Portrait of a Girl on a Tree-Lined Street in October
Pressing my face against the glass window of the front door, I checked to make sure no one was around. Once I was sure the coast was clear, I pushed out the door and scampered around to the back of the high school. The building wasn't very big, and mostly a collection of various sized red, brick boxes. It was just after five now, and Ashland's October sun was casting everything in warm tones and long shadows. I dropped my bookbag to the ground and pulled out from it a large, black cape and witch's cap. They had been part of my Halloween costume the year before; my mom had made them for me. I had told her I wanted to be a character from one of the books we read, but in truth I was still adjusting to being a witch and wanted to be able to be myself, if only for one night. The cap had a wide brim, and was rumpled from being in my bag all day. Originally, I had asked my mom to make the cap's point stand up straight, but she said that point caps were for ugly witches like the Wicked Witch of the West, and I was a cute witch so it should droop a little.
I threw on cape over my school uniform and situated the cap on my head. I pulled out a small, stuffed toy cat, a composition notebook, a bottle of red paint, and a brush from my bookbag, and furtively glanced around making sure there was no one around. Finally, I produced one last article, a knobbly twisted wand, and tapped it lightly against the composition notebook. With a pop, it expanded into its true form as a thick, leather-bound tome, filled with yellowing pages and adorn with fading gold-leaf. My grimoire of spells.
"Medea," I said, "you can come out." Another pop and a poof of smoke. Suddenly the stuffed cat had vanished, and in it's place was a black kitten. She arched her back, stretching, and yawned silently, gaping her mouth wide but making no noise as cats do. Then she plopped herself down atop my grimoire and curled herself into a ball. "Oh come on now, be helpful!"
Medea, rose her head a little, cocking it sideways. With a great deal of performance, she pulled herself off of the grimoire stretching and yawning again—just to emphasize how much of a pain I was—then finally flipped open the grimoire with her nose. She flitted quickly through the pages, sliding them across with her paw, until finally she came a page depicting a large magic circle I was meant to reproduce.
"Thanks," I said, "I can never remember which ones are which." I squeezed out a large dollop of red paint onto the asphalt and coated my brush in it, then began to paint the circle on the back wall of the school. A ward against demons, this one was. It was divided into five subdivisions, four for each element and a center one for aether. Each subdivision held runic script; in order the words meant: banishment, protection, dissolution-
I couldn't stop thinking about class. Or well, the end of class. The bell had rung and everyone was gathering up all their things and talking excitedly about the weekend. It was Thursday, so we all had one more day left until we were free but in everyone's mind the weekend had already started. Allison had the normal gaggle of girls around her all speaking in hushed whispered then suddenly exploding with laughter. I was taking my time gathering my things and watching her out of the corner of my eye. The second she stood up, I pulled out a white envelope from my bookbag and scurried towards her, catching her just as she was stepping outside the classroom.
"Hey, Allison!" I said. She turned around and for a moment her eyebrows furrowed. We didn't talk much.
"Oh, hey Suzy," she asked, her face transitioning in a very deliberate way back into a polite smile. Whenever we talked it was because of group assignments, and it had been awhile since we last had a group assignment. When we passed in the halls though, she'd always wave and say "hi," and I'd always be distracted so I'd realize too late that she was talking to me, and say "hi" back a second or two after the moment had passed, and she'd always smile then go on her way.
"I was wondering if," I began and then my throat froze up. Distantly, it seemed like I had prepared something to say, as though I had premeditated my invitation, but in the moment all that faded away, and so weakly I finished, "if... I'm having a party so, if you want, I, uhm..." Words sputtering and failing, I extended out the envelop I had been clutching in my hand. It was plain white, and had the words: "You're Invited!" on it, written in the same blue ink and cursive I had messily scrawled across it the night before. The "i" was dotted with a heart. Allison glanced down at it briefly and her eyebrows furrowed again, or maybe I just imagined it.
"When is it?"
"Ah," Allison winced in some way that vaguely resembled an curtsy and said, "I'm sorry but I'm really busy the twelfth."
