When I was young, I didn’t consider my power to be special. I thought everyone could read minds, and it constantly confused me when a person would blatantly lie and get away with it, especially after every adult figure would lecture me on the importance of honesty.
My first day of school the following year solidified my conviction that candor is a virtue, and my power made it easy to befriend my classmates. Sports for the boys, fashion for the girls, and cartoons if I wanted to stay neutral. The preschool years were my salad days.
Things became complicated a few years later when the girls began developing crushes towards the boys. I quickly discerned that one boy in particular was favored the most, but when I tried to help him talk to the girl he liked, he was too shy to admit the truth and branded me as a liar. The girls echoed his accusation, and soon no one wanted to be my friend anymore.
As if suddenly becoming a social pariah among my own age group wasn’t enough, the teacher would also reprimand me for spreading rumors and called my parents on a consistent basis to tell them I was misbehaving. My mother wanted to smack my mouth out of frustration, but settled on disappointed words instead. Claiming my words were true would only infuriate her even more, and I soon stopped trying to defend myself out of fear that she would actually strike me.
That day finally arrived two years later. I was ten years old at the time and remember thinking that it was a big deal to finally have my age in the double digits. Now I mainly recall it as the year I broke up my family.
I’d like to think that it wasn’t entirely my fault, but in truth, I was that last plop of dirt making sure their marriage was good and buried. It was a deceptively normal day; my mother was giving me her opinion on one of my many faults when my father walked into the living room still wearing his suit.
“I have to go back to work,” he said. “I’ll be back late tonight.”
But it was a lie. The only thing on his mind was a young blonde in a tight red dress crossing her legs on the edge of a hotel bed.
“You don’t want to have some dinner before you go?” said Mom.
He shook his head. I was too young to truly understand what was going through his mind at the time, but even then, I knew it meant trouble if he went through with it. As he opened the front door, I decided I had to do something.
“Don’t go see Claudia, Daddy,” I said. “Stay and have dinner with us.”
They both froze at the sound of his secretary’s name. Dad’s grip tightened on the doorknob. He slouched his shoulders with a sigh and said, “I can’t do this anymore,” before walking out. He shut the door gently, but at the time, it was enough force to punctuate a certain finality in the air. I like to think he also said “sorry” before the door closed, but it’s probably wishful thinking on my part.
At first, Mother simply stood there, staring at the door as if, instead of walking out, Father summoned a portal to travel into another dimension and revealed himself as a demon before disappearing forever.
“Mom,” I called out, hoping she would see that I was on her side.
Her eyes flicked at me and at once, I could see all of the pent up anger that had been bottling up over the years ignite like a warehouse full of atomic bombs. Each repressed emotion blew up into little mushroom clouds of steam, getting her ready to burst open like a popcorn kernel.
“This is all because of you,” she spat and slapped me hard across the face.
The shock and the pain paralyzed me, but what scared me the most was that I did not sense a single iota of regret coming from her. I kept my head down as I heard her heels clacking towards her bedroom. When I looked up, Francis was in the hallway looking at me with the same eyes as all those years ago.
From then on, school became worse. Convinced that I was the reason our parents split up, Francis began to instigate as much bullying towards me as possible, and he did such a good job of it that the students did not let up after he was gone.
During my eighth grade graduation, I felt a mixture of elation that those years were finally over and dread at the thought of starting it all over again in high school, where it would probably continue to get worse. I begged my mother to send me to a different high school than the one that Francis attended. She complied, not to make me happy but because she no longer had the strength to care what I did. All of her motherly attention showered onto Francis, who soaked it up like a sponge.
I felt anxious on my first day of high school. I promised myself I would never repeat anything I read from people’s minds. I would just keep my mouth shut and talk about the things they said aloud, but as the days went on and no one made the effort to befriend the new girl, I began to notice their thoughts branding me as “the creepy girl” or “weirdo.”
Afraid that I would have a repeat of middle school, I took the initiative and tried to make friends myself, but it was already too late. Even those who were nice to my face would wish that I would leave them alone. Soon, there was not a single person who wasn’t embarrassed to be seen talking to me.
