DAY 5 7:00 PM
It was the four of them in Gran’s kitchen huddled around a pile of leftovers from the funeral dinner that wouldn’t fit in the fridge. Aunt Jane insisted that Tess move in immediately. Gran made a small fuss that maybe for tonight that they all should stay under one roof. Tess shrank lower into the chair at the kitchen table. All she wanted was a quiet escape. It was too cold to go sit outside on the porch, and she knew getting up would draw attention. Pop was no help. He was nose deep in his crossword puzzle seeking refuge from the storm that brewed.
“A heavy heart requires hot chocolate and a familiar place.” Gran argued for the tenth time.
“Or at least in this situation a room that isn’t drowning in memories.” Jane tried to keep it civil but that last part rushed out and slammed a tsunami worth of grief into Gran.
Gran stood up with a force that scraped the chair across the linoleum floor. “Jane Elizabeth! You may be twenty-eight, but I will not tolerate backtalk.”
“Mom, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. I’m tired.” Jane pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to eradicate this moment, this day from her memory.
Gran’s typical lovely demeanor was now sour grapes as she settled back into her chair. “We are all tired, Jane.”
Pop snapped the crossword book close with a finality that shook Tess from her efforts of becoming invisible. “It seems to me no one has asked Tess what she’d preferred.”
Pop, ever the voice of reason, reigned in the argument. Gran’s hazel eyes locked onto Tess, sending a silent plea for her to stay. Aunt Jane gave her an encouraging smile, a gentle prompt to make her choice. Her heart rate zoomed from sixty to a hundred and thirty under their scrutiny. She loved Gran and Pop, but the opportunity to be in a space that wasn’t her mother’s old room or to overhear conversations that weren’t meant for her ears was nothing short of liberating. Yet in a way it felt like a betrayal to leave Gran and Pop’s, but this house was suffocating her. Each choice seemed to come with a cost. She wanted free from Gran and Pop’s house. There was still too much of her mom here, in the pictures, in the bedroom she slept in. This choice was to be Tess’s liberation but it was going to break Gran’s heart.
She scooted out from the table. Tess went to Gran and looped her arms around her neck, and rested her head on Gran’s slim shoulder. Gran knew this was the answer, that Tess wanted to go, to start fresh. Tess glanced over at Pop who understood her better than anyone. He gave her a quick wink and went back to his crossword.
“Pop and I are going to miss you.” She squeezed Tess’s arm and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. “I guess we had better get you packed.”
Aunt June lived in a neighborhood that bloomed life into the heart of the concrete jungle. Tess had only been there once, and that was after Aunt Jane had first moved in. The street was nestled under giant oaks that lined the sidewalk, making one believe that the inside of Jane’s apartment would be as picturesque. However, Jane’s apartment was vacant and carried the faint odor of yesterday’s Chinese takeout. Tess distinctly recalled her mother calling it a poorman’s college dorm room.
“Ready, Floof.” Jane shut the car off and unbuckled the seat belt.
Tess kept her mouth solemn. She wouldn’t smile at the familiar nickname. She’d been Floof ever since her head decided to unleash a chaos of chestnut curls that were dappled with a rich caramel. A tear played at the corner of Tess’s eye. Her mother joked that her head was seventy-five percent hair, that she was like the quirky sweet cousin to Medusa. It was an odd compliment, but one that fit Tess so well. Her hair was like a being, it moved on it’s own, bouncing and swaying. And right now, she wanted nothing more than to use her hair as a curtain.
Jane slammed the trunk shut, the vibration brought Tess back to the present. She hadn’t realized she was alone in the car. With a shaky hand Tess undid her belt and opened the car door. Aunt Jane’s house was in a neighborhood that Pop liked to call “whippersnappers only”. Tess wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but it gave her the feeling she wouldn’t find any kids on this block. Stepping out of the car, Tess mustered what little energy she had left. The ground was hard beneath her feet, but her legs felt boneless. The brownstone was positively ancient, but not derelict in the way kids dared each other to spend the night in its haunted rooms. The brown bricks were polished with age that reminded Tess of her mother’s old cardigan that was still in the backseat. She opened the back door and grabbed it. She shrugged off her coat in favor of the familiar. The cardigan was the color of oatmeal, warm and huge. It was pilled from years of wear. She shrugged it on and the sleeves hung limply at her sides. Jane hovered at the back of the car, watching Tess methodically roll the sleeves up.
