Everyone moved from an outdoor lunch table to a staircase inside, because the weather was too cold. Belle found it remarkable that the school allowed anyone to sit practically anywhere during lunch. At her old school, there was the cafeteria and the courtyard, and that was it. If anyone was seen leaving campus or not where they were supposed to be, they were suspended for two weeks.
Francesca sat next to Belle against the wall, as usual. She always found herself excluded towards the end of the group because they were too involved in their socialistic atmosphere. And with her being so quiet, she supposed she had vanished after a while. Of course she didn’t mind this, however, because she couldn’t imagine what to say to them if they talked to her. So she watched and listened, laughing when they laughed, conjuring up jokes in her head to go along with theirs that only she will ever find amusing.
She felt the heat of Jordan’s stare from where she sat, and it made her cheeks glow. It was pretty obvious by now that Jordan liked her, and she didn’t understand why. People always told her how attractive she was, alternating from words like pretty or hot, and she had decided a long time ago to just go along with their condolences rather than deny it. Even she knew that when a girl constantly denied compliments, it became irritating. So maybe that’s what Jordan saw, a somewhat physically attractive girl.
But she knew that her mind was farthest from attractive, so she kept that part locked away. And it worried her, because what if one day she may have to reveal her thoughts to someone? It was one thing telling someone of her social anxiety, but another to prove to them how heavy the influence of the disorder had on her. She pushed the thoughts out of her mind, and focused her gaze on her pale hands. She had only ever gone tanning once, and the sunburn was so severe that it managed to scar her for life. Since then, she’s been pale as milk.
“You look quite lonely,” Jordan said as he scooted next to her, bringing his food tray with him.
Francesca glanced over at the sudden change of location in Jordan’s voice, and scowled. Belle was grateful that Jordan annoyed Frannie so much, otherwise she would have to talk to Jordan herself.
“Jordan, don’t you have a girlfriend?” she asked him irritated, pulling Belle’s arm so she’s closer to her.
“Not anymore,” he sounded defensive at first, but the words drifted into sorrow, “it wasn’t working out.”
Frannie appeared to have a slight change of sympathy, but only for a moment before she addressed Belle. “There’s a party at some asshole’s place tonight. I don’t really want to go but we heard he has great food, so we’re going.”
Belle realized she was never asked by Francesca to do anything, she was just told. This was better, she supposed, because she had unreliable refusal skills.
“Now I know you don’t like parties,” she continued, “but I promise to stay by your side throughout the whole thing.” She raised her hand, as if swearing an oath, her eyes hopeful. When Belle realized Francesca was waiting for validation, she nodded. Frannie smiled, and continued talking to Victoria about a girl she doesn’t like. Why did she like hanging out with Belle so much? What was the reason behind her desperation to bring Belle to parties?
Even though she had a million troublesome thoughts pushing through her mind, she had taken Frannie’s word and trusted it. As long as she stayed by her side, she should be fine. For the most part.
Francesca had disappeared within the first ten minutes. Belle had taken the risk of lying to her parents by telling them she was going to a library. Just committing that was one of the hardest things she had to do in her life. It was a Friday night; she should be in her room watching TV. But she was at a party, again, and she was left abandoned. She felt slight resentment towards Frannie as she gazed around the space nervously.
The scene was a lot different from Francesca’s townhouse; larger and more spacious with brighter shades of wall and carpet. Some type of disco ball was placed on a table towards the center of the room, and spots of color danced along the interior. The room was loud and warm, most likely from the large quantity of bodies colliding with one another, dancing in a feverish haze. She spotted a snack bar on the far right of where she stood, which was near the doorway.
Belle tried her best not to bump anyone as she made her way over, but it was difficult. She knew that they probably didn’t care if her elbow happened to graze them, but it still worried her. The door was right behind her; she could have just run outside. But of course she thinks of the best solutions later, when they’re no longer possible.
When she approached the snack table, she made sure that her eyes were trained on the food. Her appetite was down to a minimum, but she grabbed a handful of popcorn and munched on it subtly to look normal. She tried to block out her surroundings the best she could, but it wasn’t easy when she knew she couldn’t leave anytime soon. She felt trapped and alone, two things that never went well together. One of her fears was being alone while surrounded by people who had their peers and friends close. She knew what they were thinking; Oh what a loner. Loser should just leave and save herself the misery.
In the midst of these frantic thoughts something occurred to her; the bathroom. The adventure would be difficult, but once found she should be safe. Safe from everyone’s judgments.
