Warning: Foul language. Moderate violence. Pictures may take a while to load.
That’s what most people call me. They whisper behind my back. Whispering behind their hands, as if they can hide their shameless stares, their fascination with not me, but what’s left of me. They giggle and snicker and jeer, but with a nervousness in their laughter, like they are worried I might turn around and speak to them, become something much more real than the freak on the sidewalk. I never do.
Because I don’t give a crap.
I’ve learnt that most people will look away if I look back at them. Funny, how that works. They have no problem gaping or even laughing at me until I face them. Then they realize that I may just possibly be a real person. People are so ignorant that sometimes I think that even if I was beautiful, I would still have no friends.
Oh, Cherry dear, you would have been so beautiful if not for the fire! is what my relatives like to say whenever they see me. They would give me a tiny shake of their head and a sad, searching look, as if imagining a laughing, unblemished, whole me in my footprints. Well, excuse me. That Cherry doesn’t exist. I’m here and I’m standing here and I’m listening to your half-arse attempt to cover up the fact that you wish That Cherry exists instead of me. Thank you so much for your damn consideration. I don’t need it.
I can only stand it when my Mom does it, but only because I think she got the worst of the fire, even though she wasn’t physically touched by the flames. I have faint memories of a playful, kind Mom whose violet eyes sparkled whenever she saw her children. She used to wear this funny purple panda pompom hat over her dark hair, one that I liked to play with as a toddler. She would give us all hugs and smile at us when we told her about the adventure we had in the garden. I remember the soft wool of her sweater that smelled of lavender, how I loved all the stories she told me about vampires and werewolves and fairies, how I was always her favorite even though she tried to be fair to all of us, because I was the sweetest and the quietest.
That Mom and That Cherry are both gone now.
You can tell by just looking at her that Mom is a police officer. The boss, in fact, with her hair pinned up into a stern bun, a crisp white blouse tucked into slim trousers and boots. Her eyes are steely. Before the fire you would never imagine her at home as the head of Sunset Valley Law Enforcement. Now… it’s like the invisible wall between her career and her house has melted. Years of anger and work stress have hardened her. Or maybe the fire was a breaking point. Either way, she never smiles anymore.
The rest of my family weren’t hit so hard, but I can see that Dad is always worrying about Mom. He jokes and laughs with us teenagers still, but his eyes — intense blue like mine — always has this sadness in them whenever he’s with Mom. They used to laugh together like kids all the time, and now they’ve both grown up, lines gathering around their eyes and lips, Dad’s hair back to his natural brown. He told me once in secret that he had dyed his hair black and purple back when he was a teenager, because they were Mom’s favorite colors and he was already in love with her even if she didn’t know it.
Right now, here in our kitchen, they are holding hands. Watching the sunrise. I know their love for each other hasn’t died, even in Mom’s change. It’s matured, I suppose. I find that comforting in a way, knowing that the fire hasn’t completely torn our family apart.
“Move it,” My sister, Cara, snaps from behind me. I shift away from the staircase and she sweeps past me, her blonde curls swishing in her godforsaken wake. She’s always this rude to me. I don’t think she’s called me by my name for years. Whatever. I don’t care.
My other sister, Cinna, slides down the banister and passes me without a word. That’s not surprising, either. Except she’s even more cold to our parents and downright rude to Cara. She likes to piss her off by doing the exact things Cara orders her not to do. Sometimes I wonder if Cara hates me or Cinna more, the freak or the rebel. We are both bad names to her precious, darling, ever-so-important reputation as the school queen bee.
To think we used to be so close…
Dad looks around as we enter the room, his worn jeans and hip waistcoat strange next to Mom, who as always, looks like she’s about to leave for work. “Can you believe our babies are eleventh graders now, Briar?” He exclaims, a goofy grin dancing on his face. Mom’s distant expression softens a little, and a hint of a smile flits across her lilac eyes.
“I’ll make pancakes to celebrate, shall I?” She says crisply. Cinna and I exchange raised eyebrows. This is a rare thing, for Mom to do. Better enjoy it. While we can.
The sizzle of blueberry pancakes fills the morning air, and I pour myself a mug of coffee. I watch my sisters as they do their usual before-the-first-day-of-school things. Cinna is chewing on spearmint gum; her kohl-lined eyes are lazy, and as always, her boots are propped on the table.
On the other side of me, Cara is fluffing up her hair in the back of a rather ugly old teaspoon. The silence between us is a little unnerving considering we are sisters, but I like it this way. Unless I have something to say.