"It's actually the thirteenth," I corrected her, my voice very quiet in an attempt at politeness.
"I'm busy the whole weekend," she said, and again her face changed, this time to a frown, in a very slow deliberate way.
"Oh," I said, "okay then." Then Allison turned and left with no further words, and her gaggle of friends pushed passed me out into the hallway. The rest of the day I kept replaying the exchange in my mind, over and over as I sat and waited for the study hour to end in the library. Every time I managed to distract myself, it would keep coming back.
I took a moment for me to remember what I had been doing, I had been so lost in thought. A sloppy, misshapen red circle was painted on the wall in front of me, divided into five sections, and for a minute I forgot what it was supposed to be. I glanced down at my composition book looking for some sort of hint. Ah, that's right, the runes. I had been painting the runes onto the magical ward. I didn't have much time left; at night the demons roamed, and if I didn't finish the circle by then, the school would become their feeding grounds.
"Oh my God, Suzy?" a voice called out. I jumped a little, and dropped my brush. I didn't know the voice, but as I turned around I saw a snickering girl that I recognized as part of the gang that always followed Allison around like she was a mother duck. She quietly slipped a pack of cigarettes into her purse and beckoned to someone around the corner.
"What the hell are you wearing?" the girl asked, turning back to me. Slowly a smile began to stretch its way across her face. Her perfect white teeth, outlined by a pinkish lipstick, were all curving up in a cheshire crescent. My cheeks flushed and I turned my head downwards to look at my shoes, hoping the brim of my cap would hide my expression.
"Suzy?" another, softer voice, asked. "What are you doing?" This one I recognized; it was Allison's. I glanced up just for a moment, to find Allison's eyes meeting mine. Her own expression was the exact opposite of her companion's. This time a very undeliberate frown polluted her face, and those same furrowed, confused eyebrows she had so quickly hidden before had returned.
"Please do not tell me she's the one that's been painting all that weird satanic graffiti all over the place," Allison's friend said. Her blonde bangs were pulled up out of her face, and the way her skirt was hiked up and the top button of her blouse was undone indicated she was comfortable in showing off her body in a way that I very much wasn't.
"It's not graffiti," I whispered, kneeling down, at first to pick up my brush, then subconsciously opting for my wand.
"Oh God, oh holy shit this is too good," the blonde girl was beaming now. Her smile reminded me of the ones you see on TV, in make-up advertisements. So perfect and genuine and filled with charisma. But her smile was just a little bit different in some subtle way I couldn't place. Like all her teeth were razor sharp. Like the glow of her smile was the light of an angler fish. With practically a hop and a skip she bounded over to me. "Hey, hey, do you like... actually think you're a witch or something?" she asked, leaning over me.
"You should leave," I said, my voice barely audible. I wanted to add "it's not safe here" but for some reason the words seemed to get stuck against the lining of my throat. My throat felt sore and coarse, all the words I wanted to say scraping against it. The blonde-haired friend's eyes darted over towards Medea and the grimoire, both of which had transmogrified into their innocuous states.
"Aww look," she said, "she's even got a wittle black cat! That's adowable." Her tone made me bite my lower lip hard, and I stood up. I could feel the knots of my wand cutting into my palm. My gaze bored into the asphalt.
"Lisa..." Allison's tried to cut-in but her friend was so infatuated by the sound of her own voice she wasn't paying attention to anyone else any more.
"Hey Suzy what's a 'grim-or-ee'?" the girl asked, picking up my notebook and flipping through it. "Oh man, Alli you gotta look at this. She's got all sorts of creepy pentagrams and spells and stuff in here." Suddenly, she mocked a serious expression, and with an elaborate flourish as though she was waving a wand, she exclaimed "Pax Ataraxia!" Then, violently nudging me she asked, "what's that one do?"
"Stop it," I murmured, but my voice was so faint neither of them heard me.
