Lila sat in the lone chair neighboring the principal's office. There she dangled her legs, her corduroys scuffed and ripped at the knee, as she overheard the muffled conversation taken place not too far from her. After several minutes, her father emerged from the office, looking very tired. Lila smiled sweetly, but he could only sigh and shake his head.
"Let's go," he said in exasperation.
They rode in silence in the old green pickup truck. Finally her father spoke up.
"Honestly, Lila, that's the third time this month. Why can't you get along with your classmates?"
"I can't help it!" exclaimed Lila, brushing her long red hair away from her face. "And anyway, they started it. They called me names!"
Mr. Sawyer took a deep breath. "Lila. I thought we talked about this. You've got to learn to control your temper. When those other kids say mean things about you, you have to learn to let it slide, take the higher ground. That's what your mother would want."
"Yeah…" muttered Lila. "They said some things about her too…I don't care what they say…she WILL get better…"
To that Lila's father had no reply, and the conversation simply tapered off as they drove the rest of the way home.
Her mother was waiting expectantly for them in her bedroom, the doctor on site checking her vitals. After a brief conversation with her husband, Mr. Sawyer left to start dinner, while the two females enjoyed some bonding time. As Lila recounted the events of her day, Mrs. Sawyer busied herself with braiding her daughter's hair.
"…and then Alice called me a pighead, so I shoved her in the dirt, and then-" Lila covered her mouth, afraid she had revealed to much.
Mrs. Sawyer regarded her daughter gently. "Dear heart, you didn't get into another fight again, did you?"
Lila looked down in shame. "I'm sorry, mommy."
"It's okay. I know you can't help it sometime. Now stand up and let me have a look at you."
Lila obeyed and stood up so her mother could see the results of her handiwork: two neatly braided pigtails, one on each side of her face.
Her mother smiled. "You always look so precious with your hair in braids. Why don't you wear it like that to school?"
Lila quietly rolled her eyes.
"So how did you do on your history test today?"
Lila didn't answer, instead choosing to look down at her shoes.
"I'm not smart like those other girls…" spat Lila bitterly. "I don't have to be. Who needs book smarts to take care of a farm? Anyway, I'm sure you and daddy will teach me everything I need to know once you get better."
Lila sulked and walked into the welcoming arms of her mother. "You're my perfect little angel…"
"I'm not perfect," interjected Lila.
"Yes, you are. In my eyes, you are. And I love you very much."
Lila sighed. Though she loved her mother very much, she wished she could live up to the perfection her mother saw her as. Wishful thinking, she said to herself.
Lila chewed her pencil absentmindedly as her teacher outlined the lesson for today. Lately her mother had been getting worse; just a simple chat with her and her father would leave Mrs. Sawyer drained of any energy. They were also getting more frequent visits from debt collectors at the farm. Mr. Sawyer assured her daughter that everything was alright, but it was hard to belie her fears when she could see the cold sweat breaking from his neck…
"Lila," the teacher said. "Did you hear me? I said there will be a math test next Thursday."
Lila broke from her reverie. "Yes, ma'am," she said.
The bell rang and the students filed out of the classroom. As she was walking down the hall, Lila heard a boy behind her snicker.
"No wonder she fails all her tests…"
She knew he was referring to her. Indignant, Lila whipped around and grabbed the boy by the collar of his shirt. "Wanna say that to my face next time?"
"I-I didn't say anything, I swear!" pleaded the boy. "Please don't hit me!"
Lila raised her fist in the air in preparation to strike, but had a change of heart, lowering her hand. She shoved the boy into a group of his friends, sneered, then turned and walked away.
"I'll show them," she thought bitterly. "I'll show them all. They don't think I can pass a stupid math test? I'll get the highest mark in the class, that oughta shut 'em up…."
Mr. Sawyer knocked on his daughter's bedroom daughter. "Lila? Honey?"
He opened the door a crack and was surprised to see Lila at her desk, hard at work at her math homework, her pencil going a mile a minute. When she heard the door, she turned and acknowledged her father.
