Five years…One thousand eight hundred and twenty six days since she last stood on this spot. It felt like a lifetime ago. As she stood on the lawn, shaded under a tree and looking over at the sprawling building, she couldn’t help but let her mind and eyes wander. The grey stone and battlements gave the impression of an old castle, rather than the school it was. She supposed that some people may find such an appearance imposing but to her, it felt like coming home. She felt a smile tug at the corner of her lips as she let her eyes wander over the structure, memories of a time long passed flashing through her mind.
“Why are you smiling at the school?”
The sound of the voice made her jump. As far as she knew, she was standing alone. Looking around, she could see some students being dropped off by their parents at the entrance, some happily waving goodbye while others were more reluctant to transfer into the care of the new faces of their teachers. There were a few groups of parents conversing with one another but nobody was close enough to have asked the question. “Hello?”
This time she was ready for the voice and was able to pinpoint the location. She turned her head and looked up into the branches of the tree. Looking back at her was a brunette girl, dangling, rather precariously, upside down from one of the branches. As soon as their eyes made contact, the brunette repeated her question. “Why are you smiling at the school?”
“Oh my goodness. Why are you in a tree?”
“I asked you first.” The girl crossed her arms over her chest as she raised an eyebrow in challenge, her legs being the only thing keeping her from falling to the ground.
The look on the small girl’s face suggested that she wouldn’t relent in her desire to know the answer to the question any time soon. “You certainly did.” The blonde glanced back at the building before looking back to the girl in the tree. “I used to go to school here. I guess just seeing the building again brought back a lot of memories. It’s like seeing an old friend after a long time away from each other.”
“You’re strange.” The brunette frowned at her from in the tree.
“Mom always says to be polite to new people.”
Ellen turned to the source of the new voice and found herself looking down at a blonde girl. She could see the frown on the girl’s face as her blue eyes stared up at the brunette in the tree. Ellen watched as the two girls just stared at each other, until her eye caught a third figure. Standing a little behind the blonde was a shorter girl, her light brown hair pulled back in a ponytail and her eyes cast down towards her feet. She noticed how the other girl seemed to be trying to almost hide behind the blonde in front of her.
Eventually, the new arrival turned to look at her with a big grin. “Hi, I’m Sterling.”
The shorter girl’s brow creased as she tugged on the blonde’s arm, meeting her gaze as the action drew the girl’s attention to her. “We shouldn’t talk to strangers. It’s not safe.”
The blonde, Sterling, turned back to face her, tilting her head to the side as she looked up at her. “Are you a teacher?”
“I most certainly am. It’s my first day.” She smiled back at the girls.
“Ours too.” Sterling beamed back before turning to the shorter girl. “We can talk to teachers. And I’d never let anyone hurt you.”
The shorter girl raised her head to look up at her, blue eyes seeming to analyse the situation carefully.
Before there could be any further response, a voice carried across the lawn from one of the parents near the entrance. “Girls, time to go in.”
There was a thud beside her as the brunette dropped down from the branches of the tree before heading over to her mom. Sterling turned to where the other girl had gone, taking the hand of the shorter girl within her own. She noticed how a small smile appeared on the girl’s face for the first time since she had seen them.
“C’mon Sterl.” She shouted over her shoulder as she glanced back. As Sterling heard the words, she started to follow the brunette, leading the other girl with her. When she had taken a few steps, she came to a halt and turned back round. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Miss Johnson.”
“See you in school Miss Johnson.” With that, Sterling gave a little wave and continued off to the entrance, not once relinquishing the hand of the shorter girl. Ellen watched as the girls approached a blonde woman, whom she guessed was Sterling’s mom from their appearance. She was standing with another mom who had a rather tall boy standing next to her, kicking at the ground, his shirt half untucked already. Sterling’s mom leant down to place a kiss on her head and that of the brunette who had been up in the tree. The other mom turned to her son and tried to wipe something off his face. The shortest girl, just stood quietly, hand still linked with Sterling’s, until the little group made their way into the building.
With one last glance up at the building, Ellen made her own way inside to start her new job and embark upon this new chapter of her life. As she walked through the door, she wondered if she would see the trio of girls again in one of her classes in the future.
By the time Ellen had searched the sixth storage room in the Elementary school building, she was starting to think that she had been sent on a wild goose chase. As much as she had her heart set on using the elusive puppets in a recreation of David vs Goliath for her middle school class, she couldn’t justify spending the remainder of the day rummaging through dusty store rooms. Besides, there was only another fifteen minutes of her lunch break left. It was with reluctance that she decided that her next room would be her last.
She turned the corner and slipped her key into the lock, only to find the door was already unlocked. As she twisted the handle to open the door, the idea that there may be another faculty member who could assist in locating the items gave her a moment of hope. A hope that was dashed, when the door revealed a dark room. There were certainly no other staff present in the dark...At least, she hoped not as the fleeting thought of what people may be up to in dark storage closets flashed in her mind. With a quick prayer that she wasn’t about to shed light on something she would rather not see, Ellen flicked the light switch. The fluorescent tube flickered a few times with a disconcerting buzz before finally settling and illuminating the small space. A quick glance revealed nothing untoward and Ellen felt herself breathe a sigh of relief. As she turned to look at the first shelf, a sniff caught her attention.
