THE HALO CHRONICLES:
Happiness damn near destroys you
Breaks your faith to pieces on the floor
So you tell yourself that’s enough for now
But happiness has a violent roar
When I was a little girl I thought the shadows could harm me. I was terrified of them. Then I learned there are far worse things in this world than the absence of light… things like hate, racism, pure evil, and high school. Yep, that’s what I said, high school. Most people overlook the real darkness of the world, seeing instead average citizens – adults mostly, some teens, a few kids, an occasional teacher – but I see them for what they are: monsters. Now I look for the shadows, welcome them even. There’s safety in shadows. Especially when your only goal in high school, in life, is to be invisible…
Seven long blocks.
I tell myself that’s all it is – a cake walk. Basically I lie.
Kate and Steven have already left for the day, so I linger on their freshly painted front porch taking in the variations of pastel blue and antique white gingerbread trim. Inhaling deeply, the pungent chemical smell of the paint slices through my fear allowing me to clear my head. The acrid scent is strangely soothing.
For a minute I regret not accepting the ride offered to me. Kate wanted to stay. Drive me to the first day of school, my being new and all. But I tell her that’s not the way it’s done when you’re a sophomore. She gets it and lets the subject drop. She’s good that way.
I shut the front door, which is the same shade of red as a Christmas poinsettia, taking extra care to use the key given me and return it to the inner pocket of my new backpack. Looking down, my eyes trace the bottom edge of my jeans as they rest against my new Ed Hardy sneakers. The shoes match my top perfectly, both a vivid shade of electric purple– not a color I’m entirely comfortable with. The whole outfit’s new, like the backpack and my haircut.
At Kate’s insistence I capitulated to a back-to-school shopping spree. It seemed to make her sublimely happy to dress me up like Suburban Barbie, and since I don’t care too much one way or the other, I thought it was the right thing to do. So I now have a new, colorful wardrobe that puts me in the same category as the porch – recently overhauled. But I miss my faded army jacket with its oversized sleeves and holes worn clean through the pockets.
As I contemplate the walk before me, my heart squeezes in a familiar, unpleasant way that proves, contrary to my makeover, nothing has really changed. Nothing ever really does…
Just seven blocks.
And Kate’s already gone because I told her I would be fine, that I could handle the first day all by myself.
Basically I lied.
Does it make a difference that I’m sorry when I have to lie? I like to think so… but does it make the lie harder to tell the next time? No.
But it’s not any easier either, so that’s something.
Regardless, lying is what I’m good at, so I tell myself today will be just fine. That there’s nothing to be afraid of… And despite the cramping in my stomach, I leave the safety of the pretty porch and begin to walk.
It’s seven fifteen. School starts in forty five minutes. If I amble I’ll reach
But I am conspicuously purple. And I no longer have my jacket.
To console myself, I make believe
I don’t tell the Fosters this – not that they wouldn’t go out of their way to try and help me – it’s just,
Six blocks to go… like a countdown to an execution, or the tolling of the bells at midnight... the blocks vanish beneath my feet as I move toward something sinister and ominous. It doesn’t help to change direction, no matter which way I go, I’m always moving toward it. Never away… never toward safety.
At the corner, I turn right onto
For a moment I long to be back at The Children’s Center with its cracked, crumbling pavement and tenaciously growing weeds. There the air was stale but familiar. I think about the Center, the closest thing I can call home, for the next two blocks and wonder for the millionth time where
…And just maybe I need him.
Maybe I need one person in this cursed life to care about me, and whom I can care about in return. Then I wonder if I’m asking too much.
Four more blocks.
When I reach
To my right are snappy little shops with green awnings and thriving flower boxes. They’re closed this time of the morning. Idly, I wonder if Kate shops there and whether she’ll take me with her sometime. One store’s a used CD place. Maybe I’ll stop there on the way home, if the day doesn’t turn out to be too bad. I’m always looking for more music.
With a swift stab of pain, I realize it doesn’t matter anyway. I no longer own the MP3 player I got for Christmas as a charity gift. It was dark pink and came with a gift card for 200 downloads, which wasn’t nearly enough since my tastes are eclectic. I gave it to
The foot traffic’s heavier now, teens walking in boisterous groups and alone. Most kids are in shorts, since it’s August. For the most part they look bright and shiny, and rich. It occurs to me I’ve never been to a school this nice and maybe, because of the affluence, it’ll be different. Better.
I try to picture what it would be like to stay here in this place, but the harder I focus the more the idea becomes intangible, dissipating like the morning fog. It’s as if I’m trying to capture something that doesn’t exist… something that never can, for me.
