Brecksville-Broadview Hts High School
Instructor: Michelle Miller
A Weight on her Shoulders
A Weight on her Shoulders
When Aashna was a little girl, she was given a shiny, ebony pebble, the size of a dime. She observed the foreign object in her palm, rubbing the ridges and crevices. "What is it?" She pondered.
"Aashna, this is something that will help motivate you. It might feel difficult to carry around, but it has its purpose. Don't worry, others carry much heavier stones. You'll be fine." They assured her. Aashna shrugged and put it in the pocket of her colorful Dora the Explorer dress. Since the pebble didn't affect her coloring, it didn't matter.
Some time after, Aashna's parents gave her a new task. "Aashna, now that you're old enough, you need to tie your shoes by yourself. We can't help you anymore." Aashna scrunched her nose in disgust. What was this new sensation? She hated the loss of her parents' help. It almost felt like someone stole an elephant off of her fuzzy blankie. Suddenly, she felt the weight of the little pebble. It was barely noticeable, rocking around in her pocket. It accompanied her everywhere. Even when she slid down her favorite slide at the playground, with its staticky plastic and wafting odor of feet, she felt the persistent bouncing of the pebble in her pocket. She felt the tug in her clothes even while playing tag during recess, shrieking gleefully as she struck her classmates "out." Aashna wondered how she felt the tiny pebble even when she did fun things, things that shouldn't be hard.
One day, the pebble had multiplied into a bag full. That was the day Mrs. Naggy gave something called a "worksheet" as "homework." Instead of doing fun number games at school, Aashna was given an extension of school, but at home. As she walked home from the bus stop, the bag of pebbles clattered step by step, singing a strange song. The sound of the pebbles rang in Aashna's ears as the number of problems grew each night, and eventually, the pages. The feeling started growing uncomfortable, but everyone assured her that it was normal. Teachers started stressing about "responsibility" and "getting ready for the future," staring intently at their students to make them prepared. Aashna started to get nervous for what was to come, the bag of small stones suddenly seeming like an unyielding shackle. How much more responsibility would she have to acquire as she got older?
Eventually, Aashna realized that high school would grow the pebbles into a heavy stone, dragging her down like a shotput in track. After realizing that she wanted to be a doctor, Aashna raced through grueling AP classes and Science Olympiad and sports. Her shoulders ached and ached after carrying the stone down the hallways, especially after missed questions, long practice, and lost competitions. Still, Aashna knew without question that the stone was necessary. The distress it gave her was unavoidable if she wanted to achieve her goals. Her daydreams of the pristine white coat and a glinting stethoscope around her neck made the strain worth the struggle. Her bright smile and variety of gleaming awards at her high school graduation hid the growing boulder behind her.
Years later, At her white coat ceremony, Aashna believed that the worst was over. The struggle of high school and pre-med was in her past, ready to be forgotten. She didn't expect to be given a sack of heavy rocks, Santa-Claus style. As she slung the sack over her shoulder in med school, she noticed the burden on her peers. Days without rest and fear of failure drove pressure to the extreme. Sometimes, the rocks would be too much to bear and break her fellow med students' backs. One day, the rocks did crush a student. Aashna heard commotion during a lecture and ran. She saw him facedown in a hallway, the metallic smell of blood permeating the space. Blood gushed from his body, gliding through the hallway like a sea. The doctors observed the gashes and dents in his back, left from the rocks like twisted memories. The stones had worn away at his body until it was nothing but a frail casing of a lost soul. Aashna froze in disbelief as the air rushed through her ears. She knew carrying her load of rocks was burdensome and grueling - but was it really lethal?
At home, Aashna inspected the rocks once again, looking at them as if it were the first time. They seemed deformed and bulging and ugly, completely different than the tiny pebble it was in the beginning. For all her life, Aashna had held on to them stubbornly, encouraged by her parents, teachers, and friends. But maybe it was time to let go. Unbeknownst to those around her, Aashna snuck out of her window that night, hauling the stones down her house's stucco walls. She ran in a frenzy, ignoring the rough asphalt digging into her feet. She only slowed when she smelled the salty tang of the ocean. This was the place. Right where the sand of the beach met the tall grass, Aashna started digging. And digging. She dug frantically, using the rocks to scoop and throw the sand around her. She dug until she could not, and dumped her bag of stones. Aashna watched the rocks empty into the hole, clattering loudly. It almost sounded like screaming. But instead of feeling guilty, Aashna felt freed. The next day, she was gone. She had booked a one-way flight to the first location she thought of, Germany. She longed for a culture worlds apart from the stress back home. Although Aashna knew many would question her, she felt confident in her decision.
A year later, Aashna had returned to the hole of stones. She marveled at how much she had changed - the rocks were practically meeting a new person. However, something was missing. While she had loved her months away, Aashna knew that her rocks had a purpose. After all, she never truly got rid of them. After three-hundred and sixty-five days, her stones were just as she left them. As Aashna hesitated, she reminded herself of her own duty to the world and herself. She had learned in her time away that it was possible to carry the burden without being suffocated, reminiscing of the joyous yet responsible people who lived life with balance - an achievement more valuable than good grades or praise. Aashna took a deep breath, picking up the smallest pebble on the top of the pile. Her fingers once again rubbed the ridges and crevices, and she put the stone in the pocket of her faded jeans. Aashna smiled as she turned and walked away from the beach for the last time. Perhaps this time, things would be different.
