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Blinking lights stung my eyes, as twenty or so cameramen captured my every move. As I dazzled the judges with my runway walk, I saw my erratic mother and adorable little brother sitting in the front row. I flashed my winner’s smile and tried to keep my balance in my three and half inch heels. My blonde ringlets swirled around me as I turned, showing off the back of my evening gown. The judges loved me, I could tell. As I glanced again in my family’s direction, I saw my mother waving at the judges and pointing to me as if to say, “That’s my daughter! I’m so proud of her!” Unexpectedly feeling invincible, I added an extra turn into my routine, thinking I could pull it off. Fully focused on my goal to win, I forgot about staying upright. I felt myself tip and suddenly I was on the ground.
“Ella, I told you to stick to the routine!” a voice called out. “Now look what you’ve done. I know what place you’ll be getting this year. Why do you never listen to me?” Involuntarily, I slapped my hand to my head and groaned. My mother is so embarrassing. Laughter erupted from either side of the audience, erasing my previous feeling of pride into a feeling of anger. I blinked back tears as I rushed backstage. Breaking into a run, I dashed past the other girls to the janitor’s closet. I couldn’t take their smirks and rude comments just yet. Safely inside my haven, I closed the door and locked it. I exhaled my feelings and sat down on a box labeled, cleaning supplies. I closed my eyes tightly and balled my perfectly manicured hands into fists, and let out a scream full of fury. How could this happen to me? What had I done to deserve this? Why is everybody laughing? Frustrated and still wet from crying, I rolled onto my side and assumed the fetal position. As I rocked back and forth, I began to weep openly and freely, my tears wiping away my mascara. Come on Ella, I thought, be strong like Andy. Andy is as tough as nails. You’re only as tough as a blade of grass. Andy was never afraid.
“Just last year he learned he had cancer, and he didn’t bat an eye, he didn’t even cry!” I told anybody that would listen. “My brother’s like a rock. Nothing can destroy him.” I was so proud of him. But, I also secretly hated myself. He was so strong, so tough, so unafraid that I seemed weak compared to him. I watched slowly, day by day, Andy deteriorate until all that was left was a small young exhausted little boy with no hair. But, everyday he bore his signature smile, crooked to one side.
“He’s my hero.” I whispered into the darkness.
“Who’s your hero?” a girl’s voice asked. Realizing I wasn’t alone, I screamed at the top of my lungs. I toppled onto the floor with a thud, not even stopping to comment on how dirty it was.
“Oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to scare you! I swear I come in peace!” Looking towards the voice, a young girl with shiny brunette curls appeared in a ball gown, hesitantly approaching from only a second ago, I thought to be a dark and deserted closet corner. “I’m only in here because-uh, I…” she faltered, “I’m Gracey.” Brandishing a moisturized induced hand, much like my own, we shook.
“I’m Ella, and I was just-” I stopped, trying to choose the best words for my situation, “Well, I was just running away from them.”
Gracey’s Angelina Jolie eyebrows crinkled in confusion. “Them?” she asked.
“Everyone: the judges, the crowd, the other girls,” I rattled off the list, until quietly- almost in a whisper I added, “and my family.” Instead of the generic “What’s wrong with your family?” that I anticipated, Gracey replied,
“Oh. I know how that is. Makes you wanna hitch a ride on a bus and never come back.”
My blue eyes widened in disbelief. “That’s exactly how I feel!” I exclaimed.
Gracey laughed, “I guess we were just destined to meet then!”
For the next hour and a half, we talked. About everything: boys, school, and most importantly family. I told her all about my brother, and she understood completely. I felt like my heart had increased in size. I was so happy I caught myself humming. I almost forgot all my problems. My tummy tucked mother who wouldn’t let me eat what I wanted, my sick little brother who could possible die in this next calendar year… all forgotten. I couldn’t believe how great this felt. I could tell her anything and she’d understand immediately! This feeling, so new and innocent, made me feel happier than I’d ever felt in my whole life! I asked Gracey about it and she said,
“It’s called friendship.”