I grew up with no voice.
Or maybe that isn't strictly true. I did have one, although it was always only an undertone - a whisper only a half-breath away from silence. The quiet kid, a shy girl, who very rarely had anything to say. If I did say anything, people had to lean in to hear it. If I had a penny for all the times I had to repeat myself because nobody heard the first time. Or all the times I got cut off mid-sentence, drowned out.
It wasn't shyness, not really. More of a reluctance. Perhaps it came from being picked on, early on. Schools make for strange little worlds, and high school was the worst of them. The boundaries of it were hard and unforgiving and often made no sense. There was control in being tucked in like a hedgehog, prickles out, soft underbelly hidden away. Other kids can't hurt you as badly if they don't know where to stick their needles, and so I pretended to be made of them. I thought I was better off that way.
Then I befriended Amy.
It was one of those friendships that should never have been. We hated each other at first sight. Later on, she explained it was because she had always thought I was stuck up. It was true, but not in the way she meant it. Near her, I sensed a kid with a needle at the ready and my bristles rose. On the school bus, we avoided sitting close to one another, avoided talking, each of us pretending the other didn't exist. It would have been better if it had stayed that way, but somehow, we got talking. Friendship for us was like spilled superglue - we became inseparable instantly and by accident. It brought out the absolute worst in both of us.
She liked my reluctance to speak. She filled the silences with barbs directed at everyone else, bringing them low enough to look down upon. It would be lying to say I didn't like that view. It felt safer, somehow, looking down at others instead of up. The few words I spoke became sharper, crueller. She delighted in it, delighted in me. I looked up to her, basking in the glow of her affection. She took the reins and led us down dangerous roads in search of a good time. I think it made her feel free.
There are ways to drink underage and it was our rite of passage. We figured it out quickly; which of the pubs served minors, which kids in our year had older cousins to buy cheap booze from the off-license with our lunch money, how to sneak lethal cocktails of liquor from the kitchen, topping up the bottles with water so our parents wouldn't notice. These were all things that Amy taught me and we did them together.
I remember the glimmering of shattered glass in the gutters in town at night beneath amber streetlights, shouting insults at a random girls who looked at us the wrong way, being too cold in shorts while my breath clouded, and kissing a stranger who tasted strongly of cigarettes while the world whirling nonsensically around us. All for the hell of it. It was frightening and fun. Amy got us into trouble whenever or wherever she could find it.
"She's volatile," my mother told me, but I didn't want to listen. "She's using you." and "I'm not sure I know who you are anymore,” after finding her vodka didn't taste as strong as it should. After getting notes from school teachers that I was skipping classes. After finding out I'd taken money from her purse without permission.
I stayed over Amy's house in her Playboy silk sheets and she told me I slept looking like the Queen of Sheba, laughing. If we fought, she shut down and ignored me until I begged my way back into her good graces. We drank coconut rum by the lakes near our houses, and we told each other things we'd only thought of before, never said aloud.
On my birthday, we stayed in. We were supposed to watch films and hang out and talk, but whenever she was at my house, Amy wanted to use my laptop. She'd be online for hours at a time, barely speaking a word to me, and I would linger in the background, bored. It was that way again on that night. She was on the bed, her face lit by the screen as she scrolled Facebook and IM to chat to boys, while I lay on the carpet of my bedroom floor and sipped vodka neat from the neck of the bottle, my mother's words ringing in my ears.
She's using you. Don't let her walk all over you; speak up.
For a while, a little drunk, I slipped away to the bathroom and sobbed uncontrollably, snot and tears dripping onto the tiles. I could have choked on my own tongue from all the things I longed to say, but didn't dare. Then I washed my face, afraid that she'd notice the red in my eyes, afraid she'd mock me for getting so upset - but I needn't have worried. When I got back, she wouldn't even look up from the screen.
I asked if she wanted to watch a movie, but she refused. She was busy. It was my birthday. I got fed up. We argued. I told her to get off the laptop or get out, and she went, the door slamming shut behind her.
On the school bus the next week, we were back to pretending the other didn't exist. I had expected it and this time, it didn't hurt. Something in me had frozen and I matched her coldness with ice of my own. It could have ended there, but Amy wouldn't let it. All of that day, I was whispered about. I drew glances. I kept my head down, trying to avoid notice, but for some reason there was interest where there should have been none. I found out why at morning break, when a kid asked me if I was going to fight Amy at lunch.
