I was supposed to be perfect.
My name is Nikki Anderson, and I’m fourteen years old. I have brown hair and hazel eyes and I stand 5’3” in heels.
My parents are named Scott and Amber Anderson, and they like things to be perfect. My perfectly beautiful mother married my perfectly handsome, perfectly rich father in a perfect wedding, after which they went to live in a huge, perfect house with one perfect dog and two perfect cats.
After seven years of perfect marital bliss, my perfect parents decided they wanted one child. This child would, naturally, be — you guessed it — perfect.
In my parents’ perfectly structured lives, nothing could be out of place. Not a drop of rain dared fall at the wrong moment. There could be no unexpected complications. But in this one, most crucial area of their lives — namely, their only child — fate had played a cruel trick on them.
A perfect child would be beautiful, like them. She would love parties and be very conscious of the latest fashions. She would be slender and graceful and athletic, would play the piano with unrivaled skill, would look good in anything and never fail to be charming.
A perfect child would not be chubby and plain and far too short. She would not be clumsy and painfully shy and tone-deaf. She would not despise crowds, wear clothes ten years out of style and stutter whenever she was nervous. She certainly would not hide away in her perfect room for hours, reading an endless stream of library books.
As you may have ascertained, I am not a perfect child.
Fate was unjust and unfair and inexcusable. My parents deeply regretted ever having a child in the first place. So they thought, and so they said to each other in whispers just loud enough for me to hear.
When I was young I used to lie awake at night and listen to them talk about it. Maybe she isn’t really ours, they would say. Maybe the babies got switched in the hospital and some frumpy, uncouth couple is raising our beautiful daughter. Our perfect daughter.
I would lie awake and curl myself into a tiny ball under my blankets and try not to hear them, but that never made the hurt go away. Do you know how it feels to a five-year-old to learn that she’s a royal mistake, some kind of cosmic blunder?
Well, as of today, I’m through with it all. I’ve never dared to do anything against my parents’ wishes — I’m trying to make up for being born with the wrong face and build and personality, after all — but today I’m going to do something that will prove the opinion they have held practically since I was born. Today, I’m going to prove just how much of a cosmic blunder I really am, but this time I won’t have to lie awake and listen to my parents talk about it.
No longer will they be the perfect couple with the imperfect daughter who is conveniently hidden away from their perfect friends. Now they’re going to be the couple whose imperfect daughter killed herself.
It’s a long way down; the wind blowing my hair around my face makes me feel dizzy. Even the cars look small from up here. I try not to imagine what I’ll look like when I land on the pavement far below. It won’t really matter, will it? I won’t be around to see myself.
In a few minutes, it’ll all be over. No more living with the knowledge that I’m a living error. No more trying so hard it hurts to be the perfect daughter I’ll never be. In death, I will finally get to be who I am, no more and no less. Is my future too much to sacrifice for this small but priceless gift? As I waver at the edge of eternity, I decide that it isn’t.
And then, in a second, everything changes.
“Nikki? Nikki Anderson?” With the toes of my right foot already poised over open space, I turn to see a man standing behind me. He’s dark-haired, probably in his mid thirties, and his face is pale, except for the bruise on the left side of his jaw.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” His voice holds a pleading tone. Somehow he knows what I’m planning. Somehow he even knows my name, although I’m certain I’ve never seen him before.
“Why do you care?” I ask, my voice trembling a little. Inexplicably, I’m mad at this dark-haired stranger, because I had almost mustered up the nerve to jump.
“I’m willing to bet that there are a lot of people who care.” He takes a step closer to me even though he looks like he wants nothing more than to get away from the edge as quickly as possible. “I really hate heights, you know that?”
“I love heights,” I say. I almost tell him how, when I was little, I would climb up on a roof or in a tree and imagine that I could fly away from my beautiful house and my beautiful parents and exist in an open, airy world of sky and clouds, a world where no one would care that I was clumsy and had mousy brown hair. I don’t tell him this because I have made up my mind that I’m going to jump and I don’t want to be distracted. I can tell that’s exactly what he’s doing — trying to distract me.
“So, Nikki, what — why are you up here?” He waves a hand to indicate our surroundings. I can tell that he’s trying hard not to look down at the ant-sized cars parked beneath us.
