Sometimes people are not who they seem.
|It wasn’t something that happened quickly; in fact, it was a slow change that seemed to seep through my body, getting stronger and stronger as it went. It was like a baby that you think will always be little, and you don’t notice how much she’s growing until, one day, you turn around, and she isn’t a baby anymore. The silence crept up so quietly and surely that I didn’t even notice it until it was already upon me.
I walk into school grinning. The heavy, metal door creaks as I open it and step into the whirlwind of junior high, where bits and pieces of conversations fly up and jumble together into the language of middle school. I quickly step out of the way as one girl bounces by, her long earrings and blond hair flying out behind her, and her fingers half-nervously picking at her perfect, pink nails. Her friends streak by behind her, and for a second, I think one of them is my classmate Brianna. Turning quickly with my eyes wide, my head follows them until they blend back into the sea of smiling faces. I find myself biting my lip yet again, so I hurry towards the stairs, ignoring the loud conversations I’ve grown so accustomed to.
“…my mom was, like, flipping out. I mean, it was just a little makeup-”
“Dude, quit it!”
“What the hell? She won’t even let me wear a shirt lower than this!”
“…so, I was, like, dying! They were the cutest shoes, and they weren’t in my size!”
A picture of Brianna flashes in my head, and the girl’s whining voice echoes in my ears: “I was, like, dying!” I think about what Brianna posted on Facebook last week: “Cancer used to seem like such a tiny word. Now that I have it, it seems like a word bigger than who I am.” My fingers clench the handle of my backpack harder. All of a sudden, I start to hear to all the conversations around me that I’ve slowly learned to block out. I notice the familiar black streaks on the white walls, but, for once, they don’t annoy me.
“Man, it sucked! You think your life is awful…” a boy complains, hitching up his designer jeans. Brianna’s tan face flashes through my head again, this time her hair still intact, the way it was last year, before the hospitals and chemo and worry. That seems so long ago. We’d never imagined she’d end up with cancer. That was before, when her problems were just ordinary people problems. That was before my life became blurred with complicated feelings, before my hands became shaky and unsure.
I grab the railing to steady myself as more kids rush by, their voices heavy with complaints about homework and clothes and sports. “My hair stinks. I wish it wasn’t so curly,” I hear.
My knuckles start to turn white as they grip my backpack, and I bite my lip, thinking about Brianna’s bald head. “Shut up,” I want to say, “I don’t freakin’ care about your stupid hair. You could have cancer.” I take another step up the seemingly never-ending stairs, my eyes tracking another group of kids bouncing up them. I want to smack their fake little smiles. How can they be so happy?
For a second, I close my eyes and breathe in. “Stop,” I think. “Stop doing this, stop thinking about this, stop hurting yourself.” I put on a smile, trying to pretend it never happened, but I can’t. My brain is whirling and I can’t stop the thoughts from coming.
“She could have cancer, and so could he, and so could she,” my mind rampages. “They all just smile and pretend and…”
The taste of blood is bitter on my tongue, and I realize I’m biting my lip. I hurry upstairs, turning my lips up into a distracted smile and veering my brain away from the harsh thoughts.
“Hey, kiddo,” I look up, happy to see my friend Kendra. Her perfectly organized backpack sits just inside my classroom, next to her stack of books, which are, as usual, spotlessly clean. We’ve been friends for just a year and a half, but by the middle of the year last year, it was like we’d known each other for forever. Now, things are different.
“Hey,” I greet her, “ready for the math quiz?”
“No way!” she spurts. “It is so hard. Um, hold on. I have to go check out my reading bowl book.”
In the back of my head, something’s spinning, telling me not to trust Kendra too much, telling me that I shouldn’t get to close. I’m trying to put my guard up, because if I open myself up, I’ll only be more vulnerable. Then, when she shoves me aside, it’ll only hurt more.
