This story is by DL Strand and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Retched shoes smacked the wet sidewalk, splattering mud on toes, tongues and laces. People didn’t notice. Too wrapped up in their screens, with heads bowed as if in prayer, they also missed the emerging sun breaking through the heavy, steel-colored clouds. They simply squinted at its glare on their feed.
There is always an exception. In this case, it was a pale young girl with dark curls who gazed up to revel in the innocent warmth of the sun bathing her face. Its bright rays washed away the damp left by the morning’s downpour. She exclaimed at the glistening street. Sparkling splashes alive with refracted color leapt out of the way of cars hurrying on their way to wherever.
She delighted in the sudden unexpected cheeriness of a spring day. The huddled masses of dark overcoats and hats broken up by the occasional electric blue, yellow or red umbrella still open to the sky (Their owners hadn’t yet realized that the rain had stopped.).
Sweet girl. Miraculous girl. She was a glimmering light among the somber procession surrounding her. Dour souls commuting to their pointless jobs to support their addictions, remained blind or immune to the light she radiated.
Wonderstruck. Alive. She was everything that they were not.
“Don’t stare.” A woman commanded – her voice strident.
“But Momma, she’s…”
The girl turned toward the second voice. It had come from a girl – young like her. Then she was gone. A blur of a red coat lost in a sea of repression and haste.
Millie’s gaze shifted to her own mother’s face. Squinting at the silhouette, stark against the sun’s halo, she beamed – huge smile, open-mouthed. Nothing withheld. No reservations. Simple. Joy.
Her mother smiled back. She couldn’t look into that peerless face and not feel lost. Hopefully lost. Wonderfully lost in those amazing, deep blue, wonder-filled eyes.
Karen’s eyes – in contrast, creased with worry. Careworn. Today, MIllie had a very special appointment with her doctor.
“I can’t understand you’re reluctance.” Karen’s mother had said the night before. Their dinner plates cleared, the two sat at the table, sipping the remainder of the red wine. “You’ll finely be able to talk with her.”
Karen stared at the wine glass, as she slowly turned it in front of her. “They’re going to change her.”
“That’s the whole point. Isn’t it?”
She didn’t reply, just focused on the liquid clinging to the inside of glass.
“Seriously, sometimes I think you want her to keep her helpless.”
“…Fair?” She interjected. “If things were ‘fair’, my granddaughter wouldn’t have been born…” she paused.
“C’mon Mom say it. ‘Retarded’. You keep telling me she can’t understand. Say the word.”
The older woman changed the subject, “For God’s sake, don’t you want her to talk? Play? Be normal?”
There it was. ‘Normal’. Her mother realized her mistake as it slipped past her lips. She changed tactics.
“What would you be if I’d coddled you the way you’re coddling her?”
“Happy?” Karen replied under her breath.
Her mother was strong. Cold. In truth, she was a singular woman. A pillar.
She wrapped her hands around Millie’s shoulders. “It’s hard, I know. You’ve got it worse than I ever did. You were small, but you were a fighter. And you were smart. Whip smart. Those other little bitches didn’t know what hit em.”
Jenny thought back to her days as a child. She’d had friends. But she’d had to fight too. Every scraped knee. Bloody elbow or blackened eye had earned her a little more respect, a little more room on the asphalt. But it had also cost her too. If her daughter was Love, Karen was War.
She looked over at her daughter, lost in the busy pattern of the designer rug, “She’s so happy.”
“Because she smiles all the time? You have no idea what’s going on in her head. She’s trapped in there. Let them make the change. Let them fix her.” Her mother grasped her chin and stared up into her eyes. “If you don’t, how will she get by? What kind of life will she have? She deserves more.”
Karen tried to see her daughter as did her mother and the rest of the world. As something less than – something that needed fixing. She may have no more going on her head than a fish in a fishbowl, but the fishbowl delighted her. How could she take that away? Her mother thought she was denying her daughter a life. But what was she really denying? A chance to fight and claw and scrape to get by? Sure, there was joy. But for each minute of joy, how much pain paid the toll?
Idiot. Retard. Space Cadet. Those are the best things the children would call her. Karen knew. Her own climb to status wasn’t always clean. She’d occasionally stepped on those who couldn’t get out of her way. Darcy Spencer had been such a girl. Deformed Darcy. Demented Darcy.
Karen had used her own blossoming authority to organize a series of attacks on the girl. She targeted her self esteem. She ordered strike after strike, coordinating her resources among the 3rd grade troops under her command. Alone, defenseless, Darcy never stood a chance. Roughly a month after the barrage began, she threw herself off her bedroom balcony. She survived, but her parents suffered collateral damage and waved the white flag, surrendering their daughter to the custody of the court. From that point in, she remained a ward of The System. Isolated. Ignored. Drugged.
A few years later, Darcy tried the suicidal swan dive again – this time, off the 5th floor of her facility. It was the first and last success of her life.
The adults never discovered Karen’s roll in Darcy’s destruction. Never really meant to hurt her. She’d just seen an easy target and went after it. 8-year-olds don’t think about consequences until later – after the chips fall.
Karen had tried put the affair behind her. Distracted her conscience with study and sports. She excelled in school and later in business. She climbed the ladder the clean way. Regardless, Dead Darcy ate at her young heart. Gnawed on her bankrupt soul.
When she’d discovered her pregnancy, her first thought was to end it. After all, she was a young executive, building a career and a reputation. But a tiny voice – perhaps that of an innocent 7-year-old – stopped her. “Let’s try love,” It said. So she rolled the dice, hoping for a winner, winner, chicken dinner.
Snake eyes. That’s what she thought at first when the doctor’s told her their prognosis In utero . Severe Down’s Syndrome. Punishment for the crimes of her childhood, she thought. Could it be Darcy returned to exact her pound of flesh?
When Millie was born, their eyes met, and Karen realized this wasn’t a sentence. Not a paragraph or a page. This child was her story. How she – How they dealt with life was up to them. Millie wasn’t a punishment any more than a flower is a blight on a garden. She was love. Simply Love.
The doctors told her of a treatment on the horizon. experimental. But showed great promise. Advanced Gene therapy. They could extract the extra chromosome. It was painful and Millie would have to endure years of treatment. Having to retrain herself over and over to learn basic skills like walking and talking. But in time, she could be normal. Possibly exceptional.
Her mother left with one command. “Be strong for her.”
Karen couldn’t articulate the reason for her reluctance. Grasping her daughter’s hand tightly, she stepped out of the daylight and pulled her daughter into a solemn carpeted room. The sign on the glass door read, “Dr. Hegde, Nuerology/Gene Therapy”.
As she sat down in the stiff cushioned chair, she pictured Darcy and how she, and the other children and even teachers regarded her as something less than. Something different. Other. Had she once been a miraculous girl too? Filled with love and wonder and faith?
“…a normal life.” Her mother had said. “You could both have a normal life.”
The words stabbed at her. Didn’t Millie deserve a shot at normal? She studied her daughter, rapt in the colorful photos on the wall, entranced by the tropical fish in the office tank – smiling with her whole being.
Then Millie looked up. Their eyes met, and as they had, countless times before, and seemed to gaze into each other’s soul.
She pulled her daughter up onto her lap and squeezed her tight, and said out loud to the sterile waiting room, “No Mom. She doesn’t need fixing. She’s perfect, and a normal life isn’t fucking good enough!”
Then she set her daughter down on her feet, took her hand and they strode out the cold office door into the spectacularly ordinary spring day.