I was first out the door as the bell rang for lunch, fleeing Mr. Gladly's class. I threw a look over my shoulder to take stock of Madison, but she was taking her time. She gave me a wicked smirk as I passed out of sight, and my stomach plummeted. Not a good sign from one of the bullies who had been making my life a living hell.
I smoothed down my curly hair as I moved down the hall, but it didnt do anything to sooth my mood. We had an hour break for lunch, and I had a feeling they had something planned for me. I cut for the stairwell, headed towards the third floor girl's restroom; my usual hideout nowadays.
When I made it there, my suspicions were all but confirmed. Emma was waiting with a gaggle of girls outside the bathroom, and Sophia was leaning against the lockers on the opposite wall. I clenched my fist as I realised this was a trap. A quick glance back showed Madison had followed to cut off any escape, and to join in on the "fun" no doubt.
Resolutely I decided to just keep on walking, staying as close to the middle of the hall as I could. It didn't matter. One of them managed to get a leg out in front of me, and before I could maneuver around it Madison rushed up behind me, a push to the shoulders sending me sprawling. The three bursted out laughing at me, and some of the girl's waiting on the bathroom joined in half a second later.
My glasses had gone flying, and the weight of everything in my backpack had been enough to undo the magnetic clasp and scatter it across the hallway floor. I tried to stand up, but a weight pressed me back down and knocked the breath out of me. Madison gave me a "Nuh uh uh," as she rested more weight on me.
Sophia came into my field of view, walked over to my art midterm project. She had a smug, self satisfied grin as she crushed it underfoot with an unconvincing "Whoops."
Emma, though. Emma, who had been my childhood best friend. The look she gave me, eyes narrowed, was the most malicious of the three. She swooped to grab the bag with my lunch in it, glanced at the contents before saying, "Awh, did mommy pack the little girl a lunch?" in a fake-cutesy voice, like she was talking to a toddler. I clenched my jaw enough to hurt, glared at her in fury before slowly forcing my eyes to stare past her.
The three continued to laugh and mock me while Emma took apart and dumped the contents of my lunch on me, finishing it off by emptying the drink all over my clothes. I stayed there as they left and waited until I was sure the hall had cleared out before I began getting up. I screamed in incoherent rage, kicked out at the closest locker. I shook with fury at the indignity of it all.
I fell to my hands and knees to start looking around for my glasses. It took a few minutes, but I eventually found them near the foot of the lockers, one lens popped out but otherwise unharmed. At least there was that. I couldn't deal with paying for a new pair on top of everything else right now. As I fixed them back onto the bridge of my nose, I pushed my awareness away from myself, disconnected from everything but my breathing. Deep breaths in and out, a technique they had taught me at the hospital.
I almost wanted to break something, rage at the world until something snapped. But as much as I wanted to I didn't let myself. The thought of how disappointed my dad would be in me helped stop me, and thoughts about a future past all this, past the cruel, petty high school drama allowed me to gather up what was left of my things. I marched through the people pointing and snickering.
I was a mess, and with my midterm project ruined there was no way I was going to face Sophia in art next period. Instead I made my way out the front gates and caught the first bus headed towards home. I was going to survive this. I was going to get out of this school, and I would leave those three behind. I wouldn't let them break me.
I practised my breathing exercises on the ride home. I pushed away everything I was feeling about Emma: the betrayal, the hurt, the heartbreak. Until all that was left was air filling and leaving my lungs.
We had been so close, all the way up through middle school. Best friends in every sense of the word, as close as you could be to a person at that age. That all came crashing down the summer before freshman year.
Even now I didn't have a clue why. I was out, Sophia (and later Madison) was in. When their popularity swelled, they leveraged it to make me public enemy number one. Emma took every piece of me I had ever given to her in confidence, turned them into weapons.
I didn't want to dwell on this any more, turned to take stock of my belongings. My project was in pieces, I had no clue what I was going to do about that. Beg for an extension and try to throw together a new one I guess. A couple of papers had been splashed with liquid, maybe salvageable at best, and one of my novels looked a little worse for wear.
Over all not the worst damage they had ever done, even including my soaked outfit. The sweatshirt I wore was becoming uncomfortably sticky as it dried against my skin, and the shirt under it hadnt fared any better. I didn't even want to know how long I'd be picking bits of food out of my hair for.
I got off a block from my house, ignoring the looks. Even with the possibility of my dad being there to question why I wasn't still at school, the closer I got to home, the more at ease I felt. The tension seeped from my muscles, and I let out a deep breath. Luckily it seemed my dad was absent as I made my way inside and upstairs towards the bathroom.
My mind turned toward another technique they had tried to teach me as I jumped into the shower. The notion of turning a negative into a positive. Were there any though? I was humiliated, my art project ruined, and I still needed to pop my lenses back into place. I had to admit it didn't really seem like anything positive could come from any of those. Almost every time, the tools they had given me to try and hold myself together fell short.
