As an eighteen-year-old, I feel like people should know my story. So I’ll go ahead and give it to them. It started in Michigan.
I’m so cold in the freezing rain, against a tree in the woods, and I hug myself to keep warm. My little sister, Emma, is at home with our mother, probably sleeping with her. My father has left us, and I don’t know what to do. I’m supposed to be taking care of the family, but I’m only ten. I’m a thin, broken little girl. But right now, I can’t afford to be. My family is sick, and we are poor. We always have been.
My father left me when I was two. Before Emma was even born. She has no memory of him, and I have very little. Not that I want to have any memories of him. All he seemed to care about was his alcohol. He couldn’t live without it. Or so he said.
But never mind about him for now. I can barely move. The only movement coming from me is the movement I can’t control. I am shivering uncontrollably. I know I can’t give up. I know I have to find food. And we have the right tools to do so, but it’s too cold, and I’m too weak. Before last week, we had no tools. I had to find what I could, and I couldn’t find much.
Right when I have decided that I should get home, before something goes wrong, I’m unconscious.
The next morning, I awake with the sound of birds chirping and the sun shining brightly in my face. I need to get home. Our mother and Emma are probably worried sick. Well, maybe not Emma. She always assumes everything is perfectly fine.
I look around, and I scream. A boy, about my age is sitting across from me leaning against a tree looking directly at me with big green eyes. I try to get up, but can’t. I try some more, and eventually come to the conclusion that I’m just not able to. Then, I just rest against the trunk, putting my legs straight out in front of me, and look at the boy.
All this time he has been watching me without a word. Then, he stands up, his hands in his pockets and comes closer to me. I start to scream again, but he stops me.
“Shh! Be quiet. Please be quiet.” He says, looking at me pleadingly. I can’t speak at first, but when I finally do, it’s only in a whisper.
“Who are you?” I ask.
“Makayla.” I respond. “What are you doing?”
Aaron takes his hands out of his pockets. In his hands, I see buttered biscuits, two apples, a cookie, and a handful of blueberries. I’m about to ask him a question when he sets the food down on the ground and puts his hands in his pockets again. Then he takes out more food. Crispy bacon, raspberries, strawberries, and an orange. I am shocked. This is food we have never been able to afford.
Is he going to eat that all in front of me? I’m sure he won’t. Especially not when he’s in good shape, and I’m clearly starving.
“Want some?” He asks me.
Of course I do. “Yes.” I answer, holding out my hands. I am expecting maybe half of one apple and some blueberries, but even he knows that’s not enough to get me up and going again. He dumps every bit of food into my hands. I didn’t expect that. I didn’t expect that at all.
“Aren’t you going to eat something?” I question him. He shakes his head, and sits down, leaning against the same tree.
I start to feel guilty, like I always do when someone offers me more than I was expecting. Or anything at all. Like maybe it’s unkind to take it. But it’s not. Not in this case.
I put the food close to my face and smell it. The smell warms me up inside. For a while I just stare at it. It seemed too good to eat.
“I think you’re supposed to eat it.” Aaron says. Even with his straight face, his eyes are smiling. I laugh.
“I think you know I know that.” I reply, smiling. Then, I take one of the biscuits and shove it into my mouth. Then a bite of an apple. Then some berries.
“Slow down, Kay-kay.”
I swallow and look at Aaron. “That’s not my name.”
“Isn’t it?” He asks. This annoys me.
“If I get a nickname...so do you.” I tell him, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
“Deal.” He responds, nodding.
“How do you spell your name?” I inquire.
Aaron looks confused, but tells me how to spell it. I just wanted to be sure it wasn’t spelled in some weird way.
“Good. I get to call you A-a-ron.”
This seems to get his attention. “Please don’t call me that.” He begs.
“You chose Kay-kay, I chose A-a-ron.” I eat some more berries. I decide that I should save the rest for Emma and my mother.
He considers this for a moment.
“Fine.” He answers. But I can tell he doesn’t care for the name.
Once I seem to have regained my strength, I stand up. I stuff the rest of the food in the pocket of my navy blue jacket, and start to walk off.
“Bye.” I say.
“Wait! Where are you going?” He questions, standing up.
“Home.” I say quickly.
“You live somewhere?” He asks. I think that’s a strange question to ask.
“Yeah, do you?”