“Hello? Is someone in here?”
She listened for a moment but received no reply. Another sniffle sounded from behind the shelving unit that ran down the centre of the room. She took a tentative step forward and peered around the edge. There was a small girl sitting on the floor, her head pressed against her knees that had been drawn up, arms wrapped tightly around them. Aside from the standard Willingham uniform, all Ellen could see was the long ponytail cascading down the girl’s back.
“Hey there. Are you OK?” She stepped closer before crouching down and reaching forward and placed a gentle hand on the shoulder of the small girl.
The girl lifted her head and looked up. As soon as she did, Ellen felt that pull in her mind, like she had seen this girl somewhere before, the tug of a distant memory that refused to surface. She watched as the girl nodded her head, clearly trying to fight down the tears that still glistened in her blue eyes. Ellen settled herself on the floor a little to the side of the girl.
“It’s OK to not be OK sometimes.” Ellen pulled a tissue out of her pocket and held it out to the girl beside her. “There are times in all our lives that we feel sad but just remember, the pain you’ve been feeling can’t compare to the joy that’s coming.”
The girl took the tissue and wiped her eyes. “Romans.”
Ellen smiled at the sound of the voice beside her. “You’re a smart one.” She noticed the gentle blush that spread across the cheeks of the small girl beside her. “Do you want to tell me what made you feel sad? I’ve been told I’m a good listener.”
The small girl regarded Ellen, her blue eyes seemingly searching her face for an answer to an unasked question. She nibbled on her lower lip for a moment before coming to a conclusion. “Adele is leaving me.” She admitted as she dropped her gaze back to her knees.
“Oh sweetheart, I know it is hard when a friendship fades.”
“It’s not that. She’s moving to Arizona.” As the words passed her lips, fresh tears spilled down her cheeks. “I told her I’d run away and go with her but the bus costs too much and it’s really far away.” The girl swiped her hand across her cheek to wipe at the falling tears.
“It is but you could always write to each other.” Ellen looked over to the girl, a smile gracing her lips as she spoke. A smile that quickly vanished as her words that she thought were a perfect solution, just resulted in a new flood of tears. “I know it’s not the same as seeing each other but I have a pen pal that I’ve been writing to for, oh my, probably nearly twenty years by now. She was my best friend at camp one summer and when camp ended, she went home but we still wrote to each other all the time.”
“How about e-mail then?”
The girl shook her head. “Mom says I can’t talk to her anymore. Her mom called my mom and now I’m not allowed to talk to her.”
Ellen met the watery blue eyes of the other girl. “What about your other friends?” There was a part of Ellen that hoped she hadn’t just put her foot in her mouth with the question, as she was inclined to do in her continuing efforts to see the best in every situation. She didn’t know anything about this girl, despite a nagging feeling she knew her from somewhere. She had made the assumption that she had other friends and yet she was here, alone in a closet. That sinking feeling returned with the thought.
“They were going to play on the swings. Blair said that I should play with someone else as I was ruining her mood by being sad and she just wanted to have fun.” The girl picked at her sock as she spoke, eyes downcast with the admission.
Before Ellen could respond, the sound of a new voice entered the room. “April? Are you in here?” She noticed how the girl before her looked over towards the door, even though her view was blocked by the shelves.
“C’mon Sterl. She’s probably somewhere reading that book about lions.”
“Did you even read it when I loaned it to you?”
“It just kept going on about a girl spending all her time in the closet. Who can relate to that?”
“It’s about so much more than that, which you’d know if you actually read it. Go and check the library.” The voice grew louder, signalling the approach of the owner.
Ellen looked over to the corner of the shelving unit as a blonde head appeared around it, a frown creasing her brow. She watched as the frown was replaced by a gap-toothed smile as her eyes landed on the girl sitting beside her, before her eyebrows drew up in worry. “April? What’s wrong?” The blonde made a beeline straight to the other girl and crouched down in front of her.
“You’re crying.” The blonde girl reached forwards and brushed away a tear that was still present. “Is it because Blair said you shouldn’t play with us? I told her she was being mean.” April shook her head, eyes dropping to the floor, whilst the other girl’s brow creased into a frown once more. “You can tell me. I won’t tell anyone…not even Blair if you don’t want me to. I just don’t want you to be sad.”
A silence descended between the girls and Ellen couldn’t help herself from interjecting. “The Bible tells us to bear one another’s burdens.”
The blonde spun so quickly towards her, Ellen was surprised she didn’t get whiplash. “You scared me. I didn’t know anyone else was here.” She saw a look of recognition cross the girl's face. “Hey, I know you.”
“Galatians.” The sound of April’s voice drew the attention of the two blondes back to her. Ellen watched as she seemed to come to a decision, her posture shifting ever so slightly. “Adele is…” Her voice trailed off for a moment before she sucked in a deep breath and continued. “She won’t talk to me anymore.”
