Robert remembered how his wife Stefanie had gazed out the windows when they first drove through the area, scouting out the neighborhood where they were considering buying a house.
They'd done some vetting beforehand, of course—the crime rate was low, the schools were good—but nothing could replace seeing an area in person.
“Looks like a nice neighborhood,” Stefanie had said. “A nice place to raise a family.”
And the neighborhood certainly had looked nice. As he and Stephanie took a walk through the neighborhood, he noticed a certain sense of overarching order, though it took him a while to figure out why—everyone's clothing seemed to share a similar color scheme, featuring lots of whites, creams, and pastels.
He didn't quite put it together himself until he realized that, subconsciously, he'd been choosing shirts in robin's-egg blue and mint green when he went clothes shopping. He was trying to fit in, without quite being aware that he was doing so—and maybe that was the way things were for a good portion of the community's residents.
Stefanie, on the other hand, had always favored darker tones—rich ruby-reds, deep forest greens, decadent plum purples. She'd looked stunning; she'd always stood out just a bit after they'd moved in.
Of course, Stefanie had always looked stunning in Robert's eyes.
The thought of her, gone these last five years, still sometimes stopped him in his tracks.
She'd passed away so suddenly—a heart condition they'd never known she had. It had rocked his world, and even now, years later, reality still seemed somehow askew because she wasn't around.
And poor Melina—their daughter. Losing a parent was always hard. Melina had always been a quiet, reserved child. Some of it came from his side of the family, he thought; between him and Stefanie, Robert had always been the softer-spoken one.
Melina's chosen style in clothing, on the other hand, he'd thought was clearly inherited from Stefanie. He still had photo albums full of pictures from when Melina was younger, once she was of an age to help pick out clothing for herself. She'd been drawn to the same sort of colors as her mother—deep, rich shades.
He remembered Melina's very favorite piece of clothing from when she'd been seven or eight—a beautiful turquoise skirt that swished when she moved. She'd run around the house, making the skirt sway back and forth as she pretended to be a mermaid.
Melina had been ten when Stefanie died.
The color had seemed to fade, gradually, out of Melina's wardrobe. As she grew out of her old things, she started picking more subdued colors—pale pinks, sky blues, butter yellows.
It had made Robert a little sad, actually. It was as if part of Stefanie that had lived on in Melina was disappearing—but he'd never said anything of the sort to Melina. He'd thought she was just developing her own style, which was something to be encouraged, he thought.
Though it probably wasn't a coincidence that this new style she was developing matched fairly well with what the rest of the community seemed to prefer.
Well, kids wanted to fit in with their peers, didn't they? It was completely normal. She was figuring out who she was, and how she fit in with the people around her.
But then, all of a sudden, one Sunday afternoon a few months ago, she had asked her father to drop her off to do some clothes shopping.
When he picked her up a few hours later, she had two large bags brimful of new clothes, almost all of which—so far as Robert could see—were black.
"That's quite a lot of clothing," Robert commented.
"It's my money," Melina replied, sounding a bit defensive.
She was right, of course; she'd always been good at saving up her allowance and the money her grandparents sent on her birthdays, and she'd made a good amount in the last few years babysitting for the neighbors.
"I wasn't criticizing," Robert said, holding up his hands. "Just... observing. A lot of black."
"I like black," said Melina.
Since when? Robert wondered. He'd never seen any sign of it before now.
He wondered, a touch guiltily, if he'd become too distant. He'd been working hard keeping his web design business running; for the last few weeks he'd been hard at work on a project for a large company in the area. The payoff would be worth it, but he hadn't had much bonding time with his daughter as of late.
"It's a nice color," said Robert, which sounded a bit silly the moment it left his mouth, but there it was. "Very striking," he added, hoping to salvage things.
Melina gave a little nod, seemingly appeased. "Yeah. It stands out."
It really would, Robert thought, in this particular area.
