I was six years old again. I timidly followed the brown buzz cut in front of me, careful not to step out of the line that had been carefully constructed by Ms. Brendan. I found myself torn between a rush of excited jitters and a wave of anxiety, as we made our way to the double doors that would lead to our fifteen minutes of freedom.
It’s not like it was my first time to go out to recess. I’d been in daycare for as long as I could remember. But this was different. This was kindergarten, and the social stakes were definitely higher. That and the swing count was lower.
Most elementary schools have around six swings on their playgrounds. This one had two, and in this moment, I knew with certainty that I would do whatever it took to commandeer one of them. I needed to mark my territory now. If I wasn’t willing to demonstrate my confidence on my very first day, then I’d potentially have to prove myself each following day in some way or another to those bratty kids who always got the easy breaks. Daycare had taught me a thing or two, and I wasn’t going to repeat old mistakes.
I’ve been in love with the sensation of swinging since I was old enough to sit in one of those little cagey contraptions designed for toddlers that you can find at most parks. Kindergarten was new, and it was scary. Swings were familiar, and nothing would ease my discomfort like this fifteen minutes of flying to the cadence of creaking metal.
The moment we were released from formation, I pounded down the asphalt, blood racing through my scrawny legs, driving me toward those swings.
With the help of my peripheral vision, I was relieved to find that most kids were hurling themselves toward the huge wooden castle play gym, toward the rocket shaped slide, toward the tetherball pole. But someone was directly behind me, shoes crunching on the gravel and breaths heaving. Instinct forced me to push myself harder; this kid was competition. I didn’t turn to assess the owner of those crashing footfalls. I merely ran. My opponent and I skidded to a halt at the same time, both of us clinging to the metal chains of our own swings as though they were buoys in shark-infested waters. As we discovered ourselves to each have what we wanted, we turned to each other for the first time and released nervous giggles. Relief flooded me as I took her in, putting out the small fire in the pit of my stomach; I felt a sudden knowing that I’d just made my very first friend.
Her skin was a warm shade of golden brown, much like the leaves I loved to collect in the fall. Sitting carelessly atop her slight frame was a mass of rich umber ringlets, which framed her face perfectly. And her eyes. They were what truly won my trust. They were the most captivating shade of green, one I was unfamiliar with, even though I’d nearly memorized every shade in my 164 count box of Crayolas. They looked like a lush cactus plant, stranded in the smooth ripples of desert sand. They were magical.
“I’m Brynn,” she said simply, like talking to me was the easiest thing in the world.
I smiled at her.
“What’s your name?” she asked, and I felt silly for forgetting to offer the information unprompted.
After catching my breath, I replied, “It’s Nia.”
In an odd turn of events that I failed to question, I found that she was already in her swing, back facing me, utterly still. No longer did I have a swing in which to sit, as there was only one.
She slowly rocked in the wooden seat, and the ropes dug into the branches as the weight of her eighteen year old body tugged at them. We were in front of my house.
“So, do you like to swing?”
It was neither the voice of six year old Brynn, nor the voice of eighteen year old Brynn, but instead the deep register of a man. I found it familiar, but distorted. It wasn’t a perfect imitation of my dad’s, but close.
I shivered at the perversion, but still I questioned nothing as I should have. Like,
When did she put on a hat?
Where did her bouncy mass of hair go?
Why did I suddenly feel sick to my stomach?
“Brynn?” I said timidly. I began to make my way around to face her, but my legs moved as though made of lead.
I was standing directly next to her when her head suddenly snapped in my direction.
“Yes?” she replied in that disturbing voice that was not my dad’s.
I gasped at the movement, but the creature now facing me moved me to gag as I choked on a scream colliding with the bile in my throat.
I stared down at my plum tea and absentmindedly prodded the delicately sliced ring of lemon that floated atop the contents. Some mellow indie band was gently emanating from the speakers, swirling around me along with my friends’ laughter, the tiny clinks of spoons on mugs, and the chatter of Steam’s other patrons. The three of us were sitting at our favorite table by the window and waiting for Lavender’s shift to end so she could join us.
