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Life sucks. Life f***ing sucks. I want to run away, live in the woods. I want to get away from the school, away from everyone and everything. I want more than anything in the world to be alone with me, myself, and my thoughts. I want to be away from them.
I burst out the school doors, running full tilt with pencils and papers flying out of my backpack. I didn’t care that the resource officer was chasing and hollering after me. He couldn’t catch me with his gut. I ran due north for the forest, No real clue why.
They can be so cruel. So what if I’m smart, so what if I try? Shouldn’t you want to try, shouldn’t you want to succeed? Why do I get so much s*** for just doing my work? They think they’re so high and mighty because they don’t try, they just spend their lives gossiping and gloating. And insulting. It’s always me. I’m always the victim. And no matter how smart I am, I can’t do a damned thing about it.
I lost my backpack somewhere on the way. My jacket too. I didn’t care. I probably should, since it was barely above freezing in Portland, Maine. I just kept running to the forest, into the forest, barreling through brush like nobody’s business. I ran and ran until I was just too tired to keep running. I stumbled towards a group of trees, gasping for breath. I was exhausted. My lungs were dry and scratchy, the way they get after running laps in a too-cold gym. I slumped up against a tree, a big oak that was covered on one side with moss.
I should’ve been worried. I mean, I had just run myself into the forest without so much as a second thought. I could’ve been worried about what my friends were thinking. I could’ve been worried about what my teachers were thinking. I really should’ve worried about what they were going to say to my parents, when someone eventually called them, or what they’d think. But I wasn’t worried. I just sat there, panting, in the shade of an oak tree grove, thinking about what a nice place this would be to read a book for a few hours. I reached into my bag for my book.
I had lost my backpack.
Now I was worried. I was out in the middle of the forest, without any of my things. Not even my phone, which I usually keep in my pocket. We were taking a test in Mrs. Penny’s class, and she makes us put our phones in our bags before any tests. Ugh. I didn’t even have my I.D., which I keep in my case, which was on my phone. Double ugh. And now here I am - a five-foot-one, pale bookworm who had never even been camping - stranded in the middle of a goddamn forest. One, two, three ughs for the grand prize of “How’d you get yourself into this mess, dumbass?”
And so, I did what any small, timid kid would do. I pulled my knees up to my chest, buried my face in them, and cried.
The day had started normally enough. I woke up to my 6:30 alarm, which was a steady, upbeat march. I like to think I wake up majestically. My mirror begs to differ. I got up, took off my pajamas, and went right into the shower. Honestly, a hot shower is more powerful than coffee to wake me up. I stood in there for a good twenty minutes. You can preach about water conservation and third-world-countries to me as much as you want, it’s not gonna stop me from taking my shower. I got out, put clothes on, and packed my bag for school. I was about to flop down on my bed for another minute, but my 6:55 alarm went off, this one the annoying default ringer I set, knowing I’d want to steal those extra minutes of sleep. Sometimes I hate myself for being so organized. I know exactly how much time I need to get ready in the morning. Wake up, twenty-minute shower, five minutes to dress and pack. I don’t bother with hours of makeup every morning like most girls at my school. It’s a place of learning, not a party. The extra time is for the long drive to school. I’m out-of-area, so I don’t get a bus. I shut the alarm off and checked my other notifications. Math test today, my calendar reminded me. I groaned aloud as I slung my pack onto one shoulder and half-walked, half-fell down the stairs.
Grabbing the banister, I swung into the kitchen, my long red curls bouncing behind me. I got them from my mom, but that was the end of our resemblance. She was tall and thin, with short red curls, while I was short and average. She had a kind, but pointed face, with a mildly hooked nose and sunken features. I had a small nose and a pudgy face. She had brown eyes, mine were blue. She was standing by the sink, in her favorite cotton apron, washing some strawberries. She never trusted the “organic” labels. There was a plate on the table with an English muffin with peanut butter, a mini cheese wheel, and a space, presumably for strawberries. A half-full coffee mug was in front of her chair. I sat down in front of the plate, and my mom came over and put some strawberries on my plate. She sat down and sipped her coffee.
“Good morning, Sweetie. Did’ja sleep well”? she asked.