Rounding the next corner I see the dark spot, just off the main road, on
Loosening my coffee-colored hair from behind my ears, I hunch my shoulders, ducking into myself. But my newly cut hair is too short to hide behind. And I don’t have the safety of my jacket. Diverting my eyes, I stare at the sidewalk in front of me, feeling highly vulnerable. I regret declining the designer sunglasses Kate wanted to buy for me. If I had sunglasses I could observe things better.
The three boys notice as I pass. I don’t look, but can feel their repulsive attention all the same. Bile starts to churn in my stomach, rising. My heart’s rioting beneath my ribcage as I pick up my pace. From experience, I know the reaction will lessen with distance. Fervently, I hope I don’t have class with any of them. If I do, maybe I can switch. Then maybe I can stay, at least for a little while.
Less than three blocks to go.
The pristine sidewalks are congested with teenagers. Excited chattering surrounds me adding to my anxiety. My stomach rumbles in protest and I’m glad I’ve not eaten. New environments often make me sick. I’ve learned to take precautions.
The last two blocks are shorter. Up ahead I can see the three story brick citadel that’s
Ahead of me in the semi-circular courtyard, I spot a potential problem. Just one boy, a blob of battleship gray in the buttery sea of students. I alter my course, giving him a wide berth. He doesn’t pay any attention to me, which is just the way I like it.
Mentally I review my plan. Visualizing my route using the class schedule and campus map I’ve memorized, I cross the street with the oblivious herd of teens and resign myself to the horrors of high school. Main building, second floor, left wing. First period Math. Algebra II. I focus on my unsullied, purple shoes as I weave my way through the heaving mass of adolescents, trusting my senses to alert me to any real danger.
The worst part of a new school is getting the proverbial lay of the land. Interpreting the cliques and teachers, identifying who’s got power and who just thinks they do. Most of all who to avoid. Not the obvious bullies or bitchy popular girls, but the truly malicious, malignant ones. This is my fifth school in two years. I have made surviving an art.
Relieved to make it to first period without incident, I’m slipping through the classroom doors when uncontrollable sensations assault me. Palpable dread, a leaden ball in my stomach. My mouth goes dry as my heart slams against my ribs, faltering before it speeds up. I inhale sharply, knowing the danger’s in the back of the room on the side closest the door.
With a side-long glance, I look.
The boy stares apathetically at his desk, his acne-pocked face sullen. Long greasy hair, dyed an inky black, hangs limply around his shoulders. He looks quiet, almost wimpy, but surrounding him is a cloud of churning ash that keeps obscuring him from my view. Crap!
I slump forward, shuffling to the opposite corner of the room near the window. The class isn’t yet full and no one seems to notice my bizarre behavior as I slide into a first row seat. Gripping my desk with both hands, I focus on yogic breathing techniques as the room fills. In this instance they help.
As the class fills putting more bodies between me and the dark boy, the sensations abate. By the time the teacher enters the class I’m sure I can make it, for today at least.
It’s hard to recall exactly when I first started seeing my fellow human beings in the parameters of light and darkness. I was very young and already on my own. The first time I saw someone truly dark – almost black – I wet myself. I was six.
I don’t see auras. No pretty colors or hippy dippy philosophies. I see variations of good and evil that halo the entire body and my physiological processes react accordingly. I’ve little control over either phenomenon. It really sucks.
Halos are like a color scale ranging from black to gold to white. The center’s neutral, no color or halo of any kind. On one side there’s good, a spectrum of yellows, starting out faint hazy goldenrod, growing brighter and lightening into clear white brilliance. The other side’s bad, starting as an ethereal dull silver mist, turning gray then charcoal, before darkening into the still blackness of pure evil. With an energy all its own, a halo’s pattern and movement mirrors its owner’s emotional and moral states.
The boy in the back of the room is angry. Hurt, pissed, out for revenge. His halo tumbles around him like an ominous storm cloud. I get all of this in the time it takes for the teacher to call the class to order and open his class roster. Mr. Ramirez, as he introduces himself, begins to take roll.
John Avers. Mindy
I listen intently for the name of the boy in the back.
Geena Davies. Luke Davis. Graham Ernst. Alexia Grabovski.
I listen so intently I don’t recognize my own name as it’s called.
It’s only after the third time the teacher says it that I react.
It comes out as a squeak. Feeling the collective eyes of the class, including the boy, staring at me I meet Mr. Ramirez’s amused gaze. “Daydreaming already, Miss Grabovski?”
“No, sir.” I shake my head back and forth a few times. Mr. Ramirez goes back to his list and I gulp before regaining his attention. My cheeks burn with humiliation, as I unavoidably prolong the spotlight. “Uh, Mr. Ramirez?” He pauses. “It’s Alex, not Alexia.”
