She sat in the middle of a field. Tyler watched her outside his window after he finished his painting, unable to sleep. He slipped out of his window to go see her.
It was the practice football field, and residential houses surrounded the sides of it that high school did not already occupy.
“Sophie…” Tyler touched Sophie’s shoulder and shook her mildly. “You okay?”
The vacant expression on Sophie’s face perked up as Tyler’s voice finally seemed able to make contact with her senses. She took notice of the grass brushing along her bare legs. Her eyes scanned the ground, running over the edges of her white nightgown mingling with the blades of grass and over to the contours of Tyler’s shoes. Her focus then jumped to look at Tyler’s face. She watched him sit down next to her.
“What are you doing out here?” Tyler asked, removing his jacket.
“I think I was sleeping walking,” Sophie said. She flinched as Tyler’s fingers lightly grazed her shoulders as he draped his jacket around her. “What time is it?”
“About two,” Tyler sighed, “in the morning.”
Sophie nodded, rubbing her forehead.
“What about you?” she asked. “What are you doing out here?”
“I saw you out my window and came to see if everything was alright… is it?”
He did not know what answer he hoped to hear – the truth or some sort of empty assurance.
Sophie did not know why Tyler bothered to ask that. He already knew it was not; he had to.
Sophie looked at Tyler again, sizing him up. Tyler was in her Calculus class, and he was a treasure painted with shit. Misunderstood, underestimated, overlooked, no visible friends of worth – Tyler sat in the back of the classroom, said nothing, and walked through the halls with eyes glued to floor, wincing every time some ass of a human being would shove him into a locker or slap the books out of his arms. He also did not seem to wear many different clothes, always had on the same corduroy jacket – the one that was giving Sophie’s shoulders refuge at that moment – and would sometimes throw a black sweater to the usual mix when it got colder. Paint brushes stuck out from behind his left ear, sometimes flickers of paint would spot his unkempt waves of black hair and every other part of him, and bruises from the lockers tattooed his arms. His shoes were always dirty.
And he was beautiful.
“You know, it’s been awhile since we last talked,” Sophie said.
“Except yesterday when you apologized for spilling chili on my shoes during lunch,” Tyler said.
“I’m glad you found that moment meaningful,” Sophie said.
“I’m a little sad that you forgot about that,” Tyler said, lightening Sophie’s mood.
Tyler remembered a time from before.
Sophie was his best friend. Nobody talked to him but her. Tyler did not know for sure why nobody but Sophie talked him, but he was pretty sure it had something to do with money. His single mom did not exactly make as much of it as a lawyer married to a doctor did. He was also the new kid. With his father dead in Afghanistan, his mother moved them back to Ohio to be close to her family.
Sophie, though, was not fooled by his cheap clothes or by the fact he was generally a loner. Their friendship began with one accidental run-in as he was exiting the art room and as she was daydreaming on her way to choir practice. It was one of nonstop chatter from Sophie, Tyler painting portraits of her with her sleek brown hair and tall build for basketball, and their driving expeditions across the state that usually ended with the directions flung out the window and a detour through Michigan, during one of which Tyler learned Sophie had a peculiar aversion to trees. Tyler’s reoccurring thought that he was going to marry that eccentric girl someday also weaved itself throughout the two years of their friendship.
That was all until her parents’ death a year ago put her into shock.
And she stopped talking – to everyone.
Then moving in with her aunt Claire made her quietly complacent.
And the abuse from Claire shut her down.
Tyler suspected abuse because of Sophie’s constantly sullen behavior, and he was right.
Sophie thought back to earlier that day, before she slept-walked to the middle of a field.
I hadn’t been back to the apartment since yesterday; I spent the night at the church again last night. It was safer there, at least until I went home again.
I dashed up the grimly concrete steps, pausing in front of her door and catch my momentum. Then I gripped and turned the cold, metal knob and tried not to cry.
“There she IS!”
I closed the door behind me as tenderly as I could.
“Where you been all night?”
She sat in a rugged, old recliner that she had taken off the side of the street a couple months ago before the trash collectors got to it. Someone’s cat had really given it hell, and I would have sworn that I had seen a couple centipedes come crawling out from the ripped cushions.
Claire was too busy choking down vodka every moment of her life to notice, and I never spoke to her unless I had to.
“Speak UP, you damn slut!” she yelled, dribble sliding down her chin. “I can’t fucking HEAR YOU.”
