February 18, 2008
By Larissa Schmitz, New Prague, MN

Her long legs stretch out in front of her, casting elongated shadows provided by the magenta evening sun. She gazes down, watching her quad muscles twitch against the impact of the ground. Her gaze travels down her legs to her feet, the crunching gravel sliding beneath her Nikes. Her mind wanders. Her legs. My how they’ve changed.

The little girl sits on the floor, having finally mastered the art of balancing on her bottom. Her chubby legs lay in front of her as she wiggles her toes. She studies the large easy chair beside her. The tiny fingers glide across the soft, tawny fabric. Her gaze travels upward to its occupant, her grandfather. From her seat on the flowered carpet, the six-foot-four ex-military captain appears larger than life. He notices her big round eyes staring at him, pacifier lodged between her lips like a wine cork. Scooping her up onto his lap, he selects a colorful book from the shelf beside him. He opens the book and gently turns the pages with his strong, work-hardened fingers. The little girl has no notion of what’s going on, but the bright pictures and the low rumbling of his voice intrigue her. Unaware that the moments she spends with her grandfather will teach her to love books, she swats at the pictures and kicks her legs excitedly. And he reads to her.

The cool breeze blows across her face as she turns on to Main Street. Unaffected by the whooshing and whirring of passing cars, she continues striding, her shoes tapping against the hard pavement.

The little girl clings tightly to her mother’s fingers. Her little legs are thinner now, a result of walking for two years. The rhythmic click-clacking of her mother’s heels on the spotless, iron-gray tiled hospital floor seems to reverberate off the cold, stark walls. The scent of rubbing alcohol wafts through the halls. Rounding a corner, they enter a small room through a bulky wooden door. Seeing her grandfather on the white, linen-covered hospital bed, the little girl joyfully squeals, “Grandpa!” He gives a soft chuckle and smiles, revealing unfamiliar lines in his face. Quickly running toward the bed, the little girl raises the book that she so carefully selected from her own collection. She grabs the bedrail, attempting to scale it, before her mother boosts her over. Her grandfather takes the book before adjusting the IV protruding from his left wrist like a clear snake. Observing the open orange pill bottles on the shelf and her grandfather’s missing fingers, the little girl asks, “Are you okay, Grandpa?”
He merely smiles as he cracks open the book and replies, “Somebody’s got it worse than me.” And he reads to her.

The sky is navy blue, and the time is late. The streetlights have turned on, but she is not far from home. The girl begins to sprint, kicking up her Nikes behind her.

The little girl is not so little anymore and is perfectly capable of reading her own books. Her legs have expanded to nearly two-thirds of her body. She paces back and forth in front of the frost-covered living room window. She knows that there’s no reason to worry. Her grandfather has been in the hospital dozens of times due to complications from his diabetes. Still, something in her mother’s demeanor as she hurried out the door an hour before is concerning.

The hours drag on. The girl continues to pace, dragging her toes across the coarse, tan carpet until they are red while her brother sits silently on the couch. The door lock suddenly clicks, a small noise that bellows throughout the house. Her eyes catch her brother’s as they wait in silence, too terrified to move. Then comes the most horrifying sound – her mother’s purse hits the floor, spilling lipstick cases, a tropical-covered checkbook, a cell phone and a heart-shaped compact, across the rose-colored tile.

The girl stares at the enormous fireplace in the center of her grandmother’s living room, subconsciously sitting in the faded, tawny easy chair where her grandpa used to read to her. The fire crackles as it licks the dry wood, but it can’t cover the notes of sadness seeping through from the kitchen. Only one thought occupies her mind. He isn’t gone. This didn’t happen. No. She tucks her long legs under her chin and slowly rocks back and forth as the fire crackles on.

The day has been a blur, a million years packed into every minute. Lying on her purple comforter, she flips one of her library books around in her hands. She can’t put it down, yet she can’t read it. How can she when the person who made her passionate about reading is gone? Gone. Taking a deep breath, she opens the book and begins reading. Her eyes sting. Her throat aches. Her lips twitch. She sniffles. She cries. The fat tears fall like missiles, exploding on the faded ivory paper. They continue to fall and she continues to read. The tears subside only as the last of the 285 pages is finished.

The day is arctic. Outside the snow falls gracefully upon the frozen earth. Inside, the girl’s legs carry her up the altar steps and past the candles and flowers. Discreetly wiping a tear from her stained, puffy eyes, she lays the eulogy on the podium. She knows the tears will come again, but she will hold them for as long as she can. She takes a deep, shaking breath. Placing herself upon the podium step, she contorts the microphone to face her. She tucks her long brown hair behind her ears. And she reads about him.

Reaching her driveway, the girl ends her sprint and walks to the front door. Slipping off her Nikes, she dashes up the stairs, two at a time. She flops onto her bed, instinctively reaching for the book on her white, wooden nightstand. Prying apart the covers, she studies the bookmark wedged between pages 136 and 137. The bookmark is simple, a gift he had given her years ago. The lime green metal displays a single word that means so much to her. Inspiration.

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