Chapter 1 – Recess
Report card day sucked. Fifth grade sucked. Her whole life sucked.
Students bustled in through the two wooden front doors of Hardyvale Elementary and swarmed the corridor around her. Lily scuffed her brown shoes against the wall, trying to wear them out. Hard, orthopedic, ugly shoes instead of the fashionable pink or purple sneaks the other girls wore, they lasted freakin’ forever.
Lily moped along the hallway to her classroom, a plodding elephant as skinnier girls darted past. She dragged her heels, her backpack weighing more with each step. Out of nowhere, Jenna Marsh ran into her, their shoulders colliding. Pain shot sparks across Lily’s vision as she heard the other girl laugh cruelly. Jenna hurried on, a brightly colored card clutched in her hand.
Her shoulder had quit smarting before she stopped in front of locker number 212-31 and unloaded her coat, mittens, scarf and umbrella. Then she just stood there, unwilling to enter room 212 and begin another day. Every bone in her body urged Lily to run away. However, she had promised Ma she would try, so she opened the door and plodded in, thumping down in her seat just seconds before the bell rang.
Pulling her long, honey blonde braid over her shoulder to keep it out of Kevin Bailey’s reach, Lily scrambled inside her desk and brought out a piece of paper and a pencil to begin working the five-a-day math problems Mrs. Jefferson had written carefully on the board. She looked up and squinted to copy them, unwilling to put on the thick glasses she carried in her backpack, but never wore. No sense giving them extra ammunition.
Darn, long division problems again. Lily hated long division; it was so, well, long. She never knew when she was finished with a problem. She hunched down low over the paper, gripping her pencil so hard it raised a lump on her third finger, and set about figuring. Other, quicker students were already whispering to each other, and she saw several more of the colorful cards being examined and giggled over. They were probably birthday party invitations. Lily gave up on the first problem and started on the second one. Kevin Bailey caught her forgotten braid, giving it a hearty tug.
“Didn’t get a party invitation, did you Munster?” He thought it was funny to call her that because of an old television show she’d never even seen. She wasn’t Lily Munster.
“You didn’t either!” she answered, wincing with pain as he yanked again. Lily pulled her braid free. After her, red headed, freckle faced Kevin was the least liked kid in class. He never got invited to parties either.
He waited until the teacher wasn’t looking before punching her sharply between her shoulder blades. “It’s a girl party, stupid. Boys don’t want to go.” Lily flinched and gave up on problem two. Rolling her shoulders to ease the sting, she tried to focus on problem three.
She got only one right on the five-a-day. After correcting last night’s homework, where she earned a 94%, Mrs. Jefferson handed out a surprise quiz on fractions. Lily groaned. She’d been concentrating so hard on division she’d forgotten all about fractions. She missed seven of the ten questions. It was a long morning.
At lunch recess, she stood with her back to a fence. No one ever let her join in the games, and at least this way no one could run into her and knock her down. She would see them coming, then run to the yard duty teacher for protection. Just standing near the teacher kept her safe from most of the pinching and hitting, but the teachers usually shooed her away after a minute or two and told her to go play, which she knew would only leave her vulnerable.
From her place at the fence, Lily watched the most popular girls cluster together and pull out their brightly decorated invitations to compare. Snatches of voices floated through the recess yard full of the noises of basketball, dodge ball and tag.
“…going to have so much fun!”
“I’m bringing my Diva Delia sleeping bag with the…”
“What do you want for a pres…?”
By watching the girls and who they circled, Lily quickly figured out it was Mary Beth Pearson’s birthday and slumber party. She’d be turning eleven of course, just as Lily had a month ago and everyone else in the fifth grade would, except for Patty the Brain who was only nine.
Mary Beth was the prettiest girl in the whole fifth grade, both classes. Her large blue eyes, tiny button nose that turned up at the tip, beautiful pink lips shiny with glitter gloss, and smooth, shoulder length blonde hair, were perfect. Small and graceful, she always dressed in the most popular styles of the day. A small pink patent leather purse went with her everywhere, in which she kept a comb, cherry flavored lip-gloss and an emery board. At any time during a recess, you might see her fixing her hair, lips or nails.
