With mousy hair and a mousy demeanor, it had always been easy for people to look past me. Even my own mother never wanted to look at me. A washed out actress whose only goal in life now was her next high, I was the reason that her career had been ruined since I had destroyed her perfect figure.
One day, however, she had wanted to go on a road trip--to hit all these places that she showed me that were carefully marked on her atlas with Xs like treasure spots. This idea of a treasure hunt--a hunt for exciting memories--sparked a dangerous hope in me and had me thinking that this would mean a new leaf for us, that she was finally going to be the mother that I had always dreamed of. She had always been spontaneous before, but I had never been included in the adventures--always left back home without electricity or water before she finally showed up again days or sometimes weeks later.
Even though I wasn’t old enough to have my license, it was common that I would drive her around since she was usually intoxicated, so it was a welcome surprise when this time she was the one to take the wheel, our car winding through so many different landscapes I had never seen before that it made my head spin a bit. I watched all of them pass me by and could see the contentment in my face reflected back at me in the window.
We even laughed and took selfies like a real mother and daughter outside a giant green T-rex with stubby arms and palm trees too short to provide it shade from the blistering heat. I remembered it so clearly, the glaring sunglasses atop her red hair, the way that she tied my shirt up to my hip so that I would match her and be more “hip”, and the Victory sign that we made with our fingers as we cheesed to the camera.
Looking at the picture there was no way that you could tell how our relationship really was, dilapidated and unkempt.
As we stopped at a gas station 300 miles into our journey, she handed me a crisp twenty dollar bill and asked me to go inside for snacks while she filled the tank.
When I came back out, the gas station’s door singing a jingle behind me, I searched the parking lot for her car with rising panic but found it vacant no matter how many times I walked around the premises. Only the mechanical sound of lights flickering and boisterous cicadas kept me company.
I could still recall the numbness with which I dialed her number only for the robotic voice on the other end informing me that the number was no longer in service.
Eventually, feeling ridiculous standing there on the asphalt, arms loaded to the brim with bagged chips, and shoelaces untied on one sneaker, I went back inside.
“You okay, kid?” the man at the front had asked, his orange uniformed cap falling slightly askew as he appraised me.
His chair was kicked back, and he had a toothpick in his mouth that he kept fiddling with. His brown eyes seemed warm and kind, and I had wanted to spill my guts but I was afraid that voicing aloud that my mother had abandoned me would make it real.
Instead, I just nodded, and muttered, “bathroom” before making my escape.
In the bathroom at the back of the store behind rows of boxes, I closed the door as quietly as I could. My eyes found the mirror, and I pictured myself screaming that type of scream that has no end and veins popping all over your neck, but I kept it all inside.
Staring at the grimy, rusty porcelain sink I knew that it had been weathered by innumerable tears shed by people I would never meet. And I started to add to them. And along with my tears swirling down the drain, my dreams went too.
For the next three years, I was homeless. But everything changed by random happenstance when a woman’s simple silver bracelet rolled down the dark alley outside Davidson Library.
It was with this chance meeting that Mama Danya and her husband Orion had taken me in out of the kindness of their hearts, changing the course of my life forever.
Chasing her bracelet, they had found me sleeping outside in the alley in the dead of winter on Christmas last year, limbs frozen so stiff that I was no longer cold or shivering. I had been that type of cold where you feel like you’re on fire, burning alive on the stake.
“Orion, oh my god,” I remember so clearly Mama Danya had said, tears clinging to her eyelashes as she grasped the arm of the tall man next to her. I had never seen someone so beautiful. Her black hair was perfectly coifed, her lips painted like gems, and her light brown skin was slightly red from the biting wind.
She then reached her hands out to me and, like I had belonged there all my life, I accepted the offer and clung to her with all the strength I had left. Head nestled against her breast, smelling the lavender perfume wafting gently from her coat, I instantly knew that everything would be okay from now on.
I owed them everything for taking me off of the cold, unforgiving streets that night and kindly bringing me into their home.
It was a quaint home who was so old that during the colder months the house groaned as if it was shuddering and its shutters had been painted a striking baby blue.
They had even let me stay in what used to be their guest room. It was a small room with a twin bed and a simple nightstand. Nothing special but it meant everything to me since it was finally a home. A home with a real family, not the cheap imitation I had been experiencing my whole life.
The sunset brought itself to the house with brilliant hues of orange that slowly were growing dimmer and dimmer, the shadows around the room continuously changing shape.
Growing increasingly anxious and excited, I opened my door and walked down the hall to Granny Agnes’ room.
Granny Agnes didn’t say much but she was the person who welcomed me the most. My new siblings, Meghan and Charlie, always seemed hesitant whenever I was in the room, choosing to avoid me rather than include me in whatever they were doing--be it playing games or even eating lunch. But Granny Agnes always seemed to care for me and not mind my presence. Suffering from dementia, she was at the point where she rarely spoke to anyone so the fact that she spoke to me made me feel extra special.
