You can find hope in the strangest places. You can find hope in the crevices strewn through string that are the eyelets on your sneakers, or the crinkled, rough papery material the color of milk chocolate that makes up your lunch bag. Or maybe hope is found in the dark, dusty corners of your closet that pile up with streaks of tired sunlight and flecks of dead skin; or perhaps in the silky scarf you loved when you were twelve that grows older buried in the depths of your dresser, the floral material fading and fading every month it goes unworn. If you lift it to your nostrils you can smell the faint scent of your old vanilla lotion still lingering and clinging to the thread.
You find hope in a little boy, no older than eleven. He has rusty red untidy hair that flies and tangles in the December wind. His eyes are large and gray, the color of lazy Sundays and polka-dotted rain boots splashing into puddles; they’re mysteriously wise for his thin, freckled face.
The boy is sitting on the playground bench bundled up in a blue coat watching, fascinated as his breath jumps and swirls white into the wintery air. You sit next to him, pull out your book.
“Hi,” the boy says politely. “I’m Theo.” You look up, surprised; he’s waiting expectantly.
Didn’t this kid’s mother ever tell him not to talk to strangers? “Hello,” you finally reply.
“I’m waiting for my mom,” Theo explains. “What are you doing here?”
You hold up your book for him to see, and your thin jacket slips down your arm. Hastily, you snatch at the material and clear your throat, bend your head.
“What were those?” Theo demands, confused.
“You know, your…” Theo makes a cutting motion, “Your scars, on your wrist. How did you get those?”
Nobody has ever asked you this so directly. “They’re… they’re like battle scars, Theo.”
His eyebrows crinkle together. “You were in a war?”
You think this over, “Kind of.”
“I want scars,” Theo grumbles. “Tommy at school as loads, but I haven’t got any.”
You shake your head. “You don’t want these kinds of scars. It shows that someone went through a tough time.”
Snow begins to fall; the only other person in the park leaves, footsteps treading lightly on the white ground.
Theo shivers, pulls his coat tighter around him. “Did you go through a tough time?”
You shake your head, then nod. “Yes.”
“Oh,” Theo considers this for a moment, then looks right at you, his gray eyes sincere. “I’m sorry.”
A rush of warmth washes over you, and your words are trapped in your mouth; tears are pricking at your eyes. You don’t quite know what to say to this strange little boy who you met moments ago but has given you so much hope, without even realizing.
Turns out you don’t have to say anything. “Theo,” A red-headed woman calls from the playground gate. “It’s time to go!”
Theo nods cheerily and stands up to leave, but then turns back to look at you. “I hope you feel better.”
You watch as he trots through the snow and follows his mother out of the park, your words of gratitude still struggling to get free.
It’s then that you begin to cry, and you can’t even explain to yourself why you’re choosing this moment to break down. You think of Theo’s kind face and wonder why everybody seems to get more selfish and insincere once they get older. You lift your face to the sky and let the snow wash away the salt. You’re about to leave when you see movement across the empty playground; you lean forward, straining your eyes.
A little girl, about twelve, wearing a floral scarf with shorts and a pink ribbon tied around her brown hair, walks with her mother towards the swings, green grass bending underneath her sandals.
“Sometimes I hate myself I think, Mom,” She says thoughtfully, grabbing a swing and pumping her legs. “Sometimes I hate myself, like when I get an answer wrong in school, or when I don’t say the right thing.”
The scene changes. The girl is the same person, but she’s older, around thirteen, and has longer, darker hair, braces. She’s wearing blue jeans that hug her skin, and a bit of lip gloss; her friend is blue-eyed with wavy blonde hair. The two girls are leaning against the see-saw having an animated discussion.
“I’m fine!” The brunette retorts. “Just don’t tell anyone.”
The blonde friend looks at her uncertainly. “If this happens again…”
“—then we’ll talk, okay? Are you sure you’re alright?”
Flash forward. The girl is fourteen, a bit taller, with straight teeth and eye makeup. She’s walking with her mother again, who’s absorbed in her phone as the two stroll across the playground, kicking the red and yellow leaves strewn across the ground.
“Mom, I think I need help.”
“It’s just that, I’ve been having these thoughts lately…”
“I kind of think that I won’t ever get better.”
Her mom’s eyes reluctantly lift from her Blackberry, and she looks at her daughter as if she’s never seen her before. “Oh darling, let’s not be so dramatic.”
Flash forward, again and again, snow, leaves, rain falling, hot, sticky air. A fifteen year old girl with long brown hair and eyes like chocolate runs and walks and swings at the park, her face empty and blank as happy kids dart around her. She cries. She sobs. She screams. She screams with her eyes, but nobody comes to help. She wonders why nobody comes but then remembers that people are selfish and insincere, and she’s not capable of being loved in the first place.
She sees her reflection in a puddle on the ground. She wonders why her hair has to be such a boring brown, why her eyes have to look so empty. She wonders why she can’t just be happy like a normal person. Her foot flies into the puddle, and drops of water splash everywhere, but she can still see herself. If it was a mirror, she’d break the glass with a swipe of her fist.
She falls to the ground, knees sinking into the puddle and screams; because she wants to disappear, because things have got to get better than this.
Jolt back to present day. You start crying again, out of happiness, relief. You start crying again because now you want to be visible; because maybe things already have gotten better than that.
You stand up. You laugh. You run and yell and skip around the empty playground because now you kind of think that you will get better; because you had almost forgotten what it felt like to be real.
You jump onto a swing and pump your legs until you can’t anymore. You feel your flushed face with your fingers, love the heat that rushes to your cheeks; you smile.
The world wavers. The twelve-thirteen-fourteen-fifteen-year-old versions of yourself appear, trudging through the snow, leaving the playground, happy smiles decorating their expressions.
Their hair flutters in the wind. They turn back, wave at you, before the metal park gate clangs behind them with a note of finality.
You wave back at them. You wave until they disappear around the corner.
“Wait!” You suddenly shout, your voice ringing throughout the park. A bird chirps, and more snow begins to fall.
They reappear, flickering faintly, looking slightly impatient.
“Just so you know,” You call to them, stretching your legs out as your swing soars into the sky, “Darkness, just saying, is relative.”
They smile. And vanish for the last time, leaving only the smell of your old vanilla lotion lingering in the air.
Claire Seymour, Age 14, Grade 9, Packer Collegiate Institute, Gold Key