My name is Kendra. I am seventeen years old. I repeat this to myself whenever I get scared because I can’t remember.
I watch as the pink ground beef turns slowly gray, and then caramelized brown, as I push it around the skillet. Kendra. Seventeen. The beef starts to sizzle and snap as it gets too hot, nearly burning. It finally pulls me from the question on an interminable loop in my head – who am I?
I hurriedly dump the water, dried noodles and powder packet into the pan and cover it with a lid. This is something any normal kid might do for her busy mom, at least according to commercials. Except that I have no mother, and I’m definitely not normal.
The clock ticks so loudly that it’s hard to concentrate again. Who am I? The doctors say that my parents died in the car accident that wiped my memory clean. They weren’t anything special, and by extension, neither am I. So that settles it, right? I’m Kendra, I’m seventeen years old, and I’m nobody special.
Yeah, there’s more to me than that. Because, somehow, I know that I can blend sugar and some supplies from the garden shed to make a bomb that would leave a small crater in our kitchen. I know that I might be able to outrun it if I used a two inch cotton fuse and jumped through the kitchen window.
I suck on my bottom lip, estimating how long it would take me to get to the street from here. About four seconds, and it might still result in a singed ponytail.
But why do I know this? Why do I always have to sit facing the entrance to any room so that I can see whoever walks in? Why do I know that Joe of Joe’s diner, the place where we go on Saturday nights, is a two-hundred and thirty pound ex-con with a penchant for brass knuckles?
Because of his calluses, of course. And the prison tattoo on the crinkly web of skin between his thumb and index finger: four black dots in a square, with a solitary dot in the middle. You know, like four prison walls? I know. I always know.
I lift the lid and stir the macaroni in a clockwise direction because sometimes I find it calming to be repetitive. And Joe may be an ex con, but his onion rings are delicious. They practically melt in your mouth. Who am I to judge?
“Jesse,” I call out to my foster mom, “dinner!” I hear her bustling around the crazy-messy office she has upstairs, where she’s been avoiding me all afternoon. It’s okay though, I get it. Not only am I a foster kid, but I am kind of strange. I want so much to be normal, and it’s like the more I grab at it, the farther it seems to run away from my outstretched fingers.
SNAP. I pull and release the rubber band on my wrist, making sure it stings just enough to get my attention. My social worker recommended that I do this and repeat my mantra whenever I find myself brooding over the usual question – who am I? Because I know, don’t I?
My name is Kendra. I am seventeen years old.
“Dinner again? Aren’t you a treasure!” she coos, walking in and taking a deep breath of cheesy tomato sauce like I just made a four-star meal. I can appreciate the gesture, even if she’s full of crap.
So we sit at the table, me facing the door and she obliviously facing the wall, serving up steaming bowls of greasy cheeseburger slop for the fourth night in a row. Pull up a seat, folks! She’s a four-star chef! She pours me a giant glass of creamy, cold milk.
I hate milk.
“Oh no!” she yelps as she clumsily knocks over her own glass. It goes flying in the air, her Diet Coke spraying the bland beige walls with syrupy sweetness.
My hand darts out, unbidden, and snatches the glass before it hits the floor.
We sit motionless — she staring at me with an open mouth, me staring at my hand as I slowly place the dripping glass back on to the table.
“That was a lucky catch, wasn’t it?” she suddenly says, jumping up and wiping off the floor and wall.
“Yeah,” I laugh, but it is brittle. “Lucky.”
My stomach sinks. There was no luck about it.
My mind wanders the next day as I tie my sneakers, blankly staring at the grimy shoelaces of Jesse’s hand-me-down Nike’s. The grey curtain that began to lift yesterday has not descended, and the brightness feels overwhelming. I pull at the strings, making the knot tighter and tighter while cutting off my own circulation.
I wish he were real, I think, with just the tiniest bit of anger. But let’s not get into the topic of him now, because I could stay there all day. And I have a gym class to suck at.
“Miss Kendra, would you like to join the rest of the class?”
