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Sapphire Eyes - A Short Story
The world turns on. Like that slow fade-in the TV does when you pull the knob out. Everything slowly comes into focus, tinted yellow from the towel in the window.
The TV’s on. Left on from last night. My normal wake-up call. A commercial. Pillsbury Doughboy, with cinnamon rolls covered in frosting. Yummy. Someone pokes him, and he giggles. My empty tummy twists with pain.
I look around the living room. A box of crackers on the floor, and a bag of M&Ms. I push my blanky away and slide off the couch to sit in front of the box. It feels empty when I pick it up. It looks empty when I peek inside, but I reach in anyways, pull out the bag. A few crumbs. I turn the bag over and catch the crumbs, shove them into my mouth, and chew. Swallow air.
The M&Ms are gone. I remember, because I ate them last night for dinner. I pick up the bag anyway, tear it open. The tiny colored pieces fall from the wrapper into the carpet before I can lick them up. I hear Momma’s voice inside my head. “Don’t eat off the floor Mirie. You’re not a dog.”
Momma came home last night. She looked that strange way, and walked in like she was really tired. Maybe I can have a real breakfast today.
I stand and walk past the kitchen and bathroom to Momma’s room. Her bed has a nice lump of covers, with her long black hair trailing out. Yes, she did come home, it wasn’t just a dream. I pick my way across the floor to her bed, careful not to step on the jewelry, the trail of clothes, the high heels and dirty spoons. Her bed is so high, I have to climb up.
Momma moves in her sleep. “Momma.” I whisper. I touch her hair, but she doesn’t move. “Momma.” I put my hands on her and shake her. “Momma!”
“Go back to sleep Mirie.” Her words sound muffled from her pillow.
“I’m hungry.” My voice is whiney, the way Momma hates it, but I can’t help it. My tummy hurts so much.
“I’ll make you something when I get up. Just give me a couple more hours.” She pulls on her covers, and her head is gone. I stare at the lump where she’s hiding. Then I slap her. Even through the covers, it hurts my hand when I hit her head.
“Uh, you little bitch! Get out, right now.” She rolls at me, and I fly back off the bed and hit the floor on my bottom. The tears flood my eyes. I scramble to my feet, put my hand over my mouth to stop the crying, and hurry out.
I run back to the TV, grab my blanky, collapse on the floor and let it out, long and hard into the frazzled yarn. Until I can’t feel anything but the hunger pains.
I go to the kitchen. The food is in the higher drawers, above the counter where I can’t reach, but I open all the bottom drawers just in case. Nope, not a single thing to eat.
I turn back to the counters. I’ve never climbed so high before, but I can do it. The open drawers are like steps. I set my jaw, grab at the top drawer and step up. I grab the counter top and step up again. My foot slips—I catch my knee on the drawer underneath me. Ow! I pull myself up, turn around and sit on the counter, rub my knee. It hurts!
I reach up to the cabinet and stand, pull the closest cabinet open, and duck under it. Macaroni and cheese in a box… cans of vegetables… a box of cereal. Lucky Charms. I reach up, but it’s too high, up on the second shelf.
I reach down and pull the toaster over, put one foot up. It feels sturdy. I hold onto the cabinet and step up, reach for the box, and grab it.
Something goes wrong, and the toaster moves underneath me. My feet hit the counter, but I fall backward, spinning upside down, and then the world turns off.
Four Years Later
I cross the street to my foster parents’ blue house. After a whole year, it just about feels like home to me, too. Even if Roger and Angela don’t feel like parents. Not sure they’re supposed to anyway. My notes home say To the guardians of MirnaConlins for a reason. So what if I don’t know what a real family feels like, I’ve had enough foster families to know that this one isn’t any different. Something’s simply missing. Maybe if they adopted me?
The door isn’t locked, which means Angela must be here. I go straight down to my room and slam the door behind me.
I kneel on the floor over in the corner next to my crappy little white desk, and plow through my pile of drawing stuff. All these notebooks are full. Dang it, I guess I have to get a new one.
I go back to my door, open it. “Hey Angela?” I shout down the hallway.
“Mirna?” Her voice sounds small, coming from the other side of the house.
“Come here.” I put my back against the door frame and cross my arms.
Angela appears at the end of the hallway. “How long have you been home?” She stands in front of me and puts her hands on her hips.
