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“Boarding School” by Jennifer Dickinson

On the last day I saw her, Reed snuck me a picture. I don’t know how she had one. They’d taken everything from our old lives away. Reed had long hair. She wore a pink crystal on a chain around her neck and pink Nike Airs.

She was not the kind of girl I would’ve liked in the past. I liked girls who were into kittens wearing dresses and anime. Who sat in the back of the classroom. Who never shouted. Girls like me. Girls who didn’t break rules. Ever.

Reed broke rules. Once, in target practice, she shot the apple before we were supposed to and yelled: “RAGE!” She stabbed a guard. She was going to be locked up for good, but she escaped. And she’s waiting on me.

“They want to banish the art out of us,” Reed whispered to me the first time we kissed. “But I won’t let them.”

She made a paper sunflower for me out of a Civil War map. She cut little hearts in the hem of her uniform skirt and said each heart was for me. And I didn’t say anything. No one had ever liked me in a serious way before.

I want to be with Reed. And I want lots of other stuff, too. Mint chocolate chip ice cream. Dimetapp when I have a sore throat. That feeling you get when you wake up and you realize there’s no school and you fall back asleep for like ten hours. Or you don’t. You get up and go to the movies with your younger sister and you share buttered popcorn and it gets all over your fingers and that’s okay because later you’re going to take a shower and use your favorite shampoo. I want to go to a concert, even if it’s Justin Bieber. I want to dream again.

Before my mom got taken away, she said the world is a strange place, that some things don’t add up to reason. When she said it she was talking about how my dad left us for the choir director and then the two of them fled the country. Fuckers.

Now I understand my mom’s words to mean it doesn’t stand to reason that two sixteen- year-old girls who were straight A students and bound for futures called “promising” are risking their lives to be able to see the sun again.

I open my backpack and find my gun. Freezing rain pounds the glass of the windows. It’s after midnight, but feels even later. I don’t know how I’ll make it past the guards. But Reed’s waiting.

I pull my jacket over my head and open the door. The rain is loud. But the girls on the field are louder. “America! America! America!” they chant. I shiver. Then, I run.

It’s dark, but I’ve studied the map Reed left me, memorized the route to the creek. And I do what Reed told me to if I got scared, which I am. I picture us. What it will be like when I am out and we are twisted up in a blanket on the sand. Sun. Bananas. Mango. Shrimp.

I run faster, past the classrooms and the lacrosse field, the boarded-up art studio and theater. I make it to the last hallway and then I am through the iron gates. Victory. Raindrops blur my vision. The mud is thick under my boots. My heart pounds so loudly in my ears that at first I think the thud in my head is the sound of my heartbeat. But then I fall to my knees and I get hit again. My left cheekbone. I see stars. That’s a real thing.

There are two of them. One pummels me. The other watches. And they’re laughing like I’ve just told a joke. I start crying and they laugh harder. In this new world, pain is a punchline.

The one watching calls for others on his walkie talkie. Soon there will be a group and I’ve heard what they do to girls they find trying to escape who aren’t lucky like Reed.

“I want you to teach me a lesson,” I say to the one closest to me, the one who’s made meat out of my face. My voice is low, guttural, unfamiliar. He smiles broadly. When he turns to the other, I open my backpack. My fingers find the gun. The one bullet I was able to steal is in the chamber. Which one should I shoot? Will the one left shoot me?

They’re talking. One unbuckles his pants. My future is not looking promising anymore.

I aim my gun at the one with his pants falling off.

“Back the fuck up,” I say.

They both draw their guns and then we’re all aiming guns. I point mine at one, then the other. In the end, I settle on the one who smiled.

Sun. Bananas. Mango. Shrimp.

He goes down. Then I go down.

I wish I could see Reed one more time. I’d tell her we don’t need to make a big deal about bananas. Or the sun. What we need is a room where we can be alone. Where I can touch her hair. Where I can tell her I love her. I waited too long to say it because I was afraid. But I’m not afraid anymore.

Jennifer Dickinson is a graduate of Hollins University. Her short fiction has appeared in Beloit Fiction Journal, The Florida Review, Maudlin House, Blackbird, and others. The recipient of a Hedgebrook residency and a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Foundation, she works as a writing teacher and book coach in Los Angeles.


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