I look up from my shoes, shocked to see the girls already lined up against the wall. I feel the back of my neck grow hot and tingly as I slip into the last spot behind Jen. She smiles at me, and I shrug with a LOLz, you know me, I’m just silly kind of vibe. Because that’s what normal teenage girls do. We’re just so damned silly. Jen just shrugs, picking at her cuticles while humming her strange little nursery rhyme like always. It’s an odd habit that just reminds me that I don’t remember any nursery rhymes, and I wish she’d stop.
“Now, today we’ve got a real treat – a military style obstacle course. Of course, instead of razor wire I just used string,” Ms. Carlson says, motioning to the zig-zagged white string propped up by traffic cones. A few of the girls giggle nervously. “Today we’re running the course with the boys’ class. The student with the best time wins a Liberty High t-shirt.” She holds up the paltry gift, and a few of the girls snicker. It’s huge and clearly meant for a guy. She tosses it against the wall and pulls at the drawstring of her men’s basketball shorts. Good lord, I think, she’s built like a tank.
“Wow, can’t imagine who they think will win,” Jen whispers bitterly to me, and I nod.
“Clearly some Football douche,” I whisper back, and she laughs. We’re not big fans of the jocks, if you can’t tell. We’re mid-range in popularity, right above the geeks. It’s not a terrible place to be if you’re trying to be normal like I am.
I’m hovering on the bleeding edge of mediocrity. At least, I’m trying to be.
A loud creaking door introduces Coach Peters and the boys class, and the girls go eerily silent. I watch as the klatch of Barbie’s in front of us, led by Stacie Jenner, begin to preen, running their hands through their expertly curled and highlighted hair. I run my fingers through my dark brown hair self-consciously. Not a highlight to be seen. Brown, brown, mousey brown.
“Now it’s getting interesting,” Jen says, rubbing her hands together in anticipation. I roll my eyes when she nudges my arm with excitement.
“Alright, let’s get started,” Ms. Carlson barks, motioning for the boys to approach. She lines them up and drags poor scrawny Katie Jordan to the front of the group to go first. On her whistle Katie springs forward, running up the small ramp and jumping down. By the time she finishes the monkey bars and hops on to the finishing mat, red-haired Justin Schulz takes off like a bullet, barreling toward the ramp and leaping from the top. He finishes worse than her time, blundering through the army crawl under the white string. I know that he should have kept his elbows down to move more quickly.
I glance at the guys in line who anxiously hop around and slap each other on the back. The jocks even chest-bump each other like some sort of ‘roided-out gorillas. Unlike the girls, who are annoyed that this might smudge their carefully applied eyeliner, the guys are excited to show off how fast they can propel themselves through this ridiculous setup. Except, of course, for the Barbies. What better way to strut their stuff than to prance around an obstacle course in their ridiculously rolled up gym shorts? I swear I can almost see Stacie’s butt-cheeks.
My eyes catch for a moment on the guy at the back of the line. He’s not anxiously twitching or glancing at the girls. He stands, quietly, arms folded over his chest like mine. He almost seems bored. I know his name is Liam and he plays wide receiver. But for some reason, I don’t think he’s a douche. For some reason, I think he might actually be kind of nice. I also know that the girls in front of me are giggling about him. I can hear his name sliding between Stacie’s whispers and giggles in a most flattering tone.
Suddenly, his blue eyes flick to me. Shocked, I snap my gaze back to the course, just in time to see Selena fall off the monkey bars, poor clumsy thing. She made the mistake of grabbing the bar with her fingers and not the palm of her hand. Most people think that grabbing with your fingers makes you go faster, but people rarely have that kind of forearm strength. Better to use your palms and be slower than to risk falling.
I don’t dare look back at Liam, instead focusing on where I would have learned something like this. Maybe TV. Sure, sure, that seems right. Probably too many cop shows while I was comatose in that hospital. Maybe the nurses had a thing for NYPD Blue. I can imagine them propping their tired feet up on my hospital bed while I laid there, oblivious.
I force my heart to slow its’ ridiculous rhythm, pulling and stretching my rubber band. SNAP.
