Even through the threadbare curtains, Sam can see the traces of frost creeping across the window glass, throwing slivers of moonlight across the hardbound book in her hand. She doesn’t check the spine for the title.
Shivering, she tugs on the sleeve of her pajamas. The wind outside has grown fierce, gnawing at wood and flesh alike; winter has finally arrived. Branches groan against the walls of the house, as if to escape the frigid air, and she sits cross-legged on the hardwood floor, listening to the sound-filled silence.
The room is dark, and her head is pressed back into the side of her desk. Her wire-rimmed glasses, bent ever so slightly out of shape, lie discarded on the ground beside her. She traces the cover of the book in her lap. Its corners are well-worn, curved inwards, and almost reverently, she runs a finger down its pages. She smiles as the moon washes her hand in silver light.
Even as her heart tightens, breath comes more easily, and her shoulders sag. Already, she can feel her own worn-out world trickling away through the cracks between the floorboards, hear new existences blossoming at the turning of a page. Already, she can taste escape in the air.
She draws a breath through her nose as the fresh scents of dust and paper trickle up from the pages. Sleep holds down her eyelids, and she still can’t remember what book it is that she holds in her hand. Only that it is the one she fell asleep meaning to read, and the one that she turned to, hours later, when she sat straight up in bed, choking down a scream. Reading by moonlight has always been her remedy for a nightmare.
And for her first failing grade.
And for her grandfather’s death.
Scratch that--reading by moonlight has always been her remedy for everything.
She’ll have to go to school tomorrow, and she’ll have to go to sleep soon. But for now, there is only her and this book. She hopes that she will lose herself somewhere in the pages, in a world away from this one; she hopes that when she returns, she will be a little more whole than before.
But I still remember
Scribbled notes on orange post-its
Flicked across a desk
I remember making faces at friends across crowded rooms
And laughing when they finally noticed
And I remember when we ran in circles against the wind
Without a care in the world
I remember when we became dragons.
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It’s been a while since we left. The sun should be well into the west by now, casting shimmering streaks of pale pink across the deep blue evening. Would be, if it weren’t for the huge wall of pure black that spans across the horizon, spreading out slowly, steadily, casting its looming shadow on the world. The crowd surges around us. As far as I can see stretch faces, people, some pushing ahead of others, some lagging behind. Blond hair, brown hair, white hair, dark eyes, it all blurs together until the faces stop being faces at all. Every so often I think I see someone that I recognize, but when I look again, they’ve turned away, vanished into the crowd, and I tell myself that it was just my imagination.
I don’t remember when I offered to take Caecilia from Mother, or when it started feeling like I was holding a sack of bricks instead of a child. I pull my sister closer to me and continue to walk forward, trailing Mother’s dancing shadow, cast in the darkness by the vague flicker of a candle instead of the ever burning sun. Mother glances at the sky, swallows, and increases her pace, pushing through the crowd. We keep walking.
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Growing up, there were four boys on my street, all of us about the same age. Danny, my best friend from birth and the clown of the group, with his dimpled smile and his freckled face. He went on to be the only one of us to enroll in the army, but at the time, he was a mop of hair, haphazardly parted and falling into his eyes when he ran. There was Jacob, the youngest of us and something of a tagalong, who went on to become a famous movie critic. There was me, the quiet one. And then there was Evan, who moved into the old house at the end of our street when we were in first grade.
Evan was the storyteller of the group, to say the least. His eyes shining, he’d spin us golden tales about his grandfather, who had singlehandedly led the American Army to victory during the Great War. He’d swear on his life that old Mr. Dupont was a Russian spy, and he’d speak in low whispers about the time he’d seen a dragon on the horizon as the sun disappeared over the edge of the woods. Being seven years old and new to lies, I hung onto his every word like a precious stone.
My favorite stories were always those about his father. “He’s a pilot,” Evan would say, his back straightening and his mouth going stiff, “and he owns three planes, and he flies ‘em all day. He ain’t got no passengers, no one else with him. He’s up there all alone up in the air, jus’ like a bird. Every day.” Once, he had flown right across the Pacific and skimmed the top of Mount Everest with his wing. Another time, he had broken right out of the earth’s atmosphere and scraped against the edge of the moon. In fact, he was so busy with his planes that he was rarely home. “But I don’t mind,” Evan told us. “He’s the best Dad in the world.”
