Head down, Sweetheart.
Now arms together. Keep them close to your body.
There you go. If you’re ever in trouble, just do this. Trust me, you’re light enough to pass.
Maia repeated the mantra in her head as she stood in front of the principal, shaking just a little from fear. She tried to hide at first, then decided against it. Fear made her look smaller, more vulnerable.
Because she could pass, the fear would work in her favor.
“Hey, don’t be scared.” Maia closed her eyes as the man cupped her cheek, trying to calm her down. She was small, only seven years old. That would work in her favor. She didn’t need to know how to fight. Not yet.
She could feel the proverbial paper bag being held up to her face. Yeah, she passed. “You’re not in trouble.”
“And me?” Gretel’s equally small voice spoke up. She was Maia’s best friend. She had pretty, white hair that Maia was jealous of, held back in an afro ponytail.
That didn’t work in her favor.
Neither did her downturned, rounded nose and brown skin.
Gretel did not pass.
Because Gretel didn’t pass, as they got older she didn’t bother trying to be small and quiet. She was loud and proud, always speaking her mind and saying the things Maia had been taught that she couldn’t say.
Because passing wasn’t just about being small and vulnerable. It was about being quiet and agreeable. When she saw injustices, she stayed silent and let Gretel speak for them both. Because despite how angry she was, she was even more afraid of not passing anymore if she started to show that she cared too much.
To pass, you had to not care about the ‘other’. Gretel was shoved into that category, labeled violent and ghetto and aggressive just for refusing to stay silent when something was seriously and fundamentally wrong.
Maia wished she wasn’t so terrified of not passing. But when she sat with Gretel during sleepovers, nursing her bruises and holding her as she cried herself to sleep at night, fear gripped at her heart and squeezed, refusing to release her from its painful grip. Maia had to pass.
She had to. She couldn’t live any other way.
Gretel had told her that the Shadow World was different. That she could speak her mind now and that she didn’t have to be afraid.
Gretel was wrong. Things were the same now, except now the label was Downworlder, not Black. The worlds of Shadow and Mundane weren’t as different as she’d thought.
The only difference was that now Maia didn’t pass, either.
But she was still lighter. She was more passive and meek. She was deemed less of a threat.
After all, no one came after the snarky bartender.
But not Gretel. She was a wolf who wasn’t afraid to bite back. It was how she was raised. She had always had to fight back because she didn’t have the luxury of passing.
Apparently, she didn’t have the luxury of living either.
In a world where she could not pass, Gretel did not get to live.