Have you ever been despised by everyone you knew? Were you ever forced to create a mask for yourself out of self-defense that doesn't stand for anything you believe in? Were you judged superficially, and never given the chance to prove your judges wrong? Have you ever felt that you were permanently placed in the vulnerable, awkward stage of your life? Have you ever had your happiest moments shattered by the fact that your whole life is a lie?

Was the wool over your eyes torn cruelly away and wrapped around your throat?

When I look back at the events, I see that I led myself into it, and I know now what I could've done to prevent it. But they say that hindsight is 20/20 vision, and I understand that my future is down the drain and the plumber's retired. Looking back shows me that her plans were visible all along.

They were just as transparent as I am now.

I first went to Mineral Town when I was ten. My father was a traveling merchant, and he liked finding new places in desperate need of trade. Unlike most children, I loved the life of a vagabond. Most kids complained about how traumatizing it was to move, but I never thought it was a bad thing.

Truth to be told, I hated staying in the same place with the same people. Wherever I went, the local children would make fun of me, and the only way for me to find release from the constant torture was to move again. I guess you could say they hated me because I was different, but I think that particular statement has a high "duh" factor. I had gone through puberty when I was nine, which put a huge boundary between my peers and me. I was 5'3 in the fourth grade, and loomed over all of my classmates. All of my potential male friends loathed me because of my height, deep voice, and overall maturity. It wasn't my fault that I looked that way, and yet they treated me as if I were the anti-Christ.

It didn't help that girls really liked me. I looked like something out of a boy band to them, so I was constantly smothered with women. Since the other boys were smaller than me and afraid to beat me up for stealing their attention, they opted to shun me. I found solace in the arms of my little girlfriends, who were my only friends wherever I went. I guess being around the

The only other thing I found comfort in was swimming. I was a strong swimmer, and my father enrolled me in swim teams wherever I went. I guess I liked it so much because it was easy to clear my mind of the stress and torment of everyday life by just mindlessly kicking and moving my arms. No matter how mean everyone else was, the water was always accepting, always willing to take me back into its flowing embrace.

The beach in Mineral Town was one of the most alluring factors the place held. As my father and I sat on board the ferry, I rested my eyes upon the far-away strip of sand that was the beach. The water sloshing at the edges of our boat was a deep, calming blue, and I could almost feel it splashing on my skin with the warmth that came from late spring weather. 'Only a little longer,' I thought, anxious to jump in.

But, once we got on shore, my father pulled me over to a group of children and left me there to "make friends." It was a very small group, composed of one boy and five girls.

"Hi," I said, "I'm Kai. What's your name?"

The other kids just looked at me. Finally, a little boy with red hair spoke up.

"Why are you talking to us, big kid?" he asked curiously.

I smiled. Finally, someone wasn't being hostile from the start! "I'm not a big kid," I replied. "I'm ten. I just look big."

The boy smiled and held out his hand. "I'm Rick. I'm ten too. My mommy and daddy have a chicken farm." He paused, looking around. "Where's your mommy?"

I looked down. "My mom left me when I was six," I said.

The little girls looked sad, but Rick laughed. He pointed to me, continuing his laughter. "Your mommy doesn't love you!" he taunted. "Nobody wants you!"

I felt tears welling up in my eyes. "Stop it," I said, trying not to cry in front of all the little girls.

But Rick was persistent. "What'd you do to make you so bad that even your mommy hates you? Huh, loser?" I sniffled, my chest shaking slightly.

I heard a loud "oof!" come from Rick's direction, and looked up. A little girl with bright pink hair had pushed Rick on the ground.

"Just because everyone makes fun of you doesn't mean you can be mean to other people! He was just trying to make friends, Rick!"

Rick looked up at the little girl, and his bottom lip started trembling. Before he could start crying, however, another little girl came out of the crowd and picked him up.

"Thanks, Karen," he said, sniffling and wiping his eyes.

"It's ok," said the little girl who had helped him up. She looked at me apologetically, and then walked off with Rick in another direction.

