I am strong. I am beautiful. I am worth it.
She recites the words they drummed into her, over and over.
She closes her eyes and wills herself to go back to sleep. Knowing she will have to start all over again.
No, she has to get up. Her eyes snap open.
She holds her hands to her face and examines her fingers.
She sits up and pushes the covers back, repeating the process with her toes.
Her cousin told her once when she was younger that if spiders got hungry during the night they would steal a finger or toe . If you didn’t check them properly you could go weeks without noticing.
It had become a habit since then.
She had a lot of habits.
They had only gotten worse since Jeremy.
He had been her best friend. Not that she had chosen him, like how most people selected their best friends. They had found themselves forced together. Two kids who were segregated. Two kids that were other.
Jeremy was gone now.
It didn’t hurt to think about what he did. He was there one day, gone the next. She just felt cold when she thought of him. Like there was something missing from her but she didn’t have any emotions to attach to the gaping hole.
The medication did that.
They’d up’ed her dose, fearing she might try it too. Copycatting, her therapist had called it.
She didn’t want to do that.
She wanted to get better.
She sometimes found it hard to recognise when she was doing something wrong. Until they gave her that look. The one that reminded her she wasn’t like them.
That’s what Jeremy had labelled them; The Other Ones.
Jeremy would always tell her when she did something wrong.
“Don’t rearrange the books” he would say when she tried to implement The Dewey Decimal System at the local bookstore.
“Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth” he would remind her every time her heart started to speed up.
She has to remind herself now.
Sometimes he still reminded her though.
She looks for signs of him everywhere she goes; when the books are out of order at the book store, when she sees two boys kissing in the park, when that politician he was always complaining about is on the TV, when the people who had called her “mental” and had teased him for being gay told her they were sorry he had died.
They told her he had killed himself, explaining it like she was a child and wouldn’t understand. To delicate, they whispered.
Then they asked if she knew why. If he had told her anything. Anything that would explain it away.
He had just died.
She looks at herself in the mirror, pulling her hair forward and running through it with a brush.
Today it was a year since he died.
I don’t look different from everyone else. Brown hair, brown eyes. Maybe a little rounder. A little vacant behind the eyes.
“I’m going to school” she tells her parents.
“Mia, are you…?”
“I’m feeling fine” she replies because it’s easier for them to understand fine than when she reminds the she feels nothing at all.
She walks to school. She always walks to school.
Up the hill.
Around the corner.
Left at the tall wrought iron gates.
The bell rings as she passes through the gates. She is always exactly on time. She started being always on time after Jeremy. It is better not to have time to linger when you have no one to linger with.
School is the same. School is always the same.
In homeroom she sits by herself.
During English she sits by herself watching a bird on the windowsill while the rest of the class struggle to comprehend a book she had read when she was eight.
At morning break she sita in the library, by herself.
In biology she completes her prac assignment, by herself.
During history, she rests her head on her textbook and drifts into a dream about ancient Egypt, by herself.
She returns to the library at lunch time to sit and enjoy her chicken and mayo sandwich by herself.
The librarian tells her it was too nice a day to spend lunch time inside.
“It’s been one year today since Jeremy died”
He leaves her alone after that. He doesn’t speak but his eyes keep finding her. She looks back at him and watches his cheeks darken as though he was embarrassed to see her.
In maths, she sits by herself. Maths was easy. She finishes the assigned algebraic equations within the first 10minutes.
“Mia, where are you going?” Mrs Wilson asks as Mia walks to the door.
Mrs Wilson looks at her watch.
“There is still 1 hour and 39 minutes left of school”
“Yes” Mia nods “and I have finished”
“Miss, you should probably let her go… Jeremy Michaels…” The red headed girl hesitates.
“Is dead” Mia supplies helpfully.
Mrs Wilson nods at the girl but doesn’t look at Mia.
“I will pretend I didn’t see you if you go now”
She walks the corridors, by herself.
She makes it all the way to the gate before she encounters another person.
“Oh hey Mia”
Sean Cunningham had never spoken to her before. He is sitting on the small garden wall beside the gate.
“Oh hey Sean”
She tries to say it as casually as he does.
“What’s that look for? Are your eyebrows always that high?”
She quickly touches her eyebrows to check if they are too high on her face. Her forehead is crinkled. She pushes her eyebrows back down.
“You’re laughing at me”
Sean steps towards her and puts his hand on her shoulder.
“No, Mia, I would never. I thought it was cute”
“What was cute?”
He shakes his head.
His eyes look over her shoulder at something but when she turns she can’t see what it is. Everything looks ordinary to her.
The same brick buildings. The same shrubs. The same sliding doors that open when a mildly overweight man stands on the other side of them.
