Humans of FIU: February 2019

Stephanie Fernandez Feature, Humans of FIU

The following pieces of writing are from Elizabeth Hanly’s course: Creative Non-Fiction.
PART 1

The author of this piece has chosen to remain anonymous. As such, the names in this piece have been changed to protect their privacy.

ARMS
By: Anonymous

I never seem to remember the details. I don’t remember exactly what happens, I don’t remember what leads up to it.

When I was four, I remember walking into my parents’ bedroom and seeing my dad laying on the queen-sized bed, in the fetal position. I went and stood in front of him, the top of my head just level with his. I didn’t understand why he was crying. Dads are not supposed to cry.

“Daddy, Mommy says dinner is ready.”
“I don’t want to see her,” he said, in his then-broken English.
The rest is fuzzy.

         When I was six, I remember the words she yelled to me and my brother, just two small children. She had been fighting with him all day long, and we knew how she got when they fought. So, Andres and I ran to his room and shut the door. We held each other, and hoped it would all stop soon. We heard her footsteps approach.
Tears ran down her face and the veins in her neck bulged. “Fuck both of you!” she yelled.
I did not know what it meant, but I knew it was a bad word. My brother covered his ears with his hands. Later, my dad came in and told us she didn’t mean it, that she was just angry.

“Your mommy loves you,” he said.
The rest is fuzzy.

          When I was ten, I remember sitting in the back of the car as I watched them fight. They stood outside in the parking lot, faces blood red with rage. I don’t remember why they were arguing, but I remember that Andres wasn’t with me this time.

Suddenly, my dad’s hand came up and struck my mom in the face. That had never happened before. I started to cry. They both were frozen in their stance. When they heard me cry, they looked over and my mom ran to the car. She sat in the driver’s seat and started the engine. Through a cracked voice and tears running down her cheek she just kept repeating: It was my fault Gabriella, it was my fault Gabriella, your Papa is not a bad man…”

The rest is fuzzy.

          When I was 13, I was playing video games with Andres in his room. We had heard them start to fight, and we fled to his room, not wanting to get involved and knowing his room was our favorite safe space. They got louder and louder and louder and louder, and soon it was all we could hear. I crept out of Andres’ room and peaked into my parents’ bedroom. My dad was restraining her, bear hugging her on the bed, arms wrapped all around her. She was struggling with all of her strength to break free.

“YOU WILL CALM DOWN BEFORE I LET YOU GO. YOU WILL NOT HURT THEM ANYMORE,” he said.

          His face was determined. I didn’t hear Andres’ come up behind me but suddenly he was pulling me away.

“You don’t need to see this shit,” he mumbled.

          A driving test wasn’t for another week, but he got in the car and drove us to get Dairy Queen anyway. I remember ordering cookie dough.

The rest is fuzzy.

          When I was 16, I drove myself to Baptist hospital. It was Friday night, and I was dressed to go out. I just needed to make a quick stop. I gave my name to the attendant in the psych department, and his computer printed out the little visitor sticker.

“All Baker Act patients are in the visiting room down the hall to the left. Visiting hours end at 9,” he said very matter-of-factly.
I gave him a curt nod.

         I spotted my dad through one of the door windows, looking hollow in the white hospital gown. I entered the room, surrounded by other awkward encounters. He gave me a brief hug, and we sat down across from each other. He wouldn’t make eye contact with me, and I remember wishing that Andres was here too.

My dad interrupted my thoughts. “None of what she said was true Gabriella. I never said I wanted to kill myself. She put me in here as punishment.”

Last Wednesday, she had gotten a call from him at 2 am, and then shortly after she called the police. I remember the sirens wailing next to my bedroom window. I never knew what to believe anymore. I remember wishing I was in there instead of him. When I got to the party later that night, I remember accepting a drink even though I knew I had to drive home.

The rest is fuzzy.
I never seem to remember the details, but I guess they don’t matter.

 


 

KICKBACK

By: Alejandro Arzola

 

 

I never got to see the sun that day.

         It was a lazy day in bed for me that Saturday last Summer. I woke up just to go back to sleep, and when I finally got up at around two in the afternoon, I still had my café con leche, my morning ritual drink that always awaited me on the kitchen counter. I wasted the rest of my daylight hours playing video games until the hours grew closer to the shindig. One of my brothers was picking me up that night to take me over, only a few minutes away from my house was our destination.

He arrived in his car blasting our favorite electronic music, pumping ourselves up for the night that would never be. Locking my front door, I hurried to the car, committing the final phone-keys-wallet check. I stopped almost arm’s distance away from the car and ran back into the house. I had forgotten my Epi-Pen.

If my mom called me that night to check on me she would have ripped me a new one for not having at least three with me. With that, we were finally on our way.

