Junior year is supposed to be the most stressful of high school. The grades I achieved and the activities I participated in this year would be what colleges saw on my application. My grades were fine. But I was sure that there were thousands of others who had the same GPA as me. It was the other part of the application that I always worried about. Performing at school was great. I had a lot of fun and it made me feel like I was flying. It fed my soul. But I needed more. I needed something else.
Yes, junior year was stressful. But it was also the best. Now, the final few months were here and I had to make the most of it. My future depended on it.
We got to the BalboaParkActivityCenter a few hours after registration began. A “Greater San Diego Science and Engineering Fair” banner hung on the building signifying we had the right place. The Center was filled with rows and rows of tables covered in blue. We were directed to a table to register. They handed us each a bag with their logo on it and a button. It was our exhibitor’s badge with our booth number on it – 211.
Now what? How were we supposed to find our booth? This place was huge. I glanced at the row closest to us. There were pieces of paper spaced out every few feet with a number on them. Thankfully, Patrick understood the directions we were given and knew how to find the row our number was in.
Our spot was toward the end of a row, near the wall and a big pillar. As we setup our project, I checked out what else was around us. We were in the ‘Electrical and Mechanical Engineering’ category, so some of the other projects had their devices setup in front their poster boards. Patrick suggested we bring ours the morning of judging instead of leaving it unattended overnight. I had no problem with that. I didn’t like the idea of people being able to touch our stuff without us there. What if they broke it? What if it got stolen? We put a lot of work into it. Even if we didn’t win anything, I was proud of the work we did. The last thing I wanted was for it to go missing or get destroyed. But, if I was truly honest, I did want to win something. I didn’t want to let Patrick down.
We walked around the Fair to check out the rest of the competition – at least those that had already setup. Our school had fifteen projects accepted to the Fair. Including us, only five were here right now. The rest of them had three more hours to register and setup their project. If they didn’t, well, it was less competition for us.
* * *
I couldn’t sleep. The anxiety about tomorrow was getting to me. I was so nervous about doing well. I wanted our hard work to pay off. I wanted the judges to like us, not us exactly, but our project. I didn’t think that we had the best project there, especially when I began to read what was on a few of those projects around us, but we were better than a couple. At least I thought so. But what did I know? This was my first science fair.
I thought about calling Patrick, to talk me down. But there was no point to it. I was just restless about tomorrow. One of us should get some rest and be fresh for judging. It would be stupid to wake him up and really sabotage ourselves. Instead I stared at the ceiling for a couple hours before getting out of bed. I turned on my computer and reviewed our project. I knew every word that we had written and could recite it blindfolded if I had to. I hoped it’d settle the butterflies in my stomach. It didn’t.
* * *
The next morning when Patrick picked me up, it looked like we had coordinated outfits. He wore a deep purple button down shirt with his silver tie and black slacks. I had on black pants, black tank with a lavender blouse layered on top. I’d say we looked like twins except he was tall and white and I was short and Filipino. At least we looked like a team.
We arrived at the Fair about an hour before we had to. There was some student meeting that was at 8:00am, but we had to setup our device by 7:10am before the judges arrived. The tables that once just had pieces of paper with numbers on it were now filled with project tri-folds. It was a sea of poster boards. There were hundreds, maybe even close to a thousand, there. We were supposed to compete against all of them?! Talk about competition!
Patrick and I stayed in the building as long as we could. I didn’t want to leave our stuff unattended. But eventually we had to. The judges were arriving and they wanted all the students out. With the little time we had before we got kicked out, we checked out some of the other projects around us. Patrick felt confident that we could compete against them. I wasn’t so sure. There were so many of them.
“Liz, it’s not like we’re going up against all of them at the same time. We are, but we aren’t.” He told me as we walked down to the tent for the student meeting.
“What’s that supposed to mean? How the heck could it be both at the same time?”
“Well, there are two divisions. One for high school, the other is for seventh and eighth graders.”
