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(previous)

3 years ago

Willow Morningstar was nervous. For her peer tutoring session, she was paired up with Lydia Li, who was renowned as the smartest girl in the school with straight A’s in a full International Baccalaureate slate. However, she was worried as she constantly overheard gossip from her classmates about how rude and stuck-up she was. Maybe they’re just jealous, she thought.

She finally arrived at the classroom, seeing a silhouette of a girl inside, and slowly knocked on the door.

“Come in,” a soft, delicate voice called.

Willow opened the door, and saw Lydia quietly sitting on the table with her laptop. She was astonished, as she looked nothing like what she imagined. She expected a bespectacled Asian girl with messy hair, but instead, she had a silky smooth face, prominently accentuated eyelashes, and long, flowing black hair. She was wearing a frilly white shirt with a black miniskirt, giving her an upper-class Victorian era look.

“Hello,” Willow said. “Lydia, right?”

“Yes,” she replied. “You are Willow, I presume? Here for math help?”

“Yes.”

“What in particular are you having issues with?”

“It’s about our surface area assignment.”

Lydia smiled. “Oh, not a problem! Let me take a look.”

Willow anxiously handed over her assignment, which Lydia quickly scanned over. “So, which questions are you having trouble with?”

“All of them.”

“Well, it would have been more helpful if you gave specifics,” Lydia remarked.

Willow frowned. “Okay, fine,” she said, taking a breath. “How do I approach the first question?”

Lydia quickly scanned the shape she presented. “Oh, a rectangular prism,” she announced. “That’s simple. You know how to calculate the area of each face, right?”

“Yes,” Willow answered, becoming increasingly impatient with her airy, condescending voice.

“Okay, then you just need to add them all up.”

“Yeah, I get that,” Willow replied. “But what about the more complicated shapes? The pyramid? The cylinder?”

“Same idea.”

“Could you be more specific?” Willow retorted.

Lydia made a tut-tut sound, while continuing to smile. “You’re very slow, you know.”

Willow sighed. This was going to be a long hour.

—-

The next day, Willow was eating lunch with her friends.

“Thanks for the help, Willow,” Wisteria said.

“No problem!” she replied.

“So, how’d it go with Lydia?” asked her brother Rowan.

“Not bad,” Willow remarked. “Aside from her treating me like an idiot for an hour, that is.”

“Sorry you got stuck with her,” he said. “She reminds me of those spoiled rich girls from the other side of the city.”

“Oh yes,” Willow agreed. She knew them all too well, the girls in hundred-dollar yoga pants who kept giving them mean looks as they passed by.

“We saw her the other day,” Wisteria added. “Tried saying hi, but she just brushed us off and kept walking. Why does she have to be like that? We just wanted to be friendly.”

“I don’t get it either,” Willow concurred. “The way she acts, it’s no wonder she doesn’t have any friends.”

“Probably thinks she’s too good for us anyway,” Rowan remarked bitterly.

Out of the corner of her eye, Willow suddenly spotted Lydia reading Frankenstein. She was worried that she might have overhead their conversation, but she seemed completely unaware of her surroundings. Willow breathed a sigh of relief, and turned back towards Rowan and Wisteria.

“Anyway, I’m going to see Ms. Khorrami tomorrow to try and get someone else to tutor me,” Willow told them.

“Good luck,” Rowan responded.

“Yeah, you totally deserve better,” Wisteria added.

—-

That afternoon, Willow was outside Ms. Khorrami’s office, prepared to make her request a different peer tutor. She saw her looking outside the window, and she walked over to open the door.

“We’ll be just a minute,” she told her.

Willow noticed that Lydia was also in the room, currently staring outside the window with a blank expression on her face. She seemed oblivious to Willow’s arrival.

“Um, actually, may I come in?” Willow asked. “It’s about Lydia.”

Ms. Khorrami sighed. “I know. Dia, is that okay if Willow comes in?”

Lydia looked back at them. “Okay,” she said quietly.

Willow entered the room as the counselor returned to her seat, facing Lydia. “Now,” she began. “Do you know why I encouraged you to take up peer tutoring in the first place?”

“Because it would look good on my resumé?” Lydia answered in her usual calm monotone.

Willow grimaced. Ugh, she is such a try-hard, she thought.

“It’s not just about jobs,” Ms. Khorrami insisted. “You’re the brightest student in our school. Not only is your knowledge valuable, but also, other girls could benefit from having someone like you to talk to. Isn’t encouraging them to pursue Physics a worthy goal as well?”

“I never asked to be a role model,” Lydia retorted.