Mary Beth Pearson stood out among the group of otherwise average looking fifth grade giggling girls, clearly the most popular and the one in control. She grinned knowingly at her friends and spoke loud enough to make sure Lily could hear from her place along the fence. “On Saturday morning we’re all going to the Hardyvale Stables to ride horses.” Mary Beth glanced over at the chubby girl with the long honey colored braid standing alone and added, “Everyone gets to ride for a whole hour. We’re going to have loads of fun!” Then all the girls turned to look at Lily and laughed.
Everyone knew that riding horses was Lily’s dream, one she’d had for as long as she could remember. Every paper in her notebook had more than one drawing of a horse on it, running, standing sideways, or head on. She had horses on her sheets, the curtains in her bedroom, and on her favorite pajamas. Many times Mom had explained she would have to wait until she was twelve years old to go riding, something to do with her bones growing enough. That seemed hugely unfair when so many other girls her age were already taking riding lessons. Mom said it was a privilege reserved for the sixth grade and she’d just have to wait until she’d earned it. Sometimes Lily wondered if Mom had ever been young and wanted things so badly she could feel a great longing in her heart. Probably not, she decided. She could never have felt this way and still keep Lily out of the saddle.
The afternoon passed slowly in a combination of geography and South Dakota history, two of the most boring subjects ever invented to torment school kids. The announcement that school pictures were finally in and would be passed out with report cards made her dread the end of the day even more. Never once, in all her years at Hardyvale Elementary, had she ever liked one of her school pictures. They bought and paid for them every year anyway, a growing collection of reminders of her continuing weight gain. However, this year there was no way they were going to buy the pictures, no matter what Mom said about it. She was putting her foot down this time.
The only good thing that happened all day was an article in the Weekly Paper about horses, with two pictures. In Lily’s opinion, there was nothing in the world more beautiful than a horse running free, head held high and mane streaming behind. Staring into the eyes of the beautiful stallion in the photo, she knew she’d give up ice cream forever if she could just take riding lessons. Only a wise and sympathetic horse could ever understand her secret heart, the real Lily buried deep inside.
Fifteen minutes before school ended, Mrs. Jefferson started calling students up to her desk one at a time to hand out report cards and school pictures. For once Lily was glad that her last name was Young. Patty the Brain Walker, the straight A stuck up, stood talking to Mrs. Jefferson for the longest time. They even laughed together. Lily felt a sour ball of envy turning in her stomach.
Luckily, the dismissal bell was already ringing when Mrs. Jefferson finally called her up. The teacher’s lovely face wore a concerned expression as she watched the plump little girl approach apprehensively. “I know you can improve Lily. We’ll try harder next quarter, won’t we?” A compassionate and encouraging smile made her teacher beautiful.
“Yes, Mrs. Jefferson,” agreed the child, hoping once more with all her heart that it would be true. Then she glanced down at her report card and felt that glowing hope turn into unpleasant reality. Five Cs and three Ds. Lily sighed. Well at least there were no F’s this time. She turned with a heavy step and started for the door.
“Wait, Lily!” called her teacher. “You forgot your school picture.”
With horror she stopped dead in her tracks, then turned and walked slowly back over the short distance to her teacher’s desk. At least Mrs. Jefferson had the grace to look embarrassed as she handed the rectangular white envelope to her last student. From the large picture window in the center of the envelope Lily’s chubby face glared back at them, green eyes defiant, braid more disheveled than she remembered, a large purple bruise on her right cheek clearly visible. Thirty-two smaller versions of the same miserable picture waited in the envelope, ready to go home and be mailed to faraway relatives.
Over her dead body.
Snatching the pictures from Mrs. Jefferson’s hand and ducking her head to avoid seeing the pitying glance from her teacher, Lily turned and ran from room 212, eager to escape this horrible day. Quickly grabbing her coat, scarf, and mittens, she pulled them on while running for the bus. Her umbrella tangled with her legs and sent her sprawling to the wet pavement, skinning her knee. The driver glared at her as she boarded, then started driving before Lily had even managed to take her seat. Alone, of course. They always left the seat next to the emergency door empty for Lily. If they didn’t the bus driver would make her sit with one of them, and no one ever took that chance.
