She sat at the back of the room, and nobody really noticed her. There's one in every school; always reading, never talking, but doesn't call enough attention to themselves to be singled out and labeled as NERD. She didn't fit any of the stereotypes well enough to be categorized under one of them. We really didn't know her name; it seemed to get lost during the roll call, as we listen with half an ear for our names and then, upon hearing it, answer "Here" and return to whatever important activity we had participating in before.
If it wasn't for that damn district rezoning in sophomore year, I probably would have stayed in that state of ignorance until graduation. As it turned out, though, the school board decided that the district lines needed to be redrawn. As a result, there was a dramatic jumbling of high-schoolers in our classes; some missing, some random new kids. Several of my friends were relocated, and I found myself alone in my new English class. The new kids who'd arrived in school had already integrated themselves into their best-fitting groups in the class; 'gangsta', preppy, video game-loving.
It—for want of a better word—sucked, but didn't really faze me. The English class friends hadn't been what one would call "sleepover material", so I figured I could find someone else to work with for the occasional partner or group activity. My teacher wasn't a huge believer in partner work, but he was fond of writing criticism activities. About two weeks after the Grand District Shuffle—as I secretly called it, as though it was a dance—my teacher assigned us an assignment that many of my peers groaned at: write a fictional story, no less than eight pages in length. After writing it, we would get together with a partner, discuss our stories, edit them, and then write a continuation of each other's stories. And share them.
I didn't really put much effort into my story; I never really had in past English classes. My teachers stayed happy if I spelled everything correctly and had good grammar skills. After cranking out eight and a half pages (it ran a little longer than I'd anticipated, plus, it's always good to do more than the minimum), I was satisfied that the rest of the assignment would be fairly easy.
The next class, we were all winding down our private conversations when the teacher announced, "And now, we shall choose partners, with whom we will share our stories." Everyone immediately grabbed their friends. For the first time in my school career, I was the last one to find a partner. I searched the classroom, hoping against hope I wouldn't get stuck with a stoner or too-cool-for-this popular girl (two types who, also, can be found in every school, if not every class). My eyes found her. I had forgotten her existence yet again, as had, doubtless, everyone else in the class. She was in the middle of a book, which seemed to be a constant state of being for her.
I walked slowly over to her, stapled sheaf of story in hand. I sat down unceremoniously in the desk in front of her. She sighed gently, dog-eared the page she was on, and closed the book. She seemed to run her fingers delicately over the cover, as though she was caressing a baby or her boyfriend's hand. She looked at me with large, clear eyes. "You're my partner?" she asked. I nodded noncommittally. "I'm usually alone for these things," she said, shrugging. "Though I guess you can't really critique your own work as well as someone else, can you?" This prompted another, more halfhearted nod and accompanying shrug. She looked at my story. "Well, do you want to go first, then?" she asked, gesturing to it.
I cleared my throat, a little uneasy under the scrutiny of those huge eyes. I read the story as well as I could, tripping over the occasional word, rushing through what were supposed to be the funnier parts. It was a stupid story, really, about a girl falling in love with a cute boy in her class and then discovering that he was really gay, and also had a crush on her brother. She didn't react to any of it, but closed her eyes shortly after I began reading. When I was done, she opened them. She seemed disappointed, or was that my inner paranoia rearing its head?
"That's really a dramatic story twist, having Bryce gay and in love with Corey as well," she said thoughtfully.
"Yeah, I guess," I said uncomfortably.
"Do you think," she said, tilting her head to one side, her eyes unfocusing slightly, "that instead of being in love with her brother, Bryce could have ended up hating Katrina for going out with a boy he had liked before? It would be a little less cliché, perhaps, and just as painful for Katrina. No offense, no offense, sorry," she stuttered hastily.
I shoved my story under the nearest binder, irked at the fact that even I had to admit that it was a bit cliché. "Well, it's your turn now," I said, glancing at the clock.
She didn't clear her throat, but instead gave another soft sigh. "I didn't call it anything," she said. "It doesn't have a title."
"Whatever," I said, now playing with my pen's cap.
She closed her eyes again, opened them, and began reading.
Thirty minutes later, she was finished. I sat, staring at her, unable to believe it. Her story, about a girl who lived in an abandoned shack next to a polluted river, was so beautiful and well-written that it left me absolutely speechless. I gazed at the girl, whose name I had still forgotten, as if I had been seeing her through a plastic shower curtain all my life and it had been just now pulled away. This story, this piece of writing that was so full of love and sadness, had come out of her mind? She looked at me, and seemed afraid of what I would say.
"That was…a lot better than mine," I said, at a loss for anything but that first-grade level response.
"Oh no, yours was good too," she said quickly.
"No, shut up," I said. "It sucked. Yours was so…I don't even know."
"I was thinking of having the girl abandoned there at birth instead of a runaway," she began, but I cut her off.
"No. No, it was great. Being abandoned there as a baby…the police would have found her, or something. And you couldn't have done that, that great scene where she remembers the story of all her cuts and bruises," I stammered. "But…my god, where did you come up with that? You're not…are you?"
She smiled. "My parents are perfectly fine, thanks. I just read a lot, that's all. If I need to write something, I just dive into one of the worlds I've read about."
She looked away, then down at her hands, then up at me, still smiling. "Sometimes," she said softly, "I spend so much time in other worlds that I forget which one is the real one."