She didn’t get a good morning text. That should have been her first warning.
Waking up to Shelby’s normal warning being the only notification on her phone should have set off alarms in her head, and she should have immediately checked in on her. But she was still trying to process her dreams from last night which involved the return of Mister Thesaurus the Tyrannosaurus, the mascot of her AP study books, and she was through her shower and getting dressed before she even registered being awake.
She had just enough time to scarf down a “healthy breakfast” of egg whites and an apple before her ride pulls up to the curb, sparking their daily checklist like always.
“Now, remember, you have debate club before cheer today instead of tutoring.”
“And don’t forget to invite Marcus and his parents to lunch after church this weekend, and remind Shelby and Man-- I mean, Kaylee, to come home with you after cheer for dinner, since her parents and Mr. Gonzales will be busy.”
“Do you have your AP book and your flashcards? Do you need new highligh--”
“Mom, I gotta go, Shelby’s waiting for me--”
“Alyssa!” She paused, one foot out the door like always, and looked back at her mother. “I love you. Have a good day at school.”
She smiled back, like always. “I love you too. See you for dinner.” And with that, she ran to Shelby’s car and slid into the backseat.
She greeted Señor Gonzales and her friends, and conversation drifted between unimportant subjects like always.
Until Kaylee’s phone lit up with a notification.
Until the chatterbox stopped talking.
Until Señor Gonzales pulled over in concern.
“Oh my God, Emma Nolan’s a total dyke!”
When she was nine, she went fishing with her father in early spring. She flicked her line out, reeled it in slowly, flicked it out again, joking and laughing with him. They both knew that it was too early in the season to really get anything, but it was a nice way to bond. A nice way to stop the yelling for a while.
Suddenly an unexpected yank on her line pulled her from her seat and out of the boat, tumbling into the frigid water. In all reality she was probably under for less than a second, but she thrashed and panicked and inhaled water and let go of her rod and stayed under for hours, days, years, until a big strong hand grabbed her life vest and pulled her back into the boat where she sat shivering, coughing, freezing, numb until they reached shore and got her into dry clothes and a warm blanket, according to her mother.
According to herself, she fell in and the world became distant. Things were still happening around her, but they were far away. Words were said by her father, his mouth was moving, but she didn’t hear them.
Sometimes she wished she could remember a few more things he said, but other times she’s glad he’s so sparse in her memories.
She didn’t come back to reality until a thought finally crossed her mind. The first words out of her mouth after falling in, hours later, were said quietly, ashamedly. “I lost your fishing rod.”
“I can always buy a new one,” he replied. “Daughters, however, are irreplaceable.”
She never felt detached from reality like that again.
“No way, what? Keep talking!” Shelby’s voice grew fainter, more distant, until it simply stopped registering in her mind. She knew Shelby and Kaylee were still talking, but she found herself unable to reply or interact with them.
She thought the cold had been from the water.
This coldness is much, much worse.
She wasn’t sure how much time passed before she finally listened again. She wished she never heard it.
“-- girlfriend? Who the hell could be the other lesbian?”
“What?” Words, a word, finally left her mouth. She pretended to have been following along.
“Is it Jess Monae? She always acts weird in the locker room.”
“No, she has an eating disorder and hates her body. Jeez, Shelbs, keep up.”
She pulled back from the conversation willingly this time, mind racing. The school knows Emma Nolan is gay. The school knows Emma Nolan has a girlfriend.
The school does not know who Emma Nolan’s girlfriend is.
She was safe. For now.
The hallways felt more crowded than normal, everyone hoping to be the one who “found out” the mystery girlfriend of “Lesbo Extraordinaire” Emma Nolan. Every girl was stared at by everyone, even more than usual. Every action was noticed, mentioned, catalogued. Every word analyzed, literalized, documented. She never felt unwatched.
The worst part? Emma wasn’t in school.
She didn’t remember much about her day. She remembered the bell ringing to begin and end school. She remembered the eyes. She remembered texting her girlfriend as often as possible.
She remembered getting no response.
She remembered lying in darkness after pretending to absorb something from Mister Thesaurus the Tyrannosaurus, willingly praying for the first time that she was okay.
She wasn’t quite sure how she survived the week. She woke up, blinked, was in third period, blinked, was in the middle of a trick in cheerleading, blinked, was staring at whichever book she was studying from, blinked, was pressing send on another concerned text to Emma.
It was between blinks in -- was it Friday? -- school when Marcus stopped her in the hallway. “Am I the only one of us excited for Sunday?”
“Huh?” What was happening on Sunday?
She remembered his face, filled with amusement and… something else she couldn’t name at the time. “Lunch? After church?”
Something clicked enough to jog her memory. “Oh! Yeah, I’m… not sure how I feel about it. I’m just wondering why, you know?”
