With COVID-19, isolation means different things to different people. For some, like me, isolation has become a new normal they don’t want to leave. I love it.
For others, though, isolation was their normal long before COVID-19. They are the people shunned for being different, whether it be skin colour, physical size or beauty, religious beliefs, wealth (or lack thereof), status… the list goes on.
When asked to write a story about isolation, I was reminded how lonely those teen years can be when you’re surrounded by others but don’t fit in…
Monsters are Real
The bus crawls up the mountain, its engine clunking and shuddering as if it’s one lurch away from stopping and never moving again. The seat beside me is empty. It’s always empty. No one wants to sit next to the kid with the gummy leg.
I can’t read my book because the slightest motion makes me sick in the stomach so I stare out the window. Even the gum trees mock me as they reach for the sky, ever graceful with their smooth, straight trunks.
A familiar grinding echoes in my ears. It’s like my molars are smashing together, but they’re not. The din of the other kids on the bus recedes into a muffled background melody while the scene outside the window slows down to one agonising frame after another. My lungs expand and contract with each breath, despite the iron weight pressing down on my chest. It’s as if someone else is controlling the inhalation and exhalation.
I half expect an alien spaceship to appear, but of course, it doesn’t. The monsters are inside my head. That’s how it’s been since the accident two years ago.
When the bus pulls up to our high school, the fog in my mind lifts, and the screams and squeals of the other kids jolt me back to my surroundings. They race down the aisle, back packs banging against the seats. I wait until last. I’ve learned the hard way not to get in front of anyone.
Before I climb down the steps, I say thanks to the driver.
His gaze darts to my leg before he gives me a tiny nod. If he’s seen speaking to me, the other kids will give him hell on the way home this afternoon.
My leg drags behind me. The hideous brace I wear lessens the pain, but it doesn’t help me walk any better. My second-hand uniform is a little too short and the cold grey metal stands out against my white skin like I’m Robo girl. Except Robo girl would be cool, and I’m anything but cool.
I arrive at class late. As always. The teacher ignores me, continuing to scratch on the blackboard while I stumble to the back of the room.
Giggles and whispered jibes follow me so softly I wouldn’t know they were aimed at me… except they are.
“All right class, I want you to break into groups of four,” says the teacher. “We’re going to have a surprise test, but you don’t have to do it alone. You’ll answer the questions in teams.”
Sweat pools under my arm pits. I scan the room for a group to join, but my classmates avert their eyes. I shuffle towards a group of three. Their eyes widen with horror before turning away from me.
Angry bees swarm in my stomach, no butterflies for me. They’d be too gentle for the nerves that hold me hostage as I force myself to stand in front of the other girls. “Hi,” I say. “Can I join your group?”
“Ah, no…. we…”
The teacher yells out from her desk at the front. “Teams of four, please.”
The girls groan and gesture to me to sit. They’re at the bottom of the class. You’d think they’d welcome the chance to have a smarter person join them. They would, if it wasn’t me.
I slide into a chair and balance my notes on my lap.
“Question one,” says the teacher. “In Pride and Prejudice, which man was Elizabeth Bennet first attracted to?”
I roll my eyes. This has to be the easiest question ever.
“Mr Bingley,” whispers one of the other girls.
“No,” I say. “It’s Mr…” They all glare at me like I’ve suggested we tear our clothes off and dance naked in the quadrangle.
“Wickham,” I squeak, my voice like a tiny mouse as I wince under the loathing in their eyes.
The girl with the pen starts writing… Mr Bingley.
The questions keep coming and it’s soon obvious the other girls would rather fail than accept my help. I shut my mouth and let my mind drift to the last scene I was reading from my book, Twilight. I smother a sigh. If only I had an Edward to take me away from this life.
The bell rings and by the time the other kids have packed up and filed out of the room, I’ve made it to my original seat and backpack.
“Thanks Mrs Simpson,” I say as I leave.
She smiles. “Bye, Emma.” It’s a watery smile, but I’ll accept it. It’s not like I can be choosy. Although, I don’t miss the way she glances towards my leg and back to her desk, her eyes swirling with compassion and disgust.
It’s raining when we go to lunch. I limp into the canteen; every single seat is taken. I turn around and shuffle outside. There’s a small space with partial cover. That’s where I sit. I only get a little wet; it’s not like it hasn’t happened before. I unwrap my cheese sandwich and eat. Alone.
The afternoon passes quickly. Or slowly. Depends on how you measure time. I write everything the teachers say, soak it all up. It’s easiest if I ignore the other kids the way they ignore me. They don’t mean to be cruel; they’re angry, hurting. That’s what I keep telling myself: the brace is a glaring reminder of the accident. It’s not their fault they can’t forget. Just like it’s not my fault it happened.
When the bell rings at the end of the day, my leg aches like I’ve done a cross-country run with hot coals strapped to it. I clamber onto the bus with a minute to spare and collapse into the front seat. It’s always left for me. Only losers sit this close to the driver. That’s what I’ve heard the other kids say.
“How was school, honey?” asks Mum when I hobble into the kitchen, my stomach somersaulting at the mouth-watering aroma of bolognaise sauce. It’s our staple dinner, all we can afford since Dad went to gaol. He didn’t mean to run over the kids on their bikes. He was just too drunk to see where he was going. That’s how I got my bum leg. I was on my bike with the other kids, my friends. Until Dad killed them. All three of them.
“It was good,” I say. I don’t tell her the truth. She has enough to worry about without hearing my troubles. She works two jobs so we can keep living on the family farm. Not that it’s much of a farm anymore; only a goat, some chickens and the vegie patch.
My two-year-old brother sits in his high chair, his face covered in custard. He’s Mum’s perfect surprise. That’s what she calls him. Thank God, he’s not like me. I hope when he reaches my age people will have forgotten what happened.
I help Mum with the dishes before escaping to my bedroom. Since it’s Friday, I bypass the homework in my bag and open my book, plunging into the world of vampires and werewolves. These are monsters I can dream about. They save the girl. Not like the monsters in real life.
© Karen Lieversz 2020