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Charlotte examined the menu on the wall with great interest, considering which pizza pie was most deserving of paying for with the little amount of money her father lent her. During a sequence of decision-making, lip biting and gesticulating, the sound of patience dwindling behind her became more and more noticeable.
“Well? Ya gonna decide on a pie or what? C’mon, we don’t got all day.”
Charlotte turned towards the voice to see a party of her teammates from the Dambe Fighting Club, all three standing like a paused procession of restless faces.
“Whoops! Sorry about that, Emily… and Co.” she responded embarrassingly. “I guess I’ll go for a slice of... pineapple ‘n pepperoni, please.” she requested at the counter.
Upon realizing the level of excitement expressed in her voice from ordering such a meal, the girls behind her quietly giggled.
“Really, Charlotte? Ya leave us here idling behind ya for the last century ‘n a half and that’s what ya finally choose to eat?”
Charlotte could feel her body twist into itself under the grins of her teammates. She looked dubiously into the eyes of Emily, Phoebe and Lilith.
“Oh, no no…” she laughed nervously, biting her lips. “I was just ordering that for my dad. You know how wonky his palette is.”
“Nice save.” said Phoebe with a smirk.
Either the rising heat of the restaurant oven or the shindig of chaotic emotions frolicing in her head gave Charlotte a rather corrupted idea. She abandoned her slouch and made an uncharacteristic expression.
“... You know what, Emily?” she said. “You were right earlier at Dambe practice. Phoebe should quit smiling until her folks can afford to give her braces.”
Emily’s pupils shrunk in an instant and an eruption of arguing between the posse consumed the eatery. After Charlotte and the man at the counter exchanged money and food she walked away from the line and closer to the exit, chin up, giving no effort to hide her prideful grin.
♦️ ♦️ ♦️ ♦️ ♦️
At dawn three years later in the town of South Candorveil Charlotte led her two friends down the street to school. As the new Dambe team captain she sported the club logo on her jacket with poise and not even the balmy radiance of the sun could persuade her to take it off.
Before she and her friends could cross the intersection by the school they each simultaneously decided to deviate from their original path to the shopping plaza for a little fun. Obscuring themselves in the darkness between two small stores, Lilith drew from her backpack numerous cans of spray paint of so many colors that one could illustrate a children’s book with them. Within the span of five minutes the girls drowned the walls of the alley with a parade of electrifying depictions of cartoons and phrases only they could recognize as their own. Without giving a chance for a passer-by to even shift a glance in their general direction the team fled the scene of the crime and made its entry into the adjacent clothing store.
The girls’ eyes scanned the shelves of accessories until there were no more aisles to inspect, checking their bags afterward only to find an absence of cash between them all. Charlotte’s head then turned to Phoebe whose glasses were already glowing with mischievous spirit. Extending her reach towards the other side of the shelf she sneakily snatched the scarlet bow she had been eyeing for the longest time. With an unusually quick swipe of her hand Phoebe shoved the bow inside her backpack and the group strutted out the exit in a state of nonchalance back to their initial route to school.
♦️ ♦️ ♦️ ♦️ ♦️
The most meaningful sound of the bell finally echoed through the corridors of the building and a stampede of students ignored the aisles of lockers to make their ways out the school doors. The day was finally over and the ebullience of liberated children extended outside by the parking lot where Charlotte, Phoebe and Lilith were greeting a familiar face.
“Oh, well if isn’t Emily Oak! Wow, you’re so unnoticeable we almost just crashed right into you!” Charlotte said ever so politely.
“What do ya want now?” Emily responded. “I don’t go 'round callin' ya ‘Charlotte Blight’ for the heck of it. Ya know I feel ‘bout my last name.”
“Well you must have me confused with someone who cares.”
“What’s your deal, anyway?! All I’ve been doing these past few years was trying to make new friends after ya ruined my reputation in Dambe.”
“Oh yeah? And how’s that been going for you?” Charlotte motioned her hands to her sides, presenting Phoebe and Lilith behind her.
“So what if I don’t talk to ya two anymore?” Emily growled. She straightened her back and took a step towards Charlotte.
“Ya must think you're a big shot now, huh? being team leader, picking the right kinda people to hang with, building your social life… but you're just faking. I remember who ya used to be, and who ya still are- lonely ‘n awkward. Have fun with your power while it lasts!”
Emily walked up to the group fiercely close, so quickly that Charlotte had no time to inch back. She fell backwards in surprise and landed on her elbows, staring dumbfounded up at the person she once thought was small. Suddenly Emily came to her senses.