Fighting back against those thoughts are fear that I might be like those girls in the hallways: hiding in my smile and pretending I’m not worried about anything. I push the idea out of the way, but it keeps coming back. Grabbing my books, I shove them into my locker. It isn’t true. I know it. I’m not the kind of person who fakes things, right?
My hands are shaking. “Must be last night’s tennis practice,” I think, pushing them into my pockets and going into the room to see Kendra. The pale morning light shines off the pastel yellow walls and the homework board glimmers. I grab an eraser and wipe a smudged green spot off the board.
“Hey, dumbo,” Kendra calls. “Can you help me with problem thirty five?”
I look up, startled. “Uh, yeah. Oh... wait, thirty five? That one’s, like, a nightmare!”
Kendra laughs, a low tinkling noise that makes her round face dimple and her blue eyes smile. “I know,” she agrees, pulling the green jacket she always wears closer around her. Fingering her hair, which is pulled back into a clean, neat bun, she plops down onto the table beside me with a sigh. “Last night, I couldn’t stop thinking about my grandma,” she confides, her fingers fidgeting in her lap. She looks up at me again, and I feel all her anxiety and sadness inside of me. Her grandmother had died just last week.
“I know,” I comfort her, slipping my hand into hers. “I know what it feels like. I know it’s hard.” I look at her again, unable to say more, because it’s true. Having lost a grandfather a few months ago, I do know what it feels like. “I...” I start, wanting to tell her that I wish I could talk about my pain like she does, but then I stop. I pick at the dry skin on my hand and swing my legs harder. “I’m sorry,” I say instead.
For a second, we just sit there, two friends swinging their feet in rhythm. Her muddy, green Converse, the one part of her that isn’t completely clean or neat, brushes against my sneakers. I can see below her perfect facade into the part of her that worries and cries. I know who she is, but does she know me?
A locker slams and Haylee, one of our classmates, skips in. Kendra jumps up and bounds to the door, but I stay where I am, savoring the moments Kendra and I had shared seconds ago, the moments that made me feel like we could still be the friends we were last year, before Haylee burst in. I want Kendra to know how much she hurts me when she leaves me for Haylee, but I can’t say anything. I can’t find the words, and besides, how can I blame them for doing something I, myself, did last year? I know I’m letting the silence overpower me, but I’m scared to fight back.
“Hola, Haylee! I tried to call you last night, but you didn’t answer,” Kendra greets her, wrapping her arm around Haylee’s shoulders in a way she’s never done with me.
“I know,” Haylee grins. “I was at tennis. And guess what? I won my match!” They high five, their palms perfectly aligned. I sigh, sliding down into one of the hard, plastic chairs. My hands grasp my math book, and I slam it down onto the table. Kendra and Haylee glance in my direction, so I smile. “Sorry,” I apologize, but they aren’t listening.
Pulling out a clean sheet of paper, I try to focus on my math, but my brain won’t cooperate. I wonder if this is how Brianna felt last year. I wonder if I excluded her the same way Haylee and Kendra exclude me. My teeth pull at a dry piece of my lip. Brianna never fit in with our class. She was too loud, too insecure, too annoying. I tried to be her friend, but she only dragged me down. Every time she said she didn’t have friends, I felt bad. I was supposed to be the nice girl who solved everyone’s problems. I worried that my sweet side was disappearing, because I didn’t always want to be with Brianna. I would avoid her, and my friends and I complained about her when she wasn’t there. Of course, I never said anything to her face, but I still felt like I wasn’t doing the right thing.
“Hey, Elizabeth. Hello, Kendra, Haylee,” my teacher Kemi waltzes into the room.
“Hi, Kemi,” I greet her, smiling. She smiles back at me, puts down her stuff, and goes into the other room. I stare at my math and begin to work. “Eighty-two divided by x times four y...” I mumble under my breath. The numbers grimace back at me, then slowly begin to take shape. “Nine times y squared!” I smile- for real, this time. I don’t know that a few minutes later, things will get even worse.
Kemi comes back in, papers in hand. Her clogs thump the carpeted floor, and she pushes her brown hair behind her ears.
