2002 was my lowest year up to that point in my short life. I was 12, in the ruthless incarceration of 7th grade, and my peers’ bullying was at its peak. It seemed everyone was eager to take their pubescent frustrations out on me. People I had once thought were my friends left me. When I asked one of them why, she replied, “You depress me.” I didn’t inquire further.
In the economic chaos following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the local hardware store where my father had worked for twenty years, folded up during the recession. My parents spoke in concerned murmurs when they thought I wasn’t around about house payments and groceries. To make life suck even more, my grandfather was dying of prostate cancer. We lived next door to them, so my mother spent every spare moment at her parents’ house. I didn’t understand why she wanted to witness every grim detail of her father’s slow-motion death, but later I understand “caretaker” is her natural role, and therefore, of greatest comfort to her. The last time I saw my grandfather alive, he lay delirious in a hospital bed in the living room where his recliner once sat, putrid-smelling urine collecting in a bag, in which floated bits of tissue and congealed blood, all hanging in a tangle of plastic tubes from the side of the bed. He did not know me, and spoke of the two men in black who wanted him to join them outside. I saw no men outside, but I believed they were there– they just weren’t there for me.
My father worked harder than ever to maintain his small business that winter, and spent long hours in his workshop behind the house. My parents each struggled with their lives while I struggled with mine. We were each alone that winter. I came home from tormented school days and spent most evenings by myself with only Lask for company. I would bury myself in my writing or the internet, but even that could not keep the darkness away.
On the first day back from Winter Break, I left the lunch line with my tray, and approached the table of people who were my last remaining facade of a social circle. As I went to set down my tray, the lead girl quipped, “Don’t bother.” I asked why.
“Nobody likes you. You’re a total drag all the time. Nobody wants to be seen with a freak. You’re pulling the whole group down.”
My fingers tightened on the edges of the tray, but I said nothing, and walked away. There was a remote wing of the cafeteria where students on lunch detention were detained. It was quieter and far more sparsely populated, so I took up a seat at an empty table in the corner there. The teacher on duty came over to tell me I couldn’t sit there, so I flipped her the bird so she’d have a reason to let me stay. She said nothing. No report was made. I ate there the rest of the year. That first day, though, Lask came to sit by me. Or tried to.
“I’m so sorry, Sunflower,” he said, “It will–”
Don’t you dare say it will get better, I snapped at him. You’ve been saying that for three years. There is no better. There’s only worse.
“People are cruel,” Lask replied, “Sometimes children worst of all. You won’t be here for–”
It’s your fault they don’t like me, I retorted. If it weren’t for you, I could be normal. If I hadn’t grown into this thing you’ve made me, I might have some friends, and people wouldn’t hate me so much.
Leave me alone. I didn’t look at him as the tears started to roll down my face.
Lask hesitated, and raised a cautious hand to reach for me, but seemed to think better of it. He looked at me, his eyes doused in sadness, and rose from the table, complying with my request. When he had gone, I stared down at my dome-shaped mashed potatoes, and little pebble-like peas, hating myself and my life.
When I got home to the empty house that evening, I decided I’d had enough. I had no friends, and people only saw me as a freak. My parents were too absorbed in their own struggles to pay much mind to mine, and I took no joy in anything. Even my writing had turned stale. When I went to bed that night, I crept into my parents’ bathroom, and stole the bottle of my mother’s sleeping pills. I locked myself in my room, sat down at my desk under the frail light of a single lamp, and set the bottle in front of me. It was three-quarters full; I thought it should do the trick. It seemed wrong to leave with no goodbye at all, so I took up a sheet of paper, and started to write.
I don’t know why this happened, I wrote. I don’t know why my life has sucked for so long now. I tried to be a good person. I tried to do well in school, and tried to be a good artist. I mostly stay quiet. I try to be nice. I don’t like to be mean. People still hate me. I’m tired of being hated every day. I’m tired of the way people look at me, and only call me Freak like that’s my name. I’m tired of being alone. I’m tired of feeling like this. There’s no reason to keep living in this—
“You know that’s a lie.”
