It’s Rachel’s first day at her new high school, and she’s currently preoccupied with swiping back and forth on the homescreen of her phone. Applications slide back and forth with cheery persistence. Twelve minutes ago she’d given up on flicking around her message app – nobody’s going to contact her. The difference in timezone between here and England is too large, even if the acquaintances she’d made at hom—across the pond had been the sort to keep in touch. There’s nothing to do but sit here in the office and wait, as instructed. The room smells like tongue depressors and the cheap perfume the secretary was wearing when she handed Rachel her schedule and told her that her assigned student representative would be here any moment now.
Any moment now.
The time on Rachel’s phone ticks over to 8:52. Her phone’s at 55% battery. She’s going to die here.
And with that thought comes the thought that Rachel keeps trying to banish: she could leave. She could get up and leave right now, leave this school, leave the schedule in her pristine new backpack with labels like honors and IB and absolutely nothing that interests her. She could get on a train and go—
Where. Go where.
She slides her finger back across her phone. 0 new messages. 0 new calls. It’s 8:54 and Rachel has been sitting in this uncomfortable plastic chair since 8:30 and she wants to stand up and smash it into the floor over and over until it shatters. Until everything shatters.
(She wants to go home.)
(No she doesn’t. There’s nothing in England for her either. It’s more the tug in her chest, like a fishhook, pulling her towards an idea of home that doesn’t exist.)
8:55 and a bell screams. Rachel bites down on the inside of her lip as hard as she possibly can and thus crushes the urge to jump or flinch at the sounds of humanity stampeding through the hallways. She knows her first class is free period – at least, that’s what the schedule says – but she’s furious at her host anyways for not being here when Rachel needed someone to be here.
She could head out into the crowd on her own. She probably should. She’s sure she can find her classroom, but: she’s never known how to do anything besides following rules. So here she sits, angry and angrier. Outside in the hallways friends meet each other, grasp hands like lifelines in the middle of the faceless crowd. Rachel watches them through the window, holds her phone tightly in her own hands to keep from twisting them together.
8:58. The crowds dwindle, vanish. The secretary clears her throat at the desk. Rachel recrosses her legs, one over the other. Behind her, a clock ticks away idle seconds.
The door crashes open. This time, Rachel jumps almost a centimeter into the air. She levels her best glare at the door, meets the eyes of the person standing in the doorway. It’s a girl wearing overlarge grey gym clothes, a peeling logo of some sort of bird on the chest of her baggy shirt. She has a pile of blonde hair that looks barely attached to her head, wide eyes, big pink bags tucked above her cheekbones. There is sweat all over her.
Also, she’s holding a pudding cup.
Rachel’s glare sputters, dies out in the face of – confusion, mostly, a little bit of disgust. The girl blinks at her, fumbles in the pocket of her sweatpants – the pocket looks like it was cut out with a knife, ragged and sharp – and pulls out a piece of paper. Looks at it. Looks at Rachel. Moves the pudding cup to her other hand so she can point.
“You,” she says, “are Rachel?”
Say no, says a voice in Rachel’s head.
“Yes,” she says, voice strained.
The girl’s face brightens; a smile wriggles at the corner of her mouth, like a worm, but doesn’t settle. She reaches back into the pocket of her sweatpants as she lopes across the room. “I am Helena,” she says. “You are new! I was also new, once. So I will help you, to not be new.”
She makes it across the room in time to get what she wanted: she shoves both hands at Rachel. In one hand is the pudding cup. In the other: a plastic spoon, probably from the bottom of her pocket. Rachel sees lint on it, closes her eyes tightly for a second.
“I was told you were going to be showing me to my class,” she says, and makes a show of looking at the clock.
Helena’s brow furrows sadly at the rejection of the pudding cup before she also looks at the clock and her eyes go comically wide. “Oops,” she says, and unfolds the piece of paper. Sucks her lips between her teeth, looks at it. “Mand—” she wrinkles her nose at it, shrugs a little. “Room 104! Okay. Follow, Rachel. I will show you.”
“We’re going to be late,” Rachel says, but she grabs her backpack and goes. Next to her Helena cheerily rips open the pudding cup and starts eating it.