She stops by my chair and perches on the edge of a seat. “Um, Elizabeth?” she questions. Her face is full of freckles, and I think about how much she acts like my old language arts teacher.
“Yeah?” I answer, still holding my pencil. Her face is serious, the usual smile gone.
“Did you hear about Brianna?” her eyes travel over my face and land in my lap.
“Um, yeah, well, I mean, no, wait, what?” I stutter, gripping my pencil even tighter.
“She has a bad infection, and her blood counts are really low,” Kemi explains in a hushed voice. I am vaguely aware of dropping my pencil, and I feel my stomach start to lurch. “They took her to the hospital right away... I just got an email this morning. You don’t know anything else?” Kemi continues. Her words are just blurs, and I sit there for a minute, uncomprehending. Time feels like it is racing, and, unable to speak, I shake my head.
“Okay,” Kemi stares into my eyes for a second. “Are you okay?” she asks.
I try to smile. “Um, yeah,” I muster, a response I’ve programmed into my head so that it’s automatic.
“Okay,” she repeats, standing up and walking off to her desk.
I turn back to my work and lay my head on my math book. What had she said? What did I say? My hands feel shaky, but I reach for my ruler and dig it into my hand, wanting to have some control over the hurt I feel. I’m mad and disappointed in myself. I know I’m not okay. Why do those lies have to come out of my mouth? As Kemi’s words slowly sink in, I find myself wondering why things always have to be so complicated. It seems like nothing is ever for sure. I can’t count on anything or anyone staying the same.
My closest friend, Eva, walks in, and I manage a tight smile. She doesn’t know about Brianna. I can tell by the look on her face. She lugs her backpack over to the closest chair and sits down.
“Eva,” I start, wanting to share the news.
“What’s up?” she replies, arching her eyebrows.
“I...did you...,” I stumble, not able to find the words. “Never mind,” I counter, not wanting to talk about the uncomfortable subject. For the rest of the day, I try to push Brianna out of my head. I think about telling Kemi my worries, but the thought vanishes quickly. Hearing the words out loud will only make them seem even more real, and, at least for now, I don’t want to believe I have problems. I pick at the pencil I’m holding in my hands.
“I’m fine,” I repeat, words I want so badly to believe. I want to be back in seventh grade, less than a year ago, when everything was so much easier. I remember the nights I’d spend talking with my mom about my problems, problems that at least had solutions. Then, my pain had been in my tears and my brain, not digging into my chest, and I wasn’t afraid to say my fears out loud. Then, I could be annoyed with Brianna without the feeling of guilt spreading over me like it does so often now.
I had sunk into the soft covers, pulling my blue watch off my wrist and shaking out my light brown hair. My mom sat down next to me, closing her eyes for a second, then looking at me sleepily. “How’s school?” she asked, wriggling her toes inside her green and red slippers she got on sale after Christmas.
“It’s okay, but we have so many tests this week,” I sighed. “In Spanish, Brianna asked if she could be my partner. I was going to work with Haylee, because, well, it’s just easier, but I couldn’t really say no. Then, when I said yes, she just... looked so surprised, like she never thought I might work with her. She was like, “Really? ME?” That made me feel really bad... but, I, mean, I know it’s not my fault that she’s hard to be with. ” My pink flowered quilt, the same one I’d had since second grade, started to slide off one end of the bed, and I grabbed it, pulling it back to the middle of the mattress so that it was perfectly balanced again.
My mom pulled her feet onto the bed and nodded, making her earrings- the same ones she always wore- sway. “Brianna has a hard time,” she commented.
I ran my tongue over my teeth. “Her parents don’t get it. They want to pretend she’s some perfect girl... but she’s not. Mom, she doesn’t have friends. Honestly, no one wants to be her friend. They see what’s happened to me. They tell me I shouldn’t be so nice, that I shouldn’t take care of her, but... I can’t do that. But, really, Mom, she lies to me, then wants me to be her best friend. I mean, really? Come on,” I sighed, exasperated, then started again in a softer tone. “She and I can have so much fun together, when she’s just being herself. I wish... I wish she could always be like that.”
