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It all started as a game. A game that began below the busy streets of New York City where the 6 train to 27th Street would arrive every few minutes, a sort of magic to a little girl. Fluorescent lights flickered, illuminating the dirty floors and graffitied walls. The board overhead announced the approaching trains in a sickening neon green. It was barely after 7:00 in the morning, but already the hum of human existence was deafening. Punctual business people dressed in shades of black and gray, women with neat buns, men clean shaven. They walk with a brisk pace as if revving up to face their day, armed with briefcases, coffee, and the interminable rings of their cell phones. The unlucky homeless sat scattered in various nooks and crannies with shifty eyes, jabbering incomprehensibly. They fought off the December chill with only tattered sweatshirts and thin blankets. Mixed in with these highs and lows of society were everyone else, rushing to catch specific trains before they left them behind. Doctors, mothers, cooks, African-Americans, Latinos, whites, all part of the diversity that created the melting pot. In the heart of the left tunnel a subway car steadily approached like a monster growing bigger and bigger as it roared towards the station. A little girl in a grey winter coat two sizes too big clutched the hand of her mother, dreading her very first ride.
“I’m scared,” she whispered, blonde wisps of hair framing her flushed cheeks and wide blue eyes. Her mother’s bell-like laugh echoed around the station. She was a mirror image of her daughter despite the light lines of age gracefully etched across her face.
“Khloe, you gotta find a way to get outside your head. Let me show you.” Though only four, Khloe was well aware of her mother’s somewhat reckless disposition. Fearlessness could cloud her common sense. Apprehensive, Khloe followed her mother to the edge of the grey platform, toes hanging inches above the sharp tracks below. The subway roared closer and closer, its sound booming over everything else. They stood there unmoving, her mother’s sky blue eyes closed. The low pound of the train had become a throbbing, pulsing rhythm; bum-bum, bum-bum, bum-bum, bum-bum. “Here we go,” her mom whispered. Khloe’s eyes squeezed shut. Whoosh. The train zoomed past in a constant blur of wind and color. Gasping, she opened her eyes only to see their own faces, unmoving displays in the racing windows’ reflections. The air twisted and turned, blood rushed to her fingertips. Then finally, the car began to slow until it came to a screeching halt.
Fourteen years later the same face looked into those windows as their doors opened to welcome passengers inside. She was taller now but still had those same deep blue eyes and light blonde hair. Beside her stood another girl with dark bouncy curls held back by a bright orange headband. Her white dress spun as people rushed by, and she disapprovingly shook her head.
“Why do you have to play that silly game every time we take the subway? I hate it, it looks like you’re about to get hit,” she remarked, brushing stray curls from her face. Khloe shrugged, the game had become something of a habit. Stepping into the train, they squished in between two other commuters, dropping their bags with a loud clunk.
“Think you did well on your Calc. test today, Ayla?” Khloe asked as her friend took out a notebook and began sketching on a wadded up wrapper, hit with random inspiration.
“Nope. I don’t understand anything Mr. Carlson teaches me.” That was a lie, Khloe knew that better than anyone else. Besides being a gifted artist, Ayla was something of a genius. Not only was she taking all Honors and AP classes this year, but she had been promised a full ride scholarship to Stanford University. “Hey, um, how are you feeling?” Ayla tentatively asked.
She responded with a quiet, “Fine, why wouldn’t I be?”
“Come on Khlo, I know what day it is.” Khloe did not reply, instead pointedly choosing to focus her complete attention on the blackness outside the windows. Today was the fourteenth anniversary of her mother’s death, a tragic accident that had left Khloe with nothing but a belittling father and a dark scar where her leg had been hit. Not only did she lose her mother that day, but she also left with a disability that made reading and comprehension extraordinarily difficult. The memories she had of that day were surprisingly clear: four years old, waiting at the door of the day care center, her parents arguing on the other side of the street, running into the road wanting to make them stop, a panicked scream, her mother’s arms around her, then a pair of bright headlights beaming into her eyes. That was it. Khloe’s next recollection was waking up in a white, sterile hospital room, bandages surrounding her body. Her mother was on the bed beside her, doctors hovering around like agitated bees. She heard her mother’s pulse through the heart monitor, slowing from a steady beat to a single low tone. Her father was nowhere to be found, had no interest in consoling her.
“Khloe? You here with me? I’m losing you.” Ayla’s words broke her train of thought as a tear rolled down her cheek.
Hastily wiping it away, she replied, “I’m fine. Just fine.”
At the subway stop at 6th Avenue and Grove Street, Khloe and Ayla said their goodbyes, their footsteps leaving fresh prints in the snow. Greenwich Village had always been one of Khloe’s favorite spot in New York City. The diversity of the area breathed a radiant atmosphere into every corner. Energy reverberated with every yell and whisper. It could drag creativity out of the most boring human being. Brushing some snowflakes out of her hair, Khloe made her way down the icy street into an alleyway. It was dark and sketchy looking, the kind of place even the most daring kid would refuse to venture near. Fishing a little rusty key out of her backpack, Khloe unlocked the dirty door on the left and walked inside the the dimly lit hallway as quietly as she could. By this time in the day, her dad was either drunk or asleep. She hoped for her own sake that it was the latter.