“I dunno. Can I get a new drawing notebook?”
“You know, I’d appreciate it if you’d say hi when you get home from school.”
“I get home the same time every day. Why’s it matter?”
“So I know you made it okay. Is that so much to ask?”
“Fine. Can I get my notebook now?”
Angela looks past me, into my room. “Sure. Once you clean up your room.”
Lame! “My room is fine.”
“It’s a mess. You might as well not have a clothes hamper, and your toy chest must be empty by the looks of things. You need to learn to take care of your things or you’ll wake up one day and they’ll be gone. Now clean it up.”
Fine, whatever. I turn to go back into my room. Something catches my attention—a white glowing ball in the corner of my eye. I spin around to get a better look at it, but it’s not there, no it’s still in the corner of my eye. Getting bigger. I blink. What is that? It keeps growing. I reach out, but there’s nothing there. I turn around again, and find Angela staring at me, her forehead creased and her mouth moving, but I can’t hear her.
Then the white sphere spills over everything.
Beep…. Beep…. What is this? Hard, pinching my finger. Sticking to my arm. Bruised all over, like a piece of rotting fruit. Why does everything hurt? It’s like a bad dream, an old memory.
Someone’s talking. Who’s there? I force my eyes open. A lady stands over me. Dark hair, sandy skin, hard eyes. Never seen her before. Where am I?!
I open my mouth, but nothing comes out.
She grabs my arm, but her hand is stiff, almost painful. “I’m Helen from Social Services. You’re in the hospital, Mirna. You had a seizure.”
Seizure? What does that mean? Hospital? Am I sick? It really hurts. I squeeze my eyes shut and see a flash of white. “What—” I swallow and take a breath. “Angela?”
The lady’s face goes serious. She sits on the edge of my bed and pats my hand. “She… left.”
“Left?” I ask. “Why?” My eyes find the monitor beside the bed, with its green flashing lights and little black buttons. Beeping away at me. I clench my jaw and force the words out. “When’s she coming back?”
“Oh Mirna….” Her eyes go soft, and her mouth twitches. She shakes her head. “They’re bringing you your things….”
This lady’s from Social Services. Oh, no. No, this can’t be what I think it is. Please tell me they aren’t skipping out on me. After a whole year. And I thought they might even adopt me. Who was I kidding? If they were going to, they would have already.
“We talked and we feel like it’s best to find you a new placement that can give you the support you need.” The lady stares at me, frowning, feeling sorry for me.
I fix my eyes on the ceiling. What’s best for me. Like they know. Why is it never my choice? I don’t want a new placement! How could they do this to me? Don’t they care about me at all?
My face is wet. My whole body feels glued to the bed, too drained to move. Holy jeans, I’m tired. I blink the tears out of my eyes, and suddenly I don’t want to sleep. Every time I close my eyes, I see the white sphere burned into the back of my eyelids.
Four Years Later
The bus comes to a hard stop, the kind of stop that leaves you rocking back and forth with your hand on the seat in front of you, wondering if the driver almost hit someone. Tequana grabs my arm to keep me in the seat. People shuffle past us to get off. Drunks, bums, crack heads, the usuals of the community bus crowd.
I need someone to tell me we don’t fit in here, but the only people who ride this bus are the people who have to. I guess this is where we belong, so why ask for a lie?
I grab my bag and follow Tequana down the isle to the door. The bus driver turns sideways to look back at us, flashing us a sleazy grin. Get me out of here! I jump down the stairs and out of the bus. “You two have yourself a nice day.” The bus hisses and squeals and pulls away.
The line to the soup kitchen is so long it’s trailing outside of the building and all the way down the block. My stomach twists with hunger. I pull my bag onto my shoulder and heave a sigh. It’s going to be a long wait.
“Hey, Mirie.” Tequana points across the street… at a McDonald’s. “Wanna play SMS?”
Heck yes! I follow her to the crosswalk, across the street and inside.
Holy jeans, it smells good.
Instead of going up to the line, we turn and go through the bathroom door. Tequana goes up to the sink and puts her bag on the counter, digs through it.
I go into the first stall and unzip my bag, pull out the empty bottle of pills to read the label. Topamax: 50 mg, Take one tablet twice daily with food or water.
