Getting dressed for school on this rainy cold Monday, Allie was drawn to the scarf hanging on the antique coat rack tucked in the corner of her small room. She had to dig it out from underneath rarely touched hats and too many bags, but she felt compelled to wear the knitted scarf today as soon as she saw its tattered edges hanging beneath her worn denim jacket, as if it called to her. Maybe she wanted it to shield her from the January chill, or maybe for those other reasons that happened when she wore it. Who knew that this Goodwill treasure would have such an impact?
Her mom was at the hospital working the early shift, so Allie filled her water bottle, grabbed a pop tart and her book bag and headed out to the bus stop, tossing the tail end of the scarf over her shoulder. As she walked down her apartment building stairs, she saw Mrs. Roberts with Josie. With one look at the angry bruise on Mrs. Roberts face, Allie knew the night had been rough for her. She was gripping the baby just a little too tightly than what was natural, and Allie knew the fear was doing that.
“Mrs. Roberts, let me take Josie to the bus. Mine is just a few minutes after hers so I’ll be there until she gets on,” Allie spoke up.
“Ummm, Allie. Thanks. I’ve got her, though,” she answered, her voice rough and ragged.
“Really, I don’t mind,” Allie responded, and to her own surprise, she reached out and placed her hand on Mrs. Roberts’ arm, looking her in the eye. “It will be okay, but you need to do some things now. I’ve got Josie. I’ll get her on the bus.”
Looking a little bewildered, Mrs. Roberts relented with a brave and newly determined sigh. “You’re right, I do. I guess I need to go ahead and do it,” She didn’t have to say thank you because Allie saw the thanks in the woman’s red rimmed eyes.
Allie took Josie’s hand, noticing how thin it was. Slowly the small hand’s grip tightened around Allie’s hand, and then held on as if Allie were all she had.
“C’mon, Josie, we can’t miss the bus!” They headed out, and Mrs. Roberts turned back up the stairs. Before Allie and Josie reached the bus stop, they heard the faint sirens from the police car growing louder, and Allie breathed a sigh of relief that Mrs. Roberts had been brave enough this time.
Josie climbed on the school bus when it pulled to a stop and turned to look at Allie before she walked to her seat. Allie lifted her hand in a slight, silent wave, and as she lowered it, it brushed the worn wool of the faded scarf. A little flash of color filled her eyes and was gone.
Allie sat alone on the bus, the ride wasn’t long, but the mumblings entered her head. She knew, though, it’s what came with the scarf. Nothing she heard was too upsetting, just a lot of white noise. Someone had a fight with his boyfriend, a girl worried about her Bio test and another wished she hadn’t stayed up so late watching the dark corners of Netflix. All regular teenage stuff. The colors even stayed away.
That was until third period. And it wasn’t just a flash this time, it was like a still photo filled with muted graphics that hung in the air like a faded billboard down a Florida highway. Allie looked around her lit class but couldn’t find what she was looking for, where the angst, the sorrow was coming from. The teacher was fine, boring, but fine. The kids in the front row seemed fine, intense, but fine. She tried to figure out who was sending out this feeling from the colors she saw, who unknowingly was speaking to her. She couldn’t, though, and her hand inadvertently reached for the fringe on the scarf. While her fingers combed the fringe, the billboard in her mind came into better, brighter focus, as if she were driving closer to that spot on the highway and the sun glared down on it. Though the colors shone stronger, awake with a new life, nothing else gave her any more of a clue. Just a hint that she needed to do something, and soon.
Allie looked around the room. As other kids worked on their rough drafts for a lit analysis, Allie found she had trouble concentrating. She wasn’t the only one because though a handful of kids were actually working, the others were lost in daydreams or snapchat.
But wait, the guy by the window was thinking about something that wasn’t social media or a lit analysis.
