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Words by Elizabeth Britton
Artwork by Amanda Chisholm
Getting punched in the gut was like having someone shove ice down my throat and push it deep into the pit of my stomach. Frozen fingers curled around my internal organs and sent an ice-cold feeling that avalanched through my body. It was a slow buildup of tumbling snow through my veins. And once I was completely frozen over, I fell to the ground limply and looked up at those chilling blue eyes of hers.
“We caught you hangin’ with those people again,” Emma said, cracking her white knuckles against her palm. “Loser.”
I couldn’t breathe.
“Is she even a girl?” laughed Helen, her tall lanky form towering above me.
My lungs wouldn’t work. They were drowning. Water filled them up from the inside and rose to my chest in waves. I could feel it in my throat. I was scared that if I opened my mouth, the Erythraean Sea would spill out onto the muddy ground between my trembling knees. I could feel jagged coral wanting to squeeze out from between my teeth while seaweed slithered along my tongue.
Emma’s pale hands grabbed my short blonde hair and tugged. “Dunno.” Blue eyes sparkled mercilessly as they gazed into mine. “Should we check?”
I clutched the edge of my white t-shirt with my trembling fingers, hoping that the bunched up fabric could soothe the ache in my belly. Deep beneath the Red Sea was boiling hot lava. It was bubbling up, wanting to push past the water and launch itself into the parched air. I gagged.
It was hot. Burning me from the inside out.
“Stop hangin’ with ‘em.” Emma said, her nails digging into my skull.
“They’re trash.” Helen said haughtily.
My fingers dug into the earth beneath me, hoping that the muddy ground would somehow keep me steady. Hoping that, somehow, the mucky earth would calm the thundering storm inside. It was strong, causing waves to part in the Red Sea. Ships with mermaids at the forefront were toppling over and crushed by its power.
I bit my lower lip as Emma yanked on my hair, moving my head from side to side teasingly. “Are you gonna cry?” I could feel her smirk against my skin. It burned me with its cruel intent. “I would, too, if I was that ugly.”
I watched them, silently, observing their quivering fists. Their eyes, no longer clouded with hatred, were hazy and tired. Nothing but the breath between us remained––from my lungs into theirs and from their lungs into mine. I stared at these blonde haired, blue eyed girls, my own blonde haired, blue eyed self reflecting in their cold gazes.
“You’re white,” Emma spat, “So start acting like it.”
I shakily sat up, propping myself against the brick wall, the crevices digging into my now dirtied shirt. I winced as pain shot through my body and drew my knees to my chin. Curling up in a tiny ball, I prepared myself for the kicks I knew were coming. My nail bitten fingers were clasped together tightly over my shins despite the slick mud trying to loosen them.
“Come on, guys,” Lauren said, her arms crossed as her dark eyes watched me. “Let’s go.”
I swallowed thickly, looking at the petite girl. She stood off to the side––barely even noticeable to me. Yet there she was, regal in all of her perfection as she stared down at me. They disappeared just as Lauren had asked, fleeing on their white steeds and shooting their guns into the air. Lauren even tipped her hat at me as they rounded the corner.
Once they were gone, I collapsed in a heap, staring up at the bright blue sky with blurry eyes. The storm clouds that had hovered overhead just that morning had gone away and nothing but sunshine remained. I took a few deep breaths, trying to fill my lungs with fresh air. The smell of dirt and grass mixed with rainwater was strong in my nose as I breathed.
“White,” I whispered to myself, “How do I act white?”
I had been called out earlier that day to meet with the three of them after school. The trio had approached me during lunch after my friends Isabella and Abby had left to go to the bathroom. It had been my job to save their seats, and I guarded them with my life.
In return, they got me chocolate milk. It was a fair trade, if you asked me.
But that day was different.
Helen had asked me to go over her house after school. Helen lived right around the corner from the school, which meant I didn’t need to take the bus home. I told her I would just have to call my parents when we got to her place. She said it was fine.
So I met them after school.
And they kicked the shit out of me.
Shadows moved along with the clouds above as time passed by. I could feel my forehead bleeding from where they had slammed my head into the brick wall, but that didn’t matter. My achingly sore body was throbbing from head to toe. The numbness I had felt earlier now had completely disappeared.
I was tempted to wait for the sun to fall so I could watch the stars come out from their hiding places, but I knew if I waited that long my parents would worry. I stood, slowly and shakily, brushing off a bit of dirt from my knees before grabbing my backpack off of the ground. I peeked inside and felt a bit of relief flood through me.
They didn’t touch my library books.
The school library was the one place I felt comfortable above all else. If I wanted to be a princess for a day, I could pick up a book and be a princess. Of course, there were times when I wanted to slay dragons. But I could do that too. All I had to do was pick a book off the shelf, open it and let myself be transported to another land.
