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Trudging through the slightly marshy, yet well-worn path, Kaya shook her head in disgust. It was late October—her favorite time of year, yet the vibrant leaves drifting lazily down from the trees above were a blur to her. Kaya had little idea of where she was going; all she knew was that she needed to get away. Away from her tired life in her cramped little apartment; she had gotten uncomfortable to the point where she couldn’t even breathe. The light blue walls in her bedroom that had once seemed like such a comfort to Kaya now made her nauseous. She was sick of the fighting, and the shattering of expensive china in the room next door. The walls were thin; did her parents honestly believe she was stupid? They pretended that everything was ‘hunky-dory’ the next morning, but Kaya noticed the deep shadows under her mom’s eyes, the glint of pent-up anger in her father’s. Nothing was okay, and nothing ever would be. Why was it that only Kaya could see her entire world crashing down on her?
A deep sigh emitted from Kaya, although she really felt like screaming. It was too much for a 15-year-old to handle, even if she was supposedly mature for her age. Kaya was the sensible daughter; she was the girl who did what she was told without question. A straight-A honor student and the member of every club the school had to offer, she grabbed opportunities with both hands and yanked them away from everyone else. Kaya was pretty enough too, with auburn hair that touched her shoulders, hazel eyes and a smattering of freckles on her nose. Yup, Kaya Mayberry was perfect in every way; except…she wasn’t. If people bothered to look past the shiny exterior, finished off with that perfect smile, they would see the tiny cracks that covered every single inch of her being. The only problem was, no one noticed; no one cared enough to. Her friends were certainly not enough—they saw what everyone else saw: the fake she pretended to be, instead of who she really was.
‘Crack.’ Stepping on a large twig, Kaya broke out of her reverie in fright. Laughing ruefully at her stupidity, she suddenly realized that there were tears in her eyes. Hastily brushing them away didn’t work and the tears kept coming. Before she knew it, she had sunk into a bed of crunchy-looking leaves sobbing. “Stop it,” she commanded herself tightly, but she couldn’t. Not all of her friends were as shallow as the ones she had now; there was one exception. She tried as hard as she could to push the memory back into the dark crevices of her mind but for the first time in a long time it was of no avail…
Kaya was six. It was the glorious age of innocence, where a scraped knee was mended with a kiss and a band-aid. It was a time where angry words were forgiven the next day, worries were fleeting, and punishments were nothing more than losing an hour of TV privileges. Life was simple and wonderful; after all, a kid never thinks about the future nor dwells on the past. Everything was about the present, and the magic it held.
It was a hot summers afternoon; the sun was beating on Kaya’s head, but she was too focused on her project to worry about a little thing like heatstroke. Back then, Kaya wasn’t perfect and she never had to pretend to be anything but herself. Of course, herself at the time was a grubby little girl in pink overalls that loved to play in mud puddles. Reaching into the squelchy mud, Kaya wriggled her hand around until she found a handful of worms. As she dropped them into her red-handled plastic pail, she examined her find with open six-year-old fascination.
A quick flash of color through the trees at the edge of her property alerted Kaya that someone was there. “You can come out now, stupid head, I see you,” she yelled with more bravado than she felt. Inside, Kaya was in turmoil, her imagination running a million miles a minute. Maybe it was that ‘cereal’ killer that she heard about on TV. Her mom had warned her about ‘stranger-danger,’ and taught her to scream anytime someone she didn’t know were to talk to her. Or, maybe it was the monster…like the one that lived under her bed! Kaya shuddered once, then yelled even louder: “If you don’t come out right now, I am going to beat you up!” The leaves rustled loudly before someone burst out.
