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“Don’t worry! It’ll be easy.”
“You’ll learn more when you get there!” My parents cooed way back when they dragged me into this exchange-student nightmare. I can’t believe I actually believed them. Serves me right, I guess.
Vienna, Austria—or, right here—is supposedly the best place you could ever want to live. That is, if you speak German. The thing is, even if you DO speak the language, the local Austrian dialect is nothing close to anything I’ve learned in my entire one year of German. Although, it didn’t really help that I spent half of this said year thinking up ways to creatively destroy my homework rather than, say, actually doing it.
A wet, slobbery nose brushed up against my calf and interrupted my thoughts, a nose that could only belong to one dog—my host family’s skinny, hyperactive border collie. Otherwise known as Elise.
I almost smiled at the gesture. The key word here? Almost. I haven’t smiled in days. Weeks. Months.
Elise licked the back of my pant-leg this time, reminding me yet again that we were at a dog park and that she was still tethered to me. I reached down and unclicked the silver clip. Immediately, she raced ahead, tearing through the finely clipped expanse of green. I leaned back in the strangely comfortable park bench, and then people-watched for a little while.
Like the infamous surveys suggest, everyone here always seemed so…happy. It almost made me sick, the way they laughed and joked and smiled as they chucked their chewed-up frisbees across the fenced park.
Occasionally, one or two of the people would throw his or her frisbee right into the trunks—or even into the leaves—of the gigantic, old trees that towered overhead.
I yanked out a chewed-up, faded yellow tennis ball and chucked it in Elise’s direction, only to have it weakly fall short—no testament to my ‘girl power’. Elise didn’t even move, and only turned to stare at me disappointedly. Eyes wide, ears drooped, the whole enchilada. Before long, she turned tail and went running back into the park, without her favorite toy.
“That’s it.” I muttered to myself. “We’re going home. Now. I’ve had enough of this place.”
“Elise!” I called in a monotone. As she came bounding up, I clipped the ragged leash on her. I tried to get up so we could go, but didn’t. Couldn’t. My energy completely deserted me—again. Constant depression tended to do that to you.
This was all so hard—living. I wasn’t sure how much more I could take of it.
I didn’t know how many days I could carry on going to that snooty school, pretending that everything was okay. That is was perfectly fine that I had no friends here. That I can hardly speak the language. That I don’t fit in, no matter how hard I try. I wear the designer clothes; I have the right hairstyle. I do everything I’m supposed to; but, nothing ever changes. No one even speaks to me. This isn’t how life is supposed to be, is it?
Not even my one other friend back home in the states texts me anymore. She’s dead. Suicide, they say, and not a month after I arrived. She begged me not to leave her alone and friendless at school, yet I still did. Her face still haunts me to this day.
A crowded bus whirred by the street, blurs of faces peeking through the frosted windows. Taxis buzzed by, filled with busy business people too preoccupied with their smartphones to notice the beautiful city sights. The complex network of subways also rattled beneath my feet, just out of view.
It would be so easy, to just jump out in front of one of these commuter buses and end it all. If I didn’t have Elise with me, I would have done it in a heartbeat. I just couldn’t leave my last friend—this dog—in this world alone.
Elise pulled at the tattered sea-blue leash, then looked up at me with her most pathetic look, whine included. ‘One more time?’ she seemed to ask.
“No.” I said sharply, shaking my head. We’re going home. I’ve had enough of this. Enough of life.
The little girl slammed her chipped plastic airplane against the wooden playground border with a loud thunk. She grinded the disfigured wheels of the toy against a small, overhanging nail playfully, all the while giving her own sound effects—complete with small whooshes.
With one final takeoff, the girl dropped to the ground and onto her dust-covered bottom with a small thud. She hummed a catchy little song to herself, the same tune she tended to hum every day of the week, for every week for this past year.
A tall, businesslike woman came strolling over from a nearby park bench, bending carefully at the waist to look her daughter in the eye.
"Dear," she said softly, in a controlled voice. She smoothly reached down and tugged at her daughter’s toy plane and then plopped it down into her endless black leather purse. "Why don't you be a good girl and go play with the other kids over there?"
The little girl said nothing. She reached out a fair-colored hand, snatching at the air that formerly contained her toy.
