“IN A WORLD PLAGUED WITH COMMONPLACE TRAGEDIES, ONLY ONE THING EXISTS THAT TRULY HAS THE POWER TO SAVE LIVES,
AND THAT IS LOVE.”
The words were scratched in bold print across the stone wall. Mrs. Cosgrove, our teacher with hair as fluffy as a yellow chick, had read them to us. I could read the words myself, even though I’d learned to do so late in school. I was good at reading now because I liked words. Especially these. They beckoned to a secret part of me that longed to believe such a thing.
Beneath this bold sentiment were columns of engraved names, a list of local fallen. I touched one with the same last name as mine, though I didn’t know the man. CARL HENRY FANCHER. The letters felt cold to my fingers. Unloved. That was my first impression. I thought it odd. This rock of beloved heroes ought to feel warm.
My father was never good to me. That’s the truth in its tolerable form. A serious understatement in reality—in my reality and my mother’s as well.
The first memories I have of the man are unpleasant ones. Him screaming, standing over my mother with a threatening fist. She would hold me tight to her chest when I was little, trying to protect me….and herself too, I think. I learned at a very, very young age not to cry. At least not out loud. Eventually, I learned to stifle my feelings as well—as much as is humanly possible anyway. There was no sense in harboring hope for anything. Fear and disappointment inevitably squelched it.
The fact is, the man who’d begotten me didn’t want me. In his eyes I should never have been born. And perhaps that would’ve been best. As it was, my existence had proven to be nothing more than a nuisance for everyone. I angered my father, brought strife upon my mother, irritated my teachers, and annoyed the other children who were forced to interact with me in school. All by simply being.
When you aren’t loved, you aren’t real. Life is cold, like the stone against my palm.
I suppose that’s why I first turned to books. I engrossed myself in them once discovered—creatively assembled words that molded imagined stories in my head. They were always so vivid, these kind characters in pretend worlds. People and places that also weren’t real. I imagined I loved them. And sometimes, I dreamt that they loved me back.
“Annabelle! Anna, where are you? For heaven’s sake, child, must you always wander off alone? You should keep with the rest of the class.”
I hadn’t wandered anywhere. I’d simply failed to follow, but there was no use correcting an adult. The carving of my last name in stone had distracted me, so perfectly straight and uniform and appealing in design. My small hand covered up the CARL HENRY as I imagined ANNABELLE in its place. It made me smile, the thought of being among heroes on cold stone. I hustled toward the end of the commemorative wall where Mrs. Cosgrove turned the corner to find me. Her fuzzy hair seemed to float around disgruntled features as she hastily approached.
Her fingers slipped tightly around my wrist when we met. She dragged me along to where the other boys and girls were listening to a tour guide explain the recent history behind the wall. He used photographs and newspaper clippings as visual aids. Mrs. Cosgrove spoke to me in a strict, hushed voice. She didn’t bend over to my level to talk as she would any other child. I knew why. I didn’t smell good. I never did.
“Stay here with Ginger, Annabelle. She’s your assigned buddy for the day. It’s important that we stick together on this tour. No more running off alone.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I whispered.
Ginger curled her upper lip unattractively as two sapphire eyes peered over a shoulder at me. She had pretty Cinderella eyes and hair. I tried to smile, but the gesture caused her nose to wrinkle. My muddy brown gaze dropped to the floor. I watched her shiny sandals move closer to her best friend, a redhead named Elizabeth. My eyes lifted to catch a screwed-up freckled face. I scooted back a few feet until the wall stopped me—keeping in company with the class yet exclusive of them. No one would complain about me standing back. Not even Mrs. Cosgrove.
My fingers combed through my dark hair, short and straight, landing in choppy, uneven ends nearly level with my chin. The color reminded me of every evil character in any fairytale. It seemed all were characteristically black—black hair, black eyes, black clothing, black demeanors, and black intent. I never thought I was truly a villainous character, not like I knew my father to be, but I was his offspring and devoid of any princess-like characteristics, so that left only the wicked side of the story to play. In my dreams, though, I imagined myself more like Snow White with wavy, raven hair, a perfectly fair complexion, bathed in rose scents, and exhibiting a natural feminine grace that would dance musical circles around both Ginger and Elizabeth. No, I never hoped for such a thing to be real, but I dared to pretend it with perfect clarity in my dreams.
