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The word I’d never heard was whore. I might not have known what it meant, but I knew it wasn’t good because it was whispered and chuckled over and thrown like a spear when connected with Boyce’s mama.
“What’d you say?” I asked the one who’d said the word. A guy from my new class. The grin disappeared from his mouth like it’d been wiped off. His eyes bugged and he swallowed hard but didn’t answer.
“He said your mama’s a whore.” There were four of them, all smaller than me, standing stiff as statues with their hands balled into fists, looking ready to attack or run. It was like a pack of wolves thinking maybe they were gonna take down a grizzly.
“Shut up, Eddie!” the first guy said.
Eddie Standish stood farthest from me, so he was full of spit and gristle.
I grabbed the guy next to me by the shirtfront, swung him around, and used his body to tackle Standish. We went down in a heap, and the last thing I saw before the world went red was the fear on both their faces. I’d put that there. And I wasn’t sorry.
I was also about to be expelled. From elementary school. Staring at the scraped-up fists on my lap as if they belonged to someone else, I’d been silent when Principal Jaynes asked, What in heckfire were you thinking, young man? I didn’t mean to tell what they’d said about my mom, so I said nothing. I didn’t want anyone to know. Two of the guys were still in the nurse’s office, and two had talked to the principal before me. Now he was calling parents while I sat in the outer office, alone. Elbows on knees and head in my hands, I hid my face and imagined my dad showing up, his hands and clothes spotted with axle grease, his breath sour with whiskey and anger.
“I need to talk to Principal Jaynes.” The voice was soft, but I knew who it was before looking.
Through my fingers, I watched the smiling lady on the other side of the counter and the small girl with her back to me. Her long, dark hair was somehow tamed into one fat braid that hung straight down her spine.
“He’s a bit busy right now, Pearl. Can I help you with something, hon?”
Pearl placed her hands on the tall counter, which sat just under her chin. “I need to talk to him about the fight. About what those boys said. I was a witness.”
My mouth went dry, my NO wedged in my throat.
The lady glanced over at me, then said, “Oh, well then…” She turned away and dialed the phone. Mr. Jaynes’s deep, murmured voice drifted down the hall, answering the call. A minute later, Pearl was led into his office and the door closed behind her. When she came out, she flicked one glance at me as she passed. She was so tiny that we were almost eye-level with each other even though I was sitting down.
“You’re better than them, Boyce Wynn,” she whispered as she passed.
Mama blinked at me as if she’d forgotten how to speak English. Here we go, I thought.
When she and Thomas had come home from Houston, I’d been out on the dock, staring across the shifting water at the closest sandbar across the channel and practicing my I’m-not-going-to-med-school speech. Not that those rehearsals curtailed the shock factor one bit, judging by her atypical muteness and the fact that her eyebrows had receded into the wisps of dark hair across her forehead.
When she found her voice, she said, “You’ve canceled your acceptance at Vanderbilt? As in—”
“As in I rejected the acceptance, yes.”
Her mouth hung open for a moment before she clapped it shut, jaw locked. “What about Harvard? Michigan?”
It was my turn to hesitate, perplexed. I’d just told her I had made the decision not to pursue a degree in medicine, which wasn’t specific to Vanderbilt or Harvard. In an effort to soften the blow, I’d added that I’d been accepted into the doctoral program in marine biology—which she was pretending she hadn’t heard. “Um. I was waitlisted at Harvard, Mama, I told you. Michigan also. But—”
I shifted on the sofa. “I turned it down.”
“Mitchell didn’t get into Stanford, remember? I turned it down last fall in favor of Vanderbilt.”
“Which you’ve just rejected.”
I nodded, sighing. “Yes, but the rejection, the waitlists—none of this is relevant to what I’m trying to tell you. Becoming a medical doctor isn’t what I want—”
“You are not throwing your future away, Pearl. I’ve worked too hard. You’ve worked too hard. You’ve never been afraid of any challenge—never in your life. Why now?”
She didn’t know me as well as she thought, or perhaps she just selectively overlooked anything that made me seem less than the perfect daughter. I’d faced down fear plenty of times—though fear had nothing to do with this decision. If anything, I feared departing from the expected plan to do something that felt right but at the same time recklessly impulsive. I feared disappointing her—which I was clearly doing.
“Mama, my choice isn’t about fear. This is about what I want to study, and how I want to live my life. This is about what’s important to me—”
No? Oh boy. This was going even worse than I’d imagined. I stared at my lap, searching for the words to make her understand before this deteriorated into a total stalemate.
“Hello, Pearl—welcome home,” Thomas said. He was halfway across the parlor by the time he noticed the tension permeating the room. His smile faded. “What’s going on?”
“Your daughter doesn’t want to go to medical school.” Mama’s voice was clipped. Plus she made it sound like I had no plan for my future at all.
“Oh?” Thomas appeared more intrigued than concerned.
“I’ve been accepted into the doctoral program in marine biology. Here.”
Paused in the center of the room as though unsure whether he should stay or retreat, he glanced from my face to hers and back. “That’s… interesting. What made you change your mind?”
“She is not changing her mind!” Mama interjected, as if nothing I’d said could breach her denial. “She’s still on the waitlist at Harvard. She could hear from them any day.”
“Mama, it doesn’t matter—”
“What we’ve worked for all your life doesn’t matter? What your father sacrificed his life for doesn’t matter?”
I sucked in a breath, feeling the mention of my father like a blow to the chest. She’d told me their story—my story—once, in halting, hushed sentences, but she’d never cited his name as an inducement or reproach. Of course, she’d never felt the need. Until now.