"What's wrong with you?"
My eyes groggily opened from the repetitive dream, or rather- memory. Echoes of their laughter bounced around my skull, despite their words having aged ten years. 'What's wrong with me'- it was the chant constantly whispering in the back of my mind. A bitter chuckle made me sit up in bed, the filtered light through my window curtains telling me I had woken up early, again. Checking the small clock on my nightstand, I wallowed in the solidary taste the memories inflicted upon my tongue, my eyes following each little tic tic tic of the second hand. What ever happened to 'sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me'?
Sliding off my bed, I made the thoughtless decision to take a shower before school. School- Just the word made the hot water of the shower become drilling bullets, my fingers rising to my scalp and digging into my skin as undignified fear seized my throat. No matter what I told myself, I couldn’t tame my feelings of terror and emptiness- the dread which seized my bones each morning I had to expose my skin to the cold florescent lights, my mind pounding with memories that threatened to utterly ravage me. Their words bounced around my head and left me numb and withdrawn, but I told myself it didn't matter. I have to be strong. All I have to be is strong, and I'll be ok.
"She's probably adopted or has some disease..." I pinched my eyes shut as hard as I could. "I heard she was gone last week for another hospital visit. I almost pity her." The blackness from behind my eyelids wasn't enough to stop the memories from gnawing at my bones, their remarks wormed into my tendons and sinews. Each step was a painful recurrence, each blink was agonizingly repetitive. Perhaps what hurt the most was that despite my defense- that I have a rare pigmentation disorder that even the doctors can't pinpoint- it never seemed to make a difference. No matter the hundreds-no, thousands- of times I explained it.
Reluctantly, I decided to get ready and applied sunscreen to my face and neck, the fogged clock on the counter telling me, that somehow, I was running late again. Chewing on my lip anxiously, I quickly got dressed and towel dried my hair, each movement of my hands resulting in a flash of silver in the mirror. My eyes focused on the metallic color of my ragged nails- the silver which seemed embedded into the very fabric of the cuticle. Even the doctors couldn’t quite explain the silver color imbued in me: from hint of color on my bones to the color of my nails, but luckily they seemed the least noticeable part of my visage. For as long as I could remember they’ve always been silver, and when you’re a girl you can always pawn off the color as nail polish. For a moment, I thought about painting over them- maybe putting over a soft peach color... I twirled a strand of my hair around my finger and gazed at it blankly. Maybe I could dye my hair too.
My spine stiffened as soon as the thought crossed my mind, causing an uncomfortable shiver up my neck. I can't be my own enemy- I shouldn't think of breaking myself for some sliver of false acceptance... Could I? I thought back to this morning and the feelings that had gathered in my throat. Would changing everything about myself really make me feel better?
I watched the light bounce off my nails, my eyes tracing the trenches and ridges of my finger print. No, I thought. It wouldn't make me feel any better, at least not always.
The walk to school was short, and the scenery seemed to be the only nice thing this town had. Everything was focused on the crossroad between two streets, and the thin roads spoke to the rich history of logging this place once had. Old railroads were littered throughout the woods and near the river, though the metal railways were long since removed, only leaving wooden beams. The thin leaves of the birch trees were beginning to curl in on themselves, their smooth shape fluttering and whispering in a soft breeze. There used to be an old story my grandma told me about the crossroads- that they were a place between two worlds. If it was true, I played with the wishful hope that maybe I would disappear into the next world, but instead, each footstep felt heavier and heavier as I turned down the street.
Unfortunately I got to the school's main doors, but luckily the school day only blurred by in a collection of whispers and strange looks, and I was more than ready to go back home. I quickly opened my locker and felt my heart shatter in my chest as white foam oozed from my binders and fell on my feet. The musky perfume of shaving cream irritated my nose as I pulled out my binders and textbooks, all of which were soaking with water and stained by the shaving cream.
Chuckles and snickers seemed to echo off the walls as people walked by and looked at the catastrophe in real-time, some even took out their flip phones to take videos. I fled to the office for plastic bags and paper towels, waiting for the halls to empty so I could deal with it without an audience. A couple of years ago, I might have cared enough to look for who did it, but now I just wanted to deal with it and go home, close the curtains, and go to bed.
"I wish I could have seen her face," Someone sighed from around the corner, her voice taking on an indifferent tone as if she was appraising a work of abstract art.
"Good job, Rick. That tube was perfect. I didn't know you had it in you." Risking a peek around the corner, I watched as she turned to the other person and hugged them tightly before pecking him on the lips. I nearly gagged at hearing their lips smacking against one another, but I was angry, more than anything. My mind and body clashed as a scarlet emotion gathered in my grinding teeth and shaking hands. My lungs burned as I struggled to think- my mind short circuiting as fire-spitting wrath ignited in my clenched jaw. All my self-hate and frustration pushed against my skin and tore apart my intestines- the distress echoing in my head as my resolve faulted and time sped up. My mind seemed to burning as I imagined myself marching over to them and grabbing a fistful of her hair- hitting, screaming at them that it wasn't fair.
