Sweat mixed with tears and poured down my face as I woke with a gasp. I’d been dreaming about her again. My mother. Every time I went to sleep, I was taken back to when I was five years old, trembling in a corner, as she yelled at me.
“You’re nothing but a leech,” she’d screamed. “I never even wanted you. Look what you did to me.” Then she would lift her shirt and bare herself to show me nonexistent stretch marks around her belly, leftover pregnancy fat that was long gone, and breasts she claimed were sagging because she’d had to feed me. I knew for a fact now that she’d never breastfed me a day in her life, and the sagging was due to age and lack of proper exercise. But back when I was five, I’d really believed I’d been the cause of her body’s deformities, which I couldn’t see but had to be there because she was Mother and couldn’t possibly lie. She’d go on cursing at me, telling me I was a creepy child who did nothing but spout nonsense and useless information about things nobody cared about. And every time I mentioned an interesting fact about the flowers that a man sent her, she’d slap me across the face.
Sometimes the nightmares changed and carried me back to when I’d been huddling in a closet, listening for when the grunting and moaning stopped because then Mother would finally let me out. But when she did, sometimes it only got worse, depending on her lover. A few times she’d gone to shower in the bathroom, and the man would stand naked from the bed, smile at me, and come over. Then he’d caress my face or ask me to touch him in weird places and it felt so uncomfortable, although I couldn’t quite explain why, and I just wished I could blend into the wallpaper. Thankfully, those few times the man had tried to get me to touch him, Mother came out of the shower, and the man pretended that nothing happened.
Now I sat up in my bed and tried to remember that this was the present. I was safe in Lockhart Mansion, living with Grandmother, and Mother and her evil lovers were far, far away.
The afternoon sun streamed through the windows, casting light on all the Delphinium consolida I’d put up in the room. I was surrounded by a wall of pink, but it couldn’t harm me. I could stare at it for hours, yell at it all I wanted, and it wouldn’t yell back or slap me like Mother would. She was now a flower to me, and nothing more.
I slowly got out of bed, testing my legs, and when they didn’t wobble, I walked towards the pink and plucked one of the flowers. Then I stared at it and whispered, “I hate you.” And then I ripped it into shreds and threw the ruined petals into the air. It rained down like confetti.
“I hate you,” I said it louder this time, ripping another flower to shreds. Then another, and another, those three words growing louder as I threw them from my lips like poisonous darts, hoping they would reach Mother wherever she was and hurt her worse than she’d hurt me.
I’d never said those three words out loud before, only thought them in my head. But as I repeated the words, destroying flower after flower, I still didn’t feel the relief I’d been expecting from hearing the words being spoken. The opposite, in fact. I felt worse. Because no matter how much I hated her, nothing was going to change. She was always going to haunt me, and even though she was still alive, she still didn’t care at all about me and probably never would.
I collapsed onto a heap of shredded flowers, weeping. I wasn’t quite throwing another tantrum—I think I’d tired myself out from those these past few days—but I still wasn’t in control of myself.
Finally, I ran out of tears and just sat on the floor, staring out the window at the garden. I wanted to be there. It was the only place where I could go and be myself without worrying about being conceived as a freak. I wasn’t sure how long I’d been confined to my room, but I thought it might be Wednesday, which meant I’d been sick for about five days.
I needed my garden. Peeking out the crack in the door, I saw that no one was there. Grandmother was at work, and Betsy was probably somewhere downstairs, doing chores. I had no idea where the four thieves were, maybe still at school, but if they were home, they wouldn’t be anywhere near my room. Betsy told me they’d asked about me, but they hadn’t visited at all. Not that I cared.
Without changing out of my pajamas, I grabbed a sweater and shoes and snuck out. I’d been kept out of my garden long enough. The servants were too busy to notice as I passed through the halls, down the stairs, and out the back entrance. As soon as I stepped out the door, I took a deep breath of fresh air and felt a calmness I hadn’t felt in weeks. Although I wanted to run wild, I made sure to walk, as I still felt a little dizzy. I wandered through the lavender, inhaling its pungent fragrance as I brushed my fingers through the bushes. After lingering there a moment longer, I decided to visit the sunflower patch. They were my favorite flowers to confide in because they were so tall and bright, and their petals were always broad and wide, as though they were welcoming me with open arms.
I glided through the sunflowers, soaking in the warmth of the sun and casting all my cares into the open, letting the flowers take away my burdens. I told them all about my mother and how every day I’d spent living with her felt like a nightmare from which I couldn’t wake. I cried about all those times she’d stuffed me in the closet, all those times she’d blamed me for something I didn’t do or took her lover’s side over mine, and all those times she’d left me in the hotel while I slept and how I’d been so scared when I woke in the dark room alone and didn’t know if she was ever coming back. I complained about how ever since the four thieves came to the mansion, I hadn’t been able to comfortably blend into the background. Instead, I was the star circus freak at school, and I couldn’t even walk to class without someone creaming my hair or slamming their elbow into my side.
