Chapter Seven of Masking
"Boo!" Someone playfully cried at Tammy from behind her. She turned to face them, angry and miserable and her mind a roiling mass of directionless fog. Despite her arched posture pointing her crestfallen face at the floor, and despite the hoodie she wore, she still managed to cast a look up at the speaker. They froze.
"I...st…'m fraid of ME right now…!" She managed to hiss in defiance of her traitorous waggling jaw. She was struggling not to break down. Her entire upper body involuntarily heaved at random every few seconds-it had been this bad for a bit, but giving her mouth permission to move just now had made it far worse. She could see, out the bottom of her red bleary eyes, that the tray she held was shaking. It was shaking violently. Fire erupted through her veins, it threatened to consume her, to boil her skin and turn her blood into magma and shred her skeleton. She bit her lip. Letting herself be seen crying would only make the problem worse.
She wasn't safe yet.
"I...oh...okay," her friend stammered with fear in their voice. They reached out halfway but stopped and partially withdrew their hand. Took a step back. Good. They were safer.
"Th….thaaank, y-y, you…" Tammy forced out, using strategically timed pauses to pretend she wasn't on the verge of tears. To act like she wasn't shattered inside and her facade of health had been thoroughly destroyed.
She wanted to scream.
"Uh...uh huh," her friend nodded, not knowing what to do. They backed away a bit more and then disengaged to grab food. Tammy turned around. She was just in time to order her own.
"Next," grunted the lunch lady. Tammy pulled the hoodie over her face more and forced out the word "cheeseburger." She was scared she hadn't done it loudly enough, but the lunch lady asked if she wanted bacon on it. Tammy answered by nodding her head yes.
The rest of the process was quick enough. She skipped grabbing anything else. She wasn't in the mood to enjoy any of it anyway. Her appetite was gone.
As Tammy stood in line she forced her breathing to slow down. Jammed her circadian rhythm into a more nuetral position. By the time she was paying for her food her mask was duct taped back together.
"Thank you have a nice day!" She smiled. This was the cashier who held her food while she dashed back to her dorm for her student ID the other day. Tammy liked that one.
It was a pleasant memory. Mostly. At the moment, that was the closest thing to joy that her mind could remember how to feel. She stopped at the plastic utensils dispenser and grabbed a fork and a knife. It wasn't until she was halfway back to her seat that she realized she didn't need them and stuffed them in her pockets out of embarrassment.
It was four fifteen PM. Tammy sat at her computer and drummed her fingers on one leg. Her father hadn't shown up all day and she was feeling confident, now, that he wouldn't. It was nice when these things happened. She stared happily at the screen as she exchanged flirty messages with her girlfriend.
"Thanks for earlier," read the one at the top of the screen, timestamped as having been sent by Tammy at three forty, "I needed that. I love you!" The rest were in a similar vein. Lots of digital hugs and smooches. Tammy felt at peace, which was a nice break from the rest of the day.
"Coming!" Tammy hopped out of her bed and went to the door. She wasn't sure who it was. "Who is it?" No answer. Maybe they didn't hear her. Oh well, she was going to have her answer soon. She unlocked the door, pulled it open-
"Where were you?" The question was dull, angry, and hostile, like a rock hurled in your face. Her father stepped uninvited into her room with a glowering stare. Tammy instinctively backed away from him as that elusive inner peace was dashed instantly to pieces as if on a sharp stone.
"Wh-where was I?" The confusion in Tammy's voice was genuine-she had no idea she was supposed to be anywhere. "I wasn't told-"
"You had a meeting," her father stated bluntly, towering over his progeny despite being a quarter of an inch shorter than her, "at three thirty. Where were you?"
"R-right here I guess," Tammy sputtered, glad she happened to be wearing an oversized hoodie that concealed her chest. "I'm sorry-nobody said anything-"
"You got an email," her father growled with something in his voice that bordered on disgust. "We need to talk. Let's go for a walk." He turned and moved towards the door without waiting for a response. Tammy followed. She realized her hair was still pink, and what's more a bra sat on top of her dresser. She pulled the hoodie against her head.
"Okay dad, on my-"
"On second thought." Her father stopped and turned around. "There's no reason we can't have this talk here."
"N-no," Tammy laughed, nervous and afraid. Her heart was pounding. "You're right, dad, let's go for a walk, you know how I-"
"There's no need for that." Her father closed the door. Tammy felt small. She felt trapped.
"C-can we anyway, though?" Tammy pleaded. "You always say I need to leave my dorm more often." He sighed and groaned, then opened the door.
"Fine. Come on."
