I collapse on my bed, feeling exhausted to the point of tingling all over.
Each muscle is executing some form of acrobatics under my skin as if the cells were trying to repair the damage I just caused by reminding me never to do it again.
One of my arms is pinned beneath me, but I’m too tired to make myself comfortable. I just want to sleep.
The last syllable is dragged out like a karate champ, signaling my little brother’s arrival from preschool. I ignore the pain in my limbs and flip on my back with a smile.
Jason’s karate chop collides with my bruised stomach, exorcising a combination of a laugh and a yelp from me. I rest the back of my hand on my forehead dramatically.
“Why, oh, why did our mother call me Ayah?” I say with an air of snobbery that always makes Jason laugh. I narrow my eyes at him. “I want your name,” I threaten in a deep voice.
“No!” He screams in delight. We’ve rehearsed this game countless times.
“GIVE ME YOUR NAME!” I yell, sounding like the Wizard of Oz and loving every second of it. I rise slowly from the bed and stomp over to his small, retreating form like a zombie.
He shrieks loudly and runs out the door.
I roar like a lion—which isn’t the sound a zombie makes but is a part of our play—and follow his loud shrieks of terror to the kitchen.
He clutches the hem of my mom’s skirt like a shield. My mother, who plays a small part in our theater production, hands a wooden spoon to Jason wordlessly and continues her cooking.
She and I exchange a small smile in greeting.
“I SAID GIVE ME YOUR NAME, JASON ASHFORD!” I command in the lowest tone I can muster.
I hit a note too low and end up coughing like a smoker. My mother’s smile grows but is not yet fully developed. She only laughs at the end when I can’t see her.
“It’s mine!” Jason declares with a shout. He thrusts the spoon forward like a sword, catching me in the leg. My groan is only half exaggerated.
I clutch my thigh like a lifeline. “I’m bleeding! Ah!” I cry and fall to the ground.
Jason throws my mom’s skirt over his shoulder like a cape and charges at me, his wooden spoon raised like an axe.
I shield myself with a hand, and on cue, light floods through the kitchen window where my mom opens the curtain.
“I’m meltingggg!” I hiss, catching Jason off guard.
I take his little arm in my hands, cough convincingly enough to be sought after by Hollywood, and die.
Jason—my once archenemy—falls to the ground by my side and starts fake wailing.
I always try to suppress my smile when he does this little tidbit of drama, but it is so very hard to deny my amusement when a three-year-old starts howling, “Why, oh why! Oh, my sister! Why!”
My mother giggles, and I know this part is almost over. Jason just has to—
A small kiss is reverently placed between my eyebrows. This is my favorite part of the day.
“Ah!” I shoot upward, and Jason claps in delight. “You saved me!” I exclaim while hoisting him under the arms and spinning him around like a helicopter.
His cries of escalation are so contagious that my mother stops cooking and turns around to face us with a hand to her mouth.
I laugh with them both and revel in the knowledge that soon enough, my dad will be here in Australia to join us.
Eventually, my sore muscles protest, and only when I groan does Jason tap my shoulder as if to say, “It’s okay. You can put me down now.”
I place his feet on the floor, and he smiles up at me in greeting.
Unlike me, Jason has two matching blue eyes. His hair isn’t quite black like mine, but it is dark enough to add contrast between the two adorable features.
Mom had him in modeling for a Huggiescampaign in his baby days, which she still brings up whenever one of their commercials is on. I ruffle his hair, my little superstar.
“Hey, little man,” I say.
“Hey, big girl,” he answers back.
He’s the only person in the world who can refer to my size without making me cringe.
Jason would call me that even if I was skinny enough to shop at Pumpkin Patch like the other girls in my senior class.
“Now that I’m alive, how was school?” I ask him and look at my mother. “How was Billy today?” I ask her.
Billy is my mother’s boss, a boss that sends her flowers every other week, even though she’s a happily married woman.
She always tosses the flowers—expensive ones—in the trash. I know she would never cheat on Dad, but I sometimes worry that Billy will fire her if she doesn’t succumb to his persistence.
