The tall slender young girl smiled as she took measured strides down the hallway, black cape billowing in the breeze of her passing, but her smile did not reach her eyes. She passed one of the idiot boys from English class and he gave her a look. It really wasn’t much on the scale of looks, at least not compared to some she had seen. It was mostly a tiny twitch of his lip, but coupled with the sniff and the tilted chin, it became a nuclear attack, a guided missile that homed in on her soul. Still smiling, she continued to stalk down the hall to the beat of slamming locker doors as if she hadn’t seen. Shana did see it, though. She always saw. It was almost constant now; the odd girl was fair game to be picked on. She would not fight back, and there were no friends to back her or to take her side.
Her long skirt swirled around her ankles as she turned held her hand out toward the flaming woolhead, invisible ropes of air shooting out to wrap around him, jerking him off balance, then she spun him around and slammed his head into the wall. There was a slight echo from the hollow cinder blocks accompanied by a much louder thump from the offender’s skull and a soft sigh as he sank down to the floor unconscious. She dusted her hands, glaring at the shocked faces of the other kids. Her smile returned as their jaws dropped open, disbelieving what they had just witnessed. Served him right, the Light-blinded fool.
Mrs. Chandler greeted the class with smiles, usually including a kind word of greeting to go along with it, but when the teacher’s eyes fell on Shana, it was a frown that creased her brow. It was gone as quickly as it came, but not before the strange young girl noted it and placed another tally mark on the ledger. Sliding into her seat near the middle of the class, she let the old backpack drop to the floor with a loud thump. Shana smiled brightly at her teacher even as she mentally checked the score. It was enough.
The squeaky voice of Mrs. Chandler grated on her nerves, “Class, who, uh, can explain to the group the, uh, importance of studying history?” She paused, beady eyes rapidly scanning the faces in the room as they vainly tried to hide. “Well?” The silence lengthened as the students glanced at each other in fear, each one hoping that someone had listened the day before and that they would muster up the courage to speak out. An evil smile split the teacher’s face, “Shana! How about you? Would you, uh, kindly explain?” The old woman crossed her arms and smirked as if to say, “I’ve got you now, you dumb kid.”
A frown of concentration knit Shana’s brow as she found the quiet place inside her and reached for Power. Her body shook as it began to arise, at first a warmth deep inside, growing hotter and more fierce by the second. Shana raised her hands and pointed at the teacher, a stream of fireballs erupting and streaking toward the smirk worn by the old woman. In seconds, there was a smoking pile of ash and charred cloth puddled in the floor.
Shana, to everyone’s surprise, actually spoke, “The purpose of studying history is to prove the saying by Hegel: ‘The only thing we learn from history is that we never learn from history’.” There was a glint of challenge in her eye as the teacher’s mouth fell open and the class began to laugh.
“There, that ought to shock the old lady,” Shana thought, “I know she was expecting me to fumble around for words until she could accuse me of not studying.”
Mrs. Chandler tried to save face during the rest of the class by continuing to call on Shana frequently, but after a time or two of getting the correct answer, she finally gave up. The bell saved Shana from further embarrassment and she fled the room, for once to the accolades of the others. They didn’t really like her, they were just happy that someone had the nerve to speak up in the Old Dragon’s class. Everything was back to normal by the time she got to the lunch room, though. Some stared at the denim skirt that almost dragged the floor and the white peasant blouse with flowers embroidered on it. There were a couple of kids who went as far as wrinkling their noses as they stared. No one else dressed like her, and considered her ways to be more than eccentric. Most the things she owned were old, handed down from the sister that was three years ahead, and had not been new when Janet wore them. It wasn’t Shana’s fault, she did the best she could to make them fit and to add decorations to make them more attractive, but it was all her mother could provide. Daddy was gone now. The father she had adored, the father that had read books to her and told bedtime stories. The kind, strong man who was always there to comfort her when she was hurt or to encourage her when she tried something new. Even when she failed, she could still count on his unconditional support. Gone. Killed when his motorcycle slid off that wet highway five years ago. She tried to hold on, to keep the good thoughts alive, but the ones she heard from inside were beginning to drown those out; messages that she was somehow to blame for the accident, and that she didn’t love him enough to make him stay. Messages from her mother that let her know that Janet was her favorite, and that little Shana could just struggle along as best she could.
