The Other Girl
It’s been two months since Marie’s death. Two whole months without my best friend. Two whole months to mourn and cry and move on.
But I can’t find it in me to stop moping around. I can barely make it to school, let alone through school. I have no friends, and I don’t try to make friends. People sometimes approach me (adults mostly), make an effort to cheer me up… to no effect. In fact, I usually don’t even “hear” them.
I feel lost. Marie and I were sort of outsiders at school. Other kids mostly stayed away from us; if we didn’t bother them, they wouldn’t bother us… and we were fine with that because we had each other. Of course, that left me lonelier than ever when Marie died. I had no other friends to support me… just the solitude of my own thoughts.
My mom allowed me the day of the funeral and the day after off from school, but no longer. She told me it would be “good for me to get back into the swing of things,” but it’s not working. I go through the motions of everyday life — wake up, eat breakfast, go to school — but it’s an empty feeling. Sometimes, when I’m wandering the halls, I find myself reflexively turning around to tell Marie something, only to realize that she’s not there, that she’ll never be there. And then I sheepishly lumber on, more isolated, more sad.
Being alone in my thoughts all the time is the worst experience, because I don’t have any good thoughts. My biggest problem after dealing with my loneliness is trying to make sense of what happened. I can’t. Not now. Maybe not ever. I don’t understand how this could have happened; it just seems so random. If something like this can happen to Marie at such an early age, so suddenly, what’s the point? It can happen to any of us. It can happen to me. I could have been Marie. Why am I trying so hard to be a good friend, daughter, student, if things can change so suddenly? Marie had an illness, but she could have been hit by a drunk driver, or even lightning.
I don’t have any answers, which makes it harder. I just have my routine. I don’t have to think about that. I get up, go to school, come home, do my homework, have dinner with my mom, do more homework, shower, go to sleep (or at least try, often unsuccessfully for long stretches of time). The worst part of the routine is dinner with my mom. She tries hard to engage me, cheer me up, suggest activities and things I can do. I know she means well. I mumble my thoughts here or there, but mostly I sit silently, and the silence just makes me feel worse. Still, there is comfort in my routine, especially as a distraction from my thoughts.
So I get up every day and go through my routine. No one bothers me. It’s lonely, but I’m not sure how to do anything else right now. The other kids whisper about me at school, about “that sad girl whose friend died.” Not necessarily in an intentionally mean way, more filled with pity. They feel badly for me, but they haven’t really tried to reach out. And I haven’t tried to encourage them, haven’t extended myself to make friends. By this age, we’ve all settled into our cliques: the popular kids, nerdy kids, athletic kids, geeky kids, eclectic kids. We seem to have found our comfort zones. These kinds of things don’t change very easily in the best of times, and this isn’t the best of times.
Other kids are not the only thing I’ve been ignoring since Marie’s death. Unopened bars of dark chocolate sit in our cupboard. The expensive, fancy kind that Marie used to like so much. The last time I’d touched one was the day I found out. I was in the process of making Marie’s favorite dark chocolate cupcakes, but I never got to finish them. It hurts to think that Marie never got to eat them. Now, I can’t bring myself to touch them, although I can’t bring myself to throw them out either. So they just sit there, pushed to the back of the shelf, behind the heavy cupboard doors, ignored.
This morning, I ate my breakfast in silence. My mom looked like she wanted to tell me something, but I left before she got the chance. Whatever suggestion or encouragement she had for me, I didn’t want to hear it. When I walk into school, trudging my way to my locker, I hear a banging noise. I look up to see a small, skinny girl I don’t recognize, watching with distress as Virginia and her gang dump out her books from her backpack. I flinch. Virginia is one of the most popular, brattiest girls in school. She used to tease and bully Marie and I. I duck my head and begin to walk past, ignoring the ruckus. I don’t want to draw Virginia’s attention to me. But as I look up again at the unfamiliar girl, something makes me stop in my tracks. I think back to the time when Virginia had taken Marie’s bag. I’d stood up for Marie then, stepping up in front of Virginia. Before I realized what I was doing, I approached Virginia, empty backpack in hand.
“Leave her alone.” I said, standing between the dazed and intimidated girl and the bullies.
“Or what?” Virginia snarled in my face. “Are you gonna tell on me?” A few of the girls standing behind her chuckled, and I drew myself up a little taller. Virginia had always seemed taller than everyone else, but I realized that if I stood up tall, we are actually the same height. I looked her in the eyes.
