Ashley fidgeted in her seat, her eyes flitting about her second grade classroom somewhat anxiously. She was trying to listen to her teacher, Mrs. Evander, trying to copy her demonstrations of subtraction off the whiteboard- really she was. She was gripping her pencil tightly in her clammy hand, so firmly her small knuckles were white. She bore down hard on the widely lined paper- hard enough that she tore it in one spot. But still, despite her diligent efforts to focus on Mrs. Evander and the lesson, Ashley could not help but notice the behavior of the other children around her.

They weren't doing anything to attempt to sway her attention, not really. If anything, they were attempting to hide themselves from her- but it was their attempts at hiding that made them stand out all the more.

Most of the other children in the classroom would not look at Ashley- not the indifferent, casual way of a child overlooking or not caring to see a person, but in a way that was deliberate, obviously personally intended for her to notice. Most of the children did not so much as glance in Ashley's direction- and she sat in the middle seat of the middle row, where she could hardly be missed. They held their heads deliberately away from her, some of them tilting in ridiculous positions in order to keep their eyes from seeing her as well as they were able to. The few children who did dare to look at her did so quickly, then looked away just as hurriedly, whispering and giggling uneasily to the child nearest them. They seemed to get a strange excitement, almost pleasure, from their little game…

The children whose desks were beside, behind, and in front of Ashley's had pushed them as far from hers as they could manage, leaving Ashley's area an island in the middle of the room. At the beginning of the year, Mrs. Evander had told the children not to move their chairs, and each day the desks would begin in an ordinary formation. But it was October now, and she no longer said anything about the island the other children had forced Ashley and her desk to form. In fact, she too rarely spoke to or seemed to look at Ashley. Even when she raised her hand, she seemed not to see her. Sometimes Ashley wondered if she was just pretending, to seem politer than all the kids.

It had been like this for as long as Ashley could remember since she had started school. None of the kids had liked her- no one had ever wanted to be her friend. Even her teachers didn't talk to her like they did with the other kids- they were always busy, or didn't' even notice her. When Ashley tried to talk to them at their desk or in the halls, they always told her they needed to do something- even if they hadn't been doing anything when she came up. Sometimes Ashley thought her teachers didn't like her any more than the other kids did.

What Ashley didn't understand about her state of rejection was why they all so disliked her. Why did all the kids- and some of the teachers too- seem to hate her so much? What had she done to make them so mean? She always smiled at them- whenever they actually looked at her. She never hogged the crayons or glue, and she never cut in line. She wasn't any uglier or prettier than any of the other girls, as far as she could tell- there were plenty of other girls about her size, with similar long brown hair and brown eyes. What was it about Ashley that made her seem so different to them- so weird?

For that's what the other kids all said about Ashley- that she was weird, scary, mean. Every day they whispered and backed away from her, took great pains not to touch her or anything she had touched. Every day Ashley came to school and felt alone, friendless. She simply didn't understand. Why would no one be her friend? Why did they all hate her so much?

Eventually Mrs. Evander finished up her lesson, and she began to hand out the children's lunch cards, for it was the first and second grader's lunch time. She didn't look at Ashley when she gave her her card, nor did she place it in her hand, as she had with the others. Instead, she very quickly put it on the edge of her desk. Ashley's stomach hurt as she picked up her card and slowly began to get into line. She was the last one, as usual, and the boy ahead of her scooted so close to the other children that he was nearly hugging them. Even as they walked down the hall, he shot her nervous, mean glances, as if he were afraid she would reach out and grab him. Ashley walked behind them, shoulders sagging, head drooping. She knew her day would get no better.

In the cafeteria, Ashley tried with little hope to sit beside Danielle, one of the girls in her class, but Danielle shot her a look of alarm and got up, going to sit by Miles instead. Ashley's lower lip trembled as she picked up her fork, eating alone on the very end of the long cafeteria bench. It was very bad if a girl would rather sit with a boy than her. That meant Danielle would rather get cooties than sit with Ashley. All of the other girls seemed to feel the same way, for not a single one went to sit with Ashley.

After lunch was recess, a period most of the kids loved, but Ashley hated. There was no one for her to run and play with, or even talk to. No one would so much as smile at her, let alone swing with her or play tag. In fact, if the other kids saw that Ashley was using one of the swings, none of them would go near them all day.

Once more Ashley lagged behind in line as the others clustered ahead of her on the way to recess. She really wanted to play hopscotch with someone- but she knew that no one would let her play with them.

She stood on the blacktop watching as the other kids played kickball and tag, hopscotch and jump rope. She bit her lip, hoping that maybe one of them would ask her to play, but of course, no one did. She stepped closer to some girls playing hopscotch, watching, desperately hoping that today would be different. Maybe today she could at least watch them, even if they wouldn't let her play.

But as Ashley drew within twenty feet of them, one of the girls, Deidre, suddenly squealed, pointing at her. The other little girls, Nina and Tali, whirled around to look at her too, their faces twisted and mean.

"Look,it's that scary girl, Ashley," she heard Deidre whisper loudly. "She's looking at us!"

"Go away, Ashley," cried Tali, "quit looking at us like that!"

"Yeah, quit looking at us!" Nina echoed, her words less certain than the other girls'.

Ashley stood very still, her lips quivering as she struggled not to cry. Why did they have to be so mean?