Letting the fantasy play out in my imagination, the anger hollowed out, and dejection took its place. Why did any of this matter? I turned away from the sight of them kissing and rubbed my face. The sentence repeated in my mind only twice before I walked to the nearest trashcan and threw away the paper towels and plastic bags. A sliver of guilt bloomed in my stomach at the thought of the janitor cleaning up their mess, and me probably getting scolded for it, but like I realized, it didn't matter anymore.
Feeling something tickle my face, I wiped my cheek and saw my fingers wet from pathetic tears. Why am I crying if it doesn't matter? Stop crying, I demanded myself. You're strong.
Exiting the school, theearly autumn air felt cold against my slick throat, my nose sniffing weakly as I rubbed my face into my shirt to wipe the tears away. Another wave of emotions built up in my chest, but I forced myself to swallow them and continue walking. Keep moving, keep putting distance between yourself and them- that's all I had to do. I tucked my hands in my pockets and decided to head towards the woods behind my school. My walk laggardly turned into a full sprint, the wind rushing against my face and burning of my lungs a welcomed distraction. Everything in that moment made sense- I hated looking at myself in the mirror and thinking I was a medical condition before myself, I hated looking at my own parents and feeling like an outsider, I hated growing up in such a close-minded small town where everyone thought I was a freak, ridden with some disease or problem. And more than anything, I hated dealing with people like her everyday- laughing or chuckling about me, calling me names and ruining the years of my youth all because of something I couldn't control.
"Are you fucking kidding me? You ruined everything, and you're gonna fucking laugh?" The words that tore from my throat sounded nothing like me- they were broken and loud. They fell from my mouth like bricks and harbored years of resentment and sadness. Though no one could hear it, in that moment, I directed them at that girl in the hallway. Maybe, I realized, I just needed one person to pin the blame of years and years of resentment on.
Tripping on my own feet, my knees slammed into the ground roughly, the palms of my hands stinging against pine needles and dirt. The sound of my labored breathing gushed between my ears as I looked at my bleeding hands before I clenched them into fists.
Was I always this weak?
Looking up, the leaves on some of the trees were beginning to age with tips of red, orange, and brown- some already littered the ground around me. I felt like crap- both for being so hot headed and relishing in the idea of hurting someone, but also because I craved it. I craved to give them a taste of their own medicine.
Ideas of the future swam into my mind and I covered my mouth as more tears gathered in my throat. Just the idea of dealing with two more years of this made me want to puke, so I rolled over onto my stomach and looked out- the trees going on for miles, their trunks blurring together into a wall of browns. All I wanted in the moment was to stop thinking- I just wanted my mind to be quiet for a little while and for things to just be for a little bit. A ragged sigh tore through my throat as a headache pounded against my skull and eyes, my bones feeling like they were made of lead. After a little while I pulled out my flip phone, thinking on calling my parents. They knew that I'd stay at my brother's house after school sometimes, but today just wasn't one of those days. After staring at the phone for awhile, I decided to close it with a hollow breath. The sun was beginning to set, moving the end of the week into the weekend. Luckily it was Friday, so I wouldn’t have to face school for a little bit. I looked down at the forest floor, pondering what I was going to do.
My headache gradually receded as it dawned on me that I wouldn't have to deal with anything for a couple days. I relaxed into the chilled ground, my adrenaline fading away. Tracing over the hilly landscape of this place I called home, I finicked with the pine needles and fallen leaves; watching them crunch and break under my gentle touch. I felt safe here, away from the messed up world of people- their twisted ways and lack of integrity. I sometimes wished I was an animal, able to live a life of peace in the forest, in a simple world. Of having no other concerns but on whether I was going to eat or be eaten. Of living and never realizing how it felt to feel at odds with everyone around you.
With that thought, I made myself get up and tried to the best of my ability to brush off the dirt on my clothes. Turning around to go home, I froze in my tracks as the wind threaded through the canopy; the trees groaning low tones as they swayed slightly. The bushes moved in anticipation, and my skin pricked as nervousness rekindled in my stomach. No one is here- it’s just me.
I took in a steadying breath and continued walking and went back to moving instead of thinking, my hands reaching out and feeling the bark of each tree I passed. Birds fluttered above in the branches and seemed to look at me with a strange curiosity- their actions focused on pluming. Squirrels skittered up trees and leaped from branch to branch, chattering loudly to one another. I grew lost in my sensations as a timid bit of peace gathered within me, my eyes fawning over the simple beauty of sunlight filtering through the tree tops. If I could, I would stay out here forever.