“N-well, uh...yes, I do. Of course I do.” He’s fidgeting and looking down. I’m staring at him. He is definitely not telling the truth. But I play along anyway. He must have a good reason for lying.
“Bye.” Aaron says.
“See ya.” I reply, giving him a small wave, but no smile. I run home as fast as I can. Which isn’t very fast, but it’s faster than walking. When I get home, I knock on the door. My mother opens the door right away.
“Oh, my goodness! Makayla, get inside.” She said this with kindness, but I could hear the desperation in her voice. I am dripping wet and just standing in the hallway, when my mother guides me into the kitchen. I look out the window. The sky has gone dark, and I can see the lightning.
My mother tries to take off my coat, but I don’t let her. “Wait! I have food.” I yell a little too loudly. Emma stops messing with her hair to look at me.
“Food?” She asks.
“Food.” I confirm. I take out the food from my pockets and Emma squeals with happiness.
“Makayla! Where did you get all of this?” My mother asks, unsure of whether or not we should be eating it. I hesitate.
“A boy in the woods gave it to me.” I answer. I don’t expect this to make her want to eat it, but what choice do we have?
To make sure my mother doesn’t worry I say, “I ate some of it already. It’s fine.” She doesn’t answer, but gets out a knife to cut the orange and the rest of the apple.
Emma walks over to the table and sits down.
My mother equally splits up the food and sets it up in front of us. Then we pray. Then we eat.
Emma is eating too fast, but my mother is engrossed in eating her own food.
“Emma, slow down. Swallow before you take a bite.” I order, softly. She nods but doesn’t seem to hear me.
Once we finish eating, we’re full and sleepy. A few minutes after we finish eating, we get in bed. I go around the house, blowing out the candles. Emma sleeps with my mother again. But in the middle of the night, the thunder gets louder, and starts to scare her. I hear footsteps coming closer to my room and see Emma in my doorway.
“Can I sleep with you?” She asks. She’s holding her stuffed horse, Mr. Cuddles, with a look of terror on her face.
“Of course.” I say, holding my arms out. She crawls into them, and I pull the thin blanket over her. We lie awake, whispering quietly to each other.
“Thanks for the food.” She says, quietly.
“Anything for you.”
We sit in silence for a while, and I’m hoping she will fall asleep. She doesn’t.
“I’m scared.” Emma tells me. I’m scared too, but telling her that would make things ten times worse.
“I know, but it will be over soon.” I assure her.
“Can you tell me a story?” She asks hopefully.
“Definitely.” I answer. I don’t have any particular thoughts on this story, but since Emma is only six, and she’s terrified, I have to make it just right.
I start by telling her about a pretty princess with long, golden hair, and a pretty blue gown. Me and Emma have always wanted golden hair, but that’s not how we were made. To make things happier I name the princess Emma. This does make her happier.
I go on about princess Emma riding a pink unicorn to her palace for a party. It’s not very realistic, but what good story is? I try to go into lots of detail, but there’s no need. She’s asleep in less than ten minutes.
The next day, we sleep in. It’s Wednesday, a school day, so there must be a reason we’re not at school. I wake up and feel the warmth of the sun on us through the windows. The sun is shining brightly, and it feels like a normal day. I turn to wake up Emma, but she’s not there. I assume she went to sleep with my mother because she sometimes goes back and forth throughout the night.
I get up and walk into the room they’re sleeping in. Immediately, I know there’s something wrong.
“Mother?” I go up to her bed and shake her, but she won’t wake up. I feel her hands. They’re as cold as ice. I place my hand over her heart. I don’t feel anything. That’s when I realize it. She’s not my mother. She’s dead.
Before I can stop myself, I scream. This wakes Emma up, and makes her start crying. I lift her out of my mother’s bed and take her hand. I’m still staring at my mother. Emma slowly looks over at her and grows pale.
“Makayla?” She cries.
“Mother?” When I see Emma’s face, I have to force myself not to cry. I want to stay calm. I want to tell Emma everything is fine. But I can’t.
It’s obvious that a six-year-old won’t be able to run as fast as me, so I lift her onto my back. I open the window and set Emma down. Then I climb down.
There’ s only one place to go. The woods. I lift Emma onto my back again and run into the woods. I’m hoping to find Aaron, but he doesn’t seem to be around. I don’t take the chance of calling out to him. I don’t search for him either. What I do is go deeper and deeper into the woods until Emma can’t hold on to me anymore, and I’m too tired to carry her.
