Boy, was she pretty, and she damn near scared me, too. She wasn’t the kind of pretty they advertise in those Sears catalogs, the ones that featured those girls with all that long blonde stringy hair and porcelain skin. Tabitha Paine looked like she hadn’t slept in days and always smelt like stale smoke. I couldn’t exactly figure out why I found that so intriguing, but I did. She just about killed me.
I watched her from the back right corner, the one beside the window of Ms. Keller’s dimly lit classroom. My eyes focused, not on the movie projected onto the board about the First World War, or whatever, but on her. The way she bit at her lips and tapped her bony fingers on the wooden desktop. I liked the way her curls looked like an antique collection of old metal couch springs, and how her collar bones protruded from her chest, reaching out to grab me.
The first time we spoke was when she forgot to bring a pencil into history. Her voice was low and raspy. I always have a few spare number two pencils living in the bottom of my book bag. When I handed one to her, our skin touched just for a moment. Her palm was slightly dry, but that sure as hell didn’t matter to me. After school, on the walk home, I contemplated talking to her a second time. Just the thought of striking up a casual conversation about the way the sky looked made me shake in my penny loafers, like a skinny birch tree caught up in a windstorm. Tabitha Paine was that windstorm, but I was too yellow to talk her then.
I got my chance next on a Thursday, and Tabitha was wearing that green sweater, the one that made her skin look dull. Truthfully, she looked best in purple, but not lilac-like, a deep purple. I had been looking at her all of that day and I think she saw me. I didn’t know whether that was a good or bad thing, to tell the truth. I know it frightened the hell out of me, though. Her eyes looked more calico than they usually did–I think it was that sweater. I felt like a creep and all, spending most of history eyeing her. She had that effect on me.
At lunchtime, I saw Tabitha sitting on the concrete steps, crouched over a cigarette. It kind of bothered me, seeing her like that and all, with death teetering between her raw lips. I mean, it was in the designated smoking area, but it got to me, her sitting there smoking like that. She looked up from the ground and met my eyes. I just stood there for a minute. To tell you the truth, I froze. For seven seconds (I counted each one), we stared at each other. She spoke first. Her voice was gravel.
“Watcha lookin’ at?”
I shuffled my feet. “You know.” My voice shook like a tambourine, but I went on. “I heard that smoking isn’t all that good for you. Causes cancer and all those other crummy diseases people get.”
To tell the truth, I can’t tell why the hell I said that. It sounded like something my mother would say. Without breaking our gaze, she brought death back to her lips and inhaled the smoke.
I don’t know what goddamn thing inside of me made me walk over to her, but I found myself sitting right besides Tabitha Paine then. I didn’t say anything more, though. I just watched her, like always. Tabitha held the cigarette in her spindly fingers, making Hades himself look graceful. Boy, I envied it almost. The way she hugged it in the crevice of her fingers, her knuckles peeking out at me. They clung tight to her bones, creating pink and fleshy nebulas. She tilted her head to look at me and her chapped lips smirked.
“You want one?” The words broke from her teeth and sent electricity down my spine. My mother lectured me about this peer pressure thing all the time, and I guess I’d never experienced a situation like this before. Also, I guess my mother didn’t drill it into my head enough, because I went for it.
“You ever had one before?”
“Yeah,” I lied. “All the time.”
“You don’t strike me as the type.” She squinted and smirked some more. Before I knew it I found the cigarette between my fingers, shaking like a madman when I put it up to my lips. I wanted to impress Tabitha, make her think we had something in common, and all. As soon as I inhaled, I knew she knew we had nothing in common. The smoke branched through my lungs, and clawed into my throat. I let out a cough and my eyes watered. How the hell did Tabitha Paine do this every damn minute of the day?
It has been about three weeks since that second conversation with Tabitha, and three weeks since I smoked my first cigarette. Everyday at lunch now, we sat on that tiny step. It was barely wide enough to fit the both of us, and I sat more toward the edge so she had enough room. I was just balancing there, same as usual, when Tabitha Paine told me she was gonna come see me that night. She said it in that low tone she always spoke in. She said that she had something to tell me. At first, I expected her to confess her undying love to me or something crazy like that, but it only happens that way in those damn Cukor films. She told me to meet her out by the metal stairs leading up to the balcony of the apartment building next to mine.
I got there a couple minutes early, just to make sure she didn’t have to wait around for me to show up in the cold. The waiting made my hands shake and my nose turn pink. Ten minutes felt like damn near ten hours.
When I saw her walking toward me, I couldn’t help but notice she was wearing a purple winter jacket. It was that deep purple, the one that made her look good. She always spoke first.
“How long ya been waiting for me?”
“Oh, I just got out here a minute ago, that’s all.” I always lied, it seemed, talking to her.
“I gotta tell you something.” Her eyes met mine, though I couldn’t tell what they were saying to me. The moon wasn’t too bright. “I’m goin’ away.”
“Whaddaya mean? Going on a trip?”