He laughed. She didn’t like that laugh.
She blinked, and she was alone in the hallway.
She felt eyes on her.
All week, there have been eyes on her. Watching her. Waiting for her to slip up. Waiting for her to reveal herself. Waiting for something to pin her as The Girlfriend. Kaylee had mentioned how gross she felt when a less-than-tactful boy asked if she was “the homo” -- Did that happen? Was she there? -- and Shelby shared a similar story.
Logically, she knew that she wasn’t singled out.
But everyone knew it was her.
God, she wished Emma would talk to her.
She was in church. It had to be Sunday. Marcus was approaching.
She wanted to escape but her mother -- how long was she there? -- tightened her grip on her shoulder and steered her over to him and his family. “Joshua, Mary, how was service for you? I found the homily just--”
The adults entered their own world, leaving her to stare at her classmate. “Hey.”
They’re all at her house. The adults chatter away in the parlor while she and Marcus sat at the kitchen table, only just out of sight of their parents. They talked -- or was it just him? -- amicably and kept each other company, still in their church clothes. Her feet hurt from her shoes.
She only half paid attention and mentally reviewed for an exam coming up this week while he kept himself entertained by his own voice.
That was a mistake.
Her knee was warm.
“Alyssa,” His voice finally broke through her focus. She looked up only to find his face closer than she preferred. Her warm knee felt heavy. “Have you ever been in love?”
"I-n-maybe?" With Emma? Six months might be too short, but... "No... I have."
She remembers surprise on his face. “Really?” Maybe hope.
Her cheeks were warmer than her knee -- his hand was on it, that was the heat -- as she nodded. His face got closer. His eyes fluttered closed.
She raised a hand, stopped his movement. “Marcus… no.”
Her mother asked her over dinner what she thought of Marcus. “His parents are lovely.”
She played with her asparagus. “He’s a good friend.”
A pause. Cutlery moved across plates.
“Could he be… something more?”
A week since Emma was kicked out.
A week since the manhunt for her girlfriend began.
A week since her mask grew thicker.
A week since being “fine” became much more difficult.
A week since she last heard from her girlfriend.
A week that crawled by like a bullet train.
She had been fine. She had been studying for her AP exams. She had been studying for her upcoming tests and quizzes. She had been doing cheer. She had been doing debate club. She had been excelling in her classes. She had been tutoring underclassmen. She had been eating lunch with her girlfriend. She had been texting her girlfriend. She had been fine.
She had been “fine.”
A week changed all of that.
She was still fine, even though her exams are sooner and sooner, even though there was a cheer competition coming up, even though a debate was set to happen soon, even though she didn’t remember her classes, even though she was spacey while tutoring, even though she hadn’t seen her girlfriend in a week, even though her girlfriend hasn’t even read her texts.
She was fine.
She was fine.
Her planner said it was Tuesday. Last Tuesday, her girlfriend was kicked out.
This Tuesday was normal.
She was moving to her next class.
She was walking, normally, down the hallway.
She was fine.
She was on the ground.
She was sobbing.
She was surrounded by classmates and teachers.
She was brought to the nurse’s office by Mr. Hawkins.
She was unable to speak.
She was still crying.
She was not still breathing.
She was led through breathing exercises.
She was carried into an ambulance.
She was admitted to the hospital.
She was going to be held overnight.
She was going to have to see a therapist.
She was not fine.
She was in a hospital gown, sitting in a comfortable chair in a quiet room in the hospital. A tall woman sits across from her, clipboard and pen poised oh her lap. Her hair was shorter than Emma’s, almost a man’s cut. Was it a man’s cut?
The woman was in a suit and tie.
She couldn’t look her in the eye. She looked around her room instead. It was mostly plain, just a boring office…
On the desk, sitting in the cup of pens, was a rainbow flag.
For the first few questions, she didn’t look away from the flag. The questions were simple, name, where she lived, how old she was, but they changed course quickly.
“Like the flag?” She turned her eyes back to the woman -- Dr. Wisdom, she said, but to call her Grace -- quick as a bullet, cheeks burning in shame at being caught staring. “Don’t be sorry, I like it too. My wife got me it at our first time at Indy Pride when we moved instate.”
“Yep!” Dr. Grace beamed in pride. “A beautiful bisexual woman agreed to marry me, a simple lesbian. Shocking, I know. I count myself lucky every night.”
“You’re gay?” She had never met a grownup like her.
Dr. Grace just nodded. “What about you? Got anyone?”
“A… girlfriend. I have a girlfriend.” She took a deep breath. “I’m a lesbian.”
She was kept overnight. Her mother was allowed to visit the next day after a second session with Dr. Grace and got to meet her as well.
