There were plenty of kids we made fun of in high school — the girl with the face tattoo; the foreign exchange student from Wales; Male Leslie — but Anna was different. Nothing ever fazed her. In fact, it seemed like she enjoyed when people pulled on her braids as they passed her in the hall, and she delighted in the notes people shoved in the slats of her locker. She would extract each one carefully, smooth out the wrinkles, and tape them onto one of her school binders. Instead of “French” or “Social Studies,” which most girls took hours detailing in glitter pen, the fronts of her books said “Freak” and “Hick Bitch.”
Why does any one person become a target? For some, it was obvious: an ugly face; a funny accent; a weird name. But Anna didn’t have any of that. It was as if one day we had decided that she had no place in our world with her hand-sewn clothes, her long red braids that hung down below her hips, and her apathy.
One day, Anna arrived in homeroom with an unpleasant smell. What I mean is, she stank like shit. Like cow turds. Anna’s family lived on a farm, so there was always some wet, animal-like aura surrounding her, but this was a thousand times worse. As Mrs. Hannigan took attendance, people started to whisper, then gag, until finally when Anna’s name was called, Freddy shouted, “Smells like a cow got out of the barn!”
Freddy was sent to the office, and Anna didn’t so much as turn around.
Why does any one person become a target? For some, it was obvious: an ugly face; a funny accent; a weird name. But Anna didn’t have any of that.
By the time lunch rolled around, news of the stench had spread to the entire school. I sat with Freddy in the cafeteria and we craned our necks toward the entrance to see her — or rather smell her — when she walked in.
“That bitch should be homeschooled,” said Freddy, who’d received two days detention for his outburst. I nodded in agreement. I was a dick back then, but worse, I was a coward.
I’d just gotten up to return my tray when I heard jeers and yells. To my left, Anna had walked through the cafeteria doors. She didn’t smell like anything anymore. Her hair was wet, as if she’d taken a shower in the girls’ locker room. I felt embarrassed for her. Her braids left two damp circles on the bottom of her shirt. Suddenly, a half-full chocolate milk carton collided with my head, its contents exploding onto my face. I could only assume it was meant for Anna, whose mouth was open in shock. Brown milk slid down the bridge of my nose and soaked into the collar of my shirt. Everything had gone silent.
Suddenly, Anna stepped forward and pulled a handkerchief from her skirt pocket. I remember it was white with red embroidery around the sides. She’d made it herself. She touched it to my face, sopping up the milk gently. I was transfixed. It felt as if we were the only two people in the state of New Jersey.
“What the shit?” I heard Freddy’s voice from across the room. He and everyone else were staring at Anna and me. She’d touched me and I knew I was afflicted. The same unknown curse that hung over Anna would be transferred to me if I didn’t do something immediately to stop it. Something snapped in me and I knocked Anna’s hand away from my face.
“You stink!” I heard myself say. “You smell… fucking terrible.” I ran out of the cafeteria, out of the school building. I got into my car and drove home, where I told my mother I felt sick to my stomach. It wasn’t a lie. I lay under my covers for the rest of the day.
‘That bitch should be homeschooled,’ said Freddy, who’d received two days detention for his outburst. I nodded in agreement. I was a dick back then, but worse, I was a coward.
Anna was wearing the pin the next day in homeroom, as if nothing had happened. It was a little green skunk with the words: “You Stinker.” I turned bright red. It was fastened to the edge of her collar, where it would remain for the next two years. At first, kids laughed at it. They repeated my infamous words, now permanently attached to their target. I felt nauseous whenever Anna walked into the room. Every time I heard those words or saw the jade green of the skunk, my stomach churned. But I started to hear them less and less. And soon, sooner than I thought, I stopped hearing them altogether. Anna never smelled quite that bad again. Even if she had, I don’t think anyone would have commented. The idea became old, the joke was tired, too easy. But Anna kept the pin on. Even when it seemed everyone had forgotten.
Why does any one person fade into oblivion? High school seemed endless. In those next two years, there would be many others we would decide weren’t worthy of kindness. They would be marked, for reasons so miniscule that none of us would ever truly feel untouchable. But miraculously, for those last years, Anna was. There was no more hair pulling. There were no more notes.
When we graduated, Anna stuck the pin on her tassel, and instead of throwing her cap into the air with the rest of us, she tossed up that little green skunk. After everyone cleared out, I looked for it. I wasn’t sure why. I just wanted to touch it, to feel its power. I didn’t find it there. I found it in my locker, later that same day, with a note that read, “I don’t need this anymore.”
Claire Dee was born and raised in New York City and has lived in Minnesota, Maine, Normandy, and the Rhône Valley. She graduated from Macalester College in 2018, where she studied English and French.