I Love You, I Hate You, Don’t Leave

My therapist says it’s normal for people to touch themselves. Ew, not like that. I mean, not sexually. She says it’s not weird, and that feels like the permission slip I need to do it whenever I can. I touch my knobby knees. I never feel like they point in the right direction. I poke my thighs and watch the skin jiggle until I get up to my hipbones. They jut right out. My dad says hugging me is no fun, it’s like he’s getting stabbed in the gut. I wrap my middle finger and thumb around my wrist and go up my arm like that until my fingers no longer touch. I can go almost up to my elbow. Part of me wants to be able to go past my elbow, but I’ve always had big arms. I avoid my stomach. It’s this vast and kind of unruly white space that never seems to do what I want it to do. My boobs…I have no boobs. My dad has bigger boobs than I do, which is kind of embarrassing for both of us in my opinion.

“Hannah!”

That’s my dad, roaring at me from the bottom of the stairs, as usual. It’s my sister’s thirtieth birthday, so we’re going to the fanciest steakhouse in town. I whined and complained already, but there’s no getting out of it. I checked out the restaurant’s menu ahead of time and wrote down the salad I want with all the things I want them to take off of it.

“Hannah Banana!”

You know those childhood nicknames that never seem to crawl away and die like they should?

“I’m coming!”

“I don’t hear you moving!”

“That’s because I’m like a cat in the night!”

I’m pretty light on my feet, and I’m proud of that. My dad’s weight announces his presence wherever he goes.

“Hey, Miss Cat in the Night! Get down here.”

That’s my sister, Jen. Oh no, that means…

“Auntie Banana! Auntie Banana!”

The brats, I mean, my nephews are here. They refuse to call me Aunt Hannah like dignified children would. They can’t even say Banana like five year olds should. It’s baNAnnnA.

I take my time going down the stairs. I stop by the table in the hallway. It’s an antique Dad inherited from some old aunt. It’s heavy, made of real solid wood with cherubs lining the legs. There’s an open envelope lying on the top. We’re not supposed to put anything on that table, so I pick it up to move it downstairs. Then, I notice it’s from Dad’s doctor. I move back down the hall toward my room and pull out the test results inside. Dad’s cholesterol is still high. No surprise there. But his glucose is slightly elevated too. Does this mean Dad has diabetes? My chest hurts. After a couple more shouts of “Auntie Banana,” I put the envelope back and head downstairs.

It seems kind of unfair that life, or at least adolescence, is about getting away from my parents, but the older I get, the more I seem to carry them along.

When I meet my family at the bottom of the stairs, I notice my sister looks older. I guess single motherhood can do that to a person. Other than the whole looking old thing, my sister could be my twin. We have the same long reddish-blonde hair and brown eyes. We’re the same height, about average. And we both have our father’s cheeks and our mother’s nose and hips. No matter how much the rest of me shrinks, I can’t seem to get rid of my father’s cheeks or my mother’s hips. It seems kind of unfair that life, or at least adolescence, is about getting away from my parents, but the older I get, the more I seem to carry them along.

“That’s a nice skirt. A little short though, don’t you think, Dad?” Jen turns to him.

Dad shrugs.

“Happy Birthday,” I say as I hug her. She grunts when my hip hits her side.

“Geez, Han. Good thing we’re going to the steakhouse. You need to put some meat on those bones. That’s the goal, right?”

That’s actually not the goal of treatment, or at least not the only goal. But Jen doesn’t get that. And pointing out the hip bones? So not necessary.

I gently run a finger along the side of her face. “Those wrinkles, babe, you really should do something about them.”

I turn away from her real quick before I see her hurt look and I start to feel bad. But I end up turning right into my father’s glare. His dirty looks never last long though. He’s basically Santa Claus. Round face, huge cheeks, overflowing girth, fat legs, and black boots. He’s always wearing black boots. He almost went to Scotland in college but couldn’t afford the trip. Ever since then, he’s collected kilts. Half his closet—what used to be Mom’s half—is full of kilts. Dress kilts, casual kilts, hunting kilts, camping kilts, dancing kilts. The only reason he’s not wearing a kilt this night is because my sister forbids it. He wears them “regimental style.” That’s code for commando. My sister doesn’t want her kids getting the wrong idea. Can’t say I blame her.

I do all the laundry for both Dad and me. He wouldn’t know what to do with fabric softener if the directions kissed him on the lips. And I’ve never seen underwear in his hamper… I try not to think about that too hard.

Dad hugs me. Whoever came up with the term “bear hug” must have been hugged by my father at some point. His hugs are tight and overpowering. It’s like he’s trying to fill me with love from the outside in. “I love you,” he says. But I hear: Fighting makes me uncomfortable.

When he pulls away, one look at Jen’s face tells me she got a similar hug, probably longer and harder, since it’s her birthday, so I shouldn’t complain.

“Let’s go!” He says, looking from me to Jen and back at me. “To the car!”

The boys, Mark and Matthew, run out the front door to Dad’s truck. “Han, you and Jen can ride together. I’ll take the boys.”

It’s a punishment, I know. I try to think of a way to smooth things over with my sister. We walk side by side, our arms almost touching. I look down and wonder exactly how much bigger her arm is than mine. When I first look at it, I think hers is twice as big, but when I look for a little longer, it’s like my arm starts to grow until I can’t really tell a difference. I just stop looking.

“I’ve always wanted to go to this steakhouse. At some point, I’m going to have to get some man to take me there on a date because I would like to actually have a drink there. They get their beer from local breweries.”

This is the first time we’ve celebrated Jen’s birthday since Mom died almost a year ago, so I’m trying to be polite. We each responded to my mom’s death in a different way. Jen got all control freaky. She’s never broken a rule, not even jay-walked. Her kids are out of control and her ex-husband is out of control, but I think that’s because she tries so hard to control them. Rebellious buggers. Dad got overly affectionate, like smothering us with love. I guess the opposite would be worse. But once you hear “I love you” a thousand times a day, it starts sounding like “I need you” or “Don’t leave me.”

And me? I got skinny. I got skinny to the point that I was passing out. And then, there was an incident at a breakfast fundraiser thing at school. I threw all the bacon into a dumpster and set it on fire. The school made my father force me into treatment. That’s where I learned bacon is a trigger food, but I don’t tell anyone that because, really, who in the real world has trigger foods?

Food killed my mother. No, wait, I’m not supposed to say that. Therapist’s “orders.” Food didn’t kill my mother. Her lack of self-control around food did. I’m not supposed to say that either, but it’s true.

Here’s the party line: my mother died from complications from diabetes involving her kidneys. She was on dialysis for three years before kidney failure tragically took her life.

Here’s my line: my mother ate herself to death. She got type 2 diabetes even without being at high risk because her eating was out of control. The diabetes destroyed her body.

Mom died less than a year ago, and she was sick for years before that. I can only remember her as a sick, fat person.

When we get to the steakhouse, I can smell grease and fat from the parking lot. Okay, I don’t really know if you can smell fat, but whatever they are cooking with smells disgusting.

When we get out of the car, Dad is sniffing the air. “Smell that, honey? Smell that? That’s what heaven smells like.”

I roll my eyes.

“I love you,” he says. What he means is: don’t act up.

Once we are sitting at the table, Mark and Matthew start fighting over the crayons for their menus. Jen manages to ignore them for a full five minutes before separating the pile of crayons into two separate camps. I’m glad she said something because I was about to snap on both boys.

I never open my menu. But I can’t help but notice the food that goes by our table: a double helping of mashed potatoes, broccoli with a slab of butter in the middle, rare steaks, huge steaks, steak strips. My chest starts to constrict. I can’t eat here. Whatever they cook will surely be dripping with butter and other unnecessary calories that could kill me.

“What are you going to get?” Jen asks. I’m thankful. Her question pulls me out of my head and reminds me that I have a plan.

“A salad,” I reply.

“Just a salad? Why don’t you try one of the small steaks?”

“No thanks.” I rummage in my purse looking for a piece of gum. Chewing calms me down.

“Oh come on, Han. It’s my birthday. We’re all getting steak. One steak isn’t going to kill you.”

Jen never went to the family meetings I had in the treatment center. She didn’t learn that she isn’t supposed to push me. Dad figures as long as I’m eating something, everything is fine and there’s no need to adjust anyone else’s behavior.

“I’m getting a salad.”

“But what about this steak right here. It’s in thin strips on top of a bed of cooked spinach. Doesn’t that sound healthy and yummy?”

I groan, look around, and spot our waitress just in time. She is one of those goody-two-shoes types who is probably only sixteen and already working to save up for college. I can just tell. The way her hair is pulled back in a high ponytail with a scrunchie. I didn’t even know they still made scrunchies. Her fingernails are all painted the same pale pink. Who paints all their fingernails the same color anymore, other than old people?

She gave us the usual spiel: “Hi, my name is Amber and I’ll be your server today. What can I get for you?” Her ponytail pops after every word, like it’s adding punctuation. She places a basket of breadsticks on the table. Each of the boys grabs two before anyone can say something. I smile and wish they will eat all of them before anyone can ask me if I want one.

I order their Garden Salad Supreme without the potatoes, the meat, the dried cranberries, the croutons, the fried onions, and with the dressing on the side. Jen glares at me. She and Dad order the special of the day: a twelve ounce steak with two sides. Jen chooses broccoli and mashed potatoes. Dad chooses two baked potatoes.

“I’d like both of those loaded, please.” Dad puts all our menus in a pile.

“Loaded?” The waitress puckers her lips out.

“Yes. With bacon, sour cream, chives, cheddar cheese, and maybe a little bit of onion.”

“Oh. We don’t have bacon.” I can’t take my eyes off of her ponytail. It has a mind of its own.

“What do you mean you don’t have bacon?” Dad asks. He asks it a little loudly in my opinion. But Jen doesn’t seem to mind. He laughs a little, like the waitress is playing a mean joke on him. “You mean you don’t usually put bacon on the baked potatoes. That’s okay, dear. Make it a special order.”

“No, sir, I mean we don’t actually have bacon in this restaurant.”

“At all?”

“Dad, please calm down. Or at least quiet down,” Jen says.

See? I told you he was being loud.

“Fine.” He folds his arms over his Santa belly and stares at the waitress. “Do you at least have sour cream and butter?”

“Yes, sir, we do. I’ll make sure I bring that out with your baked potato.”

Dad turns his attention to the twins, his way of avoiding his anger. Or, more likely, his way of avoiding the judgment of his daughters.

“Do you want a breadstick?” Jen asks.

“No, thank you.” I reply. My back stiffens, preparing for the fight to come.

She bristles but decides not to push it. I exhale.

She turns to me with this bounce like we’re best friends. “So, Han, what’s going on in your life?”

“What do you mean?” I’m not doing the best friend bounce.

“I mean, what’s going on in the world of Hannah?”

Was that actually meant to be a more specific question? “Nothing much. School.”

“It’s your senior year, isn’t it? Are you still making up credits?”

I can’t believe she’s bringing this up. I had to take a couple months off of school in the beginning of the year, half a year after Mom died, because of the bacon incident and the passing out. That’s when the therapist came in with her Marching Orders for Food and Life. She doesn’t like it when I call them that. But I think that’s just too bad for her. I “graduated” from treatment three months ago.

“I was never making up credits, Jen. I still completed my homework while I was out of school. Took tests and everything.”

“How’d you do that if you weren’t in school? Like if no one was teaching you?”

“I taught myself the stuff,” I mumbled. It wasn’t really something I liked to admit. I really like school. But from October through January, I didn’t need teachers to understand the work.

Jen just nods. This is why I hate telling people this stuff. It’s like suddenly people have nothing to say. But she had plenty to say when she thought I was struggling to keep up. Like just because I spent a couple months in “treatment,” I’m supposed to be broken.

“You look good,” Jen says after a moment.

I want to ask her her motivations. But socially competent people aren’t supposed to do that. I smile and pretend I’m not suspicious.

I wonder why she says it. Is she fishing for a compliment? Trying to get me to say, “oh thanks, you look good too”? Or is she confused by my eating habits? Does she think all I want is to look a certain way so somehow validating that I “look good” will make me want to eat? I want to ask her her motivations. But socially competent people aren’t supposed to do that. I smile and pretend I’m not suspicious.

“Thanks.” I say it even though I don’t mean it.

The waitress comes back with our food. When she places Dad’s steak in front of him with two large baked potatoes on either side of the meat, Dad gets to his feet.

“I’ll be back.”

I figure he’s going to the bathroom, and so I don’t look up from the salad I’m poking when he comes back.

“Dad, seriously?” Jen says.

My head snaps up, and my mouth drops open. I actually can’t keep my lips together. “What are you doing?” I know I’m loud. I know it. And the look on Jen’s face confirms it.

But you have to understand: my father came back into the restaurant with a chilled pack of bacon.

“Did you seriously go to the store?”

“I had it in my truck.” He grins, and I know he’s proud of himself. I can’t believe it. He rips the packet open and takes out seven strips of bacon. He starts ripping the bacon into pieces and mushing it into his potatoes.

