Chapter 2:

Looking Back

Life Eats Us Now

The things people said, including my own thoughts, sometimes, still hurt my heart, even after so much time has passed. They've molded me, in ways good and bad, and still stick around like shadows in the corners of my mind.

Thinking about the first voice brings me right back to middle school. We were getting ready for the school's yearly cultural event, and our class decided to do a recital. It seemed like an easy thing to do back then, considering we were just middle school kids.

I remembered how my older brother had once stood in those spotlight beams. His class had too once performed a recital, and he was given the lead role. The way he made Mom look so proud had stuck in my heart like a permanent stamp. I really wanted to make her eyes light up like that too.

So, when our teacher asked the class who wanted to play the lead roles for our class recital, my hand shot up faster than my own heartbeat. I could feel how determined I was, like I was ready to stand up to fate itself.

Our teacher took us one by one into the teacher's lounge to try out a part of the script.

As I waited there, watching the seconds tick by, suddenly I heard my name. I walked into the office. The script I held felt fragile yet strong, like a key to unlock what I really wanted. I took a really long breath, calming myself down, and started saying the lines with all the passion in my heart. Each word was full of what I wished for, my dreams, and all the determination I could find – I poured all my feelings into saying those words.

And then, it was done. I stood in front of the teacher, my chest going up and down, my eyes shining from the leftover energy of my performance. But her face... her face was nothing like I expected. The disappointment on it... it was so different from what I thought would be there. It was like a knife to my heart, like she'd taken the feelings I'd put in and turned them around.

I struggled to process the reality before me. I had given my all, bared my vulnerability, and yet it was not enough. What more could I have done?

"Reol, be honest," she said, her words cutting the air like a sharp blade, strong and clear. Her eyes held me like an anchor, keeping me right where I was. "Can you really call that a recital?"

"Um... well... I did my best-"

"Go back to your class and concentrate on your studies. Next... Andrew!"

The truth. Her question echoed inside me, like a sound bouncing in an empty room. I had faced my fears, showed myself completely, but my hard work was broken on the ground like shattered glass. I looked at her, hoping to see some kind of understanding, a bit of recognition.

The next one, maybe a year or two later, was during the big sports festival. I had promised myself not to let what happened before to shape me, to step out from under the cloud of that past letdown. During our P.E classes, my scores were quite good compared to the rest of the class. I was quite well built too, compared to my age. So, with my confidence shaking a bit, I joined the sprinting races. 

When the day came for the selection, a few of us from the class were taken to the track. The sun was high, painting everything in gold. My heart was dancing a frantic tango. We stood behind the starting line one beside the other. This is it. Our teacher told us to get ready, and then started counting down, "Ready... set... go!" I pushed off the starting line, wind on my face, legs moving like they knew what to do.

And just as I wished, I came in first in the first race. But my happiness didn't last long, as I heard whispers from behind me. Among them was Clint, the very essence of athleticism in our class. He was the one who always ruled the track, the court, basically any competition we had. I could hear him talking to the teacher, asking for one more try.

"I think Reol was really quick. He's got potential..."

"But sir..." Clint interrupted, his voice had an edge I couldn't quite catch, "I actually couldn't hear you properly, so I made a late start."

A sinking feeling gripped me. I finally understood what was going on. Clint wanted to show me he was still in charge, to make sure he stayed the best. The teacher agreed, though not too happily, and I prepared myself, my thoughts all over the place.

Back on the track, I concentrated on my breath and the beat of my heart. Suddenly, Clint appeared next to me. He took is positing on my right, keeping his eyes straight towards me. "Don't start thinking you're really good. Luck was on your side," his voice was just a whisper, but it still me sucking air from the fear... and anxiety.

Those who were on top would do whatever it took to keep others down. It was a lesson I was going to learn in the hardest way possible.

The signal to start came, and I moved ahead, determined to show myself once again. But all of a sudden, Clint's foot appeared before me. My speed was ruined, and I stumbled onto the track, my knees bearing the brunt of the fall. Pain shot through me, raw and searing.

"Oh, I'm really so sorry. My step went wrong... I apologize," Clint's voice oozed with a feigned regret. But I knew the truth.

"No, you did it on purpose!" I snapped, my anger and disappointment overflowing. It was really hurting; my knees were scraped really bad. 

"What?" he continued acting like he didn't know. But his eyes held a cruel awareness. Looking down at me.

"Just like I said, you did that on purpose. You wanted me to fall so you could win."

The puzzle started to make sense. It wasn't just about the race now. It was about power, about him wanting to be in control. And like always, I was tossed to the sidelines. The teacher stepped in, stopping the fight from getting worse, and I was told to go sit on the side of the track. 

 I walked away, holding onto my scraped and bleeding knees. 