That summer was an active one, always getting together with the boys for some last-minute weekend move. An hour before the festivities started, we arrive and are met by waves of brothers walking in and out of the house. It’s a beautiful machine with all the rigs and cogs rotating with each other in order to perform one main function. It’s amazing what a group of young fraternity men can accomplish when they are all devoted to a Saturday night.

In came a brother handing out a congratulatory and first beer of the night, a dark Brown IPA. This was the kind of beer that tastes bitter, but you finish out of respect for yourself; it’s only one beer. That beer would be my first and last that night. Little did I know, there was a silent clock no one could see starting its countdown. 15 minutes.

I found myself walking around the house aimlessly, trying to understand how I could have gotten so intoxicated from just one beer. I was sweating up a storm and breathing a little hard, probably from the constant movement. My face began to take on a red tone, along with the inner parts of my arms. 12 minutes.

I could not stop biting my upper lip and my eyes became just as irritated. I was beginning to scratch at the front of my neck, passing the hives up and down that were forming. That beer had to have had like 30% alcohol or something. 9 minutes.

I step outside to talk to some brothers I had not seen since the summer had started. It was always great to catch up with the guys, you never really see them all during the year like you would others. 6 minutes.

Nothing would come through, not even spit. In the middle of a breath, my throat shut. No words came out of my mouth and no oxygen went in. I reversed the breath and could gain back just enough life. 3 minutes.

Stabbing myself without warning probably was not the best idea, but it was all I could think of once I stopped breathing. That bought me some time for paramedics to arrive. How could I be so stupid? What the hell did I have that has me feeling like this? I didn’t kiss anyone, it was too early for that, I hadn’t shared a drink with anyone, I don’t see what it could have been.

The ambulance was called and was set to arrive in about 7 minutes. I’ve stared at the sky and watched the clouds pass, seen the breeze blow through the trees, witnessed the stars twinkle in the night sky, but time has never passed so significantly until that very moment. What could I do? What was there to think about? I was dying, simple as that. With every breath in, what came out did not match up. Intervals in those breaths became shorter, until I began to hyperventilate. 7 minutes until the ambulance came.

The sky was not black that night. It had a color to it, too faint to recognize, but something was there besides the Sun’s afterglow. Maybe that was just my blank stare. I couldn’t hear my friends around me. I couldn’t feel their warm hands on my quaking chest. All I could hear were the leaves rolling on the road with the wind. A cold hand of air slowly gripping around my throat. 3 minutes…

Place yourself at the bottom of a decently deep pool. Now begin making your way back to the top. You press off the floor with your feet, but the top doesn’t get any closer. You start kicking and clawing at the water in your way, only moving inches at a time towards the surface. To see the surface, visibly identify, realize you’re losing breathe, and barely reaching the frontier of air and water even when you can see it a mere few feet away from you, it hurts.

The ambulance lights started highlighting the black sky and the clock’s wheezing synced in tune to the sirens. 1 minute.

 


 

THE TALL BOY

By: Cinthya Gomez

 

 

Passing through the never-ending hallway leading us to the cafeteria, I talked to Lis about the latest drama. The cafeteria was packed, but we found the only empty table and it was right in front of a group of cute boys. Perfect.

That’s when I laid eyes on him.

There were about ten boys in that table. But he stood up to get his food precisely at the same second I was looking his direction. My goodness, he was tall! He was wearing a white V-neck and black jeans. Granted, that’s the typical college boy outfit. But with those long legs of his, there no comparison.

“Uh, what are you looking at?” Lis asked.

That’s when I realized my mouth was slightly open, I was so focused on him that words did not seem to form in my mouth.

So she followed the direction of my eyes and said, “Ew, that ugly guy?”

I was so offended. How dare she say that beautiful creation of god was ugly. I mean, did she not see how tall he was?

“Lis, shut up. Look how cute he is, just walking over there.”

She disagreed and continued blabbing on about her ex-boyfriend. I watched him walk away from the cafeteria, and subsequently, my life. Because this school is so big that I will probably never see a guy that tall again.

But I saw the same guy with the long legs every single day in the cafeteria at 12:00 PM sharp. I didn’t even know his name but he was all I could think about in class. And lunch time used to be my favorite time of the day because I love food, but I didn’t even care about eating anymore. I just needed to see him, and for him to finally see me.

“Oh my god, he’s sitting with our friend Danny, we should go say hi!”

“Lis no, I didn’t even put mascara on today, I can’t…”

“Girl, you look fine this is your only chance LET’S GO!”

She took my hand and dragged me to their table. We both said hi to Danny, our friend from high school. Then I turned to look at Mr. Long Legs, who had stood up to greet us.

