The Squad: Chapter 13
I’m scared to walk home alone. After the events of today, I don’t want to be alone. I reach the gate that exits the school grounds, and I eye it nervously. Come on Aaron. You’ve done this before. It’s just a walk home. I don’t know why I’m so apprehensive about walking home alone. I’m not used to being this paranoid. What did I think would happen to me? I look down at my skirt. My legs bare to the no-show socks. My heart is pounding. My stomach is in knots.
I was supposed to walk home with Ellie. I wish I hadn't made her so mad at me. I’m figuratively kicking myself for doing so.
The open gate seems to taunt me. ‘A man would have no problems walking home alone. You’re not one are you?’
I shake my head trying to steel myself. Was I starting to think of myself as a girl? Monica’s words haunt me. ‘You don’t honestly see her as a boy do you? Do any of you?’ I wasn’t a man, at least I wasn’t thinking like one.
“Hey!” A voice from behind me. He startles me.
I let out a high pitched yelp. Embarrassed, I bring my hands to cup my mouth.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
My heartbeat is racing. I turn and freeze.
“Are you alright? I’m Marcus by the way.” he grins, sending me retreating a step or two.
“Hey, I didn't mean to scare you. You’re that new cheerleader, right? Erin? Do I have that right?”
My name sounds different when he says it. “Um yes, that’s right,” I reply, rather nervously.
“Are you waiting for some friends of yours?”
“Yes, I think the other members of the squad should be heading home. I was going to join them.”
“Actually, Allison told me they were going to practice in McKinley Park this afternoon. Shouldn’t you be headed there yourself?”
“Look, Allison is my girlfriend, if you’re worried about me. Here.” Marcus pulls out his cell phone and hands it to me. The lock screen has a photo of him and her together in the display. Aww. They make a cute couple. “See? I love that picture of us. It was at the Labor Day carnival a few weeks back.” A message on his phone comes up:
Ally: Hey babe, can you pick up a few bottles of water for us?
“Um, I think you have a text.” I hand Marcus back the phone.
He texts back a reply. Marcus shoves the phone in his pocket and turns to me. “Hey, if you are headed to the park, I can walk with you; I mean if you’re worried about walking there alone.”
An escort would be nice. Plus it gives me a chance to speak with Ellie. Perhaps the girls have calmed her down. I accept the offer. I probably wouldn’t have had it not been for Allison’s text message.
“So how did you end up as a cheerleader in your freshman year?”
“How did you know I was a freshman?”
“Aside from the fact that you wear almost no makeup for a cheerleader, and look like your 12?”
“I’m thirteen, I’ll be fourteen in a month.”
“Fair enough. None of the girls were cheerleaders in freshman year, at least none that I’ve heard of. You must really be talented.”
“My sister Amber is on the squad. Well, at least she was before she got hurt.”
“I heard that too. I’ve got to say, you must have been really jealous to pull that prank on your own sister. I didn’t know girls would do that to each other.”
“I was stupid. I’m paying for it now.”
“Oh jeez, it must be real hell being a pretty girl on the cheerleading squad, huh? Yeah, you’re really paying for it…” his words drip with sarcasm. He flashes me a smile. “At least you’re over that tomboy phase.”
I thought of breaking the news to him that I wasn’t a girl. I wasn’t sure how he’d take the news that I was really a boy. “It’s hard work being on the squad. And it’s not like I had a choice. Amber would have lost her spot on the squad if I didn’t join.”
“Cry me a river, princess. I’ve seen you at practice. You loved being on the squad.” He says with almost a chortle. “Come on, Ally and the squad are waiting.”
We stop by a convenience store to pick up some bottles of water. I don’t have any money, but Marcus kindly offers me a bottle of water. Just as he’s about to hand it to me, he pulls it away, he twists the cap off with his thumb and index finger while holding the bottle with his palm and three remaining fingers. His other hand was holding the bag filled with bottles of water. I’m impressed. He hands the bottle back to me. He murmurs a “Sorry.”
Having Marcus there to walk me to the park calmed me, much like Ellie did on the way to school. Marcus said very little after leaving the convenience store. He occasionally brought his own bottle of water to his lips to gulp down a mouthful.
We approached the park. I could see the girls in their uniforms. Six of them were in formation. Ellie sits at one of the park benches watching the squad run through their routine. It struck me as odd that she wouldn’t be part of the formation. It was then that I remembered she was made an ‘alternate’ since the squad was officially reduced to six. When Amber was removed from the squad, Ellie was made an alternate. That must be why she was so mad about the prank. She was upset at being made an alternate. Being sidelined meant she wouldn’t be able to perform with the girls. She would be relegated to watching the squad. She must have felt like an outcast. Her reason for being mad at me came into focus. My heart sank.
“Oh good, you made it.” Monica smiles at me. “I’m glad you came, we’re practicing the routine. When Amber was officially taken off the squad we had to re-choreograph it for six. So you and Ellie don’t really need to do anything but watch.” My eyes drift towards Ellie. Her sad expression sours further. At least she hasn’t turned the squad against me.