“Did she ever tell you where she got that from?”
Tess shook her head, and her fingers unconsciously pulled at a pill until she worked it loose. The little ball rolled easily between her fingers until she dropped it the ground.
“I guess that is something that will always remain a mystery.” The darkness seemed to momentarily dampen Aunt Jane’s spirit.
Tess had once asked where the cardigan came from.
“A friend.” Her mother got wistfully quiet and wrapped it tighter around her and flopped down on the couch. “Now, go grab the popcorn.” She flicked on the tv with the remote. “We’re watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
Tess groaned from the kitchen. “You’re killing me. You are literally killing me with these movies. They’re so slow. And they’re boring.” The bowl was overflowing with popcorn, and in Tess’s other hand was a bag of chocolate left over from Halloween.
Her mom was sprawled out on the couch with her feet propped up on their coffee table. “Methinks you protest too much. I heard you humming “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head.” You enjoyed that movie.”
Tess bit her cheek to hide the smile that threatened to give away her secret, that she’d enjoyed watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid leap off that cliff into a raging river. She had a reputation to uphold after all. “Mom you’re not even that old. We should at least be watching movies from the nineties.”
The mischievous grin that spread across her mom’s face signaled that Tess had lost the argument again. “My night, my choice.” She hit play as Tess plopped down next to her, spilling popcorn onto both of their laps.
That was the last movie they’d watch together. Tess blinked her eyes and the concrete stairs leading up to an alarmingly red door swam into focus. The stairs bowed in the middle from years of foot traffic. Even in the dark, the building appeared friendly. Tess wasn’t sure how that was possible, but she attributed it to the fairy lights twining their way through the handrails up the steps.
Jane answered Tess’s unasked question. “The landlord is a bit of a curmudgeon and refuses to fix the front light. We had to get creative or fall down the steps. I think it gives the old building a homey vibe myself.” She handed Tess her overnight bag. “I thought maybe this weekend we could fix up your room, it’s boorishly white. And maybe we can go back to your place and pick some things up.”
Tess’s muscles went rigid. At once Jane realized what she said and bit her lip. “You know what, let’s not make plans yet. We’ll do this organically and let the wind take us where we need to be when we need to be.”
The tension loosened in her shoulders. She wasn’t ready yet to go back home, where she’d look around every corner waiting to see her mom come walking past with a basketful of laundry. She didn’t want to ever go back there.
“Let’s do this, Floof.” Jane lead the way in with a renewed energy.
Tess followed suit with considerably less enthusiasm. This was home now even if it was just a weak echo.
The four floor walk-up was not how Tess imagined this day would end. Aunt Jane bounced up each step with practice grace, while every step groaned under Tess’s feet. It voiced the complaints that were so deeply lodged in her head. Tired. Cold. Why isn’t there an elevator? My feet are going to fall off. Tess struggled to keep up. Looking ahead only increased the distance they had to climb. I now live at the top of the Grand Canyon. This was a mistake.
Aunt Jane unlocked the apartment door and flipped the switch. Light pushed the darkness out the windows that lined the living room wall. It was completely different from the last time Tess had visited. It had been empty and lifeless. Now the walls were painted the palest blue. Black and white photos of places and buildings Tess had only seen on television hung on the wall in a collage of frames. And there was actual furniture now. The cardboard boxes that Aunt Jane once used as storage and for a table were gone. Tess’s eyes soaked in the difference. Aunt Jane who traveled all over the world for the last three years taking photographs for some of the country’s top magazines had finally settled down and created an oasis in a landlocked city.
