It was recess, my favorite part of the day. I loved observing how my students interacted when they thought I wasn’t watching. It helped me grasp who they were as people and understand how to better help them. Josie was particularly interesting to me. In class, she sat off to the side of the group. Not in the front where I might notice her, but not too close to the back where the rowdier kids sat either. It looked as if she was trying to blend into the walls. She never asked questions, but her grades always came back upwards of 95%. The other fifth graders didn’t like her much. She never talked to anyone, and they didn’t try to talk to her. They didn’t understand how she was so smart and thought it was unfair things didn’t come as easily to them as they seemed to for her.
During recess, Josie always went to the same tree, a knotted one with many nooks and crannies, and built houses for the fairies. None of the other kids ever bothered her, and she existed in her own world. I thought she might make a great writer someday. Sometimes, I was tempted to sprinkle glitter around her houses as if fairies had visited, but I never did. I knew her father was hard on her, and if she went home claiming fairies had visited, I was worried he would try to “set her straight”. The worst thing one can do to a child is to tell them that their coping mechanism is foolish and make-believe. It would break the poor girl.
At recess, I sat on the swings with Fiona and listened to her talk about boys and Justin Bieber. I kept getting distracted though, watching Josie build her fairy houses. They were such pretty little houses, each one with decorations lining the roofs and delicate walkways leading to miniature front doors. I got sad every time it rained and some of them were inevitably washed away. Josie looked so happy when she was building those houses. Come to think of it, it was the only time I ever saw her smile. All through the class, she sat very still, alternating between blankly gazing at the teacher and filling in answers on her worksheets. It was apparent to anyone watching her that school was the last place she wanted to be. During recess, carefully weaving sticks to form miniature roofs, that was when she seemed at peace.
I wished I could go build houses with her. She seemed friendly when she was playing, not at all like that stone-faced girl she was in class. I wanted to learn how to make houses like she did; I wondered if she would teach me. I must have missed part of what Fiona said because she began to scold me.
“Are you even listening?”
“Yes. Something about that new kid who just moved here.”
“That new kid is named Brady, and Jessica borrowed a pencil from him earlier. Everyone knows she always has one on her, she couldn’t have needed one. I bet she only asked so she could talk to him. When do you think they’ll start dating?¨
¨Umm… I don’t know.¨ Josie was placing the roof on her newest house. It was one of her best ones yet, made of grass and flowers woven around twigs. It looked super complicated, I wondered how she was able to weave in the grass without snapping it. Fiona snapped her fingers in front of my face.
“Charlotte, please don’t tell me you’re watching Josie again. I told you, she’s weird. You don’t want to talk to her any more than you have to. If you’re with her, no one will want to be friends with you anymore, not even me, and you’re my best friend.”
I blushed. “I’m sorry Fiona, it’s just that her fairy houses are so pretty and I’m wondering if she would teach me how to make them. I wouldn’t talk to her more than that – I just want to learn how to weave the roofs.
“Oh Charlotte, do you really believe in fairies? Josie only builds those houses because she doesn’t have anyone to talk to. You have friends, Charlotte, you don’t need to waste your time on stupid, make-believe creatures.”
“No, of course I don’t believe in them, my sister says they’re foolish. I just think the houses are pretty.”
“Well then look up a tutorial online, no need to talk to Josie about it.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. Thanks, Fiona.”
She smiled sweetly at me. “Of course, I just want you to be happy.”
I looked down at Charlotte and smiled. I really was glad I became friends with her. She was really funny and always helped me with math when I needed it. She was sometimes so oblivious though, I couldn’t believe she actually wanted to play with Josie.
Back in kindergarten, my mom and Josie’s mom were friends, so I played with Josie a lot. We played dress up and dolls, all the things five-year-olds did. When we got to first grade though, her obsession with fairies started. I thought it was cool at first, but eventually, everyone stopped believing in fairies, and so did I. Everyone, that is, except Josie. She only believed in them more. One day, she told me that the fairies had given her special dust that allowed her to fly. I told her she was wrong, and that fairies didn’t exist, but she refused to believe me. She called me a liar and said I was just jealous that she got special dust and I didn’t. That was the biggest fight we’d ever had, she was mad at me for a week afterward. Even after we made up, we began to drift apart. We didn’t like the same games anymore. All she wanted to do was look for fairies. The rest of the grade tolerated her obsession until third grade started, then it was just weird. No one wanted to play with her anymore, and if you played with her no one wanted to play with you either. They assumed you were weird like her. Charlotte wasn’t weird. She was lucky she had me to stop her from playing with Josie and making people think she was. I could see that Josie was weird, and I knew not to go near her. Her strangeness didn’t bother me though. She could be weird over by the tree and we could be normal over here on the swings. It wasn’t like we were being mean, she avoided talking to us as much as we didn’t want to talk to her. Mutual avoidance. It worked for all of us.
I was confused when Jessica asked to borrow a pencil from me earlier. I had just seen her lend pencils to two other kids and could see that her pencil case was full of newly sharpened ones; much better than my stubby ones with used up erasers. All my new friends said it was because she wanted to talk to me and be my girlfriend.
