It almost didn't register. Then, once she'd realized what she'd seen, Tracey almost kept walking. None of her business. Wasn't about her.
She turned back, took a few steps, changed her mind, turned around and walked away again.
She stopped, dug around in her coat pocket, and came up with a battered paper napkin. She turned back again, napkin in hand, and went right up to it. She waited until a group of pedestrians had passed by her before she got started.
It was scrawled in bright pink chalk on the cement top of the four-foot high brick pillar. She spit on her napkin and started to rub at it.
Why did she care? Her name wasn't Kristen. She didn't know who Kristen was. She didn't know anyone named Kristen, come to think of it. She had no idea if this had been done in anger, with malice, out of boredom. Maybe Kristen had been there when it happened, and had laughed at it.
Did that matter?
This napkin wasn't doing much good. The writing may be fading, but it was still quite legible. And the napkin was starting to fall apart. She spit on it again and rubbed harder. Dammit, this wasn't going to work. She checked her pockets for something else: another napkin, a tissue, anything. There was nothing. Better check her purse. As she was rummaging around in it, the sleeve of her black wool coat scraped across the cement, smearing the words better than the napkin had.
She attacked the words with the cuff of her right sleeve.
A bearded young man passed by, brow furrowed, trying to figure out what this woman was doing. Tracey met his gaze, unconsciously jutting out her chin in defiance. He dropped his eyes and hurried past.
In a university this large, there was bound to be more than one Kristen. One of them might read this. Might think it was meant for her.
And even if the Kristen it was meant for had seen it, had been there when it was written, had laughed at it even, did that really mean she found it funny? How many times had Tracey laughed while some joke had stabbed her right in the heart?
She rubbed harder.
God. People! The casual cruelty of the popular teen or twenty-something; the way it was taken up and amplified by their followers, in an attempt to curry favor; the gleeful, eager cruelty of the unpopular teen, siding with the popular against the even more unpopular, grateful that this time, they weren't in the one in the cross-hairs; the shoves and the threats, growled through clenched teeth, of the one nobody liked, the one determined to make someone feel worse than him. It reminded her of what she'd heard about barnyard chickens, the way the stronger would gang up on the weakest in the flock and peck the poor thing to death.
Worse than the violence (or the threat of it) were the betrayals: the ones who managed to sneak in under the radar and befriend you, only to scamper back to your tormentors and hand them weapons guaranteed to hit home.
She thanked her stars she'd been through with school before the Internet became prevalent. Things had been bad enough with 400 people in her own grade despising her for no good reason. How much worse is it now with MySpace, Facebook, text messaging, a whole Internet ready to pig-pile onto one lone person who doesn't quite fit in? It would have been enough to make her fling herself off of a roof.
Nice haircut. Who did that, and how drunk were they?
Where'd you get those jeans, Goodwill?
Brace-Face. Fatso. Four-eyes. Lardass. Geek. Brainiac. Weirdo. Freak.
Who said you could sit at this table?
That boy you like? Billy? He thinks you're disgusting.
Snipe, snarl, sneer.
Peck, peck, peck.
Scrub, scrub, scrub.
There. It was gone. Maybe Kristen, whoever she was, would never see it. And, even if she had, she won't have to see it again.
Tracey headed off down the sidewalk, picking off friction-formed black wool pellets from her coat. She tossed the now-shredded napkin into a trash can a few blocks later. Her friends, waiting for her on a bench outside the cafe, stood up as she drew near. They greeted each other warmly, walked into the restaurant, and took off their coats.
"Hey," Laura said, grabbing Tracey's right coat sleeve. "You've got some schmutz here." She started to rub at the pink smear.
"That's all right," said Tracey, gently removing the sleeve from her friend's hands.
"It looks like chalk dust, or something." Zane said, inspecting it. "Shouldn't be too hard to get out. Let's get some water and a rag." He started to look around for someone to ask.
"No," Tracey said firmly. "Leave it."