There’s no one to tell, but I suck. I suck 26%, the other 74% of me is perfectly adequate. When my math teacher passed back our unit tests, he gave me one of those crescent-moon smiles: the ones that adults make when they don’t know how to say ‘you suck’ without making you believe it. They’d say, ‘it’s just a grade…’ Then two minutes later they’ll say college determines your future ***********. Maybe not those exact words, but we get the gist.
The rubber seat sticks to the back of my thighs. I can’t shift, or they’ll know, so I sit upright for the forty minutes to my stop, with my backpack jamming me up against the seatback in front of me. If I take it off they’ll see the sweat stains through my T-shirt. I tap my foot. I make eye contact with the bus driver a few times, but he seems to find my gaze unpleasant. Or rather, uncompromising. I would rather be considered uncompromising than unpleasant, just like I’d rather be considered a boss than a *****, although the latter does possess a feminist ring to it that every man in power surely longs after in his diary at night.
My parents are going to think I’m joking if I tell them about the test. Sure, they’ll love me anyway, but they’re not the ones I’m trying to impress. If I’m going to make it into art school, I can’t have a C in math. Just think of the thousands of teenagers on the cusp of adulthood who will submit their ‘post-modernist’ red squares. Just think of all the extra time they have on their hands to not only paint other shapes, but also to study, to write Next Great American Novels, to work at a fast food joint two blocks from their house. They’re not who I’m trying to impress either. They paint squares, for ****** sake.
We make it to my stop. I walk off the bus alone, and dance the two-step to cross the street in front of the bus, while the driver considers hitting me. I don’t think he likes me very much. I am, afterall, uncompromising.
Once I clear the street, I bend over and take off my boots. I can feel the crumbs of sock between my toes, rubbed off their homeland by sweat. I take my time on the aching slope up to my house, feet balancing on every rock’s edge. Sure, we may be the second house on the street, but that underestimates the amount of land our dearest neighbors own. Don’t think they’re rich. The real estate agent most likely handed them the last 5 acres for free. Staring at that much open land makes you feel like you’re staring at a blank page. They don’t have the money to fill it. I’ve never seen them leave the house, anyway, so it doesn’t matter. At the edge of their property, there’s a dead bird, it’s heart peeking through the feathers and exhaust. It’s eyes are wide open, bulging onyx specimens. I stop to kick it around a bit with my foot, before moving on up the hill. Some may consider me a ‘rude, young lady.’ I don’t really understand that mindset. It’s already dead. Deader than dead. Half its dead body is already eaten away. Out here, it’s those same people who shoot the birds for sport from within the comforts of their own home, not even caring to stop from pointing the gun at your house. If they really cared, they’d be a vegetarian like my mom. But they don’t really care, do they?
When I finally reach the house, there are six cars in the driveway. Most of them are some shade of off-white, aged more like vinegar than wine. One of them is off-green, with the back bumper missing. That one’s Ms. Qiu’s. The yellow two-seater is my parents’.
Dropping my bag in the doorway, I follow the sound into the living room. Screaming nasal voices shriek complaints, and congratulations across the tiny room. Two couches are lined up facing the back, where Dad stands reading out Bingo combinations. “B-4,” he says, mimicking an announcer.
Donald yells from the back, “What did you say? My hearing’s bad, Anders, speak up.” Anders repeats the impression, even more dramatic this time. When I walk into the room, his smile brightens. I’m not really in the mood to be happy, but I give a small smile in return. I’m not really in the mood to be here at all.
The remaining gathered guests turn around now too, just as excited to see me. Ms. Qiu has a solid, unflinching look, as she nods at me, as if approving of my existence. I appreciate the permission to stand in my own home. Some of them push up their glasses to see if it’s me or my mom. We’re both 5’4”, and that’s about where the similarities end. Sure, we both share blonde hair, but even in that regard we’re different. Where mine is cut bluntly across the shoulders, a mane of warm, dirty blonde fluff; hers is an icy blonde waterfall flowing down her back. And yet they still push up their glasses, some of them unfolding their glasses from their button-ups’ breast pockets.
“Asa, how ‘bout you announce a few?” Dad asks.
“I won’t do it with half as much enthusiasm as you manage.” And with that, I pivot, and leave the crowd with a crystal-clear image of my wake.
Their yelling travels through the open floor plan, following my footsteps unwelcomed and unchanging. I scurry through the dining room so as to avoid Phoebe. Mom. Phoebe. She’s more human than mom’s are supposed to be, although I try to call her Mom to her face. It would break her heart if I ever switched. I don’t know how my classmates do it so smoothly. They walk around calling at their parents like they’re the ones in charge, paying the bills, making the world go round. As appealing as it sounds, I don’t think I could pull off a convincing heartbreaker, and I don’t think I should learn on my parents. I slip on the nearest pair of flip-flops draped carelessly as modern art across the tiles, and slip out before Phoebe stops me.