And the sunflowers didn’t say a word, didn’t judge me, didn’t tell me to stop being a spoiled little crybaby. They just listened and let me cry my heart out.
When I was done, I lay on the ground, staring up at the sunny faces as they smiled down on me. A tender breeze whistled through the stems and brushed across my face in a tender caress, drying my tears. For a long moment, I simply closed my eyes and lay unmoving, but then I heard a sound that made me sit up abruptly. It was a rustling that was not the wind blowing through the flowers. It sounded like someone flipping through paper. Was someone there in the sunflower field with me? Had they heard me cry over my mother and school?
The rustling sounded again, this time accompanied by scribbling. There was definitely someone there. I followed the sound, parting away the sunflowers, and then I saw the person who was making the noise. Heath was sitting on the ground, legs crossed with a sketchbook laid out before him, as he busily sketched the sunflowers and the sky. He must have heard me by now, but he didn’t acknowledge my presence.
Finally, I was forced to clear my throat, and his head turned at the noise. He seemed surprised to see me, although I wasn’t too sure since I’d always had a hard time picking up on emotions. Still, Heath was my emotions tutor, and he made me practice recognizing emotions by putting on different facial expressions, and this definitely looked like his surprised face. That made me feel a little bit of relief because it meant maybe he hadn’t heard me cry after all.
“Emma, what are you doing here? You’re sick. You should be in bed.”
I shook my head. “I’m feeling better. I wanted some fresh air.” I gazed curiously at his sketchbook.
He saw where my gaze was directed and grinned. “I probably should be doing homework, but after spending all day in a classroom, I wanted some fresh air too.”
“May I see?” I gestured to the sketchbook.
He passed it to me and said, “I’ve been getting a lot of inspiration from this garden recently. It’s so peaceful out here.”
I flipped through the pages, admiring each sketch I saw. Heath was very talented. Even though the sketches were in black and white, I still felt like I could step into the page and be a part of the sketch. He’d drawn the cherry blossom grove, with full clusters of bright petals falling off like flakes of snow every time the wind blew through the trees. Then there were various sketches of the west side of the garden, which featured the Crimson Pagoda and the Jade Bridge that overlooked Emerald Pond. He’d also drawn at least a dozen different types of flowers—orchids, daisies, cornflowers, tulips, and now sunflowers.
“These are good,” I said. “But you can’t draw any more flowers in another week or so.”
“Why not?” He frowned. “Am I offending you or Mrs. Lockhart?”
“Oh no,” I said. “I just meant you’ll have to find some new inspiration because it’s already autumn. The weather’s going to get colder, and the flowers will either start dying or get pruned. You can still draw the perennials though. Or the trees.”
“Oh, I forgot about that,” he said.
I handed back the sketchbook to him and stood up, tugging his hand to follow me. “You’re done with the sunflowers, right? Come with me.”
He nodded and gave me what seemed to be a curious look. “Why? Where are we going?”
“There’s one place you haven’t sketched yet, and you need to sketch it,” I said. “They’re pruning the roses this weekend.”
He stood up, this time looking excited. “The rose garden. I almost forgot about that. Yes, the roses are definitely a must.” We took a few steps through the field before he stopped again. “Emma, you’re not referring to flowers by their scientific names anymore.”
I paused to think about this and realized Heath was right. I hadn’t even been thinking of flowers by their scientific names in my head ever since I’d come out to the garden. “I guess I haven’t. Maybe all of this tutoring is actually working.” For weeks, the four thieves had been trying to get me to stop referring to flowers by their scientific names, claiming the average person had no idea what I was talking about if I didn’t say the common names. I’d told them it wasn’t my fault if someone was too stupid to understand, and I wasn’t going to change, but here I was changing.
The thought made me remember that the four thieves were just my tutors, hired by Grandmother to change me into someone more normal. And here I was, acting as though Heath were really my friend. Immediately, I dropped his hand and continued to walk alone.
He called after me. “Emma, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I just don’t feel like talking. Follow me. I’ll take you to the rosa garden.” I purposely used the Latin word.
He didn’t say anything again until we arrived in front of the roses.
Then when I immediately tried to leave, he grabbed my hand. “Emma, you’re mad again, and I want to know why. You know I consider you as my friend, don’t you? So friends can share anything with each other.”
I whirled around to face him. “You four don’t think of me as your friend. I’m just a project to you. A means towards attaining your college tuition money.”