"I just wanted to watch," she almost whispered, her voice small. "I wasn't going to ask to play."

"She's still here!" Deidre said urgently to Tali and Nina, her eyes wide. "She isn't leaving! She's gonna get mad!"

"Come on, run!" Tali said, and without hesitating, the little girls took off, casting fearful glances behind their shoulders, seeing if Ashley would attempt to follow. She didn't- she continued to stand there, staring at the abandoned hopscotch game through a sheen of unshed tears. She blinked fiercely, telling herself, don't cry, Ashley, don't' cry- but she wanted to so badly….

It's okay, she tried to tell herself. You don't' want to play with those meanies anyway.

But she did… and that was the trouble. When you spend all your time at school alone, you start to want anyone's attention and acceptance, anyone's at all- and Ashley was no exception. To be seven years old and alone was a terrible burden.

Suddenly Ashley no longer wanted to remain outside with the other children. She didn't want to watch them all play together, laughing and having fun, when she herself could not join in- would not be allowed to. She just wanted the day to be over, so she could go home to her mommy and daddy and forget about the other kids- at least, as best as she could.

She couldn't leave now- her mommy wouldn't be there to pick her up. But, Ashley thought suddenly, she didn't have to stay outside all recess. She could go inside, sit in the girl's room until recess was over and she could go back to class. She had seen other girls ask the teacher during recess to use the bathroom- she could do the same thing.

She approached Mrs. Evander, who was standing at the blacktop watching the other children, with timid anticipation. The woman did not look at her until Ashley said shyly, "Mrs. Evander?"

Glancing down at her quickly, then looking away, her teacher said, "Not now, Ashley. I'm watching the other children. Run along and play."

But I only wanted to ask to use the bathroom! Ashley wanted to scream as she bit her lip, tears pooling in her eyes. She began to walk away, her steps shuffly, beginning to sniffle- but then, an idea came to her. Why should she have to stay outside? Who would notice if she went to the bathroom until recess was over? Who would care? No one- they'd probably be happy.

With more determination in her posture, as well as some anger, Ashley turned back toward the entrance, looking over her shoulder to see if anyone would stop her. No one was even watching- certainly no one cared.

In the bathroom, Ashley was the only one in there- she could see no one else's feet in the stall doors. She went into the first stall, stood there, leaning against the door and closing her eyes briefly. All she could think of was how mean everyone was to her. Why did they hate her- why?

After a few minutes she heard the bathroom door open, and the footsteps of a little girl walking in. Ashley watched the feet appear in the stall next to hers, and she was amazed- for this was the closest another person had been to her all day. Of course, this girl didn't know that it was Ashley in the next stall.

She listened as the other girl flushed the toilet and opened the stall door, preparing to wash her hands. Acting on a sudden impulse, one born from sorrow and confusion, Ashley suddenly stepped out of her stall door as well, appearing less than two feet away from the other girl. The other child froze, startled and clearly panicked, for she was now not only close to Ashley, she was also alone with her. Ashley saw that she was Danielle, the girl she had tried to sit with at lunch. Danielle must have come in from recess to the bathroom too- only, the teacher had probably told her it was okay.

"Hi, Danielle," Ashley said, her voice slightly unsteady, not carrying much hope.

"Oh no," Danielle almost whispered, her body rigid, seeming almost unable to move. "No, no- go away!"

Ashley's eyes filled, and she blinked rapidly, once more close to tears. Why were they all so quick to send her away from them, when all she wanted was to talk?

"Why won't you talk to me?" she whispered, her voice shaking. "Why don't you like me? I just want to talk to you! How come you're so mean to me?"

"Go away, Ashley," Danielle ordered, but her words came out in a near whimper as her eyes darted frantically around the room. "Go away, I don't wanna talk to you, leave me alone-"

"But why?" Ashley begged, almost sobbing now. "Why won't you talk to me? Why won't you play with me? Why do you hate me so much?"

Suddenly she grabbed Danielle's wrist, pulling her near her frantically, desperately. Danielle yelped in shock and panic, trying to wrench away, but Ashley held tight, grabbing her neck with the other hand. As Danielle struggled, Ashley began to squeeze the girl's small throat, adding her other hand to increase the force being applied by her small fingers… her experienced fingers.

"Answer me!" she cried as her hands squeezed harder, harder around Danielle's neck. "Why are you so mean? Why don't you like me?"

Danielle's struggles grew weaker, more feeble, for although she was slightly bigger than Ashley in size she lacked the other child's adrenaline and strength. Only a few minutes had passed before her knees buckled and her body slackened. Ashley made herself take her hands away, made herself step back, body trembling, as Danielle dropped to the floor, her neck and face horribly discolored, swelling… dying, if she was not dead already. Ashley felt tears run down her face as she looked at the small body before her- the fifth child in three years who had come in close contact with Ashley.

They would find Danielle later, Ashley knew, and it would be like the other times. No one could prove she had done it- no one could really know for sure. But somehow, they would all know anyway- or think they knew. And still she would be alone.

Dimly Ashley heard the bell ring, signaling the end of recess. She wiped her face, moving toward the door and slipping into the back of her class as she saw them pass. As the other kids once more settled into their far-removed desks, leaning as far from Ashley as possible, she once more fought back tears. Why did they all hate her so much?