I don’t know why I keep this stupid bottle. I’ve been out of pills for nearly a week. If something hasn’t happened by now, then maybe I never needed them. Maybe the seizure was just another lie, like the rest of my life. All one big pathetic lie.
I toss the pill bottle into the tiny trashcan on the side of the stall, flush and go back out to wash my hands. Tequana looks like a completely new person in her Stranded Middle Schooler getup. She did her hair up in a ponytail and put on a baseball cap. She replaced her jacket and t-shirt with a nice short-sleeved shirt. She put on a clean pair of jeans that doesn’t have holes or frayed edges.
Tequana hands me a light blue t-shirt, and I put it on over my gritty tank top. She nods at me. “Good enough. Keep your mouth shut.”
I frown. “I can’t help?”
“You’re a horrible actor.”
I roll my eyes. Fine. We grab our bags and go for the lines. Tequana waits for a while, and then gets in line behind a lady in a nice leather jacket. She looks about forty, well off. A good target.
The line moves pretty fast. The lady in front of us orders something to go and moves over to stand in front of her receipt on the counter.
Tequana steps up. “I want a number two, large, and a sundae. To go.”
“Me too,” I say.
The man punches some buttons. “Fourteen sixty-two.”
Tequana puts her hands in her pockets, digs in her purse, checks her pockets again, then goes for her bag, making a big deal of searching for money we both know she doesn’t have.
“No way… Uh.” She looks through her purse again. “Did I give you the twenty my mom gave me?” She turns to look at me.
“No.” I wrinkle my forehead at her.
“Oh, god, I can’t find it.”
The man behind us grumbles loudly.
“Will you go check the bathroom for it?” Tequana asks.
I head back to the bathroom, pace around the tiny room twice, then go out and walk back up to her. “It wasn’t in there.”
“Do you have any other way to pay?” the man behind the counter asks.
“No, that’s all I got,” Tequana says. “My mom won’t be back for two hours.” She is doing a great job of acting frantic. “God, what are we gonna do?”
“If you can’t pay then move it,” the man says.
“Wait.” The lady with the leather coat steps over. “I’ll pay for you.”
“Really?” Tequana says. “Oh, thank you!”
The lady hands a twenty to the cashier. “Don’t worry about it.” She smiles. Her food comes up, and she takes her change, picks up her bag and walks out the door.
Right on! I smack Tequana on the back and she gives me a huge smile.
Our food comes up in a to-go bag. Tequana grabs the bag and I get the sundaes.
“T, you are awesome!” I say, once we’re outside.
“Works every time. Just pick the perfect target and—” she snaps her finger, “Free lunch.”
“I’m so lucky you’re here. I’d be lost without you.” This is the first time I’ve mentioned it to Tequana. It’s true, too. When I ran away from my newest foster home, I was this close to getting caught when I met Tequana in a park, and we’ve been like this ever since.
“Yeah, you would.” Tequana smirks.
“You’re my best friend.”
Tequana tilts her head. “You’re my best friend, too.”
Suddenly I can’t see anything but white out of my right eye. The loud roar of the traffic fades out. All I can hear is this low buzzing noise, like the whisper of a radio turned down too low to figure out what you’re listening to. The sundaes slip out of my hands and splatter onto the sidewalk. For some reason, as the white spills over everything, all I can think about is how much it sucks that I didn’t even get to taste my ice cream.
Jane Doe. That’s what the stupid chart says, hanging at the foot of the stupid hospital bed. It’s the name they give people like me. The nobodies.
Maybe it’s a good thing. As long as they don’t know who I am, they can’t put me somewhere. I’ll wait for my chance to break out of here and go back to where I really belong.
Outside the door, my guard stands up. Maybe this is my chance. I sit up, but I force myself to stay in the bed until I know the guard is really gone. If he sees me going for my stuff in the corner, I’ll never get out of here.
I slump back into the pillows. It’s a guard change. And even worse, my new guard isn’t a nurse, or a doctor. He’s dressed in a yellow polo shirt and khakis. A social worker. He comes in. Doesn’t even bother to knock or wait for an invitation. That’s how pathetic I am. I can’t even control who comes to visit me when I end up in the hospital after having the fits on the side of the road. Like it matters anyways. The only visitor I would take is Tequana, but she isn’t coming. She made that painfully obvious when she took my backpack and split as soon as she realized where she would be going if she stayed with me. The worst part is, I can’t blame her. Who’s to say I wouldn’t do the exact same thing if I were her?
