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“Ring around the rosy, pocket full o' posies, ashes, ashes, we all...fall...down!”

Squeals of laughter tangle with the tall pines and cotton candy clouds floating above. Two small girls squirm energetically in the crisp, green grass at the peak of a colossal hill in their grandparents' backyard. The blades stick to their wispy hair and tickle their sensitive skin. The spring sunshine cascades itself on their tiny frames, illuminating the few baby teeth remaining in their mouths.

The two youngsters are inseparable, bound together by DNA and fond memories. While merely half-sisters, the girls are often mistaken for identical twins, despite the difference in hair color, complexion, and age.

The five-year-old – the eldest – dons thin, blonde hair and a freckled face. Named after her mama, Mellissa – spelled with two L's and two S's, thank you very much – possesses an enormously powerful mind, chock full of secrets and bits of information that she is much too young to unlock. Maloosey, as her daddy fondly calls her, tends to have a shy nature and cowers behind the safety of mother's long legs in the midst of unfamiliar company. As soon as the stranger steps out of the door, Mellissa slips back into her skin and occupies her usual spot at the center of attention.

Mellissa's younger sister, Carly, boasts a countenance similar to that of Shirley Temple – red, ruddy cheeks, sparkling hazel irises, chocolate locks spiraling in thick tendrils down her back, full cherry lips, and a button nose. Her demeanor, however, could not be further than that of her child star look-alike. Little Carly, all of three years old, is adventurous and rambunctious, unafraid to push the rickety swing-set in the backyard to its very limit and soar into the sky at the height of her ascent. Every pair of her pants proudly displays dark green stains at the knee and torn belt loops. Carly's hands, her mother suspects, will remain caked with clay and mud forever, crescents of dirt burrowed beneath her small fingernails. She will never come clean.

Mellissa and Carly eventually tucker out and desire a nap. The sisters cuddle together right there in the backyard, under the protection of the buzzards flying in circles overhead.

In the middle of their slumber, their papa peeks at them from the diamond-shaped window in the back door of his trailer. He turns the shiny doorknob and steps out onto the little red back porch he crafted from wood and spray paint. Papa strides across the yard, his spit-shined leather Sunday shoes kicking up tufts of grass and dirt in his wake. A light breeze whirls around him, playfully whipping his combed white hair about his head. The sun casts a glow upon the bronze
buttons on his navy coat.

He cautiously kneels down to scoop the snoozing girls into his arms, careful not to brush his pants against the grass. With one girl on his back and another cradled in his arms, he re-enters his house, squeezes through the narrow hallway,
and gently deposits them onto his couch.

Not long after, Mellissa stirs and knows instantly where she is without opening her eyes. Breathing deeply, her nose traps the warm smells of her grandparents' house – her grandma's face powder, the thick aroma of WD40 and oil dripping sluggishly from her papa's fingers, the dust on the ceiling fan in her grandparents' room, and the fresh, green scent of Palmolive dish detergent, among others.

Mellissa lifts herself into a sitting position on the beige, itchy couch and takes in her surroundings. Her grandma – a short lady with gold glasses, a single leg, and a knack for cooking scrumptious Southern meals – stands steadily in front of the stove, no doubt whipping up her signature banana pudding. All seven of her sons and daughters, including Mellissa's daddy, surround Grandma, helping her prepare dishes and set the small, circular wooden table. The kitchen is lilliputian in size, decorated with dreary, wood-paneled walls and white curtains splashed with painted strawberries. The hum of the refrigerator, the spontaneous crackle of the television, and the bubbly voices of her family members combine into one heartwarming melody that expands through the entirety of the house, cocooning Mellissa in its soft embrace.

“Mellissa? Mellissa...?”

Carly shakes her sister gently and snaps her fingers in front of Mellissa's motionless eyes.

Mellissa jolts back to reality. Ten years later, she stands in September under a flimsy green Parker-White funeral tent. Bleak, dense clouds rest heavily on top of her. The humid smell of South Carolina rain clogs her throat. She swallows it down and builds up the courage to look about.

The nature surrounding the Princeton Baptist Church is dying a painstakingly slow death. The knotted, bare branches of the trees reach up to the angels, begging for salvation and forgiveness. Golden and red leaves dust the dry earth as a symbol of departure. Mother Nature's vengeful, damaging wind blows furiously through the cemetery. Spring is long gone.

The only flowers to be seen for miles are the papery yellow roses perched atop the slate-gray coffin before her. Mellissa feels shaky, unstable anger bubbling beneath her tears. The eighty-seven-year-old man who had shown her how to assemble and disassemble a lawn mower from scrap parts certainly did not deserve such a dainty flower to adorn his deathbed. She tears her damp pupils from the hideous flowers, a furious nauseous sensation sweeping through her slender body, accompanied by grief, guilt, and anger. The emotions merge into one and race through her veins. Unable to handle the sudden flux in emotion, she runs. Her lead legs move clumsily and stupidly at first, but soon the muscles unclench and she relaxes. She rips past the desolate, forgotten tombstones of various family members and beloved friends. She tears past the prodigious oak tree at the corner of the cemetery. With no particular destination or direction in mind, she turns left, running right out of her high heels. She leaves them where they are and continues running, feeling the skin on the bottoms of her feet ignite in searing pain as the rough asphalt scrapes against her tender flesh.

She runs until she awakens two years later.

Mellissa springs up, wheezing from an unknown source of exasperation. She rises from her uncomfortable metal futon and fumbles through the darkness. After a few moments, she locates her doorknob and turns it. The thin, wooden door creaks open invitingly.

Half-awake and half-possessed by homesickness, she drags her feet through the hallway and steers herself toward the kitchen. The fluorescent light washes her in an unwelcoming spotlight of sorts, mocking her pain and confusion. The circular table is gone, replaced by a more sturdy, rectangular one fashioned out of bumpy, unsanded wood. The stove sits idle in the same place it sat twelve years ago. The room is empty, dead. The only evidence of human occupation of the room is the wheelchair tracks etched into the unattractive, brown tile.

Mellissa falls to her knees on the floor of the kitchen, delicately tracing the ruts on the floor with her index finger. A tear fights its way past her defiant eyelids, splashing with an echo onto the tracks. The floodgates open, and she cries.



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