Eight years old
I wiggle on the mattress until the blanket covers my freezing toes.
I don’t want to wake up yet, so instead of thinking about how cold it is, I imagine that I’m a little cocooned caterpillar all wrapped up, waiting to become a beautiful butterfly. I pretend my cocoon is as warm and toasty as can be.
A second before I believe it, my eyes pop open and excitement bubbles through me. Today is not just a boring normal day. Today is going to be the best day ever!
Guess that means it's time to break out of my cocoon. After a noisy yawn I fling off the blanket and do a little wiggly dance before sitting up. I’m finally, finally eight years old. Daddy says I’m practically a teenager now. Last year when I was seven, I was such a baby, but not anymore. Now I’m all grown up and have learned how to do everything all by myself. I’m not such a pest like Mama always says. I make my own food, except on those very good days when Mama lets me have her leftovers. I wash myself up and brush my teeth every morning without anyone having to tell me to. When I see a spider or buggy, I catch it and take it outside just like a real, mature grown-up.
Daddy would say I’m lollygagging, so I jump up out of bed with a smile so big it hurts my cheeks. I must look silly, I have to take a big breath to stop myself from exploding with laughter. Wanting to make sure it’s not all icky and rainy outside. I run to my barred window and peek outside, not that there is much to see. I can’t help but think of those creepy dungeons I read about in fairy tales. I don’t have any shelves or toys, no pictures on the ugly walls, no bed or chairs, but if Mommy ever heard me say that, I know she would think I’m being ungrateful and don't appreciate what I have. Well if you ask me, that’s just stupid ‘cause I don’t have very much, which means I appreciate everything so much more.
Shaking away icky thoughts, I see a little fuzzy foot poking out from underneath my pillow. Pulling out Mr. Bear, I fold his legs and sit him up against the wall where he can look up at me with the one button eye he still has.
“Mama and Daddy promised to take me to the zoo today,” I tell him sternly, but he still gives me that look, as if I should know better.
He’s a very smart bear.
“Yes, Mr. Bear, I know they have made me lots of promises, and yes, they always break them, but not this time.” I cross my arms to show him I’m being serious. “Why? Well, ‘cause this time Daddy grabbed my pinky finger with his pinky finger and made me a pinky promise. A pinky promise is special, and you know he has never ever broken one before.” I lean down and give Mr. Bear a kiss on the head, even though he still doesn’t look like he believes me. A sad thought suddenly pops into my head. Maybe it’s time to stop talking to my silly old stuffed animal. I’m a big girl, and I can’t just talk to Mr. Bear whenever I’m lonely anymore. Giving him a brave smile, I slip him back under my pillow.
After pulling on mismatched socks, I slide across the hardwood floor to the closet. I know I have a dress in there somewhere. The pretty blonde lady that lives next door brings me her daughter's old clothes sometimes. She gave me my first dress, and I only wear it on special days, and today is going to be special—just one wonderful, amazing, beautiful day to remember forever.
One happy little memory that I can carry around in my head to think about whenever I am sad or lonely, my own perfect little movie.
Something that can never be taken away.
I move deeper into my closet, still looking for the dress, and repeat all the animal facts I’ve memorized for this day. Daddy will be impressed with how much I know, and Mama might even let me go back to school once she sees how good of a reader I’ve become. I’m sad I only got to do a few months of third grade. Mama said I didn’t deserve to make friends and learn anymore, she said that’s something I must earn by being good. I try to be good, I really do.
Oh, there it is!
It’s wadded up in the corner of the closet. I carefully put it on and try to smooth out the wrinkles with my hands without making the little hole in the hem any bigger. It’s soft as can be and covered in happy little orange and yellow sunflowers. I quickly put on my only pair of shoes without holes and grab my brush from the dresser. Sitting back down on the edge of my mattress I brush out the tangles from my long brown hair and flip through the book I learned my amazing animal facts from.
I found it on a dusty bookshelf in the empty house down the street, it’s a little creepy there with giant holes in the walls, but I just knew it would have secret treasures. After Mama and Daddy left one night, I snuck out to do a little exploring and boy was I right, there were so many little places to hide and lots of dusty toys and books. Each time I explored I took home just one piece of treasure, ‘cause I’m not greedy. Hidden under the loose floorboard in my room I have five books, three magazines, a Barbie missing an arm, a postcard with the ocean on it, a plastic angel, and a beautiful purple stone. Whenever I’m jealous that Camila and her friends all have pretty clothes and fancy toys, I remember my secret treasures and that usually makes me feel a lot better.
