Last year, Sarah Holt Evans, a new parent to Guelph, decided to organize an event called Cuddle Up and Read at her chidren's school Rickson Ridge PS. The gym was set up with cozy lighting and was very welcoming to the families who attended. We had energetic Go Go Grandmother Sya Van Geest read an African Children's story, there were interactive crafts, very humourous skits by teachers and students and Zumba. Dozens of families came to the event and a good time was had.
This year's rendition of Cuddle Up and Read, also involved a Literary Contest, and a book reading by local author Jorey Tessier. A professional sound and lighting system were rented to add to give a "show time" feel to the evening. It was the Giller Prize for kids age 4-14. The parent council asked businesses big and small for prizes for the young writers. The prizes were amazing and we would like to offer a HUGE thank you to the sponsors. The Literary contest had 60 entries! Every participant won something and they came away with a huge smile on their face. Many Congratulations to all of the participants. The Bookshelf and our friends thoroughly enjoyed being involved in the event and thought it was a fantastic way to encourage the next generation of writers.
Over the next week, we will be publishing the winners of the contest. Here is the intermediate winner Maddie with her story Dreams, Nightmares, and Reality:
Dreams, Nightmares, & Reality
A safe place. Somewhere I could be free. Never afraid of anything or anyone. Some place where I could be myself. Where I wouldn’t have to hide. Some place where I didn’t need to run. Somewhere that would solve all of my problems. Some place where I could be isolated from them. A place without fear. Pain. Sorrow. Loneliness. My happy place.
But no. That place doesn’t exist. I don’t think it ever will. I turn my gaze from the bright window back to my desk as my thoughts fade away for another time. My ears tune back into Ms. Ellen’s grouchy voice.
“ーand page 53, numbers one to four.” She pauses and sighs. I look up and see her watching me closely with her small eyes peering right through mine. Her hot pink glasses sit right on the bridge of her nose. Her graying hair is piled in a wild bun at the very top of her head. She stands up straight, making herself seem stern and strict, even with her tiny, thin frame, and crosses her arms over her chest.
“Alright there, Callie?” she asks, slowly walking over to my desk. I sit up from my hunched position, smoothing out my forest green shirt as the attention of the class falls on me. I can hear heads turning, and see eyes watching. An eruption of giggles comes from behind me. I wonder who that could be, I think sarcastically, trying to picture that place again before my thoughts go to them.
“Oh, um, yes,” I mutter and casually fumble with my folders, trying to lose the glances across the room.
“Good,” Ms. Ellen says, glaring over my head at my blank sheet. “The homework is due tomorrow. That means that anyone with it incomplete can stay in with me after school.” She walks back to her desk and all pairs of eyes wander away from me. I can hear the clock ticking quietly by the door. I can make it. Ms. Ellen turns to look back at me again, her foot tapping against the tiled floor.
“Callie?” I sigh softly.
“One more blank sheet and you can stay in tomorrow too,” Ms. Ellen says with what sounds like a bit of extra anger in her usual cold voice just as the bell rings. Everyone begins to pack up and leave.
“Okay,” I reply, making sure that she hears the annoyance in my voice as I pack up my binder. I hear a sigh, and try to hurry before Ms. Ellen can come at me again, or the girls can follow me. Them. I throw everything into my folders with the stub of my left hand, including my blank page, and pick up my binder to leave. I watch my arm for a second, trying to remember the feeling of having a left hand. If it wasn’t for that accident, I don’t think I would have to deal with the girls. Or anyone else for that matter. I brush the thoughts away again. I walk out of the classroom, feeling Ms. Ellen’s icy glare on the back of my head. I smirk. Thank goodness, I think as I walk down the busy hallways, looking back every now and then, freed of the depressing class. Home. Students flood the corridors, flying out of the classrooms. I walk down hall after hall until I find my plain, rusty locker. I reach out to open it, but I feel my folders slipping out of my hand. My arms can’t catch them in time, and all of them fall to the ground, followed by my binder. I curse under my breath as I bend down and pick them up. That’s when I hear the footsteps behind me.
