I've known Alice since we were half pints in elementary school, when her smile was still bright and her innocence still intact. We lived in the same apartment complex in 1st grade and could often be found alongside other neighborhood kids, running around doing mischievous things. My Pops passed the bar exam the next year and moved our family across town. By the time we hit high school I would often see Alice walking the halls, a thumb looped around each backpack strap, eyes counting the tiles on the floor. Her worn out Converse All Stars shuffled against the floor as each step barely left the ground. The dirty laces, often untied, bobbed in unison. Freak! Slut! Lesbian! The other kids would always say. The comments clung to her like the 'Anarchy in the UK' and 'Bueller, Bueller' buttons pinned to her backpack, but she never responded. She let her pitch-black hair swallow her face like a shield against the negativity.
In high school, our lunches were like breaking out of prison. We'd count the seconds to noon and on nice days we'd spew out of the doors in exhilaration to a large pavilion out front lined with picnic tables. The granite topped pavilion was surrounded by manicured grass and grand oaks in bunches, and further still a wrought iron gate surrounded the school and led to a security post at its entrance. Unlike the rest of us, Alice ate alone. She always perched herself under the largest of the oaks, her back against its jagged bark, with headphones in and a Palahniuk or Lehane in hand. It was the only time I ever caught a bit of life in her.
The first time I’d spoken to Alice in over ten years she was in her usual spot reading I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. As she devoured the pages, she would periodically heave in restrained laughter, then catch herself and look to check that no one noticed. A streak of neon green hair -- the color of which changed each week -- was brushed behind her ear and her eyes were bright and alive, and periwinkle blue. The Bad Religion sweatshirt she wore most every day looked as if it swallowed her up; its baggy sleeves rolled to her elbows.
I approached her stealthily as not to alert my friends. I sat a bit away from her with my back to the other side of the oak. She didn’t react to my presence, but the thud of my backpack to the ground made her body go rigid. Her hands pushed the limits of the book’s spine. I peaked my head around the wide trunk and traced her nimble arm with my eyes; her flesh was milky and pure, and dotted with little blonde hairs that stood on end.
“Hi Alice,” I said as I nervously scanned the grass and waited for a response that never came. She didn’t move a muscle. I looked to her again and gathered that she must not have heard me over the music. I leaned in closer.
“Hey, what are you listening to?” I spoke louder then and poked a finger into her shoulder. She slipped a bud from her ear and set the book to her lap.
“What?” She questioned warily, her voice barely audible and eyes still locked dead ahead.
“What are you listening to?” I repeated.
“Why?” She responded louder then and it cut the air like the crack of a whip.
“Well, I always notice your Bad Religion sweater. That’s my dad’s favorite band,” I said, my voice drained of what little confidence I began the conversation with.
“This is my dad’s sweater,” she said, lifting the book back to eye level.
“Well, what bands do you like?”
She scrutinized my attire with her eyes; fixating first on the Abercrombie moose embossed on my chest, then to the aviators straddling my mop of disheveled brown hair.
“Listen, I know your kind. I leave you all alone. All I ask is that you do the same for me.” She popped the bud back into her ear without giving me a chance to respond. I was taken back for a moment, unsure of how to proceed, or whether I should even bother with my pursuit. I ignored my better judgment and plunged another finger into her side.
She jumped and ripped the headphones from her ears. “What do you want from me, Turner?” She pleaded; her lip trembled when she spoke and it was then I saw the fear in her eyes, like a dog on the other end of a rolled up newspaper. As hard as she had tried to look tough, her eyes deceived her. Just as they had surprised me with their radiance in her solitude, they also clued me in to the mask of disdain she used in confrontation.
I wasn't sure how I was going to bring up the bruises I’d seen a week before. A combination of ADD and boredom allowed me to be acutely aware of everything going on in any given classroom. The teachers would drone on and on, and I’d be examining Franklin Tweed’s face for how many pimples he was sporting that week or counting the number of times kids checked their cell phones, which kept me the busiest of course. I sat behind Alice in Physics that year and noticed her uncomfortably shifting in her chair, her face grimacing in pain. Her shirt kept riding up her back and I noticed the familiar markings of abuse. The ugly shades of deep purple and yellow I’d seen on my mom so many times before.
“I honestly just wanted to talk.”
“But why?” She hisses. This girl really hated me. That, or she was damn good at clinging firmly to that front.
“I don’t know,” I lied.
“How do you not know? You obviously must have had some reason to bother me. No one knows me here, no one talks to me here and I’m pretty alright with that,” she said defiantly, forcing the fear from her eyes, and replacing it with that familiar glare.
