Behind

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
March 2019

By Christine Chang, Art by Hannah Parker

The fluorescent light of the classroom made it even harder to concentrate on the fine, black print that consisted of nothing but endless boredom. My mind tried to make sense of it. The book was written long ago; the 1800s? It reminded me of when a good friend of mine pretended to travel back in time with me. My nose wrinkled at the thought of her. I remembered Alice being fierce and stubborn. Just like I didn’t pay any mind to the words of this book, Alice never listened to me. I groaned just thinking about it. She was like a pestering bee. Going away but always returning. Alice had the eyes of an eagle and the ears of an owl. And, apparently, the instincts of a bee. She had those funny front teeth that jutted out at anything that didn’t seem right.

Against my will, my eyes scanned the pages: “Meg, being oldest, seemed to think she could order us about . . . ”

Those words hit me like the harsh wind outside, and, as the realization slowly sank in, I felt the air sucked out of me. But why had she let me boss her around? It may have given me pleasure at first, but in the long run, it definitely drove us both out of our minds! I felt lightheaded. Gears seemed to turn in my mind, contemplating this theory. A broken piano key seemed to finally strike the string it had missed up until now and echo through my body. My ears rang. My hands trembled. The whole world spun around me, blurring my vision and clouding my head. If you looked inside my body, you would see a fogged-up window with many attempts to rub the mist off. My eyes skimmed a whole page in my book, but the echo of that dissonant piano chord in my ears was so loud, it diverted my attention so I couldn’t hear the words in my mind.

For a moment, I wished I could really travel back in time and fix my mistakes. When had I started to boss her around? One year ago? Two? Since we’d met? No. It didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that I had done it, and now I’d have to fix it—without time travel. I racked my brain for ideas. I didn’t want to straight out say, “Did you notice I boss you around a lot?”

I came to my senses. I’d just have to stop bossing her around. Plus, now I´d have to reread a whole page in my book that I had missed, but it was too late. My teacher clapped her hands, and I was behind on my book—and my friendship.

The recess bell rang its piercing song, decimating my ears. I snapped my head up and stepped outside. A blast of air almost blew me down. I let the door close in front of me and stood back.

A shiver ran down my spine and pooled on the ground in puddles of trepidation

“Did you hear that Linda has . . . ”

“What did you get on your test? I got a . . . ”

The loud sounds of the hall barely receded every time a cluster of kids exited the building and came back saying it was too cold or windy or this or that. Did I really want to go outside? I shoved the door again, willing it to open. The wind, rougher this time, whipped my face. Even so, I pushed myself through the wind tunnel and stumbled outside, tripping over my feet and using my arm to shield my face. I wished my arm were bigger. The light outdoors was bright, yet the sky was clouded and overcast. The wet dew made my feet cold, and the grass crunched beneath my shoes. The sun was low in the sky making my shadow long. My friends chit chatted as if it were a normal day. But it wasn’t.

My friend, Bella, approached me. “We’ve been looking for you!”

“Not now. I need to find something. And no, I do not need help right now.” My tense body relaxed a little on a rickety bench that looked as if it would topple over. I stayed completely still as my eyes darted around the school. Where was she? I studied the school. On my right, a bush covered in geraniums lined the grass. The sun was just up behind the bush. A dirt path traversed by a stream from the recent rain led to a cluster of trees. The trees stood tall and blocked most of my view of the benches that surrounded the school. I sensed movement beyond the trees.

There.

I inched toward Alice ever so slowly, and she, of course, with her uncannily keen senses, noticed me immediately. I continued toward her, the leaves crunching beneath my boots. My arms tensed. My stomach churned, and my legs pulled at me to back up. A shiver ran down my spine and pooled on the ground in puddles of trepidation. The world spiraled about. I couldn’t think straight. I uneasily twirled a strand of my hair.

“Hey Alice,” I stammered. She turned her back on me. I looked down. “I’m so sorry.”

Alice glared. “I can’t believe I didn’t stand up to you before! Why did I let you make a toy out of me?! Buzz off.”

Ha! She really is a bee. I stiffened. “I said, I’M SORRY!!” Whoops. Now she’ll never forgive me.

“Leave me alone!” Alice’s mouth was a big, gaping hole. Tears formed in her eyes.

Hmm. . . I thought. Nice comeback. What else did you learn on the playground? My cheeks turned bright red. I attempted to hide my face and darted back toward the rickety bench. I could feel Alice staring after me, her eyes boring a hole in my gut. I had just lost a friendship that was so hard to keep. A friendship that was just within reach, close enough to pull back to me; but I had let it slip away, or rather, pushed it away.

I could barely live through the next two periods. I didn’t hear a word my teacher said. I probably flunked the math test I’d been studying for all week. I tuned out my friends’ conversation at lunch period. I just made it through my last two classes before darting home.

*          *          *

“How was your day, honey?” my mom asks as I slump down in the front seat of the car.

