by v_voltaire

:v_voltaire takes the stage: This is one of my more serious pieces, although it does have a few small jokes here and there. It's another old project, and like my other projects, it was banged out in one day. Still, I believe it's one of my best works. Like most of my stories, it deals largely with ambiguity and it only hints at what's really going on, so be an active reader. :v_voltaire exits, stage right:

Some mornings she would try to remain far, far below her bed for as long as she could. She was buried as far beneath the earth as she could be without rising to the surface on the other side of the earth. Part of her mind knew that she was not in the center of the earth but instead deeply buried in her bed covers, but that was not what she felt. She drifted on the soft waves of the gently glowing magma. The orange heat of the planet's strength surrounded her, keeping her safe. It was the only place Carey could feel warm enough. It was soft, and warm, and always the same.

The alarm clock interrupted her small piece of peace of mind. As she rose up through the ground, her first semi-conscious thought was that it was too early for it to be six AM. Up, up, up through the cold, clammy earth she rose, up through her cellar, up through the first floor, up through her bed until she her consciousness was finally joined with her body. With a typically profound, "Ugh," she threw the covers off of her bed, attempting to shock herself into a wakeful existence. The one who received the most shock was not Carey, but the cat that had been previously sleeping peacefully on the bed, unaffected by the obnoxiously cheerful song blaring from the radio alarm clock.

"Sorry, Po," Carey rasped, her first real words of the day. Po mrowrped an acknowledgment, haughtily threw her tail in the air, and stretched into a position a yoga master would envy. Carey grimaced at the song on the radio and vowed once again to try to find another radio station that played the news and that her alarm clock would receive.

Thankfully, the song ended and the news began. Carey took that as her cue to begin to get dressed. Everything was going as it was supposed to go: Alarm goes off at six, lights go on and sheets go off at six-oh-one, apologize to Po at six-oh-two, adjust to being awake until news at six-ten, get dressed and listen to news from six-ten until six-fifteen, say goodbye to Po at six-fifteen and run down the stairs...

"Bye, Po," Carey said, her voice adjusting to normal tones more suitable for the wakeful world. She kissed the cat quickly on the head. Po mrowrped a reply, settling into the warm spot on the bed where Carey had been sleeping. From six-fifteen to six-eighteen Carey raced down the stairs, grabbed her lunch and her bookbag, ignored her father's note as usual, and went out the door. She walked down the street from six-eighteen to six-twenty-five, when the school bus arrived. Once again, Carey praised her perfectly timed morning system. She arrived at the bus just in time to escape small talk with the other people at her stop, but with enough time that she didn't have to run to catch the bus and attract unnecessary attention.

Settling into her seat-two seats behind the bus driver to discourage conversation with the other passengers and the bus driver-Carey took out her book and let a satisfied sigh slip out. She allowed herself a moment to smell the pages, a culmination of thirty-five years of must and basements and shelves and fingers that scanned its magic pages of yellow and black for any insight it could offer. Carey slipped into the world the book had to offer. She had read it four times before, but it still held so much for her. It almost allowed her to ignore the group of freshmen singing in the back of the bus. Ironically, it was the same song that Carey had woken up to. She gritted her teeth and returned to her book, vaguely wondering what instances would justify homicide. She told herself that only three years ago, practically an entire lifetime ago, she too was a freshman. An entire class of kind seniors had allowed her to live past that time, so she should extend that same courtesy. And now here she was, a senior herself. A small shudder passed through her body. Time passed too quickly! She turned back to her book, the same book she had read before, the book that would be the same if she read it a day or a month or a year from now.

As she crossed through the threshold of her school building, the small Dante part of her brain murmured, "Welcome to Dis." She mentally scolded that voice, but felt that high school would feel like a punishment whether she acknowledged it or not. She stole to her favorite hiding spot, beneath the staircase that led to the library. Few students ever went to the library, and even fewer ever looked behind the staircase. She was alone, yet surrounded by friends when she opened her book. She stayed behind the staircase until the homeroom bell rang.

Math class was first. It was always a high point of her day. It was dull, true, but Carey loved the solidarity of the numbers. No matter what anyone said, no matter what views a person held, even if all life disappeared, two plus two would always equal four. For some reason, Carey found that strangely comforting.

Carey slept through her next two classes. She was situated by the window in her science class, and spent the period staring at the dark gray sky. She supposed that she liked math for same reason she liked books. A book will always remain the same. The characters are never gone. They don't die. If a character did die, all Carey would have to do would be to flip back to the beginning of the book and-arise, Lazarus!-the character would be alive again. A comforting thought to tide her through science class. The next period was history, her least favorite class. She also had a seat by the window. She wondered what it would be like to drift through those dark gray clouds. She would just float there, allowing the clouds to surround her forever. She wouldn't see anyone, and they wouldn't see her. She would just float, forever the same. She knew that the clouds wouldn't be cold or wet, like her old science teacher had insisted. They would be warm and soft and smell like her favorite sweater, fresh from the dryer. She hugged her sweater to her at that thought. All she would have to do in the clouds would be float and dream...

"Carey?" an adult voice called out.

Carey's head jerked to attention. "Yes, m-Miss Dowen?"

The teacher sighed. "Do you have any thoughts on the subject?"

A slight panic overtook Carey. "Ah, no?" she said weakly. At the disappointed look on the teacher's face, Carey uttered a thin, apologetic laugh.

The teacher sighed again. Thankfully, the lunch bell rang. "For tomorrow I'd like you all to do number four on your assignment sheet," she called after the students quickly exiting the room. "Carey, could I see you for a moment?" she asked in a softer tone of voice.