The girl with pink hair watched them walk off, and then turned back to be when they were out of earshot. "Don't mind Rick," she said. "He's just a big meanie." She smiled at me, and held her hand out. "I'm Popuri, Rick's little sister."

I took her hand and shook it. "Thanks," I said, and looked her over. She was wearing a cute green dress with a floral print, and looked a lot older than Rick. "Are you really his little sister?"

Popuri laughed. She had a very bright, girly laugh. "Yep. I look older than him, I know, and I can beat him up, too. He's a wimp, and Karen's his only friend."

"Poor guy," I said. "People make fun of him?"

"Yeah," replied Popuri. "Even the chickens don't like him!"

We both laughed for a moment. "Let's go for a walk!" suggested Popuri. "Then we can get to know each other better!"

I agreed, and we walked off down a path together.

"So, Popuri...why is your hair pink?"

***

Over the next couple of days, Popuri and I bonded. I got to know some of the other village girls, too, but I hung out with Popuri the most. All in all, it was much like all of the other places I had lived - the boys hated me and the girls loved me. But somehow, Mineral Town had something extra in it. Maybe it was the fact that the summer season always had an air of romance, and Popuri was something special to me.

One day, on my way home after hanging out with Popuri for a long time, I saw Karen sitting alone on a bench near her parents' store. Her head was down, and her shoulders were shaking. Was she...crying? I walked over to the bench and sat down beside her.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

Karen sniffled and looked up quickly, and I saw what the problem was. She had a big cut on her lower lip, which was abnormally swollen. I gasped. "What happened?"

She rubbed a hand across her eyes, trying vainly to wipe away all her tears. "Nothing," she said, putting her head down and avoiding eye contact.

I put my finger under her chin and lifted her head back up. "That sure doesn't look like nothing," I said. "What happened, really? You can trust me, I promise."

Karen sniffled weakly again, and was silent for a moment. When she spoke, her voice was heavy with suppressed tears. "I feel stupid," she said. "I was walking in the kitchen with a big plate of food, and I tripped on the table leg. The plate broke, and a piece cut my lip."

I smiled at her. "It's okay," I said. "No use crying over spilled milk."

She let out an unexpected trill of laughter. "It's funny!" she explained to my raised eyebrow. "I was carrying a tray of milk and cookies!"

I laughed as well. Karen gave me a broad smile, and then winced from the pain in her lip. "It hurts," she said.

I hugged her, feeling like a consoling parent. "Want me to kiss it and make it all better?" I asked, only half joking.

She shrugged. "Okay."

We leaned in to each other, and our lips met. It wasn't my first kiss, and I suspected that it wasn't hers either. The kiss was a friendly one, devoid of any passion or attachment, and was meant solely as a way to make a boo- boo feel better.

We heard a gasp to our side, and broke off the kiss, looking toward the source of the sound. Rick was standing there, gazing incredulously at us.

"Rick, it's not what it looks like!" exclaimed Karen.

But Rick didn't hear her. He strode over to me, and slammed his fist into my jaw. I reeled back, clutching it. Rick was breathing heavily with anger.

"You stay away from Karen, you freak. I hate the idea of you going out with my little sister, but if you're gonna be with her, stay the hell away from my girl. If you break Popuri's heart, I'll break you, punk."

I had learned from experience that when someone was angry, geek or no, they could definitely beat the crap out of a person with very little effort. It seemed like a good time to leave, so I did. I went home and nursed my jaw, avoiding my father and the need to tell him that I had just been beaten up by the village wimp.

I thought that the incident would remain private, but apparently news traveled faster in small places than I thought. The next day, Popuri walked up to me in a fit of fury and slapped my cheek, leaving a red hand-shaped mark there.

"I hate you!" she exclaimed. "I leave you alone for one day, ONE day, and you go off kissing other girls!" Through her fury I saw tears welling up in her eyes. "How could you do this to me?"

"Popuri," I said, reaching out to touch her arm.