That made sense. It wouldn’t be fair for a seventh grader to compete against a senior.
“Then within each division there are all these categories. Like we’re in Electrical and Mechanical Engineering, right?”
“So we’re only competing against those guys.”
“Oh, okay.” That didn’t seem as intimidating – fewer projects to compete against at least.
“At least for the place awards. ‘Cause they can give multiple ones of those. But there are other awards that there are only one or a few of.”
“You mean like the one that Lindsey got.”
“Yeah, Sweepstakes. They pick the top four individual and top two team projects for that in the Senior Division.”
“Dang.” Scary. I took a deep breath and slowly released it. We got to the tent and I couldn’t believe the number of kids there. I thought the number of poster boards in the building were a lot. I should’ve figured that for every one of those there was at least one student with it. Some, like ours, had two. My nervousness shot up exponentially. “Oh, man.”
“Hey, hey, hey.” Patrick shook my shoulder. “Look at me. Don’t worry about them. We can’t control what they do. We know our project. Just focus on what we did. Okay?”
I nodded. We did know our stuff inside out. At least I thought so. If Patrick wasn’t my partner, and my mom didn’t absolutely love him, she would have told me to stop working so hard on it. I think that she didn’t want him to have any excuse to stop being my friend. I knew he wouldn’t do that just because of a school project, after everything we’d been through. But deep, deep inside, a tiny part of me always worried. I didn’t want to let him down. He made me want to do my best, better than my best. If I was doing this project alone, I probably would’ve chickened out and never shown up today. But I couldn’t let him down or have him worry about me when we needed to focus on our presentation.
During the all-student meeting, the director of the Fair told us what to expect: three to six judges in the morning, followed by lunch, then another round of judges –this time to give their own organizational awards– before ending at 2:45pm. It was going to be a long day. I couldn’t wait for the end when we’d meet up with the crew. Emily wanted to celebrate me and Patrick being in the Fair, even though we wouldn’t know until tomorrow night if we won anything. There was a Japanese restaurant in the Gaslamp Quarter that she made reservations at. It was supposed to be close to where we were for the Fair, but I had never heard of the restaurant or the Gaslamp.
There was a nervous energy when we reentered the Fair. It was nice to know I wasn’t the only one. We walked past row after row of projects and middle-school students to get to our spot. Some judges were already speaking to kids. They didn’t waste any time. I didn’t have much time to think about what was going on around me. There was a judge reading our poster board and waiting for me and Patrick at our project.
The noise level in the building rose. It was a good thing that we had practiced what we were going to say and possible questions that could be asked because I could barely think with all the conversations around me. We were in the middle of speaking with our third judge when I was having trouble concentrating.
The judge interviewing the project to my left kept bumping into me. It was as if he had no concept of personal space. It was annoying. After the third time, I tried to move even closer toward our project. But the scent of his cologne hung in the air. The woody, musky smell turned my stomach.
Thankfully, Patrick was still talking to our judge. She didn’t notice the nauseated look on my face. It took everything in me to block out what was going on to my left and refocus. I hid how I felt behind a fake smile as our judge directed a question at me. Once she left, I was shaking.
“Are you feeling okay?” Patrick sounded so far away.
I felt so hot. Is it stuffy in here? I felt claustrophobic. I couldn’t breathe.
Patrick rubbed my arm. “Liz?”
I stared at him. The people swirling around me made me dizzy. Patrick was here, standing still – in front of me.
“You don’t look so good. Sit down.” He pulled the chair in front of our project closer to me then handed me a bottle of water. “Here.”
I sat down and sipped the water. What was wrong with me? Breathe. I had to breathe. I had to get that scent out of my system.
“Is she alright?” Sharon, the girl whose project was next to me, asked Patrick. “Should I get help?”
Did I look that bad? I was determined to not screw this up for either of us. “No, I’ll be fine.” But it was too late, she was already gone. Great. I concentrated on slowing down my rapid pulse. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.