I tried to pull on my short hair, wishing like Rapunzel I could extend it down to my toes. It had been past my shoulders only weeks ago until my father had ransacked the kitchen in a violent, drunken rage.
A stick of gum had been left on the floor, unopened, untouched. For some reason it set him off. It was always my aim, and that of my mother’s, to remove anything from his view that might anger him, including my very presence. Usually I hid outdoors whenever possible, but this time I’d been in my room in a corner of the closet reading a book about hobbits and elves. I stepped up to my bedroom door when I heard the first chair hit the wall. Mother hardly ever screamed, but I could hear her trying to reason with the insane.
“It’s just a stick of gum, not even opened. It…it must’ve fallen out of my pocket or something. I…I’ll pick it up. I’ll throw it away.”
My father cursed at her, hollering about how gum wasn’t allowed in his house…..stuck on the furniture…..ruining his hard-earned junk……a waste of blood-spilt money……and other furious comments. That’s when he started in on me. I heard him swaggering down our narrow hallway, bumping into the wall, ranting about how expensive my mouth was to feed while polluting every other word with foul expletives I’m not permitted to repeat. Nor would I ever care to.
“Get your scrawny, little, rat-hide out here!”
I stepped into the hallway, having learned that disobedience always proved a worse decision. My mother was right behind him, still attempting to reason with a drunken fool.
He had the stick of gum between his thumb and forefinger, flopping it back and forth in the air. His words came out slurred as he spoke over me.
“You like gum, do you?”
I didn’t answer. My gaze flickered up, wary of the glassy look in his eyes. He was definitely intoxicated……again.
“You think you ain’t done enough damage around here? Eatin’ all my food! Stinkin’ up my house! Breathin’ my air! Now you gotta be spittin’ out your gum on the floor with no respect for the king of this here castle! No respect for the only one who earns his weight in this pathetic family! I’m the boss of this dump, you hear me? I’m the one who keeps a roof over your worthless head, you little beggar! You like gum, do you? You like wastin’ my hard-earned money on this crap so you can leave it lyin’ around the house and ruin this scrapheap we gotta live in cuz your lazy mother thought she had to go off an’ have a stupid kid?”
He panted over me, winded by his own absurd lecture. The stench of his alcoholic breath stung my nose. Again I didn’t answer. I hoped he’d tire out and end his speech and hobble back to the living room without touching me. Such hopes were unlikely, as was the case this time.
“Answer me, you good-for-nuthin’ wench!”
The pain bit instantly as his hand connected with my cheek. I shook my head in answer to his crazy questions, feeling a rise of warm tears.
“Johnny, please stop it,” my mother begged. “Leave Anna alone. It wasn’t her fault, it was mine! It…it was my gum!”
The interruption did nothing but earn her a similar slap, as I’m sure she knew it would. Sometimes I wondered if my mother spoke up at the wrong time on purpose. As often as we endured my father’s abuse, she had to be aware that it wouldn’t save me from a beating but simply earn her one as well. Or was it that sharing my fate made her feel less guilt-ridden about those things that happened to me?
I tried not to squeal when my father grabbed at my hair, holding it up in a tight ponytail that made me rise to my tiptoes. The fringe along my neckline ripped out by the roots. It hurt.
“Get me the scissors, Lin.” It was a growled command.
“Johnny, please don’t…”
My hair was nearly yanked from my head as he turned to smack my mom again. I barely managed to keep my balance, held up by my father’s firm grip. Mother slunk off to find the scissors.
I endured a drunken lecture and a few painful tugs on my hair until my mother returned and handed over the scissors. I cried silently as my father chopped off every bit of ponytail, leaving the ends jagged, falling at just below chin length. At least six inches of dark black strands remained in his fist. He blubbered something about getting gum stuck in your hair and suffering the consequences of such stupidity, though it wasn’t nearly as coherently put. I could barely look at my mother. She was bawling worse than I was—that horrid look of pitiful helplessness in her eyes. The black wad was thrown at my feet before my father stumbled off, hollering for me to clean up the mess I’d made. I wiped the tears from my face with the back of my hand and let my mother gather the hairs alone. I returned to the hobbit world waiting for me in the corner of my closet. Who needed stringy, long hair anyway?
