By Emma Frank

 

The dare seems fun, harmless. No one is near, with the exception of a toddler fast asleep on a bean bag chair with a copy of Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! open on his lap. Carmen beckons for me to follow. She is standing in the doorway of the library’s broom closet, smiling eagerly.

“Come on, none of those old librarians will notice. They’re as blind as moles.”

The temptation is hard to fight.

I step into the closet and close the door. It’s dark. I can see the outline of brooms and mops behind Carmen. I look into her bright eyes and smile. My big sister is so cool. She dances around the closet silently. Her enthusiasm is contagious, and I find myself dancing too. I let out a giggle and twirl. My shoulder brushes something.

Clank.

            A mop handle hits the floor, shattering the silence of the tranquil library.

“Cora!”

The look Carmen gives me wipes the smile off my face. I messed up.

“Cora!”

“Cora!”

“CORA!”

Mom taps the cereal box in front of me, bringing me back to the present. She must have been trying to get my attention for a while now.

“Cora, you’re going to be late for school. Your friends are probably wondering where you are.”

She really doesn’t know?

“I don’t…have any friends, mom.”

“Cora–”

I interrupt her before she can get anything out, “When is Carmen coming home?”

Mom sighs. “I told you already,” she says agitatedly, “she can’t come down until spring break.”

 

***

Two squirrels chase each other up a tree, chattering loudly. Carmen and I used to chase each other up and down this path on the way to elementary school. We would play our little game.

“I dare you to scream ‘Girls rule, boys drool’ as loud as you can,” she would say.

“I dare you to give yourself a wedgie,” I would say.

“I dare you to ask Ms. Pascal if you can be teacher for the day.”

“I dare you to run around barefoot at recess.”

“I dare you to tell me your crush.”

“I dare you to sing in front of all these people right now.”

Dares were our thing. It got us to talk to people, make friends, and try new things. We rode the roller coaster even though we are both afraid of heights, I touched a snake, Carmen kissed a frog, I ordered pizza on the phone, Carmen talked to the boy she liked.

I come to the end of the path and see the high school building. One would think it would seem less intimidating to a freshman by the start of second semester, yet here I am wanting to run back home and call Carmen. I can imagine her voice now.

“I dare you to go to high school.”

I take a deep breath and walk quickly into the building before I change my mind. I push through the mass of backpacks and tired faces, and the strong smell of cologne and body odor hits my nose. I gag and rush to my first period, Creative Writing. The lighting in the classroom is soft. My desk, in the back by the window, beckons me. I sit down and open my journal to do the warm-up. Write a fictional scene about a make-believe world. My pen twitches with excitement as I imagine all the possible worlds about which I can write. All the daydreams from my walks to and from school come back to me. My journey begins.

 

***

“Pens down, please.”

The classroom has filled with people since I last looked up. The backs of their heads are a familiar sight. Jenny is wearing her usual bright orange sweatshirt. Gino is kicking the back of Tom’s desk. Mica is passing notes with Sara. Timothy is doodling on his desk.

Ms. Chase clears her throat, “I want everyone’s attention, please.” The class snaps to attention and all extra movement stops.

“This unit, we are going to do something different. Instead of writing your own individual stories, you will pair up and write with a partner.”

Ms. Chase passes out the rubrics. People are already signaling to each other who they will work with as she goes over the details of the project. No one looks back towards my corner. Either they forget I’m here or they just choose to ignore me. Scanning the room, I try to figure out who I could work with. Jamie’s nice, she probably wouldn’t mind. Or Zachary or Calvin, they work hard. Catherine might not have a partner yet.

“I’ll let you guys choose groups now.”

Crap.

“Remember, you’ll probably have to meet outside of school at some point to finish the project by next month.”

Oh no.

Ms. Chase stops speaking. People gravitate quickly to their partners like magnets. By the time I stand up the whole class in is pairs, except for one person.

“Ms. Chase,” says Timothy, “I don’t have a partner.”

Gino had abandoned him to work with Tom.

“Sure you do,” Ms. Chase replies. “You can work with Cora.”

“Who?” asks Gino.

My stomach drops. Ms. Chase points to me in the back. Gino’s eyes follow her finger and I feel his gaze hit me. He looks surprised, like I’m a new student or something.

“Well, I’ve never noticed Little Miss Wallflower before,” he says making momentary eye contact with me before I break it. “She’s so quiet in class, she’s practically invisible.”

I feel all eyes turn to me. I stare at my writing journal in an attempt to hide the crimson color rushing to my cheeks. I’m invisible. People don’t notice me.

