“We always knew she would make it into a good school; we’re so proud of her,” my mother says, preening like a bird of paradise on display. "After all, she is a guardian."
“She’s come a long way from the little girl who wrote silly poems and believed fairies were real,” my dad chuckles to his friends, all with broad shoulders built for holding responsibilities. "she's growing up."
I don’t say anything. I can’t. Besides, I don’t have to. From my corner of the living room, eighteen year old Cora chooses silence over the guilt and shame of disappointing others. She just disappears. The younger version of me would have screamed. Anything to make them stop looking at me like that. I'm not a young god. I'm just a girl.
The clouds hang like dirty snowbanks in the November skies. I watch them glide by through the front bay window, clutching my knees with bony fingers as I sit in the shadows. The tree branches are naked and shivering in the wind, and I shiver too, goosebumps pimpling my skin even though the house is cozy and bustling with people. Instead of stepping away from the chilled glass, I press closer, closer, until my breath creates a soft fog. With every tired heartbeat, I want to escape—not just this house, but the expectations that come with it.
Dad was right; I don’t believe in fairies any more. I don’t believe in anything.
“How’s my little doctor?”
I almost put the phone down at the sound of that saccharine sweet nickname. Three years later, and it still grates like nails on a chalkboard. I resist the urge to correct her, to remind her that her pride and joy wasn't smart enough to become a doctor. Guardian or not, I'm just a nurse, and that's all I'll ever be.
She sighs in relief. “I was beginning to think you’d dropped off the planet! I haven’t heard your voice in ten days!”
On purpose. Avoiding my mom was a fine art that I'd only perfected over time. “I’m fine, mom. Just busy.” I wave at the reception girls as I head toward the front doors. They smile at me automatically--that smile you’re trained to give people like me, the one that reaches your eyes but only because it’s a habit. A chill settles over my stomach.
“Too busy to come home?”
“I’m working double-shifts. Gotta get that internship credit.” The door slams shut behind me, and I press into the brisk, fresh air. The cool clean taste of autumn wipes away all the death, decay, and defecation I’ve endured over the past week.
I love helping people. I love it. Really, I do.
Mom begins complaining about something dad said yesterday, and I look up, taking immense pleasure in how idyllic the sky is. The lilac between day and night tinges the heavens, and the clouds are like golden foam around the setting sun. Somewhere, a couple is kissing for the first time. A happy family sits down for supper. A baby takes its first breath, probably in this very hospital.
“Cora? Are you listening to me?”
I shake my thoughts apart, almost terrified she’s heard them. Images of scalpels and IVs and blood transfusions fill my head instead. This is your life now. Accept it.
“Yeah, mom? What were you saying?”
She hesitates, like she knows I’m not all here. That I don’t want to be leaving the hospital late on a Saturday, or on the phone chatting with her. I want so much more than this. But she can’t know, because the next thing she says is, “Come visit soon,” and I know she means it kindly, because I can hear her loving smile from all the way across the state, but still—I feel the threat in my blood. Come home. Do this. Go here. Become that.
I am their puppet. All too happy to dance to their strings.
“Sure, mom.” Even though it’s the last thing my aching heart wants, I’ll do it. Look at how far she’s come, they’ll say again, and I’ll smile and nod because that’s what I do. Little do they know that twenty-two year old me isn’t any better than the eighteen year old I once was; if anything, I’m worse.
But I’m their pride and joy, and that must mean something, right?
“What do you mean, you’re coming home?” My father’s indignant rage threatens to break free from the telephone line and strangle me. I’m already choking, thankfully, struggling to breathe around the lump of guilt and shame that I can’t seem to shake aside.
“How could you throw away all that you have?” My mother is confused, hurt, but not angry. She’s trying to process this, even though she should have seen it coming when I stopped talking about work during my uncomfortable visits, and then when my smile stopped showing up at all. But it’s not her fault that all she saw in me was the ideal talent, not the pointless wonder.
I can’t do this any more.
I don’t want to be some great doctor. I don't want to work at a big hospital famous for being staffed with talented guardians.
I just want to save lives.
I just want to help others, like I'm fated to do.
I don’t want to work myself to the bone trying to make you happy.
I don’t want to be your pride and joy.
I don’t want any of this.
So I’m coming home, to be where I belong. In a little town, in the middle of nowhere.
These are the things I have to say to them, but as I’m staring at the bus station timetable, my future riding toward me on a dirty Greyhound bus, all my words fail me.
“I’m sorry,” I choke out instead, barely holding my shattering self together. “I’m so sorry.”
And then the bus pulls into the lot, and I let the line click dead, severing the umbilical cord to which I’ve always clung to with terror. Even though I return to where I began, I am somehow no longer a puppet.
Not this Cora Hart.