Well... she was a teenager. Teenagers, according to the parenting books he'd faithfully read ever since he'd learned Stefanie was pregnant with their daughter, went through phases where they tried to figure out who they were as individuals, distinct from their parents.
Stefanie had always laughed to see him poring over yet another book that claimed to contain the secrets of raising a healthy, well-adjusted child. "You act like you're back in our days at university, studying for finals," Stefanie had told him once, leaning over to kiss the top of his head. "Are you really so worried?"
"I just want to do a good job, that's all," he'd told his wife.
And that was even more important now that it was a one-man job.
So, Melina was trying to find herself. Well, even if she'd look a bit quirky, dressing up in lots of black seemed like a pretty harmless way of exploring one's identity.
"Well, I'm sure you'll look great in it," said Robert, and dropped the topic.
But a change seemed to come over Melina in the following days.
She'd become more withdrawn, a bit more irritable, and much less talkative.
It worried Robert a great deal.
What's going on with her? And how can I help? he wondered. He'd tried asking, of course, and simply got an "I'm fine, Dad," in response.
Further questioning only managed to annoy her further; eventually he'd stopped.
He turned to the Internet.
Entering “How to tell what's wrong with your teenager when she only wants to wear black and also won't talk to you any longer” into a search engine didn't provide any especially useful answers, though a few searches later he found himself reading about the Goth subculture. He'd been dimly aware of its existence, though he'd never been involved himself—the clothing style seemed to fit what Melina had started wearing.
He tried listening to some of the music. It wasn't bad; some of it was pretty catchy. He wound up buying himself a few songs online and listening to them as he worked.
When Melina got home that day, he'd been trying to figure out some way of finding out whether she was into the music, or just the fashion—and if the former, whether she had any particular bands she liked—without being too obvious about the whole thing. Her birthday was coming up in about a month.
When he looked up from his computer to greet his daughter, the stormy expression on her face as she slammed the door behind her drove all thoughts of presents from his mind.
“Melina? What's happened?” he asked.
“Nothing. I'm fine,” Melina snapped. She turned, clearly about to head over to her room, when a croaking sound came from inside her backpack.
Her eyes widened in surprise.
As Robert searched for words, Melina's expression twisted—it seemed to him as if she were fighting the urge to cry by getting angry.
She huffed, tensed her shoulders, and stomped off to her room. He heard the door slam a few moments later.
Robert looked down at his computer. What... why would she have a frog in her backpack?
The answer was painfully obvious—clearly, she hadn't put it in there herself, and it didn't seem likely that it had just jumped in there.
Someone—almost certainly one of her classmates—had put a frog in there, as some sort of mean-spirited, juvenile prank.
Do kids ever really need a reason? Robert thought. Bullies would bully—whatever reason they came up with wasn't so much a reason as an excuse. They'd say the victim was too scrawny, too nerdy, too funny-looking...
...dressed too differently.
Robert pushed his chair back and got to his feet, then made his way down the hall. He paused a moment to listen at the door—he couldn't hear any crying, which was hopefully a good sign.
He rapped his knuckles on the door a few times. There was no response, or at least no response from Melina. Faintly, he heard the frog ribbit.
Robert cleared his throat. “Melina? Are you all right in there?”
Still no answer. Carefully, he opened the door. Melina, sitting on her bed, stared back, stonily silent.
Robert tried to find the words to say—something that wouldn't make her close off even more.
“Do you... want me to take the frog outside?” he managed, at last.
Melina's face remained blank.
“I mean... we can keep it if you want?” he asked. “I'd have to get a tank, but...”
Her lips twitched in that that's kind of funny, but I'm upset, so I'm trying not to smile sort of way that she'd definitely inherited from her mother.
“Okay, that's kind of a silly idea, but... look, I want to help you. But I don't know how,” said Robert.
“It's... it's fine, Dad. Like I said,” said Melina.
“There's a frog in your backpack,” Robert replied.
Melina glanced down at her backpack. “...I'll let him out in a minute.”