“Yes, but they still look up to you.”

“They don’t. Have you heard the shit everyone keeps saying about me?”

Ms. Khorrami gasped. “Lydia! You shouldn’t be using such language!”

Lydia looked at her innocently. “Why not? People are always calling me a bitch, or a slut…”

Ms. Khorrami sighed. “I know I can’t stop you if you want to resign. It’s your decision. But, think about what I said, okay?”

“I will let you know tomorrow,” Lydia replied.

Before leaving, Lydia turned to face Willow. “Sorry about the other day.”

She departed the room, while Willow just sat quietly.

“So, what was your issue with Lydia?” Ms. Khorrami asked.

Willow glanced at her nervously. She came in prepared with a large rant about her, but after hearing the previous conversation, she had other things to say.

“Um, could I still see her tomorrow?” she requested. “Just once, so, you know, I could help her decide if she wants to stay.”

Ms. Khorrami’s face beamed. “Thank you so much! I know she may not be the easiest person to get along with, but it’s her first time doing this. I’m glad you understand.”

Willow nodded. “She seems lonely,” she told her.

“Well, she’s always telling me otherwise,” Ms. Khorrami explained. “but, well, you heard what she said just now. Poor girl. Hasn’t had a friend since the sixth grade.”

Willow was curious. “You knew her for that long?” she asked.

“Yes,” Ms. Khorrami began. “I met with her parents to talk about where she should go for secondary school. They were concerned about she always kept to herself and barely ever talked to anyone. So I suggested she come to Portlandia to take her IB program.”

“Why here?”

“I thought that it would be easier for her to make friends in the East End community. Her parents wanted to send her to a private school, and I was worried that she would only become more isolated there.”

Ms. Khorrami sighed. “But she’s still as detached as ever. It was hard enough just getting her to come meet me regularly.”

Willow noticed the sad, tired expression on her face, and felt she should try lifting part of her burden. “I hope everything goes well tomorrow for us.”

“I hope so too. But if you’re still having trouble with math, please let me know and I will place you with someone else.”

“Thank you.”

Willow began to walk out of the room, glancing back briefly to see how exhausted Ms. Khorrami still looked. She felt bad, and wanted to stay longer, but she had homework to do. Slowly, she closed the door behind her.

—-

The next day, Willow was walking to the peer tutoring classroom. She didn’t see Lydia in the lunch room, so she wondered if she was still in the classroom, or if she had quit already. She looked through the window, and indeed saw her sitting alone, reading manga while a tray of dumplings sat in front of her. She looked different from yesterday, as now she was wearing a black steampunk-inspired dress and silver hair sticks in a cross pattern. But she still had the same face, absorbed in her own world. Willow knocked on the door, and soon after, she gestured her inwards.

“Hi, Dia,” Willow replied after she walked in.

Lydia looked up from her book. “You’re back,” she told her, smiling serenely at her arrival. “I wasn’t expecting that.”

“Well, after hearing everything from Ms. Khorrami,” she explained. “I thought I’d come by to see how you’re doing.”

“Oh,” Lydia replied. “I was just surprised that you still wanted my help after what happened the other day.”

Willow paused. “I guess I thought, maybe you’d appreciate having someone around.”

She smiled sheepishly, but Lydia’s expression remained unchanged. “I don’t need friends,” she stated.

Willow continued to smile, trying her best to contain her irritation. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“I’m perfectly happy by myself,” Lydia said. “Anyway, what problem should we work on today?”

Willow was annoyed at her dismissive response, but got out her assignment, hoping things would turn out better than last time. She then noticed a familiar figure on the book cover. It was the Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind manga. Her eyes lit up as she remembered watching the movie as a little girl with her dad and brother.

“You’re a Nausicaa fan?” she asked.

Lydia paused. “Yes,” she responded. “It’s my favourite manga series.”

Willow was amazed. “I didn’t know there was a manga,” she said. “But I imagine it must be good, since I really enjoyed the movie.”

“Yes, it was a pleasant surprise to learn that the story wasn’t over,” Lydia replied. “And the manga’s so much more complex than the movie.”

Her smile brightened. “Right now, I’m at the part where Nausicaa discovers the truth behind the Sea of Corruption, that it’s really….”

She noticed Willow looking anxious, as if she was saying too much. “Well, it would be more fun if you read it for yourself, wouldn’t it?”

Willow was pleased to see Lydia so excited. “I’d love to, but I don’t know where to find it.”

Lydia paused. “Well, I guess I could lend them to you,” she offered. “Perhaps tomorrow morning?”

