Innocent Yet Dire Words

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
June 2019

By Isabel Swain, Art by Claire Jiang

Fist

 

Like the mythical creature,
It calls out a sound.
Just not a pleasant one;
A torture in its own way.
Siren.

I hold my ears and tell myself to breathe. One, two, three, four . . . 12, 13 . . . 20. This will pass; don’t worry. It’s just a siren, you don’t have to have another Freak Out, Lila. It’s okay, it’s okay. See, it’s leaving? Okay, okay. I open my eyes, slowly uncurl myself from my Freak Out Stance, and take one last deep breath.

I shake myself off; it’s over now. I peer out the dirt-encrusted window and see a hazed-out dawn. I look at the clock which shows me that it is 6:17. Two hours and 13 minutes left. In the far distance, a careless person pushes a little too hard on the gas and their car makes that God awful noise that makes me wince despite myself. After doing a pointless once over of the three-room shack that is supposedly for two, I scan this “house” (not home) for a woman who doesn’t deserve the title of mother. I prefer to call her by her first name, Ilene. She’s barely ever here. Figures. Last night was the Fourth of July; she probably ran off to San Francisco with only the clothes on her back trying to fill her never-ending want for “adventure.” She’s nicknamed her spontaneous outings “longings” in order to make them sound more magical. Let me assure you, it doesn’t work.

After I do my usual morning routine— make the bed, dust the window (singular), eat breakfast (dry cereal)—I get dressed and ready to go. By now it’s 6:50, which means one hour and 40 minutes . . . Well, better just treat it like it’s a normal day, even when my stomach is churning as a way of calling out, Don’t do it! I just hope that Ilene’s back on time.

Once I’ve located and thrown on my only decent pair of shoes, I thrust the door open and breathe in the hot air.

A moving ghost,
Too large to maintain.
Clear as day, yet blinding.
I stumble through like a wounded soldier;
Life

Before I give myself over to the overwhelming humiliation that will happen in about an hour and fifteen minutes, I decide to go to my comfort place, the library. My neighborhood is not spectacular in any way, except for maybe the dusty, old makeshift library. To me, this ancient building is the closest thing I’ve ever had to a home. I love the way it’s always been there for me as though it was the parent I never had. The people and books there have become my family to run to whenever I need a home base. It’s the only place I know that didn’t move when I did.

When Ilene first had me, she was still living with her parents because she was so young. A month after I was born, she ran away on a train to this small town in Nevada. For the first two years we lived with Wanda, an old widow who took us in. However, she died the day before she and Ilene were going out to look for potential apartments for us to stay in. Since nothing in her will was dedicated to us, we were left to our own devices. It took my mother three months to find a steady job that she could use as a money source. And even then, it only lasted for six months. When she finally had enough money to buy us a somewhat bearable apartment, it was a small, overheated two-room that was extremely uncomfortable for a four-year-old and her single mom. Since then, we’ve been evicted from 32 various apartments, shacks, and Airbnbs. Usually, we overstayed our welcome or my mother hadn’t paid the rent. Either way, we still moved our 10 or so possessions to yet another dingy, uncomfortable place in the same dingy, uncomfortable neighborhood.

Needless to say, I’ve gotten pretty used to reliving the same nightmare over and over again. As I unthinkingly play one-person soccer with a rock along the sidewalk, I rehearse exactly what I’m going to say in one hour and five minutes. I’ve had everything planned down to the syllable for three weeks now. I’m just praying they don’t ask anything about my living situation. Ilene better be there and sober, or else I’ll be immediately excused. No parental guardian, no acceptance. This is the only opportunity I’ve ever had, and I will not let my self-centered, sorry excuse for a mother dictate whether or not it goes my way for once. I feel myself start to panic.

The definition of fear,
Powerful yet the weakest.
I find myself consumed.
It rules my thoughts,
Anger

When the library’s welcoming facade comes into view, I release a tired breath in an audible sigh. It’s a beautiful place built of brick and wood. Morning glories reach all the way to the top as though they are trying to protect the knowledge that lives here. The faded windows have frames of magenta that come straight out of a fairy tale. But this is just the outside— so little compared to the interior that I long ago memorized. A dozen spacious rooms with stained-glass windows taken right out of a church. Soft leather seats surrounding dim fireplaces. And then, the shelves themselves. Their oak wood carvings tinted with well-worn paint. They are the perfect pieces to hold the most wonderful things on Earth.