Jason says, “Great!” at the same time my mother says, “Horrible.”
Jason looks up at both of us and pouts, but he’s smart enough to go play in his room. My mother and I watch him go with matching sad expressions. Even though he doesn’t remember him, he misses my dad.
“What happened?” I ask her when Jason is out of earshot.
The smile that had momentarily graced my mother’s lips is gone, leaving frown lines that weren’t there when my dad was here two years ago.
My fingers involuntarily rise and stroke my mother’s cheek. I don’t want those frown lines to scar her face before he returns in a month.
They stand out like faint creases in a folded piece of paper, and I hate Billy for turning my mother’s beauty and my father’s job in the army, protecting people, into a problem.
Mom sighs heavily, heavily enough to have me worried she will never breathe in again. She misses my dad too.
“Same as usual. That…that…man had the nerve to joke about Andrew dying—”
“Don’t say it, Mom.” I’ve heard it all before—the terrible scenarios Billy hides behind trashy humor—but it doesn’t lighten the stone in my stomach each time I think about it.
“We’d know if something happened, okay? Billy’s just getting the idea in your head to warm up your maternal juices,” I say randomly to lighten the mood.
As I’d hoped, she laughs. “Maternal juices,” she echoes mockingly. “What am I paying your school to teach you?” she asks, and I laugh too.
“Oh, you know, Remedial Sex, Advanced Drugs, and Intermediate Alcohol. The general stuff, really,” I say with a shrug.
She smiles, and already one of the creases around her mouth disappears. My mom is so incredibly beautiful when she smiles.
She has the blue eyes Jason inherited, but her hair is fair, almost blonde, and she is trim and small—unlike me.
What I love most about her is that she’s always treated me like an adult. Two years ago, at the tender age of sixteen, I wrote a book for fun and put it on the internet.
An international publisher read it, loved it, and now, two years later, I have two novels on the Crime’s Best Sellers List.
My books have been published in three other countries: Germany, Singapore, and America. They are now my favorite places in the world.
When I told my mother I wanted to assume a pseudonym so I could finish school without anyone knowing how big of a nerd I was, she told me to go with my gut.
Even though she believed I shouldn’t hide such an accomplishment from my friends, she still supported me and kept my secret.
She even found time to manage all the boring stuff that comes with being a published author for me.
Without her, I wouldn’t be traveling across America for signings and to lecture at a school for young writers like me.
Without her, I’d be an overweight nobody with an empty Microsoft Word document. As sad as it sounds to some people, my mother is my best friend.
“You look exhausted. Where were you today?” my mother asks me, cutting my reminiscing short.
I smile sheepishly. “At the gym.”
Her eyebrows shoot skyward, but she doesn’t laugh, which relieves me. I should’ve known my mother would never make fun of me. I’m too used to the girls at my school.
“What did you think of it?” she asks, genuinely curious.
“Good and bad,” I answer with a so-so gesture of my hand while thinking about Noah and that other trainer.
“I almost didn’t sign up because a staff member was rude to me, but luckily, I found another trainer to get me started.”
“Do you think he can motivate you?”
I nod. “He’s really nice, and when he was training me today, he was equally mean and encouraging, which I think is what I need.
“The only bad thing is his sexiness is a tad distracting. I pretty much talked his ear off. He made me that nervous.”
She laughs, and, again, another wrinkle smooths out.
She needs some time away from work.
Touring with me for three months around America will be good for her. “As long as you can exercise at the same time, I don’t think he’ll mind if you check him out.”
“Yeah, well, we were teasing each other the whole session. I forgot I was even exercising at one point!”
She raises her eyebrow. “Teasing, huh? What kind of teasing?”
Nothing slips past my mother. “Well—get this—his favorite junk food is eucalyptus drops.”
I see my mother’s incredulous face, and I laugh. “I know. I think I’ve stumbled on a health nut. Anyway, we started talking about movies at one point and how he’s a sucker for scary ones. I told him I hated them but loved scary rides, which he hates. I forgot your question.”
