It started as a whisper in the back of Gia’s mind. Easy to ignore, especially with therapy. The letters Dr. Emile had her write were especially helpful. Now that school was starting, she wrote one every day. The whisper said things were going to be just like at her old school. That she wouldn’t fit in. That the other kids would, at best ignore her, and at worst….
She didn’t want to think about the worst. So the letters she wrote to herself, giving her small pep talks, became armor.
The morning freshman year started was spent running through her checklist. First, put on the outfit she had spent a week choosing. A simple sweater and skirt with long, plain socks and cute black shoes. Take special care to eat at least a bowl of cereal. With everything swirling around in her head all the time, Gia forgot to eat sometimes. Next, brush teeth and hair, then sit and let Mama curl it. The whisper was still there, saying it didn’t matter. No matter how many things went right, no matter how pretty she looked, once she opened her mouth, everyone would turn on her.
Mama’s voice was stronger. It pushed her forward, kept her from hiding under the covers and pretending to be sick. Part of that was the Xanax, but Xanax didn’t smile or caress her cheek like Mama did. So, Gia smiled brightly and walked herself to school for the first time in her life.
By the end of the first month of freshman year, the whisper had become a voice. Gia had tried to put herself out there. She answered questions in class, greeted her peers like everyone else, and bought lunch at school, despite Mama’s worries. It wasn’t enough. Every whisper, every snicker she heard, the voice insisted was directed at her.
She wrote more letters, sometimes even two or three a day, to make him go away. When she presented the stack to Dr. Emile, it led to questions about how school was going, the other kids, and if the Xanax was working. Gia never mentioned the voice. She had visited her aunt in the hospital once after Papa died. Aunt Emma had been talking to her friend, Titania, when Gia and Mama had arrived, but she couldn’t see anyone there.
Gia didn’t want to go to the hospital. She didn’t want to become someone Mama only talked to when bad things happened. So the voice would have to stay a secret.
It was getting cold when Gia asked the voice’s name. The other kids were being cruel. One of them had caught her writing a letter. She wouldn’t have been writing one at school, except he was getting really bad that day and she needed it. The teasing started, and the couple friends she had made vanished soon after.
It had taken a week for the loneliness to get to her. When she asked her question, the voice simply stated, “I am called whatever you wish to call me.” Gia thought for a moment.
“You sound like a Puck,” she said. “How do you like that?”
“It’s wonderful, Gia.” Having Puck on her side was amazing. He became even more helpful than the letters. Any time someone asked about them, or called her one of the various nicknames they had come up with, Puck would say, “You don’t need them anyway. I’m your friend, and that’s all that matters.” They had long conversations after Mama fell asleep, and Gia felt the best she had since the beginning of the year.
Puck took a physical form once the teasing got worse. He was everything Gia hoped he’d be. Tall, lithe, and she could see he had fangs when he opened his mouth.
As things kept going downward, he convinced her to try a number of dangerous things. At first, nothing really stuck. Alcohol tasted bad, as did cigarettes and marijaua, and anything that was smoked for that matter. Mama kept anything that had sharp objects locked ever since Papa died, and the things she saw when she tried LSD were honestly kinda boring compared to Puck. Then he taught her to drip candle wax on her arms. Gia loved the color of the wax, the way the candle smelled before it hit her skin, and the pretty color the wax turned it. She didn’t care that it hurt. Puck told her not to worry, and she could trust him.
Then someone new came to town. They introduced themself as Chris in first period. Chris was adorable. They had curly, red hair that fell into their eyes and around their shoulders and a light tan face with a few stray freckles. They were wearing a baggy gray hoodie and jeans. Their hands were shoved into their pockets and their eyes were on the ground when the teacher introduced them.
“We should invite them to sit with us at lunch.”
“That’s not a good idea.”
“People already bully you for doing your therapy homework and talking to me. Imagine how they’ll react when--”
“Well, if my reputation is really that bad, it can’t get any worse, right?” Puck scowled at her. His fangs glinted like knives.
“Even if Chris somehow decides you’re worthy of their time, they could never be a better friend than I am. I’m the only one you need.”
“Well, maybe another friend wouldn’t hurt, Puck. Please can we invite them to lunch?”
“Fine,” he growled. Gia beamed and hugged him.
“Thank you.” He patted her back instead of putting his arms around her like usual. “Hey, Chris,” Gia called. They smiled at her, and her heart skipped a beat.
“Hi. Gia, right?”
“Yup. How’s your first day going?”
“Not as good as I hoped. How are you?”
“As well as I’ve ever been. Do you want to come sit with me and my friend Puck at lunch?”
“Sure.” Then Gia had to go to science and Christ had English, so Gia told them where she usually sat and walked them to their next class.
