Emily Cavanagh

If…

 

I have lived most of my life in the dark. Fluorescent flickering lights are my sun, the cement floor of the basement my earth. I have never had a birthday party or gone to school. I have never seen the beach or the mountains, a crowded mall at Christmas or the way the steam rises off a hot parking after rain in the summer. My name is Ivy, and I am a second child in a world where they aren’t allowed to exist. The second civil war was fought over environmental sustainability, and the outlawing of my existence, among other things, was the outcome. We live in a little town in a place that used to be called Vermont amongst people who think I shouldn’t be alive at all. There are other people like me, but I’ve only met one: Reid. He’s gone to a place that no animals or plants can survive, but people like us can. Sometimes I think–what if I went there too?

In the mornings before my older sister Mia goes to school, she slips through the narrow opening in the back of the coat closet and down the stairs to the basement to see me. She puts breakfast on the coffee table in front of the couch, a plastic wrapped sandwich next to it for later. I was born on the spot the coffee table sits on now. There’s a blue rug underneath the coffee table, and underneath that, on the cement, is a deep red-brown stain–that’s my beginning.

If I’m not awake when Mia comes down, she jumps on top of me. “Time to get up,” she says, pressing into my body until I wake, her suntanned skin a sharp contrast next to the paleness of my own. “It’s morning.”

“Describe it,” I say, rolling over to look at her, and she tells me if the sun is shining or if there’s rain. “Use as many words as you can.” Today, she tells me it’s gray and muggy outside. I sit up. “How gray? How muggy? I want to feel like I’m there.”

“Like the color of an elephant’s skin in those old magazines. Like the bathroom after you get out of a hot shower and everything fogs up.”

I lie back on the couch. I sleep on a couch in case someone who isn’t supposed to finds his way down here does. You can’t explain an extra bed in a secret basement easily. A couch, though, makes more sense. “Beautiful,” I say to what Mia’s told me about the day. “It sounds beautiful.”

“I saw a hummingbird by the flowers,” Mia says. She knows birds fascinate me. We both liked them when we were little. A long time ago, before the war, people used to keep animals in their houses and call them pets. They’d feed them and play with them. The idea of having animals in the house is strange, but I think I’d like the company.

“No you didn’t,” I say because no one has seen a hummingbird in a long time. They’re native to places that are warm all year long, places outside the Northeastern Union, and Dad says they’re extinct.

“What was it doing?” I ask Mia.

“Just drinking some nectar. It flew away eventually.”

“I wish I could’ve seen it,” I say, not sure I quite believe Mia. Sometimes, I think she says things just to make me happy and not because they’re true. “I wish I could go to school with you,” I add.

“I’d rather stay home with you than go to school,” says Mia.

“That’s crazy. If you wanted, you could leave the Union and go wherever you wanted. You could go to Paris and see the Eiffel Tower. Or you could see all those seals that sit by the water in San Francisco. Anywhere.”

“The water’s dried up,” she says, “and the seals are dead.”

“We don’t know that,” I say. “We don’t know anything past Chicago. There could be seals and water.”

I hear Mom calling Mia’s name. Mom and Dad don’t come down during the day, and I don’t come up until it’s dark, and then only when the lights are off so no one can see inside. I don’t always follow that rule though. My dad is a biology teacher at the high school, which my mom says is where I got my love of nature from. Mom is an environmental engineer. She jokes that her job is to “save the earth,” but that’s kind of what she does. She helps plan all sorts of projects and buildings to create renewable energy and make things more efficient. Her current project is a wind farm in Montpellier. She’s very proud of it.

I creep up the stairs to the door, stepping in exactly the right places on each board so that I don’t make sound. Living in an old house that’s known more people than I have makes everything trickier because of all the creaks, whines, groans. I lean against the door, cracking it open and squinting in the morning light of the kitchen. My parents are sitting at the kitchen table, my sister across from them. After a few moments, Mia glances toward the pantry. She widens her eyes when she sees me, and then she smiles like she always used to when I was really little and we’d play the hiding game. The hiding game is like hide and seek, except in the hiding game, the goal was for me to be able to stay upstairs as long as possible without Mom or Dad noticing. Sometimes I’d even go outside with Mia. I don’t go outside anymore though.

