Shadow of the Sun
Five-year-old Laila discovered her morphing birthmarks on her first day of school. Riding in the back of her father’s sedan, newfound fears swirled in her mind. Would the other kids be friendly? Would she have a nice teacher? Her older brother talked about how mean his teacher was.
Laila glanced in the rear-view mirror. The dots on her face had stretched into frenzied lines. “What happened to me?” she half-screamed.
“What’s wrong?” Her father asked.
“My face! My face is all weird!”
“Those are just your birthmarks. They change a bit.”
“No, they’re not! I don’t look like this.”
Her father glanced at her in the mirror, then pulled over. He studied her face for a long moment.
“Dad, what’s wrong with me?”
He put his hands over hers and recited something from memory:
I can’t tell you why
The hard days always come
Know the gift you have
Is a shadow of the sun
“I can’t go to school like this!” Laila cried. “Take me home!”
“My dear… you must — ”
“No, daddy! Please, no… I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go, I don’t…” Tears streaked her cheeks as her father turned the car around and drove home.
Laila never made it to school that day, or any day after. Her education would have to come in other ways.
As the days passed, the marks would change more frequently, transforming in an instant when her temper grew wild. They would sometimes swell to the size of a saucer, other times shrink to tiny dots. Occasionally, they would morph into recognizable shapes.
As Laila grew older, she noticed the silence of her world. No visitors ever came to their home. Neighbors didn’t step near the house. People diverted their eyes as if something was wrong.
Her mother often came home late, drunk, and tired, wearing the same clothes she’d worn to the office. Her father kept to himself. As time passed, Laila withdrew more and more, rarely saying a word to either of them.
If anyone had ever asked her what was wrong, she would have offered a kind “Nothing,” with a smile, just like she’d seen her mother do countless times. But no one asked, except for one person.
She met Brian when she was fifteen. He was the student DJ at the Sadie Hawkins dance. Laila didn’t have a date, but she’d convinced her brother to drop her off at the dance.
She snuck in through a gap in the fence. Not knowing anyone, she pulled her cowgirl hat flat over her eyes and let her curly hair hug her cheekbones. As Brian played the music, her birthmarks danced across her face. While others kept their distance, he dotted her with questions, never seeming shocked at her appearance, never mentioning the changing shapes on her face, and never removing his sunglasses. They swayed side by side, kicking up dust and scattering hay in the glow of the moonlit barn.
Laila’s sixteenth birthday party was a month late and nothing short of a disaster. Her mom forgot the cake and came home plastered. Her brother had to work, and her dad was furious. Laila fled the house screaming and drove to Brian’s. He was always a calming presence.
“Let’s go to the mall and ride the escalator,” he said. “It’s like a big staircase in the middle of the mall.”
“I know what an escalator is, dummy,” Laila said, laughing through her tears.
“Of course you do. Sometimes I forget you can see. But do you know how it feels?”
Laila smiled and swept her locks away from her eyes. “Sometimes I forget you’re blind. It feels like you’re the only one who can really see me.”
“Sometimes it feels like you’re the only one I can see.”
Laila chewed her bottom lip and worked to restrain a smile. Then she remembered Brian couldn’t see her, even if it felt like he could.
As they walked through the food court, Brian named the restaurants by smell. They grabbed a couple slices of Sbarro’s pizza, worked their way to the center of the mall, and hit the escalator. Up and down they went.
“Twelve point five seconds up,” Brian said. “But only twelve down. I guess gravity helps.”
“Bet you can’t go on it backwards,” Laila challenged.
“Can’t or won’t?” he said.
Brian turned and started marching the wrong way. When he almost ran into an unsuspecting lady, he fumbled about with his cane, making it look like his blindness was a hindrance. Laila knew better. She laughed aloud while Brian offered apologies.
She pulled him aside. “We must have ridden this thing a hundred times,” she said.
“Forty-seven, to be precise,” he corrected. “But I think the security officer is getting suspicious.”
Laila spotted the officer staring them down. “I thought you were blind?”
Brian laughed. “They wear more gear on their bodies than a robot. Easy to hear. He’s not moved from that spot in the past hour.”
Laila paused. Despite his blindness, Brian seemed to know more about the world than anyone she’d ever met. She wondered if he knew more about her than anyone else. Now that she thought about it, she was sure he did.
“What are you thinking about?” he asked.
“This,” she said, inching closer to his face. As she put her soft lips on his, the patterns on her face bloomed into a thousand branches of possibilities, forming shapes of rings, dresses, cradles, and upside down trees.