He makes a note on his paper, giving me a warm smile. “Okay, Alex.” He’s surrounded by a thin but solid layer of ecru. If I were staying, I would probably like him. A lot.
But I’m not…staying. And I'm not Alexia.
Alexia is a pert girl on the cheerleading squad, who spends her time shopping and dreaming of prom. The kind of girl who’d carry a rat-dog around in her handbag. Someday she’ll trade in her pink bedroom for a sorority house full of other cheerful, aptly-named sisters. She has her whole bright future ahead of her.
I am not that girl.
My name’s Alex. I spend my days trying to dodge the darkness and, if possible, stay one step ahead of it. The most I can hope for is to make it to my eighteenth birthday so I can get out of the system and fade into obscurity. I take one day at a time, trying my best not to look ahead – the future terrifies me.
By the end of roll call, I learn the boy’s name is Jonah. Jonah Wilkes.
Second period French. So far so good. I sit down next to a frizzy, red-haired girl with glasses and hand-me-down clothes. She’s benign – harmless – I’m sure of it. Her halo’s a diaphanous lemon chiffon.
Most people have very vague halos, slightly good or bad, but for the most part neutral. They may waver with emotion and circumstance, but generally remain on either one side or the other. There are a lot of “good” people surrounded by faint gray halos. These are the people who make the right choices for wrong reasons. The ones that would do wrong if there was no consequence or chance of getting caught. For the most part, society keeps them in check. Those faintly gray people don’t bother me.
On the flip side there are those who do wrong for the right reasons, like Robin Hood. They possess some of the brightest, most clearly-defined halos I’ve ever seen. Ironically often a school’s iconoclast, its “rebel”, has a heart of gold. And a golden halo to prove it.
The brighter or darker a person’s halo becomes, the more intrinsic it is to their make up. They’re the ones who choose to do good or evil because of their own moral compass, regardless of external expectations. Then there are those rare people who embody goodness or evil. I’ve never seen any up close but I come across them on the news occasionally. Mother Teresa and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, Adolf Hitler are the most famous examples I can think of. The first and only time I saw an image of Hitler, I threw up.
The French professeur, Madame Mimi, is one of those outwardly nice people who really isn’t nice at all. She’s surrounded by a light fog the color of dirty cement. As she commences the morning’s leçon, I idly wonder if she talks about students behind their backs. Two-faced fits her.
The whole class has to choose French names. I pick Jeanne, like Jeanne d’Arc. My own grim joke. But no one’s laughing, not even me.
The lemon chiffon girl, I learn, is Becke Finch.
I cross Jonah’s path again in third period Biology but now that I’m more used to him, I know what to expect. Also his halo’s shifting, less chaotic and lighter by the time we’re dismissed. He reminds me of a child, the way his halo fluctuates.
Children can vary greatly in a short amount of time as their emotional state changes, even flipping from light to dark and back again. They don’t have a developed voice of reason to keep them grounded and without it often are slaves to the feelings of the moment. That seems to fit for Jonah, somehow. Suddenly, I’m feeling hopeful. Maybe he simply needs an outlet for his emotions, a friend or a therapist.
It’s too soon to know for sure and I’ll probably be gone long before I can discover the answer. But I find myself wishing for his sake, that his friends might make a difference in his life.
After fourth period Government, I sit alone at a corner table in the cafeteria eating a BLT sandwich, carrots, Pringles, and a Vitamin Water. Kate offered to send me with lunch money, but I don’t like taking things. Room and board’s hard enough.
As I eat, I try to ignore the other tables of tightly packed kids. I’ve seen it all before – tons of times. High school seems to follow that rule of nature, like associates with like. A couple of the tables are noticeably darker, mostly misfits, pariahs, an occasional Goth. There are the few bright tables of the overachievers and honors kids, glowing like beams of sunlight. The predominant tables, though, are a mix of popular kids, their halos, while encompassing both light and dark, are equally weak. They lack substance and definition. Then in the far corner, completely alone, is the roiling halo of Jonah Wilkes.
After lunch is English, not one of my favorite subjects.
He’s watching the door, evaluating the students as they enter, sizing up the guys and ogling the girls. Instantly my stomach cramps and my bowels turn watery. I breathe through it, then mumbling an excuse, turn around and sprint for the bathroom down the hall.
I spend a few minutes splashing cold water on my face and calculating my chances of transferring to another class. When I return he’s waiting, smiling at me in an uncomfortable way. Mr. Abernathy is swathed in cold, smooth gunmetal. He leaves a metallic taste in my mouth that makes me want to grimace.