“Where are you headed?” Sean asks.
“Need someone to walk with you?”
Sean steers her through the gate and along the sidewalk as the overweight man strides towards them exhaling loudly with every step.
She wants to stay and count his exhales but Sean pulls her to the left behind the large garbage bins.
He doesn’t let her go until the man exhales past them and vanishes around the corner.
“That was close. If he had of caught me again I think they probably would have kicked me off the lacrosse team. My dad can only donate so much gym equipment before they decide… Hey, where are you going?”
Mia is walking in the opposite direction to the exhaling man.
“I told you, home”
Sean catches her quickly. His legs are the length of her legs and then another half her leg length joined together.
She stops and stares at him waiting for a response
Sean’s eyebrows are too high on his face, she reaches up and gently uses her fingers to push them down for him.
He smiles at her.
“Why do you want to walk me home?”
“Oh, why that…”
He starts walking again.
She does, too.
Obviously, this is a walking and talking type of conversation.
“It occurred to me that I never actually said anything to you about Jeremy” his voice changes when he says Jeremy’s name. But, not the same way that everyone else’s does.
He doesn’t say “Jeremy” softly. He says “Jeremy” like the word is sharp in his throat and it hurts to get it out.
“Yeah. I suppose I should have told you how sorry I was that…you know…and I don’t even know if sorry is the right word because I don’t feel sorry for you, I just…Mia, did he ever say anything about me to you?”
What was it that her mother said you should do when telling the truth would hurt someone else’s feelings?
Sean doesn’t respond.
Mia thinks about the last time she spoke to Jeremy. He made her go for a walk with him all the way to the fields on the edge of town. Jeremy was talking lots. He was good at talking lots. She was good at listening lots. So in that sense, even if they hadn’t picked each other they were good for each other.
“He’s just such a pompous jerk. Like he thinks that just because he has money he’s like some kind of god or something. Strutting around the lacrosse field in his little shorts like he would be surprised if everyone there hadn’t turned out just to stare at his incredibly toned legs”
Jeremy said like a lot, too.
“I’d really just like to punch him in that Ken doll like face of his if I wasn’t scared I’d damage it. Do you think he could get any more perfect?”
Then he made that annoyed sound he made when he wanted something to be more dramatic then it actually was.
“I think there’s a train coming” Mia had said and pulled him away from the train line.
Jeremy died the next day.
“Mia” Sean said “normally when people look at the ground like that it means they’re lying”
He had been silent for a while as they walked straight ahead.
“He said you were a pompous jerk”
Mia doesn’t look at him but she suspects he is nodding again.
“Around the corner”
“To my house”
“I don’t think you are a pompous jerk”
Sean chuckles but it sounds different this time.
“Do you want to know what he said about you?”
She can’t remember Jeremy ever talking to Sean.
Jeremy had liked to do things by himself sometimes. Maybe they had been friends and she hadn’t known.
She wishes she had known.
Maybe Sean could have been her friend too.
Sean has stopped walking and is watching her closely. She watches him back.
He is so close to her that she can smell his breath. It smells like Mentos. The red kind that are supposably cinnamon flavoured. Or maybe he just smells like cinnamon.
“He was in one of those rambling moods, you know the way he got sometimes, and his eyes were so big and round. I could tell he really loved you. He said that once someone was able to look passed you ‘quirks’…”
He said it with two fingers from each hand making bunny ears in the air.
“and got to know the way you see the world it was the most incredible thing anyone could imagine. He said you saw a simplistic world were people just were because they were. He said you were innocent enough to believe in silly and impossible things, and that instead of making you vulnerable it made you strong. He said that somedays you were the only thing that gave him hope that real happiness did exist. I think he desperately wanted to see the world through your eyes”
Sean’s fingers gently slide along her cheekbone just under her ordinary brown eyes.
“Do you want to kiss me?”
“Jeremy said that if a boy touched me like that it meant he wanted to kiss me”
Sean chuckles again, his cheeks are red.
“One day a boy will…but I only ever wanted to kiss Jeremy”
“Did you ever? Kiss him?”
“Lots of times”
“I think he would have liked that”
“I wish I had told him how much I liked it. Do you think he will ever forgive me?”
“I forgive you”
“Calling me mental at the grade seven camp”
“I should have been calling you incredible”
Sean wipes a tear from his eye with his sleeve and takes Mia’s arm.
“Which way now?”
“Down the hill”
“Is it that one there?”
Sean points to her neighbours house.
“No, it’s the other one”
She chuckles at her joke. Sean doesn’t laugh along. Why would he?
He doesn’t get it.
It is her thing now, all hers, by herself.