SECOND PLACE WINNER 9TH-10TH
by Angela Tao
Mia stood in front of the mirror, gritting her teeth at the painful sensation of her skin twisting and crumpling and pinching itself into Leah Wintern, the loved and well-known darling of her school. Her bones screamed in protest as her features molded into place. Warm, brown eyes, mousy locks of chestnut hair and elegant horns spiraled out of the crown of Mia’s head and painfully warped into shape.
Last week Mia impersonated the blue-eyed, fair-skinned Calla Corte, who was a mysterious and intelligent vampire. Before that, she was the hourglass-figured and flat-stomached Ava Smith, who was a playful and graceful elf. Mia had been more people than she had strands of hair on her head, but Leah Wintern was her favorite of them all.
Leah was unconventionally beautiful, contradicting everything Mia thought popular and amiable people looked like. Leah’s teeth were too large, her arms were covered in faded scars, and her eyes were a dull and ordinary color. But as time passed and Leah rose to the top of her school’s social hierarchy, Mia noticed that people were not fazed by those obvious flaws. Leah spent so much time smiling and spreading contagious bouts of laughter that no one cared about the size of her teeth. The amount of radiant joy and confidence that twinkled in her eyes made them incredibly captivating and magnetizing to gaze into despite their common brown color, and Leah’s scars seemed to be less noticeable with each day that she spent hugging her friends and lifting spirits.
As soon as the transformation was complete, Mia clenched her fists, gasping for air as the world spun around her and her stomach contracted. She shoved down the bile rising in her throat, looked into a mirror, and stared hard into her face, ironing out any accidental dents and imperfections that had unknowingly been created while transforming. Mia smoothed out her freshly-ironed dress and tried to get a feel for her new body by bending her fingers and walking a few steps. She scrutinized her reflection, feeling an angry knot form in her stomach. The difference between Mia and everyone she mimicked was that Mia was the faded and washed-out version of them, like a photo that had been photocopied too many times. Nowadays, it seemed like the more and more she changed, the grayer and grayer she became.
Mia breathed in deeply, forcing out all of her negative thoughts and smiled brightly, channeling her idol. I am no longer Mia, she recited to herself. I am better. I will be noticed. I will be like her. The passion and determination that Mia expressed at the start of the school year had gradually changed to a miserable desperation.
Mia never ceased to marvel at the way Leah always seemed to attract her own personal galaxy, a group of planets orbiting around her beaming light. Maybe if Mia acted like her, she would have a galaxy, too.
But unsurprisingly, she was not orbited that day. She was ignored. Drifting in and out of classes, stares followed Mia like death at an elderly man’s side. The whispers in the back of the classes drowned out what the teacher was saying. The snickers and side glances in the hallway made Mia want to peel off her skin, which now felt tight and constricting, suffocating her inside. She was a leech, they said with a contemptuous scoff; not smart enough to think for herself or beautiful enough to wear her own face for once.
Mia’s vision slowly filled with thick and heavy tears, and her face turned red-hot. Every time she molded into someone everyone adored, they all judged and sneered at her. A lump wobbled in Mia’s throat. She did it all for them, to please them, to be noticed by them, to be like them, but all they ever did was laugh at her for attempting to fit into their standards.
She could feel everyone’s eyes boring into her in every class she attended. Mia’s fingers itched to tear off her skin. The whispers roared in her ears. She couldn’t stand it anymore. She couldn’t take it anymore. She couldn’t, she couldn’t, she couldn’t.
Mia shoved away her chair, grimacing at the harsh, scraping noise that cut the teacher off mid-sentence. Everyone’s heads whipped to stare at her with distasteful frowns and eye rolls. The teacher opened his mouth to sound her off, but Mia was already halfway to the bathroom by then.
Her fingernails dug into the side of the sink. She could hear her blood rushing through her veins, her heart pounding against her ribcage, and her breaths coming in rough, ragged gasps. Mia slowly lifted her eyes to the mirror. They would never see all the effort and pain she had suffered through to be accepted by them. Tears of anguish fell onto the lip of the sink.
All of a sudden, the door to the bathroom swung open. Mia jumped back and shielded her face from whoever it was. She was about to rush into the stalls, but a voice stopped her in her tracks.
“What’s wrong, Mia?” the voice gently asked her. Mia’s eyes widened as soon as she realized it was Leah Wintern. She lowered her arm and let it fall to her side.
Surprise flashed across Mia’s face. “Y-you know m-my name?”
Leah’s eyes wrinkled kindly as she smiled. “Of course, I’ve heard so many things about you. You’re the talented shapeshifter girl who can change into anyone and anything, right?” Leah scanned her up and down. Mia locked her arms at her sides to resist hugging herself and hiding her body. “But why would you change into me?” Leah’s tone was not sharp or upset but simply curious.
A red blush creeped up Mia’s neck. “Everyone likes you. Everyone notices you. You’re always the center of attention,” she mumbled, hesitant to say the words. “Is it because you’re perfect?” Mia dared to ask her.
Leah laughed. It was a hearty, easygoing sound that diffused the tension in Mia’s body. “I’m not well-liked because I’m perfect. That’s far from the truth. I’m liked because I don’t let people who comment that I need to change or that I’m ugly and annoying affect me,” she paused. “And, I guess in a way, that is perfection.”
A crease formed in between Mia’s eyebrows as she processed everything Leah said. She was taken aback by her answer. It was a completely different perspective that she had never considered before.
“You don’t need to copy me to be liked. It won’t get you anywhere. Be yourself. You can move mountains with that,” Leah advised.
Her words resonated in Mia’s mind for the rest of the day. As soon as she arrived home, she threw her backpack on her bed and sprinted to the bathroom mirror. Mia smoothed her bones back into their normal structure and let the flesh on her calves grow back. Leah’s heavy horns finally loosened their aching grip on Mia’s skull and disapperated into the air. Her mask quickly undid itself. The gray filter removing Mia’s colors of vigor fell away to reveal her flushed cheeks and rosy lips and glowing skin. If shapeshifting into someone else was the constriction of a straitjacket, then shapeshifting back into yourself was the freedom of a flowing dress.
Mia brushed her hand up and down her arm, feeling smooth skin run under her fingertips, her skin run under her fingertips. She lifted a hand to rake through her thick, onyx hair. There was a newfound realization blooming in the eyes of the girl in the mirror, who Mia would one day be acquainted with personally. It would be a long journey to fully know and understand herself, but at least it was the beginning of her own acceptance.
And, Mia guessed in a way, that was perfection.