“Alexia Grabovski, I presume.” His voice is jovial, adding to the ick factor. “Please take a seat. Join us, Alexia.”
The only seats left are in the front row. I wonder why?
The class snickers as he places a not-so-fatherly hand just behind my shoulder, careful not to actually touch me, and guides me to the front center seat. My skin crawls. If I hesitate even a fraction of a second he’ll bump into me causing “accidental” contact. Without stopping to question how I know, I realize he’s used this ploy before. With a tight smile I slip away from him and take the seat on the end.
“I prefer to be called Alex,” I say, after swallowing back the vomit that’s lodged in my throat. The wall behind his desk is covered with accolades. Awards and articles meant as a testimonial to what a great teacher Mr. Abernathy is.
He follows me as the class begins to lose interest and pursue their own conversations. Standing benignly off to my right side, he bends forward slightly so his stale breath brushes against the sensitive skin of my collarbone but still not close enough to seem inappropriate. His smile holds polite yet professional interest at odds with the dark sphere of menace that encircles him.
Bile rises in my throat and I swallow it down with a gag. I kick myself for being a naive idiot – for not skipping school, for actually wanting to stay however briefly with the Fosters, for believing things might be different this time.
Mr. Abernathy’s husky voice is nearly covered by the din of the class. “All comfy now, Alexia?”
Contorting in my seat, I look him straight in the eyes. His pupils are so dilated that his watery blue eyes look black. Up close, he has a stench like sour bodies – it fills my nose, mixing with the metal taste on my tongue and causing my stomach to cramp even worse. Fighting the urge to put my head between my knees, I try to distract myself by thinking up a nickname for him. I decide on Mr. Creepy.
Mr. Creepy stares. His fingertips twitch, as if resisting the urge to touch me. And I can’t help but wonder if this weren’t such a public setting…?
After a long, uncomfortable pause he whispers, “Alexia.” The way he says it makes me feel exposed, like I’m in my underwear.
The taste in my mouth is nearly unbearable. I stifle a gag as my voice comes out low and pained. “It’s Alex.”
His reply’s a whisper. “You shouldn’t be afraid of who you are. When you get older like me, you’ll realize Alexia is a gorgeous name.” He’s looking down at me, only not at my face.
I feel violated, numb, but refuse to let it show. “Are we going to have a lesson today? Or just talk about what old people know?”
Lips twisting into something akin to a grin, his gaze travels lazily upward to my face. But there’s malice in his eyes. Still he lingers. “Touché, Alexia.”
Strolling back to his desk, he makes a pretense of reviewing his papers while really he’s leering at a couple making out in the back of the class. From my vantage point in the front, I follow his gaze to where the guy’s got his hands on his girlfriend’s ass as she perches on the edge of his desk. Mr. Creepy’s getting off on it.
Suddenly his eyes shift to me and I get caught watching.
Feigning a look of shock, Mr. Creepy clears his throat then frowns at the couple disapprovingly. “Let’s begin,” he says. Although speaking to the entire class, his eyes dart to mine secretively before sliding away. Then directed to the girl-half of the couple he orders, “Please take your seat Miss Bennett.”
He spends the entire lecture seated, lounging behind his desk. His relaxed posture, like every gesture and every question, is calculated. Whenever he looks in my direction his eyes make me feel dirty – it’s like he’s projecting pornographic thoughts.
Five minutes before the end of class his eyes turn feverish and he dismisses us early. I try to get the heck out of there but get stuck behind a couple of slow kids, one of the last ones to exit. Waiting anxiously for my turn to leave, I try to ignore my glassy-eyed teacher as his x-rated thoughts pummeling me from across the room as I make my escape.
I wonder why none of the other students seem to notice something’s amiss. Maybe on top of everything else, I’m beginning to hallucinate. Then I realize they can’t see his halo, which undulates about him in stilted, jerky motions. In my peripheral vision I see him lick his non-existent lips. He smirks knowing he has my undivided attention. His dark halo continues to thrust.
I have to get the hell out!
Stumbling out the door, I bump into Jonah. His halo’s darkened again into charcoal but it doesn’t bother me at this particular moment. His pale eyes, however, are unnerving as he regards me uncomfortably, with something that could pass for sympathy. “Fuckin’ teachers,” he mumbles before ducking his head and shuffling away.
In Physical Education I’m grateful there are no dark ones to avoid. I’m also grateful it’s the first day and we’re not expected to do anything other than watch a video. Hurray for Coach Mann and her school bus yellow halo!