“The mirror not ugly enough for you?” I ask over the edge of my mug, breathing in the rich scent of coffee beans. “Do you want to use your personality next?” There’s a little pause, in which Cinna snorts loudly. Cara slowly puts her spoon down then discreetly pulls the finger at me from under the table.
“Don’t you ever pull the gesture again, young lady,” Mom says sharply, sliding a stack of pancakes onto my plate at the same time. “Here you go, Cherry.” Her voice softens and I see Cara throw me a venomous and jealous look. When Mom isn’t watching, I cross my eyes slightly and poke my tongue out at my sister, who takes a dignified sip of her soy latte; meaning, revenge later.
“Cinnamon, how many times have I told you not to put your shoes on the table?” Mom snaps, snatching a cloth from the kitchen. Cinna swings her boots off the table with a subtle roll of her eyes.
“Sorry,” She mutters as Mom vigorously scrubs at the table top. I bite my lip, trying not to laugh, as I drizzle maple syrup over my pancakes and take a tiny bite. They are good pancakes. Dad makes appreciative sounds as he pops great forkfuls of the stuff into his mouth. “These are top-notch, Briar!” He says cheerfully. Mom simply nods, but you have to give it to Dad. He never stops trying.
In a few minutes, Cinna drains her coffee and leaves without a word; Cara gets picked up next in her boyfriend’s shiny convertible. She hugs Dad and nods at Mom’s good bye before leaving me swirling the dregs of espresso around my mug. “Want me to drop you off?” Dad offers as he upends the syrup bottle over his last pancake. “No thanks, Dad. I’ll walk.” My parents exchange a look which is all too familiar; the worried-about-Cherry look. It makes me annoyed, but they say nothing. “Try have fun at school, okay?” Mom gives me an unexpected hug, and I relax for a second, the warm lemon scent of her freshly ironed blouse comforting. Then I pull away without answering her. Dad ruffles my hair, which makes me feel like I’m five, but it’s a nice gesture.
“Bye Mom, bye Dad.” I hoist my bag over my shoulder. My parents follow me out into the porch and chorus their farewells as I walk down the steps. The morning sunlight is warm against my skin; the summer sky a pale forget-me-not blue and thinly veiled with cirrus clouds. I tilt my head up to the sun. The warmth is good, sweet like honey. And when I look back, I see Dad has his arm around Mom. That makes me smile.
Maybe today will be a good day.
I take my usual path through the woods, the grass still dewy. I’ve been going along this route for years because there’s no one else who does. As always, all is quiet except for the twittering of birds and the light breath of the wind as it stirs and rustles leaves. A plump little chickadee flutters from branch to branch ahead of me, piping a dawn melody in his high, dainty voice. I listen for a while as I make my way up the hill. Then I begin to hum.
The chickadee flaps his wings and eyes me curiously. I hum his song a little louder. It’s something I usually do, one precious moment of peace before I hit school. A tradition, or a ritual, I guess. After a couple of seconds, the chickadee joins in. We sing his song all the way to school, filling the woods with our duet, intertwining with the ballads of other birds, creating one unearthly, beautiful melody.
It ends before long. The buttercup brick walls of Sunset Valley High come into view, and my stomach clenches. “See you after hell,” I say miserably to the chickadee. He tweets once and then wings his way back through the woods. Sighing, I duck into the school courtyard, where knots of students are greeting each other after the summer break, exclaiming about one another’s new haircut or shoes or some other crap.
Bending my head, I move around the edge of the courtyard, trying to ignore the way people edge away from me, or how they put their heads together and whisper as I pass. It’s the same every year. Look, there’s the freak. I can almost hear the words in my head, messages sent from the countless stares and even looks of revulsion I’m getting. I’m sorely tempted, for the millionth time, to follow Cara’s lead and pull the finger at all of them.
My classroom looks the same as always. Faded yellow walls — Sunset Valley High School likes to keep up with the symbolism — tacked with chemistry charts and portraits of famous scientists. The rows of desks etched with countless years of student graffiti. The ever stupid teenagers I have to deal with so many days of my goddamn life.
I throw my backpack under the desk beside one of the windows. Then I get hit in the back of the head with something small, round and sticky. “Two words, one finger, Ted,” I say through gritted teeth, managing to shake the piece of chewed bubble gum out of my hair before it takes hold. I resist the urge to turn around and slap him in his arrogant, self-important smile that usually makes girls swoon, but only makes me royally pissed off. “I don’t want your old gum.”