I stepped out of the shower, carefully combing my hair, trying my best to make sure I had gotten everything. I made my way to my room to get dressed, and then sat on my bed to fiddle with my glasses. Only two things they had recommended had really helped. Drawing and running.
My lens back in place, I reached for the notebook I had secreted away behind my nightstand. I flipped through the pages idly, the notebook filled with everything from absentminded doodles, to detailed character designs, to rough sketches for a graphic novel. My mom had been a literature professor, and I admittedly had a strong love of reading, but where I shined was with my art. Notes and thoughts filled the edges of the pages and the empty spaces between individual pieces. I hadn't settled into a specific plot yet, but I knew the genre: superheroes.
This more than anything kept me going. I took the moment to fill in some details on one of my favourite designs so far, Weaver. She was a bit of an alter ego for me, a self indulgence. Having Weaver to do the things I couldn't let me bear the weight of everything just a little better.
The other thing that helped was running. I had set myself a schedule of every morning and every other afternoon. By the time I had slipped my notebook back into its spot, it was later than I normally went out. A quick check showed that my dad wasnt home yet though, and I was still feeling off from earlier, so I slipped my things into my pockets and set off.
For the most part I had stuck to areas near the boardwalk and the blocks around my house, at my dad's insistence. Right now I wanted a change of scenery, so I ranged out from my usual paths, heading a little further into the Docks. The disparity as I moved from block to block was astounding. With more and more of the import and industrial work drying up, the divide between wealthy and poor became all the more obvious. Those with money could turn to biotech and banking, while those without were stuck with skilled labour that was quickly turning worthless.
There weren't many people out, and I avoided the ones who were when I could. I had my pepper spray and taser, but I'd rather not be given the opportunity to use them if I could avoid it. I was on autopilot, letting my brain path it's own course, when I realised I had gone further into the area than I meant to, and it was getting dark. Not far enough in that I was lost, thankfully, so I started back towards home.
It was getting dark quicker than I thought it would, and as shadows stretched, shadier people came out of the woodworks. I upped my speed, but kept as relaxed a stance as I could. It wasn't that I was scared, because I really wasn't. I didn't want to project any fear though, not with these people. But I wasn't stupid either. The chances I got hurt went up the longer I was out here.
As if that thought had summoned ill will to it, I was jerked suddenly to the side as I passed the mouth of an alley. I let out a yelp as I lost my footing and fell to the grungy cement. The man said something, but all my focus had zeroed in on a flash of steel, and I felt my blood go cold. Fear raced through me as I started struggling against his grip. I took several hits to the stomach, but still tried to twist and pry my wrist out of his grip. The blade swept down, and a line of searing pain lit down my arm.
My breath caught as he went to thrust the knife at me again, but as I braced myself he let out a cry and suddenly lost his grip on me. By the time my brain processed what had happened, the knife was on the ground and the man's forearm had been clamped down on by a german shepard. I scooted back from the now pinned man, who had stopped struggling when the dog gave a loud growl and a shake of its head. Right back into the legs of a second person.
I slowly dragged my gaze up a pair of legs clad in dark ripped up jeans, past a green army jacket, before finally settling on a squarish face with a strong jaw and thick brows. She had a solid build, but in a muscly way, and broad shoulders. 'Butch' is what came to mind, and in other circumstances I might have blushed. She paid me almost no mind as I got my shakey legs underneath me and stood, blood dripping from the fresh wound on my arm.
I was breathing heavy with fear and adrenaline, but beneath that anger roiled in my stomach. "Call him off," I demanded firmly. The girl just tensed, a low growl emitting from the back of her throat. It was strangely reminiscent of her dog's. I narrowed my eyes, and even more resolutely repeated myself. "Call. Him. Off."
She bared her teeth in a not-smile for a moment before finally letting out a sharp whistle. The dog let go of the man's forearm and retreated back to his master's side. The mugger had just opened his mouth to say something when my foot connected with his stomach. All this running was good for something after all. He let out a choked noise, and before he could recover any my taser connected to him. I watched with a grim satisfaction as I held down the button and the man convulsed.
Once I was sure he wasn't going to get back up any time soon, all the fight left me. I slumped down against the gross alley wall and clutched my legs to my chest. Holy shit. I just got mugged. I ALMOST got mugged, I corrected myself. Or worse. I looked up at the girl who's timely arrival had probably saved me. She had a look on her face that I couldnt read, and her dog still stood ready at her heel. I didn't smile, I dont think I had it in me at the moment, but I tried to convey my thanks with a look.
She must have come to a decision, because suddenly she jerked her head toward the road and gruffly said "Come on," before turning on her heel and walking away. I scrambled up from where I was sitting. Did I go with her? She was a stranger, in a not-quite-bad part of town. Who knows where she would lead me. But she had just saved me from a mugger, even if she had mangled his arm. I followed my gut and started jogging after her, wincing as some cuts and bruises made themselves known.