“Annabelle! Anna, come along, keep up with the class. Where’s your assigned buddy?”
My eyes glanced from Mrs. Cosgrove’s soft, blonde hairdo to Ginger’s long, golden waves, both glimmering with a pretty sheen. My fingers fell from the brittle ends of my mangy haircut, and I obediently stepped in line behind Ginger and Elizabeth.
Our tour guide marched us to another area of the park where a crowned oak tree towered over a long, narrow garden of colorful flowers. Among the blooms were heavy boulders, flat-faced and polished until they glistened like a row of reflective mirrors. More names were engraved in the stones. More provocative quotes scratched in bold print. I silently read the one on the end beside me.
“DARE TO IMAGINE. DARE TO BE.
BOOKS ARE THE SEEDS. DREAMS ARE THE SOIL.
THE FRUIT OF THE HARVEST, A WORLD REBORN.”
RUSSEL HARVEY ARNETT
FOUNDER / PHILANTHROPIST
“Phil ~ an ~ thro ~pist,” I whispered to myself. I would have to look up that word in class. It sounded impressive. Important. He must have been a beloved man to have his very own cold stone.
“…and now we’ll head inside the library where you can browse through a reserved section of children’s books. Your teacher and I, along with two of our librarians, will assist you in checking out one book apiece. Remember to keep your voices low. This is a library.”
I looked up in time to catch a friendly grin on the face of our tour guide. He was gesturing toward a set of glass doors that led inside a brick building behind the flower bed. I stayed with the group this time, as eager as the others to find a new book, but not voicing my delight out loud. My ears picked up on Ginger’s conversation with Elizabeth and a blonde girl named Charlotte dressed in pressed, yellow cotton. Spotless, white daisy print smothered her sunny skirt.
“My mom brings me here every weekend. It’s soooo easy to check out books. I’ve done it a hundred times already.” Elizabeth’s red hair fell as gently as autumn leaves as she tossed it over her shoulder, acting like an old pro at such things.
Ginger’s fingers spread out like a fan. She nearly hit Lizzy’s nose holding her hand in her face. “I have five library books at home right now. All of them are about horses. I love horses!”
Both the blonde and the redhead hopped a few times, moving excitedly along with the crowd. “Me too! Me too!” they exclaimed.
Charlotte bragged, “My dad reads to me every night before bed. Sometimes I read to him. We’re finishing The Black Stallion. We’ve read it before, but I asked to read it again.”
“I love when my dad reads to me. He makes the funniest voices!” Elizabeth made a face like a freckled pig and oinked.
“My dad too!” Ginger said. “Mom lets us eat cookies when we read. We have our own story-time cookie jar.”
The other girls looked jealous.
Charlotte dared to challenge the claim. “You do not.”
“Do so! My mom keeps it filled with cookies just for when we read.”
There was a momentary exchange of speculative glances. Then Charlotte piped up, “I want to come over and read with you and your dad and eat cookies.”
“Me too!” Elizabeth chirped.
All three girls chattered about how fun it was going to be. I wished for long, pretty hair and shiny shoes and a new cotton dress so I too could go to Ginger’s house and eat cookies and tell stories and be wanted.
I recalled an earlier year, sitting in the back corner of a classroom barely familiar to me, thumbing through a book I couldn’t yet read. My mother sat up front, her frail figure slouched in a chair too small for adults. Her black hair was pulled back in a tight bun. Her dark eyes darted about like an anxious mouse, unwilling to make eye contact.
My teacher, two prior to Mrs. Cosgrove, spoke to my mother. It was my first teacher ever, with auburn curls, high heels, and slim glasses. She wore colorful makeup and the same disgruntled expression as everyone else. I tried to appear preoccupied with the book I’d been given, but my ears couldn’t ignore the conversation addressing my numerous faults.
“I’m afraid that it may take years for her to approach the same performance level as other students her age. Annabelle has missed out on so much. To have started her this late in school, Mrs. Fancher, well…….the child is years behind her classmates.”
