Should Life Hurt This Bad?
The clock opposite him ticks, minutes left before class, but really hours he’ll be waiting. He sits heavily breathing on the garbage can he turned over. He holds his hands steadily over his knees, for every once in a while comes a swift jolt from inside brought on by his trailing thoughts of what might go wrong this day which lays ahead.
So here I am. Countless times before I’ve been here. Everlasting and unconditional, it is the only place no one can take from me. I’m not given anything to be happy for, but not enough to be sad. I’m not enough for anyone to care about, so I just sit here with no end in sight, and I’ve already forgotten how this had begun. I am just some confused part in the middle, far enough from both extremities to mean nothing.
The bell rings, signifying another week of barrenly trying to stay below the social radar, acting as though he wants to fit in. Yes, this is the very reason he now pushes his body through the halls of this undying place, though his mind gave up so long ago. His locker awaits just a few feet away. If he could just get his books and then to class before someone noticed….
“Hey, Tom!” called Christopher as he surged towards him.
How I wish no one knew me.
“Did you hear? The school might be planing a dance for this Friday,” said Chris.
“That’s great, Christopher,” replied Thomas.
“So, you think you’d go?”
“I think I’ll probably be busy that day,” answered Thomas as he shut his locker.
“Oh come on, Tom. Me and Henry will find you a date.”
“I told you I’ll be busy Friday.” Then, thinking how rude he might have come across, “But I appreciate you trying to help.”
Tom checked his watch and, after realizing class was about to start and thinking how much attention he might bring to himself if he came in late, said bye to his friend and ran off.
I remember when I first came here, no one knew me, and no one had enough time to learn more about me. Now I have people who actually care about me, but I can’t stand disappointing them. I wish there was no one around to expect anything of me.
Tom made certain always to sit at the back, but today all those seats were taken. Instead, he had to sit in the front row, tightening his muscles and running his nerves rampant.
“Hi, I’m Wendy. I’m new,” came a startling voice from behind.
Both his knees jumped as he realized she was talking to him.
“My name’s Thomas,” he stuttered.
“Well it’s nice to meet you, Thomas. Can I just call you Tom?”
“Sure, of course,” he replied.
“Is the math teacher usually this late?” she asked.
“Ya. Almost always.”
And in came the teacher, the very one of whom they were talking. After math, they each went their separate directions to their next class. Tom headed south to his drama class. Only a few minutes after drama class started, someone came knocking at the door.
“Hi. Sorry I’m late. This is my first day here.”
“Well take a seat,” spoke the teacher.
Sure enough it was Wendy, and the only seat left was that adjacent to Tom’s.
“Hello again,” said Tom, more confidently than usual.
“This is a nice coincidence. Hey, I wonder, maybe we are in all the same classes,” she said, and they compared schedules. Her thought proved correct at seeing everything on the two pages match-up.
“Well this way I can just follow you around all the time,” she said.
Tom smiled, for once. “I was wondering if maybe at lunch you would like me to show you around a little more.”
“Thanks, that would be nice,”
During drama class Tom and Wendy improvised together and Tom was forgetting most of his reality.
After they ate their lunches together, they went for a walk throughout the entire school. It was a very large building, the biggest school of its kind in the whole country. Luckily, Tom knew the best way to navigate it.
As they were walking, Tom finally asked: “Wendy, why are you here?”
“You’re asking me why I’m taking a walk with you, or why I came to this school? What exactly do you want to know?”
Tom went on, “It’s just, everyone that comes here has an obvious condition. This is, after all, a school for kids who can’t fit in because of their mental state. You know the ones that, for whatever reason, can’t take life unless it’s structured so perfectly well. Well that’s why my parents sent me here, anyway.”
“Why did your parents send you here, Tom?”
“For more than one reason.”
“Yes, but more specifically?”
“I was supposed to learn how to cope with stress here.” She was paying very close attention to him now, as he continued, “Back at home I would sometimes, sort of, blackout and forget what happened.”
“And has it helped being here?” she asked.
“Well I haven’t blacked out since I’ve been enrolled, but I’ve started – without any intention – to adopt another, um, coping mechanism.”
“Oh really?” Wendy was quite inquisitive.
“Ya, like when I get stressed out my knees tend to ‘jump’. I guess I still have a ways to go.”
“Oh, I see. Well it looks like class is about to start. We better get going.”
“But you haven’t answered my question.”