“Give her bag back.” I said. I felt someone move behind me and the new girl shifted so that she was standing next to me. She still seemed afraid, but was glaring at Virginia with strikingly bright green eyes. Virginia looked back and forth between the two of us, uncomfortably. She’d always liked easy prey, probably the reason she had chosen to pick on this timid-looking, seemingly lost, smallish girl. But after I stood up for Marie, Virginia backed down and found someone else to pick on. This time, she threw the girl’s backpack on the floor and just smirked, before turning and stalking off, followed by the other girls.
Today is my first day at my new school. I wish it was the actual first day of school, but it’s January 4th, the first day of the second semester. We just moved here over the holidays because my father got transferred from Milton, Georgia, a town of approximately 40,000 people known for its top ranked school system, located 30 miles or so north of Atlanta. I didn’t want to move but it’s not like I had any choice. We spent most of Christmas vacation packing, driving, and unpacking. Christmas day was nice, but I mostly received cold weather clothes. I wanted wireless earbuds, but I didn’t get anything cool like that.
The thing I fear most is jumping into school in the middle of the year. I worry about both the classes and the kids. Where will I fit in? Is my math up to the level of their math? Will I be able to break in and make new friends? I’ve never felt this combination of fear and anxiety, along with anticipation and excitement. At my old school, when new kids arrived, everyone would be extra friendly and often they were making friends in no time. What would it be like here?
I have a few minutes before I need to go out and catch the bus. There’s snow on the ground. It looks cold, the opposite of what you would call inviting. It’s downright intimidating. We don’t have snow in Atlanta, except on unusual occasions, and never this much snow. It’s rarely, if ever this cold. Before I put on my new warm puffy jacket, pom-pom hat, and gloves, I pause to say a prayer. It’s a familiar prayer, but I add an extra line: “God, I know you have a plan for everything, please help make this one of your better ones. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” I cross myself and then go hug my parents before picking up my backpack and setting out on this new day, the first day of the rest of my life.
As I approach the bus stop, a few kids are congregating. At first, it looks like they are smoking, but I learn that’s fog from their warm breath converging with the cold air. My breath is doing the same thing as I play around with short and long bursts of air. As I get closer, I notice that no one is talking. I figure this is because it is cold. I ask a younger girl if this is the bus stop for my school and she nods and looks away, as if I was asking a stupid question. It was just my way of saying hi, but at least I know I am in the right place, waiting for the right bus. Then the bus comes and the ride is pretty uneventful. Some kids are conversing, and there is one really loud boy in the back, bragging about something, most likely exaggerating what he did on Christmas vacation. After about 10 minutes, the bus arrives at school along with a lot of other buses and kids stream in through four doors, bunching up to make it through.
I had visited the school the previous day and so I sort of knew where my classes are and where my locker is located. The first thing I do is head towards my locker, put my backpack on the ground, and dial the combination. I had memorized it: 32-6-27. Then, I notice that a girl starts to approach me, sauntering somewhat exaggeratedly with three other girls in tow. She is dressed fancier than I am, wearing white denim jeans and a sleek, leopard print jacket with fur around the cuffs and collar. My first thought is: how is she not freezing to death? The girl walks right up to me with her friends close behind and my heart swells. Maybe these well-dressed kids are part of the welcoming committee! I look at them eagerly.
“Well, who do we have here?” the lead girl barks at me.
“Hi, my name is Terra,” I respond, “nice to meet you!” I stick out my hand and she looks down at it for a second, like it’s a foreign object.
Then she blurts out: “Oh would you look at that. She knows her own name!” The girls snicker at me and I lower my hand in confusion, smile slipping off. The lead girl whirls back around on her heels, smirking at me. “Why don’t we help the new girl with her bags? A little ‘welcome present’ from us to her.” So I was right, they are part of the welcome committee. But as I smile up at them, the girl snatches the bag out of my hands, unzips it, and tips it over, dumping out the contents.
“Hey!” I shout, “What are you doing?!” She doesn’t respond and gives my bag one final shake. Just then, another girl happens down the corridor, does a double-take, and somehow decides to intervene, stepping between the lead girl and me. Maybe God is watching over me today. About time! I mumble to myself. Her brown ponytail swings as she boldly confronts them, diffusing the drama and causing the other girl to huff and walk away, evidently deciding this encounter isn’t worth any more effort.
