Gail Duncan stopped just outside of the light that blazed through the door. Now wasn’t the time to second-guess herself. She was here; she’d made the decision to come. Her hand smoothed down the dress that didn’t need smoothing. She could do this. Hadn’t she proven she could do anything at this point?
She’d never attended a school function, no proms or dances for her. She knew this gym only as a torture chamber with beige, or bleech, walls covered with sports pendants and rah-rah posters. And of course that precious basketball floor that no one walked on without special shoes. Shoes she couldn’t afford. Gail glanced down at the heels she was wearing tonight. Maybe they’d covered the thing for the special occasion. Had they done that for prom? She wouldn’t know and didn’t care. If she destroyed the damn floor tonight it would only delight her.
Gail had escaped. She had left this place without a backward glance and had never planned to see it again. Then the invitation to her tenth high school reunion had arrived. She’d laughed out loud at the sight. Then she’d seen the special request. They wanted to honor her for her achievements, give her a special award for her success. If she had thrown the thing away then, she wouldn’t be here. But she’d taken it into work to share with Tori, and her best friend had fallen into her chair helpless with laughter.
Then they had started talking. This could be such a great boost to the anti-bullying series she was doing. The school had been where her bullying lay for the most part. Now they wanted to honor her? As Tori pointed out, they probably just wanted the publicity of having someone like her come “home” for the town council newsletter or something, but Gail could use it as well.
She had to stop and remind herself that in certain circles she was actually famous now. Her readership was up, way up and that was good for her as well as Tori and the company. Bullying had become a hot topic now that people were finally admitting such a thing existed. It always had, but help was coming now. If she could prevent even one suicide of a tortured teenager, it was worth the dip back into her own personal hell.
At least social media hadn’t played an enormous part in her torture. Ten years ago people in Aurora weren’t as savvy as that. She wouldn’t have known anyway. She’d had no access to a computer.
She should go in. She was as ready as she could be. Once again her hand smoothed the fabric of her dress. This dress had cost more than she’d wanted to pay at the time. Now she was so pleased she had taken the plunge. Would she even be recognized? The dress was royal blue, formfitting, short and flirty with little spaghetti straps and showed a nice amount of cleavage. She knew it brought out her eyes. Diamonds were in her ears and her chestnut colored hair had decided to play nice and be on her side tonight. It hung down her back in waves, leaving small curls at her face.
The girl who had been at least seventy pounds overweight in hand-me-downs from the Salvation Army was gone. The foster homes were gone, her father was still in prison as far as she knew and she hadn’t known where her mother was since she was six. She straightened her back and stepped into the light.
Gail didn’t laugh when she saw the decorations. The disco ball was probably a good thing. They could keep the lights down, but she saw the wear and age of the place. There were sparkling streamers coming from the ceiling and it made her think of an old movie she’d seen, what was the name?
She stood alone, Seth would have come, or Tommy but she wasn’t serious about either of them and the expense wasn’t something she could ask of them. She was doing okay now. She could afford her flat in New York, could occasionally splurge on a dress like this, but she would never forget the utter poverty she had grown up with. Besides, why inflict this kind of occasion on people she liked, like Seth or Tommy.
She felt more than saw people turn to look. Her eyes would need adjusting in this sparkly world. The check-in table was to her right and she turned in that direction. A blousy redhead, more than a little drunk, sat there with the nametags. She was swaying in the seat for crap’s sake. How much had she had? She surely wasn’t part of this class. People here should be below thirty. If Gail were generous she’d say forty-five for this woman.
But no, the woman jumped up, caught herself on the table and then hurried around to hug Gail. “Abigail, we’re so glad you could make it!” Gail automatically took the woman’s arm so she wouldn’t land on the floor, then gave the nametag a quick glance. Pam? Pam Lackey? This was the woman who had invited her, told her of the award. What the hell had happened to her? She couldn’t be more than a year older than Gail.
A quick memory surfaced of Pam. She’d transferred to the school their junior year but the popular kids had embraced her and she’d known all about Gail’s sordid past within minutes. Gail remembered one particular day when Pam had been in the hall, attempting to swallow the tongue of some football player when she’d spotted Gail. Weren’t you supposed to have your eyes closed during such intense lovemaking against the lockers? Pam had disengaged long enough to whisper something to the guy and he had turned to look at Gail as well. Then they had both laughed. Gail would never know what was said, but the pain had been deep and she had hurried on down the hall longing for the anonymity of the back row of her next class.
Gail shook herself. That was over ten years ago. This fumbling drunk couldn’t hurt her now. “Thank you for inviting me.”