The Young’s lived on a remote road so she could see Ma’s car parked near the bus stop, ready to pick her up and drive her home. Happy to see her, and keen to leave her classmates behind, Lily hurried up the bus aisle. As she passed Mary Beth Pearson’s seat an arm suddenly shot out in front of her and thrust a small pink envelope into her hand. She turned to look at the popular girl who had already turned away. Mary Beth was giggling with Tanya Ellerby, her best friend, their two heads close together while they took turns applying lip-gloss. Lily shoved the envelope, probably some ugly caricature of her, into a pocket and climbed out of the bus wondering once again why kids had to be so mean.
Finally free from school, Lily noticed the beautiful spring weather for the first time today. The trees in South Dakota were green, green, green, even if the wind was still cold. She jumped two mud puddles and hurried across the street. “Hey there, sweetie pie!” called out Ma, wearing her stained white lab coat. She leaned across the front seat to open the door of the dark blue mini-van so Lily could climb in. “Put your seatbelt on.”
“Ma, you don’t have to remind me every single day,” grumbled Lily while doing as she was told.
“Yes I do, munchkin. I love you more than life itself and I want you safe, always!” answered her mother with a grin. “I’ll still be telling you to fasten your seatbelt when you’re a grown woman with children of your own, so you might as well get used to it now.”
Lily pretended to grumble then shrugged at Ma, replacing her somber face with a silly one, the better to make her mother laugh. Turning to look out the passenger window she saw the braces she’d been wearing for a year in the side view mirror, gleaming horribly in the light from the window. Lily captured them behind firm lips. “Well,” she mumbled turning back to her mother, trying not to move her mouth at all, “I guess I’d better, then.” She forced a tight lipped, closed smile.
Ma gazed into shadowed eyes and could tell something more than braces was wrong. Her daughter’s body language was stiff, and clearly uncomfortable. “What is it, kiddo?” She urged, “You want to tell me what’s bothering you?” Lily just shook her head and looked down. Ma turned the car engine off.
“Aren’t you going to start driving?” asked the desperate girl. She wanted to get moving, to leave the bus stop where school began and ended every day. Maybe they would drive fast enough for her to forget everything that happened today.
“This is more important,” answered her mother. “Tell me what’s wrong, Lily. We’re not going anywhere until you do.” Ma turned in her seat, her long auburn hair falling over her shoulder as she took her daughter’s chin in her hand, turned the pinched little face and looked straight in her eye.
“Today was report card day,” Lily blurted out. “I sucked, like always.” She thrust the grades into Ma’s hands and watched her face as she read, feeling more horrible than ever when her mother smiled sadly at her. “And that’s not all,” Lily said miserably. “Here’s my school picture.” She handed over the large rectangle with its proud picture window. Ma gasped when she saw the big, raw bruise.
“I forgot about that,” she said sadly, then glanced quickly at her daughter. “No, I didn’t forget about it,” she corrected herself, her gray eyes flashing. “But I forgot you had your picture taken that day too.”
Lily hadn’t forgotten. She’d never forget the day she’d fought with Jon Matthews and he punched her in the face. Until her dying day she’d never forget, or forgive.
It had started out just like any other day. Kevin Bailey pulled her hair in the morning and Jenna Marsh smashed into her in the cafeteria, making her spill her lunch tray. Nothing unusual, just another miserable day in the fifth grade. Then, during recess, a gang of six grade boys had come looking for her, led by Jon Matthews.
“Hey, you, girl!” he’d called out while she stood at her usual spot by the fence. She didn’t know him, had never even heard his name at the time.
Wary, she’d asked, “What?”
The half dozen boys had easily surrounded her, cutting off any escape to the yard duty teacher. Other kids started gathering around to see what was happening. Lily looked from one face to the other and found no help there, only hungry curiosity. Jenna Marsh was grinning nastily.
The big boy, Jon Matthews, pulled back a fist and punched her in the face. Lily fell backward and landed hard on her butt, staring up at him in shock.
Other kids ran into her all the time, which had sent her sprawling to the ground many times before, but no one had ever deliberately punched her. Lily started to get up, but one of the other boys pushed her from behind so she fell to her knees again. It hurt.
“Your Mom’s a dyke!” Jon Matthews yelled in her face. The other boys laughed, thrilled by his nastiness, and joined in.
They kept chanting the words, making themselves monstrous and horrible. Their faces, twisted and ugly, their eyes cold and cruel, swam in her vision.