Sharon was back and with an adult. Couldn’t she have brought some regular old volunteer? No, she had to bring the director of the Fair. I didn’t need the person who ran this whole thing to think I was completely lame. This was mortifying.
“Hi, I’m Sheryl. What’s your name?” She squatted down and looked up at me.
“Liz.” I tried very hard to sound ‘normal’.
“Hi, Liz. How are you doing?”
“You sure? We have a place where you can lie down, if you want. Or I could call your parents to pick you up.”
No! I shoved down the nausea and dizziness. I was not going to get sent home. There was no way I wanted her to call my mom. That was the last thing I wanted. I had to prove to her she didn’t have to do that. I gripped my water bottle and stood up. “No, you don’t have to. Really, I’m okay.”
She stood up as well. “I don’t want you to pass out on us.”
Sheryl eyed me suspiciously. She probably had kids faint at the Fair before. “Did you eat anything this morning for breakfast?”
“Yes.” I could feel the weight of Patrick’s stare without looking at him.
“Okay. Please let me know if you feel worse, alright?”
I nodded. But there was no way I would especially since she said she’d call my parents.
She smiled and I felt a little guilty for lying. “Don’t be nervous.” She glanced at our backboard behind me. “I can see you two put a lot of hard work into your project. The judges will too. Just relax and have fun.” She wished us luck and left.
“I did.” I insisted to Patrick. “I didn’t eat a lot, but I did eat. I forced down a piece of toast.” I knew it was going to be a long day and despite my complete lack of appetite, I ate so I wouldn’t feel sick. A lot of good that seemed to do.
“I know.” He sighed and rubbed my back. “At least you ate something.”
I nearly jumped out of my skin upon hearing a strange man’s voice. It was a judge. We shook his hand and introduced ourselves.
“Nice to meet you. Tell me about your project.”
We launched into our spiel. He asked questions, which we were able to answer. It was a great conversation. By the end of his interview, I felt a hundred times better than I did fifteen minutes before it. Not a lot of time passed before we got another judge. It was fun telling them about our work and what we learned. They seemed to appreciate the time and effort we put into it.
We finally got a chance to talk to some of the other kids around us and find out what they did and where they went to school. I had to admit, it was nice being around kids who had a similar interest as me. Some of them did a project because they had to for class, others just wanted to do a project. I met one girl, a junior, who had done three projects before this one and had made it to the San Diego Fair each time. Four times! She had to be good. There was no way we could beat her.
Sheryl came by to check up on me. “How’s everything going?”
Great, I now had the reputation of being weak here. Not what I wanted. “Good.”
“You get a lot of judges?”
“Yeah, we’ve had five so far.”
“That’s good.” She smiled and stepped closer to our project. Patrick and I had gotten used to stepping to the side to let the judge get a closer look at our work. She wasn’t a judge, but we did it anyway. “What did you guys do?”
We began telling her what we did. She seemed impressed. Another judge showed up as we were about to tell her about our results. Sheryl excused herself to give way for our sixth judge. So we started over again, telling this guy what we did.
* * *
By lunch I was starving. We had talked to a total of seven judges in the morning. Each time was better than the last. Patrick and I, with the help of Mr. D, Joey and Patrick’s parents, had practiced a lot, but there was something different about actually going through judging. When one judge pointed out a suggestion or something we may have missed, we incorporated it into the next interview. I wished we could talk to the first judge again. We sounded a lot better now, compared with the beginning. Oh well, too late now.
* * *
The afternoon judging session was crazy. There were just as many judges, if not more wandering around. They had different colored ribbons on them than this morning. This time they were yellow and light blue. At first we spoke to a few of those yellow-ribboned judges, but soon the blue ones showed up in pairs and asked the questions. The yellow judges huddled around the blue ones if they wanted to hear what we had to say. I didn’t have much of a chance to stress about it. The stream of judges was constant. When one group started to leave, another set showed up or inched forward.
