I was panting and heaving, gasping for air. The hot sun scalded my skin as I unwillingly moved my feet toward the white finish line. Yes, yes, I was almost there—just a few more steps. Done!
I threw my hands in the air as victory tears streamed down my face. I had successfully finished a mile.
"Not so fast, Sarah Johnson," Mr. Kick called as I turned to exit through the track gate.
"What?" I said breathlessly, my eyes squinting from the sunlight.
"You still have one more lap to go."
"What? No!" I practically screamed, foolish tears stinging my cheeks. "I ran four laps; there must be a mistake!"
"There's no mistake, Johnson. My stopwatch says it's only been ten minutes; it usually takes you around fourteen or fifteen minutes to complete a mile."
"But I ran really fast today," I protested.
"Hah! Likely story. Nobody improves their mile time by five minutes. Go on, run another lap."
I felt my tears resume their waterfall down my cheeks. I wanted to fall to my knees and throw my head into my hands, sobbing, shaking my shoulders convulsively like those beautiful princesses did in movies after losing a lover, only I knew I wouldn't look like those damsels in distress. I would look like a distressed squirrel, quickly gnawing down walnuts in fear of a nearby predator.
"All right," I conceded, whimpering, forcing my dead-weight legs to pad against the rubber track.
I was so exhausted; I thought I would pass out. And then the thought occurred to me: What if I did pass out? And an ambulance had to come and take me away on a stretcher? The doctor would diagnose me with some rare disease, and that misogynistic Mr. Kick would be to blame. The school would fire him for child abuse, and I would be on my deathbed coughing. Students would pour into the room to surround my bed, hold hands and sway, singing songs in commemoration of the beautiful life I had lived. My life's tragedy.
Okay, it was a stupid thought. I obviously knew my fantasy would never happen, but it sure made the time fly by while I ran under the oppressive sunshine's unrelenting heat.
Why was the sun so hot in California during the middle of May? Why was I forced to live in the sunshine state—or is that Florida? I didn't bother to worry my mind over it; all I knew was that my body was aching and felt like I was racing through the Sahara.
I coughed, wheezing, my lungs searching for air, but I couldn't seem to find any. I gulped and cleared my throat, coughing once more, when suddenly I felt a glob of mucus escape my throat. Ew, gross—GROSS! It was hanging outside of my mouth now, flailing, wiggling uncontrollably like a newborn serpent. Time to take you out of this cruel world! I exclaimed to the metaphorical serpent and wiped away the drool tail from my lips. Ah. Much better.
Suddenly my eyes widened as I saw the finish line. I was so close now! But wait—where was the class? Where was Mr. Kick? They were all leaving! I couldn't possibly be the only one left on the track. I looked behind my shoulder and saw only two other students, and they were just walking. They weren't even jog-walking like I sometimes did. Humiliation overtook my soul. Teachers weren't supposed to leave students. Great, now I was starting to feel the waterworks begin again. Stupid tears. Why did I always cry so easily? Maybe I was a sprinkler in my past life—or a slug, slow and moist.
Shamefully, with my head bent down and tears streaking my presumably rosy cheeks, I made my way into the cafeteria. Randomly, I imagined I was Belle from Beauty and the Beast. The Beast had just told me I could never see my father again, and now I was deeply sorrowful. Oh, wretched world! I wanted to curse, but no—I had to humbly submit to the Beast's request, so I kept my eyes trained on the floor, avoiding the gazes of my classmates. Their pressing eyes and their laughter tried to goad me into looking up, but I would not let them; I would not let them!
"Oh, sorry for bumping into you," I said automatically.
Was this a fortuitous coincidence? Had I just bumped into the hottest guy in the school? It couldn't possibly be . . . Nope. After glancing up, my eyes dropped back down to the floor. For a millisecond, I thought I'd bumped into Clyde Carter, a hunky senior I had been crushing on since forever. But no; it had just been Mrs. Frankfert, the shockingly tall biology teacher who looked like she had a nest of spider eggs up her nose. I shouldn't judge her, though; nose hair is a huge issue for some people. Actually, I almost felt sorry for Mrs. Frankfert. Perhaps her persistently growing nose hairs were a huge insecurity, and maybe she cried every night using tweezers trying to pluck those atrocious, gossamer strands, but all they did was rebelliously grow back! No! I couldn't judge the poor elderly woman who was worthy of sympathy.
"Sorry, Mrs. Frankfert," I continued. "Really, I should be apologizing to you. Honestly, it was my fault for—"
But before I finished speaking, I glanced up and saw the lanky instructor striding away, ten paces away from where I was standing.
