I look up at Mr. Clark over the top of my glasses. Sometimes I don’t even know why I wear them. The scratches are so bad on them, they can be hard to see through. But they’ve always felt like a barrier between me and the rest of the world. It’s something I want kept in place, even if they don’t work.
“The bell has rung,” he says, glancing over at the clock, telling me something I already know.
I heard the bell ring. I just wasn’t in a hurry to leave the classroom like everyone else. I’m not in a rush to join the crowd of milling students trying to get out the door, all of them running and bumping into each other. I hate crowded rooms. The walls always seem like they’re closing in on me. One would think I’d be used to it, growing up in a busy city, taking the subway or buses to and from school. But no, I’m still not accustomed to the feeling. Not even after eighteen years.
“Sorry, Mr. Clark,” I say, packing up my bag.
“Have you heard back from any of the colleges you applied to yet? I’m still willing to put in a good word for you, if you’d like,” he says, coming around his desk as I make my way to the front of the classroom.
Mr. Clark likes to stare a little too long at me. A lot of my father’s colleagues do it as well. It makes my skin itch, and I have to stop myself from scratching. My father calls it fidgeting and yells at me to stop doing it.
“I’m good, thank you,” I tell him politely, trying not to engage in more conversation.
I’m not going to bother with telling him I didn’t apply to any colleges because I didn’t have the money to pay for them. I made good grades and went to one of the best private schools in the state, all thanks to a dead grandfather I’d never met. But my grades weren’t good enough for any scholarships. Not with a school like this, where making a 4.0 is common.
It’s a school I don’t really belong at. I stand out—a poor girl surrounded by kids that drive cars that cost more than some homes. Certainly more than the one I live in. And people notice.
Mr. Clark steps in front of me, stopping me from moving. Reaching out, he takes a lock of my long, dark hair between his fingers. I stand there, unsure what to do. All the girls find Mr. Clark attractive. He teaches advanced algebra and is also the wrestling coach. He’s built like a wrestler. He’s stocky, like he spends hours in the gym, but not too much taller than me. I don’t understand why he pays me so much attention. The girls in my class practically spread their legs so he can get a look at them while he’s teaching.
“Do you not want to share your plans with me, Jasmine? You do have plans, don’t you?”
My plans are to get the heck out of the city as fast as possible. I’ve saved every penny I’ve earned so I can escape the moment school is done. I’m going to buy a one-way ticket to a small town and live a quiet life.
Maybe once I get settled somewhere I can find a florist’s or garden to work in, a place with so much space, I’ll finally be able to breathe. To be free.
Mr. Clark takes a step closer to me, and I freeze.
“I think you need someone to take care of you, Jasmine. I’m more than willing to—” The sound of a ringing phone on his desk cuts him off.
I jump back from him, putting space between us. I don’t wait for him to say anything, and I rush from the room, wanting to get away as fast as possible. I don’t stop moving until I clear the school and hit the busy sidewalk. It isn’t until I get down the main street and turn onto a less busy one that I finally slow my steps. I can finally take a breath, and it takes a moment for my heart to settle. I try to bat away thoughts of what will happen the next time I see him. As if it’s not bad enough being there every day…
As my anxiety fades to a dull thrum, I can take in the scene around me. The street is lined with buildings on one side and on the other is a giant park filled with flowers and playing children.
I walk slowly, breathing in the fresh air and wanting to linger as long as I can. I still need to check in on my neighbor Mrs. Joyce. She has a list of things she wants me to do for her, and I need to study for finals.
The end is coming. It’s so close I can almost taste it. Three thousand dollars I’ve saved. Once I have the diploma in my hand, I’ll be as good as gone. No more walls closing in. No more father I can barely stand to look at. No more having to be somewhere that makes me feel like I’m slowly dying. The calmness the park gives me leaves my body thinking about going back home and how long I have left.