“Freak!” someone in the mall yelled. People’s attention fixated on them and several stepped back. Many yanked phones from pockets and started recording video.
The security officer strode toward them. “No sudden moves,” he said.
“They’re a couple of freaks!” the voice from the crowd yelled again.
Brian turned toward the voice and smiled. “Not sure I’ve ever heard that before,” he whispered. He turned back to finish the kiss. “I like freaks.”
At that moment Laila knew she loved him. Loved him more than her parents, more than her brother, more than anyone else on earth.
“That’s it for you two,” the security officer said. “Time to go.”
“We were just kissing!” Laila yelled. Tears welled in her eyes. The officer took a step back when the birthmarks on her face swam into the shape of a dark skull.
“Take your tricks elsewhere,” he said, reaching for his taser.
Brian placed his hand gently on the small of Laila’s back. “Not a problem, officer. We were just leaving.”
“No, we weren’t!” Laila objected. “Everyone else can go fu — ”
“Fuss about it on Twitter,” Brian interjected. “But right now, I need your help.” Brian fumbled for his cane. “Otherwise it’ll take me forever to find my way out of here.”
The officer followed close behind as Laila led them towards the exit. The marks on her face hardened into images of clenched fists, one holding a sharp instrument. She felt everyone’s eyes on her and wished she had never come to the mall. She wanted to crawl inside of Brian’s head and stay there forever — away from the world, safe from the eyes that mocked her despicable, freakish face.
Only a blind boy could see her for who she really was.
“Why is this happening?” she said, sobbing, as they reached the parking lot.
“I don’t know. It’s a real bummer,” Brian said. “Sounds to me like someone doesn’t want us making out on the escalator.”
“How can you be so calm about this?” she said.
“I’m blind,” he reminded her. She giggled through her sobs. He always had a way of steadying her tormented soul.
Halloween night of her senior year, seventeen-year-old Laila should have been studying for the big exam. Instead, she was in her bedroom getting her costume ready, standing in front of the mirror — something she usually avoided.
“You look hot,” Brian said.
She had once laughed at his comments, but now a part of her believed he could actually see her. He probably knew more of what she looked like than anyone else did. She felt her face go flush and turned away from the mirror. She avoided looking at herself when her emotions spiked. Passions served her better when they weren’t clearly visible.
“This dress is so plain,” Laila said.
“Is that why you’re wearing a mask with it?” Brian asked.
She wore a mask to hide her misery. People’s comments stung so much it sometimes felt like it blurred her vision. Hideous, freak, disgusting, were familiar terms to her. Her veering birthmarks made her ugly — loathsome lines on an otherwise comely face.
Halloween was the one time a year when wearing a mask was acceptable. The one time when people would talk to her without freaking out. How infuriatingly ironic that wearing a mask allowed people to connect with her in a more authentic way than if they saw her true face.
“I prefer you without a mask,” Brian said.
She wasn’t the least bit surprised she loved him. When she wanted to be invisible, he had the power to make her feel protected. When she wanted to be known, he was the only one who didn’t have to look past her visible emotions.
“Don’t you ever get tired of being a blind person for Halloween?” she asked.
“Worked out well for me so far.” A trepidatious smile spread across his face.
“Time to get some candy,” she said, twirling her hair. She guided Brian down the stairs.
“Dad! We’re headed out. How do I look?” There was no answer. “Dad?”
The television blared from the living room.
“He falls asleep so early. I’d better wake him. Somebody needs to hand out candy.”
Laila walked over to her sleeping father who was slouched on the recliner.
Brian sniffed the air, and his smile faded. “Wait,” he said, but Laila was already shaking her father awake. Instead of waking, his head slumped awkwardly against his shoulder and spittle foamed at the corner of his lips. Laila screamed and tripped over the bowl of spilled popcorn. The marks on her face formed images of flowers and a casket.
After her father’s burial, Laila exchanged unpleasant pleasantries with the family members.
She turned from the graveside and stepped into the sunlight, letting the celestial brightness warm her face. Brian slipped his arm around her waist. They walked between the gravestones, hip to hip. She kept him from stumbling; he kept her from collapsing.
“What was that poem your dad used to recite?” he asked. “The one about your lovely face?”
Laila sobbed while Brian recited the words:
I can’t tell you why
The hard days always come
Know the gift you have
Is a shadow of the sun
Laila’s deformity, her gift — whatever it was — had brought her and Brian together. Of all left in her life, she loved only him.
Brian gave a warm embrace and held her face. And for the first time, Laila gave thanks for the shadow of the sun.