A Barrier Ridge Short Story:::
Aria knew who she was since day one. Her style, her personality, and her passions were planted deep, and no one could tell her otherwise. She was unique and bold, just like her grandmother—much to her mother’s dismay. Her fashion choices were daring, her hair color always changing, and getting into trouble was just part of the game. Her carefree attitude made her popular, and her infectious joy made her table at lunch the most crowded.
But all of that came to an end freshmen year of high-school. That was the year Lucy Byron moved to the small mountain town of Barrier Ridge, her big hair and luscious curves turning all the boys to mush. She was the queen of torment, and for some reason, Lucy had set her sights on Aria early on. And one by one, the other girls followed suit, taunting Aria and making her life miserable.
“Why do you care what she thinks?” Aria’s best friend at the time asked. “Lucy’s just a bully.”
Aria tried not to care. With all her heart, she tried not to. But every day, Lucy found a new way to crush Aria’s spirit.
By sophomore year, Aria was unrecognizable. She claimed the black hair and dark eye make-up were statements of individuality. But the truth went much deeper than that.
She found a new group of friends that encouraged her anger and angst. The more weird and twisted the better. Instead of making her old friends laugh at a crowded table in the cafeteria, she sat with the angry and misunderstood kids in the corner. She was forced to watch as Lucy Byron stole everything that had once belonged to her. The worst part was Lucy seemed to have caught the eye of the best-looking guy in school. The very same one who Aria had said she was going to marry someday.
On a particular rainy Tuesday, Aria sat by herself at a table in the corner of the cafeteria. Ignoring her tray of chicken nuggets and applesauce, she scribbled in her journal, drawing smiley faces with x’s for eyes in the margins. Her usual tablemates had skipped school for the day. Try as she might, Aria still couldn’t access the part of her soul that enjoyed getting detention. She’d made up an excuse to not go to the concert, but that meant she was left all by herself.
“What’s up, buttercup?” Jack Stone said, sliding his tray onto the table across from Aria.
She paused, glancing up as the jet-black haired boy took a seat. He’d grown out his hair over the summer, the ends reaching his shoulders. He’d also put on a little bit of muscle, getting over that chunky stage he’d gone through. They hadn’t spoken to each other in over a year.
“What do you want?” she muttered, going back to her journal.
“Nothing. What ya working on?”
He reached for the journal, and she snatched it back out of reach. He shrugged and drew back, popping open his can of soda. “Did you see the partner assignments that Mr. Sherman posted?”
She shook her head. She could feel those coal black eyes watching her as he took a drink.
He set the can down with a sigh. “Well, I hope you’re good at art history ‘cause I couldn’t care less.”
Aria’s hand froze, the tip of her pen bleeding on the page. She lifted her eyes. “What are you talking about, Jack?”
“Better get used to me,” he replied, dunking a chicken nugget in ketchup. “It’s you and me, kid.”
Aria sighed and dropped her pen. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“I thought he was going to let us pick our partners for the presentation?”
“He was, but then one of the nerds complained, and there was a parent-teacher conference and he changed his mind. No child left behind, or something like that.” He ate another nugget, then washed it down with a drink. “Look, I’m not thrilled about it either, but I really need to pass this class.”
Aria snorted. “Since when do you care about your GPA?”
“I don’t. My dad said if I get a B or higher in all of my classes, he’ll take me and Jimmie camping next month. If I’m the reason we can’t go, Jimmie will be fighting mad. And he scares me. I haven’t won a fight with him since he started working out.” He shook his head as he looked down at his lunch tray, reached for another chicken nugget, then looked up at her again. He frowned. “Did you do something with your hair?”
Aria had no problems with Jack personally, but he symbolized her old life. Their friendship had been a casualty of Aria’s new personality and social standing. He hung out with the athletes, and by default, the Lucy Byron fan club. Jack and his brother Jimmie had picked Lucy over Aria, and for that she could never forgive them.
Come to think of it, she actually did have a problem with Jack.
“I’m going to go talk to Mr. Sherman,” Aria said, closing her journal.
“Fine,” Jack said, watching her shove her pens and journal into her bag. “Good luck with that. I’ll be in the library.”
She scoffed as she drew her legs out from under the table. “Do you even know where the library is, Jack?”
“Yeah. It’s right next to the last place I saw your personality.”
Aria took the bait, despite her better judgement. “And where is that?”
He lifted the soda can to his lips, his eyes focused on the brick wall behind where she’d just been sitting. “The art room.”