Ms. Chase says something to Gino, but all I hear are his words playing over and over in my head. I’m invisible. That’s what people think of me, that is, if they even notice me at all. Second semester and no one knows I exist. I’m invisible. If only Carmen were here, then I’d have the courage to say some smart come-back to his face. But she’s not here.

Timothy sits in the desk next to mine and stares at me. I stare at my journal.

“Hey, you’re in fourth period algebra, right?”

“Yeah,” I answer quietly. Gino’s words still sting. I sit quietly, doodling nervously in my journal.

“So, we’ll have to meet somewhere outside of school to get this thing started,” Timothy says, pausing for a moment. “I live kinda far away, but if you want we can–”

“My house. Tomorrow after school. We can walk.” I don’t know where the words come from, but they come out fast and angry-sounding.

Timothy gets up from his seat. “Sounds like a plan, Cora.”

“Okay,” I say quietly, already regretting my offer.

 

***

I’ve had time to cool down, although Gino’s words won’t stop playing in my head. I’m invisible.

I meet Timothy outside the school building and lead him down the path towards my house. We walk in silence. The only noise comes from our footsteps on the worn gray path. He must be a few feet behind me.

“Cora?”

“What?”

“What’s that picture on your keychain?”

It takes me a moment to realize what he’s talking about. It’s the picture of Carmen and me standing on a stone wall sticking out our tongues at the camera. A sign that says “Do Not Stand On Wall” perches behind us.

“My sister and I used to do all sorts of crazy dares as kids,” I explain embarrassedly. “It was a game we liked to play to push each other outside of our comfort zones.”

“That must have taken a lot of courage.”

I mumble a half-enthusiastic, “Yeah.”

He’s silent for another minute.

“Cora?”

“Yeah?” I continue walking.

“Cora.”

Timothy runs in front of me, blocking my path. I am forced to stop walking and look at him.

“Look, Cora…I’m really sorry about what Gino said yesterday. You know, about being invisible and all that. It was really rude of him. I should have said something. I’m sorry I didn’t.”

He looks genuinely sorry. He stands close to me, forcing me to make eye contact with him. I notice his eyes for the first time. They’re a pretty hazel-green. I can tell he feels sorry.

“Please forgive me,” he adds. “You seem pretty cool, Cora. I don’t want to make this project difficult. We need to get along.”

“I agree, Timothy, and…I forgive you.”

“Call me Tim. Only teachers call me Timothy.”

“Okay, Tim. We’re almost at my house.”

We start walking again. Tim walks next to me now. I feel my anger from yesterday fade as we walk. We pass a couple of seniors on the path. Up ahead is the park bench Carmen and I used to sit on after school while brainstorming for new dares. An old lady is sitting on the bench reading a book. She is wearing an elaborate purple hat with what looks like peacock feathers and silver sequins on it. Tim and I see her at the same time and let out a little chuckle.

“Hey,” Tim says, “I dare you to go talk to that lady about her funky hat.”

“What?” I say surprised.

“I said, I dare you to talk to that lady about her hat.”

My mouth opens to say no, but my gut stops me. If I say no, I could lose my shot at becoming friends with Tim. He’ll think I’m lame. This is my chance to work on my confidence. No more being invisible. I should accept.

“Okay,” I say. My voice comes out a little shakier than I wish. I look at Tim. He flashes me a little smile.

I walk alone to the bench. My legs go numb with nerves. My hands tingle as my circulation stops. What if the lady doesn’t like me? What if she thinks I’m a creep? What if she is a creep? Tim is watching from several feet away. What if I make a fool of myself? What if I offend the lady and she doesn’t want to talk? What if…what if…what if… I shouldn’t be so worried. Just go up and say hi. Be friendly, not creepy. Friendly, not creepy, friendly…

I reach the bench. I feel nauseous. I look at the lady’s wispy white hair and purple hat. Tim, that weasel, why’d he have to give me such a good dare? He must have known how hard this would be.

I muster a feeble, “Hi.” The lady looks up from her book.

“Why, hello there, young lady. What can I do for you?”

She seems nice.

“Hi…um…my name is Cora. I couldn’t help but wonder where you got your lovely hat.”

The lady takes her reading glasses off and carefully places a bookmark inside her book.

“Why, I made it myself,” she says with a smile.

“Wow, that’s amazing,” I say, unfurling my clenched fists.

“Well, since I retired I’ve had a bit of extra time on my hands. I love designing my own accessories these days. In fact,” she bends stiffly over the side of the bench and picks up a red and purple velvet purse with multicolored beads, “I made this fun thing a week ago.”

Her eyes light up as she hands me the purse. I trace the stitching with my index finger.

“Do you have any interest in fashion design, young lady?”

I look up from the purse to meet her eyes. They are a clear blue-gray.