She jerked angrily away from me. "Don't touch me!" she cried. "I hate you, Kai! I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!"

She started to walk away, and ran right into Karen. 'I'm screwed now,' I thought.

Karen gave Popuri an apologetic look. "Popuri, it really wasn't what it looked like," said Karen.

Popuri turned away from her. "Yeah, the crocodile tears of a whore." She turned back and smiled. "I saw that on T.V.! I don't know what it means, but it makes me sound grown-up, huh?" Then she realized who she was talking to, and defiantly turned away again.

Karen raised an eyebrow, but kept her voice steady. "Look, he was just kissing my boo-boo, to make it feel better. I don't want to steal him from you, and I know he likes you better than me. Besides, Rick is my boyfriend! I wouldn't want to hurt him." She looked at her feet. "I guess I already did, though. I'm sorry, Popuri. Tell Rick that." With that, Karen walked away.

Popuri turned back to me. I looked into her eyes, searching for forgiveness. "I'm sorry, too," I said. "Really, Poppy, you're the only girl for me."

She wiped away her tears and hugged me tightly. "It's ok," she said. "Just never do it again, okay?" I nodded, and gave her a kiss.

***

At the end of the summer, my father came up to me and smiled. "How do you like it here?" he asked.

I smiled broadly back at him. "I love it!" I said. "It's the best place we've been so far! How long can we stay?"

His smile disappeared, and a pained expression replaced it. "I hate to tell you this, Kai," he said, "but we're leaving tomorrow. You should go and say goodbye to all your friends here now, since we're leaving early tomorrow."

I looked back at him, stricken. "Why?" I cried.

He hugged me. "I'm sorry, buddy," he said. "The life of the traveling merchant isn't a steady one. There are lots of ports out there." His mouth twitched up at one side. "On the plus side, we can come back here every summer!"

I gave him a little smile. "I'll go say 'bye' to my friends now, then," I said, and walked out.

On the day I left, Popuri and I stood on the docks together, waiting for the ferry. I had said my farewells to everyone else, but she insisted on coming to the pier at the early morning hours for our last meeting that year.

"I'll write to you every week," I said, embracing her. "I'll call you as much as I can, too."

She cried into my shirt. "Don't leave me, Kai!" she said. "I don't want you to leave."

I stroked her abnormally-colored hair, kissing her forehead. "I'll come back next year, you'll see! Don't worry, Popuri, I'll come back for you."

She looked up at me. "You promise?"

I kissed her. "I promise," I said.

The ferry pulled up to the dock, and Popuri hugged me tightly. "I love you, Kai," she said.

"I love you too, Poppy."

***

I traveled around with my father, and though we found many things in many different places, I never found any girl quite like Popuri. Instead of attempting to make new friends at the various ports we went to, I found myself counting the days until we would return to Mineral Town. She was the only thing that was ever on my mind besides swimming. Swimming was, in fact, the only thing I enjoyed other than Mineral Town.

When we did return to Mineral Town every summer, I would spend every waking moment with Popuri. We were inseparable. Every day was nirvana when we were together, whether we were hiking in the forest or swimming at the beach. I still swam a lot in Mineral Town, even with Popuri. She enjoyed watching me swim, and so I indulged.

Soon enough, I was old enough to be on my own in the world. I worked in a cold, snowy place for three seasons a year, but I spent my summers at Mineral Town every year. My father was taking his business across the globe, but I found it easier to have my own little restaurant wherever I went. I had a nice little junk food place that I ran from autumn to spring, but my summers were reserved for my little shop there. I called it the Seaside Shack, and people from all over came to get some food from me.

Okay, my only regular customer was Popuri. She came every single day and helped me run the place. I guess she was more of an employee that I didn't pay. But she did tell her friends about the Seaside Shack, and they came over and bought some junk food. Men stayed relatively clear of the beach during the summer; apparently Rick had spread some gossip about my being a womanizer, or something. I wasn't running the shop for the money, anyway; it was more of an excuse to be able to live by the beach and not have to pay to stay at the local Inn.

