a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
She saw blue.
The girl’s head was under the vast lake, her eyes tracing light that glimmered like watery rays around her. She was sinking to the bottom—her arms splayed out, reaching for the surface, as her brown hair rippled against the tides rushing around her. The bubbles of air that escaped her mouth and floated to the surface gleamed with the last ounce of sunlight—of life—before darkness suffused her vision.
And she closed her eyes.
The girl enjoyed swimming. It was a pastime, but it was not always one.
Beyond the hills behind the orphanage and the trench used for irrigation, there was a lake. None of the other kids knew why it was there, and Mama always deflected questions raised about it.
“What is that, Mama?”
“It’s called a lake.”
“Why is it so big?”
“That is the way it was created.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“Depends on what you do.”
“Are we allowed to swim in it?”
Mama only smiled as she ruffled the curious girl’s hair.
That was the end of that discussion and many more that came over the years. While the other children would play tag and kick balls around, the girl would sit next to Mama and stare at the lake from afar. Now and then, she asked the same questions, and when she felt a little daring, she demanded, “Why?”
On those days, that kind smile plastered on Mama’s face would wane into a frown—dismal, disapproving. So the girl never pushed further and never questioned why Mama refused to answer.
Until her eighth birthday.
The night was glum and silent. Harsh, summer winds rustled the leaves trembling in the trees while the moonlight flitted across the grass-covered hills, glinting on their waxy surfaces and specks of dew.
The girl would forever remember that night she ran from the orphanage she called home, tripping over her feet as she sprinted over the hills and jumped across the irrigation trench. It was her year-long plan that brought her to this moment, her bouts of deception and sneaking around that opened an opportunity to reach that lake she yearned to explore.
By the time she stood at the lakefront, she was panting, her hands braced against her knees. On the dark surface of the water, a reflection of her blue eyes stared back at her, enticing her to reach down and dip her finger in the lake. The water was tepid, peaceful, so she reached further until it swallowed her hand. Then her arm. And, finally, her entire body.
The experience of floating in that small paradise was unlike any other, and after splashing and squealing for what felt like hours, there was no doubt she wanted to return. So she snuck out of the orphanage the following night, and the next, and every night after.
Before long, swimming became her most favorite pastime.
No one ever caught the girl during her nightly excursions, so she enjoyed the lake’s pleasures without worry. She taught herself to swim the same way the heroes in her books would, and she challenged herself to travel as far down as she could, though she never came close to reaching the lakebed.
She was fond of all of her memories of the lake, all except one.
It was dark. Some nights were darker than others, but this night was exceptionally so. She was trekking towards the irrigation trench, kicking along a small pebble that bounced like a ball every hit before hiding away in the tall grass. A game of hide-and-seek—one where she consistently won and kicked the pebble to new horizons.
On her last kick, the pebble flew into the trench, where it bounded off the sides and plopped into the murky waters. She paid it no heed as she leaped across the trench and skipped down the steep slope to the lakeshore. The breeze chilled her skin as she stretched the cramps in her arms loose and touched her toes, relishing the burn beneath her calves. Once she was ready to wade into the Stygian waters, she paused, gasped, and trembled.
There were two men on the other side of the lake.
The girl did not have the slightest clue how the men arrived or who they were, but she still followed her screaming instincts and hid behind the billowing cattails. Through the fissures of the tall stems, she watched the men haul a large duffle bag from the back of their shadow-veiled van, the moonlight accentuating their contours. They lifted the bag and trudged into the lake, stirring weak waves that rolled over the surface. Then, they threw the bag into the deepest zone and let it sink to the mysterious unknowns.
Promptly, the men left, the tires of their van spraying dirt as it climbed the hill, but even in the hours of their absence, the girl could not find the strength to leave, her eyes focused on the bubbles appearing over the spot the duffle bag disappeared beneath.
She skipped her nightly trips to the lake for a week after that, and the next time she went, the men were not there.
She never saw them again.
Located amid a hilly forest, the orphanage was quite secluded, so it was a treat for everyone when visitors came.
The Ashleys, like all the previous guests, were a reserved couple. They boasted clothes of opulent fashion that were unlike the drab uniforms the orphans wore and carried themselves with an air of dignity that did not waver under the attention of the exuberant children. When Mama escorted them to the main hall, that was when the girl saw the little boy tailing his mother, keeping close as if he could conceal himself from sight.
The boy was sickly thin, his arms no thicker than a toothpick compared to the girl’s, and his milky complexion was far too pale under the fluorescent lights of the library. His raccoon-like eyes stood out against his gaunt face as they surveyed the bookshelves, and as he shuffled through the aisles, his footfalls were featherlight.