“That’s not true.” Heath shook his head frantically. “We might want that tuition money, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to be your friends. At least for me, even if I never get the chance to attend art school, I’d still want you as my friend. And I know Marcus feels horrible for calling you a leech. He didn’t know your mother—”
Heath cut himself off and swore, realizing his blunder.
I gaped up at him. “You guys know?”
“Your grandma told Marcus, and he told us,” Heath confessed. “And I heard you in the sunflower field. I just pretended not to because I knew you’d be embarrassed.”
I didn’t know what to say. This was the worst thing that could have happened. Now they were pitying me. They were going to make me their pity friend.
“I don’t pity you,” Heath said, making me realize I’d spoken out loud. “In fact, I envy you.”
I waited for him to explain, but instead he was silent and just walked to a stone ledge to take a seat. It was then that I noticed he was limping.
“Did you hurt yourself?” I asked.
He stared at me strangely.
His strange stare turned stranger. “You mean you just noticed?”
“Yes, I just noticed, or I would have said something earlier,” I said. “If you’d told me you were hurt, I wouldn’t have walked so fast.”
Heath shook his head, looking incredulous. At least I thought it was incredulity. “I’ve had this limp ever since I can remember. I can’t believe you didn’t realize it until now. We’ve only seen each other every day for the past two months”
“Well, I’m not a very observant person,” I tried to sound apologetic. “I wasn’t staring at your feet.”
I thought he muttered something like, well, you’re the only one, but I wasn’t sure. “Sit down, Emma. Let me tell you a story.”
Despite being embarrassed that the four thieves now knew about my past, I sat because I was curious what story Heath would tell me. Maybe he would tell me some secret about himself, and we’d be even.
“I envy you,” he repeated. “Because even though you had a horrible mother, you had a father and grandmother who loved you enough to rescue you. I had no one. And this—” he pointed to his foot, “—is the evidence.”
He set his sketchbook and pencils on the other side of him before turning to face me fully. I could see something in his eyes—sadness maybe. “I was found in a dumpster, Emma. A dumpster.”
I hadn’t known that. My eyes went wide with shock. I hadn’t even known that sort of thing could happen.
“My umbilical cord was still attached,” he continued. “And some heavy piece of garbage smashed part of my foot. That’s how I ended up with this limp.” As he stared at me, I could see his eyes glazing over with unshed tears. He blinked them away. “My mother didn’t want me. I don’t even know why she didn’t just abort me. I don’t know why someone didn’t stop her from throwing me into the garbage as though I were a piece of molding meatloaf. Where was my dad? Did he not want me either, or did he just not know of my existence?
“If my foot hadn’t been smashed, maybe I would have been a champion marathon runner. What if my hand had been smashed instead? Then I would never have known I could draw.”
He shrugged his shoulders in a helpless motion and sighed. “So many questions, but I’ll never have the answers. The reason I’m telling you this,” he added, “is because I heard you ask why. Why did your mom treat you that way? Did she ever really love you?” He shook his head, not to say no, but to say he didn’t know. “Sometimes questions just don’t have answers. Sometimes we’ll never know why people do the things they do—why my parents threw me away in the garbage, why your mother was the way she was. We’ll never know, and we have to accept that we’ll never know.”
“We’ll never know,” I repeated thoughtfully. Heath had given me a lot to think about. I’d always asked the whys and the what ifs, and I’d always wished for an answer. But it was true. I’d never have an answer, and maybe it was time to just accept that as fact.
“D-do you hate them? Your parents?” I asked.
Heath let out a humorless laugh. “I hate what they did, but I can’t hate them. I don’t know them. Maybe they had a reason for throwing me away—panic, desperation.”
“I hate my mother,” I said bitterly. “And you should hate yours too. It’s not right for someone to throw away their child, no matter what the reason.”
“No, it’s not right,” Heath agreed. “But it doesn’t mean we should keep hating them forever. What good would that do? Things happened the way they did, and hating them isn’t going to change anything. We need to move on and focus on the future, not the past. Because if we let the past continue to bother us, we’re letting our parents win. What we need to do is prove that we can live without them and that we’re better off without them. That’s why I want to be a successful artist. To prove that I can be something even though they believed I was worthless.”
I thought about what he said for a long moment. About proving to our parents that we were better off without them. And I realized Heath was right. I had to prove I wasn’t a leech to Mother. But I couldn’t prove anything if I kept sitting in the shadows.
Marcus had been right too. I was just living off Grandmother and hiding behind her. As of now, if Mother could see me, I would only be proving that I was a leech. I had to change and to prove to her that I wasn’t like her. She was the leech, stealing all of Daddy’s money and never working a day in her life. But I’d die before I became like her.