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I have my back to him, but I know he is here. I thought perhaps he could only visit in my dreams. But I can see the shadows on the wall shifting with his every breath, hear him shuddering in the winter air, blue-skinned and cold-eyed and drowning in shadow. The cold gnaws at the back of my neck, and I can feel the trails of water running down his face, hear them dripping onto the floor and pooling at his feet.
I close my eyes. Breathe. I need to breathe. I must take in air, must brace myself for the voices. They are only murmurs, now: whispered fragments grasping at something they cannot quite reach. But they will grow louder, as they always do when he visits me, bubbling up in my mind and hammering into my spine. They grow and weave, washing over one another like coursing waves, but I can never figure out what they are trying to say.
I suppose ghosts have the right to haunt those who have wronged them, but his presence still unnerves me. I do not want him here. Go away, Luke. Please.
Nothing; I can still hear his breathing. Must I turn and face him? I cannot bear to see what he has become--
Please, I try again. Please. I’m not ready.
A moment, and then he listens. I can hear his breath wilt into the air as he fades. It’s a soft sound, gentle, like the breath of air that kills a flame.
Silence follows, and then the raw cry of the wind. I open my eyes. The shadows are still; the street lights pour in through the windows. I sigh and rest my head against the windowsill. The painted wood is cool against my cheek, and I feel an urge to sink into it and never wake up.
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The white paint has been peeling ever since she layered it on, and it clings to her palm when she brushes against it. She doesn’t mind it; she likes to think of the small white flakes as lost thoughts, snatched up in the elusive tide of memory.
But when the afternoon sun streams in through the window, it’s not the paint that it catches, but the solid oak underneath, and she finds herself wishing that she could crawl underneath it again, wrapped in thin sunlight, listening to the sound of her father’s loafers tapping against the floor. Even now, it smells, ever so faintly, of honeysuckle.
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The slipping shadows are slick and warm, and soft and thick as cotton, and they guard him against the still, damp lights of the stars. They wrap around his dangling ankles, around legs too small to reach the ground, around his round-eyed face and his drumming fingers.
She wonders if the case in his arms is stolen or his own, if the smudges on his cheeks and forehead are oil or coal or only shadow. She wonders why his fingers tap so furiously the wooden seat.
He’d been the first one to speak at her funeral. It was an odd crowd – a few of her friends from Church, three or four ex-students, an obscure European cousin who she had lived with for a few months in her thirties. He shouldn’t have spoken – he was the least qualified of them all, really. He and Lillian were strangers, had been for all but the first ten of his fifty years. Strangers who shared blood, but strangers all the same.
He’d prepared a story for the podium – some made-up gibberish about the innocence of childhood and Lillian nursing a tabby cat named Juniper back to health. He can’t imagine his sister actually doing anything of the sort, can’t even remember how the story went, but it had brought the meager audience to laughter and to tears, and after receiving heartfelt condolences from the majority of the room, as well as the odd bouquet, he was sure that he had played the part of loving brother reasonably well. He wonders if he should have brought flowers with him today – roses for love, lilies for peace, poppies for remembrance. That’s the point of it all, really – remembrance. She was loved, flowers call out to passerby. She was needed. She will live forever in our hearts. But that would be a lie, wouldn’t it? He can’t conjure memories of a stranger; can’t offer her the mourning she deserves.
At last, he comes to the end of the graveyard – to a clean, chiseled stone standing straight among the forgotten and decrepit. Fresh dirt clings to his shoes as he moves towards the tomb – pale gray, almost hazy under the curtain of descending night. Slowly, he runs a finger over the name. The stone is cold, and the hard line of the L leaves an indent in his skin.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers.
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The night sky seems to buckle under the weight of smoke, and his voice seeps into the cobblestones, golden notes lingering in the firelight long after they are gone. Though his words are barely whispers, barely bursts of breath in the darkness, there is a sorrow in the touch of his voice. It wraps around each shuffling footstep. Each passing car.
He sits on the curb, perching on an overturned paint bucket just under a flickering gas light, and though his tune is familiar to all who listen, it is his own. Some do not see him; others cast furtive glances as they pass by. First to his guitar, to worn-smooth firelight coursing through wood. Then to his hands, trembling against the strings. And, at last, to his face. Skin like wet paper, clinging to protruding bones. Chapped lips, whispered words. Pale eyelashes, fluttering in time to his song.
And, quickly, they look away. Something about him unsettles them; perhaps his tattered clothes; perhaps the pain that lurks in the silence between his notes. Perhaps it is only his luck.