“Hello.” I yelped in shock as I looked up- ready to run. Part of me thought it was the boyfriend from earlier, and that they had followed me- but when I spotted who was speaking, it was someone I had never met before. The man before me was toned, wearing a grey shirt and black sorts. He had black hair and blues eyes; his skin was lightly tanned. He slowly edged closer, his hand low in a calming gesture, but it only seemed to set me on edge. Everything from earlier ceased to matter as the skin on the back of my neck pricked and my stomach squirmed uncomfortably. How had I not heard him come near me?
"I'm sorry to bother you, but I saw you crying and running into the woods, I just wanted to make sure you were okay." Oh. "Not to mention it's easy to get lost in these woods," He chuckled, trying to make things less awkward. Despite how round his face was, I could tell he was older than a high schooler. Maybe he was someone's sibling?
"Thank you, and I'm okay now, I'm just heading home." The words tumbled from my mouth as I saw his eyes flicker to my bleeding palms and dirt-smudged knees. He quirked his brow but didn't say anything, a silently nod meekly pretending that I really was okay.
"I actually was looking to talk to you- my name is Jed. I have access to the town's records, and I have a theory regarding why your nails are silver." He let his words hang in the air for a moment. I opened my mouth to give my usual excuse, but he cut me off.
"I know it's not nail polish." My stomach coiled tightly, my mind freezing as goosebumps rose from my skin.
“What’s your theory?” I entertained him, my eyes fanning around me as I spotted two more men joining behind Jed, their eyes guarded. Their mouths were bent in a strange configuration- somewhere between blank and smirking. I couldn't tell if it was a trick of the waning light, but as I stared into their empty eyes, my heart shook with intuition. A hot, scalding pain tore through my head- visions of crimson and silver blinding my eyes. Terror and ache bloomed through my entire body and I could feel something slashing through me- carving my skin, splintering my bones. I blinked and the pain vanished- the space behind my eyes hollow as the red receded; a message: run.
“I need you to come with-”
Before he could finish I sprinted off and raced to get as far away from him as possible, alarms going off in my head that he wasn't who he seemed to be.
As my feet pounded into the ground, I could hear their footsteps behind me- their once civil demeanor gone. A moments relief welcomed me as I came to a field of soybeans; my feelings vanishing as they chased me into the open. I nearly stumbled over the dusty dirt and dried stalks; feeling as though I was attempting to run in a waist-high river. My legs cursed me for making me run twice today, but hope lifted my spirits as we raced from the field into the cool shade of the adjacent forest. A small smile graced my lips as the sound of flowing water graced my ears. And I know exactly what river it is.
Determination settling within my bones; I gritted my teeth and surged forward, the people chasing me seemingly able to connect the dots as well, their footsteps pounding after mine. I lurched forward and nearly jumped down the steep hill of the valley and nearly ran off the low cliff that extended over the deep, coursing river. Panic began to flood my veins as two of my pursuers raced past me to the sides of the low cliff, blocking me from running down the steep hill of the valley to the river, the other coming to the base of the cliff. I could tell by the way they surrounded me something completely different was going on. I stood at the edge of the cliff and rose my hands awkwardly; unwilling to go down without a fight.
"Don't come any closer!" I demanded, surprised as my hands clenched into tight fists, actions of Fight or Flight toiling within me as I frantically looked for an escape. He paused, looking right into my eyes. My mind was screaming as I wondered if this was how I'd die- mangled by three serial killers in the middle of the woods. Tears gathered in my eyes as I thought of my family- how'd I'd never see them again, how they'd spend years looking for my body, and all they'd find would be bones discarded into a shallow grave.
"Hey, we're not going to hurt you, I promise. We're here to help you, we can always recognize one of our own..." He spoke, getting closer. Sweat began to bead down my face and neck, the sickly feeling of being helpless gathering in my gut. My hands were hot and sweaty; my muscles shaking in both confusion and fear. One of our own? Was he crazy?
"Come with me, don't you feel worthless here? Things will only get worse- and I can help you." The sincerity of his words clashed with a dim tint in his eye, his hand extended as if I should take it. Things will only get worse- was that a warning, or a threat?
He continued slowly making his way closer, his warm smile tempting. I could leave, and never have to deal with that school ever again... I shook my head and backed closer to the edge of the cliff. What about my parents? My brother? Would I ever be able to see them again? As he drew less then ten feet away, it was as though time stopped, and a throbbing pain exploded across my temple. My throat felt cold, and a loud, low rumble erupted from my chest, the chilling tone resonating throughout my bones. I blinked rapidly as time resumed, uncertainty clouding my mind. For a moment, the event seemed to be nothing more than a figment of my imagination, but I didn’t have time to think. All I knew was that I wanted to go home.