“All right, all right. The shrinks diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder. Now can we please get to class? Can’t be late on my first day here!”
And so she ran off, leaving Thomas to ponder by himself. He went through the day wondering about Wendy. He found himself watching over her from a distance in gym class, and studying her movements throughout math class. One thing he found of particular interest was how she worked like a machine at the new equations they were learning. She thought quickly, wrote quickly, and in some ways did it almost inhumanly. In all of her ways, she certainly fascinated Tom.
At the end of the day, Wendy seemed to just disappear. Tom was really hoping to find out who she was rooming with, as everyone did have a roommate, in some cases two. Tom started off to get to the other building in the complex, the dormitories. He liked to get to his room early and get his homework done before his roommate, Henry, got back. Henry would always tell Thomas how Maddox (the name of the school they were attending) was the only place he wouldn’t be judged. Even his family, he claimed, didn’t care enough to try and understand him.
Tom’s homework took him awhile to do today, constantly being side-tracked by the thought of mysterious Wendy. Henry came in just as Tom was getting out of the shower.
“Hello Thomas,” said Henry as he came in.
“Christopher wanted me to ask you why you weren’t in the cafeteria at lunchtime today,” spoke Henry, ever so neatly without even trying.
“Oh well, I was kind of giving a tour of the school to someone new here.”
“Someone new? Who is it?” Henry always did like to be up-to-date on anyone newly entering the school.
“Her name’s Wendy.”
“How nice. We haven’t gotten many new female students for a long time,” said Henry.
“I suppose that’s true,” said Tom as he crawled into bed. “She claims she has post-traumatic stress disorder, but for some reason she doesn’t seem to fit that profile.”
“As I recall, Thomas, you said the same about me and my having Asperger’s when we first met.”
“Well, she didn’t sound sincere when she said it. She was quite, um, rhetorical,” replied Tom.
“You have only just met her, give her a chance at least,” said Henry.
“Fair enough, but I need to sleep on it.”
“Already? It’s not even quite 9 o’clock. Tom?” But Thomas was already asleep.
The next morning, Thomas awoke in a cold sweat, springing out of bed. Henry was on his computer and dressed for school. But what time was it?
“I was almost going to have to wake you,” said Henry, without even turning around to see Tom.
“I haven’t been getting enough sleep lately.”
“Well, you might be interested to know that sufferers of PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, often become emotionally detached,” said Henry.
“That would make sense. Well, I better hurry if I am to get to class on time,” said Tom.
“Do you think that maybe we could meet this Wendy? Perhaps you could bring her to come and eat lunch with me and Chris today.”
“Yeah, she would probably like that, as long as you two don’t scare her.”
“Just kidding Henry. I’m sure she’d be delighted to meet the both of you,” and with that they both ran off to class.
It seems as though I was happier when I was on the outside, but was I? I don’t know, maybe it was just easier when I had to watch my own back, but no one else’s. No one else’s opinion mattered to me. I’ll admit, though, that I was better at life when all I had to worry about was surviving until the next day.
Thomas stepped into class. No sign of Wendy. How odd, he thought. So he just sat down where he did yesterday, not realizing how he used to be so frightened at sitting where anyone could see him. The bell rang, the teacher began shutting the door, but then a push from the other side stopped him.
“Sorry I’m late, I’ll have to get used to this early schedule.”
The teacher just grunted.
“Hiya, Thomas,” she said as she sat down beside him, a little louder than she probably should have.
“Well you seem quite happy,” said Tom.
“Just excited, that’s all.”
“The dance, of course,” she said as she opened her math book to the appropriate page. “Do you have a date?”
“Oh, I, no. I wasn’t planning…,” but Wendy cut him off.
“Good, then it’s a date.”
Thomas, still a bit confused, just smiled.
“Would you two like to go in the hallway?” asked the teacher.
“No, I’m sorry, we’ll be quiet,” said Wendy.
“Where did the morning go?” asked Wendy as they headed towards the cafeteria.
“Away, and that’s a good thing,” said Tom.
Wendy giggled, and Tom smiled as, for once, someone thought his jokes were funny. After they filled their trays with food, Thomas directed them over to where his friends were waiting.
“Hello, my name is Henry.”
“And I’m Chris!”
“It’s a pleasure meeting you both,” she said. “So you’re both going to the dance tonight?”
“Yeah, we’ll be there,” spoke Christopher for both of them.
“See, Tom, I told you it will be fun,” she said.
