A wise man once said that although there were certainly times when people wanted to be left alone, no one ever wanted to be alone. And while the saying was stunningly and utterly true, it was a truth that was so well yet so little understood by every being that had walked this earth.
Loneliness was a paradox within itself. After all, how was it possible to be lonely when there were over seven-and-a-half-billion people in the world? In a world where it was impossible to not walk past another human being in a day, when we were constantly surrounded by others, how was it that we felt more alone in a crowd than if we were lost in space and time? And yet it is when we are surrounded by people when we realize we are lonely.
Loneliness was a dark and isolating feeling; Maria Valdez knew this well. She had the misfortune of becoming intimate with loneliness when she lost the very person that mattered to her. Somehow, at the age of nine, she knew that the moment her mother was sworn into office, she would be losing her for good. She lost countless people since then. Most were friends, some were family. She learned that losing enemies hurt more than losing friends. But none of the losses were as painful as the first.
Losing Fatima Syed, however, was a close second. And she was in the midst of losing her.
Fatima and Maria first met in the second half of freshman year in high school. They were both entirely different people then. Whereas Maria was now a flaming asteroid that threatened to destroy anything or anyone that stood in her way, five years ago, she had been a noble sun. Her light drew everyone near her just as much as it brought the life out from the inhibited and weak. People loved Maria for her infectious laughter and her strong sense of justice. She always seemed to know the answer to everything and people often looked to her for solutions to all matters whether that of the romantic kind or the petty kind. Maria Valdez was not a flaming ball of uncontrolled passion; she was a star in every right.
Fatima, on the other hand, was a shadow casted by Maria’s flame. Barely visible to many, teachers often forgot her when taking attendance. People accidentally bumped into her in the halls. She often missed lunch because she was either hiding in the restrooms or she simply didn’t have the courage to speak up when people cut her in line. But being invisible and ignored was Fatima at her best. At her worst, she was teased for her plump body and her acne-covered face. She didn’t have any friends, not because no one wanted to be her friend, but because her self-esteem had stooped so low that she would sabotage her friendships when they had just begun. Her loneliness and shyness was misunderstood as snobbery, turning those who thought well of her fully against her. Fatima Syed had unknowingly created enemies when she had only sought to preserve herself; and she would pay for it later on.
So how was it that these two girls with their opposing dispositions and social positions became friends? As strained and warped as their relations with each other were now, there was a time when the two girls had come to love each other deeply as if they were blood.
Well? Their story began with a Sprite.
Five years ago…
“Hey Grace! Look what I got!”
Valerie pulled out a can of Sprite from her purse. It was still dewy from condensation after she bought it from the school vending machine just moments before. She, Grace, and a few other girls had met up in the 200 hall after their morning track meet as they usually did. They always had a few minutes left to spare before the first bell rang, signalling a five-minute warning before class.
Grace looked at the dewy soda can wearily while the other girls did their best to hide their giggles. She felt a falling sensation in her gut as she predicted Valerie’s intentions. Valerie was Grace’s best friend at the time. She was kind to those she liked and those she believed that deserved her respect. But anyone that fell outside those lines would often fall victim to her distasteful pranks. Grace knew her friend too well to be oblivious to what would happen next.
“Valerie, no.” Grace said firmly.
Grace was well respected within their friend group. She was the fastest runner out of all of them and the team captain. But despite her high rank, she didn’t have the firmness nor leadership to command people’s attention and was easily displaced by the slightest objection. Valerie, on the other hand, was always quick to steal the spotlight and she was proud to have people’s attention. She would do anything for people to look at her, even if that attention was earned in a malicious manner.
“Oh, come on. You-know-who is about to walk around that corner. I saw her and she looks especially hideous today. I don’t even think she brushes her hair. It looks like a zoo lives in there.”
“That’s a shitty thing to do.” Grace glared hard at her and distributed her disapproval around the group. The girls felt a small prick of shame, but Valerie was quick to undo the justice Grace tried to establish.
“No one likes a self-righteous snob,” Valerie said with a roll of her eyes. “Let me have a little fun.”
