Anna sat on a bench, by herself, notepad on her knees. She liked the historical museum of art, her favorite of the yearly school field trips. It was neither boisterous nor loud. It required neither active participation nor sturdy shoes. It allowed her to sit on a bench and look at a painting of sunflowers and think about how she might capture that feeling in words.
She scribbled a few down, crossed out one or two. Scribbled a few more.
The group she was supposed to be with had moved on some time ago, but she'd pretended not to notice. The giggling and shoving and carrying on of typical freshmen made her shoulders tense.
The quiet murmur of an appreciative museum crowd ebbed and flowed, swaying her attention this way and that. She studied the brushstrokes on the sunflower petals. Yellow and gold and hints of orange. Long, sure strokes. Carefully layered, then layered again. She scribbled a few more words, crossed off one and wrote another.
"Ms. Lawrence. There you are."
The voice rang across the quiet room like a power chord in a deep forest. Anna jerked to, hunched her shoulders, and looked around for Mr. Scott. She'd known she couldn't get away with straying from the group for long.
Mr. Scott strode toward her, shoes click-click-clicking on the floor, shirt collar crisp, expression quietly disappointed.
"You know, I thought if I was very careful, I could keep you with the group this time. I suppose you're just too clever for me, Ms. Lawrence." He didn't say it like it was a compliment; he said it like she should be ashamed of herself, or he should be.
"What are you working on?" he asked.
She blinked up at him. Mr. Scott had been her homeroom teacher all semester. He'd never asked her what she was working on. He'd caught her writing poetry in class before, but only asked her to put the notebook away.
"It doesn't matter," she said. She closed her notebook, tucked it in her shoulderbag, and stood.
Mr. Scott gave her an inscrutable look. She was afraid he would ask again, afraid he would demand to see it, that he would dismiss her scrabbling at poetry as uninteresting or unworthy. Worse, he might show interest. She didn't think she could tell him what she was writing and why without her throat closing from embarrassment.
Mr. Scott gave a disappointed sigh and gestured. "We're this way, come along." His hard-soled shoes clicked on the museum floor in the otherwise empty room. Anna bit her tongue and followed meekly, trying not to let her thoughts get away from her.
He's disappointed in you again. You should have known better. Trying to take time for poetry when you should be paying attention. Selfish.
The room they entered held an exhibit she hadn't seen before. It hung from the ceiling in waves and drapes, hoops and fabric, like an undulating, deep-sea creature in the dimly lit room. Lights slowly faded along the length of the exhibit like beings floating through a tunnel, quiet movement in inky depths, neurons firing in a quiet mind. For all that she'd have preferred to stay on her quiet bench in her quiet room with her golden sunflowers, Anna appreciated this exhibit.
She stood at the back of the crowd while the tour guide explained. Rather than listen, she watched the lights in their cloth tunnel. She breathed slowly, imagining she stood upon the ocean floor, quiet and alone. She clasped her hands behind her back.
She was enjoying herself when it started.
"Look at that. She's not lost after all."
It was Robert. She'd known Robert since they were six. When they were kids, he'd been fine. Almost a friend. He'd always been loud, outgoing, charismatic some might say. But lately he'd turned snide. Anna wanted nothing to do with that. He didn't seem to take time to think before speaking or acting or anything else, and Anna wanted even less to do with that.
"Have you ever even heard her speak?"
That was Becky. She was new to the area a few years ago. Anna had never gotten on with her. Becky always seemed convinced of her own impressiveness.
"Oh sure. Quiet as a mouse these days though," said Robert.
"I'll bet we could make the little mouse squeak."
The third was Jillian. Jilly she'd used to be called, but now it was Jillian. Anna and Jilly had played together at recess once upon a time, pretending to be adventurers, explorers, and scientists. Now she snickered with the others, teasing from afar.
Anna bit her tongue and steadfastly refused to acknowledge them. To acknowledge them was to give them power, and Anna wasn't prepared to give that up today. They whispered for several moments, acting like they didn't know she could hear them. Anna took a few steps forward, trying to lose herself in the crowd without shouldering her way past anybody. She didn't make any progress.
The first caught her low on the back, a faint thump. She didn't know what it was and it hadn't hurt, so she ignored it. The next struck her left ear. It stung and she flinched. Looking down, she found a pink eraser, plucked from the end of a pencil, rolling in a tight circle on the floor.
"Got her," said Jillian.
"Didn't make her squeak though," said Robert.