It’s not as easy as it seems––transportation, I mean. Some people never get the take off quite right, and they’re left with half of their body still in this world and the other half in the book. Maybe it’s the way they’re standing or that the book they picked up isn’t meant for them. It could be that the portal is broken––that does happen, you know. In any case, no matter the book, I was a master at transportation.
Handan was a master at it, too.
I had met Handan earlier that year when I was reading yet another Agatha Christie book. My aunt had gotten me into mystery books at an early age. I just couldn’t put it down until I found out who the killer was. Turns out it wasn’t the butler.
Handan loved mysteries too. Which is why when we reached for the same book, we sort of just looked at one another for a while. I had already read And Then There Were None at least five times before, so I pulled back to let Handan enter the portal first.
When she touched the binding with her fingertip, the spine bent toward her a little. I smiled. Handan had to introduce herself to the book first. It wouldn’t just let her go through time and space without a proper introduction. As she gently nudged it away from the crack between its brothers and sisters, the book leapt at her touch. It was frightened for a brief moment as cold air swept over it. Just as quickly as the fear had appeared, it went away when Handan held it to her chest tightly, her dark, bruised arms warm and tender.
Ever so carefully, she pried the dusty thing open and met its golden glow with a steady gaze. And in a flash she was gone. Before the book could touch the ground, it was in my pale fingers, shuddering against my cold touch.
After that day, Handan and I were inseparable. She joined me at my lunch table and ate happily with Abby and Isabella. Soon enough, when Abby and Isabella would leave for the bathroom, she would also get chocolate milk with me.
Third grade was the life.
Tripping over my shoelace as I walked down the street, I was jolted from my thoughts. I had to bend over to tie it back up again, the dried mud making it a little more difficult to do than normal. I did it the way that a family friend had taught me: Mrs. Hardy.
She had refused to teach me the “Bunny Eared” way, knowing that I loved challenges. So she taught me the “adult way” where I simply looped the lace around and pulled. When I had accomplished the knot, I was the proudest little girl she had ever seen.
Mrs. Hardy was a tall, blonde woman with a love of fitness and God. She had two sons and one daughter. The stork had given the two sons to her, and the sea had washed her daughter in from the east.
Her name was Ava.
Ava had always been a fiery child. She was about four years younger than me. Her beautiful, narrow eyes observing the world with hidden wisdom always watched me carefully whenever I came over for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. After lunch, her mother would take us to the YMCA where Ava and I would pretend to be mermaids for hours until it was time to go home.
But I have a secret to tell.
Ava never pretended. She really was a mermaid. Her legs quickly turned to a single long fin whenever she hit the water. Her shimmering scales transformed her tan body into a creature of the deep sea. She would go beneath the surface for long periods of time and never come up gasping.
As a mermaid, she could breathe underwater.
But Ava always had to watch out for the sharks. I thought we were safe on dry land, but I could tell that Ava was still worried they could reach her on dry land. Her tiny fingers had curled around my fingers and clutched tightly. She hoped I would be able to keep the sharks at bay.
As I leaned down to tie my shoe, I peered into a puddle to see if I could find razor sharp teeth in my own mouth. Bright, vibrant colors by my feet caught my eye, and I stopped to stare at the rainbow squares.
The cement underneath my white sneakers moved in ripples.
It was hopscotch that had been drawn by kids earlier in the day, but the lines were blurred. It had faded from the rainstorm earlier that day. Chalk chunks had been abandoned nearby, tossed by some three year old in a temper tantrum or maybe forgotten in a whirl of excitement for something else.
I hopped onto the first box, my heel hitting the number one firmly before moving onto two and three. With each pounce, the ground beneath me wrinkled. It was a small effect at first, like a pebble being dropped in a pond, but as I watched each wave get further and further away, I could see the houses move higher and higher. By the time I got to the end, full tidal waves were moving buildings, and I watched in mild curiosity as Philadelphia soared into view briefly before falling away.
With a distant crash, I knew the waves were finished.
I tentatively stepped off of the chalked sidewalk and continued my journey home, mindful of the ripples. I tiptoed along, watching as they waved out around me and faded away quietly. I bit my lower lip, taking even more dainty steps.
I stopped. What was that under my foot? It was cracking and crunching as I pulled away, looking down at the creature with a horrified gaze.
A frog. Or was it a toad?
It was on its back, revealing its white belly to the darkening skies above. Guilt clenched my heart, and I knelt down to get a better look at it. My wishful gaze willed it to breathe again. I wanted to watch it inhale the fresh air filled with exhaust fumes and dirt. I waited a while, hoping I would see a pulse in its neck and a flicker of fear in its eyes. Even fearful, at least it would still be alive.
But it was silent and still.
And the only pulse I heard was the beat of my own heart.