Grace snatched the can of Sprite from Valerie’s hand. Valerie tried to take it back, but Grace held it high over her head. Grace was tall. She had long and muscle-toned running legs that made up for more than half of her body. Out of all the girls, she stood at 5’10 (or 177.8 centimeters) and easily towered over anyone (including boys) who tried to intimidate her.
“If your ‘little fun’ involves humiliating innocent people, I can’t let you do it.”
Valerie scoffed and rolled her eyes again. She always did this when she had nothing clever to say and it reflected her intelligence (or rather the lack of it). But despite Grace’s respected reputation and her tall stature, Valerie was not the kind of person who was easily intimidated by something shallow as height or social rules.
“Let me? I can do whatever the fuck I want.” She slanted her eyes and the other girls watched with nervous anticipation. “Now, give me the can.”
Grace buckled under the added pressure of her track team staring at her and reluctantly gave Valeria the can. And once again, it became abundantly clear who really ran their circle. Grace felt sick to her stomach.
Valerie cracked open the can and proceeded to pour the clear bubbling soda all over the hall. The girls watched with eager hungry eyes. Their bodies shook with excitement and they failed to ward off the huge grins that surfaced onto their faces. Grace was disgusted at all of them; however, her disgust was not equal. Although Valerie was the source of this baseness, there was no distinct line separating the girls from Valerie because Valerie was simply brave enough to do what the girls secretly craved. Valerie gave them the guise of righteousness by being the performer, but as Grace would later learn, every performer needed an audience. And in this case, where the audience was promoting the base behavior, they were just as guilty (if not more so) than the performer herself.
Once Valerie was done dousing the hallway with soda, she and the other girls ran to the nearest corner located at the end of the hall. Despite her objection to the prank, Grace was inevitably pulled away with them, and they lingered there to watch.
As Valerie had expected, Fatima Syed came right into the hallway. Her hair had been tangled into knots after sleepless nights of caring for her mother. Her acid washed jeans clashed horribly with the oversized sweater slipping off her shoulders. It appeared as if she had thrown on whatever she could find in her closet at a moment’s notice, too tired to even care about how she looked.
Grace pitied her. She had known Fatima since middle school ever since her mother underwent surgery for her brain tumor. But unfortunately for Fatima, pity was all Grace could muster. Almost everyone that knew of Fatima’s situation pitied her, but like all sad cases, she remained untouchable as if she was a bomb ready to detonate.
“Wait for it,” Valerie whispered harshly. Her dilated pupils expanded from the adrenaline pulsing through her veins.
They watched as Fatima trudged into the hallway. Her backpack was zipped half-way, threatening to let all its heavy contents loose. Delirious from her lack of sleep and waddling from her socks falling past her heels, Fatima failed to notice the fresh soda that lubricated the empty hall. It took one step into the trailing puddle for her to dive nose first onto the ground, tasting the sickly sweet soda on her sore teeth.
A burst of laughter echoed down the halls as the girls laughed themselves silly. Fatima laid there as her body seized from aches and pains. She remained motionless but remained perceptive to the celebratory cheers that bounced off the walls.
“Oh my god! Did you see that?”
“Looks like the whale forgot how to swim!”
“Careful! All that sugar’s gonna give her diabetes!”
They laughed until tears oozed from their eyes, not caring to control their volume. Fatima had heard it all and began to cry silently. Her tears mingled with the soda on the floor, adding a bite of salt to balance out the artificial sugar. In that moment, she was reminded of all the ways she hated herself and wished that she could climb out of her body and into a new one. To assume a new identity and become someone else entirely was an impossible wish...or so she thought.
That day was a fateful day for Fatima. As if someone had heard Fatima’s desperate wish, Maria Valdez was walking down the hall when she saw Fatima’s pitiful body soaking in soda and stopped in her tracks. She was completely moved by her tears, her pain, and the lowest depth of her humility. Fatima Syed was down to earth. Literally and forcibly. The sight of her lit a sense of rage inside her. Maria Valdez was ready to make them pay.