Willow was prepared to say yes, as she was looking forward to finally reading the manga. Before the words came out, though, she had another idea. “Actually,” Willow responded. “Would you mind if we go over to your place?”

Lydia stared at her, not expecting such a request. She thought about it for a few seconds while Willow waited nervously, wondering if her question was too awkward.

Eventually, Lydia replied, “Sure.”

Willow’s heartbeat intensified, as mixed feelings of anticipation and worry filled her. “All right. I’ll catch up with you then.”

—-

“You’re going to Lydia’s house?” Rowan exclaimed.

Willow and her brother were walking to the bus stop, discussing their after-school plans.

“Yeah,” Willow replied. “She wanted to lend me a copy of her Nausicaa manga.”

“Couldn’t she just give it to you tomorrow morning? Why do you need to go all the way to her place?”

Willow shrugged. “I’m kinda curious to see what it looks like. Aren’t you?”

Rowan shook his head. “I don’t get it. Why are you so interested in her all of a sudden?”

Willow stared nervously at him. “Well…”

She suddenly noticed Lydia waiting at the stop for the westbound bus, not expecting to see her there.

“I gotta get going!” she finished hastily. “Can’t keep her waiting.”

Rowan sighed. “Well, have fun, I guess. See ya, sis!”

“See ya!” Willow replied.

Rowan stopped at his spot while Willow walked to meet Lydia.

“Hi,” Willow greeted. “What are you doing here?”

“Waiting for the bus,” Lydia answered nonchalantly.

“Aren’t your parents picking you up?”

“I told them I was fine getting home on my own. Besides, it’s better for the environment.”

Their bus arrived, and they got on board. The crowd on the bus was a mix of young students and old men and women with scruffy clothes. Most paid no attention to the girls, as they were engaged in their own gossip, though Lydia received a few odd looks. As they sat down, Willow had something on her mind.

“What’s up?” Lydia asked.

“Oh,” Willow began. “Um, we said some mean things behind your back the other day,”

“I know,” Lydia replied.

Willow winced. She was listening all along? “Sorry about that. I was just frustrated.”

“It’s okay. I deserved it.”

Willow gasped. “No, you didn’t!”

“It’s fine. I was admittedly quite rude to you and your friends, and I apologize for that.”

Willow sighed, remembering something they said. “Why did you ignore Rowan and Wisteria?”

“I had a lot on my mind.”

“Does it really take that much effort just to say hi?” Willow asked, frowning.

“We didn’t know each other. It would have come off as insincere.”

She doesn’t get it, Willow thought, as they stared at each other awkwardly. After a while, Willow thought of another conversation topic.

“So, what’s your home like?” Willow asked.

“It’s nice,” Lydia told her.

“In what way?”

Lydia smiled. “Well, if I told you now, it would ruin the surprise.”

Willow agreed. She was then distracted by the view outside, enamoured by the beautiful homes and endless sushi restaurants passing by. Lydia merely sat still, smiling in amusement at how impressed Willow was.

—-

“Just a little further.”

Willow took in the sight of the vast ocean as they walked downhill to Lydia’s house. Excited at the prospect of seeing the place, she wanted to run faster, but had to keep up with Lydia’s leisurely pace.

“And here we are.”

Willow gasped. It was a rustic-looking stone Tudor home that extended down the cliff, with wide windows that overlooked the beach below. It was elegant in its simplicity while grand in scope, and as she stood at the archway, she anticipated how vast it would feel inside. She turned around, taking a deep breath at the sight of the deep green lawn and rainbow assortment of flowers surrounding the home. She wondered how much effort the Li family put in to keep it looking so nice.

“May I take a few pictures?” she asked.

“Yes,” Lydia replied. “But keep them to yourself.”

“I know,” Willow answered. She walked around the house to take a few shots, looking on in envy at the home she would never be able to afford, before entering the doorway. The spacious interior was even more spectacular, with sunlight beaming from every direction highlighting the finely finished wooden frames, as if to greet the pair as they walked on the marble floor. However, Willow noticed something was missing.

“Where are your parents?” she asked.

“Business meeting,” Lydia replied. “Won’t be back till late tonight.”

“Wait, they’re just leaving you alone?”

“Yes. We have the place to ourselves today.”

Lydia started walking upstairs, as Willow eagerly followed. They arrived at the open door to her room, and Willow suddenly felt a strange sensation. In contrast to the rest of the home, her room was dark, blocked by pitch-black curtains. She was intrigued by Lydia’s choice of décor. Her ceiling was decorated by stars, with a planetarium hanging downwards, and a moving gear clock was mounted on top of her computer desk. Around her computer were all sorts of odd figures and contraptions, including a crystal skull pen holder and scattered wires.

