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Speaking of Courage
When I returned to school from the hospital, there was nothing to say. I picked up my backpack and returned to life as usual. It was refreshing, tricking myself into believing that there was just one answer to every question, pretending that the ethical dilemmas we faced were only theoretical, and leading our bubblegum pink lives.
I followed the river of concrete up through the thick forests. The sun gleamed through a textile of leaves. The rain politely pattered my windshield, covering it with an array of light jewels, quickly escorted away by the no-nonsense windshield wipers. The barely audile brush of the wipers wove together with the shattering of crystals, occasionally interrupted by the staccato of my turn signal. Up on the hill, the white picket fence gleamed, protecting a patch of sunshine. As I rolled past, horses nostalgically looked off towards the distance, covered in little blankets that could hardly keep them warm. Another beautiful day in paradise.
It was a small school, the kind of school you liked once you got to know it, just like that shy, quiet girl in your Calculus class. It wasn’t the most academically rigorous or the home of athletic champions, but it had its merits. It falsely assured students of the great amount of tolerance in the world, the integrity of thieves, and the panacea of college. It was cheery, peppy, and unrealistically optimistic.
The natural beauty of the campus was unparalleled on a sunny day. The sickly-sweet fragrance of the bushes would waft through the air. The ducks would merrily quack, drifting atop the drainage pond. The Earth would release its warmth and fill the world, nestling every student and teacher it met. But in the darkness of the winter months, it would claim victims, tripping students onto their backpacks with its black ice. The sky would attack faculty with pellets of ice and erode their skin with biting winds. Today, the sun clucked its tongue in pity and smiled down.
A twinge of anger had made its home in my stomach. The school had built an impression of the person I was, and I had believed it. As my teachers extoled my work ethic and commitment to excellence, I stopped existing as a human. I took on the hazy subsistence of an idea. Held to standards never before considered, I settled for nothing but the best. I developed a façade of confidence and intelligence. And every night, I pushed myself to resist slumber for an extra fifteen minutes, so when we learned the topic in class, I would know all the answers. I flinched from the thought of friendships, paranoid that someone would blow through the meticulous veneer of effortlessness I perfumed myself with. When all the As added up, I bought into the system. My lungs processed equations instead of oxygen, and my stomach preferred grammar to food. Without the monotony of school, I struggled to piece together what I represented.
At least that’s what I chose to believe. I wanted to think that no one else knew what I was going through. That no one else understood how much my grandmother meant to me, and that no one else knew that I blamed myself.
I wish I could tell Camille all about how well I’ve managed the school year. I wish we could subtly compete and make each other jealous and push each other to work our pencils to the nub. But Camille’s off at college, even though she’s supposed to be in my grade, winning a war I had given up on. She would understand my choice to live up to an idealized version of myself. I felt my phone squirming with my every step, but it remained in my pocket. I double-timed it to History.
After fifty minutes of debating what to do with our atomic bomb, I moved through the rotation, making my way past French, then Computer Science, and a rousing round of derivatives. I thought about dialing her number into my phone. I would tell how well junior year was going and brag about how easy it all was.
Yeah, you won’t believe what I’m getting in Physics this year.
You have an internship lined up for this summer? I’m going to a summer intensive for prodigies.
My voice isn’t cracking. It’s probably just the line.
You know, I almost saved my grandmother’s life.
And of course she would ask how come I didn’t. And I would say it’s a story she doesn’t want to hear. And she would say she does and I would say alright, here goes.
The house was spiced with cardamom and saffron and chili and everything else. The warm glow of the lights reflected off of the orange wood paneling, knotted with patches of chestnut brown. The counter was filled with colorful Indian sweets, dishes, and a large display of idyllic statues on handmade wooden steps. My thumbs reddened at the thought of hammering all those nails in. We were dressed in traditional Indian saris, and the golden threads glinted off the chandeliers. And as I’d struggle to express the complexity of Hindu deities, she’d interject, What about your grandmother? And I’d say, right, I’ll get to that and she’d shift, impatiently tapping the library book cradled in her arms.
My chemistry textbook was wide open in front of me, and my eyes saw the words, but my mind rejected them. Strange Greek symbols were scrawled across the board, and in my time away from school, I had been banished to the back row. Down on my textbooks, raindrops plopped onto the thin slices of parchment. The letters swelled as I clawed at the lakes, swiping at them before anyone could see. Ionic bonds, covalent bonds, hydrogen bonds, peptide bonds. It seemed even the smallest of life knew their loyalties. My family always considered our first priority our duty to our family. To take care of each other because we knew that no one else might. I had broken that oath and family bonds because I wasn’t strong enough.
I struggled to heave my backpack over my shoulder. Besides the occasional smile and wave hello, I slumped on forward as if nothing was wrong. I assumed the gait of a soldier, a stroll that revealed nothing to the casual onlooker. The hall swayed like a flimsy rope bridge in the midst of a tempest. The walls shifted and the Earth trembled. My body was swallowed into the labyrinth of children. Without a precisely calculated air of confidence as my tether, I floated freely from knowledge to ignorance. My lungs starved from lack of praise.
The caricatures danced in front of my eyes, as they floated along the nonexistent summer breeze. Gangly ears. Bright, enlarged teeth. Lopsided eyes. Lips curled into a crude menace. Fragments of broken faces.
Her face broke. It inverted of its own volition. Her delicately arched eyebrows went crooked. Her smile was misshapen and grotesque. Her lips formed words of no language ever heard. And she fell. Her arms felt around her for something to grab and scraped the edge of a dining chair. And the two fell with a resounding crash.
