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"Darwin, you are the smartest kid I know and you haven't passed a single exam. You are intelligent beyond what this system we call education can cope with and you're not alone." Darwin glanced at the professor sideways, just enough to show he was listening, not so much as to look like he cared. The professor went on.
"The high intelligence kids all bomb out of the system. It's too boring, too repetitive, it's like a cage instead of a platform. And, Darwin, it's been going on since the industrial revolution. Intelligence isn't going up to the leadership, it's going down the grass roots of society. It was once spread evenly among the classes, but the balance has shifted - we're looking at a revolution but we need social evolution and for that we need kids like you." Darwin turned to go. "Intelligence is creativity, not knowledge, don't let them make you feel stupid because you talk like the streets. University degrees are like falling on the dirt and getting up with muddy pants, something sticks but most falls away. They are more transformative than informative and - let's face it - information is cheap in today's world. But kid, you are the real deal, I can't get another one of you. Come study with me... just think about it, okay?"
The cinnamon buns had risen from their muffin pan casings like unfurled telescopes. Inside the delicate swirl of butter-rich dough were apple chunks coated in the cinnamon sugar. Before they'd been out of the oven a full minute there was an empty spot in the tray and Rose was nowhere to be seen. River shrugged, taking her theft as a compliment.
Winter trees line the next avenue. Their denuded forms stand starkly against the snow, almost like charcoal outlines sketched by a passing artist. Along limbs that not long ago were adorned with the vibrant colours of autumn lies an unblemished white layer. They are the trees of storybooks, of paintings and christmas cards and as I pass I can't help but extend an ungloved had to feel the rough bark.
I recall how my body jarred with each blow, how the pain seared through my skin and took away every feeling of safety I ever had. My father put his all into each strike. His sinewy arm would recoil and snap back to my naked behind, the impact delivered by an object rather than his own hand. Maybe at first I shed tears, I don't recall. Crying wasn't allowed. If I buckled he would tell me to stop, or he'd give me something to cry about. He meant it too. And this is the man I loved most in the world, the one who bought me ice-cream and a snow white rabbit. He's the man who would lift me upon his shoulders or fling me around by an arm and a leg in the back yard while I grinned so much. I guess these things came from his own childhood, from alcoholic parents. I believe he did his best in his own way. He was my hero and my monster, but now I'm all grown up I can't live that way anymore. I can't take love from one who hurts me, I just can't.
"Sophia, I loved you. How can you be so cold?" Ben kept his eyes steady, resting on her face like they were home, but just briefly, the sorrow already building.
Sophia stayed rooted to the spot, the breeze moving her hair softly away from the cheekbones that had become so much more prominent over the previous weeks. Her features buckled just slightly before she spoke, the only betrayal of her grief. "You say that like it means anything. What is love to you? There was a time I gladly took torture for you, to protect you, remember? Yet you gave me up as soon as there was a threat to yourself. That isn't love, or at least not a version of it I can respect. You broke me, then attacked the pieces, so full of rage that I couldn't function after what you did. There isn't a woman alive that wants a man who would betray her. At point of death you should have said to pull the trigger, that you'd rather die than give me up. It's what I did for you so many times." Sophia's face was paler than Ben ever recalled it being, as if her very blood was shrinking away from his presence, her lips almost ghostly despite the warm sun.
Ben broke his gaze, preferring instead to rest his eyes on the street behind, on any passing car. Then he spoke with the same voice he reserved for uncooperative suspects, "You don't know how it was. You just like to judge me. Have you any idea what I did for you? Any idea at all?" Then he turned back to her, face set like an adversary, eyes cold, muscles tense. Sophia broke a little more inside - the pieces becoming shards. For in that moment she'd seen his inner monster lock onto her, the part of him that made him such a great spy, and she knew love to him was a kind of possession. No possession, no love.
The slow creeks of the swings, rusty and weathered, sent shivers down my spine. All of the memories of my childhood came flooding back; the once yellow tunnel was now a brown-beige and barely visible through the patches of moss and vines. What had been a place of joy, of peace and tranquility, could be the set of some horror movie. I'm not sure what made me turn away, sadness perhaps, another piece of my childhood severed.
The halloween sun isn't fully set and already the candy wrappers blow over the leaf-strewn sidewalk. Tonight I am a ghost, concealed and shrouded like the dead I pretend to be. Around each wrist hangs a chain to clank as we walk. With the sun so low in the sky the scene reminds me of years ago, the picture before me is almost sepia toned. Only the new-model cars give it away that this isn't nineteen seventy something. Next to me walks the most important vampire in the world, seven years old and she wears the false fangs like a pro. She's a strange one though, for her it isn't even about the chocolates and lollipops. Tonight the world is her stage and she feeds on the drama through her skin. She doesn't really walk either, she stalks, head high, chin out, arms moving like she's conducting the clouds above.
My mother was such a serious person. Even when she felt happy her face was immobile, sunken into the kind of grimness your average person would have prior to a job interview. But when something tickled her as funny she positively howled, slapping her hand up and down almost involuntarily and could barely breath for laughing. Fat tears would roll down her newly pinked cheeks and it would be several minutes before it subsided. Only then could she tell us what she had found so amusing, and we never got the joke, not even once. But in those moments of her laughter the temperature in the house rose a couple of degrees and I couldn't help but stifle a grin.
Autumn fades in like a softly sung hymn. There is a rosiness to the leaves that wasn't there only a week ago. Soon the hills will be aflame, a riot of gold and red. For that brief time our eyes will rise from the damp concrete paths to the beauty above, watching each leaf as it makes its final dance to mother earth, the welcome mat for winter laid out.
"Your daughter smiles because she is a child, inside is pain and hurt from all that has gone before. It is the way of children. It is for the adults to know this and to show the kind of patient and reliable love they need. Only then can a child show their real selves, allowing the damage to rise to the surface. It comes in waves; it comes in times of safety, hiding beneath the giggles in-between."
Often in life I have been called strong. Though I know they mean it as a complement my heart sinks and there is a wave of sadness in my soul when I hear it. For what I show is a forced resiliency, a way I've had to be my entire life just to survive. I've always wanted to find a good life, to be truly happy and for that I knew I must carry on, to keep walking through every pain and hurt. What I want is to be soft, and for softness to be alright. I want to be helpful and do what it is my soul and heart need to be healed. I believe in service, not servitude. I believe giving of the self, of giving always with love, yet I've learnt that I have limits. To call a person strong or brave sounds so nice, but if in reality they are like a horse being run to death and praised for its speed and beauty, there is a cruelty to it. From my beginnings I knew that crying summoned another person to inflict pain, so why cry? "If you cry I'll give you something to cry about." So please don't look at my dry face and tell me I'm strong, because it hurts.
"You said that my love wasn't like a new song, but like opening a book and finding a language you'd never seen before. I want you know that I feel the same way. Your love is something beautiful; meeting you is like meeting an enigma. I don't know how you exist in this world yet you do. So let me tell you now - I will always love you in mind, body and soul. You are the trap I've been wanting to fall into my whole life; liberty from you would simply be an infinite prison. I am the softness you seek and you are the cradle for my head and heart."