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It was a warm spring night in a small town in Connecticut, and a circle of five 15-year-old girls sat in a little park off the main road, delighting in the fact that they'd stolen some beer from the cabinet of a parent. They were all drinking, marveling in the new taste, when a young, blonde woman appeared in the clearing. She hurried over to them, as if she'd been looking for them all night.
"Mind if I join you?" she asked, not waiting for an answer before she plopped down, sealing their circle. They all looked at each other, incredulous, wondering who the strange beauty with the raspy voice had come from, wondering whether to be afraid, wondering what she wanted.
"Who are you?" a loud brunette asked boldly. The blonde laughed slightly.
"I'm Lydia. Don't mind me, I'm just hiding for awhile." They all simply looked at each her. She rolled her eyes slightly and added, with a dismissive wave of her hand, "I was being assaulted."
"Assaulted?" one girl screeched. "Do you need us to call the police?"
Lydia rolled her eyes. "Hardly. It was just another drunken guy, stumbling around, wanting sex from me." Her eyes were glassy as she remarked, "That's all men ever want. Sex. Makes them feel superior, when you give them what they want. Alcohol only intensifies it. But every man is the same." She looked around, appearing surprised at the youth of the girls around her. "You're all lucky. You're too young to have boyfriends."
"I have a boyfriend," one of the girls piped up. "And he doesn't just want sex." The blonde observed her. Young. Curly ringlets. Doe-eyed and innocent in every way.
"Who knows, kid?" Lydia replied in a new, more gentle tone. "Maybe your boyfriend will be the one to prove me wrong. Maybe he won't let you down. He could be one of the good ones. I've heard they do exist. But I've heard a lot of things. If you don't want to be disappointed, you just stop believing them."
"Not all men are bad," the young girl insisted.
"Faith in men, faith in society. That's good. Keep that."
"How old are you?" a redhead sitting across from Lydia asked, an accusatory note underlying her sentence. "You seem a bit young to have it all figured out."
There was a pause, a beat in the conversation that had previously been moving at a rapid-fire pace. The redhead cowered slightly as the leggy blonde surveyed her.
"I'm 19," she finally responded, grabbing the beer of the child opposite her and taking a long swig. "But I might as well be a thousand."
One of the girls in the circle observed her for a moment at that point, and whether it was the alcohol clouding her mind or simply a vision of childhood imagination, she could have sworn she saw not a 19 year old girl, but a battered and beaten adult, coming out of the war that was her life. When she went on to tell the story to just about everyone she knew, this would be her testimony. This would be what she was positive she saw.
It's not hard to believe, really. Lydia wore her battle wounds like tattoos. Visible for everyone to see. Why hide what made you who you are?
"I was in foster care my whole life," she explained to the circle. "In and out of a different home every month." She smirked, a glint in her harsh gray eyes. "I was the problem child. There's no cure for it. I would run away time after time again. They always found me. But it was nice for awhile...that feeling...that you're free of it all."
Every girl's eyes were glued to Lydia. This wasn't unusual. She was special. Beautiful, but in a way that almost hurt to look at. Terrifying in her wisdom. When she talked, people listened. Or they heard, at least. Hung onto every word. Listening is something else entirely.
"My parents died when I was four. Mom overdosed. Dad...he didn't handle the grief well. Stopped eating, stopped existing. He was already dead by the time his heart stopped beating." She shook her head, her long hair moving like a waterfall. "I knew then...you can't count on anyone to see you through. You learn to take care of yourself.
"Foster care was hell. I got put in the worst homes because I was the worst child. No one knew how to deal with me. I was a monster. A nuisance. No one loved me. I don't know if anyone ever will." Her eyes flickered--with pain or anger, no one knew-- and she lifted the beer to her lips once more. "I was attacked, abused, raped."
There was a small murmur that passed through the girls, a gasp that seemed to reverberate throughout the entire park. The way Lydia told the story of her life in such an offhanded way...it was like she didn't feel anything.
They were wrong, of course. Lydia had always known that her problem was that she felt too much. That's why no one wanted her, why she had always been cast aside. You can't share your emotions with anyone...they'll just shut you down.
"I could handle all of that," she continued. "It was the torment that broke me. They would tell me...my foster parents, the child service officers...they'd all say the same thing, no matter how they tried to phrase it. I was worthless, I would never amount to anything, I was nothing but a waste of space. The women would scorn me, the men would try to dominate me. Just because they could. It was like I stopped existing. I don't remember what happiness feels like." Her voice was hollow as she whispered, "I don't know if I was ever happy."
Silence. No one said a word. What do you say when a broken young woman appears before you? What can you say to fix it?
"I'm sorry," the redhead finally said, her voice breaking the quiet that was threatening to envelope everyone. "I'm so sorry."
Lydia looked at her. Woman and child, surveying each other. Lydia gave her a smile full of 19 years of sorrow, and shook her head softly.
"I don't want your pity, little girl. I stop cashing in on the word 'sorry' after my mom's funeral." She laughed slightly at the girl's face, looking like she'd just been slapped. "I know you meant it. But nothing anyone says is going to change a thing. You can't change what happened to me. You can't change the thing that made all of this happen."
"What thing?" one girl asked. Lydia's answer was simple, and yet it held more meaning than anything any of the girls had ever heard before, and it would haunt them for years after.
No one spoke for awhile. Lydia continued to down the beer in front of her. The girls simply watched, wondering why she chose them, of all people, to share this story with. Wondering how you get on after knowing so much about a person you'll probably never see again.
"I have to go," Lydia said suddenly, jumping up from the circle they had sat in. She looked at each of them in turn...they were all the girl she longed to have been, the girl that was dead and buried in the grave within her. Lydia might have mourned her, if she had been another person in another life. But she was Lydia, and her outlook was simple. You can't wish for things, you can't grieve, and you can't want. That's what hurts. And Lydia couldn't hurt anymore. She was barely human. She barely existed. And a ghost of a girl can't hurt.
The girls watched as she ran away from the park, her long legs jutting in front of her, her arms pumping at her sides, still holding the beer bottle. It was unclear to all of them whether she was running from something or running to somewhere. She just ran, until she was out of sight, leaving the girls blinking and staring at the spot where she'd sat.
If it weren't for the scent of vanilla mixed with cigarette smoke, they might have thought she'd never been there at all.