Their arm hairs touched instantly, separating them the way magnets pull and push from each other. Like little kids they giggled silently to themselves as they both turned in opposite directions. It had been her idea to compare skin tones. Silently raising her arm, gently placing it next to his on the desk between them. That’s all they were after all, hundreds of different tones and shades, no two exactly alike. In some places you could get in trouble for things like that. She walked back over, grabbing a book she had forgotten about. He had walked himself in a small circle, waiting but not waiting for her.
Their eyes widen and lit as they stepped toward each other once more. Small talk was made. Classes, siblings, pets, and chocolate. Things they could have shared, if only things were different. His eyes were brown, similar to the dark chocolate she loved. Her’s were blue like the water in a vibrant fish tank.
His steel gray shirt complimented his natural coloring. It paired with the blue of her eyes. Birdie loved the color of his eyes. Her mustard yellow shirt shone bright against her arms, also pairing nicely with his eyes. In terms of colors, they blended and paired like the art textbooks examples. Complementary and chromatic. He wasn’t much taller than she, but enough that should they have ever hugged, ever fully entwined their limbs together, Birdie believed she would fit like a hand in a glove. Mostly, everyone was taller than Birdie.
For as long as anyone could remember, she had been tiny and petite. As a result called, they called her Birdie. Even Junior didn’t know her proper name. Not that anyone really knew his. After being the third of fourth generation names were lost like homework assignments and textbooks.
Class had ended. Most of the students had already left minutes ago. Students from the next class were beginning to file into the room forcing their small talk to fade out, momentarily spilling into the hallways. Making a quick right, she ventured further down the hall to her next class, her last class of the day. Her nose pointed toward the ground, a smile being suppressed slowly sprawling across her face. He returned back to the classroom he had walked her out from. Tomorrow would be a new day. Junior hoped it would be a better day.
They said the world didn’t change overnight. They were wrong. Small changes, big changes, every day changes. All changes happened like a tidal wave. One small, decisive moment for one person, and the next, and the next until finally a change had been made. All Junior needed was for Birdie to change her mind. A change like that could happen in an instant.
Birdie walked into class thinking of Junior’s arm hair against her own. Warmth had been exchanged between them, spreading from the point of contact throughout her body well into her toes. His arm hair had been airy, but bushy. She hadn’t actually felt his skin. Her arms were the color of biscuit dough lightly covered with flattened, smooth peach fuzz. While her’s were uncooked – waiting and raw – his were toasted biscuits. Warm, welcoming, and waiting.
She wondered what it would have been like to let their hairs tangle. If their skin could fully touch. She thought about her skin running like butter over his. For thirteen years they had been in school together. Always acknowledging each other, never speaking. Two years ago they started saying hello. On the tail end of those two years they finally, almost touched. Birdie knew what she wanted. She always knew what she wanted, what she liked, what she didn’t. She was different from her friends who knew what they were taught, never wanting to explore, to see, to learn. Birdie knew what she wanted to learn more about. But who knew what they next fifteen years might bring.
Her hopes came crashing down as fast as Buck’s books had on her desk. Like it or not, he and Birdie were seeing each other in his mind. If it was true in his mind, it was gospel to everyone around him. Fifteen years seemed like a long time to wait to be happy. In a few minutes their literature class would start. Other than her fleeting interactions with Junior, that was the happiest Birdie got during the day. Even with Buck pulling her desk closer to his. Trapping her in, his unmovable weight leaning onto the side of the desk that barred her.
She loved the possibilities of reading. The places outside of her sheltered, predetermined life. Ancient times, modern times. Princes, knights, thieves, lawyers, salesmen, the occasional confused or crazed woman. The places. Those were her favorite. In the back of her diary at home she had a list of all the places she wanted to see, wanted to explore. Places outside of her home-grown, be a good-wife life.
Even though they had to write an in-class essay on the novel they just finished, Birdie loved it. Thinking, writing, having opinions that weren’t prescribed to her from her father or Buck, it was a form of freedom Birdie cherished. After she finished her essay she began their next reading assignment. While Buck struggled in the chair next to her, the rest of her day went by in pages of times long since passed. Imaginary people, with imaginary tales. Tales written to teach, to inspire, to challenge. Tales in times that, for all their bad, seemed much better off than the world she and Junior lived in.