The years passed by in a blur of old memories. One year, a new guy came to the village. His name was Jack, and he was a farmer. I met him for the first time when I was cleaning up the store at the beginning of the summer. I heard a little cough and turned toward it, expecting to see Popuri. Instead, a guy was standing there, shuffling his feet in the sand.

"Hello!" I called out. "Can I help you?"

The man looked up, and smiled nervously. "Hey," he said. "I'm Jack. I just moved here this spring."

I shook his hand. "Welcome, Jack!" I said. "I'm Kai. This is my restaurant. If you've ever got the munchies, just come and talk to me. Well, maybe not today; I'm still setting up."

Jack smiled. "I've got a minute," he said. "Need a hand?"

I smiled back at him. "Sure!"

We worked on the messy place for the rest of the day. It got so dirty while I was away. It usually took me two or three days to clean the place myself, but with Jack helping, it was done in no time. I got to know him while we cleaned up, and he seemed to be a really nice guy.

"Thanks a bunch, man!" I said to him afterwards, slapping him on the back.

"No problem," said Jack. "What do you say we head to the Inn and have a drink?"

I grinned. "Sounds great!"

We went to the Inn and sat at a table together, sipping our liquor. Jack was really friendly, and the booze loosened our tongues, letting us talk even more freely.

"You know," I said to Jack, "you're the only guy that's nice to me."

Jack gave me a sympathetic look. "I don't see why," he said. "You're a great guy!"

I grinned. "Thanks."

I spent the rest of that summer hanging out with both Popuri and Jack. It was exhilarating to me to actually have a male friend to hang out with, and I took full advantage of it. When I left again, I had two people saying farewell to me on my early-morning ferry ride out of the village, and I was genuinely sorry to leave both of them. I spent the rest of the year in my other, icy home, splitting my time between work and swimming in indoor, heated pools. The chlorine was suffocating to me, but I managed to ignore it after a while.

Finally, it was summer again. I went on the ferry, waiting impatiently for my arrival at Mineral Town. I couldn't wait to see Jack and Popuri again. My best friend and my girlfriend awaited me on the dock on the other side of the ocean, and I could almost see them standing there, waiting for me.

Soon enough, I did see them on the pier. They seemed to be standing rather close, but I shrugged it off as an illusion of distance. When the ferry finally arrived, they both ran enthusiastically toward me, and I was caught up in a loving three-way embrace. We chatted amiably about what had happened over the past year, catching up on old times. It was great to be back!

One day, after I closed up the Shack, I decided to go surprise Jack on his farm. I'd been there a couple of times the previous year, and I wanted to see how far he'd gotten with its development. I headed over there happily, humming a little tune.

When I got to his farm, all the windows were dark. That was kind of surprising, since it was about eight thirty, and kind of dark. Most people had their lights on by that time. As I got closer to his little house, I noticed that there was a dull glow in one of the window. Ah, he had a candle. I smirked. Candles were usually reserved for romantic occasions, so I had the idea that Jack was entertaining a guest. Did Jack have a special girl he was interested in? Why hadn't he told me? I walked over to his window, hoping to catch a glimpse of who the lucky lady was.

What I saw shocked me. Jack was indeed entertaining a lady friend, but she definitely wasn't one I'd approve of. He and Popuri were kissing on his sofa. Now, it wasn't the type of boo-boo kissing that I had done with Karen all those years back. No, this was deep, probing kissing, the kind that Popuri and I reserved for foreplay. That was apparently what I was witnessing, for their kissing evolved into more intimate motions.

I jerked myself away from the window, stricken. How could they do this to me? My two best friends were...I shook my head, incredulous. No, it couldn't be. It just couldn't be! I started running, and slammed into Jack's mailbox hard on the way out.

I ran to the bar. I needed to get drunk, really drunk, and kill off all the brain cells that would remember what I had just seen. On my way into the bar, I ran into Karen. Her eyes were red and puffy, and she had obviously been crying.