“It’s hard to be yourself when you don’t know who that is,” my mom whispered before looking at me, her eyes filled with the understanding and acceptance that made her so easy to talk to. Then, looking down, she yawned. “Time to go to bed. Did you set your alarm?”
I nodded. “You know, I had a dream about going up in a hot air balloon the other night, just like you and dad did.”
My mom wrinkled her eyebrows. “When did we go up in a hot air balloon?” she questioned.
“Um... it must have been... two years ago?” I guessed.
“Mm... oh, yeah, that’s right. We did it for our anniversary,” she recalled.
“It sounds scary, but in my dream, it was just cool. It was like a hot air balloon, only I could control it,” I explained.
“Well, go to sleep and dream about hot air balloons or whatever else and I’ll see you in the morning- Friday morning, finally,” she responded, pulling the sheets up higher on my neck and pulling the metal cord on my blue-checkered lamp.
“Night, Mom,” I whispered.
“Goodnight. Sweet dreams,” her soft voice murmured. The door shut, and my room was completely quiet except for the sound of the crickets. I turned over and closed my eyes against the perfect darkness of my room, drifting into the safe world of bright green hot air balloons.
I’m brought back to eighth grade by the sharp crack of the pencil I’m holding in my hands. I hadn’t even realized I’d been bending it so hard. I throw the pieces into the gray trash can next to me. “That’s stupid,” I think. “Everyone knows you can’t control a hot air balloon.”
In the car on the way home from my piano lesson, my mom tries to talk about Brianna. Even though I used to tell her everything, now I say as little as possible. The silence hurts me, but the words hurt more.
“Have you guys- your class, I mean- talked about Brianna? It’s probably pretty scary for you,” she starts. It’s been over two months since Brianna was first diagnosed with cancer, and I’m still not used to that word. Cancer sounds like something you read about in magazines, not something that really happens. Cancer is too strong.
I shift in my seat, fingering my classical piano book with the blue sticker. “Um, yeah. We talked about it in Goals,” I answer. I focus on the way the wet pavement looks outside my window.
“How are your friends taking it?”she turns the steering wheel, glancing up at Brianna’s house as we drive by. I peer into the windows like I always do, yet I know I won’t see Brianna’s face. She’s probably at the hospital now, having chemo.
“Well,” I mumble, fidgeting as I try to think of how I want to approach this, “I guess they’re okay. I mean, it is what it is. I guess it’s all kind of a shock.” I don’t understand why the words feel lodged in my throat. I just know that I don’t want to talk about it; when I do, all my problems seem closer. In a way, I wish I were the one with cancer instead. Brianna’s already gotten her fair share of hard times. In sixth grade, she had even been part of a whole ordeal involving suicide.
But no, I wasn’t going to think about that, because it only makes me feel guilty. There must have been something I could have done.
My mom nods slowly, her brown hair bobbing up and down while her sneakers confidently press the gas pedal.
The awkward silence fills the car until I feel like I have to say something. I’m not used to this silence or these unspoken words that linger in my head. I think back to the Goals discussion about Brianna.
“You seem to know exactly how you feel. You understand yourself so well,” one classmate had commented. I had nodded, glad someone thought that about me, because I certainly didn’t.
The car grumbles as it pulls onto our street. I breathe in, trying to focus on anything but the conversation. Finally, I can’t stand it any longer. “Mom?” I whisper, half hoping she won’t hear me so I won’t have to say the painful words and feel all that confusion and hurt. I want to think I’m still perfect. I don’t want to be that “troubled” teenager that everyone talks about.
“Yeah?” she replies.
“Um,” I run my tongue over my chapped lips, “I... never mind,” I mumble.
She turns to look at me as we pull into the driveway. “What?” she insists.
“Nothing,” I counter quickly. “I...need some new chapstick.”
