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I saw Polly Young for the first time when I was three years old at the first Injection Day. I don’t remember much. I can somewhat recall being ushered into the square to hear Mayor Johnson’s opening remarks about strength and resilience. I can vaguely remember my mother’s hand in mine as she brought me to my line. But above all, there’s Polly. I can remember almost everything about her. I remember her family pulling up in a black car with windows so tinted you could see the reflection of the miles behind you. I remember how her silver flats landed on the ground when she stepped out, how her long golden locks were pulled into a tight ponytail. She had a dolphin brooch, too. I thought that was weird. What three-year-old had a dolphin brooch? I decided I liked it.
The rest of my first Injection Day is a blur. A shot, a bump, a fever, and then back to school.
At my eighth Injection Day, Polly stood behind me. She still wore her dolphin brooch. Her silver flats had grown, yes, as had she. But her hair was the same. Not a strand out of place.
“I’ve never had this nurse before,” she whispered, peering to the front of the line.
“I have her every year,” I responded.
“Second quarter residents aren’t supposed to be in this line,” I stuttered. I pointed to the edge of the square where children just like her stood, adjusting their skirts and ties. “You aren’t supposed to be in this line,” I continued, face to face with her. She smelled like apples and her dress had birds on it. I decided I liked it.
“Come on. It’s all the same. No one’s actually going to care.” My eyes immediately fluttered to the guards standing along the sides of the square, the special ones who only ever come around when all four quarters gather. I guess that if Polly wasn’t scared of them, I shouldn’t be either.
I eyed her line, imagining myself standing behind Stacy Lewis in her freshly pressed skirt or Bradley Jenson in his perfectly positioned tie. I decided not to imagine that anymore. I pushed my braids off of my shoulder and turned to face the front of the line. A few short minutes later, I reached the head of our group. I pulled off the shawl mama had made especially for today. Beneath was a t-shirt, as requested by the organizers, with cap sleeves that cut off just below my shoulder. I squeezed my eyes shut, like always, just as the needle went in, but my moment of serenity was interrupted by her screeches. I turned to find Polly’s dad lifting her high in the air.
“You know this isn’t your line, Polly. Do you have any idea how dangerous this is?” He tugged her away from our side and brought her to the far end of the square.
I heard her try to argue, flopped over her father’s shoulder. That’s a pain. I thought. She’ll have to wait all over again. She should’ve listened. But it was kind of refreshing that she didn’t listen. I decided I liked that, too.
But then I watched Mr. Young place Polly at the front of the second quarter line, seeming to cite his daughter’s confusion as a fair reason for cutting ahead. That’ll never work. I thought, half pitying Polly, half pleased with her current dilemma. But she was stuck in seconds.
I massaged the growing bump on my arm as I waited beside the table for my brother to finish up. Daniel was never really good with needles. I scanned the line for his face; maybe they’d let me hold his hand this year, if he got really scared. Before I could spot him, I felt a tug on one of my braids. She was standing far too close to me.
“What was that for?”
“Your braids looked too tight. Let me loosen them.”
I nodded. My braids were tight, but by now I was used to it. But Polly had never talked to me before today, and I didn’t want to ruin that.
Our break from school started the day after Injection Day, as was custom. Once my fever broke, I began to search for Polly. I looked around for her every day. Even took the metro across the border to the second quarter to check in on her. But the streets were empty and I got weird looks from behind the windows. So I went home.
When school was back in session, I found her waiting outside for me one day after the bell rang.
“Polly!” I called.
“I’ve been waiting here every day for a week. No one ever came out. Have you all been on vacation?” she asked.
I chuckled at the thought of a trip. That’d be nice, for sure. “Oh yeah, Polly. I been down to the islands, splashing in the waves!” I said back to her, a little more bitterly than I’d meant. She clearly didn’t pick up on it.
“I’ve been there a couple of times! Dad flies us down when we get good marks. Which one did you stay at?”