She turned a little too quickly from the snack table before bumping harshly into another body. Her eyes went to the floor before she apologized hastily; she couldn’t even look at them. This was a mistake, a huge mistake.
“Excuse you!” A high pitched yet strong voice said, anger ever so present in her tone.
Belle looked up nervously, and she could feel the wave of anxiety smothering her like a thick blanket as the seconds passed by. The girl she had accidently pushed was wild eyed. It was clear she was offended, and Belle noticed a stain on her white shirt. Punch. Because she was so nervous she couldn’t even stand at a snack table alone, someone had to get punch on their clothes. Crying was the only thing that seemed logical at the moment before Belle began apologizing again.
Abruptly, two hands pushed against Belle’s chest with surprising force as she fell to the ground. The legs that she brushed on her way to the floor moved quickly to the side, looking down in confusion. Her head had hit something, maybe the edge of the table, before she was sprawled on the floor with her vision blurry. Her hearing was muffled, dulling every sound except her heartbeat, which was dangerously rapid. The girl was yelling at her while her friends held her back, amused smirks on their faces as they watched Belle become slaughtered with words. I deserve it, Belle thought, I pushed her. She used these thoughts to reconcile her while her hearing slipped back to normal.
Her focus was trained on the girl, and it was difficult for her to look directly at the individual who spat pure hatred at her, but she thought avoiding eye contact may arise more anger. At the edge of her vision, she saw a figure moving toward them, his hands put forth in a ceasing gesture, as if to ease up the tension that floated amongst the situation. It was Maxus, his presence leaving Belle taken aback. He was the last person she would have expected to see in this moment.
“What happened?” He asked the girl.
Belle couldn’t hear what she was telling him, but she somehow had a feeling, judging by her facial expressions, that she was making things up. Exaggerating to a very high extent. Or maybe the situation was actually that bad, Belle wasn’t sure.
After a few moments Maxus glanced at her with a trivial grin. It wasn’t an obvious one; it was small like he was trying to hide it. Like he somehow found humor in what the girl was saying, but he didn’t want her to know. Without glancing back at her, who remained in a rambling state, he moved his way over to Belle and crouched. She then realized she had been on the floor for a while. It took a few moments for her to notice his outstretched hand before she took it.
“Let’s get you out of here,” he said to her quietly, and amongst the intensity, she somehow had heard him. There was sympathy in his tone, which made her feel safer. Safer because she knew at least someone may be on her side. She held his arm tight, using it as a source of escape. Everyone was looking at her, and they were all mentally laughing. A sudden aching feeling hatched in her chest, as if she had discovered something traumatic and had to find a way to process it. She had never in her life been in a situation as that one, where she was on the floor while angry words were thrown at her like a baseball to a catcher’s mitt. What if this changed her life? What if everyone wanted to fight with her now, because they thought she deserved it? What if there was no coming back from this?
The cool night air was strong when it hit her, and she felt its hands clawing at her cheeks, forcing them to redden. Her hand was still clenched firmly to his arm as they turned, away from the house, away from the party, and down the sidewalk towards more buildings. She let go suddenly, and when she pulled it away, her hand was shaking dangerously. She hoped she didn’t look as nervous and scared as she felt, but judging by his expression when he looked at her, she did.
“Hey, hey,” he stopped, turning his body towards her. His dark eyebrows merged as he studied her expression, and more sympathy showed in his. Belle didn’t know whether she liked this or not, the pity that he was clearly showing for her panicky state. Now that their situation was a lot calmer, his pity appeared slightly irritating.
“You’re okay, you know,” he reassured her. “I know that girl. Everyone knows her; she’s like the official psychopath of the school. She won’t even remember your face in a few hours.” He said this while laughing lightly, which comforted Belle somewhat. Deep down, however, she knew the girl would remember her. She had an aching feeling that she would get pushed again. She could have just walked out when she was by the doors, when Francesca had left her. Why was she so stupid?
“I… um,” she stumbled with her words. Her voice was shaky, and she knew he heard it.
“Didn’t you come here with Francesca?” He asked.
“Yes,” she answered quickly. The last thing Belle wanted to do in this moment was talk, because she knew she made a fool of herself, and he knew it as well. He was just trying to make conversation to console her, for whatever reason. Her internal temperature was exceedingly hot while the air was so cold, and she felt the weather slowly cooling her. The sky had streaks of gray clouds, shredded across the navy blue. The stars were barely visible, and Belle remembered that the lights of the city dimmed them, even though there weren’t any lights in this particular sector. Maybe the stars miraculously hadn’t stretched to this area of New York, maybe they were done trying to amaze the people who were only looking at the buildings.