She turns back to the wheel, grabs her stuff, and we get out of the car quietly. I hug my body against the sharp, cold blast that greets me, and I all I feel is a silent sadness tugging at my insides. When we get inside, I run upstairs and change into my pajamas, ready to fall asleep and be done with this day and all the penned up emotions that came with it.
That night, I find myself in the same dream as last year. I’m in a field with hundreds of hot air balloons, all a sky blue or grassy green. I tentatively hop in one, my mom by my side. We rise to a wonderful height, millions of people below us. The view is spectacular, but all of a sudden I feel myself starting to sway and spin. The guide looks over the edge. “We’re losing control,” he informs me. I turn to my mom, but she’s gone.
“Stop,” I demand, clutching the side, “this is supposed to be controlled! Stop!”
The guide just laughs. “That’s stupid,” he scolds. “Everyone knows you can’t control a hot air balloon.”
I feel my heart start to stand still, my eyes wandering over the edge of the basket. There are tiny specks of people dotting the Earth, and the fluffy clouds give the perfect blue sky a magical feel. I think about all the people sitting on their porches or in their cars looking up at the sky and seeing me, all the people smiling and thinking about what a beautiful day it is to be in a hot air balloon. I think about how perfect I must look from the ground, a bright splash of color against the sky. All of a sudden, I don’t want to look perfect. I wave my hands and yell, hoping someone might see all the terror and hurt inside me, but I know they only see a bright green balloon drifting away against a background of blue sky.
When I wake up, I vow to tell the truth and stop hiding in my shell. I’m convinced today will be better than yesterday. I don’t know how wrong I am.
At school, we’re cleaning the classroom. “Okay, everyone needs to find something to do,” Kemi announces. “Kendra and Haylee, you two can clean my office. Everyone else, just pick something. If you can’t think of anything to do, come see me.”
I feel myself tighten at her words. Why do Kendra and Haylee get to do her office? Are they just better than the rest of us? I shake off the thoughts and try to muster a smile. “No one wants to hear you complain,” I tell myself. “Besides, it doesn’t matter.” I end up having to be satisfied with cleaning the board. I use a ruler to measure every line I draw, pretending it’s my life I’m organizing. When I’m done, I stand back, pleased with the shiny white surface I’ve created, all the scratches and smears wiped away.
Kendra marches by, her long hair pulled into a bun instead of the long braid she had worn all year last year. She stops next to me, looking critically at my precious work.
“You know,” she scoffs, “Kemi won’t be able to fit anything by those letters, and your line is crooked.” Her voice is stiff with disdain, and I feel myself grow warm. My heart is pounding in my chest.
“Kendra,” I snap, then realize what I’m getting myself into. I don’t want to have this conversation. That was just one comment, right? I can feel my sweaty palms rubbing against my pants as I try to extinguish the anger running through my body. I want to think that I’m over-reacting, or that I’m been imagining all the scenes like this that have happened lately, but I know that’s not true. I’ve seen the emails Haylee has sent filling up Kendra’s inbox, and I’ve noticed the emptiness of my mine. I’ve felt the pain of realizing Kendra hasn’t said a single word to me all day except to tell me to shut up when I ask a question in math. I’ve noticed that now, when she loses her temper, she doesn’t apologize. But mostly, I know I haven’t said a word. I’ve just watched and listened silently, hoping that if I ignore it long enough it will just disappear. Part of me wants to scream and yell at Kendra. Part of me wants to pretend she never said anything. Part of me, the part I can feel rushing in now, wants to just sit down and cry. The tears have already formed at the back of my eyes, but I won’t let them out. Crying means people asking questions I don’t want to answer.
“Kendra?” I repeat as I sink down into my chair, feeling like there’s something stuck in my chest. I shake my head, then dig my short toenails into my socks. Kendra walks off, oblivious to the commotion going on inside of me. I sit there until she returns, walking by with her familiar stride. I take the easy route, just smiling again, hoping I don’t look too disturbed, but as the rest of the day progresses, I feel the pressure in my chest. I’m stuck inside a cage with barbed wire wrapped around it. I’ll suffocate inside, but getting out looks more painful than anything, so I wait and hope the day I’ll run out of air will never come.
