Not Today | 2 |
“How did you get this?”
I looked at the bruise on my arm. “I fell.”
My mother shook her head. “Again? How this time?”
I hesitated. Opposite, Hana swallowed her cereal and spoke up. Today she had clipped her hair to one side with a butterfly pin, a pretty thing with silver wings ingrained on black. I used to have one exactly like that, but it seemed as if I lost it a month ago.
“Oh it was my fault, mum.” She looked upset. “I feel so guilty! I placed my bag on the ground and Eun-bi didn’t see it; she fell right over.”
My mother made a sound of exasperation as she poured milk into my bowl. “Why would you even place your bag on the ground? You know that makes it dirty. And trip people over.”
“I didn’t mean that last one! I won’t do it again, I promise.” She faced me, voice sweet. “Eun-bi, I’m sorry. Forgive me, okay?”
I pulled my bowl near. The cereal made it look colourful with dots of red, blue and green. But the chocolate milk threw everything off; it didn’t match, it was garish, it was awful. It didn’t belong.
“Eun-bi?” Hana pressed.
I looked up, and faked a smile. “Sure. It was just an accident anyway.”
⚜️ × ⚜️ ×
I stood at the steps of the bus as my mother ran up behind me. Hana had gotten on and now she sat by the window. I noticed the way her eyes narrowed just the slightest.
My mother pulled me away by the sleeve, signalling for the driver to wait. She was not old, my mother, but life had aged her. Being a single mum was hard, and you could tell it from her appearance. Her hair wasn’t as black as it used to be, and there were wrinkles in places where there weren’t any before.
“Why, mum? Is there something wrong?”
She wrung her hands, looking agitated. “Well.” A pause. “That is . . . “ She stopped.
“What is it?” I asked, concerned.
She stared at me for a moment. And then, almost as if she had a sudden burst of courage she blurted out,
“Are you being bullied?”
The sun grew dim, the bus engines grew quiet and my mother’s face came into sharp, glaring focus.
“What?” I managed to say.
Her voice rang with anxiety. She couldn’t stop wringing her hands, it seemed. “I mean, you have so many – accidents. You keep falling over, you keep getting these bruises. And I know you told me you’re just clumsy, but I don’t know, I worry . . . “
She trailed off, her eyes searching. Taking my arm her words were soft but urgent. “You can tell me. I’m your mother, and I’ll help you in any way I can. Eun-bi . . . “
“Are you being bullied in school?”
I looked at her for a long, long time. I saw the greyness flecking her temples, felt the roughness edging her palms, saw how her clothes hung looser than before.
And so I told her the truth.
“No. I’m not being bullied in school.”
You could almost see the worry dissipating out of her eyes. It was as if a small load had been lifted off her shoulders. Her hands remained firmly clutched around mine as she asked, hopeful,
“Really? You’re not lying to me? You really aren’t being bullied in school?”
I smiled, nodding my head lightly. “Really, mum. I’m not being bullied in school. So don’t worry.”
Her smile was a flower blossoming in the winter wind. She pulled me in a tight embrace. “Oh I’m so glad! I was really worried there!” She pushed me away and shot me a look. “You are very clumsy, aren’t you? Be more careful! It must be all that looking at your phone while you’re walking. Stop doing that from now on.”
I laughed. “Okay. I will.”
She adjusted the front of my uniform, patting my shoulders. “Well then. You had better get going before the driver leaves you behind. See you later!”
I waved her goodbye and waited until she had walk past security and back into the neighbourhood. Then I got on the bus.
“What did mother ask you?” Hana asked as I sat down beside her. Her voice was neutral, her eyes – not really.
I wasn’t in the mood to entertain her today. “Nothing much,” I replied before I could think it through.
My pulse accelerated when I said those words, and as those narrowed eyes of her morphed into something like a glare the rhythm grew faster and harder. I could feel the sweat droplets starting to form on my palms and wondered, with impending dread, if I had just made a mistake.
But she said nothing and looked away. I watched the trees flashed by as the bus picked up speed.
No, mum. I’m not being bullied in school.
I’m being bullied at home.
⚜️ × ⚜️ ×
Third period. Chemistry.
Third period. Boredom.
I struggled to stay awake even as in front the lecturer droned on. Rubbing my nose lightly I winced, forgetting that it was still sore from yesterday. I cupped a palm over my mouth and yawned.
Rough night, Miss Silver Rain?
It was a nice voice that spoke to me. Like velvet. Like air. Distinctly male. Of course, it would have sounded much better if it hadn’t resounded in the cavern of my head.
