11 Nov

A thin stream of light has poked through my curtains, its straight path cutting across my face. I sit up groggily, glancing at my clock. 6:43. Six plus four plus three.Thirteen. It’s going to be a long day.

I stumble into the bathroom, locking the door behind me. My little brothers have yet to learn the fine art of knocking. I jiggle the handle, opening the lock,and then lock it again. I do that a few more times, just to be sure. I pick up my toothbrush and carefully apply toothpaste. One, two, three drops. Three is a good number. Three is safe. The third drop slides off the bristles and lands in the sink. Sighing, I rinse the toothbrush in hot water and start over. One, two, three.

I’m late to school again. A brother touched my glass of orange juice, the side of his fist rubbing against it as he reached for a napkin. My mother begged me with her sad brown eyes to ignore it. I didn’t look at her as I poured the full glass into the sink.

I spin the lock on my locker one, two, three times before opening. Carefully, I arrange my books in height order, facing the same way. My jacket drapes over my algebra textbook. I readjust it, only to find it rubbing corners with Shakespeare. The bell rings and everyone around me rushes to class. Move to follow, then stop, as if tethered by a leash. Resigned, I turn back to my jacket.

Math is first period. The teacher gives me disapproving look as I slink into my seat, ten minutes late. He hands me a test, making it clear that I will not receive any extra time. I study the first problem: 2x + 3 = 25. I know the answer without even needing to consult my calculator. X = 11. My hand hovers over the paper, my pencil shaking. Eleven. Eleven is cold. Eleven is dangerous. I write down 12. My heart stops pounding. Twelve can be divided by three, 12 is safe.

We have a new student teacher in English. She’s beautiful, with soft brown skin and piercing blue eyes. Her hair is short and curly, pushed back with a headband, the sort of thing that makes most people look babyish. On her, it looks funky and professional at the same time. She writes her name in loopy cursive on the board.Miss Johnson. I close my eyes and imagine myself as she must be,carefree and confident, all her problems solved by the right pair of shoes and a double mocha grande. I wish I could leap out of my life and parachute gracefully into hers. I’d be fine landing anywhere other than where I am.

At midnight, my mom comes into my room. I am squinting at my homework rubbed raw with eraser marks. She begs me to turn off the lights and go to sleep but the letters won’t let me.The bottoms of seven R’s dip beneath the soft blue line, and none of the T’s seem to be crossed in the center. Reaching in my drawer for a new eraser, I get back to work.

The next day I hurry to get to English early, securing a seat in the front row center. I breathe a sigh of relief that Miss Johnson is still there. Good things usually tend to slip through my fingers. I knock three times on my desk. I see that my mind has not done much to fabricate the woman I spent most of last night thinking about. Smiling, she starts writing notes on the blackboard. I try to keep up, but the O’s keep bumping into the P’s, so I put my pencil down and content myself with watching her talk, attempting to commit everything to memory.

Somewhere in the middle of the lesson, Miss Johnson is done writing notes. She places the chalk on the tray, carefully aligning it with the other pieces.Largest to smallest. She reaches into her bag and pulls out a wipe,furiously scrubbing chalk from the creases of her large hands. Although no on else notices, my shock blazes in strobe lights flashing above my desk. Her blue eyes see me staring. They also see my pencils, lined up perfectly. Largest to smallest. They see the way my hands are rubbed raw, like hers. At the end of class she pulls me aside.

“I’m here when you’re ready,” she says.I rush away without saying a word. Maybe she knows. I knock three times on the door frame. Maybe not.

I am supposed to be babysitting,“supposed” being the operative word. Everything was going fine until a brother threw up. He looked so pale and helpless as he sat there crying. I am his big sister. He needs me to take care of him. Haven’t left the shower in an hour and a half.

My mom doesn’t yell at me. She comes home and surveys the situation,which includes brothers sleeping in their clothes in front of the TV,and a mess fermenting in the kitchen. I am still in the shower. When I finally emerge, she just looks at me with those sad, tired brown eyes. I shake my head, and she leaves.

Now I am in English, hiding in the back row. Miss Johnson doesn’t have sad brown eyes. Hers are a strong blue. An understanding blue? I stare at my desk, afraid to find out.

The math teacher called today. My mother doesn’t understand how I can be failing math. I used to be the star student. I tell her it’s a difficult topic. She tells me I’m a difficult student. A dam inside of me breaks and suddenly I am crying,telling her that she’s the worst mother ever. I rant about her leaving me with the brothers. About how she won’t buy me a cellphone. About how I can’t have my own TV and am forced to wait for“Power Rangers” to end to watch my shows. I don’t mention why she never asks me why I’m like this. It doesn’t even cross my mind to ask her why she hasn’t done anything to help.

I have been thinking a lot about what I said to my mom. I’ve been thinking even more about what I didn’t say. I didn’t sleep all night. My room has never been cleaner. I must have napped for a while in the morning, though, because I open my eyes and it’s 6:21. Six plus two plus one. Nine. There is no stronger number. I know what I have to do.

Today in English I can hardly stop fidgeting. I rap my desk in intervals of three, but even the divine number seems to have lost some of its power. The bell rings and I walkover to Miss Johnson, then abruptly change direction and start toward the door. No, I can no longer deny I need help. Gathering all my courage, I walk to her. She senses what I am about to do and puts down her book. For a moment I look into her eyes. There’s no mistaking that there is anything there besides understanding. They welcome me.It’s usually hard for me to find things to say, but she has already given me my parachute. She smiles. I find myself smiling back.

“I’m ready,” I say.


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