I suddenly realized that everyone around me was laughing, their loud noise undoubtedly mocking me, ridiculing me for my heinous blunder. Stupid. Stupid! I felt my cheeks flush red.
But wait—no, nobody was laughing at me. They were actually absorbed in their own conversations. In fact, now that I was really looking, it didn't look like anyone was paying attention to me at all. Obviously, that was because I was an invisible freak.
Taking a deep, recollecting breath, I straightened my stance and elegantly strode to my opulent lunch table. There at my round table, I was greeted by my knights, my loyal subjects, my close confidants, my three musketeers: Renna, Tanaya, and Ellie. Okay, we weren't actually best friends or really even that close. Honestly, I didn't think they even really liked me that much. Fortunately, they didn't think I was a hot mess, either. They tolerated me, let me sit with them. However, it sometimes felt like they were in their own exclusive club, and I was just the warm body that filled the fourth seat at their bland table.
Since first grade, Renna, Tanaya, and Ellie had all been best friends. They incessantly reminisced about how they had loved to play dress-up and pretend they were ponies. Apparently, they had even assigned each other names: Renna's name was Rony the pony, Tanaya was Tony the pony, and I was pretty sure that Ellie was Boney the pony—Boney because the shrimp looked so petite. How I wish I had her slender frame. The strange thing was, though, I wished even more that I could have been in their first-grade class. What would our friendship have been like today if I had grown up with them instead of living eleven years of my life in freezing Wisconsin? If I had been in their first-grade class, however, what pony name would I have had?
Baloney the pony, I thought miserably, taking a bite of my crumpled meat sandwich.
"Ohmigosh, I am so overwhelmed. My mom wants me to start meeting with a tutor, so I can retake the ACTs and get a perfect score, but after school I have swimming, ballet, and then when I get home, I have to practice the piccolo for an hour. There is not enough time in the day! And now I am stressed about the Summerfest dance; I still don't have a dress to wear," Renna lamented, raking her fingers through her short, strawberry-blonde hair.
"Why don't you just buy that lilac dress that Tanaya and I picked out for you last Saturday; it's all the rage in Paris right now," Ellie said in her usual bored tone while polishing her thick-framed glasses.
"You know I can't wear that dress. It somehow exaggerates my pasty skin and showcases my thunder thighs."
"Your skin is not pasty, and you don't have thunder thighs," I said consolingly, inserting myself into the conversation.
Renna ignored me, then whipped out her phone and scooted her chair towards Tanaya. "What do you think of this dress? And look at this gorgeous actress from India; she kind of looks like you."
Tanaya blushed. "Who me? No way. She looks way more like Ellie; her body is so thin and perfect."
Renna showed the phone to Ellie, and Ellie smirked before tossing her silky, light-brown hair behind her shoulder. "Oh, whatever. But check out that Norwegian model," Ellie pointed, swiping the screen with her finger. She looks just like you Renna. You even have the same exact hair color."
"Do you really think?" Renna chuckled.
"Definitely," Ellie nodded.
"Well, I guess we should all be models then," Renna said, and all three giggled in unison.
Distracting from their laughter, I coughed, ham spewing from my mouth. Across the table, Ellie glared at me as if I had committed some nefarious act. "Erm, sorry," I said, clearing my throat and craning my neck. "Is there anyone that looks like me?"
Renna and Ellie exchanged a nauseated glance.
"No, I don't see anyone with curly brown hair," Ellie said, scornfully.
Behind me, I heard a loud scuffle of movement. The next thing I knew, a yellow water polo ball landed in the center of the table and bounced up, slapping Ellie in the face. I was tempted to laugh like the Wicked Witch of the West but refrained when WHACK! I suddenly felt an agonizing pain in the back of my skull. Had I been shot? Was I going to die? Oh, woe is me! I hadn't lived a fruitful, fulfilling life! I was so young, so impressionable, so naïve, so . . .
"Hey, sorry—I think I might have elbowed you in the back of the head. Are you all right?"
Just then, I felt a warm pair of hands resting on my shoulders. Oh please do not be Mrs. Frankfert, I begged and quickly looked up. Looking down at me was an angel, my destroying angel, ready to take my soul away from this wicked, odious world. Surprisingly, he looked just like Clyde, my one true love, smiling down at me with his twinkling, emerald-green eyes; his dark-blond hair was even ruffled the same way as Clyde's. But, I knew it couldn't be Clyde because it was utterly impossible that Clyde's face would be so close to mine with his hands resting on my shoulders.
