It annoyed me that I hadn't seen Nathanson since I pushed him that day. I was so annoyed by it that I found solace in the idea of learning in school. This morning, however, was not comforting at all. But it did at least annoy me more than not seeing Nathanson.
As I waited for class to start, I watched the rain fall and splatter against the window. It made me remember a rainy morning I was walking to school. It didn't start out with rain. It only started pouring as soon as I locked the door. There was lightning streaking across the sky while thunder boomed in surround-sound and rattled the entire city. Mom was already at work. Ian was, of course, chasing his brother-in-law across the country. Almost every kid had an adult driving them to school. Even Kyle had hitched a ride with one of his other friends, and I only knew that because Kyle had made his friend's mom stop to offer me a ride. I had to turn the offer down, though.
There was no reason to have refused their kindness except an irrational fear. I wasn't sure why I was so afraid of other people, of possibly making new friends. The cold the next day was worth it at the time. I wasn't sure why thinking about Nathanson made me think of that one random moment. The feeling of wanting to be near him should have had no association with such a depressing memory about avoiding social interactions. The feeling of happiness, of company, had no reason to trigger such a reminisce. Maybe it was that push. Metaphorically pushing others away, literally pushing others away—there was probably no difference in the self-loathing I got from either. Both burned and raged through my heart.
I blinked a few times and redirected my attention to the front of the classroom when I heard a sudden burst of chatter. Dr. Godbold's skin sagged and dangled off her brittle skeleton. Her face was nothing but a series of wrinkles, and her liver spots had liver spots. Her frizzy gray hair was teased into something that resembled an afro. She would often speak for minutes on end with her hazel eyes closed. She had apparently been to every continent except for Antarctica and had explored various regions of Russia eight times. She may have looked physically fragile, but she conquered the normal limitations of old age with her ever-youthful sense of adventure. She also had seven cats to her name and at least a dozen others that just roamed her neighborhood.
And she was a Volunteer, too, according to Ian.
Godbold introduced two new students. One of them was Cait. The other was the same girl from last night. The boys in the class couldn't stop tracing Elizabeth Simmons's hourglass figure with their eyes. My eyes met hers which made me shudder. Cait sat in the desk to the left of me, and Liz sat to my right. Usually, English class put me to sleep by virtue of being the first class of the day. The presence of Elizabeth Simmons, however, kept me awake. Through the entire class, I drummed my fingers on my desk and kept Elizabeth in my peripheral vision. My muscles were on standby, ready to make my body react to anything. Sudden movements from anyone made me twitch towards their general direction. When class let out, I dragged both Cait and Liz into the nearest faculty bathroom and locked the door behind us. Cait leaned against the door with her arms folded.
I glared at Liz. "So what are you here for?"
Liz smiled. "As you might have guessed, I'm another Mistake."
I frowned. "Cait, did you know this?"
"Yes," she answered, "Coulombe told me."
I glanced at both of them. "Well?"
Liz nodded. "Godbold recently adopted me. It's only natural I'd be placed in the same school. I'm here to help that Marissa. It's a survival of the fittest now."
"I won't let it get to that," I said.
Liz pushed me into the sink and grabbed me by the roots of my hair. "Oh yeah? Why the hell are you so interested in this? This is our fight: the Mistakes against Nathanson, Nathanson against the Mistakes. This has nothing to do with the Successes. You guys get your perfect little lives and never have to live in the eternal hell that comes with being a Mistake. What right do you have to ride in on your high horse and think you can magically stop all of this from happening?"
That was actually a very good point. I didn't really have an answer for her. I wasn't going to debate her or anyone else on ethics. It wasn't my place to. My only right in this conflict was to conclude things peacefully as a third party.
I pried her hands off me and sighed. "Liz, I'm more involved in this than you think. This involved my parents. Recently, my friend has been threatened. Last night, my entire life has been rendered completely meaningless. But with what little time I have left, I'm not about to be passive in any of this. I can't just let the only people I love be in any sort of danger if I can prevent that danger."
