Authors: Susan Wu
Normal is a concept I’ve struggled with my entire life. Seventeen is the age when everyone just wants to feel normal. I’m not sure I believe it’s possible to achieve this monumental task. As my peers scramble to fit in, grow up, and find their place in this world, my life is stuck in cruise control. Being what I am, there is no place on Earth where I will ever feel like I belong.
My reality is that I am not like other seventeen year olds. My dreams are haunted by visions of the future. It’s hardly a perfect view--just a glance of things to come. The hardest part is not knowing when things will happen. I am just a spectator in the movie of my life, unable to stop events from unfolding around me. For me, reality is something that dangles on a string just out of my reach. Elusive.
Sleep has been elusive this summer. Under normal circumstances, my dreams are pretty mundane. A flash of emotion here, a glimpse of an image there. Lately, it’s been different. I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep the entire summer. Night after night, my sleep is being plagued by the same dream. A reality not yet realized. The endless loop makes me wish for something to happen already so that I can stop waking up with my heart thundering in my chest.
For the past two and half months, it’s been the same routine. Even though my body is in a perpetual state of exhaustion, my mind won’t let me fall asleep. The anticipation makes it worse and the only way I can sleep now is to wear myself out to the brink of collapse. After counting sheep and warm milk failed, I took up midnight runs around town.
Tonight, the air hangs thick and humid as I slip into a black t-shirt and shorts with white reflective trim. I pull my hair back into a high ponytail and secure it with one of the elastics always adorning my wrist. My alarm clock glows 11:48PM as I tie my gray low top sneakers before heading downstairs.
Even though I’ve been running every night this summer, I haven’t invested in a pair of real running shoes. It’s probably because I keep holding out hope that the dreams will stop. Pushing open my front door, beads of sweat start to form on the back of my neck. I make my way down the front steps, slipping on my white earbuds and hitting play on my running playlist. I stretch in my driveway for a few minutes and then set off down the block.
My neighborhood is quiet except for the hum of air conditioners and the sound of the rubber soles of my sneakers hitting quietly against the pavement. I have no set route and I go somewhere different every night. It helps not to have a destination when you’re trying to outrun your thoughts.
Instead I focus on my breathing and my form. Drawing a deep breath in through my nose, I slowly blow it out through my mouth in steady, measured breaths. I never allow my feet to stop moving, my calves propelling me block after block. My eyes focus on the dark horizon as I run through the empty streets.
I count my steps as each foot hits the pavement, building off slowly until I hit my stride at step 200 and really take off. By step 4,200, my breathing is starting to labor and my calves are beginning to ache. My heartbeat accelerates from pounding to thundering between steps 6,500 and 7,000. On step 11,724 my breathing is ragged and there is a stitch in my right side and my calves are burning. I have to stop just short of 12,200 steps because my legs are threatening to fold from underneath me.
Half sitting, half collapsing onto a grassy knoll, I take in my surroundings. I made it all the way to the large man made lake at the edge of town about 6 miles from my house. Laying down in the cool grass, I hold my right side and work on slowing down my heart which feels like it’s threatening to rip out of my ribcage. My heaving breaths sound so loud in the stillness of the night. After a few minutes pass, I push myself up and start the long walk home.
The long walk back is the worst part because my mind is free to roam. Finally, I turn down my block and I glance down at my watch. It’s 2:39AM. The air isn’t as oppressive and there is even a slight breeze coming in. I head to my room and strip out of my sweaty running clothes. After a quick shower, I collapse into bed not bothering to dry my hair.
My body is exhausted but my mind is still running, always running. I lift my head up from the pillow and glance up at my alarm clock. 3:21 AM. Closing my eyes, I start counting backwards from 100. I drift off to sleep before I finish.
The sun is shining brightly in a brilliant, cloudless blue sky. Fall is the most beautiful and shortest season. The fiery hues of the leaves frame the sky in a perfect postcard kind of way as I enter the forest preserve next to my school. The bite of the cold air against my exposed skin is refreshing, the familiar earthy scent of damp dirt and greenery filling my lungs.
Sunlight is filtered through the dense canopy of branches overhead, but the leaves have started falling off, casting twisted shadows between the spots of brightness. My booted feet moving quietly along the worn rocky dirt path covered in fallen red and yellow leaves. I automatically veer off the trail when I reach a pair of large jagged rocks that remind me of clasped hands.
A feeling of serenity washes over me as I enter a familiar opening inside a grove of spruce trees. In the spring, its filled with tall grass and wildflowers but now the overgrown grass is yellowed and all the flowers have died. I pick a spot in the shade under a sturdy old spruce tree and sit down cross legged, setting down my book bag next to me. I dig around until I locate my sketchbook, pulling it out and balancing it on my lap. Fishing out a pencil, my hand starts moving across the empty page in quick, sure strokes.
I've spent countless afternoons like this, sketching the trees with their branches intertwining in such a graceful, haunting way like fingers reaching for the sky. Engrossed in my drawing, I don't notice as the storm clouds roll in, blanketing the entire sky. I lift my eyes from the page as the last of the sunlight is extinguished. An ominous rumble of thunder off in the distance snaps me into action and I spring to action to gather my things from the forest floor.
A cold gust of wind whips my hair back, sending a shiver down my spine. There are no warning raindrops before the sky splits open sending a downpour of rain through the nearly naked branches. I am instantly drenched to the bone, my clothes clinging to my skin and my hair hanging in my eyes. The wind picks up and the sketchbook is ripped from my hands sending me scurrying after it. More rumbles fill the sky, sounding closer now, as my clothes and hair whip around me.