“Morning, yeah,” I replied between large bites.
“That’s good. Anything happening at school today?” she continued.
“Maff test,” I said, trying to get the peanut butter off the roof of my mouth.
“Did’ja study?” she asked politely. As if she had to ask. I just rolled my eyes at her, smiling. I was a straight “A” student, and damn proud of it. Not like I was a genius either, but I worked. Hard.
“Heh, alright. Don’t go making that a habit,” she lightly scolded. I finished and we started to get up and go to the car. I grabbed my coat and turned to her as she was getting hers.
“Hey,” I said.
“Yeah”? she answered.
“Did you eat anything this morning”? I asked, frowning.
“Oh, don’t worry about me,” she said. “I’ll grab something on the way to the rec center.”
“Okay” I said, with every indication that I was worried. We both knew she wouldn’t, but I didn’t want to start an argument that morning. We drove half an hour to school in mostly silence, NPR radio playing quietly. We got to school, and I pulled my bag out of the backseat, and slung it on.
“Have a nice day, Candice” She said to me.
“Thanks, you too,” I returned. “I love you.”
“love you too, sweetie.”
I took three steps toward my locker and echoed; “Hey, Candy!” (my nickname, which both my real name and my infamous sweet tooth led themselves to) in my head right on time with the boy who rounded the corner at that moment.
“Hey, Axel,” I said, routinely greeting the gangly bag of skin and bones I called a friend.
I swear, no matter how much the kid ate, he didn’t gain a pound. Axel was tall and skinny, pale and perpetually hunched over. He had eyes with a playful sparkle in them, but were offset by huge bags, constantly, and on bad days they were bloodshot too. He wore a tattered black tank-top sporting the logo of the garage he worked at, and a pair of boardshorts. The only part of him that looked healthy were the short, bright red curls on his head. That was how we had met, at the beginning of the school year. We were the only two kids with red hair. People sometimes thought that we were related, just because of that.
“Catch the game last night?” he asked quickly, full well knowing I hadn’t. He didn’t mean a traditional sports game either.
Axel was obsessed with E-Sports, which was the fancy name for competitive computer games. He was convinced that E-sports would be the next big break in entertainment, and he played the games and followed the leagues religiously when he should be sleeping, hence the eyes. He was also constantly trying to get me interested in the games, since I was the only person who really gave him the time of day in the school. I tried them now and again, but they just didn’t interest me.
“No, Axel, I didn’t catch the game,” I said half-heartedly, knowing what was coming next.
“Oh, it was incredible,” He rambled. “The game was on the jungle map, team Techknights vs. team Ogre.
Techknights were running a sniper build while Ogre was running a stealth build -”
“Walk with me,” I interjected, a little annoyed. I had places to be, things to do.
“Ok,” he said, undisturbed, and went right on giving me the play-by-play of team Tech-whatever’s vs. Oddballs. I reached my locker and swapped out my books for the stuff I’d need for my morning classes at Portland High.
My morning classes were, in order, calculus honors, AP European history, and chemistry honors. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking; “Wow, get a load of genius kid over here.” I get it a lot. It bothers me, come to think of it. There’s such a double standard to it. I am bright, and it is something to be proud of. Yet, I’m treated like an outcast by almost everyone, like I spend every waking moment studying, that I can’t socialize without bringing up my brilliance. It’s insulting, really. but I won’t delve into that, back to my day.
I finished carefully organizing my many books and binders into my bag, so many of them that the seams of the largest backpack I owned were tearing. I’d have to let my mom know that I needed a new one when we got home. It would be sad, getting rid of the old bookbag. I’d had it since I started junior high, and it had countless patches and embroiderings of icons of my favorite books and films. It had to go, though, if it couldn’t hold up to the curriculum’s requirements.
With only a few minutes until first bell, I made my way towards Mrs. Penny’s room purposefully as Axel meandered along-side me, still going on about the “incredible game.” We separated at the commons, where I continued towards Mrs. Penny’s, as he split for the virtual lab. He took a lot of classes online, because he wouldn’t sit still in a regular class, and the only reason he wasn’t outright homeschooled was that his mother insisted school was his only social activity. I felt a little guilty watching him go, since I barely acknowledged him that morning. I had unfairly brushed him off because I was focused on my classes. I’d have to apologize to him when I saw him next.