“Please open your books to Chapter 8.” Shivering, Khloe hugged her jacket closer and glanced out the window as another angry downpour of snow envelop the world below. Her substitute teacher was full of crazy methods and ideas, including his belief that extreme temperatures created a “more stimulating learning environment”. Khloe dug out her book and pulled the cap of her Yankees hat lower. A gigantic blue and purple bruise completely covered her left eye, something even a limitless amount of face products could not conceal. Her father had gotten incredibly irritable the night before, blaming her for everything. After she received a forceful hit in the face, Khloe had run into her room and locked the door. Exhausted from a restless night’s sleep, she lay her head on the cool surface of her desk and drifted off immediately. Dreams of open fields and gleaming stars put her at peace.
“Khloe Kramer?” Her eyes shot open. How long had she been asleep?
“Please continue the reading from where we have left off,” the substitute instructed. Read aloud?! All of her teachers had been informed of Khloe’s disability, she was never asked to read aloud. The substitute must have not been told.
“Ummm, I can’t,” she said hesitantly.
“Don’t be ridiculous, you’re holding up the class,” he responded.
Khloe protested, “No really, I-”
“I will not tolerate such foolishness Ms. Kramer. Now, please begin the reading or I will be forced to give you a zero for the day,” he spat, brows furrowed. Khloe took in a deep breath. She was already failing this class.
“Fine,” she looked down at the novel they were currently reading, Moby Dick, and slowly began, “I pon-pondered soom- no, some time with-without fally-fully com-com-pray, compre-hinding the ray-re, reason for this.” The words were like puzzle pieces that just would not fit together. People were whispering, sniggering. Khloe tried to continue, “Fay-fayther- oh sorry, father, Mapple enjee-enjoyed such-”
“What a loser,” someone whispered.
“Freak!” another yelled. Khloe’s face had now flushed a deep red from embarrassment. The giggles had erupted into full-fledged laughter now, every pair of eyes were focused on her.
“I’m a joke,” she thought miserably, trying desperately to hold back tears. Never had she been so relieved to hear the bell releasing them to lunch. Jamming her books into her bag, Khloe ran out of the classroom, through the hall, until she was in the empty quad. Hot teardrops were pouring from her eyes now and she collapsed onto a bench. Khloe sat there, head in her hands, drowning in hurt and insecurity as snowflakes gently fell to the ground. Their words echoed in her mind, upsetting her even more.
“Freak,” they had said, “Loser.” Her heart felt bruised. She missed her mom more than ever before.
“Hey there, how was class?” Ayla walked up, taking a bite out of a bright green apple. Khloe avoided her eyes. “Khloe? Something up?” She tried to get a better look at her friend. “Oh my god! What happened to your eye?! Was it your dad?”
“Nothing... I’m fine.”
“Oh, come on, stop staying that. I know something’s wrong, just tell me so I can help.”
Frustration flared up in Khloe. “You know what? No you can’t. You don’t understand at all. You get to live your perfect life with your perfect future while I’ll be stuck here with an abusive father and an overall sucky life. You weren’t stuck with a disability, you didn’t lose your mom, you don’t know how I feel. So why don’t you just stop trying?” Ayla looked taken aback, the apple lay in pieces on the snow-covered ground.
“I’m sorry Khloe, listen, I’m just trying to-” But Khloe never heard the rest of her sentence. She had taken off in a full sprint, a feeble attempt to run away from her problems. Her feet seemed to have a mind of their own as they took her further from the school. Khloe sped down the streets of New York City which were roaring with life. The noise of car horns and street musicians mingled with broken accents and native tongues. It created a sort of symphony, like a soundtrack to her life. Taxis sped pass, yellow muddles in the daylight. The slow-falling snow felt like icy needles as she ran, piercing her skin with an angry intensity. Her blonde hair danced behind her, lashing out into the crisp winter air. Khloe darted over curbs, dodged dawdling tourists. People looked at her curiously, turning around as if trying to spot what she was running from. The familiar high structures that lined the skies now looked dark and reproachful, almost like they were judging her too. It was a city of over eight million, but never had she felt so alone. Finally Khloe reached the filthy steps leading down to the underground metro tunnels. Her feet sloshed in the puddles of melted snow, thoroughly drenching them. She was a mess. Her hair was a total disarray, her eyes were blotchy and red from crying. She had no one anymore, no one loved her. That was the worst feeling in the world.
Khloe walked slowly towards the edge of the platform, her heart pounding. She knew what she felt like she needed to do. People rushed around her, but Khloe was of no importance to them. She was not crying anymore, but her breaths were irregular and she felt a little lightheaded. In the left hand tunnel, a train sped closer building speed. “I’m alone, all alone,” the words repeated themselves like a mantra as she looked down at the tracks far beneath her. There was no point in living anymore, every aspect of her life was too hard. The subway car had almost reached her, and Khloe knew she was ready. Anticipation was present in her mind, but so was a weird feeling of peace and relief. She had found her escape.
“Wait! Khloe, stop!” Ayla screamed from across the station. She had trailed Khloe here in a taxi, and was now desperately trying to reach her friend in time. “KHLOE!” Hesitating, Khloe turned to face Ayla, but her body had seemed to have frozen to the icy floor. Had her friend really followed her here? Did she care enough about Khloe to stop her? But this new choice was so simple, so easy, so very quick. Confusion washed over like a tsunami wave, but she felt the smallest glimmer of hope. The subway train was feet away, Khloe had to make a choice. It was time. WHOOSH! The train shot by, and the cool wind flew throughout the platform. Fragments of litter and dust were swept up from the powerful breeze, the colors of the metro merged into one single, indescribable shade. Then it began to slow to a screeching halt, the air was submerged in a quiet stillness. Game over.