Hidden Cracks - fiction by Trini Feng
No fake politeness can save Kaitlyn this time.
They had called her to the principal’s office not long before to discuss the graduation ceremony. Kaitlyn nodded and smiled through that meeting. This time, the masks are off, smiles peeled away and discarded, kindness left outside the door. Sympathy is not an option. The principal—Mr. Anders, with his receding gray hair and calm blue eyes—isn’t supposed to lay his wrinkled hand over Kaitlyn’s. He especially shouldn’t say, “You can go now, Miss Wu.”
She’s tempted to, but Kaitlyn is more worried about the girl next to her. Brianne stares at a nondescript spot on the wall, fingers locked together on the mahogany table.
“Don’t worry,” Mr. Coleman says, standing next to the desk. Through his glasses, he peers at Kaitlyn like she’s a puzzle that he’s lost the pieces to. “You’re not responsible for anything she’s done.”
“It’ll just be a few hours of detention for you,” Mr. Anders says. “Nothing more.”
Kaitlyn’s eyes linger on Brianne. “But—”
Brianne doesn’t look at her. “It’s fine. Leave.”
Kaitlyn doesn’t remember when Brianne was ever this numb—despite all the time Kaitlyn spent with her, all the time she spent thinking about her. Brianne is nonstop energy given human form; her emotions overflow because they’re too big for her body.
Kaitlyn turns to the teachers. “If you just give her a chance, she’ll be better. She’ll—”
“We’ve given her many chances,” Mr. Coleman says. “Years of classes and tutoring. It’s her fault for not learning.”
“We must punish cheating, Miss Wu,” Mr. Anders says. “We know you’re innocent. This won’t go on your record.”
Kaitlyn glances around the office, searching for a solution. A few newspaper clippings line the walls, featuring her smiling face, frozen in a happier time. Above her photo, bold letters boast her acceptance to Princeton—incredible, given how humble this school is. Here she is: a prodigy in this suburban, predominantly white high school, where half the graduates will go to the community college ten minutes away, where dreams of success are stowed away underneath grimy stairwells and in crevices on the stained walls.
Of course this wouldn’t go on record. All the articles have been printed, all the interviews recorded. If this got out, everything would instead detail the high school valedictorian’s fall from grace. In the school’s desperate cling to any fame, it won’t let that happen.
Kaitlyn wants to tear off her orange Princeton Tigers sweatshirt. It suffocates her, scratching and chafing in so many places.
“Miss Wu.” Mr. Anders smiles tightly. “Please leave. This doesn’t concern you.”
A threat is still a threat, no matter how polite. Kaitlyn nods, smoothing her frown into a straight line, and walks out of the office.
On her way out, Kaitlyn passes the Yangs, all dressed in the same simple, monochromatic outfits. Neither mother nor father glances at Kaitlyn, but their son does. Josh’s forehead scrunches in confusion, the stress lines already formed there—the same lines Kaitlyn sees in the mirror. They don’t fit on his small twelve-year-old face.
Thinking perhaps that Kaitlyn doesn’t speak their language, Mrs. Yang whispers to her husband in Mandarin. She could’ve been our daughter instead of that idiot.
Idiot. Kaitlyn hates that Brianne’s parents see their daughter that way, but she’s not surprised. They’re as ignorant as everyone else. One look at Brianne’s two-step geometry proofs and most assume she’s too dumb to understand. In reality, Brianne’s staggering leaps of logic are signals of surrender. Whenever Kaitlyn offered an eraser and an explanation, Brianne looked her in the eye. She didn’t say anything, but her intent was clear: the time for change had passed.
“I don’t want to try anymore,” Brianne had said after a pause. “Don’t you ever feel that way?”
“Yes,” Kaitlyn said. She knew she shouldn’t be, but she couldn’t lie to Brianne.
Kaitlyn throws her orange sweatshirt onto the chair next to her, unable to take pride even in that. She supposes she lied to everyone else. In every interview, Kaitlyn spouted some drivel about the importance of hard work, how anyone could get anywhere based on merits alone. While she preached those ridiculous inspirational motifs, Brianne had scrabbled for a single foothold into society.
Two weeks ago, Brianne, more of a sobbing mess than a person, came to her. She thrust her phone in Kaitlyn’s face, the “F” in geometry emboldened on the screen. Senior year would end in a month. Brianne had failed a test. That meant failing the class, which meant no graduation, no future, no freedom.
It was a familiar tale. Brianne had struggled to escape geometry for three years. Tutoring. Summer school. Online classes. Nothing worked.
“I could help you,” Kaitlyn said. “I’ll teach you how to think through the proofs and—”
Brianne shook her head. “I can’t.” Her words melded together, rushing out all at once. “I try and I can’t, I don’t understand why I should care when it’s all so useless and I can’t do it— why can’t I—”
Kaitlyn bounded to Brianne and wrapped her arms around her. “I’m here,” she whispered. Her breath lifted a few strands of Brianne’s dark hair.
“My parents will kill me.” Brianne choked out a sob, the tears dripping onto Kaitlyn’s shoulder. “I’m such a failure.”