I’m practically skipping towards the door when I’m hit with a shock of ice-cold water. My gasp is involuntary. It takes me a few freezing moments before I look up to where the attack came from. My gaze focuses in on a broken gutter. The bolt holding it to the side of the roof falls to the ground as if to shove it in my face. Well, this is perfect, isn’t it. Now I have to go back to my house and change into awful-looking clothes. In my head, a battle is unfolding over whether I should still go into the library or not. This is something that comes with the Freak Outs: anxiety and confusion over very small and unimportant things. I decide that I still have time to pick out one or two books for my later reading pleasure.

When I enter the library, the librarian looks up at me and scowls. She must be debating whether or not let me browse in sopping wet clothes. After only 30 or so seconds she looks back at the computer she’s sitting in front of. Her quick fingers with long, talon-like nails scrape at the keyboard. It’s the exact kind of background babble that you’d expect from a library in Nevada; it is dry and annoying, just like the weather.

This is something that comes with the Freak Outs: anxiety and confusion over very small and unimportant things.

I make my way over to my favorite genre’s shelf. Historical fiction. I love losing myself in events that happened in the past. Something feels so great about being a part of something that can never change. It feels solid and hopeful. I’ve read books on everything from World War I to the Trojan War. Usually in the perspective of a young teenage girl with dark black hair. These books are very predictable once you’ve read them all your life. My hands skim the worn-out copies, and they cover my hands in a thin layer of dust. I decide on a novel about a war in ancient times. These are my favorite because they’re so mysterious. I mean, the story is basically just an illusion of time. While I file through the pages, my mind wanders. Specifically, drawn to the events ahead.

Two weeks ago, I had walked into the library first thing in the morning. In my peripheral vision, I had seen a pin drop. No, that’s not a joke on how quiet it should be in libraries; I literally saw a pin drop. My head turned toward the source, and I found a poster floating to the floor.

My hand reached for it out of curiosity. The crisp, new edges were orange, as was the rest of the paper. But the appearance doesn’t matter, it’s the content that I’m here to tell.

Brand New Opening!!!
The New School on Evergreen Avenue, Smith Hill, will be opening very soon and prospective students are welcome to interview on Friday, July 27 at 8:30 a.m.
All above the age of 10 are welcome! Cost will vary based on information gathered at the meeting.
Please note that no child will be accepted into the Smith Hill School if they do not have a legal parental guardian with them for the meeting.

 In my head, possibilities had taken over. What if you could convince Ilene to do this? What if you got in? What if you went to school? This is the kind of thing I’d been waiting for my whole life. Finally, something could go my way. Then, I folded up the paper and stuffed it in my pocket. I rushed out of the library, and I didn’t remember the pin I left on the ground until I was halfway home. I figured I would have to wait awhile until Ilene got home and then even longer to get her in a good enough mood to actually ask her about the interview. But I was pleasantly surprised when I found her lying in bed at home.

“Hey, Mom.” Though it pained me to call her that, I knew it gave me a better chance at yes. “Are you asleep? I have something I need to ask you.”

Ilene smiled—I assumed because of my unusual affection towards her. Funny how she finds so much pride in being lied to.

“I’m awake, honey. What do you need?”

“Well, there’s this school that is opening up, and they are having interviews to apply soon. But, I can’t go without a legal guardian and I was wondering if maybe . . . ” This was hard for me to finish because I knew she could crush my newfound dreams with one innocent yet dire word. “ . . . I was wondering if you would come with me?”

I heard Ilene sigh in thought. She seemed out of it, and I hoped that would bend to my favor. Her nail touched her forehead—something I do, too. I hated myself every time I did it because the movement, so small, connected me to her.

“Well, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt, would it?” She said after a moment’s consideration. I couldn’t believe it was that easy.

Looking back on it now, that should have been a sign that it wouldn’t work. I mean, if Ilene never makes it back to the house on time, then it really would have been a sign. For now, though, I just have to focus on the best possible outcomes.

Once I check out the book, I turn around to face the door. It is huge, with smooth varnish that makes it glisten even in the artificial lighting. Step after step, I walk towards it. I don’t know why but I’ve always been intimidated by this door. I guess it is the force that decides whether or not I can enter my favorite place—figuratively, anyway.

Most are greedy for it, but
Few can possess the trait.
Like money, it takes over.
Wonderful yet harmful;
Power.