There was no flag in her office when she met her mother -- it was tucked away in Alyssa’s stuff, given as a gift.
It was a short meeting that ended with her mother reluctantly agreeing to anti-anxiety medication for her. They picked it up on the way out after she was discharged with doctor’s orders to do nothing until Monday.
The ride home was quiet. She could tell her mother wanted to say something, but she didn’t know how.
She went up to her room when she got home, finally checking her phone.
Everyone had texted her, messaged her, snapped her, asking if she was okay, or for details, or general well-wishes, except for one notification.
One word, from the person she most wanted to hear from.
“So, yeah, I live with Gran now.”
“You must be feeling horrible, Em.”
“When it first happened? Yeah. I’m feeling better about it, though.”
“Were you gone for a week to move in, or…”
“I just… needed a break from reality, so I shut my phone off and binged Orange is the New Black with Gran. I’m sorry I didn’t get your texts.”
“It’s okay. I’m on a little break from reality myself.”
“What? Babe, are you okay?”
“I’m so sorry I was part of the reason this happened.”
“If I hadn’t let it slip that I have a girlfriend--”
“It still could have happened.”
“Emma, listen to me. I don’t blame you. Don’t blame yourself.”
“You know what I need right now?”
“Pistachio ice cream and to see my girlfriend.”
“It’s almost midnight.”
“Which means my mother is asleep.”
“I’m already in my truck.”
She was back to school on Monday. Señor Gonzales picked her up like normal, but Kaylee and Shelby hugged her tightly before she could buckle herself in.
“We missed you sooooo much! What happened? Was it because of lunch with Marcus on Sunday?”
“Do you need any notes? I made sure to get copies for you but I didn't have a chance to stop by and drop them off.”
She smiled at her friends. “I’m fine now. I just… needed a break from reality.”
The nurse took her note and promised to let her teachers know about it. With a smile, she headed to her classes.
The hallways felt off. Like when Emma was outed, she felt everyone’s eyes on her yet unlike then there was a different force behind them. Instead of a witchhunt, with the piercing gaze of the accusers, these stares felt more like her mother’s in the hospital: concerned, confused, unsure of which questions to ask.
She noticed Marcus begin to approach her a couple of times throughout the day, but either she would get asked a question or he would get distracted by a friend or the hallway traffic was just too fast.
She slipped away during lunch with less trouble than before, though the soft look Shelby gave her said everything her friend couldn’t make herself say.
Seeing Emma at lunch for the first time in two weeks was like a breath of fresh air after a seven-hour-long car ride.
Marcus did catch her before cheer. “I want to apologize for last Sunday. I misread a bunch of things, and thought we were on the same page.”
Thankfully(?), she remembered that Sunday. “I didn’t know you were talking about…”
“I gathered.” He chuckled lightly. “So… who is it?”
“You said you were in love,” he shrugged. “Obviously, not with me. So, who is he? I won’t tell.”
“I…” She would have pulled a random name, but Emma texted her out of the blue and gave her an idea. “Nolan.”
“Greg? Emma’s cousin?” That’s weird; the way he said Emma’s name… it was like he didn’t want to run her out of town for being gay.
She just nodded.
“And you tutor Emma in chemistry, right?” It’s the other way around, but she nodded again. A shit-eating grin covered his face. “And how many of those ‘lessons’ were excuses to ogle at her cousin?”
“Marcus!” She slapped his arm, failing to hide a smile. “I’m not willing to answer that question.”
Her mother forgot to refill her prescription.
So, she biked into town, got to the pharmacy alone, and paid for it by herself.
Goddamn was medicine expensive.
During a study session at Betsy Nolan’s farm -- her mother protested, but Emma was the reason she wasn’t failing chemistry -- she accidentally mentioned how expensive her medication was in earshot of Emma’s grandmother.
The next time she went to refill her prescription, she found it already paid for.
Betsy refused to admit it was her, but she saw the smile in her eyes.
The worst two weeks of her life quickly became a fuzzy memory, mainly because she couldn’t remember most of it.
She wished she could see Dr. Grace again but she knows her mother can’t afford to take her there so she didn’t mention it.
The rumor that she liked Greg did end up spreading, even though Marcus promised not to tell, but that’s just high school. Emma even came up with the idea to have her fake date him -- it would take away any suspicion of her being The Girlfriend if she had a boyfriend.
Life wasn’t -- isn’t -- perfect. She still pretends to be fine when it’s all getting to be too much, but it’s easier to calm down before she reaches her breaking point. She’s learning coping mechanisms, and junior year is almost behind her.
Only one more year to hide a part of herself.
Only one more year until she’s free.
Only one more year of high school.
She’s Alyssa Greene. She can do this.