Are You Real?
Back then, in Maia's sophomore year, there was no Mad Dog. There was only Maia Park. Straight A's and B's Maia Park. Works from 5 to 9 Maia Park.
No, Mad Dog wasn't born alongside her. And as far as Maia was concerned, Mad Dog wasn't born at all. In fact, it started as nothing more than a whisper.
V.I.A.S. High's cafeteria was the perfect stage for food fights, impromptu model runways, and mass karaoke. But its all-encompassing toroid gullet also served a more sinister purpose—it was the perfect place to send a message. And no one knew that better than Victoria Beatrix.
Victoria's buzzing, high-pitch laugh echoed across the central ring of the cafeteria.
“Pizzaface, get off that seat.” Her voice pierced across the din. “You know that’s our table. Or are you just that slow in the head?”
Victoria’s target reacted with the speed of a tortoise, curling up further into their shell at the edge of the table they were sitting at. Their tiny, beady eyes darted away from the leers of Victoria and her drones.
“Why so shy?” Victoria hummed gleefully. “Would’ve thought you had some more guts.”
Snickers from her swarm galvanized her insults. The target did not reply—they could not reply. Anything they said or did would be used against them in this court of the wild.
Maia listened to the proceedings from the sidelines as she did test corrections. On any other day, it would have been all too easy for her to ignore Victoria's Queen Bee routine. Maybe it was the migraine Maia had from staying up until two in the morning to finish her homework, but Victoria's high-pitched voice was like a leaf blower kicking up all the wrong thoughts in her head.
Maia stood up and picked up her tray of mashed potatoes.
“Maybe you're just too stupid for your own good.” Victoria paced around her target with a hand to her mouth. “You must be, because-”
She froze in place as Maia strolled up and plopped herself down beside the target. The central ring of the cafeteria was dead silent for a moment.
“And what do you think you’re doing?” Victoria sputtered, fighting to regain the controlling edge in her voice.
Maia waited for a long time. She didn’t speak until she hit that sweet spot between not caring about what someone said and outright ignoring them. Finally she turned, deliberately and nonchalantly, and looked Victoria straight in the eyes.
The attention of the central ring was deadlocked on this newcomer. Maia had done her best to stay out of trouble. In fact, she prided herself on being a nobody in the massive ecosystem of V.I.A.S. High. While she fully intended to stay that way, Maia was no stranger to confrontations. She just kept staring back at the most popular girl in school in the eyes, unflinching.
And, to none of Maia’s surprise, Victoria let out an indignant huff and turned away.
“Fine. You're not worth my time anyways,” Victoria spat, motioning to her swarm.
The Queen Bee’s retinue of half a dozen pretties and meatheads trailed off with their signature buzzing commotion. Ignoring the grateful eyes of the earlier victim beside her, Maia was happy enough to resume eating and finishing her work. But the buzzing didn't trail off into the distance. In fact, it had stopped just a few tables over.
Then, that damned laugh returned.
“Aren't you a bit too ugly to be out in broad daylight, hornhead?” Victoria asked. “How about you and your friend do us a favor and go to a different table?”
“Leave her alone,” came a low, but fierce voice in response.
“Cute. But you're not scaring anyone if you’re shaking like a little rabbit.”
“Don't talk to her that way!” yelled a gruffer, feminine voice.
“Oh, Birchie, Sally. The two of you are so quaint.” Victoria let out another buzzing laugh. “An ugly hodag and a thorny rabbit, like little rag dolls holding hands.”
Maia brought her fist to her table with a slam. Snarling, she rose from her seat and marched right up to Victoria, placing herself between the bully and her victims. Having grabbed the attention of the cafeteria once more, Maia stared the wannabe Queen down again.
“Ooh, scary,” Victoria said in a falsetto. “And what’re you standing around for?”
“I can’t focus, because every word that comes out of your mouth is an annoying whine. It’s getting on my nerves.” Maia raised a fist mere inches from the girl's face. “Piss off.”
Victoria's face went aghast, and she stumbled a step back. Maia glanced at the two girls behind her. The “Hodag” was clearly the more terrified of the two, the “Rabbit” putting an arm around her partner with an expression of determined fury.
“That's right,” Sally yelped. “Leave us alone!”
Smelling blood in the water, Victoria regained her posture and imposed forward towards Sally.
“You know, I'm starting to think we can have a bit more fun with you two than I thought-”
“Hey,” Maia said from the side.
Victoria turned towards her, only for a fist to smash the smirk right off her face. Maia’s righteous fury poured into her target’s cheerleader-thin frame, sending the girl sailing backwards in a corkscrew. Victoria hurtled through the air and collapsed onto the floor, splaying out with a dull thud amid her adoring army.
But not a single one of them dared to move a muscle.
“Yeah.” Maia wiped her fist on her pants. “That’s better.”
Compared to the sleek, aerodynamic halls, the principal's office was like a time capsule of pomp and stuffiness that crash-landed into the heart of the school and got stuck there. The furniture was classical, stiff and wooden, and the cold, dry air was scented like old books that put on too much cologne.
