It’s all planned out—all I have to do is go through with it. My bags are packed; the only thing left to do is break free. The bell rings, and everyone floods out of the classroom to their lockers. They’re screaming, laughing, goofing off—but all I hear is noise. I’ve grown numb to the sounds of immature children. The only thing I hear is the screaming of my own heart.
Pushing through the crowds, I slip into the girls’ bathroom and hide in a stall. I’m safe at least until the janitors come, I think. Before I know it, the school becomes eerily silent, except for the occasional low chatter of teachers and the click-clack of high heels.
Mr. Aarons, the gym teacher, always forgets to lock his office. Every day he leaves at exactly 3:15. I know this because I stay after school on Tuesdays for math help to make observations about who stays late and who doesn’t. Since this escape has been my dream for a while, I’ve taken great care to make sure every detail has been worked out. Late buses only come on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays—today is Friday. I check my watch—3:25. If I don’t get out of here soon, the janitors will catch me and foil my entire plan.
Just as I expected, the door to Mr. Aarons’ office has been left ajar. Stealthily, I open the door just enough for me to slip in, crouch down, and hold the knob. All the lights are off, and the only thing that can be heard is my pounding heart. Calm down, Cassie, I think, trying to ease my nerves. You’ve planned for this. My mom thinks I’m at my friend Gina’s house for a sleepover. There is no Gina. I made her up about a year ago, partly so I could make this escape, and partly so I could trick my parents into thinking everything’s okay in the deep, dark world of Cassie Evans.
It is now 8:00. My legs have become numb from crouching, and my mouth is dry from nervousness. The doorknob has sweat on it from hours of holding it still. All the teachers have gone home, most likely. Slowly, I poke my head into the hallway. Coast is clear. Grabbing my backpack, which is full of water bottles, granola bars, and other survival necessities, I cautiously close the office door and tiptoe towards the exit. Almost to freedom, I think. Just as I’m about to push the door open and breathe in the cool, fresh air, I hear footsteps.
There are two choices. I can run while I can, or hide under a nearby bench. Either way, I can’t just stand here frozen. Running seems like the best choice. If I open the door quickly and calmly, whoever’s in the hallway will think I’m just another teacher going home. But I have to act fast—the footsteps are getting louder, and as soon as the person sees me, I’m toast. Taking a deep breath, I lean against the door and break into a steady run. Step one, accomplished. Once I’m off school grounds, I slow into a brisk walk. Only a few blocks to the bus station, where I can finally sit down and think. About four months ago I bought an unlimited bus pass in preparation for today, so I don’t have to keep track of change.
I sit down on the bench and wait. My feet aren’t tired, and I’m not out of breath—it’s just nice to take the fact that I’m actually, truly running away. There’s another person hunched over on the bench next to me. She’s an old lady in a long skirt and a loose blouse, with beady little eyes and thin, chapped lips. She seems like the chatty type.
“You look an awful lot like my granddaughter!” the woman exclaims, pushing her thick glasses further up on her thin, pointy nose.
“That’s nice,” I say absentmindedly. I can’t let my guard down, certainly not before the bus comes. And even then, I’ve got to keep one eye open.
“How old are you? I’m going to guess you’re twelve. You’re twelve, aren’t you?” The old lady’s voice is really starting to annoy me. Something about that high-pitched yap, almost like a tiny dog.
“I’m fifteen.” This isn’t the first time I’ve been mistaken for someone younger, but to call me twelve is a little extreme. I’m only a little bit shorter than my peers. Maybe it’s because I’m not the curviest girl out there, I don’t wear any makeup, and I don’t dress like a prostitute.
“Oh, heavens! I was sure you were twelve. My granddaughter will be twelve next month.” The woman starts rambling on about her granddaughter and how she’s going through a hard time. From what this old woman describes, I conclude that the girl is a spoiled, sheltered little brat with no idea what it’s like to be in despair every single waking hour. She’s probably whimpering about not having the latest iPhone, I think, disgusted.