“Hello, sweetheart,” Granny Agnes said when I entered her room.
Her wheelchair was angled so that she could look out the window, her pink knitted shawl spread over her to protect her from the chill that was always in the house. Her silver hair was free and so long that it was obvious why Mama Danya was always nagging Orion to keep it braided so it that wouldn’t get caught.
“Hi, Granny,” I said quietly, warmth fluttering in my chest.
Before I was adopted by Mama Danya and Mr. Orion, I had never had a grandmother so I held a special place in my heart for Granny, especially because she treated me like family from day one.
Granny Agnes turned her head to look at me, though the thick cataracts in her milky blue eyes rendered the motion unnecessary. Despite her blindness, though, I always felt like she was staring into my soul.
“Your birthday is today, isn’t it?” she asked, making tears come to my eyes and something twisted up in my heart calm, “Happy birthday”.
“Yeah,” I choked out, wrangling the emotions welling up at her words.
It was my first birthday here, and I wasn’t sure if anyone would remember, especially since I shared the same birthday as my younger sister Meghan. The date was circled in bright blue on the family calendar on the fridge but it had always been Mehgan’s day for them so I had already prepared myself this morning to not be as hurt if they forgot that it was mine too.
I was already able to tell that Meghan wasn’t happy having to share her day. Any time I would ask her if she would like to do something just the two of us to bond after our birthday dinner was over she would just stare at me or, worse, walk away without saying another word.
The hopes that I had of having a little sister and the memories I craved of building tents in the backyard surrounded by firelfies or lying on the ground and stargazing, giggling while chasing wishes, were simply not to be. Meghan had made that very clear: I was no sister of hers.
“Have you seen my darling Abdel yet?” Granny Agnes suddenly asked as I adjusted her shawl so that it covered her more fully, the fabric uncomfortable underneath my fingertips. I contemplated going out to buy her a new one that was more comfortable--maybe something wooly.
“No, Granny, I’m sorry,” I said, used to this question. Any time I tried to ask her who Abdel was she would get quiet and memories would swallow her until she was blinking and catatonic, so I tried to steer us clear of that conversation.
“Would you like me to braid your hair?” I asked, always eager to let my hands slide through those beautiful tresses. When I was older, I wanted to have hair the exact shade of hers; it was like captured starlight.
“It’s a kind offering, dear, but I’m afraid it won’t come out the way you want. Perhaps a raincheck for some time soon. I’m old, after all.”
It wasn’t long after she said that, that I recognized the vacancy starting to take up residency in her again, stealing her precious thoughts and words until she was lost completely inside herself.
Pressing a kiss to her weathered cheek, I let her know that I was going to the kitchen to see if they needed any help though I expected no response.
When I got in there, Charlie, Meghan, and Mama Danya were already assembled--the latter adding the finishing touches to what everyone praised as her famous chocolate cake.
Meghan was in her Sunday best, her glossy hair curly against her beatific pink dress. Her outfit was completed with a fluffy tiara that read “Birthday Princess”. Compared to her, I looked like I just got out of bed, and it made me feel more out of place. And while I was older than Meghan, I couldn’t help but to envy her birthday tiara but I did so silently.
Was there a dress code I hadn’t clued in on? Mama Danya and Granny Agnes hadn’t told me.
Charlie, on the other hand, had his nose so far in his book as usual that I could only see his mop of dark hair. He was reading so fast that I was always amazed at the fact that he wasn’t just skimming. I knew that when he grew up he would easily be one of the smartest kids around.
Feeling awkward just standing there, I went to take a seat next to my siblings but I knocked my chair over with a loud clatter.
My cheeks burned as everyone’s eyes turned to me, expression varying but all equally as intense.
“What was that?” Mama Danya asked, turning around last, hands on her hips, chocolate icing somehow smeared on her checkered apron.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled, knowing my ears must be a neon pink sign that shouted my embarrassment. I wanted to fit in so badly with this family, like a missing puzzle piece, that it was making me jittery, causing me to make everything weird.
“Alrighty, well, that’s alright,” Mama Danya soothed after a brief minute of no one saying anything, and she set the chair back upright. “Now, silly me, I remembered the matches but I forgot the candles but that doesn’t mean that wishes can’t still be made!”
“Mom is ready to party!” Mr. Orion announced before Meghan could voice her disappointment; he was wheeling in Granny Agnes who had been given a little gold-spotted party hat that matched his own. They looked ridiculous.
Granny’s expression was relatively blank but I could still see life and fire flickering in and out of her eyes like a radio channel trying to tune in among the overpowering static.
Not pulling his face from his book, Charlie said a low greeting, barely an acknowledgement.
In contrast, Meghan chirped, “Hi, Grandma!” then bounced up to Granny and placed a kiss on her time blessed cheek.
