Careful who you choose

November 5, 2010
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The girl I had called my friend just a few moments suddenly seemed like a monster. Her grip on me was suffocating me, pushing me deeper and deeper into a pool of doubt. Simultaneously, her eyes sent sharp daggers at me, splitting me into pieces even more. At final attempt to rescue myself, I desperately struggled against her painfully controlling grasp, but failed to gain the upper hand in the struggle. Then, she forcefully squeezed my arm again, and again, until I finally stopped resisting, just like she wanted. As far as I was concerned, that was the only thing Mara really wanted.

"Mrs. Rue's Class," the colorful sign taped to first table of the long string of plain brown lunch tables informed me. The rest of my brand new first grade class had already successfully chosen their seats next to their friends, oblivious to the first grader who was shyly staring dumbly at them. Shyly, I scanned the crowd carefully, more than unsure of where I would fit into this unfamiliar mob of first graders. Suddenly, a girl wearing the average first- grade attire of pretty dress with stick straight braids called out to me. "Kelly!" she shouted. My head jerked up, and I saw her waving at me with a huge smile on her face, sitting with a group of intimidating girls from my class. Filled with new hope, I artistically wove my way through the loudly chattering groups of children experimenting with the pungent cafeteria food. I walked all the way to the spot where the unfamiliar friendly girl was patting a prime spot on the bench next to where she was sitting. Of course, I smiled as she introduced herself, Mara, and her close-knit posse of "B.F.F.s"-Kayla, Lizzie, Sasha, and Liberty. Afterwards, they all beamed at me brightly as I tried to act nonchalant while carefully lowering myself down into the seat. Then, I curiously started poking at the odd cafeteria food that the lunch lady had ensured me was "excellent" while trying to figure out what to say to a group of strangers. Without a moment to waste after detecting to awkwardness, the group girls started to talk about everything that could possibly be talked about. Naturally, this included rumors Lizzie had heard from her sister about the very different cafeteria food, Mara's fabulous upcoming birthday party, and comments on Sasha's cute new hair does. Before I knew it, I was breaking out of my first day shell and interjecting my thoughts in the subject. When the piercing whistle blown by the lunch lady signaled us to head outside for recess, Mara linked her pale arm in mine and smiled, just like a true friend would. Reacting this, a wide grin spread across my face as I smiled back at her, pleased with the friends that had come from a class that the school had chosen for me.

As soon as we placed foot on the worn down pavement of the playground, the brisk September air hit us, making us look like a bunch of supermodels at a photo shoot. As Mara led us in a strut down the "runway" into the main playing area, I felt my jaw drop in awe. Spinning in circle, I saw there were swings and jungle gyms scattered around me, embellishing the perimeter of the school, and serving as heaven for children attending the school. The abandoned games of hopscotch and jump ropes that littered the pavement were wonderful. Snapping myself out of my trance of awe, I tried to decide what I would play on first. The rickety old swings perfect for jumping, the blue and red jungle gyms with a thousand ways to play, or the highest monkey bars I have ever seen? Just as I was taking my first step into a full out sprint to the monkey bars, a small hand grabbed immediately my elbow. Then, with a tight, controlling squeeze, Mara started tugging me towards the grassiest part of the playground. "Hey!" I protested as I tried to free myself from her tight grasp. Suddenly, without releasing me from her poisoning grip, Mara whipped around and sent me a look of high warning, seeming to say, "Don't cross the line." Quickly, suddenly afraid of this monster that had replaced my new best friend, I shut my mouth and stopped resisting her firm tug. Without missing a beat, Mara smiled in delight as gracefully transferred her tight grip into a casual link of the air. "'Come on guys," she said to the others with the realness of a Barbie doll, "Let's goes sit under our tree." Quickly, all the girls obediently fell into place behind their bossy leader. At seeing this, I was shocked when not one of them protested as their longing faces admired the new playground equipment that seemed to be teasing them. As we started to approach "our" tree- the biggest maple in probably a time mile radius-, the innocent girls plopped onto the still dewy grass one by one around Mara. Then, the leader of this sad group was leaning against the trunk like a queen looking over her land of poor peasants. Detecting that what I was supposed to do, I slowly sat down too, even though I really wanted to go try out those monkey bars. Sitting there, I realized that the only reason I was still hanging around these girls was because I was terrified of what would happened if I stepped out of line again. Once everybody was seated, all eyes turned to Mara with their bodies leaning slightly forward to make sure they caught every word their leader had to say. When she saw we were all settled, she smiled at us like we were cute, abandoned little puppies, and began to speak excitedly about the new television her dad had bought her for her birthday. As soon as she began telling us about the fascinating new shows her television allows her to watch, a dark shadow cast over her face. In a flash, Mara's pupils dilate, and her mouth dropped slightly open in shock. Along with these reactions, she hissed, in the faintest whisper, "Get him." At this, all of us torn our attentive eyes off Mara, eager to see who could make her cool, collective self so flustered and angry. The innocent blue eyes that were staring back at me were the last things I would have expected to see.