“What do you want?” I snap.
The man doesn’t miss a beat. He steps forward and holds out his hand. “Hi, I’m Jim Horton.” What? No I’m from social services spiel? Who is this guy?
“What the hell is that?” I say, eyeing his outstretched hand.
“This is a handshake.” I can’t faze the guy. He even smiles at me. “Well, not yet anyway. That would require another hand. Currently it’s a wannabe handshake.” He looks at his hand and then back at me with that stupid grin on his face.
“Why would I shake hands with you?” I cross my arms.
“Because that’s what people do when they meet.”
I catch of whiff of something—it reminds me of the McDonald’s I didn’t get to eat—and I spot a plain white bag in the guy’s other hand. Did he bring me food?
“Yeah, whatever,” I say under her breath, but I can tell this guy’s type. He’ll stand like that all day, so I might as well get it over with. I hold my hand up.
He takes my hand and shakes it gently. “It’s nice to meet you…?” He cocks his head and raises his eyebrows.
“Like I’d actually tell you my name.” I pull my hand away and eye his bag of food. The smell of roast beef is starting to fill the room.
“That’s too bad. If you don’t want to tell me your name, I’ll just have to give you one. Hmm….” He gazes into my eyes, but I don’t look directly at him. “How about Sapphire.”
“Sapphire?” I spit the word in his face.
“Sure, Sapphire, for your eyes. Sapph for short.”
“That is lame.”
“Too bad. You gave away your right to complain the second you chose to make me pick your name for you.”
I scoff. “What’d you say your name was? …Jimmy? Why are you here, anyway? You’re not a doctor, and you’re sure as hell not a social worker.”
“How can you tell?” He smiles at me, but it looks weird.
“All those assholes always give you their title, like it’s something to be proud of. I’m Mary from Child Social Services, where we screw over every child who has the good fortune of falling into our care. I can’t wait to screw you, too.” I cross my arms and roll my eyes.
“My mistake, let me introduce myself correctly,” he says with another weird smile. “I’m Jimmy the painter.”
“Painter?” I look into his face, and I see something different there, underneath his stubbled chin and lame brown eyes. Something real. Then I realize why his smile looks weird. It’s a real smile, not some fake face he puts on to try to make me feel comfortable. Not the creepy smiles I always see on the streets, or the mandatory smiles of all the foster parents who try to win me over. No one has ever smiled at me like that. “…What do you paint?” I ask.
“Whatever my client wants me to paint, which is usually walls.”
“Walls? You paint walls?”
“Sure, walls, siding, trim…. But what I really prefer are the murals. Ever been to Balmy Alley?”
I shake my head.
“That’s too bad. Everybody should see the murals at least once in their life.”
No surprise. I’ve known this guy for five minutes and he’s already telling me what to do. Go to Balmy Alley and look at the paint on the walls. Yeah? Well what if I don’t give a damn about stupid painted walls? What then, Jimmy the painter? That smell comes back again, making my mouth water and my stomach grumble. Making me even angrier. Why won’t he just leave already?
“You look hungry,” Jimmy says. “Go ahead. I already had my first sandwich anyways. This is my seconds.” He holds his bag of food out to me.
If I take it from him, I’ll owe him, but something comes over me. I grab the bag from him, pull out the roast beef sandwich, unwrap it and take a huge bite. The sandwich is still warm, the meat juicy, and the bread a little moist.
Jimmy watches me chew with this look on his face. Not the smug, full-of-himself face I expect. Not only is he not proud of himself for getting me to trust him enough to eat his food, he actually looks sad.
“Thank… you,” I say around the mouthful.
Jimmy finally sits down, in the chair by my bed. “So, I understand you had a seizure,” he says.
So they tell me. That’s my life. People come in, but they always leave. They feed me lies, and they ditch me. They tell me what to do and then skip out, before it’s ever my turn to do the telling.
“Since I know your secret, I think it’s only fair that you have something on me too, so here it is.” Jimmy holds his hands up. “I have seizures, too.”
He’s like me? Could it be true? Not a doctor, not a social worker. He comes in to have a conversation, not to find out who I am, or poke me with needles, or tell me what to do. Not to give me a new placement, or get me to trust him. It’s too good to be true.