“It's not the frog I'm worried about,” Robert said. “Are people bothering you at school?”
Melina shrugged one shoulder. “It's not a big deal, okay? I don't care about them. They're all—they're all so shallow. They don't care about anything but—but looking right. All fitting in. Maybe I don't want to fit in, if it means being like them.”
Robert could hear the pain in Melina's voice, though she seemed to be trying to hide it.
“They still shouldn't put frogs in your backpack,” he said.
She shrugged again. “It's not so bad. I kind of like frogs.”
“I like them too, but I don't think you'd want them getting slime on your schoolwork,” said Robert. “And I get the feeling that it's not just one frog.”
“...well, someone put a frog on my desk earlier,” Melina admitted. “A couple of them said I look like a witch, so I must like frogs, and I guess it caught on.”
Robert leaned against the doorframe. “I'm sorry they're doing that to you. Is there any way I can help?”
She shook her head. “No. God, no. There's nothing you can do. It's not like the teachers can't see it—maybe they say something about it, but they never do anything. I don't think they care. Or maybe they want it to keep happening, so I'll stop being so weird.”
That... didn't sound good. Robert wanted to believe that Melina was wrong—the school was supposed to be a good one; that was one of the things that he and Stefanie had checked when they'd been looking for a house.
Kids could be cruel.
But so could adults.
“They all treat me like I'm diseased, or something,” Melina went on. “Nobody wants to talk to me. Well, if they won't talk to me, just because I'm being myself, then maybe I don't want to talk to them, anyways! And they stare—I hate it.”
Then why not stop dressing like this? Robert thought, but knew better than to say.
Because this is who she feels like she really is, and acceptance isn't worth forcing herself into a box she doesn't feel fits her.
That, Robert thought, had to take a great deal of courage.
She's just like her mother, Robert thought. Always herself, without apology. Always her wonderful self.
“I'm sorry,” Robert echoed. “I wish I knew what to say.” He paused a moment, to think. “People... are stupid.”
Melina gave a sharp, surprised laugh. “Yeah. They... they kind of are.” She shook her head.
The frog ribbited again.
“I'd better take him outside,” said Melina. “He's probably not happy in the dark.”
“Probably not,” Robert agreed. “Well... if you ever want to talk, you know I'm here for you.”
Melina nodded, slowly. “Yeah, Dad. I know.”
Gently, so as not to jar her amphibian passenger, she picked her backpack up. Robert stepped aside to let her pass.
On the one hand, he was glad she'd finally opened up at last.
On the other...
He knew, now, that she was getting picked on at school.
What he didn't know was what he could do about it. Surely there was something—some way he could help.
He just had to figure out what.
It seemed almost serendipitous when he found himself across the aisle from someone he recognized as one of Melina's teachers.
“Hello... Mark Hoffmann, right?” Robert said. “I'm Robert Weber—Melina Weber's father. You teach history at her high school, if memory serves.”
Hoffmann looked up at him. “Ah, yes. That's right. So. Hrm. What brings you here?” he asked.
“I have a leaky sink,” Robert explained. “Trying to find the right parts... ah, there they are.” He placed a couple of washers in his basket.
“Ah, yes. Of course,” said Hoffman. He paused a moment, seemed to consider something, then added, “Well, since you're here... I'm sure you've noticed that Melina's been acting a bit... strange, lately.”
“Well, yes,” said Robert. He'd just been wondering if he ought to raise that topic himself.
But before Robert could say anything else, Hoffmann added, with a conciliatory smile, “I know how terribly hard it must be, being a single father.”
“...yes,” said Robert, a touch nonplussed.
“I certainly don't want you to think I'm blaming you,” Hoffmann continued. “You've got your business and your daughter to look after, and you've definitely your work cut out for you. Especially at this age. Teenage girls, you know?” he said, with a touch of jocularity.
Robert blinked. “I can't say that I do know,” he replied. “Have you noticed the other students picking on Melina, at all? I've noticed that she's been seeming upset, lately.”