“Andrew, nice to meet you,” he said while bending his head politely to give me a kiss on the cheek. I had to stand on my tippy toes to be able to receive his gentle kiss on the cheek, and I loved it. This was a Hispanic tradition, so I didn’t think much of it.

Danny asked us if we wanted to sit with them, and without a doubt we accepted his offer. It started off with small talk about our majors and school stuff.

I had one questionin mind. But I knew I couldn’t just randomly ask, because I’ll seem like a weirdo. So I went with the flow, making eye contact with Andrew everytime he spoke. Until Danny was telling a story about the way Andrew drives. Apparently he has to drive with the seat all the way back because his knees touched the wheel.

So I went for it.

“Wow, so how tall are you?” I asked with my elbow on the table, propping up my chin.

“6 foot 3,” he said proudly.

My attraction towards him increased by a thousand. Those numbers repeated in my head, everytime making my heart beat faster and faster.

I kept my composure, and smiled at him, trying to make it the least awkward smile possible. Because I was trying to hold myself back from jumping on top of him. I guess I like tall boys…

 


PLANTAIN CHIPS

By: Genevieve Ardila

When I opened the heavy door to walk outside, he was standing right there. Lately, he’s always been right there. Since my best friend’s pool party, he’s been right there, in my messages and in my walks to class. I smiled and watched him stuff his hands into his oversized hoodie.

He walked over just to brush past me and sit on the table to my left. I acted blind to his presence most of the time, too shy to do anything about it and busy ignoring my friend’s constant nudges and raised eyebrows. I sat down next to him but on the opposite corner of the seat, rummaging through my bookbag since I couldn’t think of anything cool to say.

“You’re really going to do homework right now? School just ended like ten minutes ago.”

He pulled the bag away from me and in doing so moved closer. I was basically one buttcheek off         the seat by now.

“Well it’s better than doing nothing,” I replied. “My phone’s almost dead.”

“Then let’s do something, let’s get food.”

I don’t know what possessed me, but I managed to say nonchalantly, “Sure.”

The street’s stoplight was still yellow when he started walking. “I don’t like crossing streets until it’s red,” I pouted once we reached the other side of the sidewalk.

“Well it sounds to me like you’re just a scaredy cat.”

Insulted, I blurted, “I am not!

I could already read the situation; he was going to tell me to prove it. I wasn’t even close to ready for that.

Panicked, I changed the subject quickly asking if we could go to Publix instead of Subway. He looked confused but agreed, and we walked the rest of the way with small talk and slight blushes.

He bought me a bag of plantain chips and shrimp tempura, and I couldn’t be happier; I was craving them since lunchtime. We sat in a table by the deli, and he watched me struggle to open the bag.

“This would feel better if you were eating something too,” I joked.

“I’m not hungry,” he replied.

He’s never hungry, not when he bought me and my friend food last week and not now. I took out some homework and pretended to be reading it while I munched on the bright yellow chips. He was fidgeting with his phone every so often looking up at me, and I refused to look back.

Then, slowly he reached for my free hand, the one that wasn’t grabbing chips. He held my thumb between his fingers softly pulling the rest of my fingers along.

I felt my face growing hot. I laughed softly out of anxiousness and began stuffing even more chips in my mouth. I was intensely focused on staring at the crumpled yellow bag and not at his brown eyes. Those stupid brown eyes that reminded me of freshly turned earth after rain. My favorite type of weather.

My thoughts were interrupted when suddenly, he leaned in, his lips touching mine. I couldn’t kiss back, I had a mouthful of chips filling my mouth. I was frozen, not knowing what to do.  My jaw clenched involuntarily and the crunch of those banana chips was so loud I felt the whole grocery could hear.

He hears it too, opens his eyes and pulls away hurriedly, I was shocked to see that his face was redder than mine felt like it was.

We both laughed, looking down at our laps. After what felt like an eternity, I swallowed and said, “You caught me off guard, dude.”

“I was too nervous to look before I did anything,” he mumbled, and I realized my hand was still in his.

I met his eyes. “Well, next time make sure I don’t have food in my mouth.”

“Got it,” he smiled. “Next time.”

 


 

EXTREMELY AND UNNECESSARILY LONG HANDS 

By: Rachel Rangel Paradela

“Anita, you need to wear that green Roots sweater with the black Roots sweatpants one day. I swear it’s the comfiest outfit in the world. And with Converse, don’t forget the Converse,” I type in all capitals and send this message to my best friend.

“Rachel… you have to be kidding,” she answered immediately. “That’s exactly what I’m wearing to school today.”

I burst out laughing; she must be joking.

