Today, Madeline Sharpton told everyone at school that I had herpes. She’s a mean girl, practically six feet tall, and that tall-ness gives her a weird authority in the world of middle school. All the other students believed her–including my so-called friends. I’m only thirteen, but it must be the worst day in my life forever.
My mother has always said, No matter what, keep a smile on your face. But she’s in politics so lives on a different planet. Still, I tried it her way, smiling at every kid who snickered in my direction, but smiling tasted like Nyquil (disgusting!) and I had to stop. My mother’s smile-crazy because her picture’s taken all the time, and if she’s not looking happy in a photo, the press calls her hostile or bitter or worse. So she smiles.
After school, I locked myself in my bedroom. People were mean for no reason, it wasn’t fair, and there was nothing I could do about it. I wanted to throw up. I wanted to call up Madeline and scream at her. I wanted to punch a pillow until my hand hurt. Even binge watching Riverdale didn’t improve my mood. It was bad.
Eventually, my brother Mark yelled: Time for dinner, idiot! and when I didn’t show up in the kitchen, Dad knocked at my door. “Honey?” I peeked out, and when I saw him, burst into tears.
We sat on my bed and I told him everything.
He handed me another tissue. “Since Mom was re-elected last week, some people are upset, and that upset trickles down to their kids. Know what I mean?”
I nodded. I’d learned the words trickle-down and backlash by the time I was six, when Mom first entered office. “Why does she do it?”
“A lot of reasons, I think.” He sighed. Dad had been bullied over the years too, called this and that for marrying a such-and-such–not only by people in the press, but at work. Why were people bullies? Would they ever stop? Questions had been spinning in my head all day, but I didn’t say them aloud. Dad seemed tired and I was hungry.
At the table, he told my mother what happened. She went real still. Couldn’t even smile and pretend it didn’t matter.
“Are you all right, Lauren?” she asked.
I nodded though I wasn’t. “I’m not smiling through it, Mom. I can’t.”
“Then you hang in there the best way you know how. Alright?”
“Why don’t you just punch that girl in the face?” Mark had practically swallowed his hamburger whole already. “That’s what I always did.”
We knew about Mark’s strategy dealing with bullies, one that (I had to admit) was successful. As my parents lectured him and he swallowed his second hamburger, I actually considered punching Madeline in the face. Then I realized she was too tall.
The following day, I decided that since yesterday had been the worst day in my life forever it meant this one had to be better. Then Madeline spotted me outside the student center before the morning bell. “Hey Lauren! How’s your condition?” Laughter from the nearby students. Tee-hee.
“Better than yours. Which is LYING.”
Not great, but the best I could do.
First period, math. I kept my head down and did my work. Since focusing on pre-algebra was a new phenomenon, I got a screaming headache within minutes. The other girls stared and whispered as I crossed the classroom. Some giggled, and my heart beat hard in my chest, but I made it to the bathroom pass by the door. I made it down the hallway too. Then, in the bathroom, standing at a sink, so tall she had to dip her head to see herself in the mirror, was you-know-who. Her hair was wet and she’d been crying. As soon as she saw me, she ran into a stall.
“What are you doing?” I said, before I realized she was my life-long enemy. Then I saw, on the sink, a gob of chewing gum with hair stuck inside. Gum Abuse. Happened way too often. Though Madeline must have been sitting down because otherwise how could anyone reach? “Are you all right?”
I sighed. “Don’t you get tired of being mean?”
“I told you to go away!”
“Do you want me to get you a scissors?”
“You ask too many questions, Lauren.”
I probably did. Mom went around smiling. Mark punched people in the face. Dad sighed and got tired. I asked questions. We all had to do something.
I walked into the stall next to hers, stood on the toilet, and peered down at her hunched body. She looked pathetic and alone and would probably hide in there all day. “You shouldn’t have said that about me. I never did anything to you. My mom never did anything to you.” I waited, but she didn’t look up. “There. Those weren’t questions.”
With that, I left her. The rest of the day, the other kids whispered and laughed about how Madeline had burst into tears in front of the class, how her mom had to pick her up from school. I didn’t tell anyone that I’d seen her so small and sad in the bathroom, though I could have. It just wasn’t my way.