Chapter 5: In-School Suspension
I felt like a car in the most nervewrecking position - sandwiched between two trucks, an even more monstrous truck in front. My mom, sitting to the right, was eyeing me with such concentrated disappointment that I didn't dare look in her direction. My dad, sitting to the left, tapped his fingers on the chair to the rhythm of a bored man missing an episode of some show he forgot to record. As far as looking ahead went, I wouldn't even consider the idea.
There Ms. Toscana sat.
Students often gossiped about her. Apparently, her husband had died a couple of months ago. Police and doctors had no idea what exactly caused his death. Toscana's reaction, supposedly an eagerness and passion for work a week after his funeral, frightened students the most.
None of that put me on edge. Her eyes, like that of a predator relentlessly waiting for me to make a move, was what frightened me. Hell, even her office left me uneasy.
The room had a carefully organized stillness to it. White walls, brown desk, white carpet, brown seats...in any other office, I probably would've appreciated the colors as professionalism. Here, on the other side of Toscana's desk, the colors added to an eerie sense of emptiness.
The desk certainly didn't help. Nothing but hordes of empty vases and empty picture frames covered the edges. One couldn't say the frames and vases were brand new because most were caked in dust. Every other object in her room was shiny clean.
I hated inconsistencies like that. People were easy to decipher if you dehumanized them enough, if you summed them up after a number of close observations, but the endeavor became harder when inconsistencies came into play.
"Did Crawford tell you why you are all here?" Toscana asked. She had a voice that automatically sounded syrupy, like it was dripping with false happiness. I paid closer attention to my nails, nerves making me even more hesitant to look up.
Mom, the only one who really cared about the answer, replied, "Well, she gave a few details. Something about struggling in her math class."
"That's definitely not the whole story," Toscana said. "Struggling is one thing, but being tardy every day and ditching twice? That is very alarming. At this rate, it's only a matter of time before she fails the class."
Dad finally stopped tapping his fingers. I wished he hadn't. The sudden lack of a noise to focus on only enhanced my feelings of stupidity. Warnings of failure my first week of school, and on a subject both of my parents excelled in? I could feel all three pairs on me, all three eyes expecting the same thing - an explanation. Heat rushed to my face.
I said nothing, but I knew it wouldn't be too long before someone would. Much to my surprise, my dad and Toscana simultaneously spoke up. Toscana's voice overpowered his, an action that considerably strained the air. Neither mom or dad took well to being overpowered.
"Struggling is not an excuse. Many of the students in his class struggle, yet they seek help. Mr. Stadt tells me you've never gone to him. Why not?"
I was aching to dispel the bullshit about students seeking help. I'd never been in a class so ridiculously frustrating. Cheating happened in Guggenheim, of course, but I hardly noticed and rarely participated. In Saumerville High, the nonexistance of organized help made cheating almost a requirement to pass, and cheating is a game of who you know. Even if I knew anybody, I wouldn't feel comfortable playing that game.
If I talked about the cheating or brought up how maybe Toscana needed to work on Saumerville's educational flaws before picking on mine, I'd only look whiny and unable to take the blame.
I cleared my throat. "I'm sorry. I just-"
"Please look up when talking to me and your parents," Toscana interrupted. "Show some respect."
"Now don't you go talking to my daughter like that, like she doesn't understand the difference between respectful and disrespectful! Has it ever occurred to you that she's afraid? Alecia's been through a lot," dad said.
I loved how willing my dad was to stick up for me, but I also hated that he had. I was an 18-year-old who'd spent a little over a year fending for myself. Being afraid of this after the real fear I faced on my own seemed insulting, if not amusing. My safety wasn't at stake, and dignity...What more of that did I have?
Before I could second guess myself, I looked up.
Toscana had brown eyes, large ones that seemed all seeing, and shoulder-length blond hair. The way she crossed her hands, fingers so tightly interlocked, had one purpose - displaying her presumed domination of the room and everyone in it.
The need to challenge Toscana in return, show her that she didn't have as much control as she thought, quickened my heart beat. It was an exhilirating but scary desire I hadn't felt since before rehab. If I questioned myself, the desire would die. I focused on how much I disliked her big, brown eyes.
"Should I repeat the question?" Toscana asked.
I answered quickly this time, voice firmer. "You're right, there's no excuse; I should've seeked help. I deserve this punishment, but I don't deserve to be treated like I ditched and didn't do the work solely because I'm a bad seed."