The wooden floor lost its sheen and the lights flickered overhead. The gently flute music took on an eerie tone. The rhinestones on my shoes winked and sneered, Not so happy now are you? The statuettes held their breath, waiting for our next moves. The phone called the police, and police demanded What’s wrong? What’s wrong?
The equations on the board were foreign to me and judging from her expectant countenance, she had just asked me a question. Suddenly, the girl with all the answers had none.
Oh, it’s just that, um, I wasn’t here for the unit on the photoelectric effect.
All right, well, see if you can find one of your classmates to help you.
I plastered on my model student smile, disguising my glare of dismay. Regardless ofmy emotional state, I simply did not ask for help from my classmates. Why? Because I thought I was better than them. Because I hated it when other students asked me for help while I was working. Because Sakthi Vetrivel doesn’t ask for help.
We need help. We need an ambulance. My mother-in-law collapsed, said my father.
Okay, sir , just stay calm, We’re sending help right away. Do any of you know CPR?
I managed a little shake of the head. A blatant lie. I knew CPR and no one else did. I had been certified at school. But seeing her eyes roll into her head and her breath expire, I couldn’t. My eyes sheened with tears, yet I couldn’t look away. I told myself that I wasn’t physically strong enough. That I couldn’t have done it even if I had tried. But it’s my fault. Her body shrunk away and the voice on the other end of the phone counted out the beats as my dad pounded her chest. My mom wailed and screamed and sobbed, and I didn’t know what to do. I was helpless, like an infant at the mercy of her careless mother.
I hid in the dark of the laundry room.
Hid from the screaming.
Hid from the sobbing.
Hid from the death.
The pounds of my father’s hands hitting the woman’s chest struck the walls of my heart. The cry of a child losing their mother filled my brain. It flooded my nerves, squirming its way through her body. It was all I felt, and yet I felt nothing at all. The fear snatched my heart out of my chest. It impaled my lungs, and my lungs struggled to absorb oxygen. It slammed me against the wall and knotted my stomach. And as I writhed under its hands, it whispered all of the sweet memories I’ve had and all the ones I’ll never have.
I stumbled into my seat, my hands fumbling the medley of zipper on my backpacks. It didn’t matter. I was a fortress. Nothing could break my will, my determination. I would brave it out, because I was a good student. I pried open my laptop and pulled up my history essay.
The cursor on my page dared me.
So, you have an opinion on what the right thing to do is? it mocked. The girl who watched her grandmother die? Fess up. You’re not perfect. You’re not even close. You really think you know whether the United States should have dropped the atomic bomb or not?
It started blaring, the red lights prancing along the walls.
She’s a fraud. She’s a liar. She’s a cheat. It pounded against my ears, and hands curled into fists. I blinked away tears and stuck to my formula. Thesis. Example. Discussion. Premise. Example. Discussion.
Sakthi is a model student. She does not cry. She does not struggle. And she always does the right thing.
In the time, I spent pitying myself and comforting myself, she slipped away. Her soul floated up towards the ceiling, passing through the concrete floors, and emerged from the meticulously tiled roof. She passed through a shroud of leaves and embraced the night sky, and as she met the moon, the stars absorbed her radiance. And as her pulse disappeared, we were left with the empty shell of the woman who had taken care of us for decades. Her mouth hung ajar, her clothes were tossed to the side, and her body was pierced with the tears of my mother. The Earth’s gravity gradually increased. The more I struggled, the harder it tugged. I collapsed.
As I sat in my plastic chair in English, I thought, if I was strong enough, I could have saved her. Or maybe, if I had carried one of those CPR masks, I could have saved her. If the stars had aligned and I was meant to save her, she would be alive today.
I wanted to tell someone. Anyone. I thought of casually slipping into a class discussion.
Speaking of synthesis essays, my grandmother’s life slipped through my fingers.
No one wanted to hear about how much I wanted to save her. How hard I cried for the last week. Everyone wanted to hear about the college acceptances from the seniors. Or perhaps the medal Sebastian Steen won at his swimming competition. How about that gargantuan trophy the chess team brought home this year? It was not the school’s fault. No one said it had to serve as my support system and attend to my every emotional need, hand and foot.
As another fifty minutes whittled away, I got up for my next class.
My parents steadied themselves on my shoulders.
It’s all going to be all right, they sniffled.
Despite the sincerity of their affection, my eyes refuse to meet theirs. Had my eyes divulged the guilt I buried, I would have secured my position as a pariah.
My head jerked up and down and I collapsed into my mound of homework. I was the girl with the answers, and as I sped through every worksheet, I was restored. As my pen scrambled frantically along the page, my heart sighed with contentment. The knowledge pulsed through my organs and tickled my nerves. My conscience was rinsed through a river of holy water as I sat in the temple of books. And when the last page surrendered to my inescapable prowess, my eyes sunk into my head. My vision blurred, and the stack of papers towered over me.
I folded into my bed, suffocated by wall upon wall of fabric. As I passed through the threshold of the dream world, I hung my veil of self-assurance on the hat rack. My face twisted and folded, and I became three years old again, playing with my baby brother. The dark haze shifted into a simpler time. I laugh when I can’t remember the alphabet. I dance among the ruins of my fortress. I kick apart my puzzles when I can not find all the pieces, exiling them into the crumbled limestone. With the walls of my palace dissipated, I’m vulnerable to the emotional waves induced by my failures.
The mistakes I’ve made throughout the day haunt me into the dark hours of the night, and as I sleep, I imagine her body crying for my attention, and every night her body dissolves into itself. I seize at the empty air with my sticky hands, trying to grab some part of her that I can revive. But it’s futile. She’s gone because I could not admit that I was scared. I’m sixteen years old, and I will forever carry the death of my grandmother on my frail shoulders.