There was a high wooden fence there, and none of the neighbors could see in unless they opened the gate. Mia and I would collapse in giggles after a game of tag, our hearts thumping against our chests wildly. I remember the way the blades of grass would leave red marks on the back of my legs when I’d lie on my back staring up at the clouds. I still think about the smell of the earth. “That cloud’s a fish,” I’d say, or “that’s a daisy.” Sometimes we’d try to identify the types of birds that crisscrossed the sky above us. It was mostly sparrows and starlings. Every now and then, we’d see a blue jay or a thrush. I loved closing my eyes and listening to them sing to each other. It didn’t matter what the meanings of their songs were, just to be able to hear them was enough.

There was this particular time when I was around twelve; it was the last time I went outside. Mia and I were lying in the grass. I was watching a sparrow make its nest out of some pine needles and sticks, and Mia was holding a blade of grass between her thumbs, blowing into it to make an awful high-pitched whistling sound. “Stop,” I said, “You’re scaring the birds away.”

“Fine,” she said, tossing the grass away. “You’re so boring.”

I heard an unfamiliar metallic whining sound. It was the sound of a rusted gate being opened after years of being shut. I turned and saw a short older woman in a wide-brimmed sunhat staring at me.

“Mrs. Hart,” Mia said, jumping up. The woman’s eyes lingered on me. “This is my friend Jackie. She’s visiting.”

“Oh,” Mrs. Hart said. I couldn’t tell if she believed Mia or not. “Hi, Jackie,” she said. “Where are you visiting from?”

“Concord,” Mia said quickly. “Do you need something, Mrs. Hart?”

“Yes,” she said, “I was wondering if I could use one of your parents’ border forks. I can’t find mine, and I’m planting some carrots in a raised bed.”

“Go ask my mom,” Mia told me.

When I went inside, I told Mom what happened. “Go in the basement now,” she said.

“I think it’s okay. She thinks I’m Mia’s friend from Concord.”

“Go,” Mom said. I knew she wasn’t trying to be mean. She was just scared–I could see it on her face. She was always scared about me. She went outside, gave Mrs. Hart the gardening tool she was asking about, and then she called my dad, who was already at work. I sat on the narrow stairs, listening at the door when she thought she couldn’t hear me.

“That woman knows,” she said. “She knows what Ivy is. She’s going to tell the police, and then we’ll end up like the Brightmans.” There was a pause. “Of course what everyone’s saying about them is true. We should take her across the border. You know that’s what I think.” Another pause. “I don’t want to talk about this now if you’re just going to argue with me,” she said. She said a few more things, then goodbye, and then she hung up the phone.

I heard her come to the door, and I raced down the stairs to sit on the couch. She came down and sat next to me. “You’ll have to stay down here for a while.”

“Fine,” I said.

“It won’t be like this forever.”

I looked up at her. “ Why don’t you want me to go across the border? Reid’s going to do it.”

She shook her head and put her arm around my shoulder. “We’ll talk about that when you’re older.” She said a few more things about how she loved me and she was sorry she’d done this to me, and then she went to work, and I was left alone.

 

Dad stands up and begins clearing the table, and I dart back into the basement, but I stay close enough to hear my family. I listen to the muffled sound of my parents’ voices. I don’t see them touch each other very much, and I don’t mean in a gross way, I just mean the way happy couples do on TV. Like how sometimes one of them will touch the other’s hand while they’re talking or squeeze the other’s shoulder when they come down to breakfast in the morning. Sometimes I wonder how two people as different as my parents ended up together. Mia told me that they were different before me. She said that she remembers, but I told her that wasn’t possible. She was only three when I was born, and I don’t remember anything from when I was three. Well, that’s not true. I remember the sound of Mom’s voice; I remember it going up and down and slow then quick, like she was telling a secret. I remember that strange mixture of comfort and panic in that sound, and I remember the darkness.

When it’s quiet in the kitchen, and I hear the front door open and close, I inch the door between the basement and the kitchen open and step into the light. The house is quiet in the way that it only is in the morning when everyone is gone.

I’m not supposed to be up here, especially after what happened with Mrs. Hart, but sometimes I just ache inside to see the world above. I walk down the hallway to the front door, passing the family portraits I’m not in hung on the wall.  I stand by the front door, my hand reaching for the knob and then resting on it. The worn brass is cold against my hand. What if I opened it and walked outside? I wouldn’t though. Bad things would happen.

