Crazy not crazy
A short story
My skin is tightly wrapped around my limbs and pressing hard into my face. It’s that time of the year, when it hasn’t rained for a while, and the air is sucking every bit of moisture it can from everything it can – including people. Including me. As I stand just outside the darkened room, my uniform itches my skin more than normal. I can feel everything. The join at the end of my socks, the tag on the top of my shirt, the button that fastens my skirt.
A light flickers. The room has come alive. It’s nearly time. Time to fail. Again.
I’d got here early but now everyone else is arriving and they’re closing in around me. I shut my eyes tight, put my head so far down that my neck is squished like rolling hills against my chest. My laptop is hugged hard against my chest. Wooden fingers dig into my stomach
Wooden fingers dig into my stomach from my pencil case. My eyes squeeze tighter. I know people are looking at me. They’re whispering. Talking about me. Telling each other how weird I am. How I don’t deserve to be here. How I should just leave this school. Leave this world. It would be better off without me. Well, they’re right, aren’t they?
I hear the turning of the lock. The door clicks. The air moves and the bottom of the door begins its journey open, scraping the concrete. If I hadn’t been wearing shoes, I may have felt it vibrate. The metal scratches and scrapes and screeches. And then it’s over. There is movement all around me. I open my eyes enough to see where I’m going and squeeze hard against the side of the door, temporarily moving my laptop away from my body so I have a little bit extra space and pop into the room. I try amusing myself that I probably even sounded like a poppet, popping. It doesn’t work. I am imploding. The anticipation of failure is all-consuming.
My stomach contracts, causing pain, stealing my breath for a moment. I have to focus on my breathing or I’ll slip into flight-or-fight mode, and that rarely turns out well.
I find a desk near the door and slide into the seat just as Andrea is about to do the same thing. I win. She moves on to find another desk. I glance up to see Mrs Cartwright eyeing me. She nods, acknowledging my small win. She won’t need to move anyone for my sake. She knows this is where I have to sit. She knows she has to accommodate for me. She’s seen the consequences of what my body will do if I don’t get my way.
My way, like as if that’s all that matters. The thoughts rush in like a bath filling with water. I’m so selfish. I’m the only one who matters in the world. I only ever think of myself. I think the world revolves around me. I’m not a good person. I’m not likeable. The water’s so deep I can’t reach my hand in to pull out the plug. There’s so many of them, they’re coming at me from everywhere and I can’t control my breathing. I put my head on the desk, my breathing shallow and fast.
And then, for the briefest of moments, I remember, I’m safe, I’m okay. I grab hold of the words and recite them over and over, whispering them under my breath until the deluge of negative thoughts slow and I can replace them with something else. My mind goes blank until finally, my psychologist’s words scream louder than those of my own inadequacies: You’re okay, and it’s not your fault. I couldn’t have come up with them on my own. Not now. Not in this moment. I slow my breathing. I may fail this test, but I will still be okay. I might still be okay. Just breath.
The teacher is rattling papers. She’s saying something I can’t quite make out.
I don’t want to be this way. Who would choose to be like this? It’s not my fault. I can do this. Just breath, Lucy. Just breath. I lift my head. Act normal. Be normal. Control yourself. You can do this.
Paper is placed on the table in front of me. Mrs Cartwright puts her hand on my shoulder and I jump, pulling away, almost toppling off the side of my chair. My should burns. She says something. An apology? Maybe. Something about the laptop. I look to the side of me. Amanda is staring. Her laptop is on the floor, under her chair. Bryce is behind her, glaring at me. They think I’m a freak. They think I’m crazy. They think I’m going to go nuts again. My eyes squeeze tight, I shake my head slightly. Breath. Concentrate on your breathing. I nod, slowly, and put my laptop under my chair. Mrs Cartwright moves away.
Sixty-five minutes. That’s what she was saying before. Sixty-five minutes until conformation of failure.
But I’ll get longer. They know I need extra time, that my brain won’t work for sixty-five minutes straight. That I’ll need longer to get started. That there will be times when my brain won’t remember things and I’ll have to work, work hard, to get the information back into the part of my brain where I need it to be. They know. They know now. I know now. Before I just thought I was a freak. I had thought I was crazy. Now I know. Now I know. What do I know now?
Mrs Cartwright is squatting in front of me.