“Oh gosh! Sorry ‘bout that. Are ya okay?”
Charlotte stared horridly into Emily's now worried face. A heartbeat racing as fast as when she was last fighting at Dambe now had control of her body. A wave of confusion and madness submerged her head in a way she could not recognize. Throwing a punch at Emily would have mitigated these feelings, but she knew she could never stoop so low. Unless….
♦️ ♦️ ♦️ ♦️ ♦️
Charlotte smiled angrily from every thrust of her fist. Emily was already on the ground, shielding her face and regretting ever entering the Dambe arena. On a field such as this, Charlotte allowed her anger to consume her. Like using a punching bag, she let loose in the one place where she could express her rage. No adults were present. None of their teammates either. Only a genuine yet savage fighting spirit that no one could put an end to. If she had not chosen to look into Emily’s sorrowful eyes again after beating her in the proper fight, she never would have even considered hurting her any further than that.
♦️ ♦️ ♦️ ♦️ ♦️
Charlotte was sleeping in her room. At first she was dreaming of infinite satisfaction as a queen, dominating over the weak. She laughed at the sight of her servants being manipulated by her every will. This laughter got louder and louder, until a series of chills ran down her spine and her eyes began to water. Tears burst out of her eyes and she did not even realize her hands wrapping around her head in a desperate attempt to stop the pain in her head. A voice could be heard at the end of the hallway in her elegant marble palace that made her laughter slightly more maniacal.
“Are ya okay? Are ya okay? Are ya okay?”
Her dream became an utter nightmare and she gasped herself awake, dripping in a cold sweat. She panted harder than ever before and rushed to the bathroom to wash up. It was still the middle of the night and she almost hissed at the blinding brightness of the bathroom lights she turned on. Charlotte splashed all the water from the sink as she could on her face. Perhaps it was due to her lack of proper sleep but the face she saw in the mirror did not look quite like her’s. It was grinning back at her ominously and the contours of its face were disproportionate. The intensity of its contrast increased in an instant which further shocked Charlotte. Feeling paralyzed, she stared at the face looking back at her through the mirror. It could not have been her. It was ugly and warped and emitted an aura of twisted confidence. It manifested strangely into a mask-like face lacking any signs of life. Despite this, it was able to speak on its own.
“Do you hear the music?” it asked in a casual, monotone voice that sounded like a man’s.
“They're on their way now. How exciting.”
“What do you mean? What are you? Why don’t you look like me?!”
The mask gave her a confused look.
“Forgive me, child, but I’m afraid you’re mistaken. For when I look at you, I only see myself.”
A constricting force tightened around Charlotte’s head in a ring-like shape. When she brushed her cheek she felt no finger. When she grabbed her face she felt no hand. Obscuring her face was a mask resembling the face in the mirror. She began to understand that the constricting of her head came from a string produced by it. She tried to pry it off but no matter how hard she pulled neither the mask nor the string would budge.
“They’ve arrived. Come now, child, greet your guests.” the mask in the mirror cheered.
Charlotte ran down the stairs of her house without knowing why and with every step a sound like the banging of a drum developed outside. Rather than her neighborhood, the living room windows shone a veil of orange light that overpowered and covered every other color in Charlotte’s field of vision. Her hand forced itself to unlock and open the front door.
A surreal environment overtook the town on South Candorveil. The night sky glittered with green orbs that complemented the radiance of the saturated scarlet moon. In the powerful orange light’s stead was a large and somehow familiar building occupying a large amount of the land. Surrounding this building were masses of dancing people, seeming to be similar in age as Charlotte. Their outfits varied from vests to dresses, skirts to pants; but one accessory was shared by all- their masks. Masks with horns, stripes, frowns or grins, each one entirely unique. Somewhere in the distance was the drum Charlotte had begun to hear getting louder and louder. A lack of speech prevented her from asking herself where she was, what happened to her home and how she got here.
“Welcome to your masquerade party!” announced a voice from behind her.
Charlotte turned and faced the mask she had just seen in the mirror, now attached to a short, frail body.
“My… huh?” she managed to ask.
“You heard me, child. This is your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience your wildest dreams! Don’t be shy now, socialize! Get to know the other party goers.”
With a push of her back the masked stranger sent Charlotte straight into the mass. She looked around once more, less concerned about her situation. A feeling of understanding that she could not locate the origin of had allowed her to greet the dancers as if she was the host of a ball. She spoke to many people, but with her words not being responded to. None of the dancers uttered a single word to anyone else at the party. Charlotte began to worry if she was doing her task correctly.