“So,” says the girl who’d scared away the bullies, “what’s your name?” We were now bent over, picking my books off of the hallway floor and stuffing them back into my backpack.
“O-oh,” I stutter, surprised to hear her talking to me “I’m Terra.” She looks up from helping me pick up my things. With muddy brown eyes, she eyeballs me, sizing me up as we all do in that first nano-second when we meet someone. I guess she didn’t really get to see who I was when she stepped in between the bullies and me.
“Hi,” she says, “I don’t recognize you. Are you new around here?”
“Yes.” I confirm, “my family and I just moved here from Atlanta over Christmas. My father got transferred.”
“Nice to meet you, I’m Anna.” she pronounces, standing up. She wipes off her jeans as she sticks out her hand. I zip up my backpack and shake her hand back, swinging my backpack back over my shoulder. She puts her hands on her hips and tilts her head at me “What homeroom are you in?” she asks.
“Cool, that’s my homeroom too, Mrs. Grammercy, she’s strict but fair,” she says, smiling. “I’m headed over there now. Come on, you don’t want to be tardy on your first day!” She proclaims. And just like that, we’re off together strolling down the hall and into Room 126. Maybe not a “welcoming committee,” but certainly a nice outcome after all.
I’m not sure what I’m doing. I didn’t really expect to be standing up to Virginia, but it was exhilarating. It reminded me of how Marie and I would help each other. Looking at Terra as we approach our homeroom, she seems to remind me of a younger and more slight version of Marie, herself on the smallish side. Something provoked me to want to protect her. I feel like I’ve known her before. It’s strange. I almost laugh out loud: the first new person I meet and I’m drawn to her because she reminds me of Marie. Then, I do smile. Wait until my mom hears about today.
“What’s so funny?” asks the other girl, observing the smile playing on my lips.
“Oh, nothing.” I reply, “Well actually everything right now. Everything seems funny.” I look back over to Terra and she is glancing upwards, her lips moving silently. She seems to be…praying? She notices me observing and smiles. “It worked out because it is all part of His plan. It was one of his good ones.” She smiles again as she walks into the classroom, looking more comfortable and self-assured.
His plan? Who’s plan? God’s plan? She’s actually talking about God having a plan, and a good plan at that? Evidently so. Hmm, I say to myself, how can God have a plan when something like Marie’s illness can occur? Marie shouldn’t have died this young. She should’ve lived a long and happy life. I should still have my best friend. How could this be anyone’s plan? Her illness struck so suddenly. It all seems so…random. Then the bell rings and snaps me away from my confused thoughts and back to my routine. I lead Terra and direct her to a seat next to me just as our homeroom begins to make announcements.
I learn later that day that the girls that had dumped out the contents of my bag are considered the “popular kids”, led by a girl named Virginia. That was another thing that we didn’t have at my old school. The well-liked kids there were generally that way for a reason; they were nice and/or respected for their abilities and talents. Sure, there were cliques, but this kind of bullying was never present at my old school, it just wasn’t tolerated.
But for now, at least, Virginia and her crew seem to be keeping their distance. Basically, they are ignoring me, and Anna seems really nice. It was great the way she stood up for me. But I miss my old friends and I can tell that this place is different: it just doesn’t seem as warm and friendly as my old school. I was warned that people up north were more reserved and distant, initially less friendly, but I didn’t expect this on the first day. My teachers have introduced me or asked me to tell the class my name, but otherwise, no one has bothered to ask.
Still though, it’s only been a few classes. We still have recess and lunch. I look forward to talking more to Anna and learning about her. She seems…different. She’s obviously warm and friendly, but she also seems somewhat aloof and withdrawn. In fact, she hasn’t introduced me to any of her other friends, which makes me wonder who she was hanging out with before I arrived.
Gesturing my arm towards the back corner of the cafeteria, I say to Terra, “This is where I usually eat.” Two or three other girls sit at the opposite end of the table, whispering amongst themselves. They glance over at Terra and she gives them a broad smile and a friendly wave. The girls just roll their eyes before turning back to each other. Terra looks over the table once before plunking down and opening her lunchbox from home. “I have to go buy lunch,” I say, pointing towards the increasingly long lunch line. Terra nods at me once before tearing into a ham and cheese sandwich, and I turn around and take my spot in the lunch line. As I pass through the line and today’s lunch of soggy pizza is plopped on my tray, I wonder about Terra, her background, family, friends, school, etc. I grab a cardboard carton of lukewarm milk before heading back towards our table. I spot the table and Terra is…she’s… sitting by those girls. Talking to them. I gawk slightly at her, chatting happily, seemingly as if they’d been lifelong friends. Terra and two of the other girls suddenly burst out laughing at what the third one said. How is she making friends so quickly? I wonder to myself. And on her first day here too? Terra spots me standing a few feet from the table and waves me over with a wide grin on her face. I walk over cautiously and sit down next to her. “So I see you’ve made some new friends.” I say. She nods eagerly and turns back towards them, smiling the whole time. She does have a warm, infectious smile. Gotta give her that. I think I used to have a smile like that, but I haven’t been in a smiling mood for some time, given all that’s transpired.
