[Summer 1988]


They later informed me that the football coach, Mr. Gaines, found me. I don't remember that. I only recall a brief moment of weightlessness as I slowly passed out from the pain, but that's about it. Lying on the bed in the nurse's office two hours later, I wait for someone to fetch me. The nurse, a portly woman with cherry red hair and kind green eyes named Miss Fiona Underwood, gave me a pack of ice wrapped in a towel to put over my swollen eye. That was an hour ago when I finally woke up, so the ice is actually now a dripping, wet mess, but I continue holding it over my swollen eye anyway. It lessens the sting.

Antsy and bored, I move in order to sit up on the stiff bed and my body screams out in protest, using my mouth to vocalize its pain as I gasp in shock at how much everything hurts. On instinct I lay back down, despite how uncomfortable the mattress seemed two seconds ago. The pain came from my lower back and my left side. My heart races erratically in my chest like it does after I finish running, but I know it's from the shock of the sudden sting and not an adrenaline rush. I want to go home.

Closing my eyes to stop the sudden dizziness, I throw one leg over the side, swinging it back and forth. It looks like the only thing I can do without causing further pain to myself. Voices, muffled and indistinct, come from the other side of the door as I try to regain my breath. I don't know if they're talking about me or not, but there's an urgency in the quickly-spoken whispers. A few more minutes pass and nothing climactic occurs; I begin to gaze around the room, though this is not my first trip here. I've suffered through so many bodily injures doing track and soccer that the nurse and I are on a first name basis.

Just then—Finally!—the door in front of me opens, and I stop swinging my foot as Vice Principal Woody (his name is just unfortunate) sticks his head in. His beady grey eyes stare at me (or rather, my injuries) in fascination before he clears his throat. "Ahem! Follow me, Miss Baker," he says. Then he vanishes from the doorway.

"Oh no, I don't need any help at all, you ass," I grumble furiously under my breath. Wincing, I slowly begin the process of lowering myself to the stainless tile floor, ignoring my heart rate as it skyrockets once more and how my right ankle throbs on contact with the floor and how my vision slowly doubles…triples. I close my eyes for a brief moment and wait for the lightheadedness to vanish, then I head in the direction I saw the V.P. going, my gait more of a limp since apparently only one foot is remotely useful. It's not too difficult to figure out where everyone is considering the crowd of people in the Principal's office.

Mr. Gaines, Mr. Woody, Principal Davies, and my guidance counselor, Miss Shay, all stand behind the big, mahogany desk. Their faces vary from concerned to nervous. On the other side of the desk: Janie, my mother, Sheriff Jefferson, and Nurse Fiona. Each adult talks loudly and tries to be heard over the other loudly talking adults, but the second I knock on the door frame to announce my arrival, a graveyard suddenly becomes more welcoming.

Janie turns in her seat and looks at me, her brown eyes red from crying. Her face is dry now. In fact, the longer she looks at my face, the more I see her eyes flash with fury. Proving my point, her hands clench the ends of the arm rest of her chair, her fingertips turning red and actually shaking. She's an intimidating woman, and I have no doubt that she gave everyone in this room hell.

"Ah, Miss Clarabelle Baker," Principal Davies says, pushing his black-framed glasses further up his hawk-like nose. He gestures to the raggedy arm chair in front of him and beside my mother. I silently move past the Sheriff—he politely steps out of my way—and try to hide my prominent limp from the seven pairs of eyes watching my every move. I don't know which is more uncomfortable, this lousy excuse for a chair or the staring.

A moment of silence ensues where everyone just looks at me. Then, Principal Davies begins speaking again. "Miss Baker, I hope you realize the seriousness of this event. We do not take kindly to physical assault on school grounds. If you could please tell us who attacked you, I promise you that the proper actions will be taken immediately.

Slouched in the chair, I fiddle my thumbs and stare down at the intricate woodwork of the desk. My heart pounds loudly in my ears—this time, because of adrenaline—and my stomach successfully loops itself into knots.

The Sheriff misunderstands my silence for fear of snitching. "Miss Baker," he comments stiffly, "if you're concerned about the ramifications of turning in the culprit, then I must assure you that we won't allow further harm to come your way."

"They're right Clara," Miss Shay diverges, that smile I hate plastered on her skeleton face. She's so transparent it's disgusting. They all are. I struggle to keep myself from rolling my eyes to their faces, so I just continue to stare down.

