He swung again. This time she managed to dodge the blow. She was small, fast, and much more agile than her uncle. She ducked under his arm and ran down the hallway, to the basement door, to her sanctuary. Almost tripping, she slid to a stop, rounded the corner, and bolted through the door, locking it behind her. For a moment, she simply leaned against the door, catching her breath. The side of her head throbbed from his first strike. She hadn't seen it coming this time. In the pitch blackness, she kept her eyes closed, trying to let the adrenaline spike pass.
BANG! BANG! BANG! She jumped away from the door that pounded against her back, darting down the stairs blindly. "Come out here, Brat!" her uncle called through the door. She hopped onto the stool that sat in the middle of the floor and reached for the chain to switch on the basement light. The room flickered from darkness into a dimly lit yellow glow.
There was a broken-down dresser against the far wall. She walked calmly to the cracked mirror and checked her scalp for blood. Using her fingers to comb through her black hair, she saw a bruise and a knot starting to form, but no blood. Her reflection tried to smile with relief, but she was too tired to return the gesture. A small grimace met her blue eyes.
Turning away from the mirror, she plopped down onto the mattress that laid on the floor. Pulling the old comforter over her head, she tried to ignore her uncle's fist on her door. The pounding seemed to match the throbbing in her head.
BANG! BANG-BANG! BANG!
Throb. Throb-Throb. Throb.
She wasn't sure when he finally gave up. The last thought she had was that she hoped she didn't have a concussion this time. Darkness quickly crept up and lulled her away to a temporary escape before the banging stopped.
Morning light crept through the foggy window at the top of the cement wall, creating a swirling beam of white light as it passed through the dusty room. She woke up, the difference in light startling her into consciousness. A glance at the red numbers on her alarm clock told her she was late for the bus. She had forgotten to set the alarm last night. Luckily, her uncle went to work before she was supposed to leave for school. If she hurried, he wouldn't know she was late.
Going back to her dresser, she quickly changed into a faded pair of loose blue jeans, tightening a belt around her waist to keep them in place, and a grey t-shirt. She slipped on her only jacket, an overly large, faded black hoodie that came down just above her mid-thighs, and then slung her backpack over her shoulder. Shoving her feet into her worn-down sneakers, she raced up the stairs, unlocked the door, and ran out of the house. She got to the end of her driveway just in time to see the bus pull away from the stop sign at the end of the road.
'Great,' she thought, rolling her eyes. He would get a call from the school now. With a heavy sigh, she slipped her other arm through the shoulder strap of her school bag and started walking, trying not to think about what would happen to her when she got home from school that day.
It was only a twenty-minute walk to her school. She made it into the building just as the last bell rang, right before they locked the doors. The maintenance man, Larry, gave her a disapproving look, but let her through. She walked through the empty halls towards her homeroom class. She was already late, so there was no need to rush. Everyone turned to stare at her as she opened the door and slipped into her seat at the back of the class. She ignored them, keeping her eyes down and setting her bag on the floor beside her desk.
"Nice of you to join us, Lilyan," Mr. Johnson said. His voice sounded a touch sarcastic. She flinched at the sound of her name. A few students snickered, amused at seeing someone being reprimanded.
"Sorry," she mumbled, but the teacher had already resumed his lecture. It was unusual for anyone to speak to her, even the teachers. They had learned fairly quickly that she did not respond unless forced, and they had mostly decided to not waste their efforts. No one said her real name, because no one spoke to her. Her uncle called her plenty of things, but "Lilyan" was not used often.
She took out her notebook and started jotting down what events she thought would be on the test and important dates and names she would need to remember. She would make flashcards later. Apparently, she had only missed about ten minutes of the class, most of which was just a recap of where they had left off yesterday. She hadn't missed anything.
After an hour had passed, the bell for the second period rang and the class was dismissed. She stood and started to gather her things.
"Lilyan," Mr. Johnson called, stopping her in her tracks, "A word, please?" she grabbed the rest of her supplies, shoved them into her bag, and shouldered it before dragging her feet to his desk.
"What is the problem, Lilyan?" She flinched again. The problem? The problem was that after three months of ignoring her, he was calling her out and speaking to her. Instead of saying that, however, she shrugged.
"Lilyan, your grades are at the top of the class. Perfect scores. However, I can't keep allowing you to sit silently at the back of the room and not participate. High school isn't just about getting good grades. You're also supposed to learn how to socialize. You're supposed to learn time management as well," he added. She wasn't late often. This was only the third time...
'Crap,' she thought.
"This is the third time you've been tardy without an excuse," he echoed, seemingly reading her thoughts. "You know I'm supposed to write you up now, right?" She gave a half nod, half shrug, avoiding eye contact. She stared at her worn-down shoes, waiting to be dismissed. Mr. Johnson sighed.
"I'm not sure what your home life is like, but I'm beginning to worry, Lilyan. I thought at first that you were maybe just shy and I respected that. I don't want to push you. However, if there was something wrong at home, we have people you can talk to." Her eyes went wide and her head shot up as a surge of panic rushed through her.