“Here’s your name tag.” Pam attempted to pick up the plastic card but missed, so Gail took it off the table. She slipped the pin around the strap of her dress, accepted Pam’s congratulations again and moved toward the punch bowl. Just how much liquor was in it? One sip told her all she needed to know and she took a bottle of water from the table.
The eyes she had felt upon entering were increasing and she looked around. Men were watching her–a lot of them—and the women on their arms were too. It was very different from the looks she was used to in this place.
The hand-me-down gym uniforms she had endured when here before had not been kind to her size. None of the boys had ever looked at her. Maybe in that way she had been lucky. Boys had only ridiculed her at the behest of their female companions. It had been the girls that had bullied her. As such a large target they had always hit their mark.
She had never understood it. She didn’t today. Gail had wanted nothing from them; she hadn’t tried to be friends or expected companionship. Tori had asked once if they were jealous of her, and Gail had nearly choked to death. No, there had been nothing to be jealous of–abandoned by her mother and eventually her father when he’d been arrested. Used by the aunt that had taken custody, and then ignored by the foster families that had housed her. Jealous was the last thing the girls had been–so why torment her? It was something she needed to explore in her column. Maybe after this celebration she could interview a couple of people. Would they talk to her about this?
An older dumpy man had joined her at the refreshment table and was making no bones about checking out her breasts. She turned to him and nearly dropped her bottle of water. Mr. Hooper, principal extraordinaire and enabler of all jock and jockettes. Gail turned so that he could see her nametag. She nodded slightly. “Mr. Hooper.”
His eyes widened and he seemed at a loss for words. “Ah, Abigail. Of course.”
Of course, nothing. He wouldn’t have recognized her on the street if he’d tripped over her. The man had too much practice turning his back on her, even when he witnessed the treatment of the other students. Bullying was accepted and even, in this man’s case, encouraged ten years ago. Hopefully things were better now. At least it had been brought into the light and Neanderthals like this must have retired.
Another memory, she’d been leaving this very gym, her hair still wet from the tepid shower but at least out of that disgusting outfit. Several girls had followed her into the hall and were pointing, laughing, drawing attention to her. Why? What was the pleasure they were getting from it? Why bother? These were girls she had known her whole life. Everyone knew everyone in Aurora. They had even been friends as little girls. Mr. Hooper had been there in the hall, he’d stood and watched for a moment before turning his back and taking another hall to return to his office or wherever he was headed. He hadn’t even acknowledged the situation, much less broken it up.
She stared down at the man now and his cheeks bloomed with color. Was he remembering the same thing? She could only hope so. It was her that kept her mouth shut now.
A man touched her elbow and she turned. Gail watched Mr. Hooper make a quick escape from the corner of her eye. “Ms. Duncan?”
“I’m Mack Turner. I’m the photographer for the event. I wondered if I could get a few shots of you.”
“Oh, of course.” At least this part she was used to now. Her headshots were on her column, even the sides of buses now. She’d gotten used to it and it had helped her self-confidence once she had recovered from the absurdity of it all. The contrast had taken a while to absorb.
Others moved up to be photographed with her. Oh Tori, I should have brought you as a witness to this whole thing. She smiled and laughed and, hell flirted with some of the men.
It had taken nametags to recognize most of them. The football players of her memory had obviously not reduced their beer intake upon becoming legal and it showed. Not many had kept up a decent exercise routine and a couple of them appeared ready to give birth at any minute. The hair was going as well. These so popular people from high school had quite visibly peaked at eighteen.
She needed to remember that. She hadn’t even gotten started by then. Yes, at the time she had thought high school was the pinnacle and she would forever be at the bottom of that hill. What would she have said to that miserable, lonely girl then knowing what she knew now?
The room was becoming crowded as people arrived and began mingling. A lot of people were avoiding the punch now she noted and wondered if Pam had refilled her cup again? Attention was drawn toward the small stage that had been set up at the far end of the gym and people began making their way in that direction. People stopped her, reintroducing themselves, wanting a picture with her. She was going to go blind from the flash soon.
A woman over to the side drew her attention and Gail was the one to stop and stare. Michelle Lupinski, head cheerleader, student council . . . head tormentor. Well, she hadn’t gotten fat. She was too thin and her face was pinched. The look of abject hatred in her face was what had drawn Gail’s attention. Yes, it was focused on her. Had the woman not gotten the satisfaction she needed from all those years of bullying her? Did she want more now?
It wasn’t going to happen. Gail wasn’t the weak, insecure girl she had been then. She had grown past that, into the strong woman she was now. She had a strong, loyal group of friends, real friends who had supported and encouraged her once she had allowed them close enough to be there for her.