At the sound of rubber on my flesh, Stacie slowly turns around to glare at me. Her hawkish blue eyes tear me into ragged little pieces. When I don’t blink, she sneers and turns back to her followers, whispering. I wonder if they’re recounting the prank she played on me last week. It had taken nearly an hour to scrub the inside of my locker clean of the ketchup she squirted through the vents.
Did you know that dried ketchup is almost impossible to remove? You can still see the faint outline of the word BITCH in pretty scrawling letters across the locker door. It was excellent work, don’t get me wrong. Stacie should consider putting it on a college application.
Handwriting: Top notch!
Word Choice: Flawless!
Sigh. I pull and stretch the rubber band anxiously. When it’s finally her turn, Stacie saunters over to the obstacle course, giving her shorts another solid roll-up before she begins. Yup, there is definite cheekage now, and I’m surprised Stacie doesn’t give herself a wedgie. She walks slowly up the ramp and picks over the pretend razor wire like a doe in the forest. She giggles as she attempts to swing from a monkey bar, and plunks down on the finishing mat. I sneak a glance at Liam, but his face is blank. Interesting. The other jocks clap boisterously, and she rewards them with a wink and a grin, like good doggy, that’s a good boy. They lap it up.
“Wish me luck,” Jen says, and I smile.
“You don’t need it,” I respond, and she doesn’t even pretend to modestly brush me off. She takes this class seriously, bending one knee like a sprinter waiting for the pistol. When she takes off, her golden hair flies behind her. She does amazingly well, sailing from one obstacle to the next. I gaze in awe as she easily swings from monkey bar to monkey bar, landing on the mat with a top of the class minute and fifty seconds. I wave at her as she stands against the wall, grinning with flushed pride.
The only ones left are Liam and I, and he slowly makes his way to the starting line.
“Go!” Coach Peter’s yells. Liam takes off, gracefully diving from one obstacle to the next. I can see why he does so well on the field – he’s easily the fastest guy in the entire class. His tall, bulky frame even slinks down for the army crawl under the string with elbows tucked, and as he swings from the monkey bars to the finish mat, he comes up with the fastest time of one minute, forty-two seconds. Damn, that boy can move, I think, somewhat appreciatively, before I catch myself. I wipe the grin off of my face and the image of his strong calves from my mind.
“Wow, Liam. That was amazing,” Stacie coos, strutting up to him and placing her hand on his arm like a terrier marking her territory. He shrugs and looks bemused. I didn’t think a teenaged guy could ever look bemused, but there it is. And even if I’m wrong and he actually is a douchebag, I don’t see how he can stand Stacie. I see Jen roll her eyes, though whether it’s from being beaten or Stacie’s syrupy endearments, I don’t know. Jen really hates losing.
Coach Peters tosses the balled up t-shirt to Liam, who catches it with what might be a guilty look in my direction. At least he seems a little guilty.
“That’s so cool you won,” I can hear Stacie fake-whispering to Liam. I don’t look to see his reaction.
This is it, I think, stepping up to the mat. Do I go for it? My muscles twitch in anticipation. I long to leap forward and run the course in to the ground. But, most of all, I want people to think I’m normal. Absolutely average in every way.
Thankfully, the rest of the class doesn’t seem to notice me. Liam has been absorbed by the klatch of Barbie’s and everyone else is talking. Even Jen has been pulled into a conversation with a sophomore whose name I don’t know.
Everyone is completely ignoring plain ol’ Kendra. It’s perfect.
I close my eyes and breathe through my nose, slowing my heartbeat. I’ve never done an obstacle course before, at least, not that I remember. That seems to be the chant of my life – not that I remember. I certainly don’t have the cute-factor that Stacie has to pull off her ridiculous prance through the course. And furthermore, I don’t want to.
My name is Kendra. I am seventeen years old. I open my eyes, and take off on my mark from Ms. Carlson, who immediately turns to talk to Coach. Running up the ramp, I leap from the edge, landing clear on the other side of the crash mat. I dive under the fake barbed wire, pushing myself forward without coming near the white string. As I scurry away, I begin to register that the room has gone silent. Maybe it’s just in my head? I keep going. Move, move, move! I bark at myself, and it pumps adrenaline through my veins at a dizzying speed.