"Yes angel, I am ready to go now," I inaudibly whispered.
"Uh, are you all right?"
"Earth to Sarah!" I suddenly felt a kick to my shin. Ouch! Oh my gosh, I wasn't dreaming, and now the whole cafeteria was staring—not my imagination. And Clyde was really looking at me!
"Umm!" I gasped for air like my face had just broken the surface of a watery grave. My first breath of life—I was reborn. Should I start crying?
"I'm fine," I coughed my first words.
"Oh, cool. For a second there, I thought you were a goner," Clyde said and chuckled. Everyone in the cafeteria laughed as well, but I didn't care. Clyde's hands were still resting on my shoulders, and was he lightly massaging them? Warmth dribbled down my body like golden honey transforming into monarch butterflies that danced and twirled around, making a home in my stomach.
"Okay. Well, see ya around—take it easy," Clyde said, retrieving his ball and sauntering away.
Once again, I practically gasped for air, and so did my so-called friends.
"No way! Did that actually just happen?" Renna hissed, leaning forward and tucking her short hair behind her ear.
"I-I-I don't know," I stammered, yet I could still feel the warmth where Clyde had touched me. His actual phalanges had rubbed my shoulders. His phalanges! This was better than any fantasy I could have ever conceived. Beyond anything that my wildest dreams could have invented—even better than the ones hiding in the dark recesses of my mind. This moment, here and now, was better than Christmas day, better than any romance novel, better than life as I knew it! Then it dawned on me: This has to be what love is. It's not infatuation or limerence, I argued with myself; this was full-blown love. This is what it tastes like. I was in love!
"Wow, Sarah," Tanaya whispered. "You've got to be the luckiest girl in the world."
"Yes, Tanaya, I am. I am." I said with a dewy smile. And I knew I would take another ten thousand blows to the head to recreate that moment.
"Don't be ridiculous," tiny Ellie scathed, her cheeks red. "Get rid of those heart emojis from your eyes. He is not interested. We are nerds. He's popular and gorgeous—and you're just a chubby, frizzy-haired junior. Not Cinderella."
At that moment, I felt my fantasy world crumble before my very eyes. My castle, my knight in shining armor, his white horse all dissolved and disappeared. I was alone. Once again, hot tears stung my eyes. How could Ellie's words cut me so deeply? Be so caustic? Immediately, I got up from my seat and dashed for the exit doors. I heard Tanaya call my name, but I didn't turn around. As I ran holding my hands to my face, my shoulders shook up and down just like those beautiful princesses, but I wasn't a beautiful princess; I had to accept myself for what I really was: an ogre.
Fifteen minutes later, I found myself locked in the girl's bathroom lying on the floor—on top of a self-made mattress of 50 toilet sheet covers. I bawled my eyes out for ten minutes, but now my breathing was starting to calm. I glanced at the caged clock on the wall; the bell would ring in three minutes. I'd better get a move on if I wanted to look presentable to my peers. Like an orangutan on its deathbed, I lifted a shaky hand and latched it onto the corner of the sink. Then, with extreme difficulty, I hoisted myself up from the tile ground.
Now, as I stared at my reflection in the mirror, I saw a puffy-faced brunette with dull hazel eyes, nondescript features, and black mascara bleeding down her cheeks—I looked like a nightmare! Why couldn't I be beautiful like all the models in the magazines? Why did I have to have curly hair? Was I really chubby?
Gingerly, I placed a hand on the mirror and stared into my lifeless eyes.
Oh, Bobby, I have no more tears left to cry. I know I am a foolish girl, Bobby; a foolish, silly girl, but you must let me go. Let me go to class, Bobby. Please!
What was I thinking? Even now, my active imagination was on full blast, transporting me to the set of a black and white Hollywood scene. Get a grip, I told myself. While fanning my face with my hands, I let out an incredulous laugh.
By the time the bell rang, I had realized what a complete moron I was. I cursed myself for running out of the cafeteria the way I had. Did I really do that? How embarrassing! The onlookers must have loved the show: Girl gets accidentally elbowed in the back of the head, wakes up from a coma, acts like she is crazy, speaks like a blubbering fool—and, two minutes later, dramatically dashes away. I was probably the laughing stock of the entire school!
Oh, curse these uncontrollable emotions in my brain! Curse you, estrogen! Curse the actress trapped inside of me who is always scraping her nails, clawing up a ravine, trying to break free from my chest! What strange imagery my mind created.