“Oh, so you decided to go, Thomas?” asked Henry with a sort of smirk on his face.
“Yes, well, Wendy talked me into it.”
“Good, at least someone could,” joked Chris.
“Oops, I forgot to get a fork. Be right back,” said Wendy.
“Tom?” asked Chris.
“You just don’t look too good,” said Christopher.
“It’s nothing important.”
“You’re lying, I can tell,” instigated Chris.
Henry could also tell, looking into Tom’s face, something wasn’t right. “I would have to agree with Chris that you’re hiding something, and it is important.”
Tom put down his knife and looked up at the both of them waiting for his reply. “OK, if you must know. I— I just feel something tense. The closer she gets to me the more I fear something terrible is about to happen. It’s like a sixth sense; she seems to be so happy being around me, the irony is that it scares me to death and she doesn’t even know it.”
“Hey guys,” said Wendy as she sat down. Thomas still staring flatly at the others. “What did I miss?”
Just then, Christopher’s watch began alarming. “Time for my Ritalin.”
“Henry, you wanna show me how to tie these things?”
“It’s really quite simple.”
Tom threw his tie over to Henry who started tying it around his own neck to teach Tom the steps. “Then you just bring the wide end down through the knot in front.” As he listed the steps, he noticed Tom wasn’t paying much attention, and thought he would test him. “Then, once you cross the red and the blue wires you’ll see it’s quite simple to create an electrical charge strong enough to make a spark that could set off a small bomb. Got all that Tom?”
“Um, yeah. I think I can handle now. Maybe just leave it done up though this time since we’re running a little late as usual,” said Thomas, acting like he was listening.
“You’re still worried about this whole thing aren’t you?” asked Henry.
“I can’t help feeling as if there’s something seriously wrong under everything she puts out.”
Henry sat for a moment, then, carefully choosing his words, “One thing you have to learn: no one’s out to get you.”
Tom chuckled softly, “That’s true. Before she came, my life was sort of a drag. You know the same thing day in, day out. Now I think I actually can put my own problems aside every once in a while and feel someone else’s pain and happiness. I never thought I would like it, but now I’m happy I can actually leave my little bubble world.”
“Very good, Thomas, you’re learning to empathize.”
“Oh, be quiet!” laughed Tom.
Henry shut the light out and asked as he locked the door, “You really care about her don’t you?”
Tom looked long and hard at his good friend. “Ya, I kinda do. I think that’s what’s so scary.”
The doors open from within. Like a nightmare, darkly and confusing, the lights flash multi-colours from every direction.
Just me? Could it be? This isn’t a good feeling, yet here she comes.
“There you are. I was wondering whether or not I would be stood up,” Wendy said.
“I wasn’t serious,” she said. “Come on.”
Feeling disconnected, he let himself be pulled along, physically as well as emotionally.
“This is quite some dance. I think I’ll like this school, much more than the last,” she said.
“Most people do,” replied Tom, emotionless.
“But you don’t.”
He looked up at her, surprised as he rarely dwelled on his own opinions. “No, I like it here, I mean better than being at home.”
“And yet, you’re not so happy,” Wendy had no problem speaking her true sentiments.
“Listen, I am happy, just not at the moment.”
She sat him down beside her on the staircase leading directly outside. She saw his legs start to shake so she rested her hands on his knees to ease his nervousness.
“Tom,” she started. Still shaking, she lifted his chin up to look directly into his eyes and saw the worry and pain he was inevitably feeling now. “Tom look at me. I know we haven’t known each other long, but if it means anything, you can trust me. Anything you feel, you can tell me. Don’t underestimate the people around you. Chances are I can understand, but you have to give me a chance.”
Tom sat looking at her. He was very unsure what to do: continue to internalize his emotions and trust only himself, or take a leap of faith, chance on someone else, and perhaps change a small part of his life for the better, one small step at a time. Wendy didn’t break eye contact. She would respect whatever decision he made now, that was certain.
“If you can’t trust me now, that’s fine,” Wendy was looking down now. “All you have to remember is that I’m always here.”
Tom was no longer shaking. “I do trust you Wendy, I trust you more than I’ve perhaps ever trusted someone. It’s me I don’t trust.”
“Well I trust you, Thomas. And if you trust me, then you can relax now and stop thinking before you speak. Life isn’t scripted, you’re allowed to say what you feel. You’re allowed to take things back.”