But later that day, it does come. Just when I thought I had gone through the worst, I run out of air. Once again, I’m caught in between two emotions- one that wants to tell everyone what I’m feeling, and another, the stronger part, that wants to push the emotions out of my brain and hide inside the deep, dark hole that has become me.
“That math test was hard,” Eva remarks during lunch on her way out of our classroom.
“Yeah,” I agree. Math has been hard lately. Instead of my usual “A”s, I’ve been getting “C”s. I don’t say anything else, though. The grades don’t hurt so much if I pretend I’m not getting them.
“What?” interrupts Robert, one of the boys in my class who seemingly never turns in his homework and won’t remember that we have a test until it’s being passed out. I turn, seeing he’s looking at me. His innocent, unknowing face is relaxed; his hands are dangling at his side. “I bet you got, like, a 98. You’re so perfect,” he accuses.
I suck in my breath, realizing what he sees when he looks at me. The same anger from earlier starts to flood through me, but this time it’s bigger and stronger.
“How do you know?” I demand. I feel the familiar frustration in my voice. The layers and layers of pretending are building up to be so tall that they don’t fit inside anymore.
“You just... are perfect. I wish I was you,” he replies. My jaw hurts from clenching my teeth, but I don’t stop. I’m bending and tearing the Silly Putty that’s in my hands now, feeling as though I might burst. The cage around me is getting smaller and smaller, and my breath comes quickly.
But he’s not done. “It seems like you don’t have any problems. You don’t even have to try,” he announces.
And then, suddenly, I feel something inside of me burst. I don’t want to hear any more lies about me. I want people to know that every day, I look at Kendra and Haylee and want to cry, but can’t. I want them to know that at night I imagine pounding Kendra into pieces so her words can’t sting me anymore, but that afterwards, I curl up into a ball as I realize I’ve been on her side of the equation. My head is almost throbbing, and I feel the most desperate I have yet. “You...” I stutter, his unknowing, innocent face looking at me. “You...don’t know anything,” I snap, thinking about the time I’ve spent watching Haylee, trying to figure out what she’s doing right and I’m doing wrong. “I do have to try,” I tell him, “and you might not want to go around wishing you were other people without even knowing what they are going through.”
I grab my lunch box and turn quickly so that he can’t see the tears that are sprouting in my eyes. I bolt out the door and shove my lunchbox into my perfectly neat locker, tipping over books and making my backpack fall. I slam the blue, metal door, pinching my finger in the process, and run outside. I bite my lip, because I’m scared of the words that might come out of my mouth. They way I just snapped reminds me too much of something Kendra might say. The world looks blurry through my tears, and sun shines off the pavement, still wet from the recent rain. I angrily wipe my wet cheeks on my shirt sleeve and head for the library. I’m almost frightened at my outburst, because it sounded too much like Kendra. I don’t want to hurt people the way she hurts me, and I don’t want to hurt people the way I hurt Brianna. Everything inside of me is a jumble of words. I don’t know the person I’ve become, the sad girl who hides her feelings. I don’t understand the horrible dark that has settled in me like dust gathering on a windowsill.
A blast of warm air greets me as I open the glass doors of the library and walk into the world of books. My old, worn sneakers drag across the red carpet, their laces dragging along beside them. It’s perfectly silent in here, the tables almost empty and computers vacant. Pieces of paper and broken pencils sit alone at the raspberry-purple desks. I head to the back, where I slouch against the empty wall, closing my eyes briefly. The first thing that comes to mind is the day I first met Brianna, how perfect and wonderful her life seemed. Then, think about sixth grade, when she ran out of the room, crying, because some other girls had called her a name. Afterwards, I had been the one to talk to her, but what sticks out in my mind most is that I hadn’t stood up for when it happened.