"I brought lots of pencils," said Becky.
The next struck her shoulder, her back again, her cheek right next to her eye, but Anna refused to flinch. She kept a stoic face, hands behind her back, refusing to react lest they thought they'd won. Their aim got better. Her neck, her ears, her cheeks. Anna held herself by either wrist, tightly, behind her back. A barrage of stings fell upon her, but if she imagined them little more than cold rain, or drifting snow, or a bit of wind, they ceased to bother her.
"What a freak," said Robert.
"No wonder she doesn't have any friends," said Jillian
"Maybe if she made an effort," said Becky. "She doesn't have to keep her hair that short."
"Or dye it red."
"Or dress like a boy."
The tour guide finished his chipper spiel and the class moved on.
Anna bit her tongue harder, grasped her wrists tighter, and tried to take a deep breath, but her chest clenched.
Not now. Not while they're watching. They'll call Violet.
The class walked to the next exhibit. Anna followed without paying attention. She could only hear their whispers, the scuff of their shoes, the snide of their snickers. She wondered if they would stick with pencil erasers. Anna looked around for Mr. Scott, or any of the teachers. She knew if she were close to a teacher, the three fiends weren't brave enough to hassle her. But every teacher she could find was on the other side of the room.
Something bigger, heavier, struck between her shoulders and Anna staggered from the surprise of it, unclasping her hands to correct her balance. She turned and found the three of them: Robert, Jillian, and Becky, looking innocently at a painting of a bridge over waterlilies. She looked at the floor. It was another eraser, a thick, pink rhombus. She bent and picked it up, turning it over in her fingers and considering. She wanted to retaliate, she wanted to scream at them, to ask them if they knew how miserable they were.
Instead she pocketed it.
Don't be so dramatic, she scolded herself.
She replaced her hands behind her back and took a slow, shallow breath, feeling the weight of her shoulderbag. Her shoulders tensed, squealing at the movement. A tickle at her throat threatened to make her cough. She clenched her jaw and sniffled surreptitiously, forbidding herself to cry.
Calm down. You're being stupid. If you let them get to you, if you start coughing...
Maybe if she showed Mr. Scott the eraser... but no. She hadn't had success talking to authority figures about her harassers. They talked to her about tools for dealing with bullies, they talked to her about handling her own problems, they talked to her about growing a thicker skin. And they were right.
You're too quiet, too unfriendly, too weak.
"She could be pretty. It wouldn't be that hard," said Becky, her stage whisper carrying to Anna and those few nearby. Some turned to look. Some snickered. Nobody intervened.
"Or if she'd smile," said Robert. "We used to be friends, you know."
Anna cleared her throat. She felt like she was lying at the bottom of the ocean, but the wonder of the previous exhibit was replaced by pressure on all sides, chest straining to breathe, ears filling, eyes stinging. She clenched her jaw as hard as she could, gripped her wrists and refused to acknowledge it.
"Maybe that's why nobody likes her."
Anna's ears roared. She held her breath; she closed her eyes; she shut it out. She didn't want to know any more of what they thought of her. She just wanted it to stop. She wanted to sit by herself with her notepad and her thoughts. When her chest couldn't take it anymore, she unclenched her jaw and her body forced a shuddering breath. She coughed.
"There it is," said Becky, her voice the only thing Anna could hear. "I knew we could make her squeak."
The second breath was harder, a high-pitched gasp, like breathing through a straw. She coughed again.
And on the third she couldn't breathe at all.
Mr. Scott called an ambulance. Paramedics in white shirts knelt next to her telling her be still, to breathe evenly, that everything would be fine. She tried to tell them it was just an asthma attack, she'd had them before, she was fine now, she had her inhaler. Someone said her pupils were dilated, her heartrate frantic. She tried to explain that, for her, this was normal. But they put her on a stretcher, wheeled her from the museum, and into the back of an ambulance. Worse, they called Violet.
Lying on a hospital bed, in a stiff, scratchy gown, Anna couldn't still her thoughts.
Ugly. Stupid. Unfriendly. You can't even stand up for yourself.
"She'll be fine."
"But this is her third hospital visit since winter."
Anna didn't know if she'd fallen asleep. It was dark outside. She was alone in the room but for the faint hum of hospital machinery. She could hear Dr. Pertwee and Violet speaking quietly on the other side of the door.
"Mrs. Lawrence, Vivianna has bruises on her wrists."