When I open the door, my movement is greeted with the humid air of the summer. I find myself wishing for that shock of cold again. Now, the damp spot on my clothes is just making it more muggy and hard to move. I start the short trek back to my place and walk along the run-down sidewalk. Multiple plants are invading the cracks that fill the concrete. They look like they have escaped from a prison too deep to notice and are soaring up to the sun while they can. I can relate to that. Once I reach the hill that overlooks my abode, I can see a figure standing by our door. My shoulders relax as I’m reassured that she is here.

This is the kind of thing I’d been waiting for my whole life. Finally, something could go my way.

I stumble down the hill towards the two shadows: one of a shack, one of a woman. I try not to trample the flowers that have popped up along with the rest of spring, although I’m pretty sure a few were sacrificed in the process. When I make it to the bottom, I realize that this woman is not, in fact, my mother.

Her posture is too perfect and her hair is up in a too-tight bun. I bet her face is red from tension underneath all that make-up. In her skinny arms is a clipboard that has unnaturally crisp white papers on it. I almost laugh at the scene: a proper businesswoman in the middle-of-nowhere Nevada standing beside a run-down shack that’s decorated with rust and rot. I almost laugh until I remember she’s not Ilene. Why is she here? Where is my mother? I won’t be accepted, I won’t be accepted, I won’t be accepted . . . keep it together, Lila. But already my thoughts have been thrown onto the back of a bucking horse; they won’t stop moving and are just trying to hold on.

The thought of them brings revenge.
They are twisted sisters,
Moving together always.
Their cousin: regret;
Betrayal and trust.

“Who are you and why are you here? You may not know it, but right now, I’m supposed to be in an office. With my mother, starting the one opportunity that I have ever had. And yet here we are, and please, do tell, why that is.”

I speak in a deadly peaceful voice, like the calm before a storm. My words are clear as day, and I sound about ten years older than I actually am. I’m trying to unnerve her; I bet she’s never heard a 13-year-old talk to her like an adult. It works; the woman’s face falls and she looks momentarily concerned. For me or for herself, I don’t know. The woman who may just about ruin my entire life smiles a plastic smile that could easily make the healthiest person in the world be sick. She pulls together her face like a pro; I’ll give her that.

“Hello there, darling! I’m Carla Hemingway from the Nevada Child Protection System. I’m here because your mother, Ilene Quortiez, was found unconscious on a park bench in San Francisco and was brought to the hospital. I know this news must be shocking and that’s why . . .” My mother is in the hospital? She left me for real this time? What happened, exactly? Why is she unconscious? Has she woken up? Will she wake up? What if she doesn’t? I try poetry but it doesn’t work. My last thought before I fall into the never-ending spiral is, “I told you it was San Francisco.”

Peaceful yet confusing,
Drifting as though you weigh nothing.
Welcoming darkness,
Holds you in a lull.
Oblivion.

When I wake up, the first thing that registers is the pain coming from my head. My head that’s full of thoughts and poetry, the one that is my friend and foe. It’s been there for me as the source of my five senses and an extra: taste, smell, hearing, sight, touch, and thought. My most powerful weapon has been diminished into a helpless object on a hospital bed. It is now the source of my pain, both physical and mental. This is when the memories come back. The horrific events come running in all at once as though they are fighting for the most grief.

In the near distance, I hear a loud beeping noise that can only come from a medical machine. My first instinct is to go into Freak Out Stance, but it hurts to even think about moving. Instead, I try poetry, but it seems as though my words are not coming. They are abandoning me. I gasp. Beside the bed, a figure rouses. I don’t know who it is, but the person looks genuinely happy to see me awake. This is weird because nowhere in my memory does her face ring a bell. Granted, I am in a hospital bed with a traitor for a head, so I probably shouldn’t trust what I remember. I would like some answers, though.

As if on cue, the plastic woman named Carla struts in. She leans in beside me and says, in a voice that sounds like a shout, the most unnerving words I’ve ever heard:

“Hello, darling. I’m glad you joined us. Your mother is in the ICU and has been diagnosed with severe head trauma. The Nevada Child Protection System and I have decided that you will be placed in foster care upon your recovery. I know this may seem like a shock to you and we don’t want to cause any stress . . .”

Just, please,
Leave
Me
Alone in my
Grief

 Isabel Swain Innocent Yet Dire Words

Isabel Swain, 12
Portsmouth, RI

Claire Jiang Fist

Claire Jiang, 12
Princeton, NJ

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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