Sweet sixteen…honestly? I’m pretty sure a teenager didn’t come up with that crap. I remember the moment I decided sixteen sucked, all too well. It was ten days after my birthday; I was lying on my back, blood trickling from my lip. There were people around; hushed giggles and snippets of conversations wafted through the fog. I was confused, and couldn’t make out what they were saying, but then I heard her shouting.
‘Get up bitch!’
Despite the polite request, I didn’t move. The iron awning above swirled into focus, and I desperately hoped this was a horrible nightmare, but the pain in my mouth told me it wasn’t.
So how did life get like this? School hadn’t always been so bad. I used to have heaps of friends, and I’d loved going. But that was in a small-town miles from here; that was before Dad got his transfer. He was super excited the day he told Mum and I about it. The job paid way more and had great opportunities. They thought it was perfect timing because I was about to start high school. They thought a city education would be much better—I didn’t agree, but I didn’t get a say, and before I knew it, we were moving to a suburb in Sydney called Annaford.
The argument I had with Mum the day we left was big. It was a five-hour drive to the new house, and Dad had flown over early to get everything ready. I started sulking the second we pulled out of the driveway. Mum tried to get me chatting, but I only gave her shrugs in return.
A few hours later she cheerily asked what I wanted for lunch.
‘Whatever, Elaine,’ I mumbled, knowing how she hated it when I called her by name.
Her smile withered, and she went quiet; her driving became aggressive. I turned to face the passenger window happy I’d ruined her day. I resented her eternal optimism and the hours she’d spent reassuring me how wonderful the move would be. Mum is one of those ‘chirpy’ souls who always sees the best in everyone and everything. I’ve always been more like my dad—a bit cynical, moody even.
She huffed dramatically. ‘Honestly Jade, I can’t believe you’re being so selfish. This job is a huge opportunity for your father, and this move is as much for you as it is for him. Don’t you think I’ll miss my friends too? You’re not the only one upset, so just get over it.’
Mum’s little outburst got my attention, but I didn’t want her to know it had. I spent the rest of the trip ignoring her, staring at the endless scenery zooming past. The whole thing sucked in my opinion.
‘I said. Get. Up. Bitch!’
Unfortunately, I couldn’t ignore this voice so easily. I looked up at the flushed face of a girl I barely knew, even though we’d been at school together for four years. We were in plenty of the same classes, yet today was the first time we’d ever spoken, ironically her name was Jade too. Well, maybe it’s not that ironic since Jade seems to be the most popular name at Annaford High—there are three of us in my year alone.
This was another thing my parents got wrong. You see, when people have the same name teenagers tend to add a defining word to tell you apart. The other Jades are great friends; two of the most popular girls in grade eleven. They did okay with the naming. The simpletons at my school came up with Hot Jade and Tall Jade for them. I could’ve lived with either of those, but at the end of this well-thought-out naming process, it seems there was only one adjective left—ugly. So, that is what I got. Fortunately, I was rarely called this in person, but I knew that was how I was labelled.
So, am I ugly? Well, I certainly don’t look like the other Jades, then again few of us do. I’m average height, average weight, and my mousy brown hair does tend to embrace a certain level of frizz. My teeth are a little crooked; I have pale skin, freckles, and a few pimples; otherwise I don’t look that different to most other girls my age. But as they say, perception is reality, so as far as everyone was concerned, ugly I was.
‘Seriously, if you don’t get up I’m going to slap you again.’
This was Tall Jade by the way; she was upset because I’d run into her while she was chatting to Zach Davies. Zach is the cutest guy in our year, and he also lives right across the road from me. He’s been dating Hot Jade for a while, but everyone knows Tall Jade has a crush on him. Tall Jade, in my opinion, isn’t that good looking. Her face is kinda horsey, but she does have flawless skin and really, really great hair. Long caramel curls drape over her shoulders, and the sheen is ridiculous. Funny how gorgeous hair can hide otherwise apparent flaws. Zach had been backing away from her giggled flirtation when I’d careened around the corner, knocking a bottle of water out of Jade’s hand right down the front of his shirt.
