What couldn't be done for me
rating: +12+x

She is happy.

The beads in her braids click together as she runs around the yard, smile never faltering.

Her siblings bicker and cry, but she scoops them up in the blink of an eye, shushing and comforting them with a practiced precision.

She’s barely six now, skinny arms struggling to lift the blubbering babe.

Her shoulders are tense with stress, tiny hands patting and caressing the baby’s back, but they loosen and relax when I lift her sister into my arms. She'll rock back and forth on the balls of her feet, anxious eyes never leaving her sister's face.

I can’t get over the way she smiles at me, the way her eyes shine when I read to her, like I’m the only person in the world. The way she presses her body into mine when we sit together, head resting on my shoulder.

It’s during these moments, when I feel her lips curl into a relaxed smile against my arm, that I feel that familiar twinge of guilt.

She lives with her grandmother, a weathered stone of a woman. All sunspots and eye bags and cigarette-stained teeth. I don’t know if she’s really her grandmother.

Children of all ages occupy every corner of the apartment, peeking from corners, fighting for space in front of the TV, grasping crayons with sticky hands.

And of course, of course, I love them all.

But there’s something about her. Something gut-wrenching and comforting and beautiful and melancholy, and so, so familiar.

Perhaps it’s the way she clings to me, almost afraid to let me out of her sight. Like I'm a mirage that will disappear if she looks away for too long.

When she tells me her daddy lives far away, that the last time she saw him was when she was “super really little,” her rainbow sketchers kick in the air absentmindedly, but her eyes take on a heaviness much better suited to a woman 20 years her senior.

Her grandmother is much less sentimental when I ask about her mother, lips curling into a scowl as she spits out the phrase,

“Dope fiend.”

I indulge her in everything I can, but no matter what I do, her grip is always bruising when she hugs me goodbye. Her fingers dig into my sides, invisible hooks piercing my skin. She burrows her head into my sweater, the fabric muffling her wavering voice.

“Goodbye.”

“Goodbye.”

“I love you.”

And always, just a little bit quieter.

“Please come back.”

And every time, I swear to her I will. No matter what.

And every time, she will push a toy into my hand, insisting that I keep it. I never do.

I push it back into hers with a smile, and tell her every time.

“You deserve it more than I do.”

And she will tear up slightly, diamond black eyes shiny and wide.

But I know, I know when she hears me come through the door again,

She’ll smile.

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