Birdie looked at chalkboard before packing up her stuff. It was Friday. Which meant later she would have to accompany Buck for a night out. Buck whose skin was the color of hot sauce and milk in the summer. Buck whose family owned 40% of the town. Buck whose family Birdie’s adored. Buck who would pick her up as his parents joined her own for dinner. Buck who was interested in sports and status. Not in literature or reading. Buck who Birdie couldn’t stand.
Often, she wondered if he could actually read. She knew he could hogtie a pig, but whether or not he understood what symbolism was or how impactful the works of Ms. Snyder were, was questionable at best. Regardless, class ended. Buck moved his desk, letting Birdie go, only after reminding her what time he would be over later that night. He had practice or something. It was rare that she actually listened to him. Just because he was a man’s man, one who was physically larger than her, and could hold her captive, didn’t mean he captivated her attention.
Birdie left school with a twinge of excitement. Buck would be busy and before that that part of her life bore into her like a tire in a mud puddle she would have time for herself. After school she usually tried to head over to the public library. The librarian there, Mrs. Sisalee Hecked, was wonderful. She would often pull a few books aside for Birdie to share with her when was able to make it in.
On top of potentially getting to go to the library, she and Junior passed each other on their way off school grounds. While it wasn’t much, Birdie enjoyed watching the way he walked. Slow and conscientious. His muscles moving effortlessly but with a purpose. Junior struck Birdie as someone who knew what he wanted and was prepared to fight for it. His smile softened him. During classes his face was focused. But walking after school, or any time Birdie has seen him eating lunch, an inviting smile opened up across his face. His teeth almost as bright as his the whites of his eyes.
Junior liked to read. He also loved animals and cared for them instead of harming them. He didn’t like to read as much as Birdie, but he enjoyed it nonetheless. Two years of small talk had gotten them somewhere. They had been in a few classes together over the years. It wasn’t often that he voiced an opinion, but when he did it always made Birdie think. What he said and how he thought were so different than most of the other students in their classes. Their experiences in life were different. That much Birdie knew, but she felt as though she had only gotten to know a very small piece of a large puzzle by listening to him in class.
Birdie dreamed of knowing more about him. Learning his favorite book, what he liked to read, who is favorite author was – Birdie wanted to know more about Junior. About his life, what he wanted to do with it, the things that made him happy. Maybe this next school year she could. She would ask him what books he had read over the summer. Birdie paused a moment, stopping dead in her tracks, why should she wait until next year? Before she had been looking forward to his broad smile and subtle, but friendly head tilt. Now she was determined to ask him. Maybe they didn’t have to wait so long.
A scream caught Birdie off guard. Several more erupted from nearby girls. An arm grabbed Birdie and lead her in the direction of the screams. Confusion spread across her face as Buck dragged her towards the flagpole. There, hanging under the American and state flags, was Junior. A painful grimace gnarled his beautiful features. Dirt and blood caked across his face. The whites of his eyes dulled, looked down at them. Birdie touched her arm, already the feel of Junior had started to fade.
A tear quietly snuck out of left her eye, rolling down her check, it landed on her arm next to her hand. Her arms dropped, her nails digging into the palms of her hands, a silent goodbye would be all she was allowed. A silent goodbye meant nothing to Birdie, nor would it have meant enough for Junior. Birdie squeezed her hands so tight small drops of blood sprinkled around her canvas sneakers.
The blood was literally and figuratively on her hands, as Buck chuckled quietly to himself, Birdie felt her body begin to shake. This world was a sham. Nothing about it was right. Her happiness would be waiting for her on the other side, in another world where people saw past the window dressings.
As the teachers flocked to the courtyard, whisking students away Birdie, freeing herself from the grip of Buck, marched up to her literature teacher. The one who taught her favorite class, the class where Junior spoke the most. Pointing her bloodied fist toward Buck, Birdie signed the rest of her life over to hardship and exposed Buck for all he stood for. It wasn’t a proper goodbye, but it would have to do for now.