I hear the sound of someone stepping up the front steps. The doorknob jiggles under my hand as someone on the other side unlocks the door. I scurry up the stairs into Mia’s room as the front door opens. From the sound of the steps, the length between them and their heaviness, I can tell that it’s my dad. I know from the hiding game that the best place to hide in Mia’s room is behind the curtains, so that’s where I go. They’re so long and billowy that no one can see you behind them if you’re really still. I close the curtains behind me so that I’m facing the street.

We live in a cul-de-sac, which is just a fancy name for a dead end street, and I can see down the rest of the road from the window. The houses here are older, pre-war and much too big compared to the energy efficient ones being built now. Not too far down the street, there are some kids chasing each other around. Their parents stand in a circle talking. I think I’m far enough away that they won’t notice me, and nobody else is out. A car from my friend Reid’s old house pulls out of the garage and turns down the street. One of the moms from the group calls the kids back to the sidewalk, and everyone follows the car with their eyes as it moves past. I can’t see anyone’s facial expressions, but I imagine they’re ones of jealousy. It’s really hard to get cars now Dad told me when I asked him why Mom had one and only other person on the street who has one. The government has to approve it, and then you can only use it for work and within certain mile amounts.

There’s a movement in the corner of my eye. I look down in front of our house near the mailbox, and there’s Mrs. Hart, a gardening shovel in her hand as she stares up at me. I step back in surprise, and I trip on the curtains, pulling them down with me as I hit the floor with a thud. I hear Dad race up the stairs.

“Ivy?” Dad says, clearly stunned to find me there. He frowns at me, and then more deeply at Mrs. Hart as he looks out the window. I hear his breath catch. “Oh no,” he says. He looks back at me. “She saw you?”

“I think so,” I answer.

“I have to go talk to her,” he says.

I push the curtains off of me and stand up. “What’s going to happen?”

“I don’t know,” he says, “but it’ll be okay.” He goes downstairs. I peek around the edge of the window and watch Dad and Mrs. Hart. He looks so scared.

Once, when I asked why Mrs. Hart was so nosy, my mom said it was because she didn’t have a child of her own to bother. “Her husband died,” Mom said, “and now she lives in that big house all alone.”

Mrs. Hart doesn’t look lonely now though. She’s yelling something at my dad, and he’s shaking his head and saying something to calm her down. Mrs. Hart stops, composes herself, and smiles insincerely before walking back to her house.

I go downstairs, and when Dad opens the front door, I ask him what happened.

He takes a deep breath and leans back against the door. “I told her you were here visiting again. I don’t know if she bought it.”

“Why was she yelling?”

“She said we ran over her daffodils with the lawnmower.”

I start to laugh. Dad stares at me, serious for a second, and then I see a reluctant smile on his face. I can see his hands shaking a little, and I stop laughing. He checks his watch. “I have to get to work,” he says. He goes into the kitchen, and I hear him open and close the refrigerator door. “I forgot my lunch,” he explains as he walks back to the front door. He still looks upset, although he’s trying not to show it. “I think it’s probably a good idea if you stay downstairs the rest of the day,” he says. “Can you do that?”

“Yeah,” I say.

“Good,” he says. He turns to leave for work again.

“It’ll be okay,” I say.

He looks back at me and nods. “Of course it will.”

I go back down the basement and I get dressed in some of Mia’s old clothes. There’s a small bathroom with a toilet and sink in the corner of the room, which is where I do the rest of my getting ready. It’s important to have routine; it gives me purpose and provides distraction. Otherwise, I’d watch TV all day. I know I would. I did it for an entire year when I was twelve. Now that I’m fourteen, though, I’ve realized that I need to live as if I was a real person out in the real world. That’s especially important today. Otherwise, I think I’d go crazy thinking about all the possible scenarios that could happen with Mrs. Hart. She could report my family. The police could come to the house, and everything could be over. Or she could do nothing, like she did last time. This is why I can’t think about it. This is why I have to pretend like it’s just a normal day.