But then, I think about Kendra, the long nights we’d spend on the phone talking, the way she hates ketchup, and her silent love for princesses. I think about the way she cried last year after snapping at me about something stupid. She had stood in a corner, sputtering out her worries and refusing to let anyone but me see her. Pushing my thick hair away from my face, I close my eyes and think about it all. I know, the same way you know that it’s going to rain, that this is about me, not them. I know that I’ve lost control of my hot air balloon, and I know that I’m pretending that I haven’t, hoping that pretending will turn into being. I know that I have to call for help before I run out of the air I need to keep going. Slowly, I stand up, my tears gone. I take a few shaky steps towards the entrance, smooth my honey-brown hair down, and run as fast as I can out of the silence, where thoughts and memories speak too loudly, and the truth comes out of its cage like a bear coming out of his den in the spring.
That night, I turn over in my bed, wiggling my cold feet under the covers. I scratch my back, then turn over again. I glance at the clock, its red numbers glowing in the darkness of my room. Something prances across the roof, a squirrel, maybe, then I hear my neighbor throw out his trash. The night is silent again, only the steady hum of the dishwasher present. Exactly two minutes and forty-three seconds later, it stops. I pull my pillow down lower and close my eyes, but still, sleep won’t come. Finally, I reach out and pull the switch on my lamp. With a sharp, crackling noise, the light floods the room, reaching into every dark crevice. I quietly pull open my old, white drawer and reach for the empty journal. Pulling out a pen, I slowly write four letters in the center of the blank page: L-O-S-T. Then, very carefully, I add words around it, filling the page with my handwriting that looks just like my mom’s.
but I didn’t know that waves could crash so
suddenly you’re there
like a lost song
and I can see you float away
your rhythm's breaking today
your words, no longer soft and strong
a lost song
I can hear the melody of the tune I’ve just created in my head as I drift off to sleep.
But even though I can write about my feelings, I still don’t like to talk about them. One day after school that week, I wait outside our building for Kendra. Her parents work during the day, and after I found this out last year, I offered her a ride. She’s rode home in my car ever since.
“Come on,” my little sister whines, swaying back and forth and pulling on the straps of her brown backpack. She sits down with a heavy, emphatic sigh, then pulls her shoe onto her lap and starts pulling it apart. I stare at the door, waiting for Kendra’s shoes to peek out, waiting for her heavy backpack to come barreling through. I keep expecting her round face to poke out like the Jack in the Box I used to have when I was little, but still, it doesn’t appear. My hands pull impatiently at the handle of my rolling backpack, which I got last year, although all my friends told me not to. Finally, after waiting for fifteen minutes, I grab my bag and start to walk away.
“Come on, guys,” I wave at my brother and sister. “Let’s go.”
They jump up, running to catch up. “Guess what?” my sister asks.
“What?” I answer absentmindedly, only half listening. Where is Kendra?
“My shoe came apart today at recess. I didn’t even do anything!” she hops on one leg and holds her shoe up to show me.
“Oh. Yikes,” I say unenthusiastically. “You’ll have to ask Mom to get you a new pair.”
She puts her foot back down and skips ahead of us. Her brown hair blows out behind her. I smile because she looks just like I did when I was her age: happy, carefree, and innocent. It occurs to me that she probably doesn’t even know what guilt is.
When we get to where my mom usually parks her car, we plop down on the grass to wait for her. Then, I hear a familiar voice. Without looking up, I know it’s Kendra. Slowly, I move my gaze to her face.
“Bonjor!” she yelps, giggling like mad and looking happier than I’ve seen her in a while. With a sinking feeling, the reason why sets in.
“Hey, Haylee,” I slowly greet the person next to her. Red hair, black boots, an arm around Kendra; yes, it’s Haylee. Kendra leans her head on Haylee’s shoulder, fingering her necklace, and I have a hard time believing this is really Kendra, that girl who hates physical contact, doesn’t even notice jewelry, and shrieks if her hair touches someone else’s. Her fingernails are painted now, and I know this isn’t my Kendra. This is someone I don’t know.