But two minutes later, I am dropped off and running to meet her in the courtyard. Standing facing each other was like looking in a mirror, we seemed like fools because twin day was eight weeks ago, and Anita and I were wearing the exact same outfit. People walked by and laughed, thinking it was stupid and why would we plan to wear the same thing, but I didn’t care, and neither did she. To me, to us, this was hilarious.

We spent the rest of the day discussing some ways that we could be related. That science had failed and somehow Anita and I were actually sisters. We ignored the fact that her skin, hair and eyes were all much darker than mine. That she was from Sri Lanka, and I from Cuba. That she had skinny features and I did not.

And instead, we focused on everything that made us feel related. How we both had extremely and unnecessarily long hands that we complained about all the time. Those hands had survived two different kinds of hell, in two opposite countries, yet they were hands that shared too many similarities. How we agreed on almost everything, from best music, to the “must watch” shows, to the cutest boys and the yummiest foods. Except spicy foods which she loved, and I could not stand. For the rest of the day, this was all we talked about.

For five years, we were inseparable. Unlike most girls our age, we never argued and always had the best time together. She was the person I could share complete silence with for hours and not feel uncomfortable. The one I would call when things were hard at home and her words were the only ones that could save me.

At the same time, I was the one that knew all her secrets. The one who couldn’t understand her insecurities because they were all things I admired so much about her but still knew what to say to calm her down. Anita was not my first friend, but she was the first and only person that ever felt like family I had chosen.

#

I have the phone of the boy I love in my hands. My fingers are uncontrollably shaking as my mind works to put together the words I am reading from his screen. My chest is a heavy weight sinking me down to the ground. My body feels like I am about to drown.

“I love you baby, today was amazing, and I can’t wait to see you tomorrow,” he said to her words I thought he had only said to me.

“I love you too,” she said. Anita said these words back to him.

His phone slips through my fingers and hits the ground. I can’t bring myself to look up, so I stare down at my extremely and unnecessarily long hands, naked and alone and thinking of the hell they are about to go through.

 


 

PART 2

AN AMÉRICAINE

By: Diana Vazquez

Listen carefully, ma cherié. I have a story for you.

        Long, long time ago, after the second world war, I was a young girl, juste comme toi. I had a bike. It was my best friend. I lived in an apartment building, in which all the young people were friends. We had known each other since we had moved in, as kids chasing each other in the streets.

After the war and we had a little bit of money to spend, we went out to dance. We went from floor to floor of our building, gathering friends along the way to head out. Whenever we went out in groups, we just took the métro to the clubs in a big group. One night we walked to L’Orange.

There it was. A neon orange glow amongst the black sky. It smelled like dew and alcohol, a stench that made me turn away. I didn’t go to drink.

I went to dance.

Our faces were illuminated by the orange light as we waited to go into the club.  Cigarette smoke framed the entrance. The band vibrated inside the masonry walls. There was a bar at the end on the club, in which an auburn light showcased all the liquor and wine. Again, clouds of smoke rose to the ceiling and were immediately dispersed by the movement on the dance floor. There were couples throwing each other from side to side like two tornadoes on par. Some couples were holding each other tight as their feet did the talking. Some tangled around each other like two velvet knots.

All my friends could dance, even the boys. Not like now, I bet your boyfriends can’t dance. I was a tremendous dancer. Cha-cha, swing, mambo…

        Alors, there was the most delicious man staring at me from the bar. His posture was that of a brick house but, inside he appeared soft like the touch of a fleece jacket in the winter. My friends had gone over to get some drinks. They exchanged a couple of words with him and walked back to our table. “He is an Américaine soldier. He’s been watching you dance. He wants to dance with you.”

        An Americaine? He was going to have to come over and tell me himself.

        Alors, he did.

His name was Charles. He didn’t direct a word to me. One would say he was more interested in my friends than me. I finally grew fed up with it and got up from the table when I felt his hands wrap around my hand.

This poor man didn’t know his left foot from his right foot. He didn’t have any sense of agility or direction. Americans may know a lot about wars and cars but, they certainly cannot dance for their lives. Charles couldn’t feel the rhythm and we’d clash when we moved because of his lack of coordination. He was a hopeless mess.

I always said I would never, ever, marry a man that couldn’t dance.

Yet, there we were and here I am.

Now I am in America. My Charlie died. My only remaining son moved with his wife to Tampa. I can’t dance or ride my bike. Not because I don’t want to, my body just can’t. In Paris, I biked everywhere, no need for car. In America, everything is car, car, car. Without my bike, I don’t know what to do.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

THE TIME MY BOARD BROKE

By: Astor Pineda

        Brrt brrt. I recognized those vibrations. They were specific, for her. I looked at my phone screen, “They’re leaving in fifteen minutes, you can come after that.”

