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The lingering stench of Marlboro cigarettes overwhelmed the cramped, unfamiliar vehicle that was currently driving eighteen-year-old Mary and her little sister, Kimberly, home from their mother's funeral. Both girls, who were silent and holding hands, fell back into the torn up pleather seats as the car made a sudden stop in front of their house. While still gripping her sister's clammy hand, Mary made the transition from one suffocating atmosphere to another. Then the car, driven by an anonymous funeral home employee, sped off along the infinite road, as if even the funeral home's aura was more pleasant than the one on East Wade Street.
To Mary, it felt like her mother had abandoned her, floated up to heaven for a better life, and left her with nothing but a broken down shack in the middle of nowhere. They were left there alone for now until their new guardian showed up. With a flood of emotion taking over Mary's body, leaving little room for voluntary control, her knees became weak, and her body collapsed on the rain-soaked earth. Everything stood still for a minute or so until a little finger's repeated tapping on her right shoulder was finally recognized by Mary's preoccupied brain. Numerous questions had already been asked by Kimberly; simple questions that required well thought out answers that had not fully developed in Mary's head yet.
“Why did mommy have to leave us?” In her six-year-old mind, it was a genuine question, waiting for a genuine answer from her big sister.
“She didn't want to, Kim,” Mary replied, still kneeling on the ground. She believed that sounded right for the time being. “But we'll be just fine without her, you know.”
“But I miss her. Can't we being her back?”
“Not now… Why don't you go in the backyard and play on the swing set for a little while?”
“Okay,” Kimberly agreed happily. She skipped across the muddy lawn, which had just a few stubborn green blades of grass poking through the mucky mess. The little girl, with her long, light-brown hair, made her way back to the single swing, set under the giant weeping willow. The tree, swing, and girl were set against a hazy backdrop of a gray sky and wispy dark rain clouds, as if to complete a watercolor painting. From far away it looked appealing. But it was a reality to Mary, one she knew she would have to deal with. But for a short while Mary just starred at her Kimberly—Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, smiling…
Slowly, Mary approached the house and walked up the seven steps leading up to the porch. As she turned the doorknob, it became loose and fell off.
“Cheap piece of s***,” Mary muttered under her breath as she threw the doorknob into a bubbling puddle on the driveway, filled with dirt and little insects. As she saw the golden knob quietly sinking, an unwanted tear brushed down her cold cheek. Don't give up. It's all we have. This house is one of the few things I could call my own. I know you of all people can make it beautiful again.
Pushing the door open to reveal the unwelcoming entrance, Mary noticed that everything was the same and yet everything seemed different. She was always afraid to climb the hazardous staircase in fear that she might fall through to the basement. Along the staircase wall, there was their life in chronological order, from the embarrassing naked baby bath photos to one-week- ago photos. Mary just looked straight ahead and made it up the eighteen steps. At the top she was afraid to look to her right, at the one photo she imagined in her head. The one with the three of them at Disney World just two months ago. They were all smiling. While she was still at the top of the stairs, Mary posted a new picture that she took out of her pocket. It was just a week and three days old. Mary’s mom insisted to put it there. Her head was shaved, her body hooked up to feeding tubes; nevertheless, she was smiling. Kimberly was sitting in the corner playing with a Barbie. Mary was holding her mom’s hand and had a concerned face.
Eventually, Mary reached her mother's room and her knees became weak again, but she stayed focused and slowly made her way to her mom's dresser.
“Why did she still have this?” she thought to herself as her hand grazed over her mother's old wedding photograph. They looked so much in love then. If only their father had stuck around for a couple of years, maybe this wouldn't have happened. Look in the drawer. Please give the green pendant to Kim. And I want you to have the Indian hand stamp. Make this house beautiful. I know you can…
Mary didn't know what to do. Should she lie down on the bed and cry? Lie down on the bed and feel sorry for herself? Or should she punch the wall and see if her puny arm could make a hole in its flimsy structure? What was she supposed to do? She went to the backyard again.
“Hey Kim, whenever you miss mommy, hold this pendant tight in your hand. As tight as you can. Then close your eyes and imagine her face. Can you do that?”
“I think so,” Kimberly tried to say confidently, but her bewildered expression worried Mary. She saw that her sister's lips were severely chapped, and so she handed her what was left of the ninety-nine cent Chap Stick that she found in her jacket pocket.
“What are you picking at?” Mary asked her sister.
“I found this rose by the garden. I didn't know mommy grew roses.”
“She didn’t. How did the garden look?”
“Sad,” Kimberly said truthfully. And indeed it was. Mary left her sister swinging somberly on the swing set, picking petals off a deceased rose. Two acorns fell on top of Mary's head as she made her way over to her mother's garden. She scooped them up in her hand and threw them in the huge ditch that was full of rainwater in their backyard. She felt like throwing everything in sight. She felt like throwing herself in the ditch and so she could calmly float on top of the water for a little while. But then Mary figured that the acorns could very well be a sign from her mother. Or not.
