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A soggy mess and the death of a friend

“I’m going to pick you up after school, okay honey”

“Okay, Mom”

She walked out the front door and down to the corner where the school bus picked her up every morning. A few other children were already gathered nearby. Greetings were not exchanged, her presence was not acknowledged. She appeared not to mind as she opened a well-worn book and began to read. The bus arrived promptly and she was welcomed aboard by the driver’s warm smile.

There was a book fair at school that day and she had a pocket full of money, saved up for months from lemonade stands and extra chores around the house. Books were her best friends and she was anxious to meet her new pals.

The book fair took place after school and she would have to be patient through hours of tediously boring spelling, math and science classes. As the teacher repeated herself for the sake of the slower students she thought she might jump from her seat and scream out loud. But she would never ever do anything so rude. She was respectably poised, restrained to a painful degree, back straight, hands clasped and teeth clenched.

At lunch she sat by herself under a tree and opened her lunch sack. She ate her sandwich slowly, with care and contemplation, the way she did most things. The other children watched her and snickered both behind her back and to her face. Most days it didn’t bother her, today especially.

The bell signaling the end of the day finally rang and she walked hurriedly to the auditorium where the book fair was held every year. Book shelves had been arranged in a large circle with tables lined up in the middle of the circle and at one end was a woman with a silver cash box waiting for the influx of knowledge hungry students.

The smell of freshly printed books was intoxicating, the rows of brightly colored book covers was dizzying. At the end of one table she spotted her first pick, the new Beverly Cleary; Ramona, Age 8. A perfect way to start her shopping adventure. Her arms quickly filled up, the sharp corners of each book making red indention’s on her thin pale skin.

The rush of the hunt sent endorphins pulsing through her brain, she was calmly ecstatic. She handed over all of her hard-earned money without hesitation or regret. Her books placed in a plastic bag and handed to her with a smile. She walked out of the auditorium with a slight skip to her step and headed to the corner where her Mother had promised to pick her up.

The last school bus was just leaving and only a few cars remained in the parking lot. She was not surprised that her Mother was late, she had grown not to depend too heavily on the promises of adults. She simply settled down in the grass and opened a book.

The day which had begun sunny had turned gray and dismal. She waited patiently. A light misting of rain began to fall and still she waited, patiently. A few teachers drove by slowly and asked her if she needed someone to contact her parents and she declined, not wanting to be a bother. The custodian locked up the gates to the parking lot as the last car pulled away.

“Hey, sweetie. You need a ride?”

“No, I’m fine.”

And she truly felt that she was perfectly fine, under the tree which provided a bit of shelter from the lightly falling rain, with her books, waiting patiently.

An hour or more must have passed and finally she became uneasy, quickly coming to the conclusion that her Mother had forgotten about her. Her decisiveness quickly led her to the decision to simply walk home. After all, she knew the way, it was a long way but she was sure she could manage. She was sure of most things, especially when it came to accomplishing things on her own.

She began her walk in a light mood, enjoying the feel of the rain on her face and the smell of wet asphalt. Crossing the freeway overpass she paused to look down upon the passing cars through the chain link fence. She had never seen the freeway from this perspective and it made her feel overwhelmingly insignificant. The rain had begun to fall a bit more heavily, soaking her socks, her toes numbed almost immediately. Her walk home continued as passing motorists paused briefly out of concern. She declined each offer of assistance not out of the “never talk to strangers” theory but because she truly did not feel like she needed help, her independence and tenacity both an asset and a hindrance.

She had walked close to a mile when the sidewalk crumbled and disappeared. Weeds and mud lined the busy road, the rain creating an annoyingly slippery surface on which to complete her journey. Dusk arrived stealthily through the gray skies and steadily falling rain. Her shoes and socks were completely covered in mud, her pants soaked to above the knees. Walking became a trudgingly difficult task with slow, thought out steps to avoid slipping in the thick mud.

Her shoulders and back ached from the heft of her book bag, the plastic handles digging into her palms painfully. No amount of shifting the weight from arm to arm alleviated the burden. She began to resent the books she had been yearning for months.

Finally she reached her street, she could see her house at the end of the block, it’s empty driveway and darkened windows. Slowly she made her way home and opened the door with the key she kept tied on a string around her neck. She removed her shoes and clothes heavy with rainwater and mud and left them on the floor of the garage. She would deal with them later, right now she needed something warm and clean.

Cold and naked she walked down the hallway to her bedroom, dragging her sack of books behind her. She slipped on her pajamas, her wet hair clinging to the sides of her face and sat on the floor, dumping the soggy mess of books in front of her. They were ruined, all of them. Pages fell apart through her fingertips, ink smearing across her hands. She held her face in her cold hands and cried, her tears mixing with dirt and ink creating a face like that of a painted woman in the midst of a breakdown. She fell asleep right there on her floor, a sad, wet little girl, defeated not by having been forgotten or for having to walk home miles in the rain but by the fact that she was unable to save her books, as if it were her who had caused their destruction.

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