And here, I had all the benefits that Heath didn’t have. I had Daddy when he’d still been alive, and I still had Grandmother. I was the heiress of a successful company, and I had money to attend the best schools in the world, the means to improve myself and become someone great.
I was finally beginning to understand why Heath wanted that tuition money. He wanted to attend art school and become successful to prove his parents were wrong to throw him away, but he didn’t have the money and status like I did. And Marcus knew this, which was why he’d accepted Grandmother’s offer. But here I was, uncooperative and defiant at every turn. I was preventing Heath from his goals and dreams, and that was selfish.
“Heath,” I said. “I’ve decided something. You are going to get that money for art school. I promise to take my lessons seriously from now on, and by the end of this year, everyone in the company will be so impressed with my poise. I’ll—” I searched for the right expression, “—pull their socks off!”
He stared at me for a moment before breaking into a grin. “I believe the expression you’re looking for is knock their socks off.”
“Oh.” I sighed, feeling frustrated again. I was always getting those stupid idioms wrong.
“That’s all right, Emma,” Heath said quickly. “I like your version better.” His encouraging smile made my heart race a little faster. He was so kind. “You’re a sweet girl. I appreciate that promise a lot, but all you have to do is try your best. Do this for yourself, not for anyone else. Not that I don’t have faith that you can pull their socks off, but even if I don’t get a penny of your grandma’s money, it doesn’t matter. I’ll find a way to get into art school by myself.” He hesitated a moment, searching my face. “So…does this mean I get to be your friend now?”
I was about to reply, but at the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of the most appropriate way to answer. I reached behind Heath towards a bush of yellow roses, and careful not to catch a finger on any thorns, broke the stem.
“Here,” I said, handing it to him. “Take it from the bottom. There aren’t any thorns there.”
“Ah,” he said, taking it from my hand, “The yellow rose.”
“Friendship,” he finished, with a grin. “It could also mean forgive and forget. Or jealousy.” He tapped his chin in thought. “But why would you be jealous of me?”
“The first two are my intent, not the last,” I said quickly, cursing myself for having forgotten that third meaning. I should have given him a Pyrus, or pear, blossom instead. That too meant everlasting friendship.
He laughed. “I was kidding. Don’t worry, I know what you meant. And thank you. This is much better than ice plants and tansy.”
I flushed at the memory of the day I’d given those flowers to the four thieves. It seemed so long ago. Surprising how much could change within such a short amount of time.
We continued to sit on the ledge, and Heath began to sketch the rose I’d given him. It was nice to finally have a friend. I still didn’t trust Marcus, and I didn’t know if Tony and Stan really thought of me as their friend, but now I was sure about Heath. He’d said Grandmother’s money didn’t matter, and he was so encouraging. So unlike Marcus, who lived to criticize. I liked talking to Heath, and I didn’t feel awkward around him, which was so unusual. Not once had I felt like a freak during this entire conversation. And now, even though we weren’t talking anymore, it was nice just to sit in companionable silence and be all right with that.
But it wasn’t long before the quiet was disturbed by the sound of tramping boots.
“Heath, are you out here?”
I felt the flare of animosity that rose whenever he was near. Marcus stepped into view, wearing that ever-present frown.
I was a little shocked, maybe even a little peeved, to see Heath and Emma sitting together, as though they were having some sort of romantic date in the garden. But then it occurred to me—why did I even care? It wasn’t any of my business if they were dating. I masked my face with indifference.
“Emma, aren’t you sick? What are you doing out here?”
“Not even two seconds, and you’re already lecturing,” she replied cheekily. “But you’re right. I should probably get back before someone discovers I’m gone and calls the police. Besides,” she added, “I find the incoming trespasser unbearable to be around.” Then she flounced off before I could retaliate.
“Why is she always so antagonistic?” I muttered to Heath.
“She’s only that way to you, and that’s because you never smile at her. But she gave me a present.” He twirled a yellow rose between his fingers.
“She gave you that?” I scoffed. “What does it mean? No, let me guess. I hate you. Or maybe, you suck.”
“Actually the yellow rose is the flower of friendship,” Heath said with a smirk.
“What?” I stared at him, incredulous. “She decided to be your friend? How did you ever manage to do that?”
“By making sure she understands I want to be her friend even without her grandma’s money.”
I snorted. “And she believed you?”
“Yes. She’s amazing, you know. She didn’t even notice my limp until today.”
“Nope.” He shook his head. “She’s the first person besides you guys to see me for me and not pity me for my limp. And I came to a realization today. No matter what, I’m determined to stick by her, Marcus. She needs real friends. She needs us.” Heath’s expression turned serious. “I overheard her pouring out all her emotions to the sunflowers. She doesn’t do that with people, but I think it’s only because she doesn’t have friends her own age she can trust.”
