The Sea of Tranquility(3)


by Katja Millay

***

I got to school early enough this morning to stop in the office and pick up my schedule. Of course, if I’d known at the time what I’d find on it, I might have put off the inevitable. It was crazy in there again, but Ms. Marsh, the guidance counselor, had given instructions for me to go to her office and pick up my schedule from her personally‌—‌just another one of the many perks of being me.

“Good morning, Nastya, Nastya,” she said, repeating my name with two different pronunciations and absent-mindedly looking to me for confirmation, which I didn’t give her. She was far too cheery for the first day of school or for seven o’clock in the morning in general. It was definitely unnatural. It’s probably a class for guidance counselors only‌—‌How to Emit Inappropriate Joy in the Face of Adolescent Horror. I’m fairly certain they don’t make teachers take it, because they don’t even bother to pretend. Half of them are as miserable as I am.

She motioned for me to sit. I didn’t. My skirt was way too short for sitting in a chair that didn’t have a desk obscuring it. She handed me a map of campus and my schedule. I scanned it, mostly looking for the electives, because I knew what all the required courses were going to be. You’ve got to be kidding me. For a minute I was convinced she must have handed me the wrong schedule, so I checked the top of the paper. No, that’s me. I wasn’t sure what the right reaction was in that situation. You know the one, where the universe decides to put its steel-toed boot up your ass yet again. Crying was out of the question and a screaming hissy-fit laced with maniacal laughter and profanity was, most definitely, off the table, which left me with my only other option‌—‌stunned silence.

Ms. Marsh must have caught the look on my face, and I’m betting it was pretty expressive, because she immediately launched into a detailed explanation involving graduation requirements and over-filled electives. She sounded almost like she was apologizing to me and maybe she should have been, because it seriously sucked, but I almost wished I could have told her it was okay, so she’d stop feeling bad. I’d survive it. It would take more than a few shitty classes to break me. I took my schedule, my map, and my abject horror and made my way to class, reading it again and again as I went. Unfortunately, it stayed the same every time.

***

At this point, I’ve made it almost to the halfway mark. It hasn’t been so bad, relatively speaking, and everything in my life is relative. My teachers aren’t horrible. My English teacher, Ms. McAllister, actually looks me in the eye like she’s daring me to expect her to treat me differently. I like her. But the worst is yet to come so I won’t start pouring the champagne just yet.

Plus, I still have to navigate the trail of tears that is this courtyard. I’m nothing if not a coward, but I can’t put it off much longer. I’m about six feet in and not doing so badly. I’m focused on my goal‌—‌the beacon that is the double-door entrance to the English wing‌—‌on the opposite side of my brick-lined square nemesis. I take in everything I can with my peripheral vision. It’s packed out here. And loud. So unbearably loud. I try to let all of the separate conversations and voices melt together into what I imagine is one continuous hum. There are small groups around all of the benches, piled on top of them and standing next to them. Some students sit on the outer edges of the garden boxes that are placed incrementally throughout. Then, there are the smart ones who sit on the ground in the shade of the walkway that runs around the perimeter. There aren’t enough places to sit, there’s barely any reprieve from the sun, and it’s hotter than hell out here. I can’t imagine the utter craphole the cafeteria must be that this many people would rather sweat their asses off out here to avoid it. My old high school was the same way, but I never had to deal with the lunch period madness or any of the decisions that came along with it, like where to sit and who to sit with. I spent every lunch period practicing in the music room and that was the only place I wanted to be.

By now, I’m almost there. So far I’ve only seen a few faces I recognize: a boy who was in my history class, sitting by himself reading a book and a couple of girls from math, who are giggling with angry Barbie of front office-tirade fame. I can feel some of the looks I’m getting, but other than the ego-addled ass**le with the free lap seating, no one else has spoken to me. There are two more benches I have to pass to get to the doors and it’s the one on the left that catches my attention. It’s empty, save for one boy, sitting right in the middle. It might not seem strange except for the fact that every other bench in this place, in truth every other place where a person could justifiably put their ass, is filled. Yet there is no one sitting on that bench, except him. When I look more closely, there’s no one even hanging around in the immediate vicinity. It’s like there’s an invisible force field surrounding this space and he’s the only one inside it. Curiosity claims me, and I momentarily forget my purpose. I can’t help but look at the boy. He’s perched on top of the backrest, his worn-out brown work boots planted firmly on the seat. He’s leaning over with his elbows resting on his knees in a pair of faded jeans. I can’t see his face very well. His light brown hair hangs tousled over his forehead, and his eyes are cast downward at his hands. He’s not eating; he’s not reading; he’s not looking at anyone. Until he is. And then he’s looking at me. Crap.

I turn away instantly, but it’s still too late. It wasn’t like I just glanced at him. I was at a dead stop, in the middle of the courtyard, full-on staring. I’m only steps away from the asylum beyond those double doors and I take the risk of quickening my walk as much as I can without drawing attention. I make it to the relative obscurity of the building’s overhang and reach for the door handle and pull. Nothing. It doesn’t give. And I repeat, crap. It’s locked. It’s the middle of the day. Why would they lock the doors from the outside?

