School is just school. That’s all there is to it. Day in and day out, the same routine over and over and over again until you die of boredom. Until you’re screaming inside your head because you’re so bored.
Hey, can you guess I hate school? I spend all day counting down the minutes until my dad can come and pick me up. I sit through my lessons in silence. I never answer questions unless the teacher asks them directly to me, because if I put my hand up, if I spoke out loud, then the other students would realise that I exist. As it is, no one seems to notice me. When people catch my eye by accident I see their gaze slide away from me, around me, as if they can’t bear to look at me. I think they’re afraid to make eye contact, as if they’ll catch my illness if they socialise with me.
It’s not catching and I’m not infectious. I’m just an outcast.
I doodle pictures of Peppermint in the margins of my exercise book. The ink crawls off the page and onto my fingertips, climbs higher over my hands and up my forearms. I draw Peppermint over and over, jumping and playing, sleeping and eating. And then he changes, and the higher up my arms the ink goes, the less the patterns look like cats and they turn into a forest of flowers and trees.
“You’ll get ink poisoning if you keep doing that, Ellie,” says Miss Jones. She’s bending down next to my desk. If she wants to read the essay I was supposed to be writing she’ll be disappointed because there isn’t a single word on the page in front of me.
“So?” I say. I tug the sleeve of my jumper down over my arm. I like drawing on myself. I think, if I live long enough, I’ll get loads of tattoos, all over. Not like that cat man person or the lizard guy who both look kind of scary. Tasteful tattoos. A cat or a dragon. Maybe a flower. I don’t know. I’m still working on the designs. I’ll turn eighteen in less than a year and then I’ll be able to do whatever I like. Even doctors can’t stop me from getting tattoos. I hope, anyway.
Miss Jones sighs. I feel slightly guilty because I know she just wants to help me. She’s the nicest teacher at this hellhole of a school but I still hate her. There’s an awkward silence where I should probably say something but I can’t. I wait until she turns to talk to someone else and then I roll my eyes. I glance over at the clock. Ten more minutes until the end of the lesson. Ten more minutes until break time. Ten more minutes and I’ll leave one tier of hell and enter another.
Nine more minutes. Everyone else in the class is on the edge of their seat, counting down like I am, eyes on the clock. I wish I could look forward to it like a normal student. Count down the minutes and then the seconds, throw my things into my bag, leap up out of my seat, fly down the corridor and then laugh and shout and chat and socialise.
Eight more minutes. I can’t do that. I’m not allowed to do that. It’s my own fault. That’s what they all say. It’s my own fault. Something completely out of my control is my own fault.
Seven more minutes. Completely out of my control? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. I thought I was in control, at least.
Six more minutes. Now that I’m ‘getting better’, everything is worse. Now that things are ‘being fixed’, I feel so much more broken. Before, I was cracked and chipped. Now, I’m shattered into a thousand pieces.
Five more minutes. Their words don’t fit my feelings. ‘Getting better’ must mean ‘getting worse’. ‘Being fixed’ must mean ‘being broken’. When mum smiles and tells me how well I’m doing, or when the doctor stands me on those stupid scales and nods and takes notes and then lets me go because things are going so well, or when there are more gold stars in my journal than black marks, that’s when I feel most out of control and alone. Like, only I can see what’s really going on. Only I can see what they’re trying to do to me.
Four more minutes. I can feel my chest constricting. My breathing is shallow and I’m beginning to feel a little lightheaded. I clench my fists, try to breathe deeply, through my feet as the yoga teacher would say. I won’t let the bad feelings take over. I won’t let them control me. I won’t let who control me? The bad feelings or the good people? The good feelings or the bad people? My vision is blurring and I can’t focus. I’m still doodling on my arm and I press the nib of the pen into my flesh, harder and harder, but things don’t feel real anymore.
Three more minutes. All I can see is the clock hand ticking, ticking, ticking. All I can feel is the pressure of the pen digging into my skin. All I can hear is a roaring in my ears. Am I going to pass out? I feel like I’m about to cry but I hold back the tears because goddammit there is no way I am crying in front of everyone.
Two more minutes. What if I don’t listen to them? Who cares what they say? I don’t. I don’t need to follow their stupid little rules and eat their stupid snacks and drink their stupid supplements. I was fine without them and I’ll be fine again without them.
One more minute. Thirty seconds. Twenty. Ten. Five. Zero.
Thunderous noise fills the classroom as chairs are scraped back and books are dropped into bags. Talking, everyone is talking. Shouting. Miss Jones is saying something. I can’t hear her properly. Something about homework? Or maybe the English trip that I think is next week. I don’t know. I don’t care. I’m the only person in the classroom not moving. The pen falls from my hands as I lower my head, resting it on my inked arms. There’s no point moving. There’s no point in much but there’s really no point in moving.
The sound lessens. The door slams shut. Everyone has gone for break. I think the classroom might be empty but then, before I can lift my head, I feel a hand on my shoulder.
“Ellie, they’ve all gone now. If there’s something bothering you, you can talk to me,” she says, her voice laced with that insincere kindness that teachers put on when they want you to think that they care but really they just want you to hurry up and get over whatever it is so they can bugger off to whatever they need to do next. She probably has a biscuit waiting for her in the staff room and she wants to get to it before one of the other teachers eats it.
“I’m fine,” I mumble into my arm. I want to look up. I want to be brave. I want to walk out of the classroom holding my head up high, as if there’s nothing wrong. I want to be the girl who doesn’t feel like slashing open her wrists or crying over the toilet bowl. Sorry, was that too graphic? I don’t even care. My life is graphic. My life is a mess. “I really am,” I say. I stand up slowly to stop the blood from rushing to my head. I feel dizzy and nauseous and I know that I should be sitting in the canteen next to whichever poor soul has to deal with me today, forcing myself to swallow something disgusting. I don’t want to, though, and right now there’s no one here to make me.
“Well, let me know,” says Miss Jones feebly. “If I can help with anything at all…” She tails off into nothing and I swing my bag onto my shoulder and leave the classroom without answering her. She can’t help. No one can help.
I don’t go to the canteen. I go to the girl’s toilets. The ones on the top floor, near the science classrooms. No one ever uses those ones at break time. I’m not supposed to go to the toilet on my own but like I said, no one’s about to stop me. They’re waiting for me to turn up in the canteen with a smile on my face, ready for part one of three of the daily school torture. They won’t be expecting me to break the rules.
I drop my bag and lock the cubicle door. I’m ruining everything. I kneel down. My breathing still isn’t completely under control and I can feel the knot of panic in my chest. I’m going to be in so much trouble. But there’s nothing else to do. Not when I feel like this.
So out of control.
So in control.
The toilets smell of sick.
There’s a reason why I’m not allowed to do this.
I feel dizzy. Dizzier. So dizzy.
I can’t stop.
I can’t focus.
I’m losing consciousness and I don’t even care.