My curiosity overcame me. “What did she say?”
“She talked about her mother mostly,” Heath said, but then he cast me a knowing look. “It also seems that everyone at school is still bullying her. I overheard her say Lindsey and Darlene put glue in her hair.”
“What?” I gaped. “But I didn’t see any glue.” But now that I thought about it, there were times after school when I’d noticed that Emma’s hair was damp and messy, just as it had been last Friday. Oh, damn. “Why didn’t she say something?” I demanded to know.
“Because she’s Emma.”
Oh yeah, that was the simple answer to my very stupid question. Emma wasn’t like other, normal people. Unlike other people who would take full advantage of having four seniors who were feared by everyone in the school as her body guards, Emma would rather live in fear and keep her problems to herself.
“I’m guessing she wanted to prove she could fix her own problems,” Heath said. “We’ll have to do something, you know.”
“Time to form a plan,” I said. “Let’s go find Tony and Stan.”
That night, I felt well enough to sit with everyone for dinner. The food was delicious, but I knew Chef Gillies hadn’t made it. Mrs. Lew, Marcus’s grandmother, had made Chinese food, and I was famished, as for the first time in several days, I was able to eat something more than chicken soup or porridge. I found my belly fully satisfied after the meal.
Grandmother turned her attention to me and smiled. “Miss Emma, it seems your health has improved greatly. I think you’re well enough to have your lessons tonight.”
“Actually, Mrs. Lockhart,” Marcus spoke up. “The four of us have some things to discuss regarding Emma’s lesson plans. Is it all right if we continue tomorrow night?”
“Oh,” Grandmother regarded Marcus with interest. “Yes, I suppose that would be fine.”
I was ecstatic, thinking maybe now I could go into seclusion and read manga for just one night. But those hopes were dashed when Grandmother gazed sternly at me. “Emma, last weekend you couldn’t play piano at the senior center, so I rescheduled for this Saturday. You should go polish your pieces, since you haven’t been able to practice these few days.”
So to my disappointment, I found myself at the piano in the Cornflower Ballroom fifteen minutes later. My repertoire for the senior center consisted of a medley of show tunes from various musicals. I’d never had to play in front of an audience before, and truthfully, I was extremely nervous at the mere thought of Saturday. But it was something I had to do. For Heath’s sake, and for mine. The first step in stepping out of my holed-up world was overcoming my fear of people.
I played that piano with all the passion in my soul. Tonight from West Side Story, Memory from Cats, All I Ask of You from Phantom of the Opera, and at least five other songs. And when I finished playing the medley, I practiced it again. Over and over, until I hoped I knew the songs well enough not to mess up on Saturday.
During my fifth run-through, a heard a rich baritone joining in as I played, singing the vocals with such feeling I thought for sure I was living inside the real musical. I turned my head sideways and was surprised to see Stan.
My hands stopped working for a moment. I hadn’t expected Stan of all people to know the lyrics to On the Street Where You Live from My Fair Lady.
“Why’d you stop?”
“Only old people are supposed to know these songs,” I said.
“That’s not true.” He took offense. “I love musicals. I love all music. Don’t you hear me blasting the radio sometimes?” Stan glanced sheepishly at me. “I guess not. The walls here are totally soundproof, and your room is across the house.” He motioned next to me, and I scooted to give him some room to sit on the piano bench. “My dad was a musician. He didn’t touch the piano after my mom died, but he still listened to musicals. They were my mom’s favorite. And in the foster home, Mrs. Sayur, one of the ladies who worked there, gave me an mp3 player with a whole bunch of music she liked. It had all the musicals, and I learned all the songs by heart.”
“You certainly have a nice voice,” I said. “It’s deep and rich and…” I searched for the right words. “…honey-coated.”
“Well, look at you, using figurative language,” he commended, making me beam. “Tony will be so proud when I tell him. And thank you. I appreciate the compliment.”
“It’s not a compliment,” I told him. “It’s a fact. I wouldn’t say it just to make you feel good if it wasn’t the truth.”
“Thank you all the same,” he grinned. “I’m glad I have my voice to make music at least. Can’t play anything else.”
“You can’t?” I was shocked, since I knew how to play five instruments, until I remembered Stan was an orphan.
“Nope, no opportunities to learn,” he said. “My dad was too depressed to teach me. And even at school, it costs money to rent an instrument. Without money, this world can be a big bummer. I’ve always wanted to learn piano and guitar though. One day I’ll save enough money to take lessons.”