I did it! I’m making new friends. I feel proud of myself as I throw out my wrappers and stack little plastic containers back into my lunch box. Anna throws out what’s left of her lunch and stacks the tray neatly with the others. As we walk in silence down the hallway on the way to our next class, she abruptly turns to me.
“Terra…do you want to come over to my house tomorrow after school?” she asks.
“Sure,” I respond, “I’d love to, let me check with my mother, but sounds great,” I say as I notice a smile flickering on Anna’s face as she heads into the classroom. As enthused as I feel about meeting Anna and her invitation to get together after school tomorrow, I am thrown off a little by her demeanor. She seems smart and nice, but something is a little different. Not sure what it is. Still, we have the same homeroom and a lot of the same classes, especially the advanced classes, so I’m looking forward to getting to know her better. Very excited, actually.
The rest of the day passes without incident. Before I know it, I’m waiting outside in the freezing cold for my bus to arrive. I rub my hands up and down my arms, trying to restore some heat to my frozen limbs and wishing for the warmer weather of Atlanta. When my bus arrives, I hustle on, claiming a seat for myself; the other kids grab seats next to their friends, or try to get one for themselves. Once we start driving, kids gossip and laugh loudly. Even inside the bus, the air is very cold. I bunch up in my coat until the bus finally arrives at my stop, and I quickly get off after thanking the bus driver (seemingly surprised by my niceties), and dash inside.
As the warm air hits and wraps around me, I sigh in relief and shuck off my outer garments. I walk into the kitchen to get a snack, where I see my mother sitting at the counter, a laptop open in front of her. The swirling white marble counter makes the sun-kissed tone of her skin pop, tan from so many years of living down South. Her dirty blond hair falls neatly to her shoulders and her emerald eyes sparkle in the sunlight. The corners of her eyes wrinkle as she smiles at me, but she still looks young, pretty. Everyone tells me I look a lot like my mom, with our shared hair and eye colors, but I think I look more plain.
“How was your day?” she asks me.
“Good,” I respond, tugging open the fridge to find a snack, “I made some new friends,” ignoring the part about my early encounter with Virginia.
“Great!” she says smiling back at me, “your father’s still at work, but when he gets home he’ll want to hear about everything.” Unpeeling a banana, I suddenly remember,
“Hey mom, can I go over to this girl Anna’s house tomorrow? She invited me and seems really nice. We have a lot of classes together. I told her I would check with you and get back to her.” I ask, taking a bite of my fruit.
“Sure,” she responds, “just give me her parents phone numbers so I can arrange it with them.” She turns back to her computer, and I smile as I make my way upstairs to my room.
“Hi Mom,” I call out as I open the door. I plop my bag down on the ground as she pokes her head around the corner.
“Hey, honey,” she greets, “How’s school?” Her forehead is slightly wrinkled in worry and a concerned smile appears on her lips. I ignore these things as I extract my homework from my backpack.
“Good. I think I made a new friend today. There’s a new girl that just moved here from Atlanta. We have the same homeroom and a lot of classes together. She seems really nice,” I say as I hear her feet slapping against the hardwood floor as she walks towards me. When I look up, she’s smiling broadly.
“That’s great Anna!” she gushes, “I’m so happy for you!” I stand up and my mom wraps her arms around me, engulfing me in a big, bear hug. I hug her back, smiling, before pulling back a little to look at her.
“Can she come over after school tomorrow?” I ask. My mom still has her arms around
me, still beaming.
“Of course,” my mom exclaims, “I can’t wait to meet her!” as I disengage.
“Thanks mom,” I say, before grabbing my homework and heading down the hall to my room.
I text Anna that my mom says it’s OK to go to her house tomorrow. I also have a question about one of the math problems in our homework. She says she’s been struggling with the same problem. Together, we manage to figure it out. That’s a good sign. Good signs everywhere, I hope it’s a omen of more good things to come. I’m so excited.
