You ask too much,
You take too much,
And when I have nothing left to give
You still hold your hand out
Like a tax collector collecting his dues.
I gave you everything I had,
I’ve done all that you have asked,
But you still expect more.
And I can't give that to you,
not when it feels like the whole world is against me
Crushing me beneath the weight of its shoes
As if I were nothi–
“Ms. Hall!” Mr. Williams says from the front of the classroom, pointing to something on the board, which makes everyone turn around and look at me. I startle, looking up from the poem I was working on and quickly slamming close my notebook with my bronze-skinned hand before anyone can see it.
“Since you seem to be so focused on other things more important than this lesson, why don’t share what you were so diligently working on back there?” I say nothing.
“Fine then, why don’t you come and solve this problem on the board?” He says, grinning with his crooked teeth, as he points with his pasty hand to the math problem on the board. I look problem noticing it was from one of my favorite units this year, on integration and accumulation of change.
I reopen my notebook, my hand furiously scribbling as it solves the problem. Not bothering to listen to Mr. Williams drone on about how we will apply math concepts like this to everything in life, which is why we should be paying attention.
“Since it seems Alessia is unable to solve this problem–” “The answer is 3,” I say with a smirk. Black hair tumbling over my slim shoulders in waves, as I lean back in my chain staring straight into his slate-gray eyes.
“Are you sure,” he says with a frown, bending over his desk to look at his teacher's textbook that contained all the answers?
He stares so intently at it as if he could mentally change the answer. That he doesn’t notice his blue tie fall into his chipped “World’s Best Teacher” mug. That he drinks from every day as if it were a religion. Cursing, Mr. Williams tells us not to leave the classroom as he rushes out of it, Coffee and all dripping onto his khaki pants from his white button-down shirt.
The moment the door closes behind him, I’m moving. Sliding out of my desk and moving my wavy black hair to the side so it doesn’t get caught under the weight of my battered backup, before slinging it onto my shoulder. The dusty floors creak as I walk across them, classmates staring after me, uncaring school almost over anyway. I weave through the halls of my school's failing infrastructure and head for the back door that leads into the right afternoon spring sun. The soles of my worn-down sneakers pad softly on the hard concentrate as I start the five-block trek home.
I slide my headphones in, letting the blaring noise of music block out everything around me. I wish I could stay in this cocoon of oblivion forever, just long enough to forget about them, forget about who I am, and about everything that they have done to me. Will I ever be free, asks the small voice of hope in the back of my head, but I already know the answer.
My body pulls me in a detour to the park, and I don’t stop it. Maybe it's to delay the arrival of the inevitable or maybe it's just because I have the time. The old park that meets my green eyes is a sight to behold, in all of its rusted metal splendor. Its fire hydrant-colored plastic slides beg for kids to ride down them as its merry-go-round creaks in sadness, with the occasional breeze that indulges it. I settle for the swings and turn off my music, letting the unoiled hinges and joints of the slide scream in protest with each swing. My eyes close without thinking, letting the noise of the swing resonate through my body, as it expresses exactly how it feels. I wish I could do that.
My phone buzzes loudly, waking me from my peaceful dance in oblivion, which immediately turners as sour as a lemon. The name of my stepmother, Gwendolen illuminated and plastered across the cracked screen of my old refurbished phone just before it goes black. I mentally cuss at it, as I notice that the sun is going to start setting soon. I must have been here for hours. I shove my phone into my back pocket before starting to run as if a dragon were breathing fire at me. Except that dragon is a 100 pound, dainty woman, with a heart of stone, who exudes money and class, and lords over my life with an iron fist.
My jean-clad legs, quickly carry me the last few blocks and before I know it, I reach the white picket fence of my prison just as the sun starts to set. The house’s stone siding screams normality as it blends in with the rest of the exuberantly priced double-story houses that make up this wretched neighborhood that I have lived in for the last five years.
I walk up the driveway and mentally shove armor into place to protect me from the barbs she will throw at me, which have become as normal as breathing. Slowly, I open the thick oak door and am met by the sight of Gwendolen, her body splayed over the leather chaise lounge, her pale limbs arranged one it as if she was in a photoshoot.
“You're late.” She says.
“I know, I’m sorry. I lost track of time,” I say, looking straight into her dark almond eyes, perfectly centered, on her angular face.
“Why didn’t you answer your phone? I would have picked you up, so you wouldn’t have to walk home in the dark.” She says, a smile gracing her blood-red lips.
“It died,” I say curtly. My fingers curled into a fist, nails biting into my skin because we both know that she only spouts lies. This facade that she hides behind for the point of toying with me because she knows I hate it.
