She wrapped her small, chubby fingers around the edges of the stool as tightly as she could. It was difficult to maintain a firm grasp on the smooth wood when her tiny palms were so clammy. She was nervous, yet determined, so each time the stool began to slip she would calmly set it down, take a few deep breaths, and wipe her hands off on the bottom of her dress before trying again.
After several repetitions of this method, the little girl was finally able to bring the stool to rest at the floor beneath the kitchen counter. She carefully stood upon the surface of the new step she had created and was only slightly discouraged to find that she was still a few inches too short to reach the item for which she was exerting herself so very much.
With a quick glance about the room, she was able to spot a lower shelf of cookbooks near a chair. The young girl climbed atop the chair and selected the fattest book she could find. She was barely able to reach the top corner of the book, but after a few tugs and pulls, it came free and toppled onto the floor.
It settled with a deep thud, spreading about a few months of neglected dust mites. She coughed for a while and blinked her eyes rapidly to rid herself of the stray bits that had flown about her.
“Perfect!” she said as she hopped off of the chair and onto the book. The small child couldn’t help but smile to no one in particular about her most recent accomplishment. She pushed the book over to the stool and used every bit of strength to lift the heavy, tattered collection of recipes onto the stool.
She placed her hands on her hips, her satisfaction evident, as she observed her goal. She needed to reach the box that was pushed far back on top of the counter. If her mother had left everything as she remembered, it would be in the red box, rather than the blue one. Her mother had always lifted it as though it was heavy, so she knew she would probably not be able to carry the box down. All she planned to do was to open it and take exactly what she needed. It hopefully wouldn’t take more than one attempt.
The young girl climbed atop the book. Excitement grew within her when she saw the red box, just within her reach. She lifted the latch on the box, but realized that she was still not tall enough to see its contents within. At this point, she was running out of patience, and a sideways glance out the window above the kitchen sink told her that time was not on her side; the sun had already begun to give the sky a warm pink glow and the clouds were tinged a sleepy blue. Her mother had said they should be home by sunset.
She threw her leg up over the counter in a final act of desperation and used both of her arms to push the rest of her body up. It was a struggle, but she managed to heave herself entirely onto the counter. She peered over the edge and was shocked to see how high she had been able to get all on her own.
Quickly, the little girl turned her attention to the box, which now revealed a selection of metal tools. All of them appeared to her to be particularly menacing, but she knew that she could handle the one she was looking for. She set aside several with squiggly parts, jagged edges, and saw-like blades, all sharper than she was used to handling.
Finally she found the slightly blunted scissors with the black handle. A great grin spread about her face as she held them in her hand. She didn’t even bother to put away all of the other metal objects that lay scattered on the granite.
Carefully, she crawled to the bit of counter beside the sink that faced opposite the refrigerator. Upon the refrigerator, there was a small mirror that had begun to rust about the edges, but was altogether still usable. As she stared into her reflection, she could see the triumphant grin melt away as undeniable fear took its place.
She could see her wavy ginger locks run down to just below her shoulders. As the young girl combed her fingers through her hair, she let out a slow, solitary tear. Her large eyes traced its path down her nose, over her cheek, and around her lips. She closed her eyes tightly and counted to three in her mind, willing herself to open her eyes and look upon a stronger reflection.
As she opened her eyes, the young girl staring back at her in the mirror had a fierce anger within her. This new reflection was just as terrifying as the helpless one that had been there before it. But this was the reflection that could do what she needed it to do.
Before she could change her mind, she separated a small chunk of hair toward the front of her head and cut it so that its length only ran until her nose. The first snip made her gasp in shock, but she was pleasantly surprised to find it wasn’t as bad as she had imagined. One chunk of hair after another floated down onto the countertop as she picked up her pace and made her way around the crown of her head.
Her eyes stared into a third and final reflection in the mirror. This one looked like an angel, though empty within, as though waiting for some unknown beginning or end to occur. It seemed just right to the little girl.
She reached down to open a drawer that held plastic bags within it and used one to collect the locks she had just cut. Just then, she heard the unmistakable click of the front door being unlocked.
Weary footsteps dragged along the floor as they approached the kitchen. One pair made exhausted clunks every time it came in contact with the floorboards. Another dared only to tread lightly, as if unwilling to admit the heavy load it was carrying. A final, quieter pair of footsteps was rather reserved and melancholy, walking as slowly as possible, dreaded every step.
“Lucy?” called a deeper voice. “Where are you, sweetie?”
“Lucy?” echoed another voice. This one was higher, but raspy with thirst. “Honey, Molly is home. Would you like to say hello to your sister?”
Lucy opened her mouth several times to respond, but she couldn’t. Molly hadn’t been home in over a month. She had seen her briefly in between, but she knew subconsciously that so much more rested on this one moment. She didn’t know what to say.
“Lucy!” her mother gasped as she entered the kitchen. “Percy, come in here. She’s in the kitchen! Oh, honey, what have you done?” Realization settled on Audrey’s face as she saw the open red box upon the counter. Tears began to well up in her eyes, but she couldn’t help but smile at her young daughter and give her a tight squeeze.
Percy entered the kitchen, carrying one very tired Molly. His eyes widened in shock before softening into a pitying smile that said, “Thank you,” better than any words ever could manage.
He set Molly down on the floor and observed as she looked up at her sister. She was wearing a denim cap atop her head that had several signatures scrawled upon it in marker. Lucy could barely see Molly’s eyes beneath the rim of her cap.
She hopped down off of the counter beside her sister and stared. Molly looked just like her mother had said she would. She was bruised in places on her legs and arms where stronger children would not have been hurt. She seemed thinner than usual, and her lips were a strange hue. Her eyes were sunken in, fighting to stay open. Upon her lids, there were no eye lashes. Above them, she had no eye brows.
Molly saw her sister staring with polite interest at her hat. She inhaled before raising her hands to her head to lift off the cap. Beneath it, there was nothing but a bald scalp.
Lucy look down and away from the sight at first, but soon worked up the courage to truly look at her sister, so as not to appear rude. She was still beautiful, though in a haunting new way.
She pulled the plastic bag from behind her back and showed it to Molly, gesturing for her to take it. Molly smiled for the first time since she had left the hospital as she took it in her hands and looked from Lucy to the bag and back again at Lucy, finally registering her sister’s new haircut.
“Oh, Lucy!” she whispered as she brought her sister into a warm hug, leaving the bag of hair on the floor.
“Can Mommy or Daddy stick it on you?” Lucy asked, looking from one parent to the other.
“No, Luce, they can’t. But you have just what I need. Even more than hair.”
“Even more hair?” asked Lucy, confused by the situation.
“Lucy, you’re full of love. And that’s just what I need,” said Molly, giving her sister another hug that was damp with tears of both sadness and joy. It would be a long road to recovery and an uphill battle on most days, but she knew, in that moment, that she would have the support she needed to survive this thing.
For Lucy had not achieved what she had originally set out for when she sought out the red box. Yet, in daring to do so, she had found so much more.