This story is by d. Denise d. and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Before twelfth grade, I was a nobody. Worse than the dark green sludge that oozes from the city garbage trucks. My family was what you call ‘food stamps’ poor. We were ghetto dwellers. Eight people crammed into a two-bedroom apartment: my working-class parents, four kids, my granny, and that crazy uncle no one talks about at family reunions. Where I came from, hanging on to your rent-stabilized apartment was the golden ticket to avoid generational homelessness. I was the poster children for dreams deferred.
One night over takeout dinner dad says, “This came for you, Charlie.” He handed me a letter marked official with an insignia I did not recognize. I guess my lack of enthusiasm ruined the surprise. “Mom and I got you into a good school across town.” The neighborhood high school, Erasmus Hall, was notorious for teen pregnancy.
My dad had come up with an escape plan to usher his only daughter into a bright future. That would be me! Charlene Annette Peterson aka Charlie. It was an admirable idea. Mom agreed, “Charlie, a great education leads to a better life.” But I liked my life, I would even dare to say I loved it. Was it tough? Of course. Was dinner sometimes yesterday’s rice and beans? Yeah, but so what!? After an hour of debate, I finally surrendered, “I’ll go! But don’t expect me to like it.”
I told myself I was making my parents happy by getting on the bus each morning. I used that sentiment to push the boundaries of their sacrifice and kindness. In ninth grade, I was suspended three times for ditching school. In the tenth grade, I got caught spray-painting the boys’ locker room. I told the principal, “Don’t stifle the voice of community artists. I’m the next Basquiat!” That stunt got me a month of in-school suspension, and at home I was invisible. But it was my spectacle in 12th grade that got the attention of Amber Carson. She had a Barbie doll figure, long hair, and was the fourth-generation queen of the popular girls.
My body peaked with extra butt and breast that summer, which I knew would do damage. After three weeks of coaxing, I convinced a shy, homely boy named Aspen Wells that I would be his girlfriend. “One condition. You show me your ‘worm,’ so I know I’m not dating a peanut during the most important year of my life.” Aspen was overwhelmed by the gesture. But every teen boy wants the attention of a hottie in a pencil skirt. In Aspen’s case, I had been winning him over for 21 days. Now it was time for the grand finale. “Okay,” he responded sheepishly.
The fourth period ended. The transition bell rang, and kids funneled into the hallway. I grabbed Aspen by his tie and dragged him into the boys’ bathroom. Everyone noticed our entrance, including Amber. “This ought to be good.”
Inside, I made Aspen quiver as I barked commands. “Shoes off. Pants down. Now.” While he worked diligently to submit to my aggression, I checked for peepers in the stalls. “All clear,” I yelled. Embarrassed, Aspen buried his head in the corner. I grabbed his shoulder and swung him around. He tried his best to cover up. It was an epic fail. Fleshy pink skin oozed out between his fingers. “That’s a loaded gun there, Aspen,” I chuckled.
Now, male appendages were a mystery to me. I was still a virgin and I was certainly unprepared for this reveal. Without thinking, I grabbed my phone and started taking pictures of Aspen cowering in the corner. The flash caught him off guard and instantly his hands went up to his face to hide how mortified he was at that moment. A crowd assembled. I proudly broadcasted, “Ladies and gentlemen, our very own Adonis.” I ran away triumphantly, totally dismissing Aspen’s terror.
The cool kids, wannabes, and a cluster of outcasts cheered me on. I scored goddess status. It was short-lived. Mr. Baskins caught me by the arm and escorted me to the principal’s office. “You won’t be so clever when your parents hear of this heinous act!”
I sank in the chair, waiting for my mom and dad to arrive. Every ounce of me wished I could fade into the chipped wood of the armrest and die. Teenagers know there is a pecking order in high school. Without cool status or some other claim to fame, you are worthless. I could not succumb to that fate. Was I cruel? Yeah, but I did Aspen a favor.
Mr. Baskins allowed me to finish school that day, but I got a week of suspension and community service at the senior center. Nothing ruins your reputation like changing bedpans for seventy-year-old gigolos past their prime, or at least I thought.
Amber caught me in the hallway before school let out. “I’ve decided to bend the rules and let you into The Candies.” I nearly wet my pants, “Amber, I…” She snapped back, “Just say thank you!” Tripping over myself, “Thank YOU!” And just like that, I rose from school menace to most popular. Piper, another Candy, became my sidekick. A required replacement for my former BFF, Mari.
Mari would see me in the halls. She shot me the same disappointing glares I received from my mother. Mari knew I surrendered my soul, dignity, and pride to be part of The Candies. These infamous pretty girls were a precisely curated collection of insecure misfits weaved together to please Amber. They dominated Brentwood High School’s social ladder. It was perfect for me because I never had to openly admit I was a loser. At least this way, I was a popular loser.
In three glorious days, the homecoming court would be announced, and I was the frontrunner for princess. Princess and not queen, because everyone knew Amber would cut your throat if she felt remotely threatened. Posters of her and Craig were permanent décor everywhere. If another couple dared to advertise, the papers magically became kindle for an illegal bonfire.
Last week, Mrs. Conti lost both of her eyebrows. “You kids are parasites. God hates me,” she stuttered, as she wiped the singed hairs from her brow. We have not seen her in a week. Rumor has it she finally took that long overdue vacation at the local mental health facility. “Serves her right,” Amber belts out after sipping the final drops of her apple berry juice box. “Absolutely.” Ginger concurred, bouncing her breast up and down for extra attention. “We got her good,” I underscored.
Amber snapped her fingers. Two linebackers raced to place her center stage on a lunchroom table. She announced, “Listen up Brentwood elite,” gesturing the tables to her right and “all you maggots and wannabes,” pointing to the tables on her left. “Tomorrow… pre-homecoming festivities begin with the all-white pool party followed by the junior and senior BBQ at Westbrook Park. Defy the rules of participation and you will become my pawn for the senior prank. You have been warned.” Amber glided down and sashayed off to her fifth-period class.
I convinced my mom, despite my behavior, to let me attend the all-white party. She even took me shopping for a two-piece bikini and the perfect overlay. Her only demand was I had to finish my chores at the senior center first. I had everything mapped out. Clean my assigned rooms, change clothes, and catch the 42 bus to Westbrook Park. I could be there by 4 p.m. and not miss the court announcement. “Perfect,” I squealed.
I survived the creepy bus ride with older women scorning me for being so scantily clothed and the unwanted admiration of men. I walked confidently into the BBQ with all eyes on me. Amber was a bit jealous, to my surprise. The swimsuit accentuated every curve perfectly. Craig even did a double-take, and that certainly pissed-off our queen. Amber snarled, “Since you finally made it, let’s get on with the show.” A shiver of elation and fear crawled up my skin.
Amber finally came to the first attendant princess. “Charlie Peterson.” I was on cloud nine as I got up on the table. “Let’s give her a big Brentwood applause.” Amber stepped down, raised her hand to calm the crowd, and snapped her fingers. Suddenly, I was bombarded with egg yolks and shells. Everyone laughed at me. Flashes of my time with The Candies flooded back. It was all a joke. A setup for this exact moment. “No one’s better than me and don’t you forget it, project rat,” Amber broadcasted launching the final blow.
Humiliation paralyzed my body. I blacked out. A little later, eerie whisper sounds brought me back to consciousness. My eyes adjusted expecting to see a familiar face, but there was Amber. “Hi, Sweetie. I missed you.” I tried to scream but the sound could not escape my mouth. I was gagged and naked. “How about a yearbook picture? Say cheese!” The shutter clicked.