A brief sense of triumph went through me when Granny Agnes remained silent but the feeling was quickly chased away by guilt as I saw Meghan’s brilliant smile become more strained with quiet pain and grief.
“You know the rules,” Meghan sang as Mama Danya quickly placed the chocolate cake on the table, “birthday girls always let the guests go first since they’re such good hosts.”
I did not know the rules but as she said them I already hated it, because I wanted nothing more than to sink my teeth into my first birthday cake with my new family. Even if things were tense with my siblings, this still felt like a huge moment in my life--it felt like fully turning a page.
The multilayered chocolate cake smelled and looked divine. It was a labor of love that had layers of different types of chocolate icing and was topped with chocolate shavings, most likely from the Hershey’s bar wrapper sitting in the nearby trashcan.
I could already picture sinking my teeth into it, my senses being flooded with pure delight.
“Why, oh me oh my, thank you. I wonder who taught you that,” Mama Danya laughed as she took the knife and carved out a delicious, moist slice that looked almost magazine perfect.
She methodically cut sizable slices for everyone else before handing over the knife to Meghan.
Out of respect for the fact that this had originally been Meghan Day, I stayed back to let her cut the last part of the cake first, eagerly awaiting my turn but my excitement quickly soured when after sizing the cake up greedily with hungry eyes she took the last remaining large section.
I sat there for a moment, stunned, as then the sounds of scraping forks and contented sighs began to fill the room.
No one said a word to her about it which greatly hurt my feelings but, then again, I didn’t say anything either.
It was communicated clearly that this little girl hated me and had no intention of being my sister. Message received loud and clear. I expected that from her but even Mama Danya and Mr. Orion said nothing.
I tried to swallow back my tears but barely succeeded. I didn’t think she would continue her mean behavior on my birthday of all days.
“Calm, dear, they don’t understand,” Granny Agnes suddenly said, looking directly at me, reaching out to take my hand. Her grip was surprisingly strong and reassuring before she let go, her brain once again out of reach as she resumed staring.
The room was silent, and everyone looking at us.
“Mom?” Mr. Orion asked, going to grasp her hand.
I quickly moved my arm so that he could have his own moment with her.
I often saw him in her room, reading her The Catcher in the Rye and other books that she used to love, begging to hear her talk to him, to hold his hand. In those moments he often resembled a small child, lost somewhere endless and searching for his mother.
It suddenly made me feel terrible that the only one she seemed to respond to was me.
“It was a blessing to hear your voice again, Ma,” Mr. Orion said, his green eyes tearful though he kept them at bay, “An absolute blessing”.
“A happy birthday indeed, huh?” he said, addressing the room to which he received an enthusiastic “Yes!” from Mama Danya but mumbled responses from Charlie and Meghan--both of them seemed too unsettled.
Long after everyone had dispersed, I decided to retreat to my own room as well when I heard an unfamiliar male voice and peeked in the cracked door to Granny’s room.
“My sweet Abdel,” Granny Agnes was sobbing into a man’s chest, “I’ve missed you so much. I’ve waited for you every day. You took so long.”
I suddenly felt like I stumbled in on some sacred, private moment. The man Granny always asked me about was finally visiting, though I was surprised at how young he was.
“Oh, Agnes,” the man murmured sadly as he placed a hand on her head, stroking her hair in a soothing motion. “I wanted you find love again and be happy not stuck on the past.”
“There was no happiness quite as when I was with you. I meant what I said when I vowed ‘til--.”
“Hush, love, even that cannot touch--” was the last I heard before my heart jumped in my throat.
“Anna, dear,” Granny Agnes said, suddenly looking at me--her joy made her face seem much more youthful and her eyes the color of oasis algae while the shadows had painted her hair black. “You must come with us.”
I startled at having been caught, “I’m--I’m fine,” I said, “I wouldn’t want to intrude,” I finished before quickly shutting her door all the way and continuing down the hallway to give them space to reunite uninterrupted.
It was on my way to my room, however, that I heard a murmured conversation coming from the parents’ bedroom, the disease of my eavesdropping habit drawing me closer like a moth to light.
“You remember that girl we found frozen outside the library last year?” Mama Danya said, making my ears perk up at the odd wording.
“I’ll never forget that. It was horrible. The poor child,” Mr. Orion said from their bathroom before he started gargling his mouthwash loudly.
Wanting to talk about today and also wondering why they were talking about me--did they regret taking me in?--I knocked on the door and entered.
My adopted mother was sitting on her bed and braiding her long hair, her form clad in a silky purple robe that brought out the bags under her eyes. She looked tired, very tired and the crow’s feet next to her eyes looked so deep they looked ready to take flight.
“Um, I’m sorry, but Mama Danya, about my bir-” I started, fiddling with my fingers as I drew closer but then the newspaper she was holding in her hand caught my eye.
REMEMBERING DAVIDSON LIBRARY’S OWN LITTLE MATCHGIRL it read.
And below it was a picture of me.