My heartbeat was racing, Serguey looked at me and immediately could tell exactly what she had texted me. “So when are you gonna ride out?”

“Probably in like, ten,” I responded.

Knots began forming in my stomach, I always feel nervous whenever I do things like this. Always hiding and sneaking away from her parents. It wasn’t the most pleasant feeling in the world but it didn’t bother me too much. I had grown accustomed to hiding from them.

I checked the time. Six minutes had passed. I started to pack my things into my black Jansport, picked up my orange nickel board and made my way to the exit in Serguey’s backyard. As the back gate creaked open Serguey told me “Be safe.”

I smiled and replied, “Of course papo.” Then I made my way to her house.

The ride to my girlfriend’s house wasn’t a long one, just skate down 88th and make a left at the third stoplight. I’ve done it many times before, it was simple.

As the wind gently blew past my ears I noticed the sky, it was crimson with splashes of purple as the sun began to set. The grass dancing the merengue as the wind blew it back and forth. I kicked and kicked, noticing just how empty the streets were. After a few minutes, I decided to move onto the street looking back to see if any cars were within eyeshot. Nothing. Riding on the street was always better than the sidewalk, it didn’t have those annoying cracks every half a foot that slowed you down.

Riding on the smooth black tarmac roads was therapeutic, weaving in and out of the lanes while squatting down and lightly pressing my hand against the floor. As I propelled myself harder and harder, I noticed that the light had turned green; a hoard of cars were coming right at me. I didn’t panic, I mean what were they going to do? Hit me? I moved towards the sidewalk and popped an ollie to clear the small jump. Positioning my feet near the tail of the board, popping it up, and sliding my right foot across the deck to obtain that perfect air. I knew all of the steps, but something different happened this time. As my foot slid across the deck my shoelace got caught in between the trucks and the wheels.

The nose of my board crashed against the curb and I slipped off and slammed onto the sidewalk. Groaning in embarrassment, I checked to make sure that I wasn’t bleeding. I was fine, just a couple of scratches but nothing too major.

A few moments passed when it hit me, “My board!”

It had rolled back into the street littered with cars, each one strong enough to destroy my small and fragile board. I sprung to my feet and looked at it rolling slowly and smoothly away from me. I had just put in new bearings.

The cars were too close now, I couldn’t jump in the middle of the street and save the day, I’d put myself in danger. But that board was such a major part of my life, I didn’t want to see it destroyed. I couldn’t do anything, with my feet glued to the cement, all I could do was watch the board nonchalantly cruise through the intersection.

The board successfully evaded one car and the optimism set in, “It’ll be ok, nothing is going to happen…”

In the blink of an eye it happened.

A car came in speeding, going as fast as light or so it seemed. As soon as it came in contact with my board, the weight of the car was too much for it to bear. It started to bend, and bend, then in a split second, crack.

My heart had shattered, broken to pieces, staring at my board fly in the air like a ragdoll. I watched chunks of my board fly through the air, zipping past my broken, defeated face. Time slowed as I fixed my gaze on the two halves of my deck. One half of the deck landed next to me, tumbling and rolling on the dirt before finally making a stop at my tattered shoes, the other half in the median.

I was speechless. I wanted to scream and yell but my voice had gone. Sadly, I waited for the traffic to subside. Then I slowly walked over to the median where the lower half laid on the dried out grass. I picked it up not wanting to believe what had just occurred.

Staring at the two pieces in my hand. I tried to connect the two ends back together like puzzle pieces, but they simply fell apart again.

I put the board down and tried to ride it like rollerblades. I told myself, “It still works, it isn’t broken, I can still ride.” Trying to figure out a way to get on and move frustrated me, I couldn’t do anything. I yelled in anger staring at the broken board, not caring if the neighbors heard my shouts of pain.

The lovely crimson sky had turned grey and the pink hibiscuses looked dull.

As I arrived at my girlfriend’s doorstep I threw the board on the patch of grass in front of her house and rang the doorbell. She opened the door and I calmly walked to her bedroom. I laid on the bed facing the wall with somber eyes. I had snapped inside, broken in two and unable to be put back together.

“Is something wrong baby?” She asked.

“My board died and so did I.”

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The author of this piece has chosen to remain anonymous. As such, the names in this piece have been changed to protect their privacy.

FIRE

By: Anonymous

“Hailey, wake up!” The sound of my best friend Megan screaming in my ear was enough to do the trick. I jolted upright and noticed the streetlight pouring into my window. I turn over and see my alarm blaring 3 am in big red block letters. Megan grabs the back of my shirt and turns me to face her.

“Do you smell that?” She points toward the door and sniffs the air. I start to inhale and immediately freeze.

