She holds the blue bin for concessions like a shield, clutching the sides so tightly that the wash of fluorescent lighting almost shows the flush of color in her hands. The crowd is bedlam, and as she passes bags of chips amongst them, murmurs of madness creep underneath the howling din.
"If you shook that ass more, you'd make more money," a girl says.
Clutch the bin. Take the money. Give food. Sticks and stones, she knows, are nothing. Outside the noise, a flashing fire snaps from hand to hand and whacks the court floor. Buzzing alarms ring for things concession workers couldn't trouble themselves to comprehend. Whistles cut the air and pierce ears but do not block rumors.
"You're a cutie. Here, have a tip," an old man says, tucking a dollar bill into her back jeans pocket.
Clutch the bin. Deal with it. She says she's strong, but she feels their eyes. She knows she's strong--she knows she's strong. The fluorescent lights have a way of sapping her memory of successes. Handing over a Hershey's bar is now like forfeiting humanity. Alone, standing in a tide of people who either appear to be laughing at her or are laughing at her, she becomes frail. The stench of clustered, sweating bodies covered in perfume and deodorant gives her claustrophobia, even in the biggest room of the school.
One boy dares a friend to grab her.
Clutch the bin. Clutch the bin. The act of maintaining a visage of strength begins to lose clarity when she needs to do it everyday. When she sits on the concessions counter later and cries, claiming that she has little left to cling to, she means to end it. Everything can break your bones, she knows, especially words. The slap of a basketball and sneakers on wooden slats is a clock ticking.
She feels like a tomboy. She feels like Cinderella.
The story has a precedent, but it's irrelevant. How many times has she heard that someone else has it worse? How much self-harm has she heard about, committed by friends or family members who have "gotten better?" Pain is never going to be a pain-killer. She says she's strong, but she thinks of a friend who died and wonders if she could wander with him.
She's a tile set into a bathroom floor with no connection to the pattern. Eight white squares hug one black square, always one teal square apart from one and another in any direction. We are comfortable enough with the pattern to realize that one white square is adrift, disrupting the entire setup. We are not alert enough to realize how ghastly it all looks in the first place, especially as the white squares begin to acquire dirt from shoes and bodies. We are not alert enough to prevent mismatches from happening. We are not troubled enough by the sawed off squares at the border of the room. A system must have sacrifices in order to succeed.
On the weekend, she speaks against bullying. She stands against wave after wave of challengers, speaking a poem that galvanizes her spirit. She does not know the magic of her own soul, but she is starting to feel how her will can influence an audience, how her words are her own history's answer if she can hold it in her heart a bit longer. She is starting to win these competitions, but winnings will never fill a street's potholes.
She's one of a few odd tiles. A boy who cannot process thoughts is gathering his will under the glowering presence of his father. He will soon speak for ten minutes on the topic of his choice. It would take him three straight days to write such a speech under regular circumstances.
When he stands in front of a crowd, his words tumble out of his head like hail bouncing off a rooftop, well above his own sight. When the storm stops, he stands silently still for seven minutes, looking around for distant storm clouds.
He is a marvel. A fair number of people would wet their pants if forced to have even a small group of people witness the complete breakdown of a thought process--he endured their ceaseless scrutiny for seven minutes. When the next round of competition starts, he tries it again.
Another girl tirelessly refines her stance for a similar speech on feminism, even though she has not yet learned why such a thing might be necessary. She bawls and experiences a panic attack during her first round, reads from her script for the two competitions thereafter, and cries again when a round goes worse than she expects. Even so, she tries again every week, constantly revising her ideas. These students watch each other perform and make speaking out feel real.
A tile displaced in a sea of patterns will always look strange. We are building a mosaic. It's just three pieces right now, so it's hard to tell from these cracked, discolored, and misplaced stones how the final product will look. Even now, each piece sings. I know it will be beautiful.
It will be enough to change these lives.