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Smoke forcing its way into my lungs chokes me. Bleary-eyed and surrounded by a blazing inferno of flames, I’m paralyzed with fear. Suddenly, I hear splintering wood as mom breaks down my bedroom door. I watch, stunned, as she appears out of the flames and scoops my slender thirteen-year-old frame into her arms. I’m terrified.
I wake up in a cold sweat. Where am I? Shuddering, I brush my arms, surprised to feel gauze bandages. Why are they there? I squint to get a better look. A sliver of moonlight glints off of oozing raw skin peeking out of the wrappings. My stomach drops as last night’s events come back to me. I’m in the hospital. My house burned down. My parents are dead. I am an orphan.
Guilt consumes me. Panic fills my chest. I can’t breathe. My pillow is smothering me. I must get out of here. Desperately, I tear the tubes from my body. The machinery erupts into frantic beeping. The door bursts open. Strangers in white coats and blue scrubs pour in. “MOM!” I shriek. “DAD! HELP ME!” Blood pounds in my ears. I frantically swat at all of the reaching hands. There is a painful pinch in my thigh. Woozily, I see the source of the pain is a giant syringe. I slip into darkness.
Why do I smell mothballs? I try to lift my head but it’s too heavy. My vision swims into focus and I see familiar piercing blue eyes.
“Mom?” I croak. A flash of pain darts across the woman’s eyes, now overbright with unshed tears.
“No, dear, I’m your Gram.” I blink tears away. She looks just like her picture on Mom’s—my breath catches—that was on Mom’s nightstand. Her eyes are framed by deep crow’s feet and her skin is a map of wrinkles.
“You’re my Gram?” I rasp, “the one who sends the ugly Christmas sweaters?” She smiles.
“You mean the handmade, stylish Christmas sweaters? Yes. Those are from me.” She carefully brings a cup of water to my lips. “Take a sip, dear. You’re parched.” The cool water soothes my dry throat. I am grateful. But my cheeks also redden with embarrassment.
“I’m going to call a nurse in to change your bandages and give you more morphine.” Gram says, carefully reaching over me and pressing the red button on the far side of my cot.
As the nurse unwraps my arms, a fresh flood of tears pours from my eyes. My arms are hideous. Not a single spot is unmarred. I will never look normal. My body is racked with heaving sobs.
I choke out, “Why me? What have I done to deserve this?”
Gram squeezes my hand and says, “Dear, the pain is unbearable now, but over time it will lessen, and life will continue. Everything will be fine.”
Gods! How long has it been since this woman spoke to a child? I tear my hand away. My face burns with fury as a scream, “Fine? You think everything will be fine? My life is over. My parents are dead. My arms are ruined.” My pulse rises. “I’m a freak.”
Grief, self-hatred, and anger engulf me. Great. Now my Gram, whom I’ve known for all of thirty minutes, thinks I hate her. The need to lash out and release these horrible feelings is overwhelming. I rip the gauze off my arms. A scream of raw emotion tears out of my chest. I am dimly aware that the nurse is calling for back up. I try to dodge the reaching hands but I am too slow. Another sharp pain in my thigh. I slip back into darkness.
“Lucinda. Lucinda.” A voice calls out from the darkness. “Wake up, dear. It’s time to wake up.” Confused, I open heavy eyelids. Mothballs? Again? Oh. Gram is here. Heat rises in my cheeks as I remember our last encounter.
“It’s Lucy,” I mutter. “My name’s Lucy.” No response. “Look, I’m really sorry for what I said. I lost my temper.”
Gram smiles at me. My heart warms. Maybe I haven’t lost her after all. “It’s okay Lucin—she corrects herself—Lucy. I can’t imagine how you’re feeling.” She tentatively squeezes my hand. I let her. “It’s true. I haven’t cared for a child in fifty-seven years. But, with your help, we can get through this. Come live with me in Santa Cruz. We can have a new beginning.”
Squeezing back, I whisper, “I’d like that.”