“Really? Because what I’m hearing is that my hard-earned money is not good enough for you, to even try to take care of the nice things I buy you?” She says, as her fingers pluck up the wine glass that sits next to her and tips it back, taking a long swallow.
“You know perfectly well that is not what I'm saying. And we both know you have never worked a day in your life.” I say, the last part tumbling out of my mouth before I can stop it, igniting Gwendolen into a fiery rage.
“How dare you, you little brat! Do you know how much I have done for this family since your father decided to leave us? Bless his soul. The kindness I've shown you by letting you keep living with us? All the money I have spent on you, out of the love I had for your father. And yet you complain.”
The last thing I promised my father is that I would take care of them, and try to love them. But I cannot stop stating the facts.“You didn’t love him, the only thing you loved was his money. And he didn’t decide to leave us. He didn’t decide to leave me. So stop blaming him for getting cancer!” I finish, just as the waterworks start, the blurriness of my emerald eyes blocking out the image of the monster sitting in front of me.
“Don’t take that tone with me.” Taking a deep breath she continues, “I am disappointed in you Alessia. I can't even look at you anymore. Just go and do your chores, for once in your life. I expect everything to be spotless when we get home tonight.”
The party, I forgot about that, but I’m glad they're going, because for once in my life I’ll get a moment of peace. I know that even if I wanted to go she would never let me, for fear that I would Injure her social standing. I turn around without saying a word and tell myself the only reason I still live here is because I’m doing this for my dad, not for them. It’s what he would have wanted.
You can hear the thunk of my steps on the staircase, my silent war cry, just as the front door opens up again to a totally different Gwendolen.
“My dears, my two beautiful daughters! How was your trip to the mall? did you get everything you wanted?”
The distinct sound of rustling paper fills my ears as Machinze’s squawky voice finishes rambling off all the names of the stores they went to- “Chanel, Tiffany’s, oh! Look at this, it’s going to look great tonight with these heels!” She sequels as her brown eyes bulge out of her head.
“Yeah right! Your gonna look like a carrot in that,” Beatrice cries haughtily.
Loud jabber fills the flamboyant house as my horrid step-sisters argue with each other. “Quiet girls,” snaps Gwendolen. “I have no doubt you both are going to outshine anyone at the party tonight.”
I can feel bile creep up in the back of my throat, making me gag on its cloying taste, the feeling burning like a fire inside my chest, feeding on all my insecurities and struggles balled up inside. I can’t believe my father would marry a woman like her, someone as evil as the Wicked Witch of the West, maybe worse. My hand strangles the metal doorknob of the closet, warming it with the heat of my anger as I pull it open, the only pure and untouched room left in this house. Cleaning supplies cover everything from the dingy, faded carpet to the tops of the metal shelving that's bolted into each wall. My dry hands reach out impulsively and grab what I need to make the house meet Gwendolen’s expectations.
I creep back down the stairs and head into the kitchen, its polished white marble counters, and silver appliances contrast nicely with the light blue backsplash that covers the walls. The room is easy to clean, its immaculate surfaces are seldom used because they always eat out and take but a couple of minutes to clean. I quickly vacuum and dust the living room and dining room, dancing to the pounding footsteps of Mackenzie and Beatrice as they run around trying to get ready.
My watch dings loudly, my alarm going off as I head to the laundry room, the loud rumble of the washer and dryer pounding to a stop as I walk in. I grab the clothes from the dryer and deftly fold them all, placing them into the plastic laundry basket. The weight grounds me, as I make my way upstairs again, preparing me for the chaos I’m about to face.
The pale gray hallway is covered with fabrics of every color in the rainbow, so bright it feels like my eyes are burning. The trail of extravagantly priced clothing leads me into Beatrice’s room; a room any girl would dream of having with its light blue walls and white furniture. She sits at her vanity in a slim-fitting dress of royal blue, her blond hair hanging limply around her face as she applies loads of makeup to try and hide all of her insecurities and wretchedness inside.
“What do you want?” She says, noticing my reflection in her mirror.
“Um, nothing. I just wanted to drop your clothes off,” I say, as I walk over and set the basket on her bed and turn around to leave.
“Wait, put them away for me.” She says, speaking into the mirror, not even bothering to look me in the eyes.
“No thanks, you have two arms and two legs, you can do it yourself,” I say, not bothering to try and be nice.
She chuckles, “Do you see what I’m wearing? I don’t want to wrinkle my dress putting away a bunch of clothes. And I don’t think mother would appreciate me having to tell her you're not doing your fair share of chores around here. Especially not after today's little episode.” Beatrice is like a carbon copy of Gwendolen, the only difference is that one of them has been getting botox for the past twenty years.
I take a deep breath and slowly let it out, “Fine.”
