In the morning, CJ woke to the smell of frying bacon and biscuits. She brushed her teeth, washed her face, and walked into the kitchen to find Mom already setting the table for two.
"Morning Crystal," Mom said warmly. "The biscuits are almost done."
CJ sat down and sipped from her cup of orange juice while Mom finished with the food. Once everything was set on the table and their plates were fixed, Mom started talking.
"I know that what happened last night must have scared you," She explained. "And I apologize for not doing enough to prevent it, Crystal."
CJ nodded and sipped some more orange juice while Mom continued.
"Unfortunately, I can't promise you it won't happen again. So to help lessen the chances of anything like that or worse being repeated, I'm going to have a security system installed. There'll be people here around two this afternoon."
"So we're going to do something until then?" CJ asked bluntly.
"Yes." Mom answered, noting her daughter's tone, but allowing it for the time being. "I know I haven't been around as much as I should have for you. That's going to change as well."
"Why do you care now?" CJ snapped.
"I've always cared about you, Crystal."
"I prefer CJ."
"Then prefer it with everyone else. I named you Crystal, so that's what I'm going to call you. And when I do, you're going to answer me."
CJ noticed a look in Mom's eyes then. Something she couldn't quite place. It was serious, but more than just that.
"Do you understand?" Mom asked.
"I saw your report card last night. You're doing great. How's everything else been at school?"
"No issues with the other kids?"
"Are all your teachers and the rest of the staff treating you fairly?"
"What about your friend, Shayla? How is she?"
CJ looked at Mom in confusion.
"Just because I'm not here doesn't mean I can't find out things. Especially when it comes to you."
"I think Shayla's okay." CJ said.
After that, they started eating. CJ didn't know if she could believe what Mom had told her, but she figured the only thing she could do was wait and see what the future held.
When it came to the weekends, Tiffany considered any time before 12:30 an ungodly hour to be awake, so Shayla spent her mornings chatting online with Sara.
Sunshine: Grand rising, star child. What news of my recent decree? :) :)
Shayla smiled and chuckled a little before responding.
Loanstar: My Queen, though I toiled all night, there is still much to be done.
Sunshine: Very well. Continue your diligence, and I will see that you are handsomely rewarded.
Loanstar: As you wish. How are things on your end?
Sunshine: Nice and normal.
When Shayla and CJ went back to school on Monday, there was a new student in their English class. A black girl named Valerie. She rarely spoke when Ms. Anderson asked her questions during class, and kept her head down whenever her turn to read out loud was over. At lunch, Shayla and CJ sat with her and tried to make light conversation, but Valerie stayed quiet. In the days that followed, the best friends learned that Valerie and her father had just moved into one of the vacant houses on their street. By Friday, Valerie still hadn't spoken to anyone, but she did seem comfortable having lunch with Shayla and CJ.
A month after Valerie started school, CJ walked into the girls' bathroom and found her being picked on by three other girls. One girl CJ didn't initially recognize was standing in front of Valerie while the other two blocked her left and right side. All three of them looked up at CJ when she walked in, but ignored her once they saw that she wasn't an adult.
"You know what I think?" The lead girl said. "I think the reason she can't talk is because she's dumb. You some kind of retard?"
Hearing the girl's voice helped CJ register her name as she stepped towards everyone.
"Leave her alone, Fiona."
Fiona was a heavyset, blue-eyed girl who enjoyed bullying others when she was sure she could get away with it. Her mom always came to her defense if she got in trouble, and her dad never severely punished her when he had to. Rolling her eyes, she turned her attention to CJ and sneered.
"No one was talking to you, Crystal."
"No one has to be," CJ replied. "Leave Valerie alone."
"Or I'll make you like I did when you messed with Shayla."
The sneer left Fiona's face as she recalled how hard CJ had punched her in the nose after she'd pushed Shayla off the swings during recess last month. CJ had the same scary look in her eyes now that she'd had that day. With a scoff and another roll of her eyes, Fiona tried to play off her fear.
"Whatever. You're not worth my time anyway."
"Then why are you still here?" CJ asked.
Moving quickly, Fiona and the other girls left the bathroom. CJ turned to where Valerie was still standing with her head down and waited for her to raise it.
"Did they hurt you at all?" She asked.
"No." Valerie whispered, speaking to CJ for the first time.
"Are you going to be okay?"
After that, Valerie seemed to come out of her shell. She started talking more during English, inviting CJ and Shayla to hang out at her house, and joining them on some of the days they spent at the park. When Valerie's father, William, hosted a house warming party, CJ and Shayla came with their mothers. When Melanie held CJ's thirteenth birthday party at a local pizzeria, Shayla and Valerie were there. Soon, all the girls were becoming fast friends. After school ended, they spent the summer days relaxing together and nights at each other's houses. The questions about Valerie's mother were answered, but never advertised, so the friendship stayed strong.