‘Good one,’ he mumbled before storming off.
Tall Jade watched as he walked away. I didn’t move fast enough; she turned on me. ‘You stupid cow.’
I edged away, we were outside the science buildings at the end of the day, and for the first time in history, there wasn’t a single teacher in sight. ‘I…I’m sorry. I didn’t see you.’
‘See me now, don’t ya?’
The sparse number of students suddenly grew, sensing impending entertainment. I glanced at their faces, I didn’t know any of them, but they all wore the same look of unpleasant curiosity.
‘I’ll get you another drink,’ I mumbled.
‘Think I’d rather you licked the last one up.’
I stared in horror wondering if she was really going to make me do this, but I didn’t have to wonder long. A second later I was on my back, my jaw on fire. I lay there crippled by fear as excited chatter exploded in the background. A chorus of dings punctated the air as people hit the record button on their mobile phones.
‘Get up!’ she screamed, her face coming into focus. She bent closer, smirked, and drew her hand back again. Her white shirt clung to her armpits as the smell of floral deodorant and sweat filled the air. Her arm swung forwards; it took forever for it to hit my cheek. Odd thoughts skittered in and out of my head as I waited for the impact, but only one stuck— ‘God I wish I had your hair.’
‘What’s going on over there?’ The deep voice of a teacher scattered the crowd.
‘Later,’ Tall Jade hissed, before slipping around the corner.
Mr Summers crouched down, his thin, pale curls doing little to hide his pink scalp. ‘You okay, Jade? What happened?’
Mr Summers is my physics teacher; he’s one of those guys who’s old enough to be your father but tries hard to be everyone’s friend. He’s nice enough, just a bit slimy. I accepted his outstretched hand and found my feet. I wiped the sleeve of my grey jumper across my face; gritty, crimson stripes marked the material.
‘Were you fighting, Jade?’ Disappointment laced his voice.
My gaze dropped to the concrete. ‘I, um…tripped.’
‘Your face doesn’t look like you tripped. You can tell me if someone hit you. You know we don't tolerate bullying at this school.’
I kicked at a solitary blade of grass pushing through the concrete—I could relate to its struggle to break free. ‘Seriously Mr Summers, I’m all good.’
He sighed and patted my shoulder. ‘Well, you know where I am if you need to talk.’
The final bell rang. ‘Sure. Thanks,’ I replied before hurrying away.
Storming out the front gates, I let my hair hang over my face so people couldn’t see my rapidly swelling lip. My stunned confusion was subsiding only to be replaced by red-hot anger. I was running the scenario over and over in my mind, except in my version I stood up to Tall Jade and told her to ‘Go to hell!’. I was imagining horrible things happening to her. I had an overwhelming desire to find her house, wait till she was asleep, break in and cut her hair off. Then everyone would know how ugly she really was. That’d make her sorry. Would serve her right too, stupid bitch.
‘Hey J, what’s the rush?’ I was so caught up in my mental rant I didn’t see Michael waiting. His tall, gangly frame sidled up beside me; his goofy grin dropping when he saw my face. ‘What happened to you?’ he asked.
I looked up at him, unsure if I wanted to hug him, yell at him, or burst into tears.
He placed a warm hand on my arm. His dark, wavy fringe fell across his forehead as his eyebrows dipped. ‘Seriously Jade, who did this?’
The obvious concern in his familiar green eyes stole my ability to reply. I pursed my lips and stared into the face of one of my few real friends at Annaford High. Michael and I had met the first day of high school when we gravitated together out of necessity. Like me, he was one of the ‘new’ kids. Most of our year had shifted from the primary school across the road, meaning friendship groups were already in place. We sat together at first break, and he did most of the talking. He was pretty funny, and cute in a dorky kind of way. It was the first time I’d laughed in weeks.
