Later that night after reading for a few hours, alone in her apartment, Lou, bored and pensive heard Myth's words waft through her head again.
How would you know? You don't love anybody!
Lou thought of her parents. Her real parents. She had photos of them, photos she no longer looked at much. She used to pore over them for hours when she was much younger. Thanks to Myth's word, she once again thought over her parent's story.
Star-crossed lovers. Two poor, hardscrabble kids they had fallen in love and through perseverance they had forged a life, a successful one.
Only that life had not worked out in the end. They both left her, left her alone to fend for herself against the world. So much for love. Lou bit back tears as she thought about it. It hurt still, but she had the whole process down, a habit.
Lou got up did what she always did next when this kind of moment overtook her, she went work out. But as she pulled her boxing gloves off a shelf in her closet, the shelf came loose and most of the shelf's contents spilled to the floor. A very taped up shoe box containing all that remained of Lou's parents disgorged itself. Gathering up the contents Lou began to put it all back in the box, holding on to her calm by a fingernail. Myth's voice rang out again inside Lou's head, How would you know? You don't love anybody!
Lou's lip curled. Her fingers squeezed the box, bunching the worn cardboard. She flipped the entire box over, spilled what was left on to the floor. Sitting down, she crossed her legs and began to sift through the documents, photos, letters and other things. Lying atop the smallish pile was a grainy, slightly washed out photo, edges worn from time and handling. Lou picked it up gingerly, she loved the way it slid between her fingers, the very slickness of it. She didn't remember the brownness of the sepia tone. It didn't used to be that color, did it? In the background of the photo was a breezy tree-lined horizon under an nail polish blue sky splattered with wispy clouds, all tinted somewhat brown now. Lou closed her eyes and felt the warmth on the wind of that day, though she had been far too young to truly remember any such thing.
Large in the foreground of the photo sat three people on an outcrop of rock hanging, magically, in front of the tree-lined horizon. A handsome man with light brown skin and short cropped hair had eyes which twinkled with an irrepressible joy. His hairy, well-muscled arm was wrapped around a slight-looking woman of similar coloring, a tattoo of a fighter jet and the word “Smasher” still clear on his forearm. Lou's throat tightened as she looked at him.
Part of her wanted to press the photo to her chest, as if that might dredge up some memory of that arm's comforting pressure. She noticed his knuckles looked much like her own now, calloused and worn. Turning her own hands around, the hot tears she had been holding back tumbled down her cheeks. He was a fighter, too. But he lost.
The woman under his arm was thin, her face narrow and her hair a very dark, deep rich chocolate color, augmented by the faded sepia tone of the photo. That hair was held back by a headband, though it tapered to a widow's peak in the front, it fell loosely to her shoulders in waves. Her eyes were also brown, but more liquid, full of expression, of passion. Her lips were large and red and as Lou looked at them she imagined something brushing her cheek gently, the moist breath sending a pleasant tingle down her spine. It felt real. The woman wasn't looking at the man or the directly at the camera, she was looking down at what was in her arms. And the look in her eyes was why Lou had not wanted to look in this box. The look recalled all the pain Lou had ever known.
In the woman's arms was a two year old girl, her hair a mass of bouncy brown curls, her cherubic face alight with glee at being the center of attention, at being surrounded by the warmth of the day, the breeze on the wind, the carefree love of two star-crossed parents: my parents.
Lou couldn't really see herself in that little girl anymore. There was an innocence there which could never be fanned back to life, its spark long since squelched. Lou choked back a cry. She threw the picture back into the box, closed it and sat it down on the floor in front of her futon. Lou laid down and stared up at the ceiling, letting the tears stream down the sides of her face, all thoughts of working out erased.
A small impulse to open the box again jolted through her, an impish desire to read the letters she knew were inside, letters written by her mother, written to Lou herself. As much as Lou hated the box, at the loss it represented, she knew it was only because of the box she had any idea at all who her parents had been; what had happened to them. The box had been given to Lou when she was seven years old, after Lou had begun fighting the other girls who called her "Orphanella" and "Dumpster Baby."
