It was still dark outside when Rebecca rose from Marie’s bedroom floor and felt around for her running shoes. One trip to the bathroom and one bite from the banana lying on the counter later, and she was softly closing the front door to her best friend’s house behind her.
The glow of the street lamps lighting her way highlighted the low hanging mist still in the air. The sky had transitioned from inky black to deep indigo, giving only the slightest indication that morning was on the way. A few stars had begun to fade into space, and the moon was just barely visible behind the trees. The streets, soon to be crowded with the morning rush, lay silent and empty.
Rebecca took a deep breath of the crisp air and stepped into the street. This was her favorite time of day, when she could follow the lane lines in the center of the road and not fear any cars coming her way. Gradually, her walk sped into a jog, and soon she was running down the familiar streets of her neighborhood. She passed Mr. Campana’s bakery, smelling the bread that was just coming out of the oven, and raced towards the river. The houses that she had grown up amongst became sparse, before they surrendered completely to dense forest. Rebecca was almost within earshot of the rushing water when she heard the tinkle of a familiar laugh.
“Shhhhh! We’re going to get caught!”
Smiling, Rebecca pushed through the branches on the side of the road. “Marie, you and my brother had better finish up whatever you are doing—” She stopped, staring frozen at the two people in front of her.
Standing up from the forest floor and trying to put on her inside-out shirt, Marie avoided eye contact with Rebecca as she carefully extricated herself from someone who was clearly not Eli. She looked at Rebecca, then the boy, then Rebecca again. Her shoulders slumped, and had it been lighter outside Rebecca would have seen a familiar crimson spreading over her entire face.
“I’m sorry Rebecca. It just sort of happened. He was at my house but then we wanted to talk without waking you up and—”
“Oh no,” Rebecca cut her off. “You do not get to pretend like this is another one of your little ‘accidents’. We are miles from your house. You came here because you did not want to get caught again.”
Marie hung her head. “I know. I just thought that if you saw you might be upset that I wasn’t at the house with you.”
“You think that’s what this is about?! You think that I’m upset that you weren’t with me? Eli is my brother! Your boyfriend! I can’t believe you! You honestly think that the only problem with you sneaking out with someone else is that you missed out on part of our sleepover? How dare you!”
At the mention of Eli, Marie’s head shot back up. “Oh you can’t tell your brother! Please, he’ll be so upset with me.”
“No, I am not about to cover for your cheating habits again!”
“I thought you were supposed to be my friend!”
“I thought you were too.” Rebecca turned and began running again.
“Why are you abandoning me like this?!” Marie shouted after her.
The words stung in Rebecca’s heart, and she almost turned back to apologize. Instead, she gritted her teeth and picked up her pace. She did not stop to breathe or think until she could see the glow of street-lamps illuminating the houses of her neighborhood again.
The early dawn mist curled around Rebecca’s ankles as she walked through the park next to her house, trying desperately to calm her thoughts. Breathing heavily, she kept putting one foot in front of the other as though the path had turned into a tightrope. The woodchips under her feet crackled, echoing in the silent morning. After what felt like hours, Rebecca saw the aged, dew-soaked bench she sought, and collapsed onto it as though she had run a marathon.
As she sat, silently observing the trees against the slowly lightening sky, Rebecca’s thoughts raced. How was she supposed to take care of everyone at once? Marie and Eli, they depended on her. The weight of their expectations was becoming too much to bear. Rebecca’s shoulders sagged, pushing her into the broken wood of the bench. Their problems were becoming her own, tangling into a web around her until she hung like a marionette. The only way to be loyal to her best friend was to lie to her own brother, and the only way to stay true to her family was to air Marie’s dirty laundry. There was no way out.
“You know, I used to come here too.”
Rebecca turned at the voice. A woman, carrying a box of pencils and brushes, walked past and sat on the bench across the path. She swept her long, curly dark hair behind her shoulders, pulled out a pad of paper and a brush, and began to place colors onto the page. She looked up at Rebecca, smiling. “I would sit on these benches for hours, painting everything I saw. It does wonders for the nerves.”
“That sounds wonderful,” Rebecca sighed, reaching for her bag before realizing it was still with the rest of her things at Marie’s house. She turned back to the woman. “May I?”
Nodding, the woman handed over another pad of paper and a pencil before returning to her work. Rebecca sat forward, took a long, calming breath, and began to sketch. She traced the woman’s long, graceful neckline and followed her taut shoulders. She carefully filled in each curl of her sweeping hair, which had begun to slowly fall towards the paints on her lap. She followed every frown line, every laugh line, and every dimple. She shaded the dark irises of the woman’s half-lidded eyes, and traced the short curve of her nose—
Rebecca paused, her pencil frozen mid-stroke. She slowly raised her head and looked quizzically at the woman, who had stopped painting. She knew those eyes, that nose. She recognized them as if they were her own, because they were.
“Talia?” she whispered.
Talia’s eyes crinkled sadly. “The last time I saw you, you still called me Mom.”
Rebecca bristled at the comment. “You lost the right to be called Mom when you abandoned Mama. You lost it when you abandoned me.”
“You’re right,” Talia exhaled. “I left you. I left all of you, Shannon and Eli too. You were all my family.”
Tears welling behind her eyes, Rebecca stood and walked toward her mother. “Then why did you? Eli was so sick. He needed you. Mama needed her partner, and I needed your help. We were so broken when you left.”
“I know.” Talia looked away, staring at the dawn colors just barely peeking out behind the trees. “I wanted to stay, but I just couldn’t. I needed to find myself and my own purpose. I gave everything I had to our family, but I needed to find a life of my own again.”
“But why did you leave us behind? Why did you stop loving us?”
Talia turned sharply, her eyes brimming with tears as well. “Oh honey. I never stopped loving you. I left because I had given so much up that I stopped loving myself.”
Rebecca sat on the bench, careful not to touch Talia or her things. “I don’t understand,” she muttered, braiding the hair behind her ear.
Talia paused, thoughtful. “Shannon may have raised you, but you are technically my blood. I see so much of you in me. Even back when I left, I recognized the similarities. We both care so deeply about the ones closest to us. I remember how you would do absolutely anything to keep Shannon and Eli happy, even on Eli’s chemotherapy days. There were so many times when I tried to do the same. I made so many sacrifices, and put so much of my time and energy into keeping our family together and satisfied. It nearly broke me.”
Rebecca thought about all the times that she had given up what she wanted to make her family happier. All of the little lies she had told to friends out of loyalty to Marie echoed in her head. She remembered the nights when she had stayed up way too late to talk her mother out of stress filled meltdowns, and all the times when she had moved mountains for her perfectly capable brother, who was eight years cancer free.
“I wish I had had the strength to stay with you,” Talia continued. “I could not think of a way to balance my life and the lives of the people I love more than anything.”
Rebecca chuckled. “I think that is a secret I would love to discover for myself. I do not know how to make everyone happy anymore.”
Talia turned, her face serious. “Through all of the choices I made, right or wrong, I learned that it is possible to still love people, even if you cannot make them happy all of the time. You just have to find a way to stick around and show them. To not run away like I did.”
Rebecca blinked, the tears in her eyes finally sliding down her face. Taking a deep breath, she slowly stood up and turned back down the path she had came.
“Where are you going?” Talia jumped to her feet. “We only just started talking! I have so much more to say to you!”
“And I would love to hear it all,” Rebecca assured her, “but I have somewhere I need to be first.” She began walking down the path, gradually speeding up until she was back on the road. Rebecca raced back down the road to Marie’s house, just as the first rays of sun rose over the horizon.