Free

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
November/December 2014

Free waiting for the schoolbus

Apparently, a week isn’t a long enough time to make friends

Tila Tequila once said, “I think every person has their own identity and beauty. Everyone being different is what is really beautiful. If we were all the same, it would be boring.” If everyone was the same, would there be less fighting? This is what I wonder as I attempt to smooth my curly blond hair by running my fingers through the matted mess. Finally giving up, I sling my backpack over one shoulder and trudge out to the bus stop.

As I gnaw anxiously on a loose end of my hair, I glance down at my aqua leg warmers against my paint-smudged blue jeans. The weight of pencils in my sweatshirt pocket and The Hobbit in my backpack comforts me but doesn’t alleviate the butterflies in my stomach. You would think I’d be fine going to school by now, but the nervousness returns every morning before I board the bus. Apparently, a week isn’t a long enough time to make friends.

I hear the roar of the bus’s engine before I see it. Its tires screech around the curb, leaving the scent of hot rubber in the air, and it brakes at the last second, as if it is just now remembering its job. The driver signals the OK for me to come on, so I plod up the three steps. The driver’s jaw looks muscular from the many days of chewing her monstrous wads of gum. Her hair is in a very sloppy bun that looks much like a crow’s nest. Before I can find a seat, the bus lurches into action and I am slammed into a window. Around me, boys and girls toss paper airplanes at one another. One plane hits my backpack but bounces off and sails a few feet away to rest unnoticed at another kid’s foot. A sixth-grade boy that I recognize from a couple days ago stumbles up the aisle to sit with his friend, but on his way an eighth-grader trips him. Howls of laughter erupt randomly throughout the ride to school, but I never join in. Tuning the noise out, I read my book.

“What’s your name?”

I’m startled by the voice, but I look up from the book to see a freckled girl not much younger than me. “I’m Alice,” I say.

She raises her eyebrows as she asks, “Well, aren’t you going to ask who I am?” But before I can, she says, “I’m Cora Jones.” To my surprise, she extends her hand to shake mine. I accept her offer hesitantly. Her lips move, she mouths silently, One… two… three…. four… five. She releases my hand and skips back to her seat to sit with her friends where they giggle and keep looking at me. I sigh. Of course, too good to be true. It was only on a dare or some other silly game middleschool girls play. I lean my head against the chilled leather seat.

The first day I came to Cornersville Middle School, several kids looked up to see who I was, but no one even attempted to talk to me. Nothing much has changed since then. Kids sitting on their desk with their feet propped on the backs of their chairs talk casually with their peers. This part is always awkward, so I just take a seat in the back of the room and get out my textbooks.

The teacher comes in, her short heels click-clacking against the pale tiles, talks for a few minutes, then dismisses us for our next period. In the classes, specifically English, I answer questions when I can and try to stay focused, but my mind strays to other things: the friends I left behind in New York, the Montana lifestyle that is so drastically different from city life.  Frankly, I don’t understand why we needed to move here. Mom says it’s because life in the city was too expensive, but I think there might be other reasons.

Before I know it, it’s lunchtime. I am shuffled and pushed by shoulders as I make my way through the crowd. A portion of them file into a line to wait for cold grilled-cheese sandwiches, and the other portion find tables to sit with friends and eat their packed lunches. There are about twenty tables in the large room; I choose a vacant one by the far wall. The chatter of friends and bellows of laughter grow steadily as more kids pour in through the double doors. As I feel around the depths of my backpack for a brown paper lunch bag, I watch a pinched-faced lunch lady scold a student for running and grab another kid’s hood as he tries to get away with a stolen milk. I can’t help but notice how it appears that the lady swallowed a lemon slice and the taste has not yet left her mouth.

I set aside my sandwich halfway through eating it to pull a sketchbook, marker, and pencil from my bag. I observe the lunchroom for a few moments, then roughly sketch what I see: the sour-faced lunch lady, groups of kids talking and laughing, a sixth-grader attempting to persuade the cashier to accept fifty cents for a dollar milk. Once I am satisfied, I begin to outline the pencil strokes.

I stop tracing when I notice that I have also put myself in the sketch. I sit at a table with my chin resting on my hands. I peer out the corner of my eyes and have a melancholy expression on my face. From the side pocket on my backpack, I rummage for a red marker to trace the sketch of myself with it.

Once I am done, I place my hands in my lap to contemplate my work. In the drawing, I stand out from the rest of the lunchroom. It’s not like I purposefully put myself in the drawing, it just happens. My heart somehow tells my hand what to do.