 

“What do you do at school all day?” I asked Mia once, and she told me about all the different subjects she takes, and what time lunch is, and how you know which kids are cool and not cool so you know where to sit. She even told me about the Union pledge, so I do that in the morning after I eat breakfast too. It doesn’t really matter if I believe in the Union or not, Mia says it everyday, and I know she doesn’t like all their rules.

So after I say the pledge, I turn the news on and eat my breakfast of oatmeal and a banana. This is my version of what Mia calls homeroom, only instead of news about the big football game or prom, I get to hear about water shortages and terrorism across the border. They say the sun doesn’t shine there anymore. They say there’s nothing green left.

There was a boy named Reid who used to live next door. I know, because we used to play together sometimes after it was dark. He was a second child too, and my dad worked with his mom at the high school. I don’t know how my family found out about Reid or how his family found out about me, but it happened. At first, I remember my parents being really scared. I had to stay extra hidden then, and I wasn’t even allowed up late at night. But then, eventually, they let him come over to our house, and we’d play hide and seek or watch cartoons. We were extra good at hide and seek.

I was eight when we first met, and Reid was nine. We’d both never met anyone outside our families, so we’d stood and stared at each other for a solid minute until I’d turned on the TV and we’d sat down without talking to watch it. The first few times we “socialized,” as my mom called it, all we’d done was silently watch TV glancing quickly at each other when we thought the other wasn’t looking. But one day, Reid finally said something: “Do you know what Normal is?”

“What?” I asked, thinking that he certainly wasn’t it. “It’s a word,” I said.

“It’s also a place.”

“That’s a weird name for a place.”

“No it’s not. It’s normal.” Reid smiled like he’d made the greatest joke in the world, then his expression changed to excitement. “My mom said it’s about a hundred miles from Chicago. It’s on the other side of the border, past all the lakes.” The only thing I’d heard about the border were my parents’ whispers when they thought I was out of earshot. It was dangerous. People tried to cross, didn’t make it, and ended up dead or in jail. “That’s where we’re going to go one day. Thousands of people like us live there.”

“My parents say that’s not a good idea,” I said. “And anyway, I’ve never heard of it.”

“Well you wouldn’t have heard of it, not on this side of the border. They show us what they want us to see on TV. It’s not so bad on the other side really. My parents say we have to wait for my brother Teddy to finish high school and go to the college first. The year after that, we’ll go.”

Reid and his family left four months ago. I haven’t heard from him, not that I thought I would after they left. There are new people who live in Reid’s house. They’re old, and they don’t have kids. I don’t like to think about Reid leaving too much. It makes me sad.

 

After homeroom, I turn the TV off and take out Mia’s freshman year algebra book for math class. The book is from when the school was still using paper books. Now everything is on the computer, which Dad said is because it saves energy, trees, and all that other good stuff we fought for.

Math’s not my best subject, and it’s a struggle to figure out the concepts from the book, and even more of a struggle to make myself do the work. I keep telling myself that someday I will need to know it: that’s what Mia says her teachers tell her when she gets bored in class.

This is Mia’s last year of school, and she’ll go to the college in Montpellier next year. Mia likes to draw, but that’s not what she’s going to study. “If I could draw and paint for the rest of my life, I’d be happy. I’d sit outside and draw everything so you could see it too,” she said to me once. Sometimes, she draws pictures of me, but Mom and Dad make her tear them up. Mia has to go to school for science or math, or some other practical subject because that’s all there is to study at the college. My dad said that a long time ago, you could study whatever you wanted, but now whatever you study has to “benefit the Northeastern Union in a tangible and absolute way.” I don’t really understand what that means, but I know we have enough food to eat and enough water to drink here, so there must be something behind it.

Tonight is Mia’s prom, which I know from TV is where you get to wear a pretty dress, dance with boys, and settle the debate once and for all as to who were the two coolest people in your school by voting on it. Mia’s going with her boyfriend Josh. She just started dating Josh three months ago. Since then, I’ve seen less of her. She’s not always home for dinner, and on Friday and Saturday nights, she doesn’t sit up and watch movies with me or whisper secrets to me over snacks like she used to. Well sometimes she does, but it’s not like before.