“Oh…I’m not very good at sewing, but I love looking at other people’s work. Your stitchwork is great and I love the colors,” I say as I hand back the purse. The old lady seems flattered.

“Say, I’d love to make you a purse. Would you like one?”

I can’t think of any occasion where I’d use one of her purses. I start to politely decline, “Oh no, I wouldn’t want to cause you any trouble. I–”

“Nonsense! It will keep me busy for the next week. I already know what colors I am going to use,” she says excitedly. “Here, sit down and we’ll plan out the design right now!”

I sit on the bench as the old lady pulls out a little yellow sketchbook. We chat about fabrics and colors and beads and feathers and I actually start to look forward to seeing the final product. I glance over at Tim. He gives me a thumbs up. I feel my shoulders relax. I didn’t realize how tense they were a few minutes ago.

“Sorry, I never got your name,” I say politely.

“Oh dear, I’m sorry. I got so excited about this purse that I didn’t even introduce myself. My name is Ethel Gardner, but you can just call me Ethel.”

I can’t believe I am having a conversation with a complete stranger!

Ethel puts her sketchbook away, “I’ll meet you at this bench next Monday with your purse. I assume you’ll be coming home from school around 3 as you usually do?”

“Yes…wait, how do you know that?”

Ethel lets out a little chuckle. “I sit here about once a week after I run my errands and just read. I see you and other high schoolers walk home then.”

I’m not invisible to Ethel. She can see me. In fact, she’s going to make me a bizarre purse. I think I just made a friend. I look across the path at Tim. He’s leaning against a tree with his phone, pretending to not be eavesdropping.

“I think I have to go now. My classmate and I need to work on a project this evening, but it was nice meeting you, Ethel. I can’t wait to see the purse!”

Ethel smiles. I think I’m getting pretty good at this conversation thing.

“Sure thing, it was lovely meeting you too, Cora.”

She puts her reading glasses back on and opens her book. I stand up and walk towards Tim. I still can’t believe I just did that. Who knew I would have such a good time talking to a stranger on a bench? Carmen would be so proud.

Tim puts his phone away and holds up his hand for a high five. I run the rest of the way and give his hand a satisfying slap.

“Looks like you made a new friend,” he says with a smirk.

“And she’s making me one of her cool purses.”

I fill him in on the details of the conversation the rest of the way home. We reach my front door and I get out my key. As I turn the lock, a thought occurs to me.

“Why did you dare me to talk to Ethel?” I ask curiously. I open the door and set my backpack on the livingroom floor. Tim follows me and puts his backpack down too. I sit in an armchair, interested in hearing his answer.

He sits on the couch across from me and takes a deep breath. “I dared you to do that because–well this is going to seem a bit cliché, but…I see a little bit of myself in you.”

I hold my breath for a second, afraid to ask what he means. Tim must have understood my hesitance.

“See…I moved to this town in eighth grade. I didn’t know anybody, and all the friend groups at Rosedale Middle were pretty solid. It seemed like no one wanted me in their group. I didn’t want to intrude, so I didn’t put myself out there…I ate lunch in the back of the library. Even the librarian didn’t know I was there.”

I can’t imagine eighth grade Tim sitting alone in the library. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in school without another friend nearby, laughing at his jokes.

Tim shifts uncomfortably on the couch.

“I went the whole year without making a single friend. I was miserable. Thank goodness it was the last year of middle school.”

I feel bad for him. I should say something.

“I’m so sorry, Tim,” I say quietly.

He scootches to the edge of the couch. We make eye contact for a moment. I think he can see right through me. I no longer feel invisible. Instead, I feel vulnerable, exposed. I am the first one to break eye contact, looking at my dirty Converse.

Tim clears his throat. “Last spring, I was at a diner when a high school baseball team came in after a game. They were joking around and having a lot of fun. I realized I wanted to be part of a group like that. That was when it dawned on me that high school was my opportunity to start fresh, start confident…start right. The first day, I walked into first period and introduced myself to Calvin. He then introduced me to Tom. I sat with them at lunch and met their other friends and that’s how I started out my freshman year–”

“Cora!” mom yells from upstairs. “Are you home?”

Tim and I exchange surprised looks. Mom should be at work.

“Yes, I’m downstairs!” I yell.

I hear mom’s clogs coming down the stairs.

Clunk.

            Clunk.

                        Clunk.

                                    Clunk.

She walks into the living room with her pajamas on.

“Oh! Cora, you didn’t tell me someone else was here.”

“I’m sorry,” I start, “I didn’t realize you were–why aren’t you at work?”

“I wasn’t feeling too well this morning, so I stayed home. Who’s this?” she asks gesturing in Tim’s direction.