Maria marched up to the girls and planted herself in front of Valerie. Her initial sunny disposition was eclipsed by an adulterated smile that tugged the edges of her face. She was trying her best to conceal her anger but the devil beneath was itching to make its appearance.
“I shouldn’t have to ask, right?”
Maria eyed the empty soda can in Valerie’s hand. It was all the proof she needed. The haughty look in Valerie’s eyes betrayed her unwillingness to speak, and it enraged Maria even more.
That was when she saw it. Valerie’s long and dark pony-tail swayed side to side, a consequence of the momentum she built when she was clutching her belly during her bout of laughter. Maria grabbed the pony-tail, wrapping its excess length around her wrist and tugged.
Valerie shrieked and tried to hit Maria with her balled wrists but it made Maria pull on her hair even tighter. The girls watched with horror as the hairs on Valerie’s head pulled her scalp to the point of near breakage. Valerie cried as she had before, but her tears were born of pain, not laughter.
“If I catch you pulling this kind of shit one more time, I swear to God that your hair isn’t going to be the only thing I pull out of you.”
Valerie tried to swing at Maria again, so Maria drove her into a locker. The loud metal clash caused one of the girls to whimper. The small sound was enough to get Maria’s attention. Her gaze whiplashed to the rest of the girls, Grace included.
“And you all? I have enough dirt on all of you to bury you deep in the ground. Every nude you’ve sent, every n-word you texted, every ounce of bull shit you snow roaches ever said, I’ll find it. Do you understand?”
The girls nodded aggressively, nearly shaking off their heads in the process.
Pleased with their compliance, Maria’s sunny disposition returned. The hallway seemed to brighten instantly. Her mere eminence outshined the flickering LED lights above her.
“Good. Now go.”
The girls fled. Valerie left behind enough hair to leave a trail. When Maria was sure they were gone, she went back to Fatima and kneeled down in the soda puddle by her side.
“Hey,” she said gently. “They’re gone.”
But Fatima was still weeping into the cracks separating the tiles that were layering the floor. Maria breathed a long sigh before pushing Fatima up into a sitting position.
“You can’t lie here and cry forever.”
Fatima took one look at dark splotches staining her clothes. The soda was starting to turn sticky now, melding certain parts of Fatima’s clothes to her skin. She was revolted by her body and the sight of her pathetic face reflected in the puddle of soda. She flopped back onto the floor and cried. The weight of her fall splashed soda onto Maria’s cheek.
Maria had enough.
With the same brutal grip she used to grab Valerie’s hair, she pulled Fatima by her sweater so that she was forced to sit up right. She looked into Fatima’s frightened eyes and blinded her with her passion.
“You reek of fear. I can smell it on you. You wonder why people are so mean to you all the time? It’s because you’re covered with it.” She leaned in closer to impart a secret. “The first lesson you’ll need to learn is that everyone is afraid of something. The key is how well they hide it. Learn how to hide it.”
Fatima felt the air in her lungs being pulled out from her chest. Ice chilled her body, and it scared her. It scared her in the same way people felt scared when they brushed against death. But Maria was not death. She was closer to life than she ever should have been.
“The second lesson you need to learn is that people are dirty. Everyone you have ever met has done something they regret. They’ll guard their mistakes with their life and if you discover them, you’ll never have to be afraid of them ever again. And the third lesson is the easiest. Keep your mouth closed and your eyes and ears open. You’d be surprised by how much you’ll find if you paid more attention. You’re going to find all sorts of things...things you never wanted to know.”
With a gentle sweep of her hand, Maria tucked a knotted strand of hair behind Fatima’s ear, exposing the captivating gaze reflected in her eyes.
“I can see it in you. You’re a force to be reckoned with.”
Maria flashed her a reassuring smile before pulling Fatima up to her feet. The bell rang, unleashing a stampede of students into the hall. Although they had to part ways for that day, Maria and Fatima would eventually grow closer to forge an unforgettable friendship that would change them for better and for worse.
The worst was yet to come.