Our fifth and sixth period classes are cancelled on Monday because we have an assembly in the gym. That means no PE or science for me, and no PE or social studies for Rose, and we’re this-close to breaking out into a jig. Assemblies are an excuse to goof off and sneak bites of Snickers candy bars.
That is, until we find out what the assembly is about: anti-bullying and life skills. A seventh-grade student killed herself last year when she got teased for dressing like a boy, and for wanting to be called Jason instead of her legal name of Jaiden. I never knew her but I am especially sensitive to anyone and anything connected to suicide.
Jasper finds us at the very top of the bleachers, the highest row possible. We’re eighth graders now, and if we can’t rule the bleacher roost, we’re lost as a culture.
Principal Greene introduces the speaker, a pretty blonde woman who says she used to be a man, but her name is now Anna. While her voice is deep, she sounds like a she. Anna tells us how it’s tough enough just to grow up, but if you add sexual identity complications, it can be hell on earth. Some people gasp as the word comes from her mouth, then snicker. I roll my eyes. Bunch of kids.
As I’m listening to her story, I suddenly notice that people are whispering and pointing to the back of a kid two rows down to the right of where I’m sitting. Rose pushes me aside so she can get a better view, but she only sees the same thing I do: the back of Mike Newton’s hair. So she taps the shoulder of the person sitting in front of us, whispering in her ear. The girl then taps the person in front of her, and before I know it, we have the story.
“Someone put a sign on Mike Newton’s back just above his butt that says enter here.”
Rose and I trade looks of amused horror. Who would dare? Mike has a nasty temper, so someone’s head is definitely going to roll for this.
In the middle of one of Anna’s stories, Mike shoots up from his seat and turns to glare at the people behind him. He knows something is going on, but he doesn’t know exactly what.
“Do you have something to add, young man?”
Mike whips around to face the front of the gym and Principal Greene, who looks as surprised as Mike does.
“Uh, go Indians!” Mike yells.
Principal Greene’s hands are on his hips. “Sit down.”
Mike turns as red as the shirt he’s wearing and sinks back down as a few people laugh, but the atmosphere Anna created doesn’t really leave any room for joking. And everyone knows it.
“What would you do if you saw someone you didn’t know being bullied?” She asks. And it looks like she’s directing her question at Mike.
“What if the act of you stepping up for this person, which verbally lets the bully know his actions are wrong, saves this person’s life? Or, what if you don’t say anything, and later you find out that the person you saw being bullied put a shotgun to his head and blew a hole through his brain? Would you care then?”
I suddenly see Mom’s feet swinging in front of me, and jump. Everything goes blurry as tears fill my eyes.
Rose nudges me. “Bella?”
I shake my head, trying to get rid of the memory, but it morphs into what her face looked like. Gray, red, eyes vacant and bloodshot, and tongue protruding. Mom.
I fall against Rose’s shoulder with a choked gasp. She rubs my back as I try to get myself under control. People are turning to look at me. Don’t look at me!
Meanwhile, Anna continues. “Every day there is an average of over 5,400 attempts at suicide by children in grades 7 through 12. And four out of five teens who attempt suicide have given clear warning signs.”
Oh god, did Mom? Did the 7th grade girl whose name I can’t remember?
I stare down at my knitted hands as Anna lists some of the signs that she says can appear on Twitter, Facebook or just be someone talking to you face-to-face: talking about suicide; saying I’d be better off dead; I hate my life; I won’t be bothering you much longer.
My body relaxes slightly as I realize Mom did none of those things. I didn’t miss any signs. Thank God, I’m not any more horrible now than I was five minutes ago.
“You okay now?” Rose whispers.
Not really, but I nod anyway. Just when I think I’m past what happened to Mom, it somehow crops back up again. Of all places, why did it have to be at a school assembly? Ugh.
“I used to say those things,” Anna tells us. “I even tried to take my life once. Yeah. I ate a bottle of Ambien. Thought I’d just go to sleep and never wake up.” She takes a breath. “I got lucky. I was found in time to get fed ash—which tastes just like it sounds—and got my stomach pumped.”
People are chattering, and I look at her with a new appreciation. Anna has escaped death. Although I kind of think sleeping would be better than to have to eat ash and get my stomach pumped. That sounds pretty horrible.
“I got help. I found out that people do care. You can help prevent a suicide, and you can avoid it yourself because I am here to tell you, people, that that feeling of wanting to die Does. Not. Last. And you can make a difference in someone’s life if you see them exhibiting the signs. Just listen to them, that’s all they want. That’s all I wanted—someone who’d hear me. Take the chance and make a difference.”