Colors formed in her mind again; this time they were a little segmented, like an abstract bag of brightly colored candy. She still didn’t know what this meant, and while she was trying to decipher it, she was getting warmer in this crowded, stuffy classroom. She unwrapped the scarf from around her neck and as she draped it on her book bag, all the colors disappeared along with the feeling of discord. Things were normal again, no more weird feelings or vibes. Yet, that didn’t feel right to Allie.
She reached for the scarf again and as soon as her fingers touched it, that empathic feeling filled her again. With the old scarf back around her neck, clarity struck. The colors she had seen in her mind weren’t candy. Nothing so sweet as that. The bright shapes meant a bag full of assorted pills with one deadly purpose. And she knew the bag was nestled in a back pack. Someone’s backpack here. Was it the boy’s? The seemingly quiet, chill boy near the window who never caused drama. The one who tried to focus on his work and stay out of the spotlight?
The ring of the bell startled her. Allie didn’t have a plan, but knew she was meant to do something, just like with Mrs. Roberts. Her class all had lunch now, but instead of meeting up with her best friend to hear about her latest crush, she followed the boy, the one who had been by the window. Sure, she felt a little creepy, but it was what she was supposed to do. She knew it. She gripped the ends of her scarf, not liking what she saw.
The rain had stopped but the cold day was still gray, so when the boy slipped outside the side doors, Allie braced for the bitterness and followed him. She knew people that skipped school or left during lunch to go make out or smoke weed, but she wasn’t one of those. She hadn’t thought this kid would be either. All of this felt eerie to her, but she knew she had no choice.
The boy crossed the soggy field, his long, lanky legs making great determined strides, and he headed towards the woods. Allie couldn’t imagine he didn’t know she was there – they were pretty much the only kids outside. When he got to the edge of the woods, he stopped and turned around; waiting for her. The silhouettes of the leafless winter trees behind him formed the perfect desolate backdrop.
“Why are you following me? You barely know me.” he simply said, his voice so weary there was barely a question in it.
“I…I’m not really sure. I just know maybe you could use a friend?” Oh my god, she thought, how lame did that sound?
His eyes looked into hers, and Allie saw deep despair in a slew of darkness, but beyond that, way beyond, Allie sensed a yearning. A desperate yearning to get past this, to get through the darkness that was like thick mud, trapping him in a lonely place he didn’t want to be. Then his tears clouded the emotions in his eyes, but now she was seeing past them into the depths, the secrets and all that muddy darkness again. She heard yelling and doors slamming, saw tears and this boy slumped against his wall, felt loss and loneliness; she sensed being in a spot lower than anywhere she’d ever been, like at the bottom of a tight dark hole with no way to climb out. She sensed so much brokenness and helplessness. This very distraught teenage boy was covered in it, filled with it. He wanted so much to grab that tiny ray of light hidden so far beneath the darkness, but she wasn’t sure he had the reach. Allie sensed he wanted help, but the only place he knew to look was the wrong place, the bag of (oh so many) pills nestled in his backpack.
His hand went to his face, maybe to simply sweep his dark, hair away, but more likely to shield those tears filling his eyes. Allie noticed a little tremble in his hand. He probably didn’t even know. Then he took a deep breath, as if inhaling the courage to speak.
“I just wrote this in class. It’s not a rough draft for my analysis. It’s…it’s this. Shit. I’m so lost…I don’t know what to do,” his voice cracked and not with puberty as he handed Allie what was in his hand, a single piece of paper.
She took the paper, and as she glanced down at it words popped out of the text like they were vying for her attention, screaming to be seen… too much, terrified, sad all the time, dad’s expectations, we’d all be better off, alone, don’t know what to do…..
“Oh, wow. No. No way. You can’t do this. You can’t,” Allie said, shaking her head. “I know you’ve got the stuff in there to do it, but you can’t.”
“Wait…what? How do you know? You don’t even know me,” he looked at Allie as if for the first time, really seeing her.