The Ashleys were conversing with Mama, occasionally pointing at a child or two and discussing parameters and sizes and other subjects the girl could not understand. Perhaps that was why the young Ashley boy approached her, looking over her shoulder as she stuck her nose in one of her favorite epics.
“What are you doing?” he asked, his voice frail.
“I’m reading. Do you not want to play with the other kids?”
“My parents won’t let me.” The Ashley boy twirled his fingers as the lull in the conversation stretched. Eventually, he settled to poke at another question. “What’s your name?”
The girl raised a brow, finally looking up from her book. “Name?”
“I’m Marcus. What’s your name?”
Before the girl could respond, the Ashleys called Marcus and stood him next to another orphan boy of similar proportions. The Ashleys scrutinized the orphan boy as they would a product and later left with promises of adoption, which brightened everyone with mirthful smiles and gasps of glee. As the girl watched the Ashleys exit the front doors, she tilted her head, recalling her exchange with Marcus, and wondered why she did not have a name.
The visits remained infrequent, but all the guests shared one trait in common: they had a name.
The girl wanted to ask Mama about it—perhaps Mama had forgotten to tell her she had one—but a looming seedling of a doubt sealed her mouth shut. Every time a visitor brought a child, the issue increasingly bothered the girl. Marcus, Daniel, Sarah, Logan, Mary. . . All with names. All sickly pale and thin.
Afraid to ask Mama, the girl found herself trapped in a fearful limbo. Playing with the other children became a chore. Eating at the kitchen table with Mama sitting at the end became uncomfortable. But walking up to Mama—who was so caring and so happy all day and night despite what problems occurred—was unbearable. So the girl never asked and could only alleviate her stress at the lake.
Floating in the water, the girl stared at the magnificent, star-covered sky and thought about those sick children—wondered what they did in the outside world. Did they play like the children here in the orphanage? Did they taste delicious foods like the meals the girl enjoyed? Did they receive the same unconditional love Mama gave to everyone? And were all of them ill?
The girl recalled a dystopian tale she read months ago about how humanity fell to the hands of a disease that slaughtered all the children. The hero was an orphan like herself, and because he was determined to seek the truth, he found a cure and saved the last of humanity. The memory opened a door in the girl’s head that let the light of resolve chase all her fears into the dark recesses. Finally, after weeks of self-inflicted turmoil, the girl grabbed the key to her cage and mustered the courage to ask Mama the next day.
Squaring her shoulders, she approached Mama and asked why she did not have a name like the children born outside the orphanage. Mama stared at the girl, her eyes wide with an emotion the girl could not place, but it instantly disappeared as if it was never there. Mama playfully poked the girl’s nose.
“You will get a name once you find your adopted family.”
It was a simple answer, but it all the same spread relief, washing away all worries and doubts. The girl beamed.
That was the last she spoke of names.
More families came and went over the years, but no one adopted the girl. She was twelve, and even though she knew everyone was adopted by their sixteenth birthday, desperation clawed at her. She wanted a name. And she wanted a family.
There were nights she spent sitting by the lake, holding her legs close to her chest as she studied the placid waters. During those nights, she listened to the buzz of the critters and smelled the musty odors the chill winds wafted towards her, lonely and desiring of familial warmth. So she put more effort into getting adopted, even going as far as leaving her comfort zone and trying to appeal to the families. That landed her in time-out after she spilled a pitcher of lemonade on a visitor’s white suit, dying it a light yellow and earning a surly scowl.
After countless trials and mishaps, the girl lost heart and found comfort in her epic tales until, one day, another family came. They called themselves the Beaumonts, and they supposedly had a daughter named Laila, who was too sick to come. Instead of another child, Mama called the girl over.
Closing her book, the girl jumped from her seat and ambled over to the Beaumonts, her heart pounding against her ribcage. The adults studied her, gauged her proportions with a tape measure, and compared her to Laila’s dimensions, but the callow girl could not comprehend why. When the Beaumonts finished, they donned smiles, their creased expressions smoothing into pleasant lines of delight.
They wanted to adopt the girl in a week.
For her last days, the girl said her final farewells to her home. She pressed the spines of each of her favorite books with goodbyes, searing the titles into memory, and spent more time with the other children, who expressed their envy and sorrow. At night, she swam in the lake, wondering if she could ever return.
She was excited to get a name. Mama’s explanation all those years ago still stayed with her, so on the last day, when she was all packed and ready in a lovely dress and coat, she was thrilled to join her new family.
