She woke up to the sound of screaming.
She always woke up to the sound of screaming. Ryann scrunched her eyes against it for a minute and then rubbed her face in exhaustion. Eventually, she heaved herself from bed and lumbered into the living room.
“Hey, heyheyhey,” she whispered. “It’s okay.”
She picked up Charlie and put him in his rocker on the floor, tipping it gently back and forth with her foot as she opened the fridge.
Her younger brother, James, was still snoring loudly a couple of rooms over, but she waited until Charlie was clean and fed to pop her head in and wake him up.
“Get up, it’s six forty-five.”
James just sighed and flopped over.
“Seriously, James.” Ryann pushed herself into James’s room, kicking dirty clothes and magazines out of the way. She yanked his dresser open and pulled out a pair of torn jeans and a black T-shirt and tossed them on James’s bed.
“I’m leaving in ten minutes.” She slammed the door shut behind her.
Ryann wiped Charlie’s face clean and buttoned him up into his cold-weather onesie. She packed the baby some food and then dropped him off with their neighbor Ms. Worthing.
By the time she got back, James was awake, dressed, and smoking on the front stairs.
“Did you eat yet?” she asked.
He stared at Ryann blankly, eyes bleary with exhaustion. His purple hair was a tangled nest. Ryann sighed in exasperation and went back inside so that she could grab some granola bars and her leather jacket.
She tossed one bar into his lap on her way out and hopped onto her motorcycle. Ryann waited patiently until she felt James sluggishly climb on behind her and put his arms loosely around her waist. Then she took off up the highway to the next town over.
The Bird siblings had had many good things snatched from them.
Their father had been a handyman with a small business and loyal clients. He’d had a big red beard and large hands and a laugh that echoed over fields and hills. Their mother had been a mathematician working for NASA. They loved their wild tall girl and small round boy as best they could. But, one bright morning, they died. Sometimes, people just die.
A little while afterward, James stopped talking altogether. Then, a year later he brought a baby home. A baby with red hair, owlish eyes, and a laugh that echoed. Ryann had questions, but James never answered them. And like on that terrible bright morning a year before, she swallowed hard, tightened her shoelaces, and stood up to meet it.
So there they were:
Sitting in the ruins of the best that they could build.
And it would always have to be enough.
There was a larger town near the one Ryann Bird lived in. Ryann drove them miles to get there every morning.
It didn’t have a trailer park where girls could live, snug with their little brother and his baby. Or a Laundromat where most of the machines were broken. Or a big parking lot that was supposed to become a grocery store, but didn’t.
This town had a school and a mall and the sort of families who made sure both kids ate their breakfast before they left the house. Who drove them to school in luxury cars and made sure they had school supplies.
It was the best in the district. They were lucky it was that close.
Ryann tucked her bike behind the school in the lot where teachers liked to park. James hopped off, smacked her on the shoulder in thanks, and ran to class. Ryann swung her bookbag over her shoulder and walked slowly into the building.
Ryann was always late, so she didn’t bother to hurry. She used to run to get to her seat, but none of the teachers ever gave her a break so she just figured, why even bother?
She knew what she looked like, and she looked like trouble. So she was nearly always in it regardless of the circumstances.
Ryann had been trimming her wild black hair herself since junior year and it showed. After the bright morning accident, she had a deep scar on one cheekbone, and no matter how much concealer she used, nothing ever quite hid it. Then, to make things worse, she’d become so exhausted and red-eyed since Charlie arrived that she kept getting accused of being high even though she didn’t even smoke. She looked meaner and harder than she had any business looking at this nice rich school in this nice rich neighborhood. So she just became what she looked like. It was easier than fighting it.
Ryann slammed the door open and walked in, passing right in front of the room, obscuring the light of the projector.
“Always a pleasure, Ryann,” Mrs. Marsh, their history teacher, drawled sarcastically.
Ryann trudged to a chair in the back of the room. She dropped her bookbag on the floor, then tapped the kid in front of her on the back to ask for a pencil. Jefferson, who sat in front of her most of the time and generally had loads of pencils, waved his empty pencil case. He reached forward and tapped the girl in front of him on the shoulder.
