I winced. The pain echoed in throbs after Ronny yanked my braid from the seat behind me. I pushed a scream down inside and refused to give Ronny the pleasure of hearing me yelp. Why did my last name have to be one end consonant apart from his? I wondered. Kayla Mullen, Ronny Mullens. He had been sitting behind me three years in a row since second grade, thanks to ABC order. For the rest of the day, I held my braid over my shoulder—except for art class which required two hands to paint a sunset.
If I could just get through the day until lunch time without crying, then I could countdown the last two hours. Everything was different last year, before Molly moved away. I had a friend to giggle with on the way to school; a friend to pass notes to in class; a friend who could beat Ronny up with one strong jab. Now I’m alone.
I sat at the corner lunch table in the far end of the cafeteria, as far away from Ronny and his gang as possible. I zipped open my lunch bag just enough to see if Mom remembered a napkin. She did. I angled it so light reached her words without letting anyone see me reading a napkin note.
Your smile is like hot cocoa—super sweet and warms me up inside. Remember that Jesus is with you.
I smiled, folded the note carefully into Scrabble square size, and tucked it in my pocket.
Everyday Mom wrote a new note in swirly script—sometimes short, sometimes long, sometimes with Dad’s signature joined to hers; she didn’t know that I couldn’t bear to throw those napkins out. I kept them in an empty Valentine’s Day heart shaped candy box.
Everyday she wrote a new note until she got sick. First her notes became short and sloppy, then confusing. She lost her sight with cancer.
Sledp all day. I lobe you.
One day there was no note. Dad drove Mom to the hospital, but I still hoped everything would be the same—that somehow she’d be okay and leave me another note. . .
She’d write as she wrote before: “Have a great day,” or “Let’s get ice-cream at Marvel’s,” or “Sparky barked hello to you.” And my heart could smile again.
I took a small bite of a stale peanut butter sandwich, ambled toward the trash can, and slipped in a pile of spilt mashed potatoes on the floor. Ronny and his friends laughed and banged the table like a drum roll. I tossed my sandwich at his face. More laughter as I ran out the door. Tears broke through as I slumped against the brick wall and a lunch lady draped her plump arm around my shoulders.
I knew she wouldn’t leave the hospital; she died that night.
First Molly, then Mom. . . did Jesus leave me too? Nothing made sense. And Dad didn’t have the answer.
Dad and I ate Burger King take-out for dinner every night for two weeks. No work. No school. No play. Just a quiet house that smelled of French-fries.
My eyes scanned the rows of tables until I saw an empty spot. Before I even opened my lunch bag, Ronny sat across from me.
“What do you want?” I asked in the toughest voice I could muster.
“Hey, I just wanted to say I’m sorry about your mom.”
“Oh, well. . .thanks.”
Ronny fiddled with a straw wrapper, twirling it around his thumb. “My mom died two years ago from lung cancer. It was the worst, but after a while I could look at her picture without throwing something.”
I stared at his clear blue eyes, unable to speak.
“You should wear your hair in a braid again.” He stood up and stuffed his hands in his pockets. “You looked like a princess.”
“No way! Not with you sitting behind me.”
We both laughed.
“See ya.” Ronny ran outside for recess.
My stomach growled; I opened my lunch bag expecting to see day old nuggets and fries. Instead . . . a ham sandwich neatly wrapped in tinfoil with chocolate milk, some vanilla cookies, and a note.
God blessed us the day you were born. You’re as beautiful as your mom.
I love you.
I folded the napkin into a Scrabble size square and tucked it in my pocket. My heart smiled.
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