Lask’s voice tolled in the doorway. I grit my teeth and didn’t look up at him. I tried to focus back on my note, but couldn’t seem to get the words back. The pen trembled in my hand.
“There is much for you to live for,” said Lask, “Much life ahead of you, so many people who need you. You may not know them now, you may never know all of their names, but you are needed here, and so am I. Taking yourself out of this world will take me out of it too. I must follow you anywhere, Sunflower, even into death. Is that truly what you want for us?”
I looked up then, and took in the sight of him in the doorway. He stood there, unbruised yet looking as if someone had beaten him. His black clothes no longer seemed sharp and mysterious; they were drab and heavy. His hair looked knotted and unbrushed for days, and he seemed somehow less bright than usual, as if a grey pallor had fallen over his pristine white face. His eyes had lost their usual spark, and seemed no more than embers, like a fire left unattended too long in the cold. The sight of him brought tears to my eyes. How bleak he seemed! What right did I have to snuff out that fire?
I put down the pen and ran to him, throwing myself into his arms. I screamed into his chest, the sobs of many months breaking through me at once. He clutched me to him, bending down to bury his face in my hair, whispering like a prayer, “I’ve got you, Sunflower, I promise.”
When my sobs subsided, I snuck the pill bottle back into the medicine cabinet, and Lask lay awake with me through the night until my resolve to live returned. He said many things to me that night, but one of them continues to echo inside me:
“You have as much right to exist in this world as the rest of them. If you were not needed here, you would not have been placed here. We each have our ripples to make in the world, and as long as you still breathe, you have work left to do. Never let anyone make you doubt that. You are no less than the rest of them. You don’t have to be like them to be worth something, and their opinion of you has no bearing on who you are and what you have to contribute to this world. You are not worthless because someone else fails to recognize your worth. Your life here, each life in this world, changes the world, no matter how large or small that life may be. You are needed, and you are important– if not to them, then to me.”
I looked up at him when he spoke. His voice was quiet and soothing, and the fire was beginning to return to his eyes, warding off the world’s chill as he looked at me.
“Do you not know how much I love you?” he whispered.
“I know,” I replied. “And I love you, whatever it is we are.” I tightened my arms around him, and held tight until the sun came up.
Things got better after that. In a matter of weeks, my grandfather passed on, and my father found a new job. My school still hated me, but I had Lask for company, and I think it puzzled the hell out of my peers how I could seem so at ease in my social exile. Summer came and went, and I started 8th grade. It was not much better than 7th, but I had stopped caring as much. As life began to settle, my parents felt concerned about me. They thought (too late) that I was depressed and maladjusted to social life in human form.
I was toted to the doctor, and given Paxil. It made my already chunky shape balloon with weight, and made me break out in a sweat for three hours every morning. Because that will definitely help me cope better with bullies. I never noticed it making much difference to my mindset, but for the next five years, I popped a little white pill every morning, until I was old enough to flush them and say “no more.”
In addition to medication, my parents sought the advice of the school psychologist. Not an inherently bad idea, but when you consider that my middle school was the oldest and most dilapidated in the county, and attracted only the most burnt out of professionals (except a few rare gems), the type of psychologist likely to be found there, in Stafford County, Virginia, was probably ill-equipped to deal with the likes of me. I resented being sent to him for study, and he did nothing to help his case.
He introduced himself by cornering me by my locker one morning. I knew my mother must have called him.
“I was hoping we could talk sometime,” he said.
“Sure,” I replied, exchanging a dubious glance with Lask, who stood unseen beside me.
“Maybe I’ll catch you later today, then?” asked… let’s call him “Mr. Horang.”
“Sure.” I continued, loading my bag up with the supplies I’d need for my morning.
“I hear you’re good at art,” said the psychologist. “Maybe you could bring some to show me.”
“Sure.” I glanced up, resenting him already, but knowing better than to be obstinate where my mother was concerned.