“Well, she’s stupid.” Ellen watched as April raised her gaze to that of the blonde girl before her, a surprised look clear on her features. “She is. I know she’s moving and everything but that doesn’t mean you can’t still be friends. It’s not like we can’t still talk like all the time when not together. We have phones and email and skype and I guess letters if you want to be like really old, like our parents.”
“She just doesn’t want to talk to me anymore.” There was a slight waver to the short girl’s voice as she spoke.
“Then she’s still stupid. Who wouldn’t want to be your friend?” The blonde reached over and wrapped her hand around April’s. “You’ve got me.”
“I’ve got you?”
“Well, yeah.” The way the blonde spoke made it sound as if the mere thought of questioning this statement was ridiculous. “You're my best friend…except Blair…but she’s my twin so we were born as best friends. Maybe even before we were born but you’re my best friend that I have chosen.” She stopped her rambling and glanced up to look at April’s face, she gave a small shrug. “I’d always choose you.”
Ellen watched as April’s entire demeanour shifted with those words and her hand shifted to interlink with the blonde’s. The shorter girl drew in a deep breath before using her free hand to wipe away the remaining tears.
“Come swing with me?”
April nodded in response to the request, allowing herself to be pulled up by the other girl. As they reached the door, the pair stopped and April turned back to face her. “Thank you.”
Ellen smiled at the girls as she stood, dusting off her khakis as she did so. “No need to thank me. Seeing y’all supporting each other like that just warms my heart. Go on now, enjoy the end of your lunch while I try to find these puppets.”
“Try the bottom shelf in the corner.” With that, the girls turned and left. Ellen could hear their voices trailing off as they moved further from the store room. She turned to the shelf, crouching down to extract the box from the bottom. As she pulled the lid off, inside she found the puppets she had been searching for. Her recreation plans were firmly back on the cards. She replaced the lid on the box before retrieving it and heading out of the store room, ideas of other scenarios she could use the newly acquired puppets in filling her mind.
As Ellen entered the teacher’s lounge, she let out a quiet sigh of relief. She loved her job but trying to drum up excitement about the latest paired assignment from her middle school class was a seemingly impossible task. When she had initially floated the idea of carrying out acts of service for their neighbours, she had hoped the teams would come up with ideas like yard work or car washing. Today had been the first day of presentations and after the third group had proudly stated they had hired a gardening service for a neighbour, she had felt any hope for her students actually doing the work themselves depart.
“Here she is.” Coach Boone looked towards her as she approached the coffee, at least her right eye did so Ellen deduced that she was talking to her. “Matthew Creswell is in your Fellowship group right?”
Ellen turned to face the coach after pouring her drink. “He sure is.”
“Based on what Coach was telling me he overheard in the locker room today, you may want to revisit abstinence with them.”
Ellen’s hand flew up to her chest, her eyes widening. “Oh my. Are y’all saying that Matthew has been engaging in,” she paused as she cast a look around the room before dropping her voice to a whisper, “sexual activities?”
Coach Esposito shook his head as he rolled his eyes at the response. “Sarah is exaggerating.”
Ellen walked over to where the coaches sat. “If the students are engaged in any form of” she raised her hand to whisper to the pair, “sexual activity, then we may need to get additional staffing for the lock-in next month. I don’t suppose I could interest either of you in volunteering for such a worthy cause?”
“Sorry Ellen but I have a lacrosse seminar to attend that night but Anthony is free.” Coach Boone patted him on the shoulder with a grin.
“That’s fantastic news. We’ll make a great team.” Ellen glanced down at her watch, missing the look Coach Esposito shot at the lacrosse coach. “Oh shoot, I’ve got to dash. I’m on duty and who knows what could happen with insufficient supervision.” Ellen started to make her way to the door but stopped just as she was about to leave. “I almost forgot with the excitement of the birth of our new lock-in team, what was Matthew doing?”
“Turns out there was a party at the weekend. Now I didn’t hear much but it seems like they were engaged in acts that revealed the flavour of a certain student’s chapstick. Then there was something about peanut butter and lumberjacks but I guess they spotted me so that was the cover. You’d think this private school education would enable them to think fast and come up with something more believable than that as a conversation topic!”
“Oh my goodness. I’ll call an emergency Fellowship leadership meeting to discuss the issue. I’ll e-mail you with the lock-in meeting date.” With that comment, Ellen made her way out of the staff room, not noticing the way Coach slumped down in his seat.
As she emerged from the building, Ellen cast her eyes around the playground, taking in the different groups of students and their activities. She had hoped that after several years of getting playground duty she would have earned the right to get a better spot. Instead it seemed she was destined to spend another year braving the elements in the name of student supervision. On the bright side, it did mean that she could work on getting her step count up. As part of her new year, new you list she had drawn up over the Christmas break, she had treated herself to a Fitbit alongside her new polo shirt colour of the year.
