His gaze is riveted to the floor, tracing a crack in the dirty cement beneath his feet, afraid it will cave in the moment he lets it out of his sight. “Yes ma’am, we’re all settled in now. Thank you for the doll; I’m sure my sister will really love it.”
The smiling lady from across the hall is older than Mom but younger than Grandma. Maybe there are ten years of memory still left in her. We are here in this forgotten apartment building because Dad can’t go to work and Mom won’t go to work because she’s too busy cleaning the spotless kitchen. Annie has nightmares every night and I am the one that has to lie and say that God will make things better.
I had asked God to give me a good reason not to go to school that day, so when Mom said I had a fever of a hundred and two, I couldn’t have been happier. But I guess I should have been more specific. I guess God just didn’t understand me.
Maybe I should have said, “God, please don’t let Grandma forget to turn off the stove.” Or, better yet, “God, if you wouldn’t mind, I’d really appreciate it if you could let me have something of my dog to say goodbye to.”
Grandma came over that morning, and we looked at old photos together. Sure, she called Uncle Tom Uncle Jim, but Mom would always cycle between some combination of my sister’s name, my name, and my dog’s name until she found the one she wanted. I was weightless from the medicine, so I let Grandma float me upstairs for a nap and the promise of soup when I woke up. I didn’t even hear the sirens.
The boy in a faded school t-shirt is a crude sketch of himself from three months before. His thin frame seems to have been stretched out by a careless hand, and his eyes are too large for his wan face. His drumstick fingers grasp the doll the smiling woman holds out to him and lets it hang at his side, his crumpled paper heart unable to bear its weight.
“Consider it a welcome present. I see your sister sometimes when you come home from school. This old place needs children to brighten it up.” The woman paints her words on the invisible wall between them, but they slide to the ground, nothing holding them together.
I am giving my Becky’s doll to this boy whose father bellows when he is drunk. I never see his mother, and his sister doesn’t go to school even though she is probably six years old. He is around thirteen, and he doesn’t look me in the eye. His hair is greasy and falls in thick strands around his ears.
I feel the doll leave my outstretched hand, but I only see Becky in the outfit I made her to match her baby. She would take it everywhere, but I didn’t even think twice when I found it laying on the dining table the day Jonas lost control of the car. I just picked it up, smoothed out its dress, and set it in her crib beside her purple elephant.
Becky looked so doll-like in the big hospital bed. She hung on for two days, opening her eyes to check if I was still there. The last time she looked at me, she stared so long, her eyes burning with the flames of faith and hope I had lost. Then they slid shut the way her doll’s would when she’d lay it down. Her body was too broken for me to hold her; I could do nothing but touch her hair, her cheeks, her lips, her hands.
When her world was full, this woman was beautiful. Her empty hands fall to her sides and she feels her bulk under the silk of her clothes. She’s left no room for sorrow, and her smile is so practiced she almost believes it herself. She casts its beam over a blind woman and her guide dog as they appear on the landing.
“Why, don’t you look pretty today, dear!”
“Thank you. We went to visit my sister today. It’s been a while since we went up there.” She takes a few steps forward, hoping to draw strength from the movement, but only succeeds in widening the chasm between her ribs.
Is my smile real enough? Does she believe the happiness in my voice? Is it terrible that I almost avoid talking to this woman because I know I can’t possibly be as cheerful as she is? But I guess she has to be faking it sometimes, too. I don’t think anyone can be that happy all the time. Then again, what would I know.
God, I hate being so negative all the time. Isn’t that what started this whole thing with my family in the first place? All this negativity building up and being buried and built up as something different and swept away. We had to have known that it would come back to bite us one day—this fireball we created.
Firebrand, that’s how we all knew her. The go-getter, the all-American girl. The perfect daughter, the big sister everyone wanted. How much of Courtney had we created? I seriously considered asking her that today, but of course I didn’t, because the doctors said not to upset her. I want to hate the doctors for controlling her with medication, but I can’t because we did the same thing, but we called our medication love, and it was easier to swallow.
