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Caddie stared at the page: plain black lettering against harsh white pages reflected the fluorescent lights above her. Words served as her only comfort when people never would. However, reading them aloud was another story altogether. Not-too hidden snickers and uncomfortable coughs startled Caddie from her reverie.
“Caddie, dear? Please, read. The top of page seventy-four,” Mrs. Edwards said, peering over the tops of her horn-rimmed glasses with an encouraging smile.
“Yes’m. Th-h-h-aaa b-b-oy fr-r-om ran the g-g-ar-duhn wha-a-t…I m-mean, w-when…” Caddie stammered, hating the squeaky decibels that poured forth from her mouth. The way her tongue felt like a swollen cotton ball, the words like mashed potatoes jammed in her throat. Just as they had always done ever since she could remember. And as always, she whispered, “Please, can y-you just skip to the next person?”
“Sure, thank you, Caddie. Elton, stop messing with Bella’s hair, and read. Now.”
Caddie sank in her seat. The sensation of burning coals prickled her cheeks, staining them pomegranate red. For the rest of class, she watched the minute-hand of the clock tick like a sloth. At last, the ringing bell snapped the students into a flurry of motion. Backpacks zipped and slung over shoulders, incessant chatter about weekend plans, and shuffling sneakers deafened into a rowdy caucus. For most students at Celia Dell High School, three o’clock signified the beginning of lacrosse, tennis, and soccer practice. Others hurried off to violin and piano lessons, and another lucky few headed to a local favorite café, Mud Puddle, for an afternoon of hot cocoa spiced with school gossip.
Caddie stood up and slipped on the same tangerine orange tweed jacket she had worn since fifth grade. The one with hidden holes in the pockets that spilled away coins like bread crumbs. Her red corduroy pants did not stretch far enough to hide the tanned leather loafers that had almost worn themselves down to the nub. She wrapped the black scarf she had knit for herself around her long pale neck, careful not to leave cracks where the winter wind could creep through. Scattered freckles peppered Caddie’s hollowed face, and her somber opal blue eyes dulled even in the sunlight. Though they considered her plain at best, people did say she had a “good nose.”
“Caddie? Could I please talk to you?” Mrs. Edwards called out just before Caddie could slip out the door unnoticed.
“Um, okay,” Caddie turned around and gave Mrs. Edwards a wary look.
“I know you dislike being called on to read in class, but Caddie, really. You can fight this. You’re such a smart girl. I’ve heard many cases of dyslexia that were cured purely because of practice. If you and your mother would agree to it, I would like to help you do that by reading out loud after school. Perhaps thirty minutes to an hour. How would you like that?”
“Mrs. Edwards, thank you for your concern, b-but I really don’t need your help,” Caddie pursed her lips.
“I’m very sorry to hear that, Caddie. I’m only trying to help you. In case you ever do change your mind, I’ll be here.”
“Alright. Have a good evening, Mrs. Edwards,” Caddie answered, a drumbeat in her head pounding her temples. I can’t believe this. I don’t need anyone’s help, especially hers. Caddie rushed out the door, fuming. She felt the urge to clear her head, but unlike other students at Celia Dell High School, Caddie did not vent her anger and stress through sports or music. Instead, she spent her weekday afternoons feeding the ducks at Cranbury Pond, a secluded area that lay on the outskirts of town, halfway on her way home. Long taken over by weeds, Cranbury Pond served as a solitary shelter to thrushes and peepers that thrived in the reeds. As she walked, Caddie twirled her, auburn hair with her pinky, a “very, very bad habit” according to her mother. But Caddie noted that everything seemed to have gone “very, very bad” ever since her father had left them when she started kindergarten. Her mother blamed her for everything that had happened since then. She had never admitted this, but there was no need to. Caddie had stopped caring years ago.
When Caddie reached Cranbury Pond, she unsheathed the loaf of pumpernickel bread she had guarded in her backpack and waved it around. The ducks honked and flapped their wings, demanding Caddie’s attentions and affections. The sun had just set behind the weeping willow trees that guarded the pond on all sides. Here, at least, the ducks did not judge. They never did. How could they? With their ugly, blaring honks and glassy black beads for eyes? They were subject to the moods of the weather – the oncoming frosty days threatened their beloved pond, emblazoned with glistening ice that crushed the liquid life out of it. She plopped down on the creaking wooden bench that lay nestled in front of the pond. Sighing, Caddie ripped off small chunks of the loaf and threw them down towards her feet. The ducks, at least ten or twenty she counted, jostled one another to peck at the fluffy morsels.
“Oh, you poor things…can’t do it on your own. Always fighting, just trying to survive. But don’t y’know there isn’t anything left in this town for ya, anyways? It’s better to just fly…yes, somewhere far, far, far away,” Caddie lectured, shaking her fist at them. Furious quacking erupted, but Caddie doubted her “speech” had been the cause. In a short time, the loaf had dwindled to nothing but crumbs, and Caddie gave an apologetic shrug. Time to go home.
Nothing but the darkening, humid night and humming cicadas greeted Caddie as she approached the white-washed one-story home she had lived in her whole life. Patches of dried, yellowing grass and soda cans littered the front yard. The crooked mailbox at the foot of the dirt driveway overflowed with unpaid bills and grocery store coupons. At the other end lay her mother’s lead-gray ’92 Buick with chipped paint, broken taillight, and missing door handle.