Her focus was drawn over to where a little group of students sat around on one of the picnic benches. She recognised most of the students in the group from her fifth grade Bible studies class. The tall figure of Luke Creswell dominated the group, sticking out above all the others, despite being seated. Beside him was the curly head of Franklin and a couple of other boys Ellen was less familiar with, intently nodding to whatever Luke was saying. The boys were flanked by some of the Hannahs but for the life of her, Ellen really couldn’t tell you which ones. The first time she had looked down her class list, she truly believed there had been an error…who would have predicted there were five different Hannahs in the one class! The last members of the group were the Wesley twins and, as always, April sat beside Sterling paying limited attention to the group as she read a book.
All of a sudden one of the Hannahs shrieked and shot up from her seat. Several other members of the group leapt to their feet and backed away, some gagging. Ellen quickly moved to the remainder of the group, arriving just in time to hear April speak.
“God will not love you any less if you happen to be born with a second rate brain.” She looked up at Luke, the disdain for his actions clearly expressed on her features. “Mere mortals, however, do not love unconditionally.”
“What is happening?” Ellen looked around the few members of the group still gathered.
“He puked on me! On my shoes!” Hannah something announced.
Ellen glanced down and sure enough, the evidence spoke for itself. “Hannah, go and see Vlad and ask him to hose your shoes off.” The girl huffed away muttering about her footwear as she heard Franklin gag again. “Franklin, why don’t you go and let the janitor know there has been a vomit incident.” She watched as Franklin gladly took his leave.
“Luke, do you need to see the nurse if you are unwell?” Ellen noticed the blush that spread across his face as he shook his head. “If you’re sick then you really should go home, we don’t want you potentially infecting others.”
“He’s not sick, Miss Johnson.” Sterling spoke up.
“Then what happened?”
The group fell silent before Blair’s voice rang out. “Luke heard his brother talking about chapstick flavours and wanted to know if it really tasted like cherry. So he ate it and was sick.”
“Unsurprising considering he just ate something primarily made of a petroleum byproduct and wax. I guess we know why they have to label coffee as hot these days.” April commented from the side, her look of disapproval clear on her face.
Sterling nudged her gently. “He was just curious.”
“You can be curious without acting on things. Some questions are best left unanswered.”
“When was the last time you were curious about something and didn’t either Google the answer or try it just so you knew the answer for next time?” The blonde fixed the shorter girl with a challenging look.
Ellen watched the way that April’s focus dropped from Sterling’s eyes for a split second before darting back up to meet her gaze once more. “There’s lots of things I don’t know, I just consider the consequences of my actions before doing something.”
“That’s why you're boring.”
“Blair!” Sterling’s eyes grew wide as they shot to her sister, the admonishment of that single word seemingly having no impact on the brunette.
“What? It’s true. Like last summer at the lake.” Blair shot a pointed look over at her sister.
“Basic safety, you don’t just jump into a lake without checking what you are going to land on first. There could have been rocks there.” April defended.
Blair rolled her eyes at the response. “We knew it was safe, those guys we met told us.”
“The ability to speak does not make you intelligent. I’m not going to trust my well-being to some random boy you just met.” April met Blair’s gaze and refused to back down from the staring contest they inadvertently ended up in.
“Whatever.” Blair grabbed her bag and stood from the seat. “See you last period Sterl.”
Ellen watched Blair start to back away from the group. “Oh, Miss Johnson, you probably want to step back…Luke’s about to…” Before she could finish the sentence, Ellen heard the sound of gagging closely followed by a warmth spreading across her shoes. “Never mind.”
“I’m sorry Miss Johnson.” Ellen looked down at her shoes, now adorned with the remains of Luke’s lunch before looking back to the boy’s ashen face. “Let’s get you to the nurse’s office.” As Ellen started to head into the building, keeping Luke at a safe distance, she overheard Sterling’s voice.
“I don’t think you’re boring but haven’t you ever wanted to do something so bad that you just can’t wait and you just have to take that leap into the unknown?”
There was a short pause. “What if in doing so, I got hurt?” April’s voice held a quieter tone, one that Ellen had only heard her use when talking to the blonde over the years.
“Then I’d be there to pick you up.” The statement was spoken in such a matter of fact tone, that it was clear Sterling didn't think there was any situation that would result in her not being by April’s side to deal with the fall out.
Ellen didn’t hear the rest of the conversation as the sound of Luke gagging beside her drew her focus to the task in hand. As much as her shoes had already been sacrificed, she wasn’t going to risk her new polo shirt if he was sick again before they got inside.
Finally, it was here. One of the highlights of the academic year. At least, it was a highlight of Ellen’s academic year. For a number of other faculty members and a proportion of the student body, picture day was something that held an element of dread. The thought that one moment of your life would be immortalised in print brought with it a certain degree of pressure to have the right clothes, the right hairstyle and to make sure you didn’t end up blinking mid-photo.
As if picture day wasn’t enough of an event on its own, Willingham tied it together with the announcement of the fifth grade student body popularity contest. It was something Ellen had lobbied against for the last few years but to no avail. Her observation that announcing the winners and therefore, losers, of the contest just before their photographs may lead to some less than ideal reaction shots. She could still remember the incident of 2009 after Sam Scott had come second place and her Twilight-style smoky eyes had morphed into her looking more like a giant panda than the fifth grade attempt at sultry vampire mere minutes before the look was captured on film forever. Something made worse when one of the other Willingham students edited the year book to list her as endangered prior to publication. Ellen grimaced to herself at the memory of the parental complaint and the removal of Mr Pearl as yearbook supervisor.