Our group had grown from there; there were six of us now—three girls and three boys—brought together by the common bond of unpopularity. The girls, Elly and Megs, are lovely. They’re both super good at math, science and all the academic stuff. Physically though they are complete opposites. Elly is tall and solid, with straggly, straw coloured hair. Her thick-rimmed glasses and chubby smile are a constant fixture on her face, and she has the softest skin I’ve ever felt. Her bubbly personality makes her easy to be around, and she’s always the first to laugh when someone tells a joke. Sometimes though, I suspect her happy demeanour is a bit of a coping mechanism for a not so great childhood. Elly’s father walked out when she was young, and her mother still wears a blank look on her constantly gaunt face. I’ve tried to talk to her about it heaps of times, but she always changes the subject, so I’ve left it alone for now.
Megs, on the other hand, is short and skinny with slightly buck teeth. Sometimes it’s hard to see her face amongst the mass of red curls engulfing her head. She has an odd habit of frowning when concentrating, and as a result, she already has wrinkles. This bothers her heaps, and she often jokes about getting Botox, but sometimes I wonder if she is really kidding. You can tell Megs anything because she knows how to keep a secret. We share a love of chocolate-coated sultanas, sad songs, and really stupid reality TV shows.
Alex and Gabe round off the group nicely, they are both nerds and fit right in. Gabe is an artist and more attractive than he realises. His parents are from the Middle East somewhere; you can see it in his dark eyes and skin. English is his second language, and his soft, slightly accented voice hides a subtle sense of humour. I’m one of the few people who knows he writes poetry. Sometimes he shares them with me, wanting an opinion. They’re always good, but I understand why he keeps it quiet. Elly and Megs are both secretly in love with him. I think he might be gay, but I haven’t had the heart to tell them that.
In contrast to Gabe’s gentle ways, Alex is outspoken, cocky and frequently cutting. Poor guy has one of the worst cases of acne I’ve ever seen, and it doesn’t help that he’s short, with skin and hair that is almost the same colour white. He is a genius with computers though—probably due to all the time spent cracking internet blocks, placed on his PC by his parents. He gets under my skin, and sometimes I wish he would lay off the nasty comments, but I still like him, and in those rare moments when you see his vulnerable side he’s actually quite nice.
I’m really lucky having such a great group of friends, but it’s always been Michael who I consider to be my best friend.
Michael's eyebrows dipped further as he waited for me to reply; I’d been staring at him for a good ten seconds. I opened my aching mouth to speak, but nothing came out, instead my chin began to quiver.
‘Jade, you’re starting to worry me.’ His soft voice broke my last defence and the skin on my cheek registered the cool trail of a single tear. ‘Come on,’ he said, taking my hand. He led me back through the gates to a nearby bench hidden behind jacaranda trees. They had bloomed early this year and the distinctive purple flowers carpeted the ground.
‘Sit,’ he instructed.
I looked down at his hand still holding mine tightly. In all the time I’d known him, we’d never touched like this; there’d occasionally been a hug if one of us was going away, but that’d been it.
He released his grip as though sensing my confusion. ‘Please sit,’ he said more gently.
I relented, and we sat down together. The faint smell of his soap, and the warmth of his knee resting against mine, were more comforting than I liked to admit.
He smiled gently. ‘Look, I’m not really sure how to do this, us guys kinda suck at this sort of thing, but since we have no other option, you’re not going anywhere till you tell me what happened. And if you need to have a bit of a cry, then go for it. As long as you don't wipe your snotty face on my jumper or anything.’
I huffed with amusement despite myself, and his lopsided grin deepened the grooves around his mouth. ‘Fine,’ I said with a sigh. ‘I had a slight misunderstanding with Tall Jade. I accidentally knocked into her while she was talking to Zach Davies.’
Michael grimaced. ‘Made her look like a fool in front of wonder boy, did we?’