“She just left you by yourself?” He asked, inclining his head in incredulity. “Wow, she’s stupid.”
“Why?” Belle replied defensively. She didn’t know why, and her defensiveness shocked her, because she had never used that tone with anyone, especially a practical stranger. Maybe she felt as if he was implying that she couldn’t handle herself, and it made her angry. But the feeling of anger was basically foreign to Belle, because she regarded herself too sensitive to others anger to ever feel it herself. And if anything, he was right. She really couldn’t handle herself, and that disappointed her.
“Whoa,” he held up his hands as if surrendering, “I didn’t mean anything by it. It’s just we know you’re new here, and you know basically no one.”
Even with one sentence, a string of thoughts could follow it. Worrisome, aggravating thoughts that would never actually heal; they’d just go away when time rendered them to irrelevance. And the words you know basically no one did that to her, because she felt like he was calling her a loser, just in a more abstract and polite way. Nonetheless, she appreciated his presence. Without him, she would most likely still be at the party, reduced to a hot mess of sorrowful tears while everyone snickered at her. She hadn’t known why he even bothered, but it made her gratified.
“HEY!” Francesca was running down the street, and she looked like she was struggling. Her hair was bouncing with her footsteps that stomped upon the concrete, and the sight was almost comical. “Oh-my-GOD I am the shittiest person in the world,” she announced in one big sigh. “Belle, I am so sorry. I can’t believe I lost you and then that cunt Jasmine was all-”
“Okay language,” Maxus interrupted in mock defensiveness, gesturing to Belle, “there is a lady in our presence.”
Frannie made a face at him and said, “I’m surprised you aren’t drunk or high yet.”
“Actually,” he replied with a hazy smile, “I might be high, just a little.” He brought up his thumb and forefinger, showing the approximate amount.
“Well you sir, can leave. I’m gonna walk Belle home,” she replied. She took her hands and pulled her jacket tighter around her, the cold taking its effect.
Maxus sighed, putting his hands in his pockets. “I don’t know, Fran. You might lose her again.”
“Shut up,” she complained before grabbing Belle’s arm and tugging her away.
Maxus chuckled as they left him, and Belle glanced back. She enjoyed watching the two interact because they were so argumentative it was funny. They had temporarily allowed Belle to forget what had just happened, which wasn’t easy. Once she had something as abysmal as that fight to happen, she could cling on to the feelings and paranoid ideas for a lifetime. But they had eased her mind, and she was thankful for that. She felt safe with these people around, these strangers that she really knew nothing about. But she wanted to know more, and this was because she couldn’t picture herself hanging around anyone else.
The following week felt lighter for Belle because she had a sense of security with her friends. Back home, there weren’t really any big fights or complications, but if one had occurred involving Belle, she knew for certain that her friends wouldn’t have saved her. Or perhaps, she had just underestimated them. She hadn’t taken the time to find a more positive light in the small group of friends she had. This made her feel worse, but she shed the thought out of her mind quickly as she had retrieved her lunch and sat at the table.
She had noticed she wasn’t sitting on the end this time, which both pleased and worried her. She was in way of their line of view, and she had to eat in front of them. Sometimes, she couldn’t eat in front of her parents without a certain angst creep in, threatening to dispel her from her moment of light bliss. She took a bite of her sandwich, but the taste wasn’t there, because her anxiety had chased it away. What if she was eating like a slob? What if they wouldn’t approve and never wanted her to sit with them again?
They don’t care, she told herself, they don’t care.
“Hey Belle?” Dex spoke from his position next to her, his tone slightly cautious.
“Yes?” she responded. What if he wanted her to leave? Oh God, she was a slob. Why couldn’t she just be a civilized-
“Can I have your goldfish?” he asked.
Belle paused, her jaw dropping before she closed it immediately. Relief coursed through her; he wasn’t annoyed with her eating habits.
“Yes, of course.” She heard the relief in her voice as she gave him the bag of goldfish.
“Awesome,” he replied before shoving almost the whole bag into his mouth, tiny orange crumbs scattering across the table and onto Belle’s sleeve. His voice was serene, as if he was constantly relaxed. His dark wispy hair, dark bushy eyebrows, and dark eyes set a distinct vibe to his appearance. She couldn’t picture Dex ever getting stressed, and she wondered briefly if he was familiar with the emotion.