Despite this, Ellen had been in a great mood all day. She had done 6000 steps before the end of first period, mostly through her adrenaline fuelled pacing while waiting for the morning announcements confirming the times of the day’s events. She now found herself standing to one side of the auditorium, barely able to contain her own enthusiasm, as the room filled with the sound of excited fifth graders.
“Good afternoon students.” The voices around the room trailed off as students shifted their attention from their own conversations to the stage and the vice principal. “If I can have your attention for just a few moments before you return to preening before your photographs.” The rest of the room fell silent. “Before we get down to the all important results of the contest, the last votes for which are just being double checked - it was a close race this year - we do have to wish Mrs Carter well as she will be taking some time off to welcome her child into the world. During her absence, her classes will be covered by Mr, er…” He trailed off looking down at the paper on the lectern before him. “Ah, Koontz, Mr Robert Koontz. I’m sure you will all make him feel welcome for the short time he is with us.”
There was a short pause accompanied by a brief scattering of lacklustre applause as one of the teachers handed the vice principal an envelope and whispered in his ear. “Richard? I could swear I was told Robert. Never mind. Subs don’t stay long anyway.” The hushed conversation still carried quite well in the auditorium, certainly enough for Ellen and many of the students to hear. He turned to face the students fully once more. “Now for what you are all waiting for.” Ellen glanced around at the students, several of whom appeared to have frozen as they held their breath in anticipation. “Ok, without further delay we have the results of the most popular contest. First, the boys.” The sound of the tearing envelope seemed to echo around the room. “Luke Creswell.” The silence was replaced by cheers and whistles as Luke stood from his seat. He took a bow as he turned to the others in the room before making his way up on stage where he received his prize. Luke shuffled off to one side, shifting awkwardly where he stood. “And now for the girls.” There was another pause as the envelope was opened. “Well, it certainly appears that this was a close race. The winner is…” The pause that followed was clearly designed to build the suspense but a significant number of students had already lost interest and were staring at their phone screens. “Sterling Wesley.”
“Woo! Yeah!” The shouts echoed out around the auditorium. A quick glance over to the source of the cheering revealed Blair as Sterling’s one person cheering squad. Sterling glanced over to her side where April sat stony faced before Blair pushed her out of her seat and up towards the stage. As she took the first step towards the podium, she glanced back to her seat, the look of concern faded and a smile graced her lips. Ellen glanced over to see what had triggered the change and saw April standing and clapping along with the rest of the group.
“Congratulations Sterling. I really thought April’s home baked cookies would have swayed the voters.” Sterling accepted a sash and a gift certificate for some frozen yoghurt.
“How close was it?”
“There were only three votes separating you.” The vice principal turned back to the audience. “I present your most popular couple, Sterling Wesley and Luke Creswell.”
Sterling turned to the steps at the side of the stage as soon as the listless applause started, making a beeline for where her friends sat. Just before she could make her way down, a hand grabbed her arm.
She turned to face the person the arm belonged to. “Hey Luke. Congratulations on the win.”
Luke rubbed the back of his neck as he shifted from one foot to the other. “Thanks. You too.”
“I should be getting back…” Sterling started to pull away from him.
“Would you go out with me?” He blurted.
Sterling felt her breath catch as she slowly turned her attention back to the boy in front of her. “Go out? Like on a date?”
“Yeah, when Mr P called us a couple, I just thought…we should be. The two most popular kids in middle school, together…it was like everything just clicked. And you’re like, really pretty.” His face flushed as he ran his hand through his hair with the comment.
Sterling felt herself smile at the compliment. “Ok.”
“Ok? Ok as in yes?” Luke beamed at her.
“Yes, Luke. I’ll go out with you.”
“Awesome. Friday after school?” Luke started to back away towards the door where his teacher was waiting to escort them for their photos as Sterling nodded in agreement. “We’ll be the best couple since Han and Leia.”
Sterling frowned. “I don’t know what that means.” She was unable to get a response as the other class were led out of the auditorium. Sterling made her way back over to where Blair sat. “You’ll never guess what just happened.”
“Luke asked you out and you said yes.” Blair replied matter of factly.
“How did you know that?”
“Even if I hadn’t seen every episode of Scooby Doo multiple times…I mean, I’m like literally Velma, just way cooler…it was so obvious. He practically tripped down the steps because he was too busy grinning like an idiot at you.” Blair shook her head as they walked to where the rest of their class lined up. “I really thought I would be the first one to go on a date with a boy.”
“What? Why?” Sterling frowned at the implication as they walked along the hall.
“Really Sterl? I think I’ve heard you and April spend more time talking about books than boys. I mean, most girls talk about team Edward or team Jacob…you spent more time discussing the drawbacks of vampires turning into glitter balls in daylight.”
“It was an important plot point.”
“Sterl…it’s Twilight. There were no important plot points or even a point to the plot.”
