Ever feel invisible? Taking on everyone else’s problems until there’s no room for your own?
Laina had planned to slip through the back door unnoticed, but her mother was in the kitchen when she arrived home.
She saw her through the window, the pane giving her a glimpse of thick, black hair and slim shoulders, the blades protruding beneath a black, ribbed turtleneck.
She could see her own face, too, reflecting back pale skin and high cheekbones. The bags under her eyes seemed to droop lower each day. She tried not to look at them anymore.
She took a breath and straightened her shoulders, lifting her chin and walking briskly up the back porch and through the door. She quietly slid off her clogs and then passed through the mudroom and into the kitchen.
Maybe her mother wouldn’t notice. Lately, she wished more and more that she had dull, preoccupied parents. The kind that wouldn’t see the subtle changes in her figure: the paler skin, the skeleton-like fingers, the sunken eyes. The kind that wouldn’t worry.
“Laina, is that you?”
Her mother turned from the counter to greet her. She took a few steps in her daughter’s direction, then stopped and cocked her head.
“Are you feeling alright, love?”
Laina swallowed. “Yes.” She gripped the strap on her backpack tighter.
Her mother’s soft, dove-like hand cupped gently around Laina’s chin, her thumb rolling over the prominent edge of her jawbone, coming to rest on the soft flesh where her jaw met her ear.
“You look pale. Did something happen while you were walking home?”
“At school, then?”
Her hand fell from her daughter’s face and she stepped back to observe her.
“I don’t recall you looking so shaken this morning.”
Laina’s memory flashed back to fourth period, to watching Hazel cry as she leaned over the bathroom sink, clutching her cell phone with white knuckles as if holding it tight enough would will them to call back.
“Did something happen, Laina?”
Hazel’s hair flowed over her tear-streaked face. Laina took a deep breath, then extended her arm and wrapped it tightly around the girl’s shoulders.
Hazel fell into her easily, and Laina held back a cry of pain as she felt Hazel’s sadness, confusion and hurt diffuse from within her and come to rest heavily on Laina’s own heart.
The girl heaved a few last sobs before straightening up and slipping her phone back into her pocket.
“Thanks,” she whispered to Laina, cracking a small smile. “You always make me feel better.”
Laina nodded, and Hazel breezed out of the bathroom. Laina turned to face the mirror. The shadows streaking her face were already darker.
“No,” she said quietly, not meeting her mother’s eye. “Nothing happened.”
She turned and walked quickly up the stairs to her room, shedding her backpack and then locking herself in the bathroom. She turned on the faucet as hot as it would go and then pumped soap onto her hands, scrubbing her skin as hard as she could until it turned red and raw.
Maybe everyone else’s pain would wash down the drain. Maybe she could dissolve the burdens of everyone around her, shed the worries she had collected, weave the joy back into her face.
The steam from the water curled up and collected on the mirror, until her reflection was only a pearly haze.
This is what she had become. Every bead of precipitation was someone else’s hardship, siphoned off of them and delivered to her. Every drop was a sacrifice she had made, a hand she had held to take away another’s pain, knowing full well it would become hers.
She was a tapestry woven of other people’s troubles, her only purpose to collect those dreaded threads and spin them into herself.
She could relieve them of their burdens, but she could not help herself.
She shut off the tap and waited for the steam to dissipate. She reached out a thumb and smudged the fog on the mirror, creating a clear pool just large enough to reveal a wide, brown eye blinking back at her. Then she sighed, shut off the light, and stepped out into the hallway.
- Story by Ella Staats, Burlington, VT
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