By the time the assembly ends, I’m feeling better, feeling energized. If I ever come across a bully, he better take two giant steps back. I flex my hand with the bruises, which have faded from purple and blue to yellow. Punching frigging hurts, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat if I had to. Even if it meant suspension.
But I’d sure hope helping to save a life would keep Dad from grounding me again.
. . .
On Tuesday morning, a little piece of paper is stuck between the slats of my locker. Actually, almost all of the lockers surrounding mine have paper sticking out from them.
“What’s that?” Rose wants to know.
I open the piece of paper.
My name is Mike Newton and I like to look at girl’s boobs without their permission.
Mouth gaping, I show it to her.
“Holy you-know-what,” she says.
“Did you—did you do this?”
“Hell no. Does that look like my writing?”
I give her a look. “It’s not handwritten, it’s printed.”
Who at this school, besides Rose, Jasper and Principal Greene, knows why I punched Mike last Tuesday? It’s not like we’d broadcasted it.
There’s a lot of laughing in the hallway surrounding us as people find more of the messages.
“I wouldn’t want to be Mike Newton today,” Rose snickers.
She looks suspiciously jolly. “You did this, didn’t you?”
“Me? I’m innocent. Wasn’t my idea.”
“Maybe it was Mr. Greene,” she gasps.
Suddenly my neck is grabbed hard. Fingers dig into my muscles and I yelp.
“You did this,” Mike says and shoves me against my locker. The door is open, and I stumble and bash my eyebrow on the corner. Sharp pain shoots across my forehead.
“Leave her alone!” Rose yells and shoves back at him. “She had nothing to do with this. It was all Edward, me and Jasper. If you have a problem with that, you need to talk to Edward.”
He shoves her off of him and pants heavily.
“In fact, Edward wants to talk to you today. After school. He said he’d be waiting for you.”
“Aw, fuck,” Mike growls.
There’s a crowd around us now. “Ohmigod, Bella’s bleeding!”
I raise my hand to my throbbing eyebrow and wince. It hurts. When I take my hand away, I see blood. A lot of blood.
“Just what is going on here?” An authoritative voice barks. I don’t know who it is. I don’t care. I’m in serious pain.
Rose hands me a wad of Kleenex and smirks at Mike. “Guess who’s going to get suspended this time?”
. . .
Mike does get suspended, but I can’t even enjoy it because Dad has to come pick me up and take me to get stitches, something that hurts like hell and makes me howl like a baby. Afterwards, my eyes are puffy and my face is splotchy from crying. I even have a big bandage taped above my eye. Now I look Mike Tyson.
“What’s going on with you and Mike Newton?” Dad wants to know on the way home.
My head leans against the passenger side window. Thank God the eyebrow that got hurt is the left one, or I wouldn’t be able to rest my pounding head.
“It was an accident,” I tell him because I don’t feel like talking. Plus, I don’t want to discuss Boobgate with him anymore.
“Listen, Bella, I’m sorry, but I don’t want you getting into fights at school. Especially with boys.”
“This wasn’t a fight,” I say dully. It wasn’t—Mike grabbed and shoved me before I could even think to defend myself.
“What’s this about? Notes that Mike Newton likes … looking at … girls?”
I sigh. “I guess someone found out what Mike tried to do last week, and got mad that he didn’t get suspended, too.”
Dad is silent while he chews on that.
“What exactly did he try to do?”
“I told you. But … do we have to talk about this now? Please. Thinking hurts.” Talking hurts. Just breathing hurts.
In answer, he lets me drift against the car window.
. . .
Edward’s pretty green eyes are dark and glowering, and there’s a furrow between his brows.
“Rose and Jasper filled me in,” he says shortly. We’re in the basement. Dad’s given me a reprieve on the no-TV thing, but he still has my phone.
I make a whimpering kind of sound and look at him unhappily. My head still feels lopsided from the swelling and the bandage that feels like it’s covering the whole side of my head.
“I don’t want to be like Mike Tyson,” I tell him. “It sucks.”
I flinch from his hand when it raises near my hurt eye, and he looks hurt in turn.
I groan and settle into a fetal position. That way he can’t touch my head, and I don’t have to look at anything. He curls his body behind mine, sensing that I want to be babied.
“I’m sorry for what he did to you,” he says and runs his fingers through my hair. I make a sound of contentment. “I feel like it’s my fault for the all the messages around the school. I obviously didn’t think it through.”
His touch is gentle, but his voice is anything but. In fact, he sounds this-close to doing violence.
