Bethany stood at the end of the cafeteria line looking for her friend, Octavia. Her only friend.
“Move!” said the freshman who had finished paying for her lunch just after her.
Bethany scooted out of the way and continued to look for Octavia. Even though Bethany was a senior, the petite, blonde freshman girl, had no respect for her or the pecking order when it came to Bethany. Bethany was the resident ‘weirdo’, so the normal high school pecking order didn’t apply to her.
“Bethany, over here,” Octavia called out from a corner table.
Bethany smiled an unseen smile from behind her light blue, cloth mask, when she saw her friend. She walked the short distance and set her tray down across from her friend and removed her mask, so she could eat.
When the pandemic started last spring, school had been shut down almost immediately. They had to finish out the rest of the year using Chromebooks for virtual learning. It had been especially hard on Bethany, because she wouldn’t see Octavia again until summer, when her mother finally stopped freaking out as much about the coronavirus. So, for Bethany, having to wear a mask was not a big deal, as long as she could get out of the house and intermingle with the rest of the humans. But not all the humans were…
“Well, looks who it is, the n— and the retard,” said Chet Dickson as he passed the table where Octavia and Bethany sat. He said it low, so no one else could hear.
“Shut up Chet!” shouted Bethany. “I hate you!”
Every eye in the cafeteria turned toward them as Chet walked on snickering under his breath.
Octavia reached out and touched Bethany’s arm, even though they weren’t allowed to touch at school. “Bethany be quiet. Everyone is staring at us.”
Tears started flowing down Bethany’s face.
Octavia knew that if Bethany lost control, she would have a meltdown right here in the cafeteria. “Bethany, it’s okay. Just calm down, please,” said Octavia, still touching her arm.
“Octavia, how can you be okay with what he called us?” said Bethany between sobs.
“I’m not,” said Octavia between clenched teeth. “Don’t for a second, think that I’m not angry too, but no one else heard what he said. It’s our word against his. And we’re at the bottom of the pecking order at this school and this town, for that matter. He’s a jock and belongs to an important family in this town. Our families are not so important…”
“But your brother Lucas, is a deputy,” Bethany reasoned.
“Yeah, he’s their token black deputy, because ‘Black Lives Matter’ you know,” she answered snidely.
“But Octavia…” Bethany whined.
“Please Bethany, just do what I ask. Now is not the time to take a stand. We have to be smart about this,” said Octavia.
“No touching allowed,” said Mr. Green, the assistant principal as he passed the two girls.
Octavia removed her hand, but continued to plead with Bethany with her eyes.
Bethany still had tears streaming down her face, but she got herself under control and wasn’t sobbing anymore. “Octavia, I hate being different, a weirdo.”
“You’re not a weirdo. And different is not a bad thing. Do most people really achieve anything special? Think about it. It’s the weirdos and people who dare to be different who go on to greatness. They don’t accept the status quo.”
“I guess,” said Bethany through her sniffles.
“I don’t understand why you won’t trust me Bethany. I’m your friend, I wouldn’t lie to you.”
“I know. I just hate being different.”
“And I’m not considered different?” asked Octavia, eyes wide with sarcasm and frustration.
“It’s not the same thing. When you leave this racist little town, it will be okay for you. I’ll be a weirdo no matter where I go,” said Bethany as she started crying again, quietly this time.
“Really?! You think racism is only in Dale City?! Do you even watch the news?!”
“No,” answered Bethany.
Octavia looked at her for a moment, both of them silent and then Octavia laughed, “Oh Bethany, I love you, but you need to open your eyes to the ways of the world. You’re not the only one who is persecuted. And you really need to learn to embrace your differences or you’ll spend your whole life wallowing in self-pity and end up a bitter old lady.”
Bethany stepped off the bus in front of the little peach colored, manufactured home she lived in with her mom. Her little grade horse, Starbuck, trotted up to the fence to the left of the house and nickered, when he saw her. She set her backpack on the porch and then went over to greet him. He nuzzled her with his reddish-brown nose, and she rubbed the big star on this forehead.
Helene pulled up in the driveway and after cutting off the engine to the massive, old, truck, it chugged a couple of times before completely giving up. Helene sighed, buying a new vehicle was simply not in the budget right now, or would it ever be… Before stepping out, she looked over at Bethany who was now inside the fence, hugging Starbuck. Helene could see Bethany’s body shaking with sobs even from the driveway on the other side of the house. Helene sat there a moment watching her daughter, sighed again and then stepped out of the truck. She walked around to the other side, opened the passenger side door, grabbed all the grocery bags and her purse and after hoisting them from the truck, shut the door with her foot and headed toward the house. She called out to Bethany, “Hey baby, I’ve got groceries, could you come help me put them up?”
Bethany didn’t hear her or acted as if she hadn’t. Helene was frustrated. She had been on her feet all day and was exhausted. A van from a retirement community had come in that day to purvey Amir’s shop and they insisted on asking endless questions about every piece in the shop. Amir was happy to oblige. And Helene enjoyed helping the ladies too, but she was on her feet for hours and packing up endless bits of antiquity, so now she just wanted to make an easy dinner and then sit down with her nightly glass of wine or two. She had a fresh box amongst her groceries and was eager to pop it open. But when Bethany came home like this, she knew it would be hours before she could relax.
