"It's time to get up."
Those words are almost as bad as ones spelling your doom. The soft footsteps of your owner tap against the floor as she walks across the room to open your curtains.
"Wake up, sleepyhead." she says, and her voice pushes you further out of the Land of Dreams, out of the sweet oblivion that is sleep. "You know you can't be late for school."
Light streams into the room, filtering through the window and casting dappled patterns across your bed. You force your bleary eyes open, rubbing at them with your paws as you sit up. Get up, go to school, come home, cry, repeat. That is what your life is, now. A neverending cycle, like a spinning record, or a song on repeat.
"You're not really awake, are you?" asks your owner. She grabs the covers, pulling them off of you. "Come on, get up. You can't sleep the day away."
You wish you could.
"Breakfast's on the table. It'll get cold if you take too long. Be down in ten, okay?"
You barely have time to nod before she turns and slips off. The sound of her footsteps fades down the stairs, and you're left alone in your empty bedroom.
Somehow, in some way, you have to get through until you can curl up in bed and lose yourself from the world. You can do it, you tell yourself. You did it yesterday, and the day before, and the day before, and the day before.
You have to do it.
You crawl out of bed, pull on some clothes that look decently clean and unwrinkled, and haul yourself to the bathroom. Your tired, Golden Xweetok face gazes back at you from the mirror- you can see the dark circles beneath your eyes, and you think that some of the luster has gone from your fur. You splash water on your face to wake yourself up from the daze that you feel like you're always in.
It doesn't work. It never works. It's like a nightmare that you can't wake yourself up from- and knowing what you'll face at school is almost worse than being there.
"You've got to hurry."
Your owner's voice drifts up the stairs, brisk and impatient and... happy. You feel that little fact choking you up, and you wish that you could be happy like she is. Stumbling out of the bathroom, you make your way down the hall and then down the stairs. Your siblings crowd around the table, their voices filling the air in a cacophony of words and sounds that you’re too tired to decipher.
“You know, you don’t look well at all.” Your owner’s voice sounds close to your ear. “Are you not sleeping well?”
You shake your head, because that is the truth. But it’s so much more than that.
She looks at you anxiously. “Well… Maybe you should get to bed early tonight, okay? Now go eat breakfast. You’ve only got twenty minutes before you need to be out the door.”
You eat breakfast, pancakes and scrambled neggs, but you don’t taste it because you’re shovelling it down like a machine.
“Hey, what’s your problem?” Your sister elbows you. You glare at her.
“You look like you’re asleep.”
“I wish I was.”
She studies your face, but your other sister steals her attention away from you. You clear your plate, rinse it in the sink, and go upstairs, glad to escape their ceaseless noise and feeling guilty because you’re glad of it.
And then you’re walking out the door. You lag behind your sisters and your brother, your feet dragging and tail trailing behind you. Several times, they have to tell you to hurry up- Why are you always so slow? You’ll make us late!
You don’t bother to apologize.
In math class, you sit with your chin on your hand, gazing absently at the back of the student in front of you. The teacher, a Blue Kacheek, drones on and on, until her voice fades to a buzz in your ears. Muddled images swim through your vision, and your eyes ache with the sore, gritty sensation of sleeplessness.
“Excuse me? Are you paying attention?” the teacher’s voice is a trifle frosty. It’s clear she’s asked the question more than once. You jerk your bleary gaze up to her, taking in her rigid posture and her one hand poised against the chalkboard.
“Sorry?” You mumble. A rumble of laughter passes through the class, making your ears burn and sweat trickle down beneath your fur.
She points to the question framed on the board- it’s based off of what you studied last night, but you can’t remember the theorems and equations that you had memorized, and you stare at it so long through your haze of misery, trying to puzzle out the foreign terms, that she finally gets impatient.
“If you don’t know, just tell me so I can give the question to someone else.”
“I don’t know,” you repeat, miserably. Another ripple of laughter and the Kacheek turns to one of the front row students, a Spotted Lupe with a thick blonde ponytail.
She answers with easy grace, a sort of smugness in her voice, and your skin crawls beneath your fur. You duck your head to hide the tears of humiliation swimming in your eyes, and the teacher’s voice resumes, a buzz in your ears, the squeak of the chalk on the chalkboard punctuating her uninterrupted drone.
At lunch they are laughing again- not so overtly as to draw the attention of any teachers. It never is. But behind their paws, whispering and snickering. The blonde ponytail Lupe dips her chin onto her paw, letting her jaw fall slack and her eyes grow unfocused as she stares dazedly towards one of her friends; an imitation of you. You know what she’s doing, and you avert your eyes, fixating on the sandwich in your hands even as you hear the peals of their laughter shivering in your already ringing ears. The sandwich tastes like dirt in your mouth, and it takes you an age and a half to swallow the bite that you’ve already been chewing for three minutes now.
Your sisters, three grades below you, are all the way across the cafeteria, laughing and giggling with their friends, and though they occasionally glance over at you, alone at your table, there is no connection in their minds between you and the group sitting several tables away. They poise a question with their eyes, but you have no energy to answer it, and they have no interest in pursuing it.