Anna held up her arms and looked at her writs. Four crescent bruises stood upon each, from where she'd clasped them behind her back, where her fingernails had dug in.
"I don't understand. Did she hurt herself falling?"
"No. They're self-inflicted. Do you know if she's under more stress than usual?"
Anna dropped her hands to her chest. Perfect. Well done, Anna. Now they'll want answers.
"I... I don't think so. But... but she hasn't been talking to me much lately."
"Her blood pressure is also higher than I'd like. That makes me think her recent episodes are the result of more than just asthma. Now, she's young, and young people are remarkably resilient. But they're also prone to emotional swings. Under a lot of stress these days."
"What do I do?"
"Like we talked about before, I suggest a change of scenery. Get her out of town. For the summer, if you can. Somewhere away from the city pollution, away from whatever might be causing her anxiety."
Later, the lights in the room brightened slowly. Anna closed her eyes. She could feel Violet standing at her bedside, looking down at her, deciding what to do.
"I'm sorry I made you come to the hospital again. I know you don't like it here," Anna said.
Violet gave a little gasp. "I didn't realize you were awake. Did... did you hear Doctor Pertwee and me?"
Anna opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling. It was easier not to cry if she didn't look at Violet. "Are you going to send me away?"
"Would you like that? Doctor Pertwee thinks it would do you good."
"What about school?"
"He thinks it would be worth it to miss the last two weeks. Besides you've got good grades, right?"
She's getting rid of you.
"Would you come with me?"
"I... I'm sorry Anna. I have to work. You know that. But my sister lives in Glenwood, it's a little town in the mountains. There's a hot springs and a quiet library and a—"
"It sounds like you've already decided."
"Please, can we just go home? I don't want to be here anymore. I'm sorry I made you fetch me."
They didn't speak during the drive home. The hum of tires on the road, the gentle click of the turn signals, the rhythmic flash of streetlights, were a quiet symphony of the unspoken. At home, Anna climbed the stairs to her room and closed the door behind her. She sat on her desk chair and stared through the window at the moon, a thin crescent against the city-washed sky. She often sat by herself with only the moon for company. She wondered if anyone at school would notice if she missed the last two weeks. Perhaps the three fiends.
"Stop that." She whispered into moon shadows.
Sometimes her thoughts rambled at her through the night, making sleep elusive and she'd cry silently into her pillow. Tonight, the tears didn't come. The anger, the frustration, the sadness boiling in her chest, the panic that shortened her breath, none of it was there. It felt like there was a hole where her breath should have been, like everything she'd felt had fallen through to nowhere. For a while, she tried to make the tears come. At least they'd be familiar. Instead, she could only stare at the moon-dim ceiling of her bedroom and scold herself for the way her day had turned out.
Anna stepped from the cab to the curb before the train station. There was already a crowd milling, anxious for the train, anxious to leave the city, anxious to be about whatever they'd come for. The taxi driver, a stoic man with a big beard and a bald pate, opened the trunk and hauled out her suitcase, dropping it carelessly to the sidewalk.
Anna extended the handle and wheeled it a few steps to the station doors before Violet said, "Just a moment."
Anna paused, thinking Violet had spoken to her.
"I'll be a few minutes."
"Yes, ma'am," said the taxi driver.
Anna walked through the automatic doors and to the counter. She heard Violet hurrying after her.
"Are you purchasing or do you already have a ticket?" asked the woman behind the counter.
Anna took a breath to reply.
"She already has a ticket," said Violet. She put a hand on Anna's shoulder, and Anna couldn't help but hunch. She hated herself for it. Violet had only ever been kind and attentive. Even after her husband died, Violet had done everything she could for Anna. But still, she hunched.
"Um, here you are," Violet said, pulling a piece of paper from her jacket pocket.
The woman behind the counter scanned it. Her computer chimed. "Vivianna Lawrence?"
"Yes, that's me," Anna said.
"You're all set. The train should be here in about five minutes. Will you be checking your luggage or keeping it with you?"
"With me," Anna said. She hadn't packed much. Five t-shirts, one button up. Two pairs of jeans, three pairs of shorts, a swimsuit, two weeks' worth of socks and underwear. Hairbrush, toothbrush, assorted toiletries. Her favorite book of poems, five new notebooks, two new packs of mechanical pencils, two of pens in a variety of colors, and her shoulderbag. She hadn't packed her smartphone.
