People don’t mean to hurt us, you know. I mean, upon occasion there’s the odd human who gets some sort of sick pleasure from others’ pain, but by and wide we don’t do the things we do to cause pain. We do things because we believe they will make us happier, not because we believe that others will be made miserable by them. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt, though. The truly fascinating thing is that it’s the people whom we care the most about and rely upon the most who can hurt us the most deeply.
And they didn’t mean it. I know they didn’t. I have to tell myself this, over and over. I press my eyes shut against the cold, sterile light filtering in through the curtains in my bedroom. Breathe in, I tell myself. The air feels heavy as it enters my lungs, and I’m quick to get rid of it, exhaling much longer than I inhaled. For some reason, there’s a sort of calm that comes with the emptiness in my lungs, and I relish it for a moment. I try to similarly close my mind to what just happened, to breathe out all of my thoughts and all of the hurt. But I know I need air to live, so I tell myself to breathe in again and my thoughts swirl around, refusing to leave until each one is heard.
. . . .
It had been a bit of a hard day. Not that anything really terrible happened—it was one of those sorts of days that isn’t good or bad, just grey and hazy. The problem is that I’d been slogging through so many of those grey, mushy days that I was beginning to feel grey and mushy myself. And so there I was, dragging myself along to a youth fireside, where my sisters and two of our friends were supposed to be waiting for me. It turned out that they were even later than I was, so we ended up sitting apart from each other. I’d found another friend to sit next to, but I was looking forward to spending time with those four.
After about an hour, the guest speaker at the fireside wrapped things up and people began to socialize. The speech had gone a good length to restoring a bit of a bounce to my step, and I eagerly made my way to my group; Jacob, Leah, Anna, and Iris. I could see from the way that Anna was staying close to my sister, Iris, that she’d been having a greyish day, too.
“How did you like the speech?” I asked. I knew that Iris must have enjoyed it—she loves science and since the speaker was an astronomy professor, she used a lot of really good analogies. I think Anna liked it, too, but sometimes when she gets into her darker moods she doesn’t enjoy motivational speeches nearly as much.
They both kind of shrugged. Iris said, “It was interesting to learn about brown dwarves. I didn’t even know those existed.”
“Yeah, that was cool,” Anna agreed. I smiled and tried to say a little more, but every response they gave was short and noncommittal. I could take a hint.
Feeling a bit of my previous attitude returning, I went to search out Jacob and Leah. They were, as I’d predicted, talking to each other. Unexpectedly, they were also talking to some of Jacob’s other friends. Not a single part of me wanted to talk to the other friends so I backed out and tried finding someone else to talk to.
It’s strange to realize that everyone you know knows so many other people. I drifted from one group to another, trying to find somebody to be with, but every person I knew was surrounded by many more whom I didn’t know, talking about things that didn’t pertain to me. There were a few times that I went back to Anna and Iris, but each encounter turned out much the same as the first. It’s odd to be surrounded by so many people and feel like not a single one of them can see you. Whoever thinks that invisibility would be a fun superpower has clearly never experienced it before. Still I was determined to make the best of things. I returned to Anna and Iris and started singing a tune.
“Dulci jubilo, dulci jubilo,” I sang. Anna offered a half-hearted smile and joined me, singing the harmony while I took over the melody. For a moment, my spirits were lifted and I could feel the hazy grey fog thinning out. “Dulci jubilo, dulci jubilo.”
“In dulci jubilo, let us our homage…” I trailed off and looked at Anna, who’d stopped singing. Her face was uncharacteristically blank, her eyes downcast and a slight furrow between her brows.
“Sorry,” she said. “I’m just not feeling up to it.”
“It’s okay,” I lied. Why do you keep ignoring me so much? I wondered. She’s having a bad day, too, I chastised myself. Although I could feel the fog thickening up again, I reached to give her a hug to try to lend her some comfort. She pulled away. The hazy fog I’d been feeling sharpened into focus, blackening and sinking its way deep into my chest.
The crease in her brows deepened as her expression shifted to one more resembling concern, but her eyes still seemed clouded and focused inward.
“I’m sorry, Mya, I don’t mean to keep brushing you off,” Anna said apologetically.
The black thing coiled up around my heart and became something hard, spiny, and ugly. I smiled mirthlessly at Anna, forced a cheerful tone, and said, “Yeah, you do.” And don’t pretend that you don’t, was the message I conveyed with my facial expressions before spinning on my heel and stalking away.
. . . .
No, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t any of theirs. They didn’t mean to hurt me. And yet hurt me they did. I have the presence of mind to feel shame for the way I treated Anna, but I know that what I said was true. It’s always been that way, even before any of us understood or acknowledged it. Leah goes with Jacob, Iris goes with Anna.
Mya goes alone.
Leah and Iris are just different enough from Jacob and Anna to fascinate them, just similar enough to be there for them, and the same is true in reverse. It’s usually all right for me to choose which pair to hang out with, but sometimes there’s just not room in either. And I understand that. It’s okay.