That day, when I walked into Ray's Convenience store, everything changed. It was gloomy and grey, rain clattering loudly on the streets. I was walking around aimlessly, looking to fulfill my sharp urge for a cig. As I turned the corner, warm light flickered from Ray's, and the worn WE SELL CIGARETTES sign pulled my feet to the door. It comforted me how almost all convenience stores look the same. The dingy signs, faded lettering, and worn door handle always remained constant in my life even when everything else changed. I smiled faintly as I swung open the door, the bell ringing as I strolled in. I was greeted with a waft of weed and cigarette smoke. It was silly how broken I was then - my eyes were first drawn to the Marlboro Reds in the cabinet instead of anything else. I sauntered up to you. I looked calm, but my hands were trembling from the desperation. My last pack ran out a few days ago, and I didn't have the strength to quit quite yet.
"One pack of Marlboro Reds," I smirked at you, observing. You looked a little bashful, curly brown hair flopping over your eyebrows. You looked a few years younger than me, maybe freshly 20 or 22.
"$10.20. Payment and ID?" I was surprised by your voice - it was raspy and deep, making me wonder if you've been through it too. Still, you seemed scared asking, with faint pink coloring your tan cheekbones. I slid my credit card and ID. Your eyebrows rose incredulously, and you swiped my card.
"You're 24?" My smirk rose into a toothy grin.
"Why? Do I look older?" You winced.
"Sorry, man. I would've guessed 30." You avoided eye contact, looking down.
"Don't sweat it, dude. It's just life, man. Wore on me." My smile dropped, and I paused. Why had my inner thoughts spilled so easily? A beat of awkward silence ensued.
"I'll get your Malboro," you said hastily, and walked away. I drummed my fingers on the clear counter, pondering. For the past few years, I had successfully been able to keep up my facade, a mask of confidence. In just a few seconds, you demolished it to shreds. My ugly, twisted interior was revealed for a second - a struggling, weak man using cigs as motivation to live.
"Here you are," You suddenly reappeared, sliding the Malboro, ID, and card back to me. You paused. "You should really quit. That crap is nasty." I raised my eyebrows.
"Don't you sell these here every day? Someone would've jumped you by now, you saying that." You seemed kinda stupid. When had a single sentence fixed an addict before?
"First time. You seemed like the type it would work on, actually." You smiled at me, brown eyes glinting humorously.
"Yeah, the leather jacket, beanie, and tats REALLY help, don't they?" I wondered if I was getting soft.
"Come here again, at this time tomorrow. I'll do my best." You smiled hopefully. I felt a strange pull to you, and found myself nodding. At work the next day, all I could think about was you. While I hoisted up the wood planks during my despised construction job, I wondered what you would do. I didn't even get your name. 20 minutes after I got let out at 5, I walked quickly to Ray's. I swung open the door, and you were waiting.
"Hey, you passed the first test! You didn't stare at the cigs like you wanted to devour them!" You grinned cheerfully, your white teeth nearly blinding me.
"It's gonna take a lot more than that." I grumbled. "Also, what's your name?" I asked. I had tried looking for a name tag to no avail. It seemed odd that I felt so close to you without even knowing your name.
"Connor." You held out your hand.
"Rick," I said cautiously, shaking your hand. While you intrigued me, I still felt fear. Making me vulnerable, even for a second, scared the hell out of me. And from a stranger, too.
"I brought you some nicotine gum. I did research last night, and this is quite effective. Don't worry, I bought it myself from here. No stealing. Why'd you start anyways?" You rambled, looking nervous. I stared at you silently. I wasn't ready to tell my life's trauma to a stranger yet. You looked down, embarrassed, and handed me the pack.
I snatched it from your hand and strode out. Drops of sweat dripped down my back, leaving a trail. Once again, you had pried a hole in my defenses. It was unsettling and uncomfortable, and I walked home as fast as I could. Lying atop the thin mattress on my bed, I replayed the exchange over and over again while I chewed the gum. Why were you trying to help me? What could have you found out? The next day, I considered never walking into Ray's again. But almost against my will, I found myself at the door after my shift. Something like an invisible force pushed me in. You looked up, surprised, running a hand through your mop of hair.
"You're back!" You seemed so excited. Why? Before I could speak, you continued. "I brought a board of chess. Do you wanna play?" You looked at me expectantly.
"Don't you have customers?" I said reluctantly. The last thing I expected was chess.
"Nah. People don't come here much. Also, I won't ask you any questions. Just play, please." you insisted.
"Fine." I relented.
"But let's make a bet - winner gets to say or do one thing to the loser. Anything." I grimaced. Of course, there was something. But I was good at chess, back in the day. Maybe I could get you to buy me another pack of nicotine gum.
