I wrapped myself tightly in the thin sweatshirt that was all I had. Bound in the regrettable cloak of discomfort, I felt the wind and snow swirl around me, nipping at my frozen face like an anxious puppy and slithering up my arms with the stealth of a snake.
As I stood there, a little ball of helplessness, I heard a faint laugh, like the tinkling of tiny bells. The cold was laughing at me. A small, taunting laugh that I knew would swiftly turn into a roar of mockery.
My squinted eyes caught the sight of a little girl covered in a long fur coat, being ushered into a car. How lucky she was. I was only a step away from having a home of my own, a step that I might never take. But I was a mile away from being her.
I knew what my destiny had to offer. I could almost see it before me—my fate, disguised in a hooded black robe, arms outstretched to reveal injustice, wrapped in a bundle that I was frightened to open, but I knew I had to. I had to face the truth sometime.
Turning my back on the cozy-looking car that was becoming ever smaller, I realized that I’d probably never have what she had.
She had hope.
* * *
The swirl of white snow had given way to the blanket of night, and I had curled up in the ramshackle cardboard box that provided little warmth, but blocked the wind, barely. With my knees tucked into my stretched sweatshirt, my thoughts shifted from my empty stomach to the little girl in the fur coat. That had been me, months ago. That had been me, clutching my mother’s hand in fear and trying to ignore the dozens of dirty, homeless people begging us for food. Now I was one of them.
I sighed. My mother was gone. My home was gone. My life was gone. There was no use yearning for the past. The past had been swept away with a broom, and now it was out in the junkyard, damaged and ruined.
The holes in my shabby backpack were so big, I could have reached into them, but I preferred unzipping the zipper anyway. I pulled out the brown, leather-covered journal, frayed with age. I remembered when I’d gotten it, almost four months ago. Back then, it had been brand new and perfect, like the rest of my life.
I flipped through the pages, memories spilling from the words. I read my earliest entries, about getting the journal as a gift for my twelfth birthday. Mama was there, and so was Gran, and my baby neighbor, Bryce, looking adorable in his little jacket and booties. They and Bryce’s parents were the only family I ever had.
I didn’t know much about my father. The only information I had was what I’d been able to squeeze out of my mother, who’d told me that they’d never married. She’d never really loved him, she said, but she was naive enough to believe that he was someone else. And then they’d had me, by accident.
I remembered the first time she had told me the story, and I was utterly shocked.
“I was an accident, Mama?” my five-year-old self had wondered. “I was never meant to happen?”
And my mother would pull me into an embrace and squeeze me tight. “Sweetie, you were the best accident that ever happened.”
Then she’d continue her story of how she had realized she was pregnant, and at the same time, that my father wasn’t anything more than the roar of his motorcycle and the gleam in his eyes. She hadn’t told him about me yet, and she never would. They split up, and she moved to raise me in the town she grew up in.
We’d lived happily ever since, until two weeks after my birthday, when Gran had a stroke. Mama was in the hospital with her when she died. Mama hadn’t seemed like herself ever since then. She’d stare out the window, and all of a sudden her beautiful, glossy eyes would fill with tears. She was never really there, in the moment everyone else was in. Her daydreaming took its toll soon after when she veered off the road in her car and crashed. Later, in the hospital, I had held her limp hand in mine, and when her eyes had closed I thought she was really gone. But she wasn’t, yet, and my heart leaped when her eyelids peeped open and her mouth formed three words.
“I love you.”
Then the pulse went out. She couldn’t hold on any longer. There was nothing to hold on to. Her eyes shut. Her painful breaths came to a halt, and the reassuring beat of her heart refused to work. She was gone.
“I love you.” Those three words had never meant so much, or revealed so much truth. And then, as I sat there with the open book in my hands, I wondered if those had been the last words of Gran, too.
* * *
I’ll always remember Mama. How she could make me laugh when I was on the verge of tears, how her dark brown curls framed her face, as radiant and humble as a violet, and how she was always there for me, in school plays, in crisis, and in pride. I thought I’d have her forever, but she slipped away, and I had nothing left with which to console myself. Her legal will had left me to Gran, and a few short days weren’t nearly enough time to change it. Besides, there was nobody else who would want me.
So, basically, I lived there by myself, in the house, for two days. I spent those dreadful hours weeping and sleeping. And eating. My grief could not be expressed, not even in my journal. So I ate and ate, and the house cupboards were bare by the second day. I must have gained ten pounds, because I seemed to feel a little heavier when I woke up the morning of the third day, remarkably still hungry.
By then it was mid-August, and Mama’s death seemed to be months ago, instead of only a few days. Then the government officials had knocked on the door and said that Mama owed a lot of money to the state, and that I would need to go to an orphanage.
I’d heard a lot about orphanages, the giant warehouses that worked children until midnight. It hadn’t taken me half a second to realize that that was the last thing I needed right then. I skirted through the house and out the back door, springing down the street to the adjacent neighborhood. I knew they would be following me, and it took me a minute to realize that I was running from the government. The law officials. The police. I couldn’t run away; they’d surely find me.
However, they somehow didn’t. They let me go, as if my future didn’t matter at all. I kept running, chest burning, tears flying out behind me, like a windmill. I’d ended up tripping over the curb in Skyville, a cement version of where I really belonged. It was like a maze, a world of cars, a sky, gray with smog, and towering buildings. After a while, I realized that I’d left everything behind, except my school backpack, which contained my journal, and the clothes I had on. Finally, I curled up in the filthy corner of a dark alley to sleep.