Toscana's posture and smile didn't change. I sat there, rigid and ready to say more, until I felt my dad's hand softly rest atop mine.
"Ms. Toscana, can we tie this meeting up?" Mom asked, but in that way that wasn't really a question.
"Alecia, I expect to see you this upcoming Monday in in-school suspension."
Dinner was a simple cheeseburger and fries from the nearest fast food restaurant. We sat at the same seats we always sat in around the small round table: Mom at one end, dad on the opposite, me on the side.
I waited for my parents to speak. When they didn't, I sighed and felt it safe to start eating in peace. It was a trick, of course. One bite in and mom's questioning began.
"Why didn't you turn to one of use? Me and your dad are good at math."
"I...don't know," I muttered.
And I really didn't know. Somewhere in the back of my head, it occurred to me that I could ask my parents for help, but I automatically pushed the thought away.
"That's nonsense," mom started. She paused to take a bite of her burger. I put mine down. "What part of the class do you need help in?"
Everything, I wanted to answer. My body tensed at just the memory of what it felt like being in that class. Even when the teacher taught the most basic of concepts, I didn't understand. None of his words made sense. All the numbers seemed purposeless and irrelevent.
One day before the teacher came in and the class was just a disorderly mess, a group of students were making stupid sexual jokes. I heard one line: "Bet Alecia would know." Ever since then, the numbers would take on grotesque meanings.
How many guys have paid for you? (58, 60, 42) How many pills have you had? (18, 20, 31) How many times have you been hit? (45, 35, 38)
I didn't know the answers to any equations in class or those questions.
Just like that, the doubts I'd tucked away about my ability to rejoin society rose back to the surface. Words formed on my tongue and spilled out before I could think.
"I'm considering getting a GED."
"No," mom said.
I expected more of an argument, more emotion. In fact, I would've preferred it. Instead, mom and dad didn't skip a beat in eating their food. Dad was finishing up. My burger sat, mostly untouched, on the table, but my appetite had long since simmered over into discomfort.
Now that discomfort was becoming anger. Her answer seemed so final, like I'd said something completely not worth discussing.
"Mom, the high school thing will not work for me. It can't. How can you...how can you just..."
"What?" mom asked. "How can I parent you?"
Those were the words I couldn't get out: How dare you tell me what to do? I realized how conflicted I felt. I wanted my parents back, but I didn't at the same time. I'd gone so long without them...
"Michael, tell her why that's a terrible idea," mom said.
After a second or so of hesitation, dad replied, "I don't see the big issue. Now before you-"
Mom's words came out as loud and powerful as gun shots. "What the hell are you suggesting?"
"Look, just let me-"
"You know how important it is that she gets through high school. Dropping out and settling for a GED is a terrible mentality to have. That's like saying it's perfectly fine to give up."
"Stop talking over me!" dad shouted. "Can I get in at least a couple of words, Alice? Jesus christ, can't we be adults about this?"
Mom opened her mouth. She looked like she wanted to say more, and I suddenly became aware of how prepared I was to bring my trembling hands to my ears. I wanted to crawl into myself; I wanted to unspeak my desire for a GED. Anything to make them stop screaming.
When mom instead closed her mouth, I steadied my hands and turned my attention to dad.
He focused on his empty burger wrapper when he spoke. "You and I know what life on the streets is like. We knew people who went through what Alecia did. I think we need to cut her some slack, take into consideration that maybe it would be too much to enroll her in a rougher highschool like Saumerville and expect it all to be okay." He looked up, first at mom and then at me. "Alecia is smart. Getting a GED doesn't mean she can't excel in college, and I'm in no rush to put her back in the rat race for success. I want my daughter home with me a little longer."
Dad smiled. I smiled back. It'd been a while since I felt...loved, cherished. I remembered when I was a kid, when his happy green eyes and large smiles had the power to assure me that all was right in the world.
I so desperately wanted his face to have that power again, but it didn't. I knew it never would any more. Even before mom broke the moment, the smile wiped off my face.
Mom was crying. I couldn't bear to look at her because I knew why. Me and dad weren't being fair.
Dad must've realized this as soon as I did. "Babe no, please don't cry. I'm sorry."
