Um, hi” Ben said as he pushed the folded check towards me. I don’t think I had ever heard him speak, because I surely would have noticed the musical quality in it.
“I’d like to cash this, please.” He looked at me straight in the eyes, and this time, I didn’t want to look away. They were calm, not searching like before, and friendly. I guess he had given up and seen what I see every morning: Nothing.
“Uh, okay. D -do you have an account?” My voice wavered, totally killing my attempt at keeping it cool.
He smiled “I wrote it on the back.”
“Oh, of course.” I felt my face turn red as I shifted my eyes to the computer screen in front of me.
“I know we’ve met before, but I feel like I should introduce myself again,” the edge of his mouth pulled up and revealed a big dimple in his cheek. “I’m Ben.”
I paused for too long and replied, “Oh, yeah I know. I’m Audrey.”
“I know.” His face turned a light shade of pink, which made me even more curious about this strange boy. Was he just being courteous or did he really want to have a conversation?
“Sorry about English” I looked up from the computer screen, confused at his sudden apology. “I guess I was thinking about something else.”
“Yeah me too” I admitted. “Mr. Jameson sure has great timing.”
He just laughed. I counted out his cash, and pushed it back towards him.
“So is that all you needed?” I pleaded in my head for him to stay. There was something about that smile that made me forget my despair.
“Yeah, just getting my monthly allowance from the ‘rents.” He smirked. “So do you work here everyday?” He asked as he folded the bills into his wallet.
“Well, everyday but Sunday, we’re closed then.” Duh banks are closed on Sundays! I kicked myself. Could I sound more like a mumbling idiot?
“Oh. Well.” He paused for a long moment, then began again, “If you want to do something sometime, here’s my number.” He slid a folded white piece of paper towards me, then turned and walked out before I could utter a syllable.
I picked up the paper, and unfolded it. I stared in disbelief at the seven numbers for too long, because the man in front of me cleared his throat. I stuffed the paper in my pocket, making a mental note to promptly throw it away when I got home. I had nothing to offer him, and I wasn’t going to put myself through unnecessary pain to hide that from him.
“How can I help you, sir?” I asked the big, black-shirted man standing unusually close to the counter that separated us.
“You can give me all your money.” His voice was harsh and gruff, a cruel encore to my previous customer. It was low and almost a whisper, and I knew Sarah couldn’t hear it.
“E-e-excuse me?” I stuttered out, feeling my eyes tense and heart begin to race.
“You can give me all your money.” The voice bellowed out a second time, less gruff, more harsh, and louder. From the corner of my eye, I saw Sarah whip her head towards me.