“I’ve known you since elementary school. We were neighbors!” I said a bit offended, but not quite sure why as I hadn’t spoken a word to her in so long.
“You don’t know a thing about me,” she said as she darted her eyes back to the earth, her fingers nervously picked at the frayed edges of her book.
“I know in 4th grade science you made a volcano that erupted so much it ruined Jenna Werther’s paper mache collage.” I laughed as the memory washed over me. Her eyes were back on mine and they were brimming with intrigue. “She cried for like an hour and threatened to sue you, remember that?” I laughed again as she nodded her head and smiled a toothy smile that I didn’t want to see go away. “I remember in 7th grade biology when you snuck into biology after hours to save all the frogs before we were set to dissect them the next day only to find out they were already dead,” I said almost impulsively, followed by warm laughter we both shared. She was as surprised as I was that I remembered such seemingly insignificant details.
Our abrupt laughter caught the attention of a few students in the pavilion and I instinctually ducked, scanning the schoolyard for my friends. I located the table I usually sat and saw my three best friends munching on cheese sticks and aimlessly searching the campus. I couldn’t help but think that they were looking for me. Eventually they would spot me. They’d approach her and I, they’d question why I was there and what I was doing. Would I lie? Would I bag on her, as my friends would expect me to? My wondering left a stagnant silence that was cut only by Alice’s frigid words.
“Do you think I can’t see you looking to make sure your friends don’t see us?” She snapped. I struggled to conjure something worth saying, but the words clung to my throat. “Yeah that’s what I thought. Just leave me alone.” She popped the buds back in, rose to her feet, and made her way to another tree across the yard near the school’s outlying fence. She purposely positioned herself behind the tree’s massive trunk to obstruct my view.
I approached with caution and sat across from her with my legs crossed and hands fidgeting in my lap. The mighty tree and perimeter fencing made for a seclusion I remember being almost hypnotic. The hum of passing cars on the outer roads, the shade from the oak's extensions, and a gentle breeze playing with her hair. I stared for a moment and motioned for her to take the buds from her ears once more. After an awkward pause she finally did.
"I'm really not trying to do anything but talk," I said as sincerely as I could.
"But why," she peered at me, her head cocked slightly with curiosity and the skin creased between her brows.
"I just thought today about the old apartment days and the trouble we used to get into,” I admitted.
"I don’t remember much of that, nor am I particularly interested in reminiscing at this time." Her eyes darted to the matted grass and her bottom lip slipped between her teeth as if she were punishing her mouth for passing such harsh words. Her eyes told another story entirely. She remembered those days just as well as I had.
"Why not?" My words were playful and tender. As tough as her exterior was, I’d seen her frailty.
"Because you and me, we aren't the same breed." She looked me in the eyes again, her shoulders back and head confidently lifted. She had practiced this. I imagined her in the mirror posing with irked expressions and feigned confidence, likely thinking what will it take to get them to like me? Or at the very least leave me alone.
"What’s that supposed to mean?" I asked.
"I get good grades and I don’t live my life like Justin fuckin’ Bieber.” The attitude in her voice was just playful enough to be endearing and the fact that she hated the Biebs as much as I did made my heart grow a bit fonder.
"Hey, I get good grades too and it’s really not so great being me,” I said defensively. “And I lied, there was a reason I wanted to talk to you.”
“Go figure,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“I don’t even know how to bring it up,” I scanned my brain for the right words, but came up short. “In physics, your shirt was riding up your back,” I blurted.
“What?” She asked, confused.
“I saw the bruises.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She shrunk a bit into herself and took her eyes off mine.
“Listen, I know what it looks like. Those weren’t normal bruises,” I said as her face contorted to a mix of anger and confusion.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about. Fuck off!” Alice latched onto her backpack and tossed the book into its main compartment. She stood and threw the backpack over her shoulders.
I stood too and placed a hand softly against her arm. “Wait! Please sit back down. I’m not judging you or anything. Actually, I can kind of relate. Not me I mean, but my mom.” My face radiated red with embarrassment and I stopped myself from divulging anymore. She looked at me skeptically, but returned to the base of the tree. “I tried not looking, but it was hard not to. I know the types of bruises five fingers make. Is that why you always wear the sweater?”
She hesitated, "No, not the only reason. I really do like Bad Religion, but this is also the only thing I still have left from my dad," she said meekly. She scanned the arms and face of her worn sweater. She rubbed her hands against the faded front and picked at a few chips of half peeled logo.
“Wait, what happened to your dad?”
