I used to think that the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone. – Robin Williams
Have you ever had one of those days where your anger caused you to do something really dumb? Like, monumentally stupid and so incredibly counterproductive to how you try to live your life that you would sell your soul for a do-over? That, in a nutshell, is what my day has become.
Sitting cross-legged on the nicely manicured grass of the town’s cemetery, I clutch the torn, ratty cardigan tightly around my shoulders and hunker down. If I raise my knees up and bend over, I can create a warm pocket of air between my legs by draping the thin sweater over my head and exhaling a warm breath.
I hate being cold. It reminds me of all the times Mom neglected to pay our electricity bill and our power would be subsequently shut off for weeks at a time. Mom has… had a habit of neglecting to do a lot of things like that. Her lack of parental responsibility went beyond not paying the bills to keep the electricity on and the water running in our apartment. She also forgot to buy groceries most weeks.
I have too many memories as a child of going to bed hungry, of spending countless nights shaking uncontrollably on the single, bare mattress that served as my bed. No sheets. No covers. Nothing to help warm me up on the long, dark nights of winter when the temperatures outside would drop below freezing.
On the flipside, I don’t mind the heat of summertime—the resulting sweat as it drips down my neck, my back, the side of my face at the dip of my temple. I can tolerate those sensations. But not the biting shivers that the cold brings. The violent way one’s body shudders, trying to warm itself up. Sweat, I can wipe away. Trying to stop my teeth from chattering is futile. It sucks. The damp grass below me, soaking into the denim material of my jeans, isn’t helping either. It just makes me colder and is another reminder of who I am and where I come from.
I’ve gotten very good at figuring out ways to stay warm, especially on cool, September afternoons like today. An early cold front moved through yesterday, dropping temperatures by twenty degrees. The winters here in Highland, North Carolina are unfortunately worse. When I’m not at school, there is really nothing much I can do to escape the frigid cold that winter brings unless I’m able to sneak into a gas station or a fast-food bathroom and run the hand dryer for a few minutes.
As much as I hate being cold, I’m better off out here than at home. I would gladly sleep out in the middle of a blizzard if it meant I never had to go back there. I hate home even more than I hate being cold.
I trace the block letters on the flat, one-by-two-foot concrete slab in front of me. The ones that spell out CAMERON BOLLINGER—my best friend since I was five.
Cameron and I grew up right next door to each other in the shitty, rundown apartments that no one in their right mind would ever want to live in if they had a choice. Drug deals in the middle of the parking lot are still a common daily occurrence, as are what seems like monthly police raids.
“Hey, Cam,” I say as I pull on a few weeds that have sprung up around his headstone.
Ripping off the foliated leaves of a cat’s ear dandelion, I pinch off the stem to one of the yellow flowers. It’s ironic that something most people consider to be an ugly, unwanted garden pest has flowers that look like a cheerful sunburst and emit a sweet aroma.
If I were to wax poetic, I would say that Cameron is… was much like a dandelion’s flower. At first glance, the rough, crinkled leaves are broad and ugly. But if you take the time to look closer, you will see that the weed is quite beautiful. The plant is hardy and resourceful. It blooms bright yellow flowers that have velvety-soft petals. Unlike the bitter, unpleasant stench of ragweed, a dandelion’s fragrance has hints of citrus and rose.
Placing the dandelion on top of Cameron’s headstone, I look down at the bruised knuckles on my right hand; they are slightly swollen and sore. I flex my fingers a few times, somewhat mesmerized at the stinging, cramping pain that follows.
“I’m so tired, Cam. And I’m angry. So very angry at her for taking you away from me. Angry at you for leaving me here by myself. Angry at him for not stopping you that night.”
It’s been a little over two months, and the pain of losing my best friend is just as strong as the night Cam’s mom called to tell me that he had been hit by a drunk driver on his way home from a party.
The drunk driver was my mother. The impact with Cam’s car sent both of their vehicles careening into a light pole. Cam was killed on impact. I was told my mother died shortly after paramedics arrived on scene.