Tom nodded as he mustered up enough confidence in himself, and in Wendy. “It’s nothing really. Just a thought, just an emotion, though it was powerfully frightening.”
“What sort of thought, what kind of emotion?” she asked.
“I feared I would hurt you somehow. I think that was manifested in a certain dream I had last night.”
Her smile shone in the light coming through from the gymnasium. “Would you like to tell me about it?”
“Um, yes, actually. I was in class. It was, kind of like before I met you, I guess. In this dream I was sitting in the back of the class, scared of the world. And I looked out the window. There on the roof you stood.”
“Oh, I was in this dream?”
“Yes. I couldn’t see your face but I knew it was you. You started walking across the roof. Of course no student is allowed on the roof, so I raised my hand. You were getting near the edge and I spoke up, trying to get the class’s attention, but no words came out from my mouth. I looked back through the window and saw you walk out off the edge and fall. You just walked right off the edge. I looked back and the class continued on as usual, no one looked twice at me in the back and I had the greatest sense of guilt. It was all my fault… and then I awoke.”
Wendy stared back at Tom, mouth half open.
“Hey Tom,” Christopher interrupted. “Someone’s on the phone for you in the main office. I think it’s your parents or something.”
And with that Tom ran off, Wendy still sitting not having changed facial expressions.
“Hey, Wendy, are you all right?” asked Chris.
Thomas returned without an expression, emotion holding off catastrophic fact.
“Thomas there you are—” began Wendy.
“Yes here I am, but I can’t finish our conversation right now. I’m leaving soon.”
“You’re leaving? Why? When are you coming back?”
“It’s my dad, he had a heart attack and he’s in the hospital, so I’m taking the first bus home. It leaves in just over an hour.”
“That barely leaves enough time to pack,” said Wendy.
“I know, but you understand don’t you?”
Wendy pushed a smile. “Yes of course I do. In fact why don’t I help you pack?”
“Oh, that would be great.”
“Well I’ll just use the restroom first and I’ll meet you at your room. What number is it?”
“208. Okay then, see you soon.”
The door opened, and Wendy entered carrying drinks.
“I got alcohol,” she says.
“You know if we get caught with that we’re liable to be expelled.”
“I know, that’s why we don’t get caught,” she replied. “Are you all right, Tom?”
“Why does everything fall apart on me? I think maybe life just has a grudge against me,” said Tom.
Wendy sat down beside him. “That is very possible. Luckily you have me to set it straight. You see, society lives in this dream world. The media tells us we're happy and well, when in reality we lie to tell ourselves we're not dying inside. We’re all falling apart. You’re not as pitiful as you think.”
“You should be a therapist, Wendy.”
“Good idea. Then I would get paid for what I do now for free.”
Soon enough, Tom’s bags were finally packed, and both were chuckling, telling stories of their worst moments.
“… and at that exact moment my dad came in and almost had a heart attack!” chuckled Wendy.
Both Tom and Wendy started settling down, Tom got up to look out the window.
Wendy continued, “That’s actually the last time I saw both my parents together, alive anyway.”
Tom looked back. “What’s that?”
Wendy thought for a moment, “Oh, never-mind. I wish I could come with you.”
“I wish I had enough money for both of us—”
Wendy interrupted, “I can afford my own ticket, I just didn’t want to intrude on your family emergency.”
“Not at all, I could use a friend to cheer me up,” replied Tom.
“I really need to get away this week, it being March break and everything.”
Tom smiled sincerely, “Well, you better get packing then right away, and we’ll have to be sure to stop by the main office to get permission.”
“Oh don’t worry about it…”
“Wendy, it’s grounds for being expelled to leave without signing out.”
“Oh, I plan on signing out, but there’s no one I have to get permission from. Don’t worry about it. I need maybe 10 minutes to pack, though, so just be waiting by the bus stop on the corner, I’ll be there soon.” And with that she kissed him on the cheek and ran off.
Tom stood for a second and then just smiled. “…Okay?”
The bus took off.
“Oh good, it’s about time. We’re already late,” Tom said.
“Barely,” replied Wendy.
“So we have a whole hour to kill.”
“I guess so.”
“Well, I opened up. Now tell me something I don’t know about you.” said Thomas.
“You don’t need to hear about my broken past. You just need to think about your family.”
“There’s nothing I can do for my family at this moment. What I need to do is not think about all that right now. So tell me about your family.”
“I’m an only child,” she said swiftly.