There was a disapproving sigh from my teacher and a moment of uncomfortable silence. My head stayed low, facing the book in my lap, but my eyes flickered up every now and then to observe the adults. They were separated by a desk stacked with papers. My mother looked nervous. She always looked nervous.
“We can only hope that she picks up on some basic math skills and an understanding of letter groups and their sounds before the end of this school year. Perhaps she may even learn to read a few simple sentences. But with so many other children in my classroom, there isn’t the time nor the resources to give Annabelle the constant individual attention I fear she requires. It’s imperative that she pay close attention to the instruction she receives. And you, Mrs. Fancher, will need to help her at home. There are some easy things you can do. First and most importantly, review the alphabet with her. It seems a highly unusual thing for a child her age not to have a knowledge of letters and at least a few simple words.”
I caught the reprimanding way my teacher looked over her glasses. My mother, however, didn’t catch it, too busy staring at the bunched hem of her dress kneaded by nervous fingers. She was in trouble because of me. Because I couldn’t read.
“Have Annabelle practice writing the alphabet while voicing the sounds of each letter. If you write along with her it will provide an example to copy. Do you understand how important your time and efforts will be to your daughter’s education, Mrs. Fancher? She has a lot of catching up to do.”
My mother nodded in small, quick moves. She was doing so nearly nonstop.
The teacher who’d been leaning over stacks of papers rose and rounded the desk, setting herself directly before my mother. Her voice lowered, still hard-edged and judgmental in tone. I had no trouble hearing this hushed conversation.
“Mrs. Fancher. I hate to bring up personal matters, but in this case I feel it is necessary. Annabelle, well, quite frankly she smells bad. The other kids have noticed and commented on it. This fact will hinder her ability to interact socially and make friends at school. Many students already don’t care to play with her because they can’t stomach the odor. Does she take baths at home?”
My mother nodded vigorously, her eyes downcast. I watched the teacher’s red lips press into a hard frown.
“Does your family have the means for personal hygiene items such as soap and shampoos?”
My mother was still nodding, a tight wad of skirt clutched in her fist.
“Such things can be provided if necessary, Mrs. Fancher.”
Her head suddenly changed directions, shaking strongly, adamant in declining the offer. My teacher’s lips pursed together as she looked down on my mom.
“Mrs. Fancher, I can’t emphasize enough how influential example is to young children. Annabelle will naturally grow to take on the same personal habits that she observes her parents performing, especially those of her mother. Regular bath time, clean clothing, combed hair…….such things should be routine for Annabelle. Is this something you can do for her at home?”
I watched agitated fingers brush flat the wrinkles on my mother’s dress. She looked up. “Is that all?”
My teacher sighed again, this time a defeated sound. “Yes, Mrs. Fancher.”
We left abruptly.
Mother did help me with my letters, reciting and writing out the alphabet every day for two weeks in a row. We practiced the sounds associated with each character. She even spelled out simple three-letter words for me to read. I memorized them eagerly.
I took four real baths in that time with bubbles and bar soap and shampoo. It was the most I’d ever washed. I liked how light my hair felt afterwards, almost as soft as Ginger’s honey-colored waves. She was the girl who sat beside me in class—my first and last hope for a real friend. The luxury of regular bathing came to a swift end, however, when my father returned home from a long haul. He said it was a waste of good soap and water on a filthy beggar, and he gave my mom a black eye for spoiling me.
In school Ginger asked to be moved. She was assigned a new seat beside a freckled redhead named Elizabeth. The chair next to mine remained empty for the remainder of the school year.
The tour guide ushered our class up a minor set of stairs to the main floor of a wide open room. He then directed us further back along a sun-warmed window that swept around the right corner of the building. Bookshelves were arranged in small boxed areas with tables and chairs in the center of each square. The highest ledges were reachable for kids our age, every shelf crammed full of colorful books. The quantity was overwhelming. I could hardly decide where to begin.
Ginger, Elizabeth, and Charlotte headed for the furthest boxed area at my left. Their steps seemed sure and determined. I guessed that their treasured horse stories were filed away in that corner. Charlie and Thomas sat on the floor thumbing through a book on military vehicles. Leonard and Jake invited them to a table where they could study the pictured trucks and tanks together. Mrs. Cosgrove was led by both hands to the most congested section of the library among a circled display of hardcover books standing on end. I wondered if those were the best stories or perhaps the newest. I cringed instinctively when a man’s voice startled me from behind.
