I was born in a tiny hospital in a nothing-town, one that barely got phone signal. It had a hospital, a grocery store, a gas station, and a bustling drug market. It was either late at night or early in the morning, depending on who you asked. It was a Saturday, one that my mother had been audibly dreading for the last nine months. I don’t remember it, of course. My mother smoked a cheap drugstore cigarette to calm her nerves while the nurse wrapped me in a generic cotton blanket. It was red.
My first day of second grade. My dad had driven me to school, and I was nervous. I had my second-hand backpack and my Goodwill shoes and a brown-bag lunch. The only brand-new thing I had was a little red dress with a ribbon that tied in the back, one which I was currently wearing. I was proud of it, so I took a deep breath and stepped out of the car. I marched up to the building that seemed to loom into the sky and stepped inside. I made it through most of the day, until recess. And then, walking out onto the pavement, a malicious foot attacked me out of the crowd, sending me sprawling onto the pavement. I pulled my palms away from the cold, hard cement. It was red.
It was my ninth birthday. I had been outside, swinging on the wooden swing that my dad had hung from the tree in the tiny space next to the parking lot. Yelling began to crescendo, and I thought nothing of it at first. It was something that occurred often, and always ended in an ice cream apology. A door slammed. Glass broke. I heard the front door slam open and my dad stormed out and into his car with a hastily thrown together duffel. He hops in his car, and I hurry towards it. This hadn’t happened before. He screeches out of the driveway, and I began to run. His truck rumbled down the road and I’m left, barefooted and confused, in the middle of the road staring at his tailgate. It was red.
Art class became my escape. I loved art with everything inside me. I loved the feeling of my tools between my fingers. I was addicted to the feeling of paper on my fingertips. And the scent. The heavenly scent of clay and acrylics. And no one ever bothered me, except for one person. His name was Calder, and he sat directly on my right. He didn’t speak to me for a long time, until one day he turned to me and asked if he could borrow the pot of paint on my left. It was red.
Middle school rolled around. Calder and I had grown into best friends, despite the fact that he wasn’t allowed into my house. My mother, on the other hand, grew drunk and high. I did my best to avoid her. She would get drunk and sit in front of the television, too high on the fumes circulating our home to realize it wasn’t even on. She never signed my permission slips for field trips, she never went to parent-teacher conferences. But Calder didn’t mind. He didn’t mind that I talked too much, as my mother said one drunk evening. She got so upset at me for my stumbling tongue and murmured responses that her hand snapped across my face like a thunder-clap. I staggered to the bathroom and peered at my cheek in the cloudy mirror in shock. It was red.
High school rolled around, but I barely noticed its arrival or change. I was too busy staring aimlessly from behind a curtain of hair. Marrie, my best and only friend, attempted to break through the wall I had managed to construct around myself. I hardly noticed the stares or whispers, rumours that were untrue, so I decided to pay no mind when the words “obsessive”, “crazy”, “depressed” circled my head like demonic vultures. Calder and I dated and were happy for a few months, until he grew possessive and protective and angry. Then, we split up. But he was still angry, always angry. He called me often, and when I answered, he yelled. One morning, I found a bear I had bought him for some holiday or another dismembered and gutted on the porch. It was red.
Sophomore year snuck up on me and whacked me in the back of the head. I began to get better. I spoke in class, I talked to Marrie. She was so happy that I was talking again. So I talked, just for her. She listened to me talk, even about things that didn’t matter. She always smiled and encouraged me when I stuttered. I was better for about six months. Then, Calder grew angry at my continued closeness with Marrie. I came to school one day to Marrie scrubbing furiously at my locker at a sharpied word on my green locker. Faggot. She tried to explain or joke it away, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from my locker. Even though she was almost one-fourth of the way through, I could still read the word. It was red.
Junior year, and I was worse. Marrie was almost completely gone from my life. My mother had gotten worse, sallow and angry, pale, clumps of her once luscious blond hair ending up in the sink. I no longer even flinched when her hands clapped like thunder on my skin. I hardly noticed. I didn’t draw anymore, either. Instead, I sat on my bed and stared at a blank page. The same blank page every day. It haunted my thoughts, my dreams. I was blank, I was grey, I couldn’t escape it. One day, I lost it. I found a knife with a smooth wooden handle in the kitchen while my mom was in a drugged haze and locked myself in my room. I held the point of the knife, hovering over the paper, for longer than I could count. Hours, maybe. I, at last, turned the knife. It kissed my skin, leaving red where it went and red on the paper below my arm. Three lines, sharp and thin as fishing line. I put the knife down and stared at the page before closing the book slowly, satisfied that it was no longer blank. It was red.