Hoffmann shrugged. “Like I said. Teenage girls. They get moody. It's perfectly normal.”
Moody, my rear end, Robert thought. “Someone put a frog in her backpack on Friday,” Robert said, trying to keep his irritation out of his tone.
This gave Hoffmann a moment's pause. “Well, what can you do? Kids will be kids,” said the teacher at last. “If I see someone bringing a frog into my class, I'll have them take it back outside—I'm not teaching biology, after all.” He gave a little chuckle at his own joke, which Robert declined to join in on. After a moment, Hoffmann continued. “But if I don't see it happen, there's not much I can really do.”
You should be able to do something, Robert thought. Out loud, he said “I'm sure you can see how having to deal with that sort of thing would be disruptive to anyone's learning environment.”
“Well, like I said. Not much I can do,” said Hoffmann. “Though speaking of disruptive... if I were you, I'd have a talk with your daughter about how she dresses—it's strange, gets the wrong sort of attention, you know? I think solving that problem might help solve the other one.”
“I... can't say I see how my daughter dresses would be a problem,” said Robert. “To my knowledge, it's within the school dress code.”
There were a few other things he wanted to say, but Melina was going to have to deal with this man on a regular basis. Better not to antagonize him.
“But I'll talk to her,” said Robert, hoping to put an end to the conversation. Besides, it was true, if not in the way Hoffmann probably imagined.
“Well, good. Nice seeing you, Mr. Weber. Take care, now.” With that, Hoffmann made his way down the aisle.
Robert sighed. If the history teacher was any indication, trying to get the school faculty to go to any effort to solve Melina's bullying problem would be an uphill battle.
As he was heading down to the register, a display caught his eye—a pyramid of paint cans.
He got an idea.
That gave him plenty of time to paint.
Perhaps painting the pathway up to the house had been overkill. The fence, he thought, looked quite nice in black—no regrets there—but he still wasn't quite sure about the pathway. Ah, well, too late now.
He was mostly finished painting the front of the house black by the time he heard footsteps behind him, and he turned to see his daughter looking over his work.
It was the moment of truth. He was doing this for her: an act of love, and to show anyone who looked at his house where he stood—Which is by my daughter. Always.
He couldn't deny that he felt a touch anxious as he looked at his daughter's face.
To his great joy and relief, she was smiling—slightly, yes, but it was a smile nevertheless, and a happier expression than he'd seen on her face in a while.
He smiled, too, as he turned back to his work and she went inside.
A minute later, she stepped back out.
“Do you need any help with that, Dad?” she asked.
“I'm almost finished with the front,” he said. “I'm sure you have plenty of homework.”
“It's not too bad, today,” said Melina. “I could work on the bottom of the wall?”
“Well... sure,” said Robert. “There's a paintbrush sitting on the porch. But you'll probably want to change, first, so you don't get paint on your school clothes.”
“I'm not sure anyone would notice,” said Melina, with a wry smile.
“Fair enough,” said Robert. “Well, whatever works for you. Let's see if we can get this last patch covered up by dinnertime.”
And they did. Robert climbed down his ladder and stepped back to admire their work. He'd need to add another coat, but for now, he thought it looked pretty good. His experience painting houses in his teenage years still served him well.
“Dad,” said Melina. “I'm not complaining or anything... but I think the neighbors are going to throw a fit.”
Robert rolled his shoulders to work out the kinks. “Well, maybe they need to learn to get used to not having the whole neighborhood match. I need to get the paint and ladder put away; would you mind heading inside and getting dinner started? There's pasta in the pantry, and lettuce in the fridge for salad.”
“Sure, Dad,” said Melina, leaving Robert to finish putting his painting supplies away.
Robert took a last long look at the house. No, a paint job wasn't going to fix everything. He and Melina would still have to deal with the situation at her school.
Still. He had made his daughter smile, and that was a start.