I clench my fists. The numbers dance off the page. I skip through the whole quiz, uncomprehending, until I'm back at square 1.
I can't help glancing at my friend Melissa, who's sitting behind me in her customary back row seat. Of course, her arms are crossed, her face the definition of boredom. The quiz is on her desk, the answers filled out. Her eyes burn a hole in my back as I pretend to scribble down answers. I feel a tap on my shoulder.
"Natasha, is your pencil working? Because I see it moving and nothing is coming out."
Melissa's giggles fly across my desk and hit me. My cheeks redden.
I look into the face of my math teacher, Ms. Pumpernickel. She has a round face with dimples on each pleasantly blushing cheek. But her eyes disprove the resemblance to a stereotypical grandmother. They are daggers about to strike their target: me.
"It's just...um," I stammer.
Ms. Pumpernickel crouches down next to me so that the tips of her hair touch my blank quiz.
"You are having trouble." Her voice is taut. "I can see that from all your work across the year. And yet, you've done nothing to help yourself. I'd be delighted to assist you-"
Melissa snorts. I wish Ms. Pumpernickel could talk about this later, not in front of her.
"But you pretend not to need me. You're very smart and capable, Natasha, but you don't show it. Everyone needs help at one point."
"Not Melissa," I blurt out. Oops.
Ms. Pumpernickel tilts her head. "So you're modeling Melissa's excellent work habits?" I want to scream.
The bell for the end of the period sounds, and I jump out of my seat as though a rabid tiger was chasing me, Melissa on my mind. If there was a raging snowstorm and we were climbing Mt. Everest, she'd still find a way to get to the top without even looking tired. It would seem like she just climbed out of bed like that, hair neat with a sparkling smile.
All through my next class, I think. I don't like math because there's only one right answer, just out of my reach, taunting me. But in real life I can't be mocked by red pen corrections: there are millions of possibilities that aren't clearly marked right or wrong, infinite choices that no one can grade, pick on, or criticize. In real life, I can make any decisions that I want to and nobody will care. It's a kind of freedom that goes outside numbers. I like to pretend that I don't care what people think when the truth is the opposite.
"That quiz was a blast!" exclaims Melissa as we walk home from school together. I grunt in response. She laughs. "Not for you, though. I heard what Ms. Pumpernickel said to you. Smart but don't show it? You must be her favorite student."
I attempt a smile. "You are. She said you had excellent work habits."
"Natasha, don't you understand sarcasm?" Melissa rolls her eyes.
Melissa, I just wanted to make you happy. It seems like you're always angry about something or another. I'm your best friend. I can help.
She is taller than most of the girls I know, with a defiant glint in her eye that I wish I had. Her face looks like it has been carved out of stone. She has a slender figure, and can be quite intimidating when she's angry. I haven't made her angry in a long time. "Melissa," I ask, hoping to redirect the conversation. "What do numbers mean to you? Because for me they're just lines on paper. 7 has a value of 7, but why does that 7 matter in the grand scheme of things? It's just a number."
I smile, confident. Melissa scrunches her eyebrows and purses her lips.
"Natasha, you are officially out of your mind. Why does the number 7 matter? Have you not been paying attention to math class your whole life?"
She keeps walking. I curse inwardly.
Closer to my house, a monarch butterfly, also known as Danaus Plexippus, is perched on a tree branch. Its bright orange and black coloring pops out as me. I take a step closer, and the butterfly flutters away from me.
Somehow I feel a connection with this butterfly, paper-thin and almost see-through. Nobody takes the time to appreciate little things hiding in the background. Butterflies are supposed to be the heart of every cute little kid's fantasy, friendly and inviting, but this one is more cautious, almost grumpy. It probably got left behind as the group moved onto something else. Something better. And it's just sitting there, waiting for someone to rescue it. It needs a friend.
The lone butterfly flaps its wings gently. Why am I getting so sentimental about just a butterfly? When I turn around, Melissa is gone. I walk the rest of the way home alone, smiling a little smile to myself.
"Listen up!" commands our PE teacher as we warm up on the track the next morning. "Today we're going to be getting some hard work done. We're doing a relay race. Exercise gets rid of stress, did you know that?" Ms. Taylor is short and muscular with a low voice like a bullfrog. She seems determined to actually teach us in PE, aside from pushing us to our limits every day.
Ms. Taylor produces a baton from her pocket. "Split up into teams of 3." Melissa yanks me toward her, and I end up on a team with her and a girl that I've never seen before.
"I'm Shreya," she says in a clear voice, shaking my hand.
"Um... I'm Natasha," I reply, taking a cautious step back. No self-respecting kid would ever walk up and shake someone's hand. That's only for grumpy seniors. At least, that's what Melissa says. Shreya seems all right.
She has warm brown eyes and frizzy black hair. The thing that strikes me about her, though, is how she's standing up straight and looking into my eyes. The only other person who always shows confidence like that is Melissa.
Maybe what drew me to Melissa is how sure of herself she is. She never backs down. I used to hope that some of her strength would rub off on me, so that I could become more like her, setting ambitious goals and being braver.
The only person I hang out with is Melissa. My mom says that it's social isolation, that I need to broaden my horizons. The truth is, I don't know where to start. Melissa was more warm and fuzzy when I first met her. After a summer apart, she changed. At first, it was subtle: she glared a bit more, the other kids listened to her... but then she didn't seem like Melissa anymore.
"Each team member must run 1 lap around the track. When the first team member returns, they pass the baton to the next person and so on. This builds teamwork, an important skill for later in life. Respect your teammates. Working together is the key to getting this right," Ms. Taylor announces.
I gulp. 1 lap is a ⅓ mile, and some of the kids here are fast. Melissa shoves her hand into the air.