Grabbing the clothes basket off her gray duvet, I walk over to her closet and wretch open the doors, making the creak in pain. The closet doors hide me from Beatrice's sight as I hang clothes of opulent silk and denim. The clatter of her applying makeup covers up the thump of footsteps coming into her room.
“Beatrice! Beatrice!” Mackenzie calls, getting her attention. “Look what I found!
“Where did you get that?” Asks Beatrice. I wonder what they're talking about.
“I found it in Alessia’s room. It’s going to look so pretty with my dress!” Mackenzie claps happily, holding up an emerald necklace, the last gift my dad ever gave me.
I step out of the closet, “Give it back.”
“Where did you come from?” Mackenzie asks, puzzled as I walk over.
“I said, give it back.”
“No.” She says, “I am going to wear it tonight.”
“No your not. My dad gave me that, you can’t wear it.” I say, snatching it from her hand.”
“Mother!” She yells like a petulant child, not even trying to negotiate with me.
“What is it! She calls, walking into the room a couple of seconds later in a gown the color of blood-red; it matches her personality perfectly.
“Alessia won’t let me wear her necklace, even though I asked her nicely.” She complains.
“It's okay darling. Alessia, give her the necklace.” Gwendolen says, looking at me pointedly.
“You don’t understand,” I say to her “This is the only thing I have left from my dad before he died. She has like a hundred other necklaces she can wear too.”
But Gwendolen won’t listen to reason, “Alessia, give her the necklace. Don’t make me ask again, especially after that stunt you pulled earlier today.”
“No. I’m not giving it to her just so she can lose it or break it. She’s selfish and stuck up, just like the rest of y-”
Her hand flies quickly and meets with the side of my face in an instant, the sound resonates through my body, making my brain go blank for a minute. I can feel the metal taste of blood in my mouth from biting my tongue. Hot streaks of what I think are tears slide down my face like melted ice cream as my cheek flushes as red as a tomato.
“I told you not to make me ask again. Why did you have to go and turn me into the bad guy? And right before we had to leave for our party too.” She pouts, eagerly ripping open my fingers like I child digging up treasure so she can grab my necklace and hand it to a smiling Mackenzie.
It feels like time slows down as my body moves of its own accord and lunges at Mackenzie, trying to rip the necklace out of her grubby hands. Startled, she loses her grip on it and it slips through my fingers like silk, plunging to the ground as if it were an asteroid hurtling towards Earth. It hits the ground with what feels like a thunderous crack and shatters into small pieces that fly in every direction.
Time speeds up again and I can feel a horse cry rip from my throat and I welcome the tears, allowing them to blur out everything. But that doesn’t keep her words from echoing in my ears as she shouts at me.
“You insolent, selfish girl! Look at what you’ve done! You are just so jealous of my beautiful daughters that you couldn’t stand how much prettier they are compared to you, so you had to go and ruin it for them.” She takes a deep breath, “Come on girls, we don’t to be late for the party.” She glares back at me. “I’ll deal with you later.”
With the poise and elegance fit for a queen, Gwendolen glides out of the room with Beatrice and Mackenzie in tow. And Just before they reach the door, I finally say what I have held inside me for years.
“I hate you.”
She doesn’t say anything, but I know she heard me. And I know I am finally alone when the front door slams, reverberating throughout the house, echoing in my soul. One step at a time I walk out of the room, leaving the shards of my past behind me on the ground because there is no fixing it. Slowly I walk to the end of the hallway, up the narrow staircase, and into the attic that looms over the garage. I grab the only bag that I own -a back duffle- and throw my meager possessions and clothing into it before zipping it up and swinging it onto my shoulder in finality.
The wooden steps of the stairs pound like a drum beat and with each step I take and it feels as if a wight is being lifted off my chest. But there is one more thing I have to do before I leave this cursed place behind me. I walk into the kitchen and grab the letter opener from one of the drawers and head back into the foyer to lift the painting off the pale wall and set it on the floor.
Her face is perfectly symmetrical with lips turned up in a slight smile that speaks of better days where there was laughter. Was she ever happy? Her almond eyes shine with a light I no longer see. Or am I just seeing what I want to, and each stroke the painter took just happened to make her look like a different person than the one she is today.
The shredding noise the letter opener makes against the canvas is like a symphony to my ears as it cuts through it like water. I let go of all of my anger and everything she has ever said and done to me out on the canvas, tearing it to shreds. As it curls inward on itself, I see something shiny beneath the painting and quickly try to see what it is. The front page is embossed with a shiny gold print at the top and a title that makes me gasp and almost drop the paper in shock. My hands shake as I read it over and over again, The First Will And Testament of Alexander Hall. I thought he left me nothing because that was all Gwendolen even told me, but I should have known she was lying. Ever so slowly, I flip to the next page and begin to read…