Excerpt for The Girl in the Front of the Room by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Girl in the Front of the Room

By Mercedes Siler

No part of this eBook may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the author.

This is a work of fiction. Any names or characters, businesses or places, events or incidents, are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

© 2017 Mercedes Siler

All rights reserved.


Always first and foremost, for my amazing husband and beautiful kids. ALWAYS.

Secondly, for SA, for your kindred spirit.

The Girl in the Front of the Room

"River, can I get a backup cashier?"

I hold down the button on my radio. "Copy. I’ll come help." I push away from my desk and straighten my grocery store uniform.

Johnny, the new cashier at register three, is floundering with his big transaction. The next guest is waiting patiently with only an armful of items. His face is familiar. Enough to give me goosebumps. But I can’t place him. "Hi. I'll be right with you." I smile at him.

He ducks his head, shy, and I know exactly who he is. We went to school together. He was one of those shy, music kids with long hair and ripped jeans, and faded black concert tees. His shoulders are a little broader now, and his hair is shorter, but it has to be him. Taylor.

I turn to Johnny. "Turn off your light until you’re done, sweetie.” I look at Taylor. I think that’s his name. But the fog of years since high school is strong. "I can take you over here at customer service, sir." I take him to customer service, vaguely self-conscious of my ass. It was a lot smaller in high school, more cute than mom-ish.

Once behind my register I give him a friendly smile. Ten years ago I would have only let a smile like that go to someone who could do something for me. Back in high school I was a mean girl. I was a cheerleader, not because I loved the drills and camaraderie of the other girls, but because it gave me a sense of security. I knew where to sit, who my friends were, what to wear, and what to like. Expectations were clear, and the more miserable I made everyone else, the more secure I felt.

I’m not like that now. Now everyone gets a genuine, if not a little anxious, smile.

The guy stands in front of me, watching me as I sign onto the register. "I went to school with you," he says, cool and sure. “You’re River Stevens.”

"Yeah?" I look him in the eye before scanning his items. Most everyone is nice and forgiving of the girl I was. Some people smirk at me, seeing me as just a slightly overweight grocery store supervisor, a big step down from queen bee. Maybe they expected me to marry well and stay on top. Maybe they love to see me serving them. But in the end, I don’t really care about them anyway. All I care about is paying bills and saving money to buy my own house where I don’t have to worry about my mama filling my little girl’s head with nonsense about what it means to be a girl.

"Yeah. We had math together with Mr. Harris. You sat in the front with your posse."

"I loved Mr. Harris." I smile, reminiscing. He used to let this kid named Andrew break dance for the first five minutes of class. Andrew was one of those out-of-control ADD kids. He was always good with Mr. Harris though.

"You don't remember me, right? I doubt you even knew I existed."

I look up at him, cheeks glowing pink. His face is open and kind. No leftover animosity. I always have the thought in the back of my mind that someone will call me out on all the horrible things I’ve done. And I want so badly to be a good, loving and kind person my daughter can look up to. I don’t want to be reminded of who I used to be.

I shrug, not ready to admit that I do remember him. "High school was such a blur."

"Yeah. It was. And I wasn’t into sports. Or playing games to be popular."

"Me neither, to be honest. I just didn’t know I could do anything else." My mom had raised me with my grandmother’s help after my dad died. They were a family of women, but not the strong kind of women I want to be now. I was a princess. My grandmother told me on a daily basis how lucky I was to be a girl some guy would want to take care of. There was never a question of what my goals were, what I wanted to be when I grew up.

I’m genuinely happy now. My toxic friends have all moved on. They visit whenever they’re around, but mostly they avoid us. They’re still childless and free and meet each other for brunch and go away to music festivals. I don’t mind. They talk to Bobbie, my four-year-old, like she’s still a baby. They tell me how great I look even while telling me I should try this diet, or that diet. I’m sure they can all still fit into their cheerleader uniforms because all they eat are green smoothies and kale chips. They didn’t stay with their high school boyfriends either. They married guys who are ten years older with better assets and already balding. They can go shopping with their credit cards and money they earn selling things in online groups.

