The student population of Thoreau Middle School – all 868 of us – failed to identify an appropriate social category for Wanda, so we mostly shunned her. She threw temper tantrums well into the seventh grade and allegedly offered blow jobs in the stairwells. She had once tipped an entire half-pint of chocolate milk over Angelina Thibodeau’s perfect ponytail during one lunch hour after the latter had broadcast a Stairwell Tale at full volume, a story that we included as part of our Inspiring Tales for the Unpopular mythos. Her words emerged in a muddle, or not at all.
We were debate-club geeks and band nerds and theatre techies; we hovered just two steps up from the bottom of the social order. Wanda sensed our attainable proximity, lurked on the fringes of our klatch at lunchtime. We greeted her pleasantly but did not engage. We prided ourselves on our kindness, but we too required refuge from the popular storm.
Wanda avoided the full pariah status we conferred on Marcus The Creeper because of her roses. She arrived early to sixth period and simply conjured three-dimensional blossoms – in crayon, pencil, charcoal, oil, pastels, watercolors, or even the school’s budget-conscious off-brand oil paints. She etched boutonnieres in lapels and drew buds tucked behind pixies’ ears. She summoned legions of gardens from her fingertips. We might simply nod toward her amidst the linoleum-and-pheromone funk of the cafeteria, but in the art room we bowed to her genius, sought her approval.
During third-period English, one Tuesday morning, Wanda took issue with S. E. Hinton. Her complaint lacked coherence. She had meant – we of the friend-klatch decided later – to say that the world was not so neatly divisible as her protagonist made out. The observation – appropriate if not brilliant – would have addressed Mrs. Henderson’s question, had it emerged employing anything resembling English grammar. But it didn’t. The snickers rose from the fifth row and rolled forward, until the wave washed over her, and she screamed. She turned toward us, her lunch-mates, her face a lone bloom in a swirling azure gale. We lowered our eyes, unwilling to find ourselves tarred with her brush.
Afterward, Wanda disappeared at lunchtime; if we ventured beyond our relief, we simply imagined that she ate in the art room. We caught glimpses of her parents slipping into the principal’s office, thin-lipped and furtive. And we fidgeted through an all-school assembly on bullying where a former beauty pageant contestant-turned-motivational speaker bouncily exhorted us to treat our fellow students with respect.
But one afternoon in April we found Wanda cleaning out her locker, and we paused, respectfully. She intimated that she was changing schools. We exchanged glances, frowned sympathetically, offered a stirring chorus of “Aw, that’s too bad –”
And Wanda returned one word, sharp as the thorns on her roses: “Don’t.”
Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, diplomat, and homesick Wisconsinite. Her short stories and the occasional poem have appeared in over sixty literary magazines, including Drunk Monkeys, Storgy, and Newfound.
image: Elaine Wang