His excited blue eyes were dancing with joy as he exclaimed, "Hey Kelly!" After he shouted this forbidden greeting, I bit my lip and looked back at my friends. Doing this, I wondered if any of them was as excited, as I was to see my neighbor, Ted, join us at our tree. To my surprise, all of their eyes were still narrowed in a fierce but beautiful way, and none of them had shouted, "Just kidding!" Also, none of them had yet to doubled over on the ground laughing about their little "Get him!" joke. After I read their expressions carefully, I slowly averted my eyes back to Ted, who was my first and only friend here in Pennsylvania until about five minutes ago when I met Mara and Company. Just as I was debating responding to Ted's "Hi!" somebody over me, shoving my new back to school outfit and I into the dark, worm filled mud. This was the beginning of Mara's little minions doing the work for her, pushing Ted around in an unfair, five to one kiddy fight. When they left, it left just Mara and me around the big the big maple tree. In a graceful way, Megan floated over to me after quickly checking she hadn't broken one of her precisely painted, periwinkle nails.

"So..."she started as she knelt down beside me, raising an eyebrow in question.

"He's... He's..."I stuttered, not sure how I should finish that response. Luckily, I didn't have to, because Mara conveniently finished it for me.

"He's just your annoying little neighbor who you're not sure why even knows your name?" Mara stated so surely even I believed it for a moment.

"Uh... Yeah," I responded, reminding what happened last time I spoke out against Mara. After I said what I obviously was programmed to say in Mara's world, she reached a dainty hand out to me and helped me to my shaky feet. Then, I unsure of myself, shuffled behind her as she walked with great dignity across the playground to the place where the other girls had pined Ted to a beat up park bench. When I got there, I saw he was struggling under their weight, and his face was so pathetic it made me feel even worse about what I was about to do to him. As soon as he saw me, face light up and he opened his mouth to say something, but his mouth was smothered by Sasha sticking her hand over his mouth. The second everybody realized I was the one Ted was trying to communicate with their eyes widen. Feeling the pressure, a burning heat crawled up my face, and I dropped my head in shame. I was so confused. Do I be friends with whose Mara says I have to be friends with, or do I do what I think is right and help my first friend in his time of need? All of the sudden, the bubbling sense of pressure reached its boiling point, and I couldn't stand there and have others tell me what to do. In one swift movement, I turned around and ran. As I ran, their high-pitched voices followed me in a haunting manner, but I didn't dare stop now. I ran until in I was gasping for breath, and only then was it when I finally crawled under one of the slides and clutched my sharp, cramping side. Now, I had a tough choice to make, and I couldn't let Mara, Ted, or anybody else make it for me.

After my embarrassing dash to the slide, I made a very oblivious point in avoiding Mara and her friends for the rest of the day. Throughout the course of my last few hours of school, the overwhelming task of deciding whom I should let pick my friends made normal things, like learning, an impossible task. Eventually, the bright yellow bus finally screeched to a stop in front of my bus stop, releasing me from the sticky, hot interior. As fast as I could, I jumped onto the pavement and started walking as quickly as humanly possible. Unfortunately, despite my efforts to avoid confrontation with Ted, he ended up being right behind me as I started the journey up the long, winding path to our homes. Of course, since he lived literally twenty short feet away from me, losing him on the winding trip up the beaten path was nearly impossible. "Why did you do that to me at recess?" he exclaimed frustrated, huffing and puffing as he attempted to keep up and my brisk pace. As I procrastinated on answering this question, I could feel his eyes burning holes in the sides of my head where he was staring at me, waiting for a response.

"Um..."I heard myself stuttering as I dragged my feet along. Do I tell him the truth about Mara? Or do I just tell him it's none of his business? Before I even told my brain which choice I decided to choose, I heard the hurtful, shameful truth come flooding out of my mouth at an unstoppable speed. While I was rambling my mouth off about Mara, Ted insisted on staring at the ground and studying the worn road beneath us. When I finally spit out the last sentence of my long, complicated story, Ted started to crack up. Then, between some of his hysterical fits of laughter, he'd stand up and open his mouth to say something, but them double over laughing again. Finally, only when he was able to collect himself, he was able to say what apparently was so funny about my sad story.

"So they really want you to choose between me and them?" he said. Unsure of myself I nodded with caution. The last thing I wanted him to do was start laughing like a maniac again. "Well, you obviously don't have to." At this, I crinkled my eyebrows, confused at what he was trying to tell me. How could this be possible? When he saw my openly bewildered face, he continued to elaborate on his plan a little bit more," Just don't talk to me during school. We can play after school. I don't care." His solution was perfect; why didn't I think of this before? Well of course, there's no need to let people choose who your friends are for you when you could just choose yourself. Suddenly, I smiled widely in response and broke out into a full fledge sprint towards my house.

"Last one home is a rotten egg!" I shouted behind my shoulder as my feet pounded against the hard pavement. Right on cue, Ted without a second thought abandoned his backpack and took off after me. We ran past the neat rows of trees, the streams and ponds, all the way to the very top of the road where two nearly identical houses sat proudly. Years after, it was like that everyday after school, through second, third, and even fourth grade. The long school day ending both of us gasping for breath through our laughter, no matter what conflicts we had faced during the tough school day. Surprisingly, every once of a while, one of us would remember how that one time I almost let someone choose my friends for me, and we would double over laughing about my silliness once more. Believe it or not I kept the friend I choose for myself years longer than the one that forced herself into a friendship.

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