When it’s time for English class, I take out an old copy of Romeo and Juliet Dad took from the high school before the recycling.  Romeo and Juliet is such a strange play. How can you just look at someone for a few seconds and decide you’d basically rather die than live without him? It’s crazy. Before Reid and his family left, Mia would sometimes make fun of us and call us Romeo and Juliet or say we were in love. Just because he was my only friend outside the family didn’t mean I was in love with him. He was my friend, and now I miss him is all.

Once, when Reid and I were at his house a few months ago, he asked me to come with him across the border. “My grandma helps people cross the border. She’s been doing it for twenty years now, ever since she helped my uncle cross. She said she’d take all of us. She has a car and makes fake passports,” he said. We were sitting cross-legged on the couch playing go fish with a deck of cards because that and war were the only card games we knew.

“Have any sevens?” I asked.

He sighed in an unsatisfied way and put his cards down. “I’m serious. You could come too.”

I set my cards down on the couch and looked up at him. “My parents would kill me.”

“Why? It’s not like you have anything to look forward to here. Maybe, if you’re lucky, Mia will make enough money to buy a house with a really nice basement. There’s something wrong with your life if that’s the very best thing that might happen.”

“My parents will miss me. Mia would miss me.”

“And Teddy will miss me,” he said. “But Teddy’s choosing to go to the college and stay here. That’s his choice you should have a choice too.”

“I do,” I said. “And I’m going to stay here. Now do you have any sevens or not?”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded slip of paper, holding it out to me.

“What’s this?” I asked. I took it from him and unfolded it. Call Cara, it read, and there was a phone number below.

“I thought you’d say no, so I wrote the my grandma’s number down just in case.”

I quickly folded the paper again and shoved it into my pocket. “Thanks,” I mumbled. I’ve kept that piece of paper in my pocket everyday since in case I change my mind.

 

I read Romeo and Juliet through social studies. I’ve never liked social studies much since all there is to do is watch the news more or read an outdated book of “propaganda” as my dad calls the few history books he got me. Sometimes, if I’m really bored, I’ll watch soap operas for social studies, which Mia tells me is silly. “These shows are so stupid,” Mia said once when she had the day off from school and I showed her what I do all day. She had promised me she’d hang out with me in the morning. She would spend the afternoon with her boyfriend. “No one is secretly having an affair with their stepbrother’s evil twin. This is not real life.”

“Could you stop?” I said. “Just because it doesn’t happen here, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen somewhere.”

She laughed. “Sure.”

“Besides, who wants to watch TV shows about normal people? They’re boring.”

“I don’t know about that. I have a secret sister who lives in my basement. That’s pretty exciting. At least it sounds exciting. Now that I know you watch Fires of Passion all day, I know the truth.” I jabbed my elbow into her side just lightly enough not to hurt her, but hard enough to let her know she hurt my feelings. “Sorry,” she said.

“Do you ever tell anyone about me?”

“No,” she answered.

“Not even Josh?”

Mia frowned. “Especially not Josh.”

“Why?”

“People just wouldn’t understand,” she answered. Then she told me this story about Drew Brightman, this guy who used to go to her school. Everybody really liked him, and he did a bunch of sports and was really smart.  He was definitely going to get his first pick career track at the college. But he had a big secret–a little sister just like me. That’s how Mia referred to her the whole story: his little sister. I wondered if anyone knew her name. Someone found out about his little sister and told the police. The police came to his house, searched it, and, of course, found his little sister and took her away. They took his parents away too.

“Where’d they take them?”

“Nobody knows,” Mia said. Her eyes were all wide and excited like she was telling me a ghost story. All she needed was a flashlight under her chin. “But pretty soon after that, Drew disappeared. Some people say he went somewhere far away to start over, but everybody really thinks the police took him too.”

I think about that story a lot. It scared me so much the first time I heard it that I made my parents learn the panic knock. The panic knock is what they’re supposed to do if something bad happens and I need to hide for real. Three short knocks and then one long –I listen for it even in my sleep. There’s a place in the wall where the boards come out and I can fit behind: that’s my panic place. Out of all the places in the basement, it’s my least favorite. The darkness there, it just eats you up so that you can’t even tell if your eyes are open or closed.

At lunchtime, I eat the tomato sandwich Mia brought down in the morning. I picture the sky above me instead of concrete. There are so many beautiful things in the world–the way the leaves burst through tree bark and then erupt into spectacular colors before dying and letting it all start again, the way that lightning, for a split second when it hits, makes everything look completely new. I miss the flutter of birds’ wings in the morning light the most of all the things outside. I think if I could only choose one thing from the outside to keep, it would be the birds.