She was the strangest looking person Kaya had ever seen in her entire life. With black, curly hair that looked as if it hadn’t been combed in a week, the only way it could be managed was by pulling it into a messy-looking ponytail. The hairdo itself was finished off with a faded purple ribbon, frayed at the edges. Approximately Kaya’s age, she had grey-green eyes, a dirt-smeared face, and a Mickey Mouse dress that was two sizes too small. What interested Kaya the most was not the girl’s appearance; rather, it was the expression on of blatant curiosity on her face. Usually, people steered clear of Kaya when she was off on another one of her ‘projects.’ Her friends looked disgusted at the very mention of bugs, preferring to spend their time showing off their pretty dresses indoors. Even her mom looked at Kaya with the secret longing that she would one day grow out of her boyish habits.
“Hi! My name is Caitlyn” the girl exclaimed loudly, bringing Kaya back to reality. Caitlyn peered at Kaya strangely and blinked a couple of times before asking, “Can I play?”
Lost in thought, Kaya didn’t notice the fat, pink work sliding up her arm. “Gross,” she screamed, shaking it off her arm in disgust. How she ever actually liked these creatures was beyond her. With a deep sigh, Kaya brushed the dead leaves off her jeans and started walking. Dwelling on the past was not going to get her anywhere. It wouldn’t change anything, and she knew that she couldn’t wallow in self-pity the entire day. As she ran her hand through her slightly damp hair, there was a rustle as a dull orange leaf shook itself free and fell to the ground. When Kaya picked it up and twirled it through her fingers, the leathery feel and piney scent bought back more memories; memories she was still trying to keep hidden. After all, autumn was Caitlyn’s favorite time of the year…
“Truth or Dare,” whispered Caitlyn quietly. The wind was howling outside, and the full moon cast an eerie light on both girls. Kaya and Caitlyn sat across each other, cross-legged, on the ledge beside the windowsill. They stared at each other through large, frightened eyes—makeup stolen from their mother’s dressing table evident on their faces. Slashes of bright red lipstick, purple eye shadow, and orange blush would have caused fits of hysteria had it been daylight. However, at dusk, it only added to the spooky effect the girls were trying to create. Caitlyn and Kaya were twelve, and ever since they first met six years ago, they had become inseparable. Although ridiculed by their peers, their strangeness helped them form a bond that bought them closer together. While other kids their age spent their weekends at the mall, Caitlyn and Kaya spent theirs collecting rocks to add their collections. Instead of spending hours on their clothes and hair, they pulled on the first item of clothing rummaged from the cupboard (which predominantly consisted of cargo pants and baggy shirts). While Cat and Kay—as they called themselves—were the school freaks, both refused to let labels bother them. After all, they had each other; that was enough.
“Truth or Dare?” whined Caitlyn again, “Come on! We don’t have all night!” Kaya thought for a moment and opened her mouth, a question formed in her mouth, when her parents started yelling. Again. Thoughts fled Kaya, and words stuck in her throat; she looked up at Caitlyn, only to see pity swimming in her grey eyes. Kaya mouthed an apology, but her friend just shrugged her shoulders; she was used to it. Usually, they tried to pretend like nothing was wrong, an endeavor made all the easier when Kaya’s parents kept up the facade as well. Even after their biggest fights, her mom would greet her and Caitlyn with a smile. In her ratty bathrobe that she only wore when she was upset, Mrs. Mayberry would offer to make the kids pancakes, and her husband would jovially greet everyone good morning before lurching back upstairs. On those days, the house smelt like burnt breakfast and sadness. But, Kaya never offered any words of comfort to her parents. After all, if she ignored the fighting, it didn’t exist. If she acted like everything was okay, then everything would be…eventually. It had to be.
With a large sigh, Caitlyn repeated her question irritably. “Truth or Dare? Will you hurry up and just ask me already? Geez”.
“Fine,” muttered Kaya irritably, blocking out the sounds downstairs, “But you answer my question first. Why do you like autumn so much? It’s all you ever talk about!”
“That’s the lamest question ever! Seriously, is that the best you could do?” questioned Caitlyn, rolling her eyes. “But fine. I like autumn because it serves as a bridge between summer and winter; I hate cold weather, and autumn tells me that I had better get prepared for the inevitable. But at the same time, it allows me to enjoy the last few months of freedom before temperatures start dipping. I’ve learnt to appreciate a season that gives me that gift, especially when it’s so beautiful.”
