She hated them. They crept over her. Tonight, concrete and asphalt outside the banquet hall offered no resistance to the whispers. They flowed like the traffic and landed, barbed, in her ears.
She learned to hate those whispers after the fire. She was only six at the time, but the pain remained, even 20 years later. After skin grafts and painful rehabilitation, the doctors announced there was nothing more to do … “medicine is just not that advanced, Annie” … “maybe in a few years things will be different” … “I’m sorry, Annie” …
On her darkest nights the memories crept in, eroding her bravado, crushing her spirit. Shame bred fear; fear bred resentment; resentment gave birth to anger. She saw it again on those dark nights.
“Annie! Annie!” her mother’s screams filled her ears. “Get out of the house! Fire!”
Annie heard the baby scream. The pitch rose higher and higher. Her lungs filled with acrid smoke as she sat up in bed.
“Annie! Get out!”
She stumbled out of the covers and moved to the door. Silhouetted against flames, her mother stooped, holding a small, screaming mound of flames. Annie choked, the smoke stung her eyes as she reached up to her mother’s arm.
Charred flesh coated her little hands and her mother slumped to the floor.
Annie grabbed her mother’s sweatshirt and pulled. She felt tiny hot needles move up her hands and climb into her sleeves. The pricks turned into flames and her hair began to burn.
She jerked again, lost her balance and fell on top of her smoldering mother.
“The baby stopped crying,” she thought.
Annie slowly slipped into the darkness tearing at the edges of her vision. She didn’t feel the fireman carry her from her flame-engulfed home.
Her pain required heavy medication. It blurred her mind and kept the loss of her mother and baby sister at bay until the hospital psychiatrist revealed the twisted reflection in the mirror.
Annie wished she had never returned.
She learned to conceal her fear with anger. Tonight was no exception. The only release she found was her work. They loved her and she learned to love them. No one could see her. No one could judge her. There were no whispers there.
She shook her hair forward to conceal the scars and breathed deep. Steeled against any looks, she walked into the banquet hall foyer.
“Annie. I’m over here,” Jean called to her.
“How did you know it was me?”
“Child, I know your perfume and those fancy shoes can’t mask your step.”
Annie smiled despite the mirrors lining the foyer. Jean never ceased to amaze her.
“Thank you for meeting me. You know how nervous I get. I just don’t like people talking if I bump into a chair or spill someone’s water. It seems like I can feel their eyes on me. You know, that gets to me … but God’s grace covers it all.”
Annie placed her hand on Jean’s arm.
Double doors opened into a room sparkling with crystal and silver. Heads turned and then it started.
Annie stiffened at broken pieces of whispers.
“There” … “she” … “awful” … “dress” … “never” … “win”…
The fragmented sentences reflected the fragments of her life.
“I hate them! I hate them!”
Anger swirled up from her soul. Her heart beat faster. Fears fueled the fury. Jean whimpered when Annie’s guiding hand turned into a grip. Annie released her hold.
“Don’t worry, Annie. I’m not bothered now. Let’s just sit down.”
After dinner, the spot lit the podium.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, on behalf of the National Association of the Blind, I would like to welcome you to our annual recognition ceremony.”
Annie bowed her head when the whispers started again. Fury rising. Teeth gritting. Hands clenching.
She tilted her head slightly and looked through her bangs. Some were looking and smiling.
Anger choked her until Jean laid a warm hand on her arm.
“And now, without further ado, we would like to recognize Miss Annie Franklin as the 2004 Person of the Year for her dedicated service to our organization.”
Annie stopped. The crowd stood one by one and applause filled her ears.
Annie lifted her head and her anger melted away. She walked to the podium to receive her plaque and certificate.
She turned and smiled. A tear coursed through the maze of scars and the whispers finally stopped.
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