“I don’t know. I mean I know some stuff other people don’t. I know how people feel. I weirdly know what you’re feeling. What you’ve been feeling. And I’m not saying I know it cause I feel that way, too. Like people say, ya know. I know it because I know how you are feeling. I see the sadness in you, the frustration and hopelessness. The loneliness. You think the bag is the best way out. The only way out.” The words stumbled out, like when you open a closet door and the over packed clutter falls out, old things outgrown from childhood, things you never even wanted and some treasures, too.
Allie gripped the ends of her scarf, crumpling the paper in her hand, and went on. “But I also see compassion and heart. I see a small ray of hope in you deep down that wants to shine through that dark, heavy hopelessness that’s smothering it. Smothering you. That light is small, but it’s there. I know there’s a part of you that wants out, really, finitely out. But that part can’t see what’s ahead,” she paused, her gaze softening a bit as she looked into his face, and then Allie continued, “And what’s ahead, if you let it, is good.”
He looked at her so quizzically, so intently she only could look back at him the same way. The silence hung over them for a few moments, seconds, minutes, a lifetime – who knew? And in that single moment, both their lives shifted.
“I’m Max, by the way. I know you’re Allie. We have lit together. I don’t know how you did that. It’s all true. Every word. Every single word,” Max paused for a second, took another deep breath and then exhaled. Maybe he let the minutest bit of that darkness out in that exhale. Then he continued, “I just want a friend. Someone who doesn’t judge, someone who listens and doesn’t care if I do all the cool things or all the right things or anything. I feel so lonely. So lonely.” and that time the break in his voice was real and the tears came out of his eyes, rolling down his face like giant droplets of loss and fear.
Allie wasn’t much of a toucher, but for the second time today she stepped out of character. She opened her arms to this virtual stranger, and he more or less fell into them. She thought to herself, this may be the strangest moment I’ve ever experienced.
“Oh shit. I’m sorry,” he said as he held on so tight, ugly sobs coursing through his body. “Fuck, I don’t even know.”
“It’s okay. Really.” And she just stood, hugging this stranger. This boy who needed a hug.
After a moment, Max stepped back and wiped his snot and tears away with the back of his hand. He reached in his bag and pulled out the baggie, the one Allie had seen in her mind. It was just as she saw it, full of so many brightly colored pills. Too many, the cheery colors full of deception. They both stared – no words. He opened the bag of colored death, tipped it and let the pills fall into a puddle at his feet. The wet ground set to greedy work on the pills, and Allie and Max just watched them begin to dissolve, the colors bleeding together like bad, deadly art.
“I guess that’s really not the way you’re supposed to dispose of your medication. But it’s better than the alternative, huh?” Max said with a small, uncertain smile. “Shit. I think I really was gonna do it.” And they just watched the pills and running colors for another minute, the silence covering them like a comforting blanket.
“Hey, Allie,” he continued and she could feel him summoning the nerve from deep inside. Deep beyond the despair that had tried to suck him down. “Would you mind walking with me back inside. To Mr. Ray? He’s a math teacher. He’s that one guy I think I could talk to. And I think I need someone like that to talk to.”
“Uhhh, yeah. I will,” Allie answered. Still thinking this day probably couldn’t get any weirder.
“And one more thing. Maybe I could have your number,” he asked, a little shyly.
“Yeah. For sure.”
And Allie shared her number with the boy who she perhaps saved. And as they walked back to the school, to Mr. Ray’s classroom, she wrapped her old scarf tighter around her neck once again, maybe for warmth, maybe not.
With her scarf enabling her vision, she saw a long road ahead for Max, full of curves and bumps, some pretty rough, but at least his road didn’t end here. It didn’t end today. And the other thing she saw on his road, to her surprise, was herself.
Heather Legg is a writer living in Atlanta, Georgia. She looks for the extraordinary in the ordinary and usually has a story or two brewing in her mind. Though the darker side of life often plays a part in her work, she looks at the bright side of the world, finding kindness and gratitude wherever she can. Her family, including their two rescue puppies help her do that. She has previously had work published in Lady Literary Magazine and currently is working on more speculative short fiction as well as a novel. Twitter @heather_evie