“This is Tim. He’s a–”

“A friend of Cora’s,” Tim suddenly bursts in.

He’s standing behind me now and moves towards mom, hand held out. He called me his friend. Does he really think of me as a friend already?

Mom shakes his hand and smiles. “Well, it’s nice to meet you, Tim. What are you guys working on?”

I find my words again and explain, “We’re gonna write a story together for creative writing class.”

“Ooooh, exciting. I’ll leave you to it then.”

With a swish of flannel, she’s in the kitchen.

I turn to Tim. He flashes a smile.

“Why don’t we go upstairs?” I suggest.

We grab our backpacks and climb the stairs. I close my door. When I turn around, Tim is already sitting in my desk chair, playing with my Tinkerbell bobblehead and troll figurines. I really want to ask him.

I try to speak, but I’m afraid I’ll sound stupid. Tim is too distracted with my trinkets to notice my internal struggle. I hear Carmen’s voice.

“I dare you to ask him.”

I breathe in.

“Am I really…your friend?”

He stops playing with my knickknacks and swivels around in my chair to face me. We make eye contact again, only this time I hold my gaze.

“Of course you are.”

“But you just met me yesterday,” I say a little too quickly.

“So?” he says and turns back to my desk, picking up a bowl of paperclips.

“So you already know you want to be my friend after one day?”

“Cora.” Tim swivels to face me again. “Talking to you has made me realize that I want to be your friend. I want to push you out of your comfort zone, just like your sister did. You don’t deserve to be ignored…When I look at you, I see a shy, but brilliant person who is capable of doing so much in this world.”

I blush. It’s hard to believe that just yesterday I hated this guy’s guts.

“I want to be the friend I wish was there for me in eighth grade, Cora.”

He stops, waiting for my response. I remember the thrill I’d feel when Carmen and I played our game. I remember just how good I felt this afternoon talking to Ethel. Tim brought these feelings back that I thought only Carmen could bring.

“Thank you.”

My voice trembles as I try to hold back my tears. I finally made a friend in high school. I’m not invisible.

 

***

I sit with Tim at lunch and he introduces me to his other friends. Tom and Calvin are actually pretty nice. I talk with Tim’s cousin, Kayora, for a while. Turns out she likes to write too.

Tim and I walk to my house after school again. We play a little game.

“I dare you to walk up to that senior and tell him you like his shoelaces,” Tim says.

The guy is pretty weirded out as his shoelaces are plain white, but I still get a thrill out of it.

“I dare you to make a flower crown out of those dandelions and wear it on your head all the way to my house,” I say, a little snort comes out of my nose as I laugh.

Tim rocks the flower crown. It’s his turn to give me something.

“I dare you to stand on top of the bench and yell ‘I’m king of the world!’”

It sounds like an interesting dare, especially since there’s more seniors behind us. I run to the bench and step up. I feel important. I draw in a deep breath and close my eyes.

“I’M KING OF THE WORLD!!!”

I open my eyes to see that Tim has his phone out and has taken a picture of me. The seniors give me a funny look, but I don’t care. I’m no longer invisible.

I jump down from the bench, pleased with myself and give Tim a high five. He shows me the picture he snapped.

“Here’s something you can add to your photo collection,” he says. “Maybe you can make a keychain out of it.”

At home, we start on the rough draft of our story. It’s about a mother and daughter who decide to go on a road trip across the U.S. one summer. They meet a bunch of interesting people and experience new things they never thought they would experience. Tim and I have fun bouncing ideas off one another.

“What if they have dinner with a fortune teller at a gas station?” I ask.

Tim gives me a goofy look.

“Where do you even get these ideas?”

I smile and shrug.

“I just have a great imagination.”

 

***

One week later and Tim still wants to be my friend. He comes home with me for the fifth or sixth time. We stop at the bench and meet Ethel. She is beaming with excitement. She hands me the purse and it is gorgeous. The colors are so vibrant and the material is so soft. I think I’ll actually use the purse.

We are making some real progress on our story and I think it’s going to be a good one. Tim edits the hook while I brainstorm more wacky adventures on which our characters will embark.

The front door opens and I hear the jingle of mom’s keys. Her entrance reminds me of something I want to ask Tim.

“Hey, Tim?”

“Yeah?” he swivels to face me.

He really likes that swivel chair.

“My mom’s hosting a dinner party for her colleagues this Friday and she says I can have a friend over to keep me company, so I’m not bored out of my mind. I was wondering if you want to come over then. We could order pizza and watch a movie or something.”

I wait for Tim to respond, but he just stares at me with those hazel-green eyes. I can tell he’s surprised by my offer.

“I dare you…” I add.

A smile spreads across Tim’s face.

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