By Nancy Machlis Rechtman
Leona sighed. It was the morning of Cassie’s high school graduation and Leona couldn’t have been prouder. Her beautiful daughter was about to finish high school as valedictorian of her class and was busy putting the finishing touches on her speech. Leona peeked in Cassie’s room and saw her in her white cap and gown, looking exactly as Leona had always imagined she would on this very special day.
These high school years had seemed to go by in such a blur, Leona felt like a speeding train about to derail off of its tracks. How could time go so quickly? It seemed like just yesterday that Cassie was starting middle school, with her beautiful blond hair freshly cut to just above her shoulders. No more long, swingy ponytail for her; she insisted that a shorter cut was much cooler. Leona remembered Cassie’s first day of middle school well. She had gotten on the school bus, eagerly waving good-bye to Leona and joining her friends chattering away like a bunch of macaws. Leona felt her slipping away that day, but she knew that if she truly loved her daughter she had to let her go.
“Mom, all the girls wear their hair this way,” Cassie had assured her in that self-assured manner of any twelve-year-old girl talking to her clueless mother. Leona had loved Cassie’s long hair and she was feeling nostalgic about having Cassie cut it all off. “Besides, it will be so much easier to take care of now, instead of it taking hours to dry after I wash it.”
“But Cass, you’ve always had long hair,” Leona had protested, trying to hang on to the last remnant of her daughter’s childhood.
Cassie had laughed. “That’s why it’s time for a change, Mom,” she had teased.
Leona wondered why that particular moment was sticking so clearly in her mind today. After all, Cassie had blossomed into a beautiful young woman. She always got A’s in her classes, always made the Honor Roll. She was president of the Student Council and participated in many other school activities. And she had more friends than she could count.
Cassie had been a miracle child for Leona and Bert. They hadn’t worried too much at first when Leona didn’t get pregnant. But after years and years went by and Leona still didn’t get pregnant, she had finally decided that she was not meant to have children. She put on a brave face for the rest of the world, but cried herself to sleep almost every night. She didn’t want Bert to touch her anymore and she moved into the spare bedroom so that she could have peace and quiet and be left to her own private sorrow. And then one night after they came home from a small neighborhood party, Bert followed Leona into the spare room, wordlessly. Leona had not protested. And then the miracle occurred.
She knew it right away, didn’t need any tests or doctors to tell her. The thing that she thought was never meant to be had finally happened. And nine months later, there she was. Beautiful, perfect Cassie. People asked if Leona and Bert planned to have more children. Leona felt that it wasn’t really any of their business how many children she had. But she was afraid of offending anyone and politely told them that Cassie was a gift from Heaven and it wasn’t right to expect Heaven to deliver any further gifts. She was satisfied with what she had gotten.
She had pictured Cassie’s high school graduation almost as often as she had pictured Cassie’s wedding. She knew Cassie would end up being class valedictorian. From the time she was little, Cassie was always the smartest one in her class, winning all the spelling bees, and all of her teachers adored her. And she was so pretty and so nice, with friends always surrounding her. Leona had feared Cassie might end up all full of herself, thinking she was better than everyone else, but that hadn’t happened. Cassie had always worried about people and animals, the ones that nobody else seemed to care about.
Leona thought back again to that first day of middle school. When Cassie had gotten off the bus and started walking home. She had almost reached the house and Leona was heading outside to meet her when Cassie noticed a small dog lying in the road about half a block away from home. She had dropped her books and rushed to the dog’s side to try to help it. Leona had started hurrying towards her to help her get the dog out of the middle of the road. And then she had looked up in horror as she saw a bus from the elementary school barreling down the street way too fast. The driver would never see Cassie bent down in the road. Leona had charged down the street with all her might yelling at Cassie to get out of the road. Cassie had looked up at her at that last moment and heard her. Leona couldn’t pinpoint what had happened next except for the fact that Cassie somehow had managed to jump up with the dog in her arms and avoid the bus and was standing close to her, calm as could be, speaking soothingly to the little dog. Leona had blinked in amazement and when she had turned her head to yell at the driver, there was no sign of the bus anywhere. What kind of person doesn’t stop a bus to make sure that the girl he almost hit was OK? But Leona was so overwhelmed with emotion, she just focused on her beautiful daughter.