I finally zip up my book bag and as I try to hurry out of the forest, a flash of light blinds me and an earsplitting crack cuts through the steady drum of raindrops. I am paralyzed with fear as I stand before the ancient spruce I was sitting under moments before. There is a huge crack down the center of the trunk and its gnarled branches are lit afire by the bolt of lightening that I just narrowly escaped.
Despite the heavy downpour of rain, the flames don’t go out. Instead, the fury of wind and water seems to be feeding the flames as they devour the tree hungrily. The dark bark crumbles to white ash, spreading like a cancer over the trunk. With a huge groan and a sharp crack, a large fiery branch breaks off from the spruce and lands on an adjoining tree. The fire greedily consumes the surrounding trees with unnatural speed, the canopy of branches becoming a solid wall of flames.
I back away from the burning spruce, standing in the center of the circle of burning trees. The heat of the flames are so intense, it feels like my blood is boiling beneath my skin. The flames crawl over the dead grass surrounding me, licking at my feet. The smoke is suffocating and I tilt my face up to try and find some fresh air. The raindrops hit my face as the flames reach me and I cry out, but the sound is drowned out by the crackle of flames as they consume everything around me.
For a moment I can still feel the flames and it takes my brain a second to register that I am in my bedroom before I can stifle my scream. I am drenched in sweat and my heart is beating faster now than during my long run. I prop myself up on shaky arms, my breathing sharp in my lungs. How long had I been screaming before I woke up? My alarm glows 6:42 AM.
Rain and fire.
A cleansing. A new beginning.
It can only mean one thing.
Change is coming.
An outcast is defined as someone who has been rejected by society. I wouldn't put myself in this category. I used to fit in. I was even popular once, but I cast myself out a long time ago. Normal seventeen year old girls worry about school dances, homework, and boys. It's hard to relate when you’re so intrinsically different, so I find myself living inside my head most days.
Mornings are particularly hard for any teenager, but for me it's a painful exercise. When my alarm goes off at 6:50 AM, I know I once again have to face the most unforgiving legion known to mankind--high school students. I am already awake but I still reach out automatically and hit the snooze button. I lay in bed staring at the ceiling for the next 9 minutes, preparing myself to get out of my nice warm bed and face the harsh cold reality of my high school existence.
The next time the alarm sounds, I turn it off and roll out from under my down comforter and sit up, resting my feet on the cold oak floor. My knees creak as I stand up and stretch my back. I shuffle along into the kitchen to put on the coffee before fixing a bowl of oatmeal with blueberries. I turn on the morning news to tune out the noise in my head while I have breakfast.
Next, I head to the bathroom next to my bedroom to take a quick shower. Standing in front of the mirror wrapped in a towel, I wipe the steam off and study my reflection. It is not an exercise of vanity but rather one of habit, searching for the girl I once knew. I watch myself as I brush my teeth and comb my hair. I still look the same as ever. A pallid face framed with dark straight hair just like my mother's. Large pale green eyes under a dark fringe of eyelashes just like my father’s. I used to take great pride in my appearance. But these days I prefer to melt into the background. I don't bother with makeup anymore. My hair has grown long out of laziness rather than style and the only styling tool I own is a hairbrush.
I exit the bathroom and stand inside my closet, examining the neat stacks of folded t-shirts and jeans. Fall is a short and fickle season in the Midwest, the cold and chill are quickly approaching. I pull on a v-neck white t-shirt and dark washed, slim cut jeans. I bypass the camisoles and dresses hanging in my closet and pull out a loose knit, black sweater to put on over my white t-shirt. Sitting on the floor in front of the hallway closet, I yank on my favorite worn in black motorcycle boots. I zip up my trusty black leather jacket and grab my backpack before I head to school. My thoughts are occupied by last night's dream as I walk the eight blocks to school.
This morning, the cloudless sky is a brilliant shade of blue. The wind is whipping the remaining leaves off the trees lining the sidewalk, stinging my cheeks. I've lived in Everest Heights my whole life, much like the majority of its residents. Everest Heights is your typical small Midwestern township. The only thing that really changes here is the weather. There is block after block of manicured lawns in front of identical tidy brick houses with long driveways. When you get to the wealthier part of town, the houses get bigger and further apart, their lawns sprawling and their driveways winding.
Everest Heights High School sits at the edge of town. It used to be a hospital but was converted to a school when a new hospital was built in the 1940s. It's a series of rectangular, rust-colored brick buildings connected by covered walkways for the wintertime. The school is bordered by a forest preserve, a strip mall, and a parking lot. The familiarity might evoke nostalgia in some, but I feel nothing when I slip through the faded metal doors that lead to the cafeteria.
I am indifferent at best, I'm neither excited to be there nor do I despise having to attend. Honestly, I don’t know why I keep coming back. It’s like I've been programmed to return here week after week, year after year. This is what insanity feels like. I do the same thing day after day, each day hoping today will be different. We are only midway through the first week of the school year, but I am already counting down the days until the end of the year.
At the same time, that milestone marks a deadline that I am dreading. I am turning eighteen this summer. For normal girls, it is a rite of passage--a special occasion to be celebrated. But alas, I am not normal and there are other things in store for me when I come of age.
It didn't always feel like this. I used to look forward to sitting with my friends in the cafeteria before class to gossip. Today, I arrive in the cafeteria and I choose a table in the far most corner by the window and place my book bag on the seat next to me. I kick up my feet on the faded plastic chair across from me. I take out a notebook and a pen and set them out in front of me. I stare vacantly at the blank page, pen in hand, headphones securely in place. I am the picture of unwelcoming.