Two Thousand Eleventh Year of the Common Era
Mildred had gotten tired of living. It was the same damn thing every day.
Every morning she would wake up already swearing under her breath at the curse that was consciousness. Most days it seemed a herculean effort just to get out of bed. On the occasion she decided against it, and curled up under her sheets in surrender, claiming, when her mother invariably sought after her, that she was ill. A lie. Of course, she would amend that with the truth: that she didn't want to go to school that day. So at least there was some veracity in her, isolated though it was. All in all, it was difficult, and she was tired of it.
Every day, even being awake hurt. There was a sort of constriction in her chest, as though a band were wrapped around her, reducing the maximum size of her breaths to something uncomfortably small. Sometimes she swore she was dizzy from not breathing enough. Then there was the tightness in her throat, enough to make speaking difficult. And the dull ache in all her joints, enough to make her feel she was a few times her actual age. Other things too, like a strange, painful sensation that implied to her her fingernails were too small for the places they belonged, and a feeling as though her eyes were being sucked back into her head. All in all, it was very uncomfortable, and she was tired of it.
Every morning she would drag on clothes. She didn't have a lot of variety to choose from, at least not anything to write home about, but it was still an effort. Each selection spoke volumes to her of how hideous would she look in them. That top made her look fat around the middle, that one made her elbows look weird, that one made her skin look too pink, that one made her breasts look even smaller than they already were to begin with. So forth and so on. At least the jeans were an easier decision. She had three pairs to speak of, and they were all the same size and style. If one were ever to wear out—which, due to her general inactivity, happened hardly frequently—she would simply replace it with another identical one. Problem solved. But it still took her ages to pick out clothes for the day, and she was never satisfied with the decision. All in all, it was annoying, and she was tired of it.
Every morning she would look in the mirror. And hate herself. She could never put words to exactly what it was about her own face that she so despised—perhaps something about the corners of her eyes there, or that spot between her nose and lips there, or maybe her eyebrows her nose her freckles her chin—but whatever it was, there was nothing she could do about it. She had tried makeup before. Not only was it torture to stare at herself for that long, but nothing she had ever tried did any good. And she'd tried everything. She'd even scoured the internet, searching for something, anything, she could do to make her appearance even a little palatable. Her mother had said once in her annoyance that Mildred had thrown out more makeup—from simple frustration—than she'd ever used. And that was probably true. So she'd given up. She'd given up on her hair as well. Only so it would take less maintenance, she kept her hair—which somehow had a dingy quality in its brownness that no washing could remove—a little short, barely touching the bottoms of her ears. In the morning she would only put a token effort into wrangling it into shape, just swiping a comb through it to get out the tangles. Maybe she would straighten it up a little, but if she put too much thought into it she would get sucked into it enough to lose track of time and her morale. All in all, it was disheartening, and she was tired of it.
Every morning, she would ride the bus to school in silence. And she was the only one in the bus silent, such a raucous bunch the others were. It hurt her ears more often than not. Once she had considered bringing music along with her, so she could put on her earphones and block the cacophony out, but then it occurred to her she'd have to turn it up way too high to actually do any good. So she had given up and tolerated it. At least the others on the bus had tired of abusing her. Yes, there had been much abuse in elementary and middle school. Name calling the most benign sort, which she had long ago grown used to—one could only hear "moldy Mildred" or any other handle so many times before it got old. It didn't even make sense anyway, though she supposed children rarely did. The other stuff was harder for her to ignore. Spitballs. Feet in the aisle. Her backpack stolen. Such little things that were so powerful over long periods of time. But she'd eventually drawn inward, and everyone had stopped paying attention to her. That was exactly what she wanted. Or so she had thought, but sometimes she wished she had someone she could talk to on the way to school, someone who hadn't spent the last ten years tormenting her. All in all, it was demoralizing, and she was tired of it.