"What do we get if we win?" She's trying to ask innocently, but I know that underneath that she'll do anything to get that prize.
Ms. Taylor shrugs. "First in line to the water fountains, I guess."
Shreya flashes a quick grin at me, and my whole face heats up. "Natasha, we are going to win this."
She holds up her hand for a high five, but then out of the corner of my eye I see Melissa with an odd expression on her face... is it sadness? She catches me looking and it blends into a fierce glare, but I still feel uneasy.
"Enough chit-chat! Teams, have the first person running go to the starting line."
Melissa, eager for the challenge, puts herself first. Shreya announces that she'll go second. I guess I'm stuck with the last leg of the race. The race begins, with Melissa in the lead. The kids seem to be running at a superhuman speed. It's more than my eyes can process.
"I feel like I'm last in everything," I say to myself.
"You know, the strongest runners are always put last in the Olympic relay races. It's called being the anchor." I didn't know Shreya was listening.
The anchor. I like the sound of that. I imagine myself before cheering crowds, a gold medal around my neck. I imagine kids looking up to me, jumping at the chance to be my friend. What would it like to be famous?
Melissa staggers past the finish line in second place, her hair sweaty and limp.
"Great job," I tell her, but she just collapses in the grass. Shreya is already halfway to the finish line. I've never seen anybody run that fast. She passes kids still on their first lap, and hands the baton to me. My heart pounds. I take off. Kids surround me, then fall away, then trail me. Bit by bit by bit, I'm getting closer.
Suddenly, the finish line is 100 meters away from me. I'm in 1st place!
"Go, Natasha!" It's Shreya's voice.
I speed up. But I hear the crunch of gravel beside me. Someone is passing me. I sprint, but my legs can't take it, and threaten to give way. I'm falling behind. Out of the corner of my eye I see Melissa rush forward, a wild look in her eye. I feel her strong hands push me forward. I'm so close...I close my eyes...then there's a sickening thump and the world is peaceful again. Just silence, except for the sound of shoes on the track. Then the last of the footsteps die away.
I open my eyes, and wince with the rush of pain. I am lying on the track, my left knee is gushing bright red blood. Ms. Taylor runs over to me as Shreya helps me up and leads me past the cluster of kids. Shreya and Ms. Taylor are fussing over me. The kids are crowding around me. I can't take it all in. Then Melissa walks over and I perk up.
"What's your problem? Couldn't you at least get us 1st place in the race? We're dead last. All I wanted to do is to win." There's a sort of desperation behind her words, which makes me want to laugh.
It's just a race, Melissa. That's all it is.
But somehow her words hurt more than my knee. I stumble over to a bench and sit down. Winning is important to her, I know that.
As Ms. Taylor starts bandaging up my knee and Shreya hands her materials and gives me a pep talk, a sickening feeling grows in my stomach. Before I can do anything about it, I am hunched over, throwing up. What happens next is a blur: Melissa, sulking, leading me to the office. My mom driving me home. Me falling asleep in my warm bed.
What I can't forget about the race incident is concern and empathy radiating from all the kids crowding around me. They cared about so much more than winning, even though that was the whole point of the race. If Melissa noticed that, she'd have called them insane.
Knocking on my door wakes me up. My dad walks in.
"I thought I'd take the day off from work to check on you," he tells me, checking my temperature.
"I want to go to school today," I say firmly, surprising myself. "I feel better, much better. And plus, there's something I need to do."
My dad tilts his head and takes in my energetic expression. "All right. Your temperature is normal. You can go to school, but please be careful."
When I arrive in front of my locker at school, I spin the combination and met with a bear hug from Shreya.
"I was so worried about you!" she exclaims, her brown eyes sparkling. "I had to ask the front office where your locker was so I could meet you there. I'm so glad you're feeling well. And I was thinking about it last night: I may have been pressuring you a little too much during the race."
"Thank you?" It comes out as a question, because I don't even know what I'm thanking her for. It just feels right. The rest of the day, I'm floating on a cloud.
I meet Melissa after school.
"So you're feeling better," she says.
We keep walking, then I smile. The same monarch butterfly that I saw earlier is perched on a branch. Its wings shine in the light.
"Wow," I whisper.
I wish I could have seen what came next. The movement was so effortless, so practiced. I wish it could have occurred to me that she had practiced it in front of me before, many times, but I was too blind to see it all, to notice her real intentions. Melissa steps forward and squeezes the butterfly as hard as she can.
If only I had pushed her out of the way, done something, but I just stood there, my mouth opening and closing, no words coming out.
The world slows to a crawl as the Danaus Plexippus butterfly drops from Melissa's hand to the ground. Its wings are bent out of shape as it twitches one last time. Somehow I know that it will never move again.
I scoop it up, then turn to look at Melissa. There are a million things to say to her crowding in my mind, but they fizzle out before they can reach my lips. She stays silent, the smirk of satisfaction on her face speaking millions of words. We face each other for a moment.
A moment can feel like a century.
Then Melissa steps forward. "Come on, Natasha. Leave the stupid butterfly."
To her, this is nothing. To her, this is just another insult like the ones she's been giving out all year.
A friend: she twisted what that meant to me. I look at the crumpled insect in my hand, the colors on its wings so vibrant as though it was alive. A minute ago, it was alive.
I turn and walk away from Melissa. I don't look back.
I feel like someone else. It's a good feeling.
A week later, I take a shovel and bury the butterfly in my yard. It deserves a good send-off to the dead. Without it, I'd still be stuck. I wonder what it must be like to be a butterfly: delicate, beautiful, and tough. They face hardships that people never deal with. There's more to them than a paper-thin skeleton.