Caddie paused to take a deep breath before stepping inside the wooden doorway. “Mother?” she glanced around, not expecting a reply. She peered into the kitchen on her left where a cold pot of burnt, crusty macaroni sat on the stove. Well, my appetite is completely ruined. Caddie tread with light steps on the maroon carpet that covered the living room, switching off the television that looped reruns of the Andy Griffith show, her father’s old favorite. Her mother never bothered to change the channel anymore.
After placing her ear on her mother’s door and hearing low snores and the rustling of bed sheets, she switched off the dim hallway lights. Caddie rounded the corner to her own room, a barren wasteland with a large bookshelf in the corner as the oasis. Too exhausted to change into a fresher pair of clothes, Caddie plunked onto her bed - a mass of aching muscles and flimsy limbs. Tomorrow is a new day, Caddie thought as she drifted off into slumber, gripping the sheets up to her chin.
The next morning, Caddie awoke to horn blasts from the school bus. Late again. She jumped up, grabbing a granola bar from the kitchen as she dashed outside. “S-s-sorry,” Caddie apologized to the glaring bus lady. She attempted to avoid everyone’s stares by keeping her own gaze on the ground and scurried to claim her familiar seat in the back. Not long after she had settled down with her school textbooks and a copy of Lord of the Flies in her lap, a group of three boys approached her. She recognized Elton from Mrs. Edwards’s class, but the other two did not seem familiar.
All of a sudden, one of the boys pushed Caddie’s books to the floor. “There’s no use for those anymore. Not like you could even read those anyway, dummy!” he taunted. Caddie stood, her feet plastered to the grimy bus floor. Furious, yet helpless, she quavered. Inside, her head screamed everything she wanted to say, but couldn’t. She opened her mouth, but only a hoarse silence escaped.
“Cat got your tongue?” he jeered.
“C’mon, let’s just leave her. She’s not worth our time,” Elton nudged him.
“You’re right. She’s just stupid. Can’t even do nothin’ for herself, but whaddya expect from a stuttering mute?” the third boy piped up. Laughing, they sauntered back towards their seats in the front. Caddie sucked in, hasty intakes of musty air that stung her lungs. Then, she crumpled like a ball of paper to the cold plastic seat. Brushing her eyes with the sleeve of her coat, Caddie attempted to compose herself and gather her strewn books. No one had seemed to notice, or they just pretended not to. Caddie thought the latter to be more reasonable. After an agonizing ten minutes, they were at Celia Dell High School. The scathing winter wind solidified the wet trails on her cheeks while she pushed her hands deeper into her pockets, bracing herself.
Caddie had Coach Adair’s history class first period, but instead, she found herself meandering towards her last class of the day – English. The tardy bell scattered remaining students into their classes, leaving loose papers and posters to flutter on the black and yellow tiled floors of the empty hallways. Mrs. Edwards’s door stood ajar. Hmm…I don’t even know what I’m doing here, but there’s nothing else to do except go in. She hesitated a second before walking in. Mrs. Edwards was shuffling and grading stacks of papers that cluttered her desk. “Mrs. Edwards,” Caddie sputtered.
“Caddie, dear, I was expecting you. Not at this time, exactly, but that makes no difference. I was just looking at the next assignment for tomorrow. Top of page seventy-six, shall we?” she said.
“Uhh…yes’m,” Caddie mumbled, surprised. Fumbling for the right page in her book, she read, “T-t-tall r-e-ee-ds w-wha-at…g-g-uard-uhd the-e-e…” Hours passed with Caddie sounding out words and syllables and Mrs. Edwards clicking her tongue when she happened to mess up the sentence order. The seventh period class began to file in. “I should go…See you tomorrow, Mrs. Edwards. A-and, um…” Caddie said.
“Don’t mention it, Caddie. How about we continue this after class tomorrow? Don’t want to get you in trouble,” Mrs. Edwards offered a crescent of a smile. Caddie nodded and turned to go. Caddie licked her cracked lips; her mouth felt like it had run a marathon. Well, the day is already half-over, and I just want to feed the ducks.
Conviction pulsed through Caddie as she marched out of Celia Dell High School, thrusting open the creaky, navy doors at the entrance. Without looking back to see if anyone was watching, Caddie ran for Cranbury Pond. She felt drained, sore, tired, but this time was different. Electric sparks danced over her skin, dotting it with goose bumps.
Late wintry afternoon had brought the sunset early today. The splotched sky erupted into an orchestra of color with hues of indigo and streaks of scarlet. The sky is on fire today, Caddie thought. As if preparing for the finale, the colors intensified for a minute before quieting down to hug the sky in a warm, incandescent glow. Caddie held her breath, anxious that even the slightest movement would ruin the moment. This time, the ducks didn’t blare, and nor did they glare with glassy black eyes. A lone duck at the front caught her eye. In defiance, it puffed out a speckled, feathery chest and raised its crimson bill tipped with inky black. It sported an azure and emerald coat trimmed with golden-chrysanthemum feathers. Caddie gazed at the head that was crowned with tufts of white fluff. Then, like a servant bowing before its master, the duck lowered its head, flapped its wings, and flew off into the sky.