Sitting on her bed, Ashley tucked her knees under her chin and rocked back and forth. Once in a while, she swiped the snot off her face. She heard a banging at the door, and flinched when her father barged in.
He towered over her and waved a plate in front of her face. “This is disgusting! Why would you put a dirty dish away? You’re totally useless.”
Ashley shielded her face with her arms just as her father hurled the plate at her head. She held her breath as he yelled, “Clean this up and you can forget about getting any breakfast or lunch!”
Her body trembled as she picked up the broken pieces. She grabbed a sweater, even though it was warm outside, it would hide the cuts and bruises on her arms. She slowly opened the door and peeked around the corner. Relief washed over her when she realized the coast was clear. Grabbing her backpack, she jogged to the bus stop.
Everyone stopped their chattering and stared at Ashley. Her ears flushed a brilliant red and splotches crept up her neck and speckled her face. Jennifer, the most popular girl in fifth grade, snorted and rolled her eyes. “Ewww, haven’t you ever heard of showering?” The other kids laughed as several girls reached into their pockets, pulled out bars of soap, and threw them at Ashley’s feet. Ashley sniffed and kept her eyes down until the bus came.
When they arrived at school, Ashley lifted her head for the first time. She plodded down the steps and carefully avoided the cliques lurking on the playground. Her teacher, Mrs. Frost, ushered the kids into the classroom. Ashley tugged on her sweater sleeves and sank into her chair.
Grabbing her English book from her desk, Ashley flipped it open and escaped into the world of make-believe. The characters in the stories managed to thrive despite trials. Ashley felt the blood rush to her face. Happily-ever-after only happened in stories. Deep in her heart, she believed she wasn’t worthy of salvation. There'd be no knights in shining armor coming to her rescue. She swallowed hard, trying to choke back the tears. The other kids pounced at any sign of weakness.
Ashley’s stomach grumbled when the lunch bell rang. Her mouth twitched as she reached into her desk for her lunch. Her heart sank when she remembered she didn‘t have any. Oh, why hadn’t she washed the dishes properly? Her cheeks flushed crimson when Mrs. Frost approached her desk.
“Where’s your lunch, dear?” Ashley bowed her head and shrugged her shoulders. “Ashley, this is the third time in a week that you haven’t had lunch.”
Ashley could hear her heart thumping in her ears and her face was hot. “I’m just not that hungry. Can I go sit on the playground?”
Mrs. Frost sighed. “Very well, but if this keeps up, I’ll have to call your parents.”
Ashley darted out the door; she kept her head down as she passed the kids eating at the picnic tables. Her mouth watered as she watched her classmates eat and talk. Ashley pushed her body against the tree hoping that she would blend in and no one would notice her. She licked her lips and her stomach rumbled as the kids trashed apples, pieces of sandwiches, and bags of half-eaten chips.
She’d never understand how people could be so wasteful. She promised herself that she would teach her kids to be considerate and share with others.
Mrs. Frost motioned to Ashley. The school nurse stood next to her. Ashley’s heart pounded. She stumbled over and looked up. Mrs. Frost touched her arm and Ashley jerked it back. The nurse smiled and patted Ashley’s back. “Your teacher noticed drops of blood on your sweater. She also said you’ve been skipping lunch. Why don’t we go into my office and chat?”
Tears plopped down Ashley’s face. She'd heard of kids that had been removed from their parents and placed in special homes. Her mind whirled as she tried to picture what her father would do if someone took Ashley to a different house. She covered her mouth as her stomach somersaulted. Mrs. Frost smiled and nodded. The nurse held out her hand and Ashley grabbed it. All of the kids stared, but for the first time Ashley’s cheeks didn’t burn. As she walked away with the nurse, she realized this must be what hope felt like.
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