The kids here didn’t know all of that. Her mother had brought her and her sister here to be closer to the job she had to get now that she was forced to raise the girls on her own. The insurance money had run out, leaving them to struggle along as well as they could. Shana hated this place and wasn’t afraid to let everyone know. She hated the teachers who prodded her endlessly to ‘snap out of it’ or to ‘just get over it.’ They didn’t know what was going on inside her, didn’t know the ache and the emptiness. No one knew. She hated the kids here who had grown up together and been in the same classes since kindergarten. She hated them because they were comfortable with the status quo and had no room for a new girl with issues.
The scream of the jet engine was deafening as she pushed down on the yoke and threw the plane into a dive. Pulling up at the last second, she slapped the button that would release the bombs, roaring away in a cloud of smoke while the shock wave from the explosion chased her. She laughed out loud as she circled back over the area to witness a huge crater where the school had been moments before.
Checking inside, she found that the knot of pain was still there, still undiminished. Not only was it still there, it was growing, pulsing like an evil blob from some old and terrible horror movie. She could see it, unable to tear her eyes away. Almost beautiful in its malevolence, it pulsed as it expanded from a tiny knot in the center of her heart, keeping time with the rhythmic beating; expanding, growing, blocking out her thoughts. She wanted to scream but couldn’t, tongue frozen to the roof of her mouth as the monster consumed her. She knew that it wanted out, but that was all she understood about it. It was pain. It was an ache that she did not know how to heal. All she could do was help it escape.
She somehow made it through school and rode the bus home. School was bad enough, but the bus ride at the end of the day was the worst. She was confined in a small noisy place with no way to escape, no way to ignore the comments or pretend that the kids were talking about someone else. She didn’t really blame the driver, Mr. Wallace, because he could not hear what was going on in the back, and she was not about to move to the front where he could hear, or where she would be away from her main tormentors. She was not going to let them drive her away, was not going to let them win.
Standing, she took three running steps and threw herself at the steering wheel. She wrapped her fingers around it and yanked hard, causing the bus to veer off and run down a steep embankment. With a groan of tearing metal, the bus split open accompanied by the screams of children. The impact of her head with the windshield brought one bright flash of light and pain,then sweet oblivion.
Silence permeated the house as always as she crept in as quietly as a mouse. The stillness was almost comforting in its familiarity, and would have been if not for the monster growing inside of her. It screamed out messages that overwhelmed her. She fought back. No! She would not do it. She refused to let the monster win this time.
Pressure continued to build in spite of her resolve, growing and pulsing. Now the red flashing began and Shana ran out the back door. Climbing into the oak tree at the back, she found her secret place; her safe place. Closing her eyes, she reached for quiet and calm, but today it proved elusive. She searched for it, but it escaped the clutching fingers of her soul. Her safe place was not safe today. Nowhere was safe. The tiny blade, salvaged from a plastic razor after breaking it apart, was still nestled snugly in the little hollow she had dug out where two branches met, carefully wrapped in the brown paper that covered a small piece of folded cardboard. Shana almost laughed at the irony of protected the sharp edge. Staring at the cold steel, she ran her finger lightly over it, caressing with an almost loving touch. The blade did not offer any comfort today, instead tt seemed to leer at her, mocking her for her weakness. “I win again, Shana,” it laughed, “I always win.”
With a tear seeping from the corner of her eye, she rolled up her sleeve to reveal the faint scars, then grasped the blade in her hand and set the edge to the skin inside her elbow and pressed down, feeling the cold hardness of it, the promise that this time the monster would not come back. She whimpered softly. She did not want to do it, but there was no choice. She pressed a little harder, dragging out the moment, almost savoring the ritual of anticipation while the monster screamed louder, demanding, demanding to be freed, demanding to escape in a flow of red.
“Shana?” She froze. “Shana?” The call came again, more insistently.
