Anxiously I waited with fingers intertwined in my thick, curly hair and my foot tapping out a rhythm on my icy driveway. Puffs of air escaped from my cracked lips. I felt as if someone were slamming my heart against my chest. My eyes swept across the neighborhood. A quick glance behind my shoulder told me that Eliza was in the kitchen watching television. On my left was the mailman who was delivering letters to my neighbor. His shiny black shoes crunched against the tightly packed snow. As I watched him sorting through his mail carrier, I kept coming back to one question. What if he has my letter?
The crunching sound became more defined. I became more anxious as I watched him drawing nearer. For a brief moment, our eyes met and he nodded towards my direction. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t go up to him and grab the envelopes. My feet seemed glued to the ground. The mailbox made a mighty creak as he put a bundle of letters in the box. As the crunch drifted farther and farther away, my feet became unstuck and I hurried towards the mailbox that concealed my fate. In one motion, I opened the metal box and grabbed every piece of paper that I could lay my hands on. Making sure I didn’t skip anything, I read each and every letter. As I got to the last letter, my heart seemed to screech and stop in its tracks. The return address was labeled Illinois Institute of Art, Chicago, IL. I pocketed the letter and ran. My long legs were no longer a part of my body. They seemed to be moving on their own. I had walked this path so many times that it had become familiar to me. This time, I did not take in any of my surroundings. I just stared straight ahead and bolted.
As I scanned the letter, I felt numb
After what seemed like miles, I reached my destination: the house of my cousin. For the next two weeks she was on her honeymoon in Thailand. While she was honeymooning, I house sat.
I stopped outside of her house and took a deep breath. I reached for the key that hung low on the end of my necklace. Reaching around my neck, I unclasped the jewelry and held the key in my trembling hands. The key jingled as I slid it in the doorknob and unlocked the mahogany door.
As I stepped into the foyer, I did a quick once-over to make sure everything was in its rightful place. My eyes seemed to linger on the framed pictures that hung above her stone fireplace. I quickened my pace and reached the bottom of her carpeted stairs. My right hand slid across the slick wooden banister.
Once I reached the top of the stairs I went to the attic. As I entered the dusty room, I made my way to the cracked window on the other side of the attic. Wiping dust out of my way, I jammed my fingers underneath the window and jerked the glass up. My legs slid over the window frame and I climbed out into the chilly air. Then I reached up and hoisted myself onto the roof. Stepping over the icy spots on the tiled roof, I sat down in my favorite spot: the window right above the attic.
I stared at the city that spread beneath me. Since my cousin lived in Minneapolis, she was lucky to have a house. Most of her friends lived in apartments. I watched the city life for a few minutes. Women in pencil skirts and men in suits power-walked through the streets, looking for a good place to stop for lunch. As I shifted my position in order to see more, I heard the crinkling of paper. Taking deep breaths, I willed myself to take out the envelope that lay still and buried in my coat pocket. My hands trembled as I held the soft paper. I gave myself a little pep talk. You can do this, Leslie. What’s the worst that can happen? Now, you‘re going to open this letter.
One, two, three.
The white paper made a satisfying rip as I tore open the envelope. I quickly scanned the letter. Words and phrases. Words and phrases were all I could see. They seemed to float off the page. Accepted, next semester, join us, early program, lucky, scholarship.
As I scanned the letter, I felt numb. My legs turned to jelly and my body felt as if it had been drenched in freezing water. A small knot began to form in my stomach. The more I read on, the bigger that knot grew.
I didn’t know how I could tell Mama, much less Eliza. I wasn’t even sure if I told them that I applied to art school. I didn’t even know if I wanted to go! Not if it meant leaving Mama and Eliza.
Going to art school had been my dream since I had been five. But now that my dream was coming true, was I ready to face the challenges?
I focused on the snowflakes that were drifting down in spirals. It reminded me of the time when Eliza and I were sledding a few winters ago. Eliza was only four years old and I was nine. We were bundled up from head to toe. Eliza looked like Randy from A Christmas Story. She could barely put her arms down!
We waved goodbye to Mama and headed out of the house. It was one of those days that was so cold, your own breath would freeze. The streets we walked were utterly deserted. You would think that children would be playing outside in their front yards! But no, too cold for them. Well, more room to sled! I thought happily. The two of us walked to the end of the block until we arrived at Massive Mountain. Massive Mountain was the biggest hill in the neighborhood.