I give a short, sarcastic laugh and edge my right foot a little farther into space. “Do you know what it’s like to be a mistake? A big flashing ‘error’ message on the screen of your parents’ life?” I wave my arms for emphasis and almost lose my balance. I get a head rush from this, the same feeling I used to get when I was little and I almost convinced myself to jump from a tree just in case I really could fly.
“No.” His voice is quiet. “No, I don’t, but you know what? You aren’t a mistake, and I’ll bet your parents love you. Sometimes people don’t know how much someone means to them until that someone is gone, and sometimes … well, sometimes they just don’t know how to express how much they care.”
“Don’t you get it?” I feel tears welling up in my eyes and I’m angry, with myself for crying and with this dark-haired man from delaying my inevitable demise. “I was supposed to be the perfect child. My parents are rich and beautiful and perfect and I’m their only mistake. I’m the only flaw in their own private Eden.” I look away from this stranger’s concerned hazel eyes, back down toward the cold concrete I’m going to splatter myself on, but my eyes are so tear-hazed that I can’t see the ant-cars any more.
“You might think that, but you’re wrong. Nobody has a perfect life, no matter how rich or how beautiful they are. Nobody.” He says this with such conviction that I almost believe him.
“Nikki, if you jump right now, you’re throwing away something a lot of people don’t even get: a future. You like to read, don’t you? You’re a smart kid. Isn’t there anything you’d like to do when you grow up?”
I swipe a hand across my face, but the tears won’t stop coming. “I always wanted to get married,” I say shakily, “and have kids. A bunch of kids. I wouldn’t care if they were chubby and clumsy and couldn’t play the piano.”
“Nikki.” He pauses briefly, and a gust of cold wind tears at our clothes. “Someday you’re gonna meet a guy who doesn’t care if you’re clumsy or can’t play the piano. A guy who loves you because you’re smart and you have a beautiful smile and a good heart. But if you jump now, you’ll never meet that guy and you’ll never have those kids. You’ve got your life ahead of you, Nikki. Please don’t throw it away.” His voice has a wistful sound to it and I wonder if he wishes he was fourteen with his life still ahead of him.
I pause, not speaking, wavering on the edge that divides solid ground from empty space. He is looking into my eyes and he can sense my indecision. There is desperation in his voice now.
“Nikki, whether you want to believe it or not, there are people who love you and don’t care that you’re not perfect. People who will be hurt really bad if you leave them like this.”
Faces flash unbidden across my mental screen: Danny, my cousin who is gawky and dyslexic and shyer than I am; Maria, my best friend from school who meets me at the library nearly every day and can read almost as fast as I can; Orlando, Maria’s dark-eyed toddler brother who idolizes me and calls me Nippy because he can’t say Nikki.
Just two steps. Two small steps and I’m back on solid ground. I turn my back on the sky and my childhood hopes of flight and I let this stranger put an arm around me. He’s shaking slightly; it must be from the cold. Surely no one would care so much about me.
“Are you okay now?” He asks. I nod, unable to answer. When I finally do speak, I ask, “How’d you get the bruise?”
“Huh?” Then his face flushes slightly and he reaches up to touch it, as if he’d forgotten it was there. “It’s, uh, it’s kind of a long story.”
I nod. After a moment filled with soft wind noises and the sound of an impatient motorist’s honk from the street far below, he asks, “Are you sure you’re okay?”
I nod again. I’m staring down at my feet, at the worn, comfy Reeboks I continue to wear even though my mom says they’re disgusting. I wonder whether my feet would have hit first. Maybe I would have turned over in midair and landed on my head. Maybe I’ll never know.
I look up, opening my mouth to ask the dark-haired man’s name and how he knows so much about me, but he’s gone. I stand quietly with the cold wind and the lingering impression of a leather jacket against my cheek.
“Nikki!” Someone calls from behind me. I turn and can’t believe what I see. This woman, her red face tear-streaked, her hair windblown and her mascara hopelessly smeared, cannot possibly be my perfect mother.
Before I have the chance to say anything, she engulfs me in a hug so tight I think my ribs are going to break. “Oh my God, Nikki, I found your note and I thought — I thought — ” She’s sobbing, my mother is sobbing, blubbering with her face buried in my hair. She’s still holding my note in her left hand.
She must have called my father at work, because he shows up too and his face is paler than I’ve ever seen it and he doesn’t say anything, just puts his arms around Mom and me. We stand on the roof like that, not saying anything, just holding each other.
My name is Nikki Anderson, and I’m fourteen and not perfect. Maybe I don’t have to be.
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