My heart softened. Poor Stan loved music and couldn’t even take piano lessons, while I couldn’t care less about the piano but had been forced to take lessons. This world was just too unfair.
And then an idea sparked in my head. “Or…I can be your teacher. I’ll teach you piano, and once you’ve mastered that, the guitar will be easy to learn.”
“You’d be willing to do that?” His eyes sparkled with excitement.
“We can start now if you’d like.”
“Actually,” he paused, his eyes darting to the door. “I’m supposed to be discussing something with the others. They’re probably wondering where I went. It’s just that I went for a bathroom break, but I heard your piano playing and couldn’t help myself.”
“This weekend then,” I said. “After you come home from work.”
“You are awesome,” he said with such enthusiasm that I almost scooted back. He stood up to leave. “I’d better get back.” He walked to the door before stopping to turn his head once more. “And Emma, I just want you to know it’s a blessing to have gotten to know you. And if there’s ever anything that’s bothering you, I hope you’ll consider me enough of a friend to tell me. I’m here to help.”
Before I could think of a response, he waved goodbye and walked away. I watched him leave and reflected on how two out of the four thieves were now my official real friends. That was quite a lot of progress for one day.
Emma took one more day off to recuperate and returned to school on Friday. We were ready. I’d come up with a plan to make those bullies shake in their boots without letting Emma know we were helping her. She’d only get upset with us if she knew we were interfering.
We knew nobody would bully her in front of us, but we couldn’t be with her for every minute at school. And while we couldn’t monitor her during class periods, we could do so during passing periods. Our plan was to follow her in the hallway and watch for who pushed her around. Then we’d single those bullies out when Emma wasn’t around and threaten them until they peed in their pants.
The first bully appeared before first period. Pete Williams, a jock with muscle but no guts, shoved Emma into a wall. She straightened herself, tried to summon her dignity, and continued on her way to class. Meanwhile, Pete walked right into our trap. The four of us stepped out from behind the wall where we were hiding.
He froze, his smile instantly replaced by a look of horror.
“Hello Pete,” I said, flashing an icy smile. “I thought I made it clear on the first day of school. You mess with Emma, you mess with us.”
“I-I thought you just wanted to sq-squelch the rumors about you being involved with her,” he stammered. “I swear I didn’t know she was untouchable too.”
“You didn’t know?” I scoffed. “We sit with her at lunch.”
“But you didn’t make it clear that she was one of you,” he protested.
“Well, listen up now then,” Stan said. “Emma is one of us. If we ever see you doing something to her that we find unacceptable…well, let’s just say we have friends in high places to hunt you down. Is that clear enough, Pete?”
“Y-yes,” he trembled.
“And you can spread that around,” Tony added.
We watched Pete speed away before Heath broke out laughing. “Friends in high places, Stan? Really?”
“Everyone already believes we have a link to organized crime leaders,” Stan said. “Why not take advantage of it?”
By lunch, we’d sent over a dozen donkeys running with their tails between their legs. In order to catch them, we took turns staying in the hallway after the class bell rang and being marked late for class, and we snuck out of class early, pretending to need to use the restroom, just so we could catch Emma just as she left class for the next one.
Most of the bullies were spineless little freaks who liked to pick on people to make themselves feel better about their own miserable lives. We still hadn’t managed to catch Lindsey or Darlene, but we knew they’d gotten the message by now. Everyone in the cafeteria was staring at us and whispering about how we would call our gangster friends to beat up the next person who even looked at Emma.
I wasn’t worried that Emma would pay attention to the rumors. Because now everyone was too scared to even talk to her. It was a kink in our plan, since Emma was supposed to be making friends and couldn’t do that if people wouldn’t even say hi for fear we might beat them up, but we would work through that problem later. The important thing was to stop the bullying in its tracks.
Emma obliviously sat and ate her lunch, looking a little more cheery than usual. I knew it meant our plan was working and people were finally backing off. I just wished she’d told us earlier.
After lunch, we spied on Emma as she walked to her fifth period class. People scurried away from her, afraid they might run into us. Everything seemed fine until I spotted Lindsey and Darlene, carrying jars of honey and a carton of eggs. Emma was still outside the classroom, waiting for her teacher to come and let the students inside.
We knew what those bitches were planning. Although I didn’t want to reveal ourselves to Emma, I knew there was no way we would be able to stop Lindsey and Darlene without placing ourselves directly in front of them.
Lindsey made the first move, fishing an egg from the carton. Before I could blink, she yelled, “Take that, you bitch,” and threw the egg.
I rushed forward, just as the egg sailed into the air.
The egg collided with, not Emma’s head, but with Tony’s. He’d gotten in front of Emma before I could. I breathed in relief.