"You mind if I take a look in your bag?" the girl asked, and, without even pretending like my answer would matter, she snatched the bag up with a twirl and dumped its contents onto the ground. My pens and pencils and notes and papers and textbooks all spilled out, and on top of them five, white envelopes with the words "You're Invited!" written on them in cursive. Both of the girls froze. I was shaking, staring at my quivering fists but my vision was so blurred I could barely see. I clenched my eyes shut but the first few tears escaped through anyway. Some heaving motion was growing in my chest, ready to burst out, and my throat tightened.
"Didn't I see you trying to give one of those to Alli earlier?" the girl asked. I couldn't see her face but her voice had a completely different tone now. Not ecstatic like it was early, but now very sullen and serious. She picked the envelope up off the ground.
"STOP! STOP!" I shouted and lunged at her. She was almost a full head taller than I was, and she simply pushed me away, knocking me to the ground like it was nothing at all. She didn't even look at me as she did it. I fell on my butt and the wind was blasted out of my lungs in a whimpering gasp. I couldn't see my eyes so thick with tears. Everything was watercolor and melting shapes all running together. I wiped my eyes and with them pleaded to Allison. Her arms were folded; she clutched them close to herself. Her face was scrunched into an expression so vile and pitying I felt immediately like another blow had been delivered this time directly to my gut.
"You're invited to Suzy's 14th birthday party," the blonde girl began, dictating from the invitation she had opened. "Time: 6:00 PM October 13th, Location: 636 Everhurst Drive. Theme: Witches and Wizards." The girl's voice was completely dry, she read it the same way you read texts aloud in class. Rote, devoid of emotion. "It's all hand written. She drew a little picture in the bottom of each one. Look this has one a pumpkin. This one has a cat." For a moment, all three of us were silent, and all I could hear was some pitiful whine I realized was coming from myself. My face was all contorted, lips stretched back and eyes clamped shut, and the only thing I thought, over and over again, was how I couldn't start sobbing. Don't, I thought, don't don't don't. Not here. Not in front of them. I felt myself start to rock a little and then I seized up, trying to hold everything in. Not even breathing.
"You've got five of these," the girl said. She squatted down at my side and brought her face so close I could feel her breath on my cheek. "Who were you even going to give them to?"
"Damnit Lisa, what the hell is wrong with you?" Allison shouted. I heard her stomp over to her friend, but I wasn't looking anymore. I had pulled my legs in tight against my chest and was burying my face in my knees. "If the girl wants to be weird just let her be weird! Jesus, what makes you think this is okay? What if she-" she paused, then continued in a hushed tone that she probably thought I couldn't hear, "what if she kills herself? Will you feel like such a big person then? You know her dad just abandoned their family like, two years ago right?"
"Whatever," the girl said, "I'm doing her a favor. At some point she's going to have to grow up. God, it's so pathetic like, she sat there writing those invitations out as though she actually thought..." she didn't need to finish the sentence. The two stood over me, not saying anything for a while and then I heard Allison tell the other girl to go on ahead.
Her footsteps faded off into the distance, and then Allison, in a voice one might use if they were talking to a frightened animal, simply said "Suzy?" I wanted to look up at her, but I couldn't, and in a way I was resentful she had taken so long to defend me. I said nothing, so Allison leaned down to touch my shoulder. I lurched, and violently recoiled. Immediately guilty flooded in. Slowly, I met her gaze, and the absolute pity in her eyes hollowed out everything I was in an instant. Nothing was left except the faint paint in my chest, a little pinprick through which self-hatred began to pour. She was holding one of the invitations.
"Listen, I'll uh... I'll try to see if I can make it okay?" Allison said. I was looking at some spot on the wall to the right of her head, and I just nodded slowly. Her mouth wriggled like it was trying to form a smile, but gave up immediately because it knew the futility. "Okay," she said. Then she too slowly left and I listened to her footsteps fade away.
It was a while before I could bring myself to stand up, and when I did, that heavy weight that wanted to burst out was still there. It set me off balance, and my legs convulsed as I tried to gather up all my things. I threw the stick I called a wand and my notebook and stuffed cat into my bag, and then made my way towards the front gate of the school. The sun had set behind the skyline, and a cold wind blew as day gave way to night. The branches of the trees that lined the roads on the way home were prematurely barren. Their autumn hues lay discarded and muddied at their bases.