Every morning, she would stumble her way into class. She found school maddeningly boring. Cosine this, Golden Age that. Mitochondria this, Jane Austen that. She wasn't really interested in any of it, and only paid enough attention to pass exams, if only barely. Frequently she even slept in class. She had been chastised for it repeatedly, had been sent to the school counselor, and knew for fact that her mother was called every time she dozed off. What the big deal was, she didn't know. It was boring; she slept. It wasn't exactly surprising. She knew her grade point average was deplorable, but she didn't care. She knew she was probably screwing herself for the rest of her life, but she didn't care about that either. She simply couldn't care. All in all, it was tedious, and she was tired of it.
Every day, she would spend lunch with her only two friends in the world. Since she ate only rarely—she found eating to be a burden of a chore—she spent most of the time venting about this or that, or simply letting the others talk. First there was Ethan. He was a spindly twig of a boy, with close-cropped black hair and brown eyes that seemed oddly dull. He was also incredibly gay. Only last year he had come out to Mildred, giving her the honor of being one of the very first people he'd told. He was a serious boy, more focused on things like schoolwork than Mildred was entirely comfortable with, but he did let out the occasional snarky comment in a marked deadpan. And then there was Valentine—or "Val," as he preferred to be called. Because seriously, what parent names their kid Valentine? Val was remarkably nondescript, of average height with average features and average brown hair and average brown eyes and wearing average dull-toned clothing. He was also incredibly geeky. Mildred thought he knew more about Star Trek and Magic whatever than she knew about anything. They shared their dispassion for education. All in all, the two were good company, and she wasn't tired of that.
Every evening, she would spend the time after school in a directionless daze. Maybe she would hang out with Ethan or Val, or both. Maybe she would sit at home and veg out in front of the television. Or maybe she would lie on her bed and veg out doing absolutely nothing. Usually, by the time her parents arrived home, she had managed to accomplish just as much nothing the whole day. They may decide to passive-aggressive her into doing her homework, which would fail as often as it succeeded, or maybe they would only express their disappointment. Mildred thought that hurt more than anything she'd felt before, their disappointment. Maybe, if it was a particularly bad day, she would cut just to watch herself bleed. It was a little disturbing how much pleasure she got out of that, but she couldn't get herself to care either way.
All in all in all, it was tiring, and she was tired of it all.
She didn't want to kill herself, not exactly. Sure, she'd thought of it before, but hasn't everybody? She didn't want to die, she just didn't want to live. It was a very important distinction, she felt. Welcoming the possibility of death and seeking it out may not be opposite sides of the coin—that coin would be seeking life on one side and seeking death on the other, of course—but the first was certainly on some sort of middle ground, and that middle ground was where she stood. On the edge of the coin, perhaps. In some distant corner of her mind, she understood that a single push could tip her onto either side. She couldn't bring herself to care.
But of course, whether she cared or not, that push came. It would take a while for her to decide which way she fell.
Mildred was sitting alone in the cafeteria. The boys were in line to get food; since she had decided she wasn't eating today, again, she was spending a few minutes alone waiting for them. She stared blankly at the grey table surface, twirling a pen between her fingers with practiced adroitness. Alone she was, and she expected to stay alone until the boys returned. Not that she particularly cared. She was usually alone. And there wasn't anyone in this school aside from the boys that she actually liked, so she would rather wait for them than be stuck with anyone else.
"Hiya," came a cheerful voice from nearby.
In her twitch of surprise, she dropped her pen clicking to the ground. She immediately ducked under to grab it, then resurfaced, placing the instrument on the table. Then she remembered why she'd dropped it in the first place. She looked up to find a girl—long brownish blonde hair, blue eyes, button nose, tee shirt and jeans that were probably way too tight—standing across the table. "Uh," Mildred muttered, frowning a little. "Hi."
With a radiant smile, the girl sat in one of the seats. Not across the table from Mildred, nor next to her, but somewhere in between. She leaned in toward Mildred slightly as she said, "I'm Leah," still in her buoyant voice.
