An hour’s drive towards the mountains there is a lake. A quiet, beautiful place, almost like a Norwegian fjord. I use to go there to write, ever since I started writing in earnest. They now print my picture on back covers, so I reckon I am an earnest writer at last. The hefty advance I’d been paid for my second novel seems to support that theory.
Three months after my debut has been published I go back to school, and if only for one night. Just to see who got fat, who got married, and who else got famous during the last ten years.
WELCOME BACK, CLASS OF 20xx !!!
The banner above the venue’s main entrance has been commissioned in my initial year of secondary school and used ever since thanks to the interchangeable last two digits of the date. It has been for this very feature that the back-then leader of the class reunion committee proudly stated the greeting to be fit for the rest of the century. Of course I took it upon myself to point out the flaw in his statement. Since the century had started with the year 2001 and not 2000, it would end in 2100 and not in 2099.
In the light of this episode it is easy to see why I haven’t been the most popular lass at school. Mind, that was before a brunette geek girl in an oversized hoodie, cargo trousers and worn-out Doc Martens was considered hot.
For anniversary night I have dressed a bit posher; black dress, dark stockings, sensibly heeled court shoes. Any worries about my being overdressed quickly evaporate as soon as I discover Lucy and Nicki. Self-pronounced fashion icons even back in the day, they have used the last decade to hone their style to a deadly edge. Sadly, though, the two of them look a little lost without their queen bee, Sonja.
Seemed that Sonja couldn’t make it.
I admit it, I was a math swot through and through. I was unexpectedly good at PE, too, but that didn’t save me. With boys, the sporty ones pick on the chubbies. With girls, the line between worthy and unworthy life runs far more intricately, and separating those existences has been bestowed upon the likes of Sonja and her lip-glossed minions.
“Isabelle, is that youuu…?!” they squeak in unison, all sweet and false.
“Heeey, what a surprise!” I imitate their mannerism. “Look at you two! You haven’t changed a bit!”
This isn’t exactly true. Nicki has new tits.
“You look so great!” Lucy states, as though the world’s fate is depending on her verdict.
“I saw your book!” Nicki pipes. “I knew you of all of us would write one!”
I have developed a pathological urge to vivisect what irks me. Strip it to the bones so its vile core lies open before me. Nicki’s comment, for example. That one can not only “see”, but also “read” a book – granted. That she, if asked ten years ago, would have predicted my future far less kindly and with menial work involved – well, during the last three months I’ve made more money than in all my years before combined, and those two are secretly choking on the knowledge. Nicki wouldn’t have been completely wrong, though. I have a history of shitty jobs, which makes me worth ten stuck-up fake-blonde bitches. Plus, one would be amazed who one runs into when working tables at the local diner.
The real trigger is “us”. In school “us” was “them” tormenting “me”. And it went far beyond what could have been considered normal, if ugly, bullying – both in extent and effect.
My strength in math and natural science had already rendered me highly suspicious, so I eventually decided to join the running team in a vain attempt to boost my popularity. The school had quite the reputation for track athletics and offered entrance to various championships to those willing to perform.
The whole summer I trained, and the big day arrived. Teams from schools all over the city had gathered, the ranks were filled with spectators. Yet one glance into the crowed was enough for me to notice Sonja amidst her entourage. I swallowed hard, blood pounded in my ears, but I managed to focus when taking my place in the starting blocks for the final sprint race.
Sonja would have none of that:
“Remember not to waddle!”
That line was enough to unsettle me to the core. At first behind my back, later openly Sonja had networked to make that waddle-thing a running gag, no pun intended. The idea of my running style being odd had burrowed itself deep into my mind, and no assurance from my coach and team mates, no gait analysis had been able to fully remove this thorn.
The starting pistol went off, and I froze. For an eternity I was paralysed until I clawed my way back to the most basic knowledge of how to flex my muscles. Left and right to me my opponents were pushing themselves from the starting line, gaining lead on me in weird slow-motion. My own legs behaved like stone linked by rubber, my body’s inertia grew infinite.
When looking closely at the video footage, a keen eye can see that I indeed lost a tenth at the start. I managed to close the gap in mid-race and crossed the line with a four-hundredths-lead.
During a moment of utter foolishness I really believed I had vanquished my nemesis, that I, the outcast, had broken Sonja’s curse. A notion I was quickly disabused of once I’d entered the podium. Sonja, with Lucy as her lieutenant, had blazed a trail to the front to hail the new city school champion (category 100 m sprint/age class III/females/no autographs).
“She has remembered!”
The crying fit I fell into when receiving my medal most onlookers reckoned to be caused by exhaustion and joy. In reality it originated from humiliation, shame and self-disgust. There I was standing, in all my glory. Pathetic. Worthless. A ridiculous duck.