“Having trouble again?” No, no, no. Not now. Not again. I don’t need to look up to know who it is. Riley Henderson has to be one of the most popular girls at Starling Street High, or in my opinion, probably the biggest jerk on the planet. Her dyed blonde hair reaches her shoulders, and her bright blue eyes are lined with mascara. Her cheeks are pale pink and her lips are a fake dark red to match her sweater. Not far behind, I can hear Julianna Blanchard and Shauna Richard’s loud snorts and giggles. Them. The girls. The reason why I have nightmares. Why I’m afraid. Why Skylar left. I leave my stuff lying on the ground and stand up to face them, though shivers run up and down my spine.
“Nope, I’m fine thanks,” I grumble, brushing a wavy lock of dark brown hair out of my eyes.
“Oh, it’s okay, we would love to help!” Shauna says, and all three snicker. As Riley bends down to pick up the folders and my binder, I take a step back out of fear. I begin to hear the loud thumps of my heart, heavy against my chest.
“Don’t be afraid, honey, I’m just trying to help,” Riley grins viciously, putting my folders and my binder back into my hand and arms. I watch her with fright as she looks down on my left arm. Her touch is cold as her fingers brush against my stub. She looks up, and I can see the darkness clouding in her eyes, and I know what’s coming. Her hands are too fast for me, and I hear the bang of the lockers before I feel it. Riley presses my head hard into the metal and I cry in distress, hearing the deafening tone of Julianna and Shauna’s raging laughter behind me. The folders and my binder fall to the ground once more as my arms come up, trying to protect myself from the lockers’ menacing metal touch. My head throbs like crazy and tears blur my eyes. I try to push Riley away, but I can’t, and I stop trying. I am nothing. The evil cackling in the background makes me want to throw up more than the all the pain running through my whole body. The dizziness is overwhelming. I don’t belong here. I feel like I’m going to fall unconscious when I hear a shout. Riley drops my head and I fall to the ground, sobs silently escaping my mouth. I try to picture my happy place, where I could be alone, away from them, from everyone. But the thoughts have all been damaged by the pain that’s spreading like wildfire, circling through my skull. I look up slowly to see another girl shouting at the bullies. I can’t hear anything she’s saying over the ringing in my ears. But they look frightened for once, all three of their pretty little faces shining with glints of fear. Riley tries to talk back to the girl, but Julianna and Shauna are slowly slinking away. After what seems like a century, Riley gives up and turns away with an ugly snarl spreading across her perfect face, and the three walk out of the hall, passing the many other students who don’t want to waste their time helping me. I press my hand to my temple as the girl rushes over to me. The ringing begins to go away.
“Are you okay?” she asks me, bending down to help me up. I close my eyes as the pain lurches through me again while I begin to stand up.
“To be honest, no, not really,” I say, and then the tears return. I turn to look at her and I see a proud, beautiful face staring back. For a minute, she looks like Skylar. But no, Skyar is gone. She gives me a quick embrace, and I let the tears fall onto her shoulder. She took them down. She stood up for me. I dry my cheeks, the headache holding strong. I look back into her face again as she picks up my folders and my binder from the ground. I’ve never seen her before, and as I stare at her, I notice something different about her face. Not her smooth, dark complexion, or her shoulder-length curly black hair. Not her pretty brown eyes. No wait. There it is. Eye. The other is milky white, as pale as the moon on the darkest night. She passes me my stuff and I take it in my hand and arms.
“Thanks, by the way,” I say to her. She probably doesn’t know how much this really means to me.
“Oh, not at all,” she replies with a smile, though she looks worried. “Do you want me to take you to the nurse?”
“Oh, I think I’ll be fine,” I say, grimacing while the throbbing shakes my head. The girl seems to be thinking about what to do, or thinking about why I’m so stubborn.
“Well, do you want me to walk you home?” she asks. I think it over quickly in my head. What’s the downside?
“That would be awesome, actually,” I say, my face breaking out into a small smile.