Allison smiles and runs over to Marcus giving him a kiss. “You are a life saver.” She grabs a bottle of water from the plastic bag, and the rest of the girls approached us leaving Ellie behind to smolder.
I walk over towards Ellie. Her stare could burn through steel. The girls are drinking and chatting, trying to relax.
“Ellie, I’m sorry I didn’t realize…” I start, “But, you have to believe me,” I murmur. “I didn’t mean for all this to happen when I pulled the prank. You’re like a sister to me. I wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to you.”
She looks at me, her eyes cold and hurt. “And we know how well you treat your own sister, don’t we.” She walks past me to join the rest of the squad. It feels like a knife was plunged into my heart. I have my back to the squad. It hides the tears I’m now shedding. I lower my head and walk away from the squad. I’m in a daze.
Why did I come here? What was I expecting? I take off running as fast as I can, trying to outrun the pain. It stalks me. I slow as I pass the community center. There’s nobody in the office. The doors are closed. I round the corner of the building. My heart still aching from Ellie’s allusion to Amber, her fall, and my prank. I rest my back against the red brick wall. It's the only thing holding me upright. My fingers trace the crease between bricks behind me, the flood of tears pours out of me as my anguish pulls me to the ground.
My fit of sobbing subsides. I stare through bloodshot eyes at the playground in the distance. The breeze picks up, rustling the trees as the leaves fall. I hear the scrape of fallen leaves on the concrete of the playground. Ellie hurt me. It was more than I thought possible. The wind sends the swings in motion. They pendulum in the distance. I thought back on the first day I met the squad here at McKinley Park. That first encounter with Lisa and Cindy. The note that Monica left at my door. How I sat on the swing trying to contemplate the loneliness of my life. At that point, the note seemed to be my lifeline. A connection? What did I have left? The swings beckon me.
As I push myself up off the ground, I lethargically approach the swings and have a seat on one of them. I was hoping that somehow, it would cheer me up. I swing lazily back and forth as my shoes burrow into the sand. I kick up some sand with my feet and watch it rain back down. I rest my head on the cold, rusted chain on the swing. I feel my finger run over the links up and down as I look around. I feel my chest tighten. I’m alone again. I hated being alone. Taylor’s gone, my sister won’t talk to me, my parents ignore me, Ellie hates me, and I hate me. What’s left? Ellie was my last chance to salvage what little I had in the way of true friends. There was nobody left. There’s nobody here. Nobody cares. Nobody to stop me. I look up at the long chain suspended by the cross arm. I stand and wrap the chain around my hand and pull.
I pull the swing with me as I approach the adjacent swing. I only need the chain. I’m not even sure that it’s me doing this, my head clouded with despair. I stand on the saddle of the swing, balancing myself on it. I feel the cold chain of the free swing wrap around me like a scarf. Once, Twice, Thrice… All I need is for my feet to give way. My tennis shoe slides off the plastic rubber seat. I feel the chain tighten around my neck. I gasp for air but to no avail. My vision fades. I feel myself slowly suffocate, everything slowly goes dark.
I hear the faint sound of birds in the distance and the wind through the trees. I’m not expecting anyone to come looking for me. Why should they?
Darkness. I feel like I’m supine, being pulled upward as If levitating. I’m dead, I know it There is nothing touching me. Like I’m held in midair. I’m falling.
I hear crying. I shouldn’t hear anything, should I? I hear it. It’s faint, but it’s still there.
I still see nothing.
“How could she? Was it so bad?” The voices are all around me.
“Didn’t she try to talk to someone?” a voice to my left.
“Anybody knows why?” a different voice to my right.
A voice in the darkness… “Hey, here goes nothing.” Taylor?
I pick my head up. My vision comes into focus. I'm laying on the grass. “What happened?”
“What do you mean, ‘What happened?’ Nothing happened.” Taylor’s voice reverbs next to me. My head jerks towards him. He’s laying on the grass with his hands crossed behind his head.
“How did I get off the swing? Why am I not dead.” I’m trying to find my bearings.
“The swing? Dead? Erin, what are you talking about?”
“I… I was on the swing. At the park? You… YOU were expelled.”
“I was expelled for you being on the swing?”
“No, for pulling me into the men’s room.”
“Why would I pull you into the men’s room? The women’s would be cleaner…” his brows raise and lower rapidly.
“Cleaner? for what?”
“Never-mind that, you said ‘I was expelled?’ That must have sucked.”
“Yes, Dr. Corning expelled you for pulling me into the men’s room. They thought you assaulted me.”
“Erin, why would anyone think that I assaulted you?”
“Because you grabbed me.” I reach for my wrist to caress it. “Then, you pulled me into the restroom to ask me why I was wearing the cheerleader uniform.”