My lip curls to the left. My hands start to tingle with anxiety and frustration. Bacon, seriously? What is he thinking? Is he trying to be like—

A picture forms. Mom on the couch. Her swollen ankles propped up on an ottoman.

And I am cuddled next to her on the couch while we watched some Disney movie. I had missed most of the movie because I had to get stuff for Mom. She couldn’t move around well by that point. I had just gotten her a glass of water and some gorilla in the movie was complaining about something. Before that, I got her a magazine and cookies. Before that, it was ice cream. Before that, it was her pills and a Coke.

Finally, the oven beeped. “Can you get that for me, baby?”

I was nine years old at the time, and that night for dinner, it was just me and Mom. Dad was still at work, and Jen was doing school stuff. We were having thirty-two wieners wrapped in bacon. I had prepared them myself. I took out two plates. On one plate, I set aside five small wieners for me. The rest was for Mom.

When I think back now about watching her eat all that bacon, it makes my stomach turn. I watch Dad basically doing the same thing, going everywhere with bacon in his truck, like he can’t be separated from it for a single moment. And I’m the unhealthy one?

Doesn’t he know that bacon is what landed me in treatment to begin with? Doesn’t he know that I hate it? Oh wait. I shake my head. He doesn’t know. I didn’t tell him that. And Dad’s not the kind of guy to pick up on subtle hints or clues. He has to be told stuff directly. What I told him when I left treatment three months ago is that I couldn’t be better, that I’ve been cured. I didn’t actually think he would believe me. I grunt and cross my arms over my chest. My whole family is clueless, and I’ve lost my appetite.

Dad winks and says, “I love you.” What I hear is: calm down.

I don’t say anything for the rest of the dinner. You may not believe this, but I really did try to think of something to say. I don’t want to be a drag at my sister’s birthday dinner. I mean, it’s kind of pathetic that she was spending her birthday with me and Dad instead of friends or a husband. I don’t want to make her feel any worse. Plus, she’s thirty. I’m trying to be nice, but can’t get the image of Mom and the bacon out of my head.

Dad finishes the whole pack of bacon while he and Jen sit and talk. Jen doesn’t seem bothered by it at all.

When I get home, I go straight to my room. Dad and Jen stay and talk long after Mark and Matthew fall asleep. I hear their voices murmuring and every so often Dad tries not to laugh too loud and fails. On my bed, I touch my arms, squeezing from wrist to shoulder. I reach down. I think I have longer than average arms. My fingers grab my toes and then the balls of my feet. I lean back and rest my hands on my thighs until the house is silent. I realize my hands are touching my body, but I don’t feel my body. I’m here but not here.

Then, I do something I haven’t done since before “treatment.” I tiptoe downstairs with a notebook and pen ready in my hands. I take inventory of all the food in the house, except the spices. I can’t explain why, but the spices don’t seem important. There’s nothing out of the ordinary—chicken breast, frozen broccoli, canned soup, canned peas. The list goes on and on and is three pages long by the time I’m done, and notice something’s missing.

I creep out to the garage. I know Dad has an extra freezer out here, but this is his man space, so I’m rarely in it. He’s changed it around since the last time I brought him a beer during a football game. The television is larger and flatter than before. The couch is leather and there are two overstuffed recliners, also leather. The freezer is all the way in the corner. I stare at it from across the room. I can’t tell you how I know, but I know what I’m looking for is in it.

But even though I know what I know, I’m not prepared for what I see. Every shelf, from the top to the bottom, is filled with bacon. Boxes and boxes of bacon, like he bought it in bulk from one of those discount-buy-in-bulk stores. I don’t move for a while.

I stop thinking. My therapist says this happens sometimes. People stop thinking and just end up feeling all their feelings. My feelings push me closer to the freezer. My feelings push me to grab a box off of the top shelf. My feelings prompt me to open the box and stick a whole pack in Dad’s personal microwave. Once it’s thawed, I double check to make sure it’s really ready. And then I start.

*     *     *

By the time the sun comes up, I feel nothing. That’s not true. There’s a mild tingling in my toe. I’m on the leather couch, surrounded by boxes of bacon. The freezer is about half empty. I shove another three slices in my mouth at once and chew slowly.

To say food is complicated would be an understatement. In this moment, I want my father to understand that I will sacrifice myself to keep him around. I can’t lose another parent. Not any time soon.

I’m surprised I’m not nauseous. Or maybe I am, and I just don’t know it yet? I lean back against the couch, and that’s when I see the picture of Mom. She’s on the beach, her toes buried in the sand, a white cover-up shrouds her body from her shoulders to her knees. She’s smiling at the camera. My mom had a pretty face. She was the only one in the family with blue eyes, and they were a deep blue, like jewels. Her round, high cheekbones naturally had a rosy tint, so she never needed blush. Her skin was clear, smooth, and radiant. It used to make me mad when people would say that, you know? Like that’s what you say about fat people: she has a pretty face. But in my mom’s case, it was true. She did have a pretty face.

I remember that day at the beach. Even though it hurt, she rolled around in the sand with us for hours. We made a sand castle that was actually big enough for me to sit in and pretend to be a princess. She would always tell me she loved me. And it didn’t sound like anything else.

I open my eyes.

“What did you do?” Dad bellows.

“I am saving you.”

“What?”

“You’re diabetic.”

“No, sweetheart. That was Mom.” He looks at me in confusion.

“But the test?” I open my eyes again and try to sit up, but I can’t. It’s like I’m stuck.

“How much did she eat?”

Oh great, Jen is here. I can tell from her tone that she’s judging me and feeling a little superior. I’m too tired to argue even in my head.

Then, the pain sets in. I start to moan. The stabbing begins, it travels from one side to the other and back again. Then it moves to my belly button and stays there, stabbing, over and over.

“We’ve got to get her to the hospital.” I don’t know who says it. I close my eyes, wishing that my body wouldn’t be my body for a little while longer.

The next hour is a bumpy one. I bump in my dad’s arms as he carries me to the car. I bump in the car as we travel over speed tables. I bump on the raised yellow thingies when they wheel me into the emergency room. I bump as they push the gurney down the hallway. After all the bumps, when it’s quiet, my body leaves again. Peace.

When I open my eyes, I feel empty. Or more accurately, I feel emptied out. My mouth feels funny. I reach up and rub against it. When I pull my hand away, it’s covered in black stuff. Charcoal. They must have pumped my stomach. Dad is sitting in the chair across from me, tossing something in his mouth but I can’t tell what it is. He’s wearing his comfy kilt. They are his equivalent of comfy sweatpants.

My voice croaks, whatever they gave me makes my throat hurt. “I love you.” But I mean: don’t leave me.

Jasmine EvansJasmine Evans is a writer and curriculum designer from the San Francisco Bay Area. She is earning her MFA in Creative Writing at Mills College. Her short stories have appeared in The Copperfield ReviewHeater, and Bread for God’s Children. When she’s not working on a story or article, she loves to browse used bookstores for gems and play with her cat, Yuki.

The Magic Hour

The man who had been nicknamed The Count wanted to know if I was a painter.

“Not really,” I said. But I could see why he would think that. I was standing in the middle of the alley holding a heavy painter’s brush and looking down on a row of dusty cans of Benjamin-Moore blue, and Sherman-Williams yellow among others. I had just finished covering the graffiti scrawled across the back of my dad’s garage the day before. But the white paint over the stucco wall seemed too clean for the alley. It needed to be scarred.

“Paint me. I am handsome, yes?” The Count said, then offered a wide grin. He placed the two plastic bags he had been carrying down, and struck a pose pointing one foot slightly forward, then put his right hand on his hip. He thrust his rounded chin out and cast his eyes toward the sky. Even in our worn down alley, where weeds sprouted from cracks in the asphalt, he reminded me of oil paintings of Napoleon, or George Washington.

“I don’t paint people,” I told him. “I just thought I would add some color.”

For almost two years since he moved into the neighborhood, The Count always dressed in a midnight blue, three piece suit. On colder days, he would wear a black wool cloak draped over his shoulders. A black felt beret always covered his head, and a long, thick, graying ponytail hung down the back of his neck. The Count always carried bulging plastic bags that dangled from his gloved hands. The bags came from the Walgreens nearby on San Fernando Road. Neighbors in the area had nicknamed him The Count not only because of the way he dressed but also because his eye teeth were long. He was like Count-Chocula in real life. The very sight of him coming down the alley made boys turn their bikes and skateboards around toward the opposite end.

The Count lived in a converted garage behind a house that belonged to an older woman I knew only as Mama Sarkis. She was at least 90 years old and she ate a lot of yogurt with diced Persian cucumbers. People said that’s likely what kept her strong and healthy enough to maintain a house and guest room on her own. The entrance to The Count’s room faced the alley and he had a clear view of the back of my dad’s garage from a small window just to the right of his door. Sometimes, boys dared each other to bang hard on the wall of his home hoping to catch a glimpse of The Count’s room before they ran. But The Count would open then shut the door quick, leaving most kids to imagine a coffin, candelabras, and cobwebs. I had watched him a few times from my bedroom window which also faced the alley. He always kept his eyes down and never spoke to anyone, which is why I wondered if The Count was experiencing a late case of spring fever. He seemed giddy as he struck a pose in the alley and his voice was nothing like I had imagined. It was kind of gravely, like that of a man who needed to clear the phlegm from the back of his throat. He spoke with an accent similar to my dad’s. He pulled a long, thin cigarette away from his full lips and smiled, exposing his yellowed eye teeth.

“That’s OK, my dear. You paint what you like,” he said, as cigarette smoke flowed from his nostrils.

“I don’t know what that is yet,” I said.

Before he paused to speak with me, I had been staring at the back of my dad’s garage for about a half hour, kind of hypnotized. They say if you look straight into a white wall long enough, you’ll get that way, like you’re stoned or stuck in a day dream.

“You have no school?” he asked. I was surprised.

I thought of The Count as someone everyone else watched, but who never gathered information on us.

“It’s summer break,” I said. “I’m supposed to be at a special arts and photography program in San Francisco, but my dad wouldn’t let me go.”

I’m not sure why I told him that, but I was still so mad at my dad that I think I had to complain.

“Photography? Will you take my picture?” he asked.

“No. I can’t,” I replied. I was trying to be nice, but I was annoyed.

“What kind of pictures do you like to take?” he asked.

“I want to be a photojournalist,” I told him. “But I probably won’t be.”

The Count had been standing in the sun while we talked. He placed the cigarette back between his lips, picked up the plastic bags he brought with him, and walked across the alley to stand under a rusted awning that hung above the door of his home. He stayed there for a moment, then changed his mind. He placed his bags on the ground again. He found an abandoned shopping cart nearby, pushed it over to the shade, then tilted it so that it sat on its side, its wheels suspended and twirling around. Before sitting on the cart, he lifted the tails of his suit, then folded his hands in his lap and looked up at me.

“I really can’t.”

“You do your best,” he said.

I kept going, every now and then turning around to memorize pieces of The Count’s face—the shadow under his bottom lip, slightly over the meat of his chin.

I turned my back to him and opened a few cans of paint. I poured drops the size of pancakes into my mixing tin. I played with the colors for a while, blending white with yellow, and adding some brown. I created a dark beige, then lightened it up again with white, and tapped in some red. What I made was a pretty good skin tone. I held my breath as I gripped the brush with the new color and began to dab it over the white stucco, feeling the hairs move over the tiny bumps of the wall. Little by little, dabs came together and I created a giant oval shape as tall and wide as I could reach, then brought my brush back to my mixing tin, caught some brown and a little black. I kept going, every now and then turning around to memorize pieces of The Count’s face—the shadow under his bottom lip, slightly over the meat of his chin. I grabbed more black for his thick, arched eyebrows. I started to feel good. I lightened the color for the nostrils set at an angle from his jaw line. I dipped my brush in again and found some red to create melon, the color for his generous lips. I ignored his teeth that jutted out. I took more brown and black for the shade of darkness under his eyes. His eyes. I hadn’t looked.

“You OK?” My mom had been standing in the alley watching, her arms crossed over her chest. She used her eyes to point at the man on the cart.

“Yeah, I’m just painting The Cou…our neighbor.”

My mom turned toward him for a moment. I knew she wasn’t afraid of him, but she didn’t expect to see me hanging out with a stranger. She kept her arms crossed, and I blushed with shame as she spoke to me in Spanish, asking if I really was OK, as if The Count was holding me hostage.

“My mom asked if you would like some water,” I lied to The Count.

“No. No, thank you,” he replied bashfully. As my mom walked away, she looked back, but I pretended not to see her. I didn’t want The Count to feel as if we were gossiping about him through our stares.

“Your mama is Spanish?” The Count asked.

“She’s Cuban,” I said as I painted.

“Ah, I visited Cuba once. Muy boe-nee-toe!” the Count said in his best Spanish. “I once sat in the place where Hemingway used to drink.”