They entered the room as Sterling geared herself up for another round of defending Twilight to her sister. “April, back me up.” Sterling turned to where she thought the shorter girl was but was greeted by the sight of Brenda. She cast her gaze across the room and spotted the other girl sitting to one side, alone.
“Guess she’s just a sore loser.”
Sterling shot her sister a disapproving look before making her way across the room to where April sat. She slipped into the seat beside her. “Hey.”
“Hi.” The short response was not accompanied by the usual smile that felt almost reserved just for her.
“Are you OK?” Sterling watched the way April scuffed the toe of her shoe against the ground as she nodded, her eyes downcast. “Are you sad that you didn’t win because it was super close?”
Sterling lifted the sash off and looked down at it for a moment before tugging on the end. “What are you doing?”
She blew out a puff of air. “I wanted to do like Cady in Mean Girls and split it but this sash is surprisingly well made. Oh, I can ask Miss Johnson for some scissors…hold on. Miss Johnson?”
Sterling went to rise from her seat but was stopped by a hand against her arm. “You don’t have to do that. You won. Your parents will be really proud of you and they will want to see your prize.” April waved Ellen off as she began to close the short distance between them.
“My parents are always proud of me. Do you remember when I came last in the science fair because Blair ate half my experiment? They still cheered just as loud as if I had won. They are so embarrassing.”
There was a short pause before April spoke. “You’re lucky.”
Sterling looked at her friend. “You can have the sash if you want. We can say you won or that it was a tie.”
“I want to share everything with you.” The blonde shrugged with the statement.
April glanced over to the blonde for the first time since the award, a small smile tugging at one side of her mouth. “How about you share the frozen yoghurt with me?”
By the time summer rolled around, Ellen was thankful that she had a never ending supply of polo shirts. The heat was particularly oppressive this week, making her feel as though her recess duty point was stationed at the outer gates of Hades itself rather than the playing field. She shifted uncomfortably as she looked across the grounds. She offered a wave to Vlad as he approached but any hope of a conversation to pass her time was dashed as she spied the headphones covering his ears.
She looked over to where the students had scattered themselves across the grounds. There were small groups of friends seated as they chatted over their lunches. She spied the new girl, yet another Hannah to add to the already overpopulated Hannah list, quietly practicing some chords on her new guitar. Luckily this one had the surname Burton and they didn’t have any Hannah Bs. Well, they did now but just the one. There would be no repeat of the Hannah S debacle. She’s not sure if poor Miss Thompson had recovered from the events of last year when she had offered her condolences on the loss of the family dog…unfortunately it was the wrong Hannah S she spoke to. The fallout was significant.
Her gaze fell upon a lone figure sitting on the swings, her nose buried deep within the book in her hands as she gently swung back and forth. Ellen found herself walking over to the swings to enquire as to the out of character behaviour. Not that April reading a book was anything out of the ordinary, in fact, the lack of a book would be a far less likely occurrence. The oddity was the fact that the young girl was alone. Wherever April went, Sterling was close by and by proxy, Blair too.
The young girl looked up from her book. “Hi Miss Johnson.”
“I couldn’t help but notice that you were sitting here on your own. Is everything OK?”
April nodded. “Blair wanted to play soccer.”
“Did you not want to play with them?” Ellen asked as she glanced over to where the small group of girls were kicking a ball around.
“Daddy says that soccer is not ladylike so I’m just trying to memorise the Republican presidents. I got the question on presidents right on ‘Who wants to be a millionaire’ and he was really proud.” Ellen watched as a smile spread across her face as April recounted the story. “I thought if I learn all the Republican presidents then he will be more proud of me.”
Ellen felt a twinge of sadness that this remarkable young girl before her felt that she needed to spend her recess memorising facts to impress her parents. She had grown up in a home where her parents made sure she knew that they were proud of her every day. She didn’t have to earn it, they were just proud of who she was.
“Hey Miss Johnson.”
Ellen found her train of thought broken by the sudden appearance of Sterling. The young girl had a flushed face, her hair all in disarray as she panted out the greeting. “Hi Sterling. I’ll leave you girls to it.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to play?” As she started to walk away, Ellen glanced over her shoulder to see the young blonde start to gently push the swing with April on. “Your dad doesn’t have to find out, it can be our secret.”
“Sterl, the last time you tried to keep a secret you ended up unravelling half your vest where you kept pulling on the thread at the bottom.”
“Yeah but that was because Hannah G had told me the theme for her birthday party but didn’t want Hannah S to know but Hannah M kept dropping hints which meant Hannah S was getting suspicious…” Sterling had started to tug on the bottom of her vest, only stopping when April’s hand came to rest over hers.
“Yeah but this is for you.” Sterling shrugged, scuffing her toe in the dirt.
“I’d never ask you to keep a secret for me.”
“I know. I would though, if you really needed me to…I’d keep your secret.”
“I’m fine. Go back and play before Blair accuses me of stealing you away from her again.”
Ellen watched as Sterling ran back over to her sister, glancing back to the swings as she got further away. She watched the group resume their game for a moment before continuing to wander across the field, smiling at the groups she encountered.
“Sterling! Where are you going?”
