My friends tend to die. Most in horrible ways.
Today, my name is Eleanore Alejandra DeRidder. Mind the spelling please, or my mother will assign you extra homework. She can, and she will, because she's the substitute teacher. A professional substitute teacher, as she keeps pointing out. Which means nothing to me, except that every few months I end up being 'the new girl'.
You know how that goes. The new girl, the outsider, the one without friends. I rarely hang around long enough to make any, and that's good. Mom will run through her curriculum, I'll take care of any monsters - which isn't as glorious as it may sound - and once we're done we'll leave for yet another place. Where I'll be the new girl again.
It's been like that for a long time, and I have little hope for change any time soon. But that's okay because this way I won't make any friends, so they don't have to die. Life's better without friends.
Sometimes I wonder if goodbye and hello would be easier if I was a blonde, charismatic cheerleader. The type who's destined to be this year's prom queen, and who treats all her friends as underlings. Being a popular, brainless bimbo, and blonde at that? Sign me up! But that simply isn't me. I'm... just me, old enough to kill, not old enough to vote. It's a good thing I don't like voting, and the jury is still out on the killing part.
So, what if I'm not a blonde? My friend Sweets, who happens to be pretty, long-legged, fair-haired cheerleader material herself, proves there are exceptions to the blonde bitchin' Barbie rule. She keeps telling me I'm fine as is, and that there's nothing wrong with being blonde, raven, ginger, or any other color. After all, 'royal purple' - as Sweets tends to call it - is my color. She's right, of course. That's one of the reasons I like her, she's honest to a fault. Me, I'm more of the lying type, even though I'm no longer trying to hide the natural color of my hair. Mauve. Periwinkle. Lavender. Plum. Call it whatever you like, but it's all me.
Four years ago, after the New Mexico incident, I stopped dying it black and got myself a pageboy-bob haircut. It takes lots of effort and hairspray to keep it properly messy. It also makes me look a few years older which is great for getting into bars and trouble. On top of that: Mom hates it, so what's not to like?
There are many things and many people Mom disapproves of. Sweets is one of them, but that's okay, my best friend is far away and safe. Not to protect her against Mom's wrath, but because of the things we do. They say, 'you should keep your friends close, and your enemies closer,' and I completely disagree. You should keep your friends as far away as possible so they won't get hurt. I'm too familiar with the pain that comes with watching good people die. It's easier when they don't remember me, it's even better if I don't remember them. You see, Mom and I, we hunt monsters. Sometimes those monsters hunt back, and that's when the innocent people get hurt. That's why I leave no trace, make no friends, and suffer no pain. Moving a lot helps, and my outgoing personality does the rest.
You would expect a girl with a thatch of purple to stand out, but I don't. I'm the 'oh, her' girl. I'm the wallflower hanging back, the tumbleweed that disappears whilst you are watching. I keep my distance from the cliques and circles and factions, act disgusted when encountering kissing couples, and admire the handsome boys and pretty girls when I'm sure nobody's paying attention to me. I hate homework. I love ice cream. I love pizza. I love to shoot my rifle. I can't be the only person who sees ghosts, has an orange tabby cat for an imaginary friend, and a mother who dabbles in magic. Perhaps that's why people forget about me, I'm too normal. My classmates won't remember the girl with the Grateful Dead T-shirt and the faded jeans, my mug won't show up in their yearbooks. My face will disappear from their Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat accounts.
I tried 'the stay in contact' slash 'distant friend' routine, and it never worked out for me. Try WhatsApp, Messenger, WeChat, or the next fad. Try old-fashioned email, make that damned phone call. Smoke signals. Jungle drums. You could even send a handwritten letter and place your trust in the US Postal Service to deliver it... eventually. Been there, done that. I have the T-shirt, the scars, and the freckles to prove it: people forget.
Perhaps it's better this way because real friends remember. They care, get in the way, and die. Like I said, my friends tend to die, most in horrible ways.
Life's better without friends.
“Another hellhole, mom?” I ask, leaning my head back against the cracked leather headrest.
We’re in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in the Midwest, in between lost and forgotten, and rapidly approaching never-was. It looks hot outside. The leaves on small, sad bushes move in the wind and suggest a fresh breeze, but I know that’s a lie. You step outside and you step into an oven. The dried grass plays witness to the dust eddies holding a competition next to our battered truck. The ghostly shape of an orange cat watches the eddies and pounces before they can escape. Same wind. Same cat. Same lie. The cat disappears and I’m still here.
He does that all the time. Vago's an imaginary friend, after all.
It's been a dry summer so far. Little to no rain, and lots of grumbling farmers to compensate. We pass fields where all the plants have withered and died. The farmers complain, and even more so since the government restricted the use of surface water and wells, leaving sprinklers and pumps gathering dust and history. So will our old Ford if we don't start moving soon.
My mother drives an older but serviceable, mostly blue Ford pickup. It's rather inconspicuous in the towns we pass through, where every farmer drives the same beat-up four by four, and every farmer's son drives an even older one - if his dad is poor - or a shiny new last year model - if his dad’s rich - or a bicycle - if he’s underage. I couldn't care less about cars and the boys that drive them. If they want to impress me, they can start by spelling my name right.
We've stopped at a crossing, and my mother's studying the map. Of course, a map. Why not simply use the GPS on her phone? Because the hellhole we're looking for isn't important enough to be on Google Maps. Think about it. What does that say about the town and its inhabitants? They pretty much don't exist in the greater universe. I suppose I will fit in quite nicely because, well, I don’t exist either.
I reach for the controls of the air conditioner but Mom slaps my hand away. Our old Ford is long overdue for some serious maintenance, and the aircon has been acting up lately. Mom’s not going to take any risks by letting me fiddle with it as if I might jinx whatever’s still working.
“A moment, Eleanore...”
“Ellen,” I say automatically. Not that it matters.
Mom doesn’t react. Why she keeps using that awful name I don’t know. I introduce myself as ‘Ellen’ but Mom… nah. It’s Eleanore. She did call me ‘Speckles’ once but she doesn't have the right to do so. That name's only to be used by friends, close friends. I sigh and check my phone: no coverage, no messages from Sweets, nor from anyone else who might have remembered me. I sigh again.
To be honest: I sigh a lot.
Mom takes yet another look at the faded road sign - which I'm pretty sure predates the American Civil War by two centuries - only to return to the map and stare at it again. As if the piece of paper is to blame for her lack of navigation skills. Finally, she looks up at me and smiles. “Almost there, darling.”
I have no idea where 'almost there' is, but I hate the place already.