Not that I’m bitter. Bobbie is worth it. But it could be nice to indulge once in a while. Stop by for a coffee on my way to work without the guilt of leaving my baby for an extra ten minutes for something so frivolous. And those leggings they sell in those groups are super cute; even if by principle I’d never wear them.

He nods, looking into me with piercing blue eyes. "I just got back into town, actually. What have you been up to? Still cheering on the football players?"

“No, sir. I couldn’t fit into that uniform if I tried.” I sigh, looking toward the memories. Whatever interest he might have is going to fizzle out and die so why not be honest? And it’s probably a good thing, because faking it for men is not what I’m about now. My top priority is my baby girl, Bobbie.

As a little girl, I would watch from under the kitchen table, mixed feelings in my little girl tummy when my mom would bring men home to sit on the back porch and drink with. I wanted my mom to be happy, wanted a father, but worried about the change.

But my mom never remarried. She came close a few times, but cold feet had always gotten the best of her. I don’t want my little girl to worry over men that will breeze through our lives or stay just a little too long.

I smile, thinking of my baby girl, even knowing about the awkwardness about to fall over the easy conversation. "I have a kid. And I work here." I push the tender button and tell him his total. “I live with my mom. But trying to save up to get a place of our own.”

He pays with bills he pulls from his worn leather wallet. "I had a massive crush on you back then.” He gives an awkward sideways smile. “You'd sit in the front of the room with your friends like you guys were really something. I sat in the back, dreaming about inviting you over to hear our band play and you actually saying yes." He grins and hands me the pile of bills. "But I knew you would have shot me down."

I count the money with a smile, silly thoughts running through my mind. "I probably would have shot you down." The corners of my eyes crinkle.

He nods and accepts the change and receipt I hold out, biting the insides of my cheeks.

"Do you still play music?" I don’t want him to leave before I’m ready.

"Always. You wanna come watch me play?” His eyes light with hope, and now he frowns, thoughtful. “I’d like to see you again. I was too shy before, but I’m not going to let that happen again."

His eyes are a pretty, trustworthy blue. A little sad, a little worn down, but friendly and kind. They were always sullen in high school. He never smiled and hardly looked up when I walked past him.

"I have a kid." I can’t just give in to a social life with men.

He shrugs. "That's cool. What about a beer in front of the mini mart where the old pool hall used to be?"

"It’s kind of crazy they tore that place down. I can’t believe it’s a strip mall now." I’m glad that place is gone, but it’s a sore spot for kids like him who had grown up there. I grew up there too, but in different ways.

His face falls. "I loved that place. I played with my first band there on open mic night."

My friends and I hated the kids who hung out there. We would complain about our boyfriends spending too much time playing pool and hanging out with townies and the raunchy girls like Nikki and her bitchy friend. Nikki smiles at me when we run into each other now. "Yep. Now it's a mini mart and a discount t-shirt store, a dry cleaner, and a skate shop."

He looks really depressed about it, like he just wants to go back to bed thinking about it.

"I do remember you.” I admit, hoping to see his eyes light up again. “Taylor Torres, right? You had long hair and holey jeans. You always wore Doc Marten's and slouched in your seat, your long legs stretched out into the aisle. I had to step over your feet to get to my seat. You always had kind eyes and were kinda shy. We were partners on that science project in middle school. Remember we had to roll the dice and pick the genetics our fictional kid would inherit? She got your blue eyes."

His eyebrows move up, like he’s surprised I remember. "And your widow's peak."

I rub my forehead, scrunching my nose. "My real kid got that too. Must be a real dominant trait."

"When do you get off work?"

I look at the clock. Not soon enough. "Not for another hour."

He holds up his bagged six-pack. "Share a six-pack with me? We can sit on the hood of my car in front of the mini-mart and watch the sun set like a couple of teenagers."