“Hey. Ryann Bird needs a pencil.”
The girl didn’t even turn around. She just sat ramrod straight in her chair and said very quietly. “Ryann can bring her own pencils to school. Just like everyone else.”
It was deafeningly quiet. Mrs. Marsh cleared her throat meaningfully.
“Any student who needs a pencil can get one from the pencil jar on the front of my desk.” she said, looking at Ryann pointedly.
Ryann got up, went to the front of the room, and grabbed a few.
As she walked back to her desk, she reached out and let her fingertips glide over the top of the desk of the girl who’d denied her. As gentle and silent as a promise.
Their town was small. New residents couldn’t escape scrutiny if they tried, but this was definitely the first time Ryann had seen this girl at her school. Even so, Ryann couldn’t quite shake the feeling that she was familiar somehow.
She hadn’t been called on in class at all, so Ryann didn’t know her name. She was brand-new, so it wasn’t like Ryann could look her up on Facebook by looking up mutual friends from school and scouring their network for her name.
And she looked different.
She was at least half black—which was rare here. This town was unfortunately pretty homogenous.
She had very short bleached-blond hair and severe, thunderous eyebrows. Her mouth had been tight and angry looking—which was rich because she was the one being rude.
Ryann stared at the back of the girl’s head and tapped her pencil against the side of her desk.
The bell rang. Ryann shoved her things back into her bookbag and rushed toward the door.
“Miss Bird, can I see you for a minute?”
A wave of exhaustion and irritation swept over her, but Ryann turned around to face her history teacher.
“Come wait by my desk.”
Mrs. Marsh wiped off the projector and cleared the whiteboard while the rest of the students filed out. When the last person besides Ryann had gone, she closed the door.
She settled back down at her desk and pushed a small stack of worksheets to the side. “I have a favor to ask you.”
“Will I get extra credit?” Ryann crossed her arms and stared down at Mrs. Marsh.
“Hmmm … maybe I’ll round up when we do a bell curve.”
Ryann nodded. “Continue.”
“As you noticed, we have a new student with us. Her name is Alexandria Macallough.”
“Rude girl, won’t make direct eye contact?” Ryann asked.
“Yes. Now, I know that normally a request like this wouldn’t come to someone like you naturally, but it would be a huge help if you could look after her a bit. She’s going to have some difficulty adjusting and making friends here, and from what I can see, you have a bit of a track record for reaching out to people like that. Plus with the circumstances—”
“What circumstances?” Ryann interrupted.
Mrs. Marsh explained further. Ryann nodded and relaxed a bit as she listened.
“That’s different,” she said when Mrs. Marsh finished. “I thought you were going to ask me something else. But yeah, it’s no problem. I’ll see if I can get her to open up.”
“I’m sorry. This is such a difficult circumstance for me. I’ve never had to assign someone to befriend someone else before,” Mrs. Marsh admitted. “But I just felt like you might be the only person who could reach out in a way that would work.”
Ryann snorted. “Well, that’s flattering. Are you going to want to check in with me about it?”
“Maybe every few weeks or so. It’s important, but not so important that we need to meet every day,” Mrs. Marsh said.
“Hmm.” Ryann crossed her arms again and thought about it for a bit.
“I would really appreciate it and I’m sure Alexandria would, too,” Mrs. Marsh said softly.
Ryann’s phone buzzed in her pocket, so she whipped it out. Her best friend, Ahmed, had texted a bunch of question marks. She sent back a single exclamation point.
“I’ve gotta go, but we’ve got a deal. If you don’t want to do regular meetings, I’ll just swing by after class if I have any questions or updates.” Ryann walked over to the door, but stopped right before stepping through it. “And thanks for the bell curve leniency.” She smirked.
Mrs. Marsh rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah, you’re welcome. Go to your next class before I have to write you a pass.”
Copyright © 2019 by Kayla Ancrum