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Leah grabbed the straps of her backpack slung over her shoulder so that her hands had something better to do than shake, then she covered her head with the hood of her olive green sweatshirt. The world had so many better things to do than care about the tears rolling down her face. Or at least, that’s how it had always seemed. With her head down and her unkempt black hair blocking her peripheral vision, Leah could pretend her mother wasn’t spending her last breaths on drugs and men who didn’t care about her. Here, she could pretend that when she got home there would be more than vodka in the cupboards. Here she thought that maybe, just maybe, there was more carrying her through life than an old pair of converse sneakers. But that was only here.
She looked down, and there they were: the black trodden shoes, if you could still even call them shoes, kicking a palm-sized rock down the gravel street. It got lost among all of the other rocks, though. So many things are lost along the road of life. Thinking back as far as she dared, Leah retrieved the clouded memory of her father, which she saved for moments like these: moments where there is no one and nothing else there for her but a foggy image of a dead man. He sat there in her mind’s eye, wiping the bangs off of her freckled face, her light blue eyes smiling up at him. As he read to her about princesses in pink dresses and carriages, she looked across her room to the blue shoe box cracked open with one white lace hanging over the edge. Then, her eyes fluttered shut, and his memory was gone, taken over by a brighter one—more recent.
She didn’t recognize it at first, but the cherry blossoms gave it away. Every April, Washington DC is lit up with little pink buds, and no matter how hard one tries to ignore them just like every other flower and tree, they have a peculiar way of making the world look just a little bit nicer. Better yet, for the first time in years, her mother hadn’t brought a boyfriend home on her birthday, and had instead managed a little box wrapped in pink cellophane. The pink wrapping fell to the ground as she took off the cover. Inside was a little pendant heart with a hole in the shape of a torch.
“Thank you mom,” said Leah, wondering why her mother had chosen the pendant with a torch, but keeping quiet so it didn’t seem like she wasn’t appreciative. When Leah was six, her mother had gotten her a bottle opener. When she turned ten, she gave her the Corona Lite shirt she had gotten with the purchase of a value pack of the drink. To say that this pendant was an improvement would be an understatement, and Leah didn’t want to give her mother any reason to think that change was a bad thing.
“All the money from that went to the American Heart Association,” Leah’s mom continued. “It was just, you know, set up somewhere in town,” she said as she started to walk out of the room, her hands held together behind her back, and head slumped as if she was embarrassed by the nice gesture. Leah had wished so much just to see her mother’s strange stance as a result of not knowing how to act when doing something nice, but she was smarter than that. That was the same walk she had the mornings where I was up before her guests left, and the same stance she assumed when I asked what was for dinner. There was something wrong.
“What is it mom?” Leah called after her, her mother coming slowly to a stop.
“Nothing,” her mother unsurely responded, still facing away from Leah.
“Well, if nothing means something, then I believe you,” Leah retorted sarcastically.
“Don’t use that language with me!”
“Don’t lie to me!”
“I have cancer!” Leah’s mother screamed, still facing away. “And don’t speak to me like that,” she finished before following her gaze down the hall.
Leah searched for something to say, but the words that she tried stuck to the back of her throat, not strong enough to push their way through her lips. Cancer. She tried to think of it as the crab it was in the sky, crawling slowly through her mother’s veins as it does across the night’s sky: nothing that couldn’t be caught, right? Fishermen caught crabs all the time, right? Right? He has just a mean crab who would steal everything in her life, no matter how little that actually was, if he wasn’t caught. But it costs money to get a boat, and a net—money that Leah and her mother surely didn’t have. So the little crab cancer would just go and eat her from the inside out until one day where she would just be nothing. Leah put the small pendant in her pocket, and walked out the door without saying a word.
And as soon as that image came it left, leaving Leah red-eyed and wet-faced: an incredible way to face the world alone. Her heart ached for her father to rest his rough hand against her cheek again, and to tell her about the perfect lives of princesses in faraway lands as he used to do to calm her tears. He would kiss her scrape, or twisted ankle, or her heart when someone teased her at school. When her mother came home from “work” unable to walk in a straight line, they would close the door to her room and make a fort out of pillows and blankets. Leah would lie in the warm, woolen hut, the last blanket off of her bed draped over her petite body, and put her hands behind her heads.
Leah lay on the sparse grass of her front lawn, as she listened to his voice coming from the video playing in her mind: fast forwarding, then pausing and rewinding again before playing this clip from three years back.
“Once upon a time,” he started, leaning back carefully in the little fort as to not knock down any of the pillow walls. “There was a beautiful princess. Her name was Ms. Leah, and she lived in a castle in Knoxville, Tennessee.”
“My name is Leah!” She could hear herself cry in joy, “And I live in Knoxville!”
“It’s funny how coincidences work like that, huh? Well, Leah was the most beautiful princess of them all, and she had a cute baby puppy that helped her rule all the land. He had white hair, and black spots and wore a crown on his head.
“A crown on a doggy?!” she heard herself giggle. “Daddy you’re silly.”
“One day, she and her puppy, spots, were walking through the flower gardens”, Leah listened to her memory as it faded out, like a train disappearing into a horizon. She tried to hold onto him, to let his breath linger on her fingertips for just a second longer, but he was gone. He was gone, and he had taken everything with him. He was selfishly gone with the rest of her life dragging along at his heels, leaving her defenseless against a world that wanted nothing more to throw her out with Thursday’s trash. She wanted to hate him. She wanted to love him. Hell, she wanted to hate and love in general, but instead she fell numb. Numb to her heart and her soul ripping her to shreds, numb to her mother’s numbness, blankly facing the world with a few memories to define who she was and what she stood for. She begged the universe to let her jump into one of her father’s stories, and ride away with a prince into the sunset. She imagined what it would be like to come home to her castle, and to see her father sitting there in his thrown sipping away at cranberry juice like he used to do so often.
As the sun fell closer to the tops of the blossomless trees, Leah just turned around to face the length of the gravel road, wiping her eyes dry. It had always been this long. It had never died, or sold itself to men. It had accepted her day after day unlike the unrelenting world. It had carried time away that Leah was happy to say goodbye to. So one foot after another, and one tattered converse shoe after another, Leah walked forward.