“Leslie, do we really have to do this?” Eliza mumbled.
“Oh yeah! We’re going to sled down Massive Mountain!” I said. Then, in a softer voice I told Eliza, “It’ll be OK. We’ll go down together.”
The two of us trudged over to the top of the hill. I gulped as my eyes traveled down to the bottom. The hill looked like a mass of white fluffiness. My heart seemed to slip right out of my chest.
“Well, Eliza, what are we waiting for?” I giggled nervously. I coaxed Eliza into our red plastic sled and then slipped in behind her. Even through all of our layers, I could still feel Eliza trembling.
“Leslie, I’m scared,” Eliza admitted.
“Don’t be, I’m right here.”
I summoned all of my courage as I started to push off of the snow. Slowly, Eliza and I inched along. Our red sled screeched as we began to approach the edge. Then we reached the end of the top. “Here we go!” I shouted as we slid down the slope. My arms were gripped around Eliza. The wind was blowing through our hair and I could just feel my heart drop to my stomach as the sled accelerated. The snow gathered in white puffs around the plastic. I scooted my body forward so we could pick up our speed. All of my feelings were scattered and drifting aimlessly in the wind. Even though I couldn’t see Eliza’s face I could hear her giggles.
We braced ourselves for the bottom of the hill, wishing that there was more snow to sled on. The trees swam into focus as our sled lost its velocity. There was a sudden lurch as we crashed at the bottom of the slope. I watched helplessly as Eliza went tumbling from the sled.
“Eliza? Are you OK?” I asked her in a panicked voice.
“Of course!” she said. “I just have one question… Can we go again?”
* * *
I couldn’t believe that eight years had passed since the day we went sledding. That was the first time Eliza had gone sledding at Massive Mountain. If I went to art school, I wouldn’t get to see any other firsts that Eliza had during the school year. I wouldn’t even get to see her thirteenth birthday!
My mama wouldn’t be able to afford getting me to Minnesota all the way from Chicago every time I wanted to come for a visit. That was just not a possibility.
And then, that was when the tears came. I was so conflicted. I couldn’t decipher whether they were tears of joy, sadness, or a little bit of both. Hastily, I began to wipe them away.
“Leslie?” I jumped in my spot as I looked down below me. There was Eliza, leaning out of the window. Of course, only Eliza would know to look for me here. After all, she’s the only one I showed this spot to.
“Well, what are you standing there for? Come and sit next to your big sis.” I patted the space next to me and began to fiddle with the envelope.
“Leslie, what is that?” my sister asked, indicating the letter.
“Oh, it’s nothing. Just some silly acceptance letter to a silly art school.”
Eliza stared at me as if I were senile. “Acceptance letter to an art school? Leslie, that’s not just a silly matter!”
“It is, because I’m not going!” The air between us seemed to thicken.
I clutched my pen and began to write
“Please don’t tell me that you’re not going to go!” she pleaded.
“If I go, who’s going to take care of you?”
“You’re going to throw away art school?” Eliza shrieked. “Art school can’t wait! It’s your dream! I’m not going to let you throw away your dream just because you think I can’t take care of myself. If that’s your excuse, then I seriously think you need to find another reason.”
The chilly air bit at my face. An awkward silence seemed to settle in between us. Was my twelve-year- old sister actually right? Was I scared of going to art school? And why was this decision so hard? It’s just a matter of yes or no. But maybe I had already made up my mind. A different answer than the one I had given her earlier.
“Oh, Eliza,” I sighed, “when did you get so smart?”
* * *
That night I lay in bed and thought long and hard. Why was it that I was so scared of leaving? Even my mind couldn’t make up this answer. I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving Mama and Eliza. But no matter what, I would have to leave someday.
Then, I had this urge. An incredible urge that seemed to take over my body. It tugged me out of bed and made me turn on the light. The urge inched my fingers along my royal-blue chair and pulled it out from its hiding place behind my desk. It sat me down in my chair and made me pull myself up to my tan desk. It had me take out my acceptance letter from my coat pocket, a piece of lined paper from the left drawer, and a fountain pen. Then, the urge left me. But I seemed to know exactly what to do. I clutched my pen and began to write. And I wrote. A letter that started just like this:
Dear Illinois Institute of Art,
I would love to take part in your early acceptance program…
Emma Peterson, 11
Joanne Cai, 13
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada