Katherine looked up into the smiling faces of her parents. Though they appeared to be cheerful on the outside, she could sense the worry that hung about their shoulders and the urgency in their movements. She watched as they put on long black overcoats and dark hats with brims that obscured their eyes.
“Mommy, Daddy, where are you going?” Katherine asked anxiously.
“To somewhere safe. Don’t worry, sweetheart, we’ll come back for you. I promise.” Her father hugged her tightly, giving her a soft kiss on the cheek in the process.
“But why?” Katherine queried. She was confused. Why were they leaving her? Where were they going?
“Honey, we cannot stay here, we must keep moving.” Katherine’s mother sighed heavily. “Everything will turn out all right.”
Katherine watched as her parents ran off into the rainy night, droplets of water hitting their overcoats like shafts of silver arrows. When they were almost out of earshot, she heard her father call, “Take good care of baby Lily for us.” And then he rushed away, a dark shadow moving with expert stealth.
Katherine felt a tear escape her eye and run down her cheek. She sniffled and looked at the sign on the door behind her: Mulberry Orphanage. She looked at her baby sister, asleep in a little bundle on the doorstep, unaware of the confusing world around her. Once again, she looked out into the night, hoping that her parents would return soon. She stood there for a long time, smelling the earthy aroma of storm, the noxious fume of gasoline, and listening to the rain beat out its arbitrary time signature on the roof. Finally, when it became clear that her parents were not returning anytime soon, Katherine curled up next to her sister and slowly, painfully, heart-wrenchingly, cried herself to sleep.
* * *
EIGHT YEARS LATER...
Katherine awoke suddenly. Her body was tangled in her sheets and soaked in a cold sweat. The last few moments of her dream lingered fresh in her memory. She desperately wanted to see her parents again, but interacting with them in a recurring dream ad nauseam made her long for her life to return to the way it once was.
“Kkkhhonkh.” Katherine looked over at the sleeping figure of her younger sister and smiled. Lily was sprawled across the bed, the blankets wrapped around her torso like a bedcover toga. Her long auburn hair was spread across her round face in knotted clumps, and her mouth was open, exposing a number of pearly white teeth.
Katherine nearly giggled, but her face regained its now familiar solemnity when she thought of how innocent her once baby sister had looked, sleeping in that little bundle on the doorstep of the orphanage.
Silently, Katherine stepped off the edge of the bed and stole carefully across the floor, trying not to make any noise. It reminded her of the times when she snuck out of bed to get some extra food for Lily from the orphanage pantry. She remembered how underfed the kids at the orphanage had been, each one subsisting on only a tiny bowl of porridge, a cup of chicken broth, and a few pieces of bread and cheese a day. It had been awful living in the orphanage. The director had been a cruel man. He had hated the kids; the only reason he had decided to run an orphanage in the first place was the prospect of money. He had been strict too, and punished the kids for no particular reason. The whole situation had been almost too horrible to endure. But Katherine and Lily had had to bear it… and for eight whole years they did, accumulating calluses all over their hands and feet and growing skinnier by the week. Each day had been the same: short, dull, and hazy. Work, study, eat, work, study, eat; that had been their life. But then there was the joyous day when a woman had come to the orphanage. And she was nice; very kind. Katherine had liked her… and she liked the woman even more when she decided to adopt Katherine and Lily.
Now, Katherine quietly slipped out of her bedroom and into the living room. In the ghostly moonlight, she could see the faint outlines of the furniture. She tiptoed across the floor to the window, her nightgown ballooning about her knees. Silently, she eased open the creaky window, allowing the delicious nighttime scent to waft into the room.
Outside, Katherine could see the lights of the city spread out in front of her like the bioluminescent scales of a fish. Each one glittered and sparkled, one infinitesimal spot of color in a gown encrusted with sequins. Beyond the city, Katherine could just make out the chain of mountains on the horizon, a jagged line frozen forever in a state of hazy evanescence. And beyond that, into the ebony heavens above, Katherine saw the stars, twinkling and shimmering, like their cousins, the lights of the city, reflected in a tranquil pond.
“Oh, Mommy, Daddy, where are you?” Katherine asked aloud. “Why did you leave me?”
Katherine thought of what her father had said: “We’ll come back for you. I promise.” Had he been making a promise he couldn’t keep? It was hard to know for sure. He had seemed so sincere, so honest. But no one was exactly the way they seemed. It was a hard mystery for Katherine to ponder, for deep down she wanted to believe that her parents had been good people, and yet she was shrouded in the gray veil of doubt.
A single teardrop dribbled down Katherine’s cheek. “I wish things were simpler,” she whispered, more tears escaping from her eyes.
“Oh, Katherine, don’t cry, everything is OK.” Katherine felt a warm hand on her wrist. She looked up, expecting to see Amber, the woman she and Lily now lived with. But no, it was her sister, Lily, whose hazel eyes gleamed in the soft moonlight. “Everything is OK,” Lily said again, her voice dropping to a whisper. Katherine felt herself calm down, but then anger began to boil in her veins.