‘She spilt half a bottle of water on him.’
His grimace increased. ‘I can see she took it well.’
‘You could say that,’ I said tentatively touching my lip. ‘Not sure it’s over either.’
His face paled. ‘Did she say that?’
Resolution tightened his jaw. ‘Well, looks like I’m going to be hanging out with you a lot more then, doesn’t it?’
Our eyes met; a fierce determination tightened his mouth, and I honestly believed he wanted to protect me. A warm bubbling invaded my stomach catching me off guard. I looked away, confused by the heat flooding my face. I held my breath to help calm down. This was stupid; this was Michael my best friend and nothing else. He was annoying, a torment, and more like a brother than anything else. The moment became exponentially uncomfortable; I had to say something before he realised.
‘I’m not sure which is worse, facing Tall Jade again or hanging with you.’
He chuckled. ‘You know you can be a right cow some days Jade Johnson.’
I peeked at him. I loved the way his face lit up when he teased me, darkening the colour of his already pink cheeks. ‘Takes one to know one.’
A contagious laugh erupted from him as he stood and offered a hand. ‘Come on, Bruce Lee, let’s get you home.’
We dropped by Michael’s house on the way home to borrow some of his mum’s makeup to hide my swollen lip. Michael didn’t exactly approve, but he knew better than to argue. As expected, the house was empty when we got there. His parents, Jenny and Otto, were both doctors who worked in a local practice, and they were rarely home before six. Michael always called them by their first names and they insisted I did the same.
His house was really nice; three levels of stark white, architect-designed perfection overlooking Pittwater Bay—a huge, sunken puddle rimmed by glamorous mansions and patches of mangroves. It always smelt of coffee and cinnamon, and the couches in the lounge were the comfiest in the world. It was pretty awesome, and I loved going there.
Jenny and Otto were great too; they’d even invited my parents over for dinner a few times. It was hilarious the first time they’d met. I’d told them Michael was adopted, but I’d neglected to mention that both his mum and dad were Asian. They certainly did look quite the family standing together with Michael’s nearly six-foot frame towering over Jenny and Otto’s five foot nothing. His green eyes clashed violently with the black of theirs, and his skin was a totally different shade of olive. The only common trait they all shared was their constant smile. I’d never met a family who got on so well; it was almost creepy.
After I’d finished disguising my lip—and helping myself to a good spray of Jenny’s delicious perfume to help cheer me up—, I threw my torn stockings and spot-cleaned jumper into my bag.
Michael was waiting near the front door. ‘I’m walking you home,’ he declared in a tone that rebuffed argument.
‘Okay,’ I muttered, even though my house was only three blocks away.
He carried my bag as we walked; cold air flowed from the shadows as the warmth of the day pursued the sinking sun. I remained pretty quiet, as my mouth was too sore to speak. Michael kept glancing at my lip and grinning.
Finally, it got too much for me. ‘What’s so funny?’ I asked angrily.
‘Nothing,’ he said innocently.
I raised an eyebrow. ‘Then why do you keep looking at me like that?’
He bit his lip, but a huge grin still escaped. ‘It’s just you look a bit…fish-like.’
‘Thanks for the confidence boost.’
He chuckled. ‘You could be a Hollywood soap star with that trout pout.’
A part of me wanted to laugh, but he’d hit a raw nerve. ‘Maybe…if it wasn’t for the rest of my face.’
He stepped in front of me; the unexpected action stopped me in my tracks. His eyes locked on mine. ‘Don’t say things like that, J, there’s nothing wrong with any of you.’
I stared, baffled by his sudden intensity. I would’ve curled my lip in confusion if it wasn’t already halfway to my nose. ‘O…kay.’
‘I mean it. You’re amazing, both inside and out. I’m sorry I teased you. It was stupid.’
