Just Listen

Author: P Hana

Page 15


This time, she was walking by as I sat on the wall during lunch. Emily was with her—Emily was always with her, these days—and I didn't look at them, instead just focusing on the notebook in my lap and the history paper I was working on. I'd just written the word occupation, and I kept my pen to the page, making both o's darker and darker, until Emily and Sophie passed.

There was a karmic aspect to this, although I didn't like to think about it. The truth was, it hadn't been that long ago that I'd been the one who walked alongside Sophie while she did her dirty work, when I was the person who, while not taking part in the slur, didn't stop it, either. Like with Clarke.

Thinking this, I looked up, glancing around the courtyard until I found her sitting at one of the picnic tables with a few of her friends. She was at the end of the bench, a textbook open in front of her, half listening to the conversation between the girls next to her as she flipped through the pages. Clearly, sitting alone on that first day for her had been optional. She hadn't come anywhere near the wall, or me, since.

But Owen Armstrong remained. Other people came and went from our wall, some in groups, some by themselves, but only he and I were there every single day. We always kept an understood distance between us—about six feet, give or take a few inches—that whoever arrived second was always sure to honor when they sat down. There were other constants, too. He never ate, that I saw; I always had a full lunch, courtesy of my mother. He seemed completely unaware, and uncaring, of what anyone else was doing, while I spent the hour convinced everyone was staring at and discussing me. I did homework; he listened to music. And we never, ever spoke.

Maybe it was because I was spending so much time alone. Or the fact that there were only so many minutes of my lunch hour I could spend doing homework. Whatever the reason, I'd become somewhat fascinated with Owen Armstrong. Every day, I made it a point to take a few sideways glances at him, cataloging something else about his appearance or habits. So far, I'd garnered quite a bit of information.

For instance, the earphones. He never seemed to take them off. Clearly, he loved music, and his iPod was always either in his pocket, his hand, or lying on the wall beside him. I'd also noticed that his reactions when he was listening varied. Usually he sat totally still except for his head bobbing, slowly and almost imperceptibly. Occasionally he drummed his fingers on his knee, and in very rare instances, he hummed along, barely loud enough for me to hear, and then only when no one was passing or talking nearby. Those were the times I wondered most what he was listening to, although I imagined it to be just like him, dark and angry and loud.

Then there was his appearance. His size, of course, you saw first: the height, the big wrists, the enormity of his mere presence. But there were little things, too, like his dark eyes, which were either green or brown, and the two identical rings—each flat, wide, and silver—he wore on the middle finger of each hand.

Now, as I glanced over at him, he was sitting with his legs stretched out in front of him, leaning back on his palms. A swath of sunlight was falling across his face, and his earphones were on, his head bobbing slightly, eyes closed. A girl carrying a piece of poster board walked past me, then slowed as she approached him, and I watched her as she carefully stepped over his feet, like Jack from "Jack in the Beanstalk" creeping past the sleeping giant. Owen didn't stir, and she scurried on.

I'd once felt this same way about Owen as well, of course. Everyone did. But there was something about our daily proximity that had made me relax, or at least not jump every time he looked my way. These days I was more worried about Sophie, who was a credible threat, or even Clarke, who had made it clear that yes, she still hated me.

It seemed odd that Owen Armstrong could seem somehow safer than the only two best friends I'd ever had. I was beginning to see, though, that the unknown wasn't always the greatest thing to fear. The people who know you best can be riskier, because the words they say and the things they think have the potential to be not only scary but true, as well.

I had no history with Owen. But Sophie and Clarke were different. There was a pattern here, some sense of connection, even if I didn't want to see it. It didn't seem fair or right, but I couldn't help but wonder if maybe all of this, and where I found myself, wasn't so accidental. Maybe it was just what I deserved.

After that night when Clarke and I returned her stuff to her at her house, Sophie started to hang out with us. It wasn't a specific invitation as much as she was just eased in. Suddenly there was a third beach chair, another hand dealt into the card game, one more Coke to carry when it was your turn to go get drinks. Clarke and I had been best friends for so long it was kind of nice to have a fresh take on things, and Sophie definitely provided that. In her bikinis and makeup, full of stories of the boys she'd dated in Dallas, she was totally different from us.

She was also loud and bold, completely unafraid to talk to guys. Or wear whatever she felt like wearing. Or say what was on her mind. She wasn't unlike Kirsten in this fashion, but while my sister's forthrightness always made me uneasy,

Sophie's was different. I liked it, almost envied it. I couldn't say what I wanted, but I could always count on her to speak up, and the events she set into motion—always a little risky, at least for me, but fun at the same time—were ones I never would have gotten to experience left to my own devices.

Still, there were moments when I felt uneasy around Sophie, although it was hard to put my finger on why, exactly. As much as we hung out and she became part of my day-to-day life, I couldn't forget how mean she'd been to me that first day at the snack bar. Sometimes I'd just look at her while she was telling a story, or painting her nails as she lay on the end of my bed, and wonder why she had done that. And in the next beat, if she'd do it again.

For all her bravado, though, I knew Sophie had her own problems. Her parents had just recently divorced, and while she'd mentioned repeatedly all the stuff her dad bought her when she lived in Texas—clothes, jewelry, anything she wanted—one day I'd overheard my mom and one of her friends discussing the divorce, which was apparently very ugly. Sophie's dad had left for a much younger woman, and there'd been a bitter battle over their house in Dallas. Mr. Rawlins supposedly wasn't in contact with Sophie or her mom at all. But Sophie never mentioned this, and I didn't ask about it. I figured if she wanted to talk about it, she would.

In the meantime, she hardly held back on anything else. For instance, she was always telling me and Clarke we were immature. Everything, apparently, was wrong: our clothes (so childish), our activities (boring), and our experiences (nonexistent). While she was interested in my modeling and seemed fascinated with my sisters—who both pretty much ignored her, as they did me—she was always giving Clarke a hard time.