Having anticipated some mean comment about the trash can, she scrunched up her nose. “That doesn’t even make sense, you idiot.”
He set down the can on his lunch tray, then tapped his temple with his index finger. “Think about it.”
Then he picked up his tray and stood, leaving her there utterly confused.
* * * *
“Nana,” Aria called, “I’m home.” She set down her book bag and backpack down on the kitchen table.
“Out back!” came the reply.
She grabbed an orange from the bowl on the table before making her way to the back of the house. Opening the screen door, she stepped out into the enclosed back porch. Her grandma was in her usual place in the corner, working on an oil painting of the mountain view. The room was warmed by the sun, but the open windows allowed the cool air to pass through.
“How was school, my love?”
“Same as usual.”
Aria walked over to the wicker chair by the window and flopped down. Nana continued to paint but shifted on the stool so she didn’t have her back entirely to Aria. “Anything worth writing a song about?”
“Nope.” Aria tossed a piece of orange peel into the trash. “Well, not a happy song anyway.”
Nana set the large oval brush off to the side and reached for her glass of lemonade. She was wearing a flowery kimono over a loose-fitting jumpsuit, looking fresh and summery as usual. She swung her large self around, and seeing Aria, her eyes widened. “Oh! You dyed your hair again.”
“How can you tell?”
“It’s lighter. More Mars Black than Ivory.”
Aria used her thumb nail to lift the orange peel. “I bought a new shade of lipstick and the colors clashed.”
“Black on black,” Nana said, shaking her head. “I told you, you’ll make more of a statement with dark blue or red lips.”
Just once, Aria wished her grandma would be more judgmental. Most of her friends’ grandmothers terrorized them regularly with threats of going to hell if they kept wearing black. But not Birdie Hemmerson. She hadn’t even batted an eye the day that Aria pierced her lip and died her hair blue.
“Is it okay if I have someone over tomorrow?”
Nana sipped her tea, bobbing her head. “A friend?”
“No. Just Jack Stone. We’re partners for an art history project.”
There was nothing Nana loved more than those two words: art, and history. “Oh, how exciting! Yes, of course you can have Jack come over. I can even whip up some of my brownies.”
Nana took another drink, then stood up, straightening out the hem of her skirt. “I always did like that boy,” she said.
“No you didn’t. Not after he rode his bike through your vegetable garden.”
Nana smiled, the corners of her eyes wrinkling. She walked over to a refurbished dresser along the wall. “I admit, I wanted to put him over my knee and swat some manners into him, but that was a long time ago. Getting adopted by the Reeves family really was the best thing that could ever happened to him. He’s a different person now.”
“He still gets under my skin. He has no sense of personal space.”
Nana frowned, glancing over at her.
“Not in a creepy way,” Aria added quickly. “He just acts like everything is his business. It’s so annoying. He always knows the exact thing to say to make people mad.”
“That boy is intuitive,” Nana chuckled. “If he ever got saved, he’d be a powerhouse for the Lord.” She paused, putting her finger to her chin. “I wonder if he’d have the gift of discernment, or knowledge?”
Aria resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Nana was always talking about people’s giftings like they were some kind of magical sorcery. Except she called them ‘Spiritual Gifts,” like the Bible talked about. Sorcery was the devil’s counterfeit, Nana said, but to Aria, it was all the same. A way for people to make themselves seem more important.
“All I care about is if he has the gift for research,” Aria said, eating the last of her orange. “We have to write two different analyses of one piece of artwork, and then reinterpret the art to reflect both.”
“You’ve been reinterpreting art with me since you were in diapers!”
“Yeah, I know, but Jack couldn’t care less.”
“Don’t judge him too harshly, my love. Art is open to interpretation. And that boy sees thing in a particular, unique way. I think he’ll excel at it! Have you picked which piece of artwork you will analyze?”
“Not yet. We’re both supposed to come up ideas and decide tomorrow in class. We can pick anything we want.”
Nana had that look on her face she got when she was staring at a blank canvas. Then she snapped out of the contemplative stare and snapped her fingers. “I have a wonderful idea, and I think Jack just might appreciate it. Come, dear.”
Aria hopped up from the wicker chair and followed her grandma up to the attic. After digging through some boxes, Nana found the book she was looking for. She opened the rather large book, flipped through to the back, then handed it over to Aria. She pointed at a large picture.
“Washington Crossing the Delaware?” Aria asked.