“Sorry,” she says through a mouthful of pudding. “I was going to leave! To get you! But we were playing sports, and the Jay-arr-oh-tee-cee boys make angry scrunchy faces when they lose.” She demonstrates. There’s pudding smeared around her lips. Rachel tries desperately to let her sheer disgust rise to the front of her eyes, but Helena is either blissfully ignorant or very good at appearing that way. She just takes another bite of pudding. Waves it in Rachel’s direction.
“Do you still not want?” she says. “Lunch is not for two hours, maybe. So long.”
“Yes,” Rachel says. “I can assure you, you’re welcome to it.”
It’s just the two of them in the empty hallway. Another bell rings and Rachel winces at the sound.
“Now we are late,” Helena says. She sucks noisily at the spoon before pulling it out with a wet pop and looking at Rachel. “I’m sorry,” she says quietly. “I did want to get you there on time, I promise. Next time will go better, I think.”
“Perhaps I should find my classes on my own,” Rachel says through gritted teeth.
Helena skids to a stop, points at her with the pudding spoon. “No,” she says, the word angry and echoing in the empty hall. “I am supposed to help you and keep you safe. I will not make you be alone. Nobody has to be alone.”
She shoves the spoon back in her mouth, almost angry. She looks distraught. She’s going to hurt you, says a voice in Rachel’s brain, and Rachel ignores it. Instead she looks ahead in the hallway. There’s 104.
“Well,” she says, “you’re relieved of your duties.” She gestures at the door, slips around Helena before Helena can – oh, god, do something like hug her. She doesn’t turn around to see the look on Helena’s face before she opens the door and walks inside.
There are only seven people in Rachel’s higher-level Mandarin class, which doesn’t surprise her. Back hom—
Back in England there were ten, maybe twelve. She wasn’t expecting very much of this school. She scans the class anyways, looking for – something. Allies, rivals, anyone on her level, anyone she can crush. Mostly it’s just a collection of bored-looking teenagers. Only some of them meet her eyes. None of them have the gaze she’s looking for, eyes like scalpels. So she looks at the teacher instead.
The introduction is dull. The class itself, less so – Rachel’s always had an intellectual appreciation for languages. There’s a reason she’s taking two classes, testing in both. (Part of the reason: her mother’s voice, wrapped like silk around the razor blade of the word necessary. It’s necessary, Rachel. For your future.)
(Rachel hates the way her mother says future. The way it sounds, like dropping a pebble into a well and only hearing the lonely echo. The way it tastes on your tongue, cold and empty as dark water.)
She passes the time well enough, scratching characters in her notebook, letting her mind blank out and become only what it needs to be: a machine, input-output and nothing more. It’s a relief. It’s the best feeling Rachel knows: when you stop feeling worthless and start feeling nothing at all.
She’s jolted out of it when the bell rings. She hates the impulse to jump, hates it with a sharp hot pain at her breastbone. Around her everyone stampedes out the door and Rachel takes her time methodically putting her notebook into her backpack. Zipping her backpack shut. It’s time for lunch, and outside she can hear what sounds like every student in this building screaming. Inside her backpack is a hand-packed lunch from her father, and she knows he’s left her a note at the bottom, and she just wants to leave here and get on a bus and go.
She stands up. She slings her backpack over her back, opens the door.
Helena’s waiting for her in the hallway, eating what look like pork rinds from a bag. “There you are!” she says delightedly. “I looked for you in the crowd, but did not see. I am glad you are not squashed.”
“You didn’t have to wait,” Rachel says tightly. “In fact—”
“But now you are here,” Helena says over her, “and we can eat lunch.” She blinks owlishly at Rachel and then starts walking backwards through the less-crowded hallway, shoving her pork rinds into the pocket of her oversized coat. Apparently she’s found time to change: she’s wearing an enormous stained green parka, combat boots, layers of black and grey and green. She looks like moss, perhaps, or mold. Rachel doesn’t know why she’s following her. But she is.
Helena turns back around, sets a deliberate pace through the crowd. Despite herself, Rachel’s impressed: the girl looks like she’s going to fall over any second, but she moves through the crowd like a knifeblade. Rachel follows her easily enough, watching the jump and bob of her unwashed curls as they go.