Some glare; others speed up and pull their children closer. A few search for a donation box. They fine none.
An old man frowns as he approaches, pulls the cigarette from his lips. His footsteps pause, and his breath draws circles of smoke in the air. He nods, slowly, and slides a dollar into the palm of the singer’s hand.
The singer hands it back.
Winter takes a brush to his lips, painting them blue, and his hands tremble against the strings of his guitar.
He sits with one leg outstretched, and every so often, his voice scrapes. His notes grow sour, his words catch, and he pauses. Opens his eyes. Looks to the sky, and finds only smoke.
And still, he sings on.
The wheels drum briskly against the darkened tar, and silence sweeps out the hollow between the dashboard and the front seat. The moonlight falls on the rushing grass, each blade heavy with the weight of the wind, and casts her hands in fine, pale silver. Fingers tight on the cold wheel, bones, ghostly white through the skin of the knuckles, she turns easily onto the curling highway. A lone bright car swerving between dashed white lanes, humming and breathing at the slightest touch of her hands. Behind, the windshield she takes refuge from the roaring world: there is only her and the gas and the gears and the still, stifled air.
The mountain itself stands solemn, towering over all and aching with pride, a silent protector. Its gaze stretches to the whispering sea, to the vast horizon beyond and to the setting sun, who graces the face of the mountain with her warm, golden light. The mountain rolls gently into the sea, which stretches far into the distance, each breath a wave, each exhale a whisper.
Though it tries, the sea can never quite trace the horizon; so, instead of reaching up, it reaches down. It knows the chill of icy depths where even the sunlight dares not wander, and so, it longs for the warmth. Each day, when the sun is closest, it paints itself with vibrant hues of russet, saffron, golden, and rose. Each day, the sun brushes the horizon and smiles at the painted sea, then bids the vast gradient of the sky goodbye, ducking under the land and giving way to the stars and the night.
I wake up, hours later, to the dawn bleeding through my eyelids. The aching sun drags its fingers over the horizon, unraveling spools of crimson into the sky. It warms the gravel beneath me, but makes no move against the bitter chill in the air. Somewhere down the road, a lone engine sputters, wheels kicking up dust.
No one is watching me; no one is even awake. All the same, I keep up the pretense of nonchalance as I glance down at my watch. The face is cracked, almost shattered; it must’ve happened last night.
Grabbing hold of the railing, I pull myself up. The gravel has left a deep pink imprint in the right side of my palm. Absently, I rub it against my sweater. The pink imprint hasn’t disappeared; if anything, it’s gotten deeper.
I know they are there like
I know I am here, I
can feel them surging and
ebbing and pushing to be
The sound of deep, slow breathing resonated through the house that night; I alone was awake. I drew back the curtain and peered out into the night. The moon greeted my gaze, the shimmering pearl in the sky. I pulled open the curtain further, and a shaft of luminescence trickled down through the navy black night, bathing my face in a pool of silver and spilling onto the cotton pillow like a still, rippling stream. A droplet of the purest silver, a beam of moonlight, had found its way down to me, and for a few precious moments, it was mine alone.
A tear traced its way down my cheek, turned silver by the light of the moon. As soon as it hit the pillow, more fell, and I began to sob, silent, shuddering sobs that seemed to shake the world.
The moon was the only witness.
My favorite Sundays were those when it rained. On those days, she’d bring her umbrella, dark gray with a wooden handle, slightly bent on one side. We’d fill that umbrella with rain and empty it over our heads, laughing as clean, untouched drops of water poured down around us like a shower of molten beads of glass and crystal. The sound of the rain echoed in our ears, both gentle and firm, comforting and endlessly rhythmic. Then we’d run down to the lake and skip stones in the water, the ripples we made joining the ripples of the raindrops as they hit the smooth surface. When our hair hung limply around our faces and our clothes were soaked, we’d run to the tree at the end of the lake, our tree, and prop the umbrella up on the lowest branch, securing it with her scarf.
We’d run to the ice cream place at the end of the street and purchase one scoop each. Mint chocolate chip for her, pecan for me. We’d dash back outside and race to our tree, laughing as the rain stained our ice cream and our ice cream stained the rain. By the time we reached the tree, both cones would be a soggy, sticky mess, but we’d eat them anyway, dry under the umbrella, then rinse our hands in the overflowing lake. We’d jump into that lake without hesitation and race to the other side. It wasn’t deep enough to swim, but we waded in and ran across the sandy bottom, our flailing limbs sending up crowns of water all around us as we laughed and struggled to get ahead. The winner would decide what to do next.
