It wasn’t the red hair which gave her the nickname. It wasn’t the fact that she was the first girl in her circle of friends to bleed. It wasn’t that when she cut herself, the blood didn’t stop until blocked by a hank of her long, rust-colored hair. It wasn’t even the red pennies she tucked under the laces of her shoes, took out during class, and danced between the fingers of her right hand.
All the other kids in school knew to avoid her, but they also knew they couldn’t make their avoidance obvious. They swayed out of her way in the halls, no eye contact, maybe the slightest nod, like the kind you give to your third cousin who shared your room this past summer—the one you never cared for—who snored, who talked in her sleep, who picked her nose, but who was beautiful in the way that makes people stop at a rosebush for a particular rose. Snuffle their nose in it. Eat it with their eyes. Cut it near the base of the stem, take it home, throw it into a vase, forget about it, have it wilt into gray-purple lace with only a thorn-prick for payment.
At lunch, people sat at her table, keeping up the fiction that Red Penny wasn’t shunned, that she was normal. They didn’t talk to her but around her, their gossip brittle, their jokes deflated balloons. The next day, a different collection of sacrifices took their places in those hard, brightly colored plastic seats. Cheerful as a clown’s nose. And Red Penny, she ate her lunch like a trained wolf, tearing it into pieces and tossing those pieces into her mouth one by one, her tongue lapping out at the last second to tag the food just before her sharp white teeth clamped shut. No one had trouble imagining her doing the same to them, to their fingers, to their cheeks.
Every adult—the parents, the teachers—saw her as just another teenager. They were no help. She was a little lonely, maybe. Standoffish. But who isn’t at that age? Who doesn’t find their teen years a straightjacket? Who doesn’t remember their time in middle school as a background character in someone else’s nightmare?
But the adults didn’t have pennies appear in their gym shoes, working hard to blister their soles. They didn’t enter the bathroom to find a stranger with her dispassionate, dissecting eyes awkwardly smiling back from the mirror. They didn’t see her on the other side of the library stacks, peeking over the tops of the books, unblinking, begging you, teasing you, to pick a book, to open that gap so she could reach through.
The assistant principal kept her after school one day because he found her in the hall without a pass, and she didn’t even try to come up with an excuse. She just tilted her head and stared curiously into his mouth every time he asked a question.
In the school playground, as the sun was setting, the band kids on their way home after practice saw a man on his back, his stomach swollen. Is that the assistant principal? Are you okay, sir? You go check on him. You go walk closer. You be the one.
Huddled together, they shuffled forward.
Red Penny crouched like a cat in his emptied torso, beckoning with a half-lidded gaze. Blood swam in her eyes. She invited them to join her. Adulthood; it was right there.
They all jumped in—up to their waists in the bloody muck of it.