Black smoke was seeping through the door’s edges, filling the room with haze that lingered in the air- blocking our vision and clogging our senses. I jumped out of bed and ran to the door, with Megan following behind. The smoke poured in thick as the door opened, revealing the horrible scent of burning food and plastic.

Megan grabbed my hand and pulled me to the kitchen. The hallway seemed to lengthen with each step and the smoke scorched our lungs with each inhale. We turned the corner and stepped into the kitchen, and there she was. My mother was lying face down on the tile floor in front of the white stove that was engulfed in flames. Megan pointed to the bottle of Captain Morgan laying inches from her hands.

“I didn’t even notice that she was drinking tonight.” She turned to me, face red and full of disappointment.

“Just try to get her away from the stove.” I spit the words out, my breath as hot as the air around me.

Megan grabbed her hands and legs and tried to drag her away from the fire while I grabbed anything in my reach to stop the flames. It was no use. The fire was growing taller and taller, nearing the ceiling as black ash covered the white paint. I heard something move inside the oven.

“We have to go, this shit is going to explode! Wake her up, I have to go get Brandon!” I screamed behind me as I ran down the hall to my mother’s bedroom where my baby brother laid sleeping on the bed. I picked him up and smothered him in the blankets from the bed, trying to protect his tiny ears and nose. I ran down the hallway and turned into the living room, choking as my lungs gasped for air. I threw open the front door and rushed next door to my grandpa’s, banging on the door leaving my little brother in a pile of blankets where my grandpa will see him.

I rush back into the smoke and find Megan by her side, “She won’t wake up, I don’t know what else to do. I’m sorry.”

Her hand slowly started to raise and I understood. She propelled her arm forward, her built up adrenaline encouraged her momentum. Her palm landed hard on my mom’s face. SLAP!

My mom grabbed her cheek as the blood rushed to her head, and she jolted awake. Dazed she looked up at me and then at the fire she caused. Although still drunk, she seemed to go into survival mode and ran out the front door, stumbling the whole way. We followed behind and fell onto the porch, pulling the front door shut behind us.

“Where’s Brandon?” My mother seemed to remember that she had two children, and only I was accounted for. I pointed behind her, to my grandfather standing barefoot on his porch holding my little brother, who was angrily glaring her way.

The sirens wailing in the distance got closer and closing before finally pulling into my driveway. The firemen jumped out and ran inside to stop the flames while the police started to ask questions. I turned, waiting for my mom to explain what she had done.

She smiled at the policeman and pushed her hair behind her ear, laughing as the lie oozed from her lips, “Sorry officer, my daughter and her friend tried cooking while I was asleep and somehow caught the whole kitchen on fire.”

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

SMILING

By: Sophia Tirado

        Prologue.

I had discarded my childhood innocence early on.

“Sophia?” those boys would say to anyone who asked. Ugly boys, all teeth to wide for their mouths and egos too big for their bodies. “No one talks to her. No one’s friends with her.” And they would laugh.

The few friends I had stopping sitting next to me at lunch, starting sitting with those other girls with snake’s tongues and devil eyes. “She’s weird. No one likes her.” They would exchange numbers on their Motorolas, invite each other to countless unknowable parties, and they would laugh.

The laughter. Ringing in my ears, grating like a spoon scraped too harshly against the porcelain of a bowl. These children were like Play-Doh, easy to control; all it takes it one popular kid to say something about one new girl.

Brian, his name was. He decided the new girl was an outsider. A menace. He told everyone to stay away and that was what they did.

The teachers all knew. They looked away as no one would sit next to me during class, as no one would play with me during recess, as no one would pair up with me for a project. And yet, they did nothing.

Years passed, new people started to arrive in our gifted program. New friends, I thought. But Brian and his cronies quickly informed them of my status here in the class. And soon enough, they joined the other crowd.

Years passed, and I was alone. Others might have been targeted as well, but even they wouldn’t be friends with me. It didn’t matter.

Years passed, and I waited.

It was rainy today. So rainy that we had to spend recess indoors.

Mrs. Mesana was out. Said she needed to talk to the other gifted teachers about homework or tests or something. So, the other kids frolicked and climbed on desks and shrieked as they talked. I sat by myself, in a corner close to the classroom door.

I heard laughter. But it wasn’t the good kind.

“Hey!” That voice, like nails. “Everyone! Pay attention!”

And everyone gathered around him, like he was a messiah. I dared to look.

Brian was sitting on a desk on the other side of the room, holding up a piece of paper in his hand. There was something written on it, but it only took up half the page. He smiled like maybe a spider might when it contemplates its prey. “If you sign this letter, you agree that Anthony—” he pointed to a small boy, sitting in the back of the room. He then made a shrinking gesture with his hand, “—is a weak stupid-face has a small you-know-what!”