“Okay, I’ll be back in one second,” she says, running off down the hall. I pack my bag quickly, and close my locker, the pounding in my head beating as loud as a drum. Everyone is gone now, the hallways empty of all the students. No one else decided to help. But she did. I laugh quietly to myself. Just like Skylar. She stood up for me. She stood up for me. The girl returns down the hall with her backpack. Together, we walk to the doors.
“Oh, and I’m Katherine,” she says as she opens the door for me.
“Callie,” I say. We are greeted outside by the cool breeze carrying bright orange leaves down the road. The chickadees chatter in the trees overhead, and I watch clouds roll over the blue sky. My head still throbs, but is now swarmed by thoughts. Could Katherine really be a solution to these problems? Even without Skylar? Could I have taken down the bullies just like she did? Is there a chance that my happy place could be real now? Her voice shakes the questions away.
“So where do you live?” she asks. I point to the road up ahead, at a small house on the corner.
“Just that yellow house, there,” I reply.
“I live down on Abben Drive,” she says, pointing behind us to the road on the other side of the school. I look back at a row of townhouses in the distance. We continue walking down the street before she breaks the silence again.
“Has anything like this ever happened to you before?” she asks with a look of concern. I think back to the many awful memories of the girls bullying me, and I feel as though the tears might return. I blink, holding them back.
“Yeah, actually,” I say quietly. “I’ve been trying to hide from them since last year.”
She gasps silently and gazes at my face, cupping a hand over her mouth. I try to find happier thoughts as I remember all of the trauma.
“Does anyone else know? Like your parents?” Katherine says, the shock still resting on her face. “Friends, maybe?” I think back to my parents, always working, never having time for me. I think back to Skylar.
“I don’t know about my parents,” I say, watching my feet. “They’re always so busy with their jobs. I don’t always feel like they’re listening. And my friend Skylar…” I trail off, breathing in and out to stop the shaking that has begun again. Katherine waits patiently, pain spreading over the looks of concern and shock. “Skylar got so hurt that she had to get away,” I say, still breathing heavily. “She and her family moved to who knows where without telling me or anyone else.” I sigh softly. “I wanted to help her, but I guess it wasn’t enough. She always helped me, but I guess I just couldn’t do the same for her. I just hope that she doesn’t have to suffer anymore” Silence resumes. Katherine is speechless again, and the pain sharpens in my head. “She’s the only one that knew really, unless you count all the bystanders. But now she’s gone.” I look at Katherine, who turns to look at me, and we both stop.
“Callie, I know I just met you, but I’m here to help. I’ve been pained by people too, and I know how it feels,” she says, placing a hand on my shoulder. “But you need to tell someone, or it will just get worse. How long did you say this has been going on?” She doesn’t let me answer. “You need to tell somebody. Always.” I look into her beautiful, truthful eyes of brown and white.
“Okay,” I say, not sure whether or not I will keep the promise. I smile at her, and she returns it, and we continue on our way, only with the sounds of leaves fluttering by and cars racing across the street. Katherine is the first to talk after a few minutes.
“If you don’t mind me asking, what did actually happen to your arm? Were you born with it?” I haven’t been asked that question in a long time. I look down at my stub, and begin to talk.
“Well, I was in a car accident when I was three, and my hand got wedged between a piece of glass and the door. We rolled down a huge hill and so both my parents were unconscious. I waited screaming with my hand like that until I was unconscious too, and when I woke up, they had amputated my hand because of how bad the damage was,” I explain, “I don’t think I’ve ever shrieked that much in my life.” I look over at Katherine to see her face full of horror.
“I’m so sorry,” she says, and I laugh.
“Trust me, it’s no big deal anymore.” It is when I get bullied for it. She turns her face back into a smile.
“What happened to your eye?” I blurt out, “If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Oh, that,” she says, and now it’s her turn to laugh. “I was just born with it like that, no scary story or anything like yours.” We both smile and let a few giggles escape. I can’t remember the last time I laughed like this. I look up to see that we had reached the road.
“Thanks for everything again,” I say to Katherine.
“Oh, no problem,” she replies with a kind glance. “Like I said, the same things have happened to me, and it was awful. No one else needs to go through that.” Katherine looks serious, and it seems as if she’s going back through her own painful memories.