My house leered down at me with darkened eyes when I arrived. My mom wasn't home yet, and my dad was might've been home, but in June the year before he decided wherever home was for him, it wasn't with us. I opened the door and stood in the foyer for just a moment, suddenly paralyzed now that I was home. Somewhere safe. Somewhere comfortable. I felt like I didn't deserve it. I wanted to go out in the cold again, walk to some park somewhere and just sit alone, freezing. Instead I went to my room and collapsed into a ball in the corner.
The mirror on my closest seemed to reflect a version of me with all the parts of myself I hate accentuated. My face too round, skin too pale. My lips chapped and an ugly, sickly pink unlike Allison's friends. My knees awkward and knobbly. My legs and arms all thin and long, and curled up in a ball like I was they all look like they were bent the wrong direction. Bags under my eyes staining my skill purple. My eyes themselves all red and bloodshot, and the glistening trails of tears still cutting down my cheeks. I took of my witches cap and held it in my lap for a moment. I had dyed my hair black with a cheap kit I had bought at a drugstore, and my roots had begun to show their natural blonde again.
Anger welled up in me again and I began pulling at the edges of my witch's cap, trying to rip it apart. I pulled and pulled, screaming as I did, tilting over and floundering on the ground, but the fabric was too firm for my own weak arms to put even the slightest tear in it. I tossed it into the corner. My mom spent a week stitching together the cap for me, and trying to figure out how to get the cape to sit right. She wasn't a seamstress. It was all cheap fabrics from a craft store, but to me nothing had ever looked more authentic. When she had shown me the finished product I had flung my arms around her and thanked her over and over again. It was perfect, just like on the covers of books and in the movies. My mom had wanted to go door to door with me, but after the first few houses, I met a group of other kids from the neighborhood and asked if I could go with them instead. None of us really knew each other, but we were all so enthralled by the pursuit of candy that we didn't really care that we were strangers. One of the girls in the group was Allison, dressed as a witch too. We laughed and joked and ran down the streets that night as though we had been close friends for a long time. The next day in school, she said she didn't even go trick-or-treating anymore. I shouldn't have asked her about it in front of friends.
I pulled my stuffed cat out of my bag and sat her in my lap, where she slumped lifeless. I pulled out my notebook and tapped the stick I called a wand against it, but nothing happened. But I knew nothing would. I had known the whole time, just as I knew the stuffed cat on my lap wasn't going to spring to life. Just as I had known I had been vandalising the school. Just as I had known that if I opened the notebook it would be filled with nothing but magical words and recipes for potions I had imagined up. I felt the tears again, and squeezed my stuffed cat against my chest.
The shelves of my room were filled with books and jars of grasses and flowers I had picked. There was a jar labeled "Mandragora" with sliced up pieces of a carrot I had stolen from the refrigerator. On my desk, there was a poorly drawn pentagram with a tea candle at each of the five points. Next to it was an open notebook—the draft of a story—with the title "The Little Witch Suzy" penned across the top of the first page.
I went downstairs, and sat waiting at the bottom of the steps for my mom to come home. The house was dark, but I didn't want to turn on the lights. I didn't want to see anything, or feel anything. I just wanted to sit there. After maybe an hour, I heard my mom's car pull up, and stood absolutely still as I listened to her fumbled for keys. She pushed the door open, letting a blast of cold October air wash into the house and sting my eyes. She had a grocery bag in each arm, and, still fumbling with the lock, only saw me out of the corner of her eye.
"Hey Suz, did you hand out all the invitations?" she asked, and that was it. I was gone. Sobbing uncontrollably, face all ugly and reddened, clutching Medea in both arms, legs pressed together, every muscle in my body tensing up. My mom dropped the grocery bags and swooped down on me, wrapping me in her arms.
"Hush," she said, pulling my close, pressing her cheek against mine, "hush. What's wrong? What's wrong?" and then, "I know, I know." I felt her own tears against my face and dropping onto my shoulder, and she repeated it again "I know."