For three years, Steam had been our choice haunt; the most critical aspects of our teenage lives had been carefully dissected and treated here, where we’d self-medicated by way of each other’s support, alongside the elixirs of coffee and tea drinks loaded with sugar.
Brynn and Drew watched me expectantly, waiting for some insightful speculation that would most likely never come. Drew had just asked me how I was doing, but not in that polite small talk kind of way. Our friendship was way too deep for that. He asked in that ‘I’ve-noticed-something-is-wrong-what’s-with-you’ way that requires a real answer.
I’d become quite skilled at deflection and other avoidance tactics, for fear that the people I loved most might actually come to know the darkest parts of me. Trust me, I know how that sounds.
I began looking around me at the walls and decor that I knew better than the back of my hand, but I pretended to be seeing it all for the first time. I observed the rustic shelving on the walls, loaded with coffee paraphernalia, Steam swag, and succulents. I checked out the bizarre lighting fixtures, craftily designed from wagon wheels and gently glowing bulbs. The dark wooden floors were bestrewn with dusty shoe prints that would be swept up within the hour, and the walls were bestrewn with antiquated coffee shop prints that wouldn’t be dusted for a year. My friend Lav was standing behind the counter in her black apron, flirting with some new employee rocking a sleeve of tattoos and a pretentious haircut that probably came from the most hipster barber in our tiny town. Her pale purple lob was a heap of perfect beachy waves framing her impeccably made up face. She leaned back, hands on her hips, and released a shriek of laughter that should have been unappealing, but was, instead, quite charming.
That’s something I’ve always admired about Lav; she has always been so true to herself. She’s never felt the need to fake anything. One would think that being hurled into small-town America during her high school years would have shaken her confidence on some level, but she’d been unwaveringly authentic from the day I met her. If someone ever didn’t like her, (which is entirely hypothetical because everyone likes her), she didn’t fret over it. She would just continue to wear her personality like it’s this season’s most coveted style. This was true of all of my friends, an envy of mine that I tried my best to bury deep within me.
I continued to watch Lav as she unwillingly broke away from her new victim to check on the table-dwellers, most of whom were regulars like ourselves. Her petite frame bounced from table to table, leaving a smile on the face of each person she came in contact with. Her jovial London lilt definitely contributed to this maddening attraction people had to her. Everything about her screamed ‘unique’. Fort Clair wasn’t exacting teeming with diversity, so two kids from over the pond, and a major city no less, were kind of… exciting.
Don’t get me wrong. Fort Clair was small, but it wasn’t everyone-knows-everyone, no-need-for-street-lights, only-one-gas-station small. It was just one of those quaint towns where you were bound to see at least one person you knew when you were in public. We knew everyone in our grade by name and had shared classes with most of them since elementary school.
“Nia, Love, are you goin’ to continue to pretend like you can’t hear us?” Drew asked with an accent identical to his twin’s. “Is my sister gettin’ you hot, or are you just avoidin’ the question we’ve put to ya?”
I raised my eyebrow, my narrowed eyes silently telling him to screw off.
“Welp, I’m gonna assume the latter of the two, then. You should take better care; you know how twisted Brynn’s panties get when someone’s giving air around her.” He turned and gave Brynn a teasing wink before turning back to me.
“Let’s not pretend you know a damn thing about my panties,” Brynn purred, blowing him a kiss.
“Oh, B,” he said dramatically, placing a hand on his heart. “It is one thing to strip a man of his pride, but you surely don’t think you can strip him of his dreams. I will never give up on you, my kinky haired goddess.”
“Oh my god, seriously Drew? My hair is not kinky, what the hell?” Brynn tried to appear serious, but I could see laughter masked beneath her flinty expression. She took the piece of blueberry muffin she’d been prepared to put in her mouth and flung it at his face. I don’t think anyone else would have gotten off so easily.
He gave her one of his irresistible smirks, at which point she added, “You are not nearly as cute as you think you are.”