Some of the women at the refreshment table had been talking about Michelle. She had listened, but not participated. Divorced several times, no children yet. It had only been ten years. Who’d had time to be married several times?
Gail turned her back on the woman, her attention on the stage. Mr. Hooper was speaking, welcoming the alums and extolling the achievements of the class. He probably wanted a donation for something. She would not be participating in that. Gail smiled to herself. The class president was next. Larry Ferguson had been the quarterback and she was frankly surprised that he had managed to graduate, but the teachers had to keep his grades up to the playing level so . . .
Larry also welcomed everyone. His hair had receded a bit and his gut was noticeable though the buttons on his shirt did not look to be an imminent danger to those closest to the stage. When she’d known him, Gail couldn’t say he had been a bully. He had never noticed she existed, and that had been better. It was what she had craved from the girls.
He and Michelle had dated some back then. Mostly Michelle had dated Carl Franks, but she didn’t remember his position on the team, not that she would have known what it meant. Was he here?
Michelle had gone to college and dumped him. Gail wondered if he realized what a bullet he had dodged.
Her name drew her attention back to the speech. Crap, was it time to accept her “award”? She smiled and headed toward the stage. Several men stepped forward to help her up the steps and she thanked them then heard more than one harshly whispered comment from their wives or dates or whatever.
The applause grew, and it wasn’t just from the men she noted as she looked over the crowd. Some of the women seemed genuinely happy for her. These were the girls she recognized. Not from the popular crowd, no these girls were from the geeks and fellow unpopulars. They hadn’t changed as much, keeping their figures and many, like her, looking better than before. She caught several of their eyes and nodded slightly. They got it too and nodded back.
For the first time, she relaxed and began to enjoy herself. She wasn’t alone here. And she wasn’t the only one to have survived. Fascinating. She knew now who she wanted to interview first for her upcoming columns and even for that book Tori had been pushing her to write.
Applause rose again as she accepted the small plastic trophy. Of course it said Abigail rather than Gail, but maybe that was appropriate in this case. Abigail is the one who had suffered, so that Gail could emerge.
“Thank you all for this tribute. Please know that I have not forgotten Aurora and that I would not be where I am today without all of you.” It was true, if twisted, and they seemed to like it. Gail shook hands with Larry and Mr. Hooper, both of whom took another look at her cleavage, but what the hell. She left the stage and missed the second award as people gathered around to congratulate her. Whoever the second winner, they had not attended so the ceremony was blessedly short and the deejay was back in business.
She accepted invitations to dance. If she danced with a lot of different people, the individuals wouldn’t get as much grief from their wives. She made a point of only one dance with the requestors. She was not here to form any attachments or to get anyone into trouble. No, her job was to observe and glean fodder for her work.
If the efing photographer would leave her alone that would be good, but he seemed to be following her around now. The trophy would not fit in her purse, so she had left it displayed on the refreshment table. If it was stolen she would only laugh.
In her wildest dreams, and there had been very few of them, she had never thought she would have a night like this in Aurora. There were people who seemed upset by her transformation and obvious happiness, but they were few and huddled amongst themselves only casting a glare in her direction when she accepted yet another dance. This group seemed to consist of former cheerleaders and other mega-popular girls who were unrecognizable for the most part. More than one would never squeeze into that uniform again–even for an evening of roleplaying. Gail noted that Michelle wasn’t with that group. She stood alone in her black dress, glaring at Gail.
Her palpable hatred was a little disconcerting, but Gail kept her distance. The closest they got was for group pictures that Mack insisted on, and they did not speak. Pam was nowhere to be seen. Had she finally passed out?
It was time to make her escape. Tonight was not the time or place for any interviews, but she would record the names of those she wanted to speak to when she got back to the motel. Gail was glad to be leaving, but was startled to realize she’d had a good time. She had spoken to more people tonight than in four years of enduring high school in this town. She had danced with men that had never looked at her in all of those eighteen years she had survived here.
The question came to her again–what would she say to that friendless nobody she had been? Tell her to hang on, life was just beginning? That high school wasn’t the high point of life? That what doesn’t kill you makes your stronger? No, not that last one. It might be true, but it wouldn’t help. What would be the correct thing to say? How about, just wait, because you win.
Yes. That was what she wanted Abigail to know. Hang on no matter how hard. There’s a strength you don’t even realize exists deep inside of you that has to have more time to emerge. And yes, you win.
Author’s note – This is the reunion party that Gail Duncan attended, but couldn’t remember following her murder in Wraith’s Heart. I wanted to share it with you, because she was happy here and she did win. Thank you.