Another quiet day at the office, another little piece of fiction. This is in response to Pictures, Poetry & Prose's Thursday challenge: There She Sat. The picture really spoke to me and reminded me of some of my own teenaged angst, so this one's a little personal.
As always, feedback/criticism/comments are always welcome. :)
Cassie likes the playground because it is quiet.
Not all the time, obviously. During the day, it's crammed full of snot-nosed brats shoving each other off swings while their airbrushed mommies gossip about American Idol and so-and-so's latest tummy tuck. Disgusting.
But once the sun starts setting, it's different. Better. Silent. Sure, there are still people around: some ugly ten-year-old looming on the monkey bars like a ginger god, a suburban mom in a velour jogging suit texting furiously on a bench (totally oblivious to the fact that her daughter's eating sand), two older kids furtively exchanging money and weed by the fence. They're all off in their own little worlds, too self-involved to notice anything but their own lives.
This suits Cassie just fine. She doesn't want to be noticed. She wants to be invisible. She's gotten really good at it; she knows just how to duck her face behind her long, dark hair and disappear inside bland, oversized sweatshirts. The hunch of her shoulders is expert: don't bother me, don't look at me, don't acknowledge my own existence. She's just a shadow slumped on the end of the slide, a silhouette as muddied and murky as the pond on the other side of the fence.
Her parents are fighting again. They're always fighting. They act like they don't (oh, honey, you know I love your dad, nothing's going to happen, we're just fine), but Cassie knows better. She can feel the tension when she walks in the front door, can taste the alcohol in her mom's good night kisses. They try to hide it from her, restrict their arguments to behind-closed-doors, but the venomous strains of their voices waft into Cassie's room via the air conditioning vent, leaving her with hazy snippets of accusations.
… that office more than you love …
… raised a manipulative little bitch just like her mother …
… don't you touch me, I'll call the …
Don't get her wrong – she's not complaining. So her parents hate each other. No big deal. Nothing to get all worked up about (even though it hurts, oh, it really, truly hurts). Cassie knows kids with worse problems. One of her friends had an uncle who touched her when she was four. Another friend won't get changed in the gym locker room because of the bruises her step-dad leaves behind. And another friend—
Except they're not her friends. Not anymore. Not since they all started high school and decided that Cassie had the easiest life, the most reason to be happy. Her parents have money. They're still married (although Cassie's beginning to wonder how long that'll last). She's fashionably skinny and gets solos in the school choir recitals. She's on the honor roll.
Clearly, Cassie sucks.
So they turned on her. Her friends stopped calling. They sent texts behind her back about how her solos are always just a little flat, how she had "book smarts" but was too naïve. They even started a vicious rumor that Cassie was a lesbian, prompting all the kids at the bus stop to throw stones at her one day after school.
That was when Cassie decided to disappear.
That's all she wants, really. She just wants to vanish into thin air, where no one can make fun of her for things she knows aren't true (but what if they are?), where her parents can't touch her (even though they never do). She keeps her head down in class and turns in average work so that no one can say she's too smart anymore. She swathes her pretty body in baggy, neutral colors so no one will mistake her for being attractive. She smiles brightly at her parents and tries to give them all the right answers, hoping her false cheer will keep them from arguing about her. She asks for nothing. She makes no demands. She just wants to be invisible.
But even that's a lie. Cassie doesn't want to disappear. Cassie wants to scream. She wants to cry and rage and pound her fists against every wall she can find. She wants to howl her sorrow at the world, wants everyone to know that she's sad, she's miserable, she's falling apart at the seams.
And more than anything else, she wants someone to hear her. Someone who will put a hand on her shoulder and tell her it's okay, she's allowed to be upset, she has permission to be hurt. She wants someone to tell her that she's human, not a shadow or a scapegoat, and she has every right to feel like crap because everybody does.
But no one's there. The playground's almost empty now. The drug dealers have finished their trade; the cell phone addict has gone home to wash the sand out of her kid's mouth. Now it's just Cassie on the slide and that freckle-faced goober on the monkey bars.
Cassie stares at the kid for a moment. It's almost eight now. Where are his parents? Shouldn't someone have run up looking for their son, their precious baby, their beloved treasure? Doesn't anybody care about him? Doesn't anybody care at all?
Suddenly, the kid turns his head and looks back at her. They lock eyes for a moment, loner to loner, and Cassie reads the yearning in his eyes with ease. She knows that look well. She sees it every day in her mirror, but seeing it on someone else's face …
Cassie swallows and summons up her courage. "Hey," she calls to the little boy.
The boy frowns at her, already distrustful at such a tender age. "Yeah?"
"You want to play on the jungle gym?"
He thinks about it for a second and then breaks out into a grin. "Okay."
So they play for a while, just two kids on a jungle gym, laughing as the sun goes down behind them.