Some people believe that Hell is a fiery pit, where you're eaten in a fiery pit while the Devil's high-pitched laughter echoes in your ears. Or else they believe that it's an infinite abyss, dark and deep and miserable. Others think that it's a dungeon of torment and suffering. Jean-Paul Sartre, this old emo French guy, even claimed that Hell was 'other people'
Well, I can assure you all that the reality is nowhere near as dramatic – though old Jean-Paul, I'll concede, had a point. Hell isn't a blazing inferno, an endless tunnel, or even the most barbaric of prisons ... No. Hell was standing alone in the middle of the cafeteria, clutching a laden plastic tray, looking out into a sea of unfamiliar faces, feeling more and more self conscious by the second.
I was quickly realising that being the new girl sucked.
I scanned the perimeter of the room, brow furrowed. How was it possible that literally every single table in this godforsaken room was taken? At Mobius High, my old school, the classes had different lunch periods, making it easy to find an empty chair at an empty table where I could eat sub-par cheesy pasta in peace and finish up whatever piece of maths homework that I'd negected to do in favour of binge-watching Friends re-runs. Bliss.
Unfortunately for me, Station Sqaure High was smaller, which meant that everybody in every class had the same lunch-break. Every table that I looked at was full of teenagers finishing up their homework, exchanging gossip in between mouthfuls of pizza, or showing each other memes or messages on their phones and laughing. Anybody else – literally anybody else would have been able to suck it up, slap on a smile, approach a table, and make conversation for fifty-five minutes. Sure it might be a tad awkward, but they'd survive it, and everyday they'd try again, until they eventually found their soul-sister/brother/sibling-or-gender-neutral-equivilent. But my feet, in their battered secondhand Converse, were like lead. My heart was hammering under my red sweater, so loudly that I was sure that everybody could hear it, making them notice me.
This is going to be the longest lunch period of my life I thought mournfully, already counting down the minutes until Maths. God, you knew things were bad when quadratic equations were beginning to look appealing. I decided to assess my options.
1. Find a kindly-looking teacher and pretend that I feel sick: Not bad, but sadly I was not a good actress – far from it. I'd spent my elementary/middle-school days playing a rotating selection of trees, bushes, and once, memorably, a shepherd with a stripy-tea towel on my head in a Nativity Play. Of course this could have been because my teachers were taking pity on my crippling shyness by not casting me in important roles with lots of lines, but it also could have been that I had the authenticity of Tommy Wiseau when onstage.
2. Call Mum and beg for a lift home: Great in theory, but made impossible by the fact that she was working and we didn't own a car.
3. Hide in the library until the bell rang: Tried that. The library was closed at lunchtime, unless you were a senior or had a note from a teacher.
4. Sit at down at the closest empty chair, which was right next to a badger with "Cool Story Babe, Now Make Me A Sandwich" printed on his t-shirt: Ha ha, no.
Or I could just drop my tray and run out the glass doors, not stopping until I reach the new house on the other side of town. This was certainly tempting, but it fell into the category of 'making a spectacle of myself'. I knew that I couldn't stay at home forever. I'd have to leave the sanctuary of off-brand cereal and Netflix eventually, and when I did return, I'd forever be branded as "The Weird New Girl Who Ran Away From School That One Time For No Good Reason. I wasn't even sure how exactly to get to the new house, and as small as Station Square was, especially compared to Mobius City, I didn't want to risk getting lost. I probably should have paid attention on the bus ride over, but I was too busy biting my nails, agonising over my outfit, and thinking about every little thing that could go wrong on my first day.
Actually, my day had been uneventful so far. I'd sat at the back of each classroom and doodled on my notebooks while my teachers droned on about mitosis and the formation of the subjunctive tense. If I could get through the next forty-eight minutes without embarrassing myself, the day would actually be a success by my standards. I tightened my grip on my lunch-tray, weighed down by a tofu burger, wedges, and a cereal bar, all balanced precariously on top of my well-thumbed copy of 'Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince'. I'd brought it with me in order to appear like less of a socially inept wreck and maybe create some sort of 'mysterious intelligent lone-wolf' vibe instead, which could only be a step up. 'Harry Potter' probably wasn't the best choice, but I figured that bringing along 'Jane Eyre' or 'Pride and Prejudice' would have made me even more of a cliche. I'd practically be inviting some brooding loner misfit bad-boy sporting a leather jacket and guyliner to approach me and start quoting Shakespearean sonnets at me, and we'd fall madly and passionately in love in spite of all of the odds stacked against us.
I involuntarily shuddered at the thought. Dear God, I hoped not. The sheer awkwardness of the situation would probably kill me.
Still, at least in that scenario someone would have been making an effort to talk to me. I let out a little sigh. Nah. It wasn't fair for me to begrudge these strangers for not rolling out the Welcome Wagon when I wasn't making any effort to integrate myself.
I took a tentative step towards the rows and rows of plastic tables, when I felt something come up behind me and tap me on the shoulder. I reflexively let out a little squeal and spun around, almost dropping my tray in the process. I was suddenly staring into a pair of startlingly blue eyes, framed by long waves of blonde hair held back with a blue Alice Band.
"Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry about that!" the girl in front of me wailed.
I felt a lurch in my stomach. Shit. "Oh no! It's my fault, sorry, you just surprised me!" I stammered. "I was about to sit down, and - well - yeah, I was sitting down here and - you just scared me, I got scared and -" You're rambling Amelia. You're rambling, you're annoying her, why do you fucking bother - ? "I didn't expect ... I was by myself." I finished pathetically.