"I'm not a teenager anymore. And my little girl will miss me." I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted. But I wouldn’t be able to look into Bobbie’s beautiful eyes knowing that I’d blown her off to hang out with some guy I barely knew. The love and trust in those eyes is too strong. And hearing her little voice in my head, asking me if I had to go to work or if I could just stay with her so I could tuck her in kills me. Even more so while I debate sitting on a car sharing a six pack with a guy. It makes me feel like a horrible mother. It almost makes tears come to my eyes thinking about making that decision. And if I use up that ten minutes of cuddle time on him instead of my baby girl could I ever go back? What if it opens up this long-locked gate in my heart and I start to crave more than just a quiet night at home? What if that feeling bites into my time with my daughter; time that is so fleeting?

He nods, disappointed too. But he doesn’t push, which I appreciate. "It was nice seeing you."

"You too." I bite my lip as I watch him walk away. I call the next person over, my heart heavy.

I’m a mom first. I can’t have men in and out of my life. Maybe if things were reversed and I was a dad, then maybe I could go out and have a good night while leaving my kid wondering where I was. But that’s not the way the world is. I am a mom and I hate to think of hurting my daughter by not being there for her in any way she needs at any time.

I clock out at the end of my shift and grab my stuff. I exit the building, checking my phone for messages and taking a deep breath of fresh air. My mom sent me a picture of my little girl sleeping, all sprawled out across my bed.

The stars are already out and the sun is almost sunk. I didn’t get to say goodnight to my little girl again.

But maybe it’s a sign.

I drive down the street where the old pool hall used to be. I had my first legal hard drink there. It was a Long Island iced tea. I had always been a lightweight and all it took was two of them and I woke up pregnant.

The mini mart is well-lit and I see his car in the corner space. It’s nothing special, a city car like mine. I park next to him and text my mom I’ll be late. I never go out after work. I hope she won’t be put-out by it. She always acts like we’re in some kind of lonely, single mother solidarity.

I tuck my phone into my bra and get out. His eyebrows go up. I hold my hand out and he takes it and helps me up onto his hood with him, his calloused fingers rough against my palm. He pops the top off a beer as I settle and hands it to me.

"Baby asleep?" he asks.

"Yeah. She's not much of a baby anymore. She'll be starting school next year."

He nods. "Her dad around?"

"Not at all." I smile, drained. “It was for the best. He drank too much and didn’t treat us well. It was good he left when he did before she could be disappointed.”

"My dad left too. My mom raised me the best she could. I met him when I was about sixteen and didn’t think much of him."

"You said you'd been away awhile." I look at his fingers, gripped around the neck of his bottle.

"Yeah. I went to college out of state. I've been making my way across the country, seeing all I could see. I heard my mom was sick so I headed back. My buddy is letting me stay with him. You probably wouldn't remember him." He smiles. “Maybe. He was a little cooler than I was.”

I roll my eyes. "Probably not." I look up at the stars. "I wasn't a very friendly person back then. I had my own issues. I try to be a better person now, though. It would kill me if some girls said to my daughter the things I said to people.” I shake my head, thinking of the girls I used to call fat or ugly and how they sunk further and further into themselves as time went on. “Motherhood has been a very humbling experience."

He shrugs. "Everybody's got their own way of figuring stuff out. You never said anything mean to me. But I never even tried to talk to you. I was way too hung up." He looks at me, thoughtful. “How is it? Having a kid?”

My cheeks warm. “It’s like seeing everything over again through her eyes. Hearing her sweet giggle when the cat swishes his tail in her face makes me love cats. And I hate cats.” I grin at him. I so want him to understand. His smile gives me hope he does. “Having a daughter has opened my eyes. My mom wants to dress her in these pink frilly dresses and tells her she looks like a boy when she wears her favorite dinosaur shirt. She talks about her baby fat like it’s bad. When we go places, people tell me I’m going to have to beat boys off with a stick and her daddy’s going to need to have his shotgun ready like they can tell at age four she’s going to be a sexpot. Isn’t that sick?”

He nods. “I can’t imagine.”

“It’s made me rethink a lot of things. I wish I could go back and give my mom and grandma the finger and do what I wanted to do.” I shake my head. “My mother raised me to be pretty and loyal, a catch for some man. She used to set my blonde curls in ringlets and put big bows in my hair.”

“What did you want to do?”

“You’ll just laugh.”

“Tell me.”