Sheryl’s voice on the building’s PA system announced that judging was over and dismissed the students. Patrick and I still had judges, so we stayed while the other students around us filed out. The loud hum of the building was gone. It was just us in our row. The building sounded so quiet in comparison to earlier.
The judges thanked us for staying after to talk to them and shook our hands. One of them was the judge whose cologne bothered me earlier. The muskiness assaulted me again. I froze the polite smile on my face until they had all left. The scent was familiar. It wasn’t just from this morning either. I felt uneasy not being able to place it.
* * *
There was no parking lot for the restaurant. Patrick found a metered space a few blocks away. We were in the middle of downtown. Why did we have to eat here? I look a deep breath before getting out of the car and practically glued myself to Patrick’s side as we walked to the restaurant.
My breathing got shallower and more rapid with each step. People grazed me as they walked the opposite direction and I jumped every time. Why was I freaking out? It was the middle of the day. It was bright outside. It was all too familiar. I tried to stop my panic attack from growing, but I couldn’t.
There was a small break in the buildings up ahead. Once I caught sight of this black hole of shadows, I began shaking. I didn’t see anything but that. The footsteps thundered around me as I got closer and closer to the alley. Colors and shapes blurred. They circled until they trapped me. I tried to move, but I couldn’t. It was like a boa constrictor squeezed the life out of me. The air was filled with musky damp wood. I knew that smell. He was here.
He touched my arm and I screamed. I tried to hit him, but it didn’t matter. He wouldn’t leave me alone. He came at me from all sides – yelling, touching me. I screamed louder and pushed back, only to fall to the ground. I attempted to get up, but my feet kept sliding out from under me. The terror was all-consuming. I could only pathetically beg for my life.
“Liz.” The voice was distant.
“How….How… How do you know my name?” I stuttered as I cowered closer to the wall behind me.
“You’re okay. It’s Patrick.” An arm slowly reached toward me. It wasn’t fuzzy like everything else. “It’s me. No one’s gonna hurt you.”
“Patrick?” Could he really be here?
“Yeah.” His shape began to get less blurry and I could tell he was squatting in front of me. “I’m right here.”
“Help me. Please.” I pleaded between gasps of air. “He… he’s gonna…”
“No, he’s not. He’s gone.” Patrick carefully placed his hand on mine. “Liz, he can’t hurt you anymore.”
I couldn’t contain my tears any longer. “Please don’t let him.”
“I won’t. Come here.” He pulled me toward him and held me tightly. “He’ll never touch you again.”
I shut my eyes. I wanted to believe Patrick. But what if he was wrong? No, I can’t think that way. He has to be right. I knew he’d do everything he could to protect and save me. “He’s gone?”
“Uh-huh.” He rubbed my back. It was calming.
I took a deep breath and nodded. My pulse began to slow. The anxiety was dissipating. The world around me seemed quieter now.
“Let’s get up, okay?” Patrick helped me stand up, but didn’t let go. “You alright?”
“Yeah.” I whispered.
When I finally felt my arms relax, I opened my eyes. We weren’t in the alley in San Francisco. We weren’t in an alley at all. The alley was behind us. The sidewalk was beneath me and I could see cars driving by on the street. My eyes darted around to try to figure out where I was. San Diego. We were going to meet the crew for dinner. I turned and saw the crew standing in front of me. Oh god, when did they get here? What did they see? They never looked at me like that before – even that first day we met. They stared at me like they were looking at a stranger. I was. They didn’t know the core of me.
“I’m sorry.” I rubbed my eyes and hung my head down in shame.
Patrick shook my arm. “Hey, no. You don’t have anything to be sorry about.”
“I do. Can you take me home?”
“No.” Emily choked out. “This dinner is for you guys. I don’t want you to go.”
The others agreed. Then Cassie quickly added, “Unless you don’t want to… We understand. But we really want you to stay.”
I didn’t deserve the crew as friends, but I was thankful for them. They deserved to know the truth. It was time.