The Beaumonts arrived in a shining, jet-black Audi that sparkled under the moonlight. Mr. Beaumont greeted the girl, opening the back door and gesturing for her to enter. The girl did so happily.
The Audi was cozy and tight, and the leather seats were polished to a fine luster. As Mr. Beaumont drove away, the girl waved at Mama through the back window, sad but elated for the new adventure that awaited her.
The ride was silent, and the excitement that bubbled in the girl dissipated as the quiet stretched on and on even as they turned onto the main road. Blinding lights attacked the girl from every direction, shining like stars too close to see with the naked eye. The lights grew more frequent and more powerful, and soon, the flat countryside landscape rose into high rises and towering buildings that the girl only read of in books.
Millions of different windows were alight, holding the stories of a million lives, and there were people of all shapes and sizes walking the streets. The bustling city life fascinated the girl, who squished her cheek against the car window for a closer look.
They passed department stores and malls, theaters and cinemas, and even parks and swimming pools. It was like all of her wildest dreams became flesh and blood, and now, she had the capabilities of exploring them all.
The only thing she was missing was her name.
She looked at the Beaumonts, who were focused on the road, and tapped Mrs. Beaumont on her shoulder.
“Are you going to name me? Mama said that, once I get adopted, I will get a name.”
Mrs. Beaumont smiled. “Did she, now? Then how about Laisa? Our little Laisa.”
The girl rolled the name around in her head, tested it on her tongue, and nodded enthusiastically. Laisa. Her name was Laisa.
They drove through the city, passing similar scenery, so little Laisa lulled to sleep, dreaming of the lake and the cool water around her skin. When Mr. Beaumont woke her, the city lights were gone. They were in a dark, rural area, and the only structure around was what seemed to be a big hospital. Despite her uncertainty, Laisa followed her new parents into the building.
The setting unnerved her. The strong scent of medicine flared in Laisa’s nostrils, and the clatter of metal trays and tools rattled her ears. She stuck close to Mrs. Beaumont, who was still smiling, but the smile did not seem directed to ease Laisa’s nerves.
A doctor in blue scrubs welcomed them, taking one glance at Laisa before ushering them to a separate room. Laisa did not know what to expect, but what she saw was something even her books did not prepare her for.
A girl was lying on a bed, and attached to her were tubes connected to a massive machine. She looked severely ill, and death was tangible in the air.
“This is our daughter, Laila,” Mrs. Beaumont said. “She’s your new sister.”
Laila was not awake. Her eyes were closed. Laisa furrowed her brows. “She looks sick.”
“That’s why you are here. You are going to help Laila get better.” Mrs. Beaumont was still smiling, and she was the only one doing so in the room. She crouched and came eye to eye with Laisa. “Don’t you want to help your sister get better?”
Laisa blinked, shuffling her feet as she read the room. She nodded.
“Good,” Mrs. Beaumont said, caressing Laisa’s cheek. “All you need to do is listen to the doctor, and we can all go home.”
After the doctor led Laisa to another room, she changed her clothes and laid on a bed as Nurses covered her mouth and nose with a mask that made her eyelids flutter. She felt like she was floating in water, basking in the weak waves of the lake she was so far from. When she was hanging on the precipice of consciousness, her surroundings began to move. Blurred lights flashed before her drooping eyes as sleep slowly claimed her, and once her world stopped moving, people dressed in blue blinded her dwindling vision.
Tiptoeing the line of unconsciousness, Laisa struggled to keep awake. She was sinking to the bottom of the lake, reaching for the sunlight that dimmed each second, struggling against the invisible weights dragging her down, but once she fell too deep into the ocean of drowsiness, she fell victim to its whims.
For the last time, she saw blue, and when she closed her eyes, she never opened them again.
That night, a van pulled up onto the dirt road that led to the orphanage, taking a back route around the main building and to the lake beyond. The same men pulled over to the lakefront and dragged a new duffle bag out of the back of their van. Heaving, they carried the heavy carcass to the deepest zone of the lake and threw it in like they did all of the other ones.
“Do you know who this one was?” asked the taller man with a ski hat and jean suspenders.
“I’d rather not, but I heard she helped the Beaumonts’ daughter with her heart surgery.”
Turning back to their van, they ignored the bubbles surfacing on the water, ignored the faint lights from the orphanage that reached the lake, and drove off in their van. As they reached the main street, they passed a familiar sign pointing to the orphanage hidden deep within the hilly woods. The sign said: ANGEL HEART ORPHANAGE AND BREEDING CENTER FOR SICK CHILDREN.
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.