There’s a set of double doors and Helena slams through them like a battering ram with a mission. Rachel looks around the room inside and hates, hates in a way that feels too much like fear. Her previous school hadn’t had a cafeteria. Her previous school had let her leave, at lunchtime, and she’d never felt any inclination to stay among the pack-language of crowded tables and overcooked meat. Now here she is. And here is Helena, loading up a tray with three ladlefuls of something that makes a glop sound when she pours it on her tray. Rachel stands in line behind her, hands folded together in front of her body as tight as she can. She looks around the room with something like desperation, hoping for – herself, maybe, a collection of girls who look like steel blades.
None emerge. All Rachel can see are tables that her brain labels AVOID AVOID AVOID in big bold letters – a collection of boys with shaved heads, wearing matching olive-green army uniforms; a group of people huddled around some sort of gameboard; some squabbling adolescents engaged in what looks to be a game involving tossing fries into the air and catching them in their mouths. The dregs of humanity, essentially. Also: the entire cafeteria smells like old meat and unwashed bodies. Rachel feels it again, that homesickness for a place that doesn’t exist. She turns back around.
“Do you need food?” Helena says, once she’s loaded her tray with…food…and Jell-O.
“No,” Rachel says. “I brought my own.”
“Clever,” Helena says, and dives back into the masses. Rachel follows, because she doesn’t know what else to do. Around they go, all the way to the back of the room where Helena drops her tray with a sigh on a mostly-empty table. There are only two other people at it: a chubby, nervous-looking boy and a redheaded girl writing what appears to be a letter. As soon as Helena drops her tray they both give her their Jell-O cups without looking up. Helena thumps down at the table, tears open one of the cups. Rachel sits down next to her, gets her bag. Rummages through it, finds a piece of paper labeled My dear Rachel, rips it into halves and quarters and eighths and makes a neat pile of it in front of her at the table.
Helena makes a gulping hlawf sound through a mouthful of Jell-O and gestures to Rachel. “This is Rachel,” she says to the table. “She is my yahnya.”
“Hey,” says the boy, beaming at her vacantly. “I’m Donnie, and uh – that’s Gracie.” Gracie keeps frowning at her page, doesn’t look up. “She’s a little – preoccupied.”
“She is writing a letter to her boyfriend,” Helena stage-whispers. “Her parents do not let her have a telephone, because the devil lives inside of it. And so she is Juliet, and Mark is Romeo with ugly hair.”
“I don’t think that’s how the play goes,” Donnie says.
“Good,” Helena says grandly. “I am better than Shakespeare. We are enemies. I will fight him, someday.”
“He’s dead,” Gracie says without looking up, “and you said you weren’t going to fight any more authors.”
“One more author,” Helena says. “There is much time in the year, Grace, and I want to fight.”
“No,” Gracie says calmly. She flips over to another page. Rachel has absolutely no idea how to contribute to this inanity, so she just unpacks her lunch and starts eating it. She keeps her sandwich in its bag, so no one can see that the crusts are cut off.
“So, you’re new here, huh?” Donnie says, poking at his…food…with a look of mild disgust.
“Yes,” Rachel says. She slides her phone out of her pocket, opens it up, cuts off feeling before checking it. No new notifications. Which is fine. Maybe she’ll download solitaire.
“What classes are you taking?”
She looks up, meets Donnie’s eyes. Blinks. Looks back down. Navigates to the application store, starts reading reviews for solitaire games.
“Man-drin,” Helena says. She dumps a Jell-O cup like a carcass next to her tray, moves on to the next one. “You have history four-b, yes?”
She’d forgotten Helena also had a copy of her schedule. She locks her phone, looks up. “Yes,” she says. This is a waste of time, breathes something in the back of her mind that sounds like her mother’s voice. These people are a waste of time.
“Is the teacher…adequate,” she says with a stab of something like spite in her belly.
“Ha, yeah, that means actually…paying attention in that class,” Donnie says awkwardly. Helena snorts, loudly, and Donnie scowls. His face goes bright red, the color of Gracie’s hair. “Shut up,” he mutters.
“I pay attention,” Helena says innocently. “I am not looking at anyone’s ponytails.” She sticks a spoonful of Jell-O – the second cup is yellow – into her mouth and grins around the handle of the spoon.