Dumbstruck, Kaya just stared. She had never expected an answer like that, and didn’t know what to say. So, she didn’t say anything, and spent the next few minutes tracing the patterns on the rug underneath her. The awkward silence was shattered after Caitlyn piped up brightly “So, yeah. Kay, I guess it really is my turn now…Truth or Dare?”
“Truth,” came the immediate reply.
“Okay. I was wondering. If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you go?”
Kaya paused, her mouth opened soundlessly. As much as she racked her brains for a response, her mind drew a blank. She could have taken the easy route and claimed ‘Hawaii’ or ‘The Bahamas,’ but after hearing what Caitlyn had to say, those options seemed less than inadequate. No matter how much Kaya tried to focus, memories of her best friend kept drifting into her mind. She thought of the time Caitlyn held her hand on the first day of grade school. She somehow knew what Kaya was going through; the tumultuous feelings of panic and fear that engulfed her. The feel of Caitlyn’s sweaty palm was a strange comfort. It reassured Kaya, convinced her that everything was going to be just fine. That was Caitlyn; she always knew exactly what to do to make Kaya feel better. Whenever her parents fought, Caitlyn invited her over, distracting her with meaningless chatter until two in the morning. Caitlyn was Kaya’s best friend—her only friend—and at that moment she was certain that they had something special. They had a friendship that would last an eternity. That’s why, when Kaya finally spoke, her response was simple: “It doesn’t matter where I am, as long as you’re with me.”
Overcome with a sudden rage, Kaya ripped the leaf apart with her hands. Looking at it’s broken form with disgust; she dropped it, watching the pieces slowly spiral to the ground. It was a lie, a stupid lie. Kaya and Caitlyn would not be friends forever. In fact, their friendship would barely survive the next two years. “You have no one to blame but yourself,” Kaya told herself bitterly, “This is all your fault. So suck it up, and let it go.” But, she couldn’t. Her guilt had resurfaced, and all she could do to replay the scene over and over again in her mind. Filled with ‘what if’s’, the memory of that day continued to haunt her.
Kaya was fourteen. Even with the don’t-care attitude that she and Caitlyn had adopted, Kaya couldn’t help but notice how people looked at them. Or rather, the way people didn’t look at them. She was invisible; the girl who was only spoken to when someone didn’t understand a math problem, or needed help with their geometry homework. The pretense of needing nobody was slipping, and Kaya was desperate to find a way to fit in. Ignoring the admonishments of Caitlyn she started making a conscious effort on her clothes, sometimes spending hours debating what to wear. She got highlights in her hair and started wearing makeup. By the end of the month Caitlyn laughingly referred to her as ‘cake-face.’
Regardless, Kaya’s endeavor started to work. Instead of being ignored, she was suddenly the center of attention. When she talked, people listened; it was a stark contrast from the way she had been previously treated. Kaya suddenly belonged, suddenly fit in. It felt almost unreal sometimes, her rise to the top of the social pyramid. So caught up in her popularity, Kaya didn’t realize what she was giving up. She didn’t notice the hurt look on Caitlyn’s face when she brushed by with barely more than a hello. She failed to comprehend how lonely her best friend felt when she bailed on their weekend plans. If Kaya were completely honest with herself, she would have known that what she was doing was killing Caitlyn. However, at that point she didn’t care. Kaya had gotten what she wanted most, but seemed to forget that the journey was as important as the destination.
Everything collapsed on itself that Friday afternoon. Kaya was walking down the hallway, with her newfound posse, like she owned the place. It was a trick she had learnt from observing others. If she acted superior to everyone else, she would automatically be treated with deference. Confidence was crucial in the school’s hierarchy; after all, everyone needed someone to look up to. While this was a thought that would have repulsed the old Kaya, new Kaya accepted this as a simple fact. Old Kaya would have run back to Caitlyn with glee; she loved to discuss how shallow and self-immersed the so-called populars were. New Kaya couldn’t do that, because she had become the shallow, self-immersed brat that she once hated.