She throws her head back—just like Noah—and laughs loudly. It makes my stomach warm to see her laugh wholeheartedly, even at my expense. “It sounds like you’re in love.”
I snicker at that. “Maybe with his humor. But no, fortunately, I am not in love with this beautiful stranger, mother. No grandbabies any time soon.”
“And why is it fortunate that you’re not in love with a funny, sexy man that motivates people for a living?” She asks half jokingly.
“Because you don’t grab a gourmet steak during an apocalypse—you grab cans and other non-perishables,” I reply half seriously. Some of the laughter in the room fizzles out at that.
“What’s that supposed to mean? I don’t understand writer’s talk,” Mom asks, although I think she knows exactly what I’m implying. One of her frown lines is back. I should’ve shut my mouth.
“It means that chasing this boy would be just as beautiful as it is unreasonable.”
My mother tries to protest, but I wave her off. “It’s quite all right, Mother Dearest. I don’t need someone dazzling, anyway. I need someone dependable and positively square like myself.”
I try to reanimate the mood I had going before but with no success.
Instead of laughing, my mother’s lips thin into a straight line, flattening the crease in her lower lip. I’ve upset her. I can see it in the way she squints her eyes, wondering how to punish me.
The only time my mother ever punishes me is whenever she hears me putting myself down.
I want to yell at her sometimes, explain that I’m not pitying myself when I talk about my weight or how amateur my inexperienced writing can be—or my lack of romantic possibility with Mr. Hunky Trainer.
I’m just being honest. Practical, even. She should be proud I’m mature enough to understand my shortcomings. She doesn’t understand.
“Why can’t you find someone that’s both dazzling and dependable? You’re an amazing, gifted, funny, beautiful girl that’s accomplished more in eighteen years than adults do in one lifetime—”
Something catches in her throat, prematurely ending the lecture, and it is quiet again. She is more than upset. She’s angry. I sigh heavily, sad that our earlier moment has passed us by so soon.
“Let’s just drop it, Mom. I’m sure I’ll find someone dazzling and dependable. It just won’t be Noah.”
“Go to your room,” she commands.
I roll my eyes but do as she says, silently wishing that she’d let me be self-deprecating every once in a while—it is a lot of work pretending to be strong all the time.
When I’m unable to write or amuse myself an hour later, I make for the front door. Maybe my mom is right, and I can find someone dazzling and dependable. I’ll just look for him in a book.
What the hell is she~ doing here?~ I see Ayah not one day after meeting her. ~Is she stalking me?~
The department store is quiet this time of night. My mother needed pasta sauce and forgot to buy some during the day, so I offered to get it for her.
My willingness to help had more to do with avoiding my dad than genuine generosity. But either way, dinner would be on the table, and I wouldn’t be there when my dad got home from work.
I love visiting department stores at night when the cashier girls are usually over the age of fifteen and under the age of twenty-five.
One winks at me, but for some reason, my eyes skip over the sexy redhead and go to the chubby girl on her way to the book section.
I decide to follow. There’s no one around her because, of course, what normal girl shops for books on a Thursday night?
I catch snippets of her slinking off into the romance section between the rows of titles.
Ayah is wearing tracksuit pants, and her black hair is tumbled in a ball on her head, reminding me of a pineapple.
I can’t tell if she’s wearing makeup. She picks up a nerdy-looking book with a kilted man on the cover and flips it over to scan the back. A kilted man. Tsk. Does she really think I’m that stupid?
I march up to her.
She’s so distracted by her book it takes her ten seconds to realize I’m standing in front of her.
Or the real reason, I argue in my head, ~is because she’s trying to hide the fact that she’s stalking me. ~
She must be making a point to ignore me now as a way to punish me for ignoring her earlier. That makes more sense.
I clear my throat to express my impatience. Her different-colored eyes widen when she looks up and recognizes me. She’s a good actress.