“No, I mean, yeah, kinda.” She reached into the deep pockets of that purple jacket and handed me a crumpled up piece of paper. I did my best unfolding it. It had a few stains on it, but I could read the scribbles.
“A map, to Florida.”
“Why the hell do you want to go to Florida? You got family there or something?” My brows furrowed. By this time, my eyes had nearly adjusted to the darkness and I saw something in her eyes.
“No, I’m not goin’ with my family. I’m goin’ by myself, for good.”
I didn’t say anything, partly because I didn’t know what to say and partly because my stomach got all knotted up.
“Can’t stand it here anymore. It’s too damn depressing and cold. They call Florida the sunshine state—did ya know that?”
I didn’t say anything this time around either. I just watched my breath whirl in the air like her cigarette smoke always did.
“I just wanna start over, that’s all.”
I tried to reason with Tabitha, but she stuck with that gut feeling of hers. In the beginning, I liked that about her. That night, though, it tore me up. I watched her walk back home, or wherever she was headed. The way her curls bounced when her sneakers kissed the pavement. I wanted to call back to her, maybe tell her how I felt about her—the way she gave me those damn butterflies and made me nervous. But I never did. I never told Tabitha Paine I cared about her.
I care about Tabitha Paine. The words bounced in my head, vibrating and ringing. Sometimes they were sharp and stung at my forehead. I couldn’t stand it. If only I could have choked out or coughed up the words onto the asphalt below us, Tabitha Paine could have stayed. She would still be wearing that purple jacket and she would still be paying the guy who sits on the corner to go into the convenient store to buy her those damn cigarettes.
The next time I saw Tabitha Paine’s face my stomach felt funny. Not because of those butterflies, but because I felt sick. The next time that I saw Tabitha Paine’s face it was on the television. It was an old picture, from a couple years before I’d gotten to know her. She hadn’t changed much, I saw. She’d gotten a little taller and was more bruised looking, maybe more yellow from the cigarettes, and all. The word “missing” flashed from the television screen to my memory, back and forth. She wasn’t wearing her purple jacket on the television.
It got around school. She’d written a note to her mother, telling her what she’d told me by the stairs. Her crossed “t”s were shaky and the looped “l”s quivered, covered in lead. In chemistry class I listened in on the conversations that engulfed me. Margaret Greene told her friends that the letter had more than three “I love you”s. Thomas Foster whispered back that the letter had more than three “I hate you”s. It got home, too. I heard my mother’s voice echo off the kitchen wallpaper, talking about what a shame it was—a local tragedy, and all. The thing was, not too many runaways came back, she said.
In the beginning, the search parties went to innocent places: the bowling alley, the record store, all of her favorite spots around town. Then it got dark. After a few weeks, they moved off into the swamps and ditches along the highways. They posted her image everywhere around town, especially all over the lampposts. Sometimes three of four of them stuck on a single pole, and she blew in all directions at once. About a month in, nobody thought she would come back, with all those bad people out there—except for her mother, who wanted her hunted for clear down the coastline. The story was that she tried to hitchhike her way down to the Sunshine State. That made me feel sick all over again.
It was Tuesday, and at lunch I sat alone on the concrete step. I still sat on the edge, leaving room for Tabitha Paine. Classmates clad in plaid and khakis, cigarettes hanging from their teeth, gathered in their small circles over ham sandwiches and milk cartons. They were talking about her in a different way now. I didn’t eat, I couldn’t eat. I still had that queasy feeling lying down in the bottom of my stomach and throat. I tapped my fingers hard onto the step, my nails crashed into the grey and the little pain there made me focus less on whatever I was feeling, and more on the little bits of blood staining the leather of my shoe.
I watched her from the back right corner, the chair beside the window, of Allen Funeral Home. I was sorta shifting in my seat, since my mother made me wear my stiff church suit. The black casket was closed, for everyone’s sake. I hoped they had dressed her in purple, not black. She wore a black turtleneck one Friday, the day in history class when we took notes on the French Revolution. Tabitha Paine had bit at the tip of her pencil (one of her bad habits), a sunny yellow number two. Small shreds of pink alighted on the black cotton.
God, what I would give to see Tabitha Paine one more time. To see her curly hair, and to hear her words dance in my ears. I would never get that chance again. I couldn’t focus on the depressing stories being told about her as a child. I just couldn’t. I tried to listen, but it was damn next to impossible. My head was only consumed in that ringing noise—the sound I wanted her to hear: I care about Tabitha Paine.
The thing I hate the most about life, is that it won’t stop moving forward. Tabitha Paine dies, and nobody bats an eyelash. The bus still comes every morning at 7:15, and I still watch the kid across from me finish his breakfast sandwich every Tuesday on that bus. In my English class, Susan Taylor still complains to Jessica Knox about how we didn’t get enough time to finish our reading assignment. And every goddamn day in history class, Ms. Keller still calls for the girl with the curly hair who sat in the third row to the left, in front of David Spinelli and behind Bailey Adams, and only then realizes that she has made a mistake.