I wonder really why she didn’t need anyone’s permission to sign out for the week. Maybe her parents are gone, but she can’t be completely on her own, can she?
“And I live off of the life insurance money I got when my mom died.”
“I’m so sorry Wendy, you don’t have to talk about it—”
“But now you got me rambling. Anyway, he murdered her. I watched.”
Now Thomas felt regret for pushing her to open up, it was already apparent she was still putting it off in her mind.
“My father murdered her, and I couldn’t do anything. I was there in the corner, hiding behind the door. But I couldn’t do anything. I mean, maybe I should have just stepped up and tried to stop him…”
As shocked as he was at hearing her story, he couldn’t help but notice how strong she was, with her head down but not a single tear.
He hesitated but finally put his arm around her. She didn’t flinch, not a muscle of hers moved. She was hardened inside and out.
“So now you know why I entered myself into Maddox.”
He had almost forgotten, how he once even doubted whether she was even telling the truth when she told him she was diagnosed with PSTD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and how his intelligible friend, Henry, had told him how people with this disorder might detach from emotion.
So it’s come full circle, Thomas thought to himself as he looked over and noticed Wendy asleep on his shoulder. It wasn’t too long before he dozed off himself.
What’s the time? But where did she go? Why is the sky so grey?
He awoke without Wendy in sight. If the weather sets the mood, then this was a moment to fear indeed. Everything put Tom on edge. A feeling in his gut told him nothing was fine. Maybe he could rest his eyes, then he would fall asleep and next time he would wake, Wendy would be right beside him.
No time to think now. Bags went flying as the brakes screeched. The driver went flying through the windshield right after the bus swerved off the highway, hitting more than a tree, and ending up lopsided, halfway up a rock mass.
Seconds passed, unconscious he laid, until someone on the bus shook him back into consciousness, and telling him and pushing him to go through the fire-escape window broken open.
“There’s someone in the washroom,” yelled Tom, still in anguish.
“I was just in there, there’s no one there,” said the man. “We have to hurry, this bus could explode any second.”
Against Tom’s will, the man helped him out and all the passengers ran until they were sure they were a safe distance. Tom started looking around screaming Wendy’s name. The bus just then exploded and Tom fell to the ground, mostly from fear. He had to get up and find her, but was out of strength. The ambulances showed up very quickly. It rained hard as they were rushed to the hospital.
Have I changed? Why couldn’t I go back to the easy part. This isn’t right, something’s happened, I think. I was in an accident, no we were in an accident; Wendy’s gone! I knew something bad would happen. Why didn’t I avoid it? I’ve got to open my eyes, to wake up… up… up…
And he did. Tom woke up breathing so heavily he didn’t know whether he might be choking, and his head hurt bad. He was in a very large room. Many people sitting, quite a few on stretchers. He knew he must have blacked out. His internal clock told him he had lost time. He felt very lost, almost unable to gather himself. But it wasn’t yet over. His dad, now somewhat recuperated, was coincidentally walking through the hallway adjacent to this emergency entrance. The surprising shock of seeing his son with such a severe gash on his brow was enough to stop his heart once more before the end of this cruel day.
“Dad!” Tom cried with whatever strength he had left.
As his father collapsed onto the ground, clutching his own heart, the opaque doors shut between them, leaving Tom’s imagination to infer what would happen next. And since this was too much, his unconscious mind had no choice but to save him from himself. And so he passed out yet again.
Early next morning, the principal of Maddox arrived at the hospital, along with Henry and Christopher. They headed first to see Tom’s father (who was re-recovering quite well). They wanted to check-in on Wendy’s status – which they found out was still critical – so they could report back to Tom, whom they were now going to visit.
“Could you tell me which room Thomas Young is in?” asked the principal at the front desk.
“One moment please.”
Christopher overheard two of the hospital workers arguing in a room just a few metres away.
“He was your patient for a whole 10 minutes and now he’s just gone?”
“He’s been unconscious since last night! How could I have known he would just get up and sneak away?”
“Hey Henry, over here,” Christopher whispered.
They walked over to the room to see them arguing, as one nurse ran out down the hallway.
“Thank you,” the principal said to the receptionist as he walked down the hall near where Henry and Chris were standing. “Oh, well, I see you two have found the room by yourselves.”
“You mean this is Tom’s room? Was anyone else staying in the room?” asked Henry in panic.
But they were interrupted over the intercom: “Code Pink. All staff please be on the lookout for Thomas Young. 15, male, last seen in room 110…”