“Yes, I’ll have to remember to do that,” I confirmed to myself. “But now, calculus."
I was never late to any of my classes, but never terribly early, either. When I walked into Mrs. Penny’s classroom, a few kids were already in there. Most of the quiet kids were already in their seats, taking their books out on autopilot, then, after a brief moment of realization, putting them back, remembering the test. There was also the gaggle of popular girls, all circled around Trish near the front of the room.
Trish was the most popular girl in our grade, and the roots of the high school’s grapevine. She constantly gossiped, gloated, and insulted. It seemed to me that that was all she did. She always had two or three of her friends orbiting her too, and at the beginning of classes when she had five or six people surrounding her, like today, she seemed to have a cult following. She was always wearing the most expensive clothes, and sporting the latest useless, pointless, but socially must-have item, with a price tag that boggled the mind. She was the pinnacle of vanity and disdain. And describing her, I feel like the pinnacle of condescension, and I hate it.
I made my way to my desk in the back and sat down, and took my phone out of my pocket and into my bag, resting at the foot of my desk.
I didn’t want to be like her. I know that. She couldn’t give two s***s about her education. She had everything she needed and wanted thrown at her by her parents. And even with everything she had, she still spent most of her time putting others down. It was disgusting. And still, people flocked to her side like she was a goddess. I didn’t understand it. I guess they thought that she would make them popular, or that she might invite them to an extravagant party, or in some impossible way they actually thought she was funny when she was insulting others.
I fished around in my bag for a pencil, and eraser (fresh, preferably), and my pencil sharpener to have on the desk when I got the test.
Maybe that was it. Maybe if they thought she considered them as a friend, she wouldn’t insult them. That wasn’t even remotely close to the truth though. She insulted everyone behind their backs. She had groups of friends within her group of friends that gossiped and insulted one another behind everyone’s backs. Trish was at the center of a labyrinth of pettiness and bulls***. Once you were in it, there was no way out.
The bell rang, and the gossip group didn’t even disband. It took Mrs. Penny walking over there with the tests while handing them out to tell them to all go back to their desks.
I knew I didn’t want to be like her. I didn’t want anything to do with her. I kept to myself as much as I could around her, and anyone that I knew would gossip to her. That didn’t help, of course. They just gossiped about how I was such a teacher’s pet, and didn’t have any friends, or go to parties, or do anything other than study. I had to choose if I wanted them to make fun of what was true about me, or what I did to avoid getting made fun of. I knew I didn’t want to be like her. But I also knew I didn’t want to be like this.
Finally, Mrs. Penny got to my desk, all the way in the back corner, placed the paper on my desk and said, smiling; “Good luck.”
“Thanks,” I said robotically, still simmering over the gossip group.
Their insults hurt the most because they were true. I desperately wanted to be able to make friends as easy as Trish, and go to as many parties as Trish, and to simply socialize, but I couldn’t without subjecting myself to those kinds of people. So, I separated myself from them with a one-way mirror. I just focused on my studies and watched them from afar, longing to be at parties with friends, while they just mocked what I wouldn’t show them.
The test was pretty short, only twenty questions, so I breezed through the problems, but often found myself simply stopped, staring at either the beginning of a problem I hadn’t started or one I’d just finished, lost in thought. Even with those breaks, I finished in about thirty minutes. I never tried to be first or rush or anything like that, but I was usually the first one finished. So, I got up with my test and walked the short distance to the front of the room to turn my test into the bin, conveniently placed in front of Trish’s desk.
I was used to hearing Trish say something nasty when I turned to go back to my desk, but it was never to me, she just turned around, (in the middle of the test, no less) and said to her friend behind her something along the lines of “what a geek,” or, mockingly, “look-at-me, I’m so smart, I finished first.” Today, though, she leaned way over her desk so she was right in my face and hissed; “Quit finishing so fast, you’re making the rest of us feel stupid.”