“Oh dear, young lady, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
I felt his hand on my shoulder. Though the touch was gentle, I automatically pulled away. Turning around, I recognized his clothes first—the grey slacks and pale, collared shirt worn by our tour guide from outside.
My gaze lifted, expecting to find some form of annoyance on his face. It was disconcerting when he actually smiled at me. Not a forced expression either but a genuine, cheerful greeting. My eyebrows slanted warily.
“Would you like some help finding a book?” he asked. His smile remained fixed as he waited for an answer.
I froze, unable to reply. I felt anxious, like I wanted to bolt and yet yearned to stay at the same time. It was uncomfortable being treated in this manner. My heart pounded as my mind found a word for it……….kindness.
Only my mother ever made me feel this way, and her actions were usually accompanied by jittery nerves. Never relaxed. Other people normally avoided me. Any interaction was solely for the purpose of reprimanding, correcting, punishing, or teasing.
“What’s your name, child?”
I was staring at him eye to eye now. So close. He’d squatted down to my level, sitting on his calves, still smiling. I stepped back and swallowed. I wondered if his nose worked. Could he not smell how repugnant everyone else claimed my odor to be?
His eyebrows pulled up and together in a brief show of pity. That was a look I saw often. The familiarity of it calmed me.
“Do you like books about real things like horses, gardening, or raising rabbits? Or do you prefer stories of pretend things like fairies and dragons, flying children, or talking creatures?” He ended his question with wide expectant eyes. The same big grin recaptured his lips. I found my fear stifled by curiosity.
“I…um….I like pretend things. But I do like rabbits too.”
I would have thought his face couldn’t grin any wider, but it did. I felt my own lips mimic his to a smaller degree, a natural response.
“Well then, I think I have just the book for you.” He rose to his full height. “Come along….what was your name again?”
I had never told him. “Annabelle,” I uttered.
“Miss Annabelle. That’s the name of a magical fairy princess. Did you know that?”
I shook my head. The thought sent a rush of warmth throughout my body. It made my name seem instantly prettier.
I followed the man to a square of shelving two areas ahead of where Ginger and her horse-loving friends were huddled. No one else stood nearby. The man scanned a row of books three levels from the floor. He squatted while pulling an older volume out from among its neighbors. The cover was brown with black print and had a black sketching of a girl, a smiling cat, and a well-dressed rabbit.
He read the title. “Alice in Wonderland.” His friendly eyes looked to me. “Have you ever read this story, Annabelle?”
I shook my head.
“It’s wonderful. It’s about a girl near your age who gets lost in a land of make believe where the animals speak to her and all sorts of strange, fun things happen. It even has a talking rabbit. I bet you’ll find the tale to your liking.”
I nodded, certain that I would. He handed the book to me and then moved to a lower row of books at his right. He scanned the bottom spine of each one, searching for something more. His throat made a successful “ah-hah” sound as his fingers pulled another volume from off the shelf.
He read this title aloud. “Peter Pan and Wendy.” His eyes shifted to me. “Do you know this story, Annabelle?”
Again, I answered with a silent headshake.
“Oh my!” he exclaimed. “Every child should know of Peter Pan! Peter is a special young boy who can actually fly and teach others to do the same. He lives on an island called Neverland with other boys and a lively little pixie. He spends an eternal childhood there playing with Indians and fighting ornery pirates!”
My eyes grew wide just imagining such an adventure.
The kind man handed over the second book. I took it and held it next to the first. One was brown. The other an aqua blue. Both titles were printed in bold, black lettering.
“May I read them both?” I dared to ask.
I understood his regretful expression before he answered, but I couldn’t decide which story to give back. Wonderland or Neverland?
“You can sign out one book today. Then, when you finish, return it and check out the other. It will be waiting right here for you.” He gestured to the shelving behind him.
I looked woefully at both adventures in my hands. This would almost certainly be the only time in my life I’d ever see the inside of a library. My mother didn’t drive, and my father would never bother bringing me to a place as wonderful as this, let alone actually read me a story.
“Which one should I choose?” I asked the man.
