I felt the cough ripping through my lungs and shoved my face into my pillow. I couldn’t let Karen hear. I coughed into the cotton until my throat was raw and I was surprised the pillowcase wasn’t tinged red. I finally sat still, breathing raggedly.
Had she heard? I tensed, waiting for her to stomp down the hall, yelling at all the noise. How could I have let myself get sick? It would just make me more noticeable, more work, more of a burden.
I curled up tightly around my aching stomach. Maybe if I rested some more, I could sleep it off. Not like I had anything else to do.
The door flew open and smashed against the wall. Light from the hall slapped me in the eyes.
“Get up! You’re gonna be late for school.” Karen grabbed the nearest thing and flung it toward me. “Lazy kid!” Before I could duck, the alarm clock hit me, biting deep into my cheek. She slammed the door shut again, but this time there was no click of a lock.
School? I sat up and pressed my fingers against the cut. It was Monday morning already? My sluggish brain struggled to think. What day had it been when she’d last locked the door? Thursday? Friday? At least if I’d missed a day of school last week, my cough would give validity to my story of being sick.
A few minutes later I tiptoed into the kitchen. My shaky legs reminded me how long it had been since I’d eaten. I eyed the pantry door, but Karen appeared around the corner.
I pivoted away. School would serve lunch. I paused in the doorway, feeling her gaze on my back. I glanced toward her. “Bye, Mom.” Then I escaped.
At school I hunched in my chair, choking down my cough, hoping no one would notice my throbbing cheek.
No one did.
I watched the clock tick down minutes, but noon was still ages away. No, I couldn’t zone out. If the teacher asked me a question and I didn’t have an answer, it would draw attention.
The first period passed uneventfully. Halfway to the next classroom the cough wracked my chest. Someone touched my shoulder and I jumped.
“Hey, are you okay?” It was the school nurse. Her head tilted sympathetically, a blonde ponytail swaying.
“I’m fine.” I held my breath. Forced the cough to stop. If she called Karen, if she made her leave work to come get me because I was sick…. My fist clenched, fingernails pinching my palm. “Just allergies.”
“Your cheek is bleeding. Why don’t you come to my office and I’ll bandage it and get you a cough drop?” She looked at me. Not over me. Not through me. But at me, right in my eyes. Then she smiled. “Come on in.”
I could tell her. For the first time, I didn’t shove the thought away. It could make things worse. But maybe it wouldn’t. The known was bad. The unknown held possibility, however slight, that things could get better.
The cough jerked me to my senses. No. I was better off to stick to myself. I’d made it so far, hadn’t I?
“I’ve got a band aid in my locker.” I looked at my shoes. My toes almost poked through the grey canvass of the left one. “I’ll be fine.” I took a step away. Would she let me go? I risked a glance behind me.
She was gone.
I let out my breath. It rasped against my raw throat.
“I brought you some water.” The nurse reappeared, now in her office doorway, holding out a clear plastic cup.
My hand shook as I reached for it. She wrapped hers around mine to steady it. A gentle touch, just for a second.
Somehow I got the cup to my lips without spilling. The water was cool and soothing.
“I’ll give you a late pass for your next class.” The nurse held the door open expectantly, her brown eyes encouraging. The halls were empty now.
My gaze focused on the water in my cup. My hand trembled and it sloshed against the sides, but the plastic contained it, kept it from spilling. Vulnerable, struggling, ever trapped.
I raised my head. Looked at her. “Okay.” A splash of liquid left the cup, fell free.
I passed through the doorway, and entered her office.
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