“Really?”

“Yes…your father…Cuban too?”

“No. He’s Middle Eastern,” I said.

I felt the tips of my ears burn. For a moment, I wanted to put the brush down and walk away. Instead, I dabbed faster, harder, the anger resurfacing as I thought of my dad.

“From where?”

“From Iraq” I said. “He’s Assyrian.”

“Syrian? Me too! I am Armenian from Syria,” he said.

I kept on painting. I was going to let it go as I usually did because I hated everything about this conversation. I was angry that people kept asking me if I was part of a terrorist group. But I felt I had to correct him because I also was tired of not existing.

“No, he’s Assyrian. Uh-Syrian,” I said, then I paused to give him a chance to tell me he didn’t know what that was, or that Assyrians were a prehistoric race long gone as one librarian once said to me, or that there was no “Assyria” on any map according to my sixth grade teacher, or that a people without a country, who were scattered across the world, were as good as nobodies, as my dad always said after drinking two cans of beer.

When I told my aunt once I felt invisible, she nodded in understanding.

“We are a people who are the color of wet sand and hearts filled with sorrow,” she said. “To be one of us is to be forgotten by the world.”

But The Count’s expression changed.

“Ah, yeah, yeah…Ashouri,” he said with glee. “We call them Ah-ShOOR-ee. They are a very ancient people, once very good warriors. I knew an Ashouri once. He was my friend. We built big buildings together in Damascus. When I see your father, I will tell him, hello my Ashouri friend!”

I turned toward him and I noticed The Count was looking down. I could tell his mind was somewhere in Damascus, maybe even remembering the Assyrian.

“Were you an architect?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I built houses for dignitaries and generals. Mansions with many rooms and fountains in the gardens. They threw parties for me. I wore this suit…”

He had kept his hands folded on his lap the whole afternoon. His closed lips formed a slight smile, but I could tell he was choking on sadness.

“I came here because of the war,” he said. “My wife cried all the time in Syria. When we came here, I found no work. They told me I needed to go to school again to be an architect. I once built palaces. But here they won’t even let me build a garage. I wanted to go back to Syria, but my wife told me she wanted to be free. She took my daughter and went to San Jose. Now she lives with another man.”

A car passed through the alley as he spoke, forcing me to move my paint cans back and forth, but I continued to dab and add color. As The Count remembered his former life, I realized I hadn’t looked at anyone or anything in weeks the way I looked at him while I painted. I suppose there are worse things than to be an artist who isn’t allowed to see. When I was invited to attend a free summer program for young artists in San Francisco, I told my friend Anita, who warned me during lunchtime that I should forget about it.

“You won’t go,” she said, before she bit into a pita bread, feta cheese, and tomato sandwich.

“Your dad is too overprotective. Our parents don’t go for that shit.”

So I was ready to defy her and my dad. He was unimpressed when I told him I had earned a spot in the class. I had always sketched and painted. I started taking candid photos for the yearbook last year and I asked my teacher to help me apply to the program.

“Why do you want to go so far?” my dad asked, when I looked at maps on the Internet, eager to learn everything about San Francisco.

“You’re crazy,” he argued. “You have a house, a bed, and food. You’re 14-years-old. Everything you need is here.”

Yes, I was 14. But I didn’t care about boys or beer or the black tar heroin my classmates bought in the parking lot of the strip mall we called the tar pits. I didn’t spend hours at salons straightening my thick, dark brown hair, or waxing my eyebrows until they were perfect black strips across my forehead. I just wanted to go. So much so, that during algebra and history classes my leg shook up and down like a jack hammer under my desk. I twirled my pen around my fingers like I had seen drummers do in those music videos from the 1980s my mom liked to watch. I sketched in my notebook the girls who sat next to me or else the back of boys’ heads. My teachers complained that I was restless. But I was as focused as anyone could be. I wanted what I wanted and the only one in my way was my dad, who didn’t appreciate that I didn’t give him any trouble.

“I have to go!” I had yelled at him the day I was set to leave. Why couldn’t he understand that I needed to travel, to be in the world, to see it inside out, to capture people in motion, people living. I never asked for much, I told him. This is who I wanted to become. But he wanted me home, to sit and wait out my desires in the tiny Glendale home where I grew up, in a neighborhood packed with small houses and apartments where the pretty Armenian and Middle Eastern girls rarely ventured out and only met boys at church. He wanted the neighbors to know I wasn’t wild hearted, or that I had left because my family was bad to me.

“We are so few,” my dad had said with calm. “A family that is split apart is nothing.”

But I walked away anyway that day toward the bus stop with my backpack slung on my shoulder. I knew if I took bus No. 92 on San Fernando Road, I would get to Union Station in downtown L.A. There, I would buy a train ticket with the money I saved to San Francisco. I also knew as I walked away that I shouldn’t have looked back. But I did. There he was, standing on the corner of Irving Avenue and Glenwood Road where I used to wait for him to return home from work. He looked wounded, and even from where I stood, I could see his hazel eyes watered.

I was not as brave as I had imagined myself to be all those months before summer started, when I lay on my bed to stare at the dozens of pictures I had torn out of old National Geographic magazines that the library didn’t want anymore. In my mind, I was Margaret Bourke-White, documenting wars or else finding the remaining Assyrians in the mountains of Iraq my father told me about. I imagined I would be like Graciela Iturbide, discovering villages where roofs sagged under sun and dust. I would arrive into cities filled with people with expressions that revealed anguish or pleasure. I thought of myself walking through towns, cool and friendly and laughing as children pointed and stroked the camera around my neck. I even made up conversations I would have with locals while I drew them in my sketch book. They would invite me into their homes, offer me black tea and baklava. The photographs I would take would be featured on the covers of those same magazines I memorized. I wanted to make each man or woman I met a somebody to the world.

But he had always gotten his way. My father, who wasn’t even a very tall man, whose people had no country, whose language was almost dead, could hurt me with a few words and then silence. Even as I sat inside Union Station, a train ticket in my hand, his stare pulled me back. I stayed there only an hour before I took the No. 92 bus back home. It was too hard to hurt him. The Count was right: Assyrians were good warriors.

The first week into the summer I didn’t talk to my friends. I just kept to myself, and slept almost all day on top of the new, lilac colored comforter my mom bought for me because she thought it would make me happy. I listened as trains passed on tracks only two blocks away, their horns blowing loud as they sped by. I tried to imagine all the places where they stopped. My hands started shaking during the second week while I was unpacking the clothes from my backpack. My dad had come home from work, from the factory where he assembled airplane seats, and found me sitting cross-legged on my bedroom floor. I rocked back and forth and cried. My legs felt weak even though I wasn’t standing.

“Why are you crying?” he asked. “No one has died. Come and have dinner.”

But I felt like he was killing me inside and my mom understood. She had seen the way my foot shook under the kitchen table, how I popped chewing gum into my mouth, then threw it away and took another. In the meantime, dust began to gather between the lever and shutter speed dial on a classic Pentax K-1000 I had bought at a second-hand shop a few blocks from my house. I told my mom that if I couldn’t use it the way I wanted, there was no point in having it at all. She never was the type to listen to my dramatic proclamations. Instead, she had noticed the graffiti on the back of the garage and asked my dad if I could paint over it. I heard my dad tell my mom that the alley was no place for a girl. I knew he was imagining me getting dragged into a garage or beaten and robbed by tweekers. But my mother insisted. She said she would buy the paints for me herself. They argued like that for a while until she came into my room, winked, and gave me the thumbs up.

Both she and I knew there was little danger in the alley. The Count was like the neighborhood stray cat that chased away the mice. Only a few neighborhood boys had chosen to gather further down the mouth of the alley to smoke bidis or play kick ball with giant avocados that had fallen into the alley from an overflowing backyard tree. It was obvious many feared The Count because whomever spray painted on my dad’s garage was in too much of a hurry and wrote “Fuk d cops.” As I worked and tried to forget how I gave up and gave in to the familiarity of home, the dabs of colorful paint came together and the Count’s face began to surface from the stucco. But my arm began to hurt and I stopped.

“How can I know what to look for if I’m not allowed to go out there to see?” I said aloud to the wall.

“Nothing out there is different than it is here,” The Count replied.

I turned to him and he had stood up and lit a cigarette.

“But it is,” I said.

“You can find battlefields of suffering anywhere,” he said. “You can find the people you imagine in faraway places right around the corner. Everything and everyone you need is right here.”

I threw my brush down hard, and some melon-colored paint splattered onto my sneakers and the cuffs of my jeans. A drop hit the painting, right on The Count’s cheek.

“Maybe your wife left you because you didn’t let her live,” I said before I could stop. The words shot out of my mouth like a rock in the hand of a neighborhood bully who pelted anyone who came in his field of vision. The Count gave me a long look, then turned his back. He pulled a set of keys from his pocket, picked up his two plastic bags and walked to the door of his apartment.

I remember learning that it was the time of day known to photographers as the magic hour, when the sun dips below the horizon and there’s a gold tone to the sky, making the sharp edges of buildings look soft or the lines around the eyes or lips seem harmless.

“Wait here,” The Count said. What I told him just kind of hung over the alley along with the smell of my mom’s fried plantains from my house and the Persian kabobs on barbecues from neighbors’ backyards. Even though it was still light out, it was getting late. I remember learning that it was the time of day known to photographers as the magic hour, when the sun dips below the horizon and there’s a gold tone to the sky, making the sharp edges of buildings look soft or the lines around the eyes or lips seem harmless. The Count opened the door to his room. I froze, thinking that maybe he was going to get a knife or a gun. After a few minutes passed, I took a deep breath and walked toward the open door. As I got close, I felt cool air come from the darkness.

“Hello?” I said into the darkness. “I’m sorry.”

I tried to keep my eyes down in respect, but I couldn’t. I looked inside and saw dozens of boxes lined neatly against the walls, piled from floor to ceiling. The Count had disappeared into a maze of cardboard, so I dipped my head inside further. The boxes were all new. Each one contained some kind of small appliance, like a toaster oven or a clock radio and those mini-grills on special at the drug store. There was a blow dryer, a curling iron, a coffee maker, and Corningware dishes, all still in boxes. The Count emerged suddenly. He offered me a fresh, damp towel for my hands, but without a smile.

“Thank you,” I said, not looking at him. “You have a lot of things. Do you sell them?”

The Count ignored the question for a moment, then looked up at the mural of his face.

“I have no house and I have no wife,” he said. “All I have is a few clothes and this suit, and many things for my daughter who is getting married.”

I kept wiping my hands, wondering if he was a hoarder of some sort.

“Do you ever get scared someone will come and rob you?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “No one comes here.”

“Don’t you ever think of moving to a bigger place? It’s too small for you and your things. You deserve better than to live in this…hole.”

The Count shook his head, then smiled at me, his eye teeth resting on his full lower lip.

“My dear, we come out of a hole when we are born,” he said. “They put us in a hole when we die. If you have no one to love and no one loves you, you may as well live in a hole too.”

He disappeared back inside his home and closed the door. I stood there with the towel, waiting for him. I felt as if I had ruined our time together. I turned toward my painting. The sky began to darken. An alley light flickered on and I saw my father standing close by looking at the giant face. My dad had told me a story once about how his father had bought him a pencil for his first day of school. But when his father discovered that my dad used the pencil to sketch soldiers and racecars into his notebook, my grandfather yanked it from his hands. He slapped my dad across his forehead, and yelled that the pencil was only for school. I remember asking my dad how much that pencil had cost, if it was a fancy one that had to be refilled with lead.

“No, it wasn’t fancy,” my dad had said. “It cost only a penny.”

I asked him why my grandpa had gotten so angry.

“I think he was afraid,” my dad had said. “He was afraid of what I could do with that pencil. He was afraid my dreams would take me away from him.”

As I thought about that story, my dad studied my painting of The Count. He pointed out that there were no eyes. I told him I wanted to finish it into the night and just as he was about to argue, The Count opened his door slightly and peeked outside.

“Shlama Ashoury my friend!” The Count said. He laughed a little as he tried to greet my dad with the few Assyrian words he knew. My father went toward him, but with some caution.

“Barev, barev,” my dad said in the Armenian language.

The two men shook hands and stumbled around with each other’s languages for a few seconds until they settled on Arabic. I listened to them speak as I moved my brush to add strokes of highlights and shadows. Finally, I was ready. I read in an art magazine that people think it’s the color of the eyes that reveal the soul, but really, it’s the skin around them that tells you more; the droop of the lids, the fragile lines etched at the corners, the crease between the brows. And then it is the color that comes through, the light green, like that of sun-nourished spring leaves, surrounded by a hint of caramel brown.

“Soon, it is my daughter’s wedding day,” the Count told my father in English. “I have many presents to give her, but she does not want these things from me. I am nobody to her.”

My father spoke to him in Arabic again and I didn’t understand what they were discussing, only that it sounded as if they were arguing and my dad kept shaking his head.

The Count then sighed heavily and I turned to see that my dad nodded and the men shook hands again. The Count then closed the door.