She leaned back in her seat, her perfect mass of rich brown coils framing her golden-brown face. Her long, lean arms crossed over her chest, and she matched his smirk with one of her own. I rolled my eyes. Brynn might have been playing hard to get, but I knew how much she wanted Drew. A part of her always had, though she’d never admit it out loud. I knew her fear of rejection was too great.
“You don’t quite sound convinced, sweetheart, but I won’t push it. Take all the time you need.”
“I thought you were saving yourself for Corinne,” Lav piped up, as she sidled up and refilled Drew’s cup of black coffee. His new favorite thing was demonstrating his masculinity by means of eliminating sugar from his coffee drinks, but I feel certain I wasn’t the only one to notice his face cringe as he sipped the bitter liquid. I thought he might be insecure about being best friends with three girls.
“Well, yeah,” he said defensively, “but I’m not gonna leave Brynn feeling completely dejected! I’m a bit of a better mate than that, innit?”
“Ah, bless, what a selfless man you are, Bubs. There is a whole slew of girls who must no longer feel dejected because of you.” Lav ruffled his prized wavy brown locks. Drew shoved his chair back as if the table had caught fire and quickly massaged each piece of hair back into place.
“You are such a girl,” I groaned, rolling my eyes.
“Gettin’ more action than the three of you combined,” he mumbled, and we all roared with laughter.
“All right then, let’s see it,” Brynn challenged, leaning forward in her chair. “Let’s see that hair work its magic.” She twirled her gold nose hoop.
“Ok, then, but it’s your feelings that will be getting hurt,” he replied warningly. He stood and straightened his white t-shirt, the collar of which dipped to reveal his chest tattoo, a pair of wings extending beneath each collar-bone. “Who’s the lucky gal?” he asked us. “And be nice about it. I like me a ripe cougar, but don’t give me nothin’ over fifty.”
We all glanced at each other mischievously as we recalled one of our previous victims. Drew lost ten bucks to each of us after failing to persuade an attractive woman who was, admittedly, a bit of an older model, to go on a date with him.
“If she hadn’t been married, she would have been a perfect match; I feel quite certain,” Lav replied solemnly, placing a consoling hand on Drew’s back. “It just wasn’t your day.”
He shook her off. “She was an antique,” he muttered under his breath, his eyes wide as though imploring fairness.
The three of us collaborated before deciding on a simple, but devastatingly gorgeous blonde in a sundress.
We watched as Drew approached her, his slender frame advancing with all the swagger he could muster. It was understated, seemingly natural, but I could tell he was working it. Lav leaned against my chair as the three of us observed his exchange with the girl. She lay down the book she’d been buried in. Drew’s back was to us, but the girl’s eyes lit up at whatever he’d said. He’d tucked his hands into his pockets, feigning some humble apprehension of which he knew nothing in reality.
“She’s all his,” I determined aloud . “At least for one date.”
“Gotta give him credit,” Lav sighed, preparing to continue her circulation of the floor, “he’s got something they like, bless him. I couldn’t tell you what it is, mind you, but it’s there.”
Drew turned and sauntered back toward us with a shit-eating grin and a torn piece of napkin that I could only assume had a phone number written upon it.
“Well done,” Brynn said as he returned to his seat with an excessively pronounced sigh.
“Feeling pretty accomplished, I must say; almost thought she was gonna pass me up, to be fair,” he simpered, knowing good and well she wasn’t going to do any such a thing.
“You are so full of shit,” I laughed.
“Yeah, you’re right,” he agreed, scooting his chair up to the table. “She couldn’t resist me from the start.” He leaned back, balancing his chair on the two rear legs. He put his arms behind his head, a gesture I’ve always found extremely arrogant and annoying. With my foot, I gave a slight nudge to one of the hovering front chair legs, and his seat jerked back dangerously before he over corrected the imbalance and slammed forward onto all four legs.
“Whoa there, Haus,” Brynn mumbled as she checked her phone. “Don’t wanna crash and burn in front of your new lady friend.”
“My bad,” I said with an apologetic smile as Drew shot me a glare.
He composed himself, his wide grin returning. “No worries, ladies; jealousy is completely natural.”
“Mmm, definitely,” I agreed, sarcasm dripping from my lips. Brynn and I both nodded earnestly.