It's the same everywhere. Wherever I go. The same disappointments and regret tagged along with me.

"Reol. Reol."

The classroom buzzed with quiet sounds, with a cough here and there blending into a calm tune of focus. The air felt heavy with hopes and dreams, a kind of pressure that seemed to sink deep into my bones while I sat, wrapped up in my thoughts. My mind was a storm of uncertainties, a swirl of doubts that I was way too used to.

The faraway call yanked me back from my deep thinking, and I looked up suddenly. Our math teacher, Ms. Hilary, was there at the front, holding a bunch of answer sheets. Her voice was a little irritated as she said my name again.

I got up, a strange feeling settling in, like an invisible thread tying me to her stern look. The distance from my desk to the front of the room seemed longer than usual. I walked down the aisle with heavy steps, every beat of my heart loud in my ears. Reaching the front of the class, Ms. Hilary pushed forward one of the papers in her hand on her desk towards me. I went ahead to grab it, but her fingers were still pushing down on it.

"Reol, had you even taken any preparation for the test?" Ms. Hilary's voice was a mix of being let down and wanting to know.

"Y-yes, I did."

"Are you lying?"

I coughed a bit, as my own voice was sounding strange to me. "I really did... prepare for the test."

"The what is this?" She let go of the papers, and I opened it, my heart speeding up as I saw the red marks and the number written at the top.

"Tell the class your marks."

My marks...? I gulped. My mind had stopped thinking anything. All those gazes made uttering even a single word impossible. 

"Just tell it quickly! There's still so many left."

"41... out of 100," the words felt like a burden, like I was admitting something I'd rather hide. I could sense my classmates' eyes on me, their opinions and pity mixing in their expressions.

Retreating to my desk, I fixed my gaze upon its surface, deliberately ignoring the multitude of eyes that bore into me, holding some kind of unsaid judgment. Time seemed to slow, each minute stretching beyond endurance, wrapping me in my own self-imposed solitude.

The evening outside seemed to reflect the heaviness I carried all day. As we sat down for dinner, my mother's voice broke the quiet, asking if I had received any of my answer papers today. 

My first thought was to keep them hidden. But in the end, there was no avoiding it. Sooner or later, she would inquire again, and I couldn't dodge the topic forever.

I let out a sigh, my shoulders slumping as if conceding defeat. I handed her the papers, avoiding her gaze as she sifted through them. The room was wrapped in a thick silence, like a heavy blanket settling in, and then her sigh of disappointment pierced through, shattering the stillness.

"Just be honest with me, Reol. Are you really studying like you should be?"

My voice came out almost as a whisper, as if bringing out my desperation too. "Yeah, I am-"

"Then explain this!" 

I lowered my head, feeling the weight of guilt eating at me. My fingers gripped hard on my legs, to the point that it started hurting, curling my pajamas afterwards. The silence in the room was eating at me. Her stern look, the tumbling pot on the stove, everything. "I'm sorry... I really am. I'll do better next time." 

No... it's more like life itself had begun eating at me.

"Next time? When is that? What are you even saying?" Everything around me was going numb, and what I could only feel in her words were the irritation visible on her face too.

"I promise, I'll try my best next time, just please..."

Her tone shifted to a sharpness that felt like splinters of glass piercing all over my skin. "Look at your brother. He excels in everything. And then there's you."

I yearned to be like him, to achieve what he had. But no matter how earnestly I attempted, the distance between us appeared unbridgeable. His brilliance shone brightly, while I stayed hidden in the shadows, perpetually falling short.

"I can't even face your teachers with these grades... can't you understand that much? How much it hurts me?" Her voice trembled, exposing the ache within her.

But I am trying, I wanted to shout. I'm putting everything into this. "I'm sorry, Mom. I'm truly sorry."

"No more apologies!" Her exasperation overflowed, and she swept the papers off the table in one swift move. "What do you even plan for your future? You can't even manage a single thing right!"

"Then why did you even..." I stopped myself, as if the bitterness were welling up inside. Why did you even bring me into this world? The question remained in my thoughts, but I couldn't let it escape my lips. To say something like that would mean releasing a storm I couldn't handle.

"You still have the nerve to talk back?" Her hand struck my cheek, a sharp slap that echoed the pain in my heart. She stood up and walked away to her room, leaving me behind with the aftermath of my mistakes.

I knelt down, gathering the papers that had fallen, my hands shaking. Those numbers, those red marks – they were more than just marks on paper. They were symbols of my efforts, my weaknesses, and the burden of hopes I could never quite fulfill. The sting on my cheek was nothing compared to the ache that spread within me, a sense of not being enough that seemed to reverberate through every part of me.

I suppose I should have spoken up. Maybe then, she might have understood even a fraction of the hurt her words caused me.