Helene carried the groceries into the house and after setting them down on the little, round, wooden, kitchen table, she started putting them up. Their grey tabby cat, Trixie, jumped up to help her and was purring as she did so. Helene was agitated and wanted to snap at the cat, but Trixie looked at her with such unconditional love in her eyes, that Helene’s heart melted. She rubbed the aging cat’s head and said, “I love you Trixie, but I have things to do right now.”
Helene started to boil the water for the hot dogs, and opened the can of chili for the chili dogs she was making for dinner. It was one of Bethany’s favorite meals, so hopefully she would cheer up. Helene eyed the big box of wine she had set on the counter. It was only 4:30, but she wanted, no, needed a glass. Besides, like her granny used to say, ‘It’s five o’ clock somewhere.’
She was watching the hot dogs boil, with glass of wine in hand when she heard Bethany come in through the front door and go straight to her room and slam the door and start sobbing as soon as it was closed. Helene sighed for a third time. She loved her daughter with all her heart, but when Bethany was like this, she was unreasonable. Her sobs were so loud, it was obvious that Helene would be dealing with a full-scale meltdown tonight. Meltdowns were exhausting for both of them. Helene downed the rest of the wine in the glass, set it down on the counter, turned off the fire under the hotdogs and headed for Bethany’s room.
Helen knocked on her daughter’s door, “Bethany, what’s wrong? Please let me in.”
“Go away, Mom!”
“Bethany, please open the door. I love you. I just want to help you. Do you need a hug?”
Silence. Then the door slowly opened. Helene stepped into the room and held her arms open. Bethany sunk into her mother’s body and began sobbing even louder. Helene just held her daughter and didn’t say anything. It had taken Helene awhile to learn to do that, because when she was upset, she wanted to talk everything out. That technique did not work with Bethany. Her daughter had to sob the emotion out first and then they could talk…carefully.
Helene surveyed Bethany’s lair while her daughter sobbed. ‘Filthy,’ she thought to herself. There were books, comic books and clothes piled on top of the dresser; some of which had fallen off and others about to give up their precarious positions as well. Her nightstand was in the same state, bed unmade, empty diet coke bottles littered the floor. A floor which god knows when had last been introduced to a vacuum cleaner. Helene closed her eyes. That battle would have to be fought another day, now was not the time.
Bethany’s sobs were slowing so Helene took a chance and asked, “What happened? Why are you so upset?”
“Chet Dickson…” Bethany began and started sobbing again.
Helene tensed up, she didn’t make it a practice to hate people, but she hated that boy and his crew. She wanted to smash their heads together for hurting her baby. Helene was not a violent person, except when it came to protecting her daughter. But of course, smashing Chet’s head was not an option in civilized society.
“What happened?” Helene prodded.
“He called me retarded and Octavia the n-word,” said Bethany, now just crying lightly.
Helene clenched her fists and then relaxed them. She knew she had to remain calm if she had any hope of calming Bethany. “I’m so sorry Bethany. How is Octavia?”
“Octavia is fine.”
“Are you sure? Dealing with that racist, hateful asshole can’t be any easier for her than it is for you.”
“Well, she didn’t start crying,” answered Bethany.
“That doesn’t prove anything. Some people hold their emotions inside,” said Helene.
“Well, she seemed okay. She said that I needed to calm down because no one would believe us that he said it.”
“She’s probably right about that unfortunately, which convinces me that she’s not okay.”
“Octavia said, I need to embrace my differences and that I’m not the only one that’s persecuted,” said Bethany, no longer crying.
“See, that right there…she’s just as upset as you, but holding it in. And she’s right,” said Helene, shaking with anger over the pain Chet caused the two girls. Helene was especially fond of Octavia, because not only had the girl befriended her friendless daughter, but she had helped Bethany get the job at Orion Racing. Octavia would forever be dear to Helene because of what she had done for Bethany.
“Mom! Why are you taking her side?! You should be on my side!” shouted Bethany.
“I’m not taking Octavia’s side. You girls are on the same side. Just because I agree with something she says, doesn’t mean I’m against you, nor does it mean she’s against you. Why can’t you see that I’m always on your side? And so is Octavia!”
“No! You’re both disagreeing with me! That means you’re against me! Leave me alone!” Bethany shouted while rapidly flapping her hands.
“Bethany, please listen to reason. We love you,” said Helene.
“No, leave me alone!” shouted Bethany as she pushed Helene out of her room and then slammed and locked the door behind her.
Helene stood outside the door. She was shaking with anger. Anger at Chet, anger at Bethany for being completely unreasonable and anger at Bethany’s dad for abandoning them. But most of all, she was angry with herself for being angry and resentful. This routine had happened so many times, but it was exhausting for Helene every time. She knew Bethany would see reason once she calmed down and the meltdown had completely subsided, but these occurrences always sent Helene into a depression, because she worried so much about what would happen to her beloved daughter if she was not there to protect her.
She decided to go have another glass of wine.