She looked to the other side of the room, and saw her bed covered by a quilt with intricate mosaic patterns. Beside it was another desk with a sewing machine with various torn clothes lying around. As expected, she also had several pearl-patterned wardrobes. It was an off-putting contrast.

“Seems like a shame to close off that ocean view, isn’t it?” Willow remarked.

“I do love waking up to the ocean breeze every morning,” Lydia answered dreamily. “But sometimes, a girl needs privacy.”

Willow glanced once again at Lydia’s collection, being particularly impressed by a hulking robot carrying a pencil.

“This looks really cool,” Willow said. “May I try it?”

“Of course,” Lydia replied. “His name is Adam, and his design was based on the Golem of Prague.”

“Looks like Frankenstein’s monster to me,” Willow remarked.

“Well, Frankenstein was based on the golem stories.”

She picked up a small Lego disc piece with runic symbols etched into it. “When you insert it into his mouth…”

The Mindstorms Golem’s eyes lit up as it started moving its pencil across the paper. Willow watched in awe as it formed a concentric crescent moon pattern.

“That’s really neat,” Willow said. “Say, have you considered the Young Inventors competition?”

Lydia paused, her voice becoming softer. “Yes. In fact, I entered an earlier version of the Golem into the fair when I was 12 years old.”

Only 12 years old? she thought. Wow. “How did it go?” she asked.

“Judges barely paid any attention to me. One of them asked me if I arrived there by mistake.”

Willow gasped, though Lydia was still smiling, to her surprise. “Wait, what?” she asked, exasperated. “How could he say such a thing?”

“Well, I also spent a lot of time preparing a nice outfit for the occasion, but it ended up looking out of place amongst the boys there.”

She gestured towards a small, tattered, sparkling red dress on her sewing desk with various markings on it. Willow was confused.

“Why did you put so much effort into your looks? It’s an inventor contest, not a dance hall.”

Lydia’s smile evaporated. “That’s what the judge said too,” she remarked.

Willow shivered, as if her words froze the air in front of her. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay. A lot of people think fashion is something only stupid, shallow girls are interested in.”

Willow was curious. “Why is it so important to you?”

“It’s my first impression to the world,” she explained, smiling dreamily. “Whatever I feel inside, I can show on the outside. I can experiment with varying styles, feeling like a different person each time. And when I find the perfect combination, it’s just as exhilarating to look at myself in the mirror as seeing a machine finally come alive and work perfectly.”

Willow was impressed. As much as she enjoyed fashion studies class, she never thought about it that way before. Lydia then put her finger to her lip, trying to remember something. She walked up to her bookcase, and pulled out a gem-encrusted box. “Anyway, here are all seven volumes of Nausicaa. I hope you enjoy the story as much as I do.”

“Thank you very much,” Willow replied. “I’ll take good care of them!”

She looked at her watch, and realized it was nearly 5 pm.

“Um, my brother’s girlfriend is coming over to our place for a barbeque,” she informed Lydia. “So I’ll have to go soon. Wanna come over?”

“Unfortunately,” Lydia replied. “My parents don’t want me going out too far at night. I apologize for that.”

Willow grimaced. “That’s too bad.”

Suddenly, she remembered something Lydia said that bothered her.

“Do you really mean it?” she began, looking worried. “That you don’t need friends?”

“Yes,” Lydia said, to Willow’s disappointment. She waved around the room. “Just look around. I have so many things to create, stories to experience, and so much to discover about the world. As long as I have that, I’m happy.”

She paused, gazing back at her. “But it is nice, to be able to share these stories with someone. Thank you for coming today.”

Willow felt a strange sensation wash over her. The way she looked at her, how delicately she spoke those last words, it was reassuring. She smiled as she turned back towards the door, noticing a watercolour portrait of beautiful woman clad in a deep blue dress and black flowers.

“Who is she?” Willow asked.

“Ada Lovelace,” Lydia stated, smiling sweetly. “A visionary, and my hero. She was the first to realize the potential of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Machine to manipulate more than mere numbers, and laid the foundational theory for modern computing.”

“Sounds like an amazing woman,” Willow responded admiringly.

“She is,” Lydia concurred.

She took out her phone, and snapped a picture before she walked outside.

“See ya, Lydia,” Willow said.

“Farewell,” she responded airily.

(next)

(table of contents)

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