Our backyard is short and stubby. I think we own more land than it looks like, but every year the forest squeezes us in tighter. New bushes, weeds, tall grasses pop up wherever they please. Phoebe doesn’t leave the house, and Anders only gardens a ten-by-ten plot in the side yard, leaving the rest rightfully up to Mother Nature. Two years ago when we moved in, I got lost in those woods multiple times. Nowadays, I’ve thwacked out a path subtle enough to not be noticed and poisoned by guests, and clear enough that I don’t get lost anymore. I go in.
Even outside, I can hear Bingo Night trailing my ears. I know it’s only in my head, because no ****, but that doesn’t exactly make the experience more pleasant. I speed up, feet twisting gracefully over branches and ivy. Back bending at certain visual cues. My head works independently, trying to crack the case of my indefatigable need to be perfect. Right. The test. I’m so sick of caring about the opinions of those who probably have less talent than half their students. These are people who teach out of textbooks, use other teachers’ slides, hand out Scantrons to avoid personalized feedback. People who complain about their paycheck, just like they have been for the past twenty years of their tenure. These are the people who determine my future. And I’m failing the test.
It’s not like I didn’t study: one hour the night before, in addition to three weeks of attentive class participation points and homework. I got caught up drawing, though. Not distracted, I just presumed I was ready. Which is why I felt comfortable standing in the bathroom for the next three hours drawing myself until my lips were twitching from holding a fake smile. Next time I’ll work harder. This time I’ll work harder. Afterclass today I purposely dropped some books and scattered my papers so as to have a private conversation with Mr. Foster about retaking, without the judgment from the pigs.
My skin snags on a branch, lacerating my ankle. Oops. A soft creek of blood flows down my heel, weaving over various past cuts. Maybe I don’t know it as well as I thought. I’ll have to practice the route, mark out more cues. And maybe I am slightly panicked. I’ve only walked three minutes, but it’s already unrecognizable. Suddenly mindfulness leaves me, and every tree looks the same, the smell just as claustrophobic as the sound. I spin around. Too many times. Now I can’t even remember which direction I had been facing. I see a slight clearing thirty feet ahead, set my eyes on it, and go straight. I’m sure it’s the right way. I know these woods.
There’s a house. Just fifty feet ahead, there’s a house built of glass, entirely coated in tangled vines, unchecked by the human eye. Spotlights shine down on it, forcing their way through the treetop. It’s glittering in the golden light. I stake a path towards it, slowing down, watching for movement. It doesn’t look lived in, but people are insane.
I push open the glass door.
Inside sits three rows of overgrown plants, tired of their constraints. Vines spill over pot rims, snaking across the floor like trip wires, climbing up the walls looking for an escape. It’s surprisingly dark for a greenhouse, and the farther in I walk, the colder it gets. I can feel the wetness of life seeping into my skin. The hairs along my arms raise their hands in question. How have I never seen this place before? Does this silence belong to us? This sunlight? Little faces of nature peak out under every branch and flower. Ugly faces, runts of the litter. Clearly no gardener has been in here for multiple years, for some plants smell bitter. They’re decomposing, overpowered by stronger – uglier, but stronger – plants. Some would call them weeds. I don’t know the difference, personally.
If I’m the first person to find this place, then it’s fair to call it mine. I could move out, buy a hammock, and survive eating the dirt. It would make for a good college essay. They love that liberal hippie ********. They don’t even appreciate hard work anymore if you don’t look pretty sweating. If you don’t have a religious awakening via playing basketball, then you might as well take a gap year to torture yourself into something more ‘mature.’ My ankle is still bleeding, and not in a pretty way. I push away a small wooden gardening cart, and sit against the wall.
I break off a plant, right at the neck like my Dad taught me, and wipe away the blood.
I need to get back, and I don’t have my phone, no one knows I’m here, and the sun will start setting shortly. And I want some food if that’s an option, God. Just send me a ******** rabbit and I’ll hit it with a rock. I haven’t eaten since eleven AM, and didn’t grab a snack afterschool. We eat dinner early on Fridays, at six, to better suit the needs of the seniors. If I had to guess, I have thirty minutes, at which point Phoebe will ask Dad to look for me. She doesn’t like to leave the house. Then I’d get back, receive a speech about how much they love me, and how I can’t go off like that without telling them. Half-heartedly. The worry is real, but the sentiment isn’t exactly true, because if I really did rely on them as much as they tell me to, all three of us would be starving in this forest right now.
Something moves in the shadow by my foot. I jump up, knocking the cart with my back. Thanks, God, I didn’t request a rat. The shadows in the corner continue to shift, and my whole body tenses. I turn around, and run straight back home, miraculously finding the way in a fit of adrenaline.