Oh well. Hopefully, most of the student body would think I was crying because of the head pain—yes, trauma to the head. That was plausible. That was my story, and I would stick with it, but what was I supposed to do now? I was struck by Cupid's bow, and I thirsted for that love again, thirsted for Clyde's touch. However, despite the cruelty of Ellie's words, I knew she was primarily right; Clyde was out of my league. And so, after school, I decided I would have to do something unthinkable, despicable, immoral, and truly sickening—did I have no self-worth?
Well, basically, yeah.
When the final bell rang, I burst out of class and strode to the nearest salon I could find. The old downtown was close by, and there had to be one. Yes, I was going to exchange my natural curls for sleek, straight hair. What I needed was a chemical relaxer. I had wanted one ever since I could remember, but my mom had always sighed and told me that good girls shouldn't be vain, that beauty was on the inside—eye of the beholder. Well, not many eyes beheld the bird's nest on my head and thought it a flock of beauty. And I was ready to be bad. I was ready to straighten my hair—sinfully!
It was days like these that I was grateful that I had to walk home from school. I could do whatever I wanted, and nobody could stop me. Nana had given me $150 for my birthday and instructed me to use it for something special—an emergency. This was special. This was an emergency. My new hair was an investment, really—a way to skyrocket my confidence. Soon I would be upgraded Sarah; Sarah 2.0; Sarah who would no longer cry—okay, some things would never change.
Frantically dodging street signs, I made my way toward the dreary downtown. A little boy rode by on his scooter, and I had to jostle past him and the bushes. I felt like I was running in an action movie—feverishly trying to evade government intelligences, racing against the clock before a bomb was about to detonate. No, forget the action movie—I was in a forest wearing an Elizabethan dress. It was so heavy that I could barely run.
I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand and moaned. Suddenly, I tripped, scraping my knee on the hot cement. Yes, that felt good; I could feel the stinging burn, taste the smell of blood. What was I doing? I had to get up fast. I lurched forward, propelling myself off the ground, forcing one leg forward at a time. Ouch! That scrape was really starting to burn now. It was on fire, lava charring my flesh! I couldn't take the pain anymore, and the tears were streaming down my cheeks. I was sobbing like an idiot. It was too much! It was more than I could bear.
Just then, I realized I was at the old downtown. A newspaper blew by, and I imagined it was a tumbleweed. Yes, this place was devoid of any inhabitants, a ghost town. Well, okay—I knew there were a few shops open.
Salon! My mind snapped back to attention. I needed to find a salon.
Whimpering in pain, I began jogging again, when, lo and behold, twenty feet away, I spied an old, pink sign: Sandra's Salon. The gods have blessed me. This was a sign, a real sign! Or maybe I had subconsciously known it was here all along. Fixing my hair and adjusting my favorite, maroon-colored shirt, I began to slowly strut to the shop.
I imagined I was on a runway and walked with a sultry step. All three of my so-called friends were on the sidelines, screaming and pulling out their hair, enviously wishing they had half the elegance of one of my little toes. Sorry, Ellie—I only sit with cool juniors now. I smirked and blew a kiss. She fell to the ground, paralyzed. Hah—that should teach her some manners. Maybe I shouldn't be so hard on Ellie, I thought suddenly. After all, she did get hit in the face with that ball. Maybe she was just lashing out in embarrassment and jealousy—jealous because no hot guy had rubbed her shoulders. Perhaps that's why she made that nasty comment. Now I felt sorry for her. She was an unfortunate soul in desperate need of love and attention, although, ever since I have known her, she has always treated me like the leper of the group.
At once, I realized that I was in front of the entrance. Surprisingly, the glass door was open, but the inside looked completely vacant. Was there anyone in this ramshackle mess? I took a few steps inside and looked around. No offense to the owner, but this place could have used a good mopping—and electricity repair! I squeaked out loud as a fluorescent light overhead jerked, flickering on and off. Why did I feel like I was in a bad horror film? Was a clown going to jump out at me and force me to be his slave? Maybe he would order me to mop his dusty floor while wearing a cheap clown costume and everyone who walked in would point and laugh at me!
But seriously, this was getting kind of creepy. Obviously, no one was there; it was time to go. Like a prima ballerina, I did a pirouette and made a mad dash to the door, when suddenly I heard a voice.
"Excuse me. May I help you?"
I froze at once. My breathing quickened, and my heart was thumping against my ribcage. Gosh, it hurt so bad! Or maybe it was bad indigestion. Then, gaining courage, I swiveled around slowly, breathed in through my nose, and stared into the eyes of my soon-to-be captor.