“That stuff is intense…!” Lucy adds to Nicki’s statement. Unlike her fashion twin, she seems to have read my book – at least the gorier, screamier parts.
My eyes, already wandering off towards the bar, snap back. Socialising with bimbos always makes me want to intoxicate myself. But as an up-and-coming “Lady Stephen King” (Litterātūra Weekly, 12th June, I have the clipping framed) I am not immune to sycophancy.
I’m not interested in her opinion at all, I just want to confront her with my work. Acclaimed critics have described it as an intellectual rampage, as witty as it is visceral; one even knighted it “the Pride and Prejudice of torture porn” (I have that one framed, too):
“A dark voyage […] cartographing to the fullest what a human being can do to another.”
“The amount of anatomically correct details is both staggering and terrifying.”
I take such reviews as a compliment. After all, I have first-hand experience of what a human being can do to another. One might be tricked into thinking that after singlehandedly destroying what was bound to be a great moment in my youth, Sonja would have been content.
If one, driven by the omnipresent gender debate, was ever in search of a difference between boys and girls, their quest will find an end here and now. Male bullying is an act of defining rank and territory. Female bullying is a war of extermination. No retreat, no matter how far, will appease. Unconditional surrender remains but a hiatus between battles. Victory comes only with total annihilation. I can’t provide deeper reasons for this beyond some lay psychology: Lacking the stabilising factor of male wolf pack thinking, females experience their social structures more fragile, thus their own status constantly endangered. Which leaves no room for peace treaties or prisoners.
Female bullying is far stealthier, far more atrocious. Used condoms in my locker, used tampons in my gym bag. A daily regime of bad-mouthing and discrediting. A no-date blacklist with room for the name of any boy who dared speak to me.
Just to see how well Lucy and Nicki have stayed in touch with their former sovereign, I turned our uneasy conversation in that direction.
“Sonja’s not coming?”
“I really don’t know,” Lucy replies.
She immediately checks her flashy mobile for new messages, but her next sentence reveals it to be an automatism.
“We haven’t heard from her since autumn. She hasn’t been living in town for a couple of years, but came back last summer…”
I am curious whether I could be as two-faced and manipulative as her, so I give it a try.
“She moved up north, I believe. Pity, you two used to be so close.”
The last part is directed at Lucy. In reaction Nicki’s face takes on a funny colour. Her various attempts to rise further up in Sonja’s grace have been pathetic, even for a dumb tart like her.
“We are all very close,” is the best she can come up with.
“Good to know. Sonja always struck me as a person who didn’t warm up to everybody equally.”
“Yes, I know you guys have had some difficulties,” Lucy dabbles in a shallow attempt to sound sympathetic.
Before long, said difficulties brought me to the school counsellor. He was understanding, committed, and utterly out of his depths. Of course my few sessions with him had not gone unnoticed by my betters. Sonja congratulated me for coming out of the schizo closet, suggesting that I better get myself institutionalised at once.
At that time I had already ceased to exchange more than three words with anybody. I had quit the running team and spent breaks and free periods in the library. Only technicalities prevented me from changing school, only a fit of violent retching from digesting a bottle-load of sleeping pills. The posh black dress tonight has long sleeves to cover my wrists.
“Well, maybe she shows up later. I bet she has a lot to tell.”
I half turn away, signalling to be about to head to the bar.
“You girls want anything, too?”
“No, we are fine!” Lucy and Nicki decline, again in unison.
Courtesy question, anyway. I have no intent to toast my book with these slags. Seeking my path through the crowed not too quickly, I make sure to overhear Lucy’s judgement.
“What a psycho…!”
It is deep in the night now, and I’m almost at the lake. I’ve had only one watery cocktail at the reunion, and I drive slowly down the narrow path in my beaten old Outback. I know I should have got rid of it months ago. Too many fond memories, I reckon. The darkness beyond the cones of its headlights is absolute, but I know the way well. I’ve often negotiated it when bringing supplies to the cabin or tools I hadn’t originally planned on using.
Finally the small wooden structure appears. To reach it one needs geographical clairvoyance and four-wheel drive. I get in and change into a more robust set of clothing. From a cupboard I take a strong torch, a folding spade and a copy of my book.
I venture some hundred metres into the woods, up a slope with a beautiful view across the lake, if there were a moon. At the spot between the birches I dig a small hole and hunch down, book in my lap. In the light of the torch the title page seems to gleam, begging for a dedication. With a steady hand I bring my fountain pen to the paper.
I already have an idea for a sequel.
After giving the ink a moment to dry I put the book in the ground and fill the hole back up.