UGLY • by Meera Jhala

Lakeisha’s Momma called her “Princess” every morning, as she braided Lakeisha’s hair into fat black pigtails. Lakeisha was very glad that Momma had no idea of the ogre her Princess faced on the school bus every day. Red lights were the worst, because whenever the bus’s rattles stopped, Evan Meyer’s stream of insults flooded Lakeisha’s ears. At least afternoons weren’t as bad as mornings, because the ugly yellow bus was taking her home to Momma, instead of away.

Lakeisha was just glad she didn’t have to put up with Evan in class. Evan was twelve too, but he was in sixth grade, while Lakeisha was in eighth. Evan’s homework looked like a fistful of deformed letters that he had flung at the page, and sometimes he still confused “b” and “d.” Somehow though, nobody ever picked on him for that.

This afternoon on the bus was like all the rest. Evan flashed the driver a perfect smile as he got on, ran his fingers through the perfect sandy waves of his hair, and took the seat in front of Lakeisha.

“Did you hear the joke about the fat girl?” he asked, craning his neck around the side of his fake-leather seat to watch Lakeisha’s face as he spoke. “When she played hopscotch, she labeled the squares ‘Texas, Pennsylvania, Alabama…’” When Lakeisha showed no emotion, Evan’s face twisted into a sneer. “Your squares must be continents. You’re a pig, ‘Keisha.”

A girl sitting across the aisle narrowed her eyes at the back of Evan’s head. Lakeisha tried to meet her eyes, hoping she had found a friend. But although not everyone liked ogres, few were interested in defending a stranger from one. The girl turned her head and stared hard out the window, suddenly fascinated by the road signs. “You’re ugly,” Evan said, his voice a little louder than before. “Ugly with nappy hair.”

Unzipping her backpack, Lakeisha pulled out a book and shoved her nose in, so Evan couldn’t see her lower lip quiver. If only she were slender and graceful, like the Colombian sisters who glided to their seats every morning like twin flamingos, reducing Evan to a drooling puppy. If only her parents would get back together. If only she were a real princess, and she could banish mean boys from her kingdom, or get on her winged pony and fly away. The stream of “if-onlies” made Lakeisha so miserable that it drowned Evan out until she finally got home.

Parent-teacher meetings were that night, and so when Momma came home from work, she and Lakeisha drove back to school. While Momma and her teacher talked, Lakeisha wandered the corridors. She loved the school after hours; with the fluorescent lights dimmed, even the sickly green cinder block hallways seemed serene. In the half-darkness, the lockers were castle halls, and Lakeisha really was a princess — never mind that princesses weren’t chubby and clumsy, with cocoa skin, or that “Lakeisha” wasn’t a princess name.

A classroom door slammed. The startled princess slid between two rows of lockers and became invisible; one never knew what monsters might come along. She heard footsteps, and then a deep, angry voice. “So you’re getting held back. After all that money I spent on private tutoring. Evan Meyer, you’re a retard — like your mom. You. Goddamn. Retard.” Hollow metal clanged and shuddered as Evan’s body slammed against the lockers. Through the reverberations, Lakeisha heard the thin, trembling line of Evan’s sobs. Terrified, she backed away, and fled headlong down the hall.

“Yo, pig. Oink oink.” When Evan greeted Lakeisha the next morning on the bus, the back of his head touched his seat, and he winced. “Dumb soccer ball hit me,” Evan said to nobody in particular, glowering at his feet.

“Your dad hit you,” Lakeisha thought. “You have to tell someone. Don’t be scared. It’s not your fault.” She opened her mouth, then paused, struggling to choose the right words. The diplomatic aspects of being a princess were challenging sometimes.

Evan interrupted. “Can’t you talk, retard?”

Lakeisha’s shoulders stiffened. Maybe ogres lived in the deep, dark forest for a reason. If you offered them a room in your castle, they would eat you — so sometimes all you could do was leave them where they were. Her mouth closed, and she swallowed the words that might have changed Evan’s life.

Momma always said the way to make a bully go away was to ignore him, so that is what Lakeisha did — better not to meddle in the affairs of ogres. A month later, Evan stopped riding the bus. When someone said that he had broken his leg playing soccer, Lakeisha shut her eyes for a moment — then stared out the window, and absorbed herself in the road signs passing by.

Meera Jhala remembers writing her first poem at age six. At some point, she got detoured from creative writing. She did a PhD, traveled the world, and became a science professor. One day she left the professorship — and started writing again. In addition to Every Day Fiction, her creative writing has appeared in Flashquake and a variety of other publications.

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