“Adios!” she hollers back to me as the two of them walk away. My chest hurts the way it did when my dog died four years ago. I scratch my leg with my fingernails, leaving long, red marks on my skin. My teeth rip at the loose skin on my lip. I can’t believe she’s still walking away, and I keep waiting for her to turn around, laugh, say she’s joking, anything, but she doesn’t. Just like that, she’s gone, no explanation, no sorry, no thanks anyway. She’s just gone, floated away, too far out of my reach to call back now. I wonder about her back for a minute, worrying about what could happen if she walks too long with that heavy backpack. Grabbing my Silly Putty, I bite down on my lip. Who cares about her stupid back? She’s complained so much about it that she should know she needs to take care of it. I feel like a weight has been shoved down my throat. Carefully, I etch three words into my Silly Putty with my fingernail: I hate Kendra. Then, feeling horrid, I rip it into pieces. It’s not true: I don’t hate her. I just hate what she’s done to me. Under all my madness, there’s a raging sadness. I don’t understand what I’ve done wrong. I don’t understand why my hot air balloon has spiraled out of control.
My mom pulls into a parking spot and we jump up. ‘You okay?” she asks when I hop in.
“Yeah,” I reply. “Kendra’s not coming. She’s doing something with Haylee, I guess.”
My mom looks in her mirror at me as we pull out.
“It’s frustrating,” I explain. She nods, knowing I don’t want to talk about it anymore. My brother starts telling a story about his teacher’s dentist appointment, but my ears feel like they’re clogged. I don’t know that this is what will finally get me to tell my mom what’s wrong.
A few days later, I finally work up the courage to start a conversation. “Mommy?” I ask when she comes into my room, holding a bunch of clean laundry.
“Elizabeth?” she answers in a singsong voice. She sets my basket of clothes down and picks a piece of fuzz of my carpet. I lean down to pick up a few papers off the floor of my bedroom, which is almost always clean. My hair falls over my face and, for once, I don’t push it away.
“It seems like Kendra really likes Haylee. She’s nice to me until Haylee shows up, then it’s like I’m not there,” I start.
My mom sits down on the bed as I continue talking. My stomach is fluttering but I continue, the words slowly finding their way out of my mouth. I may get a few bruises, but I’m winning this battle. The silence is no longer undefeated.
On my way to art the next day, someone grabs my hands and covers my eyes. “Guess who?” the energetic voice demands. I twirl around until the hands release their grip. There, standing in front of me, is Brianna. I’ve seen her at least once a week for the past months, but I’m surprised that she’s here.
“Hello, Lizzie,” she greets me, linking our arms.
“Hi, Bri,” I laugh. She looks so happy, so normal. Her hair is growing back, but I’m used to her bald head now. I think she looks beautiful.
In art, we’re tracing our bodies onto pieces of paper. Brianna traces me, and I trace her. My body ends up looking rigid and deformed. Brianna teases me about not being able to keep still long enough for her to draw me, but I just giggle. Sure, I look funny, but I don’t care. When we paint our bodies in, I make my hair brown- normal, perfect, a solid facade- but, then, as an afterthought, I add a flaming red around the edges. It smears and drips over the line, and I love it. It shows so much of me that is usually hidden. Brianna smiles at me, and I feel a part of the blackness start to lift.
I can still remember the time I realized what made balloons float. As my mom and I walked out of the grocery store one hot, summer afternoon, I noticed a small green balloon floating up towards the sky. At first, it seemed lost, and it wasn’t until my mom pointed out the thin string attaching it to the sign that I stopped yelling. I remember the smears of dirt on the green plastic, and now I think about the balloon: not perfect, but still beautiful.
I'm in eighth grade, and this is the true story of my experiences this year. This is my first draft, so comments of all kinds are welcome! Thank you so much for reading!