“Of course you don’t, Miss Freak.” Teddy Schnauzer’s voice floats from a few feet behind me. “But I think you deserve it.” This time, he’s right behind me and I can sense he’s going to spit his gum right down the back of my shirt before he does it. He did it once before, in eighth grade. It wasn’t pleasant. So I decide to do something about it.
“Ow!” Ted lands hard as I shove my chair backwards. It’s a rather satisfying crash.
“Oh sorry, I didn’t see you there,” I say sweetly, twisting in my seat to look down at him; livid, his chocolate hair all over his sculpted face. “Better not stand right behind a girl without telling her next time.” I think he’s about to call me a bunch of names, but our home room teacher comes in at that precise moment, looking like what I feel right now- like he’d be anywhere else in the world but this dingy classroom, loud with rowdy teenagers.
Mr. Hollis begins calling out names without so much of a greeting. “Monty.” A curly haired boy raises his hand. “Ren.” A Chinese girl near the front nods curtly. “Cinnamon.” Silence. No one is surprised. Looking supremely unconcerned, Mr. Hollis dashes an obvious cross on his roll. “Cherry.”
“Here.” I say calmly, as a flurry of mocking whispers flits around the classroom. “She’s still here? Don’t you think the freak would have been shipped off to an institution or something, with a face like that?” Ted says loudly. The entirety of my class snickers.
This time, I turn around and look him straight in his sneering face. “Don’t you think you would have shipped off to an institution or something, with the abnormal lack of brain cells you have?”
If I had been slightly less of the social failure I am right now, that would have probably earned a few laughs. Instead, there’s silence, a strained one where I can sense some people are trying not to smirk. Mr. Hollis breaks it. “Miss. Kingston, Mr. Schnauzer, detention,” He says in the most bored voice possible.
And that pretty much describes how the rest of my first day as an eleventh grader goes.
A thought I’ve been holding onto for much of my miserable life is: one day, I will turn eighteen. That day when I will joyously become an adult and leave the Institution of Useless Facts known as Sunset Valley High School. I’m not yet sure what I will do, but I do know that I will snip the strings connecting me to the valley of bad memories and float, float away. Maybe I’ll try my hand in the music scenes of one of the big cities; maybe I’ll just wander around the country exploring whatever I stumble across, in an old car, eating pizza for breakfast, sleeping on the back seat. Whatever it is, it will be better than here.
Two more years. I lament about this as I trek through the cool woodland, my homework-filled backpack heavy on my shoulders. Shafts of afternoon sunlight fall through the trees here and there, birds flitting through them in golden silhouettes. The chickadee that I hummed with this morning comes whizzing above my head, twittering madly. The woods are my happy place. No people. Just birds and me and uncomplicated life.
Up until now.
“Hey, freak.” Teddy Schnauzer takes a step towards me, his red football jersey bright against the soft greens of the woodland. The chickadee, which had just been flying around my head, has disappeared. I look around the clearing carefully. Three of Ted’s jock buddies, whom I don’t know the names of, a little behind their leader, all with their arms folded, fanning out and barring the way back to my house.
“What do you want?” I say irritably. Ted looks around his gang, his eyebrows raised.
“What do I want?” He takes another step, into the glow of sunlight. “Are you that stupid? No one gets to insult me and get away with it.”
“I was under the impression I have, multiple times,” I say coolly.
“That’s because you’re a slippery little bitch.” Meaning, that’s because you’re smarter than me and know how to keep out of my way. Of course Ted doesn’t say that, but I get the general gist. “Yet a little birdie told me where you go after school everyday… so here we are.” He spreads his hands.
That statement sends a flicker of unease through me, but I try not to show it. “Well, good meeting you, jerk. But I have a load of homework to finish, which unlike you I have the brains to do, so bye.” I begin walking forward, but Ted moves surprisingly fast and grabs my wrist roughly.
We stare at each other for a while, and I see the hatred burning in his dark blue eyes, most likely mirrored within my own. “Let me go,” I say coldly, trying to keep my expression neutral.
“Not until you’ve learnt your lesson.” Before I can reply, I get pushed unexpectedly into a tree and the books in my bag dig hard into my back. Ted advances and his gang move along with him, laughter playing on their faces.
For the first time, I feel a tiny pulse of fear in Teddy Schnauzer’s presence. I’ve always hated him, and him back, but we’ve never met outside of school. I’m not sure how he acts with no teacher or other students around. “Back off.” I straighten up, ignoring the pain throbbing across my spine. It’s easy to act confident rather than scared. Just like it’s so much easier to be angry instead of having to deal with loneliness.