Sometimes we doubled back to the umbrella and sat under it and talked. Sometimes we played two-way tag in the park. Sometimes we snuck into a movie at the theater or ran to the playground and clambered onto the wooden swings, riding them so high that it felt as if we’d break through the rain and brush against the clouds. We climbed to the top of the slide and rushed down along with the roaring rain water, shrieking in our own personal waterpark.
Sometimes we just walked to the café on the end of the street and watched the rain for hours on end from the corner table by the window, the one that felt like a separate world. It was a silent pastime, but the silence wasn’t the awkward type that scrapes and screeches past like coarse metal, nor the overwhelming kind that presses down on a room even after it is shattered. Instead, it was a third presence, a connecting fiber between us, safe and comforting, like a blanket of calm, too strong to be broken by a whispered word here and there, by the corner of a smile. Sometimes I feel like there are more types of silence than there are sound.
She wafts in like a harmony,
a rose-golden whisper.
Lives on the inside of raindrops,
Scraping moonlight from cloud-edged silver linings
and pulling shadows from under pine needles.
Crafts the moonlight
and the shadows into truth,
and whispers the truth into star-licked violets.
Swirling clouds of golden
And russet and crimson
And canary yellow
Sprinkled through the air
Like butterflies sailing the wind
They float down,
Until they strike dirt
Across withered brown grass
The color of a rose
That rides just a little farther
Into the setting sun
His thoughts strayed to the thin photograph that was clutched in his hand, to the old, outdated camera that had taken it. He remembered how his oldest brother, Alexei, had gotten the camera, through a year of pestering his mother and father, how his parents had carefully saved up, a few spare coins clinking into the smooth glass jar each day until , finally, on a date almost two years after they had started saving, they had enough. He could picture the anxious look that his brother had worn as he had walked down to the store, the joy in his face when he walked back with a camera held reverently in his hands, the same joy in his eyes when he took his first picture, the very same picture that Peter held in his hand now, a grainy black-and-white image of Peter leaning over a rusted railing, his boots just barely touching the wooden boards as he stared longingly out to sea. In the picture, you could see the vastness of the ocean, the sails of ships fanning out like blooming flower petals, the rough wood of the dock and the traces of rust on the rail. More than anything, you could see the wistful look on Peter’s face, the way the rail seemed to carry his weight, the way only the tips of his boots touched solid earth. You could see the way his hair blew back in the fierce wind, the way that same wind seemed to almost support his weight along with the rail. Looking down at the picture, Peter could almost feel the ocean breeze blowing back his hair, almost taste the fresh tang of sea salt on his tongue, almost see the shimmering blue water of the wide ocean and the hundreds of ships sailing out to sea. He could almost relive the feeling that he had had at the time, the feeling that told him that he was flying, soaring above the world, that nothing could touch him. Almost.
Sun peers up at disbanded night
At faded clusters of whispering stars
Sky’s soft breath sends the wind on its way
And she lifts sun up with tired arms
Fresh sun adorns sky’s shifting robe,
Drowning earth’s shadows with gentle breaths
Whispering wind rushes through trees,
Bringing souls back from the brink of death
Sloping horizon, reaching up from the earth
Wraps the sun in her gentle embrace
And as crashing sea whispers to coast’s waiting ear,
With first crimson stroke the sky is graced
The tall evergreens brushed against each other, whispering in the soft warm summer breeze. The bushes and shrubs shook, shivered and shuddered, causing fresh drops of rainwater to dart and drop, from one to the next, glittering as they went. A red brick path circled a plain grass field at the art center, with the gorgeous greenery gathered around it. A few summer campers played a small game of tag on the field, darting all over and screaming every time a tagger’s hand touched them. The noises of excited children talking loudly to each other filled my ears, along with laughter and footsteps.
“There is no way I am going to do a good job on the next project!” Julie complained, while popping a quarter sandwich into her wide open mouth, and, at the same time, bringing me back to reality.
“You’ll do a great job. You did on the last one!” Ashley protested.
“ I won’t! And mine wasn’t that good!” Julie muttered.
“ Yours was the only one that looked anything like what it was supposed to!” Ashley shouted while staring at Julie. “You’ll do great just like you did in the morning!”
“Will not!” Julie grumbled.
“Will too!” Ashley replied.