What on earth – My fingers dropped the pencil on the table. I blinked. That was most definitely not my inner voice speaking.
No, not quite.
I froze. There was no mistaking it now; that voice had rang in my head right there. My eyes darted around the classroom. What on earth was that? Was someone speaking to me? But that’s impossible! The words had popped out of nowhere in my head. I couldn’t even say I was hearing things, because the words hadn’t come through my ears!
Scared you, have I?
I leapt out from my seat, my heart thudding a hundred miles a minute. All eyes in class shifted to me at the sudden screeching sound of the chair. This was a lipless voice that wasn’t mine. These were thoughts that weren’t mine. This was an alien invasion, this was a terror attack on my intelligence!
The lecturer in front stopped speaking. “Yes, Miss Eun-bi?” he frowned.
Yes, Miss Silver Rain? the voice mocked.
The stress had finally gotten to me. I had finally snapped. I was wondering how much more I could take before I lost it, and it seemed that I had finally crossed the borderline. Vaguely I heard myself stammer, “W-washroom. I-I need the washroom.”
I stumbled out of class even as the voice said cheerily, What a coincidence. I find myself in need of a washroom too.
It was an automated thought on my part. Boys aren’t allowed in the girls’ washrooms.
And rules are meant to be broken, love.
Who are you? What is this?
Make a guess.
My mind was wild, my thoughts all over the place. How could this be happening – this foreign presence in my consciousness? I felt violated.
I’ll give you a clue. I’m near.
My footsteps grounded to a halt. I was in the hallway, and all around me were students. Students opening and closing locker doors. Students entering and exiting classrooms. Students walking from here to there.
Which one are you? I couldn’t believe I was actually entertaining this entity.
There’s a reason why it’s called a guess, love.
Stop calling me that.
Why not? By the way, I find myself rather fascinated with purple. A rather interesting hue, don’t you think?
I looked around, my eyes scanning, running. Where – I paused, and my eyebrows pulled together in half-triumph.
Oops. You found me.
I took off at a sprint.
Whoa, slow down, love.
I ignored him and kept running. The blob of lavender was taunting, teasing me, flitting in and out of my vision, flirting with the periphery of the crowded hallways. I locked my eyes on it and refused to let it out of my sight.
Slow down I say –
I rammed headfirst into someone and immediately lost my balance. Arms flailing I fell not too graciously to the floor, hitting the cement with a force that sent tremors all the way up my spine. I sat there for a moment, dazed and sore.
There was a disbelieving scoff from up ahead. “Excuse me?”
The hallway stilled. All movement paused. The silence was absolute as everyone turned to stare.
A schoolgirl in a black tracksuit stood before me, arms crossed with a face black as thunder. The books which she had been carrying had all fallen to the floor, and my face paled as I noticed how the front of her shirt was now damp with water, her opened water bottle gripped in one of her hands.
Kang Areum. Popular. More popular than me. Tall. Even taller than me. Strong. She trained for weight-lifting. And temper, the length of which was inversely proportional to her height.
I scrambled to my feet. “S-sorry, I’m so s-sorry – “
I faltered. At the back of the crowd Hana was watching. She made no move to help me whatsoever. There was nothing but plain curiosity on her face, as if she was waiting to see how I would untangle myself from this mess.
Areum sneered, mocking. “S-s-sorry, s-s-sorry. Yah. Why would I accept apologies from a stuttering idiot?”
I flushed scarlet as my eyes dipped to the floor, my fingers twisting the hem of my uniform. “I – I . . . your books. Let me get your books.”
I bent down quick, my arms gathering the textbooks in a pile. And when I stood back up my head bumped right into Areum’s hand, and water flew in a beautiful curve out of her bottle, splashing all over us.
The students hissed and the veins in Areum’s neck bulged. The entire front of her shirt was soaked and I felt my stomach disappear as she snapped.
“I’m sorry!” I cried. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean – “
“You’re dead,” she snarled and slammed a fist into my shoulder.
I was thrown backward, feet slipping onto the wet floor as yet again I tumbled. The students parted away from us like Moses parting the Red Sea. A trail of fire flared in my wrist and I knew something had gone wrong there. But there was no time to look at it now because Areum was coming again, face red with fist pulled back –
A figure slipped between us and Areum’s fist connected with the flat of someone else’s palm.
The students whispered. Areum stared. And in my head –
I told you to slow down, didn’t I?
Pop! went the lollipop as it was pulled out from between a pair of lips.
“Not today, she’s not,” was the reply, and you could almost hear the cockiness singing within the voice.
A voice like velvet.
And distinctly male.
© Emrys Parker