“Shut up,” I whisper. Mom glares at me, but she doesn’t say anything. She’s good at being quiet when I want her to. She’ll scold me later. I watch out the window as the world flies by in a blur. Faster than the speed of sound. It seems slow, still, compared to how quickly I lost a friend. Slow, compared to how fast my temper slips through my fingers until it is no longer mine to control; the moment when I release it, and it is just out of reach.

The car crunches up the gravel driveway. I leap out. Before I dart off, something catches my eye on the sidewalk, haphazardly tossed under an ivy bush. I bend down to look closer. It’s a dog biscuit someone must’ve dropped. I adore finding little “treasures” around town while I’m out exploring: buttons, coins, acorns—you never know when you might need them. I curl my fingers gently around it, though in my current state, I wish I could smash it—or anything else for that matter—to pieces. I race down the street, tripping over my own feet in my desperation to burn off my frustration.

As I near the end of the block, empowered and exhilarated from my run, with only a trace left of my frustration, I slow down and begin to notice “Lost Dog” signs posted on nearby telephone poles. Wait, I think, a knot forming in my gut, isn’t that Alice’s dog?

*          *          *

Alice and her family are standing outside their house, yelling, “Roger! Roger! Come here, puppy!” As I get closer, Mr. Weston climbs into the car with Alice, setting out to look for Roger. Alice sees me out of the corner of her eye. I can tell. She clenches her jaw.

“Isn’t that your friend?” Mr. Weston glances my way. The wind whips my face. I wish he would stop the car so I could have a moment with Alice.

I barely hear her reply as she murmurs under her breath: “Not anymore.”

“Daddy, let’s just go,” Alice grabs his arm firmly.

Just then, my mom rounds the corner to Alice’s block. Ugh. She worries too much about me, always wondering where I am and if I’m okay. She spies Mrs. Weston and begins waving. “Jennifer!” she calls.

Mr. Weston stops the car.

Alice groans.

Mrs. Weston calls back, “Susan!”

I stare. I wasn’t expecting my day to turn out like this. I went to school ready to have a normal day and then go to my piano lesson at 4:30.

I watch Mom, Mrs. Weston and Mr. Weston have their boring little adult talk about losing a dog while Alice tentatively steps out of the car’s back seat.

“ . . . Alice might . . .”

“ . . . go easy . . . ”

“ . . . Roger was special to her . . . ”

“ . . . miss him too . . .”

Profile of a Guardian

I can only make out a few whispers. That leaves me to talk to Alice. We’re silent. I won’t look at her. After a few minutes, though, I feel her eyes on me. I look up hesitantly. Her shoulders are drooped.

For some reason, I feel the beginnings of anger boiling again in the pit of my stomach. Is she just standing there feeling sorry for herself? This time, my temper is close enough to snatch back. I can barely get myself to reach out and grab it. “I . . . I . . . uh . . . ” I can’t think of what to say first. Should I ask about Roger or talk about what happened at recess? I mean, recess is more recent, right? How long had Roger been missing anyway? A day? A week? A whole month, maybe? I glance again at the signs. “Lost dog!” they read. Had I been so self absorbed that I hadn’t even noticed that Alice had lost her dog? Was that why she had been so upset at recess or was she truly angry at me?

Suddenly, a rustling sound. Roger darts out of the bushes. His paws pat the ground, spraying up mud and clearing out the overcast sky. He wags his tail and flops his golden retriever ears. His collar jingles in the strained silence. The adults cease talking. Alice whirls around. “Roger!” Roger sticks his wet, sloppy nose into Alice’s hand. “He came back!” She looks up at everyone else. Her eyes linger on me. I pat his head. Alice’s parents pet him too and hug Alice.

“I wonder how he got home?” Mr. Weston asks no one in particular.

Mom and I stand back. Mom is teary-eyed. I stand by her side, feeling the comforting warmth of her arm around my shoulder. Roger struggles to break free of the Weston family hug and looks up at me expectantly.

“Oh, Roger!” Alice pulls him back. “What’re you so interested in?”

At first I’m confused, but then I chuckle and slide the dog biscuit out of my pocket. Alice looks longingly at me before breaking into a smile. I guess she still remembers what we used to do when Roger was a puppy.

I laugh. “Fetch!” I toss the treat into the air. Roger pounds the ground and jumps up on his hind legs.

“Wow! Mid-air!” Alice rejoices, waving her hands in the air and jumping up and down.

Our parents enter her house, while Alice and I stand together. I gently put my arm around her, and together we watch Roger chase his tail. A slight breeze blows my hair into my face. The skies have cleared, revealing a bright sun. Just out of reach, though it seems I could brush it with my fingertips. A feeling washes over me, and I know right then, that this moment doesn’t need words. Recess didn’t need words. We share our warmth, and Alice smiles. Her smile is sweet and spreads across her face, bringing out her vibrant red hair, glistening in the light of the day with an air of peace. I couldn’t remember seeing this smile before. This was her real smile.

Behind Christine Chang

Christine Chang, 10
San Carlos, CA

Profile of a Guardian Hannah Parker

Hannah Parker, 13
South Burlington, VT

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