He grinned wide. “That’s up to you, Miss Annabelle. Look them over. Take your time.” He stood up and walked to a square table in the center of our box of bookshelves. He pulled out a chair. “Have a seat. Browse through both books until you decide which you’d like to read first. I’ll help you sign one out when you’re ready.”
I nodded and obediently sat in the offered chair. He left me alone to read.
I opened to the middle pages of Peter Pan and ate up as much of the story as my hungry eyes could take in. It was a simple thing to block out all surrounding distractions. It wasn’t until Mrs. Cosgrove barked my name, too loudly for inside the quiet library, that I focused back on reality. My mind shifted from a riotous pirate ship to the vividly irritated expression on my teacher’s face. The class was already lined up near the doors in the background waiting to walk outside.
“Annabelle, for heaven’s sake! Didn’t you hear me announce that it was time to line up ten minutes ago? We need to go, now. The bus is waiting.”
I stood up, letting the Peter Pan story fall closed on the table. I picked up Alice in Wonderland and hugged the book to my chest, hunching as I stepped past Mrs. Cosgrove. Her hand reached over my head and swiped the treasure from my fingers.
I gasped, unable to protest any further than that. Tears threatened to burn my eyes. My hand feebly reached for the book, then fell, knowing better than to hope for anything. I focused on the ground, ready to drag my sunken spirits across the floor. I would never know if Peter defeated the pirates or if he grew up enough to understand how to win Wendy’s heart. I would never have any inkling of whatever happened to Alice in her crazy Wonderland.
“Mrs. Cosgrove, why don’t you let me sign out that book while Annabelle joins the other kids.”
Something in my heart flickered when I heard the offer from the kind man who’d introduced me to Peter and Alice. He was reaching for the treasure now in my teacher’s possession. His other hand fell gently on my shoulder. My muscles tightened, but I didn’t cringe from his touch this time.
“I’m sorry, but there’s no time. The bus is waiting. Annabelle, get in line.”
“It will only take a minute,” the man persisted.
“Maybe next time.” Mrs. Cosgrove placed the little brown book on the table I’d been seated at. The man smiled as he went to pick it up.
“I promised the girl. It’s my fault it didn’t get checked out before now. Please, I’ll run it to the bus if I must.”
Mrs. Cosgrove rolled her eyes beneath closed lids. “It’s well above her reading level,” she argued.
The man argued back. “Annabelle’s been quietly reading the book on the table there, Peter Pan and Wendy, which happens to be at the same reading level. She seemed quite involved in the story. I think she can handle this one.”
“I doubt very much that she actually made out any of the more difficult words.”
“But I did! I can even read philanthropist!”
Mrs. Cosgrove dropped her eyes on me, looking both surprised and upset that I’d spoken up. I was shocked myself, and shrunk from her reproachful glare.
The man covered up an amused grin with the book that was now in his hands. “It will only take me a minute,” he said.
“Alright, fine,” my teacher sighed, a frustrated huff of resignation. “Anna, I’m certain I told you to get in line.”
I nodded at my teacher, stealing a glance at the stranger who’d come to my rescue. He smiled before doing something no one else had ever done to me before. He winked. I felt my heart flicker again. This was so foreign, such misplaced kindness. I didn’t know how to react. Urged by a shove from Mrs. Cosgrove, I hustled over to the line of waiting students.
The man in grey slacks met us outside and handed me the library book before half the kids were loaded on the bus.
“Thank you,” I uttered.
“You’re more than welcome, Miss Annabelle. Enjoy your time in Wonderland.”
I hugged the book to my chest and stepped onto the bus. Ginger plugged her nose as I walked past. Lizzy screwed up her freckled face disgustedly. Jake smashed his snout flat like a pig. Thomas stuck out his tongue while Charlie uttered a lowly, “Ugly duck.” Leonard tried to trip me near the rear, but I caught myself on the neighboring seat, keeping a tight grip on my precious book. As usual, no one allowed me to sit beside them. I found a seat in the very back all alone, but for some reason none of those things bothered me. For the first time in my life I didn’t feel like the cold stone outside my window. A peculiar sensation pressed against the walls inside me, buoying me up as if I could actually take flight like the fairytale boy, Peter Pan.
I felt warm as sunbeams. It made my skin tingle.