Leland finished his third cup of coffee alone at the kitchen table, staring at unopened moving boxes piled inside the modest single story rambler. The house felt empty and alone without Nicole. From his perspective, Nicole’s revelation about a new man in her life explained her odd behavior in recent weeks. He understood her frustration with his obsession for music and her need for more attention than he could spare. But what he couldn’t grasp was her decision to leave so abruptly, as if their relationship meant nothing. Nicole’s infidelity aside, he harbored strong feelings for her. He saw a future with her and a stable companion in Abby’s life. Unlike so many who’d come before her, Nicole had an honest presence about her. Or so he thought.
He dumped his coffee in the sink and packed a leftover turkey sandwich in his lunch cooler while Abby’s cat jumped on the microwave and started purring for food. “I’m leaving,” he called out, gently scooping the tiger-striped tabby in the air. “We had a deal,” he whispered to the cat. “You’re not supposed to be up here. I’m supposed to squirt you with the water bottle when you are.” He lowered the cat to the floor when Abby emerged from the hallway in short-shorts and a tube top exposing her midriff. “What are you wearing?”
Abby tugged on her shorts. “I’ve worn these before.”
“In a Beyoncé video?”
“They’re too short. I can see your… You just… You need to change. Top and bottom.”
“Everyone wears these.”
“Everyone but you.”
“I’m not changing.”
Leland dropped a water bottle in his lunch cooler. “Yes, you are.”
“Fine. Then I’ll stay home.”
“You’re so mean!”
“I don’t have time to argue.”
Abby stomped back to her room and changed clothes. “These make me look fat.”
“They make you look respectable.”
“Who’s going to take me to school?”
“I’m not riding the bus.”
“Then you can walk.”
“It’s like ten miles.”
“Then I would go with the bus.”
“She doesn’t live here anymore.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Abby twirled her hair. “Did she dump you?”
“She didn’t dump me. We decided we’re not compatible anymore.”
Abby sighed. “She dumped you.” She grabbed a strawberry Nutri-Grain from the pantry. “She always hated me.”
“Nicole never hated you.”
“Then why did you break up?”
“I broke up with her, not the other way around.”
“Guys always say that.”
Leland rinsed the coffee pot. “I’ll pick you up after school.”
“I have detention.”
“Again? What did you do this time?”
“Nothing. My principal is a wench. She’s trying to make sure the crippled girl gets the same punishment as everyone else.”
“Why can’t you drop me off?”
“Because I’m already late, and school doesn’t start for another hour.”
“So drop me early.”
“There’s nowhere to drop you. I’m not leaving you outside the building by yourself.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time.”
Leland fished his keys from his pocket. “Make sure you lock up when you leave. And take your umbrella. They’re calling for more rain today.”
* * *
Abby held her position in the bus line behind a column of geeks and freaks, waiting for the jackknife doors to open. She could see the other students on the bus looking down at her from their window seats while the line in front of her moved ahead single file. She tugged on her backpack strap as she climbed aboard and scoped out a seat several rows from the back. The bus smelled like dirty socks and warm vinyl mixed with sweat and body spray. A soiled placard above the driver read no food, no drink, no talking.
She wanted to strangle her dad for making her ride the bus. Part of her missed Nicole, not only for the morning transportation, but because Nicole made her dad happy.
She claimed the last seat—the dreaded aisle seat on the left, which meant her bad arm was in full view of everyone behind her. She also hated people bumping her when they passed. She thought about detention and whether her dad would show up on time after school. She missed her friends in Tulsa. Fingers crossed, she would stay in the same zip code long enough to finish middle school in one place without transferring for the third time in three years.
She touched her neck when something buzzed past her ear. She cocked her head to see everyone facing forward with the same subdued expression. She kept her backpack between her legs, her knees almost touching the seat in front of her. When the bus accelerated, she felt something smack her hair and reached up to pick a wet spitball from behind her ear.
She spun around and made an angry face. “Who did that?” she yelled, observing her peers one by one to spot a guilty flinch. She quickly focused her attention on the two boys seated opposite from one another in the last row. She recognized the one with long hair and zits from her homeroom—a friend of the girl who’d knocked her arm off and humiliated her in class.
Abby faced forward again, recalling her dad’s lecture about making better choices. Then another spit ball hit the back of her neck.
This time she whipped around and caught the boy with long hair and zits, cupping the straw in his hands.
The back of the bus erupted in laugher.
“You try that again,” Abby focused her rage at the guilty party nearly twice her size, “and I’ll shove that straw up your nose.”
The boy looked away and fist-bumped his friend.
Abby unzipped her backpack to retrieve her keychain. When another spit ball smacked her hair, she stood up in the aisle. No one had the right to disrespect her. Not at home. Not in class. And certainly not on the damn bus.
“I know it was you,” she confronted the bully at a distance. She held the backrest from the seat in front of her while the bus hung a left through a busy intersection.