Tammy did. Her father led her to the elevator and the two stepped inside. Tammy tried not to think about how she was pretty sure he'd never been to her dorm before and shouldn't have known which was hers, or about how the front door was supposed to refuse entry unless you had a student ID. The silence, indomitable except by the hum of the elevator, threatened to suffocate her. She grabbed for her phone in her pockets, but her hands found nothing but her wallet. Panic threatened to set in.
Not that her phone would save her. She knew better than to give him an excuse to smash it.
The elevator lurched into its resting place on the first floor and, for a brief moment, there was a pause bereft of noise, including even the elevator's descent. Then, after a few agonizingly long seconds had come and gone, the elevator beeped and its doors slid gently open. Father and daughter made their way through the new opening and across the lobby. As soon as they crossed the front door to the outside, the elder of the two came snarling to life.
"Why did your grades drop?"
Fuck. He wasn't supposed to be able to see those! A hand made of dread and ice clutched at Tammy's heart. A veritable tsunami of panic rocked her mind. Any sense of safety was crushed and shoved violently aside in an instant. Her heart surged, her palms went cold.
"I-I don't-" if she refused to answer, he'd explode. If she answered honestly, he'd explode. She was locked in a room with a bomb and orders to disarm it, but wearing mittens that would break her fingers if she removed them.
"ANSWER ME, CRAIG!"
Tammy visibly flinched. Her body plunged into a primal state of fight or flight. Fire erupted through her bones and flesh. Her torso squelshed with hate until it felt like her organs were in a pressure cooker. She desperately yanked her eyes all about to see if anyone heard him-seemingly, nobody had.
"I-I feel like I'm being ordered to stomp in a bear trap-"
"A BEAR TRAP!?" He looked down at her with the sort of contempt normally reserved for an animal that ate one's only child. "HOW ABOUT THIS FOR A BEAR TRAP, I PUT FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS DOWN THE DRAIN SENDING YOU HERE!" His body was stiff, upright, imposing and uncompromising and shaking with pure unfiltered rage. Tammy forced herself not to cry, not to show how angry she was, or how close she was to snapping.
"I was-struggling with depression-"
"Your depression is BULLSHIT!" He both hissed and screamed at her. Tammy shrank away but forced herself not to do it too much, for fear of making things worse. She was so at a loss at this point that she shut up entirely. "You keep wasting your time out with your friends or on that god DAMN PHONE when you're here to take classes!" Tammy refrained from reminding him of all the times he'd gotten bitter that she spent her time in her dorm.
"S-sorry! I'm trying!" She tried in vain to mollify him, despite knowing that the truth was obviously useless.
"You fucking should be!" He took a deep breath and seemed, to an outsider observer, to compose himself. Tammy was not an outside observer. "Fine, then. I'm sorry. I'm just-you have to work with me, okay?" Tammy nodded, not in acceptance or agreement but surrender. "Come on, let's talk." Tammy nodded silently and followed her father across campus as they talked. She was silent, of course, and stared at the ground.
He lost his temper once or twice more, naturally, which happened to be roughly the number of times Tammy answered him with a complete sentence. He spoke as they walked slowly to the track field, made a loop around the athletic side of campus, and eventually returned. Eventually Tammy wasn't paying attention.
"Are you hungry?" He asked as they arrived outside the cafeteria. She nodded silently, trying to hide how much she was crying. He frowned and, without warning, grabbed the hood and tried to pull it off. Tammy's hands rocketed upward, propelled by instinct, to seize hold of the hood in one hand and his wrist in the other. He glared for a second and then his eyes...for lack of a better word, "softened." "Right, you're weird and you don't like being touched. Sorry." He let go, and so did she. The wild animal that lived inside Tammy wanted to snarl that he wasn't, that he very clearly wasn't fucking sorry, that he was treating her like he would an unrululy beast of burden, but she forced a muzzle onto it. They walked closer to the cafeteria and he froze.
"You dyed your hair again, didn't you?" No answer. He balled up his fists. "Damn it, how is anyone supposed to take you seriously-fine, whatever." Tammy knew what that meant. It was dad code for "I won't make you do anything you don't want to. Also, as soon as you come home, we're chopping it all off."
Tammy sat down with her father. She could see her friends from queer club behind her father, sitting at a table against the wall. That was good. She could look at them instead of him.
"Your eye contact has improved so much!" Her father laughed. "I'm so glad we sent you here." Tammy nodded and slowly ate. She knew what he really meant by that second part, but she also knew it was an angler fish bulb: engage with it and he'd tear her limb from limb, with nobody for her to blame except herself.
She quietly finished her food. Her father talked in a hopeful voice about wanting to help, being there for her, how she wasn't alone. She nodded robotically and beat back the wild hurricane of misery and outrage that whipped at her brain. The burger tasted okay, as they always did, but her brain barely had the ability to process that information. Instead it was a mere task: consume food, be allowed not to answer.