After school, I try unsuccessfully to switch English classes. By the time I leave
Just as the green awnings of the local shops come into view, something overhead captures my attention. It’s like a blazing light streaking across the sky, but low and close. Like a meteor about to crash into earth, or a plane falling from the sky – but there’s no fire. If it’d been night, I’d believe it was a shooting star.
But stars can’t visibly burn in broad daylight, can they?
It vanishes just beyond the shops, leaving me momentarily blinded and anxiously listening for some sort of inevitable collision that never happens. This is why I’m distracted – why I’m not thinking about
“Hey, new girl!”
I hear and feel them at the same time. Instant stomach flu-like pain has me cramping forward, clutching at my abdomen. My heart accelerates into an arrhythmic staccato. Fear is sharp and tangy in my mouth, like an old penny.
I freeze, wondering if it’s too late to run.
Then I feel him behind me, my skin prickles at my hairline just before he grabs my shoulder, spinning me around. My heart sinks. There aren’t just three guys, but six or seven. Only a few are dark ones, the rest pale gray followers. The one in front of me is the color of lead pipe. He might be considered cute, but it’s difficult to see objectively through the filter of his sickening halo.
He steps back, appraising me with a smirk. “Hey, I hear you’re so hot for Mr. Abernathy you were practically giving it to him in English today.” The boys laugh.
The air whooshes from my lungs as I’m shocked into silence. Toward the back of the group, I see Jonah. He looks at me, maybe apologetically, then mumbles, “I’m out.” Turning his back to the dark intentions of his associates, he leaves. I watch his halo darken and churn as he retreats.
A finger snaps in front of my eyes, interrupting my reverie. “Over here, new girl.”
Closing my eyes against a wave of nausea, I concentrate on edging backwards, away from the kid in front of me. I manage two steps before meeting a wall of solid mass. Two of the boys have circled around behind me, a predatory move I should’ve anticipated. I shudder, my eyes popping open, as they put their hands on my body. Their leader leers gleefully at me, checkmate in his expression. “Bring her this way,” he growls to them.
They push me roughly forward. One cups my ass as he walks. Nearly incapacitated by their halos, I shuffle forward, too sick to resist let alone fight back. My brain feels thick, feverish as I struggle to make it work at the same time willing myself not to pass out.
Scream, I think to myself. Scream, you idiot!
By then I’m in the small side yard between two houses obscuring me from public view. Which is very bad. The energy thrumming through the group’s palpable as everything slows down. It’s nearly an out of body experience. High in the sky overhead I notice a dark cumulus cloud as it slowly drifts in front of the sun, bathing me in shadow. The penumbra reminds me that I need to do something, but it takes a moment to remember what.
I have to scream!
The sucking of air into my lungs signals my attacker as to what I’m intending to do. His hand comes up against my windpipe. Hard. I’m pinned against the wall of a house and I can’t breathe. I can’t get any air at all!
Frantically, I claw at his hands until he barks, “Hold her.” Now there are more hands pinning me, some are rough and eager, while others seem hesitant. Spots dance in front of my eyes and I feel sleepy. With relief, I realize I want to go to sleep. Everything will be okay, I think, if I can just sleep. The kid in front of me dissolves as everything fades away. For the first time in my life, I’m happy to embrace the darkness.
Then several things happen all at once. The sun emerges from behind the cloud, illuminating everything in brilliant light. As I squint against the glow, the kid lets go of my windpipe. The others release me as well and I drop to the ground, clutching at my throat and dragging in ragged breaths of air.
Two seconds pass.
Around me is noise, commotion my oxygen deprived brain can’t process. Finally I’m able to sift through the sounds. Fighting. I hear an unfamiliar voice roar, “If you touch her again, I’ll kill you!” I believe the voice. He means it. I wonder who her is? Whoever she is, she’s lucky to have such a protector.
I hear the sounds of shuffling. Low moans and curses. Sounds of retreat.
The roaring voice is gentler now. Laced with concern, it asks, “Are you alright?”
Surprised, I surmise it’s talking to me so I manage to nod. I can hear the voice hovering over me but when I open my eyes I only see light. Blinding, brilliant white light radiates around the voice. Blinking rapidly against the bright onslaught, I strain to focus on the speaker. In the middle of the light is the most exquisite boy I’ve ever seen. His face is both achingly perfect and terrifyingly severe. I want to cry at his resplendence.
You’re beautiful! The words slip through my mind before I can censure them. Surprise, followed closely by relief, registers in his eyes. Then he smiles at me, a joyous, lustrous smile that crashes over me and embraces me on all sides. I should be having a nervous breakdown or something, but somehow he fills me, keeping all other reactions at bay.
I am swallowed by the sun.