 

After lunch, I start science. Since Dad is a biology teacher, he assigns me readings and homework. Today it’s about the differences between animal and plant cells. I have to draw each of them, and he’ll grade them tonight. “You can knock art and science out with one assignment,” he’d joked when he’d assigned it.

I don’t have any of Mia’s drawing ability, and it takes me a long time even just to draw a circular cell membrane for the animal cell that I think resembles the one in my science text book. Mia tries to teach me how to draw sometimes, but it doesn’t usually work out. I can’t get the shadow right. There perspective’s all wrong. Everything looks stiff and surreal, and I leave eraser smudges all over the paper as I try to fix it.

I spend much longer on the cell drawings than I’d meant to, but by the time I hear footsteps on the floor above me, it look okay. It’s nothing like what Mia can do, but it’s enough for a science class. The door at the top of the stairs creaks open, and quick feet descend. “I’m home,” Mia says. I’m sitting on the couch, and she sits down next to me, peering at my labeled plant and animal cell drawings on the table. “Not bad,” she says. She smiles, looking so happy. “Oh, I’m just so excited for tonight. I can’t wait to see how I look with the dress, and the hair, and makeup.” I don’t tell her about Mrs. Hart. I don’t want to spoil her night. And besides, it could be nothing to worry about. She stands up. “I’ll bring everything down, and you can help me get ready.”

Mia returns with Mom, and they’ve got everything Mia said she’d bring down. I can’t see the sun, but I know it’s still light outside, which makes it strange to see my mom in the basement now. “How was work?” I ask Mom. I can tell Dad told her about Mrs. Hart. Mom’s lips are tight, and she looks almost like she might cry. I don’t think she’ll say anything about it to me though, not when Mia’s here.

“Good. The project’s going well,” Mom answers.  Mom lives for talking about her job with anyone but me. I think she feels bad sometimes for loving it and believing in what she does when everything she works for, sustainability in the Union, is what makes my life wrong. I sometimes think that if my family left like Reid’s did, my mom wouldn’t come with me.

We turn on the TV for background noise, brush Mia’s hair and pull it back, I put too much eye shadow on her, we fix her eye shadow and put on the rest of her makeup, we laugh and smile, and for a little bit, I feel normal. “Josh is here,” Dad yells down the stairs. Josh must still be outside because he wouldn’t have risked it otherwise.

Mom goes upstairs, and Mia hugs me. “Wait up for me,” Mia says. “I’m going to tell you everything.” I smile at her and think: I’ll never get dressed up like this, or go to a dance, or ever look half as happy as she looks now. But this was my choice, and I have to live with it. It’s not like there’re proms across the border anyway.

“Have a good time,” I say.

After Mia leaves, Dad comes downstairs. “Let’s see that homework,” he says, and I hand him the labeled drawings I made earlier. He takes a red pen out of his shirt pocket, clicking it.

I groan.

He scans the drawings. “Look,” he says, putting a red X next to a centriole. You forgot to label the microtubule triplets.”

I sigh. Who cares if I know a lysosome from the Golgi apparatus? Reid used to call us mole people. He was joking, but I think people say what they really mean and then pretend it’s a joke so they don’t seem sad sometimes. I am a sad little mole person, and what does a mole person need with biology?

“Dad,” I say. He looks up at me. “What if I did want to go across the border?”

He frowns. “Does this have something to do with what happened today? I really think it’ll be okay. She was just mad about the flowers.”

I shake my head, annoyed with him. “Think about what happened today. It won’t be the last time someone accidentally sees me and wants to know who I am. I can’t live like this forever, and I think there’s no way around that except leaving. It’s not like you and Mom would have to come with me.”

His face falls. “Oh.” Burning skies and streets filled with trash are the images going through his mind right now. I know he doesn’t want to go. Nobody would if they could have a life here. “I think that’s something you should wait to decide when you’re older. In a few years, we can really think about it.” He stands up. “I think you should stay down here tonight just in case anyone comes back with Mia. I’m going to go take a shower. Are you hungry? I’ll tell your mom to bring dinner down.” He avoids my eyes as he walks to the stairs. For a moment, he pauses, turns back to me, and says, “I’m sorry,” before going upstairs.