“You? A cheerleader? Like, ‘Rah-Rah, go, fight, win?’ kind of cheerleader?” He mockingly punches his fist in the air.
I glare at him.
“Sorry, it’s hard to imagine you as a cheerleader. You were never exactly the school spirit type of girl.”
“I’m not a girl”
“You could have fooled me. You kiss like one.”
“Gross! What’s the matter with you?”
“Gross? What’s gotten into you.” He picks his head off the grass, eyeing me curiously.
“Me? Why would you even joke about kissing me?”
“Joke? Who’s joking.” He leans into me and I pull back.
“What are you doing?”
“I was trying to kiss my girlfriend. Hey, are we having a fight? Did I do something wrong?”
I look into his eyes and feel my heart flutter. “No… What was I saying?”
He moves in towards me and I close my eyes. Everything goes dark.
I feel myself rise again, I can’t move. Coldness washes over me. It fills me and fades.
I hear more crying.
“I’m so sorry baby, I didn’t know. I should have been paying attention. We saw the note in your backpack. We didn’t know you were unhappy being a boy. Come back to us my darling girl.”
Mom? Is that you? Mom? The note? Dr. Corning’s note? NO! I try to speak the words, I should be talking, but no air pushes through my lungs. My larynx is still. No air passes out of my mouth.
“Please, come back to us. I love you.”
Amber? her voice is tired.
A flash of light.
“It’s been a month already. There’s still brain activity. We don’t know when or if she will wake. These things take time.” I’m not sure who is saying that, but I’m convinced that I didn’t succeed in taking my own life. I don’t know whether I should be sad or relieved?
I’m bit disoriented. I’m sitting up. I think I’m on top of a bed. I feel a tug on my hair. I open my eyes. “Honestly, Erin. You really should take better care of your hair. It’s all knotted up back here.”
“Yes, honey. Hold still. This mat of hair you’ve got here is tough to straighten out.” I feel another tug on my hair.
I’m sitting on a bed in a room that is completely unfamiliar to me. The room is definitely feminine, but it’s not Amber’s. “What happened? Wasn’t I in the hospital or something?”
“Erin, honey you’ve been here with me this whole time. What are you talking about young lady?”
“Young lady? I’m not a girl. Mom.”
“Not a girl? Erin sweetheart, where would you come up with such foolishness?
“I was born a boy. why are you treating me like a girl?”
“You a boy? You were never anything but my precious baby girl. Now sit still, if I don’t get these knots out of your hair we won’t be able to do a thing with it.”
My vision starts to fade I close my eyes and try to relax.
I feel myself being pulled upward again. I feel a chill radiate through me. I don’t feel like I have control over my body. I can’t move my arms or legs even though I know they should be as I try to flail them. I start falling, the speed of my descent more rapid with each second. It feels like an eternity. I’m slowing, but nothing breaks my fall.
I see more flashes of light randomly placed. It pierces the darkness, but there's no sound. It feels like I’m in a pool, floating to the surface.
“I’m so sorry, please come back to us. We miss you. I miss you.”
Ellie? Ellie please forgive me. The last thing I wanted to do was hurt you. I’m so sorry.
I smell roses.
“Are you still in there? Sorry, I haven’t visited for a while. School has been hectic. People are still asking how my sister is doing. I’m still getting used to that. Please hear me. I love you.”
Amber, I love you too.
It feels like I’m swallowing, but nothing moves in or out of my throat.
“Mom and Dad say that I have to face the fact that you may not be coming back to us.”
Amber? Have you been crying?
“I know you could hear me. Just like I heard you. You said ‘I need you.’ Please come back to us. I need my sister too. Please come back to us. I love you so much.”
Sister? Did Amber just call me her sister?
I feel something grasp my hand. I feel a squeeze. I feel myself squeeze back.
“She squeezed my hand! She squeezed my hand! Dad!”
“She’s not moving, maybe it was involuntary?” It sounds like dad.
“No. You've got to believe me. She squeezed my hand!”
“Amber, honey you’ve got to calm down.” Mom chimes in from across the room.
“I’m not going to calm down! I’m telling you she squeezed my hand!”
“Sis, please for me, squeeze, one more time!” Amber pleads with me. I sense the desperation in her voice. “Please, I didn't imagine it. You have to believe me.”
“Sorry. I don’t feel anything. Are you sure?” another voice I’m not familiar with.
I’m trying to squeeze. Nothing is happening.
“Sis, please squeeze for me. Please, I miss you so much.” Amber pleads. “You can hear me, I know it. Please, show us you hear me!”
“Honey, you’ve been here all day, perhaps you should get some rest.” I think that was Mom again.
“No, I know what I felt!” Amber’s voice grows more desperate, “I know she can hear me. I’m not leaving.” She’s begging me, "I know it’s been hard and I know you may not want to be with us. But, I love you so much. Please show us you can hear us. Please!”
Squeeze, I have to squeeze…
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