“That looks good,” my dad said turning to me. “Come inside and eat.”

All night I thought of my painting, of what I could do better, where to add light to the iris, how much more depth I could give The Count’s beret. I fell asleep to the sound of the train’s horns blowing long and loud down on San Fernando Road.

In the morning, I dressed and went to inspect my work. The paint had almost dried and it seemed to me that the colors had dulled. It was early and I didn’t want to knock on The Count’s door. So I spent part of the day dabbing more color to add texture. I was still angry at my dad, but I also felt sad I had nothing to look forward to in the summer. In two months, I’d be starting high school and that made me wonder if I would change and leave all my dreams of going to faraway places behind. I wondered if my dad was going to win. I left my painting to look for finishing spray inside my dad’s garage, and when I came back to The Count’s image, I found three neighborhood women had gathered around and were speaking in Armenian. I knew they were all widows, because they all wore black. And they all wore their gray hair in buns.

“I am sorry. My English no good,” one said to me. “But it’s very good picture. Very good.” Another pointed a wrinkled finger at me.

“You come tomorrow and paint us. We three are friends since little girls.” She then pointed toward her house and told me they would wait for me there. I looked up the alley and imagined the back of each garage with images of the neighborhood.

As I went to tell my mom what had happened, I knocked on The Count’s door,   excited about my news. It was late afternoon, but there was no answer.

“I’m worried,” I told my mom later.

“Maybe he sat outside in the sun too long and he’s tired,” my mom said. “Try again tomorrow.”

The next day I set up my paints and brushes ready to paint the three friends, but I couldn’t start. I went to see if The Count was home. I needed to ask him his name at least, something I was ashamed of not doing sooner. I knocked hard on his door. Nothing. So I turned the knob. The door opened. I hesitated when I felt the cool air on my face.

There was a smell of Pine Sol. I took a few steps into the maze of boxes until I reached a tiny twin bed. It was neatly made up with a pretty lilac comforter. My Raggedy Ann doll sat on a pillow and next to the doll was my camera. The space between the wind lever and shutter speed dial had been cleaned. Raggedy Ann held a note in her hands. The words were written in cursive.

“My dear,” the note began. “Me and your father talked. These things are yours to keep or sell. This place is yours to come and go for the summer. I was a nobody, but you made me into a somebody. Be patient. Listen. See the world with both eyes open even when you look through your camera lens. I promise, one day you will feel like you are part of the world. You will be a somebody. Your friend, William. The Count.”

Susan AbramSusan Abram is a reporter for the Los Angeles Daily News where she covers issues relating to public health, homelessness, and human trafficking. She was previously a reporter in Connecticut, where her series of stories about the lives of day laborers earned her an award from the Society of Professional Journalists. Her short stories and nonfiction work have appeared in T/Our magazine and WriteGirl: Nothing Held Back.

The View from Room 128

No amount of pleading or pain meds could stop Mr. Villanueva from yowling like a depressed cat at night. After his roommate threatened to sue the hospital for emotional distress, the nurses decided that Mr. Villanueva deserved a private room. From that came my first candy striper assignment to convert Room 128, which stored pumps, IVs, and lots of other fancy get-well equipment. When the novelty of my tasks wore off, I made a game out of seeing how close the pump stands could get to the service elevator after one good shove down the empty hall, and whistled while hauling the empty shelving to the basement. I didn’t think annoying the nurses a little was that big a deal, until one of them pulled me aside.

Her badge said Maya, a name that complemented her doughy body and velvet-black eyes while underscoring the sharpness of her words. “How would you feel, Haylee, about having to spend your sick days alone in a closet?”

“But how will he know it’s a closet after I convert it?” I countered.

“Normal rooms have windows.”

“Yeah, but there’s nothing to see besides a parking lot and a cornfield.”

“You’ve got a lot to learn, child. How do you know if the sun’s up or down without a window?”

I hesitated, unsure if she wanted an answer or an apology for something I didn’t think was my fault. “Why are we moving him then?”

“Construction of the long-term care wing has been postponed ‘til the state thaws the funding or the Browns win the Super Bowl, whichever comes first.” Maya frowned. “Paying patients get priority.”

“Is that legal?”

Maya shushed me. “That’s not the kind of thing you yell out in a hospital.”

“I wasn’t yelling—”

“All the same. Just work a lot quieter, child. Please.”

After I finished cleaning out Room 128, I stood in there for a long while, imagining myself bedridden. The room felt smaller than before, like an empty shoebox. The longer I stared, the more I saw the shelves I just removed; faint smoky lines striped the white walls like an old prison uniform. I wondered if all the studying needed to become a doctor would be worth all the money my father seemed to think I’d want.

Over dinner that night, I told my father about Mr. Villanueva’s new room and asked what I should do.

“Damn straight that ain’t fair,” he said. “Being the only hospital in town don’t give them the right to do whatever. That man’s family should file a complaint.”

“He doesn’t seem to have a family. Or, at least, no one visits him.”

“That’s a shame.”

“Yeah, I know. The nurses say Mr. Villanueva doesn’t have any insurance either.”

“Aha, now I see the crook in the river.” My father’s face hardened with a sudden fierceness. “Don’t you waste your mind worrying about him. You just worry about you. I’ll bet the closet he’s getting is cleaner than any hospital room back where he snuck over from.”

I flinched, still not used to the anger that often engulfed him since the factory shutdown. My father wasn’t good at being idle, not even after six months of practice.

You’d better listen to me, Haylee, and soak up as much Spanish as you can before you graduate and get the hell out of here.

“You’d better listen to me, Haylee, and soak up as much Spanish as you can before you graduate and get the hell out of here. Everything’s cheaper in Costa Rica, so that’s where the world’s moving to. ’Cause the quality inspection’s always better when it’s cheaper.” He snorted and took a swig of his beer. “Guess you can go there if you’re still dead set on being a starving artist. Live off the coconuts or bananas or whatever grows free on the trees.”

I started to point out that my portrait of him won first prize at the last county fair, but he whooped at the television. The Browns had scored a winning touchdown against the Steelers, and a rare smile from my father filled the kitchen. He didn’t need to hear any more about my problems when he’d momentarily forgotten his own.

*     *     *

A few days later, the hospital pronounced Room 128 inhabitable and Mr. Villanueva disappeared inside it. The nurses kept saying how he was much more manageable during the night shift, and I gathered that they liked his new distance from their station. During the evenings I volunteered, whenever his room number lit up on the switchboard, they took their time answering him. Although he called them all the time, he rarely asked for anything other than ice cream, something they allowed him only once a day. It didn’t surprise me when he finally went on a hunger strike about a week after his move. But I couldn’t believe what Maya wanted to do about it.

“Haylee’s nice and young enough to be his daughter,” she said to the other nurses, “and he hasn’t had a chance to not like her yet. Let her try to feed him tomorrow.”

I didn’t want to do it. Taking water and Jell-O to cooperative patients was one thing, while trying to stick a spoonful of mashed potatoes in Mr. Villanueva’s mouth was another. How could I deal with a stranger’s anger when I wanted to hide from my father’s? Still, I couldn’t say no when it seemed that everyone else had already given up on him.

That Saturday, I brought Mr. Villanueva his breakfast. His room was dim except for the bright glare of the local news on the television, the only decoration on the otherwise naked white walls. While I set up his food tray and a chair for myself near his bed, he glanced at me with disinterest before shifting his gaze back to the nothingness on his right. Where a window might normally be.

“The sky’s so cloudy, it looks like evening already,” I said. “It’s supposed to rain all day.”

He looked at me fully and—though he appeared doubtful of my weather report—I felt encouraged. I realized then that he wasn’t as old as I originally thought. His brown face carried heavy bags under his eyes but no wrinkles, and gray dusted the black hair above his ears. Almost every part of him, from his nose to his shoulders, sloped down as though burdened by a weight I couldn’t see. Ignoring his gauntness, I put him in his late thirties or early forties, around my father’s age.

I filled his fork with scrambled eggs. “Can I help you eat?”

He turned away before I could even lift the fork.

“You’ll get sicker if you don’t eat something besides ice cream.”

His cracked lips thinned into a tight line of resistance.

“Mr. Villanueva? Please eat.”

Without meeting my eyes, he shook his head. I offered the melon slices and toast from his plate, but he refused all of it. He even snubbed the apple juice I brought him because he rebuffed the milk that came with his meal. After an hour of gridlock, I trudged back to the nurses’ station thinking that was the end of it. I didn’t like failing, but I disliked rejection even more.

“Least he didn’t splatter the walls,” Maya said, laughing. The others agreed and decided that I should try to feed Mr. Villanueva again, in spite of my open dismay. Frustrated, I took twice as long of a morning break, but no one seemed to notice.

When I failed to persuade Mr. Villanueva to eat lunch, the nurses punished us both by sending me to Room 128 with his dinner. By then I decided that my time in there shouldn’t be a total letdown. I found the television remote and began channel surfing for something decent to watch while he ignored me.

Por favor, stop!”

I dropped the remote, shocked by the weak rasp of his voice.

“Go back, miss. Two channels, I think.”

I did as he asked, and landed on a Spanish-speaking game show. He sat up straighter, and my father’s warning came back to me.

Me llamo, Haylee.” I paused, internally slamming my accent and translating a plea for him to eat. “Puedas comer, por favor?”

He studied me for a moment, the corners of his mouth twitching indecisively. “You learning Spanish in school?”

“Yes—I mean, sí. At least until it gets cancelled at the end of the year.”

“You are lucky. I did not learn English until I came here for work. These”—he held out calloused, trembling hands—“were stronger then. On my father’s farm in Nicaragua, I could hold many, many sugarcane stalks together and then break them with my hands. But three weeks ago, I am trying to break a wall in a house much, much older than me, and the hammer falls from my hand. Then I fall to the floor in pain.” He caressed the plain, gold band on his ring finger. “My wife fell in love with my strength. I am happy she is too far away to see me like this.”

“Doesn’t she know you’re sick?”

“Not yet. I will tell her if I cannot send her money next month.”

“But what if you’re dead before then? And she never finds out what happened to you?” I blinked hard, horrified at how my thoughts escaped so easily. His face didn’t reflect my discomfort though, so after a moment I tried to explain myself. “My dad didn’t let me visit my mother in the hospital because he thought seeing her sick would give me nightmares. But I wouldn’t have cared what she looked like. I just hate that I had less time with her.”

“I have not seen my wife or sons in five years. It would be better for them to stay there than to waste money coming here.”

“Well, maybe you could go visit them when you’re better. Just one plane ticket can’t be that bad if you buy it on sale.”

His eyes dropped, and suddenly I realized the unspoken truth; he couldn’t fly home, not unless he never wanted to work here again. Before I could think of a way to apologize, he plucked the rye bread and the milk from his tray.

“Just this today,” he said. “Please take everything else away.”

I shuffled back to the nurses’ station, uncertain of whether I had made things better or worse. I told Maya what Mr. Villanueva took from the tray, and started to confess how I offended him, but she cut me off.

“Hey ladies,” she sang out, drawing the attention of the other nurses nearby, “Room 128 is eating! And we owe it all to our sweet Haylee!”

They rewarded me with a standing ovation, and then bombarded me with questions about how I did it. Their enthusiasm convinced me I had done good, so I announced a confident diagnosis of loneliness. By the time I finished my shift, I floated on pride.

That night, my father rolled his eyes when I bragged about my success.

“When you were little, Haylee, you’d eat black-eyed peas like there was no tomorrow when your mama fixed them. All the time, you’d clean your plate of those peas. But after she died, you wouldn’t touch them and I couldn’t figure out why. I kept scratching my head, thinking there must’ve been some secret ingredient I was missing. Then I noticed the dug up dirt in your mama’s snake plant pot.” He tapped his fingers on the kitchen table with a bittersweet expression. “You’d been squirreling those peas in your cheeks and then burying them.”

I crossed my arms in defiance. “So, you don’t believe he really ate.”

“You see him put any of it in his mouth?”

“But why would he lie?”

“Why’d you lie to your mama?”

I saw where my father was going and I hated that pessimistic place. “Why would a sick man care what a 16-year-old candy striper thinks of him?”

“He probably doesn’t. But you had to report to the nurses, didn’t you?”

“Of course. That’s my job. So what?”

“So maybe he thinks good behavior will get him what he really wants.”

“And what would that be?”

“Just wait and see, Haylee.”

*     *     *

It twisted me to think he possibly fooled me, that I might need to accept any part of the worldview thrown in my face at home.

The next morning while my father attended church, I went to the hospital, praying on the drive over that my patient would prove him wrong. I knew I wasn’t a doctor, but my mind carried a similar burden of responsibility. It twisted me to think he possibly fooled me, that I might need to accept any part of the worldview thrown in my face at home.

I hurried to Room 128, but stopped short in the doorway. My patient moaned and twisted in bed as Maya loomed over him. Her clenched fist crinkled a clear plastic bag with a tube coiled inside.