"Fight her?" I asked, incredulous. It was absurd. I'd never thrown a punch in my life. I didn't even know how.
But the kid only smirked. "If you didn't want to fight her, you shouldn't have hacked her accounts."
I had no idea what that meant. I hadn't hacked anything. Our fight had ended the moment Amy had left. I had signed her out of everything on my laptop with a feeling of miserable relief. As far as I was concerned, it was over.
When I saw her later on, she was surrounded by our peers, drawing them to her like moths to the flame with tales of invented drama and revenge. She'd told them all I'd hacked her accounts and locked her out of them, had said embarrassing things to the boys who liked her whilst pretending to be her. Not a word of it was true, but they all believed her anyway. She had been drunk and said those things herself, but I was a handy scapegoat. What was it to her if she burned our bridges beyond repair? They meant nothing to her anyway.
I called her a liar, and she smirked, and said I was the only one who knew her passwords, so it could only have been me. She said she was going to hit me. She wanted to meet me outside the school at lunch, unless I was too much of a coward to face up to her. She knew how soft I was beneath the spines, and I don't think she was expecting it when I glared back into her eyes and snarled, "Fine."
There was nothing quiet about that word. It was a slam, like the slamming of the door. She was taken aback by it. In truth, so was I.
The bell went for lunch that day, and I went with other friends to the local village near the school to buy food. There was already a crowd gathering to see the fight. Amy had told everyone who would listen, perhaps hoping the more people there were to witness, the more likely I was to chicken out. My stomach was in knots. In the corner shop, I drank water and felt sick. Part of me wanted to crumple into a ball, but there was something in me that wouldn't. It might even have been something Amy had put there herself, entirely by accident.
Someone said that she was waiting for me outside.
The shop owner told me there was a way out through the back, but I shook my head. I threw my drink away with a clang into the bin. The message about bullies had always been the same: stand up to them. I supposed it was true even if they had once been your best friend in the world.
I went outside.
There was a moment where our gazes met through the crowd and all of the dissappointment was clear on my face. I know because later on, people were still talking about that look. I know because she laughed and mocked me, to see me look at her that way. It didn't matter. I couldn't look up to her when she was only inches tall. But she faced me across a packed street where schoolkids were jeering, all of them drawn there by her vindictivness and bravado, and in spite of it all, I was not afraid of her. Maybe she saw that.
It was almost worth it.
It was a busy road, outside the shop. Cars flew past. Neither of us moved. We stood there for a while, as Amy smirked and rolled her eyes and made snide comments. I said nothing and waited. She wanted the fight, so she would have to take it from me. The shop owner asked us to move aside, to where there was no traffic.
After you, Amy sneered, and I should have seen what would happen, but I didn't. I turned my back, and the next thing I felt was her fist in my hair.
As fights go, I doubt it was very impressive to watch. All I remember of it was her weight bearing down on me from behind, driving me to the floor, and her fingernails pushing into the soft skin of my face. She drove a punch at me that had no weight behind it, feather-soft. My arms were pressed to my chest by her bulk, so I couldn't do anything. I wasn't sure I wanted to, even then.
But her fingernails stung, and her hair was swinging in front of my eyes, and my hands were free, so I wrapped them up in it and pulled with all my strength. I heard her gasp from the pain, heard her begin to cry. Then all of a sudden she was yanked away and I scrambled to my feet. I was laughing. She fought like a little girl who didn't know how. In the end, that was all the two of us were.
There were gasps at what she had done to my face. Her face was bright red, tear stained, eyes bright from the pain. She saw blood on me and was shocked by what she had done. I grabbed my school bag up from where it had fallen. I could have attacked her then, in my anger. Instead, I drew all my breath in and shouted.
"Couldn't do it to my face, could you? Had to grab me from behind? I'm not a coward, Amy, but you are!"
Most of the school was there. They all heard me. For most of them, it was the first time they had ever heard me speak. I didn't bother to say anything more. I left her there.
Everybody witnessed what had happened, and Amy got suspended. She never came back to that school and we never spoke again. We were both better people for it.
Without her, my words grew softer. The marks on my skin, little bloody half-moons, healed quickly. I stopped looking down from above. I uncurled a little bit to those who were kinder to me, afterwards. I shifted so my spines lay flat. My quiet voice was only one breath away from silence - but I did have one, and it could be strong and loud, and I could speak well enough for myself.