“It’s not entirely accurate, but I’m not going to tell you why. But there are many different points of interest. See here?” Nana pointed to the man at the back of the boat. “What do you notice about him?”
Aria squinted her eyes, seeing only part of the man’s face. He was wearing a furry looking hat, a green shirt, and tan pants, maybe deerskin. A bright colored bag hung over his shoulder. “He kind of looks Native American.”
“Mm-hm. Now what about this man?” She pointed at a man in front of Washington.
Aria lifted her head. “Nana...”
“And this one here,” Nana continued. “This one has long hair and thinner features than the others. A woman perhaps?” She shrugged. “There’s a lot to see if one just looks.”
“Nana, don’t you think Jack will be just a little offended if I say, ‘Hey, your Indian right? I found one in a picture. Do you feel included yet?”
Nana pursed her lips, arching her back a little as she narrowed her eyes. “Young lady, this has nothing to do with racism. You know me better than that.”
“No, I know, but—”
“Look at the picture again. Look at the men. Analyze it. What do you see?”
Aria tried, but she knew she was missing whatever point Nana was trying to make. She shook her head, shrugging. “I don’t know.”
“What is the artist trying to say?” Nana clicked her tongue. “Analyze and interpret. Why did a German artist paint this scene the way he did? What are the men’s stories? What’s happening in the background? What does it make you feel?” Nana moved around behind Aria and squeezed her shoulders. “Just an idea.”
She turned to leave, calling back over her shoulder, “Take it or leave it, dear. It’s your project.”
Aria slowly followed her grandma to the stairs, looking at the picture more closely. It was one of the more interesting options on the table.
* * * *
“Oh, look out! Death cometh!”
The whole classroom snickered, and Lucy smirked proudly, crossing her arms as Aria made her way to her desk in the back. “What animal did you sacrifice to get that ghastly shade of red, Aria?”
Aria slowly lowered herself down into her chair as the kids continued laughing. She lifted her hand to her mouth, running her finger underneath her bright red lips. She should have stuck with the black.
“Knock it off, Lucy,” Stella Hexson snapped. Two desks up from Aria, the girl with purple hair and pierced dimples threw a pencil across the aisle. Lucy swatted it away.
“Who’s going to make me?”
Stella didn’t respond, knowing her veiled threats were empty. But Aria appreciated her trying. Stella turned to look back, and Aria mouthed her thanks.
Just before the bell rang, Jack sauntered into the room and high-fived the other boys all the way down the aisle. Then he dropped into the desk across from Aria, tossing a piece of crumpled up paper at her.
Anger boiled through her and she snatched the paper up, preparing to throw it at the boy’s smug and ugly face.
“Read it,” he said as she arced her arm back.
“You read it,” she retorted, and threw it at his head. It landed on his desk and he caught it before it fell off the other side.
The teacher, Mrs. Ferguson, walked into the room, and Lucy Byron’s arm went up like it was on a spring.
“Mrs. Ferguson! Can we open the window please? It’s smells like total death in here.” She overplayed her hand by turning and shooting Aria a look.
“No, you may not. But thank you for volunteering to be my assistant for the day.”
As Lucy tried to make up some excuse about her feet being sore, Jack leaned over and made a show of setting the ball of paper back on Aria’s desk. He widened his eyes and dipped his head at it.
Aria slouched in her seat and picked up the ball, working to uncrumple it. When it was completely open, she saw that it was a flyer from a career fair.
She looked at him and bounced her shoulders. “So what?”
He rolled his eyes, then leaned across the aisle to take the paper from her and turn it over. There was something drawn in colored pencil on the back.
“Jack,” Mrs. Ferguson, “do you have something you’d like to share with the class?”
“Actually, yes ma’am, I do.”
Before Aria knew it, Jack had snatched the paper out of her hands and was making his way to the front of the class. Aria slumped in her seat. What was he doing?
Standing in front of the class, Jack cleared his throat and held up the crumpled and tattered flyer.
“So, this is a picture Aria Hemmerson drew a couple years ago. It was just something she sketched at lunch one day and I think it’s pretty cool. It’s an eagle feather…as you can see. Um, she drew it for me, actually. She used to draw pictures all the time for people. Stuff like, what she saw in them, symbols I guess, I don’t know. But the day she gave this to me, I was a really big jerk about it. I found it last night and it got me thinking about stuff.” He glanced at the English teacher and winced. “Sorry. I know ‘stuff’ is an illegal word.”