I found out later that Cam had also been drinking and driving. That pisses me off to no end because he never drank, especially during football season. Cam was a defensive cornerback for our high school football team, and he took his training seriously. He was good enough that last year during our junior year of high school, college scouts had been eyeing him. He had so much to look forward to, a bright future ahead of him.
Unlike Cam, my mother’s prospects of having a better life were next to zero. She knew no other existence than the one at the bottom of a vodka bottle. The fact that she would be reckless and careless enough to get behind the wheel of a car while intoxicated doesn’t surprise me. Mom would come home most nights, stumbling drunk and barely coherent. It was a normal state of being for her. And she wasn’t one of those happy drunks, either. Nope. My mother was a mean, nasty drunk. Add in an older sister who would rather hit me than hug me, and a father who split town when I was two years old—let’s just say my home life had much to be desired.
When the accident that killed both Cam and my mom happened, I had just turned eighteen, so was considered an adult in the eyes of the law. Thankfully, Child Protective Services didn’t get involved because I was ‘of age.’ Mentally, I had already been an adult for a very long time.
Growing up fast happens when you live in an abusive, broken home.
The day after Cam’s funeral, his mom packed everything up and moved out of their apartment. Part of me wanted to beg her to take me with her. She had always been more of a mother to me than my own.
Some days I wish so badly to run away from this town and never look back. Highland, North Carolina has its fair share of small-town charm and neighborly people, but those people tend to gloss over and ignore those of us who live across the proverbial train tracks. And as much as I would love to leave Highland in search of greener pastures, so to speak, I can’t. Not yet.
See, here’s the problem. I’m smart. And being smart means that I know running away would be stupid. And I’m not stupid. I have a plan, and that plan involves finishing high school and graduating. I’m lucky enough to be districted to the top high school in the state, even though I live in the decrepit part of town located just on the outer fringes of Highland.
There are too many opportunities at Highland High for me to pack my stuff and walk away—as much as I would love to. If I can just hold on for another nine months, keep my head down, keep studying hard, I’ll graduate as Valedictorian. I’ll have accrued about two years of college credits from all the AP exams I’ve taken since ninth grade. And my one hope, the goal I have been working toward and fighting so hard for, is to get a full ride to Duke. Our school’s guidance counselor tells me that I have a good chance of that happening. And then I’ll finally be able to leave this godforsaken place that has shown me nothing but misery and pain.
I lean over and kiss Cam’s headstone, the cold, gray concrete causing me to shiver. “I’ve got to get to work,” I tell him.
I have to be at Ruby’s Diner soon for my five-to-ten shift. My meager income as a waitress is the only thing that’s keeping the lights on in the apartment I still share with my sister, the water running, and food on the table. Not that peanut butter, a loaf of bread, and instant noodles are anything to write home about, but at least I’m not starving.
I wince when my sore hand protests as I lift myself off the ground. I have a feeling that I’ll be using my left hand a lot at work tonight. The discomfort I feel puts a tiny smile across my face. I don’t like receiving attention in any form, and I definitely do not like to be noticed.
I used to be bullied a lot in elementary school and junior high because of where I lived and who my mother was. Cam tried his best to protect me, but he couldn’t be with me every second of every day.
Things settled down once we got to high school and Cam was on the football team. No one messed with the football players or their friends. It didn’t matter anyway. By the time I hit second grade, I had developed a thick skin and an almost impenetrable wall around my heart.
I became hardened to the stupid name-calling and daily taunts that greeted me as soon as I walked into the school building. I developed survival skills and learned how to defend myself. A shove into a locker while walking down the school hallway didn’t faze me. I had it so much worse at home from both my mother and my sister. The immature crap flung at me at school was nothing compared to what I had to live through at home every day of the week.
Over the years, I also got particularly good at blending into the background and sticking to the shadows. So just imagine the scandal I created an hour ago in the student parking lot at school, when seemingly meek, quiet me punched JD Hallstead in his too-gorgeous-for-his-own-good face.
Excerpt from That Girl, Chapter 1, copyright 2021 by Jennilynn Wyer