After forty-three long steps, Mary made it to the garden. She would have to save it somehow. But since it was overflowing with a hodgepodge of dirt, water, weeds, and wilted flower petals, she knew it would be quite a challenge. However, Mary worried about her lack of a green thumb and believed that the seeds she would plant in the future would only yield wilted flowers. But the unwavering, bright sunflower in the middle of the garden on a rather long stem gave her hope. “Another one of those signs.”
She thought that they were only in the crappy movies she saw on the Lifetime channel, but here it was. This time the sign was from grandma, who would spend hours in the garden trying to make it look attractive, no matter if only three people would see the beautiful results of her painstaking efforts. The unwavering sunflower. Mary smiled. Grandma Sue once gave Mary a two-dollar bill for Christmas. Even though it was still only worth two dollars, Mary thought it was still a good present. In fact, she never spent the two dollar bill; the crumbled up piece of paper was probably lost in the laundry a long time ago.
Soon after finishing her daydreaming, Mary made her way to her bedroom. Thankfully, she didn't have to go up the stairs again, for her room was on the first floor. The desolate room consisted of only the essentials: a bed, dresser, desk, and a small bedside stand. Lying on top of that stand was a book entitled Writers Book of Wisdom. “So much for that dream,” Mary thought. There was plenty of material dancing around in her head, but it was constantly being overshadowed by reality. Someday, Mary. Don't give up.
Usually all of Mary's thoughts were interrupted by her mother's voice. The sound was nice, and Mary laid her head against the old pillow. But soon after she fell asleep, her mother's words took on a new sense of urgency. Look out the window, hurry and help her.
Something was wrong. Mary obeyed her mother's orders and frantically looked out the foggy window. No Kimberly to be seen. Quickly, Mary made her way outside and stood on the porch looking out. Nothing was here. No one was here to help.
“Ma…” the young voice shouted before the r and the y were cut off by a layer of water. Mary's knees became weak again. “Stop it!” she thought, as she raced towards the ditch in the back. It became apparent to her that she slept a lot longer than she had thought.
“Kim! Kim! Where are you?!” Mary shouted at the top of her lungs. She didn't like this; she didn't think she could handle it. She found herself patting the sides of her legs, trying to feel for a card that should still be in her pockets. Her hand finally grazed over the prayer card she received at her mother's funeral. She held it tight and closed her eyes. “Please God…” she said quietly, but forcefully at the same time.
Then, all of a sudden, a green pendant popped up out of the ash colored depths of the large ravine. “Kimberly!” Mary shouted as she dived into the water and swam towards the piece of jewelry. Yet for some reason, she never seemed to reach her sister…
“Breathe, Mary, breathe. A kind, but unfamiliar voice was hovering over Mary's head. She tried to do as she was asked. Come on, Mary, don't give up. The soft voice of her mother powered her lungs to take in some air. “Yes!” the unfamiliar voice said in a tone of great relief.
After lying down on the couch for quite a while, Mary's eyes peeled open to reveal her sister lying on the other side of the sofa, and the stranger kneeling beside the two of them.
“Who are you?” Mary asked the stranger who had clearly just saved the lives of her and her sister.
“Your father of course,” he said. “Thank God I arrived here in time. I was going to come a little later, but I decided to come a little early. What were you girls doing in there?”
“Fath…?” Mary started to stutter. She couldn't believe what was happening. All so fast, all too unreal. It's okay. Trust him. Little Kimberly slowly started to open her eyes. She was just as confused as her older sister. Mary then realized that they were all gathered in the basement, which was actually quite pleasant compared to the upstairs. Next to the laundry machine Mary's exhausted eyes took note of a very faded two dollar bill. Never had such a small amount of money made her so happy. Quickly she realized that her mind had wondered, and tired to focus her attention on the man looking at stamps in the corner. “You're our father?”
“Yeah, that's me. Don't you remember that I'm supposed to be your guardian now? We saw each other at the funeral briefly. Well, at least I saw you. You two are so beautiful. Thank God I came when I did. What were you girls doing playing in the ditch? It's deeper than you think and filled with dirty water.”
“I don't remember you....You left us…”
“It's complicated,” he admitted. “But everything's going to be okay. I missed you girls.”
“We need to talk,” Mary said.
“Don't worry, we'll get to that. But here, I have a present for you girls. Would you like these stamps from Europe? I went to a lot of different countries on a business trip and collected these stamps. Your mother always wanted to travel. I once bought her an Indian hand stamp they use to decorate walls. She loved it.”
“Oooh! Can I see them?” Kimberly said in a feeble, but excited voice.
Mary then thought of all that needed to be done. Mary imagined the house, the garden, the lawn, roof, ceilings, walls, and then she looked at her father. Indeed there was a lot of work to do. But soon enough mother's voice assuaged her fears. I'm always here. It will be okay.
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