[AUTHOR'S NOTE: The worst of it ends here]
Emily and Arella sat down at their table. Their other two friends, Marshall and a boy named Michael, welcomed them as usual.
"I'm just saying," Michael said soon after, no doubt continuing a statement they'd interrupted with their arrival, "that I'm glad Ms. Brosh isn't leaving. She's been cheer...uh...advisor, supervisor? Since my brother went here."
"I told you that was a dumb rumor." Arella jumped in, needing no further context. "Besides, she's nothing special. I'm sure a new teacher would do just as well. Right, Em? Em?" All three of the others looked at Emily. She was eating her pasta. "You know what that means," Arella muttered to nobody in particular. "She's flighty today."
"Mhm," Emily agreed, though she wasn't aware with what. She kept casting glances at Tammy and the man she assumed to be the father who interrupted them the previous night. Michael snapped his fingers at her, which broke her stupor. "Ah! Y-yes, sorry, I'm-"
"We know," muttered Arella. "What is it, you have boy trouble?"
"What a stupid question," Marshall snorted derisively. "She never has boy trouble. I thought we established this."
"There's a first for everything!" Arella shot back. "What, are you psychic now?"
"No," said Emily, "it's definitely not boy trouble. My head's just foggy is all. Happens sometimes, you know?"
"Yeah," Michael and Marshall replied in unison. Arella, for her part, merely shrugged. All four ate for a bit. Emily saw out the corner of her eye that the man left. Tammy put her food on the conveyor belt and returned...but rather than leaving, she seated herself at a table one or two down from the cheer squad members.
"Well," said Arella, "Something is DEFINITELY up. You grabbed a piece of chocolate cake."
"I did?" Her voice held disbelief, and as Emily looked down at her tray so did her eyes. Yes, indeed, on it sat a small plate with a slice of chocolate cake. "I did."
"Wow." Marshall chimed in. She sounded concerned for some reason. "Emily, are you okay? Like, that's-you don't remember?"
"I remember NOW," said Emily with a defensiveness to her voice, "you guys know my short term memory is spotty sometimes."
"Sure, sure," all three seemed to answer. After a bit of eating in silence, conversation seemed to reset. They talked about the cheer squad, their schedules, their professors. Emily kept an eye on Tammy and wished she could hear what they were saying. They seemed to be far more physically expressive right-
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Tammy punched her table so hard that all four cheerleaders could hear it, along with a pained scream that made a third of the cafeteria freeze to stare at her. Emily's heart stung. So did her eyes.
"She scares me," Arella whispered. Nobody commented on it. They just went back to their meals. At the end all of them put their trays away and went to leave.
"I need to check something in the kitchen!" Called Emily, who pretended to be reading a text message. "Grendel left something behind yesterday!"
"Grendel doesn't work in the cafeteria," muttered a suspicious Arella. Her eyes narrowed somewhat as she stopped.
"Doesn't matter," cut in Marshall as she took one of Arella's arms (gently) in her grasp. "Sometimes they keep things back there that were left in the cafeteria. It happens." Sounding only mostly convinced, Arella rolled her eyes and left. The two had to break into a slight powerwalk to catch up with Michael. Emily walked after them and slid the tiny plate onto the table in front of Tammy. She tried to get away stealthily-
Tammy was grabbing her sleeve. Fuck.
"Shhh. There there." Emily turned and pulled Tammy into a hug, taking care to make sure the pink haired girl's face went in her boobs. They started sobbing violently. Shit, shit. What was the time? She looked. Five fifteen. Shit. She didn't have enough time-she wanted to, she really wanted to-"I'm sorry Tammy," she whispered in her best imitation of Tammy's motherly hypnotist voice, "I gotta go, I can't-please-!"
Tammy let go and pulled utensils from her pockets. Emily really wanted to ask why she had them but elected to break into a run rather than stay and spend time on questions. She needed to fetch her gym bag, which was in her dorm. That put her on a pretty harsh time table.
It was nine PM. Cheer practice had ended a little bit early. The team loitered around in the changing room and awkwardly talked about...well, it was a pretty even mix of gossip, school, and parties, really. There was more than a bit of catching up as well, which there always was this early in the year. It tended to die off within two weeks or so.
Emily's heart wasn't in it.
"You SURE you're okay?" Marshall probed at her as the two finished changing back into their normal clothes. "You seem really out of it."
"Y-yeah. I'm fine." Emily smiled her best at her teammate. Was Marshall convinced? She really couldn't tell. She never could.
"If you insist, I guess." Marshall didn't sound convinced, in any case. It occured to Emily there was really no need to hide what she was worried about like this, but she had already committed. Her heels were dug too deep to just turn around now.