Other than another seventh-grade girl asking me who I am, the rest of the day goes by sluggishly and is completely uneventful. Classes, hallways, assigning homework, all of what an average school
day consists of.

I yell “I’m home!” as soon as I step through the door, even though I know no one is here. It makes me feel better, almost like I’m confirming that, at last, I’m free to do as I please. My call echoes around the kitchen; we have hardly gotten anything unpacked, with my mom working and my long days at school. I grab a snack and the phone from the kitchen and dial Kim’s phone number. While it’s still ringing, I flop onto the living room couch.

As I wait for Kim to answer the phone, my mind ambles to days in the city. I can nearly feel the wind whipping my hair as Kim and I race down the sidewalk, seeing who will be the first one to reach art lessons. My backpack slaps my thigh as I dodge skateboarders and clusters of people. My sneakers pound the ground steadily, but Kim is still ahead of me by a few feet. As always, I watch her disappear inside the art center’s double doors. While I am just entering, she shrieks “I win!” and grabs the door frame of the art class entrance. We collapse against the wall outside the class to catch our breath before we go in. Giggling, we attempt to stay calm as we enter the room.

“Hello?” The voice on the other end of the phone is familiar, comforting even. I imagine her tilting her head as she always does when asking a question.

“Hey, Kim!”

“Oh, hi, Alice. What’s up? How was school?” I can hear the smile in the way she speaks.

I roll my eyes towards the ceiling and shrug with one shoulder. Just thinking about school these days agitates me. “Oh, you know, same as yesterday… and the day before that… and the day before that. Sometimes I wonder why I feel so different from everyone else. I don’t understand why we moved. I know I was doing just fine in New York. Anyway, it’s not like it helped Mom. She seems stressed lately. I wish I could see you again.”

Free walking down the street

I can nearly feel the wind whipping my hair as Kim and I race down the sidewalk

“Come on, Alice. You’ll be fine. You just need time to… adjust.” Her kind words have little effect on me.

“I’ve been adjusting for a week now! Why can’t I just be like everyone else? Not the artsy geek I am.”

“Changing who you are just to make a friend would totally defeat the purpose.” That’s Kim all right. So practical.

We talk for several minutes more, then I tell her I’ll call her again tomorrow as I hear Mom come through the back door. She comes in, hangs her bag and jacket on a chair, then flops on the couch next to me.

Unlike me, my mom is fairly tall with brunette hair. Unlike me, she always wants to look good, with her hair curled and dressed in her business outfit. Even to the grocery store, she refuses to wear sweatpants. The only similarity between us is our eyes, both hazel and fierce.

Her eyebrows arch at my sweatshirt, leg warmers, and paint-messied jeans. “Is that what you wore to school today?”

“Yes, it is.” The corners of my mouth harden defiantly.

She closes her eyes in disapproval and agitation. Without opening them, she says, “I’ve told you before, your name means noble, which is what I expect you to be. You need to be more aware of what you wear. I don’t do this,” she gestures to her suit and upswept hair, “for nothing, you know.”

“My name also means truth.” Now I am standing in front of her. “I’m sorry I don’t meet your standards,” I say with sarcasm. I turn sharply on my heel and storm off to my room, where I slam the door to prove my point.

I rest my back against the cool wooden door for a short few seconds before I thrust open the closet doors, revealing two narrow shelves on which I keep my art supplies: paints of various colors, a glass of paintbrushes, sketchbooks, colored pencils, oil and chalk pastels, Sharpies, and charcoal. I can’t help but remember the glorious afternoons at art class with Kim and the other girls my age. I always loved the closet overflowing with art supplies at the far end of the room, the musty, yet enjoyable smell of paint. Sometimes, if I was told to gather something for that day’s lesson, I would purposefully take longer than necessary just so I could gaze longingly at the equipment. Before Mom and I moved to Montana, I vowed I wouldn’t let the move get in the way of my art.

I grab a blue paint bottle, a thick paintbrush, and a sketchbook at random, then settle at my desk. My hand hovers over the paper, but not for long. Soon, I have a girl with wind sweeping her hair across her eyes and mouth. As I sit and ponder my work, I start to see myself in the figure. Her eyes are spirited and free, not affected by what people say or think. I realize I want to be like that. Me.

Free Olivia Stoltzfus

Olivia Stoltzfus, 12
New Providence, Pennsylvania

Free Emma Schumacher

Emma Schumacher, 13
Lexington, Massachusetts

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