I don’t belong with them. The thought slithers through my mind like a venomous snake, its scaly body leeching away my warmth. How could I? I’m not like them. The snake seems to arch its head back, preparing to sink its teeth into my brain. I don’t belong with anyone at all. In a flash, those fangs come flying down, piercing deep into my soul.
My hands fly up to my chest, pressing firmly over the spot where that hard, ugly thing had coiled itself up earlier. I can feel the poison spreading through my body like liquid fire. No, I tell myself. Stop. Just breathe in. I do. The air is so thick and heavy and foul that I almost choke on it. There’s a strange scent carried in that air; like rain, but twisted and sickly and wrong. It sticks in my throat and fills me with its vile corruption. I heave it out of my lungs, my diaphragm trembling as I do. But I need to breathe. I can’t stop now. The next breath comes in rapid, shuddering gasps.
. . . .
Did you know that whenever you’re sad about one thing, your brain reminds you of other things to be sad about? This makes it so that you stay sad for a longer period of time. I’m not sure if it’s a mechanism your brain uses to try to get help from other people or if it’s just so that you feel justified in moping around for a ridiculously long time. I think that all of us have experienced that at one point or another. One thing happens, and whether that thing was anywhere from mildly disappointing to completely devastating, you become acutely aware of every bad thing that has ever happened. Or sometimes things that didn’t happen, but that dark little part of you is bent on convincing you that they did or shortly will.
And so it was when I saw those eyes in my mind. Clear, blue, and beautiful. His eyes. Of course I would have to think of him. Of course my brain won’t just let me be for ten minutes while I get everything else sorted out.
He’d been at the fireside, too. He arrived a little late, but I was still looking for my sisters and my friends when he’d walked in with his siblings, so I caught sight of him. He ended up sitting in a row close to mine. I found myself suddenly breathless, hopeful, and anxious all at once. The friend I’d found to sit next to during the speech, Sierra, gave me a nudge and a wink. Giggling nervously, I smoothed out my skirt and tucked my hair behind my ear.
But he didn’t look at you at all. Not even a glance.
Well, of course he didn’t. He didn’t come to see me. He came to listen to the professor’s speech. And possibly to eat the cookies they had afterwards.
He never sees you. Why would he? A small part of me knows what’s coming next. I’ve felt this way often enough. I can feel myself dividing into opposing sides, one attacking while the other defends. I know which side usually wins.
It’s alright. It’s not like I’m the center of the universe. People have no obligation to pay attention to me.
You’re just saying that to feel better about the fact that they never do. I honestly can’t believe you could possibly imagine that he’d ever care for you. Even your own best friends and your sisters barely acknowledge you exist. Each word strikes me almost like a physical blow. The black thing curled up in my chest starts digging its thorns deep into my heart. I struggle against it, but it snares me like barbed wire.
But they don’t mean it. They have their own lives, their own problems. They don’t always need to worry about mine.
Good. Because they never will. You’re not one of them.
Breathe in, I beg myself. You have to breathe.
You’re not one of anyone. Did you see the way those people looked at you? That’s right. They didn’t. They glanced at you and ignored you.
The air pushes its way out of my lungs. I feel as if my spirit is being dragged away with it.
You’re pathetic. You pretend that you’re okay with everything that happens, and look at you. The people you care most about—faces flash across my mind’s eye; Jacob, Leah, Iris, Anna, and the boy who never really leaves my mind—feel nothing for you except disdain. What do you do for them except impose all of your whining and neediness on everything they do?
But they’re my friends! I’ve done so much for them. I would do anything to help them. I have given as much as I know how to give to them.
And yet you’re still not enough. You never will be. You’ve tried and you’ve failed again and again.
There are too many things to be felt, too many thoughts whirling through my mind. The poison is coursing through my blood, stinging my flesh, the hard, black thing is constricting ever tighter, and the air is growing thicker and more foul with each gasping breath I take.
Jacob and Leah tolerate your existence. Iris and Anna can barely stand you. And he will never care about you the way you wish he would. You are nothing to them or to anyone else.
All at once, everything is still.
I know. I know I’m not like them. I know that nobody will ever love me the way that I love them.
All of my resolve, all of my anger, every fire I still had in me dies in a puff of smoke. The thing that’s been squeezing my heart for so long dissolves into a thick, sticky tar. In the dim light of my bedroom, I tuck my knees closer to my chest. The carpeted floor beneath me, the cool wooden dresser I’m leaning against, the laundry pile I’ve been staring at sightlessly, everything becomes tangible again. Breathe in. The air rasps against my throat.
Then why do I put myself in a place where I know I will only ever receive pain in return?
The answer is pure and simple, and I knew it even before I asked the question.
Because I love them.
I shift my gaze to the floor. The strands of the carpet begin to waver and dance in my vision. I blink and a tear falls from my eye and onto my skin. Another follows, then another. They stream down my face, carrying with them the heat of the snake’s venom and the blackness from my heart. On and on they pour, drawing out all of the sickness and infection. Some unknowable time later, they stop. I shiver, suddenly cold. As I inhale, the air is as smooth as silk, cleansing and soothing my soul.
Breathe out, I tell myself.
I do so.
Author Notes: I wrote this a year and a half ago, but I'm still pretty proud of it. I'd love to know what people think of it!