Am I worth it? Why are emotions so complicated? Why do humans overthink everything? 

         The sleeve of my sweatshirt is damp, I look at the puffy-eyed, brown tangled hair mess of a girl. The flashes come and go, but each day gets harder and harder to understand the pointless struggles that we all face. Elementary school involved no complications: you cried when you were in pain, you were mad when you were unable to sleep over at a friend’s, and happy when you got the part in the play. Middle school was when doubts and jealousy crept in: did the girl that didn’t even study deserve that A? Did you deserve that C after the hours studying after school and revising? 

         However, it got much worse in high school: people moved away, friendships broke, gossip ran wild. Most importantly, despite being with these individuals for years, I never knew who they really were. 

         The auditorium of Berk Preparatory, now, filling up with Juniors, the colours flashing before my eyes, enough to make me dizzy. I sensed the tensions between couples, the anxiety-induced stress within the Regina George of our class. These were normal. When the other grades piled up in the auditorium, I immediately tried running to the corner; the corners often had a bit of space so the flashes could die down. But, luck was not on my side.

         “Aster, over here!” I heard Carter call my name. “Is it happening again?” He asked when I managed to squeeze behind him into the corner, his tall build shielding me from the masses. 

         He didn’t need an answer, he knew but for reassurance, I reply with a soft, “yes.” 

         Carter has been my one true friend for over 16 years. We met as infants; he was only a month older but acted much older. He was able to socialise much better than me, but he didn’t let his popularity take over our friendship. 

         The noise soon calmed, and the principal gave his opening speech, and we were all still standing in the positions we had taken. Today’s speech was nothing particularly special: announcements regarding midterm testing dates, SAT preparations, and the formal tomorrow. 

         A sense of happiness floating from Carter enveloping me in its warm embrace —his emotions were not like the rest. Carter didn’t push down his feelings, like everybody else. He felt them. This memory occurred when his family had to put down Chip, the rottweiler whom everybody adored, especially Carter. 

         The assembly was now emptying, whatever the principal had said was useless to us. We stood awaiting the last few stragglers to leave, juniors had the rest of the week off to prepare for the next term. Carter and I decided to stay longer. What was the point of going home? To do more homework for our endless academic career? What was the point to any of this? 

         “Hey, let’s go to that yoghurt shop you love so much,” he said grabbing my hand pulling me outside. Despite not being able to tell others’ emotions, Carter was very accustomed to mine, maybe even more than me.

         My mind buzzed endlessly, the conscious stream of thoughts occupied any empty space left. I thought of all the rich kids who spent every minute of their time at the mall and somehow still got straight As in all their classes. Speaking of which, a tall blonde girl with her pink bag and perfectly applied makeup was now walking past us. 

         The colour of nature, the freshness had somehow turned so evil, this hue enveloped my senses. It trapped me underneath its heavy barbed wires. An ugly emotion, an emotion that reeked of attention. Envy. 

         “Carter, what am I feeling?” 

         “Oh this again? You know it doesn’t work for me.”

         I planted my feet down, no longer letting him pull me along.

         “Oh c’mon, I don’t know. Sad because school is an endless pit of hell,” Carter guessed.

         He tugged on my hand, I gave in.

         “Oh I was right?”

         “No.”

         No further questions followed. Carter would’ve been right if only a minute hadn’t passed. 

         We made our way through the empty halls and then out the main doors, waving “bye” to Bobby on our way out. Fat drops of rain splattered around us, evening out the tear-sodden crook of the arm of my sweatshirt. My sweatshirt! It was wet, that’s how Carter knew: one mystery solved. 

         “Mr Sprinkle’s” logo, bright against the gloomy weather, announced our arrival. It would cheer anyone up. I reached the door first and held the door wide so Carter could go in. Mr Sprinkle was sitting at the counter as usual, next to the delivery boxes and rope. Mr Sprinkles knew us by name and knew our orders. 

         “How’s everything Mr Sprinkle?” Carter casually brought forth the usual small talk.

         “Business is booming, sold thirty-five yoghurts already!” Mr Sprinkle said in his musically resonant voice. 

They conversed on topics involving Alfie and Poppet, Mr Sprinkle’s kids, and Carter’s future prospects. 

         Though I was present physically, my mind wandered endlessly. The emotions of my classmates lingered throughout my body, I felt the pulsing of anger from the endless tests and lack of time, the sadness of losing one’s childhood, and the fear of the future’s unknown. The insignificance of life lingers, leaving the traces of each individuals’ anxious thoughts like a thousand cuts under my skin; never fully healing, irritating yet bringing forth the humbling comfort of pain. The uncomfortable warmth heats my body, I shrug off my sweatshirt, the autumn breeze hitting my skin, numbing the thousand pricks of emotion for a single moment. I breathe in the assurance in the atmosphere, smelling the vanilla-earthy musk from Carter. He sat down beside me, handing me my watermelon frozen yoghurt topped with honey and rainbow sprinkles. Then whilst taking a heaping scoop of his own blackberry froyo, making sure he has enough chocolate sprinkles on his scoop and shoves it into his mouth, gulping it down. Instantly, his nose scrunches and the cold takes its effect. He sees me watching him, and sticks his tongue out at me. A breathy giggle escapes my lips. 

