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While You Still Can

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They would have done it for the hair.

She could have bleached it. She could have dyed it in candy colours like the ganguro girls. Then they would have noticed the slight differences around her eyes, the slight difference in her skin that she kept out of the sun and kept under foundation but they could still tell.

They would have done it for the hair, so she might as well go all the way.

She doesn't talk to him about her mother. She finds him crying, sometimes, when she's quiet enough and he thinks she isn't there. She doesn't mention that, either. She knows he does the best he can, even though it's hard, even though no-one else understands.

They will not break them. They will not make him abandon his ancestral home.

She wonders sometimes if he should have left her with the grandparents, in their tiny rent-controlled flat in the city. They seemed to do okay. They'd appreciate the company. They'd appreciate someone who speaks the language natively.

That would have left him without the final part of her, so she understands why he didn't.

She loves the house, even as they fit into it awkwardly - slightly too many rooms, old lumpy beds, too much to dust and hoover. It is just like all the other houses, but it has been in his family for five generations and it is special to both of them.

The surroundings are beautiful, too. Leafy, suburban, full of immaculately kept gardens.

She just wishes it could be stocked with better people. She knows that they were there first, and that in some ways she keeps them at arm's length, but she is very sure that they started it. Or at least, more various people? Not all so… white.

That isn't a deterministic thing - like, they don't have to be that way - her father comes from here, but he loved her mother, and he loves her as she is.

She wonders if it's easier or harder for him. He doesn't have to go to school, and school is the worst - teenagers are always the worst. But she sees that it breaks his heart that she is so embattled, and some days she just wants to tell him it's okay, that it's her choice.

That would be a lie, but he doesn't need to know. He doesn't need to carry the burden that remaining here has given her.

She walks past the clusters of girls, pointedly ignoring their looks. She notices, though. She notices the boy who looks at her, too. He doesn't laugh afterwards. He keeps almost making some friendly overtures, then stopping. It must be difficult when you have a choice.

Then the girl with the Mediterranean features - eager to stay in with the others - throws a frog onto her desk.

Everyone laughs. She expects she's supposed to react. If she did it to any one of them, there would be screaming and flailing. She looks at the frog. It doesn't deserve this. It hops onto her arm. Definitely screaming and flailing, from anyone else in the class, even the boys. She watches it hop onto the floor, make a bid for escape.

There is a moment when she considers diving after it - making sure it gets out of here safely.

Run, little frog. Get out of here while you still can.

That would be exactly what they want - making her cause a disturbance in front of the teacher.

Everyone is trying to get to her for the rest of the day, after their little ruse failed to produce the entertainment they were after. After the third foul in gym class the teacher asks her to sit out for the rest of the lesson. It's clearly not her fault, but it's causing a disruption. That's the cardinal sin, after all - causing a disruption.

The teacher attempts to come and apologise, or explain, or justify himself, after the lesson is over and the others have cleared the hall.

She doesn't want to hear it. She's just tired. Tired of having to be the centre of attention, tired of having to pretend she doesn't care about it, tired of being the obvious target, just tired, tired, tired of the whole stupid game.

Then she is distracted by a crow at the moment the bus drives past, and without a clear signal it just keeps rolling on.

She is capable of walking home. She doesn't have to get the bus. It's a nice day for it. She starts walking, past the little row of shops, past the parked car that suddenly remembers to engage the locks as they see her, past the barking dogs…

They belong to a couple who are the spitting image of her father's parents, whose eyes follow her suspiciously.

She doesn't want to analyse whether their worried expressions are for the dogs, or for her, or because of her, so she keeps walking, past double-takes, past the crossing-lady - the crossing-lady who looks a lot like she would, if she tried to fit in.

The way she is stuck out here on the late shift suggests she hasn't managed to fit in, either.

She feels the crunch of something underfoot, doesn't even look down. Not far now to get home. Ignore the people in the playground who avert their children's eyes. Not far now to get home.

The majestic flock of birds that erupt from the trees remind her she likes it here, really.

She just needs to keep telling herself that as she passes the neighbours trimming their flowers, keeps her head down, opens the gate…

The gate is sticky. That's gross. What have they done to her this time?

She looks down and there is black paint on her hand. That doesn't make any sense. No-one who was trying to get at her would use black paint on her gate? Unless someone had developed a significantly more advanced sense of irony since last time she checked?

That doesn't seem likely. Something is different in the garden too.

She looks up.

She looks up to see her father, on a ladder, determinedly at work as usual - determinedly at work, painting their beloved ancestral home - determinedly at work, painting it black.

He turns for a moment, having heard the gate; he looks at her; he almost smiles.

He never smiles.

She tries not to cry. She shouldn't cry. He can't read people very well - he'd take it the wrong way.

He goes back to the painting, but steals glances at her.

As she gets to the door, she manages to look back, and smiles.