"What's wrong?" I asked, ignoring my own misery for a moment to comfort her. I had never been as close to Karen as I was to Popuri, but we had remained friends for all those years.

"I need to get drunk," she said. "I need it, now."

I nodded, and walked with her in silence to the bar. We sat next to each other and nursed some drinks, waiting to get smashed enough to confide in each other. Karen opened up first.

"Rick and I had a fight," she said, her voice slurred. "He said he doesn't love me anymore. What happened to you?"

"I just saw Popuri cheating on me with Jack."

She put a clumsy arm around my shoulder. "I hate relationships," she said. "What do you say we show 'em not to mess with us?"

I looked at her, perplexed. "How do we do that?"

She grinned at me. "Let's go to the beach," she said. "I'll show exactly what I mean."

She grabbed my hand, dragging me out of the bar and down to the beach. The alcohol in our blood took over, and I didn't even realize what I was doing until I heard a small scream.

"Kai!" screamed Popuri.

Karen looked up in fear. She grabbed her discarded clothing and ran from the beach in terror. I was left with Popuri, alone on the beach.

"How could you do that?" she asked.

I looked at her rebelliously. "I saw what you were doing with Jack," I said. "You think I'm the bad one? How long has this been going on?"

She frowned at me. "A long time," she said. "You expect me to wait for you forever, Kai?"

I felt my eyes water. "Popuri," I said, "I love you. I'm a drunk fool right now, and I'm sorry for what I did. Can't you take me back? I'm sorry, and I love you!"

Popuri gave me a merciless glare. "No," she said. "You only complicate things! I'm going to have the village exile you...if I kill a couple of my family's chickens and tell them you did it, they'll believe me. You'll be gone for good."

I stared at her. "Why?" I asked. "What happened to us?"

She sighed impatiently. "I need a man that's always here for me, Kai," she said. "Jack's not going to leave me alone. You, on the other hand, leave me all the time. My brother hates you, and yells at me all the time for being with you. He approves of Jack. You just make things bad for me."

I couldn't believe it. She didn't love me, after all. Popuri continued with her little speech. "It's even worse now that you saw me and Jack together. I can't let it get around that I've slept with him before marriage, now can I? I need to get rid of you somehow..."

She looked about for a solution to her problem, and her eyes rested upon the sea. An evil gleam came to her eyes, and she turned back to me. She grabbed my hands and started dragging me toward the pier.

"Poor Kai," she said to herself. "He drowned at sea! I told him not to go swimming after he drank so much, but he just didn't listen to me." Popuri tied my arms tightly behind my back. She grabbed two large rocks and tied them to my feet, pushing my legs over the edge. "Of course, I'll have to add some tears to make it realistic, but that shouldn't be too hard."

My eyes widened in horror as comprehension dawned on me. She was going to kill me! I was going to be fish food! I tried to struggle, but I was much too inebriated to move. She pushed me into the water, but held my head up, lowering me slowly into the water.

"Bye, Kai," she said, lowering my head into the water just enough so that my nose and mouth were under. "I guess this is the final goodbye, huh? I'll see you next summer! Oh, wait, no I won't!" She giggled. "See you in hell, I guess." With that, Popuri dropped me into the water.

I thrashed violently, trying to free myself from my bonds. Eventually I gave up, and looked up to the surface, only half conscious. All I could see was the dark night sky, oddly deformed by the water. I floated listlessly, feeling the air drain rapidly from my lungs.

I felt betrayed by everything. My love, my friend-even the water had gotten back at me in the end. The worst thing was that when I looked back at my life, I realized that I really hadn't done anything monumental with my life. Sure, a couple of people in the middle of nowhere wouldn't get the summer junk food they were used to, but they could cope with that. In my other home, nobody would notice at all; there were plenty of other fast food places they could go.

In the end, it was as if I had never been.

I was erased, like an unwanted, crooked line on a piece of endless paper.