And the class exploded with laughter. Almost every single one of those kids. Kids who were lauded as sweet little angels by all the adults they knew.

Anthony had come into the program in 3rdgrade. He and I weren’t really friends, even though he tried to be mine in the 4thgrade when he started getting bullied. But I remember the way he bandwagoned with Brian and the rest of them the year before. I always remembered.

And one by one, they started up their mocking song and passed around the paper and a pen no doubt stolen from Mrs. Mesana’s desk.

Brian tried to get a kid named Ganesh to sign it. Ganesh was a good kid. He would not.

“I’ll just leave it here, then,” Brian laughed, “In case you change your mind.”

And he walked away, to go hang out with Matthew and Camilo and the rest of his stupid friends. The others gathered in clumps around them, jeering at Anthony. Leaving me to my own devices.

And there was the letter, lying unguarded next to Ganesh.

“Hey,” I said to him, “could I borrow that?”

He looked at me funny. I didn’t care. “Sure.”

The letter was vulgar, to say the least. Sentence after sentence of profanity after profanity. The words had the same foul feeling as a little kid might have when they’re tearing off the wings of a butterfly.

Children are such vile little monsters. I can’t wait until I grow up so can stop being around them, and stop being one. I can’t wait until I grow up so I can finally be free.

I smiled like a spider might when she contemplates her prey wrapped up tight in her silk as I silently pocketed the letter.

Mrs. Mesana came back a little bit after. She taught her class, I paid attention. She was the second to last class of the day.

Sooner rather than later, it was time for Mrs. Figeroa’s science class. The class lined up. I saw Brian out of the corner of my eye, talking to Ganesh.

“Where’s the letter now?” he asked. My heart was in my throat.

“I— I gave it to Ahmed,” he replied. “He’s going to sign it next class and give it back to you.”

A good boy Ganesh definetly was.

I stayed behind; waited until everyone was gone. I walked up to the teacher, “Mrs. Mesana?”

“Yes, Sophia?”

“I want to report a bully,” I said, taking the letter out of my pocket. “I saw Brian handing this around to people, and they would sign it if they agreed with what it said.”

Mrs. Mesana opened it with her liver-spotted hands. Her dark eyes ran over the text, widening with every word she read. “You said Brian wrote this?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll get the other teachers immediately,” she started for the door, and I followed; I needed to get to Mrs. Figeroa’s class. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

I sat down in my usual spot in science class. The feeling in my heart was something deep and bubbling, like a pot of boiling water. My fingers shook from the excitement. My lips could hardly contain the smirk that spit my face in two.

“Why are you smiling?” A boy named Gabriel ask. Gabriel has always been kind to me. He did not sign the letter.

“You’ll see,” was all I said.

A few minutes after that, Mrs. Campanioni the reading teacher and Mrs. Mesana came through the door. Mrs. Campi, usually a jolly woman, was red-faced and furious. She held the letter in her hands.

I turned to look at Brian. He looked pale, like a ghost. He looked a like a scared little baby looking for his mommy. I wouldn’t forget that face.

“Brian Lozano and the following people,” she read out the list who had signed the letter, “come with us immediately.”

“What seems to be the issue?” Mrs. Figueroa asked.

“This letter was circulating during recess. It is the nastiest thing I have ever read,” Mrs. Campi said. “Do you kids understand how serious this is? This is bullying!”

Yeah. Yeah it was, wasn’t it?

Mrs. Fig extended a willowy arm, opened the letter, read it. Her face, usually placid, became wide and astonished.

“You are all going to the office right now.” Mrs. Mesana said.

No one moved. No one said a word.

Right now. All of you who signed the letter.

And just like that, a line was formed, and the three teachers left the classroom. Me and the other five kids who remained had only a few seconds alone before a security guard came to watch over us.

Gabriel looked to me. “What did you do?”

I only smiled and kept working on my worksheet.

The next day, I came to class but no one was there except for the five that didn’t go to the office.

During lunch was when I saw my classmates again: wearing yellow rubber gloves, holding spray bottles, and waiting with the rolling trash bins for us to arrive.

“Here Matthew,” I said giving him my empty juice box as he passed by. “Throw this away for me.”

And he had no choice but to do it. I laughed as he scowled and put it in the garbage, and I laughed as he rolled away to the next table.

“Hey, so I heard all the people who signed it got five days indoor suspension,” Gabriel said to me during computer class. “And I heard that Brian got expelled.”

Expelled? This was better than I could have imagined. My face lit up, smiling in unbridled joy, “Really?”