From behind his imposing desk, the relatively petite frame of the snaggle-toothed Principal Hogglesby was barely in view. Fittingly, the majority of his presence was exuded by a series of constant, worried snorts. Of the four chairs facing the principal's desk, two of them were occupied by Victoria and her mother. The former held an ice pack against the growing bruise on her face while the latter impatiently tapped her foot against the floor. Maia was pouting in her seat, her arms crossed beside another empty chair.
“Forgive me!” Maia's mother yelped as she rushed into the office. She took a seat beside her daughter, breathing heavily. “I had to convince my boss that I had to come to school in the middle of a work day.”
Victoria's mother splayed out her elegant claw-like nails, rolling her eyes.
Hogglesby gestured to the empty chair beside Maia. “Have a seat, Miss Park.”
Maia winced as the principal detailed the circumstances. Of course, he conveniently left out the part where Victoria instigated the whole thing with her swarm of sycophants.
“... The bottom line is, Miss Park.” The principal snorted for emphasis at the conclusion of his explanation. “Your daughter violated our strict policy against violence.”
“My daughter?” Miss Park’s face paled. “No. You must be making a mistake. My daughter would never-”
“Miss Park, there were dozens of witnesses.”
Maia's mother shifted in her seat, her hands clutched her chest. “What will happen to my daughter?”
“Well.” The principal’s already gravelly voice went even lower. “Due to our strict policies, I'm afraid that she will likely have to be relocated to a different institution.”
At once, Maia heard her mother hiccup, and the tears began to flow. Maia watched in horror as the woman spoke with a quiver in her voice.
“Please. You have to understand.” She nodded in a manner that almost imitated bowing. “My girl would never do something like this without a reason! She's just been so stressed recently. It's my fault, I've been letting her work herself to the bone. Yes, that's it! This was just an unusual incident because of the overwork.”
Hearing the stress in the woman's voice, Victoria raised her head in acknowledgement.
Maia straightened in her seat. “Mom-!”
“This ‘unusual incident’ involved my daughter!” Victoria's mother put down her phone and broke into an almost practiced shriek. “Our family has full rights to take legal action!”
Miss Park redirected her deep, shaking bow to both Victoria and her mother.
"Please." She begged, fighting back tears. "Please, out of the kindness of your hearts, would you please let this go? My daughter's future, her future is on the line!"
"I forgive her."
As soon as Victoria spoke, everyone in the room turned to her in stunned silence.
"What." Her mother shot her an icy glare.
"I…" Victoria continued, turning to the principal. "... I might've come off a bit too strong in the cafeteria. I'll be more careful and sensitive next time, as long as she promises to be, too."
Everyone’s mouths hung open. Hogglesby leaned back in his chair and clasped his thick hands together.
He turned to Victoria’s mother. “Would that outcome be desirable for you as well, Miss Beatrix?”
She shifted her indignant glare onto Miss Park, who was still bowing.
“If it wasn't for my daughter’s beautiful, gentle heart…” Her voice quavered with buzzing emotion. “... Then I wouldn't have settled for anything less than expulsion for yours.”
Miss Park’s head bobbed even lower. “Thank you very much. We're so incredibly sorry for what happened.”
The principal turned to Maia, who looked like she had just watched someone die in front of her.
“Young lady. Do you promise that this will not be a repeated offense?”
Something felt like it was caught in Maia’s throat.
The girl shook in place, having never heard her mother yell like that before. With her world starting to spin from a potent cocktail of fury and shame, Maia eyes drop to the floor. Until that moment, she had never recalled feeling so disappointed in her mother's weakness and so much hate for herself.
When Maia spoke, it was as hollow as she began to feel inside.
Before the two made their way out of the building, Miss Park bowed to Miss Beatrix one last time. Miss Park walked back to Maia, but she couldn’t get her daughter to look her in the eyes.
Instead, she put both hands on the girl's shoulders.
“Maia, I know you're upset. I also know you wouldn’t have done what you did without a good reason,” she whispered. “But anything that happens here and now is temporary. Your future isn't. Do you understand, nae ttal, my precious?”
Maia couldn’t summon the strength to look up. At the very least though, she offered a begrudging nod, to which her mother smiled.
“I'm so proud of you and I love you from the bottom of my heart.” Miss Park straightened out her back with a twinging note of pain. “I have to get back to work, but I'll see you later, ye?”
Maia didn’t answer, merely watching her mother disappear down the hall. The girl slumped against the nearest locker with a resounding clang. She was just about ready to breathe the whole thing away and go to class when a particular buzz fell upon her ears.
“You know,” Victoria said, approaching her alone. “You should be grateful.”
Maia clenched her fists, but she neither moved nor responded. All she could do to restrain herself was focus her eyes on the different colored tiles on the ground.
“Think of what I did for you as a little bit of charitable work,” Victoria continued. “You two looked like you really needed it after all.”
Maia's jaw went tight enough to bite through wood. She glared at her, ready to swing with the force of a speeding truck.
But anything that happens here and now is temporary. Your future isn't.
Her mother’s words paralyzed her. In Maia’s moment of hesitation, Victoria whispered one last line before she walked off:
“There’s no fun being at the very top, without someone at the very bottom.”
Victoria’s steps grew distant with her buzzing laugh, as she left Maia standing with an unfamiliar mix of sensations. Somehow, between the seething anger bubbling in Maia’s chest and the aching embarrassment in her throat, she managed to still her breathing.