"That's actually why I came over here." The girl told me, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. I took in her appearance. She was tall hedgehog and extremely pretty. She had a lithe form which she carried well - shoulders back, tummy in, chin up. She was dressed simply in blue jeans and a white-lace long-sleeved top. The whole effect was rather Summery. It almost made up for the rather miserable October weather outside. "So, you're new here - I don't know if you noticed but we're in the same English class. Well, my friends and I saw you standing here, and we figured since you're new, you might not know anyone and that maybe you'd like to sit with us ...?"
Her invitation hung in the air for a couple of seconds before I processed what she was saying. A warm flush ran over my face. Oh God ... people have seen me standing alone and they feel sorry for me so they sent some poor girl over to include me.
(But isn't that what I'd been hoping would happen? That someone would notice me, make an effort with me?)
"Oh, well, I wouldn't want to bother anyone - " I stammered, shrinking back slightly from this ultraviolet girl.
(This is real though. It's very different from theoretical wishful thinking)
"You wouldn't!" she insisted, cutting me off. "In fact, it would be our pleasure!"
"Oh ... That's, yeah, that's really sweet of you to do." (Stop! End this now!) "I - If you're sure I wouldn't be bothering anyone..." (That's not what I meant! Abort! Abort!)
"Trust me, you won't. My friends are cool!" The statement didn't exactly calm me down – in fact, it did the exact opposite and succeeded in making me feel even more nervous. Every cell inside my body was screaming, telling me to run, spectacle be damned. But the girl was staring at me expectantly. It would be surely more awkward to back down now, right?
I managed a small smile, which the girl rewarded with one of her own. She led me past the rows of tables, waving at people, exchanging a brief, but animated, greeting with a couple of them, smiling all the way. I followed her like a strange little shadow in comparison, trying to talk myself through breathing – Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.
"So, if I remember correctly you have a flowery name?"
"Yeah - I'm Amelia Rose. I'm so sorry, I don't remember - ?"
"My name's Maria. Maria Robotnik."
"Oh ... that's really pretty."
"Thank you! My parents fell in love at a drive-through screening of 'West Side Story'."
"Oh … that's really sweet! Very, um, retro."
Maria seemed to have stopped listening – she bounced over to the very back of the cafeteria where three tables had been pushed together to accommodate the large group that was gathered there. I took them in; two echidnas, male and female, seemed to be bickering about something, while a glamorous bat watched them, toying with her yogurt.. A yellow fox with two tails, a cute rabbit with big brown eyes and a seedrian in a sweater dress were being tested by a bespectacled lavender cat, who was reading from colourful notecards. Excluding Maria and myself, there were three other hedgehogs, all male. A silver one raised his hand in a shy semi-wave, exposing a small cyan circular tattoo on the palm. There was a black-and-red hedgehog who looked like the real-life version of Brooding Fantasy Bad-Boy, including the guyliner which framed his piercing crimson eyes. On his other side was the third hedgehog. He had cobalt blue fur, and peach skin around his muzzle, and was looking at his phone and laughing at something on it.
"Everyone!" said Maria, clapping her hands together excitedly. "I am proud to present Miss Amelia Rose!"
Of course, having managed to avoid making a spectacle of myself, I was being made into a spectacle by somebody else. "Um ... hi!" I said, raising my hand awkwardly. I could feel that my palms were sweaty and I quickly lowered my hand, closing it into a fist by my side. "I'm new here."
A couple of them looked at me with mild interest and a couple of smiles. Maria slid onto a seat beside the black-furred hedgehog, pecking him swiftly on the cheek before looking back at me. "Amelia, I'd like you to meet everyone! On the far side we have Cream, Cosmo, Miles - "
"Please Maria, call me Tails!" the fox huffed, his tails twitching.
"Sorry - Tails. Blaze, and Silver."
"Welcome to Station Square High!" Cream beamed. Cosmo smiled beside her. Blaze nodded at me before looking back down at the note-cards.
"In front of Silver there's Rouge, then Knuckles, Tikal, Shadow, and Sonic!" Upon hearing his name, the cobalt hedgehog turned around to face me, mid-laugh. I was instantly hit by a pair of green eyes, looking directly into mine. And -
There you are.
My breath hitched suddenly in my throat. The involuntary sensation reminded me of my physical presence and I blinked in surprise, causing everything to shift suddenly around me, falling back into place. Sonic smiled at me - an easy, friendly, casual smile that was unnerving in its ordinariness. I quickly diverted my attention to the ground, before anybody noticed me staring at the guy whose name I'd only just learned.
(Especially since any of these girls could be dating him)
(Or any of the guys)
(Or he could be ace)
(I must stop making so many heteronormative assumptions)
(Blame it on my first-day nerves. Or hormones. Or hell, blame it on both)
"So, it's Amelia right?" the bat - Rouge - asked me, one eyebrow raised.
They were all looking at me. Ten pairs of eyeballs, all fixed on me. It occurred to me that I hadn't been on show directly in front of so many strangers since my final role as Tree No.5 in my middle school production of The Wizard of Oz. Now I was Dorothy, thrust into tecnnicolour Munchkinland, with no idea how I'd ended up there or what I was going to do. Was it to late to drop my tray and run?
I glanced up at the clock hanging on the wall. Thirty-two minutes until Maths. I could handle that, couldn't I? New school, new start. I took a deep breath - 1, 2, 3 - and put on a my best approximation of an easygoing smile. "Call me Amy. Amy Rose."