At her desk, Mrs. Ferguson dipped her chin, her lips pursed in a smile.
“Um, yeah, so I found it and it got me thinking. There’s more to people than we see, and we don’t always see what other people see. In my culture eagles represent lots of stuff—uh—things, and one of them is friendship. Well, I haven’t really been much a friend these days. So, I wanted to say I’m sorry, and Aria…I really hope you start drawing stuff like this again.” He shrugged and looked at Mrs. Ferguson, then headed back down the aisle.
Aria couldn’t look at him. She couldn’t look at anything. Her eyes were blurred with tears, and her mascara was starting to sting.
“Well, Jack,” Mrs. Ferguson said as she stood, “that was very unexpected but quite sagacious.”
At his desk, Jack started to sit. “Well I don’t know about that, Ma’am. She was from a different tribe than me.”
Mrs. Ferguson stifled a laugh, eyeing Jack a moment before realizing what he meant. “No, Jack, not Sacagawea; sagacious.” She turned. “Who here knows what that word means?”
While Mrs. Ferguson went to the whiteboard, Aria leaned over toward Jack.
“What was that all about?” she hissed.
“I call ‘em like I see ‘em,” he shot back, reaching for his backpack. He widened his eyes at her, then dropped his books on his desk.
There was a tiny detail that Jack had left out of his story, probably because he didn’t remember. Aria remembered it now. The day she’d drawn the eagle feather for Jack, she’d overheard some of the older kids teasing him about being Indian. He’d been so angry and hurt, and she’d just wanted to make him feel better. When she gave it to him, he’d wadded it up in a ball and stalked away. She had no idea he still had it all this time.
But she still didn’t get it. Other than making her cry, why had he said all that stuff? Before yesterday, she hadn’t talked to him in over a year. And yet he’d stood in front of the whole class and said some really nice things.
She caught up with him after class in the hallway, finding him bent over at the water fountain.
“Jack…” she started, then shook her head. She lifted her hands. “Why?”
He wiped his mouth as he straightened up. He didn’t seem in a hurry to respond, and his silence aggravated her.
“I know you, Jack, and you are not this nice. Did Lucy put you up to this?”
Jack scoffed. “Yeah, Lucy put me up to talking you up in front of the whole class. That sounds exactly like her.”
“So what, you were mocking me?”
“Did it sound like I was mocking you? I just thought you needed some reminding of who you really are.”
“Oh really? And how do you know who I really am?”
He stepped back and looked her up and down, waving his hand. “Take away the black hair and skull t-shirts, and what are you? Figure that out, and maybe you’ll have your answer.”
The second bell rang with shrill insistence, and Jack bent down for his backpack.
* * * *
It seemed ironic, after what had happened during second period, that the painting Aria planned on suggesting to Jack for their assignment had an Indian in it. Jack wasn’t a fan of his heritage, but Aria had always thought it was cool. The old Aria would have bounded up to Jack and shown him the picture, saying something nice and encouraging, intent on letting him know that all the racism that surrounded them in this town was dumb. But the new Aria didn’t know what to do. She didn’t remember how to be bubbly and encouraging.
By the time she made it to the art history classroom, she decided to not even bring it up. She’d just suggest the painting and leave it at that. She took her seat at the back table and started unpacking her bag. Oh no. Where was her journal? Heat cascaded down her neck. It must still be in her locker.
“Mr. Sherman,” she called, raising her hand. “I forgot something in my locker.”
“Make it quick, Miss Hemmerson. And if you see Mr. Stone, please tell him to hurry it up. The bell rings in two minutes.”
She slipped out into the hall and prayed she hadn’t left her journal somewhere that Lucy Byron would find it.
“Please let it be in my locker,” she prayed.
There seemed to be something happening over by the bathrooms. She saw the girl’s bathroom door open, and three or four students standing around, peering inside. Something made her veer off course, and she wandered over. Through the bodies crowding the door, she saw what looked like someone sitting on the floor. Maybe a couple of people.
“Get a teacher!” a deep voice shouted. It sounded like Jimmie Reeves.
A boy sprinted away, and Aria ducked to get out of his way.
“Stella,” Aria said, seeing her fellow gothic friend. “What’s going on?”
Stella pursed her lips, looking rather pleased. “Karma.”
Aria frowned, rising on her tiptoes. She touched the shoulder of the boy in front of her and he moved over to the side. It was then that Aria saw Jack and Jimmie on the floor just inside the door, Lucy Byron in their arms. She was shivering and drenched in sweat.