“Come now, Mr. V, nobody’s hurting you,” she said. “Least, not yet. That’s why you and I are having this little discussion, to remind you that you agreed to let us do what’s best for you when you checked yourself in here.”

“But I eat,” he cried.

“Your protein levels say otherwise. And what good do you think that’s gonna do your ailing kidneys?”

“I eat bread. Ask Señorita Haylee.”

“Then where’d the bread in your pillowcase come from?”

“I eat different bread just yesterday. Pregúntale! Go ask Señorita Haylee.”

“Mr. V, don’t you go pulling that child into this mess with any more lies. Lying won’t get you out of this room any more than refusing to eat. And like I already told you, if you don’t start putting food in your mouth with your own two hands, you’re going to force us—for your own good—to put this tube up your nose—”

“No.”

“—down your throat—”

“No!”

“—and into your belly.”

I ran out of the hospital, gagging and clutching my own gut. A few feet from the bus stop, I lost the cereal I ate for breakfast. Like a ringing in my ears, his wails trailed after me, pleading for mercy.

*     *     *

That night, the crickets kept me awake and worrying about poor Mr. Villanueva. Because I failed him, he would fail his wife. A feeling of uselessness overcame me as I sank deeper and deeper into my bed, until the mattress towered like a wall around my body and then engulfed me like a monstrous marshmallow. I woke shivering but sweaty.

With the nightmare raw on my nerves, I climbed out of bed and used the glow of my laptop screen to drive away the darkness in my bedroom. I searched the Internet for pictures of Nicaraguan sugarcane farms, wanting a glimpse of what Mr. Villanueva left behind. What I found opened my eyes to what he must really want, something inadvertently taken away from him. I grabbed my sketchbook and pencils, overwhelmed by the urge to draw a landscape both foreign and surprisingly familiar.

Before dawn broke, I headed down to the basement, where my easel and oil paints waited near the window, and began translating my graphite picture into one full of color. Reds, browns, and blacks formed the fertile earth; sugarcane stalks grew tall in greens, olives, and yellows. I cast the sun in a pool of oranges, pinks, purples, and my own shade of crimson. As the field sprouted to life beneath my brushes and fingers, so did my sense of purpose. I didn’t stop painting until the basement stairs creaked under my father’s feet.

“You better get ready for school,” he said. “Your alarm’s been ringing for a good twenty minutes. Do you realize there’s green paint all in your—Haylee, what’s this?” He stood behind me, peering at the wet canvas.

“What’s it look like?” I asked.

“The cornfield behind the hospital.” His brow wrinkled as he studied it more. “I take that back. Everything looks wilder, more alive. Like the leaves are trying to eat that path you put in the middle. It ain’t corn, is it?”

“No.”

“What is it then?”

“My imagination, mostly.”

“Do you want to hang it in the living room?”

“Thanks, Dad, but…” I hesitated, afraid to spoil his opinion of my work if I told him the whole story. “Somebody at the hospital asked me to paint this for them.”

“That’s too bad. I would’ve liked to keep this one.”

“I could make another for you.”

He nodded slowly. “I’ll let you borrow it back for the county fair then.”

*     *     *

I hung the painting where a window should be, and then waited for Mr. Villanueva to return from his tests. At first I sat in the only chair in Room 128, working off my anxiousness with bobbing knees. A while later, I moved to a spot at the nurses’ station where I could both keep busy and discretely peer down the hallway at all the elevator traffic.

By the time my shift ended, so had the heady anticipation I brought with me to the hospital that morning. Instead, I worried that all the time I spent painting and planning the best way to sneak my gift into the hospital would be for nothing. Someone would take down the picture before Mr. Villanueva could see it.

As I trudged down the hall to leave, I noticed a low whine, like the slow stroking of a violin string that needed tuning, coming from Room 128. The sound became more melodious as I drew closer. Peering inside the room, I saw Mr. Villanueva propped up in his bed and singing to my painting. His face shone wet in the lamplight. Embarrassed that I interrupted such a private moment, I started to walk away but he locked eyes with me.

“You make this?”

“Yes,” I whispered, stepping just inside the doorway. “It’s supposed to be your father’s sugarcane farm.”

“So it is. I can see the sun setting with the same beautiful colors I remember. I miss walking in the field with my wife while she laughs at my singing. In the other room, I could pretend the corn outside was sugarcane and that my wife can hear me sing. I wanted to tell the nurses, but…how could they understand?” His gaze stretched past me, possibly returning to the home he missed, before coming back to me with a nostalgic smile. “Gracias, for my window.”

I nodded, unable to speak around the lump in my throat.

“You look too sad, Señorita Haylee. Please sit, and let me sing for you.”

Although I didn’t understand any of the words, I loved the way his voice trembled like a leaf rustling in the wind. I remember it every time I see a cornfield. Or taste something sweet.

Danielle BurnetteDanielle Burnette—an engineer by day, a writer by night—lives with her husband and children in northern California. Her first contemporary Young Adult novel, The Spanish Club, was published in the summer of 2014. Between penning more works of short fiction, she is currently editing her second novel. Visit her at www.danielleburnette.com.

The Uninvited Guest

The trees were clustered so thickly now that Mischa could no longer pretend she wasn’t lost. She’d had to slow to a walk, too, not that it mattered much. When you’re not sure where you’re headed, a walk will get you there just as well as a run will.

She looked down at her Garmin. It’d been about half an hour since she’d left the trail, a little under three miles if you prefer to judge by distance rather than time. Mischa always did, for any run outside a meet. That about summed up her cross country philosophy: long, easy runs during training, but come race day it was run like wildfire and never look back.

Leaving the trail had been the right thing to do at the time, Mischa knew that. Even with the Mace she always carried in her pack, it was never smart to approach a bear if you didn’t have to. And there’d been four on the trail. Three cubs and an adult.

Detouring around the animals had seemed easy enough at the time. Head east for five minutes, south for five minutes, and west for five minutes, and she’d be right back on track, theoretically. The only problem was that she’d now been moving west, or what she thought was west, for a good twenty and hadn’t hit the trail again. She couldn’t be more than a mile or two away as the crow flies, but her chances of actually making it there were about as good as the chances of a limo pulling up and whisking her off to Hollywood.

The bramble on the forest floor had already done a pretty impressive job of scraping up her legs. She paused for a moment, wondering if it’d be smarter to try and find her own way home or to wait for someone to come find her.

She’d left her dad a note on the fridge like she always did before she went for a run by herself. “Gone running,” it said. “If I’m not back by 7, call the police!!” She’d drawn a winky face after the last word, but the idea didn’t seem so funny anymore.

The trouble was, she didn’t even know when her father would be back to see the note. He’d told her he would be going out to dinner with a friend, but Mischa knew, despite the different excuses he gave her every week, that Tuesday nights were reserved for his AA meetings. The funny thing was that she was actually really proud of him for going, and would have been able to tell him so if she wasn’t afraid of shattering the image of himself he’d erected for her. She figured he lied about his problem to protect her; he’d been doing a lot of that since the death of her mom six years before.

Mischa’s stomach growled and she ripped open the top of her last energy gel, sucking the red goo down her throat and tucking the wrapper back in her pack. She started moving again, figuring she would keep on going at least until the sun set in another half hour or so.

The effort it took for Mischa to make her way through the trees and underbrush had thus far kept her concentration away from the rising lump of panic in her throat, but she was so focused on the ground in front of her that she almost missed the trail of smoke rising from the trees to her left.

If her eyes had stayed on the path beneath her feet, things may have turned out very differently that evening. She lifted her gaze at just the right instant (or the wrong instant, depending on who you are and how you choose to see things), however, so the next moments found her stumbling through the trees into the company of a very amiable looking log cabin.

A soft light blushed through the windows on either side of the front door, which was painted a dull red that contrasted pleasantly with the soft tan color of the structure. A cloud of white-gray smoke puffed out of the chimney, making its way humbly into the vastness of the Massachusetts sky.

Mischa advanced to the front door, heart beating more quickly than usual. She never felt totally at ease meeting strangers, but doing so when she looked, for lack of a better string of words, like something the cat dragged in was high on the list of activities in which she preferred not to partake. She allowed herself one deep, steadying breath, then lifted a fist and knocked four times on the red front door.

Nothing. She waited half a minute and knocked again. Still nothing. Was it possible that nobody was home?

There was no keyhole in the doorknob, no lock that she could see. Much as she hated to be impolite, Mischa decided it might not be too terrible to enter the cabin uninvited. If they had a landline, she could call her dad and tell him what was going on. She would, at the very least, be safe from the creatures that roamed the woods at night.

She twisted the knob and pressed the door open an inch. A ray of light drifted through the crack, illuminating a sliver of the now-dark forest floor.

“Is anyone home? Hello? Okay, well, I’m, um, I’m coming in now.” There was no real way she could have been sure that there was no one there, but she was sure all the same. She pressed the door the rest of the way open.

The inside of the cabin reminded her of a childhood trip she had taken with her parents to Lake Tahoe shortly before her mother died. What had she been then, ten? Eleven? They’d stayed at a cozy place just like this, and gotten up with the sun each morning to ski on the beautiful frosty slopes. Mischa had been a terrible skier, but her mother and father stayed all day with her on the easiest run, not once showing any disappointment that she couldn’t quite get the hang of it.

The cabin seemed bigger from the inside than from the outside. The light that had spilled out into the forest emanated from the roaring fire in the grate beneath the mantle, as well as five or six pretty kerosene lamps scattered on tables throughout the living room. A number of leather bound volumes filled the bookshelf near the front door, and there was an ornately carved chess set standing between the easy chairs facing the fire. Most wonderfully, the rich smell of beef stew wafted from the kitchen to Mischa’s nose.

The stew rested in a delicate china bowl on top of the small dining table, surrounded by elegant place settings that suggested someone had been interrupted just before taking the first bite. Either that or the meal had been placed on the table especially for her.

Not wanting to spoil anyone’s dinner, Mischa began to search the few lone cabinets beneath the kitchen counter for something to quiet her indignant stomach. There were two large burlap sacks in the first cupboard, one marked “FLOUR” in large letters and the other “SUGAR.” She moved to the next and found another mostly full burlap sack (“RICE”).

Peeking out from behind the bag of rice was a small window just above ground level. Strange place for a window, Mischa thought. Won’t get much light in the room through a cupboard. Stranger still were the metal bars lining the window from the inside, so rusty that some of them looked just about dissolved into nothing.

After considering briefly if it would be possible to digest a handful of uncooked rice, Mischa took a seat in front of the bowl of stew. Hands fumbling in her lap, she told herself that its proprietor would want her to eat it rather than sit there and go hungry. She picked up the spoon and brought a mouthful to her lips.

The stew was delicious. With the first spoonful, the warmth of the stuff passed through her throat and seemingly all the way down to her toes, which tingled in gratitude after being subjected to the forlorn chill of the forest. She set the spoon back on the table and brought the bowl to her lips, tipping the contents into her mouth and gulping quickly until nothing remained.

As she swallowed the last mouthful, she heard a hand on the doorknob. She rose hastily, readying herself to hurl apology after apology at the stranger whose home she had invaded.

As she swallowed the last mouthful, she heard a hand on the doorknob.

The boy who entered the cabin couldn’t have been more than a year or two older than Mischa, but there was a striking quality in his handsome face that suggested otherwise, the quiet sophistication that only comes from seeing much of the world or perhaps from having it unwittingly thrust upon you.

“I’m so sorry for barging in here like this, oh my gosh, I got lost in the woods and I saw your cabin and I just thought I should see if anyone was home, because I really need some help, and it was getting so dark, but no one was there and it was dark and I was so scared, and I, um, let myself in.” She said most of this very quickly.

He set down the buckets of water he was carrying in each hand.

“Sure have a lot to say, don’t you?” He smiled, sweeping a lock of light brown hair from his forehead.

“I’m Mischa, by the way. I think I ate your dinner,” she answered, still nervous but encouraged by his initial reaction.

“Teddy,” he replied. “So are you okay? Apart from being lost?” His eyes dropped to the scrapes on her legs.

“Oh yeah, those are nothing. Do you have a phone I could borrow?”

She thought she saw a darkness flit through his eyes at the question, but he answered amiably enough.

“No phones here, I’m afraid. No electricity either. Why don’t you take some water and clean your legs up in the washroom?”

“Thank you so much, but I know my dad’s probably getting worried. Is there any way you could point me back to the trail?”

“The path is only a mile west of here, but it’s not safe out there at night for a girl to go wandering on her own. How about you wash up and then we’ll figure out what to do with you?”

The question sounded more to Mischa like an order, but his expression remained friendly.

He shrugged off his traveling coat and Mischa saw that he was wearing a pair of brown trousers and a loose white tunic. A bit peculiar, like he had just been filming a scene from The Three Musketeers. But he didn’t offer an explanation, and she didn’t ask for one.

“The washroom’s through the bedroom, and you can use the rags on the shelf.”