* * *
Once we were seated in the restaurant, and the server left us alone, I knew I had to speak. I just wasn’t sure how to start. It wasn’t the easiest thing to bring up, but considering what just happened outside, they had to know I wasn’t normal and were wondering why. It was abnormally quiet around the table. Eight teenagers out to dinner not one of us laughing or even speaking – to the rest of the place it must’ve looked like somebody died. I hoped it wasn’t my friendship with them.
“So, uh, I’m sorry about… earlier. I…” I gulped then stared at the advertisement in the center of the table. “I need to explain.”
No one said a word.
I let out a long sigh to calm myself down. It didn’t help much, but I couldn’t prolong this any more. “I…” God, where do I start? “I kind of had a panic attack.”
My body immediately began rocking back and forth. Patrick softly rubbed my back. I needed that to tether me to the here and now.
“The, um… alley and shadows reminded me of… And the smell… Ugh.” I felt nauseous again. Breathe. I had to breathe through my mouth.
“What smell?” Patrick whispered next to me.
“I couldn’t place it at first. It just made me feel sick. But then we were walking… downtown… and… the alley… It all rushed back. He wore that same cologne.” I shuddered. “That’s why I thought… I was sure he was there again.”
I took a sip of water to try to calm down. It didn’t help. The crew still sat quiet and clueless.
The words just wouldn’t come out. How do you tell your friends that you’ve lied to them all along? “I’m sorry. I should just say it… but I can’t. Umm…” Maybe if I started more at the beginning, it would make more sense. Buy me some time at least. “I was on vacation with my folks…” I sniffed to try to stop my nose from running. “I went shopping and was walking back to the hotel, when I…..uh…” I stared at the glass of water as if I could hide behind it. “Was grabbed.”
“What do you mean ‘grabbed’? Like what Becca did?” Emily sounded confused. I couldn’t blame her, I wasn’t being very forthcoming.
How do I say what I need to without actually saying it? “Yes… and no.” I looked at my friends. They simply waited. Patrick nodded for me to continue. “I needed some stitches…”
“Some?” Patrick gently pushed me to spit it out.
“Forty-seven. And… a couple broken ribs.” My words meshed together.
The crew’s mouths hung open. Emily and Cassie’s eyes widened. They looked disgusted.
Kraig was the first to break their silence. “You were the girl in my math class that just… disappeared for like a month or something.”
That was me. The girl no one knew the name of. No one really missed. I nodded. “About six weeks. I was really messed up. I didn’t want anyone to see me like that.”
“Everyone thought you might’ve moved… No one said you got hurt.”
“Nobody knew. You’re the first ones I’ve told.” If you can call what I said telling.
“Patrick? You knew though. Right?” Jason stared at him.
“Yeah,” he admitted.
“He went with me to the trial.” I tried to explain. “I was too… chicken to tell him myself. He found out while I was on the stand.” I turned to him. “I’m really sorry about that.”
Patrick shook his head. “It’s okay.”
“When was this?” Tony asked.
“The week before Thanksgiving.” I whispered.
“You’ve known since Thanksgiving?” Emily looked shocked.
Patrick nodded. “But it wasn’t my secret to tell. You know I would never do that to you. Liz wasn’t ready to say anything. I couldn’t push her.”
“Please don’t be mad at him. It was my fault. I begged him not to tell anyone.”
“I’m not mad… It’s just… I don’t know…” She shook her head and shrugged.
“We just can’t believe this happened to you.” Bobby tried to explain. “It’s not that we think you’re lying or anything. We know you’re not… It’s just…” He looked at everyone else. “We’re just trying to understand what happened, how it happened…”
Now that I had opened up this mess, there was no hiding. It might be easier answering their questions than trying to tell them what happened. Clearly, I couldn’t recount the events on my own. “Go ahead. What do you want to know?”
“You sure?” Cassie asked. “If you don’t want to we understand.”
I chewed on my lower lip. “I’ll try. Go ahead.”
“Where did this happen?”
Their questions were on top of each other. I didn’t have time to think between questions.
“In the morning?”
