SOMETIMES WE MAKE BAD CHOICES
REGAN SAT AT THE kitchen table, poking listlessly at her oatmeal, pushing raisins beneath the surface. Her schoolbag waited next to her chair, ready to be slung over her shoulder as she ran for the bus.
Her mother stood by the sink, rinsing the pot she’d used to make the oatmeal. “Your riding lesson today is with Caroline,” she said. “You like her, don’t you? You said she has a good sense of what you’re capable of, even if it’s not what you’re doing right now.”
Regan nodded, head bobbing up and down like a puppet’s, and she shoved another bite of oatmeal into her mouth.
“Sweetheart, I need you to talk to me. I know we dropped a lot on you last night, but I need to know you understand it, and aren’t going to be eating yourself alive all day.”
“Huh?” Regan looked up from her oatmeal, spoon dangling loosely from her fingers. “Oh, yeah, Mom. I’m fine. I understand what you told me.”
“I’m so glad,” said Maureen, too relieved to question further. It had taken her a long time to understand what the doctors were trying to say; she was a smart woman, but this was her daughter they’d been talking about, and sometimes that had made it difficult for her to see things clearly. “You don’t have to go to school if you don’t want to.”
“We’re having a history test today. I don’t want to have to make it up next week.” Regan slid out of her seat. “The bus will be here in a few minutes. I love you.”
“I love you, too,” said Maureen, and watched Regan collect her bag and lunch and walk out of the kitchen. There was an odd finality in the moment, one that would come back to haunt her over the next six years, long after the search parties had given up combing the woods and the flyers had faded to illegibility in the store windows where they hung, endlessly hopeful, endlessly futile.
The screen door banged behind Regan as she left, cutting across the lawn to the bus stop. She was one of three students who were picked up this close to the edge of town, and the other two, the Ellery boys, were already there. As always, they ignored her, and she studiously returned the favor, staring blankly into the distance. Medical terms and confused, half-formed ideas chased each other around her head like untrained puppies, running into things and going sprawling, making it impossible to focus. It was almost a relief when the bus pulled up in a gout of exhaust and a rush of hot engine air, the door creaking open to admit the trio.
The boys sat up at the front with their friends, fellow princes of the playground. Regan slouched toward the middle of the bus, where a few members of Laurel’s outer circle were already seated, passing scented markers back and forth, whispering, and playing with each other’s hair.
At the very back of the bus, Heather sat alone. For a moment, Regan was seized with the almost irresistible urge to sit down beside her like the past few years hadn’t happened, like they were still best friends, the kind of friends who could tell each other anything. Heather would understand what she was going through. Heather would pull a spare apple out of her lunch bag and start talking about how every flower was different and beautiful and wasn’t that wonderful?
But she had treated Heather shamefully; she had chosen Laurel. So she sat with the other girls, who budged over to make room for her, even if they didn’t welcome her, and folded her hands in her lap, staring straight ahead as the bus pulled away from the curb.
They stopped several times more to pick up more kids. On the third stop, Laurel got onto the bus, mincing down the center isle with quick, sure steps to plop down next to Regan, so close she was almost sitting on the other girl’s knee. “Scoot over,” she commanded, and Regan, long since trained to obedience, scooted.
“What’s wrong with you?” asked Laurel, giving Regan a narrow-eyed look.
“Nothing,” said Regan.
“Then why are you making that face?”
“It’s just my face!” protested Regan. “I didn’t sleep much last night. I had a big talk with my parents.”
Laurel’s nose wrinkled in sudden understanding, or something that must have felt like understanding from the inside. “Did they decide it was time to teach you about S-E-X?” she asked.
“Why would they do that?” asked one of the other girls. “It’s not like Reggie is ever going to have a boyfriend.” Several of the others burst into wild giggles, like the cackling of a flock of crows. Regan curled further into herself, drawing her knees toward her chest.
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