“Yeah. I heard from Andy that the letter was so terrible and had so many bad words that the principal not only gave him a referral, but expelled him too! I heard his mom is putting him in Shenandoah Middle.”

There it was again: my laughter. Laughter well-deserved.

“Good for you, Sophie,” he said.

When Mrs. Mesana came to pick the six of us up to walk in line to her class, she pulled me aside.

“Sophia,” she said, “Eso no fue bueno, lo que tú hicistes. Revenge isn’t good a thing.”

I couldn’t say anything back at her, even though I wanted to. I simply nodded and got back in line.

In my head, I was thinking: How dareshe say that to me. She ignored all the times I was mistreated, shunned, bullied. She and the rest of those teachers didn’t lift a finger. And then she has the gall to come up to me and say things like “revenge isn’t a good thing?”

Revenge felt good. It felt better than anything else I’ve ever felt. It felt good to see all those people that tormented me for as long as I’d been in this school cleaning up after me. It felt good to see all the scowls, all the tears. It felt good to sit in a nearly-empty classroom, knowing it was like that because of me. It felt good to know that Brian would have a permanent referral on his record, that his parents probably grounded him, and that he was going to a school where he would be the new kid. Maybe someone bigger and stronger than him would bully him, and then he’d get a taste of his own medicine.

But most of all, it felt good to give evil people what they deserve.

My dad always tells me that it’s good to forgive one another and that God forgives all his children, but I’m not God.

I’m me. I never forgive and I never forget.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

TREADMILL

By: Jessica Irarragorri

Age: 20

Weight: 170

Running speed: 7.0

Walking speed: 2.8

        And press start to begin.

Left foot, right foot. Its speeding up, I start walking at 2.8 miles while a remix of “happier” by marshmallow plays on the headphones. I play the music louder. Louder until I cannot hear myself think.

        Speed will increase in 3, 2, 1.

Now running. Running at a treadmill as if I was running from my problems. Left foot, right foot, my legs are barely catching up when all the thoughts come up. Guess the music wasn’t loud enough. My heart feels heavy, heavy like hurting. What’s wrong? Keep running. Keep running. 40 more seconds.

And the weight of the world falls on my heart. I cannot come to admit what is wrong. 20 more seconds of running. And then I say it, I finally admit it, I’m not okay. I’m not happy. I haven’t been happy for a while. But what is happy, if you ask anyone is a generic construct. But how do I explain to a sane person what I feel? Thoughts go ballistic. Self-conscious about the way the voices come and attack, not knowing how to shut them up. My feet cannot keep up. I haven’t been happy.

        Changing speed in 3, 2, 1.

Back to 2.8 on the treadmill. Walk it off Jess.

Happier replays on the headphones, I cut it off and look for “Mockingbird” by Eminem the walking interval is coming to an end, a minute sure does go by faster than you think.

Time to start running…

I feel my heart coming out my chest. Off course Jessica, you’re running. Then the thoughts creep in. How I have to admit what my new reality is, being all bubbly to those that see me while still having a sad heart. Pleasing all those around me while trying to figure out what to do with myself. But it is okay, I can wait. I always wait.

I feel like I don’t know how to be. I don’t feel like the happy-go-luck Jess anymore. I feel like I’m pretending now. I feel like I’m drowning in my own head. But whatever, I’m no one special so who cares about it. I am slowly dying off and I hate how I feel. I hate how I cannot control it.

You do have those that say to talk to them, but I cannot. Somehow it feels selfish. But I’m not selfish. Or I try not to be, the thoughts are speeding up, faster than the treadmill now. But am I selfish? I missed my sister’s wedding for a trip.

I cannot control the speed; my ankle wants to give out. I push harder, only 10 more seconds of the running interval, 6, 5, 4 and then BOOM.

My back hits the wall, I got thrown off the treadmill. I gasp for air. I struggle.

“Are you okay?”

“What happened?”

Within seconds, staff gather around me. I nod with a smile and politely excuse myself. Walking towards the locker room, drops begin to form. I go to the bathroom and let out a small cry for help. Who will listen? I start grabbing at a roll from my belly under my Superman shirt, grabbing and tugging, just to feel something else. Breathe Jess. I tug harder. I feel my nails digging into my skin.  How can I not? I don’t cut myself, but I do speed down the road. I don’t take pills, but I do hurt myself, one way or another. Hell, I hide in small spaces to feel tight. To feel tight to match the compression and the tightness of my heart. To feel small and like I can get away. It is safe to admit I am not okay.

I know I am not okay, but will anybody else ever figure it out? Will I ever just be able to stop hiding in my closet. Will I ever just stop screaming in my car and hitting the steering wheel with bare hands.

I wash my face, grab my keys and water bottle. Say my night greetings to the front desk individual with a smile.