I wasn't sure what had happened when I came into my room and found the window open, curtains blowing in the night breeze.
The note Emma- my copy had left on my bed didn't provide much in the way of clarity, either:
Getting a little stir-crazy here doing nothing; itching in my thumbs and all that. Going to go out for a walk - don't know when I'll be back.
Or if I'll be back.
Look, you're going to be OK. I know how strong you can be, remember?
Love, you. ;)
It was in Emma's handwriting, and as I sat on the edge of my bed and read it, re-read it, I felt something twist in my chest.
"You didn't have to run," I whispered to the open window.
There was no answer.
I stared out the car window as Dad drove us to Winslow, building after building passing by under the weight of an overcast morning sky.
She didn't come back.
I'd left the window open all night- I'd stayed up most of the night, well after her life- her duration would have ended, waiting for any hint of her coming back.
She'd been here for me, but... had I really been here for her?
"I'm proud of you," she'd whispered to me last night, her hands cool on my temples as she'd brushed hair from my brow and tears from my eyes.
The words had meant something to her.
I wasn't sure I deserved them.
I look over; Dad's driving, his eyes fixed on the road ahead.
"'m okay. Just... tired." I hesitate. "I. I didn't sleep that great."
He mumbles something I can't quite hear, and I look back at the dashboard, pulling the hood of my sweatshirt a little further over my head.
"Mmm?" I look up; he's taken his eyes off the road to glance over at me. He smiles at me, small and sad, and then he looks back at the road.
"I'm sorry about last night."
I stare down at my hands in my lap, mouth wordless and a little sickly-still.
"I... got angry." He's quiet, the car shifting as we make a turn. "Not at you, but about what happened to you."
And I remember last night, our meal in stilted silence; my eyes finding his, following his gaze as it brushes over my half-shorn scalp and his face darkens with aubergine rage.
We arrived maybe a half-hour after school started, footfalls hollow in the empty hallways as Dad and I headed for the principal's office.
"Danny Hebert. My daughter and I have an eight forty-five appointment with Principal Blackwell?"
Eight forty-five comes and eight forty-five goes; Dad and I are still sitting in the waiting area, watching the receptionist handle calls and paperwork while yellowed posters older than I am preach tolerance and scholarship from up on the walls.
I'm scraping at my cuticles with a fingernail when a broad hand falls atop mine; startled, I look up and Dad's looking down at me with a gentle smile before he leans down to whisper in my ear.
"It'll be okay. She's just stalling to make it look like she has the upper hand. It's an old trick I've used a bunch when 'negotiating.'"
He pulls away a little, and winks at me. "Can't serve the bastards carbonara," he observes, and a shy smile tugs at the corner of my mouth.
"Mr. Hebert." Principal Blackwell was congenial and fatigued; more the latter than the former, despite the early hour. "If this is about your daughter's attendance yesterday, you know you can leave a note with my receptionist and we'll take it under advisement-"
"We're- ah, we're not here about that." Dad looked over at me. "Taylor?"
I swallowed. Reached up and pulled back the hood of my sweatshirt, shucked the beanie I was wearing underneath that. Squirmed under the weight of their respective scrutinies, fingernails picking against each other.
"Can I ask why you left campus," she finally asked, "rather than going to one of your teachers, or even to me?"
I heard my dad's chair creak. "Someone assaults my daughter, and that's the first thing you decide to ask?"
Blackwell was very still, both hands on her desk as she watched my dad.
"Mr. Hebert, I have to deal with students who are assaulted, or threatened, or worse, practically every day of the school year. In order to better care for the children who are my legal responsibility, I need to understand why this wasn't brought to my attention sooner."
And then all eyes are back on me and I feel something inside me flex in that butterflies-under-glass feeling I remember from last night; I look down at my hands, nerveless and white, nails digging red moons into my skin as they pinion something wordless and inexplicable inside me.
"I didn't think you'd do anything about it." The words come out dry and small, withered leaves before fall's first rain.
"Ms. Hebert." She leaned across her desk. "I can assure you, that we will take your report serio-"
Dad's leaning forward again, knuckles white-and-red on the arms of his chair like well-marbled steak.
"You just said that you have to deal with worse than what Taylor had to go through, every day. You'll 'take her seriously' and take her report, and you're going to let it get buried under discipline reports more important than 'my daughter got a bad haircut.'"
Silence filled the office.
"That is unacceptable, Principal Blackwell."