‘Did you hear any of that?’ Her voice is soft. Kind. Condescending. No, not condescending. She’s trying. She’s trying to help.
I shake my head.
‘Okay, Lucy,’ she says, quietly. Everyone else has started writing already. ‘The test is sixty-five minutes long, but you know you get an extra ten minutes, so you’ll have seventy-five minutes altogether.’
I nod. Pencils scratch madly around me.
‘This is the planning time. Everyone has ten minutes planning time.’
I nod again. I look around. Bryce is sharpening his pencil. Amanda is writing like her life depends on it. Andrea, a couple of seats away, is chewing on her pencil yet somehow managing to write at the same time.
Mrs Cartwright again: ‘Do you need me to read the exam question aloud to you?’
I shake my head and manage a weak smile. ‘I’ll be okay,’ I manage.
Mrs Cartwright smiles. ‘I’m proud of how well you’re doing so far.’
Heat rises to my cheeks. My head fogs over. She’s proud of me. For walking into an exam room. For sitting down. For putting my laptop under my desk. She’s proud of me? For that? I look to my left. Bryce is writing. Amanda is writing. Is she proud of them, too? Has she told them she’s proud of them, too?
My stomach contracts. A wave of nausea rises and falls.
I open my pencil case and scratch around. Coloured pencils. Textas. Pens. Highlighters. Stickers. I shove the ‘Get out of class free’ cards to the side and shake the pencil case. Amanda hisses a ‘shhh’ from beside me. My chest tightens. I hold my breath. I should have been more prepared. I should have already had my pencil out. And an eraser. And a sharpener. I should have brought only them into the exam room. I shouldn’t have brought in my whole pencil case. I should have sharpened a couple of grey-lead pencils last night and got them ready. I should have done it this morning. I shouldn’t have eaten that egg for breakfast. It’s probably what’s making me feel sick. I might vomit. I might have to leave the room. I don’t think I can stay in here any longer. I might have to go to sickbay. I might have to–
Burn. On my should again. I jump, upwards this time. Pain races through my skin, down my arm, all the way through to the bone.
‘Lucy.’ Mrs Cartwright is beside me. ‘It’s time to start. Have you read the exam question yet?’
I squeeze my eyes and swallow. Hard. If I had an Adam’s Apple I’d have thought I’d swallowed it whole. ‘I’m having trouble finding my pencil.’ My voice is squeaky. It sounds like chalk on a blackboard, like the ones we used in Prep. We’d sit with the boards on our knees and chalk in our hands and write the letters of the alphabet. We’d say the letters aloud as we wrote them. We’d draw the letter in the air with our fingers and in the sand in the sandpit. We’d say the letters and draw the letters and say what they were and say their sounds and say them on their own and say them in a word. ‘A’ says ‘a’ and ‘A’ says ‘a’ like ‘a’ ‘a’ ‘ant’. And we’d stomp on the ground like we were trying to squish the ants. ‘A’ ‘a’ ‘ant’, ‘a’ ‘a’ ‘ant’.
‘Here you go,’ Mrs Cartwright has come back to my desk with a pencil and placed it on my desk.
I manage to thank her. And for the first time, I looked down to see what the test says.
This exam is worth 50% of your overall grade for this semester.
50%. Fail the exam, fail the semester.
You will need to draw on what you learned in Term Three as well as Term Four’s content.
Term Three. What the hey did we learn during Term 3? That was months ago. Before Billy broke Merissa’s heart. Before Charli’s mum moved out. Before Theodore thought Meme was stalking him. Before the holidays, when I saw a psychiatrist and he told me I was normal. Sort of normal. Sort of.
You can use the written prompt, the picture prompt, or both, as inspiration for writing your creative piece of writing.
I take a deep breath and hold it. Mrs Cartwright told me all of this already. Nothing new. I let the air out and drain my lungs. Nothing new. 50%. Nothing new. Both terms. Nothing new. I draw air into my lungs again, willing the oxygen into the front part of my brain, the logical part, the part that will help me organise my thoughts and decide what to write. Logic. That’s what I need. Once I’ve got the logic, then I can move on to the creative. Nothing new.
The others have finished their planning time and have opened the booklets. I pick up the stimulus. It’s a war scene. I hold a full, deep breath in my lungs. A man is lying on the ground. His friend is holding him. I let the breath out. How do I write a short story? How do I even begin?