"Clara, tell 'em what happened," Janie says in a low voice.

Sighing, I finally look up, glancing at the face of each adult as if I'm afraid of the truth. Ha! The truth: God couldn't get me to spill the beans. Nothing would be done, they know it and I know it.

"I never saw his face," I whisper. Lie. I could delineate the scar right by the corner of his eye to what he was wearing, his height, approximate weight, and all other necessary physical descriptions.

"So it was a he?" the Sheriff asks. His voice inquires for more information, but his eyes tell otherwise.

"You think I would let a girl do this to me?" I point to my surely swollen and bruised (I refuse to look in a mirror yet) face.

"You never saw his face," Mr. Woody questions skeptically. "How's that possible?"

I shrug, taking a slight pause to think of something. "I panicked," I speak in impromptu. "I didn't think to look closely."

"Many victims of assault usually aren't able to describe their attackers in such a dangerous and quick moment," Miss Fiona inputs quietly. "It's quite common actually." God bless her.

"What were you even doing at Ratliff so early in the morning?" Dickhead continues.

God, he acts like I wanted this to happen, and if I could rewind, I'm pretty sure an accusation outlined his tone. I look him pointedly in the eyes but before I open my mouth, Janie snaps, "Why the hell does it even matter? Focus on finding out who the hell laid their fucking hands on my daughter!"

"Miss Baker, I'm going to have to ask you to lower your voice and calm down—" Principal Davies begins.

"Calm down?"

Just like that, the entire room is going at it again. I can't fathom why Janie even bothers; she should know better then to the think this school would actually care. Janie and I aren't of any importance to this damn town. We could catch fire right now and half the school wouldn't piss on us to save our lives.

I look up and realize one person stands quietly instead of participating in the arguing. Mr. Gaines looks from my face, confusion written across his slack features, to the so-called adults. I look down to avoid eye contact, but I struggle to shake the look on his face out of my head. I'll have to get him alone and question him on what he knows.

"This is fucking ridiculous," Janie exclaims at last. Then she grabs my arm and practically pulls me out of the chair. It takes all the control in the world not to burst into hysterical sobbing. Instead, I grit my teeth and let her pull me to my feet, but I quickly remove myself from her tight grasp. She's so pissed she might yank me arm off without realizing it. "Let's go, Clara."

Outside in the main hallway an eerie silence claims the school as students sit in homeroom. Janie walks quickly ahead of me, her anger fueling her speed. I watch her, a sudden exhaustion claiming me at the thought of walking all the way to the front doors. My vision doubles again, and I lean against the wall, catching my breath and waiting for the kaleidoscope act to end.

It doesn't.

I see my vision begin to blacken at the corners. My lips try to form words to call out to my mother, but my tongues suddenly feels thick and swollen. I take a single step. I lose my balance and watch the tile floors suddenly rush up to meet me. I'm out before I hit the ground.

o o o

I was forced to spend the night at the hospital in Midland. My ankle turned out to be "moderately" sprained, so it was wrapped in ACE bandages before the nurse slid a protective brace over it. I have to keep the brace on for at least two weeks, but I should be practically healed in a little less than a month. Sprains are nothing new, but I listen raptly out of habit. As an athlete, I never know. I had severe bruising around my rib cage, but the doctor concluded that none of my ribs themselves seemed bruised or broken. My face is a little more…bad. My left eye is swollen and bruised, and splotchy bruising covers my lower jaw. My lower lip is split, but it stopped bleeding hours ago. Last, there is slight bruising on my knuckles from where I fought back. My mom, although extremely pissed, was still proud. She assumed that people could find my attacker based on his injuries, but I told her that I only got in a few lame hits that he could cover up with make-up anyway. She got mad at my pessimistic attitude and left for the cafeteria.

When she brought me home this morning, I was glad that I had the weekend to mentally prepare myself for the onslaught I would undoubtedly face at school Monday morning. I had no question that a few—okay, a lot—of the students would laugh or say stupid shit, but I still couldn't pinpoint an exact amount. I did, however, choose to get one hurdle out the way. Better she hear it from me than someone else (which she surely would if I didn't tell her now).