It couldn’t understand why he was acting so odd. ‘It’s fine,’ I mumbled. He nodded briskly but didn’t move. ‘Um…we’d better keep moving,’ I said stepping around him.
He marched past as though nothing had happened. What the hell was that all about?
We walked the rest of the way in silence. The glances kept coming, but the amusement had gone. I still wasn’t sure why he’d gotten so upset, we tormented each other all the time. Maybe he felt sorry for me after my big cry earlier. Either way, I guess it was nice that he cared.
It wasn’t long till we arrived at my house.
‘See you first thing,’ he chirped, back to his normal happy self.
I did my best to smile even though it must have been ridiculously lopsided. ‘Yep,’ I replied sadly, kinda wishing he’d offered to stay a while. ‘See you tomorrow.’
He handed over my bag and strode off. I wandered up the path testing my lip with my finger to see if it was any smaller— it wasn’t. I sighed and went inside. The sound of Mum’s favourite quiz show blared from the kitchen. My tummy rumbled as my nose registered the aroma of hearty, meat sauce. I took a long breath, drawing in the comfort of my mother’s cooking.$ Yum, spaghetti bolognaise, my favourite.
‘I’m home,’ I called, trying to sound as normal as possible.
A bright voice wafted down the hall. ‘Hey sweetie, how was school?’
How was school? Wasn’t really sure how to answer that so I decided not to. ‘Do I have time for a quick shower before dinner?’ I yelled back.
‘Sure, but don’t be long.’
I bounded up the stairs and tossed my bag beside my desk, relishing the idea of hot water on my skin. It’d feel good to wash away the day’s dramas.
I’m not sure if it was the makeup or if Mum and Dad were preoccupied, but neither of them seemed to notice my injury over dinner. Eating spaghetti with a fat lip was a bit tricky, but I successfully got most of it into my mouth. After we’d finished, I cleared the plates and sneakily stole an icepack.
Mum wandered into the kitchen after me. ‘You okay, sweetie? You seem quiet tonight.’
I set about putting the plates in the dishwasher so I didn’t have to face her. ‘Yeah, just got lots of homework to do.’
‘Well, leave that, I’ll clean up. You go upstairs and get started.’
I turned the good side of my face to her and delivered a small smile, which was more of a grimace since I had a very cold icepack shoved down the back of my pants.
‘Thanks, Mum,’ I said, dashing from the kitchen. ‘Dinner was yum.’
‘Don’t stay up too late,’ she called after me as I shot upstairs.
I sighed heavily as I sat down at my desk and put the ice pack on my lip. My lower back felt like a freezer thanks to my poorly thought out hiding place, and the pain in my face was increasing along with my worries about tomorrow. Despite Michael’s promises to not leave my side I couldn’t help but think that Jade would somehow get me alone.
Desperate for distraction I grabbed a few books from my bag, but even though I did have a pile of schoolwork I couldn’t focus. After reading the same page a hundred times, I finally gave up and went to bed.
Sadly, sleep did not come easily, but the worry did. I tossed and turned, fighting with my sheets and the argument in my head. What right did Tall Jade have to make anyone feel like this? How dare she touch me? How could anyone like that stupid bitch? I despised her, I detested her; she revolted me. I replayed the scene over and over. What if she did attack me again? Would she bring friends next time? Would she hunt me down outside of school? I now knew very few people would help me if she did. The crowd of students watching had, in some ways, been worse than the actual attack. It was humiliating, horrible and spiteful. Why was the world so full of gutless people not willing to risk becoming a target too? I felt so alone, so worthless. Not only did they stand and watch, but they also enjoyed my suffering, relishing in the fact that it was me and not them. And it would only be a matter of time before the stupid videos ended up on Instagram, then a whole new audience would get to delight in my pain. I hated every one of them, and I hated every moment of my awful life, but worse than all that I hated the fact that if it were someone else, I probably wouldn’t have helped either. I was no better than any of them and deserved what I got. I was such a pathetic loser.