“Oh, Cass!” Leona had exclaimed. “I thought I had lost you there.”
Cassie had smiled at her mother and patted her hand. “You will never lose me, Mom, you know that.”
Leona heaved a sigh of relief as she thought back on that day. She had almost lost her precious girl in the blink of an eye. She couldn’t imagine what life would have been like if there was no more Cassie. Because then there would be no more Leona. There was no life without Cassie, that was all there was to it. She shook herself, willing herself to think only good thoughts. Happy thoughts. Her beautiful girl was graduating today; it was the beginning of a whole new stage of her life. And one day, she’d find the man of her dreams and marry him and Leona imagined all of the beautiful grandbabies she’d have.
Bert had died of a heart attack years ago and all that was left was Leona and Cassie. Leona did feel badly about Bert and often missed him, but to be honest, things had never been magical between them and she had managed to move on before most people thought she should. Some people were just downright judgmental. Soon, memories started to flood through her and Leona felt like crying. She pulled the door open to take one more look at Cassie.
“Aunt Leona?” came a voice from where Cassie should have been. Leona looked up and saw a young woman who looked a lot like her sister’s girl, Emily. But Emily was only ten years old and this was a woman who looked to be at least in her twenties.
“Can I help you?” Leona said politely.
“It’s me, Emily, Aunt Leona,” the young woman said, biting her lip. “I’ve come to visit you. Come, let’s sit down.”
“Oh, dear, two of you named Emily in one family, this is awfully confusing,” Leona said, her hands fluttering through her hair. “I supposed you’re here for Cassie’s graduation. I need to find my dress so that I can get ready to go. Where did Cassie go, anyway?”
“Please, Aunt Leona, come sit down with me. How about it if we take a walk outside and sit on a bench in the garden?” The young woman gently took Leona’s arm and started leading her out the door.
“But Cassie…” Leona protested.
“Cassie isn’t here right now. Why don’t we go sit outside?” Emily said, shaking her head sadly as they passed a nurse in the hallway.
“Of course she’s here!” Leona exclaimed. “She’s getting ready for her graduation. She’s class valedictorian, you know.”
They walked in silence, passing several people in wheelchairs sitting with their nurses. Emily noticed an empty bench and steered Leona over towards it and they sat down. Emily held Leona’s hand and allowed her shoulders to slump as she watched her aunt look around.
“Isn’t it time to leave soon?” Leona asked. “We don’t want to be late.”
“We won’t be late,” Emily assured her. “There won’t be a graduation today.”
“No?” Leona asked, becoming distracted.
“No, not today,” Emily said soothingly.
A nurse walked over and sat down next to Emily. She smiled at Leona, but Leona didn’t notice her. She was looking somewhere far away.
“How is she today?” the nurse asked.
“Today she thinks it’s Cassie’s graduation,” Emily answered softly. “Last month she thought it was Cassie’s wedding. It’s already been ten years that she’s been like this. Ever since that awful day and that stupid bus driver… Sometimes I wonder if it’s just better for her if she just stays this way forever, still seeing Cassie exactly how she always pictured her. Always perfect, always still alive.”
The nurse nodded. “Reality isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.”
Emily nodded her head. “I can’t imagine what would happen to her if she ever actually came out of this and realized the truth.”
Leona looked up at Emily. “It’s been so nice of you to come, dear. Let’s go inside and see if we can help Cassie get ready. Now, who did you say you were again?”
“Emily, Aunt Leona. I’m Emily.”
“Two of you with the same name. Isn’t that something? Well, come along now, there’s a lot to do. Cassie is waiting for me, you know.”
“Yes, Aunt Leona. I know she is,” Emily said. “And she always will be.”
Nancy Machlis Rechtman has had poetry published in Literary Yard, poetry pending publication in Paper Dragon (scheduled to be published February 10th), stories published in Highlights Magazine for Children, stories published in several other children’s magazines, plus she’s had several children’s plays both produced and published. She wrote freelance Lifestyle stories for a local newspaper, and she was the copy editor for another local paper. She write a humorous blog called Inanities at https://nancywriteon.wordpress.com/ .