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The Difference of One Night
I close my eyes. Even such a small feat is slow and painful as a cold tear runs down my already damp cheek. I brush the few strands of hair that have fallen out of place behind my ear. My whole body is numb. With what, I can't quite place. Numb with cold is of no question. But past that, it's got the subtle numbness of regret, failure, and abandonment. The feeling cuts me till I'm raw and vulnerable.
“Maggie?” Comes the whisper so soft that the voice is barely intelligible.
I open my eyes, trying to brush away the salty water that's pouring out of them. I survey the small, sickly girl in front of me. My sister is nearly seven, though doesn't look much older than four. I'm glad; it helps her get out of things easier. But at the same time, makes many more things difficult. I've always done everything I could for her, being the only family member who cared.
The fire crackles in a hearth that seems miles away. But in the wooden box-shape building we call home, it's all we have. The warmth radiating out of it is no where near sufficient. The blanket wrapped around my shoulders is thin and does little to protect me from the icy cold that's blowing daggers through my layered clothing and penetrating to my bare skin. “Leave me alone...” I say. The word sting my throat.
“But I'm cold. My bed isn't warm. I want you.” She replies in a quiet voice, looking up at me with those big brown eyes. I can't stand to have her putting me on the spot like this.
I force my gaze away, pulling the blanket tighter around my arms. It only takes another second before Cecelia is struggling to climb up on my lap. I give in, and pull her close to me. At first, I'm holding her close out of reluctance. But soon I'm squeezing her to the point of suffocation. Not for warmth, but for protection.
I'm behaving like a child, I know. But Cecelia lets me keep her until I drift off into a sleep that includes neither rest nor relief.
I'm awakened by the sound of a loud banging on the door. I jerk myself out of the fogginess I set my mind into soon after loosing consciousness of the world around me.
Who could it be? One look at the darkened window confirms that the sun still has not risen. It's somewhere in the middle of the night. Being that there's no way to look at the moon from inside this cage of a house, I'm not entirely sure what time it is.
I hardly dare to even begin to guess who's outside. My pulse quickens at the thought. Ideas of hopes long ago crushed, followed by concerns of possibilities that couldn't be true...or could they?
I shake off my nervousness and walk bravely up to the strip of wood that resembles a plank. Having lived here for most of my miserable life, I've learned to recognize the knock of nearly everyone in town. When it sounds again, this time with more urgency, I rule out several faces who immediately come to mind. Father doesn't knock at his own door, he's usually too drunk to care about whether or not it's locked and I've long since remembered unbolt it about the same time I'm expecting to have him home since the first time when he simply used his shoulder to push through the whole thing as though it were made of butter. He was successful in re-locating the hinges, adding another thing to my list of things to fix. It took me three days to reassemble the doorway with little help, and from that moment on I resolved to leave the door open as much as I reasonably could.
Miss Rosemary only came on Tuesdays to deliver milk and eggs, which I bought from her without father's knowledge. She always knocks softly, so as not to wake us up if we happen to be sleeping at the early morning hour she comes.
Authorities—when they did care to come check on the house—pull a warning shot before entering. It doesn't matter which one of the men it happens to be, they always conduct their entrance in a similar manner.
It leaves one person. My heart skips a beat, and I throw open the door without thinking twice.
“Isaac!” I recognize his face before burying mine into his chest. My eyes fill with fresh tears. “You came. What happened in town?”
First, he's taken slightly aback, then he wraps his arms around me comfortingly. He lets me cry myself out before answering any of my questions.
When my sniffing dies down and I begin to quiet, he slowly cups my chin in his hand, and brings my face up to look at him. “Are you finished?” He asks, a hint of weak amusement in his eyes. He's trying to be strong for my sake, but I can't smile. It's clear he's going to hide the worst of the news from me for as long as he sees fit. Which means I need to pull myself together.
I shake my head, pulling free of his grip, and hiding my face downwards once more. I feel his hands stroking my hair that runs down my back.
I don't know how long he holds me, but when I look up again, the room is lit with the bright red sun beams just peaking up to dance over the edge of the horizon.
I take a long, shuddering breath. I'm shaking all over for fear of what the morning brings. Isaac helps me to a chair, then goes to pick up Cecelia off of the rocker where I left her in front of the fire. Now, the hearth is no more than a few smoldering embers.
I can hardly support myself, so I sit limply where he leaves me. I no longer have command of my own body
Cecelia is still sound asleep when he returns with her in his arms, and takes the seat next to me around our roughly crafted table. The silence is unbearable but I can hardly bring myself to break it.
“Isaac?” I can't take it any more. My voice catches. The tension crashes into the room like glass shattering.
He looks up and our gazes lock. I've never been able to communicate with people without words, but there's a first for everything. I read the entire night in his gentle, blue eyes.
“My father?” I choke.
He lowers his head. “I tried, Maggie...I tried.”