High school was over. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I went over to Marrie’s for hours at a time, and she would just talk. I think she could tell that I had broken something, but she didn’t ask what. She just spoke, lilting voice tracing stories of what she was going to do, who she wanted to be. She would tell funny stories of the things that had happened to her and her sisters, and about her parents before she was born. I would listen. Sometimes, I would open my sketchbook to a blank page, but I no longer felt the need to fill them. The lines on my wrist were healing. Life was looking up. Except for my mother. My mother, who had started bringing strange men into our home again and suggesting that I do the same. I had to pay for college somehow, in her words. But Marrie didn’t ask. She didn’t ask when I showed up at four in the morning, or eleven at night. Instead, she would pull out the couch for me and sleep on the floor with a blanket wrapped around her like a cocoon. It was red.
The search for a college began. Marrie told me she was going to apply to Boston for art, so I figured I might as well apply there as well. I knew that even if I got accepted, I couldn’t afford it. I knew that even as Marrie chirruped about rooms and rent and classes that we wouldn’t end up in the same college. I would end up in a local community college, my mother’s rank breath down my neck the entire time. I knew it was too good a dream, one that soon would pop on the thorns of reality. That’s why, when we received our letters, I insisted on opening mine last. Marrie got in, of course, with her wonderful canvases. I opened my letter slower, already picturing the words of rejection in my mind. I read through the letter once, and then twice, before Marrie snatched it out of my hands and read it herself. I had gotten in. I had slipped through the system, or I had fooled them somehow, but I was in. I read all the way to the end, Marrie shouting in my ear the whole time, with the fancy seal on the bottom. It was red.
A few weeks after I got accepted, I gathered the courage to tell my mother. I had thought she would be proud. I thought she would be glad I was going to a good college. I was wrong. Her hand cracked across my cheek, just as it had when I was a child. Nothing was different. She began to yell, her voice old, her skin yellow like papyrus. I flinched from her stench, like sweat and scotch. She yelled horrible things; I was a bad child. I had run my father off. I was a horrible daughter for abandoning her sick mother. Her eyes began to bug out of her head and she turned to the sink, coughing and hacking as if one of her lungs was attempting to crawl up her throat. I managed to capture a look at the old metal sink over her shoulder. It was red.
College was long and hard. I no longer spoke to my mother, even on the holidays. Marrie graduated with flying colors, and I managed to squeak past with Bs and Cs. No one came to support me at graduation, but Marrie’s younger sisters showed up. They were almost as pretty as Marrie herself, same strawberry blond hair, and one had blue eyes to match Marrie’s, but the other had green. I knew, from the one picture I had seen of Marrie’s blue-eyed parents, exactly what that meant. They were rosy and graceful, but shorter than Marrie. She embraced her sisters, and they cried while she laughed up at the sky. Marrie’s youngest sister, Charlotte, noticed me standing awkwardly behind them. She held out a hand without releasing her sisters, green eyes sparkling. She introduced herself as Lottie. Come celebrate with us. She said. She smiled at me, as I reached out to take her hand, the nail polish glimmering in the sun. It was red.
A few years later, Marrie and I were in Paris for an art exhibition. Hers, of course, not mine. I still hadn’t found anything steady aside from her. A job, a house, a boyfriend. I got a call one day, from a number I didn’t recognize. So I answered. It was a strange man, a voice I’d never heard. He told me my mother was in the hospital. She had collapsed in the store. She had lung cancer, and I was needed immediately. I calmly wrote down the address, said thank you, and hung up. I contemplated calling Marrie as I stared down at the shaky handwriting, traced the ink with my eyes. It was red. My mother didn’t want to talk to me, of course. She threw a hissy fit, told me I was a horrible daughter, that she was sick because of me, that I had driven off my father and forced us into debt and poverty. The nurses listened outside for a while, but once she got really animated, spittle flying and her eyes bugging out, they came in. They tried to calm her down, to make her listen, but she wouldn’t stop yelling until I left. Marrie was waiting outside, pale faced with her hands clenched at her sides. She looked at me, and seemed surprised that there weren’t tears waiting there. She asked me if I was all right. I shrugged. But now, she was better at reading me. She hugged me tight, and something made me think it was more for her than for me. So I let her, and even hugged her back. And she kissed me, and it tasted like her lipstick and the tears I didn’t know I was crying. She pulled away, smiled, and watched as I touched my lips and pulled away my finger. It was red.