“He played for a pretty big band in the 90’s called Bleeding Jesus. They toured the country with Anthrax and the Rollins Band.” She waited to see if I had a response or any input, but I sat quietly hanging on for her next words. “He died in a bus rollover up in Minnesota during one of their tours. He was supposed to be home on break, but since I came about unexpectedly we really needed the money. My mom never quite forgave him, or me for that matter.” Her honesty was comforting. Her words soft and airy, a total one eighty from how she spoke to me before. I took her in for a moment. The little eccentricities I could relate to, the ones I would hide around my friends, and the ones my parents just could never understand.
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” I said as sympathetically as I could with hope that I wasn’t overdoing it.
“No it’s fine really, but thank you. It was a long time ago,” she paused briefly as if deep in thought then asked, “What about your mom?”
“Well, you already know my deep dark secret,” she said in a matter of fact tone.
“My dad’s what they call a functioning alcoholic, has been as long as I can remember; Environmental lawyer by day, spouse abusing drunk by night. He’s like some ass backwards super hero,” I said, followed by a laugh to ease the mood. She let out the sweetest of laughs, then caught herself, worried she might have offended me.
“No worries, I fuckin’ hate him. I’ve been trying to get my mom and me out of there for years, but she just won’t leave. She says he really does love her; that he just can’t take all the stress. I call bullshit,” I said. “I think she’s just scared to be alone.”
“But she wouldn’t be alone, she’d have you right?” She was truly concerned, it was written all over her face. I wasn’t used to having someone actually care about me at that school. My friends only ever wanted to talk about the new things their parents bought them, hooking up with girls, and who would be the target of their relentless bullying that week. I wasn’t certain if I even liked any of them, but it felt good to have people around. And to not be the target of their cruelty.
“Yeah of course, but I think she’s more afraid of never loving again; or having someone love her,” I said.
“I can understand that. My mom’s disconnected from the world. She’s been that way since dad died. A part of me feels like she died in that bus with him.” She stopped herself as her eyes began to glaze over. She hurt like I did. Wanting to escape, but being bound by youth and societal pressure. Unable to change the lives we’d been given and anxiously awaiting the true freedom of adulthood.
“You and me, we aren’t so different you know?” I wanted her to know, if nothing else, that she wasn’t alone.
“I know. I’m sorry for being presumptuous,” she admitted.
“Well, you going to finally tell me what you’re listening to?” I asked with a wide smile.
“Passenger, ever heard of them?”
“Have I? I love ‘em,” I beamed.
“I’ve had ‘Let Her Go’ on repeat for the past week,” she confessed.
“Mind if I share?”
She hesitated, then lifted the bud out to me. Her eyes were vibrant and welcoming. They drove me to want to take her into my arms and never let go. I scooted next to her, leaned in close, and popped the bud into my ear. Our arms touched, our knees swayed, and I took her scent in with deep breaths; hints of honeysuckle and peach, fresh and alluring. We watched the passing cars, the beaming April sun, and the baby blue sky dotted with tufts of clouds as the music took control:
Only know you’ve been high when you’re feeling low.
Only miss the sun when it starts to snow.
Only know you love her when you let her go.
And you let her go.
The tranquil moment was interrupted by the blaring echo of the warning bell, followed by the sounds of footsteps and shuffling backpacks. I removed the bud and handed it to her.
“Thank you,” I said, before rising to my feet.
“Anytime.” She smiled and met me at my eyes. We walked side by side towards the pavilion, searching aimlessly for words, but left silent by a new nervousness.
We’d nearly made it to the pavilion when one of my best friends, Walter, noticed me. He looked to me curiously first then called out, “Evans, where the hell have you been?” His bratwurst arms were raised to the sky and his ill-fitted puma track suit stretched to its limits. I stopped in my tracks and turned to find that Alice had veered off hurriedly towards the school’s entrance. Before reaching the door she looked back towards me and for a moment her eyes locked onto mine. Everything inside of me was pulling me towards her. More than anything I wanted to walk her to her next class, ask her what she wanted to do after school; what she loved and what she hated. The questions flooded my mind as I felt myself drifting in the direction of my friend, with little control over my body. Alice turned and joined the mess of kids into the school, her head bowed and hands clutching each backpack strap.
“What the fuck was that?” Walter inquired, his face contorted and his fat finger jabbing in my direction.
“What the fuck was what?” I asked, knowing full well what he meant.
“Alice Baker, dude? Why were you guys walking together? Was she giving you a blowy by the trees?” He asked, shaking a half closed fist towards his mouth and outstretched tongue as if fellating. I tried thinking of a viable lie, but came up empty.
“Dude, she’s fuckin’ stalking me or something,” I blurted as we proceeded to the front doors. “Chick definitely wants my nuts,” I added, joined by his hideous cackle and my growing shame.