On the next “Will too!” two voices rang out instead of one. I had joined Ashley in the debate. Julie’s face burned and her nostrils flared. On her next “Will not”, her voice lowered in pitch and increased in volume, probably to make up for the fact that it was now two against one. I glanced down and saw that Julie’s knuckles had turned white, and stood out against her red hands.
I knew that it was about time to give in. After all, the argument was ridiculous. But just as I was about to, Ashley gave another “Will too” glaring right at Julie. Katie, Anya and I watched the argument progress in silence.
All of a sudden, both girls went quiet. I looked at them. Julie’s face was white, and Ashley’s was red. They were staring at each other with so much concentration that I could have sworn their eyes were going to pop out.
Just when I thought that they would start shouting again, something happened that broke all the tension. A squirrel which had previously been sitting next to a small shrub next to our bench, took three huge leaps. The first landed on the arm of the bench that Ashley, Julie and I were perched on. Ashley’s jaw dropped, Julie’s eyes widened, and I was pretty sure I let out a gasp.
The second leap took the squirrel down to the ground, right between Katie and Anya, their mouths mirrored Ashley’s and their eyes Julie’s.
On the third leap, the squirrel zoomed back up to the bench, landing only inches away from my left leg. The fluffy, gray squirrel stared up at me with huge, warm, chocolate brown eyes. The remaining three quarters of Julie’s sandwich fell to her lap.
That was enough to distract the squirrel. In one smooth motion, it turned and hopped onto Julie’s lap, and for a second I thought my jaw would hit the ground. I could feel my eyebrows suddenly go up and my arms and legs go stiff. My nose itched, but I couldn’t force my hand up to itch it.
Meanwhile, the squirrel gazed at Julie with shining eyes. Nobody moved, not even a millimeter. It was as if we were frozen in blocks of ice.
We stared at Julie, waiting to see what she would do. When she did nothing, Katie slowly eased out her phone from her pocket and snapped a picture. This must have startled the squirrel, because before we knew it, it had disappeared into the bushes. I stared at the spot where the squirrel had been for a second longer, before turning back to the others. We burst into giggles and ended up laughing so hard that I thought I saw milk come out of Katie’s nose.
When we finally found that we could stop, Julie sighed. “Maybe I can do well in the next project!” she said.
Ashley stared at us all in turn. “Told you so” she piped up and for the second time that day, we all burst out laughing. Finally, our counselor lined us up to go inside. I was glad that the excitement was over, but as we trailed into the building, I thought that I saw a small gray squirrel sitting on the second grade table, and staring up at a little girl with sparkling eyes!
One spring morning
I thought I heard
The playful trilling
Of a bird
I looked around
And there it sat, still
Perched lightly on
It peered at me
With deep brown eyes
Then away it turned
With another cry
It cocked its head
And spread its wings
It trilled again
With a quiet ring
It turned once more
And away it soared
The wind that carried it
I watched it fade
Craning my neck
Until it shrank
Down to a speck
And as it vanished
I couldn’t help
But open the door
And feel the breeze
So cool and light
And watch the trees
Oh, what a sight!
It had been a mere three days since school let out, and already, freedom seemed to ring through the air. Leaves wavered lazily in the breeze, squirrels scurried across the trimmed lawn, and I lay back on the moist grass, surrounded by four of my best friends, Julia, Mark, Hannah, and Gaby.
We should have been smiling, laughing, and running barefoot across the lawn, but in the last few moments of Julia’s going away party, a melancholy mood had settled over us all. Later that evening, Julia’s plane would leave for Germany, and there would be no return flight. She was moving.
Julia sat cross-legged on the lawn, her hair pulled away from her round face with a neon green hair tie. Her blond bangs spilled over her forehead, and the blazing sunlight brought out the hints of amber and chestnut in her eyes. Her gaze flickered anxiously from face to face, as if she were struggling to memorize every last detail.
Our friendship had been forged over the scorching embers of middle school. With the new school year had come stricter teachers, meaner kids, more work, and only one constant face through all of my classes: Julia. We’d met on the first day of school, and from there, we had quickly become friends, growing closer and closer as the days passed. As soon as word of the move had reached my ears, I’d fallen into a state of permanent denial. Julia wouldn’t leave because she simply couldn’t; a change that drastic was unimaginable and therefore impossible. Even now, I was hoping for a miracle.
Mark stood up abruptly and drew his phone out of his pocket.