When he’s closed the door, I sit on the stairs, pressing my ear to the door. I wait for a few moments before my mom asks Dad what’s wrong. He says nothing, but then she prompts him, and he tells her what I said. “She has no idea what’s really over there. None of us do,” he says quietly enough that I know he thinks I can’t hear him.

“But maybe we owe it to her to let her find out,” my mom says. “She’s right. She can’t stay in the basement forever. What happened today could happen again, and next time it might be about more than the stupid daffodils.”

“How Sarah and Rob could take Reid over there, I’ll never know. The things they say on the news, what if they’re true? What if it’s worse?”

“And what if it’s better?”

“You want to send her away?”

“She’s not happy. Can’t you tell? This is not what I wanted for her when had her. This is not what we wanted.”

“You didn’t –“ my father stops, and there’s a silence.

“I love her, and I want whatever’s best for her.”

“And you think I persuaded her not to go with Reid,” he says.

“She should be happy,” my mom repeats. “She’s not happy.”

“I can’t talk about this anymore,” my dad says.

“I’m going down to talk to her about what happened today,” Mom says just as the doorbell rings. I hear my parents’ voices fade as they move farther from the door. I can’t tell who’s at the door, but whoever it is has made my mom change her plan to come downstairs. It might be Mia coming back for something she forgot. It could be Mrs. Hart coming to complain again, or it may be the police coming to take me away.

I hear a knock on the basement door–three short and one long. My pulse quickens in the way people only talk about in books right when something bad is about to happen. I go to the panels in the wall, pushing them aside and crawling behind to the panic place. There’s only room to stand up inside, and I rest my forehead against the wood of the panels, blinking hard against the darkness. I think, there are so many things I never got to do, which is probably what everyone thinks right before they die. There are heavy, purposeful footsteps above me. They don’t belong to anyone I recognize; I’d be able to tell. There’s some talking I can’t make out, the hum of an unfamiliar voice mixed in with my parents’.

I stay behind the panels for a long time. One, two, three, four, I count in my head. I get all the way to four thousand six hundred and eight before the panel opens. Mom’s standing there, her face so pale it matches mine. “Everything’s okay,” she says. I step out of the panic place and sit on the couch. Mom sits next to me.

“What happened?” I ask.

“Mrs. Hart reported us.”

“For the flowers?”

“She said we had a suspicious visitor.”

“What happened?”

“The officer didn’t take it too seriously. They said they get complaints from her a lot.”

“Did they search the house?” Mom nods. “I’m so sorry,” I say. “I just wanted to see the world.”

“I know,” she says. She wraps her arms around me and pulls me into a hug. We sit like that for a long time. I can feel her heart beating against mine, and I feel like crying. “I have to go back upstairs now,” Mom says. She lets go of me. “Your dad will want to know you’re okay. He stayed up there in case the officer came back.” I nod, and she leaves me in the basement alone again.

I take the piece of paper with Call Cara written on it from my pocket, unfolding it and tracing each of the written numbers with my finger. I don’t know what’s changed exactly, but something has, and now I wish I had gone. Maybe it’s that I know that if I stay here, the thought of a neighbor seeing me through the window could be enough to ruin my life forever. Maybe it’s the realization that Mia really won’t be here forever. She’ll grow up and have a life and a family, and I won’t. Maybe it’s that I know I’ll never see my friend again.

I watch TV on the couch until I fall asleep. Footsteps on the stairs wake me later. “I’m home,” Mia says coming into the room.

“What time is it?” I ask. I blink hard to focus my vision on her. There’s water dripping off her sparkly dress, and her hair is messy and down now. I look at the table and see cold spaghetti sitting there. Mom must’ve brought it down while I was asleep.

“I think it’s around two,” Mia says. She smiles and looks so perfectly happy. “The whole thing was so much better than I’d imagined.”

“Was it?”

“All my friends were there, we danced all night, there was lots of food, and everyone looked so nice. Josh kissed me during the last song. We went to Alex’s house after, and I drank something I’ve never had before, but it was really good. It was really strong, I think. I feel kind of dizzy.” She smiles. “Dizzy in a good way. I had such a good time.”