I expected to be called to Mr. Horang’s office later, perhaps intercepted during a class change, or given a hall pass by one of my teachers. Instead, he knocked on the door in the middle of my geography class, and asked the teacher if he could borrow me. I gave an inward groan. Everyone knew who this bespeckled egghead was; it would no doubt be all over the school in an hour that I’d been sent to the shrink. I wondered what kind of imbecile would come drag a girl out for a psyche exam in front of thirty of her peers. I grumbled in my head to Lask as I gathered my things and trudged to the door, ignoring the muffled snickering and whispering behind me.
Mr. Horang led me down the hall to his office, Lask following like my shadow. The psychologist made small talk as we walked, and I felt faintly ill. He opened the door, and I entered a plain, off-white room with a pressed wood table in the center surrounded by metal folding chairs. There was a cluttered desk off to one side and a window, which opened out to the trash-strewn patch of grass outside just before the woods. There were a few of those motivational posters on the walls; the kind with a bright picture on a black background with a large inspirational word and smaller, cheesy quotes beneath it.
“Have a seat,” said Mr. Horang, motioning at the table.
I sank into one of the cold metal chairs, pulling out another to “hang my bag on” so Lask could sit beside me. I stared across the table at the psychologist. This felt every bit like an enemy for reasons I couldn’t quite peg, and I was still prickling with anger that I had been sent to him at all, and in such a graceless fashion. (I wondered, briefly, if I were feeling Lask’s feelings at the time as well.)
“Do you like personality quizzes?” asked Mr. Horang. “I take the ones online all the time. I think they’re kind of fun.”
I shrugged, wondering how long it would take to get out of this soul-crushing room.
“I have a paper one here. Would you like to take it?”
“You mean you have a diagnostic test for me to take to see if I show signs of a psychological or behavioral disorder?” I said flatly.
Mr. Horang blinked at me with wide fish-like eyes through his silver-rimmed glasses.
“Sure, bring it on,” I muttered, pulling out a pencil.
He handed me the test.
“I’ll just give you a few minutes, then,” he said and shuffled out.
I knew I was being a brat, but didn’t care. The way he treated me, as if acting all chummy would conceal his real job, was infuriating. I inspected the test. I was to rate the following statements as “Always, Sometimes, Rarely, or Never.” The first question read, I hear voices in my head from imaginary people.
I laughed out loud, and tilted the paper for Lask to see. He snorted.
Rarely. I bubbled in the answer. “It’s not really a lie,” I reasoned, “After all, you’re not imaginary… I hope…”
I see magical or mystical reasons behind everyday events, read the next question.
Never, I replied with a crooked smile.
I proceeded through the rest of test, then sat back. “This is bullshit,” I muttered to Lask. “I feel like I just insulted you, but I don’t know why.”
Lask wrapped an arm around my shoulders. “You do what you must to protect me and yourself,” he replied.
“Am I crazy?” I looked up at him. I had never asked that question out loud before.
“Do you think you’re crazy?”
I considered it, looking over his face, feeling the warm strength of his arm around me. “I sure hope not,” I murmured.
Mr. Horang came back, and took a moment to score my test.
“Well,” he said, after adding up some numbers in red pen, “Your scores are pretty normal. You have a few high areas, though. Moderate depression, fairly high anxiety. I talked to your mom. She said you don’t like school.”
“Do you have many friends?”
“Do you feel sad or scared most of the time?”
“Do you feel like you don’t fit in?”
“From what I’ve observed from you,” Mr. Hornung said, “You seem like a very bright young lady. That could be part of the reason; you’re not challenged enough among your peers. It could be in part because of your mannerisms and style of dress.” He made a general gesture that somehow encompassed all of me— from my uncooperative auburn hair, to my red turtleneck with the scroll-patterned collar, black sweater duster, my neat black dress pants, to my knee-high black leather boots. “Kids are shallow about that sort of thing. If you wanted, you could try and blend in a little more, see if that would make things easier.”
I glanced up to the wall and noticed with more than a little irony that one of the motivational posters featured in bold blue letters the word INDIVIDUALITY.
“Or it might also be that you tend to shun social situations and make yourself hard to approach. Maybe try an after school club or intramural. It might connect you with some new friends.”