“Very profound,” Brynn conceded.
“Ok, so not to divert attention away from Drew’s accomplishments,” she began, giving me a very pointed stare, “but-”
“Ugh, are you about to harp on me again?” I murmured. “Can’t we just drop it?”
“Umm, no, ma’am, we cannot,” she replied. “Nia, I don’t know what you expect. We are your best friends, and you are hiding something from us. Something that is eating you alive.”
I glanced over to her, ready to give her an incredulous look.
“Don’t pretend with me, Nia,” she reprimanded sternly, before I could even achieve the face I intended to make. “I’ve known you since you were six years old; give me some credit here. I pride myself on knowing when something is bothering you. Hell, I consider it a gift, considering you refuse to confide in us without being prompted.”
Her green eyes pierced me like a knife, then homed in on the poor sugar shaker I’d been reaching for. I nodded, though not without stubborn hesitation. Her hand found mine and gave a slight squeeze, her arched eyebrow now nowhere to be found, replaced by that look of concern that always prodded my guilt further. I took a deep breath. Tried to figure out which smile I could paste to my face while pulling off some believability. I began fumbling with the sugar shaker, my tell-tale sign of discomfort. Nervousness. Avoiding saying whatever was eating my brain like worms in a corpse’s skull. Despite the cool air circulating the coffee shop, I felt sweat begin to slide down my spine.
“You know, I think it’s just stress,” I declared. “I’ve gotten myself anxious about my first semester, and I still have so many forms to fill out.” This wasn’t a lie. While I’d always felt college would feel like another exciting element of my academic journey, one that would ultimately lead to ‘success,’ I was finding that success seemed a much more complicated and arbitrary concept than I’d once thought.
They looked at me expectantly, waiting for me to continue.
“And I have no clue what I want to major in, what I want to do with my life,” I confessed, though not for the first time. “That’s- I don’t know, that ’s a really hard pill for me to swallow. I feel completely lost for the first time in my life, and I have no clue how to get my shit together.”
Brynn looked at me consolingly. “Umm, not everyone knows what they want to do at eighteen, you know. I mean-”
I cut her off, frustrated. “You three do! You all have everything figured out. And you know how jealous I am of your support system,” I directed to Brynn.
“At least you have your mum,” Drew mumbled, and my stomach squirmed with shame. That was more than he had.
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “I’m sorry. I’m an asshole,” I admitted, giving him an apologetic smile.
“You’re not an asshole, Nia,” Brynn scolded. “My god, you’re brilliant, beautiful. Admittedly, you’re a bit of a stressed-out, uptight overachiever, but it could totally be worse. You have to stop beating yourself up for not being exactly where you think you’re supposed to be.”
Drew nodded in agreement. “Brynn’s right. You’ve got to lighten up, let loose. You’re a bit of a disaster lately, honestly. It’s been a bummer watching you strive for this unattainable perfection. It doesn’t exist. You know I’m right,” he said in response to my skeptically raised eyebrow.
“You just need,” Brynn began slowly, considering her words, “some time away from it all. Let us help you. If anyone can show you how to live, it’s those two.” She nodded her head toward Drew, as well as Lav, who had made her way back to Arm Sleeve.
I began massaging the sugar shaker again, knowing they were both right. In my efforts to be the model student, to live in a bubble constructed of practicality and realism, I’d done myself the disservice of failing to experience any self-discovery. I’d always thought my purpose was academic achievement; it was my driving force throughout my high school career, but now that that was over… I felt empty, more uncertain than ever. Even the thought of excelling in college gave me no satisfaction. It felt empty.
I looked to each of them, and I nodded my head before staring back down at the disc of lemon in my now empty mug. I slid the sugar shaker back to its place and set my hands in my lap, trying to hide that there was something more. But Brynn could see right through me. Every. Time.