He handed her the bucket and she carried it to the washroom as instructed. In the dim light afforded by the single small kerosene lamp, she dipped a rag in the bucket and washed her cuts.

On her way back to the living room, she noticed a simple blue-gray gown laying on the sleigh bed. It was there before, Mischa thought. I just didn’t notice it when I came in.

“Why aren’t you wearing the dress?” he asked as she reentered the living room, corners of his mouth turned down. “I picked it out especially for you.”

“Thank you so much for everything, seriously, but I really have to go. My dad’s gotta be freaking out by now and I’ve already taken advantage of your…hospitality,” she finished, edging toward the front door.

When she saw that he wasn’t going to try to stop her, she relaxed.

“Really, Teddy, thank you so much for everything,” she said, twisting the doorknob with her right hand. But when she pushed, nothing.

“What’s wrong with the door? How do you unlock it?” she asked.

“There is no lock,” he answered.

She moved to the closest window and shoved.

“No lock there either.”

“But then how am I supposed to leave? How did you get out?”

“I come and go as I please. This is my house.”

“You don’t mean…I’m not stuck here, am I? There has to be a way out.”

“There is a way out. But I think you ought to stay.”

“Teddy, please let me go. I really need to go,” she said, feeling the burning in her throat that always appeared just before a hot flood of tears.

His face darkened. “If you really want to leave, you’ll find the way. If not, I think you’ll find it’s not as bad here as you fear it might be.”

Mischa moved to the rest of the windows in the room, trying each even though she knew they wouldn’t give. He stood watching her with his arms crossed, an expression of patient indulgence on his face. Once done, she tried the windows in the bedroom and even the one in the bathroom, which looked too small to climb through even if it did end up being the only way out (it didn’t).

When she returned to the living room, he was exactly as she’d left him.

“Satisfied?” he asked.

“Of course not,” Mischa answered.

“Can I offer you something more to eat?” He waved his left hand in the direction of the kitchen table and a number of dishes materialized on its surface. There was more beef stew, a pot of something that looked like dumplings, a steaming mug of hot chocolate, and a ramekin of delicious looking crème brûlée.

Her silence was answer enough.

“Very well,” he said with a sigh, clearing the table with another lazy wave of his hand.

A noise from outside drew Mischa to the window and she saw a group of people approaching, yelling and combing the area with their flashlights. Leading the group was her father, beating back the greenery with a frantic determination.

Mischa screamed his name and threw her fists against the glass, sure that she was only moments away from being rescued. But her father paused just on the other side of the window, looking almost directly at her, and there was no recognition in his eyes.

“Mischa!” he yelled again. His voice was strong but the tears coursing down his cheeks were not.

Despite her continued pounding, her father and the others soon disappeared back into the trees. She turned her back to the wall and slumped to the floor, cheeks streaming with silent tears of her own.

“We don’t exist to them, you know,” Teddy said.

“Please, can’t you let me go? Can’t you please just let me go?” she asked.

“You’ll be happy here, with me.” There was no remorse in the words. “Unless, of course, you persist with these silly requests to leave. Then you may find yourself very unhappy indeed.”

They stayed in that position for some time, Mischa sobbing quietly against the wall and Teddy watching her closely. Finally, he spoke.

“Would you like to play a game?” he asked, gesturing to the chess set.

Again, her silence was answer enough.

“Suit yourself,” he said. “But you will come sit by the fire, in any case. You look a mess there on the floor.”

Mischa obeyed, dropping into one of the twin easy chairs as he did the same in the other. The fire crackled cheerfully in the grate and she sat watching it, captivated by the dancing flames.

He said there’s a way out, and I don’t think he was lying, Mischa thought. What am I supposed to do, take an axe to the walls? I tried the door, I tried all the windows…

She had an idea.

“I do want to play a game, but I’m terrible at chess. Have you heard of hide and seek?” she asked.

“Yes, of course,” he answered, excited by her sudden interest. “Which do you want to do, hide or seek?”

“I’ll hide first,” she said. “But you have to count in the washroom so I know you’re not cheating. To 30 at least, so I have enough time.” She put forth her best attempt at a genuine smile.

“Okay,” he said, smiling back. “But I’m going to find you.”

But her father paused just on the other side of the window, looking almost directly at her, and there was no recognition in his eyes.

As soon as she heard the door shut, she grabbed the Mace out of her pack and opened the kitchen cupboard, moving the bag of rice aside as quietly as she could. It had to be the place. No other reason for a window in a cupboard, especially a barred one.

Placing her feet on either side of the window, she grabbed a rusty bar with both hands and yanked. It gave easier than she expected, and she moved on to the next. Only the last one refused to be pulled, but she wouldn’t be able to fit through the window unless she found a way to detach it.

“Ready or not, here I come,” Teddy yelled. She heard him open the door and begin searching the bedroom. How long until he realized she hadn’t chosen a spot there?

Heart beating with the ferocity of a speeding bullet, she drew back her leg and kicked hard at the bar with her heel. It disconnected from above the window with a clang.

“I heard you in there,” he said. “I’m coming for you!”

When Teddy entered the room, there was a moment in which he and Mischa simply stared at each other, motionless as statues. She saw a surprise in his eyes verging almost on a stupid innocence, and for that second she wondered how he came to be here, what had made him this way. But almost as soon as the look appeared, it was replaced by a flash of fury and he charged forward at her from the doorway.

Ready for the confrontation, Mischa grabbed the can of Mace and released a torrent into his face. He reeled, screeching and clutching at his eyes, and she turned back to the window.

She unfastened the latch and pushed on the glass, swinging the window open into the cool night air and diving through the newly created opening in the wall. It was much too small to get through easily, and too high from the ground to use her knees for leverage after her top half was through the opening.

She dug her hands into the forest floor and twisted her hips, inching the tops of her legs forward. Just as she was creating enough momentum to slide the rest of the way through, a pair of hands seized her legs just above each knee.

Teddy yanked and she was pulled backward, throwing her arms out to the sides of the house in an attempt to keep some of the ground she had gained. He yelled something at her, but the words blended together as a single guttural roar.

With her very last bit of determination, Mischa kicked back at him, hard. Her feet connected with his chest and he fell, releasing his grip. She scrambled through the opening, bruising nearly every square inch of her torso and legs but feeling not even a fragment of pain.

Once she was through, she pushed to her feet and took a few unsteady steps away from the house before looking back to see if Teddy was in pursuit. But when she turned, he was nowhere to be seen, and the house was no longer itself at all.

One of the cabin’s walls looked almost burned to bits, and every window she could see, including the one from which she had just escaped, were lined with broken glass. The front door hung askew on its hinges, red paint peeling like skin after a bad sunburn. The entire place lied in ruins, as if it hadn’t been inhabited in years.

Miranda FreemanMiranda Freeman writes short stories, novels, and odes to her miniature Australian shepherd. She earned her B.A. in Linguistics and English from UCLA in 2012, and now attends graduate school in Boston. When she’s not writing or coming to terms with the barbaric East Coast winters, she’s usually abusing her Keurig privileges. You can visit her online at mirandafreeman.com.

The Blue Frog of the Blue Moon

The dictionary tells us that a Blue Moon is the second full moon to occur in one month, a rather rare thing. But in the land of stories, a Blue Moon can mean something much more rare. Something very exciting indeed.

*     *     *

Four hundred twenty nine years ago, in a snug little village not too far from here, there lived two women—Sigrun and Hulda. They had not one friend between them, yet their names were known throughout the land. No one had escaped the acid of their tongues, and every villager knew of their bitter arguments and dislike for one another. They would stop any traveler, interrupt any chatting pair of friends, run up to any neighbor working in her fields or sweeping his cottage, each to complain about the other. The village folk dreaded the sight of them.

“Hulda thinks she is better than you, good sir,” Sigrun would say. “With her little bit of money—ptoo!—she fancies herself better than all of us. It is awful to be her next-door neighbor, simply awful. She never stops talking and must always have the last word.”

“Do you know, gentle lady, how much that Sigrun brags?” Hulda would say. “With her two goats—feh!—and that loathsome cheese she makes, she fancies herself better than all of us. She is a terrible neighbor, simply terrible. She never stops talking and must always have the last word.”

The good village folk, tired of Sigrun and Hulda’s nastiness, put their heads together and hatched an idea. They chose Hinrik, a kind man who liked to see people smile, to explain their plan to the two women. He stood in the path between their cottages. Sigrun and Hulda each stood behind her own gate.

Hinrik had to shout. “You are not happy as next-door neighbors. It will be better if you see and think about each other less. The village folk want to help, so we are ready to purchase a small parcel of land on the other side of the village. A lovely parcel. We will all work together to build a fine new cottage there, but you must decide which of you will live in it.”

Alas, the two women could only argue and bicker, bicker and argue, each more concerned with the other’s unhappiness than with her own contentment. They took turns making the same arguments against each other.

You move to the new house,” said one.

“And leave this lovely bit of woods to you? I will not!” said the other.

I’ll go to the new cottage,” said one.

“And take a cottage that might be better than mine? Oh no you won’t!” said the other.

And so it went. After a while, the village folk gave up in despair.

*     *     *

She took tiny tiptoe steps toward the frog, looking this way and that, until she stood beside him, hands over her mouth, eyes all but popping from her head.

One day, when Sigrun was near a pond deep in the woods, gathering fiddleheads for her supper, she saw an amazing sight. At the edge of a lush glade filled with ferns of every shade of green in the world—plus two more—was a large blue frog like no other. He was clothed in purple velvet breeches and a golden brocade vest nearly iridescent in its splendor. On his tiny feet were boots of vermilion tooled leather and over his shoulders flowed a translucent patchwork cape of shimmering jewel-toned silks. He lay back on the pond’s mossy bank, his froggy hands behind his head, basking in the warmth of the lemony sunshine. For once, Sigrun was speechless. She took tiny tiptoe steps toward the frog, looking this way and that, until she stood beside him, hands over her mouth, eyes all but popping from her head.

“Good morning, gentle lady,” said the frog. “Please do not be afraid. I won’t hurt you.”

“My eyes,” said Sigrun, “do they deceive me?”

“No, dear lady, they do not. I am the Blue Frog of the Blue Moon. Perhaps you have heard of me?” And he smiled, looking almost humble.

“Never in my life!” said Sigrun.

“No?” He pursed his froggy lips. “Well, that is as it may be. I do, after all, emerge from this pond only once in a Blue Moon. This night there will be a Blue Moon, so here I am.”

“Do you come to do dark magic?” asked Sigrun in a whisper, knitting her scraggly brows and hunching her shoulders. “To curse our village or our crops?”

“No, no, dear lady, no! On the contrary. I sit and wait for the first human who sees me.”

Sigrun gasped and backed away.

He gave a froggy chuckle. “So that I may grant that lucky soul three wishes. And do come back. It strains my voice to shout so. Surely if I had wanted to harm you I would have done it by now.”

Sigrun edged closer to the frog. “Three wishes, you say?”

“Yes indeed. Whatever you might desire, I shall give you.”

Sigrun thought for a moment, and then said, “I am ready.”

The frog’s eyes grew as large as lily pads. “Wouldn’t you care to take some time? To think it over? I will be here until midnight. You have my solemn word.”

Sigrun folded her arms and scowled. “No.”

“Very well. I’ll try not to be grumpy,” he grumped, “even if your haste does spoil my fun.”

“For my first wish, I want to have the most beautiful house in the world right in the middle of the village square, a house of magnificent finery.” Greed narrowed her eyes to small piggy slits.

“Done,” said the frog.

“You mean—it is there? Right now?”

“Indeed.”

Sigrun rubbed her hands together. “So you say, but I shall believe it when I see it. Now, for my second wish, there is a woman in my village—I want you to grant her whatever she asks.”

“You are giving a wish away?” said the frog. “Why, no one has ever done that! This must be a very special friend.”

“Bah!” said Sigrun. “Hulda is no friend. She is a terrible woman who will wish for the most lavish of riches.”

“Then, my dear woman, why?”

“Because here is my third wish,” said Sigrun. “Whatever Hulda wishes, I want the same, but three times more. You will grant this wish to me one minute—no longer!—after you grant hers.”

“But,” said the frog, “are you sure? You could have enormous riches, or the power to fly or to swim like a magnificent frog. You could even wish for good manners. Anything you dream of could be yours.”

Sigrun was twitchy with delight. “Her rage will be sweet enough to make up for one hundred lost wishes.” She smiled a most unsmiling smile.

“Well,” said the frog, “I suppose I must do as you ask.”

“So you have told me,” said Sigrun. “Now to think of a way to get her here…”

“Oh, I will bring her here,” said the frog. “I rather enjoy that sort of thing.”

And without so much as a thank you, Sigrun turned and ran, eager to see her new house. The frog sighed, blinked his lavender froggy eyes, and—poof!—a confused and frightened Hulda was standing next to him.

“Don’t be afraid, gentle lady,” said the frog. “I have brought you here to grant you a wish. Anything you wish for shall be yours.”