“Don’t worry about it tonight,” I tell him. “Please don’t be mad tonight, okay?”
Combined with his touch and the pain pills kicking in, I float softly into a dream where I feel his lips touch my forehead, my nose, my cheek.
. . .
On Wednesday, I learn that Mike isn’t the only one upset about the notes.
Jessica and Lauren confront me by the sinks in the restroom. “Mike told me what happened,” Jessica says with ice in her voice.
I finish washing my hands and grab a paper towel. “Oh really? What’d he tell you?”
“That you can’t take a joke. That you think he wanted to look at your boobs.” And she curls her lip in amused disgust while she looks at my chest. “Or, what you think are your boobs.”
I might not be a C-cup like Jessica, but these twin bumps on my chest aren’t some kind of unfortunate growth. They’re definitely boobs, and Mike definitely wanted a look. But Jessica doesn’t want to hear that.
“Hey, you’re probably right,” I tell her and edge toward the exit. “He probably just wanted to see what color my training bra was.”
“I didn’t know they came in any color but ugly,” she snarls. “And I’m sure he could care less about what’s under your fugly t-shirts. You dress like a bum.”
“Except for the no-showering thing, I bet bums are really comfortable.”
Lauren steps to the left, halting my progress. Her sweater couldn’t be any tighter if she inhaled. She’s bigger than Jessica and me combined. “He doesn’t like you, you know.”
“Definitely not.” I point to the bandage on my head.
“He didn’t do that, either,” Jessica yells. “You’re just a damn klutz.”
I am a klutz, but she’s in denial. Is that why she’s so angry?
“I swear,” she says and steps up to me until we’re nose-and-nose. “If I hear of anything else you’ve done to get him in trouble, you’ll be sorry.”
Whoa. I’m already sorry, and I haven’t even done anything to Mike Newton. “As far as I’m concerned, Mike Newton is stricken from my vocabulary.”
“Stay away from him.”
What?! “Tell him to stay away from me,” I huff.
Jessica’s pointer finger shoves me back and to the side. “That won’t be a problem, you flat-chested gutter slut.”
I’m still reeling at the name she called me long after they’ve left.
. . .
“I used to think it was a joke, but Jessica really does think I’m after Mike,” I tell Rose and Alice. “She actually thinks I want him to look at my boobs!”
Alice pats my shoulder. “You poor, poor thing. Are you traumatized?”
“This calls for chocolate.” Rose pulls a bag of Hershey’s Miniatures from her duffle bag and dumps it onto my bed. She and Alice fight over the regular Hershey’s, while I go straight for the Special Darks.
“My hero,” I say around a bar of chocolate. I feel better already.
Rose snaps a bar in two. “We need to take care of her.”
“No! No more taking care of things. Just let it be. It’ll die down.”
Rose stares me down. “I won’t let her harass you.”
“She’s not harassing me. I don’t think. It was just the one time—”
My door abruptly opens. “What was just the one time?”
It’s Edward. Oh no.
“Um. Nothing. Girl talk,” I say and try to wave him back out the door.
Alice is aghast. “Are you spying on us?”
Edward glares at me, then looks at Alice. “Bella won’t tell me anything anymore.”
I give him an exaggerated duh look. “You can’t protect me from everything, Edward. Besides, I can handle Jessica if I need to.”
He pinches the bridge of his nose, then paces once, twice across my room.
“Alright. I’ll let you handle it,” he says, but I don’t trust him. He doesn’t look defeated. He looks … purposeful.
“What was that about?” Rose wonders after he leaves.
Alice nods. “Something tells me we’re going to find out sooner or later.”
And we do. A week or so later, Edward is going out with Jessica. Dad lets him take her to dinner and a movie, something that I’m just floored about because Dad says I can’t date until I’m 18, and Edward’s not even 17. Plus, Edward asking Jessica out hurts my feelings more than I can take. I cry about it once late at night, and once on the evening of their date.
Jessica is verbally ecstatic about their date all over school. Even if Edward wasn’t a catch because he’s older, he’s good-looking, smart and athletic. Apparently he knows how to French-kiss a French man under the table. And he’s a gentleman, he opened all of her doors for her and held her hand.
I want to kill her.
I want to hate him.
Now that Jessica is unavailable, Mike suddenly decides he likes Jessica and Jessica decides she doesn’t like him after all. So while she and her hench-girl Lauren no longer bother me at school, Jessica bothers me in my dreams. She bothers my heart.
And I won’t talk to Edward. Worse, he doesn’t make me. If anything, he avoids me, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt so low in my life.