“You’re not. You’re clever and fascinating and beautiful and—”
I love you, Kaitlyn wanted to say, but the words refused to come out. They were the truth in its unbridled, terrifying glory. It hurt too much to say, like it was a malfunction in the otherwise consistent circuit Kaitlyn had wired herself to be.
Kaitlyn doesn’t know how it happened. A few years ago, she and Brianne sat together, laughing about nothing and everything. Brianne threw a rock into the air, declaring war against the system. Kaitlyn noticed more than ever then the acute presence of Brianne’s shoulder touching hers and how Brianne’s dark eyes sparkled in the sunlight.
Now, Brianne stares straight ahead, hands balled into fists on her lap. Her parents gesture to Mr. Anders and Mr. Coleman, but anger doesn’t cloud their expressions; disappointment does. They don’t care to defend their daughter. Long ago, when they sent Brianne to all those summer camps, they might have. Perhaps their hearts were in the right place then.
But Kaitlyn remembers in third grade when she met that other girl. In that scenic lodge with a shining lake, they had been the only two with almond-shaped eyes and straight dark hair. The only two who brought dried seaweed for a snack; the only two whose favorite holiday was Lunar New Year—for the red envelopes and cash. When the others weren’t careful, they called Kaitlyn Brianne and Brianne Kaitlyn, because all they saw were two Asian girls.
Kaitlyn had bounced across the fields, excited at the mere prospect of going somewhere and doing something. Behind her, Brianne plodded along, solemnity coating her expression. She smiled finally when her parents picked her up and shot a picture with her and Kaitlyn. Still, her parents’ smiles were more genuine as they chatted away with Kaitlyn, marveling at all that she had already done in the short time that she had lived. To them, Kaitlyn had been the mold of a success story they were searching for. But that mold didn’t fit their oldest daughter—she punched through it and shredded it to pieces. Brianne was a lost cause, no skills within her worthwhile to nurture, so they forced their youngest son into the long-hardened, ancient clay cast.
In the office, Josh’s fingers dance on his lap, head tilted away from the teachers and toward the window. He meets Kaitlyn’s eyes, but he doesn’t smile, wave, or nod. His forehead creases, another new stress line forming, another invisible fracture in the perfect pottery of Joshua Yang.
“He has a piano competition in a few weeks,” Brianne murmured into Kaitlyn’s shoulder two weeks ago. “It’s big. Statewide. Why couldn’t I be a bit like him? Like you?”
“You don’t want to be like us.” Kaitlyn’s voice was quiet. She sacrificed everything to be a picture-perfect valedictorian, painting over thousands of her own fractures. Kaitlyn stepped away, gripping Brianne’s shoulders, not wanting to let go. “Do you need help?”
Brianne sighed. “I don’t want to drag you into this.”
“What do you need? I’ll do it.”
She stepped forward, her closeness sending Kaitlyn’s heart racing. “If you can retake my test for me, I won’t ask you for anything again.”
Kaitlyn wasn’t supposed to even consider the proposition. If Brianne couldn’t accomplish this on her own, why should Kaitlyn offer her a hand and help her up?
But her heart pulled her the other way, drawing yet another fissure—and this one threatened to split Kaitlyn in two. She said, “I’ll do it, but how…?”
Brianne’s smile was devoid of happiness. “That test center is run by someone who hasn’t seen me before. You know what they’ll see when you walk in? You holding my ID card—but it doesn’t matter, we’re both Asian girls, and all Asians look the same, aren’t they?”
Kaitlyn had been skeptical up until she scanned in with Brianne’s ID and the lady there nodded and smiled. Brianne was failing high school, but she knew how people worked better than Kaitlyn could.
If only Kaitlyn had replicated Brianne’s two-step proofs, but she was too logical. She spent too much time thinking through her options. Not like Brianne.
Brianne would not sit here now and watch as Josh’s mother slaps his arm and points him out of the office. He sits beside Kaitlyn outside, fresh tears on his cheeks.
Brianne would’ve moved already, damn the logic.
Kaitlyn sets her sweatshirt down and stands up.
Josh says, his voice cracking, “They’ll expel her, and they won’t listen. We— we can’t do anything…”
Of course. They want to let Brianne go. There’s no point holding onto something that’s about to slip through the system’s cracks, that could slash several cracks in the system all on its own. Better to sever the hold the school has on her and let her fall through the earth. They will bury her in their ever-growing graveyard of dreams; no one will ever know.
But Kaitlyn is the opposite: a success of the system, no matter how much it broke her. If they ignore her, they risk letting a star explode in their face.
“I’m going to try,” Kaitlyn says. The rift of Brianne is tearing into her heart—if Kaitlyn doesn’t do anything, she will soon lose the organ that so strongly drums out her truth.
She walks forward. Her paint peels, letting all her fractures—her faults of love, of adventure, of feeling—surface. Now they can see how broken they have made her.
Trini Feng has written for as long as she can remember, dreaming up stories and worlds while she lives in her own—the quiet suburbs of Illinois. She loves music, dabbling in piano and oboe and keeping headphones in at all times. In her free time, she also plays video games, and she conveys her love of all these things by lightheartedly making fun of them. She is a high school sophomore.