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The note fluttered out of Claire’s locker like a snowflake on Christmas morning. It landed silently on the dirty linoleum floor, and seemed to wink at her for a second.
Then student symphony resumed: the aimless chatter and rustling of papers, the slamming of lockers and stomping of feet. Claire was shoved aside and glimpsed the sheet disappear under a muddy boot. For a moment a visceral fear seized her, and she pushed back, snatched the paper, and hurried down the hall.
She slowed once she reached the bathroom, and glanced down at her hand. The note appeared to be ripped from a school notebook. It had been folded twice, and on one side, monogrammed in black ink, was the letter ‘C’.
Claire closed her eyes and unfolded it, savouring the sweet feeling of anticipation. She could not decide if she was surprised; a small part of her felt as if she had been expecting this for years. For a moment she remained still, but her curiosity soon won and she read the message: “There are several good protections against temptation but the surest is cowardice. I have dreamt of your face and imagined our profound conversations for years - conversations that would drown out the monotony of daily life as an ocean drowns an ant. Yet today my cowardice is shattered - you are amazing.”
Claire’s mother was chopping tomatoes, and nearly sliced open her hand when her daughter appeared at her side. Suzanne scolded herself; she should be used to her own daughter by now. Yet Claire seemed more like a ghost than a thirteen year old girl: always drifting silently along, engulfed in whatever thoughts occupied her wild mind, and with a permanent frown etched upon her face. Suzanne had no idea how she had conceived such a child. And in the moment it had taken that thought to form, Claire had once again disappeared.
Up in her room, Claire twirled with joy, her out of date skirt rippling about like ocean waves on a windy afternoon. She caught sight of herself in the mirror, sighed and glanced away. The girl in the mirror… well, Claire would never call her pretty. Her throat constricted as she growled at her knobby nose and pimply cheeks.
Other than that mirror, however, this room was Claire’s sanctuary. Her furniture was paper white, and her walls a pale lilac. The wooden floor was barely visible beneath endless stacks of books and binders. Claire used to pretend her room was the sky, and she was floating about on fluffy clouds, looking down upon the world from such a height that entire sky scrapers became the size of girly novels. There was good company up in the sky, stuffed bears and dogs that listened to her marvellous stories with interested expressions. Claire dreaded leaving those clouds and descending to earth, with its lack of rules and plot lines.
She had always held the hope that something would happen to whisk her out of her loneliness, as had happened to all the characters in her favourite books - and it had! There was someone out there who understood her, and cared about more than the superficial details of life. Someone who knew the works of Mark Twain, and how to write!
Claire stopped twirling and, for the first time in years, smiled because of something in the real world.
The next morning dawned crisp and clear. Suzanne had left a bagged lunch on the counter, which Claire grabbed as she left. She walked down Lillooet Street in a glowing daze, the smell of mowed grass and blooming flowers placing a wide grin on her face. Claire felt an overwhelming desire to be part of the wonderful scenery, to be vivacious and tantalizing herself. She dropped her knapsack on the sidewalk and stepped onto the grass. For a moment she stood in awe of the beauty around her, and then clambered up the trunk of the nearest tree, and picked a blossom. She tucked it behind her ear, envisioning the fabulous surprise that awaited her.
And sure enough, when she yanked open her locker, a new note was lying on her math textbook. This one, however, had a very different message, “Recess, behind the gym”.
Behind the gym was a tiny patch of dirt covered in hundreds of cigarette butts. Claire waited, eyeing every student that passed with immense curiosity. But as the minutes dragged on, she began to feel a nagging doubt. Recess was nearly over when she noticed a lone figure walking towards her. It was definitely a boy, tall, lanky with an awkward gait. He came closer, and Claire suddenly recognized him. Ned! Really?
Besides herself, Ned was the most nerdy person in grade eight, constantly picked on by the school bullies, who tended to leave Claire alone. She lived in a different world than them, and there insults were little pebbles bouncing off the concrete walls that separated their universes. Ned was smart enough, but he did not seem the type, and had never expressed the slightest interest in her. No matter, Claire decided, pushing aside her doubts, there must be more to him than she had originally imagined.
Ned approached her slowly, wringing his hands and shuffling his feet. Claire thought she should probably say something to make him more comfortable, but had no idea what to say either. They stood there in silence, looking at the ground, embarrassed by the birds above who seemed to be communicating without any trouble. Finally Ned spoke, “I’sorryy.” He said, and halted. Claire glanced up in surprise. Then it came rushing out, “It was Austen, he made me do it. He threatened me! He thought it would be funny, and he can’t write so...”
Claire froze. “I’sorryy,” Ned repeated, “I decided I couldn’t go through with it...” But she didn’t hear anymore, she had broken into a full sprint. Whether it was away from this school, and these people who would never understand her, or from her own naivety, she did not know. She raced through the grounds and back up Lillooet Street. It felt good to run, to do something real after years of living in her head, and her anger carried her all the way to her house, where she kicked open the door and stormed into her room. It was exactly as she had left it: perfect and pretty and purple. She hated it. She grabbed the nearest stuffy and flung it against the far wall, where it slowly slid to the floor. The fluffy bear lay there, taunting her. “We’re your only friends” she imagined it laughing; “There is no one real who understands you.”
Claire copied the bear and sank to the floor. She drifted in and out of sleep, her dreams punctuated by images of laughing bears that beat her up until she lay flat and immobile. She tried to get up, but couldn’t; she tried to scream, but again she could not. Then she realized that she had been beaten into a single sheet of paper, lying stationary on a patch of dirt.
Claire woke with a start, and was surprised to find herself still on the ground with her head resting on the tattered bear.
“Dinner!” Suzanne was yelling, “DINNER!” Claire ignored her.
But her mother was persistent. Her voice could really carry, Claire mused: across a hallway, up the stairs, through her door… was there no where the nagging shouts couldn’t reach?
A few minutes later Claire’s door swung open. It took Suzanne a moment to locate her daughter curled in the corner of her room. Suzanne stared at Claire, puzzled by her helpless state, then extended a hand to help her up. Claire had no desire to move, or to do anything ever again, and did not acknowledge the hand. But she looked up, and they made eye contact, each trying to see if there was a real human behind the confusing façade. And when Suzanne knelt down and picked up the cherry blossom that had survived the overwhelming day, Claire realized that she still had a chance. Not a chance at a fairy tale, but maybe a shot at a slightly normal life.
Claire had walked to school feeling indifferent, excited, and grudging, but she had never felt as though she was walking towards a battlefield. She took one glance at the school and nearly puked, but she knew she had to keep going. In the back of her Math and English classes she felt her heart beating erratically, and could sense everyone’s eyes on her as if they knew exactly what she was about to do.
Finally the bell rang for lunch. But instead of heading to the science wing, where she usually spent the lunch hour curled up with a book, Claire walked over to the gym, and mounted the stairs that led to the stands. They were deserted, except for a skinny boy sitting in the corner of the furthest bleacher. Claire drew a deep breath, and walked towards him. “Um, can I sit here?” she asked. Ned smiled at her, and scooted over.