Savannah arrived at her brother’s Ayser Middle School. She leaned her bike against the wall of the administration building, located at the front of the school. Cars crowded the small parking lot.
Kids sat upon cement benches and watched one another play games on their phones. Her brother wasn’t among them. Jose usually sat at the end, away from the rest of the kids. He said they were annoying and immature.
Savannah knew better. He was most likely a bully, and the other kids avoided him. Hurt people hurt people, she often told him. A stupid bit of advice she had heard in a movie or something. But if anyone hurt due to their pain, then Jose fit the bill.
Their father had died in a freak motorcycle accident a few years back. Their mother didn’t have a job, nor any other means to support two children and pay rent. She turned to streetwalking and drugs.
Jose tried to act tough, surround himself with tough kids, but he was fragile. Alone. Afraid. No dad to teach him how to be a man. No mom to love him and nurture him.
Savannah ran to the back of the school, scanning the breezeways and peering into class windows to find Jose.
Sometimes he stood on the basketball court with a couple friends and heckled other students.
Today, scrawny middle schoolers awkwardly ran up and down the asphalt court.
Savannah ventured around the school, scouring different crowds of kids and looking in corners for her little brother. When she returned to the front of campus, she approached the bike rack.
Jose’s bicycle was missing. Gone.
Her field of vision narrowed. Her heart beat in her throat. Where the hell was he?
She sprinted to his history teacher’s classroom.
Sweat dribble down her back, and her shirt clung to her skin.
“Excuse me,” she said, as she bursted through the door. A gust of air conditioning chilled her, followed by a strong fish scent.
Jose’s teacher, a middle-aged woman with thick, mossy hair, wearing yoga pants and a tie-dye t-shirt, sat behind her metal desk. She held a sandwich in one hand, a blue pen in the other. A glob of tuna dropped from the back of the sandwich and plopped onto a napkin.
“Can I help you?” she asked through a mouthful of food.
“I’m looking for a my little brother. Jose Mendoza. Have you seen him?”
The teacher held a finger up to Savannah—the universal signal for, “I know you’re desperate and wild right now, but please hold while I finish chewing my food. I wouldn’t want to be a bitch.”
Savannah tapped her foot on the tight, rough textured carpet. She cracked her knuckles, a habit she despised. But in the eternity of the five seconds she waited, she didn’t know what else to do.
The woman swallowed like she was making a show of it. Her head bobbled with the action. “I sent him out of class today. To the principal’s office.”
“His bike’s not outside,” Savannah said. “Did he go home already?”
“I don’t know. Someone from the office should’ve called you, or your mother.”
Savannah hadn’t received anything but a near panic attack. She had no idea if her mother had heard from the school. “Where’s the principal’s office?”
The teacher gave her directions and she flew to the destination.
The administrator’s building smelled like burnt plastic and microwaved lasagna.
Savannah plowed through the stench. A receptionist, who wore bright-red lipstick and nail polish, called out to Savannah in a whiny voice. “Ma’am. May I help you?”
“No,” she said, marching past the lady.
“You can’t just walk back here.” She bounced to her feet with an agility that Savannah wouldn’t have guessed, but toppled her iced tea onto a stack of papers in the process.
Savannah took advantage of the opportunity and ran to the principal’s office. Student-created posters from different classes hung from the door, making just enough room for a placard with the name Principal Richard Jones.
Savannah knocked, then opened the door.
“Mr. Jones,” she said. “Are you—” then the words ceased, even as her mouth continued to move.
She stood in the principal’s doorway, leaned against the frame for support, like a wife catching her husband in the act of infidelity. Savannah didn’t know if she should be upset, relieved, angry, shocked.
Her mother sat in a wooden chair placed in front of the principal’s oak desk. She wore a pencil skirt, and her legs were crossed, but she showed an appropriate amount of leg. She wore a white blouse buttoned to her neck. Her hair was curled, and she smelled of sweet perfume. Somehow, she had managed to cover her meth-induced acne with a quality application of makeup.
Savannah barely recognized her. She almost looked like a responsible mother. Except she couldn’t dress up her eyes.
“Savannah, please come in,” the principal said.
Savannah had forgotten whose office she stood in until he spoke. The small room spun, faster and faster. She needed an anchor, something to steady her wavering core. Why was her mom here?
She fixed her attention on a photograph atop Mr. Jones’s desk. In the picture, Mr. Jones, a boy, and a girl all flashed big, fake smiles. Behind them, waves crashed onto a bright beach. A head rested in the sand at their feet. The bodiless head smiled, too. Another cheesy smile. Only after studying the image for what felt like hours did Savannah realize it was probably the children’s mother buried neck deep in sand.
Savannah inched into the room. Without thought, she sat on the second chair placed at an angle in front of the principal’s desk. It was stiff. She adjusted her position, but her ass bone dug into the hard wood. She leaned forward, placing her elbows on her knees and her face in her palms.
Mr. Jones had a computer placed at the corner of his desk. Papers were stacked neatly and pushed off to the side. Out of sight, out of mind.
In front of him was dark, polished oak. Space. Availability. As if to say, “This time is for you, and you alone.” He folded his hands in his lap.
“Mr. Jones says that Jose was sent to his office today,” Savannah’s mom said.
“You’re Savannah, I assume.” Mr. Jones extended a hand toward her. It remained suspended in midair. His nails were perfect, manicured. She was actually surprised to see they weren’t painted. His skin shined with a smooth sheen, untouched from hard labor.
She took his hand. His grip was weak. Not on purpose. Not like he was intentionally trying not to hurt her. But his bones were frail, his fingers nimble.
“I’m Jose’s sister.”
“But he never made it here,” her mom said. “I wonder why?”
Was she implying Savannah had something to do with his behavior?
“What’re you doing, mom?” she asked in a low voice. “Why the get up? You’re afraid of CPS?”
Mr. Jones cleared his throat and shifted his attention to Savannah’s mother. “Erika, may I speak to Savannah, please?” He grinned an efficacious smile that rendered Erika useless.
She curled her hair like a lovestruck teenage girl.
“Where’s Jose?” Savannah asked.
“We don’t know,” Mr. Jones said. He spoke like a man breaking the tragic news of a death in the family. All he needed to complete the bit was a hat to hold over his heart. “We think he snuck off campus.”
Snuck isn’t even a real word, Savannah thought. Snaked. He sneaked off campus. And you call yourself a principal?
She knew she wasn’t upset at him. How could she be? He had hundreds of kids to worry about, to keep track of.
Worse, he had to deal with needy parents. Absent parents. Parents in general who whored around town and ingested every drug they came across, then turned around and dressed like a damned professional to put on airs.
She stole a glance at her mom, and that broke the camel’s back.
Savannah stood with such force that her wooden chair fell back. “You lost my brother?” She pointed at the poor principal, but she spoke to her mom. “Where were you? Where the fuck were you?”
“Savannah,” her mother said. She grabbed her arms and dug her fake fingernails deep into her daughters’ skin. “Please, sit.”
Savannah tore her arm from her mother. Some of her skin was replaced by streaks of blood that dribbled down her forearm.
“No. I’m gonna go do something.” She marched toward the door, then paused, her hand on the handle. “Maybe if you’re home every once in a while, instead shacking up with the man of the hour for blow, maybe if you showed him an ounce of love or care or discipline…do you even know who he’s hanging out with?” She opened the door. “Go to hell.”
She slammed the door. The force jangled loose a student poster, and it fluttered to the ground as she stomped away.