“I can’t believe she’s here.” “It’s a lie; you know she did it.” “She should be ashamed to show her face.” “Why haven’t the police arrested her?” “I bet she was jealous.” “I’d be afraid to be alone with her, what if she tries it again?”
The mutters follow Chelsea down the hallway Monday morning; few of her classmates bother lowering their voices as they gossip in her wake. During the assembly she feels one thousand pairs of eyes swivel over to her while the principal explains how Amanda Anderson fainted in the pool locker room and hit her head on one of the sinks, and how her friend Chelsea, the first to find her, was just minutes too late to stem the bleeding. There’s no criminal case here, the principal stresses, just a tragic accident that deeply shocks and saddens the community, but that doesn’t stop the assembled teenagers from jumping to the most scandalous conclusion. Behind Chelsea, one of the school’s queen bees titters and exclaims with mock concern, “Better not sit too close to her, you might be next!” While the teachers call for silence, Chelsea tries to ignore the accusatory stares. She fears if she meets anyone’s eyes they might see the guilt there, misplaced or no, and then she’s done for. It doesn’t help that no one ever understood how someone as popular as Amanda would hang out with someone as mousy and awkward as her.
The students are finally dismissed and Chelsea hurries to Biology, gaze firmly fixed on the ground as she winds her way through the knots of kids in the halls. At least Mr. Benham is a no-nonsense sort of teacher and won’t allow the class to spend all period goggling over the murderer in their midst. Even better, he starts class off with a pop quiz – no talking allowed – and silence settles over Chelsea for the first time since she stepped onto school property. She reads through the questions once, twice, three times before realizing with a twist of her gut that they’re all based on the weekend’s assigned reading. Which she didn’t do, of course, because she was busy talking to her family and Amanda’s family and the paramedics and the police officers, and then watching the whole thing blow up on social media. She barely slept, let alone worried about her schoolwork.
This stupid quiz is the final straw; tears well up in Chelsea’s eyes and she can’t blink them away fast enough. Choking back a sob, she grabs her backpack and rushes out the door. There’s no one in the hallways right now, which is a minor blessing, but as she rounds the corner to the front doors the truancy officer, Mrs. Colewick, catches sight of her. Arms crossed, she moves to intercept Chelsea. “Where do you think you’re going, Miss Paulson?” For once Mrs. Colewick’s dour expression doesn’t even phase Chelsea, who merely dodges around the woman while calling back breathlessly, “Home!” The officer turns as if to follow her, hand outstretched. “You can’t just–”
“Then stop me!” Chelsea hits the doors running and is gone before she can hear if Mrs. Colewick responds or follows her. She runs as fast as she can, not really thinking about a particular destination, just focusing on the rhythm of her feet pounding on the pavement. She runs until she’s lost among unfamiliar streets where passersby can’t possibly know who she is or what she’s done. She runs until her lungs can’t take it anymore, and then she stops. And sobs.