From the first day of kindergarten, Ma and Mom had been active at school whenever they had time. Ma volunteered as a room mother and chaperone on field trips. Mom helped with every fundraiser and weekend event. Everyone at school knew that Lily had two moms and no dads. That was the reason everyone left her alone at first, and later started being mean to her, but this was way different. These boys were calling her mothers bad names.
Something inside her shifted.
Lily rose until she was standing on both feet, squared her shoulders, clenched her fists and locked eyes with the bully. “Both of my moms are dykes. How is that your business?” she snarled. Then she watched in shock as her arm pulled back all by itself and punched him in the nose.
That was the signal the bully needed. He jumped on her, knocking them both to the ground. Jon Matthews was bigger and stronger, and before she knew it, Lily was face down and he was sitting on her, twisting one arm behind her back and pushing her cheek into the blacktop. The group of children around them started cheering, urging him on. Jon Matthews grabbed her braid and yanked her head up, then banged her face into the pavement, over and over again.
The pain and noise were frightening, but it was the raw hatred from so many at once that scared her most.
“Dyke! Dyke! Dyke!” came the chanting from the crowd of watching kids.
“You must be a dyke too!” screamed crazy Jon Matthews into her ear as he continued to pound her head into the pavement.
The yard duty teacher finally arrived and broke it up by grabbing the big sixth grader by the neck of his shirt and yanking him off the younger, smaller girl. The furious teacher sent Lily to the school nurse, who washed away the blood on her cheek with a cold cloth. When she asked to call home the school secretary told her it was just a little scrape and bruise; there was no need to call her mothers about it. Lily reluctantly agreed, although it still hurt like everything.
She hadn’t really cared about her cheek so much. She had wanted Ma to come and take her home. Lily had made up her mind she didn’t want to go to school anymore. She hated school. But she hadn’t said so, and the nurse sent her back to room 212.
When she had reluctantly returned to the classroom, kids were whispering about her behind Mrs. Jefferson’s back. Jenna Marsh shot a whispered, “Dyke!” at her as she walked to her seat. Kevin Bailey laughed silently, clutching at his belly as if she were the most hilarious thing ever, stopping immediately when the teacher turned around and saw Lily for the first time.
“My goodness,” she’d gasped. “Lily, what happened to you, honey?”
“Nothing,” she had mumbled, refusing to look her teacher in the eye. All she needed right then was to start crying in front of the whole class, she never would have heard the end of it. She plopped down on her seat and lowered her head to her arms. Mrs. Jefferson passed by and ran a comforting hand over the top of her head, but didn’t insist on an answer.
After an hour in which her cheek throbbed and her mind was blank, the principal called her into the office and asked about the fight. Lily told him everything, just the way it happened. The principal thanked her, and called Jon Matthews to the office to hear his version. Not too surprisingly, the sixth grader insisted that Lily started the pushing. He hadn’t lied about the name calling though.
“Everyone knows her mothers are dykes. Since when has telling the truth been a problem around here?” The boy shrugged and hooked a thumb Lily’s way. “Should I have called them ‘lez-bee-ahns’?”
The principal stared at Jon Matthews for a long moment. He told them he would be phoning both sets of parents and then sent the two children back to their rooms. The big sixth grader had grinned evilly at her as they left the office at the same time. He smacked one fist into his palm, silently promising her another beating sometime in the future.
Later in the afternoon, before posing for school pictures, Mrs. Jefferson volunteered to comb her hair and re-braid it. Lily only shook her head no and refused to look her teacher in the eye. She felt dirty, and mad, and hurt, and so terribly alone. As far as she could help it, she would never let anyone touch her again.
Now, looking at her school photo with Ma, she started crying as if it had happened only minutes ago. Releasing their seat belts, her mother gathered her into strong arms and up onto her lap, even though Lily protested she was way too big. But it felt good to feel Ma’s heart beating against her cheek, and her struggling soon subsided. They sat together in the car at the empty bus stop until Lily finished crying, and then a little while longer.
“Ready to go home?” asked Ma, using her thumbs to wipe away the last of the tears from her daughter’s green eyes.
“Yeah,” said Lily, sighing as she scooted back over to her seat. “We’re not buying those pictures, are we?”