Turning towards the source of the latest commotion, Ellen saw the young blonde jog back across the field to where April still sat on the swing. She noticed the look of confusion descend across her face as Sterling gently tugged her up by the hand, leading her away from the swings and towards where she stood. As they drew nearer, she could make out what April was saying.
“Sterl, where are we going? Blair is giving me the same look I got when your mom gave me one of the brownie corners that time.”
Sterling came to a stop beside a group of girls sitting on the grass so abruptly that April almost collided with her back.
“Hi Sterling. Hi April.”
“April’s in your group for now.”
Ellen saw the way April’s head snapped back from where she had been giving a polite smile to the group before her to stare at the blonde’s profile, the smile dissipated with the words that had been spoken. In the moment that passed following those words, a multitude of emotions crossed the face of the shorter girl…shock, disbelief, sadness.
Sterling shot Jessica and the rest of her group a smile before dropping April’s hand and jogging back to where Blair waited. April’s eyes followed the motion, her jaw clenching as she balled her now empty hand into a fist as it fell to her side.
“What are you reading?”
Ellen watched as April closed her eyes for a second before turning to Jessica with a forced smile on her face. “It’s a brief history of the US presidency.”
“Isn’t that on the syllabus for next semester?”
“It’s never too early to get ahead. There is no prize for second place.”
“There so is…silver medals, ever heard of them?”
April turned an icy gaze upon Marcy. “Our school awards participation medals to every student to avoid any of our parents, who pay considerable sums of money for us to attend, feeling like their child was left out. In the real world, nobody remembers who came second. Second place is just the first loser.”
“Talking of losers…did you hear that Brenda…”
Ellen tuned out the rest of the conversation as she quietly watched the way April stared down at the closed cover of her book, letting the conversation wash over her. The sound of loud cheering drew her attention to where Blair Wesley was running up the sideline, celebrating what Ellen could only assume was a win. The group of soccer players made their way over to the lawn near the building where they had left their bags with Luke and his friends. Before she knew it, the sound of the bell rang out across the grounds signalling the end of lunch. Ellen slowly made her way back to the building, herding the slower moving students along as she went.
She noticed how Sterling had hung back at the entrance with Blair. She assumed to wait for April. However, when April approached, rather than engaging with the pair, she walked straight past without sparing the other girl so much as a glance. Ellen saw the way Sterling’s face fell at the action. There was a part of her that wanted to interject in the situation but she also knew that sometimes, it was best to let girls have some space to work out their own friendship drama. Besides, this was Sterling and April. They had been practically inseparable for as long as she could remember. It’s not like they would stay separated for long now.
Ellen sat behind the desk in her office, her teacher’s planner open before her as she contemplated the next semester and the activities she needed to get April working on. The sound of the piano stool scraping against the wooden floor drew her attention. As she looked out into the main fellowship room she saw Sterling sitting there, her eyes downcast to the phone in her hands. A phone she was idly rotating in her hand rather than the usual texting or social media exploits. The look on the blonde’s face was one that had become all too familiar these past few months, a sadness that lingered in her eyes even when she had forced her lips into a smile. Ellen could remember seeing her sit in the same place not so long ago with a similar look, yet now there was an added level of desolation that had appeared after the lock in. Something had happened to cause this dramatic shift but she just wasn’t sure what.
She had spent more time than she cared to admit pondering on the potential causes to the change in demeanour of not just Sterling, but also April and Blair. There had been a shift in all three girls over that one weekend. She knew April’s dad was back on the scene and thought that may have something to do with April’s shift in mood but it wouldn’t explain the Wesley girls. The thought that Luke had a part to play in some kind of love triangle had a momentary feature but faded quickly when she saw April turn down his invitation to a Star Wars movie marathon. Plus there was still the question of how Blair factored into this whole scenario. Ellen had even accosted her mail person to get her take on it one Saturday morning following a particularly awkward Fellowship meeting where it seemed Sterling and April kept alternating between glancing towards each other when the other wasn’t looking and steadfastly looking away from the other as they spoke, while Blair kept shooting daggers at April and a forlorn look to her sister. Really, the whole thing was the source of more headaches than Ellen could remember since she had been roped into the elementary school nativity play one year.
The sound of the Fellowship room door opening caused the young blonde to glance over from her seat. There was a moment when her eyes clearly locked with the new occupants before she turned back to the piano, blinking rapidly as she swallowed.
The disembodied voice drew closer as the shorter teen stepped into view to set down some baked goods on the table. Ellen watched as April cast a glance over to where the blonde sat, a small frown creasing her brow as she took in her appearance. For a moment Ellen thought that she was going to say something as she almost took a step towards the seated girl but then bit her lip and turned away, her eyes landing on Ellen for the first time. The moment their eyes connected, Ellen could see the way April straightened her pose and tried to slip on the mask she spent so long hiding behind.
“Good morning Ellen. You’re here early.”
“Observant as always. I wanted to get a jump on next semester as we have so many great things coming up that we will need to be super prepared to make sure they all go off without a hitch.”
“You can rely on me to make sure of that.”
