Maya shuffles down the hallway of her high school, shoulders hunched, head down. They’re looking at you, she thinks. They’re looking at and judging you. This is the worst part of the day: the part where she walks to class, backpack and instrument swinging, trying not to drop the thousand things she carries. If she does, Maya thinks of it as game over. It’s the end of her already nonexistent social life, and no one will help her to pick up the pieces--literally and metaphorically. When she makes it to the band room, she clutches her clarinet to her chest and sighs. But what if someone’s looking at you now? No one else is even in the room. Angry at herself, she pushes the thought away.
After unpacking, she checks her grades on the embarrassingly small phone her mom always tells her to carry around. Personally, she hates it, because she fears that people will laugh at her for its size. She doesn’t see the appeal in a phone anyway, except for this. Her grades are still all A’s, thank God. After the pop quiz in Mr. Johanson’s class, she was scared that her physics grade would dip, but all is well. She feels like she can breathe a little more.
“At it already?” Maya’s friend Leah appears in the room, decked out in a sequin-covered all-black getup that’s barely school appropriate and fit for Lady Gaga herself. Its frills complement Leah’s body perfectly, and she knows it. Maya can never understand how Leah can seem like a goth and a raucous rockstar at the same time--much less why Leah chose her, a tiny anxious honors student, to be friends with her. But she isn’t complaining.
“You know me,” replies Maya, snapping back to the moment and choosing her words carefully, lest she say the wrong thing. “I live, eat, and breathe band.” It’s true, and Leah knows it; she laughs her musical laugh and Maya is filled up with a rare sense of satisfaction. But then Charley Hansen walks in. The laughing and smiling stop abruptly.
“Oh hey, girls,” the coquettish teen says, drawing out every syllable, popping her bubblegum at the end of the sentence for effect. When she turns around, Leah leans over and whispers “Ugh, flutists” into Maya’s ear, but Maya has turned off. Her breathing is becoming labored. Her eyes are wide like a scared animal, and frighteningly alert; she genuinely looks like a rabbit, trapped in a cage, lured in by a false sense of comfort. Leah elbows her.
“Maya,” she whispers. “We talked about this. Please don’t have an attack again.” But Maya can’t hear her.
Charley’s pink-streaked ponytail flips around, and her sneering face follows. She gets in Maya’s face and pops her gum right there. Maya doesn’t even blink. “What’s wrong, dear?” she asks. “Did I freak you out a little too much last time?” Leah’s face darkens.
“Get out of here, Charley,” Leah growls. “We don’t want you here.”
“Oh, but I’m in band too, you know,” she retorts. It’s weak, but Charley’s confidence makes up for it. She could make playing the recorder seem powerful if she was the one doing it. “I belong here just as much as you two. Probably even more.”
Leah stands up, and raises herself to her full 6 feet. “Charley, I’m going to say it one more time. Either shut your pretty little lips or get. Out. Of. Here.” Maya’s breathing is getting worse. Faster and faster and faster. Her heart races. She can’t think straight. All that’s in her head is Must get out get out get out get out get out, but her limbs are frozen.
Charley considers, popping her hip out and letting her mouth form a pout. “Well, I suppose Jake did say he wanted a little…” She giggles. “Well, you know.” She giggles again and slaps her ass. “Before first period.” Leah fights the urge to retch.
“God, then go, please,” she says. “Enjoy yourself.” The finality of this gets Charley to finally leave them alone. She hoists her bag onto her shoulder, tucks her too-expensive skirt back in, and flounces away.
Leah heaves a sigh and sits herself next to Maya again. “Good God, I hope they use a condom. I don’t think we could handle a mini Charley on our hands.” Maya doesn’t laugh. Instead she makes a choking sound and she rushes from the room, hands at her throat.
When she makes it to the bathroom, everything’s already going dark. The edges of her vision are blurring. She’s hyperventilating wildly in remembrance of everything Charley has done to her. The panic attack switch in her brain turns on, and now her thoughts, too, are frantic. Ohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygod. She can feel her throat constricting. Her arms and legs are going numb. Her heart is going to explode, it’s going to burst like a balloon. The cold tile of the bathroom feels like fire against her skin, and like always when this happens, she thinks she can sense death standing over her. Voices fill her head:
“A burst heart.” “Choking.” “Hyperventilation.” “She passed out and never woke up.” The tears come quickly, and Maya places her hands against her head and tries to breathe, breathe, breathe. Slowly. Calmly. Slowly. It takes a few minutes for her to wind down, and then after that she starts thinking about her rapid heartbeat, and everything unfolds all over again. She goes through the process three times before finally, finally, getting herself under control. She waits before she leaves the bathroom. Fixes her shirt and hair. Splashes cold water against her face. Then she rolls her shoulders back, breathes a deep breath from her diaphragm, and heads back to the band room.
Leah slowly approaches her, knowing how this goes. She was kind enough to not join Maya, trying to help, because she finally learned that the presence of another doesn’t help her. “Shhh,” Leah whispers, wrapping up Maya in her arms, resting her chin on Maya’s head. “Shhh, baby. It’s all over now. She can’t hurt you. Everything’s okay.” Maya nods, and a single stray tear leaks out of her eye. She wipes it away before her friend can see; Leah, though she could be sweet and gentle, was still pretty dark. She might judge her for it and Maya knows it’s always better safe than sorry.
