Tiffany kicked her locker door shut with a bang that echoed in the near empty school hallway. Her posse, the usual gaggle of seniors and juniors, sniggered into their notebooks or laughed from behind their cellphones.
“Butterfingers, Tiff?” Alistar took her books for her, tucking them under his arm. “Be nice to the lockers, we just got them.”
Tiffany rolled her eyes. She turned enough to cast a glance down the hallway to check if anyone had witnessed her little display of temper. Her sharp blue eyes moved right over me. Chelsea pulled her away with the others.
I watched them file off, hands clenched tight against the padded shoulder straps of my backpack. This was what loneliness felt like.
Never thought being ignored could feel like being crushed in a trash compactor. A once useful object, now discarded by a common consumer and thrown away to be brutally rearranged and smashed into a new life as garbage.
When Tiffany started hanging out with Alistair and his little pack of friends, I thought I was okay with it. Then she started spending more time with them and somehow, I wasn’t welcome anymore.
I don’t understand.
We were diaper buddies. Our moms took Pilates together and our dads bought matching cars within a month of each other. I wasn’t stupid enough to think that we’d be friends forever or that we’d never make other friends.
I’m not that naive.
I just didn’t think that making new friends meant leaving your old ones behind.
Doesn’t matter now though. At least she’s happy. Maybe. It’s hard to tell. Her eyes don’t smile anymore, but her mouth does—all the time. She was always with Chelsea, they even wore matching outfits sometimes.
She never did that with me. I guess plain Jane jeans and a polo shirt isn’t the cutting edge of fashion these days. I looked at the morse code painted onto my fingernails and then dialed the combination for my locker.
I took my time trading out textbooks and notes for homework. A bright slip of pink construction paper caught on the edge of my math book. I tugged it free, squinting at the torn rectangle. Faded pencil in neat cursive read ‘One Free Hug’.
I crumpled the paper, shoving my books back into the locker.
We hadn’t always been rich. Tiffany’s dad didn’t get his big promotion until my dad recommended him. That year, she’d given me a coupon book for my birthday. It was done in pink and it was filled with the fun stuff we did back then.
Trips to the park to stalk cute guys and adorable dogs, half of her dessert at school, borrowing her favorite pair of earrings, and the hug.
I’d forgotten all about it. Probably expired now, just like our friendship. I remember laughing at it, at the time.
She told me that sometimes it was hard to ask for a hug.
I started down the hallway, heading for the front steps. It was Dad’s turn to pick me up today.
My cellphone chimed and I fumbled to check the message.
Aimee, Dad’s been in an accident. It looks bad. On my way to the hospital now. Call me as soon as you can. - Mom.
Numbness is worse than loneliness.
It’s quieter too.
I shuffled out of the building, feeling my body shifting to autopilot. I had to call Mom. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to do.
I swallowed hard.
Tiffany and Co. took up the left side of the front steps. Some of the guys sat on the lower steps, the girls clustered around the handrail, cooing at pictures on each other’s cellphones. They didn’t notice me.
I started for the right side of the steps, trying to formulate words for a conversation I wasn’t ready to have. I took a step forward, then another, trying and failing to process the gravity of the situation as the text message replayed in my head.
“Hey, you dropped something-!”
I blinked back tears, a surprised hand going to my face.
“Aimee?” Chelsea gaped at me, holding out the scrap of pink paper. “Um, hey Tiff? You’d better come.”
Tiffany appeared a moment later. She looked from the piece of pink paper to me and frowned in a complicated way. She pocketed the paper and reached over, yanking me into a hug. “Hey.”
I hiccupped into her shoulder and hugged her back.
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