“We’ll talk about it later,” Ma answered. “Right now, I think there’s a smoothie with our names on it waiting for us at home.” She turned and brushed a tear out of her own eye before starting the car engine. “And fasten your seat belt,” she laughed. Lily let loose a shaky chuckle, and did as instructed.
After a strawberry smoothie for each of them, they worked together on Lily’s homework and went over the multiplication test. Math seemed so easy when Ma explained it at home. However, somehow when she got to school it made no sense at all and everything she did turned out wrong. “Don’t worry,” soothed Ma. “You’re a very smart girl and this will all work out in time.” She kissed Lily’s forehead. “You’ll see. I promise things will get easier.”
It was as she was putting her stuff where she’d pick it up in the morning that she remembered the note Mary Beth had shoved in her hand on the bus. She reached into her coat pocket and pulled it out. It was a small pink envelope with her name written on it in a grown up’s handwriting. She opened it. A brightly decorated card slid out of the envelope.
It was an invitation to Mary Beth’s party. Lily couldn’t believe her eyes. She turned the envelope over and checked to make sure it was really her name printed there. It was.
“Ma!” she cried as she ran into the kitchen and showed it to her. “I’m invited! I’m invited! I’m invited!” She jumped up and down in her excitement, her heavy braid flying around her head like a whip. “We’ve got to get her a great present, okay?” she demanded, still jumping.
Suddenly Lily stopped moving and stood very still, as if she had turned into a statue. Her eyes grew wide and round. She looked at her mother and whispered, “I’m going to ride a horse!” Her whole body bounced into the air and she was jumping again, shouting, “I’m going to ride a horse! I’m going to ride a horse!”
Teresa watched Lily dance excitedly and her heart melted. How wonderful that someone had finally decided to include their daughter in something. They lived in the same house Teresa had grown up in as a child, the same land she’d lived on most of her life. After getting her doctorate in microbiology, she’d used the money her parents left her to build a state of the art laboratory in the basement. Naturally bashful, she was happy working at home, communicating with her sponsors and sharing her work with other scientists through a bank of computers. Her life partner, Janet, was a lawyer in nearby Hardyvale. They had both enjoyed pleasant childhoods here and really didn’t want to move.
However, she sometimes wondered if it was fair to poor Lily. Their choice to live ‘out’, not hiding who they were, had consequences. One of those consequences was that some people were rude, or worse, cruel like that little punk Jon Matthews. From what Lily had reported, he’d bragged about getting a reward for his vicious behavior – a day’s suspension spent at home playing video games. Teresa hadn’t liked that one bit. She had discussed it with Janet and they decided to look into the matter.
When they went to the school to demand answers, a slightly embarrassed principal informed them that the Hardyvale school board ordered district teachers and staff to stay neutral in all issues concerning gay rights. With their hands tied, they would not be able to discuss the issue with the students in their school. Teresa put her shyness aside to insist that the school bus pick Lily up last and deposit her at their pick up spot first, limiting the time for bullying. A completely unembarrassed Janet explained, in no uncertain terms, that any further bullying of their daughter would result in a lawsuit.
That threat, of course, just made things worse. “Do it, dyke!” Jon Matthews had yelled at Lily when he heard. “Sue me, I dare you!” Then he had laughed as if it would never, ever happen. And, he was right. Afraid that he would hit her again, she had never said another word about any trouble at school. When her parents asked how things were going, she always lied and said everything was fine.
That night after Mom got home from the office, the three of them celebrated the invitation to Mary Beth’s party by driving into town to buy ice cream cones. Mrs. Bluestone, a sweet older widow ran Bluestone’s Confectionary. She kept a delightful ice cream parlor, a place filled with brightly colored candies in fancy glass jars, soda fountain spouts and delicious cookies of all shapes and flavors. Large waffle cones and generous helpings of ice cream kept crowds of people coming all year long.
Mrs. Bluestone always gave Lily a second scoop free, and when she heard the good news about the party, she made herself an ice cream cone and joined them at the table. Putting their four heads together, they discussed the kind of present to purchase. Then they wondered what games would be played. Everyone agreed a brand new sleeping bag for the slumber party Friday night was absolutely necessary. They shared an hour filled with laughter, happy talk and delicious ice cream.
Some people could be so friendly! Why couldn’t the rest of the world be that way, too?