“I was just going to get…” I whispered, praying to avoid tears. Tears only made it worse.
“No you weren’t!” she yelled. “No. You. WEREN’T. I checked! I checked on you, you fucking whore!”
She sat forward in her seat, and I winced. I wished I could melt into the door.
Please don’t cry, I prayed… Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry.
“Where were you, whore?” She spat at me. “Were you sleeping in that church parking lot? Were you off sleeping with someone else!”
Her voice hit the highest note that it could fly at, and I let out a terrified yelp, instinctively shielding my head with my arms to brace for impact.
The empty bottle bounced off of the door and slammed into my head, knocking me down to my knees. I tried to quickly jump back again, but there was some spilt liquor that made me slip and land forward into shards of shattered glass from the vase that Claire had broken yesterday. I had forgotten to clean it up.
I ignored as best as I could the piercing bite jutting up my arms that the shards of glass sticking out from my palms were creating and crawled a few feet forward to my room.
“Where were you, SOPHIE!”
My nose sniffed and my head tilted backwards to keep the tears in a pool around my eyes as I slid underneath my bed.
I knew that she would keep crying my name until her voice went hoarse or her lungs bled. Small, rolling sobs came. I curled up into a ball, moving as much as I could away from the closed bedroom door until my back lay against the wall.
My little ball of limbs was wet. My face was wet, my arms and hands were wet, and the floor that I was bleeding and crying on was wet. I did not know how long I could last there under that bed, but I wanted stay there for the rest of life, crying until I could not hear anymore.
Claire was a cactus, a shrilling and vicious cactus. Maybe somewhere inside of her was something left of value, but all I could see of her was shriveled. She was drowning herself and starving herself at the same time. An immovable beast shooting thorns at me with every object and every word within her grasp – she hated me. She loathed every breath I took – I could feel it in the way her stares begged me to die.
I could have left. I could have never even come here in the first place… but I deserved it.
I deserved everything Claire ever gave me.
Sophie once told Tyler how that woman used to braid dandelions and daisies into her hair during the summertime when she was still very young.
“You can always come to me for help, you know,” Tyler said in a soft whisper.
Sophie shook her head.
“I let you down, Tyler,” Sophie said. “We haven’t spoken for a year.”
“You’re wrong, Sophie.” Tyler looked down at his palms. “I just didn’t know how to help you.” He turned his gaze back to her. “I still don’t.”
“I don’t deserve it.”
“You have to stop blaming yourself.”
It was then that Sophie started to cry.
I was sixteen and had my freedom to get behind the wheel printed on a plastic card – but no car to exercise it in, though.
I was then stuck at a party one night that I only went to because Shelli, my old best friend who I had known since kindergarten, begged me to go it. It was her sixteenth birthday party.
Who begs someone to go to a party and then ditches her to spend the night making out with Greg the football player in the hot tub? Besides Shelli.
Or maybe it was Darius the football player… they all should have just had the same name; they all looked the same as it was.
“Can you please come get me?” I called my mom from my cell. “I’m dying here.”
“It’s only nine, aren’t you having fun?” she asked. Clearly she thought dying could still be construed as “fun.”
“Everybody’s drunk,” I said. Even I thought nine was a little early to be that intoxicated. “And they keep calling me Sofa.”
“Sofa? Like a couch?”
“Oh, that’s so clever!”
“Okay,” she said, chuckling. “Your father and I went out to pick out a movie from RedBox, so we’ll be right there.”
We said goodbye, and a few minutes later the sounds of crunching metal on metal, shrieking wheels pleading to stop, and a deafening blare of train horns came wailing through the party.
I still remember how compact that train made that car.
With my parents still inside of it.
A drunk driver, probably on the way to Shelli’s party, had rear-ended the couple and shoved them straight into the approaching train.
Claire blamed Sophie for the accident. Claire blamed Sophie for taking away the only two people left who had not given up on her and who were trying to help her alcohol addiction.
The point, however, was mute. No matter if the couple had or had not died that night, Claire still would have relapsed. She still would have slept with three different strangers in two nights a week after that night of the wreck to get money to pay for the vodka and the plastic cups.
Sophie was the perfect scapegoat, though.
“Sophie,” Tyler said. “I miss you.”
Sophie looked into his gray eyes and saw them wearing a similar kind of sadness as her own.