“Me? Bah! Why?” asked Hulda, her face as hard and cold as a diamond. “What sorcery is this? What do you want in return?”

“Nothing, dear lady. It is a gift,” and he bowed, “from the Blue Frog of the Blue Moon.” The frog was tiring of explaining this. Ordinarily, he had to explain only once in a Blue Moon.

Hulda paced, deep in thought. It was not long before she said in a voice as sour as a barrel of pickled lemons, “I am ready.”

“So quickly?” sighed the frog. But this time he did not argue.

“You are to turn my worst enemy into an ugly boulder four feet high. She is to live forever within that stone, right in the middle of the village square.”

The frog looked amused, in a froggy sort of way. “Are you quite sure this is what you want? Not huge riches? Or—why, I don’t know, dear lady—magical powers, or a pleasant personality?”

“This is better than riches or powers. Her rage will be sweet enough to make up for a hundred wishes. But…”

“Yes?”

“But how will you know my worst enemy?”

“My good woman—my dear Hulda,” the frog said, his pale blue pouchy chin jiggling with laughter. “I am a magic blue frog. I plucked you from your silly little cottage and brought you here. I can grant any wish. Don’t you think I know such a simple thing as that?”

“I suppose so.” Hulda was quiet for a moment. “I want you to wait twenty minutes before granting this wish. So I can be there when it happens.”

“As you like,” said the frog, pulling a rainbow-colored pocket watch from his brocade vest. “Twenty minutes it shall be.” And he shook his head, chortling so, that a single froggy tear shimmied its way from his iridescent eye to his wobbly jowls.

Without so much as a thank you, Hulda turned and ran, eager to get back to the village to witness Sigrun’s bad fortune.

*     *     *

“This is my new home. Is it not the most beautiful home you have ever seen? Is it not far larger and more beautiful than yours?”

As Hulda neared the village square, the hubbub and clamor of an excited crowd reached her puzzled ears. One by one, the village folk had been coming to the square as word of the magnificent new house had spread from mouth to ear, from mouth to ear, all across the land. The whole village was there, oohing and aahing, and Sigrun was in her glory.

Her tone as sharp as the sharpest spindle, her back as straight as the straightest tree, Sigrun said, to anyone who would listen, “This is my new home. Is it not the most beautiful home you have ever seen? Is it not far larger and more beautiful than yours?”

Perched on top of a nearby fountain, the blue frog sat, his pocket watch in his longer-than-long froggy fingers.

Hulda pushed her way through the crowd. “What is this?” she asked, thinking perhaps the frog had played a cruel trick.

A small boy had just begun, “It is Sigrun’s new house,” when—poof!—Sigrun flew high into the sky where she vanished with a pop! Not half a second later, a large boulder appeared in the center of the square, crushing the house. The screams and shouts from the crowd died down as a cackling Hulda shouldered her way through the throng, walked to the boulder, and patted its side.

“How are you, dear Sigrun?” Hulda could not hide her glee. “Enjoying your new house?”

The village folk were amazed and frightened to hear a tiny, angry voice come from within the boulder. Hulda, her ear pressed against the rock, smiled a poisonous smile. At the fountain, the frog whispered, “And now, Sigrun, your third wish. I shall turn your worst enemy into an ugly boulder not four, but twelve feet high, right in the middle of the square.”

And before the people’s very eyes—poof!— Hulda flew up high into the sky where she vanished with a pop! Another boulder appeared, three times uglier and three times bigger than the first, and balanced right on top of it. With that, the people fled, each fearful of being next to poof! and pop!

*     *     *

The braver folk returned that night and under the light of the Blue Moon they built a brick wall, far taller than the tallest villager, around the entire square. They left one small opening in the wall and into this they set stout iron bars, leaving spaces far smaller than the head of the smallest child in the village. And while many people over the years have peered in and listened, no one has ever set foot in the square again.

It is said that to this day, if you put your ear to the opening and you are very, very quiet, you will hear two small, bitter voices bickering and arguing, arguing and bickering. And if you are very, very lucky, they say you can sometimes see a dashing blue frog, dressed in the finest of finery, with a saffron silk top hat and shimmering topaz cane, dancing on top of the boulders in the moonlight. But only sometimes. Only once in a Blue Moon.

This is Lydia’s first piece for young people. She holds a Master’s in astrophysics, but now writes for a living—contract writing by necessity and creative writing by night. Her short fiction and narrative nonfiction have been published online and in print, read on KRCB public radio, printed on a coffee mug, and used as inspiration for a professional dance company.

Running Water & Open Your Eyes

Running Water

When I would go over to my friends’ houses, I thought it was weird that their parents didn’t scream or hit them. I thought that maybe these parents behaved when company was over but that, surely, they had the same home life I did after I left, that my friends were tormented by their parents just as much as I was. I thought my life was the norm, I didn’t classify what my brother lived through was abuse or cause to “seek an adult” for help.

 

When I was in grade school and my brother had just started high school, the Fiery version of my brother started to take over. That was also when my father decided we needed to move. Our new house was in the middle of a city that was even bigger than the last. The front door was black and there was no yard. It had three floors but never enough room to escape the smell of my father’s bitter cigars and whiskey. With my father’s new job came the bruises on my brother’s arms and the cuts on his lips.

My mother and father both had light blond hair, as did I, but my brother’s hair was a deep black and stood out against the rest of us. His dark lashes made his bright blue eyes pop and my father never looked directly at them.

In the middle of the night, I could hear the thuds coming from my brother’s room, directly above my ceiling. I would lay in bed, staring up at the light fixture, wanting to get up and go to my brother’s room, but never being able to work up the courage. It was a paralyzing fear that gripped my whole body in a painful vice. A pounding in my throat and a tightness in my chest. All I could do was lay there, my eyes watered from not blinking.

The next morning my brother would be wearing long-sleeved shirts and his shoulders would be hunched up to his ears. I only ate Pop-Tarts for breakfast. My brother liked to eat oatmeal, but sometimes when he went to reach for the tin on the top shelf, he would wince and end up pulling a box of cereal from the counter top instead.

“What were those noises last night?” I asked him the first night.

His head jerked up to look at me from across the table. His mouth was full but he had stopped chewing.

“The noises from last night?” he repeated.

I nodded and he watched me carefully for a moment.

Right there he could have told me the truth. He could have removed any doubt or suspicions I had. If he told me, the veil would be gone and I would be forced to face the truth.

“It was only thunder,” he told me. He looked back down at his bowl and resumed eating.

Maybe he did it to protect me. Maybe he was giving me an out. Or maybe he just couldn’t face talking to me about it. Either way, I took the excuse he gave me and I could never bring myself to ask him about it again.

It was easy enough to fool myself into believing it, at first. We had plenty of thunder storms in the city that boomed and shook the walls at night. When I was younger, my mother had told me that you could tell when a thunder storm was moving away by counting the seconds between the booms. The longer the pauses, the further away it was going.

But it didn’t work with that thunder.

 

Maybe it was those nights that rattled something loose. Whatever was holding the rest of him together slipped out of place and he couldn’t keep the barricades up anymore.

My Fiery Brother first broke through one morning he was walking me to school. Two boys had been walking down the opposite side of the street but I hadn’t noticed until one of them cut between me and my brother, ramming us both with his shoulders.

I tripped and caught myself with my hands. My brother came over and pulled me up by my arms.

“Are you okay?” my brother asked, his voice was gruff, a mixture of being annoyed and concerned. He took my wrists gently in his hands, examining the tiny beads of blood that were beginning to form.

I nodded and made a strangled, hiccupping noise.

That’s when the two boys started to laugh.

My brother’s grip on my wrists tightened and I watched as his face turned into an exploding back draft.

He got suspended from school for a week for getting into a fight. My father yelled at him for two hours in the living room. All I could do was sit on the couch with bandages wrapped around my hands, stare at the drops of blood on my brother’s shirt and notice how they looked black on the blue material. My mother had sat in the armchair next to my father, her arms hugged around her body and her delicate eyebrows slightly turned up in the middle of her forehead.

My father could yell so loud that every word he spoke would reverberate through my whole body. His face would contort and his lips would peel back over his nicotine stained teeth.

That night when I tried to count the seconds between the thunder, I couldn’t even whisper a full one-one hundred, two-one hundred before there was another boom. They didn’t get fewer or further apart. They shook the ceiling, one after another, and then abruptly cut off. After that, all I heard was the running of the upstairs faucet for exactly thirteen seconds before the house went silent.

For the first time since we had moved, I crept up the cold marble stairway and to my brother’s room.

I pushed the door open and saw that his desk lamp was still on. I thought he was asleep, but he was lying on his back, hands clasped over his chest and staring at the door expectantly.

He scooted over in his bed and held up the cover. I hadn’t slept in his bed since I was at least six. I settled into the pillows and pulled the blanket up over my nose.

He turned off the desk lamp and rolled onto his side, away from me. His shirt was off and I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen this much of his skin.

His back was riddled with bruised constellations and black holes that started dark in the middle and seeped out into shades of red and yellow. I hesitantly leaned my forehead against the hard place where the base of his neck met his shoulders. He didn’t move or say a word. Eventually sometime between counting the array of cosmos on his back, I fell asleep.

 

After that day, my brother’s temper would spark and go from being calm to enraged in a matter of seconds. There was no build up or warning; one moment he was fine and the next my Fiery Brother would break through and engulf everything around him.

He had also started to antagonize my father. The thing that drove my father the most insane was when my brother would laugh at him. It was a demeaning and belittling laugh that he accompanied with a slight shake of his head. A cruel smirk would cut across his lips. He openly accepted my father’s challenge and would stare him down. That laugh would send him into a frenzy and while my father would never hit him in front of us, but he would always pay for it later.

 

My brother wasn’t always like that. Sometimes he was the brother I had when I was still little. He was one of the best track runners on the high school team. He loved running and, while he still got into trouble, he kept it to a minimum so he could remain on the team.

I liked being at the track because it always smelled like fresh cut grass, the older boys on my brother’s team were really cute, and that was the only time I got to see my brother smile so openly. I may be biased because he was my brother, but he was really amazing. His long legs always managed to stretch out just a little bit further than the rest of the runners and cross the chalky white line first, arms spread out like wings at his sides.

After a race, his face would be gleaming with sweat and the edges of his dark hair would be wet and stuck to his skin. There was always a proud smile curling the edges of his lips. He’d walk up to me, fuss my hair with his hand and say, “Let’s go, Squirt.”

Those days after practice, he always smelled like a mix of his cologne, sweat, and grass. I liked him on those days. I always dragged my feet to make the walk back home slower because the closer we got, the more my Gleaming Brother would sink away to be replaced with the hard shell of my Fiery one.

 

 I didn’t even want my mother to be there. I just wanted it to be me and him saying our goodbyes to each other.

He was finally able to escape when he got accepted to a big university a six hour plane ride away. The day he left, he stood at the front porch, the taxi behind him filled with his things and his backpack slung over one shoulder. He gave my mother a one-armed hug while she shook with sobs. My father hadn’t bothered to show up to say goodbye, but we all preferred it that way. I didn’t even want my mother to be there. I just wanted it to be me and him saying our goodbyes to each other.

When he turned to me, he was my brother from those hot afternoons after practice. My Gleaming Brother. I knew he was excited to leave, even if he didn’t say it to spare my feelings. He smiled at me but the skin between his eyebrows puckered.

“Why are you crying?” he asked, a low chuckle reverberating in his chest as he fussed with my hair. “Hang in there, Squirt,” he said quietly before he stood up. “I’ll be back before you know it.”

I didn’t want to wait. I didn’t want to walk myself to school now and I didn’t want to be left alone with my mother and father.

For two months all I could think about was how I wanted him to come home, but, when he actually did, it wasn’t the relief I had been waiting for.

 

My mother was killed in a car accident the last week of November. She was leaving the grocery store in the middle of the night. I had gotten a temperature and she had gone out to get some of that canned chicken noodle soup. It was the middle of a huge thunderstorm that shook the windows in their frames.

My brother came back from school three days before the semester ended. I stayed in my room until he got home. My father didn’t bother to try to talk to me. I locked my door and made a bed of pillows on the floor in the corner of space between my bed and the far wall of my room.

I was counting the small, cold pearls of one of my mother’s bracelets over and over again when I heard the light rapping of knuckles against my door. I could tell it wasn’t my father because he never bothered to knock; he just tried to come in or yelled through the door if he couldn’t.

I slipped the bracelet around my wrist and opened the door.

An uncontrollable sigh shook my entire body.

He was standing in the doorframe, his hands tucked into his pockets, simply looking down at me. He was wearing a black suit for the funeral and I could tell by the wrinkles that he had worn it on the plane. He had that same concerned smile but his eyes were tired and his face looked thinner.

“Why are you crying?” he asked so suddenly and in such a soft tone it made me jump. I hadn’t noticed until then that there were already tears spilling down my cheeks. He pulled his hands from his pockets and held them out to his sides and I fell right into them.

