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Sometimes, I still can’t grasp it. Courage urges me to face the weakness gnawing away at the last bit of strength my body contains, but I refuse. I close my eyes and squeeze away the pain when I think of my future — the future that I don’t know even exists. I wish I could stand proudly like a statue, molded by the imagination and inspiration of another human being, and then continue my existence after they pass away. Forever. I would be the beauty they left behind. Each flaw sculpted into my body would be on purpose, for it would simply come from the art of the human mind. My body would be strong, hard, and never fail on me. People can stare at my blank figure timelessly, but they could never see beyond the stone — they would never see my weakness — I would be young forever.
Nobody understands. My mother looks right past me as if I’m invisible, waiting for her real beautiful daughter to prance into her life. Maybe she has a reason not to see me; every day I feel my pigment fading, my fragile hair falling like broken leaves, and my deep brown eyes blurring. My father doesn’t even bother looking in my direction. Before I was six years old, he filled my heart with warmth, but one day he got into his black mask and sneaky black gloves to steal it back. Maybe it’s because I became worthless with my weakness. Now, he is simply Presence; a man who wanders coldly throughout the house drinking his bitter, black coffee without a word. Elizabeth, my best friend, sees a lot in me. She clapped me onto the stage when I won the art award in fifth grade, she accepts my sparse diet, and she doesn’t ask me why I miss almost half the school year, now, in ninth grade. But not even she understands. Elizabeth constantly tells me about her shallow fears of clowns, darkness, and horror movies. Usually I nod and simply agree, but I would die for a life without the burden holding me back from even getting the chance to see clowns or horror movies; I can barely see any friends at all. How can I control the constant reminder of fear — a fear that is larger than life itself — trying to bust out of the walls of my body? Is it okay to be the only one who understands? Is it normal to be alone?
A sweet fragrance of the T.V. dinner wafted into my cold, isolated room, illuminating the gloomy mood. My torn curtains draped from the unpainted walls, hanging over the window that left little light seeping through. While I scribbled down equations for science homework, the smell continued to sing in my nose. I inhaled again, but the sweet smell of the dinner was overcome but something nostalgically horrific — fire. Black smoke trampled into my lungs, choking me with pure guilt, the same guilt that I felt three years ago.
It was the day my parents had woken me up with their erratic screams. It’s funny; I can hardly believe such a hateful couple is still together. There I was, wincing as I was forced to brace the curses and the insults as if they were just tiny characters shouting behind a television screen, for they always fought right in front of me. I stirred my soupy, soggy cereal. Get out of here. Go. Now. I couldn’t take my eyes off the angry faces so close together.
My mother loves me, I know she does, but whenever she’s around my father its as if she can’t love anything. Sometimes, I enjoy the sound of my parents yelling, for it is only noise that adds the life I live with mainly silence. With a deep breath, I hopped off my chair, slipped on my old running sneakers, and slammed the door shut.
My parents didn’t even notice.
When I finally reached Elizabeth’s warm, hospitable home, I realized her parents were at work and Elizabeth was still sleeping. Great, I get to be alone more.
Although I had only eaten a couple bites of cheerio’s, my stomach would not accept any more food. I’ll surprise Elizabeth by making her pancakes!
While the pancakes sizzled on the griddle, I closed my eyes for a few seconds waiting for them to finish. But the next thing I heard was the alarm system wailing, for the perfectly rounded pancakes I had pictured were burning to hot ashes in front of me. My eyes filled with terror, and I could almost picture faces in the dark clouds laughing at me. What did I do? She can’t find out it was me…
“Tali?” Elizabeth’s thunderous footsteps became louder. “Tali, what happened? Why is my smoke alarm going off?” As she coughed lightly, I locked eyes with her nervously. Hours seemed to pass before my locked throat released a sheepish lie.
“I-I-I just came here to drop something off,” I said, twiddling my empty fingers as my heart beat rapidly, “I heard the fire alarm going off so I ran inside to see what happened.” The lie tasted like sour milk pouring out of my mouth.
“Huh, maybe my mom forgot she made pancakes. She can be spacey sometimes,” Elizabeth shrugged casually as she turned the gas burners off and cleared out the smoke. I tired to go over to help her, but I needed more oxygen — the air over there was too dense to breath.
…She can’t find out.
That day of fire and smoke is placed far back in our book of memories, almost as if the fire burned the memory itself. But it was the first time I lied to my best friend, and I could never burn that away, no matter how many matches I lighted.
As I picked up my science notebook and continued my work, I sighed deeply. Every tiny word on the thin sheet of lined paper merged together to become one immense pile of ashes. When I stood up to close the door and block the smoke coming into my room, I tried to clear my mind, but I only shivered when I caught the last breath of powdery smoke to cloud my mind once again.
Silence draped around me. On my lap of flesh and bones laid a pad of paper I dug up from under my bed. Tiny tears scattered the cover page, water stains cause pages to hide their crinkled and old bodies within each other, and black smudges are smeared across the work I did in earlier pages. I tried to find a newer pad, but knew we didn’t own one. My family never saw the point in art and writing, they always shrugged me away like a drunken fly buzzing at their shoulder. My brother, Peter, can’t stand that I spend so much time on art because his vision keeps getting worse and worse, like the whole world is becoming a blur to him. One day, it just might go black. Some of my work was so beautiful, yet it felt as if no one sees the world through my eyes. My family can barely see me anymore.