“And I want you to come back,” Tyler said. “The real you.”
Sophie spent the rest of that night at Tyler’s.
Somebody was shaking my shoulder.
“Sophie, come on, wake up.”
I was lying on light blue couch, sinking into it underneath a white blanket and still wearing Tyler’s jacket. My eyes peeked over at Tyler, who was kneeling on the floor next to me.
“We gotta stop meeting like this,” I said.
Tyler sighed. His eyes studied the brown carpet with a focused intent as if there was some sort of mission behind his staring. His hands held his knee caps in a rigid sitting position, seeming ready to absorb any level of harm that my words could potentially snap at him.
I lifted my hand, about to reach out and touch his shoulder to try and relax him when a slightly older woman briskly walked into the room from behind a white, swinging door. Tyler’s mother Ellen was in forties somewhere. Waves of yellow hair with meager strands of gray and white crowned her tall, slender posture and reminded me of warm sand. Ellen’s smile felt just as welcoming.
I laid my hand in my lap.
“Good! You’re awake!” her voice chimed like a bright light cascading through a valley at midnight. It was unexpected, but I could not help being drawn to it.
I said my hello, trying not to think too much about how bizarre and embarrassing this situation probably was and very well should have been.
“Good morning, Sophie,” she said, smiling generously. “How you feeling?”
“Really good, thank you,” I said, shyly avoiding her gaze. “And thank you for letting me crash here last night.”
“It’s no problem, it’s good to be seeing you again,” Ellen said. “Would you guys like some breakfast?”
I could feel her exhaling kindness. It was a pleasant contrast to my usual mornings.
“I don’t usually eat breakfast,” I said, “but that would be really nice.”
I piled on more expressions of gratitude and apologies for my indecency and for being a burden – the former she accepted, while the latter she brushed off and claimed to be “pish posh.” She did not probe me, and I assumed that Tyler had told her all he knew and she did not want to pry into some poor girl’s life.
Some poor girl… that was who I was – some poor girl with more baggage than bone marrow.
I sighed, feeling like a lost and destitute sleep-walker again.
That same day Tyler helped Sophie confront Claire.
“You can wait out here,” I said, taking hold of the door knob.
He shook his head.
“I’m right behind you,” he said.
I gave him a nod, holding my breath as I slowly pushed the door open. The hinges squealed as the door moved, but there was no heart-punching yell from Claire to greet us.
There was no Claire period. The nasty recliner was empty.
“Is she out getting more alcohol?” Tyler asked.
“She usually gets some kid who works at the market to bring her vodka and such,” I said, taking cautious steps forward as I looked around the apartment. Then something heavy struck my head, and I smashed into one of Claire’s shelves, scattering her prescription sleeping pills all across the room.
“Hey!” Tyler yelled. His voice seemed muffled and far off. It was like listening to the radio play, but I was on the outside of the car.
And the car came crashing into me again.
Claire took another swing at me with my father’s old baseball bat, hitting me in the side and sending me into the sliding glass doors that led to the wooden balcony. The glass snapped, cracking where my head had whiplashed into it.
“Sophie!” Tyler yelled, grunting after Claire took a swing at him.
I rolled to the other side of the recliner as Claire flung the baseball bat at the sliding doors, and the glass rushed to the floor like a waterfall. When the high-pitched wails of shattering glass were finished, I slowly looked up. Claire immediately hooked her hand around my arm and dragged me backwards, nearly tearing my arm out of its socket. My vision was a dark haze, but I saw Tyler was stumbling, one hand holding his head and the other reaching forward to try and grasp onto something to gain his balance. Then Claire lifted me farther upwards and slammed me into the railing that was surrounding the wooden balcony.
We had always avoided that balcony, because Claire’s landlord was too lazy and too cheap to fix the wobbly, rotting railing.
The railing cracked underneath the impact of my weight and Claire’s thrust, but it did not break. Not yet.
I jerked my arm away from Claire’s grasp and shoved her away from me as I moved away from the dangerous railing. Claire regained her balance and came charging after me, when Tyler’s hands gripped the back of Claire’s shirt. He held onto to her and then flung her away from me towards the railing, breaking it and sending Claire tumbling backwards over the edge.
I let out a deep breath and then looked over at Tyler.
“She tripped,” I said.
And she did not get back up.
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Photo by Sam Wildow. © All rights reserved.