Still stunned at the sight of his daughter actually studying, Mr. Sawyer fumbled for words. "Uh…dinner's on the table when you're ready to eat."
"Okay, daddy – I just want to finish this one math problem."
Lila went back to work as her father closed the door. He chuckled to himself softly.
"Come on…come on…"
The school bell rang. Lila was the first one out of her seat and into the hallway. The teacher announced the marks of last week's math test had been posted, and she was on pins and needles for the rest of the day, anxious to find out how she did.
Lila went straight for the bulletin board to find where her name ranked in comparison to her classmates. Which was why she was surprised to find her name at the very top of the list.
SAWYER, LILA - 100
She couldn't believe it, she had done it! Not only had she gotten the highest mark, but she had also gotten 100%! A perfect score!
Lila was elated. "Yes, yes, yes!" She couldn't wait to tell her mother. She bolted past all the bewildered children and teachers and out the main doors of the school…
…her father was at the bottom of the steps. "Daddy, daddy! Guess what…!"
She froze. Mr. Sawyer's eyes were red and puffy. At that very moment her heart sank.
"Lila…we need to get home. It's your mother."
Mrs. Sawyer was surrounded by her loving family. The doctor had left and was now replaced with a chaplain who read from the bible as Mr. Sawyer openly sobbed.
Lila sat closest to her mother, and wiped her brow with a damp cloth. Mrs. Sawyer's eyes fluttered open at the touch.
"Well…hello, there, angel…" she said breathlessly.
Lila smiled. "You'll never believe it, Mommy. I got 100% on my math test. You were right…"
"Of course I was right," replied her mother. "I want you to know all that you're capable of….my darling daughter…my perfect ray of sunshine…I'm so very proud of you…."
Lila leaned in and kissed her mother's forehead. At that very moment, Mrs. Sawyer took her last breath.
It all happened so fast afterwards. The funeral occurred the same day as the selling of the farm. Lila and her father, both dressed in black, watched as the SOLD banner was slapped across the FOR SALE sign in front of their home. Mr. Sawyer took his daughter's hand and the two of them boarded the old green pickup truck, packing as much of their life as they could into the back.
The transition to the city was not easy going. Mr. Sawyer did not find employment as soon as he had hoped, and as a result, had to sell the truck to pay the month's rent. Most days he was gone, pounding the pavement looking for work. Most nights, he locked himself in his bedroom to grieve, loudly crying himself to sleep and lamenting the loss of his poor wife.
Lila, however, remained surprisingly stoic. Her father didn't force her to go to school right away, so she opted to just spend most of her time lying on her bed, staring at the decrepit ceiling of her living quarters.
She hated it here. She missed her mother. So many emotions and thoughts flooded her that she literally felt unable to cry. She just felt…lost. Stuck. Helpless. For quite some time, she wondered what the point was of even going on. Her family farm was gone. Her mother was gone. Her father was a wreck.
Who was she?
"You're my perfect little angel…" said her mother's voice in her head.
Lila sat up from the bed. She stood up and walked over to the opposite side of the room, over to the hastily-crammed closet, where she pulled out an oblong box containing her mother's final present to her…
A sullen Mr. Sawyer emerged from his bedroom and trudged along the corridor of his dilapidated home. He was surprised to find Lila standing before him, her hair in two braids, wearing a plaid green dress.
"Oh, Lila…" he said, his eyes welling with tears once again. "You're finally wearing the dress your mother made for you…"
Lila tugged uncomfortably on the hem of her dress, then stroked one of her braids. "Daddy?...I think I'm ready to go to school tomorrow…"
Mr. Sawyer approached his daughter and hugged her with all his might. As they embraced, Lila finally felt the tears run down her face.
She would've wanted it…she would've liked to see me be the best I can be. The perfect little girl she always said I was. I'll be that perfect little girl for you, Mommy. I'll be smart and pretty and popular. And I'll be loved by everyone, just like how you and Daddy love me.
"I promise…I'll make her proud."