“Why would I want to spend more time with the people who make my life a living hell?” I inquired. My tone was not vicious, only one of bored resignation. “Nearly every day someone knocks books out of my hands, takes a swing at me, pushes me down the steps, or throws me against a locker and tells me they want some. What do you or anyone else at this school do about it?”
Mr. Horang was struck silent.
“Exactly,” I said. “So no, I don’t want to blend in, because blending in means they win. And no, I don’t want to spend more time with them and get to know them. I know everything I need to know about them.” I stared across the table at him. I know all of them, like you, would betray me if you knew who sits beside me. I didn’t say it. I couldn’t.
“Did you bring any art to show me?” Mr. Horang asked, letting it go.
I handed him my folder of countless doodles, which had accumulated over the school year. He opened it and seemed genuinely impressed.
“These are very good,” he said as he looked through them. He paused to laugh. “I like that one.” He held up a page that showed my dragon character, Scoarin, carefully roasting a marshmallow for General Forge, who was sitting nearby. The psychologist pulled out one of the colored ones, his brow furrowing. “Who is this?” he asked.
He slid the paper across to me and I saw that it was a drawing of Lask. At the time, it was one of my best pictures, though it was simple, showing him standing, looking at something out beyond. I had done a decent job catching his expression, and portraying the dawn light with soft shading.
“It’s exceptional,” said Mr. Horang.
“Quite,” Lask agreed, clapping me on the shoulder, waiting to see how I would respond.
“Who is it?”
I silently cursed myself. I had gone through earlier and removed all (or so I thought) of the drawings of Lask, for fear they would be misinterpreted. Too, I was afraid Mr. Horang might tell my mother, who did not know about my pale, red-eyed friend. For all my careful combing, I had missed one.
“Who is it?” Mr. Horang asked again.
“A character for a story,” I answered, swallowing the lump in my throat, and hating the lies I had to tell.
“The hero.” I didn’t show the cold nail that struck the inside of my chest. Everyone always thought Lask was the villain at first glance. They never saw the kindness in his eyes.
The psychologist’s eyebrows rose and he picked the page up to take a closer look at the drawing. I glanced over at Lask, who tightened his arm around me with a small smile.
“Interesting,” said Mr. Horang. “He’s kind of scary.”
“You’re kind of a pansy,” Lask replied, arching a dangerous eyebrow.
I bit back a laugh, stifling it with a cough. “Yeah,” I said, “He gets that a lot.”
Mr. Horang glanced up, studied me for a moment, then looked back to the drawing. He set it down, and looked through the rest of them. When he was finished, he asked, “May I borrow some of these?”
“You’d get them back. I’d really like a chance to look at them a little more closely.” He drew the folder closer, setting the picture of Lask on top of the pile.
I swallowed, not knowing what to do, but knowing I couldn’t let him take it. Lask spared me the dilemma. He rose out of his chair like a thundercloud, stepped around the table and loomed over the psychologist. Bowing his head, he snarled into the man’s ear,
“You are a disgrace.” Energy seemed to crackle around him. Sparks and wisps of smoke curled from tapered fingertips as he reached out and placed a forefinger on the shrink’s head. “You, who are supposed to help to these children, worsen their situations with your lack of empathy, and fill their hearts with doubt. You are a pathetic excuse for a doctor, and I will not stand for you to make my vessel’s life any more difficult than it already is. You will relinquish that folder this instant.”
Mr. Horang’s brow furrowed. “I suppose I can’t really take anything today without your permission,” he said, but still his hand lingered on the folder.
“NOW!” Lask roared, and I had to grip the cold edge of the chair to keep from starting as a burst of fire sprang from him and washed over the shrink’s face.
Mr. Horang slid the folder back to me. I grabbed it, and stuffed it into my bag before he could change his mind.
“May I go now?” I asked, spooked.
“Yes, it’s time for your next class.”
I gathered my things and scurried for the door. Lask lingered over Mr. Horang, seeming to smolder with silent rage. I cleared my throat, and gave a subtle nod to the door as I shuffled out. Lask straightened, smoothing out a few wrinkles in his coat and regaining his cool mask of poised dignity, and swept out after me like the brisk wind through the courtyard.