A whimper escaped her lips. He was coming for her again, but there was nowhere to go. Everything started shaking and that weightless feeling of falling washed over her. Her stomach clenched and her legs kicked out, connecting with something hard and metal. Her hands shot out searching for something, anything to keep her above the water.
Reality flooded back as she looked around at the faces of her classmates sitting in their desks. Everyone stared at her with varying expressions of surprise, pity, and disgust. Even the teacher, who stood at the white board, hand poised in the middle of writing a word, let out an annoyed tsk at being interrupted. Penny lowered her arms back to her desk.
Her heartbeat throbbed in her throat and her cheeks flamed. A bruise was already aching on her shin where it hit the wire basket of the desk in front of her.
“Are you okay?” Amanda whispered from behind her. Penny just nodded.
The bell rang and she took her time gathering her things, not wanting to make any contact with everyone else as they rushed out to lunch. Amanda waited for her, though.
“Sorry I woke you up like that. I didn't think it would startle you so bad. But it sounded like you were almost crying,” she said.
“It's okay. At least you woke me before I started snoring.” Penny grinned at her, hoping the cheerfulness she didn't feel reached her eyes.
“Miss Masters, could I speak to you for a moment?” Mrs. Birdhill said from behind her desk.
Amanda squeezed Penny's arm and gave her a reassuring smile before going into the hall.
“Yes, ma'am?” Penny said as she walked up to Mrs. Birdhill's desk.
“That's the second time this week you've fallen asleep in this class. Is there something going on you'd like to talk about?” she said with what Penny could tell was fake concern. The woman wasn't even looking at her, just shuffling the papers on her desk.
Penny thought about all the things she could lay on her teacher: her parents' disappearance, being terrorized by reoccurring nightmares, struggling to barely pass her classes. It could be fun to watch the tight-lipped woman squirm.
“No, ma'am. I'm fine.”
“Well, if you ever feel like you need help, you know where the counselor's office is, right?” Mrs. Birdhill raised her brows.
“Yes, ma'am.” Penny rolled her eyes as she left the room.
She shuffled to her locker and shook her head at Amanda.
“What? What did she say?” Amanda asked.
“Oh, you know, same old thing. 'Miss Masters, is there something you want to talk about because I don't have time to deal with you or your problems so maybe you should take your nutty self off to the counselor's office.',” Penny said as she fought with the contents of her locker that refused to stay.
What could a school counselor do for me that the psychiatrists haven't already tried? Penny thought as she tossed two pens that had rolled out back into her locker and slammed the door.
“Ugh, what a witch. And you are not nutty,” Amanda said. Penny scoffed at that statement.
Yeah, right, and bears don't poop in the woods, either.
After grabbing some bag lunches from the cafeteria, they went into the enclosed atrium in the center of the school. Penny watched the students milling around the plastic picnic tables, their voices echoing off the concrete floors, and thought, after her incident in Mrs. Birdhill's class, she didn't exactly want to be around many people. Not that any of them wanted to be around her either.
“I'm going to sit outside, okay?”
“Are you crazy? It's freezing out there,” Amanda said, eyes wide.
“It's okay. I like the cold.”
Amanda's brow furrowed. “Okay, I guess.”
At the vending machine, Penny bought two sodas, one for now, one for later. An icy afternoon breeze hit her when she shoved the double glass doors open with her shoulder. She inhaled it gratefully. Finding an empty spot against the school's brick exterior, she tossed her back pack to the ground and opened her first caffeinated beverage of the day. It was half-empty by the time she decided to sit.
In her bag lunch was an apple, a soggy ham and cheese sandwich, and a bag of chips. What? No dessert? There goes your four-star review, lunch ladies.
After a couple of bites of apple, she pulled out her art journal and markers. Choosing a black, fine-tipped pen, she let her thoughts wander and her hand doodle whatever came to mind. This was one of her favorite hobbies. To her it was an almost Zen-like experience, the closest thing to sleep she had found so far.
A single cab red truck rumbled into the parking lot and her eyes shot up to lock on it. It pulled into a parking space, the driver door swung open, and he stepped out. Stevie Brown. Penny's stomach quivered. He was the typical handsome jock: blonde, tall, a football player.
But he's still a douche, she thought. Why had she let him kiss her at that party? She couldn't stop herself from remembering that kiss. At the time, she thought she must have been the luckiest girl in the world. But later that night, when he stumbled from the party groping Aubrey Chambers, Penny had felt like such a fool.
Penny hung her head, letting her long not-quite-blonde hair block her face. He passed her up without a second glance. An expensive, musky smell wafted to her as she glared at his retreating, letterman jacket clad back.
And he still smells yummy, that jerk.
Resolving to forget about Stevie for the hundredth time, she went back to drawing. The crunching of feet on gravel made her look up. Aubrey was looking perfect as always. Her fitted, baby pink jacket must have been purchased online since there were no good clothing stores in this small town. It probably had a designer tag, too. Penny was wondering who Aubrey had paid to break in her jeans when she made eye contact and realized she'd been caught staring.
Oh, crap, no bueno.
She grabbed for her bag and pretended to look for something in it, hoping Aubrey would just leave her alone.
“What are you looking for, Penelope? Forget where you put your bong again?” Aubrey sneered. Penny felt her ears heat up at the ensuing snickers from Aubrey's two clone friends, Adrienne and Lindsey.
After a few months of Penny showing up to school with red eyes and her head bobbing in class with sleepiness, Aubrey had taken it upon herself to inform the student body that Penelope Masters had to be a pothead. Penny still had kids asking her if she had any “green” she could sell them and the dirty looks from the Bible Club members hadn't stopped.
Before Penny could think of a witty retort, the three of them were already inside. She looked out over the parking lot, disgusted with herself. Not that she would have had the guts to say anything. At this thought, she let her head fall back to conk against the bricks. She tried to cheer herself up by picturing Aubrey and her friends years from now as the housewives to cheating car salesmen.