"I...uh, yeah. I insist." That was...so forced, by god. Emily knew for certain nobody who was fine would ever say out loud "I insist that I'm fine," especially not in the awkward hamfisted way she had done just now. She finished packing her gym bag back up and slung it over one shoulder.
"See you at practice on Friday, Emily. You have my number, right?" Emily nodded. Did she? She was fairly certain that she had Marshall's number in her phone. "Good. I...I hope I'm not coming off as clingy." Emily shook her head no and gave a clumsy thumbs up. Marshall seemed to pause, ready to say something, only to change her mind and give an equally forced thumbs up in return. The two chuckled and left the changing room to go separate ways.
On her way out Emily heard grunting and paused. It was coming from one of the workout rooms. She walked over to investigate and glanced through a glass square in the door which served as a window. The sound was Tammy, wailing (literally) on a punching bag as hard as she could. She seemed...much less coordinated than last time. She was swinging at it almost like a gorilla this time. Emily wanted to open the door and go in, but...something stopped her. She stood awkwardly, with her hand resting wrapped around the knob, until she lost her nerve and turned around to go back to her dorm.
The walk back was agony. All the way, the weight of what she'd just done threatened to wrench her soul from her body. Her shoulders felt sore and cold. She hung her head low. She navigated her way to the gym's front doors guided by muscle memory alone and-
And saw Fara waiting for her.
"Oh! Hi Fara, what are...you doing here?"
She looked ticked off. Pissed off, even. Emily supposed it wasn't a huge surprise.
"This wasn't you, was it?" Fara asked with an accusatory snarl.
"THIS." A pause. Emily must have looked confused because a second later Fara buried a hand against her face and grimaced before elaborating properly. "Tammy! She's a WRECK."
"She, talked...to you?" Emily asked with a shaky hopeful voice. She wasn't sure what was up. If it WAS her fault, she...ought to know.
"No," Fara practically growled, "She's not responding to me. But I heard-I SAW!" And you were sitting-right there!"
Yeah, Emily felt her brain stab at itself, I WAS. She bit her lip and cast her eyes downward.
"It WAS you, wasn't it?"
"I don't-I don't know!" Emily backed away. Fara took a step closer. She was seething.
"What do you MEAN, you don't know!?"
"I DON'T!" Emily screamed. Now she was crying. "I don't know! Her dad called her last night and I saw him sitting with her and-"
"That's…" Fara backed away. The white hot fire behind her eyes extinguished itself. "That's all you need to say. I'm...sorry." Emily sniffled and took a deep breath. She knew Fara had been mad at her, but trust Tammy she couldn't love Tammy, Tammy feels good tell why.
"What...do you mean?"
"You don't-!" Fara seemed angry again, but it only took a moment for her to regain her composure. "Her dad is...awful. That's probably why…" Fara cleared her throat. "I'm sorry." The doors opened behind them. Tammy walked out, bag slung over her shoulder. She looked fine. Both girls knew better.
"Oh, uh, hi. Fara, Emily." Her smile was forced and they both knew it. "Catching up…?"
"Y-yeah," Fara said and scratched the back of her head. "Something like that. I'd been...looking for you."
"I can take care of myself." Tammy's answer was bitter and uncharacteristically venomous. Before Fara could apologize, "sh-shit. I'm sorry, I didn't mean-"
"I know, I know," Fara waved one hand dismissively. "My bad. I could have phrased that better."
"Yeah," Tammy agreed. "What are you doing here, then?"
"Me?" Asked Emily. Tammy nodded. "I'm coming back from cheer practice."
"Ah," Tammy smiled faintly. "Almost wish you hadn't changed. Uniform is probably hot on you." Emily felt a pool of blood surge to her face. Despite herself she couldn't help but imagine hopping up and down, tiny skirt dancing, boobs bouncing, punching the air with a big pearly smile for-
"Aaaanyway," Emily cut off her own daydream to pretend it didn't happen, "you...okay?" Tammy's face soured intensely.
"Do you want to-" started Fara.
"Not here." Yeah, Emily thought, that made sense. "S-sorry. I don't want to be rude, but-"
"We could go back to your dorm," suggested Fara. "You sound like you could use that."
"I'm not in the mood to deal with you two squabbling, Fara. And forgive me for pointing this out, but the last time we spoke you made me cry and then left."
"I-but-!" Fara looked gutted. Emily opened her mouth to say something-anything-! "I'm sorry Tammy, I didn't know! I'm sorry!"
"I-" Tammy sighed. "Yeah, I know. It's okay. I'm sorry. That was...cruel of me." She hugged Fara lightly. "We can spend time together Saturday or something okay?" Fara nodded. Tammy kissed her head. "I love you Fara."
"I love you too Tammy."
Tammy turned to Emily and awkwardly twiddled her fingers.
"But...if y-you want...stay again? With…"