Completely taken aback, I stared at her, and then past her. Her friends behind her were all tittering about the statement, while one restated, “Yeah, Candice,” dragging the “yeah,” out beyond sarcastic. I took a half-step back and just looked at them, embarrassment and shame on my face, without reason. I mean, I wasn’t trying to make the feel stupid. And, I realized, I wasn’t. She just said that to get under my skin.
The gall she had to say that, after everything she’d said about everyone else in the entire school. To say I, who only ever kept to myself, was making her feel stupid. Anger flashed behind my eyes, and I was so close to slapping her, I swear I felt my arm tense for it. But I saw the class looking at me, and realized I couldn’t. If I did, I was just digging myself further in the hole Trish was trying to put me in. I saw Mrs. Penny looking at me out of the corner of my eye, and realized I’d just been standing and staring at Trish with my teeth showing and eyes wide for several minutes.
I just had to take it. I couldn’t do anything else. So, I straightened up, set my jaw and walked back towards my desk, eyes fixed forward and focused on the distance. I made it to my desk in an eternity of short steps, with every eyeball peering at me. before sitting down, I pitched my supplies into the big pocket of my bag, and picked it up without bothering to zip it shut. I slung it over one shoulder and turned on my heel, walking back the way I came, much the same way I had gone up. Jaw set, eyes dead ahead. I went all the way past Trish’s desk, with every student looking at me. Nobody said anything until I reached the door.
“You do not have permission to leave, Candice. Please take your seat and do something quietly until everyone has finished their tests,” Mrs. Penny said in politically correct teacher-speak.
I didn’t say a word. There wasn’t anything I had to say. I twisted the door handle and opened it just enough to slide through.
“Get back here this instant, young woman-,” Mrs. Penny was saying as the door swung shut. I turned for the school’s north entrance, walking purposefully now. I heard the door open again, and Mrs. Penny emerged, looking right, then left at me.
“I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but you had better be back in my classroom by the count of two, or you’ll have detention,” she threatened.
I ignored her, and quickened my pace ever so slightly, without looking at her.
“One,” she started.
I continued walking even faster.
“Two,” she finished, and stared, I imagine, when I didn’t turn around. I was in the commons now, and Mrs. Penny and I spotted Hank, the resource officer, at the same time.
“Officer, stop that student,” she barked, and I broke into a sprint.
And here I am, in the shade of a humongous live oak on a picturesque day, sobbing out bitter tears and drowning nothing but the patch of grass beneath my hanging head. I was so sick of it. Just having to take that kind of abuse day in and day out. It was just words, but every day for years, it just made me want to quit.
I stayed there, with my head in my hands, for a long time, just crying quietly. Not thinking about anything too deep. Just about how unfair the world had been to me, and how absurd I was to be out here. I hoped my parents weren’t too worried. I wondered whether I would try and make my way out of the forest before someone found me.
At that thought, I became aware of a crunching directly ahead of me. I looked up and wiped the tears from my face, and saw Axel, trudging through the underbrush with his head down, pulling twigs and leaves off of his shirt and out of his hair. He looked up and smiled when he saw me.
“Hey, Candy. What cha’ up to?”
It took me a moment to find my words between confusion and half-sobs. “Axel, what the hell are you doing out here? Shouldn’t you be in class?
“Nah, I came to find you,” He replied, as if that were a valid reason to cut class. But hey, look who’s talking.
“How’d you know I was out here?”
“Everybody knows you’re out here. Everyone with a class near the commons heard Mrs. Penny shout for Hank. Then we all watched him chase you out into the forest. I slipped out when Hank came back, panting and asking the teachers to go back to their classes, while he organized a search.”
“Why? How’d you find me?”
“I wanted to make sure you were okay. And I just followed the path of discarded school supplies. Here’s your bag, it’s got everything I found,” he said, slipping my backpack off his shoulder. He walked over and held it out, and I took it, still sitting down. The places where the seams had been stretching had broken a little, and there was a bright green grass stain where it had landed, but other than that it was alright. I peeked inside, and just about all of my stuff was accounted for, save a few pencils and an eraser.
“You okay, Candy?” Axel asked as I closed the bag again.
“Yeah, I’m alright. Thanks, Axel.” I paused. “Hey, sorry about cutting you off this morning.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it.” He replied with a smile.