The bus finally arrives, and I show my pass. Sighing, I take a seat away from the old woman and lean my head against the window. I’ll just ride until the last stop, I think. It’ll be awhile, so I get comfortable. And whenever I’m comfortable, my mind starts to wander. When my mind starts to wander, I find myself sinking deeper and deeper into my mental prison.
I don’t really know what happened to me. Somewhere along in life, I became obsessed with perfection and success. No matter how hard I try, I can never live up to my own inflated standards. I could get a 99 percent on an assignment and only focus on the one percent I lost. Sometimes I want to fling myself into the sea to end my constant struggle against myself for perfection, but there’s no such ocean in Forestdale, Ohio.
Forestdale. What a forgettable suburban town. There aren’t any landmarks or attractions, great sights or interesting cultures. Just plain, mundane normalcy.
The bus passes the playground I played on years back. I really miss those days. Back then, you could go up and ask another child what her favorite color was, and no one would think anything of it. But usually, I never interacted with the other children. When I went to the playground, I would climb on top of the monkey bars and just watch. Watch what the other children did, what they said, what they played with. After a few years, I started to notice different friendship groups forming. It was no longer acceptable to randomly approach someone and ask a question. The moment I was no longer invisible, when people started to laugh at the little girl on the monkey bars—that’s when I stopped coming to the playground.
The bus drives by the Forestdale Library. Once I stopped coming to the playground, I started spending all my time there. I got off the bus in the afternoon, and then rode my bike to the library and stayed there until 8 o’clock sharp. The library was my safe haven—no screaming, no swearing, no immature kids. Shelves and shelves of books, portals into different worlds, were my friends, and that was just the way I liked it.
When I was about eleven, the other kids stopped coming to the playground and started hanging out where I was. The librarians were always shushing them as they made a racket, scolding them as they ripped books off the shelves and spilled soda on the tables. They started to notice me, that young girl in the corner with an ever-growing stack of books. It was then I knew that my daily times at the library were over.
From then on, I stayed at home when school let out. My parents both worked late, so I made my own dinner and put myself to bed. Occasionally one of them would come home in time to kiss me goodnight, maybe even make me a late supper. Some days it was sickeningly lonely, but after a while I grew accustomed to it. After all, being alone was always more appealing than being out with a group of friends at the skate park or the ice rink. So I read books at home. Anything lying around, I picked it up and read it—cookbooks, magazines, philosophy books, old dusty novels on the basement shelves, the dictionary—even my own diaries from years past. There was a day when books weren’t enough anymore, when the endings weren’t what I wanted them to be, when those few sentences weren’t written right. So I picked up my pencil and created my own stories. I built entire cultures and universes all inside my head. After a year, my room was cluttered with books, notebooks, unfinished stories, and ideas scribbled on the wall with pencil. When I wasn’t writing, I was reading. When I wasn’t reading, I was blogging, hiding behind a screen, the only place I could release my true feelings.
“Excuse me, where would I get off if I want to be in Antonville?” a pregnant woman with two young children clinging to her legs interrupts my thoughts. I know the moral thing to do would be to help her, but I don’t feel like interacting with people, and I can’t answer her question anyway.
“I dunno,” I mumble, leaning my head against the cold, greasy window. “Use a map.” I realize that I’ve probably come off as rude, but it doesn’t bother me. I’ll never see this woman again anyway.
“Oh,” the lady sighs and tries to hold on to her little son, who is now wrenching away from his mother’s grasp. “Okay. You have a nice day.” Before she starts walking to the front of the bus, probably to ask the bus driver for help, a young man seated in front of me clears his throat.
“Ma’am, East Antonville is in three stops. West is in five.” His voice, something about the expressive, almost musical tonality, is strangely familiar. I can’t place it, though.
“Oh, thank you, sir. Thank you.” The mother squeezes into the nearest seat, bouncing a child on each knee. The young man, whose blonde head just barely peeks over the top of the seat, twists around and faces me. I know him when I see his eyes—bluish green, almost a turquoise color.