Nothing much had happened over the month that had followed. I’d found out that the open window above was connected to a bakery, and the baker would throw out all the ruined batches of cookies or cupcakes. That and the old cardboard box I’d found were the biggest gold mines of the month and, pathetically, what I lived on. And now, there I was, shivering with cold, at what was probably ten o’clock at night.
The next day was awful. I had only been able to savor a frosting-smeared sugar cookie, and because of the oncoming winter, the wind was worse than usual. I tried to pass the time as I’d done the night before, with the memories and visions of my previous life, but I couldn’t force one more tear out of my worn-out eyes.
For the first time in weeks, I staggered out of the protective darkness of the alley and into the blinding light of Skyville city. Rubbing my eyes, I stepped forward and fell onto the hard pavement of the street.
Cars honked and tires screeched. The world seemed to come to a halt, and for one beautiful moment, the reluctant sun showed through the unwilling smog. My mother was there, in front of me, arms outstretched to break my fall.
And then my tender face smashed into the street, Mama was gone, and the sun failed to shine through any longer. It gave up. My mother gave up. I gave up.
I was like my mother, falling, reaching for something that wasn’t there. As I lay there, silence taking over the noisy street, I let go. I let myself release the pain and fall into the bottomless pit of blackness.
* * *
Gloom blurred into the foggy sight of a woman, with dark brown curls that framed her face, as radiant and humble as a violet. She pulled me up and sat me on her lap like a baby.
“Mama,” I murmured, and the woman laughed softly.
“Do you have a home, baby?” she asked kindly.
My eyes focused and I realized where I was. I was in a coffee shop, on the lap of a woman who wasn’t my mother. Suddenly I became angry. What right did she have to ask of my personal business? She could pry all she wanted, I decided, but she wouldn’t get one scrap of truth.
“I’ve got a home,” I spat.
“You got pretty banged up, honey, but you’ll be fine,” she replied. “Where do you live?”
“Don’t call me that.” I looked out the window, trying to pick a building that should have been my home. “I live over there,” I offered, pointing to a big, white building. It looked like the place a very rich person would live.
She smiled. “You live in city hall?” I felt my face turn red. I rapidly felt terrible about lying to her. She was trying to help, after all.
“I’m Hannah,” she told me. “I live down the street, at the foster home.”
Suddenly, my anger came rushing back. “I ain’t needin’ a foster home.” Obviously, I had inadvertently picked up the poor grammar of the cook from the bakery. I turned my head so she wouldn’t see my face, which must have looked like fire by then. “I mean, I don’t need a foster home.”
“OK,” she said, getting up and walking briskly towards the door. “I’ll see you later, then.”
As if, I thought.
Wait a minute! What was I doing? I needed a home, more than anything. So why was I turning one away?
“Wait!” I shouted. I ran out onto the sidewalk, but she had vanished into the crowd.
I ran, my heart heavy with yet another burden: a missed opportunity. Salty tears dripped from my heavy eyelashes, stinging the slivers of cuts that creased my cheeks as I skirted down the sidewalk. My eyes and brain shut off, letting my legs take over, because I didn’t care where I went. I didn’t have a home. I didn’t live anywhere. I didn’t belong anywhere.
My legs took me to what most resembled a home: the dark alley with my cardboard box and my backpack. There, inside the box, was where I spent my afternoon, in a haughty, angry mood, munching on a powdered bonbon and wondering why I deserved the life I had. I’ve never been perfect, but who ever was? I’d been good enough, I thought.
When long hours had dragged by and the light was dim, I took a deep breath and opened my journal for what I decided would be the last time. I hoped that my random opening would lead to some report from my previous life, something that would remind me that at least part of my life was worth living. Squinting my eyes closed in anticipation, I slowly opened the pages and dared a peek. As if drawn to them, my gaze fell on three words: “I love you.”
I screamed in my head, What?!! Why would I pick those stupid words?! I don’t even know the meaning of love anymore! I angrily thrashed at the page, ripping it out and crumpling it up.
When I’d successfully thrown the wrinkled piece of paper into the busy street, my trembling hands tore at the next page. Soon, the only remainder of the journal was the old, battered covers that were bound together with the filthy silver stitching. Fresh tears sprang out of my ripe eyes. They came in a flood, never pausing for a minute as I heaved choking sobs.
My tears blurred my vision, but I was able to make out the silhouette of a woman that stood, black against the bright lights of the city. I felt myself rising, standing up in a desperate stagger to face whoever it was. But I finally decided to stop fighting. For the second time that day, I gave up.
Dizziness swirled around me, and as more tears nourished the two rivers across my cheeks, it became more and more intense. I felt lightheaded, as if I was in a dream. I knew I would faint. As I slowly fell, two white hands—pale and perfect like Mama’s—reached towards me.
* * *
I was in a fresh, clean white nightdress that reached halfway past my knees. I sat, curled up in a ball, while Mama, with her arms around me, was rocking me in a rocking chair, singing me a lullaby in her soft, angelic voice. My head lay across her chest so that I could hear her heart beating for one last time. I didn’t want to wake up from this perfect dream. I would rather stay inside this dream forever. However, just as the repulsive thought crept into my mind, I felt my eyelids, my real eyelids, start to open.
I was being rocked in a rocking chair, in a fresh, clean white nightdress. A voice—beautiful, but unable to match the beauty of Mama’s—was softly singing a lullaby. I knew who it was without lifting my head. Hannah’s long arms were wrapped around me. I suddenly realized that Hannah would become more in my life than the nosy woman who reminded me too much of Mama.
With only a little bit of uncertainty, I wondered if maybe my life wasn’t over yet. Maybe somewhere deep in my heart, I still had hope.