a short story by ANALICIA TORRES

To the students of Blatown High,  the girl with the muddy boots and ragged army jacket was odd. She never spoke, never ate lunch, never smiled, and never looked up from the floor. Some people wondered if she breathed. She was so pale and skinny that she always caused people to do double takes when they glanced at her: she looked like a ghost. And maybe she was. She’d gone to the school for all four required years, but never once had she raised her hand or been called on, nor did the teachers pay her much attention. No one knew where she lived, except the school administrators, who weren’t allowed to divulge a student’s private information; very few people knew her last name, for that matter. To the townspeople, she was an enigma, but nobody bothered to crack her.

She went to class like every other (decent) student and passed her classes with good enough grades to let her graduate. Some people whispered that she was indeed a ghost who aimlessly wandered the halls. Other people said she was nothing but a weirdo. These hushed whispers, however, did not affect her, for she was deaf to every mutter other than her own. She kissed her parents goodnight, tucked in her younger brother, and repeated the day over again.  Only when she was in her room did she open her mouth, but never to anyone else.

No one knew why.

In that same school, a boy traipsed through the hall with wide smiles and friendly greetings. Everyone knew his name and everybody loved him. The teachers thought he was funny and smart, always early for his first period class and never late; his friends thought he was generous, and the school adored him. To any and every parent, he was the perfect son.

The boy went to class every day with the same backpack and shoes, the same peeling leather belt. He wore a plastic bracelet of soda can tabs on his wrist, one that he never took off, and a small wooden cross as a necklace, both of which were incredibly sacred to him. And although he was such a polite and kind person, he would never answer a question about the jewelry.

No one knew why.

One day, both the girl and the boy sat arrived to class at the same time. They were always early and always in their seats before the bell. Their teacher, a rather oblivious man to anything but sports, began to list off pairs of partners. As usual, he excluded the girl’s name entirely, despite looking at her several times. The students shuffled around the room to find their new places and began to work, chatty and ready for lunch the next period.

As he sat there debating the problems over with his partner, the boy couldn’t help but look back at the girl with the army jacket and muddy boots. He’d heard the whispers and rumors about her, but he’d never really given them a second thought. Today, however, she looked paler than her usual snowy white. Her eyes were red and puffy, and her nose kept dripping. The jacket looked ready to burst at the frayed seams, but she wiped her cheeks on it anyway and kept staring down at her sheet, her pencil frozen over the first problem. The bell rang several long minutes later, but she didn’t move.

Hesitant to leave, he grabbed his worksheet and bag and stood. But instead of following his friends through the door, he plucked a tissue from the front table and went over to her, sitting in the chair opposite of her. She didn’t look up at him. This close, he could her bottom lip quivering and her hand shaking.

“Hello,” he said softly. She did not respond. “I can help you with your homework, if you’d like.”

This time she did meet his gaze. Her eyes were red all over, but that wasn’t what haunted him most. It was that when he looked in her eyes, he saw himself. His own secrets writhed in her dark brown eyes, the same ones he’d tried so hard to keep from everyone in school.

He took her paper and finished it as quickly as he had his own, signing her name on the top and stacking it with his. Even after he finished, he did not move, and neither did she. They sat there for half the lunch period before he finally took off his wooden cross and slowly slid it across the table to her. “It was my dad’s,” he said hoarsely. “I don’t remember him”

The girl’s shaky hands traced the plain pattern of the wood. Her lip ceased its frantic quivering.

Then he took off his bracelet, revealing a dark knot of red scars and burns. He handed her the bracelet. “He left me this, too,” he said, but instead of pointing to the bracelet, he stuck out his marred wrist.

She met his gaze again.

“I ran away when I was eight.” The boy was eighteen. “The bracelet was my little sister’s. She died of hypothermia when she was four.”

Her brow twitched. “Where was your mother?” she asked.

He was too surprised by her speech to answer. She lowered her gaze again. “I’m not sure. I never went back to look for her. Can I tell you another thing?” She nodded. “I don’t have a home.” In truth, he never had.

Finally, she looked up at him again and gave him back his things. “My brother was an Army veteran. He killed himself a week after he came back home.” She pulled the jacket tighter around her.

“Why don’t you speak to anyone?”

“Because he was the only one who cared enough to hear me. Why are you so happy when you have nothing?”

“Because I am the only thing that I need.” He smiled at her. “People think I’m perfect because of how I make them feel and it doesn’t bother me.”

“People think I’m weird.” But it didn’t bother her either. She was fine on her own.

“My point is, it shouldn’t matter what other people think. They can judge you by your looks or smarts all they want, but they will never know the real you unless you show them.”

And the girl smiled.