“I know that’s the truth. You always have had a way of getting what you want.” As those words were spoken, there was a subtle shift in April’s posture, her shoulders dropped ever so slightly as her eyes dropped. Before Ellen could analyse it further, the mask was firmly back in place but an idea had taken root. “Since it is the last Fellowship meeting of this semester, I was hoping you wouldn’t mind if I took the lead on this one. There are some really important messages I really want to give y’all before the break.”
As April headed back into the Fellowship room to sit with her friends, Ellen absentmindedly tapped her pen against her planner as she thought about what she was going to say. As different thoughts occurred, she jotted them down and before she knew it the bell was ringing to signal the start of Fellowship. She could hear the indistinct sounds of groups chatting together grow louder as more students arrived. Taking one last glance down at her notes, she rose from her seat and entered the main room.
“Morning everyone and what a great morning it is, our final Fellowship meeting of the semester. Now I’ve asked April to let me lead on this one as it’s been a while since I got to talk to y’all and honestly, I really do love sharing thoughts and engaging in discussions with everyone on these super important topics.” As she looked around the assembled group, she could see a variety of students smiling and nodding.
“I want to start with a reading. Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me.” As she continued to speak, Ellen glanced over the faces before her, paying little heed to the majority who seemed to be listening to varying degrees. When her gaze fell upon Blair she expected to see the brunette with her usual half bored, half sceptical look but instead was greeted by a more contemplative look as the girl kept glancing over to where the blonde still sat alone by the piano. As Ellen let her focus move to the blonde, she thought for a moment that she caught sight of an extra glisten to the sad blue eyes. As she finished reciting the verse, she glanced over to where April sat on the couch between her friends, posture rigid as she twisted the ring on her finger. “Who can tell me where that verse is from?”
There was a general silence in the room for a moment before a response came from Brenda. “The book of Ruth.”
“Yes. Very good. Now what do you think this passage is teaching us?”
“That you should always follow your family.”
“Ok, let’s think about that. Orpah left Naomi and returned to her home, to her family, but Ruth stayed with her. Was one of them wrong?”
There was a moment of silence before an unlikely voice spoke. “Neither of them were wrong. It just depends on your definition of family.”
“Oh very good Blair. Can you expand on that?”
“It’s like what makes a family? Is it that you share blood, that you have the same genes in your cells or is it less biological and more of a feeling. Like your family is made of the people who make you feel safe and loved. They are the people you can rely on and who have been there for you, who love you unconditionally. And sure they may screw up once in a while, sometimes in a really big way, but they will still have your back. It’s like the difference between a house and a home. For Ruth, Naomi was her family, her home, but I guess Orpah had that waiting for her where she grew up.”
“Very insightful.” Ellen noticed the way Blair had been glancing over to where her sister sat throughout her answer. “Just take a moment to think about who has made you feel that way in your life.” She paused for a moment. “I’m sure you can all think of a person who said they would never hurt you. And sometimes, that promise has been broken. So you may think that clearly they are not worth your time but did you question why? Sometimes we say or do things that cause hurt without meaning to and it usually hurts more when you truly love someone.” She could see various students sharing knowing looks and nodding with her sentiment. “Maybe it is the person who said they would always choose you. Knowing that there is someone who puts you above others can help you to face some of the tough times and tough choices. And it’s not always easy y’all. Sometimes when we are trying to navigate this tricky existence, we will stumble and fall but knowing there is someone who will always be there to pick you up - either physically or emotionally - means we keep on walking down the path. After all, it doesn’t matter how difficult the obstacles are that we meet along the way or how many times we fall, if there is someone there to pick us up each time.”
Ellen noticed the way that April had stopped fidgeting with her ring as she spoke, caught the almost imperceptible turn of her head towards the other side of the room. She also saw how Sterling had turned her body towards the group for the first time. “Or maybe it is that person that you want to share everything with. The person who knows your deepest secrets and you know, without a doubt, that they will never tell.”
She paused at that moment to give them all a chance to think on her words. “I’m sure that you can all think of at least one person who is that for you. And I know it isn’t always easy and sometimes we let those obstacles get in our way. We may say or do things that push those people away but if you truly have found that person, they will still be there. Sometimes all you need to do is reach out, make that leap of faith and trust that they will still be there to catch you.”
The sound of the bell ringing brought their meeting to an end. Students started to gather their belongings and make their way out of the room for their first period. Ellen noticed the way Blair had gone over to where Sterling sat as soon as the bell had rung. The two girls exchanged some words that she couldn’t hear but the fact that Sterling stood and gave her sister a hug seemed like a good thing to Ellen after these weeks of distance between them. Blair started to walk towards the door, her hand linked with Sterling’s but as they approached the couch.
“Sterling?” The blonde came to a stop with the sound of her name falling from the lips of someone she didn’t expect. She shared a glance with her sister who nodded and left.
Ellen glanced around the room and saw it was empty save for the two girls by the couch and the couple of students exiting through the door. Not wanting to intrude on what she hoped was the breakthrough two of her favourite students needed, Ellen rose from her seat and made her way towards her own class. Just before she left the room she heard April speak.
“Can we talk?”