Years passed, and I stopped thinking about the things my mother had told me. Marrie made me forget, helped ease it. I still sometimes hurt, the pain of the words digging into my soul like nails, nailing me down to the ground. But during those times, she would hug me and tell me that I was okay, and dissuade all my fears. Slowly, I got better. Better and better until the point when I felt I was whole again. Except, one thing was missing. I asked Marrie about it one day, too casual to be casual. She looked up at me in surprise and then grinned with tears in her eyes and replied. Yes, I would very much like a child. She took another sip from her mug. It was red.
Our daughter, Olive, turned four. She was a sweet girl, with honey brown skin and curly cocoa hair. Her eyes were big and green, filled with too much wisdom for her age. Sometimes I got scared of ruining her like my mother had ruined me, and Marrie would sit on our bed and hug me and coo sweet things until I felt better. Once, out of the blue, Olive crawled into my lap during one of these times. I love you, mama. She told me assuredly and handed me a flower from the yard. It was red.
One day, when she was six, Olive asked me about the scars on my wrist. I told her that I had gotten them learning to be brave, and they hurt very much. She patted my arm, and I swiped at my eyes. She hopped up and scurried away on her little kid liege before hurrying back. She wraps a scarf around my arm. All better, mama. She cooed. It was red. Marrie and I grew older, but never apart. Olive grew into a beautiful teen girl, sweet and kind even through her rebellious phase. Marrie liked to tell her that she was as strong and resilient as the tree she was named for, which always made Olive laugh, but Marrie and I believed it with all our hearts. She watched over us, forgetful as we were. She would often hand me my coffee as I was halfway out the door on my way to the office. She would put Marrie’s paintbrushes away in size order, keep track of all the things we lost. She was our rock, keeping us rooted and safe. And Marrie and I loved her, and we were a family. We took care of each other. On her fourteenth birthday, I gave her a beautiful watch I had saved a month’s salary for. It was red.
One day, after Olive had gone to college, I got a call. A voice I didn’t remember was on the other end, solemn and distant. He told me my mother had passed away, and that the funeral would be held in three days. I hung up without saying thank you. Marrie was cooking in the other room, and looked up in concern when I entered silently. I told her that my mother had died. She looked sad. I told her I didn’t want to go to the funeral. She looked sadder, but she didn’t complain or argue. Instead, she sat me down on the couch next to her and wrapped a blanket around me. It was red.
Olive graduated college and had a wonderful husband, two little boys, and a job as a kindergarten teacher. Marrie and I were both grey to our roots, wrinkles starting in the corners of our eyes. Marrie’s hands could no longer manage to handle a pencil as well as she used to, and instead switched to oil paints for her own enjoyment. She no longer had to go on long trips to galleries, instead staying home and painting while I went to work. At least, until I retired. Marrie knew I was sad about leaving my social worker’s job, so when I got home there was a rose waiting on the table. It was red.
Marrie grew sick. She had to stay in the hospital, and I visited her every day. We both avoided talking about it, but we knew it was coming when she grew paler and thinner and weaker. Instead, we reminisced and laughed while I held her frail hand. About high school, about college, about us and Olive and the stars. Finally, one day, we breached the subject. She told me that she would die soon, that she left everything to Olive and I, she loved us both, and last, but not least, she gave me a pendant on a silver chain. It was red. I grew ill soon after Marrie passed away. Olive and her husband Charlie came to visit me every day, and they brought their kids Mark and Louis with them. I knew, just like Marrie knew, that I was dying. I wrapped one hand around Olive’s hand and one around Marrie’s pendant and allowed memories, these memories, to flash through my mind. I picture all of us holding hands one last time, my baby and my Marrie and I. Hot tears slip down my face. And then, happiness like I haven’t felt since I was a kid drifts through me. Peace, and no more worrying. And you know what? It was red.
About the author
My name is Vanessa Olson, and I’m 15 years old. I’m a sophomore at Jenison High School. I started writing a couple of years ago because I had all these stories floating around in my head and figured that I might as well do something with them. I decided to write Red the way I did because I wanted to share a story that maybe has more challenges than an average life, and I wanted to show that just because you struggle and suffer it doesn’t mean that things won’t go your way. My inspiration for this story was all the people out there that make difficult choices and live through terrible things, yet still manage to find their little piece of the universe.
Copyright © 2018 Kent District Library. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without express permission of the copyright holder.