“Everyone get in!” he called. He held his phone out. A selfie. A desperate attempt to preserve these last moments with Julia. We piled into the frame, and he snapped the photo. Four of us clustered around a beaming Julia, our smiles broad and genuine. I wished I could freeze that moment and live in it forever.
The sound of approaching footsteps brought me back to reality. I glanced up and caught sight of Hannah’s mother, a tall, thin woman with short hair dyed a dark shade of magenta, stepping out onto the porch. She peered at Julia over her red-framed glasses and smiled.
“Sweetie, your mother’s here.”
Without a word, Julia scrambled up and walked indoors. I followed, clambering up the wooden steps and ducking through the doorway. The door slammed shut behind me, and Julia and I found ourselves alone in Hannah’s kitchen.
The air was much cooler inside, a sharp contrast to the smoldering heat outdoors. The midday sun bathed the entire room in a soft, golden light, and the aroma of freshly baked cookies drifted into my nose. The room seemed like a safe haven, a tiny piece of the world that harsh reality couldn't touch.
"Julia, hurry up. Your mother's waiting."
Even the safe haven was temporary.
Julia hurried past me into the hall. I followed, my shuffling footsteps deafening in the silence. Finally, we stepped out onto the front porch. By now, the rest of the group had clustered around us.
Julia turned toward us and grinned halfheartedly. "Bye, guys."
I wanted to smile back, but I couldn't; if I smiled, the tears might fall. I just nodded.
Julia bit her lip and started across the lawn. A few strands of her hair had escaped her ponytail and hung limply around her face. She reached up to push them out of her eyes.
I tore my gaze away from her; I couldn't bear to watch her climb into the car. I turned to the sky, but it seemed to taunt me with its endless expanse of clear blue, framed by lethargic wisps of clouds. I looked back just as she pulled open the car door.
Julia hesitated, then glanced back at me. I could have sworn that I saw tears glimmering in her eyes, but she climbed into the back seat. The sight finally jarred me out of denial. I’d seen her in person for the last time. She was really gone. The others trudged into the house, and I was alone.
I sank down onto Hannah’s front steps. The sun-warmed brick burned against my skin, but I didn’t care. I’d spent so long denying that she was leaving. I’d put off saying goodbye, and now, when it had finally hit me, it was too late. How could I have let this happen? Angry tears clouded my vision. The cracked pavement before me danced in and out of focus like a mirage. A tear slipped down my cheek, and I reached up to wipe it away.
Hope fluttered in my chest; I knew that voice. I looked up and met a pair of hazel eyes. Julia forced a smile. “We never really said goodbye.”
“I’ll miss you,” I blurted. “You’re my best friend.” We both knew that it was true, but neither of us had ever said those words aloud before. Her eyes widened, and another smile broke out over her face, genuine this time. She knelt down on the steps beside me.
“Promise we’ll stay in touch?”
Before I could respond, she threw her arms around me.
“Promise.” I mumbled into her shoulder. I wasn’t sure how long we stayed like that; it could’ve been seconds, minutes, or an eternity. The next thing I remember, Julia was halfway across the lawn. I heard the scraping of metal as the car door slid open, and I watched as she climbed inside. The door clicked shut behind her. The car pulled out of the driveway. The squealing of tires on concrete echoed through the air, and she was gone.
I smiled. This time, I was ready.
Sleep clung to my eyes the way the last dewdrops of morning cling to the new, green leaves of the trees. With drooping eyelids, I watched the branches bow to the gentle breeze, the sparkling droplets of last night’s rain dripping rhythmically off of their leaves, shimmering in the light of the early morning sun. A small squirrel scampered across the ground below me, weaving in and out of rose bushes as it made its way over to a towering tree. When it reached the bark covered trunk, it paused for a second, sniffing the air before leaping and scurrying from limb to limb. I lost sight of it amid the dense green foliage, only catching the occasional glimpse of its bristling tail. I squinted harder, my nose pressed against the clear glass of my bedroom window. Just as it reappeared with a nut between its paws, I heard a voice.
“Anya, have you rollerbladed today?” my mother asked, slicing into my thoughts like a pointed dagger. She stood in the doorway of my room, her hands on her hips.
“Yeah, mom,” I fibbed. Why does she always have to interrupt me when I have something to do? The angry thought crossed my mind like a tornado, destroying everything in its path.
“Really? When?” she replied, one eyebrow raised. She must have seen the guilt on my face, because a second later, she sighed. “Look, Anya, you have to practice for the party next weekend. Maggy, Nisha, Becky, Susan- they all know how to rollerblade. Do you want to be the only one who doesn’t?”