As the silence grew, I flipped back to the last picture I drew, and a cool distance shattered my bones. A beautiful, imaginary bird sprang off the page with splashes of color, and the well-shaded colored pencil made the delicate figure appear as if it were a diamond held toward the sun with a thousand colors reflecting off the surface. But there was one problem — the bird was in a cage. Dark shadows of a lonely dungeon captured the bird, strong metal locks enclosed the bars, and only one tiny window hung on the endless, steel walls. My fingers slowly traced the heart-shaped wing of the flightless bird, the soft pencil shedding onto my skin. I could feel faint indents where I had pressed down too hard — where my emotions just couldn’t come out fast enough. As if I were a camera, I re-sketched each ridge and shade of the image back into my brain to lock it in forever. About a year ago, I had titled my drawing, “A Song for Freedom.”
When I flipped to a new, clean page, I felt the heaviness of my breath increase. What should I draw? How do I want people to remember me? I unfolded my legs and slowly walked toward the mirror, to gaze at my unfamiliar reflection. The eyes staring back at me danced with sadness, almost afraid to be seen by others. Each detail projected in the mirror was surreal. The brittle legs did not seem sturdy enough to support an entire body, or even take one step without shattering. Soft caramel hair appears as if death has cast a spell upon it, for the bright hue drained and the shedding hair revealed the pale scalp. Freckles are dumped over the translucent skin, with four tiny bruises lightly strewn across its forehead. As if the figure standing in the mirror was a stranger, I connected fingers with it, and kept my eyes glued to the fragile glass.
Suddenly, my throat raged with an itchy fire, and I broke into a coughing fit. My head began to throb from the constant movement, and a familiar copper taste peppered my tongue — blood.
When the fire in my throat was extinguished, I curiously brought my sketchpad back over to the mirror. Subconsciously, as I drew, I added volume to the long, delicate legs, and worked my way up to make the entire body look sturdier. The pencil easily curved a larger face, and I placed a couple freckles around the cheeks and smoothed away the purple bruises as an eraser removes a mistake. I replaced a sullen glaze of the eyes with cheerful fireworks embracing the happiness of the expression. Upon the lightly shaded face, I drew a waterfall of bouncy, blazing red curls. Even without colors, the sketch seemed perfect. I held out my pencil and smiled; this is my magical wand.
But soon, the magic fled.
I felt the fire in my throat again.
Tiny droplets of blood fused in my throat, bubbled up towards my mouth, and slowly trickled back into the base of my stomach. Shaking with fear, I realized the silence had never sounded louder, my bones had never felt weaker, and my mouth had never tasted as bitter.
At Elizabeth’s house, it’s as if there is a brick wall separating you from every inch of silence, for the house is constantly alive. I feel life in each bite of her mother’s homemade cookies, in each scream of her younger siblings, and each smile from her hospitable father. The only thing that usually keeps me company at home is reading. My mind drifts into another realm of thought, for I can be placed in a life that may include true happiness. A life I may never experience.
“What are you doing for your art project?” Elizabeth offhandedly asked while chewing her apple.
“I don’t know yet. I think I might do a picture of myself— almost like a self-portrait — but more creative. Why?” I asked sharply.
“Well, everyone knows you’re the best artist in the class. Your work is just… so magical, it’s as if the sun painted with the wind,” she exclaimed, but before she rambled on longer, she snapped back to me. “I need ideas for the project, because last time mine didn’t come out so well.”
Suddenly, I realized that the talent everyone saw in me would never go as far as they expect. No one outside of my class will ever see my talent, for to be well known, you need time. Time is something I simply don’t have. I shook the depressing thought away and drew another smile on my face.
“Oh, painted with the wind?” I laughed, “Yes, I’ll help you. Tomorrow.” Please don’t make me go to the doctor tomorrow.
Heat swarmed my body, clinging to my skin, and my sweatshirt began to feel even heavier, trapping in the air. When I rolled up my sleeves, my body inhaled cool air, and I lay my head back with relief.
“Uh,” Elizabeth stuttered, “What’s on your wrist?”
The hospital band on my wrist weighed down my entire body, dragging me to the floor. Nervously, I unrolled my sleeves and appreciated the heat that re-approached my frozen body. The air pipes in my throat clogged up, and as Elizabeth waited for an answer, silence exploded through the imaginary brick wall and slapped me in the face.
“Tali?” She asserted, and her eyes never left my trembling face.
“It’s nothing, Elizabeth,” I said, feeling the crisp vulnerability of my words, and I used my magic pencil to sketch a fake smile across my face. I glanced over at the burnt wall next to her stove, replaying the memory back in my head over and over. Luckily, I had already lost Elizabeth’s darting eyes, for they had traveled to the television. I was safe.