“If you ever need anything, call me,” she says, and pulls a small piece of paper out of her pocket.
“Okay, thanks Katherine,” I say, taking the paper as she turns to leave. I pull out a small piece of paper from my pocket with a pencil too, and quickly write down my cell number. She gives me a thumbs up.
“See you later!” she calls. I turn back to the road, with aches still racing through my skull. I trace her phone number with the fingers, then pocket it in my jeans. I am not nothing. I do belong here. A thin smile rests on my lips and walk across the street, pictures of my happy place, Skylar and Katherine fluttering in my mind.
* * *
Skylar and I are talking in the hallway. Her red hair shines and her gray eyes sparkle, and her white teeth show as she laughs with me. I don’t see the girls coming, but then they’re there. They are monsters, stalking the halls, seeking their prey. I’m thrown to the ground, and I cry out as they surround me, but Skylar stands before me, blocking my body from the bullies. I can hear Riley’s voice, deeper than any voice I’ve ever heard. “Are you afraid yet?” Skylar shrinks back, seems to grow smaller and smaller as Julianna and Shauna’s laughter rages through my ears. Riley grows bigger, showing her mouth of fangs and eyes of black. “You haven’t seen the worst of us,” the voice continues. Skylar is fading, and I try to help her, but I can’t. The howling coming from the three blasts through my ears, and I feel like I can no longer move. “Would you like to?” Skylar’s scream echoes as she falls, down and down and down. Into a bottomless abyss. And all I can do is watch, lying on the ground as Riley wins, Skylar receiving all the pain. Pain that was not meant for her. Pain that should’ve been for me, but I was too petrified to take it. And where is Skylar now?
I awake from my sleep with a loud cry, feeling the wetness on my cheeks, my heart punching a hole through my chest. I hug my knees in close to my body and rock back and forth. It’s my fault. All my fault. Why didn’t I take the pain? Why? Skylar took it too many times, saved me from them because I could not save myself. And now she’s gone. Because of me. Because I wasn’t brave or selfless or confident in myself. My body racks with sobs as memories of Skylar come back to me. At the park, trying to see who could go higher on the swings, at my house, pretending to do homework when we were actually just fooling around, or at the mall, trying on everything in our favourite stores. I can still see her smile, hear her laugh. I cry and cry, until I can’t feel the tears any longer. I lay my head down, thinking of Skylar and Katherine, trying to stay away from the guilt I feel, the heavy weight that hasn’t yet been lifted from my shoulders. When I finally manage to go back to sleep, I can see the first glimpses of morning sunlight fill up my room through the window. I faintly hear my parents getting ready for work, hear them whisper, “We love you,” to me before they leave for the day.
* * *
I think that the pain has grown worse than before. The whole day has been a blur, my thoughts always going back to that land where I could be free. A bully-free zone. Guilt-free. Pain-free. My happy place. Now I’m sitting with Ms. Ellen, trying to finish my homework after forgetting about it last night. I scribble numbers onto my page and walk up to give it to her at her desk. All the jerks are in the class, never bothering to do their work at home, so I just want to get out of here. Riley sits in the back with Julianna and Shauna of course, and they cast me angry glares and make faces. I try to ignore them as much as I can. Every time I look at them, the nightmare comes back. Ms. Ellen peers over her glasses at me and frowns.
“None of these are correct, Callie,” she says, sighing. “Go sit down and do it again.”
“Ms. Ellen?” I say before another word can escape her mouth. She stares at me, like a hawk looking for food. I think twice about telling her about all of my problems, including the raging headache burning through my head. “Nevermind.” It takes me one hour to finish the work and get all the right answers, worrying about the three in the back the whole time. No one else has left. I need to get out of here!
“Okay, Callie, you are dismissed,” says Ms. Ellen.
“Thanks,” I say, practically racing for the door. I run down the hall at top speed hoping that Riley isn’t following me. I look back and run right into someone and fall back hard.
