Beth clutched the book in her hands like a shield. As hard as she tried to focus on the description of the scene she was reading though, all she could hear were the voices that were approaching from behind her.
She tried to huddle tighter into herself. She tried to disappear behind the tree that she was sitting near. It was too young a sapling to offer her that sort of shelter but she knew how to stay still and sometimes that was all it took to keep from attracting attention.
“I’m just saying if they can’t afford to be here, then they should leave and stop dragging down the average for the rest of us.”
Beth cringed. Of all of her classmates who could have decided to wander outside during a study period, Amy Parell and her crew were the worst.
“Every school has its charity cases,” Kelly Rivers, Amy’s designated hit woman, said.
If Amy was the school’s princess by virtue of her family literally owning Parell Preparatory Academy, then Kelly was Amy’s black knight. Before being thrown off the basketball team for fighting, Kelly had cost Parell its shot at the state title the previous year. In doing so though, she’d cemented her position as someone who could, and would, put the hurt on anyone who ran afoul of Amy’s crew.
Their voice grew louder as they approached and Beth burrowed her gaze into the words on the page before her, trying to block out their conversation. She knew she was one of the people Amy was annoyed with. Not that she’d done anything to Amy or Kelly or anyone in their poisonous circle. All Beth had to do was exist and it was an offense against the universe in Amy’s eyes.
It wasn’t a race thing of course. No, not at all. Amy’s didn’t hate Beth because Beth’s mother was an immigrant from Kenya and her father could trace his heritage back to fieldhands in the Antebellum South. It was because Beth was bringing down the school’s overall grade point average. When Beth scored low on a test that is. If she scored high, then Amy’s hate stemmed from the unfair grading practices that favored the disadvantaged kids who were attending Parell on scholarships.
Beth would have liked to see evidence of those “unfair grading practices”, but challenging Amy to produce it was a good strategy for ending up on the wrong side of Kelly’s fist.
“If they’re going to drop out anyways, then they should do it sooner than later,” Amy said. “Most of them aren’t even bright enough for that though. It’s like, how much incentive do we need to give them?”
Beth had an clear idea of the sort of ‘incentive’ that Amy had in mind, and Beth knew that applying some immediate ‘incentive’ was exactly what Amy had in mind if only a target would present themselves.
She didn’t want to be that target. Even if there wasn’t any physical violence, the verbal abuse would leave her sick and reeling for days. Even the thought of it was turning her stomach.
But they were so close.
Under the moonless sky, the darkness in the forest swallowed up all sight and sound. The trees of Elgamire provided the wispy glow of signposts which illuminated none of the space beyond their trunks.
Beth read and reread those words, wishing the darkness of the fictitious Elgamire forests would swallow her whole.
Wishes were for other people though. Out of the corner of her eye, Beth saw Amy, Kelly and three of their other friends step onto the path that lead around the far side of the tree from the school. The side that Beth was sitting on.
Even the nightbirds sang no songs in Elgamire on the moonless nights. To fly was to risk drawing the attention of the things that hide under the roots, the things which needed no light, and hungered always.
Beth read without breathing. It was an act, but one with some basis in reality. If she hadn’t heard Amy approaching, she could have easily dropped far enough into the book to be oblivious to the world around her. She’d lost hours like that but gained so much respite in the process.
“Did you do the homework for Statistics?” Kelly asked.
Beth couldn’t focus on the written words anymore, no matter how hard they pulled at her. For a moment her mind could only chew on Kelly’s question. What was the right answer? Yes? She had, but would Kelly want to copy it? No? But would that confirm what Amy had just been saying about scholarship kids not working her enough.
“Yeah, Paul and I worked on it last night,” Amy said, as she tapped her tablet to life to send the answers to Kelly.
“Bet he wanted to work on a lot more than that,” Kelly said, her leering grin was so loud Beth could almost hear it as they walked past.
“Paul? Gross,” Amy said. “I mean, yeah, he’s got a brain, but that wanna-be mustache he refuses to shave? And don’t get me started on the smell. Boy needs to learn that a shower must follow every workout. No exceptions.”
Beth felt her breath clawing to get out of her body, but she held it in.
And Amy’s crew walked on by.
It wasn’t till they entered the Math and Science building that Beth let herself unfreeze. Relief flooded over her but it was mixed with astonishment.
They hadn’t seen her. They’d walked right by her and they hadn’t seen her.
Beth got to her feet, unsure where she was going but consumed with the sense that she couldn’t push her luck any further. That she needed to move. To find somewhere safe to be.
Her hands were shaking as she rose, but a lot less than they would have been. She took comfort in that. She hadn’t been hurt, not much, and she was recovering faster than she had in past. She didn’t have to fall into an abyss of worry and panic.
Except, the world was growing darker?
She looked at the Math and Science building. It was farther away than it had been, but she hadn’t moved at all. And it was bathed in broad daylight. But the tree beside Beth wasn’t. And there were no clouds in the sky above to cast a shadow on her.
A starless, moonless night. That was all that was above her.
And behind her, when she turned to look, she saw the softly glowing trunks of the tree of the Elgamire forest where her school, her city, and her world should have been.