“How can you say that?” Katherine spat, tears flowing down her cheeks like miniature waterfalls. “How can you say that everything is OK when it isn’t, when it will never be. You just don’t know because you don’t even remember our parents.” Katherine’s words stung, she knew by the tightened, pinched look that bridged Lily’s face, but she didn’t care. Rage bubbling up in her heart, she went on. “The only reason you dare is because all you have is blank fuzz, no real memories. And I bet that if you knew you wouldn’t pity me like this. So stop it. Stop it right now. I’m perfectly fine without your charity.”
Katherine stopped and stared defiantly at her younger sister. She thought that Lily would have been in tears by then, but no, Lily was staring at the floor, shifting her feet. Finally, she said something. “If you truly do not want me, I’ll go back to bed right now. But first, please allow me to say something.”
Katherine thought. Was her sister going to get really angry with her? She couldn’t tell. Lily wasn’t your average eight-year-old. She knew a lot more than she let on. Katherine wasn’t sure if she would harass her or explain something. Unsure whether to tell her to go back to bed or to let her say what she wanted to say, Katherine looked into Lily’s eyes, which were wise and all knowing. They reminded Katherine of the eyes of owls, so… so… sapient. Katherine took a deep breath. “Go on,” she finally said.
“I know that you want to see our mom and dad again. There is a hungry look in your eyes that I have interpreted to mean that you would do anything to see them again. But now I think that it is time that you faced the fact that they are not coming back. And even if they are, you need to stop thriving on that sliver of hope. It is tearing you apart. Look at you, Katherine. You have wild eyes and matted hair. Your mouth is forever pursed in a line of solemn defiance. You are no longer the dependable person I used to know you as. Life at the orphanage has hardened you. You need to…”
“Wait, you can’t…” Katherine sputtered.
“Please don’t interrupt.” Lily spoke firmly but calmly. “You need to embrace your worst fear, sister. It is time to realize the truth.”
“But I don’t want to!” Katherine shouted crazily. “They can still come back, you know they can!”
“I do know. But I also know this: the longer you choose to live off of this minuscule hope, the more depressed you will become. Please choose to come back to me. I miss the person you once were.” Lily was crying now.
Katherine sighed. She could do this. She just had to Let. It. Go. To let it all go. All her pent-up feelings and emotions, and all the things she had kept to herself. She could feel a bundle of potential energy pressing against her heart, like a dammed-up river about to burst through its bonds. She took a deep breath. Exhaled. And then… it came.
* * *
In a sea of tears, Katherine felt different days of her life float before her. Trying to escape through the thick wall of shrubbery next to the orphanage. Laughing as the orphanage director slipped on a banana peel. Sitting on the windowsill in the orphanage and laughing as she and her sister thought up different, funny reasons why her parents had left. Finding two chocolate chips in the pantry and eating them. Running with Amber in the park. Meeting a boy and a girl at a restaurant and improvising a game of tag outside. Picking out vegetables at the supermarket. The look on Lily’s face as she first tried a dragon fruit. Harvesting cherries at an orchard. Chasing, and finally catching, an escaped rabbit. Looking at dinosaur bones at the Natural History Museum. Spotting a kangaroo-shaped cloud. Getting accidentally locked in the orphanage director’s study. Playing peek-a-boo with Lily using the bedcovers. Swimming in a lake with Amber. Digging in the sandbox at the park and discovering an old dime. Eating ice cream at the tiny cafe where Lily lost her first tooth. Meeting a white dog named Quinny who licked Katherine on the nose. Climbing a sycamore tree and then getting stuck. The warm hugs her mom and dad used to give her.
When Katherine’s sobs turned to sniffles and the sniffles to hiccups, Lily asked, “Feel better?”
“Much,” replied Katherine, standing up. “Wow. I feel light as a feather.”
“Everything was weighing you down.” Lily grinned.
“Wahoo!” Katherine yelled giddily, leaping around the furniture with fairylike grace, despite how dark it was.
“Shh, you’ll wake Amber,” Lily whispered, but she giggled in spite of herself.
“Shall we go back to sleep.”
“Nah. I’m not ready yet. Let’s nibble on those blackberries in the refrigerator. Crying always makes me hungry.”
“Roger that!” Lily yelled, running towards the stairs. “Last one to the kitchen is a rotten egg!”
“Hey, no fair, you had a head start!”
* * *
Amber awoke slowly. She closed her eyes to try to go back to sleep. But then she was up again a couple minutes later; her alarm clock had just sounded. Blearily, she rubbed her eyes and got out of bed. She stumbled out of her room and down the stairs to the kitchen. She was greeted by a sight so surprising that it jarred the grogginess right out of her. Katherine and Lily were lying in a heap on the kitchen floor, blackberry stains on their lips and a couple uneaten berries scattered on the floor. They were sound asleep.
Something must have happened last night, Amber thought. Katherine certainly looks a lot better—less worried.
Amber silently picked up the blackberries on the floor and dropped them into the sink, chuckling quietly to herself. Good thing it’s not a school day. These two would be wiped out.
As she eased open the cabinet door to get a bowl, Amber glanced back at the sleeping children. They sure do look comfortable.
Suddenly, Amber walked briskly out of the kitchen, up the stairs, and back down again. When she re-entered the kitchen, she was carrying a pillow and blanket. Happily, she spread the blanket on the floor beside the kids, lay atop it, and stayed there until they woke up.