“Jimmie, what’s wrong?”
The dark-haired boy shook his head, holding Lucy’s head in his lap. “She said she didn’t feel good. We were just talking and she fell over. I think she hit her head.”
Aria dropped down at the girl’s feet.
“Maybe it’s a seizure,” Jack said, crouching at Lucy’s side.
“Let her die,” Stella sneered in the background.
Ignoring her, Aria leaned forward. “Lucy? Can you hear me?”
Her eyes were closed, but she nodded. “I need to eat,” she mumbled.
“Are you a diabetic?”
Lucy slowly shook her head. “Hi-hypo…” her words slurred, but Aria caught on.
“She’s hypoglycemic. My mom was the same way.”
“What does that mean?” Jimmie asked.
“She’s got low blood sugar.” Aria turned. “Does anybody have anything sugary to eat?”
Her school mates just stared at her.
No one seemed especially worried about lending a hand.
Starting to turn, Aria noticed the leopard print backpack by the wall. She lunged forward and snagged it. Digging inside the front pocket, she found a box of raisins and a can of pop. She quickly opened the can and handed it to Jimmie. “Get her to drink this.”
He awkwardly lifted Lucy’s head. She opened her eyes and lifted limp hands for the can as he held it to her mouth.
“Okay,” Aria said, “show’s over. Get out of here, guys.” She waved her hand at the group behind her, then stood to make her point. “Go on!”
Stella lingered the longest, arms still crossed, eyeing the school bully with disdain.
“Go,” Aria ordered, then turned back around and moved down onto her knees. “Lucy, are you feeling better?”
Lucy slurped another drink, bobbing her head. Aria opened the small box of raisins and shook out a pile into her hands. “Here, eat these too. Just a few. It should help.”
“Thanks,” Lucy breathed.
“Let me through,” Mrs. Ferguson demanded, finally arriving.
“I’m okay,” Lucy said, leaning back against Jimmie. “I feel better.”
“Her blood sugar was low, but she had pop with her,” Aria said, pushing off the floor to stand. “She might have hit her head when she fell, though.”
Bewildered, Mrs. Ferguson looked at Aria, then down at Lucy and the boys. “Has this happened before?”
“A couple of times,” Lucy said. “I’m usually not dumb enough to get this bad, though.”
When Lucy felt strong enough to get up, Jimmie and Jack helped her to stand. She was unsteady and complained of a headache.
“We better call your parents,” said Mrs. Ferguson. “Boys, take her to the front desk.”
Seeing no reason to stick around, Aria turned to go.
“Aria,” Mrs. Ferguson called, stopping her.
She turned. “Yeah?”
“That was very kind of you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I know things have been hard for you these past few months. And most of it is due to Lucy Byron.”
“I just told her to drink a pop,” Aria shrugged.
“But you helped her when you didn’t really have to. You did the right thing.”
Aria looked up the hall at Lucy, wrapped up in Jimmie’s arms as he helped her walk.
“I’ll try to remember that when she’s back to her old self tomorrow.”
Mrs. Ferguson just bobbed her head and patted Aria’s arm, then walked away.
* * * *
After school, Jack rode the bus home with Aria. They sat together, but Aria put in her headphones as she scribbled in her journal. She felt a nudge and looked over to see Jack showing her a page in his notebook. It was a stick figure wearing square-legged pants and a big jacket. There was a small oval on the shoulder with EMT written inside of it. Aria took out her left earphone.
“You drew me as a paramedic?”
“Take away the black hair and skull t-shirt, and what are you?”
Remembering her grandma’s words about Jack being intuitive, she smiled. “I give up, Jack. What am I?”
“You’re Aria. The girl that helps others.”
Aria shook her head and turned back to her journal. “I faint at the sight of blood. I could never be a paramedic.”
Jack looked at his drawing for a second. “Yeah. It’s dumb.”
Aria glanced over as he started to tear out the page, the page crumpling as it ripped from the binding.
“On second thought,” she said, quickly reaching over. “Maybe we should keep it.”
“Why? It’s just a stupid drawing.”
She smoothed out the wrinkles, smiling at the stick figure. “Yeah, but art is open to interpretation. Even stupid drawings can mean something to the right person.”
Jack shrugged. “Whatever, Goth Girl.” He leaned forward and reached into his backpack. He pulled out a plastic baggy and held it up to her. “Sugar cookie?”