You're seven years old, on a playground smothered in bright primary colors and shrieking children. It's recess, and there are adults somewhere you can't see. You know they can see you, because adults are always watching. Most kids chafe at this knowledge, grumbling at the deprivation of independence they won't deserve until they're bigger, more responsible. You know better. You're different from the other kids. You always know what to do to make the adults like you; you follow all the rules and enforce consequences on yourself when you break them, more harshly than they ever would. Your parents don't know what to do about this behavior. They won't know what a mistake encouraging it is until over a decade later when you're in therapy, trying to recover from a laughably short lifetime of misguided self-discipline that soured into self-hatred at some point you can't identify.

You think it's when you're seven years old, and you're on a playground.

The second grade isn't hard. Even as small as you are, you understand that. You should be running around and making nonsense like all the other children. You should be laughing with your friends and happy and vapid and pure. The feelings that you have instead are beyond the scope of your understanding, ugly bitter insecure things that grow like the swelling gut of a feeding tick inside you, making you want to fall from somewhere very high to splatter them on the ground and destroy them. Making you want to smash them, crush them, disintegrate them. So you walk forward, and you slam your head on the playground's metal structures. Thoughts spin like tornadoes in your head, but you keep banging your forehead on the cold surface before you, because causing pain doesn't require thought.

This doesn't hurt as badly as I thought it would.

So you hit harder.

I wonder if anyone's noticing. This seems like it would be hard to ignore. And shortly after, They don't care.

So you hit faster.

I don't matter at all. I could die and it wouldn't matter. Everybody would just keep playing and teaching and being normal.

So you begin to smile. You know you look crazy, and you resent yourself for playing to an audience—What audience?—as you smile wider. The next pound of your head on the playground stops you from thinking too much about it, and you welcome the interruption. You don't want to think.

I wonder if I would die if I hit my head hard enough for long enough.

So you begin to cry. You don't want to die, but you don't stop.

And secretly, somewhere deep inside that you refuse to acknowledge, What can I do to get their attention?

You're back at the playground. Nothing has changed. The playground is still full of life and color, and your small body is packed with emotions that make you feel dirty inside, in a way that you would need God to cleanse if God were something you believed in. You walk forward, and you slam your head on the red supports of the playground, and you hate yourself for sullying the bright cheerful setting with your pain.

Why can't I just be normal?

A little girl with wispy dark hair and big dark eyes stands at the edge of the playground. She stands apart from the activities before her, as if she's separated from the simple joy that a playset provides by an invisible film. When she walks forward, the film stretches and bends to keep her isolated, and when she bangs her head against a pole, no one looks.

I'm disgusting. . .

You stand at the edge of the playground. This time, someone stands with you. They're big enough to rest a hand on your shoulder and gently turn you around without bending their back or their arm. They lead you to a blue and green place with a vast expanse of water, and trees that could plausibly fit into a fairytale and grass and dirt. There is no playground to become the instrument of your self-torture. You sit down.

"I don't know what to say to you," they begin when they're ready. You know this conversation was never going to be easy. You don't say anything, and you wait.

They still don't look at you. "I'm so sorry, Alora. I'm sorry I hurt you so badly, and I'm sorry it took me this long to get you out of there. There were a lot of things we needed to go through before I could come find you, but they happened and I'm ready now."

You look at them with your little face and your little body, and they sob to think of the pain that you have not endured, but that you have lived through anyway. You look too little, and it pushes them to speak.

"That day on the playground was a big moment for us. I know you were thinking of doing some really sad things before I came and got you." They stare at you earnestly with wet eyes and you don't have the heart to tell them that you'd already done the sad things, thousands and thousands of times before. "I want you to know that you're not going back there. From now on, you'll be here or anywhere you want when I'm not around. I'm not going to let you hurt anymore." Their voice is tight, and you don't know whether you're relieved or upset to be free. I'm not done punishing myself. Instead of speaking, you listen.

"I know how you felt, I know how ashamed you were to feel that way. I know you didn't understand, but I do. Your feelings are nothing to be ashamed of." There is love in their angry tone. You understand better than anyone else that their fury isn't fury. The fire in their gaze stalls the bitter voice in your head, for once, into silence. "You're not a freak. Your feelings are normal and valuable." They take a deep breath. "What you are responsible for is how you react to those feelings. I know you didn't know how to react. I know you just did what you thought would help. I know you did your best. Thank you so much for doing your best, Alora."

There's the beginning of something warm in your chest.

"But it's okay now. I know how to react, and so you don't have to react for us anymore. When we have those feelings, I can take care of us now. You don't have to hurt yourself anymore. I got you." There are tears running down their face, but their expression is one of devotion and hope as they vow that your suffering is over.

"It was so hard . . . " you whisper. They immediately latch onto your horribly small frame, dragging you into their arms so that they can hold you as you cry. When a voice inside chastises you for being weak, you ignore it.

"I know," they respond just as quietly. "I know, and you did so well. But you don't have to worry about it anymore, okay? I'm gonna be responsible, and I'm gonna make sure you're never alone again. Thank you for taking care of us for 10 years. I know you didn't have the ability to deal with my problems, and I'm sorry I shoved them on you for so long."

"I forgive you," you say. Of course you do. They're you. They squeeze you tighter.

"Whenever you need me, just say Brisingr, and I'll come get you and bring you here, okay? Like in Eragon, when he just throws out a magic word he doesn't understand and he wakes up and everything is better. We're gonna get better. We're gonna work together and take care of each other from now on, no more cutting or head banging or punching walls or whatever. We'll take care of each other and we'll get better. Deal?"

It's time for them to go, and you both know it. "I love you," they murmur. "I've got you, now."

"I love you, too," you reply, shutting your eyes as they go back to the outside.

For the first time in ten years, you're at peace.