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The Girl with the Pink Backpack
Rain. You doubt it will ever stop. Pressing your hand against the window, you stare numbly at the water streaked glass, little streams and rivulets trickling down in hypnotizing patterns, the beads of rain catching your eyes and holding them captive until the drops reach their final resting place at the bottom pane. You lean your cheek against the cool surface, listlessly watching the activities below. Not that you actually care what’s going on—but it’s better than looking anywhere else where your eyes might accidentally drift to the countless pictures littering the walls of every room in this infernal house, all depicting the same woman with the dimples and the crinkles near her eyes from where she smiled. You hate this woman so much, but you love her, too. You know that you’re kind of a whiner, don’t you?
From your perch on the window seat in your blue walled living room, you have the perfect view of the grimy streets; they’re an endless sea of umbrellas as everyone hurries around each other, eager to be out of the rain that splatters down on the gray cement, flooding into the gutters in great muddy rivers. The crowd seems to move as one, you think, anonymous in their uniforms of raincoats and boots, their faces copies of the same miserable, dejected look. You shouldn’t blame them though; the same look is on your own face as well. You knew that, right? You look wretched. Their figures blur together in your mind, just one rising and falling tide of muted grays, blues, and blacks.
Yet, even though they present such a sad picture of dreariness, you really envy them. Ridiculous, at least you know that, but you can’t help it. It’s pathetic, just pathetic, but you can’t keep yourself from imagining the families they are hurrying home to. You make up a better story every time, torturing yourself. That woman with the big gray hat has two little girls, one six and one eight, who are waiting eagerly at her house to give her the pictures they made her at school. Just stop it, you say angrily to yourself, but you can’t stop. The man over there with the earphones and the long black coat is headed to some cheap restaurant to meet his girlfriend for dinner; maybe, if he plays it right, they’ll go rent a room at a hotel afterwards. Stop it! And that girl with the long brown hair so much like yours and who looks about your age too—sixteen or so—is thinking happily about the warm, home cooked meal her mother will have waiting for her when she gets home, and how her father will pull her onto his lap, even though she is much too old, to ask her how her day has been. She’ll smile, and tell him all about the boy who was watching her today, and how he grinned at her and she felt so warm and she thinks maybe he might ask her to the upcoming dance....
Why are you doing this to yourself?
You look angrily down at your hand clenched tightly in your lap, and you brush a lock of hair out of your eyes with a shaking finger. Your face is sticky with dried tears, your mascara probably smeared; you can feel it itching on your face. But what the hell do you care, anyway? You shouldn’t care. There is no one here to see. You are alone. The scratchy pillow rubs against your back, and you yank it from under you and hurl it to the floor. Why does the clock sound so loud? you wonder. The hands go around and around again, never stopping.
A flash of color outside the window suddenly catches your eye, and you reach up a hand to wipe away the mist your breath has left on the glass. Your finger is wet when you draw it away. You press your nose to the window, only mildly curious. Oh, you realize in disappointment, it’s just a girl, carrying a small backpack of the brightest neon pink; she can’t be more than ten or eleven. Her blond ponytail bobs as she walks, like a little pale yellow ribbon, you think. You watch her progress as she hurries down the street, weaving expertly in and out of the automatons all around her, so sure of her destination. She stands out from the rest of the crowd like a beacon to you, both because she is not dressed for the weather at all—she has no umbrella, and isn’t even wearing a rain coat or a sweater—and because she seems so bright and happy compared to everyone else. Especially compared to you, sulking here on this window seat—but you know that, right? The pink of her backpack and Red Sox tee shirt stands out starkly against the perpetual dullness of the people moving around her, and her sixties style bell bottom jeans are soaked so thoroughly that you think she must have recently waded into a swimming pool. The strangest thing about her though, you decide, is that she’s wearing no shoes. Her feet are completely bare as she walks down the street with catlike elegance, seemingly oblivious to the rain and the dismal expressions on everyone else’s faces. Where is she going? Did her mother forget to pick her up from school, as yours so often did? You tilt your head, vaguely intrigued now. Finally, you’re thinking about something other than your own misery for a second.
As you watch, she picks up her pace, as though she’s received some invisible signal urging her further. She pauses several times, you guess to murmur apologies to the people she knocks into as she skips past—you can just make out the wide rueful grins she flashes them. Maybe you should try that some time, a smile? Leaving a trail of disgruntled people behind her, the girl with the pink backpack changes her course and heads towards your house, towards you. You peer downward, trying to see what she’s doing near your doorstep from your odd angle up above her. You think she’s going to climb the stone steps and ring the doorbell, but then something catches her attention and she darts back to leap into the big puddle that has gathered beneath the towering maple tree in your yard. Wrong again—are you surprised? The water splashes everywhere, soaking her shirt, and you shudder; now you know how her jeans got so wet.