“I wanted to have a show like Jack Hanna.” I blush and sink my teeth into my bottom lip as I look into his eyes, feeling the warmth of the beer in my blood.

“That’s awesome.” He nods. “Respect.”

I take a breath and blow it out, blowing my blonde bangs to the side. “Is your mom okay?”

He shakes his head and takes a big swallow of his second beer. “No. She's been working hard her whole life. It's time for her to rest.”

“I'm sorry.”

“It kind of puts life into perspective though. Life goes by so fast. And then one day you don’t have as long as you thought you did.”

"Is that why you changed from that shy, sullen boy to who you are now?"

He gives me a shy, awkward smile. "Haven't changed at all." He shrugs. “But now I take more chances.”

I look him over in the harsh glow of the mini mart’s light. He’s wearing Doc Marten boots, ripped-kneed jeans, and a faded black concert tee.

I peel the label off my beer bottle.

He offers me another beer and I shake my head. He puts it back in the case. "I came back a couple of years ago after a breakup and everything was different. I saw the pool hall had closed down. My friends were all gone. I was going to try to get a job out here and help my mom out but there was nothing for me here. I felt like such a loser, holding onto the things I loved as a kid. I turned around and went back. I didn’t even visit my mom.” He shakes his head. “This time my buddy told me I could stay with him until I figured stuff out with my mom and work. He and his wife have twins a little younger than your little girl, and another little one." He looks into my eyes. "I was debating on whether I should stay or just give up on this place again when I saw you at the store."

I smile, blushing again. "I'm not much to stay for. But your mama will probably be glad if you did."

"Yeah. I don’t think you give yourself enough credit."

We watch the stars twinkle for a while, thinking our own thoughts.

My phone beeps and I pull it from my bra to look at it.

"Is your carriage turning back into a pumpkin?" he asks, clearly disappointed.

"She had a bad dream again. She’s worried about closet monsters." I sigh, my stomach clenching with the need to get home but not wanting to lose this moment. "My mom doesn’t deal well with hysteria."

“Try telling her those monsters have to go to bed or they won’t get jelly beans in the morning. It always worked for me. If they were good my mom gave me three jelly beans to put under my bed for them. And I got three jelly beans for being a good little boy.”

I grin. “I’ll try that.”

"Thanks for keeping me company." He gets down and helps me off the car and gives me a shy smile.

"Thank you for the beer."

"Are you working tomorrow?"

I nod. "Yessir."

"Same time?"

I nod again, getting my keys out of my pocket.

"It's a date then." He grins and opens my car door for me.

"We'll see." I smile back. “But what I would really like is a cup of coffee before work with a friend.”

“The old coffee place on Main? What time?”

“Two o’clock.” I start my car and look back at him, ready to close my door.

He smiles and steps back, shoving his hands in his blue-jean pockets. “I’ll be there.” He grins. “And by the way, I put my feet in the aisle on purpose. I liked watching you step over them. Mostly you still ignored me. But sometimes you would look back at me with a face like this.” He makes a face like I would have made. “I floated on clouds for days after that look.”

“This one?” I make my pissiest face.

“Yeah. That one.” He smiles a slow smile. “See you tomorrow.”

I return his smile and head home.

The End

Acknowledgements and Additional Information

Thank you so much for reading my story. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed writing it. If you did, it would be awesome if you left a review. Reviews are what make or break indie authors in this highly competitive field.

The Girl in the Front of the Room is the first of a series of stories I will be releasing every month, with sneak peeks at what’s going on in River’s life between times. Please consider signing up for my mailing list so you don’t miss out. Click here to sign up.

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I want to thank everyone who has read this story: Patt from Fiction Writing, Naomi from Your Write Dream, Ann and Shirley from N & S Romance Beta and Critique, Brian in Fiction Writing for introducing me and about 30,000 other writers to the term “Rock Fiction,” and my favorite editor-to-be, Emily. Thank you all so much for helping me to get this story out into the world.

And thank you to my super supportive husband, who I can count on to have my back in any fight. And my kids. There are not enough words in the world to describe just how much I love you.

And Kim, maybe now that it’s published you’ll read it.

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