Ted laughs, a horribly arrogant laugh that tells me he thinks — as four boys against one girl — he will be able to deal with me easily. “Oh, I’m so scared!” He mocks in a baby voice. His hand flashes out and shoves my shoulder against the tree again and suddenly, grabs my jaw painfully. It’s a move that shocks me so much I don’t do anything but flinch.
“Do you think we should add another scar to your face?” He says softly, wrenching my face to the right and flicking my hair away, leaving scratches near my ear. The initial shock begins to ebb away as I stare at his face, which is twisted into a leer I haven’t seen before.
“I think you’re the one that needs a scar,” I say clearly, my growing fury at this boy bubbling up like in acid in my belly.
So as hard as I can, I knee Teddy Schnauzer in his weak spot.
The unmanly yelp that escapes him is very, very satisfying. His friends gape at me for a second, and that second is enough for my mind to dig up an old memory. Mom teaching us three self defense when we were younger, and me being the only one to take her seriously. Well, thank god I did.
The good thing about being small and light is that it’s easy to avoid a quarterback’s heavy blow. The only problem is when you don’t manage to duck in time. Memories of my Mom’s voice appear one after another as I jump aside, narrowly missing stepping on a groaning Ted’s face. One of his friends makes a grab at my hair and I duck under his arm to kick at his stomach. It’s like kicking iron, but it’s enough to send him toppling back with an oof.
What surprises me the most is how natural this feels. I probably should be blindly moving around, but my senses have gone into overdrive and take in every detail, every second. It’s probably what saves me from getting caught again.
But what really saves me is another boy.
I don’t even see him approach: one second Ted’s buddies are focused on me, the next moment focused on a dark-haired boy in the midst of them. I back up against a tree, trying to comprehend what is going on. The new boy is outnumbered two to one, but he moves among them with a breathtaking fluidity that reminds me of a cat. Lithe. Calculating. Dangerous.
It’s instantly clear that this boy has been trained in the martial arts. While Ted and his friends might be the bullies of the playground, experienced in petty fist fights and intimidation, their throws look clumsy and almost childish compared to his. With what seems like no effort at all, one of the jocks is flipped onto his back with a juddering crash. The way the boy weaves between the remaining boy’s heavy punches is so mesmerizing I’m distracted.
I shouldn’t have been.
“You’re going to pay for this, freak.” A hand slams over my mouth and I’m pulled backwards so jarringly that I cry out. I forgot all about Ted, who just a moment ago was wheezing on the ground. Bursts of pain drive in like hot nails all the way down my neck and back, and I can feel desperation and fear — real, palpable fear — beginning to cloud my mind.
I struggle against Ted’s grip, clawing frantically at his arm like the dumbass I am. So of course, nothing happens except that he tightens his hold around me. “Let – me – go!” I gasp, trying to twist around, trying to wriggle through his arms. In a wild move, I step on Ted’s foot as hard as I can and in the ensuing hiss, his grip loosens enough for me to make a run for it.
He probably would have grabbed me again, but someone else does before he can. The dark haired boy pushes me behind him, keeping one hand on my wrist. Through my daze, I spot Ted’s expression; burning fury, an almost crazy light in his blue eyes. Something which shouldn’t belong on a sixteen year old boy’s face.
“Who the fuck do you think you are?” Ted spits out. I can’t see the boy’s face from here, but I can tell he is raising an eyebrow.
“Just a passerby about to teach you a lesson, if you don’t leave now,” He says. His voice is calm and almost conversational, which surprises me a little, considering how angry Ted seems to be right now. The boy must have noticed the challenging snarl on Ted’s face, for he subtly straightens to his full height; which I now notice is quite a bit taller than all of us. “Look at your friends,” He says in a clear voice. Ted’s eyes widen — in fear at the way his buddies are stumbling away, or in anger that they have abandoned them, I don’t know — and he seems to finally back down. For a second, his eyes meet mine over the boy’s shoulder. They are full of such hatred I never knew he could be capable of. And then he turns and runs after his gang.
Once he’s gone, exhaustion and pain and sheer shock crash down onto me, and I stumble. I instantly hate myself. What must I look like, getting my ass saved by a strange boy, and acting like how all the popular — as in, weak and shallow minded — girls in my school would act in this situation? In the brief moment in which I am processing this embarrassment, the boy has turned around and has caught me by my wrists.