For a moment, she considered not answering. "Mildred," she finally murmured.
Something passed across Leah's face Mildred couldn't interpret. "Moldy Mildred?"
Mildred wasn't sure if she was angry or embarrassed. No matter which emotion it was, she felt her face flush. She looked back down to the table, clenching her fists in her lap, and forced herself to speak. "How far has that gotten around?" Okay, it wasn't genius she had come up with, but at least she had said something. Awkward words were better than awkward silence.
"No, not far," Leah said easily, still smiling. "I just know the right people."
"You mean the wrong people," muttered Mildred without thinking.
Leah's smile just broadened further. "Yeah, maybe." And nothing, only grinning.
It was a rather stupid thing to say, Mildred knew that, but she was too curious not to ask. She attempted to swallow her hesitation down a few times before she could speak, wondering even as she did if Leah had been waiting for her to do exactly that. "Why are you here?"
Quirking her lips slightly outward, Leah shrugged, raising a single eyebrow along the way. "I've been noticing you around, so I thought I'd say hi. And I did."
Mildred wasn't sure people really noticed her. And, from her experience, when they did notice her, it wasn't exactly a good thing. Well, Leah wasn't teasing her, so that was something. At least she didn't think she was being teased. "You did," she muttered.
"So that's one thing to check off my to-do list." That was a joke, Mildred knew it was a joke, but she didn't respond. "You're quiet," Leah said after a moment.
"Lots of practice."
Leah let out a short laugh, then made a sort of sideways smile, clearly more amused by Mildred's simple statement than she would have thought possible. "That was cute."
Cute? Mildred was never cute. What was it about that that Leah had decided was cute? The words themselves weren't it; they were simple enough. Maybe it was the way she had said it? Mildred didn't know. But she certainly wasn't cute. So instead of saying anything, she simply sat, avoiding Leah's eyes and squirming in place a little, doing her best to ignore the swirl of conflicting emotions the simple word had stirred in her.
"Mildred?" That was Ethan. She turned her head to see him standing a few paces away, his tray in hand, with Val at his shoulder. They both seemed surprised by Leah's presence, confused about what was going on, and equally confused on how to handle it.
"I can leave," Leah said even before Mildred could fully analyze the situation. She took the two boys in, her head cocked a little, and Mildred could have sworn her expression tightened a little when her gaze locked on Ethan. "Katie is waiting for me, anyway." With another smile directed at Mildred, the girl stood and turned to leave. As the boys took their seats, not even a couple paces away, Leah stopped. Clearly acting on impulse, she turned around, walked closer to Mildred, and dropped to one knee at her feet.
At first Mildred was shocked out of her mind. What the hell was going on, some other girl kneeling to her? She stuttered out nonsense words for a couple seconds before she realized Leah was digging into her backpack. Too confused to feel violated, Mildred just watched. Leah found an unused page in a notebook, and tore one of the corners off. Then she straightened her back—Mildred was close enough to her to smell violets—slapped the bit of paper on the table, grabbed the pen Mildred had left lying there, and scribbled something onto the strip. Mildred counted between Leah's fingers, a feat the proximity allowed her to pull off, ten digits.
A phone number.
The task done, Leah smirked over at Mildred, clearly amused by her surprise. "Text me," she said as she stood. Then she turned and walked off, this time actually putting some distance between them. Mildred watched her wander away and slip into the crowd, then later managed to pick her up halfway across the room as she slid down to sitting at a table, instantly striking up conversation with one of the girls there. And she kept watching Leah as she talked for a few more seconds.
Then she realized Val was talking to her. "What?" she murmured, blinking her eyes at him.
Val frowned in sarcastic displeasure. He could be like that, exaggerating emotions for what he felt was comedic effect. It usually didn't work. "I said that was weird."
"Yeah." Letting her eyes fall away from him, she stared at the slip of paper bearing Leah's phone number, completely baffled.