After I hang-up with her after school hours, I waited patiently in my bedroom for my best and only friend, LeAnn, who lives only five minutes from my house (walking). Our relationship is a funny story, because we originally hated each other. She was under the impression that I thought I'm better than everyone else because I got straight A's and played a strong center-forward (a position that most freshmen don't hold on the varsity team and a position that LeAnn had wanted). I just thought she was a bitch. But at the end of our ninth grade year, we both got kicked out of a game by our coach for fighting one another on the field, and we spent the last hour-and-a-half stuck on the school bus while our team got creamed by Midland. Somehow, screaming at each other, we reached a mutual understanding, and our friendship has slowly grown since. We're practically inseparable now.

I'm lying on my back on my purple duvet-covered bed, my foot propped up on a college dictionary topped by a history textbook topped by a small pillow. A fresh bag of ice is wrapped in a hand towel and continues to de-swell my sprained ankle. Another bag of ice sits on my white nightstand while I let my face warm up. I feel better, but I'm pretty sure it has something to do with the pain relievers I took thirty minutes ago. Yep, I am all mellow.

When the doorbell rings, I try to sit myself up more on the millions of pillows Janie put behind my back. My ribs, however, protest rudely, and I quickly resume my former position. I hear LeAnn make polite conversation with Janie before stomping up our stairs, her pace rushed. She throws herself into my room, her fair skin tomato red from exhaustion, and her ocean blue eyes wide in shock.

"I'll kill 'em," she whispers in a low voice.

"Lee," I moan, not wanting her to even go there.

"I'll fucking kill 'em," she states bluntly. "No…that's too nice. First, I'll set 'em on fire, but I'll put 'em out before they die. Then, I'll pour vinegar all over their burns…and then I'll kill 'em."

"Did I ever tell you that you have a lovely personality?"

Her face remains impassive. She's a small girl; everything about her is small and delicate, making her a natural southern beauty. Brown freckles decorate her defined cheekbones, running across her small nose. Her fleshy pink lips are slightly parted, barely revealing two rows of perfectly white, straight teeth. Her heart-shaped face gives her an almost child-like look of innocence. She's only a few inches shorter than me, and I'm 5'6". She has shoulder-length strawberry-blonde hair that always curls at the ends. She's toned and lean, curvy, but not too much.

She walks slowly to my bed, sitting down on the edge by my knees and staring into my eyes. "Janie says you don't recall what happened."

I shrug. "I don't recall much of anything about the incident really," I admit. Not an exact lie, because most of it is a blur. Just not who did it.

LeAnn bites down gently on her lower lip, her eyes dropping to my twitchy fingers that clench and unclench the duvet. She looks back up at me. "You're lyin' to me," she says gently. "But I won't push anything because I'm just glad you're okay."

She slides a slender hand into mine, squeezing tightly in reassurance. I look down at our intertwined fingers, our skin tones contrasting slightly, but not by much.

"Oh, I almost forgot!"

LeAnn releases my hand to dig around in her MAKE LOVE NOT WAR over-the-shoulder bag. She pulls out a manila envelope and hands it to me. "Yesterday and today's homework from your classes," she tells me. "The notes are in there too, but Clara the Genius probably won't need them."

She grins at me, and I'm glad to see that she's lighting up around me now. I thank her before setting the envelope beside me. I'll get everything done over the weekend. I push my tongue against the inside of my cheek, wondering how best to approach my next question.

"Has anyone at school…err…said anything, you know, about…?"

I trail off while LeAnn sighs and looks out my bedroom window that encompasses Ratliff Stadium. She's quiet a moment, but without moving she finally says, "Everyone heard the ambulance arrive on campus."

I nod. That must've been not long after I passed out. "And…?" I probe.

"I think a few kids figured it was you simply based on the fact that you've never missed a day of school in your life."

It's true. I've won Perfect Attendance since kindergarten, but it looks like my record is broken now. "Did they say anything?"

She shrugs. "A few people asked me what happened, but I just ignored them. I didn't want anything I might say to be used against you later."

"Oh…okay. Thanks, LeAnn."

"What are friends for?" she asks, looking at me now. A faint smile plays across her lips, and I return it. She leaves a few minutes later, having to get home to help her mom with dinner. Suddenly exhausted, I grab the other ice pack and lay it over my eye. Dear Christ, how did I let this happen to me?