“Ok, so what else?” This was beginning to feel like an interrogation. Unable to stop myself, I began picking at a hole in my seat cushion. I thought my heart was going to work it’s way out of my ribcage, and I bit my lip to distract myself from the discomfort. I didn’t know why I was so reluctant to confide in them. These people who’d been by my side through so much. They deserved the truth, but I think a part of me feared how juvenile I’d sound, recounting the details of a returned childhood terror. A separate part of me wanted more than anything to share this burden with them, but I couldn’t help but find that desire a selfish one. I had to be strong. To do this alone. To be independent, or some crap like that.
Lav returned with another cup of tea for me. She stroked my arm, as if she could see this internal battle ripping my insides apart. I glanced up at her with a close-lipped smile.
I determined that I couldn’t keep doing this. I couldn’t keep closing myself off to them, treating them as though they were incapable. Incapable of understanding, of helping. Even when I tried to hide from them, from myself, they sought me out and showered me with this inherent, organic affection. It’s like they wouldn’t allow me to self-destruct by means of secrecy and suppression. They deserved better from me. I had to stop taking them for granted.
“I’ve been seeing him in my sleep again,” I mumbled, shame already flushing my cheeks. While Drew and Lav shared a look of uncertainty, I watched a crushed expression overtake Brynn’s face.
“Ahh, damn,” I heard Drew mumble as he leaned forward in his seat. “The, erm, well dressed nightmare character? The, erm, one wifout a face and all that?”
“Hmmph,” I huffed humorlessly.
I rocked forward a bit before mumbling a quick, “yeah.” An uncalled-for embarrassment burned my cheeks. As far as my childhood night terrors went, Drew and Lav only knew the bare minimum. I’d never been able to fully recount the details of this period in my life without feeling utter shame and terror, and Brynn had never betrayed this. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust them completely. I’d just found that recounting the details of my childhood was like gently breathing oxygen on to flames that had nearly died to embers; instead of allowing this internal fire to breathe freely and attack me emotionally, I’d resorted to smothering it as best I could. Some shrink might’ve called this avoidance unhealthy, but it’d worked pretty damn well for nearly twelve years now. Because of this, I knew that Drew and Lav couldn’t possibly appreciate just how devastating his reappearance was for me, but Brynn could.
I could feel her analyzing my face, silently pleading with me to meet her eyes. Only she could truly empathize. Remember what I’d gone through. What we’d gone through. Her need to help carry my burdens was far from unfamiliar; she had never once let me suffer alone, if she could help it.
“Have you told your mom about this?” Brynn broke in, forcing my gaze to meet hers once more. Those green orbs were boring right through me.
“Uhh, well, I was…” My voice came out in a gravelly rasp.
“That’s a fat wad of ‘no,’ Lavender said under her breath, drawing a piercing stare from me. Her soft, pale purple lob caught the sun from our window seat, providing her with a strangely mystical halo that framed an innocent, apologetic expression.
“Guys, they’re dreams for heaven’s sake. It’s not a big deal. They’ve just got me kind of freaked, but… but I’m dealing with them.” I swept my palms in a confident, ‘I’m taking care of things’ motion, before once again taking hold of the sugar shaker.
As I sat there, I felt like a dormant volcano, preparing to erupt, boiling lava scorching my insides and fighting to surface. I was roaring inside like a caged lion who has been taunted too many times by his trainers. I breathed deeply. Inhale. Exhale. I smiled.
“I’m going to, respectfully, call bullshit,” Drew said, as Lav and Brynn seconded this with nods and crossed arms. My smile vanished, and I ran my fingers through my hair.
They’d seen through my smiles and my cool demeanor. They’d seen the animal ensnared in a trap, panicking and fighting to free herself. They smelled my fear, my desperation, my primal need to get out. To run.
No matter how hard I tried to carefully construct a facade of false realities, I inevitably found myself squarely facing the fears and pain I’d been quelling for so long. I am strong, independent, and so very in control. Bullshit.
I am a resilient, self reliant realist, and I am always so very in control. Bullshit.
But I couldn’t just take off my mask. People wouldn’t recognize me. I wouldn’t recognize me. Or maybe I would. Maybe that’s what I feared most. Letting the monsters back in. I’d spent the majority of my life transforming my very core in order to banish them from my life. From my nights. From the cursed blackness that invited sleep and dreams and waking nightmares.