Whoa. She was actually kind of pretty: an older woman with pixie-cut auburn hair, polished-alabaster skin, and the most gorgeous face I had ever seen in real life.
"May I help you?" the woman repeated. Her voice was husky yet as melodic as a harp.
"Uh—uh." I sounded like I was constipated. Why did beauty always intimidate me? Didn't matter whether it was male or female—I was always reduced to a sniveling zombie. The woman raised a perfectly manicured eyebrow.
"B-B-Beauty," I said stupidly, like a moth hypnotized by light.
"Oh, so you are looking for beauty?" the woman said, sashaying towards me. "Well, I'm sorry, but the shop is closed for repairs. Still, I think I might be able to help you . . . find what you're looking for."
"You can? How?" I sniffed, looking around at the dilapidated dryer chairs.
The woman smiled a seductive smile. "Well, because I'm an enchantress," she said matter-of-factly.
Okay—wasn't expecting that.
"You're an enchantress?" I said, pointing, "Oh, I get it, ha, ha." I tried to laugh. "You're being sarcastic. Yes, you are like an enchantress because, obviously, you're very pretty."
"Would you like to come with me to the back?"
"The back," I gulped. Okay, now it was time to leave. I could see the headlines now: "Gorgeous Woman Lures Mediocre-Looking High School Girl into the Back Room to . . . " Well, actually, I had no idea. Seduce her? No, I wasn't hot enough. Steal her money? Nah, I wasn't rich either. Suck her blood? Interesting, but highly unlikely. Give her a box full of old hair products? You know, that was actually very believable.
"Er, sure," I gulped. "Why not?" I said with more enthusiasm, laughing a little too animatedly and shoving my hand in my pocket—I knew I had pepper spray on my keychain.
The lady smiled and glided back to the door that she had entered from. With trepidation, I began to follow her.
Okay, calm down. You're making way too big of a deal about this. Everything will be all right, I reassured myself. Just feign confidence and she won't lay a finger on you.
As soon as I crossed the threshold into the back room, I was mildly surprised. Not because it was spooky or unique looking, but because, well, it looked fairly ordinary, if not austere. The walls were painted white, and there were a few shelves with products and boxes. Correct me if I'm wrong, but weren't enchantresses supposed to have lairs with glowing, green potions and amulets hanging on the walls? Shouldn't there at least be some fancy drapery? Apparently not.
"So, you can help me?" I said, reminding her why I was in there.
"Yes, of course," the woman smiled. In fluid motions, she walked over to the shelves, reached into a box, and handed me the object that was inside. Yes! It was a product.
"What's this?" I said, now looking at the object in my hand. It appeared to be a golden corset; there were designs all along the fabric. The corset was pretty in a weird, old-fashioned sort of way—but why had she given me this? Was this some kind of joke?
"This is what you need," the woman said seriously.
"Oh," I said, forcing my tone to sound grateful. "This is . . . neat." What did the lady want me to do, join a brothel? Wait—this was worse than I imagined. I had to get out of here now. Scream bloody murder! Call 9-1-1! My heart started to pound again, my chest ached, adrenaline surged through me, but I wasn't moving. I was starting to feel dizzy; I was utterly petrified.
"Put it on at night," the woman said casually, "and in the morning when you wake up, all your dreams will come true."
"Um, I'm not really that kind of girl," I said, making a nervous, giggling noise. Then my voice hitched two octaves higher, "but thank you." Was this woman for real? She didn't look like she was joking. Although, strangely, now that I could see her face up close, I realized just how flawless her visage really was. She was breathtaking, her features bewitching. For a second, I felt I could trust her with my life, and in another life, we could have been best friends! Holding each other's hands while twirling around in a meadow, braiding each other's hair—well, my hair—and giggling about all our crushes.
"You may leave now," the woman said.
"You have what you need, so now you may leave."
"Oh, so you don't want to like . . . you weren't trying to . . . you just wanted to give me this, like, for free?"
The woman raised an angled eyebrow and nodded.
"Oookay," I said. "I'm just going to leave, then." Blood was circulating down my legs now, and I found myself walking backwards. "It was really nice talking to you." I laughed a little too hard. "This was fun. We should do this more often. I gotta go." Immediately, I whirled around, bolted through the salon, and burst out the door. Fresh air entered my lungs. I was free! My eyes cast vigilant glances all around. Then I shoved the gold corset in my backpack and rocketed out of the old downtown.
Dang—I didn't get my hair straightened.