 

The funeral passed as a blur of white and black. Family and friends said their apologies, asked if there was any way they could help, and there were white roses everywhere. The smell of them was still stuck in my nose, in my hair, for days afterwards. What I remember the most, however, was the weight of my brother’s hand on my shoulder and that, the entire time, he never left my side or broke contact. He stood by me like a silent guard, standing over and holding out his free hand when people acknowledged him.

After that night, I didn’t see much of my Fiery Brother anymore. Instead, my new Watery Brother took his place. He became a diluted version of who he used to be. He was washed out and blurry around the edges, like I was looking at him through a window as rain poured down the pane. His skin got pale and his eyes seemed to dull.

While my Fiery Brother sparked with anger, my Watery Brother was entirely void of emotion. Both of them were unsettling, but the absence of himself in his Watery state was far worse than any damage my Fiery Brother could cause.

 

Two nights after the funeral, I was in bed reading a book when I heard a loud slam ring through the building. It wasn’t the dull thud I had grown accustom to hearing above my head at night. It was sharp and so abrupt that the shock that ran through my body actually hurt.

It took me a moment of sitting there, knuckles white as I gripped onto my bed sheets, to realize that it was the sound of the front door being thrown shut. I scrambled to the edge of my bed.

I could just make out the shape of my brother sprinting down the road through the water drops scattered across the windowpane. The streetlamps reflected off the back of his white shirt as he sped past them. I ran downstairs and into the street. I craned my neck around to try to see where he had gone. I had no idea where he was going, but the worst part was that I didn’t know if he was going to come back.

My first thought was that maybe my father had done something, but his car wasn’t parked out front.

It had been raining earlier so the air was still cold and damp. I was only in my pajamas and the concrete beneath my feet was slick. My heart was pounding in my throat and my body shook. I couldn’t tell if it was from the cold or the inexplicable fear that was closing around my neck.

I started walking down the street, trying to find him. I had gone three blocks when I heard rustling in a bush up ahead followed by loud retching. I froze for a moment before deciding to follow the noise around the corner. I slowed my pace and wrapped my arms tightly around myself. There was a line of tall white rose bushes along a wrought-iron fence and halfway down it was my brother, doubled over and grasping the posts to keep himself up.

It was then that I was able to exhale the breath I didn’t know I was holding in.

I don’t know if he could hear my teeth chattering or could sense me walking towards him, but he jumped and jerked his head up to look at me. He coughed and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand.

My Watery Brother.

His eyes were puffy and swollen again, framing his startled blue eyes. His white shirt was wet and clinging to his frame. Steam was billowing off his shoulders in the cold air in small wisps. His black hair was matted and wet and his skin had a pale green sheen to it.

He sniffed through his nose and pushed himself away from the wall. “The roses…” was all he mumbled as he rubbed his fists against his eyes. He took a deep breath, the kind you do in an attempt to keep yourself from crying.

I was silent for a moment as I watched him. I wanted to reach out and try to grab him but I was afraid he would just trickle through my fingers. I spoke quietly, my voice barely above a whisper.

“Why are you crying?”

My arms slipped out from holding myself around my middle and I held them out at my sides. He looked back at me with his piercing blue eyes, rimmed with red for a silent moment before his face crumpled.

He was in front of me in barely two strides and collapsed to his knees. He wrapped his arms tightly around me and I could hear as he sobbed into my neck. His hot tears scalded my cheek. The heat of his body, his breath and the tightness of his arms were almost suffocating, but I held onto him as hard as I could, to keep us both up.

prose_section_divider

Open Your Eyes

“I don’t remember,” I repeated.

There was a rustling of paper as she looked through the police report again. I was lying on the couch facing the wall of windows that faced all the other gray buildings in the area, the sun hovering above them and beating down on my face. It always made me squint. Doctor Redman started the sessions offering to close the blinds, but I didn’t like staring at those horizontal bars for an hour.

“You were fishing, Alex,” Doctor Redman said. I could just make out the faint reflection of her in the window. She always sat behind me. I couldn’t see her but I knew the way she perched on the edge of her chair with a pen and piece of paper, her glasses precariously balanced on the end of her nose.

I always wondered if she even actually needed glasses since she always observed me over the top of them, a solitary wrinkle between her drawn on eyebrows. Maybe she wore them to reassure her patients that she was, indeed, an intelligent woman here to solve all your problems.

I found it distracting.

“Well I remember that,” I said, adjusting my position a bit. The red leather always stuck to the back of my neck in summer.

More rustling of paper. “In the reservoir, where fishing and boating isn’t allowed.” Her tone was even, but she was good at keeping it steady. I could tell she was getting irritated with me when she dragged her fingernail against the edge of her pad of paper, producing a sharp ziiip noise. “How did you get in?”

“It was really cold, and dark. We jumped the fence,” I answered. Jake’s pants had caught on the four foot tall gate and left a tear on the inner thigh of his jeans. Better your jeans than something else, I remember telling him. Apparently the government wasn’t too worried about people getting to the reservoir if that was all the protection it had, along with some signs that were very easy to walk past.

“‘We’ being?” I saw that one coming. She always said that when I started retelling the story.

“Me and Jake.” I folded my hands over the white cloth of my t-shirt on my stomach.

“And then what happened?”

“And then we got one of the little rowboats they use to go out into the water and test it or whatever,” I said. They were just tied up to a dock, bobbing around and ready for use. Jake had climbed in first and held onto the dock to steady it while I climbed in after him. “We pulled out the oars and went out to the middle.”

“What happened when you fell out of the boat?”

“That,” I paused and took a deep breath, “is what I don’t remember.” I dug the heel of the hand into my eyes. I was so tired. I could actually feel the bags under my eyes, the same color as bruises. Falling asleep wasn’t the hard part; it was the waking up that was insurmountable.

She was getting annoyed.

“Then let’s skip ahead a bit. What do you remember after you got into the boat?” she asked over the sound of her pen running over her paper, making a short note.

“Jake tipped the boat.”

I could remember the lake. I remembered feeling the ground and rocks digging into my back, bruising my skin through the down of my jacket. I could feel the small rhythmic waves breaking against my knees. My body was impossibly heavy. My mouth tasted like lake water and dirt. I coughed, spewing water onto the muddy bank.

Then I saw Jake, also on his side but turned away from me. I said his name and it came out in a gurgled croak.

On shaking limbs, I crawled over to him and tugged the shoulder of his thick jacket. “Jake, c’mon,” I had said. He rolled onto his back. Even in the dark I could see his eyes. They were paler than usual, like the lake had washed them to a paler blue. He looked just about as shocked as I felt, eyes wide, mouth slightly agape.

“I told him not to stand up in the boat,” I told Doctor Redman as I stared out the window.

“Did Jake know how to swim?”

“His leg was bent at a weird angle,” I told her. I had been freezing and Jake was still waist deep in the shallows.

“What did Jake say?”

“I’m not a doctor or anything, but I knew we couldn’t just stay there like that or he was going to get hypothermia or whatever,” I said.

I had staggered to my feet and stooped over him. I couldn’t feel my hands, but I took hold of his arms anyways and looped them around my neck. “His hands kept falling, he couldn’t hold onto me,” I said, as my own hand moved up and rubbed my shoulder, remembering the weight of his arms and how they kept slipping off me like rain. “I tried getting my arms around his waist and dragging him further up the bank, but that broken leg of his just dragged behind him. He was so heavy…”

I had locked my arms around his torso, squeezing my own forearms to hold him up, but I could barely feel my hands and I kept shaking. “Every time I stepped forward, my foot would sink into the mud and start slipping back,” I told her.

He was so heavy. The water soaking his clothes must have been weighing him down. My shoulders ached and my legs strained to keep up both from falling back down, but the mud kept pulling us back. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t breathe.

My head was shaking slightly. “I couldn’t do it.” The sun was hurting my eyes.

“Then what happened, Alex?” Her voice always got softer at this point, quiet. But her pen started moving faster, like the scratching of birds’ feet across the paper.

“I stopped.”

I gave him one more heave before both my feet slipped out from under me. He landed on his back with a wet thud, I fell onto my side. I should’ve been sweating with how hard I was breathing, but I was too cold to tell the difference between sweat, lake water, and mud. All three clung to my skin and clothes, trickled through my hair and dripped onto my ears.

“Could you see Jake?”

I shook my head.

“What happened next, Alex?”

“I was on my back again, and I closed my eyes,” I told her. “I wanted to sleep, I just wanted to sleep.”

The mud felt like it was enveloping my body and dragging me down to rest in the belly of the earth. The shore was my bed and the water a cold, numb blanket trying to pull me to sleep.

“Then I remember opening my eyes.”

The sky and stars had exploded into view above me. The Milky Way dragged across the black world like a scar, spilling pin pricks of stars and planets from its gape. I had never seen so many before. The only thing to obscure them was the line of the trees, cresting around the very top of my field of vision. Their peaks a wall of impenetrable black, cutting into sky and leaving nothing in their wake.

My shuddering breaths billowed past my cracked lips in clouds. The waves lapped icy cold against my neck and ears. My whole body shook and I pressed my fingertips into the mud to steady myself, but my head swam and the stars gently swayed back and forth.

“I couldn’t see the moon,” I said. “I thought that was weird…” but I’m not sure she could actually hear me.

A violent shudder gripped my spine.

“The police say you were talking about ‘monsters’ when they found you,” Doctor Redman said behind me. Her glasses caught the sunlight and sparked in her reflection in the window as she glanced up at me.

I had no energy left in me to turn my head or to shout, let alone run.

“Yeah—no,” I shook my head quickly, remembering the trouble using that word had gotten me into. No one wanted to believe the guy talking about monsters in woods. “Not monsters, just animals—wolves, maybe. Something. I heard them coming through the woods behind us. I wasn’t sure, at first, but when something that big gets that close, you know it.”

It started with a faint rustling of leaves, and then the heavy tread of footfalls on wet earth. I had no energy left in me to turn my head or to shout, let alone run.

So I closed my eyes.

I lay as still as possible, but my body continued to shake. I could hear them moving on either side of me, the mud squishing under their weight. Something brushed against the top of my head and nudged against my shoe. I curled my fingers into fists, afraid something might happen to my fingers.

“I could feel one leaning over me,” I said. “I could feel it there in the space above me, and I could smell it.”

“What did it smell like?”

“Woods… Something dirty and old. Decaying, maybe,” I tried to explain. “It breathed on me.” I could remember its hot breath washing over my face and neck. I don’t think I could ever forget that. Something wet nudged against my ear. It was warm and coarse against my cold skin, a sharp stab of sensation to my otherwise numb body.

“Then I could hear two of them fighting, growling, over to my side.”

“By Jake?”

“Yeah—no. He was being quiet, trying to play dead like me.”

Ziiip.

“But they were fighting over something?”

“I guess so.” They made horrible, snarling growls. I didn’t want to tell her about that though, I didn’t even want to think about it. Nor about how I could hear the rip of fabric or something, or how the one standing over me wouldn’t leave. It just loomed there, panting in a slow rhythm.

My whole body was starting to shake. My skin was getting goosebumps even though the sun was still washing me with warmth from the window.

“It says that Alan Thicket found you on the eastern bank when he showed up for work around 4:00 A.M. Do you remember that?” she asked.

“Yeah, I remember him finding us.”

I heard a shout in the distance and suddenly me and Jake were alone on the shore again. The sound coming through the woods this time was unmistakably human. A light shone behind my eyelids and I opened them, squinting into the beam of a flashlight. The man in front of me was wearing a heavy jacket with the local water company’s logo stamped on the front.

“He said something to me, but I couldn’t understand him, or maybe I don’t remember what he said,” I tried to explain. “I remember him picking me up and carrying me to his truck.”

My head lolled back, bobbing slightly with each step as the man brought me through the woods. I opened my eyes but there was no sky, just jagged tree tops I couldn’t see past. Someone had blown out the stars.

“What happened then?”

“Then he started up the truck and put on the heater. I was so cold. He needed to go back for Jake. Jake was cold too, and his leg wouldn’t work, he needed more help than I did.”

“Alex,” Doctor Redman said.

I remembered saying Jake’s name, trying to tell the man that he needed to go back to get him. “I guess he didn’t hear me, he just kept talking on his radio—”

“Alex.”

“But it wasn’t safe for Jake to be alone out there, by himself, they could go back and get him—”

“Alex, you need to stop now.”

“No.” I squeezed my eyes shut tight.

There was no sound of her pen scratching on paper. The floorboards creaked and the light shining through my eyelids suddenly cut out. The air in front of me buzzed. I could smell mud and moss. A deep rumbling exhale washed hot over my face, filling my ears.

“Open your eyes,” Doctor Redman said. Her voice rang clear from behind me.

But I couldn’t.

Aiden ThomasAiden Thomas is a writer of young adult fiction. As a graduate student currently at Mills College working on her MFA in Creative Writing, she enjoys writing fairy tale re-tellings, horror, problem novels, and creative nonfiction for young adults.