“Tali? I’m here,” Elizabeth’s voice leaked through my front door as she rang the bell wildly. As I quickly set down my drawing and my colored pencils to open the door, I could already see the pouty expression smeared across her face. The door, which used to open effortlessly, refused to budge with my every inch of effort.
“Come in,” I squeaked, trying to hide my heavy panting. She stomped inside, scowling at me with curious eyes. A moment froze as I studied her well-built body holding up her proud head, her luscious hair tumbling down her shoulders, and her flawless complexion. Stop staring — but my hungry, jealous eyes wouldn’t move as Elizabeth walked into my living room and picked up my drawing.
“Oh,” her soft voice melted, “this is — it’s beautiful. Is it you?”
It’s what I want to be.
“I don’t think so. It just looks like me, I guess,” I stuttered. As I revisited my drawing from Elizabeth’s point of view, a rush of humiliation lit up my pale face, and I tried to hide my thin arms behind my invisible stomach. She pulled out the sketch of her drawing, which had many erase marks, and we began to work casually without keeping track of the tiny minutes ticking away.
But then I felt it again.
The burning sensation screamed in my throat, my head shook back and forth while I coughed uncontrollably, and finally, the copper taste filled my mouth. Don’t look at me, Elizabeth. Don’t look at me when I’m this weak.
“Tali!” Fear rippled throughout her anxious shriek, “Oh my.... What’s happening?” I had no strength to answer. The high-pitched sound of her voice rumbled into my ears, but the sound of my dangerous coughs eliminated her words. Desperately, I tried to swallow back the blood, but it kept pouring out. Make it stop, oh please…
While the treacherous coughing continued to suffocate my lungs, the door opened and closed, and I heard my mother’s footsteps pattering toward me like sweet rain falling on a tin roof.
The first thing I saw when I awoke was Elizabeth’s blurred face; her eyebrows slightly narrowed and her complexion was flushed from confusion. But we were no longer in my lonely, dark, and messy house — we were at the hospital.
“Is she awake?” Elizabeth’s voice shook with a nervous tone, and she carefully walked over to my bed as if I would break if she walked too fast. As if every ounce of strength drained from my sore body, I could only glare at my mom, feeling the anger bubbling up inside my tormented body, hating her for bringing Elizabeth to see me here.
Wires pinned me down to the rock-hard hospital bed, and the ambient beeping from all the machines buzzed in my ear. The machines lied, for they told me that my heartbeat was perfectly steady, but I wanted to believe that my heart had frozen. The seemingly sturdy “hospital white” sheets were not enough to hide me from my frail reality. The doctors were not brilliant enough to make the time rewind to the day I first came here to change my life when I was six years old— to erase everything since then. My best friend did not know enough about me to know the largest piece of my life. She can’t find out, she can’t find out…
The ticking of the clock had molded slowly to the beat of my heart, and as they gently swayed together I felt the minutes fleeing away from my grasp, and my slow heartbeats coming to an end. Doctor’s swarmed around me, carefully dabbing the blood seeping out from the inner wound of my body. But I lay there motionless — painless. Through my squinted eyes I could see the shimmering tears streaming down my mother’s face as she belted out with cries, Elizabeth’s mouth moving in the shape of my name, over and over, and the absence of my father — the most visible thing of all.
Everything was quiet.
I became aware of the tiny, weak, and tired pieces of my body beginning to turn off their lights, close their doors, and say goodnight. Forever. My heavy eyelids began to close me away from the boisterous scene in front of me. But before my eyed closed, a soft, robust hand slipped into mine and gave me a sharp squeeze of affection. Every drop of energy lit up inside of me to lift my heavy eyelids and stare into Elizabeth’s scared, distant face.
“It’s beautiful,” she whispered with a smile as she placed my drawing in my bony hands. I embraced the knifelike edges, almost crumpling my artwork as I gaped at the two dimensional figure slowly fading. The perfectly shaped legs twirled up to the buoyant arms that danced around the torso. However, mounds of dark, dried blood covered the perfect face, piercing through the flawless figure. Nervously, my shaking hand crushed the edges on the paper, causing the entire masterpiece to cave in. I looked into her empathetic eyes, and I wanted to hold her gaze without ever letting go.
“How is that beautiful?” I whispered with weak vehemence, “it’s ruined!” Hot, salty tears poured down my pale face.
“So,” Elizabeth said abruptly, “what’s really going on?”
My heart pounded.
The time ticked away.
My mother folded her arms sternly.
As if I was drifting off into a dream, I tried to slap myself to stay awake. I tried to catch the minutes that were flying away — I tried to give myself more time to wake up.
“Honey,” my mother’s firm voice croaked with the sound of tears clogging her throat, “answer your friend.” If I weren’t trapped onto the hospital bed, I would run away. Run and run until I didn’t know where I was anymore. Just tell her. Just use your last words. Just let it out.
My heart pounded.
The time ticked away.
Everyone’s eyes sliced into my skin.
“Elizabeth,” I heard my own scratchy voice utter, “I — I have — uhhh,” my eyes began to flutter down closing…closing…closing….
Then, the soft hand squeezed mine again.
“I have leukemia.”