Which means that it isn’t. Jimmy did try to find out who I am. And he nearly did get me to trust him. I may be homeless and hopeless, but I’m not stupid. I know an act when I see one. The painting, the food, the seizures, it’s all part of his elaborate scheme. “Right, I believe you, because you’re such a great guy.”
Jimmy doesn’t even try to stick up for himself.
“Even if it was true, you’re only telling me to get my trust,” I say.
“What’s so wrong with that?” he asks.
“Everything! It’s fake, it’s dirty, it’s… just like a social worker, trying to earn my trust just long enough to trap me and ditch me.”
“You forgot. I’m Jimmy the painter, not Mary the social worker. And there’s no trapping, no ditching, just a guy trying to do some honest good in a world that could use it.”
Honest good? “But why?” I ask.
“Because the way I see it, there are two kinds of people in this world. People who help themselves, and people who help each other. I decided a long time ago that I would be someone who helps other people.”
“By painting walls. Congratulations Jimmy. You’ve helped so many people.”
“You know.” Jimmy stands up. “I can’t help someone who won’t let herself be helped.” He turns around and walks right out, leaving me alone. And without a guard.
Maybe he wasn’t trying to trap me after all.
I get off the bus and head down the street. This is silly, but there’s no where else to go, so I walk up to the first person I see and say, “This the way to Balmy Alley?”
The man nods and points down the street.
My heart pounds. I break into a run past an old-looking restaurant. I stumble to a halt at the corner. The alley is filled with colors. This has to be it. I made it.
Most of these murals are strange, but cool, in their own way. Which wall did Jimmy do? I walk down until something catches my eye and makes me stop.
The mural isn’t even on a wall. It’s painted on the back of a fence. A rural scene with mountains in the background and a mob of people in colorful clothes in the foreground. All the people look Mexican or something. Two people are holding a chain across the whole mural, but it’s broken. All the people have their fists in the air, like they’re demanding something from me. The old woman with the chain really draws me in. She has a ring in her nose. That is wicked.
“It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?”
I turn around. Jimmy is standing across the alley, with a woman next to him. He found me. In this huge city, where I could have gone anywhere, we found each other here. Is it because he knew I’d come to see his mural, or because I was hoping he’d look for me here? Maybe it’s both, and maybe it doesn’t matter.
“What does it mean?” I ask.
He comes across the alley and stares at the painted fence. “It’s a new dawn, Mirna.”
He knows my name? Then why did he call me Sapphire?
“You see that chain?” Jimmy points. “It represents everything that holds you back and keeps you down. It’s broken because the people overcame their oppressors and made a new start for themselves.”
“How did you find me, Jimmy?”
He comes over and puts a hand on my shoulder. “Why did you run away, Sapph?”
I shrug. He’s so annoying! I turn away and stare at the two people holding the chain. They look so sad.
“Where are you going to go?”
I shrug. Like I’d tell him?
Jimmy scrunches up his face in a thoughtful pose. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you can’t just wander the streets. You need clothing and shelter and food. And you need your medication, or you’ll just end up back in the hospital again. …Or worse.”
“Why should you care?” I say under my breath.
“We have an empty bed and an open spot at our table. …Sapph, you should come with us.”
“Why should I?!” I push his hand off my shoulder and step away. “Why should I do anything you say? You’re just trying to—”
“You’re right,” Jimmy interrupts. “I shouldn’t tell you what to do. I just met you. If you want to live your life on the streets, I won’t stop you.” He turns and walks back across the alley, to the woman he’s with. She gazes over his shoulder at me, then nods at him. They start to walk away.
He’s leaving me? After he came all the way over here to look for me, when he didn’t even know if I’d be here or not, he’s just going to leave? Why did I come here anyway? To look at stupid paint on the walls? I stare at the stupid thing. One person in the crowd catches my eye—a woman cradling a child in her arms. The way a mother should hold a child.
I turn to gaze down the alley at Jimmy and the woman with him. Holding each other, like a real family, and I suddenly want to be a part of that more than I’ve ever wanted anything before in my life.
I can’t stand here and watch them walk away from me.
“Wait!” I race down the alley after them.
They both turn toward me with open arms, and suddenly I realize they never would have left me behind.