“Hey?” she greets me, although it sounds like a question. Her eyes dart from left to right like she’s nervous. Like she’s busted.
“Ah-huh,” I say, crossing my arms. It’s clear her desperation has driven her here. Even if she is just trying to redeem herself, it still gives me the creeps that she’s decided to seek me outside the gym.
“Um… Can I help you?” she asks with her shoulders hunched in, acting all uncomfortable.
I snort. “Don’t you mean can I help ~you~?” I ask accusingly. “Don’t you think you’re being a little desperate?”
Her eyebrows shoot up and almost disappear into the short wisps of hair that have fallen on her face. “Excuse me?” she asks after some time.
I refuse to believe her shock is genuine.
“I mean, I’m sorry I rejected you today at the gym. But that’s no excuse to seek me out and follow me around. It’s not going to happen between us,” I say gently.
She stares at me for a long time. After a minute of waiting for her to apologize, she surprises me.
She starts laughing.
The sound echoes until I have three different harmonizations of her cackling all around me.
An old woman in the underwear aisle across from us gives Ayah a disapproving look, and I can’t help but do the same.
Stalking is not a laughing matter, especially since I’ve been nice enough to apologize for treating her badly.
She is still laughing.
“Would you stop?” I ask in irritation.
Obediently, she puts a fist in front of her mouth as if to beat the laughter back. After a while, she manages to quiet down.
“I…actually can’t believe you’re that…conceited!” she says between breaths.
My mouth pops open, but she’s not finished. “I mean, I get it. You’re attractive and all but holy shit, dude, you seriously cannot be that deluded.”
For the first time in a long time, I feel my cheeks reddening. I want desperately to believe that she’s just a really good actress.
Because if she’s not and she’s talking to me in this condescending way, then I have made a fool of myself.
I am the best, I chant. I’m successful. I’m attractive. She is neither of those things.
I smirk when my mantra eventually works its magic, feeling grateful for the cradle that logic rocks me with. “Nice try,” I say. “I’ll pretend this never happened if you just back off, okay, stalker?”
She starts laughing again, albeit more quietly and under control. Only her shaking shoulders give her away. I hate that she’s making me question myself. Again.
“Whatever you say,” she says with an eye roll. “Now, can I get back to shopping?”
I get the hell out of there and leave her alone so she can “shop.” When I get to my car, and she’s nowhere in sight, I don’t think too hard about it. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t right. She wants me.
I’ll just have to watch her closely.
Damn it. I forgot the sauce.
I’m standing at the checkout, and suddenly, I can’t help the laughter from bubbling out of my mouth.
The redheaded girl working the cash register shoots me one of those dirty, patronizing smiles only retail people can pull off.
I mirror her expression with just as much artificial lighting; I’ve worked in Woolworths before.
She purses her lips and gives me my receipt.
Even as I make my way back to my car (the car I bought with my first-ever royalty check for Danger After Dark), I can’t help but let my laughter slip out once more.
My quiet chuckles resound in the parking basement as if the concrete agrees with me. What an absolute douche.
How can someone be that delusional? I mean, I’m an overweight schoolgirl that initially thought the guy was cute—until he opened his big mouth.
But come on, I wanted to yell at him when he gave me that pitying look. Just because I’m not skinny doesn’t mean I’d degrade myself by stalking a man that called me a lost cause.
I don’t even know his name. Some stalker I’d make.
I see the door to English class and breathe a sigh of relief.
Last night’s ‘stalker’ fiasco, coupled with this morning’s head-dunking in a toilet, have put me on edge.
And as I walk the halls of my school with blue water staining my shirt (among other things that come from a toilet), I can’t help but be annoyed with that trainer instead of thinking his delusions are funny.
But I guess that’s what you get for swimming in shit: nothing impresses you afterward.
Pricilla made sure to catch me before lunch today. She claimed her intentions were noble; I mean, who could eat lunch while smelling like a sewer drain, right?
She was ‘watching out for my weight,’ she told me.