“I’m not – Helena!” Donnie hisses, ducking his head down and looking furtively around the cafeteria as if he’s hiding a secret that anyone in the world cares about. “Alison sits in front of me, okay, it’s not like I’m—”
“Who said Alison?” Helena says, very obviously having the time of her life. “No one said any words about Alison Hendrix, but since you have a bright red face—”
Gracie puts down her pen, rotates her wrist with a long exhalation. Rachel chooses to focus on her instead while Helena and Donnie devolve into an argument that seems to consist of Donnie loudly yelling stop and Helena making kissing sounds. At this point she’s desperate for any sort of alternative.
“Hi,” says Gracie, smiling awkwardly. “Sorry about – um. Donnie’s had a crush on Alison since middle school, and Helena…” they both look over. Helena’s started waggling her tongue. “Helena’s weird.” She lets out a little giggle, half to herself.
“You just got here, right?” she says, voice soft. “Were your classes okay?”
Gracie’s eyes are very wide and very sincere. Rachel’s mind moves rapidly from the realization that Gracie feels bad for her to a tangled string of ideas on how to take advantage of this, how to break her. Her clothing is cheap and her letter is likely achingly sincere and Gracie is made of strings that Rachel could pull. She could rip her apart. But it wouldn’t fix this school and it wouldn’t fix Rachel.
It would be satisfying, though. Short term.
“I wouldn’t know,” Rachel says, “I’ve only had the one.”
“Mandarin,” Gracie says, ducking her head in a sad approximation of a nod. “I tried German. I was – bad at it.”
(Rachel leans across the table. I have German tomorrow, she says. I excel at it. Ten years from now, when I am sitting at a conference table talking to someone important and you come in to serve me my tea, what language do you think I’ll be speaking in?
Do you think you’ll even be serving me my tea, Gracie? Do you think you’ll make it that far up the ladder?)
“Languages aren’t for everyone,” Rachel says, the words like splinters of glass in her throat. “I’m sure you must have other talents.” She lets the words ring slightly bitter, a little mocking, just enough to ease the sour taste from her throat. Across the table Gracie bites her lip, avoids Rachel’s eyes for a second. They both know, Rachel thinks, that she doesn’t.
Rachel can see the note on the table out of the corner of her eye. She wishes she hadn’t left it there. She can see the word hope in her father’s chickenscratch handwriting and she’s terrified that Gracie can see it too.
“You finished!” Helena says brightly, and Rachel tears her eyes away from love, and excel, and a piece of paper that just says prou. Helena’s looking at Gracie, and has started making kissing noises at her as well. “How long is this letter,” she says.
“Four pages,” Gracie mutters, ducking her head down and trying to crush her smile. Her face flushes.
Helena flaps her hand grandly. “Go, then,” she says. “Your puppy love makes me sick. Take it away from me.” She grins, her tongue poking out from between her teeth. Gracie sticks her tongue out – Helena sticks hers back – and Gracie shoves the letter into an envelope and piles her food on her tray.
“Nice meeting you, Rachel,” she says, smiling. Then she dives into the crowd. Next to Rachel, Helena finishes her food and piles the empty Jell-O cups on her tray. She looks over at Rachel’s end of the table, eyes scavenger-curious, and Rachel sweeps the pile of shredded note-paper into her fist. Doesn’t touch the rest of her lunch. She’ll throw it away on her way out the door, on her way home.
“Are you finished?” Helena asks.
“Class, then,” Helena says, standing up and grabbing her tray. “This time we will not be late.”
Rachel shoves her lunch bag back in her backpack, looks at her schedule while Helena and Donnie exchange goodbyes. English, apparently. Then Biology. Then the day is over; she feels this should bring her some sense of relief, but it mostly just makes her tired. She pulls her backpack over her shoulders and follows Helena into the crowd. She doesn’t make eye contact with Donnie. She can smell the social death on him, the stink of failure like old milk; she can smell it on Helena too, but Helena is necessary to her and so cannot be abandoned. Donnie, though. Donnie she leaves behind at the table, and she follows Helena with her hands linked together. White-knuckled.