The People Who Float
She wishes she had delicate hands, like Emily or her mother. Narrow, almost-breakable fingers, smooth planes of skin and rounded nails; hands that are perfect despite troubled hearts and scarred faces; hands that beg to be held and protected like precious, sculpted glass. These are the hands that heroes die for and live for and start wars over.
Leah has rough hands, and she needs no heroes. Her skin is dry, her nails uneven, chipped, and cracked. Her palms are lined with too many creases––a myriad of misfortunes––and the backs of her hands are roadways of thin scars that come and go, and come again, like phases of the moon. She has hands that start the wars, that start the fights, because she uses them to let loose the first clenched strike.
It isn't penance for being beautiful; beauty is flawed, the mirror lies. It isn't a punishment for perfection; she isn't Emily or Sue. She has a scarred heart and a troubled face, lines that run invisible under her skin, and a cynical outlook on life that's as crippled and twisted as driftwood on the beach. Her crime is that she has pleaded humanity, and yet any ugliness within cannot be concealed without in a kind of unfair irony that she should be used to by now––but it never gets as easy as they say. Faults flow from her heart into her fingertips.
Maybe she's never been delicate. Maybe she was never meant to be. Maybe she was already born with dirt under her nails and a careless streak to drive her hands into ruin.
Or maybe she was delicate once, and then she hardened into stone that still bleeds and breathes under a slightly darker sky.
Or maybe she was only ever somewhere in between.
She is careful with her hands after Sam breaks her heart, though some of this is from listlessness and numbing disbelief.
Even when they are covered in nothing but imaginary dirt, she scrubs them clean and raw. Frantic bubbles fly as she hovers beside the kitchen sink, always scrubbing, always scrubbing. She thinks of Emily's hands, of the way they're made for gently sliding a baking dish into the oven, and slipping into Sam's warm grasp as easily as Leah used to do when she wanted.
Leah rubs harder until Sue's own hand shoots out and grasps Leah by one wrist.
"Leah," she says, quiet and almost sad. "Stop."
The next week, she sees Sam running his fingertips through Emily's dark hair, and she stops again. They're cousins, tied together by blood; Emily's hair is almost the same as hers, just a shade darker or lighter depending on the sun, just a touch softer or coarser depending on the wind. Leah stares down at one imperfect hand, twirling one imperfect strand of hair around another. Her shoulders sag.
This is the calm before the anger comes.
This is the last time for a long time anyone will recognize her as the girl she once was.
(Or maybe wasn't.)
Fast forward through bitterness, through trying to move on and almost making it, but not quite being able to forget. Fast forward through snapping and snarling with curled human lips at everyone she still loves; fast forward through crying and shouting and howling, this time behind a mask of fur and sharp, almost familiar eyes.
Leah doesn't lose her life as some girls do, only bits and pieces of herself. She doesn't shut down, like:
Her entire existence can't be summed up on a series of blank pages.
She's always been stronger than that, just not strong enough to let go of the thin, hopeful threads that have grounded her in place for so very long. The reliance she has on those threads––she doesn't call them by name anymore––horrifies even her; it is horrifying to realize that she is not her own person.
The parts of herself that still remain are all jumbled up like puzzle pieces, and she tries so hard to put them back together; but some are missing, and none of them fit seamlessly as they once did, so they are taped to one another with frustration and overlapping edges. It makes for an awkward picture.
Fast forward through not being accepted and instead pushed away, through arguments and eyes that plead without meaning to, and Leah runs with the pack now, an outcast even when confined to a tightly-knit group. With their voices in her head, she is still alone.
But maybe she likes it. She makes a scene when she can, most of the time when she shouldn't. Maybe she doesn't need to be loved, after all.
She changes, both inside and out. She learns to accept both kinds of freedom: the kind that comes with being alone, and the kind that runs at her side as she sprints, four legs flying across the forest, across the world.
Then, panting, she stops for rest in the middle of dirt and light and leaves, and feels her bones shift until she stands naked but for the shining layer of perspiration that covers her skin. The forest has eyes, but still no one can see her.
Her chest heaves with the heavy intake and exhalation of breath. She glances down at her hands; one finger is cut from a rock, her palms are almost black, as if they never changed back from paws. They are everything but delicate, unless delicacy is judged by something's ability to be destroyed.
When she hears Seth's voice calling her, she combs her fingers once through the leaves tangled in her hair, and leaps. She lands on four legs, her hands now her feet so that nothing really matters.
Just try and judge me.
It's a lazy afternoon, for once. Summer. It actually feels like summer, when there's no doubt and having to (sarcastically) check the calender, just to be sure. It actually feels, and makes Leah feel, a sense of familiarity and recognition; she's been here before, in this place, in this state of mind.
There's a pond she once found far away from everything else. The water is almost clear, and it tastes cold in the way that rain does when she closes her eyes and sticks out her tongue to catch it. It tastes good.
It feels even better.
The pond is deep, like a hole stamped into the earth for sole the purpose of being filled. Water trickles out of one side and into a tiny creek to keep it from being stagnant, yet other than that, it's still. Motionless, but not quite motionless; trapped, but not quite barred from freedom. As if in rebellion, it takes care to keep going, even if it's only little by little and almost imperceptible to anyone's eyes but its own.
Leah floats, and the water keeps her thoughts so that she can finally hear them. There is a voice deep inside her somewhere that, on all other days, struggles to get out.
Today, it resonates.
Today, she feels like herself again.
Hidden by trees and brush, Leah takes a nearly-deep breath and ducks her head under the surface, and it's like slipping into a dream. There is just the right amount of air in her lungs to keep her suspended in liquid, not drifting upward, not sinking downward. She moves her arms and kicks her legs languidly, no desperation for survival; just enjoyment, the feeling of being weightless.
Her eyes are open.
Her hands look like wax in the filtered, underwater sunlight; they look clean. Her feet are angled toward the sandy bottom, but they don't reach.
This makes her feel vibrant and alive, somehow.
When she can't hold her breath any longer, the only way to go is up.
She runs into Jacob on her way back home, literally crashing into him as they each blindly turn the same corner. She scowls as she loses her balance and tumbles backward. Dirt sticks to her wet skin.
"Sorry, didn't see you," he says, and Seth groans from somewhere behind his shoulder.
"We were looking for you, Leah," her brother tells her. "Guess we found ya, huh?"
They're both grinning a little, in the way that they do. Easy as anything, Jacob offers her his hand. She hesitates, and then takes it, feeling almost weightless again as he pulls her to her feet. Watching closely, Seth grabs her hand after Jacob releases it; he brushes off her palm as if he feels he's obligated to do something, too.
"Jeez, you have small hands!" he remarks in surprise. "Like mom's or something. All delicate and stuff."
"Way to be such a girl," Jacob teases her. It's the first time he's ever bothered to say something like that to her, and not about her. Casual, friendly; like they're all a part of something together. Like she's not the one exception to his joviality.
Leah rolls her eyes, but it's obvious she's trying not to smile.
The next time she sees Emily, she waves.
"Hey," she says.
"Hey," Emily says back, a little cautious. But maybe?
Maybe it's okay.