“It’s locked,” a voice from below me says. No shit. I look down. I hadn’t even noticed the boy with the sketchbook, sitting on the ground right next to the doors. Where he’s positioned, he’s blocked by a large planter box, invisible from the main courtyard. Smart kid. His clothes are a mess and his hair looks like it hasn’t seen a brush in a week. He’s sitting shoulder to shoulder with a brown-haired girl wearing sunglasses in the shade and holding a camera. She looks up at me briefly before turning her attention back to her camera. Other than the sunglasses, she’s entirely non-descript. I wonder if I should have gone that route, but it’s too late to second guess now.

“They don’t want anyone sneaking in to smoke in the bathrooms during lunch,” sketchbook boy with holes in his concert t-shirt tells me.

Oh. I wonder what happens if you’re late to class. I guess you’re just SOL. I’m trying to figure out some other escape route, when I notice he’s still craning his neck up and looking at me. It’s a good thing I’m not a couple of steps closer or I’m quite sure he could see right up my nearly non-existent skirt. At least I’m wearing cute underwear; they’re the only thing on me that isn’t black. I glance at the sketchbook he’s holding. His arm is draped over the top so I can’t see what he’s drawing. I wonder if he’s any good. I can’t draw for crap. I nod my head in thanks to him and turn to see if I can find somewhere else to go. Before I can walk away, two girls come barreling out of the door, almost running me down and knocking me off of my awesome shoes. They’re talking a mile-a-minute and don’t even notice me there, which is fine, because I’m able to slip through the doors just past them. I wander into the cool, empty reprieve of the English building and remember how to breathe.

CHAPTER 3

Josh

Fourth hour can’t come soon enough. I’m sweating already from sitting out in the sun at lunch, but there won’t be much in the way of air-conditioning in the workshop. When I walk in, I immediately feel at home, even though the space looks entirely different than it did in June. There aren’t tools and pieces of lumber on every surface. No carpet of sawdust covering the floor. No machines running. It’s the quiet that’s initially unnerving. It’s not supposed to be quiet in here and this is the only time of year when it is. The first couple weeks are a rehash of rules for equipment usage and safety procedures that I could recite verbatim if anybody asked. Nobody asks. Everybody knows I know them. I could teach this class if I wanted to. I throw my books down on the far corner work table where I sit every year, at least during the time we’re expected to sit. Before I can pull the stool out from under the table, Mr. Turner calls me over.

I like Mr. Turner, but he doesn’t care whether I like him or not. He wants my respect and he has that, too. What he tells me to do, I do. He’s one of the few people who don’t mind expecting things from me. At this point, I think I’ve learned as much from Mr. Turner as I did from my dad.

Mr. Turner’s been running this program for as long as anyone can remember, years before I got here, when it wasn’t anything more than a cop-out elective. Now it’s one of the premier programs in the state. He runs it like a business wrapped around a master class in craftsmanship. In the advanced classes, our work raises the money for the materials and the equipment. We take orders, fill them and that money gets filtered back into the program.

You don’t get into the advanced classes without going through the introductory levels first and even that isn’t a guarantee. Mr. Turner only takes the students who live up to his expectations in terms of work ethic and ability. That’s how he keeps the upper level classes so small. You need his approval to get in, and in a school with overflowing electives around every corner, he’s still able to get away with it because he’s that good.

When I get to his desk, he asks about my summer. He’s trying to be polite but he knows me well enough that he doesn’t have to bother. I’ve been in one of his classes every year since ninth grade. He knows my shit and he knows me. All I really want to do is build stuff and be left alone and he allows me both. I answer in as few words as possible and he nods, knowing we’re done with the pretense.

“Theater department wants shelving built in their prop storage room. Can you head over there, take the measurements, plan it out and make a list of what we need? You don’t need to be here for all this.” He picks up a stack of papers, which I assume are handouts on rules and procedures, with a measured amount of boredom and resignation. He just wants to build, too. But he also doesn’t want someone losing a finger. “Bring me what you come up with at the end of class and I’ll get you what you need. You can probably have it finished up in a week or so.”

“No problem.” I hold back a smile. The preliminary crap is the only part of this class I don’t like and I’ve just been freed from it. I get to build, even if it is just shelves. And I get to do it away from everybody else.

I scrawl my signature across the bottom of the waivers and hand them back to him. Then I grab my books in time to see a couple other kids coming in. There shouldn’t be many‌—‌probably only about a dozen or so students‌—‌in this section. I know everybody who’s come in so far, except for one person; the girl from the courtyard‌—‌the one who was watching me. She can’t possibly be in this class. She must agree, judging by the look on her face as she scans the room, taking in everything from the high ceilings down to the industrial power tools. Her eyes narrow just slightly with curiosity, but that’s all I see of her because this time she turns and catches me looking.

I watch people a lot. Normally it’s not an issue because no one really looks at me, and if they do, I’m pretty adept at looking away fast. Very fast. But damn if that girl wasn’t faster. I know she’s new here. If not, she’s made some drastic, unfortunate transformation over the summer, because I’m more than aware of most of the people on this campus, and even if I wasn’t, I’d remember the girl who comes to school looking like an undead whore. Regardless, I’m out the door about ten seconds later and I’m pretty sure they’ll have worked out her schedule before I get back.