I took a risk and responded that I’d tasted the breakfast she’d thrown up this morning, so I wasn’t hungry anyway (her superficial minions knew she was bulimic and snickered cruelly at that).
What she does to me physically, I do to her emotionally. It’s a slippery slope, the power we have over each other. But I would happily stop exploiting her failures if she just left me alone.
Only three more weeks to graduation, I chant to myself as I walk into Mr. Hickey’s safe haven of a classroom.
Pricilla can’t do anything to me in here. And in three weeks, she won’t be able to do anything to me at all.
My words of self-empowerment fade into the back of my mind as she walks through the door. I realize too late that Mr. Hickey hasn’t arrived yet, but I refuse to be openly distressed.
She’s the bully that didn’t get into any university because she was too stupid to study. ~She’s~ the girl that’s known for whoring herself out in exchange for plagiarized assignments.
She should be embarrassed for dunking someone’s head in a toilet. Not me.
Pricilla approaches my desk with a come-hither sway of her hips and hands me a tissue.
“Ayah, hey! You’ve got some mascara running down your cheeks,” she states with a mask much too kind to be genuine.
I narrow my eyes, feeling threatened by her sugary tone. I’m angry enough to smother the feeling and snatch the tissue from her hands to dab it under my eyes.
Something crunchy and oozing slides down my face.
“Oh!” she exclaims and walks back to my desk. The students who have beaten Mr. Hickey to class face her—face us. “That’s the tissue I used to pick up a dead spider in my car! I’m so forgetful!”
While those around me make exaggerated gagging sounds, I wipe my cheek and look down to see a crushed, tiny carcass in my hand.
How could I have trusted her to give me anything other than more humiliation? I want to puke. That’s disgusting, even for her.
“Say cheese!” she says and quickly snaps a photo of me with her phone.
I surprise her by smiling just as the phone light flashes. Regardless of what she did to me and the way she made me feel, I never allowed myself to react outwardly to her scorn.
And I think that’s what annoyed her most about me.
“Thanks for the tissue, Prissy. But maybe you should work on improving your memory a little bit. That’s probably why you didn’t get into uni.”
I inhale all the “burns!” around me like an asthmatic puffing on Ventolin. Brian slips a clean tissue onto my desk discreetly, and I award Pricilla a wink once my face is devoid of insect guts.
Just because I’m an unwilling contestant didn’t mean I couldn’t play the game.
Even though I know it’s coming and nothing new, I squeeze my eyes shut when Pricilla’s hand strikes my face. My cheek immediately stings, and my tear ducts activate.
She dares me to retaliate with her eyes. Instead, I wordlessly raise my finger and point to the door. Mr. Hickey walks in a second later.
“All right, everyone, practice take-home exams to be done. Stop talking!” he says cheerily while indicating with a flourish of his hand for Pricilla to sit down.
She does so immediately, but not before whispering in my ear, “I can wait an hour to finish what we started, loser.”
I ignore her and stand to distribute this week’s essay question for Mr. Hickey. Lost cause. Stalker. Loser. Fatty. Tubba-tub. Ashfat. Geek. All these names…
Once all the papers are handed out, I take a seat at my desk and write them all down in the top corner of my sheet.
I complete the essay in forty-five of the fifty minutes assigned to us. My mind is lost in a whirlwind of Losers and Lost Causes to finish anything worthy of handing in.
I ask to excuse myself two minutes early, claiming a stomach ache. Mr. Hickey takes a long look at me and nods his head in approval. I bolt to the door with my head hanging low on my chest.
Mr. Hickey never let anybody out of class early, especially not for a two-minute head start.
And it’s pretty clear by the class full of snickering students that his acceptance had more to do with my pee-stained shirt and reddened cheek than the stomach ache I’m claiming to have.
If I was the type to lie, I’d turn around and shout at the class that I’m no coward. But even that would require the bravery I’m obviously lacking in.
Once the door is closed behind me, my feet propel me to my car. Yes, I have run. But cowards can change. Bravery can be earned. I just have to prove it.
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