I stepped over it, not knowing what else to do since it was already dead, and moved along. I walked along the road, balancing on the curb like I was in the circus and I was involved in a trapeze act. I never understood how those people did it. I had always been terrified of heights. The very idea made me queasy, so I quickly got off the curb and walked along the sidewalk once more.
Before I knew it, I was standing in front of Safi Qureshi’s home just around the corner from where I lived. Safi was a friend of my family since his mother had babysat both my brother and me when we were small. Now that we were older and didn’t need to be watched as often, a college student had been hired to watch over us every once in a while.
But that college student was nothing compared to Mrs. Qureshi. Beautiful robes and adornments cascaded down her body in waterfalls. While Safi and my brother, Brian, would play out back, Mrs. Qureshi dressed me in her old clothes. She broke out her giant treasure chest at the end of her silk bed and opened it up, showing me her childhood clothing. She would wrap me up in a pink pattu pavadai, and draw gorgeous designs on my skin. She oiled my hair and then placed a small piece of cloth atop my head. It was magical and transformed me from a white tomboy to a beautiful princess in a matter of seconds.
Books aren’t the only portals, you know. Sometimes people can be gatekeepers. When they take your hand you know you’re in a completely different world.
I wanted to hold my chin up a little higher as I walked home that day, just as Mrs. Qureshi had taught me to do. She told me that it was her culture’s pride that kept her chin up in hard times and it would be the same pride to keep my chin up in hard times.
But could I really hold my chin up high with pride? I looked down at my muddied skin, the white glowing beneath the dirt.
“White,” I murmured, “How do I act white?”
Panic started bubbling up inside, and the full effect of what had happened started to rush over me. I felt sick to my stomach. The once calm sea inside of me would not stop sloshing about.
I started to run. And the ripples beneath my feet caused waves, bringing Philadelphia up into view once more. The people passing by didn’t seem to care that I was causing the earth to shake. The earth was moving just like a sheet flowing in the wind. I found it harder and harder to run with the ground so unsteady. As soon as I stepped foot onto the grassy front lawn of my home, all the world seemed to stop.
I ran through the front door, hurried down the hall and rushed to the shower. I heard my mother call my name, but I didn’t reply. As soon as I was in the bathroom, I let out a shuddering sigh. I leaned over to the bathtub and tugged on the handles. Flowing water overpowered the soft sobs that erupted from my lips.
Stepping into the tub, I felt the cold-water rush over me. It rained down on me hard, suffocating me. I couldn’t seem to breathe again. As I closed my eyes, icy blue eyes stared back at me, forcing me to open them once more.
I plucked the loofah off of the adjusting knob and applied the white body gel with a squirt. I stretched out my mud-covered arm and started scrubbing. It should have slid right off with the cool water, but it stayed. My brow furrowed as I tried to scrub harder.
It wasn’t working.
“White,” I murmured, “How do I act white?”
I went to my short nails and worked from there. Maybe I could get the dirt between the cracks in my skin. I clenched my jaw, trying to get rid of the disgusting muck.
But I couldn’t get it out. The harder I scrubbed, the more pain I felt. Why wasn’t it coming off? Why couldn’t I get rid of it?
My heart was pounding in my ears, now. It was as loud as a crashing drum, thundering inside of me, beating against my ribcage like a wild animal. I shut my eyes, wishing that the roaring would go away, and hoping that the running water would drown it out.
I only opened my eyes when searing pain ripped through my arm. Blood. There was blood everywhere. I slammed my hand against the transparent glass door in panic. The red mud trailed down, twirling down the drain in spirals.
“White,” I said, louder this time, “How do I act white?”
It wasn’t until I was out of the shower that I had calmed down and my white skin returned. It shimmered over my body, covering every last bit of brown there was.
I sighed and patted myself with the white towel before using it to swipe the mirror clear of steam. And then I saw it.
Atop my forehead, where those girls had slammed my face into the brick wall, was not a bruise, but a single red dot. I peered closer, the red contrasting greatly with my pale skin.
Just then, a knock came at the door and I jumped at the noise. But it was just my mother.
“How was your day?” she called through the white wooden door.
I kept my gaze on the red dot.
“Did anything interesting happen?” she continued curiously.
“Nothing,” I said steadily, “Nothing happened at all.”
“Dinner will be ready in a little,” she called, her voice fading as she walked down the hallway. “Put on some comfy clothes and then come eat!”
My stomach, surprisingly, did not growl at the thought of food. No, I was too focused on the bleeding hole in my forehead.
“Bindi,” I murmured, touching it with my trembling fingers. “A bloody bindi.”
As soon as my white index finger pressed to it, it disappeared.
And I was left to stare at the blonde haired, blue-eyed girl in the mirror alone.
#Unreal #Fiction #Childhood #Race #HowDoIActWhite? #BooksArePortals #Imagination
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