“Ow,” I grumble, my head more painful than ever. “Sorry,” I exclaim, quickly reaching over to help the other person up to see that it’s Katherine.
“Oh, it’s fine,” she says, taking my hand and laughing. “Nice to see you again!”
“Yeah, you too!” I say, and we both giggle. Her voice then shrinks to a whisper.
“Have you talked to your parents or someone yet?” I shake my head.
“I will, don’t worry,” I say. Eventually. Just as we begin to get up, I hear footsteps. I look up to see Riley, Julianna and Shauna’s dark shadows going back down the hallway. I can hear their faint whispers.
“They’re really afraid of you,” I say to Katherine. She follows me as I walk to my locker. “What did you say to them yesterday?”
“Well, I really didn’t say anything that bad. I think they might be afraid of my ghost eye.” She looks up giving me a quick grin. I watch her pale eye against her brown skin and laugh.
“If they’re afraid of an eye, I don’t know how they could be considered popular,” I reply, and Katherine smirks. We turn down another corridor and I go to my locker.
“See you later then, Callie,” Katherine says and walks past waving goodbye.
“See you,” I reply, grabbing my backpack and heading to the doors.
* * *
“Hello?” I call out as I arrive back at home. I hear the sound of my dad talking on the phone and my mom typing at her computer.
“Hello?” I repeat. My parents barely acknowledge me. My dad gives me a small wave, and my mom flicks her eyes off the screen.
“Hi Callie,” she says, returning to her computer business. I sigh quietly. I need to tell them. They need to know. They need to listen. After how long now? But not yet. I will wait. I run up to my bedroom, finding Katherine’s number on my desk, not sure whether or not I should talk to her. What should I do with my parents? I will tell them tomorrow. Tomorrow. I sigh loudly, putting the slip of paper back on my desk. Tomorrow. Always tomorrow.
* * *
Five minutes. I can make it. Ms. Ellen goes on and on with all that algebra stuff. I’ve drowned her out again, just hoping to see Katherine again before I leave. I don’t think time could go any slower. I try to look forward, pretending to pay attention. I don’t need another scene with Ms. Ellen.
“A+B=...723 would be...page 72...” Then, there it is. The bell. I pick up my binder and my folders and I’m the first to get out of the classroom. I rush to my locker and am very careful not to drop anything as I undo the lock. I try to go slowly, but I want to find Katherine. I place all my stuff in my bag, trying to squish it all in as fast as I can. And that’s when I hear the voice. Echoing down the halls. It’s so faint that it’s almost silent, but I hear it. Small, short cries. From a recognizable voice. Katherine. I drop my bag then and there and run towards her voice. I scram down hall after hall tripping over backpacks and binders, pushing students out of the way. I hear grunts every now and then from the students and have no time to apologize. I listen to the cries, running left and right, left and right. At the very end of the corridor by the doors, I turn to find them. Riley, Julianna and Shauna, all towering over Katherine, lying on the ground. I picture my nightmare, me lying on the ground, Skylar standing over me. Taking all of the misery instead of me. Protecting me because I was helpless and couldn’t protect myself.
“Hey!” I yell, running in front of Katherine to shelter her from the three. They all laugh, threatening smiles covering their cruel faces. This time, I don’t step back.
“Well, look who it is,” Riley sneers. I take a deep breath, looking from Katherine, back to Riley. I can see my nightmare again as it replays in my head. Skylar standing up to them. Trying to take them down. Happy place, happy place, happy place.
“What what do you think you’re doing?” I ask, crossing my arms over my chest and clenching my fist. I begin to notice students piling in through the hallway, finally deciding to watch some commotion. I hear whispers as they swarm us.
“That’s none of your business, is it?” Julianna hisses like a snake. She gives me a beastly glare, and I smirk, giving her the same look back. I watch the surprise on her face before it turns back into a sneer.
“It is actually,” I say, staying strong. I point at Katherine, noticing the bloody purple welts by her eyes. “What did you do to her?” I can see Skylar’s bruised face when I stare at Katherine, and anger surges through my body. “You really think that this is okay? Do you enjoy this?” They’ve crowded me in, making me feel small. I picture the world without them. Where I’ve put a stop to this bullying. Just like Skylar tried. The image of Katherine on the ground is at the front of my thoughts, and I try to think like her. Think like Skylar. I take a step forward and all three have to move back.