"Ok." I agreed. And we played. Every day, I stopped by at Ray's and we played for 20 minutes. Your shift ended at 5:40. It went on longer than I expected, taking a few days. Once you trapped my king, my throat closed up. I knew you were going to cash in on your prize.
"What do you want?" I clenched my teeth. I could've called off the deal, but I had agreed in the beginning. It didn't seem fair to you, as I saw you every evening then.
"Why did you start smoking?" You peered at me curiously. "I know it's invasive, but I wondered since day 1. When you refused to tell me, I got even more curious," You admit, fidgeting with your jean jacket.
"My mom died." I said flatly. I hadn't talked about her since I was in college. The grief still stung like an open wound. She and Ella were all I had. You simply stared at me, knowing not to push. That should've clued me in that you were more like me than I thought. Like a dam was broken, the words flowed.
"I dropped out of college. My sister left me. It was too much for her, was her excuse. Now I have no one. Except my Malboros." I smirked, but it was pained. You sat silently for a second.
"You can talk to me. All I do is work here, really. And we can play cards too, not just chess." Your mouth turned upwards, trying to be funny.
"Ok." I smiled. As weeks passed by, our friendship grew. With your help, I went from nicotine gum, to patches, to days without nicotine at all. We went over my progress every day, you exclaiming at how far I've come. As we cycled through uno, poker, solitaire, checkers, and chess, I started talking about how my mom would secretly drive me to get Taco Bell's nacho fries during my sister's swim practice. When I told you about Ella buying me my first skateboard after working at the grocery store, you were so impressed by her. We discussed the morality of the Vietnam War, how Buddhism is truly an underrated religion, and how the Teletubbies were branded into our memory like a scar. I learned that your middle name is Mark and that you love two things in this world - your dog, Sal, and boba. You admitted that you were a pretty solitary person, and that passing time for the last 20 minutes of your shift made your day more bearable. I remember being envious of your home life. One day at Ray's, a short, grey-hair woman walked through the door. Her eyes were the same shade as yours, and I recognized her immediately.
"CONNOR!" She scolded. "You didn't play with your brother today, yet here are you, playing while working!" She walked over the pinched your ear aggressively. "And look at you, you're getting so thin. Eat!"
"Yes, Ma!" you yelped. After she marched out, you grimaced while you rubbed your crimson ear. I smiled faintly. Instead of worsening the grief over my mother, witnessing moments in your life helped me feel normal. The small parts of me that disintegrated during years alone and grieving were restored with every game and interaction. You had sparked a flame in me, something I didn't know was possible. For the first time in years, I wanted to really live. One day, you made an even larger shift in my life.
"Hey, Rick?" You asked, squinting at the board of checkers.
"Yeah, man?" I placed my piece on the board.
"Have you considered going back to school?" My hand froze.
"It's too late for me, Connor. I already have a job anyways." I cleared my throat.
"But don't you want to dream again?" Your amber eyes pierced into mine, not backing down. I thought of my first year of college, before dropping out. I was a different guy back then. I studied engineering, wanting to fulfill my dreams as a little boy building bridges with leftover popsicle sticks.
"I was a different person back then. Drop it." I growled. We kept playing in silence. Later though, the idea kept appearing again and again. The next day, I accepted my fate.
"Fine, Connor. I'll enroll." You hollered, jumping up and down. I would never forget how happy you looked that day, joyous over somebody else starting school. I enrolled in community college the next day for engineering. I kept playing with you, but less often. Instead of every day, I started coming to Ray's once a week. Busy with construction and school, I wasn't as attentive as I should've been. During that time, I know I failed you. After a few months of school, I noticed something was wrong. You were distant. You felt so far away, I wasn't sure I could reach you, even as I sat across from you.
"You ok, man?" I asked one day.
"Yeah," You said, distracted. You barely smiled that day, but I put it off towards being tired. I didn't notice that your smiles became less frequent over the last few weeks. When you weren't at Ray's the next week, I knew something was wrong. Your coworkers told me days after, as I laid awake, worrying. You were gone. One day, you decided to swallow 33 pills and died. Only after you, I found out about your anxiety, OCD, and depression. I was shocked that I never knew, only recalling brief moments of agitation and sorrow in your eyes. I remember feeling drops of water well in my eyes when I had just found out, for the first time since my mom passed away. They trailed down my cheeks into my mouth, tasting like salt.
Sitting on my bed, I spent hours thinking about you, rubbing the grainy wooden king piece we played with the first time. The shadow of grief hung over me just as strongly as with the loss of my mom. For a while, each day felt empty and lonely once again. Your family told me that the more time you spent alone, the worse it got. While you spent your time saving me from drowning, you struggled for air. They said it wasn't my fault, and it was going to happen. But was it? I still wonder about you, Connor. Even when I graduated, I wondered about you. Even when I became an engineer, even when I met someone, even when I had a family again. I knew I had only gained a second chance at life because of you. Sometimes when it rains, I still visit Ray's. I glance inside through the dusty windows, never mustering the courage to walk in. But the memories of you and your instant understanding of me are forever rooted in my memory - that day in Ray's saved my life. As my eyes trace the faded words again, I wonder if yours was doomed from the start.