"You've never murdered anyone!" she screamed. "Do you really think you'll understand? You don't have to look yourself in that mirror"—she slammed her fist into the mirror above the sink, fracturing the glass and cutting her knuckles—"and be reminded that you've been doomed from the start to cause misery to everyone you meet! Why should I be punished for being born the way I am by people who will never understand?"
I took some papers towels with one hand and gently grabbed Liz's injured hand with the other. I examined her wound for shards of glass before I blotted some of the blood off her smooth skin. I said, "You're right. That really puts me at the disadvantage here, huh? I'm not going to understand that sort of emotional turmoil, and you probably won't really understand where I'm coming from, either. That's really lonely, isn't it?"
I had never felt more alive before in my life. I had never felt like I had a purpose until recently. This might have been some selfish reason fueled purely by teenage angst, but it was mine and mine alone. That was all I needed—this one self-demonstrable rationale—to act. Everyone in this conflict had their own self-demonstrable reason to stay involved.
"Look," I whispered, "I won't change my stance. I won't remain a figure in the background any more than I already have, but I'll be my own party and do things my own way."
She yanked her hand from my soft grip. "I'll fucking kill you if you interfere with me and the others! Hear that? I'll kill you and anyone else who gets in my way. You, too, Caitlin!"
I blinked a few times. I threw out the paper towels and said, "You will do no such thing, Liz. I have powerful people on my side."
I had the best of the best to provide me unshakeable support. My parents, Conan, Baker, Kristy, Coulombe, Cait—they all were on board.
Liz grunted. She went to leave but couldn't immediately fling the door open because she had forgotten I had locked it. She pounded on the door and kicked it several times before awkwardly fumbling to unlock it. After she slammed the door behind her, I looked at Cait who seemed calm.
Cait sighed. "Well, it looks like we know who's who in this fight."
I scratched the tip of my nose. "Maybe. Are you really on my side in this?"
"Absolutely." Cait placed her hands on her hips and looked away from me. "I want Marissa to see justice, but in the proper way. That's why I transferred to this school: to give the best solution all the help I can give."
I nodded. "I'm sorry for your loss, Cait, and thank you for your kind support. I can't do anything on my own, so I'm going to have to rely on you frequently. I know that's a lot to ask, for me to ask you and others to act when I can't. I know I don't deserve that support. Is that really okay with you?"
She nodded, still looking away from me. "Of course, Lindsay. I saw your strength. It's something I can believe in. You were willing to sacrifice yourself for me even though you don't know much about me. That's something I must repay."
I scratched the tip of my nose, thinking it was a good thing no one wanted to use this bathroom. We left, our shoes crunching the tiny shards of glass Liz created, and went our separate ways. I lingered at the corner where we parted and watched her. She couldn't blend in with the crowd because of her frilly bright-pink dress. There was something enamoring about her, but I couldn't think of it because Kristy tapped me on my shoulder. We walked to my next class together.
She said, "Lindsay, I'm going to give you all the help I can, but if this gets too much for you, I won't think any less of you for wanting to back down in the middle."
"Thank you," was all I could say.
Kristy grabbed me and pulled me closer to her for a hug. She caressed the back of my head. She wouldn't let go, so I could only helplessly hug her back. She hugged me tightly but lovingly. I relished this affection. Kristy left me outside my art class with the bravado I needed to make it through the rest of this day. Grabbing at Clara's fleur-de-lis charm, I gathered the pieces of my composure.
Before she left, Kristy said, "I'll always be here for you."
I nodded. "Thank you, Kristy. I owe you."
"You're under no obligation to repay anything I do for you."
But there definitely was an obligation to repay her—and not just Kristy, but Conan, Baker, and both my parents. This wasn't a one-way street. I had all the support I would ever need. I wanted to cry. I knew I couldn't show that sort of weakness to her after giving her some tough talk.
I was surprised to see Cait and Liz in every single one of my classes. Yet at the same time, I knew such a thing was contrived by the powers behind Project Hope.