“I figured it was time to make it look like I lived here.” Aunt Jane walked down the hall towards the back bedroom. “This was my office that I never used, so I never got around to decorating it. That’s why it’s a blank canvas. But, the bed is comfortable. I tested it myself the other night. If you don’t like the dresser we can paint it or just chuck it and get a new one. I know the closet isn’t much.” She prattled on about getting Tess a key in case she ever got locked out.
Tess poked her head in. A single window faced out over the neighborhood. A bed was tucked in the corner. She carefully stepped in as if the wood floor was rotted through. Her tired feet found their way to the dresser where she set her bag. Boring she could live with.
It was the boy again, with the strange skin and blue hair. He was laughing with a yellow giant, as they manufactured a boat out of cardboard. It wasn’t anything fancy, a simple rowboat. Tess walked around the pair as they slid the starboard side into place. There were several moments of calculated taping to attach the piece into place.They were clearly talking because the giant was swinging his arms about as his lips were moving, but the words were garbled as if Tess was underwater. The blue haired boy nodded his head in agreement and motioned toward a pond. It appeared that they wanted to test their craft. The boys shouldered their vessel and shuffled toward the water. Tess was doubtful that a boat constructed entirely of cardboard and tape would float holding a boy the size of a cocker spaniel, and she was certain that the thing would sink right to the bottom as soon as the giant climbed aboard. She wanted to tell them that they were about to attempt the impossible, but even in dreams her voice refused to come. Tess watched as they hefted the boat together and flipped it upside down resting it upon their shoulders at an obscure angle. The blue haired boy was at the bow, acting as the captain and leading them towards the pond across the street.
From her vantage point, it seemed like a normal pond, nothing like the people Tess found herself entranced with. Both boys looked human, but their skin tones were colors that could only be created in a makeup artist’s chair. It was crazy how much she wanted to hear what they were saying, even though she’d lost her own ability to talk. Did they speak in tics and tocs or with the rough cadence of an Eastern European or with the sophistication of an aristocrat? The grass here was the same green as it was at home, and the sky wasn’t any different. Everything appeared identical to what she was familiar with, even the houses, although they were just as brightly colored as the boys she followed.
Tess waited at the edge of the pond. She knelt as she waited for the maiden voyage, and dipped her hand cautiously into the water. She hoped for some spark of magic, for the water to turn to gelatin or bubble into lava. But no such thing happened. Her two companions dropped the boat unceremoniously into the water, but instead of a splosh there was a loud metallic bang. The sound brought her to her feet. She lost her footing on the wet grass and slid into the water. That blue haired boy stared right at her. His eyebrow was arched in puzzlement as the water dissolved the world around Tess into nothingness.
Tess jolted awake. She was back in her room. Gone was the pond and the boys. Typical kitchen noises crept into her room. Gran was making pineapple ham. She came over every day when Aunt Jane went to work. The sweet scent that emanated from the oven sent a pang of hunger through her. Jumping out of bed, Tess shook the last of the dream off and made for the kitchen. Gran was acting different today. She was overly cheery, like she was up to something. The food laid out on the table only intensified Tess’s suspiciousness. It was everything Tess loved. Homemade biscuits and sour cream mashed potatoes, with corn on the cob and sweet tea. The final clue to Gran’s, I’m about to drop a bomb on you dinner, was the poke cake at the center. Even in all of its round chocolate glory, Tess had a feeling it was going to sit like a brick in her stomach.
“There you are honey. Jane will be here any minute. Wash up, and finish setting the table for me.”
Tess knew better than to sigh. She made that mistake the first time Gran asked, and found herself cleaning the bathroom the rest of the night. She skirted out of the kitchen and down the hall to the bathroom to wash her hands. She passed Aunt Jane’s bedroom and found the door open a crack. Aunt Jane never shut her door. Whatever Gran was wanting to spring on her was behind this door. It was open when she had gone into her room an hour ago. A door was a ridiculous thing to be apprehensive about. It wasn’t living, but Tess was hesitant to touch it. She wrapped her fingers around the knob, with the barest of turns the door gave way. The room was dim, from the setting sun and Tess feared turning on the light would draw Gran in like a moth to pester her until she left the room.