"I'm fine," she said firmly, but her voice cracked from having not spoken in over an hour. She cleared her throat and tried again. She had to be convincing so he wouldn't call her uncle. "I am fine", she assured him calmly. "There's really no need to worry. I just forget to set my alarm sometimes. It's this old thing that sometimes doesn't work. I missed the bus and had to walk here. That's all."
It was the most her teacher had heard her say at one time. He narrowed his eyes at her, studying her face. He sighed and then gave a slight nod.
"I'll let you off with a warning this time," he said, "but you need to be more responsible in the future. The next unexcused tardy will be a write-up. No exceptions. Okay?" She nodded vehemently. She just wanted to leave. "You can go," he said, glancing at the clock. The bell would ring soon. She gave a grateful nod and hurried out of the room before he could question her further.
The rest of the school day went by uneventfully. No one spoke to her. No one said her name. She sat alone at lunch. She sat in the back of each class. Alone, just like every other day. She took notes, doodling in the margins of her pages when her teachers would go on tangents. Finally, the last bell rang and it was time to leave and get on the bus.
She went straight outside and was the first on the bus. She made her way to the back and placed her bag next to her in the seat, then propped her chin up in her palm to stare out of the window. Kids were all chatting, saying goodbyes, laughing, and some were even giving hugs and high fives. They all looked so happy. When was the last time she had smiled? When was the last time she had laughed? She did not know. Maybe when her grandmother had still been alive? That was almost seven years ago.
Her mother died giving birth to her. Her father did not want the baby that had murdered his wife. At least, that was what her uncle had told her. So, her grandmother took custody of her and raised her. Unfortunately, her grandmother grew ill when the little girl was only six years old. After two years of fighting the illness, her grandmother passed. She was taken into foster care and bounced around a bit before they finally tracked down her next of kin.
She wasn't sure why her uncle agreed to take her since he hated her so much. Why didn't he just let her stay in the foster system until someone adopted her, or she turned eighteen? She had no idea. All she knew was that she met her uncle for the first time not long after she turned nine years old, and he had been using her as a punching bag for the past five years. He must have seen her as a murderer, too. After all, it was his sister that had died.
"Hey. This seat taken?" She looked up to see the owner of the voice that had snapped her out of her wandering thoughts. A pair of golden eyes bore into hers. Who was this boy? He was tall. He had short, shaggy hair that stuck out in different directions. It was a purple lavender color. She had never seen him before. Looking around at the rest of the bus, she saw that it was packed. She looked back to the bizarre boy standing over her and blinked a few times as if she had not understood him.
"What?" she nearly whispered. She cleared her throat as silently as she could, trying to find her voice again.
"I said, is this seat taken?" he repeated, slightly amused. She shook her head no, put her bag between her feet to make room for him, and turned to look out the window again. She felt the seat move as he sat down next to her. She scooted closer to the wall, trying to make herself as small as possible.
"My name's Zayd. What's yours?" the boy asked. She let her arm fall into her lap and turned slightly to face him, staring at him as though he was not of this world. Who was he? Some new kid? It was obvious that she did not want to talk, so why was he trying to strike up a conversation? What an odd person he must be. One corner of his lips turned upwards into a small smirk. He stared into her eyes and waited patiently for her to answer.
"Lilyan," she found herself mumbling. Even though his gaze made her feel uncomfortable, she couldn't help but look back into his eyes. They weren't normal. The golden color was intriguing. Was he wearing contacts? Did he have recessive brown eyes that didn't develop properly? Was that even possible? If so, what were the odds of that even happening? The boy raised an eyebrow at her, still smirking. She realized she was staring and lowered her eyes.
"Lilyan," he repeated, fondly. She flinched. His crooked smile immediately fell into a frown. She blinked. Most people didn't notice... did he?
"Do you not like your name?" he asked. She pondered that for a moment. That wasn't it. She loved her name. It was all she had left of her grandmother. She was just so unused to hearing it, that it felt like she was being shocked anytime someone said it. She shook her head no again, then tried to end the conversation by looking back towards the window. She kept her hands clasped in her lap, anxiously fidgeting with her fingers. The bus began to move, pulling away from the school to start its route.
She could feel his eyes on the back of her head. She suppressed an annoyed huff and watched the trees roll by. The bus stopped, letting off kids in singles or pairs as the ride went on. Even though she wasn't far from the school, she was the last one to be let off of the bus. The route went in a kind of backward loop. This was going to be a long ride if this guy did not lose interest soon.
"I'm not going to hurt you, y'know," he said under his breath. Shocked, she slowly turned back to look at him. His face was very serious. What the heck did he mean by that? She had not expected him to hurt her. Only her uncle did that. Should she be afraid of this kid?