Now that Emma was all right, I could focus all my energy into chewing up and spitting out the two bitches. As I glared at them, Lindsey took a step back in fear.
“Didn’t I tell you I’d squash anyone who made Emma’s life miserable?” I kept my tone deceptively calm, but those who knew me could sense the danger lurking. I was only barely able to suppress the urge to beat up girls for the first time in my life.
“Actually, you said you’d squash anyone who repeated the rumor that you and her were dating,” Darlene said, flouncing her hair. She’d always been a dumb one, unable to sense I wasn’t in the mood for her to question me. But come to think of it, Pete had said the same thing. I should have made it clearer that first day.
My voice echoed through the hall, where everyone stood frozen, silent and listening, their faces equally terrified.
“Emma Hartley is officially the fifth member of our group. You mess with her, and you mess with us. I trust I’ve made myself very clear this time.”
There. If the message hadn’t been received before now, this should have done the trick.
“And what are you going to do if I don’t obey your Royal Highness’s command?” The question came from Lindsey. She had the audacity to ask, even though she was visibly trembling. Fool. “You won’t beat up a girl,” she challenged.
“True, I won’t beat up a girl,” I said. “But I have no trouble beating up bitches who bully defenseless girls. And we have the power to ruin your social life. Just look at how they all fear us.” I gestured to the students who scurried away to their classes, trying not to make eye contact with the scene. “A word from me, and you’ll be socially ruined. They won’t talk to you if it means getting beaten up by the Mafia.”
I was lying left and right. I would never beat up any girl, not even Lindsey or Darlene. I probably wouldn’t even beat up any of the guys around here, unless they tried to hit me first. And I was using Stan’s bluff about having friends in high places too. But Stan was right. Nobody had to know. And this fear gave us power—the power to threaten Lindsey and Darlene that we could ruin their social popularity.
By now, Principal Tate had finally come to the scene, the first adult who had real authority to try and salvage the mess. I’d seen a few teachers peep out their rooms, but they were scared of us too. It was quite laughable, actually. Here I was a straight A student, and they still believed I was a gang member.
“What is going on here?” Principal Tate exclaimed. “Half the teachers are huddled in the teachers’ lounge, wondering if they should call the police because some hoodlums—” She saw us, and revelation dawned in her face. “Oh, it’s you four.” Then she took in the runny egg on Tony and how he still stood protectively in front of Emma like a shield. That was when Principal Tate winked at me. I blinked, wondering if I was hallucinating, but I wasn’t because she leaned towards me to whisper, “I’ll take care of this.”
“The four of them need to be expelled, Principal Tate,” Lindsey cried, her eyes conveniently filling with tears as though she were the innocent, fragile victim. “They made threats to everyone.”
“I don’t think so, Miss Wade,” said Principal Tate. “I’m not blind, you know. I can see you tried to hit Miss Hartley with an egg, but Mr. Mercer was able to block it just in time. And don’t try to deny it. You’re still holding the carton of eggs.” She shifted her gaze to Darlene. “And Miss Tatum, just what plans did you have with that honey? I doubt you were going to eat it.” The principal wagged her finger at the two of them. “You should be ashamed of yourselves, bullying poor Miss Hartley. In my office, now. Mr. Mercer, you may borrow a clean shirt from the nurse. The rest of you, go to class.”
Then she strode down the hall, towing Darlene and Lindsey, who shuffled their feet and were still trying to protest.
It was a good thing Principal Tate had been the one to come along. She knew Emma’s real identity and that we worked for Mrs. Lockhart. Principal Tate would never do anything to us, especially when she adored Mrs. Lockhart.
I turned around to see how Tony and Emma were doing. She was helping him wipe up the mess on his shirt, while he tried to stop her.
“I can do it myself,” he said. “Don’t get your hands dirty.”
“Thank you so much.” She practically cooed her adoration. “You saved me.”
“Aww, it was nothing.” I’d never seen Tony blush that hard before.
“Hey, what about me?” I asked Emma. “Don’t I deserve a thank you? I just made sure nobody will ever dare pick on you again.”
But a thanks was far from Emma’s mind, as I could see from the sullen glower on her face when she looked up at me. “You, Marcus, are nothing but a big bully. Worse than anyone in this school.”
“What?” I was so flabbergasted by the accusation to think of anything else to say.
“You threatened everyone,” she said. “That’s not nice. And now I’ll never make friends because they’ll be too scared of your threats to even look at me.”
“I’m going to class now,” she told Tony and the others. “I can’t stand to look at that person for even one more second.”
And she flounced away.
What had just happened? I stared at my friends blankly.
“Face it Marcus,” Tony said with a smirk. “I’m just better with the ladies than you’ll ever be.”