Your brother isn’t even looking. He’s comparing notes with his friends on that day’s science text and discussing the newest band at the Tyrannian Concert Hall. Besides, if he happened to glance over, it would look like they were only enjoying a good joke. No one would understand that it’s at your expense, or see the narrow glances they cast your way, sniggering behind their paws.
You run in gym class today, and your lap time is worse than anyone’s. Your paws feel like lead, and you can’t help them dragging, slowing you down as you struggle to increase your pace. The gym teacher, a muscular Shadow Ogrin, yells at you to at least try, and so you do. But apparently it doesn’t look like it, because he pulls you aside when the others are trooping back towards the locker rooms.
“At least make an effort,” he growls, “The others passed that time more than a month ago. I don’t see why you can’t keep up with them; there’s not anything wrong with you that should keep you from being active.”
You nod your head through the grey haze, noticing the blonde ponytail Lupe lingering near the door of the gym, with one of her friends holding it open for her. The gym teacher shoos you away, and the two flee when you approach as though you bear some kind of disease, pretending to drag their feet and heaving great panting breaths as though they can’t run very fast at all. Your heart squeezes into itself, your bleary vision wavering and shivering as you trip on your way to the door.
You change alone in the locker room, and make it late to the next class.
When school lets out and Neopet students are once again clogging the halls, you gather your books and shove them into your backpack while you walk, your mind fixed on the one sense of freedom that you have from this miserable prison; when you get home you can cry in private, and you don’t have to worry about being back until tomorrow, when you will miss more questions, fail to meet more standards, and sit alone at lunch, eating a sandwich that tastes like dirt and listening to the taunting voices of those who seek to drive you into the dust.
As though on cue, someone shoves solidly against your back. You trip and land sprawling, books sliding across the floor. You reach for them helplessly, watching as Neopets step over them and around them, but nobody picks them up and nobody tries to help. They just look at you with pity and then quickly avert their gazes, pretending not to notice that your eyes are begging them for assistance.
The blonde ponytail Lupe leers above you, prodding one of your old, battered textbooks with her foot and then withdrawing as though it disgusts her.
“Oh, you weren’t watching where you were going?” she asks, her voice slick with her artificial, honey-sweet tone. “You poor kid. Can’t even walk properly- and here we were, thinking that big list of everything you fail at couldn’t possibly get worse. But I guess we were wrong. Seems you don’t even know how to take a step without messing up- although I guess it shouldn’t really come as a surprise.”
She laughs, and her friends laugh, and the others keep passing you by. You clutch your unzipped backpack to your chest and reach for the book near her foot, but she bends down and picks it up. “Here, sweetie, I’ll help you pick up. You look like you could use it.”
It falls to the ground from the two fingers that she had been holding it between, hitting the ground with force and then laying sad and still, its already strained binding giving way beneath the abuse. You look at it dazedly, tears wavering in your eyes and dripping down your fur, helpless in the face of this new threat.
She’s still laughing.
“What’s going on?”
It’s a new voice, and one you don’t recognize. Not a teacher. A student. You look up, vision blurred expecting to see, somehow, another ‘pet to join the ranks of those rallied against you.
But it’s not, and she doesn’t. She kneels next to you, her Pastel Gelert ears falling in her face, big blue eyes full of concern.
“Are you okay? Here, I’ll help you pick up your books,” she says. She stands up and begins collecting the scattered textbooks as you gaze blankly at her, not comprehending. Someone actually cares. Someone is helping you. A light pierces the grey, gloomy haze that surrounds you, encompasses you, warming your heart as it thumps weakly against your ribs.
“Stop that,” says the blonde ponytail Lupe sharply, her laughter gone, a frown shrivelling her face.
“No, I won’t. Get out of here, and don’t try anything like that again, or I’ll tell the principal,” the Gelert snaps back, “I saw the whole thing, and I know you know the policy about bullying here.”
The Lupe sputters, but the threat of the principal is enough. She turns and storms off, her friends following uncertainly, the already near-empty halls echoing with their harsh footsteps.
“I’m sorry,” the Gelert says, compassion coloring her voice. She has gathered the books and kneels beside you again.
“I don’t know you.” Your voice is hoarse, but your vision has cleared and the tears are leaking from the corners of your eyes more slowly.
“I’m new here,” she says. She takes the backpack and carefully places the books, taking extra care with the torn one. “I transferred here from a Neoschool in Roo Island. I saw you in math class, and it made me so mad when they were laughing.”
Touched and confused by this sudden support, you mumble your thanks and take your backpack from her outstretched paws. Her courage astounds you; she is new here, and yet she is braver than anyone who walked past you during your moment of need.
“Here,” she says, standing up and offering you her paw. “We can walk home together. Do you have siblings?”
“Two sisters and a brother,” you mumble, hesitating at her offer. “We don’t wait for each other. They’re probably already gone.”
“That’s okay,” she says, cheerfully. “You’ve got me.”
You take her paw and she helps you to your feet.
“I’m Adelaine. What’s your name?” she adds, watching as you zip your backpack up and pull it over your shoulder.
You look at her cautiously, and as she smiles at you, you can’t help but smile back, for the first time in what seems like months. There has been nothing to smile about before now.
You tell her, “My name is-”