Biting my lip, I walk up the aisle towards the stage. The taste of peppermint assures me I am not dreaming.
Murmurs from the audience fade as I climb the steps with a death grip on the handrail.
They are staring at a timid soul, clothed in ragged jeans with a black polo shirt and a scuffed folder to match battered sneakers.
“A contest? You want to spend your summer scribbling away in your room while the rest of us slave away to keep a roof over your head!” Mother is angry as she grabs my shoulders and shakes me.
I don’t understand. First prize is a thousand dollars for a soul-stirring story.
“…and now we hear from Marie Whittaker, with her poem, Gray Heart.” Mrs. Hernandez exits the stage as polite applause fills the auditorium.
My ears ache.
The microphone stands alone in the center.
I walk towards it.
“You’re still writing?! What is wrong with you, child?” Mother tugs at fistfuls of her hair as she turns away towards the kitchen. “Why can’t you get a summer job like a normal daughter?”
“I have to follow my heart-”I explain.
“You have to end this foolishness. Scribbling in a notebook does nothing for you.” Mother pulls an apron over her head. “I don’t want to see any more of this-understand?”
My mouth says yes, my heart screams no.
My hands write on the discarded checkout receipts at TolkMart.
There is nothing but a curtain of silence as I lick my lips.
I dare not look up.
My throat itches. My stomach rumbles.
“Gray heart.” I begin. “My heart is as gray as the deepening sky, both sorrows and joys it has known. In seeing and failing, I cry out…”
“Dying?!” Mother’s shrill voice echoes in the hospital room.
I’m not supposed to hear them talking. But I do anyway.
“We’ll get a second opinion, that can’t be true! What kind of a doctor are you?” Mother bursts through the door, grabbing my arm. “Come along, Marie.”
Pulled along at a manic pace, I watch Dr. Donovan’s smug face disappear behind swinging stainless-steel doors.
“…praying, hoping, wishing. I wish that I could know. I wish I understood. I wish that I would…”
The first tear burns down my cheek, splashing onto stained, college-ruled paper. The penciled words blur momentarily as someone hands me a tissue.
Mutely accepting it, I dab daintily at my eyes, clearing my throat to continue.
“Ten thousand dollars?!” Mother’s purse clatters to the examining table. “You would charge me ten thousand dollars for my daughter’s supposedly life-saving surgery?” She glares at the doctor. “And if you make a mistake and she dies? Then what?” She snatches the purse. “A twisted world is the medical profession.” She turns on her heel. “Marie!”
A stricken face looks after me as I am led down white-washed walls. I don’t want to die yet.
“…My heart is red. The sky is blue. My heart is gray, the sky rings through.” I fumble with my cheap binder. Tucking the paper into a patched pocket, I rifle through the handful of paper for the next sheet.
I can’t find it there.
The folder falls from my hands.
Paper scatters everywhere.
No one comes to assist.
Hurriedly stuffing them into my binder, I hear a quiet cough.
Sitting at the front of the stage is Mother. Her eyes are droopy and her face is pale. In her hand is a familiar sheet of paper.
“I have to go, Mama. I want to read my poem.”
Mother laughs. “Poetry is all that’s left of you.”
She offers the page as I step back.
“Marie?” Mrs. Hernandez is blushing as she asks if I am all right and if I can finish the poem.
A blank mind and empty heart, yet my soul is full.
“Gray is the heart that is filled with darts. Trodden upon by all. Broken is the spirit that rides the wind, torn is the song from above. Blessed am I, for a life well-lived, if only to see my Maker’s smile.”
My head hurts.
“Marie? Are you all right?” Mrs. Hernandez rushes forward as the floor spins upward.
Everything is growing dark.
“Marie!” Mother’s face hovers inches above mine. Her tears splash on my nose as she bends to kiss my forehead. “You know I love you.” She whispers.
I try to smile.
Jesus, my savior…
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