“Oh shove it, Mercer,” I said, and trudged off to class.
Emma didn’t say a word to me the next morning, as we went to the senior center together. Even when I tried to talk, she’d distance herself and give me the cold shoulder. Once we arrived at the senior center, she still didn’t spare me a glance.
But I had to be satisfied that at least she wasn’t undermining my authority anymore. She participated in my class along with the rest of the seniors, who adored her instantly. I noticed that she got along better with old people than with her peers. After class, we played board games with the seniors before lunch. I watched as Emma let the old men win at chess, even though I knew she was capable of trouncing them.
She sat at the far end of the table for lunch, still showing no signs of wanting to talk to me. I tried not to care. But the truth was, I was starting to feel a little hurt. And there was no use denying it, jealous. I was jealous that she’d made it clear that Tony, Stan, and Heath were her friends, but I was nothing to her.
I didn’t know what else to do to make her forgive my behavior in that alley. She wouldn’t even let me talk to her, so how was I supposed to apologize? And what more did she expect from me? I’d told all those bullies off for her, and I would have taken that egg for her too, if Tony hadn’t gotten there first. But she had thanked him, and given me the evil eye for bullying her bullies. It just didn’t make sense. I didn’t think I would ever understand Emma.
I was so busy thinking about the situation between us that I didn’t even notice the time pass. Soon, it was afternoon, and Stan, Tony, and Heath had arrived from work to hear Emma’s performance.
She was nervous, I could tell. Her eyes had this watery look, as though she was trying hard not to cry, and her hands trembled as she walked towards the piano. But the seniors were nice and encouraging, applauding for her as she took center stage. I knew we’d done well to make this be her first attempt at a public performance. In the future, she’d have to deal with crowds who weren’t as polite and maybe even wanted her to fail. But at least this time, she was among friends and polite company.
Emma spoke in a soft whisper at first, but Stan motioned for her to speak up. So she cleared her throat and tried again. “Hi everyone,” she said. “My name is Emma, and I’d like to perform a medley of show tunes for you.” With each word spoken, her confidence went up a notch. She went on to outline the pieces she planned on playing. And then she sat at the piano, took a deep breath, and placed her fingers on the keys.
The music flowed like a happy brook in springtime. Graceful, playful, and in my opinion, flawless. Emma did very well, and as her performance came to a close, the seniors broke out into applause and whistles. Mrs. Lockhart would be pleased to know that Emma’s first big test was a complete success.
That night, as I dressed for bed, I heard excited whispers outside my door, followed by an overenthusiastic knock. I opened it to find both Tony and Stan on the other side, each holding flowers in their hands. They both seemed to be searching for something on the floor.
“Presents for me?” I said sarcastically. “You shouldn’t have.”
“Actually, these were left outside our doors,” Tony said. “We were wondering if you got a flower too.”
“We think they’re from Emma,” Stan added.
I glanced on the ground too but found nothing. “Guess I didn’t get one then.”
“Do you know what she’s trying to tell us now?” Stan asked me. “Tony got a sunflower, and I have no idea what I have.”
Stan held up a branch of small yellow flowers.
“How should I know? You should have knocked on Heath’s door.” I was starting to feel a little irritated. Emma had given Heath a yellow rose the other day, and now she’d given Tony and Stan flowers too. But I’d gotten nothing.
The door next to mine swung open, and a disheveled-looking Heath peered out at us. It looked like he’d already been half asleep and we woke him up. “What’s with all the noise?”
Tony and Stan repeated their questions to him.
“It’s not like you don’t have access to the Internet,” Heath grumbled. “Why can’t you look it up yourselves?”
“Because it’s so much simpler to ask someone else to do the work,” Tony stated.
Heath pointed at the sunflower. “That means appreciation. Emma’s thanking you for taking that egg for her.” Then he pointed to the cluster of flowers Stan held. “Fennel flowers. Means worthy of all praise.”
“Oh,” Stan said in wonder. “Must be a compliment for how well I did during our lesson today. Thanks Emma.” He waved to the other side of the house, where Emma’s room lay. Earlier today, Emma had given Stan his first piano lesson, and now they were buddies too. She’d befriended all three of them and still hated me.
Then Heath turned to me. “What flower did you get?”
I scowled. “Didn’t get one.”
“Really?” Heath looked genuinely surprised. “But we all got one.”
“Don’t remind me,” I said. “She hates me.”
“Or maybe not.” Heath shrugged. “Maybe she just hasn’t figured out what she thinks of you.”
“Oh, who cares?” I stepped backed into my room. “Guys aren’t supposed to get flowers from girls anyway. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to bed.” And with that concluding mark, I slammed the door in their smug, smiling faces.