Jumping on to the balance beam, I steadily jog on my toes down the narrow four-inches without looking down. I jump off and spring back up in one motion, catching a monkey bar in my right hand. I’m already swinging to the next bar, never resting. As I gain speed, I begin to skip bars, swinging wide to gain ground. I feel electricity coursing through me. I feel so alive, and it’s absolutely brilliant. I hop off at the end on to the finish mat, and finally let myself breathe, adrenaline and happiness mixing a heady cocktail through my body.
But the gym is silent, except for my slow, even breaths. Damn.
“One minute, thirty-nine seconds,” Ms. Carlson stares at me. I’m not sure at what point she started to notice me again. “That’s unbelievable.”
I cross my arms behind me, pulling at my rubber band behind my back so that they can’t see. I no longer feel electric – I feel more like a lightning rod waiting to be struck. She stares at me as Coach Peters opens and closes his mouth like a guppy. He gives me a long look, obviously annoyed I just wiped the floor with his star football player. Part of me wants to yell, scream, yeah, that’s right, suck it. But I don’t. I just stand there.
An image of him flashes before my eyes, wiping away the scene in front of me. We’re standing in front of a course much like this one, and somehow we’ve failed. Vertigo overwhelms me. “Just one more chance,” he pleads. But I hate him for begging.
“Well Katy, I guess you win the shirt,” Coach Peter’s says, snapping me back to reality even though he can’t bother to get my name right. I shake my head and breathe through my nose, because this isn’t the first time I’ve been pulled out of reality and into a dream.
Coach snatches the t-shirt from Liam and tosses it to Ms. Carlson to avoid acknowledging me any further. She hands it to me without comment as the class begins to disperse with the warning bell. The dizziness subsides with a few more deep yoga breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth. In. Out. I am finally steady enough to walk.
“Good job,” says a deep voice beside me. I look up and see Liam, suddenly next to me. His stare is level and hard, and I don’t blink because I don’t think my brain can function when he stares at me like that. “I mean, that was awesome,” he says.
“Um, thanks,” I mumble.
I see Stacie out of the corner of my eye, and she looks like she sucked on a lemon wedge, before sweetly rearranging her face into a Cheshire slick smile as she walks past.
“Listen, I know you’ve probably got plans, but there’s this party tomorrow night, and if you’re not busy,” he looks anywhere but in my eyes. “You know, I mean, if you want, you could come. With me.”
I think my brain just broke in half.
“You want me to come with you? To a party?” I’ve stopped walking, and glance around for some hidden camera because this surely has to be a prank. Where is Stacie, anyway? Just think how she could add this to her Queen Bee résumé. She probably already has her own YouTube channel in preparation.
“Maybe?” he asks, a dull red flushing his cheeks. His eyes are so startlingly dark blue that I have to remind myself to blink. Jen walks up, oblivious to my conversation with Liam.
“Let’s go, Kendra,” she says, putting her hand on her hip, demanding my acquiescence. Usually I give it to her, because as the clear Beta in this ‘normal’ teen girl relationship, that’s what I’m supposed to do. Instead, I wave her away.
“I’ll be right there,” I say, and she frowns so hard it makes her almost unattractive. Almost. Let’s be honest.
“Fine,” she mutters, storming into the locker room. I turn back to Liam, praying that this isn’t a practical joke.
“I just have to talk to my foster mom,” I reply. “So, still, maybe.” Liam smiles, and it’s a dazzlingly perfect grin.
“Alright. I’ll slip my number into your locker. You can call if you want. No pressure,” he says. “See you,” he waves and walks off. As Liam passes Coach Carlson, he gets a loud smack on the back of his head. I distinctly hear him whisper about, ‘losing to a damned girl.’
Score one for feminism, Coach.
I look at the huge, hideous t-shirt with regret. I know I’ll never wear it to class. This stupid shirt proves one of the only things I know for sure about myself. I am different. When I’m sure no one is looking, I toss it into the garbage. Maybe going to the party with Liam is just the hint of normal that I desperately need.