It’s a small smile, but enough to show me that her two front teeth overlap. She stands a distance from her mother’s side, trying desperately not to look at either of us.
“I’m sure Helena will be welcomed with open arms, Ms. Harris. In fact, I’ll see to it that she is.”
I smile warmly, but the girl blushes from head to toe and moves farther away. She absently pulls her hair, strand by stand, dropping each one to the floor as it comes out at the root and it’s suddenly clear why there are sparse patches scattered across her scalp.
“Helena, stop.” Her mother’s whisper is sharp. “Remember what I said.”
I didn’t think it was possible, but the girl turns a deeper shade of red and I can’t help but wonder if she’ll be okay here on her own.
“Nothing to worry about.” I reassure her. “You’ll be fine.”
Ms. Harris’ lips tighten. She turns to Helena and brushes roughly at her blazer, pulls on her tie.
“Well Helena, I’m off. And for heaven’s sake, keep your hands out of your hair.” With that she walks away, leaving the girl gaping after her. No hug. Not so much as a good-bye.
“You’ve got lovely hair.” I tell her as we head into my office. I walk to the chair behind my desk. “It’s so straight.” I reach up to my own curly mop and laugh.
She stands until I ask her to sit.
“We’ll head to your class when you’re ready.” I offer when I notice her eyeing the door.
“Really? Because we can sit here for a while. Talk. There’s no rush.”
She pulls at her hair, adjusts her glasses and stands.
“No, I’d like to go now if that’s okay.”
The walk to Mr. Roy’s room is quiet, no one in the halls, just the sound of Helena’s loose laces slapping the floor.
“Your mother didn’t tell me much, I’m afraid.”
“I’m sorry about her. She’s like that.”
“Have you signed up for any of our teams? Or enrolled in the book club?”
“I suck at sports and book club is social suicide for someone like me. I don’t need any help being unpopular.” Her tone is well beyond her years.
We reach Mr. Roy’s door and Helena finally looks at me.
“I’m okay on my own.”
Several bracelets slide out from under her jacket sleeve and circle her thin wrist as she reaches for the doorknob.
“Absolutely no jewelry allowed. Yeah, I know. I read the rules before I got here.”
“Yes, you’re right, but what I was going to say is, you know where my office is if you need anything.”
She enters the classroom and from the hall I hear her say; “What are you lookin’ at? Never seen a baldy, four-eyed, new girl before?”
I think of Ms. Harris and how Helena had stood so far away from her. How her mother had been so rough, how she hadn’t said good-bye. I think of her tight lips and her stern whisper and I know now, Helena has always been okay on her own.