“Are you feeling okay?” He says softly. For some reason, I don’t want to look up at him. I stare down at my shoes instead, as if the worn buckles of my boots are much more interesting than the boy standing in front of me.
“I’m fine,” I say in a very, very small voice. I sound like a meek little mouse. How embarrassing.
The boy pauses. “Being honest here, you look and sound like crap. Why did you get attacked?” The word attack is like a breath of winter air; cold as ice and enough to slap me out of whatever daze I’m floating around in right now.
“I don’t know.” I’m being honest. What just happened was something I had never dreamed Teddy Schnauzer would fall as low to. The full scope of the past five minutes hits me like the blast of an incoming train. Did Ted seriously just hit me? The revelation, along with the dull throbbing along my shoulders, back and my jaw, forces me to look up at him.
“I think it’s because-” And the rest of my sentence is lost in oh my god this guy is ajwskqenwuqubamdiegrnewkqlbajskqp spinning around in my head. What was I about to say? Oh, yes, I was going to say we’ve hated each other since third grade, but what comes out instead is a really loud hiccup. Conveniently, at the same time I blush, I realize he is holding my hand.
To his credit, the boy just laughs. “Enlightening answer.” A spark of amusement dances in his blue eyes, which are so pale and luminescent they are almost silver, like the moon on a rainy night.
Now, before I say anything else: most of the time I either don’t notice or don’t care about how attractive a guy is, mainly because the ones other girls would consider hot are first class jerks. It comes with the preliminary basis of Not Liking People. But for this boy — no matter how much it mentally and physically hurts for me to say this — I must admit that he is seriously, honest-to-god pretty. Lean. Pale skin. Straight nose. High cheekbones. The whole package.
In the several seconds all this is racing through my goddamn mind, the boy takes in my face. Mentally slapping myself, I carefully watch his eyes for his reaction. His eyebrows contract a little, but his lack of surprise is frankly, surprising. Most people, when seeing my face for the first time, either stare, transfixed, at the left side of my face, or determinedly keep their eyes on my right. But this boy does neither. For the first time in nine years, my scarred face is looked in all it’s entirety. It is accepted.
“You’re not scared? Disgusted?” I ask before I can stop myself.
The boy smiles at me and squeezes my hand lightly. It’s a reassuring, comforting move, even though I only just met him. “Why would I be? I’ve seen many interesting faces like yours.”
Interesting. That’s not a word I hear often when I am described. “I would ask if you are blind too, but you clearly are not,” I speak. “Who trained you?”
“An old friend.” The boy replies. When I tilt my head curiously, he gives me another small smile, but doesn’t elaborate. I’ve never seen him around Sunset Valley before. He looks like a city boy.
I think about the way the boy had moved, both the gracefulness and strength of a feline, and the speed and unpredictability of a snake. “Could you teach me?” I blurt out.
There is a pause, and to how my stomach contracts a little, I think that maybe this boy is more good at hiding his true emotions than I realised. “I shouldn’t have asked. Sorry,” I say, not quite keeping the bitterness out of my voice. I let my hand fall out of his. The boy doesn’t say anything to this. He just puts his hands in his pockets, which makes me unreasonably irritated, considering I was the one who let go.
“I was just thinking… you’ve learnt some basic self-defence, right?” I frown at this. Did he really manage to assess my skills just from those few seconds?
“My mother is the police chief,” I say.
The boy simply nods. “Ask her to teach you some more advanced moves, okay?”
“Okay.” And the conversation is over. “I think I should go now. Thank you for what you did.” The woods are bathed in the golden light of just before sunset, before dusk begins to fall and shadows begin to gather.
The dark haired boy watches me as I begin to turn. “It was nice to meet you,” He says gently. I look up at him, and those eyes, those rain moon eyes, catch mine for a second before they look away.
“It would be great to see you again,” I blurt out, maybe a little too brazenly. “Not in these circumstances.” “No.” I agree. And then I smile at him; a real smile that I so rarely give. A truthful one.
I’ve turned my back on the boy and taken a few steps into the woods before I realize I never heard his name. “Hey, what’s your-”
But he’s gone. A breath of wind, and silence except for the evening songs of the birds.
As if he never existed.
Ahh sorry about how uneven the pictures are. They were hell to take, seriously. Nevertheless, I hope that you liked this chapter. I know it had quite a bit of swearing, but yeah, I warned you. Also, as I said, it is a very big change from Generation Two, and hopefully it’s a good one! I am not sure when the next chapter will be out, but I predict it will be a fortnight, because I am going on a trip next week.
I am awaiting your verdict. ❤