She continued observing the movements of everyone’s dance until two scrawny kids dashed up to her. One had a shiny mask of a cyclops with messy scribbles all over its face. The other had a horn protruding from the left side of its forehead and a giant bow the same color as the moon with ribbons slithering down to their arms. The cyclops took out a brush of red paint and slathered it all over Charlotte's pants, resulting in a shriek.
“What are you doing?!” she cried. “Stop it, that’s terrible! Where even are your parents?”
The horned tot jumped onto Charlotte, knocking her down and taking her shoes. The mischievous children laughed in demonic echoes and scurried away.
“Hey! Come back!” Charlotte yelled.
She bolted after them and focused all of her energy into her legs, pushing other party goers aside and not looking back.
“Hey now, child! Slow down.” the voice of the person from the mirror shouted.
In that moment time felt as if it was slowing down and the voice materialized into the physical stranger standing in front of Charlotte.
“What are you doing?” it asked.
“I’m trying to get my shoes back from those evil kids! Look at what they did. My pants are all ruined.”
“Well that’s purely your fault. After all as the host of the party you’re responsible for keeping the little ones entertained.”
“No I’m not! Why should I be? You’re the freak that got me into this mess, why should I be punished for it?!”
As she yelled at the masked person the sounds of bystanders could finally be heard.
“What’s her deal?”
“Who does she think she is right now?”
“Is she okay?”
Charlotte stopped to catch her breathe and heard the voices of those surrounding her.
“Excuse me?!” she shouted to the guests. “You think I’m the one with the problem? You all think I’m weak? You think I’m not okay?! Wrong! I am stronger than you all ever will be. I’m the leader of the Dambe fighting club, I live for strength. You are all lying to yourselves.”
“Oh, Charlotte…” the masked stranger went. “Let’s put an end to this masquerade, shall we?”
She shrieked as the mask and string she was wearing got tighter with every second. At once she heard the voices she tried so hard to shut out.
“Is she okay?”
“Is she okay?”
“Are ya okay?”
“Are ya okay”
“You think I’m weak or something? That I need help?” she asked.
The mask got tighter and the drums were now booming like a storm
“Why are you treating me like this?” she cried. “Don’t you see how much it’s hurting me?”.
The drumming stopped in an instant and the realization of her situation became so obvious tears rushed out of her eyes. The figure before her increased in size and began to tower over her, a sight Charlotte kept rooted in her mind.
“Have you ever considered that you were wrong? Of course you haven’t. You’re just a child.” said the stranger. “Wrong about strength, wrong about status and how others truly see you; and you know it.”
“Y-you’re right.” responded Charlotte.
She fell onto her knees, her vision reduced to a blur and fat tears began to burst from her eyes. The mask of the stranger became a haze as distorted as the emerging moonlit mist.
“I’m just… afraid. Afraid of being weak. Afraid of not being enough. I’ve spent all my life thinking I was hated for being myself and brought others down with me. I wanted people to know my pain... even if they didn’t really deserve it.”
In that moment, Charlotte heard a sound like a snap. The mask with a severed string fell into her hands. All of the spectators faced her in silence, yet the atmosphere of the party became more peaceful.
The building beside her disappeared in a mist cloud and all the people, including the masked stranger, began to do the same.
“Good luck, Charlotte.” The masked stranger whispered before leaving.
Charlotte found herself laying in her bed. After staring at the ceiling for what felt like an eternity she checked her phone for the time. It was somehow only 10:30 pm, the time she was supposed to start getting ready for bed on school nights; but with the adrenaline she had built up she decided to open her computer and type.
“I’m not okay.” she said to herself. “But I’ll try to be better.”
She remembered the vision of Emily in a pathetic state of helplessness, probably on the brink of tears, and her hand twitched.
“No. Don’t think like that. Charlotte. You can help her, even if you can never atone for what you've done to her, try to make a positive difference at the very least.”
So she continued to type about who she is. What she had become. How she will change. How she will make it up to Emily. What kind of person she wants to be, not who she thinks she should be.
As the sun began to rise and the birds began to sing in choirs, Charlotte got herself ready for the day. She then left, forgetting to stop by her friends’ houses, and headed for the intersection, past the shopping plaza of cleaned alleys and through the doors of the school to the one person she had to meet with. The world is not perfect. She could never fix her wrongdoings in a single day, but all plans come with a start and hers was an apology.
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