Eventually, class starts. And she gets through it, though not without the general nervous thoughts she has in band: You shouldn’t have picked clarinet, you sit in the front and people can see you. They’re probably looking at you right now. They know. Those laughs are for you. The stream is endless, and she hates it, but she doesn’t know how to stop it. Especially now, after an early-morning attack, she’s especially susceptible. Leah’s by her side, and she knows she’s lucky to have the help, but it also creates even more ramblings in her mind about what her best (and only) friend must think.
“Leah, I’m sorry.” After band, Maya can’t hold it in anymore. The apology slips out. Leah’s face is unreadable, but her response is immediate. “Girl!” She exclaims so loudly it makes Maya jump. “You are not an inconvenience. I love you. You can’t help the illness in your head and I’d never be mad at you for it. I promise.” The hands at Maya’s throat release their grip a bit.
Soon after, in third period, the exhaustion sets in. It comes after a particularly bad episode, and Maya can feel it seeping into her bones. It isn’t even a fully physical feeling; it seems almost spiritual, and it makes her ache inside. It makes her feel like there’s something inside of her, something sinister, and it’s splitting her apart at the seams.
She wishes she could tell someone, and tell them now, but she only has one friend, who isn’t in this period. The only other option is her English teacher, but much to her dismay, she is not the kindest adult on the planet. According to the books she reads, they’re supposed to be the ones you connect with, the English teachers, and the fact of this makes her sad because she’s always loved writing and she hates it being turned into something terrible. This morning, they’re given a writing prompt and ten minutes. Write about the scariest situation you’ve ever found yourself in. She lays her head on her desk to think about what she could write that doesn’t have to do with anxiety, and promptly falls asleep.
A loud Crack! causes the last remnants of her nap to turn tail and run. Immediately her head shoots up, afraid--she hates loud noises--and the teacher’s face is right against hers. Maya tries desperately not to think of Charley and this exact scene from two hours ago, so she won’t freak out again. Luckily, Ms. Colt’s fierce voice and smelly breath keep her in the present.
“Ms. Muncie, are you asleep?”
Maya shrinks into her seat. “No, ma’am.” Her voice is a whisper.
“Because it looked to me as though you had your head on your desk, and your eyes were closed, and your breathing was labored. It looked like sleeping to me.”
The scared girl tries not to think about the word “breathing”. She knows what will happen if she does… She loses herself for a minute, breathing faster, and then after another cacophonous slap of the meter stick on her desk, she realizes that she has to answer. Oh no. She hates talking to authority figures, and now people are listening. Oh no. She’s scared beyond reason and nearly stuttering as she replies with a voice barely there, “It won’t… it won’t happen again.”
Mrs. Colt gave her the evil eye and an eyebrow raise. “I should hope not.” Will my grade drop? What if I get detention? What if this ends up on my college applications? What if? What if? What if? Maya nods, groans quietly, and finishes the writing prompt. She writes about the time she was stung by a bee as a child.
Maya doesn’t know how she can make it through lunch. It’s her second least-favorite part of the day; it’s extremely anxiety-inducing because it’s loud, so freaking loud, and anyone could be looking at her at any moment, and it’s forty minutes more to worry about what she isn’t getting done. She sits with a group of other girls, who are fairly quiet--the main reason why she sits with them. Leah has a different lunch period, and she’d sit with different people besides. Louder people. Braver people. Stronger people than she could ever hope to be.
She lays her head down.
She falls asleep again, where the thoughts can’t get her.
She stays asleep until the bell rings. She never even gets her lunch.
Sixth period is choir, and Maya has always liked to sing. Her choir teacher is simple and kind, but reasonable. When she finds her place on the riser, he smiles at her understandingly, because she looks like she hasn’t slept in years. She blushes, for the sole reason that human interactions embarrass her. For the millionth time in her life, Maya asks herself, What’s wrong with me? But like every other time, there is no answer.
The small group of kids in choir are generally chill, and she appreciates this. They like to talk about important things like climate change and political situations, and sometimes conversations get out of hand, but they never grow into more than a spat. In choir, people like each other, and arguing is against the implicit rules.
Warm-ups and show-offs and trills, oh my. They go through the motions before they sing, and Maya is tired, but she’s happy because she doesn’t stand in the front and there’s not much that can go wrong when you sing in a group--at least not a group like this one. Everyone’s voices blend, and that means that she can enjoy herself, and be loud and outspoken, without actually being heard in the same way that she normally would be. They work as a choir, and no one hears just her.
Well, you can’t have it all. Maya’s voice cracks on a high A, and all the peace she had felt slips through her fingers. She knows it’s absurd to worry about things like this, but it’s all she knows. She thinks about it, and the awful note, and her flaming face, until the end of the school day comes at last.
Leah is a bus rider, so she hugs Maya goodbye and heads home. Maya is too afraid to drive herself, so she gets picked up by her mother when school draws to a close. She carries her backpack and her clarinet, and walks out to the car. Shoulders hunched. Head down.
Just like always.
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Really nice job at getting inside of the character's head during the overview of her day. I like the approach to characterization -- she is clearly a static character, but is easy to empathize with. I think many people could relate to her, especially teenagers.