The house is more worn than I remember it. The gate is beginning to splinter, and the plot that was always so neat now stands empty of life, resigned to the solitude that comes from perpetual loneliness. This house is not Aspen’s. It is the house of a husk of the girl I knew in the seventh grade, a girl whose joy and life has been forever altered. Aspen was tidy. She kept her house neat and grew a vegetable garden in the yard, and she always replaced the furnishings that were continuously ruined by spilt late-night drinks. She found joy in being the perfect schoolgirl, despite her mother and father coming home with one too many drinks to care. She had always had a bright path ahead of her, and so had I. That is, until I left our future forever behind.
The fluorescent lights were dimmer than usual. The classroom had a cold air to it, and as the January wind flowed through the cracks between the latches on the windows, my mind moved with it. I had known it then as clearly as ever. I was going to fail. I had forgotten to study. I could not pass. And for the first time in my life, I knew I would have to cheat. I was trusted. I knew where Mr. Burn kept his papers, and in which files awaited the test answers, beckoning to me, hissing with whispers of the forthcoming lies and deceptions and breakings of trust. Mr. Burn had gone to the gentleman’s room, and I, being quiet, could very well make use of the spare time to sneak a look at the answer sheet and potentially score well. It would only take an instant.
Why had I been so naively hopeful? I had given up my integrity then and turned Aspen down a road of rejections and expulsions. Why should I even try apologizing now? It had been too late three years ago when the test was fresh upon my desk. It is certainly too late now; and yet… already I am slipping back into painful remembrance of that day.
Mr.Burn had begun reading his everyday lecture about cheating.
“Cheating is strictly prohibited. Any transgressions will be dealt with immediately and mercilessly. Consider yourselves warned.” It was then that I knew there was no turning back. The questions burned into my eyes. 1903, 1832… All the dates blurred and shifted, changing and moving. It was time. The cheat sheet beckoned to me, just like it had from the drawer. Aspen’s auburn hair fell in curled strands on her desk into which I slipped the answers. If only I had remembered to take them out. If only my memory had not failed me yet again, for in that moment, accidentally, the weight of my mistakes fell upon Aspen. The clock ticked with the passing seconds, moving forward, both racing and freezing in time, towards the moments when my innocence would be both forgotten and buried. It had been only a flick of the wrist and already the sheet was in her desk and my paper had become littered with cold, charred, stolen answers that were mine, but also not.
I can’t. If I tell Aspen the truth, it will be like jagged glass carving through old and at last healing wounds. I had hurt her enough already. I sigh. My maroon coat barely keeps me warm, and my ashen locks swirl in strands through the icy air. The winter chill blows down the darkened street and the lights flicker in the night, shadows running slim and quickly shifting into the corner of the neighboring alleyway upon which my gaze now falls. How I dream to move with them and disappear again into the remembrance of what went on and to hide from my own liability. Yet, if I am to make it right, then admit the truth I must. Before I know it, I am swimming in the past.
“Aspen! I can’t believe you! You were trusted. How could you abuse that?” Principal Hawthorn roared. The lemon walls of the dreaded office of the principal seemed to vibrate and shake. Her fist pounded the table across which Aspen and I were seated. Her scarlet nails seemed to claw at my conscience, ripping it apart. Her piercing blue eyes burned from pure fury, her teeth bared like a wolf’s scowl. How could I have been so careless? Some student in the eighth grade had found the answers and ratted us out, and Aspen was paying for it. I sat frozen, observing my orders condemning another to a cruel fate. Ms.Hawthorn had already spoken to me, and now I was, in her eyes, blameless, yet I was still forced to remain if my testimony was needed.
“Ms.Hawthorn, I don’t know what you’re talking about,”Aspen stammered. She was at a loss. Her hazel eyes darted back and forth, and her hands ,clasped together tightly, were covered in pinch marks. Her face, which had always beamed with confidence,was now only marred by tears.
“Well, the answers were found in your desk. And you got a perfect score on this test. Aspen, I just don’t see any other reasonable explanation.”
“With all due respect, couldn’t the answers have been planted? After all, I wou- ”Aspen said.
“We will not consider silly excuses. I’m sorry, Aspen. You were forewarned. Cheating is a serious offense. This school has a name to uphold. Until further notice, you are expelled. All the evidence points to you. ”
The walls that were a pale lemon when we walked in shifted into something sickly. Aspen rushed from the room, her feet moving quietly , every step reverberating with silent fury. Hot tears had not yet been spilt, but they were coming fast as the cold future rushed to meet my ‘friend.’
I have to face the truth. I turn, and as my heels scrape along the sidewalk, turning back to the home of once a friend and now a mere memory, it is almost as though Aspen herself is with me, shifting towards the future but never forgetting the past.
“Wait!” I had said, rushing forward, only to see Aspen turn and vanish.
“You are dismissed, Natasha. Tell your friend that she should consider honesty next time.” Ms. Hawthorn pointed to the door. “Do be kind and close it. I don’t want her to come back here.”
The doorbell is decrepit. The peeling paint and strange popping of the wood make the bell’s backing look like acne covered plastic. The door itself is a dark brown appearing old and worn, while the paint lies in flakes on the ground and cakes the knob. My hand, moving almost without choice, presses the bell. I inhale sharply. The cold air blows in my face, but it is no more biting with frost for now I only know memories of that sickly office, with its lemon walls closing, forever. Steady. Steady. Now.
“Leave!” Aspen says and begins to shut the door. Her eyes are filled with cold anger. She wears a faded floral dress, not her signature bright colors. This isn’t the same Aspen, I remind myself.
“Wait!” I nearly plead, for if she leaves, I will never, ever regain the audacity to return, for this is my last chance. A songbird, sitting on a bare branch, flies, wings outstretched, towards the icy moon and vanishes into the shadows. Maybe I should fly with it. Yet… How does one fly when one’s wings are tied to the ground, when words and deeds never to be lost in the past rise from the ashes to drag you down with them?
“What do you want? Go back to your perfect life, with your perfect school and your perfect grades. Leave this ‘cheater’ alone!” Aspen shouts, slamming the door shut. I sigh. What was the point in this anyway? It isn’t as if she would ever forgive me, or stop wallowing in sorrow and pain. I pull the handle yet again, pulling the door open.
“ASPEN! I’m sorry.”
“What would you be sorry for? Sorry for affiliating with a cheater? Sorry for me? Well, I don’t need your pity. After all, only I could do something like this.” Her voice is quiet, speaking in almost a whisper. I see her eyes narrow with distrust and long-stored disappointment, as well as three years of pure anger. Anger at Ms.Hawthorn, anger at Mr.Burn, but, even though she has no way to know of my framing, mostly at me. I went on when she didn’t, and there was no changing the cold truth: three years was too long to stay frozen in the pain of the past. I had had the chance to move on, and she’d remained here, frozen in time.
“Aspen… I’m the cheater. I cheated on the test but ended up framing you. I’m sorry.” The words are swept quickly into the wind. It took too long to utter them. It is now surely, inevitably, unchangeably, too late.
“Funny you say this now, once I had already spent three years waiting for an explanation. You really think ’sorry’ is going to cut it? You’ve already hurt me enough. Get out of here! Keep living your privileged life and quit coming back to hurt me; you’ve already done that. I don’t want to speak to a lying snob whose existence only hurts everyone around them. Go ruin someone else’s life, but stay out of mine.”
I hear the bolt slam shut and the windows lock. And now, before I even know it, I am sitting, crying, tears blowing, following the songbird, into the January wind.