         Soon, Carter rummages for something in his coat pocket, bringing out a packet of M&M’s clutched in his hand. I watch him sort out the yellow and orange, knowing those are for me. 

         “Obviously the best ones are yellow and orange,” I say knowingly.

         “You would know,” he replies lightheartedly, used to my need for specificity when it comes to sweets.

He dumps them into my yoghurt, I watch the colours leave the shells of the chocolate, the warm colours replicating the sunset.

         We sit in silence, finishing our yoghurt. Unlike others conversing in nearby chatter, we soak up the comfort that can be felt within two who understand each other. This haze of a moment feels unlike any emotion, however something more important caught my gaze: a man in a dark coat. His strange olive green trousers have a large object sticking out of his pocket. The man walked by. Without saying anything his face and desolated glare reeked of a desire for money. What is there to desire in a yoghurt shop? Then it hit me.

         “VATICAN CAMEOS!” I yelled pointing at the man with the green trousers.

         Mr Sprinkles, an ex-serviceman, instantly understood the situation. I watch him push the three buttons on the phone while looking towards me, he saw the man I was referring to. But the man was gone! Carter was gone as well. Then the distinct sound of two crashing bodies was heard. Carter somehow managed to remove the gun and slid it towards me. I witness the struggle between Carter and the man, but Carter being the taller of the two, managed to knock the man unconscious, his body slumping down on the cold hard ground. 

         “Aster, heads up!” Mr Sprinkles said, throwing me a bundle of rope. My hands reach and I catch it without fumbling, the adrenaline keeping me on-guard. 

         I walk up to Carter and the body laying on the checkered floor with a sense of ease, my next words came out louder than I intended, “WHAT THE HELL, CARTER?” 

         “Not so loud, Aster. I just saved your life,” he smirked. When his dark features were illuminated, like it is now, made him sound much more convincing, more authoritative.  

         It dawned on me. Our lives were at stake. Today, if something had gone wrong, we wouldn’t be returning to our beds at night, rather, we’d be lying underground with tombstones as our headboard. I feel the tension now, I sense the relief from Mr Sprinkles, not a single soul harmed – not counting our poor victim tackle from the rugby captain. The police were on their way. 

         “Get up,” I say while giving him my hand, faking a sense of calm. 

         A useless effort. He sees right through and ignores my hand. 

         Here, I had been so worried about what was happening in the moment, I didn’t have a chance to process the emotions around me. At that second, all I felt was my emotions, not the burden of everybody else’s problems. Even in the auditorium, I was fixating on our futures, on how everything will play out, completely missing what was even being said. 

         Life is fast-paced, you either keep up or get left behind. But I was doing neither, I wanted it to end. I needed it to end, so as to feel the time constraints and the pressure to keep up. I wanted an easy way out – there’s never an easy way out – there’s one choice really, to stay and let life take its course. If you get left behind, that’s it, you still experience the moment. 

         My instincts and reflexes occurred at the moment, despite my brain going haywire. At that moment, I didn’t feel the pressure of time because there was no physical pressure. 

         “We just saved Mr Sprinkle’s, can you believe it?” I ask.

         “Well, I did more of the heavy lifting, literally.”

         We give our statements when the police arrive. I sense everyone’s emotions, as usual, the adrenaline has died down for both Carter and I. Carter’s feeling all the pain that comes with tackling a criminal on tiled flooring. I notice a slight trail of blood dripping into his white shirt, now that he has taken off his coat. I grab my bag’s wet wipes and a bandaid. We’re sat beside one another outside, I grab Carter’s arm and clean up his scrape. He’s oblivious to all of this and after I’m done cleaning him up I realise why; the criminal is being shoved into a police car, his hands handcuffed, like in the movies.

         A sense of fear creeps inside me. Whose emotion is this? I wonder. It’s not Carter’s–  a glow of pride is near him and no one else is close enough for me to sense theirs, so it must be mine. I have lost touch with my own emotions being so preoccupied with others. It’s time to stop worrying about the obstacles of other people, and really my own self. 

         I open up my planning app, postponing the study sessions I had planned. Without another thought my hand begins moving, seemingly on its own, to write the one thing I have always wanted to do: NOTHING.

the acumen incentive 

BY uhinee bhattacharya