I’d never met someone who’d actually been to the islands. More importantly, this girl definitely didn’t get my joke. “Polly, I’ve been at home. It was the week after Injection Day; we’re always at home. Aren’t you?”
She shook her head.
“What, you’re well enough to go into school?” I shot back. “No fever?”
She looked down.
They had said Injection Day was how they tested us. I guess she didn’t need testing.
Polly met my eyes again, and then reached for my hair. From that day forward, she loosened my braids in the courtyard each day after school. And each night, my mother spent another two hours redoing them.
“Why don’t you tell that girl to stop?” Mama would ask as she painstakingly redivided the hair and twisted it into a delicately woven pattern.
“She’s just trying to help,” I mumbled.
“Well it’s time to tell that little white girl to get her hands out your hair. She doesn’t need to be doing you any favors. You tell her that tomorrow, you hear?” But when I returned from school the next day with my hair undone, mama just nodded and got to her work. She was used to Polly’s family doing well what they pleased, whether or not we asked otherwise.
My mama didn’t talk much. She mumbled about the herbs she used at Hospital. She rambled about my papa getting home late, and she swore when Daniel scraped his knee. He bled easier than any of us, and bled the most. Practically nightly, she spread a new concoction of herbs across his crimson knees and told him to rest up and to take it easy. Well, Daniel took it easy more than anyone else I’d ever known, but his knees were always worse for wear. It wasn’t until the week after my twelfth Injection Day that I understood why.
See, Daniel had been getting real sick each year, more than the rest of us. There were a couple of people every few years who were like him. And I didn’t really know what that meant until I got a little older. They always told us the goal of our shots was to make us stronger. My nurse made sure to tell me that with a cooing voice each time she stuck me. I understood from day one. It wasn’t until Daniel that I realized that making us stronger meant weeding out the weak.
Mama took Daniel to the doctor when the bleeding wouldn’t stop and the fever wouldn’t break. The men draped in white coats whispered in corners with lists of names and with faces that should’ve been more concerned. Soon, they informed my mother that it really would be best for all of us to take Daniel home and let nature run its course, and with that, crossed his name off of their list.
Polly didn’t come to his funeral. I probably shouldn’t have expected her to. My guess is she didn’t even know what it was. Death isn’t even a thing in the second quarter, not unless you’re old and not worth saving. They’ve got the means to keep you if they want to.
Every Injection Day, Polly pulled the same trick. She jumped behind me, hid from her father, but always got caught. And he got angrier each year. More alert too. It was never going to happen for her, and I never learned why she cared so much.
On my thirteenth Injection Day, Polly showed up in braids that trailed down to the base of her spine. And she finally succeeded. Her father was nowhere to be found, and she got stuck by the same nurse I did.
“Nice braids. You happy now? Got what you wanted?” I asked. She giggled and twirled her hair.
“Just like you, Tess! Just like you.”
“Yeah, but you never liked mine,” I mumbled, looking down at my tattered shoes next to her silver flats. She didn’t notice. I decided I didn’t like that. Her voice broke my moment of revelation.
“What’s the bump for?”
“What do you mean? The bump happens every time. Just means she hit the right spot.” I pulled at her to move from the table, but she wouldn’t budge. She went whiter than she’d ever been, and that was saying something for Polly.
“Tess, I’ve never had a bump. I don’t get a bump. This isn’t normal. For me.”
“Alright, alright. Don’t stress, we’ll bring you to your dad.”
“No, he can’t…” she trailed off. She gripped the bump on her arm like she was trying to push it back in. Like a toddler with a mosquito bite.
“That’s not gonna work,” I answered, grabbing her arm away.
“He told me. And he told me not to come. He told me that fourth quarter shots aren’t for me.”
“You’re fine, Polly. he’ll get over it.”
“No, Tess. He told me not to spend time with you. And I should’ve believed him.” And with that, Polly dropped her sweater, slipped off her flats, and ran off towards the second quarter. I threw my braids off my shoulder, picked up her things, and brought it all home to Mama. She always liked it when the white folks got tired of their things.