I can’t wait to spend tomorrow afternoon together with Terra. I have so much to ask her about her life, so much I want to know. I’m sure she feels the same way. Then, I get a little worried. I guess that means I’m going to have to tell her about Marie. How will that go over? Do I even want to go there? Realizing that she’s going to find out sooner or later, I decide it’s better that she hears it from me. So I start to anticipate the conversation. How will I start? I think I’m going to have to just sit her down and tell her there’s something I have to discuss. Then, I’ll probably just blurt it out. I hope I don’t cry, but I suspect I will. I wonder what she will think. I’m worried that she’ll realize that I’m a borderline basketcase, that I haven’t really dealt with Marie’s death. But on the other hand, it might be good to talk about all this, to get it out.
Then, I start to wonder about Terra: “What’s with this religious thing?” She thinks God has a plan and is an active force in life. I think things are random, I can’t imagine how there’s such a thing as a plan. Who would plan for the horrors, not just Marie’s death, but school shootings, and worse, wars and plagues. I don’t see a plan. I don’t think we live our lives as if there’s a plan. I think we just have to do the best we can do to make our lives good, to be good, do well, and try to have fun in the process. If bad things happen, we have to overcome them, I say to myself, realizing that I’ve been doing the opposite.
Maybe it’s time to move on. I can’t hold on to the bad memories forever. Marie…Marie would want me to be happy, so maybe it’s time I start trying.
Anna and I were able to take the school bus home to her house today. She lives in a moderate-sized house on a nice street, her house is panelled with white wood, turning brown at the bottom edges as mold and mildew starts to climb up the exterior, feeding on the beginning to rot wood. This is an old house, a house with history that’s been lived in for a while. Despite the age though, the house looks inviting, the shades are all thrown open, as if welcoming the sunlight inside, and bright flower pots brimming with wide-petaled pink flowers have been placed inside on the windowsills, as if to serve as reminders that Spring is not too far off. Not to mention that it was cold again today, and Anna and I were shivering by the time we got off of the bus. So it sure felt good to get inside. They have a gas fireplace which we turned on and stood by for a while to warm up, when all of a sudden, a woman’s voice called out from down a hallway.
“Anna? Is that you?” The voice shouted. There was a rustling sound as a middle aged woman comes out of a doorway down the hallway and walks to the living area. I see the resemblance between the woman — who I assume is Anna’s mom — and Anna, in their chocolate brown hair and muddy brown eyes, as well as the proud way they walk and stand with their chins up and their backs straight. “Oh!” the woman exclaims, “You must be Terra.” She holds out a hand, “I’m Anna’s mom, nice to meet you.” I shake her hand back, responding,
“Nice to meet you too.”
“It’s always good to see that Anna’s making some new friends.” Anna’s mom steps back. “Well, I have some work to do. I trust you girl’s will be fine on your own?” She looks over at Anna who nods.
“I can show Terra around.” Anna responds.
“I’ll leave you to it then.” And with that, Anna’s mom disappears back down the hallway, ducking back into the room.
When my mom ducks back into her office, I turn to Terra, “Are you hungry?” I ask.
“You bet,” she responds. “I’m starving after those laps we had to run in gym class today.” I lead Terra over to the kitchen, pointing her over to the cupboard to look for some snacks while I open the fridge to explore myself.
“Whoa!” Terra exclaims from behind me, “Where did you get these?” I turn around to see Terra clutching a bar of gourmet dark chocolate and I freeze. I’d stacked up six of those bars towards the back of the second shelf. I don’t know what to do or say. Those bars have been untouched since Marie’s death. “This is really high quality stuff!” says Terra, “I love dark chocolate, it’s one of my favorite things.” She looks up at me, suddenly nervous, remembering that this is not her chocolate. “Can I have some?” she asks tentatively. For a second, I’m struck by the instinct to tell her to put it back, that she can’t have some because those are Marie’s special dark chocolate bars. They were her favorite, I thought about saying, I’m saving those for Marie. But then I remember. And I nod with a small smile. Someone should get to enjoy those bars.
Author’s Note: While this story stands on its own, it is written as a continuation of the Gold Key award winning short story “Dark Chocolate” (essentially, Chapter Two). The original story will be renamed as “Marie” (Chapter One) and the novel itself will be titled “Dark Chocolate”.