A voice came up from below. It was Manda, the weird girl who sat across from her in Biology. What in the world was she doing here? Shana eased up the pressure on the blade and peeked out through the leaves with a sigh.
“I see you, Shana, I know you are up there. I need your help with something. Would you come down so we can talk?”
The monster was still screaming, but more softly than before, now more complaining about being interrupted. Maybe this would be a good thing. The monster hated people and would hide when others were around. “I’ll be right down,” she answered as she carefully hid her steel weapon.
Shana reached the ground to find Manda waiting for her with a smile on her face, Biology book in hand. A woman stood a few yards away and Shana figured it must be Manda’s mom. “I just don’t get the part about the cell structure. Would you help me?”
Nodding in agreement, Shana invited them inside, leading the way to the den where her study desk was set up. On the way, Manda’s mom took out a bottle of soda from a large bag she carried and asked if Shana had some ice. The three detoured to the kitchen and filled glasses and continued into the den. Shana looked around briefly; her mother was still at work and the house was quiet. Nothing new there. They would be able to work in peace and she wouldn’t have to answer questions. Mother didn’t like for anyone to come over, as if anyone ever wanted to.
Settling in to sip their drinks before starting on homework, Shana risked a slight smile, wondering if maybe Manda might become a friend. It had been so long. She didn’t want to let her hope get too high, though; others before had wanted her help and then turned on her, rejecting her like all the other kids she had met here. Would Manda do the same?
Waiting to start working on their science homework, the girls sat in uncomfortable silence, neither knowing how to make the small talk that seemed to come so easily to others. Shana didn’t really care. Small talk bored her. If the conversation didn’t mean anything, she had no use for it. Manda sat holding her book in her lap, but looked as if she wanted to talk and just didn’t know how to start. Manda’s mother kept to herself, but looked like she was waiting for something. She kept glancing at her daughter and raising her eyebrow. That was strange.
At last, Manda seemed to come to some sort of decision. She set her drink and book on the coffee table and cleared her throat. She pushed the sleeve of her sweater up above her elbow and Shana gasped and her hands flew to her open mouth as she saw the scars that crisscrossed Manda’s arm. “I know, Shana, I get it.” She scooted a little closer on the couch, “I know the pain, the loneliness. I know about the monster.” By this time, Shana had a tear forming in the corner of her eye. She couldn’t tell if the tears that were coming up were in sympathy for what Manda had done to herself or if they were from relief, but she suddenly knew that she wasn’t the only one, and that felt strangely good. It felt like a cool breeze had suddenly blown across the desert of her soul.
Manda looked at her mother who set her own drink down and spoke in a soft voice. “Shana, Manda came to me and told me what she has seen, what is going on with you, and I urged her to set up this meeting. She has been dealing with the urge to hurt herself for a while now, and is finally learning how to silence the monster.” She reached into the bag at her feet and began pulling out literature about self-harm. “You can also fight it, Shana. We came to tell you that there is hope. There is a way out. You don’t have to let the monster out anymore. It can’t hurt you anymore if you don’t want it to. You will have to be strong, and you will have to be brave, but you can win. Manda won, and so can you. Just tell us if you are ready.
Drawing a broadsword, she attacked hard. The monster swung his own sword to counter in a loud clash of steel. Sparks flew as they battled back and forth across the dusty ground, sweating and cursing. Seeking advantage, both feinted and smote with all the power they could muster. It lasted for minute after minute, until the breath rasped in Shana’s lungs and her legs and arms burned from the effort. The monster laughed at first, mocking her, but its eyes gradually took on a look of fear, and Shana took heart, redoubling her efforts, growing stronger and more sure as it grew weaker. With a bone chilling shriek it finally evaporated into mist, sword clattering to the ground.
She fought with the monster inside her. It was roaring defiantly, but she fought harder than she ever had before. She fought like her life depended on it. Somehow, finding out that she was not alone gave her more strength than she thought she could ever find, and so she fought. At last she wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her shirt and looked up. Her voice was barely audible, and her lips trembled, but she spoke the words out loud, “I’m ready.”