As he steadily continued forward, my fingers pulsed with my heartbeat; my skin slick with my sweat. How could I fight him? He's nearly twice as big as me- I'm already lucky enough that I could outrun him and the other two. I took another step back, my heel hanging over the sharp stone edge. Could I survive a fall into the river? Deciding not to risk it unless as a last resort, my resolve and attention refocused solely on him.
In that moment, it was as something deep inside me finally snapped into place, and static rushed through my veins. The sensation gathered in my hands; my fingers burning as though I had been splashed with acid. He froze again, looking from my hands to my face, back and forth.
"We're here to help you; please. You don't know what is happening to you and you need help." He spoke, pleading to me. I bit my tongue before my fear erupted; malice lacing my teeth as I articulated each word.
"I don’t even know you, and you’re chasing me through the woods like a serial killer. If you really have some so-called theory about my nails, why don’t you go to my parents? Or is it that you’re lying, because- STAY AWAY!" I yelled, noticing he was edging closer as I spoke. My fear solidified into rage. Fight- it said. The tingling feeling came full force- my skin feeling like it was numb and that it had fallen off at the same time- the sensation crawling down my fingers before ending at my fingertips. The man's eyes bulged slightly, causing me to search his face. His gaze was locked on my hands, uncertainty inching onto his face. I looked down at my nails, only they weren't nails anymore.
They were claws. Sharp, pointed silver claws. I was stunned, what in god's name is happening to me?! I rocked slightly, nearly falling backwards as my body tried to instinctively back further away. This has to be one crazy hallucination- but the strange way light bounced off of them said otherwise.
"Stop! Please! Let us help you!" He pleaded again, his tense face trying to conjure a pigment of kindness and warmth- but something equally as sound told me not to take his hand. Don't trust them if you want to live- the message sent a rigid shiver up my spine. I looked from him to the coursing water beneath the cliff- wondering if I could be lucky twice in one day. The moment we made eye contact he raced towards me as I pushed off the end of the cliff; not hesitating as I jumped into the air. I closed my eyes as the air raced around me before I crashed into the water’s surface- the current frigid and rushing around me.
I stayed under the water for as long as I could; the current carrying me away from danger. I choked on water as my legs and sides bumped against rocks and logs, my lungs burning. I gasped for air as quietly as I could as my head rose from the surface, my eyes quickly honing in on the three men; their forms leaning over the cliff's edge as they looked for me. The one I was talking to let out a quaking howl before he ran into the shadows of the forest, the others following behind as the sound sent a chill up my spine.
I pushed down the questions clashing within me, instead focusing on getting out of this cold water and not drowning. I sighed as I pulled myself out of the river, the sky was now dim, the murky twilight making shadows look bold and menacing. I was cold, hungry, and confused. Looking around, I saw the downtown bridge downstream, the street lights on and flickering. I ran up the slope onto the empty street, spinning around and eyeing the shadows for any movement. I relaxed as nothing moved into the light of the streets, a breeze reminding me it was time to head home as I shivered uncomfortably. As I walked, I looked down to my claws, only now they were back to being the silver nails I always knew. I sighed in tiredness and confusion as my mind throbbed with questions which all piled above the other. I have to be going insane- I can’t even tell what’s real anymore. Did that man really howl? And what happened to me? What was that sound I made, and what happened to my hands? Would I really be crazy enough to jump off a cliff from a hallucination?
Rubbing my eyes and forehead I sucked in a deep breath; releasing a shaky one in return. I'm going insane, aren't I?
Walking down Main street, then turning down the second road on the left, I saw the dirt drive to my parents house. I picked up a slow jog, and turned down the road to be greeted by my parents on the porch, sitting in their rocking chairs with their arms crossed. My face paled as a heavy fear settled in my bones- of their eyes flashing with disgust and their arms wrapped around themselves defensively. No, I can’t have them thinking I’m a freak too. I sucked in a deep breath and looked back to them, my shoulders slouching as I walked up to them, my mind already spinning lies as to why my clothes were wet and why I was out so late- all of which would result in a lecture on my curfew.
The thought solidified in the cavities of my heart and I pushed on, my mind made up. No matter what happens, I can't loose them too.
After my parents had a long talk with me regarding my curfew, I dragged my tired body upstairs to my room and tore off my soaked clothes, my head throbbing. I crawled into bed and rubbed my tense neck, a tired sigh rolling off my tongue. Each time I closed my eyes my back tensed and my body coiled in paranoia, but as the night dragged on I slowly relaxed into my soft blankets- my heavy body sinking into a deep sleep. White- was there ever this much white anywhere else? My eyes blinked stiffly as I looked around the empty room before they settled on the dead flowers which sat on a nightstand. I took a wilting petal in my hands and smelled it- the vacant scent of roses still perfuming the soft petal. Dust seemed to permeate from every corner of the room and a strange greenish hue encased everything as the lights hummed statically. A cold draft dried my eyes as a vent above me started to fan over me and I pulled my blankets further up around me. What was I doing here again