Even at Elspeth having no parents had been rare, most of the girls knew their families, but were just unwanted, abused, taken away by the State for neglect. When the Director had questioned Lou, she had seen the girl had an obvious need to know more about her past. The box had been full of revelations. If being a little girl all alone in the world had not pushed Lou unwillingly into being a somber, brooding child, the box certainly had.
Most haunting had been her father, learning he had been an ace Air Force pilot during the First Gulf War, where his plane had malfunctioned and crashed. During ejection another equipment failure had resulted in Paulo Rodriguez's death. He fell, unstopped by his failed parachute, onto the desert floor. Lou's mother had painstakingly set forth those details in her letters to Lou. But that was not the most unsettling revelation.
The letter contained something else entirely which had been the worst part: the long, pitiful ramblings of a horribly depressed woman, a suicidal woman. Looking back Lou wondered at the Director of Elspeth's intentions, the woman had been all smiles when she gave Lou the box. Had she not read its contents? Or had she been intentionally cruel?
Lou wiped tears away. She remembered that letter as though she had just finished reading it. Grabbing the box again, Lou found the letter. She didn't need to read it, just holding it had the words flashing through her mind's eye. Her mother, unable to cope with the death of her beloved Paulo, made clear in the letter how much he had meant to her. She told her daughter - in repeated maudlin apologies, in long passages begging for forgiveness, understanding, salvation - that she had loved Paulo too much to live without him. That she was just a shell now. Of use to no one.
The younger Lou had taken that to mean her mother had not loved her enough, despite paragraphs of protestations claiming her mother did. Looking back Lou couldn't understand how she had swallowed all this as a seven year old, how she had managed to escape the knowledge long enough to live.
Lou's mother, Maria, had made an effort to give Lou some history of Maria herself, of Paulo; saying she knew Lou would someday want to know “who she came from.” She related the fact both herself and Paulo were the only family each other had left, besides Lou. Maria wrote about the kind of man Paulo Rodriguez had been: strong, kind, hard-working, loving, and dedicated. Maria wrote about how much they adored Lou. That had been the hardest thing of all to read, because Lou had wanted to believe it, needed to believe it, part of her still did. Then, as now all she thought: if you loved me so much, why did you leave?
Lou's belief was that love itself was exactly what had killed her mother, and consequently Lou's childhood, and she believed this more strongly than she had ever believed her parents loved her. Love was what doomed Lou to children's homes, to Juvie, pain, and fights, sleepless nights on a hard bunk bed. If Maria and Paulo had not been so star-crossed, so desperately in love, soul-mates whose lives were only complete with the other - perhaps Maria might have found a way within herself to keep moving forward after life stole Paulo from her. Perhaps she might have found a way to love Lou enough to overcome her grief, if only for Lou's sake.
Lou awoke the next morning drowsy and worn-out, having fallen asleep on her futon. She got up, forced herself to eat, to keep her routine. Putting on a hoodie, she went for a run. It was still early and dark outside, few people were around. Though since it was New York City a thin and ragged stream of people still moved about. Lou dodged and weaved between the few amblers on the Street. Tried to reconcile her conflicting emotions. A part of her had hardened the night before as she sobbed over foggy memory of parents she could barely remember, the echo of Myth's words cascading around her mind.
It still hurt, like someone was jabbing a sharp stick into her lungs. She ran faster, trying to work it out. Another part of her changed - the part which feared beauty, especially her own, the part of her that was scared she was not, never would be enough. That she was a cartoon, a joke. She pictured herself wearing her new dress at the party without the Mean Girl sneers all around her. The hardened part of her shrank, seemed smaller, less powerful. She ran faster.
Lou ran for miles, until the Sun lightened the sky behind the tall buildings surrounding her. She made her way back to apartment to get ready for school. All her tears had dried and been wiped. Lou thought: “I don't believe in love. And this is why.“