The boy laughed at her. “No standing while the bus is in motion.”
“You think this is funny?”
“I think you’re funny.”
Abby charged toward the back of the bus until she came within a few feet of her target and raised her key chain mace to spray the spitball jester between the eyes.
Principal Hendrix settled her full-figured frame behind the desk in her office and looked across at the student she’d summoned to appear. She had enough on her plate to keep her buried in paperwork for weeks without the added aggravation from Abigail Presley’s flagrant breach of conduct. Always the optimist, she saw potential in every student, no matter how dim the light shined at first.
She fanned herself with a stack of papers and made a note to contact facilities about the air conditioning. In all her years with Davidson County, including her tenure as a local church member and an advocate for children’s services, she’d never met a young woman like Abigail Presley. The girl’s school records revealed only a portion of the story behind the whimsical and highly precocious seventh grader. This morning, she hoped to glean the rest. “I assume you know why you’re here.”
“It wasn’t my fault,” Abby started from her seat with her arm in her lap.
“Where did you get the pepper spray?”
“Who gave it to you?”
“My dad’s girlfriend.”
“Does your father’s girlfriend realize pepper spray is illegal for a minor to possess?”
“I didn’t ask her. I borrowed it from her purse.”
Principal Hendrix folded her hands on her desk. “Possession of any weapon on school property is an egregious offense.”
“I wasn’t on school property,” Abby retorted. She leaned forward in her chair. “And pepper spray is not a weapon.”
“Don’t argue with me, Miss Presley. The student you attacked spent two hours in the nurse’s office this morning.”
Abby pointed to her prosthesis on top of the cabinet. “At least I didn’t hit him with my fake arm.”
“You could have seriously injured him or another student.”
“I wasn’t aiming at other students. He was the one shooting spitballs at me.”
“Doesn’t justify your actions.”
“My action should have been a fist in his face. He’s lucky he has all his teeth.”
“You should have waited until the bus arrived at school and notified myself or someone in my office.”
“He’s the bully. Why are you taking his side on this?”
“No one’s taking sides, Miss Presley, but the fact is you exercised poor judgment.”
“This is about money, isn’t it? His parents have more than mine, so he becomes the victim and I get in trouble.”
“This has nothing to do with money. You assaulted another student. As your principal, I bear the responsibility for the safety of every student in this school. By law, I’m required to file a report with the superintendent. At a minimum, this incident will go on your permanent record. You could be facing expulsion.”
“That’s not fair!”
“I don’t author the rules and regulations, Miss Presley. I simply enforce them.”
“What about the bully who shot spitballs at me?”
“The students I spoke with from the bus corroborated his version of events. You got out of your seat and attacked him with pepper spray.”
“He was shooting spitballs at my head! Everyone saw what happened. They’re just too chicken-shit to tell the truth. I hate you, and I hate this school! You’re all a bunch of liars!”
“This is a serious infraction.”
“So is shooting spitballs at me. I think a one-armed girl defending herself against a bully twice her size would make for good news coverage.”
“And don’t think I won’t do it. My dad knows people.”
“Your first day of school you attacked a girl with your prosthetic arm.”
“Because she broke it off!”
“It was an accident.”
“So was her conception.”
Principal Hendrix leaned way back in her chair and contemplated a different conversation with Abby. One laced with less hostility, geared more toward understanding and less about casting blame. The more she emphasized the grave consequences of Abby’s negligent actions, the more Abby pushed back with sarcasm and insult. “Tell me about your parents.”
“What about them?” Abby shot back.
“Do you spend time with them?”
“My mother’s dead, so that’s a no. My dad and I get along.”
“What does your dad do for a living?”
“He’s a carpenter and a musician. He sings in bars mostly.”
“Does he spend time with you?”
“Do any other children live with you?”
“Not unless you count his ex-girlfriend. But she doesn’t really live with us anymore.”
“I’d like to schedule a conference with your dad.”
“To talk about me?”
“To talk about a lot of things.”
“My dad already knows I’m in detention.”
“Abby, this issue with the pepper spray notwithstanding, I’m less concerned about where you’ve been and more concerned about where you’re headed.”
“You mean my next school?”
“I mean with life in general. I’m here to enforce the rules, but that doesn’t mean I’m the bad guy all the time. I was your age once. I remember the challenges. I want to see you succeed.”
“Can I have my pepper spray back?”
Principal Hendrix opened her desk drawer to retrieve a handful of plastic cockroaches and a rubber rat. “What can you tell me about these?”
“They look fake.”
“My cafeteria staff thought they were real. I nearly shut down the lunch preparations and called an exterminator. You’re not the only one who’s served detention recently. I don’t believe you left these behind, but I suspect you know who did.”
“I’m not a rat.”
Principal Hendrix squeezed the rubber rodent and pondered the irony. “No need to get theatrical with me. I’m simply asking for a name.”
“Why don’t you ask the students on my bus? They seem to know everything.”