"Mr. Hebert, I want to assure you that..."
She trailed off as Dad stood up from his chair and leaned over her desk, one hand mashed flat on her papers for balance.
I didn't catch what he said; his voice was pitched low and personal, with enough of an edge of threat to make my gut twist. I heard unions, and solidarity, and then he was quiet as the two of them stared at each other.
And then he sat back down.
And Principal Blackwell looked at me.
"Taylor... who did this to you?"
There's five minutes of silence after the call goes out on the PA; they show up all at once, a clutch of sharp eyes and smirks quirked in nervous mouths when they see me with my hood off.
"I've called you three in today because Miss Hebert has been harassed, and has named the three of you as the ones responsible.
It's been made clear to all members of the student body that bullying and harassment will not be tolerated; this will be investigated and the individuals responsible will be punished.
Is there anything you three have to say for yourselves?"
Madison and Sophia share a glance, and then Emma steps forward, hands clasped in front of her, innocent as an Immaculata student.
"Taylor..." She hesitates, bites her lip as soft, watery-blue eyes search my expression. "...this is all my fault. I'm sorry."
The office was silent.
"Miss Barnes? Are you..."
Emma turned to Blackwell. "I-I should have said something earlier in, before it had gotten this bad, but I didn't know she'd- she'd-"
She cuts herself off as she looks at me, at my hair. "...do that."
"Are you implying Miss Hebert did this to herself?"
And Emma nodded, fingers wringing themselves into white-knuckled little knots.
"I just didn't know what to do, her mom was gone, and I just- I tried to be there for her, but she just kept - it was like she was pulling me under and I didn't want to end up like her." She sniffed, sounding like she was on the verge of tears.
"I had to stop being friends with her. I had to, and when... when I told her that-"
Emma looked back at me, swallowed nervously, then looked back at the principal.
"She started getting mean. St-she started coming after me, after my friends, accusing me of harassing her-"
"That's because you w-" I start, before the principal cuts me off again.
"Miss Hebert, you will get your turn. You never brought this to anyone's attention, Miss Barnes? Why not?"
"She's still my friend, Principal Blackwell. If I told a teacher, she'd just get punished."
"N-no." The word bubbles thickly from my lips. "She's- she's the one who's been... been..."
I trail off as I realize how I sound, plaintive and whining and vulnerable and Emma's right there, her eyes the pure blue of springwater, her brow furrowed in compassion as she listens to me.
"Search her locker. Search their lockers, they've probably got the, the clippers in there from yesterday."
I can see the principal bite back a sigh as she looks over at Dad... and she hesitates.
"All right." She pushes her chair back, moving to stand up.
"Miss Barnes, I am not in the mood-"
"No, it's not that." She hesitates, her fingers knotted and twisting. "It's just- wouldn't it be fair to have everyone's locker searched, Taylor too?"
A muscle bulges in Blackwell's jaw as her eyes slide from Emma to my dad... and then to me, and she nods slowly as she studies my expression.
And as we go out, Emma smiles, sweet and secret like when we were children hiding from our parents... and something twists inside me, a seed of tension rooting itself down in my gut.
They're all... complacent. Unruffled as the six of us walk hallways filled with the echoes of our footfalls, first to Madison's locker, then Emma's. Watching as they spin combinations and tug doors open, finding nothing but posters and binders and school supplies.
And that unease inside me grows with each step, until I'm staring at my locker and feeling everyone's eyes on me.
"Well, Miss Hebert?"
The lock is new, still stiff from when I'd bought it last week; I have to enter the combination twice with nerveless fingers before pulling the shackle and twisting it free.
Blackwell steps in, pulls open the locker door-
And it's there, Emma's razor, perched right on top of my social studies textbook, a tuft of my hair still caught in cheap snaggleslide saw-teeth.
Emma's mouth is a silent opening of shock, even as her eyes sparkle with the delight of a prank-well-played, and Dad...
Dad's looking at me, and the look in his eyes has none of that conspiratorial warmth we had while we were waiting to see the principal.
The look in his eyes says doubt.
The look in his eyes says, quiet and distant, maybe my daughter needs help.
The linoleum of the hallway is sudden and cold against my cheek, but the hand on my shoulder is warm.
"Emma Barnes, you wipe that fucking smile off your face."
It's Emma, my Emma, her hand on my shoulder and her voice in my ear, and I can feel her in my mind, burning above me like a star.