When lunch finally arrived, Gia got through the line quickly and sat down. An anxious ball formed in her chest, growing bigger with each thought. What if they couldn’t find her? What if they found someone cooler to sit with? What if--”
“Where’s that friend you were talking about?”
“Puck’s right here. Can’t you see him?” A mess of emotions flitted across Chris’s face. Gia frowned as they settled on Worried, But Trying Not to Show It.
“Hi, Puck,” they said finally. He bared his teeth at them.
“Be nice,” Gia scolded him. Puck glared at the table. An uncomfortable silence fell over the group.
“That’s for calling me Chris,” they said suddenly. “I’ve had to answer to Christine all morning.”
“Yeah, the other kids can be cruel sometimes. Don’t worry about them, okay?”
“I was talking about the teachers. Attendance and all that. It’s not like anyone misgenders me on purpose.”
“Why? Do the others bully you?” Gia quickly shook her head.
“N-no. Don’t worry about it. Everything’s fine.” They nodded in a way that made her think they’d bring it up again later.
The rest of lunch was spent discussing teachers, classes, and plans. Gia learned Chris was a dreamer. They had so many passions they were trying to pursue. They didn’t really know what they wanted to do yet, but they were trying to learn as much about themself as possible. Gia found that she wanted to learn even more about Chris, and lunch with them wasn’t going to be enough. So, when the bell rang, she plucked up all the courage she had and asked them if they wanted to study for the upcoming History test that weekend. Chris agreed, and Gia’s heart did a happy dance.
On the first day of spring, Chris asked Gia out. They understood everything. They didn’t leave when they found Gia dripping the wax on her arms, but held her close and slowly convinced her to stop. They tried to make conversation with Puck to make her happy. They never ridiculed her for doing what Dr. Emile asked her to and, in Gia’s eyes, Chris was perfect. Puck still didn’t like them, but she was learning to care less about what he thought. Sometimes, he even disappeared for a day or two.
The day of their date, Gia and Chris went to the small Italian ice stand by the grocery store. They ate and talked and laughed like normal. After that, Chris took Gia’s hand and the pair walked around the neighborhood. Eventually, they made their way to Chris’s house. “Come on,” they said. “I have something to show you.” They led Gia up to their bedroom and helped her out the window to a small roof, then up a ladder.
Gia’s heart skipped a beat. There before her was the most beautiful garden she had ever seen. Flowers of all colors of the rainbow stood proudly in pots painted with yellow, white, purple, and black stripes. The fragrant herbs welcomed her, and small saplings waved hello in the light breeze. Chris smiled shyly. “Do you like it?”
“This is amazing,” Gia whispered. “Did you grow all this?”
“Yeah. My sister helped a lot before she left for college. I mail her bouquets every now and then. They’re always either smashed or wilted by the time she gets them, but she loves it.” Gia wrapped her arms around their waist.
“Can I kiss you?” Chris just nodded. So, she leaned in and brushed her lips against theirs.
The teasing got worse for Gia and started for Chris when they held hands at school. Words like, “freak,” and, “attention-seeker,” got tossed at one or both of them. Puck was back full time and constantly tried to get Gia to hurt herself. It was a lot, but they were always there, and she tried to be there for them.
One day, Gia, Chris, and Puck were in Chris’s garden, watching the clouds. It was a peaceful day, very unlike the past month. Then, Puck got an odd look in his eye. “Hey, Gia, watch this,” he said. Then he ran and leaped off the roof.
Gia shrieked and ran to the edge. Somehow, Puck was on his feet, laughing. “Your turn,” he yelled. She shook her head and backed up. “Come on! What do you have to lose?”
“I have Chris,” she yelled back.
“Gia? What’s going on,” they asked.
“I’ll catch you,” Puck shouted, almost drowning them out. Gia backed up even more. She took a deep breath. Then she ran for the edge.
“Gia, no,” Chris screamed. As Gia jumped, she felt fingers brush her arm, then vanish. Puck was below her with his arms out. She didn’t notice the malicious gleam in his eyes, or the way he faded bit by bit as she got closer to the ground. All she saw was her friend.
Gia didn’t remember hitting the ground, or waking up with her arms and legs bound in casts and her ribs bandaged. She didn’t remember the pain or being stuck in bed. But she did remember the hospital. It was sterile, white, and cold. Gia hated the cold.
This place was nicer. A little warmer, and the nurses actually smiled from time to time.
Gia had a new routine now. She took a pill in the morning that kept Puck away. She wrote Chris a letter in green crayon every day. Mama visited every afternoon and brought homework, a book, and Chris’s letter back. She still missed them both and couldn’t wait to leave.
Gia glanced at the clock. Today was the first day she was allowed visitors who weren’t family, and Chris promised they’d show up after school. Just like the day they met, it was taking forever for the day to end. But Gia knew they would be there. And she’d wait all eternity to see their face.