Satisfied, the girl with the pink backpack bounces back to the steps and takes them two at a time, pushing the button for the door bell without hesitation. You envy her audacity—maybe you should try to be bold sometimes, too. The song your mother programmed the bell to play years ago on another rainy day much like this one echoes though the house, and you feel a pang in your chest, as though your heart has clenched into a fist. You look down at her, and you’re suddenly angry. You wonder what she could possibly want. What right does she have to interrupt your private crying session? But you shouldn’t be bitter. She’s just a little girl with a pink backpack.
“Oh, come on,” you hear her say loudly, and you cringe as she jabs the button again. You groan and slide off the pillow, glaring at the wet window and the walls with your mother’s pictures on them. You consider each one to be a personal insult. She’d looked so happy, her and your father—why did she have to do it? Move across the country, when she had a perfectly good family here—and your little brother too, didn’t he even care he was tossing you and your father away? You close your eyes, and it's as though you can hear their voices again, the endless battles with the harsh words that seem to cut through your invisible body like a whip. And your brother, cowering in the leather chair by the fireplace, the flames coloring the pale canvas of his face with rich yellows and oranges, his eyes so scared. You stare at the pictures again, at the happy smiles on all the faces, like an illustration from a fairy tale. These pictures were taken years ago, long before last month when she’d signed the papers that ended your family.
The girl rings the bell twice more, impatient. Why won’t she go the hell away? you think to yourself in irritation. Then you sigh. Are you disappointed in yourself? You should be. It’s just a little girl! Maybe she needs help, or needs to use the phone. Shivering as you go down the stairs, you wonder how she can possibly stand to be outside in this cold in only a tee shirt and sopping jeans. You’re freezing, even though you’re wearing a thick sweater. But that doesn’t say much, you know—you’re always cold.
You grasp the icy brass knob and yank the door open. Try to keep that scowl off your face! She stands there on the step, looking at you expectantly, not shivering at all. This close up, you see that she’s probably only ten years old. Her finger and toe nails are painted a startling neon pink that matches her backpack.
“Hello?” you say ungraciously.
“Hi!” she says brightly, and she steps past you into the hall without asking. You eye her in annoyance as she stands on the antique oriental carpet, dripping. Your father will not be happy, but you shouldn’t say anything. It would be rude.
“Would you like to buy a raffle ticket?” she asks you, producing roll of green tickets from the backpack. You hadn’t noticed its heart pattern before, but now you stare at it, fascinated. The lines swirl together in a tangle of pink sparkles.
You blink at her; the sparkles are imprinted in your vision, bright as the rest of her. You take tickets she shows you without thinking, watching her out of the corner of your eye as a little pool of water collects in an indentation on her backpack, spills over to form a puddle on the floor. It sends a little waterfall dribbling onto the carpet.
“Um…sure, I guess,” you mumble. You know it wasn’t because you’d actually like to have whatever it is that the tickets might get you—it’s hard for you to imagine winning anything right now—but you just want to get her and her wetness out of your house. She grins at you as though she knows what you’re thinking, one quick flash of white teeth; she probably does. You’re not doing a very good job of keeping a cheerful smile on your face. You look at her with your eyebrows raised for a moment, expecting her to leave, before you realize she’s waiting for you to rip off the tickets you want and give her your money. Randomly, you pluck off four tickets. You should buy a lot, it’s a good cause. Being miserable doesn’t give you the right to be cheap. Your mother would tell you that. You dig in your pocket for your money, the twenties your father gave you this morning. It really wasn’t a bribe, you know. He just wants you to be happy.
The girl with the pink backpack takes your money and smiles at you again, turning to leave. You suddenly realize that you haven’t made up a perfect family for her yet, and you’re curious. More than curious; you have to know. You don’t want to make another one up—you want to know the truth. You realize this is the most pathetic thing you’ve done all afternoon, don’t you? That you’re only making yourself more miserable? You don’t seem to care though, even though you must see how self defeating you are. You’re about to open your mouth to ask when your eye catches the title on the paper with the raffle information on it. All proceeds go to Riverside Orphanage, it says.
“Are you from this place?” you blurt out. You realize this is the first time you’ve really looked her in the eyes since she showed up on your doorstep.
“Yeah,” she says, with a shrug.
You stare at her in horror as your stomach turns to ice. It’s clear you’re speechless, so she turns and slips out the door, gracing you with one last smile before letting it fall shut behind her with a soft thud.
You hurry to the window as soon as you realize she’s left, in time to see her trot over to the puddle again and hop into it, giggling as the water splashes up around her. The house seems extremely quiet now that she’s gone, the ticking of the grandfather clock echoing loudly once more. So loudly. It’s the only thing you can hear against the background of the rain on the roof. You’re still frozen, staring out at the street again. Only it’s from a different window, this time.
Outside the rain still falls, pattering on the umbrellas and roof tiles, clearing away the mud. The streets will be clean when the clouds clear.