She sat alone every day, at the corner table by the fake ficus plant that had been sitting in the lunchroom for 22 years. A thick layer of dust had settled on to each rubber leaf.
Her lunch each day was packed in a perfectly square blue Tupperware container, with a compartment for a ham and cheese sandwich, with the crusts cut off, three strawberries, and sliced carrots, exactly equal in size. She purchased 2% milk in a paper carton from the lunch aides and then walked over to her table and sat, usually reading a book, twisting her hair in front of her face.
Danielle had first noticed the girl three weeks before. She and Gray had been walking back to their table with full lunch trays. Gray had made her laugh and Danielle had walked right into the girl, dropping her tray and spilling food all over her.
For a moment, it was as though the room froze, and everyone turned to stare at them. Danielle’s spaghetti clung to the girl’s sweater, and sauce dripped onto her shoes, sending little red rivulets over the brown suede. The girl stared down at herself, clutching her little carton of milk in both hands, and then looked up at Danielle. Her eyes were gray and rimmed with tears. Danielle opened her mouth to apologize.
“Watch where you’re going, freak,” Gray said, pushing past the girl. He put his arm around Danielle and walked her back to their table, giving her his lunch, before going to grab another one for himself. Danielle watched as the girl, who had been frozen in the middle of the room, ran out of the doors. Danielle caught a glance exchanged between two of the lunch aides. One of them took off after the girl.
Gray came back and sat next to Danielle, kissing her on the temple. Their friends were all laughing and joking and he joined in the conversation, beginning a long story about the new car that he was detailing with his dad.
Danielle tried to listen, but she kept looking back towards the doors, waiting to see if the girl came back, but she didn’t return that day.
Or the next.
The girl finally appeared a week later, sitting at her usual table. Danielle noticed her as soon as she entered the cafeteria. She wore an oversized sweatshirt and khaki pants, and her hair was greasy. In front of her was the Tupperware lunch that Danielle would come to recognize.
Danielle had never really bothered to notice anyone outside of her circle of friends before. It wasn’t that she was intentionally exclusive; it was just that she had her friends and her boyfriend, and that was enough for her. But this girl bothered her. This girl weighed on her conscience. She tried mentioning it to Gray later that week as he drove her home from school.
“Who is that girl who sits by herself in the cafeteria?” Danielle asked as Gray turned onto Kings Drive.
Gray glanced at her. “Who?” he asked.
“That girl, the one I dumped my lunch on,” she said.
“Oh, you mean the spaz that bumped into you? She’s just some sophomore. I don’t know her real name.” He shrugged. “Why?”
“I don’t know, she’s been on my mind, I guess,” Danielle said. “Anyway, where are we going this weekend?”
Danielle tried not to think about the girl, who she’d come to think of as Corner Table, but once she noticed her she began to see her everywhere. Corner Table was in her bio lab, and in her gym class. Corner Table passed Danielle in the hallway at exactly 12:23 every day on her way to Calculus. She even thought she started seeing her outside of school, first at Gino’s Pizza, where she’d waited nervously to pick up a pizza, chewing on her nails; then crossing the street near Danielle’s house while Danielle was out for a run. It was like the girl had sprung into existence simply to taunt Danielle.
On the Wednesday of the third week after Danielle had first noticed Corner Table, she decided that she wanted to apologize for bumping into her. It had been weighing on her mind, and she was sorry for Gray’s behavior too. Danielle was fidgety in class all day, chewing on her pencils and doodling all over her work. When the bell rang for lunch, she bolted out of her seat towards the cafeteria and headed straight for the ficus plant, but Corner Table wasn’t there. She waited, as her friends trickled into the room, and finally gave up after it was clear the girl wasn’t going to show up. She got in the lunch line behind her friends who were whispering to each other.
“Did you hear?” Danielle’s friend Sarah asked, pulling her into the conversation.
“What?” Danielle asked, leaning in.
“Some girl killed herself last night,” Sarah replied, a strange spark of malice in her eyes, as though the news were more exciting than sad.
A chill ran down Danielle’s spine.
“Who?” she demanded. She felt her stomach lurch.
“That’s the crazy part,” Cora interjected, “Nobody knows who she was. Her name was Nina something or other.”
“I mean, can you imagine?” Sarah continued, “She OD’d on painkillers. I guess her mom walked in and found her, there was a real scene.”
“Why isn’t anyone saying anything to us? Shouldn’t there be an announcement or something?” Danielle demanded. Hot bile rose in her throat. Her face flushed; her sweater suddenly felt prickly and hot. Cora and Sarah looked at her passively and it seemed like she was seeing her friends for the first time.
“Why would they,” Cora said. “It’s not like anyone was friends with her. Apparently she was a real freak.”
It took Danielle a few seconds to realize that she had slapped Cora across the face. Cora was staring at her, her mouth a wide O of shock, and Sarah had pushed between them.
“What the hell is WRONG with you Danielle?” Sarah yelled in her face, flecks of spittle hitting Danielle on the cheek. “You can’t just hit people.”
“She was the girl at the corner table.” Danielle hissed, then turned on her heels and fled; out of the room, down the hall, out of the school as fast as she could.
For years after that, whenever she saw someone sitting alone, she asked if she could join them and if they said yes, she sent up a silent prayer for Corner Table.