Jessica was pretty, but I didn’t want her to be my girlfriend. I wanted Josie to be. Josie was prettier, especially when she was building her fairy houses. They made her smile; she looked even prettier when she smiled. Josie looked like she was nice, not like Jessica. Jessica always talked about how Charlotte was too quiet or how it was weird that Fiona wore makeup in fifth grade. I didn’t think Josie would have been mean like that. She would have thought that Charlotte was shy and Fiona was an artist. Or at least, I thought she would have. I’d never spoken to her, but I was planning on trying tomorrow, during recess. I had been planning on trying every day for a week, but something had always come up. My friends always wanted me to play basketball or to run around with them and chase girls. It had been fun, but I still wanted to talk to Josie. I decided that tomorrow was the day, tomorrow I would finally do it.
I leaned back from my desk and took a long drink from my coffee cup. In the past few years, rent prices had skyrocketed, but my hourly wages had not. I’d had to work overtime more nights than I would have liked, and had been spending more and more time away from my daughter. Josie’s face smiled at me from a picture frame on my desk. She was a good kid, but she needed to mature a little. I knew she would have to get a job at the top of her profession if she wanted to maintain a comfortable lifestyle, meaning she would need to be accepted into one of the top colleges. She was the smartest kid I knew, but to succeed academically she would need to get her head out of the clouds and make school her number one priority. I loved her creativity, but it just wasn’t practical, and it was distracting her from school.
I glanced at the clock and let out a breath. Finally, my shift was over, I could go home. I hadn’t been able to make it home in time for family dinner all week, and couldn’t wait to catch up with their lives. I wondered what Josie was learning in school.
When I got home, I went straight to my wife, Susanne. Being around her instantly made me feel calmer, just what I needed after a long shift. I had planned on surprising Josie by being home for dinner, but she didn’t seem to be in the kitchen. Normally, she would sit and do her homework while Susanne cooked dinner.
“Susanne, sweetie, where’s Josie?”
“Oh, she’s just building fairy houses. She’s been hard at work since she got home from school. Cute, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but why would she waste her time on something foolish like that? She should be studying. Doesn’t she have a spelling test on Friday?”
“Michael, it’s Saturday, she still has a full week. She’s only ten, let her have fun.”
“Only ten?! Ten is far too old to still believe in fairies. When I was her age, I did math homework in my free time, or I watched documentaries. Susanne, sweetheart, please don’t tell me you’re still letting her watch those idiotic Disney movies?”
“Of course I am, why shouldn’t I be?”
“Susanne, we talked about this. She needs to get her head out of the clouds now so she can start building skills for middle school. You need to stop enabling her.”
“Michael, Josie is a lovely girl. She studies hard and always gets good grades, what more can you expect of her?”
“Good grades aren’t enough! She has to go above and beyond. If she wants to have a future she needs to get a hold of herself. Playing with sticks in the backyard isn’t going to win her any points. And believing in fairies? Goodness, she’ll be ridiculed! I won’t have my daughter be made a mockery, I will not stand for it!”
“Michael, she’s in fifth grade. She’s about to complete sixth-grade math.”
“There are ten-year-olds right now who are being shown on TV doing math two years above their grade level. Josie is much smarter than them, she should be doing at least that by now. Quite frankly, I’m disappointed by her lack of motivation.”
“Josie, sweetie, I thought you were outside.”
“I came in to go to the bathroom.”
“How long have you been listening?”
“You’re disappointed in me?”
“Am I stupid? Am I going to fail school?”
“No, sweetie of course not. It’s just– Josie, Josie, come back! Come back, Josie!
The wind carried a sharp bite, but I didn’t mind. Running could get sweaty, and the wind cooled me off. I paused and pulled my water bottle out of my backpack, drinking deeply. Leaning back against the bridge’s railing, I took a moment to appreciate the view. The river beneath the bridge glittered, and the sky turned a soft pink as the sun began to set. When I was little, my brothers and I used to jump off this bridge. It wasn’t very high, but the water underneath it fluctuated in depth. If you jumped off in some places you would run a high risk of hitting the rocks below, while other areas were completely safe. I still remember when my youngest brother, Josh, tried to jump for the first time. He got a little too close to one of the rocky parts and broke his arm on the way down. Luckily, there hadn’t been any long term damage, but a few feet closer and he would’ve cracked his head open.
Across the bridge, a little girl wearing fairy wings stared out across the water. Pieces of her hair had come free of her pigtails and were whipping across her face in the wind, but she didn’t seem to notice. Her face was set in a hard line, her mouth turned down at the corners. Slowly, she sank down next to the railing and clutched her doll, whispering into its ear. The wind was still blowing, so I couldn’t hear much of what she was saying, but I was able to make out a few nonsensical snippets such as “I’ll show them,” “special dust,” and “real”. A single tear slid down her cheek. Wiping it away, she kissed the doll and placed it in a sitting position next to the railing. Giving it one final pat atop the head, she rose to her feet and turned to face the edge.
She stood still for a few moments, staring out over the water, her mind somewhere else entirely. The sun sank further in the sky, illuminating her loose tendrils of hair and giving her a soft red halo. Eventually, the fog began to clear from her eyes, and her expression changed from lost to determined. Looking down, she took one of her fairy wings in each fist, staring at them thoughtfully, before raising them to her mouth and kissing each one. She spread her arms and gave each wing a couple of flaps, testing them. Face hardening, she confidently took a few steps backward before running straight at the railing and launching herself over the edge, wings outstretched towards the horizon.