The hardest thing about living in someone’s shadow is when you’re the one who cast it in the first place. Lonely children who raced their shadows in the sunlight always lost when the sun was on their backs. No matter how fast the child would run, the silhouette would always be faster. It wasn’t until they turned back to face the sun that the shadow would be forgotten, the loser in the sad one person race.
Life often felt like a sad one person race, especially to those left out, cast aside from the others. Only children had no one else to entertain them, some days the shadows were the sole friend to pass the time with. Parents were often neglectful, too caught up with each other to worry about the child buried in the dark.
Lonely children are desperate for attention. They’ll seek out praise from whoever will give it to them, especially adults. Soon, they’ll learn what will give them the most validation, the love and attention that they so desperately crave. Some turn to trouble-making, pranks get attention. Others turn to violence, fights get attention. Few turned to academics, either failing or succeed, further than the rest of their peers. Whether they passed with flying colors or failed every class, teachers paid attention.
But years’ worth of A+ papers and gold-star stickers and random contest ribbons plastered across the fridge lose their appeal after years of staring at them. Displaying the proof of accomplishments for everyone to see didn’t make up for the lack of compliments and bitter childhood.
“First place spelling bee ribbons from fourth grade don’t mean much after nearly flunking out of college first semester.” Audrey thought bitterly. The ribbon rubbed coarsely against the pads of her fingers, catching briefly on her nonexistent nails.
She plucked the dull blue ribbon off the fridge, staring at the long dried ink scribble of her name. Who would have guessed the wonderful little nine year old who could spell “abhorrence” would spend the next decade unable to get out of bed most days. She barely went to class, the weight of the world too heavy on her shoulders.
The ribbon hit the bottom of the box without a sound. The first thing in the box at her feet would soon be buried under the rest. It all meant more to her parents than it did to her. At least that’s what they insisted when Audrey had attempted to dismantle the shrine when she left for college in the first place. They liked to remember when she was smart, when she sacrificed whatever social life a ten year old should have in hopes of gaining their praise. They bragged about Audrey everywhere except where she could hear it.
She stopped seeking their praise after they continued not to show her any sign that they had noticed the effort. Praise from teachers came easily, but they meant nothing to her. They called her talented, a child prodigy. Prodigy gives no credit to Audrey. Prodigy gives no credit to the hours she spent reading under the covers with a flashlight. Prodigy doesn’t take into account the number of events she missed to focus on teaching herself calculus or physics.
Calling Audrey a prodigy meant that everything she worked her ass off to learn looked effortless to people. Hard-workers aren’t prodigies. And prodigies don’t suddenly lose all of the knowledge they once had. Hard work can be lost, but if no one saw the work that stood behind the knowledge then she just looked like a washed up child prodigy.
When there was no one left to impress, Audrey had nothing left to fight for. College professors don’t give out gold stars and endless praise. They give out the grades you earned under their harsh judgement. A few toss out candy for correct answers, but routinely getting four hours of sleep wasn’t worth the potential of a fun sized Snickers bar. Nothing was worth the sleep or social deprivation anymore. After twelve years of focusing on nothing but her grades, Audrey had finally given up.
On days when Audrey woke up and didn’t want to get out of bed, she skipped class. Her Friday night studying could easily be abandoned for a party. Who needed to read the chapters when you can spend a whole Saturday on a football game? Homework was easily forgotten and routinely scribbled out minutes before it was due. Even announced exams began to feel like pop quizzes.
Before she knew it, midterms had flown by and she was left with nothing but a politely worded letter that had been shipped to her door, weighed down with the proof of her failures. She hadn’t realized how much time had passed, how long it had been since she tried. She buried the letter deep in her closet, hidden away, out of sight and out of mind.
Audrey dropped a report card into the box, shaking the thoughts of school from her mind. Piece by piece, Audrey picked apart the paper shrine, removing layers upon layers of pages off the dull grey doors of the fridge. Her whole life lie at her feet.
The refrigerator was naked without its paper clothing. The box almost wouldn’t shut, but Audrey taped the lid shut, trapping the memories inside. She hadn’t read more than a sentence off any of those pages in years. She couldn’t remember what they even said anymore, she doubted her parents did either. They would pretend to be sad that she had removed the display, but would secretly be glad it was gone. Sometimes people only hold onto things because they would feel guilting getting rid of them on purpose. But without fail, they were always happier with the thing gone.
Audrey heaved the box to the top of the stairs to the basement steps. It was heavier than she anticipated, but memories always were. She dragged it down to the depths of the cellar, kicking it into a corner where half a dozen other identical boxes were stacked neatly.
She turned and sprinted back up the stairs, like a child afraid that the dark would send its murky hands after her to pull her back down into the abyss. She slammed the door behind her, pressing her back against the wood as if her body could stop it from being forced open. She knew nothing was following her, but she waited tensely, half seriously afraid that it would burst open with the demons who had crawled free of their cardboard prisons.
She retreated slowly. She made her way outside, it seemed to be the safest place to be. Audrey slunk to the porch and plopped herself down on the front steps. She felt lighter, free of all her burdens. She closed her eyes and tried to relax, the sun beating warmly against her cheeks.