We stayed quiet as we made our way through dim streets, Rachel on one side of me and the german shepard on the other. I stumbled a few times as the adrenaline wore off, and every time she threw me a sharp look. I waved her off and grit my teeth, determined to get wherever we were going under my own power. After a couple blocks we turned up a street that looked even more abandoned than most in the docks. I couldnt make out much detail, but it looked bleak and in disrepair, like most of the docks were these days.
Our destination was a looming factory with a massive rusted sliding doors, probably designed to let trucks through. I hesitated for a second as she led us to a side door, but steeled my resolve and followed her into the pitch black. I heard a gruff "Over here," from my left before a small flashlight flicked on. they illuminated a spiral staircase which she gestured for me to climb up. She followed close behind, making sure to angle the light so I could see where I was stepping. Light seeped under the door at the top. Curiosity piqued, I swung the door open and stepped through.
It was a shock, compared to the rest of the building. A brightly lit loft with a red brick exterior wall and no ceiling beyond the warehouse's roof and metal girdings. It was divided into three sections, though with a layout so open as to barely matter. I had stepped into what was essentially the living room, and beyond that was a hallway with doors on either side, with what looked like a kitchen on far side.
A voice called out from the kitchen area "Hey Rache, wh-" but it cut off as its owner emerged from the hallway, caught sight of me, and froze. The smile was still affixed to her face, but the eyes had turned cold and calculating, seeming to take in every aspect of my person. The look melted just as quick as it had appeared when the girl- Rache? -elbowed past me with a grunt. the one that replaced it was that of irritated amusement. She crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow. "And who, exactly, is our new guest Rachel?"
Rachel just responded with a gruff "Got mugged," before heading over to sit at a table. The other girl's eyebrows both shot up this time, and her eyes darted back to me. The depth of their green startled me, and for a moment I was enthralled by her gaze. I gave her a weak smile and raised my hand to wave at her, before realizing it was the one with the cut and winced. "Rachel," she said sharply, "get the first aid kit out of the storage room."
As Rachel disappeared into one of the rooms lining the hall, the other girl led me over to the seat she had vacated at the table. "Let's take a look at this." She gently grabbed my forearm and rotated it around to examine the cut. It wasnt too bad, only a couple inches long but deep enough that something would probably have to be done. Her eyes darted up to meet mine for a moment. "It's funny, Rachel isn't really one to pick up strays. Well, ones that aren't dogs anyways. You must have left quite the impression."
I gave her a weird look. "If anyone left an impression it was her." I realised it was the first time I had said anything since the fight when I heard my voice come out as a croak. "I don't know if she saved my life, but she sure as hell kept me from getting stabbed." She gave me a measured look, and then let a small smile slip onto her lips.
Rachel came back with the kit, and the other girl set about pulling out what she need. "So mystery girl, do you have a name or should I just think of you as Rachel's newest stray?" she asked with amusement.
"It's Taylor." My tone was flat, but I couldn't keep a small grin off my face. It only served to make her's grow even bigger.
"Well Taylor, I'm Lisa, and this is going to need stitches." I winced a bit but nodded, and she got to work cleaning the cut before pulling out the thread and needle. Getting stitches wasn't quite like anything I had experienced, but luckily it went quickly. After she was finished she muttered out "thank God for Brian."
"A...friend of ours. Insisted I take a first aid course."
I flashed a smile at her. "You'll have to thank him for me. Honestly I don't know where I'd be without you two right now." I ran a finger over the gauze now covering my arm. At that point the german shepard ran up to me tail wagging. I reached out a hand, but then paused and looked up at Rachel. "He's your's right? Can I pet him?" For several moments all she did was give me a steely look, before finally giving a short nod. I slowly held out a hand for him to sniff and lick, and then started to scritch his head as his tail began enthusiastically wagging. When I glanced back up, Rachel's usual standoffish look had softened just a bit.
Lisa broke me out of the moment when she announced "It's getting late, you should stay here for the night. It'd be a shame if you were rescued from a mugging only to have something worse happen on the way home." I looked up in alarm at the high set windows to see that the last light had indeed faded from the sky. I was reluctant to stay overnight with virtual strangers, but...they had been nothing but helpful. For some reason, I felt strangely drawn to them.
"Shit. Can I use your phone?" Lisa nodded and led me into the kitchen area, leaving me there to call with some privacy.
"Taylor! Where are you?" He sounded almost panicked, which I guess was understandable. I can't imagine what he thought when I wasn't home before sunset.
"I'm with some friends. Do you mind if I stay over here tonight, actually?"
A beat, and then. "Are you sure you're okay Taylor? Nothing is going on?"
I held back a sigh. I know it had been a while, but was it really so weird to want to stay the night at somebody's place? "Really dad, I swear. I just lost track of time, and it just seemed easier to stay at this point." I felt a bit bad about lying to him, but there was no way he would take the news of me being mugged well. He'd make me stop running.
"they're good people?"
I smiled, thinking of Rachel saving me, Lisa stitching me up. "yeah," I said, "they are."