Once inside the small bathroom connected to my room, I step up on the blue plastic stool and squint at myself in the dirty bathroom mirror. There’s an icky smudge on my cheek that I quickly wash off. Looking back at me is a skinny girl with big blue eyes and a bunch of freckles on her nose. Not very pretty if you ask me, but not too ugly either I ‘spose.
Just an ordinary girl waiting for a fairy godmother or shooting star to turn her into a beautiful princess.
I skip out of my room and into the hallway, coming to a quick stop at the top of the stairs, I listen for any sad or angry noises.
It’s quiet as a mouse and that makes me grin from ear to ear.
No shouting, no crying, I am definitely going to have my perfect day at the zoo.
I make my way down the stairs two steps at a time and turn towards the living room where Mama and Daddy spend most of their time in front of the TV, or with their loud friends. Shiny brown and green bottles are all over the counters and the floor. Sunlight shines in from the big window peeking between the blinds making creepy striped shadows across the floor and furniture.
I must be very careful where I step because I can see pieces of broken bottles all over the floor in front of me. Last year when I was still a dumb baby I stepped on a sharp piece of glass, it was bad. I can still see a dark spot on the carpet from where I bled all over, but I only started crying when mommy poured her drink on the cut. She said it was ‘cause it needed to be cleaned, but it felt like a million bees were stinging me. Afterwards I had to hop around on one foot everywhere which meant a whole week with no library, and no new books to help me learn to read.
It was the worst.
Scooting my way around the crumpled-up trash, paper plates, and glass, I make my way to the middle of the room and see that the coffee table has one of mommies s-e-x magazines with white stuff on it, the bad sugar stuff for sure. I don’t understand why they always want to dump out sugar and play with it, especially when I always get yelled at for playing with my food. My smile slips away a little, Mama and Daddy are never in a good mood the day after having bad sugar.
I shake my head ‘cause I shouldn’t be silly. Daddy made a pinky promise so I put that big smile right back on my face. He won’t break it, not today. Not to me. Not on my birthday.
The sudden noise makes me jump. I close my eyes tight and remind myself that I’m a big girl now, and big girls do not jump at every silly noise. I open my eyes and look over to where the sound came from. A bottle rolls off the couch, gently bumping into my foot. Squinting in the shadows I see dark messy hair hanging over the side, Mommy is under all that mess, covered with blankets from head to toe. Stepping over the bottle, I inch closer and fall to my knees right next to mommy’s head and slowly pull back the blankets.
“Mama,” I whisper ‘cause I know how much she hates waking up. “Mommy,” I say a little louder this time, remembering my new promise to be brave. This time her eyes open very slowly, but when she rolls over to look at me I fall back onto my heels.
I blink twice and suddenly there’s a very angry dragon curled up on the couch where my Mama’s supposed to be. The dragon looks down at me with angry red eyes and giant nostrils that blow a thick cloud of smoke into my face. All over its body are shiny black scales that are smooth on top but sharp around the edges. What I know should be Mommy’s hand is now a claw with long, scary nails.
It was a very, very bad idea to wake her up.
I blink again, and the dragon is gone.
“M-mommy. I’m all dressed and ready to go to the zoo, should I get your good clothes from the bedroom?” I use my soft voice so she knows I’m sorry for waking her. She closes her eyes and moves slowly until she’s sitting upright on the couch, the blankets falling around her skinny body. When her eyes open back up she looks over my dress and shoes, her expression scares me.
It’s the exact same look the lion gives the gazelle in my book just before he eats it.
“You.” Her voice cracks, “This is your fault, Tessa.” I hate the way she says my name, like it’s a bad word. “Your father will be gone for weeks. Again, you’ve driven him away with your constant whining for attention.” I fight the tears that sting my eyes as she rearranges the blanket around her body, getting ready to lay back down.
“You’ve scared your precious Daddy away. The sight of you is making me sick to my stomach. Go back to your room and Let. Me. FUCKING. SLEEP.” Each word is louder than the one before until she’s screaming, her sour breath hitting my face.
I should get up and go right back to my room.
I should let her sleep off the bad sugar, it always makes her grumpy.
I should do anything but keep talking. . . but I can’t seem to stop.
“But mama, it’s my birth—”
I hear it before I feel it, a loud thundering clap followed by an unbearably hot sting across my cheek. I scramble to my feet, but even when my face scrunches up with pain, I don’t let a single tear escape.
Today I am eight. A big girl. I squeeze my eyes shut and add a second birthday promise to my growing list.
One: I will be brave like a knight.
Two: The dragon will never see me cry.
I shove all the bad feelings down into a little locked treasure chest that I’ve created inside my head.