“Then you have to practice.”
“Fine,” I responded bitterly, throwing a hint of sarcasm into my voice. My mother frowned, showing me that she had caught it. I waited for her to call me out, but instead she simply turned and began to walk out of the room. Suddenly, she halted, as if something had suddenly occurred to her. She turned to face me and met my eyes.
“Have you finished your homework?” she asked. I glanced at the small pile of papers sitting on my desk. My math challenge had been finished this morning, my reading log last night.
“Yeah,” I said, glad to be telling the truth. My mom nodded.
“Good. Now go down.”
Suddenly I wished that I had lied after all. “But… what about… I still have to…” I frantically rambled, at a loss for a good excuse.
“No ‘buts’,” said my mother. “And don’t even think about being sarcastic.”
“Ok, well can I at least rollerblade a little later? Like, maybe at three?” I protested, not about to give up.
“No. Look, if you go down now, I’ll invite someone over at, say, 1:00 p.m.” It may have been a bribe, but it was a good one, and it worked.
“Make it 12:00 and we have a deal,” I said. I’m not giving in that easily, I thought.
“Anya!” my mother replied, the tone of her voice telling me that I was pushing it too far.
“Fine!” I shouted, more loudly than I had intended. I stormed past my mother and out of the room. As I searched in my closet for my rollerblades, I felt my heart sinking lower and lower in my chest. I don’t even like rollerblading! Why do I have to learn for some party!
As I marched down the stairs with my rollerblades tucked under one arm, I couldn’t stop the raging stampede of thoughts from taking over my mind.
Why does she always have to wreck my day! I could’ve been reading right now, but nooo! I have to go downstairs and rollerblade! The skates and helmet under my arm suddenly felt ten times heavier. I mean, really, aren’t parents supposed to encourage reading! Some small sliver of me refused to accept this argument. They don’t need to! I already love it too much!
As I neared the top of the basement steps, I forced all the thoughts to leave my mind. I’m only going to rollerblade now. I’ll just focus on my feet, nothing else. Hesitant to be on wheels, I took the stairs one at a time, the sense of dread in my chest building with each step. I wished with all my heart that my rollerblades would disappear, that my mother would suddenly change her mind and let me read.
No matter how much I wished, the bottom of the staircase grew larger and larger, closer and closer. Three steps remaining. Two steps. One. As I stepped onto the solid wooden floor, I couldn’t help but sigh. Why can’t I ever do what I want? How come I can’t ride a bike for exercise? Why does the floor have to be so cold? I rattled off an endless list of complaints in my head, determined to stay in a sour mood. As I sat down to strap on my skates, the complaints changed to exclamations.
My mom is way too good at making me do stuff I don’t want to! I never get to have any fun! I hate rollerblading, anyway! I pushed myself up using the back of the chair, teetering as I placed all of my weight on a single row of wheels. I grabbed the clear plastic tablecloth, then the table itself, and began pulling myself from one end of the room to the other, releasing the table only momentarily to grab onto the bookshelf. First along the table, then the bookshelf, and back to the start of the table to begin all over again.
It was a tedious process, my feet sometimes sliding of their own accord across the polished floorboards, my tight grip the only thing keeping me from falling. Knees bent, lean forward, feet tilted and angled outward. I constantly reminded myself of the basics of rollerblading. Following my own advice, I resumed my angry thoughts, finding that I could now move far more smoothly. She always ruins everything! Why can’t she let me do my own thing for once? I’m never allowed to do anything! I can’t even-
“Anya,” said a voice, shattering my thoughts yet again. I frantically looked up to meet my mother’s eyes. What was she doing here? Had I been speaking aloud? I didn’t think so.
“You’re doing so well! So much better than last time I checked,” my mother finished. I felt a wave of relief wash over me. So she didn’t hear my thoughts! And she likes how well I’m doing. Though I tried to stay angry at my mom, I couldn’t help but blush, managing to contain my smile by biting down on my lip, but the next thing she said wiped all traces of it off of my face for me.
“Anya, I think it might be time to let go of the table.”
My eyes widened at my mother’s request. I shook my head vigorously, gripping the table harder than ever with both hands. “No!” I shouted, then sheepishly looked up at my mother, who appeared to be a little shocked. “Sorry, I mean… I-I’m not ready yet. Just give me some time,” I corrected.