We’re far enough into the woods that no one should find us. I set Emma down, but don’t take my eyes off of her. She falls asleep instantly. She hasn’t said a word since we were at home. No, not home. A far-off place where we once lived long ago. Or so it seemed.
I gather some wood to start a fire. The sky gets darker and darker as I gather more firewood. Once I figure I have found enough firewood, I start rubbing two thin sticks together rapidly. After about half an hour or so, I begin to create sparks. A fire starts, and I throw more sticks into it to keep it going. My hands hurt, but I try to ignore the pain.
“Makayla?” Emma looks at me with her eyes glistening. She has leaves in her hair, and her face has dirt on it, but I expect that’s going to be normal from now on. I know she knows that our mother isn’t alive anymore, but we’re not going to talk about it. What would that accomplish?
“Yeah?” I answer, scooting over to her. My arms have regained their strength, so I carefully lift her up and set her by the fire.
She crawls over to me, places her head in my lap, and I brush her hair out of her face.
“What are we going to do now?”
This question scares me, and I don’t know what to answer.
What are we going to do now? The question rings through my head like an echo. What are we going to do now? I still don’t really know, so I say the only thing I can think of.
“I don’t know.”
It’s not very comforting, but I don’t think there’s much I can say to comfort her. I close my eyes, and sigh. Then before I can stop myself, I start crying. I feel like I’ll never be happy again. I want to put on an act to keep Emma feeling safe and happy. But even Emma knows that we’re in a bad situation, and there is nothing good coming out of it. But to my surprise, she seems fine. Infact, she’s now the one trying to comfort me. She has her hand on my back, rubbing it, telling me we can get through this. Can we, though?
Eventually, I stop crying, and look at Emma.
“I’m sorry.” I say, sniffling.
“Don’t be.” She responds. “You don’t need to be brave for me anymore. I’m almost seven.”
I nod, but don’t agree. She isn’t almost seven. She’ll be seven in eight months. I still have to be brave for her no matter what she thinks.
Soon, she falls asleep, but I don’t. I can’t sleep. I have to keep her safe.
Sometime later, I hear a rustling in the leaves. I jump up and grab a big stick. I run over to Emma and step in front of her. She’s still asleep. I hold the stick high above my head, ready to destroy anything that tries to hurt Emma. But nothing does.
“Makayla!” A voice shouts. “It’s me!”
It’s Aaron. He scared me to death! But at least he got my name right.
“What are you doing here?” I whisper yell.
“I live here. I didn’t want to tell you earlier, but I-wait, what are you doing here?” He asks. “Did you lie too?” I shake my head.
“Our mother just died, and we left because if we didn’t, we would have to be sent away.” I explain.
He looks shocked. And I’m not entirely sure why.
“How did she die?”
“I don’t know. She just did. Maybe she got sick and didn’t tell us.” I answer. Yes, that sounds about right. Her keeping a big secret from us to “protect” us. I had heard her coughing in the night, and she had headaches often. But those seemed like normal things that happened. I was never really concerned about it.
Aaron looks at the big stick in my hand, and then looks back at me.
“So... are you going to hit me with that, or what?” He questions. He doesn’t look concerned at all. I’m guessing he knows the answer to his question. I throw the stick back where I had picked it up.
His eyes move from me to Emma. He points to her.
“Who’s this?” Aaron asks me, lowering his hand. He did not need to point at her.
“Emma. She’s my sister.”
At her name, Emma wakes up. She looks over at the fire, then at me, then at Aaron. She’s a lot quieter than I was when I saw him.
“Are you the boy that gave Makayla food?” She questions, yawning.
“Thank you. Where do you live?” She asks, politely.
“In the woods.”
“Oh. Well, we do too now, so you should stay with us.” Emma says, smiling.
“Fine with me.” Aaron answers, sitting down, cross-legged by the fire.
Emma lays back down. My eyes start drooping, but I can’t sleep now.
“You sleep. I’ll watch. I’m rested enough.” He tells me. I look at him. His eyes are wide open, and he’s sitting straight. He seems like someone I can trust too.
“Okay.” I drop to the ground like I’ve just been shot and fall straight to sleep.