“Why’s there water all over you?”

“Oh,” she says, “it was raining. Josh kissed me in the rain too. It was perfect.” She leans against me, nuzzling her head on my shoulder. “I wish you could do this one day too.”

“Me too,” I say, and I tilt my face away from her so she can’t see how badly I mean it.

“I’m so tired,” Mia says. I help her upstairs, get her to change into her pajamas, have her wash the makeup off, and she collapses into her bed. She looks up at me as she slides under the sheets. Her face turns solemn, and she puts a hand on my face. “I don’t know what we’re going to do about you. Sometimes it scares me,” she says.

“I’ll be alright,” I say.

She doesn’t say anything for a moment, and I wonder if she’s picturing my future, seeing how I’ll weigh her down the rest of her life. She notices I’m watching her face, and she self-consciously smiles at me. “I know you will,” she says. I wonder if she means it. “Goodnight,” she says, and she lies down. I tuck the covers around her and go down to the main floor.

I sit at the kitchen table and think about all the things I don’t have and all the things I’d like to. I think about the people I love here. I wonder what it would be like to wear a pretty dress, go to a real school, have friends, or kiss a boy. I wonder what it would be like to kiss Reid.

When Reid and his parents left, I went to say goodbye to him. His grandma’s illegal car car was loaded with their suitcases, and his family was still inside the house. “I’m going to miss you,” I said. It was a stupid, obvious thing to say, but the only thing I could think of.

“You could still come, you know,” Reid said.

I shook my head. “You go and enjoy it for me.”

“It’s not half as bad over there as you think it is, or at least that’s what Grandma says.”

“Maybe I’ll see it someday,” I said. We didn’t say anything for a few moments, and I looked around the garage, thinking that would be the last time I’d see it, then I looked back at Reid. “I guess we should hug now.”

He smiled kind of sad and nodded before hugging me. When we were younger, we used to hug sometimes, like when we weren’t going to see each other for a few days or when we exchanged handmade Christmas presents, but now it felt so different.

The door to the garage opened, and Reid’s parents and grandma came in. “Are you sure you don’t want to come?” Reid’s grandma asked. She was a tall woman with short white hair who looked so confident and sure of herself that I almost agreed to go.

“No,” I said, “I don’t want to go.”

“You have my number if you change your mind?”

“Yes,” I answered. “What’s it like there?”

“It’s not an easy place to live,” Reid’s grandma said. She shrugged. “But it’s a place to live. People do it.”

I nodded, and then I said goodbye to Reid’s parents, they got in the car, and I watched until their taillights disappeared down the road.

 

I pull the piece of paper Reid gave me from my pocket again and stare down at it. I stare at it for hours, eventually taking the phone in my hand. At six A.M., I call the number. “Who is this?” a woman says when she picks up.

I explain, and she says she remembers me. “I want to go across too,” I say. She asks me if I’m sure. “Yes,” I say.

“We can’t talk about this on the phone anymore. We need to meet in person.” She asks where we can meet, and I tell her at my house. “He talked about you a lot on the way over.” She says she’ll come to the house tomorrow night at three A.M., and she hangs up the phone.

As I was on the phone, the sun came up outside. It’s a beautiful day, cloudless and bright. I think, what would be the harm in being part of it for once? I open up the door to the backyard and walk outside, feeling the wet grass stick to my bare feet.

I want to feel alive. Meeting other people, being a part of their lives and me being a part of theirs–those are the things I want.  More than anything, I don’t want to I want to waste my life wondering if I could’ve been happy and watching everyone else live.

Maybe I can have those things. There might be a place I can, even if it’s a wasteland. There might still be time. I look around for the hummingbird Mia saw yesterday, but I don’t see it, only a few sparrows and a thrush. That’s okay though, there’s still time for that too. The sun is warm on my skin, like summer and happiness. When I close my eyes, I listen to the calls of the birds in the trees and the sky around me. I can feel everything, and I don’t want it to stop.

 

Emily Cavanagh is a senior English literature major at the University of Maryland, College Park. She won the University of Maryland’s Jiménez-Porter Literary Prize this year, and she hopes to apply to MFA programs in creative writing this fall. She’s very excited to be published in Outrageous Fortune.

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