"No, Ana." the mother said, straightening herself as she stood, brushing off a few clinging leaves. Quickly, she zipped up one of the many pockets of her purse. "Go play."
The daughter stared blankly at her mother's purse and to the spot she expected her plane to appear any moment now.
"ANA." the mother repeated, voice rising and eyes on the verge of rolling in exasperation. "We're at a playground. Kids at playgrounds play. They don't sit around with a stupid plastic toy."
"But I don't want to." Ana said. “Don’t wanna go play.”
The mother sighed. "Ana, darling. Why can't you just be normal?"
"Elise. Elise." I said, tugging at the tight leash. The border collie flipped her head around, tongue still lolling and breath heaving from our last game of try-to-catch-me. "Let's go." I said, beginning to walk in the exit direction.
However, after a few seconds of walking, Elise started tugging and yanking at the leash, whining in a soft tone. I frowned, and then pulled back harder. A choking noise resulted, but I paid no attention to it. Stupid dog. Did she not understand what I meant when I pulled at the leash?
"Elise." I said again. "Home. Startseite. Now." I hoped she would remember the German word for home, but the apparently-deaf dog kept on choking herself on the ratty blue leash. I glanced up for a brief moment, curious to see what the dog was getting so ecstatic about.
A little kid, not much taller than my hip, sprinted head-on in my direction, yelling and screaming the entire way. I sidestepped, hoping—no, wanting to get out of her way. I wasn’t about to let some kid tackle me to the ground.
"Puppy!" the girl screamed, giggling and tackling my overly-enthusiastic dog into something resembling a headlock. Her smile stretched from ear to ear, and her face literally glowed with happiness. Her dark, almost black hair bounced around as she giggled.
"Um, hello?" I said, waving a hand in a flat, emotionless greeting to the girl.
The girl laughed, then stuffed her face into the dog's black and white side, muffling any response. Elise licked her forehead with a slobbery kiss, almost as if she'd known this girl her entire life.
I leaned back slightly, frowning and staring at this girl before attempting to correct myself with a standard Austrian greeting—one that I did know. "Guten Tag?" I tried.
The sound of high heels clinking in rapid succession diverted my attention. A tall lady speedwalked in my direction, and something about her reminded me of a grouchy grade-school principal.
I stared, not wanting to say anything and hardly made eye contact. I grimaced slightly as the lady, obviously her mother, reached and grabbed the girl's hand.
"Ana, come on. Leave that mutt alone." she said, and then turned to me. She fired off a string of German words, ones I couldn't understand. I stared blankly.
"Uhh, English please?" I said.
"Oh. Sorry." she said, in a clearly British accent. "I'm so sorry. My daughter, Ana...she's not right in the head, you see."
I nodded my head in understanding. The girl had hardly spoken to me and hadn’t even looked in my direction.
"I don’t quite know what it is with her..." she trailed off, shaking her head as she disgustedly pushed Elise away with a free foot. I wrapped a portion of the leash around my hand, forcing the dog to take a step backwards.
"Sorry." I mumbled, with a little hint of attitude.
"No, I'm the one who's sorry.” she said, eyebrows wrinkled in disgust. “Ana knows she's not supposed to just run off and play with dogs." I felt a teensy bit offended. Elise was pretty cool, as far as dogs went.
"Well, see you." she said, cutting off whatever I was about to say. She yanked at Ana's upper arm roughly.
"I don't wanna go." Ana whined. The second time I'd heard her voice today. Her mother wanted nothing to do with this, though.
"No." she growled, and just as quickly as the duo appeared, they were walking back down the crusty, leaf-lined sidewalk.
Elise whined, tugging at the leash again. She gazed up at me with pleading eyes, crying and begging me to let her off of the leash. I didn't.
"Bye?" I said in their general direction, not sure to whom I was talking to. The little girl, Ana, must have heard me though.
She flipped back around, and, much to her mother's disgust, she frantically waved her free hand and yelled out, "BYE, PUPPY!" she giggled again, then covered up her laugh for a moment. As she was dragged away yet again, I could still clearly make out the glowing smile etched upon her face.
At that moment, something changed inside of me. For the first time in who-knows-how long—