“You’re all sick little bullies who find pleasure in making everyone else’s lives miserable,” I say, my voice rising. The audience of students whisper louder, and I know that they are thinking like me. That I’m right. That I will win. I take a few more steps forward, and all three back up quickly. Riley trips over Shauna and falls to the ground. The students around us laugh, and I give a small giggle as Riley’s face blushes bright red. I step over her and Shauna and Julianna come closer, but the masks on their faces begin to pull away to show the weak souls underneath.
“You are going to pay―” Shauna begins, but I cut her off.
“No actually, I’m not. You better stay out of my way,” I say with pride, glaring at both of them. They both look at each other with flashes of dread showering over them. I give them one last alarming glare, and watch them slink back into the crowd, leaving their leader desperate for help on the ground. The students all begin to cheer for me as Riley pulls herself up. Cheer for me, not Riley. The most popular girl at Starling Street High. I give her one look as she clumsily stands up, and she backs away. “Don’t you ever think twice about going near me or anyone else ever,” I say, glancing at Katherine, who’s now pulled herself up into a sitting position. Skylar’s face pops into my head once more.
“If you ever try to hurt anyone again, you’ll need to deal with me.” Riley’s eyes glint with embarrassment and fear. “And if I were you, I would start running.” The audience arises in another round of cheers. Riley looks like she’s about to cry, and runs out the hallway, in the footsteps of her followers. The students continue to clap and whistle, and I crouch down to help Katherine up. She has purple and black bruises darkening around her blind eye.
“Hey,” she says, grinning despite the pain she must have. “You took Henderson down.”
“Yeah,” I say, smiling back. I look at Katherine, with her pretty face hiding beneath the purple, and I see a true friend, even though it was just a few days ago she saved me from the three. In my head, Katherine and Skylar’s images merge together. I hug her once she’s on her feet as the students begin to withdraw from the scene. I notice Ms. Ellen coming towards us, and I let Katherine go.
“Oh, Katherine, we need to get you to the nurse’s office!” she exclaims, watching the flowering purple grow across Katherine’s face. She quickly glances at me, studying my face as well. “You’re not hurt too, are you?”
“No, just Katherine,” I say. The three of us begin to walk down to the nurse.
“Who did this?” she asks. “Riley?”
“Yeah,” Katherine says, a hand over her eye. Ms. Ellen nods, flipping through her thoughts.
“How long has this been going on?”
“For Callie, a while now. They’ve hurt her more than me,” Katherine says, glancing at me. Ms. Ellen looks at me with worry.
“Does anyone know about this?” she asks me. I watch my feet, shaking my head. We enter the nurse’s office, and Ms. Ellen says, “I think we need to have a chat. With your parents as well.”
* * *
Katherine and her parents, me and my parents, and Ms. Ellen all sit in her classroom. Everyone waits patiently as I explain everything from the beginning, when Skylar was still here. I describe how the bullying started out small, then grew to an enormous size, and I couldn’t stop it. How Skylar always had to rescue me. I tell them about the guilt, that I felt as though I should’ve taken the pain. I should’ve been able to stand up for myself. And after Skylar left, everything just got worse. More bruises, cuts, and memories to hide. My parents hug me tight, and I can feel tears running down my face, but I don’t know if they are mine or my parents’. I can see Katherine’s parents embracing her too, and can see Ms. Ellen’s eyes watering. After our talk, Katherine and I walk down to our lockers. I feel the urge to look back, then realize that I don’t need to. I beat them. I took them down. I won. I laugh, and look at Katherine, who is smiling too. I picture my happy place, and it looks just like my reality. I don’t need to think about it anymore, because I’m living there. Here. I feel the weight upon my shoulders fading away, no longer seeing the fearful images of Riley, Julianna and Shauna, but the proud smiling faces of Katherine and Skylar. So this is what it feels like to be free.