Kaya noticed that the group behind her had stopped, and were tittering to themselves rapidly. The hallway ahead of her was mostly deserted, except for a lone girl that stood determinedly, blocking her way. With a jolt, Kaya realized that the girl was Caitlyn. The lights suddenly seemed too bright, the voices behind her too loud. What did Caitlyn think she was doing? As the girl stalked towards her, Kaya realized that she was shaking in rage. If Caitlyn wanted to talk, why did she have to do it here? She was going to ruin the reputation that Kaya had spent so long building up! By the time she had reached her, Kaya’s eyes flashed murder. Ignoring the obvious tension between them, Caitlyn spoke loudly, clearly for everyone to hear: “What are we doing this weekend?”
Kaya was all too aware of the group standing four feet behind her, drinking in every word. It was a test, she knew. Caitlyn was giving her two options. Kaya could accept the proposal; if she made plans with Caitlyn, it would be like all was forgotten. Things could finally go back to normal between them; she could have her best friend back. Or, Kaya could avoid total social oblivion by snubbing the girl, and returning to her posse. Two choices, but only one option and Kaya had to be the one to make the decision. She looked behind her first, at the people that meant nothing to her. They only existed as a gateway to Kaya’s popularity. Then she looked at Caitlyn, really looked at her for the first time in months. She drank in the short, unruly curls, the baggy cargo pants paired up with a faded ‘Save the Whales’ T-shirt. She looked at her stupid, rubber flip-flops, and the ‘dollar a pair’ earrings obtained from a garage sale. Finally, Kaya looked up at Caitlyn’s eyes; they looked back at her pleadingly, begging her to make the right decision.
She knew what she had to do. Kaya stood up straight and retorted sharply, “Loser. Why would I ever want to hang out with you?” Kaya watched as Caitlyn’s face changed rapidly from hopeful to betrayed. Her eyes filled with tears before she blinked them away, replacing the pitiful expression with one of firm resolution. “I’m sorry,” mouthed Kaya—but this time, she would not be forgiven. With her head held up high, Caitlyn walked away proudly. Kaya turned around and returned back to the comfortable embrace of her new friends.
Kaya knew now that what she did was wrong; she had made her choice, and it was a mistake that she would forever regret. With a yell loud enough to scare the birds out of their nests, Kaya finally released the pent-up emotions that had been stuck inside her for so long. Her life was falling to pieces around her, and the only person that ever truly understood was gone. By heartlessly exchanging her best friend for a ticket to popularity, Kaya had also given up her only source of happiness. When she chanced upon Caitlyn at school, it was like all those years of friendship had never existed. Caitlyn always ignored her; she turned her head away, and pretended to fiddle with whatever was in her hands at the moment. It was Kaya’s fault, but she was always too much of a coward to try and make things right.
The familiarity of the surroundings bought Kaya back to her senses. The faded whitewashed houses and weedy gardens just confirmed her suspicions. The peeling sign above her head read “Lakeview Avenue”…Caitlyn’s street. Somehow Kaya had ended up in the last place she wanted to be in. Ever since their falling out, she had refused to set foot in the neighborhood; too racked with guilt about what she had done. “But, I’m here now. That’s what’s important,” thought Kaya sadly. Just like last year, two choices were laid out in front of her. It would be easy to just walk away, to leave before anyone noticed her. No one would ever have to know, and Kaya could go back to life in her sad little apartment. She could return to the friends that she didn’t care about, and didn’t care about her. She could fake a smile and spend the rest of her life pretending to be perfect, because that was what everybody expected of her. Or, Kaya could take a leap of faith and apologize. While Caitlyn would never be her best friend again, too much had happened between them to ever be truly okay, admitting her mistakes would be a step in the right direction. She had been a coward before, but she didn’t have to be a coward now. Taking a deep breath to calm her nerves, Kaya hesitantly walked up to Caitlyn’s house and knocked on the door…