The woman behind the counter printed out a ticket with her seat number and handed it to her. Anna moved to accept it, but Violet took it first and handed it to her. Anna took the ticket and tucked it in her pocket. She turned to roll her suitcase out to the platform. The cacophonous murmur inside the station grated. She wanted to be alone.
On the platform, with no one about, Anna took a deep breath just to make sure she could. The ghost of a pang deep in her chest threatened to steal her breath. She tried to ignore it.
Don't be stupid. If you pass out on the train, you'll worry a whole bunch of people just trying to get through their day.
She stared across the tracks at the backside of a row of apartments. They were tall and narrow, two stories each, offset from each other like a brick pattern. Each had a balcony and a fenced yard. The backside of buildings were more honest than the front sides, she thought. Front sides were freshly maintained, well kempt, a front for passersby, judging those within. The backside, though, was home to hanging laundry, spent cardboard boxes, and crusty grills.
Anna's hand gripping her suitcase tightened, and she turned. Violet looked more frail than Anna remembered, shoulders hunched, eyes shadowed. Anna hadn't realized before, but she was as tall as Violet now. It was strange, off-putting, like this was a dream, like she might wake tomorrow and go to school and none of this would have happened. Like she would feel normal. It seemed like forever since she'd felt normal.
'Since you're not taking your phone, I thought you might..." Violet held out a small, rectangular package. Post cards of pastoral scenes.
Anna had never written a postcard. There was limited space, enough for a poem. She had to admit the idea appealed. She took them and tried to think of what to say. 'Thank you' seemed too obvious. 'I love you' seemed dishonest. She wondered if reciting a bit of poetry would help.
Hello darkness, my old friend. Here comes the sun.
But before she could think of what to say, the whistle of an approaching train separated them. They stared at each other until it ended.
Violet cleared her throat. "Sarah and Kenny will pick you up at the station. They've got the app, so they'll know if there's been a delay or if you're arriving early. Is there anything else you need before you go?"
Anna shook her head. "I'm fine."
"All right then."
The rumble of the train grew steadily, its whistle calling through the sapphire sky.
"All right then," Violet said again. She stood next to Anna, staring across the tracks at the backsides of those apartments. Anna turned and joined her. Their shoulders nearly touched. For the next few minutes, as train brakes squealed and the station platform filled, they didn't say anything.
Violet did not hug Anna before she got on the train. She knew Anna didn't like to be hugged. Instead she gave Anna a smile and a small wave. Anna waved back before finding her seat.
The seats were a uniform grey upholstery. They matched the carpet and the curtains. The windows were tall, letting in a lot of light from the oppressively bright day. Anna found her seat and retrieved a notebook and pencil from her bag before tucking it under the seat in front of her. The train car slowly filled and the murmur of voices grew. Anna stared out the window at nothing.
Eventually, the train lurched to and the conductor made his announcements.
A pair of young children used the aisle as a sprinting track before one of the conductors told them to knock it off. Someone played a movie a bit too loud through their headphones. Anna spent the time staring out the window, hoping nobody tried to talk to her. It was quiet. She liked quiet, but it was also lonely. And lately it seemed she was almost always alone.
Self-pity, she chided herself. Quit that.
The train swayed gently and she let it carry her. The rhythmic ka-thunk-a-clunk set up in her thoughts and she let it drown the voice in her mind, the inner editor who critiqued her poetry, her thoughts, her actions.
Sometime later, when her thoughts had settled, Anna opened her notebook and tried to write a bit, perhaps about the train, or the bright, sunny day, or the backsides of apartments, but nothing felt right.
Why can't it be raining? She wrote.
She often liked to recite poetry by writing it down rather than aloud, but everything that popped to mind seemed trite or inappropriate, so she retrieved the package of postcards. Maybe she should write to Violet now. Get the first one out of the way. She noticed the package had already been opened and found Violet had written to her on one of the postcards in her small, neat hand.
I know the last few months haven't been easy for you, but I don't know why. You used to be so much happier, so much more expressive. It seems you're sad all the time. I hope it's not something I've done. If it is, I hope you can figure out how to tell me. Perhaps in a poem? You used to write me poems. I hope you don't think I've sent you away, or abandoned you. Dr. Pertwee thinks this will be good for you. A chance to relax outside the city, with clean air.
Sarah and Kenny are sweet. They'll take good care of you for the summer. I've never met someone more maternal than my sister.
Please write soon,
I love you,
Anna tucked the postcard into the back of her notebook.