Would it have been different if I could see her? That day, when she was on her bed and her life was gushing out, I would have known instantly and not have had to touch the warm pool. But even before that, I might have seen the spark leave her face or the way they said she’d shrunken into herself. I hope things will be different when she comes to live with me. The way it is with me and Chip. We will guide and lead and trust and take care of each other.
I’ll show her the street I live on and the neighbors—the neighbors that will not know her invisible weakness the way they cannot hide from mine. I think she’ll like the family that lives next door, with the little girl and the boy whose voice trips over itself when he speaks. Maybe she’ll at least forgive me for being part of her destruction.
This blind woman walks with a purpose people can only guess at. There is a spark in her sunken eyes, but people never look long enough to see it. The waif and her dog plot a course through the world, writing a story that seems to change with every reader. Sometimes, when she stops long enough, she allows herself to wonder which reader is right.
As the blind woman is making her way to the stairwell, she hears a new voice drift over the rhythm of the laundry machines. It comes from the opposite end of the hall but is gone with the elevator. She isn’t sure, but she thinks she’s heard a gentle voice cooing as if to a baby.
“Welcome to your new home, angel. We’ll be warm and safe here, yes we will.” Despite the many bags she carries and the infant cradled in her arms, the young mother seems to grow lighter with every step she takes.
I cannot walk without feeling the need to run. Cannot turn a corner without having to fight the urge to look over my shoulder. I do not look into shop windows for fear of my reflection and what I might see in my eyes. The only thing that is real and true is my baby, for she is mine. I will never allow her father’s shadow to touch her.
We emerge from the rickety elevator and I can breathe again. Our new home is at the end of a dingy hall, tucked away in a corner—where I belong. There are people in the hall and my baby opens her eyes to take them in. I pause, gazing into her eyes, full of the need to explore—to know—and I hug her closer to me. I wish she could stay like this forever. Innocent. Then she will never have to know.
A boy stands in the middle of the hall, a doll drooping at his side. I feel sorry for his slumping shoulders and darting eyes. He must share something of what I know. Loss. Fear. Beside him, there is an older woman. The steadiness of her smile—the way she holds her shoulders so nothing escapes—tells me she knows, too. Love. Pain.
Up ahead walks a blind woman and her dog. My baby wriggles to get a better look at the sleek Retriever; I wonder what it must be like to live in darkness. To never have seen the hunger in his eyes—the madness. To never know the summersault of the world as I fell. To not have looked upon my angel’s face as the doctors handed her to me. To not see her now with her nose and ears like mine and mouth and hands all her own.
My baby loses interest in the dog and begins to squirm. I know she is sleepy and hungry and confused and that she trusts me to make it better. She coos her impatience. I pass the boy and the woman and the girl and her dog, but I cannot move quickly enough. Suddenly, a torrent of sound bursts from her lips, the untaught plea that can only be ripped from you, and my heart screams with her, because I know the pain of that sound.
The young woman slips into her new apartment, ashes of abandoned love swirling behind her. She presses her child to her chest, warm life fighting to test her sheltering arms. She breathes in the pierced air and remembers a song from her childhood. It is a question. A promise. For a moment, a prayer.
The paper boy and his sister; the smiling woman and her ghosts; the blind girl and her dog; the young mother in her new home. Untitled volumes strewn across the shelf of time. In this single moment, they are all caught in the skyward plummet of an infant cry—suspended in innate need. And all they can do is breathe in the haunting song—cling to its hope. Drink in its knowing.
“Jenny Rebecca, four days old,
How do you like the world so far?
Jenny Rebecca, four days old,
What a lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky girl you are.”
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 444 Castro Street, Suite 900, Mountain View, California, 94041, USA.
Written for Dr. David N. Odhiambo’s ENG 313: Creative Writing