“...Ok, then,” she replied. “I’ll let you decide when you’re ready. If you need me, I’ll be in the kitchen.” I thought I heard her sigh and mutter a few words to herself as she tromped back up the stairs.
I went back to my rollerblading, trying my best to ignore her suggestion. All the same, a voice infiltrated my thoughts, slithering into them like a venomous snake. Hey, maybe my mom has a point! I can let go! It’s easy! You’re already speeding around the room holding on, right? The voice was optimistic, but at the moment, I didn’t want optimism. I wanted as much negativity as I could muster. A second voice popped into my head, putting up an argument. No, no, no! That’s completely ridiculous! One second I can hardly stand and the next I’m whizzing along at 70 miles an hour? More likely I’ll fall and break my neck! The first voice suddenly cut in. I won’t break my neck! That isn’t going to happen from letting go of the table! Look at me! I’m already going pretty fast!
I let the voices battle each other for a little longer, and despite my efforts, the positive voice began to sway me. My mom always said that I needed to try new things. I was too obstinate, too reluctant to change. It was just barely possible that she was right. I slowly loosened my grip on the table, my eyes squeezed shut, bracing myself for a fall, but nothing happened. I opened my eyes, blinking in shock as I looked down at my steady feet. If my confidence had been displayed on a thermometer, the mercury would have burst through the glass.
Proudly, but still cautiously, I released one hand. I felt my knees tremble and felt butterflies flit around in my stomach, but I stayed still, putting my weight on the wheels to keep them steady. I moved forward a few steps, experimenting with the new way of rollerblading. “Take it step by step,” I mumbled. “Go at your own pace.” Following my own advice, I skated back and forth across the table a few times before cautiously releasing my other arm. I felt myself teeter, then almost fall forward, and finally catch myself awkwardly on the back of a chair.
I pushed myself back up and attempted to regain my balance, planting both feet firmly on the floor. After a few minutes of standing, I began to move. I slid my right foot slightly forward, then my left. At first I took short, choppy steps, then longer, fluid ones. As I paused for a second to rest, I couldn’t stop a thought from crossing my mind. I’m doing it! I’m really rollerblading! Before I started to move once again, a realization hit me like a brick, almost making me trip. Wait a second! My mom was right after all! If I hadn’t rollerbladed today, I wouldn’t have figured out how to rollerblade on my own! If she hadn’t pushed me to let go of the table, I couldn’t have done this. I tried to switch my focus back to rollerblading, but my mind wandered back to the thought each time I tried to shove it away. I used to hate reading those books when I was three! What were they called? Bob books? I had always despised them, constantly begging my parents to read them to me instead of forcing me to read on my own. A single memory flashed into my mind, one of the several reading sessions.
“Mommy, can I read one book and then watch a movie?” I had asked her when I was four.
“No,” she had replied firmly. “Two books.” “Look, they’re only three pages each,” she had added when she had seen the pout displayed on my face.
“Do you want to be good at reading or not?” I had nodded eagerly in response. “Then just read two books, no more, no less,” she had replied, and that had been that.
Now, looking back at that, I saw myself as ridiculous and my mother as right. Would it be the same way for rollerblading? Maybe my parents weren’t so bad after all.
Before I could expand on the thought, I heard a door creak open and my dad’s voice seeping through the crack. “Anya, breakfast,” he called.
“I’ll come up in five minutes,” I replied quietly, deciding to go up and down the length of the basement one last time.
“Anya, now!” he called again. I sighed in response. My parents are strict, but they only want the best for me. The thought zipped across my mind like a blast of lightning.
“Coming,” I said, just as softly as my previous statement. I made my way over to a chair to unstrap my skates. When my skates and helmet were neatly tucked away in a drawer, I walked across the basement, feeling the chill of the floorboards yet again.
“Anya?” my dad called again.
“Coming,” I repeated, more loudly this time, and with that, I started up the stairs.
In a word, she’s imaginative. She can spin worlds from nothing but a leaf-littered field, twisting a blade of grass into a skyscraper, a misshapen group of mushroom into a flourishing nation. She’ll tell you how the patches of moss that grow between the sidewalk cracks are the last traces of forest on a desolate planet, how the anthills are worn-down mountains and the stray leaves are dragons drifting down from the trees. Cupping a runaway spider in a folded leaf, she’ll give you a little half-smile and tell you how it’s an alien species, the last of its kind, sent in disguise to colonize the earth.