"Um, okay, Miss Dowen," Carey said nervously.

"I've asked all of my students to call me by my first name, Stacey."

"Okay, Stacey," said Carey, emphasizing her teacher's name as a small attempt at a joke. Stacey didn't laugh, but she made her voice as sympathetic as it could be.

"I want this to be an informal discussion period, Carey, not a class where I stand and lecture while everyone takes notes." Carey simply nodded. "For that I'd need everyone's participation."

Carey nodded again, wondering when was the soonest time she could escape this conversation without appearing rude.

"Carey, you're a bright girl," Stacey said, putting a hand on her shoulder. Carey flinched slightly and hoped that Stacey didn't notice. "I'd like to know if there's anything I can do to make you feel more comfortable in class, anything that'll make you join in more in class discussions. Can you think of anything?"

"Um, n-n-no, no, not that I can think of," Carey stammered.

"Are things all right at home?"

"Oh, fine, fine, just fine."

"Okay," Stacey said warily. "If you have any problems, if you need someone to talk to, you can come to me, okay?"

"Okay, sure, you'll be the first to know," Carey said, backing away. "I really should be getting to lunch now."

"All right, Carey. Just remember, if you need to talk..."

"I'll come to you. Right. Uh, bye." Carey turned and walked swiftly away. The teacher looked sadly at her departing student, wishing there were something more she could do.

Carey quickly grabbed her lunch out of her locker and hurried to her sanctuary behind the library staircase. She hoped that nobody would see her hide back there; food was not allowed outside of the cafeteria. She was deeply immersed in her book when she heard the footsteps. They weren't the echoing footsteps of someone going up the stairs. They were much more solid, serious, grounded on the firm floor.

Her first thought was that it was a teacher come to give her a detention for eating out of the cafeteria. She looked across the floor at what was making these footsteps: a pair of feet. More specifically, a pair of feet encased in bobby socks and a pair of worn-out sneakers. It wasn't a teacher. Carey knew that all she had to do was look up to see who this person was, but she didn't want to do that. She wanted to delay seeing this person's face because until she saw the face this person might not really exist. She knew that didn't make sense, but somehow it seemed to make sense in her own mind. Mentally bracing herself, she looked up to see the owner of the shoes. It was worse than a teacher. It was a friend.

Or was she a friend? Carey hadn't spoken to her in over a month and hadn't gone anywhere with her for over a year. They were friends at one time, but now?

"Hi Carey."

"Hi Remi," Carey said, unconsciously distancing herself from Remi by remaining sitting inside the alcove while Remi was standing at the edge of the staircase.

"I thought I would find you here," Remi said, trying to ease the tension. Carey looked at her expectantly. "The gang and I are having a little get-together Friday night at my place. We thought you might like to be there?"

"The gang?" asked Carey blankly.

"You know. Ryan, Michelle, you, me, everybody. The gang," Remi explained.

"Oh," Carey said in a nervous voice.

"It'll be this Friday at eight. It'll be at my place, I think I said that. It'll be really informal, just us, no outsiders."

"It sounds nice," Carey's voice wavered. Remi evaluated Carey's expression immediately.

"You're not going to come, are you?"

Carey froze. "I'll... think about it," came the strained reply.

"What's the matter, Carey? Why don't you hang out with us anymore?" Remi gently laid a hand on Carey's shoulder, her dark skin making a striking contrast to Carey's pale face. Carey instinctively recoiled away from the touch, but held herself in place by sheer will. She hoped that Remi didn't feel her drawing away, but couldn't meet Remi's eyes to see if she had.

"You've...changed," Carey whispered, not believing that she was saying this. Remi was taken aback.


"All of you. Changed. You're not the people I met. You're not the same." Her voice was becoming ragged.

"Of course we're not the same. Time goes by, things change, people change. That's just the way things go," Remi said softly.

"I don't want it to," Carey choked out. She hated this.

"You've changed too." Carey looked at Remi sharply. She hated what Remi was telling her.

"No, I..." Carey struggled. She hated the way this made her feel.

"I don't know what's happened to you. Just last year you were fine. You were Carey, our Carey. Then you were out of school for a month, and then you stopped hanging out with us." Carey drew in a short breath. She hated it because it was true.

Remi continued. "I wish I could know what happened, how to help you. I still want to be your friend, Carey." The pressure was building behind Carey's eyes. She hated it, hated it, hated it, hated it.

With barely controlled anger, Carey hissed, "Remi, please leave." Remi left without a word. Carey returned to her book, concentrating on the familiar phrases to lull her into a controlled state. By the time lunch period was over, Carey had control over her face. She showed no sign of what had happened. By the time school was over, Carey regained control over her emotions. By the time she reached home, Carey was able to convince herself that she had forgotten that the discussion had ever occurred.

She patted Po on the head after entering her house and depositing her books in a heap on the ground. Po was sitting in the chair near the door, as always. She heard the phone ring, a rare occurrence in the household. She let the answering machine take the call. As her mother's cheerful voice filled the room, Carey gave a strained smile. Her father still hadn't changed the answering machine message. She found that comforting, in a morbid sort of way.

That night, as she lay awake in bed, she tried to forget her miserable day. She tried to forget her miserable year. Slowly, as her spirit drifted down through the earth, the worries of the waking world gently faded away. She forgot her friend, her teacher, her mother, everyone. As the last memory faded away for the night, she fell asleep. Her body remained in the cold, ever-changing world, ready to be reunited with her spirit when her alarm clock went off, but her spirit was safe. She floated gently in her warm cocoon where no one could harm her, no one could reach her. It was soft, and warm, and always the same, always the same.