"You don't think I want my daughter at home too? I'm only doing this because I didn't want her to sit at home dwelling on everything that happened. I want the best for her, I want...Alecia, you know how much I missed you, right?" She choked on her words, struggling to get the next sentence out. "I...I thought you were dead! You know how much I missed you, right?"
I opened my mouth to answer, but nothing would come out. I stared, wide-eyed, at my burger, unable to even form full sentences in my mind. The more tears of hers I heard hit the table, the more I pulled into myself.
Speak, I thought. At least nod, damn it!
I couldn't. I hated myself because replying was not only an easy thing to do, but a necessary action to comfort and respect my mom, yet I couldn't do it. I didn't want to be here. I didn't want to be upsetting my mom and causing my parents to argue. Maybe I was better off in rehab after all.
The phone rang. I jumped so high that I slammed my knee against the table. The pain didn't even register. With only one thought in mind - get the hell out of this awkward moment - I rushed to the noise.
73636237. That number again?
I almost didn't pick up, but I could feel my dad and mom staring from the kitchen. Their eyes, combined with the ringing that seemed like it'd never end, pushed me to make a move.
"Hello," I said.
"Hello?" I repeated, prepared to end the call.
A small succession of beeps, followed by silence. Then came the blaring static...the exact same static. I slammed the phone down and covered my ears. My heart throbbed against my chest, almost loud and hard enough to cancel out the noise.
"What's wrong?" mom asked, her tears from before forgotten, at least temporarily.
"It's-it's the same," I stuttered. "It's exactly the same!"
Mom and dad looked at each other. I started to repeat myself, but I realized that wouldn't lead the conversation anywhere meaningful. My parents didn't know about the static, and I couldn't stomach arguing about whose memory had the most holes.
The noise finally started to quiet down, but, like background music I'd gotten so accustomed to that it ceased to fully register, it was too imprinted in my mind to totally disappear. I was afraid the noise would always be there, laying low until I focused hard and long enough.
"Alecia, who was on the phone?" dad said slowly. He took even slower steps toward me and stopped about five inches away, like I was an animal bound to run for it if he came too close too fast. I wondered how distressed I appeared. "If you're in some sort of trouble, you can tell your mom and I. Everything will be okay."
"No it won't!" I answered.
The words shot out in a nervous, thoughtless frenzy. At first I didn't understand why I was so certain everything wouldn't be okay. Then I remembered the events of the past few days - the house looking brand new, as though nothing had been destroyed; Caitlyn's odd phone call, coupled with this one; and the stalker...
Someone was watching. Someone had been watching for a while. I couldn't keep chalking it up to paranoia.
I blurted more thoughts out. "I'm not in trouble, but there are...there are messages everywhere. It's only a matter of time." My heart beat faster. The more I said, the closer danger seemed to be. "Please tell me you at least feel like something is wrong."
After an agonizing bout of silence, I realized the damage had been done. They had the desperate eyes and tense features of parents worried for their child's sanity.
Mom sighed. "Of course we feel like something is wrong. We're coping with being a family again. It's hard work, but we'll get past it." She paused. "Honey, what did you mean by messages?"
"See, this is how people get hurt. They fill in all the scary holes with safe assumptions until it's too late," I said.
Great, I thought. Could I sound any more like a schizo? Bet Doctor Bryce told my parents all about that diagnosis.
Dad flipped his phone open. "We want you to be safe, but what can we do about emotions beside rationalize and comfort you? Tell us these messages and I'll call the police."
"No!" I shouted. "No police. They'll make things more complicated."
That wasn't the whole truth or even a large part of the truth. I only said it because it at least sounded like a logical reason to dislike police involvement. Their power overhelmed me, and all of my dealings with them never went well.
Dad was hesitant to put the phone away, but I wouldn't speak until he did.
"At least tell me what has convinced you you're gonna be in trouble," he said.
"It's nothing," I replied. I figured if I told him someone was stalking me, he'd call the police some other time.
"Well, what do you want us to do then?" mom asked.
"Maybe we can..."
I started to say leave until I realized how unreasonable that sounded. It's not like I could convince them to drop everything and run. Anyway, who was I to believe that my fears were worth my family going into hiding?
Mom's question still saturated the air. My mind drew a complete blank. Finally, the answer washed over me, along with a feeling of hopelessness powerful enough to drain the little energy I had left.
They couldn't do a damn thing.
I just wanted to curl up into a comfortable ball underneath the warmth of my covers and lay there, the world safely on the other side.