What is an inferiority complex?
She was thirteen, she was different, and she could answer that easily.
To have an inferiority complex is to be a neon tetra fish in an ocean of betas. To have an inferiority complex is to wear accidental rips in your jeans instead of buying them custom made like that. An inferiority complex is being a piece of the night sky in the midst of a radiant sunset.
That was what Olivia was. A quiet bit of dark blue among the vibrant pink and orange cloud. A tiny elementary silver fish amidst the flowing maturity of the other aquatic life. The seventh-grader who didn't mean for her jeans to be ripped.
It was hard to spot her at first. All the jiving, thriving hive of seventh grade girls in their crazy colors tended to swallow her up no matter where she was standing.
But if you watched and waited, you would see her eventually. She was the only one standing still.
She used to be okay with being smaller and darker and more quiet than the rest. She could pull a book from her old purple messenger bag, and what happened outside its pages ceased to matter at all. She left the grey sidewalk or her plastic desk to adventure through other worlds full of bears who wore armor and devices that told you the truth, little boats bobbing bravely across the vast ocean, underground cities with flickering lights, castles where you went to learn magic. She met a girl who was happy even though she was all alone in her cold attic, teenage boys who were being chased by the devil's followers, tiny people with hair on their feet.
It stopped mattering what Olivia looked like or who she spoke to.
The problem was when her math grades stopped mattering. That was when Mom started to notice, and made sure all Olivia's books stayed home.
"Mom," Olivia had protested weakly, "what am I supposed to do when I'm not working?"
"Do your homework. That'll give you more time to read when you get home, right?"
"What am I supposed to do at recess?"
"Recess? You run around. You play. You enjoy it because it's your last year to have it."
"What about break?"
Mom was getting exasperated. "Talk to your friends, Olivia!"
That was when Olivia contemplated things, and came to the rather irritating conclusion that she didn't run around or play at recess, and she had no friends to talk to during break.
So now she merely stood, watching the whirl of girls, clad in unnatural colors, darting about like pixies on caffeine, none of them taking any notice of her. She would have tried making conversation with them, but she didn't know what to talk about. Whenever she tried to listen to a group of girls, so she could later interject with something that would make them like her, all she heard was "but oh, my GOD, his HAIR!" and "Did you see that? Did you see that? Brittany looked right at me! She hates me!" and "I know he's, like, twenty something, but he turns me on," and "No, I haven't seen Part Two yet!"
What they were saying wasn't anything bad or unintelligent; she just didn't ever know what they were talking about.
She had been friends with a boy once, best friends, but he'd moved, and now they only spoke through letters. None of the other boys, all huddled up around the trash can in the middle of the courtyard watching some kid jump over it, were interested in being friends with a girl.
Olivia waited for the bell to ring.
She let her eyes wander. The stained white walls, a lone bird on a washed out sky, the deep darkness in the trees that formed the edge of campus...
And there it was.
Olivia squinted, trying to make out whatever it was that was leaning on the tree trunk. It was pale and still.
She hesitated a long moment. It was probably some weird equipment stuff or something. She knew it would be better to leave it alone.
And after a moment, her curiosity moved her feet of its own accord, and she started walking slowly towards the thing, maneuvering through jostling bodies and hyper voices.
No one saw her walking away from the school.
She stopped a short distance away, staring. She moved her hands up and down the strap of her messenger bag, feeling nervous.
Leaning so casually against the rough bark of the tree was a doll. One of those eighteen-inch dolls with the soft sweet faces they used to stock at Walmart. She had tan skin and raven-black hair, and her brown eyes seemed to glow. Her tunic, spangled with blue and white stripes, had caught Olivia's attention from all the way across the grass, and now Olivia knelt down to peer at her closely at the blue leggings and black boots and the full, peaceable face of the toy.
A Madame Alexander doll.
Olivia's imagination, as it often did, suddenly and violently took hold of her, and she backed away sharply. What if its eyes were cameras? What if it was some sort of weapon? Worst of all, what if someone came up and asked her what she was doing?
She caught her breath and turned away.
"Well," she whispered, "goodbye now, doll."
"Goodbye, Olivia? You haven't said hello yet!"
The doll turned her sweet smiling face up to Olivia's shaken one. Her painted mouth didn't move when she spoke. Was this some sort of joke?
"O-Oh," stammered Olivia. "Hello."
"Hello. My name is Cameron. They said a girl named Olivia would come here to see me. You are Olivia, right?"
Olivia swallowed. "Yeah."
Olivia was listening to a doll introduce herself.
"Don't look so surprised, Olivia dear. You talk to us dolls all the time at home. Just last night you told Margaret about the Inca mummy children in the mountains in South America, and then you told her how to milk a snake, and then you told her about the Pacific Garbage Patch."
Olivia's face turned the color of a tomato. This wasn't a joke, then. There was no way anyone could have heard her talking to her dolls--she didn't even have a TV in her room, much less a phone or computer someone could hack into and listen from.
"I...yeah, that was weird, I...jeez, I've been saying crazy stuff to them for years..."
This was too much. She put her hands on her forehead, dizzy.
Cameron stood up. "Crazy? Why? Margaret thought it was fascinating."
Olivia stared at the doll through gaps in her fingers.
"Abigail loved hearing about the black hole in the center of the Milky Way, too, all those facts about time-space you told her," Cameron continued.
"How do you even--wait, do you--do you know my dolls?"
Cameron blinked. "Well, Margaret and I were friends on the shelf, and I was bought by your neighbor--the little girl named Emily, you know her--and, well, we get bored at night when our people are asleep, and when they're away at school, so we go out and see each other. Margaret had the idea to throw a party, and she said we should invite you. So come on."
With that, Cameron the doll turned and started walking through the trees.
Olivia glanced back at the school. The bell still hadn't rung, and no one was watching her.
She turned to follow the doll.
"You know, at first we thought it was wrong to invite a human, but Margaret said you were different."
"Why don't you talk to us all the time?"
"Why? That would be terrible! We would be taken apart by the adults so they could see what was inside us, which would be pointless because they made us themselves, and when they didn't find anything they would make us just to be theirs, to fight for them or work for them. They would do terrible things."
"Come on, that's crazy. Adults are great. They wouldn't do that."
"You haven't heard the things we toys have heard, being in the factory around all those adults. It's scary. We belong to you kids, to make you happy, not to be robots."
Olivia turned her head toward the school, and found that she couldn't see it.
"Anyway," Cameron continued, "you're different. You wouldn't run screaming to the nearest person that you saw a living doll."
"Of course not," Olivia agreed hesitantly. Would she? Well, she hadn't so far.
Cameron halted abruptly, and Olivia almost tripped over her. She glances around, confused.
"Oh, nothing's wrong," said Cameron. "Look down."
Olivia looked. In front of them was a bush. Its branches had grown in a strange, particular way, curving towards the ground, weaving together to form a birds'-nest-shaped opening, about three feet tall. Inside was only blackness--you couldn't see an inch inside, not even the edges of the branches. Olivia knelt down to peer inside, but still saw nothing but darkness.
"We didn't have time to make it any bigger," Cameron apologized. "I think you can squeeze through, though. I'll go ahead."
She turned and walked into the bush, disappearing into the blackness.
Olivia stared blankly at the bush. She held out her hand, but then quickly put it down again. What if it's one of those portal type things and everyone sees me sticking my hand through there? Gosh, that would be weird.
She instead put her hands on the ground and crawled through.
It wasn't until she was fully immersed in blackness that she realized she still hadn't heard the bell ring.