Suddenly she felt fearful of him. Her adrenaline spiked and her eyes went wide, darting around for an escape. Her chest was tight, and she had all but stopped breathing, only drawing in shallow breaths. He stared into her eyes, his brows furrowed and the corner of his lips pulled down.
"Lilyan. It's okay," he said quietly, leaning towards her. She felt cornered, her back pressed against the window. No one else could hear him. No one was paying them any attention. Her heart raced. Why wouldn't he leave her alone? "Don't be afraid, please," he murmured, "I just want to be your friend, okay?" He smiled at her. He seemed sincere.
She finally exhaled properly and took a deep breath. His eyes, his smile, she felt safe for a moment. This wasn't a feeling she knew anymore. For some reason, she trusted him. His soothing voice had sounded honest when he said he wouldn't hurt her... it was just such an odd thing to say and it had taken her a moment to process his intentions.
She relaxed and turned her body to face the front again, still watching him warily.
"I don't have friends," she informed him. She felt that was obvious information. However, he was probably new to the school. Maybe he didn't know that yet. She felt obligated to warn him of this. He ought to know that everyone else ignored her. That way, he would learn to avoid her as well. That would be best. She did not have friends, nor did she want them.
"Well, you do now," he smirked. Bewildered, she gave a slight nod and turned back to the window. Not knowing how else to respond, she gave a small shrug. Zayd filled the silence between them with small talk. She learned that he was new to town, just as she had suspected, and that he came from a military family. They moved around a lot. However, they were planning to stay for a while this time. He wasn't used to having friends because of how often they moved, but since this was supposed to be more permanent, he was excited to make some.
"Why me?" she mumbled bitterly. When he didn't answer, she turned to look at him. His grin made her heart skip a beat. Was this a joke to him? She took a breath, unsure of what she was feeling.
"Why not?" he asked in return, still smirking his signature, mischievous grin. She let out a single scoffed laugh. There wasn't enough time left on the bus ride to explain the list of reasons everyone avoided her. He looked at her confused.
"You looked like you needed a friend as much as I did," he explained, his grin fading. She stared at him, speechless. Shaking her head back and forth in disbelief, a small smile started to form on her lips. She suppressed a laugh. This was surreal. He grinned at her.
"You have a pretty smile, Lilyan," he told her. She immediately frowned, unaware that she had smiled in the first place. Her face felt odd. He looked at her, his eyes full of concern. She just stared back, confused. It felt like he was looking into her eyes for an eternity. Finally, he looked away. "This is my stop," he said. Lilyan looked up, everyone else was gone. This was her stop.
"Mine, too," she whispered. He stood up, grabbed his bag, and then offered her his hand. She stared at it warily, unsure of what to do. Refusing would probably be rude. She put her bag on her back, and reluctantly took his hand. She stared into those golden eyes, searching for any hint of deception or malice. He smirked at her and helped her to her feet. When he let her hand go, she felt a misplaced kind of sadness that she didn't understand. He led the way down the aisle and off the bus, offering her his hand again to help her down the steps. When he let go, she again felt the same sort of sad emptiness. She wished that he had not let go.
They walked down the road, side by side, in silence. She stared at her feet, her hands clutching her shoulder straps. It seemed like Zayd knew that she needed time to process everything she was feeling.
He kept his left hand on the single strap of his messenger bag that crossed his chest, but his right hand, the hand closest to her, was kept free. She glanced over at him. He was at least a foot taller than she was, her eye level meeting below his shoulder. She had to crane her neck a bit just to sneak a look at his face.
She quickly looked down, back to his shoulder, before he caught her staring. Her eyes moved down his arm to his empty hand. She studied it, wondering why he had offered it to her in the first place. It was much larger than hers with long, slender fingers.
She remembered how his hand had felt around hers. A gentle touch like that had been absent from her life for years. She wondered what he would do if she reached for his hand. Instead, she looked forward and clutched her backpack straps tighter to keep herself from trying to do just that.
When they reached her house, she turned away from him to walk up her driveway. He snatched her hand, stopping her and nearly causing her to lose her footing. She turned back towards him, allowing herself to look up at his face. She tried searching his eyes for an explanation.
"I want us to walk to the bus together in the morning. I'll meet you here tomorrow at 6:30. Okay?" he insisted. His request seemed less like an invitation and more like instructions. She gave a small nod, then looked down at his hand grasping hers. He gave her hand a small squeeze, and then let go. She looked back up to his face. He was staring over her shoulder at her house. He looked back down at her and he gave her a cheerful half-grin. He seemed relieved by her answer at least. "Cool. See you tomorrow, then, Lilyan. Bye."
She turned away from him again and began walking up her driveway, feeling his eyes on her the entire way. She kept her eyes down, focusing on her feet. Once she reached the door, she glanced back at the road. He was still there. He gave a wave and a grin. She returned a small twitch of her lips and raised her hand ever so slightly.
'Bye,' she thought and unlocked the door to go inside, not noticing the car parked in the driveway. Her uncle was home early.