Upon glancing up, her gaze landed on a soda machine. She hasn’t seen it before, but the discovery cast a spark deep within her. It was as if light had shined upon the machine, the Coca-Cola logo glistening. They never had soda machines in Californian schools. At least, not in her school.
“Yeah,” Francesca commented whilst noticing Belle’s awed stare, “I love soda too.”
Belle sat up abruptly, eyes trained on the contraption. “I’ll be right back,” she told them before walking over to the soda machine, a little more hastily than most would have. She didn’t know why she was so excited. Perhaps it was because she hadn’t had soda in a long time, especially in school. She inserted the crumpled green paper and pressed Coke. As she waited for her beverage, she heard a low voice clear its throat from behind her.
“Hey,” Brandon said after Belle turned. He shifted his eyebrows, wriggling them in what Belle supposed an attempt to be funny.
“Hi,” she replied awkwardly. She didn’t want to return her gaze to the machine, because she was worried he would be offended. But he was just waiting in line, so maybe he wouldn’t take it personally. A loud thud sounded before she retrieved her drink from the dispenser. Upon turning around, Brandon moved in her way, resting his arm on the soda machine, a smug grin on his face.
“So, can I take you out this weekend?” He asked.
Belle was taken aback. Was he… asking her out? She had silently prayed that her shock didn’t register in her features. Her tongue struggled to find the correct words to approach this. Obviously, she wasn’t ready to go on a date. But then again, would she ever be ready? She is seventeen, turning eighteen in a matter of months. She’s never even had her first kiss. It was in her knowledge that this was considered pitiful, so she told no one. She knew what they would say, what they would think.
Her mouth opened, but no words left. “I…”
Brandon’s expression appeared confused, as if he expected the answer to shoot from Belle’s lips on his last word. His features were mainly dark, like Dexs’. His hair was a wavy chocolate brown, with a darker shade of brow and deep eyes, accompanied with a full lip. Despite these dark features, his overall appearance was lighthearted and slightly goofy. He was easy to read; an open person. But as Belle remained in his presence, she got the impression that he was haughty and full of himself.
“Or,” he said after a few moments of Belle just staring at him, unknowing of what to say, “or… I can just get your number.” With this he smiled satisfyingly.
“Um,” she uttered. The soda was slick with perspiration in her hands. She knew she needed to come up with something soon, so she could get away, but her heart was pounding, and his burning stare felt as if it was melting her until she was reduced down to nothing. Her anxiety started to climb, and she gazed around desperately for a possible way of escape. Looking over to the table she was previously sitting at, her eyes landed on Maxus, who was glaring at them. When she caught him, his eyes switched to the table. She wished he would save her again, like he did at the party, but she knew that was ridiculous. Social anxiety made it very hard for her to deal with situations properly, but maybe she had to start forcing herself to.
“I can’t,” she said quickly, “my phones… I dropped it in the lake.” She offered a quick smile before practically running away, pacing in wide strides towards the table. Immediately she felt horrible. Dropped it in the lake? What lake? Out of any and every possible excuse, her abnormally dysfunctional brain conjured up a lake. He would never even look at her again, which she supposed was a good thing, because he made her uncomfortable. But what if he told his friends how weird she was? What if they started making fun of her and she became the joke of Cameron? This would eventually lead her to depression and humiliation, causing her to have to switch schools, or even states. She tried to picture having to move back to California, but every day she fell more in love with New York. She couldn’t go back.
“Belle?” Victoria addressed her calmly, her pungent gray eyes curious. “Are you alright?”
It wasn’t until then that she realized she had been breathing rather loudly, sweat slicked on the surface of her palms. Her stomach churned; she hadn’t had symptoms as distressing as this since the parade when she was a child. These feelings took her back to a worse time, which wasn’t helping her current condition.
Francesca’s attention snapped to Belle, worry becoming present in her face. “Are you okay, Chickie? Do you need to leave?”
Belle knew it was only because Frannie was aware of her disorder that she was asking, and for that she was thankful. But a question was the last thing she needed at the minute, which is what they kept sending her. It was as if her brain was shaking, struggling for a distinct solution that would never reveal itself. Before she could make up her mind on her next move, she had retrieved her backpack with trembling hands from the dirty cafeteria floor, swiftly pacing towards the exit. She heard a voice shout after her, most likely Frannie.
But she couldn’t look back. She had to leave before things got worse.