Aunt Jane’s room was wide and open. She hated feeling confined, and kept her room like herself, free to move about in whirlwind if so desired. Tess stepped farther into the room. There was nothing here, but the queen sized bed obscured the other side of the room. She skirted around the bed, to find exactly why Gran was so busy in the kitchen. All around the corner and into the closet were boxes, labeled with Tess’s name, keepsakes, bedroom, movies… What had they done? No. No. No. No.
Tess flung the door open. It hit the wall with a reverberating thud. She did the only thing she knew how to do, she ran. Running cleared her head. Running brought life back into her dead limbs.
“Tess this isn’t a zoo. We don’t slam doors?” Gran hollered.
“What is going on?” Aunt Jane was taking her coat off as Tess barreled past her. “Tess, slow down.”
Tess didn’t listen. The stairs were her salvation. She wanted the burn in her legs as she climbed to the top and out into the cold night air of the roof. All the plants were brown stick like things, but there was a swing hidden back behind the raised garden beds. It was the second place Aunt Jane brought her. A place to escape to when the sounds of the apartment became too much. Tess ran for the ridiculously embellished swing that the Ingram’s bought as contribution to the communal garden, but they never used it. The swing was a glider, that Tess unfortunately learned easily tipped over after kicking off the first time. She sat down and brought her knees to her chest. The city below was a cacophony of honking horns and squealing brakes. Streetlights winked on as dusk descended. They had no right to go back without me. She realized the irony of that because she didn’t want to go back, but them going in and touching her mom’s things felt like a violation. Anger blurred her thoughts and reality. She felt herself slipping back to that pond and the boys she didn’t understand. Their world started to become clearer and felt the hot sun warm her chilled skin until the goosebumps on her arms vanished, that was until the seat beside her dipped. Aunt Jane wrapped a thick blanket around her shoulders.
“Being an adult sucks.” Jane said it without any preamble.
Tess jerked her head towards her aunt. No one, not even her mom admitted such a thing to her.
“It’s true.” Jane fell back against the back of the swing. “Lately, nothing seems to be the right decision.” The silence settled over the both of them. “It’s my fault. I should have told you that Gran and Pop went back to your house to get your things.” Her voice caught. “And your mom’s. But, I knew you didn’t want to go back there and neither did I… I let them go back and handle it because the landlord was biting at the bit to rent the house. I should have asked you if you wanted to see it one last time, but I knew being in there wasn’t something I could have handled yet. I was selfish, Tess, and I’m so sorry.”
Tess no longer felt the cold or the rush of energy from her sprint up here. Her house was gone, and Gran and Pop saved what they could, what was special. She felt Aunt Jane’s shoulders shake. Tears smudged and ruined the makeup she wore. Tess didn’t think it was possible to hurt any more, but this almost broke her. Aunt Jane who had done everything to rebuild Tess’s world, who thought it best to keep her safe a little longer, was apologizing for making it worse. Tess snuggled in closer and wrapped her arms around Jane’s waist. Maybe together they could survive this new world.
Tess rolled over. The clock on the nightstand read two o’clock. It was Saturday. She hadn’t left her spot on the twin bed in hours. Two days until life started over again, in a new school with new friends. Ice ran through her veins, instinctively she curled herself into a ball to fend off the impending shakes and nausea. Focus. She had to focus. Breathe in through her nose and out through her mouth. Deep slow and easy breaths, just like Aunt Jane taught her. Her knees were pressed against her chest. Her arms started to shake from how tightly she had them wrapped around her legs. Focus. On anything, everything. See something. Distract.
Her eyes drifted to the walls were white, not an ordinary white but a blindingly clinical white. They were smoother than an eggshell. Yet, the ceiling was textured in starbursts from drywall mud. The starbursts were ordinary upon first inspection, but the longer she stared at the ceiling, entire worlds passed in and out of her vision. As the lines blurred and refocused, Tess found solace at last. Galactic wars were fought in the bright afternoon sun, but as the sun sank into the west the shadows elongated the chaotic lines into waves of a mighty ocean. Hours passed and Tess bobbed in out of worlds that no book could hope to replicate.