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As always, this comes with a TRIGGER WARNING. Stay safe.
“What did Mommy say last night?” Teddy asks, swinging his legs under the bench top. He sits on a tall stool, noisily devouring a bowl of Cocoa Pops. A thin line of chocolate-coloured milk dribbles down his chin.
Autumn’s hand stills on the cupboard door. She takes a tiny breath in, swallows, and turns to face him.
He stuffs another monster-sized bite of cereal into his mouth and puddles around with the end of his spoon. She walks over to the bench and stops in front of him, bending down into his line of sight.
“Teddy,” she asks, barely breathing. “What did you ask me?”
He swallows with some degree of difficulty and wipes his nose with the back of his hand.
“Mommy. I heared you talking to her last night.” Another mouthful of now-soggy cereal. A twinge of panic runs through her.
“Teddy...” She hesitates, searching for the correct words. “Teddy, we…We spoke about this. Do you remember? With Dr Shay?”
“So…You know I wasn’t talking to Mommy. She’s…She’s not here anymore.”
Teddy puts down his spoon and looks up at her, smiling.
“I know that, silly. But you can use your maganation.” He leans forward and lowers his voice. “You can play pretend. Dr Shay said so.”
Autumn releases a breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding. A memory flashes in her mind. “Where’s Mommy? I want Mommy!! Take me to Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” She straightens up and turns around, squeezing her eyes closed and pushing the image away.
“Okay. Yes. You can play pretend.” She opens her eyes and returns to the cupboard, pulling a loaf of bread from inside. “But,” she adds, almost as an afterthought, “Only do that at home, okay? Don’t do that at school.”
Because the other kids don’t need another reason to tease you.
She puts the bread on the counter, preparing to make Teddy’s lunch.
“Just because, okay? It can be our secret.”
Teddy grins, pushing his bowl away and leaving a trail of soggy Cocoa Pops and chocolate milk on the counter. “Okay,” he says eagerly. “Our secret.”
“Hey!” Mya says, jogging up beside Autumn. “You’ve got AP English now, right?” She slows to a walk, keeping Autumn’s pace.
Autumn nods, keeping her eyes on her shoes.
“Cool. Me too. Sit together?”
A small voice at the back of Autumn’s head tells her to say no, but she hears herself say “Sure.” The voice scolds her. It will never last. You don’t need friends. Everybody leaves. Everybody. She does her best to ignore it. She can feel Mya’s eyes on her and she adjusts her backpack, trying not to look awkward. The hallway seems to extend into the horizon. All she wants is to sit down in class and fade into the background.
“So.” Mya giggles nervously. “Where are you from?”
“Minneapolis.” Someone pushes past her, making her stumble. She quickly regains her balance, feeling herself blush. She curls her fingers over the ends of her sweater, trying to breathe past the spring beginning to coil around her insides.
“That’s cool. I’ve never been there. Is there much to do?”
Autumn fumbles around inside her head, looking for the right thing to say. She takes too long and the moment passes. She knows it would be weird to say anything now, so she says nothing. Mya casts her a strange look, but her eyes retain their friendliness.
“You’re quiet, huh. That’s okay. I can talk enough for both of us.” She smiles and links her arm through Autumn’s. All the nerves inside Autumn’s arm recoil in horror, but she manages to keep a straight face. She’s not used to being touched.
“It’s okay, little one,” Mya says cheerfully. “You don’t have to say anything. I’ll look after you.” She continues to have a one sided conversation about the upcoming school dance – “I really hope Tate asks me, but I’m way too scared to actually ask him myself!” – and Autumn focuses on her breathing. She glances at their linked arms and tries not to wonder if Mya can feel the stiff gauze wrapped around her forearm. It’s not noticeable, she tells herself. She would have said something by now if it was. Still, she can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of relief when finally, finally, they reach their AP English room. Autumn stealthily removes her arm from Mya’s grasp and looks for a place to hide. She heads towards a seat at the back of the room, but before just as she is about to get there, a boy slides into the chair. She stops, hovering indecisively. The boy turns towards her.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Was this your seat?” He rises, holding the chair out for her. She stares, taking too long to answer again. He half smiles. “Do you want to sit down?”
“No,” she says, finding her voice. “It’s okay. You were there first.”
He looks at her strangely and she feels her face flush. She is being so weird. Why does she have to be so weird?
“Well there’s another seat back here,” he says, nodding towards the chair beside him. “You could sit there if you want to, you know, hide out at the back of the room.” He smiles again and sits down. She feels frozen. Behind her, Mya gives her a little nudge. She regains control of her feet and shuffles towards the seat. She can feel the boy’s eyes on her. She digs her fingernails into the palm of her hand.
“I’m Jesse,” the boy says, watching as she slides into the seat beside him. “I just moved here from Indiana.”
“Autumn just moved here, too,” Mya says, taking a seat beside Autumn. “From Minneapolis.”
“Oh yeah?” His face is friendly. Open. With nothing to hide. She looks down at the graffiti on the desk in front of her. Someone has scratched get me out of here into the laminex. She can’t help but relate. “What brings you to Cedar Rapids?”
She digs her nails further into her palms. “My dad moved here for work.” Not a lie but not the truth either. The spring inside her tightens. Thankfully the teacher arrives, eliminating the opportunity to talk. She pulls out her notebook and ducks her head down, trying to look absorbed in the task. A couple of times she sees Jesse glance towards her but she ignores him, focusing instead on critically analysing the collection of sonnets handed out by the teacher. As soon as the period ends she stuffs her notebook back into her bag and hurries out of the room without saying a word to anyone. She heads straight for the bathroom, relieved to find all the stalls are empty. She chooses the one on the end and locks herself inside, shutting the lid of the toilet and sitting down. Her hands shake as she fumbles around inside bag, searching for her emergency kit in the bottom of her backpack. Her fingers close around it and she pulls it out, resting it in her lap. She yanks up the sleeve of her jumper and unwraps the gauze around her arm.
By the time she leaves the bathroom, the tension inside her has eased.
That night, the boy visits her in her sleep. Adam. Like before, she watches herself from the other end of her bedroom. He doesn’t see her. She tries to understand what is happening. It must be a dream, surely. It must be a dream. Across the room, Adam sits down on her bed. He says something to her. She closes her eyes and imagines she can hear it. Behind her closed eyelids, she sees him. At school. Standing by his locker. Throwing a balled up piece of paper at the back of his friend’s head. Laughing. Breathing. Living. She took that away from him. Is it any wonder he should haunt her dreams now? She swallows the lump forming in the back of her throat and opens her eyes. He is standing right in front of her. He is speaking, but she can’t hear it. She tries to tell him, but her voice is stuck behind the lump in her throat.
His voice rings clear in her mind.
Autumn. Hear me.
Adam, she thinks. His face registers surprise. He takes a step towards her. Stares into her eyes.
Adam, she thinks again, louder this time.
The word hangs clearly between them.
“Adam.” Her voice sounds rough, like she hasn’t spoken in days. “Am I--”
Teddy stands in the doorway, talking to the sleeping Autumn.
“Auty, are you awake?”
Her head grows foggy. Adam starts to fade.
“Wait,” she says, but it’s too late. She wakes up in her bed.
“Auty??” Teddy is standing in front of her, clutching his stuffed elephant. “I had a bad dream.” She rubs her eyes and wriggles back, giving him space to crawl under the covers.
“It’s okay, kid,” she whispers, running her hand through his hair. “It was just a dream.”
Just a dream.