Inhale. Exhale. Draw in fresh air. Hold it. Who are the men? How did they get there? What happened to them, that they are friends? What happened to them, that one of them is dying?
Read the question. Know the word limit. Plan the story. Draw on your knowledge. Create a great start. You can do this. You are smart. You are capable. You are creative. You are who you are and there is nothing you can do about it other than work with what you’ve got.
I pick up the pencil. And I write.
I write words and words and words. I use a mixture of short sentences and long sentences to make it more interesting to read. I give the characters little backstories, friends back home, a wife, an expected child. Things to care about. Things to make them want to live for. I use sophisticated words to portray the setting and highlight the character’s motives. Short sentences quicken the pace during the fighting scene. Repetition shows the reader just how much the dying man wants to live. And longer sentences create more emotion as the characters say goodbye, a long goodbye, the kind of goodbye you want to last forever.
By the time Mrs Cartwright announces there is only five minutes left of the exam, I’m almost finished. I’m almost done with the climax, and the resolution is easy. Plenty of people already have their pencils down. They’re struggling to stay still, to stay quiet. Soon the room will empty and I’ll be left alone. An empty room, to finish my story in. Empty except for Mrs Cartwright. She’ll stay into her Morning Tea break, miss some of her down time, all so I can have extra time. I write madly, trying to get it done so I can leave with everyone else. The resolution is easy. I can do it. I can finish it. I shake my hand. It hurts so bad. And I write. I write and write and write and write. Done. Finished. Just as Mrs Cartwright says, ‘Pencils down.’
The room empties. Mrs Cartwright collects the exams as everyone piles out for Morning Tea. I go to leave to, but she stops me.
‘I saw you writing right up to the end, Lucy. You still have ten minutes.’ She smiles warmly. ‘How about you read over your story. Take some time to edit it.’
‘That’s okay,’ I say. ‘You must need your morning tea break.’
Mrs Cartwright chuckles and mumbles, ‘You have to stay for at least a little bit. I’m usually on playground duty, but someone else is doing it for me so I can stay in here with you. And I’d much rather be in here with you that outside in that heat.’
I tilt my head to the side. That was unexpected.
I return to my seat and begin reading through my story. It’s pretty good. A good start. A few spelling mistakes – some I can fix, others I just underline to show her I know they’re wrong but I don’t know how to correct them. The story gets a little confusing mid-way, but that’s the way I want it to be. War is confusing. Both the big, of why war even happens, and the small, the in-there-in-the-midst-of-it, where bullets fly around and people you don’t even know are trying to shoot you. Trying to kill you. It doesn’t make sense. But my two characters have reasons to be in there, and they have reasons to care about each other. That’s what matters. That’s the heroic side of war. People loving people. Even people they don’t know that well, just because they’re on the same side. Born in the same country. Maybe not even from the same state.
I take my whole extra ten minutes. My story is a bit better for it. I hand Mrs Cartwright my test booklet.
‘Well done, Lucy,’ she says. ‘I think you coped better that exam. You didn’t seem as anxious.’
I smile and nod. ‘Thanks. I don’t suppose you could have a quick look at it, tell if you think I might have passed?’
Mrs Cartwright gives a sympathetic smile. ‘You’re an excellent writer, Lucy. You will have written another excellent story, I am sure.’
I look at her, expectantly.
‘I’ll need to cross-mark them with the other teachers. It’s not as easy as just giving you your results.’
I nod, sadly. ‘I understand.’
She sighs. ‘What if I read it over morning tea break, and let you know if it will at least be a pass.’
‘Thank you,’ I say, ‘that would be great.’
Melissa, Charli and Meme are outside the classroom. A wave of humidity hits me as Meme opens the door.
‘Done?’ Melissa asks, bouncing with anticipation.
A smile escapes and sends tingles all over my body. Charli contributes an excited clap and Meme gives me a gentle squeeze.
‘Exams are officially over!’ Melissa says.
‘Enjoy your morning tea, girls,’ Mrs Cartwright says and then locks the door behind me.
I think I like Mrs Cartwright. She’s one of the nicer Year Nine teachers. I hope she is my teacher again next year, assuming I pass and am allowed to move on to Year Ten.
But I guess I won’t know that for sure until December.