I ended up drifting from the front of the class to the back, with the outcasts and the slow learners, and even they felt awkward about talking to me. The only person who wasn’t embarrassed by being near me was Billy, but it was hardly a compliment as his mind was rarely engaged with reality. His wild daydreams could be amusing to look in on sometimes, but it was depressing to think that the highlight of my day would be watching Billy gaze out of the window, fantasizing about being a giant troll that could uproot the trees and chomp on them.
I began to focus instead on studying, never again allowing myself to retreat into the minds of others. Halfway through sophomore year, though, I couldn’t help but take notice of Charlie Price, the handsome junior varsity track runner. He was a year older than me, so I never got close enough to read his mind, which was perfect because I didn’t want to ruin the chance that he did not know my reputation. This was how bad it had become. Instead of people loving me, my happiest fantasy was about a boy who was oblivious of me.
But, of course, even that could not have a happy ending. My infatuation became apparent, and a plan was devised to get Charlie and me together. I felt euphoric when he said hello and had no thoughts about me as the weirdo. My face blushed red as I reached to shake his hand when a water balloon hit my shoulder and burst a smelly yellow liquid all over my blouse.
Charlie hopped back and was as surprised as I was at the crowd that had formed, all laughing and pointing at me and calling me names. I could tell that Charlie knew it wasn’t my fault and he felt sorry for me, but nonetheless, I saw that I had been branded as “Pee-Girl” in his mind. He shook his hand in disgust to swat away some of the excess urine that had landed on him.
I ran as far away as my legs could take me and ducked behind the gym. Feeling the hot, sticky shirt cling to my chest, I dropped down to my knees and let the tears burst out of me. I no longer had to keep it in, to try to appear strong, or to want to fit in. I decided that I would end my life that night. I was tired of this awful existence, of living in this awful world with such awful people.
“Why are you crying?”
Billy’s voice startled me. I hadn’t noticed him sitting against a tree. I wiped away the tears with my sleeve, accidentally spreading some of the urine on my face instead, and turned to leave.
“It helps to talk about it,” he said. “But it’s fine if you don’t want to.”
“I don’t,” I said and meant to walk away, but as I looked into Billy’s mind, he was wondering if there was anything he could say to make me feel better. I highly doubted it, but his kindness made me linger.
“I like to come here and listen to the birds sometimes,” he said.
I envied his simple mind. It must be nice to be so oblivious and carefree.
“They make fun of me all the time, too,” he continued. “They think I don’t notice, but I do.”
“It doesn’t seem to bother you,” I said.
“Why should it?”
“Don’t you want to have friends?”
He shrugged and pretended to consider an answer, but I could tell he was focusing on the sound of the birds.
“I’m not like you,” I said. “I actually want to fit in and be normal.”
Knowing that wasn’t possible, I turned around again and took another step to leave. There was no point in talking about any of this anymore.
“Why do you want to fit in with people that only do things in order to fit in? They’d rather be popular than real.” He whistled a response to the birds, then added, “That’s so boring.”
I stopped in my tracks and wondered where this insight was coming from.
“Everyone’s weird,” he said. “Most people are just afraid to show it. So, instead of worrying about what others think, I’m just going to keep being me and following my dream.”
I wondered which one of his silly dreams he wished to be real.
“What’s your dream?” he said.
I closed my eyes and said, “I just want to be normal.”
“There’s no such thing as normal.”
How could someone like him know something like that? He never had any substantial thoughts at all.
“Do you want to be popular?” he said. “Or do you want to be real?”
I knew the kinds of things people said about him behind his back, thinking he was always off in his own world. I thought he couldn’t hear them, but now I saw that it truly did not bother him in the slightest. He knew everything they said about him, and yet he still held no ill will towards anyone.
“We can be friends,” he said, “if you want to be real.”
In that moment, I saw that he meant it. I would still be unpopular if I befriended him, but I would have a friend. Someone that didn’t think of me as a freak. And with his constantly wandering mind, I could almost feel normal knowing that he was more than the simple thoughts always going through his absent head.