“The middle of the day?”
“You were by yourself?”
“You don’t go on vacation with your parents.”
“Not anymore. I used to.”
“This is the reason they leave you at home?”
“When was this?”
“When last year?”
“Spring Break. March 23.” That’s when my world completely spun off its axis.
“The 23rd?” Something in Bobby’s voice made everyone else stop.
“Yeah, why?” My head jerked trying to look at each of them quickly. Was it someone’s birthday? What was I missing? I looked at Patrick for a clue. I didn’t mean to offend anyone.
Patrick nodded at Bobby. “Liz, that’s today. Today’s March 23rd.”
The air got sucked out of my lungs. “That explains why I couldn’t sleep last night. I thought I was just nervous about judging.”
My hands wrung together, twisting and pulling at each other. It was a year ago today. Today. How could the pain feel so fresh still and so distant? It was like an out of body experience, disconnected from me, but not. I could feel the sting of every blow at my body, the glass piercing through me, every huff and pant in my ear, down my chest and each jerk at my clothes.
I swallowed hard and forced myself to remember where I was. In a restaurant. With my friends. Who were all staring at me. “Sorry.” My voice cracked.
I reached for the glass in front of me and nervously took a sip. The metallic taste in my mouth eased a little. I drank the rest of the water as if I’d been in the desert for days. When I was done, I felt closer to reality.
A long sigh escaped from me. I felt the need to apologize again. “I’m sorry. I just got…”
“Don’t worry about it.” Cassie reached over and squeezed my hand.
“Is…” Emily was hesitant to speak. She never was like that before. “That what happened at the Winter Formal?”
A shiver ran through my body as I nodded. “Yeah. I… got confused. I thought it was happening again.”
“Joey was wrong to come up from behind you like that. But he knows now why you freaked out, right?”
“No! Are you kidding me?” I scoffed. “I told you. You guys are the only ones I’ve told.”
“But, Liz… He’s your boyfriend. He should know.” Emily’s argument made no sense to me.
“Donkey was my boyfriend. Imagine if he knew.” He was manipulative enough without knowing my weaknesses.
“Joey’s not like that and you know it. Joey likes you. Really likes you.” Cassie added. “He’s liked you forever.”
“And I want him to keep liking me.” I shook my head. “Uh-uh. There’s no way he’d still like me after finding out how broken and… dirty I am. Why would he?”
Emily turned to Bobby. “Tell her. Would you stop loving me if you found out what happened to Liz happened to me?”
“Of course not.” He kissed the top of Em’s head.
“You guys are different. You’ve been together for years. We aren’t you.”
“He’d want to help. Be there for you.” Bobby insisted.
“You can’t tell him.”
Jason tried to convince me too. “I’m sure he’d…”
“What?” I interrupted. “Look at me like you guys are? Thinking ‘poor Liz’.” I glanced at Cassie and Emily. “Thinking ‘I’m glad it wasn’t me’.” I caught the eyes of Kraig and Tony. “Admitting that ‘I couldn’t be with a girl that was found in the garbage. It’s gross.’ It’s easy for you to sit there, pass judgment and say ‘Just tell him.’ You don’t know… You don’t know anything… You have no clue what I went through. What I go through every day. So don’t tell me what to do. Because you have no idea what it’s like.”
“Liz, I…” Kraig struggled to say something.
But I didn’t want to hear it. “I should’ve never told you.”
“Guys, why don’t you just lay off her? She’s not ready yet.” Patrick played peacemaker. He knew I was at my breaking point. “One day you will be.”
I doubted that.
“Okay. You might.” He conceded. “But until she says so, no one says anything to anyone. This stays between us.”
Each of one of the crew agreed verbally or with a nod. I knew they didn’t agree with keeping it from Joey. But at least they agreed that it should be up to me and to keep my secret. That was the important part. I didn’t have to worry about Emily or any of them telling Joey just because they thought I should. Okay, I still worried a little. But they promised. Not just me, but Patrick too.