About the Feature
School, and she can’t breathe, and she forgot her inhaler again. She keeps forgetting, can’t keep things straight. Forgot her lunch last week, twice. The inhaler should stay with the nurse, but she needs it so often that she now keeps it in her desk, takes puffs once an hour or so between lessons. School, and she can’t breathe, and all she does these days is fail to remember. The inhaler in her desk ran out yesterday, and this morning she left the new one on the kitchen counter. She is eight and wears her glasses on a braided rope around her neck so she won’t lose them. She is in the bathroom trying to breathe, trying not to panic because she forgot her inhaler, and she gathers two paper towels and folds them, wets them with hot water, locks herself in a bathroom stall and puts them to her face. She breathes through the paper towels. Breathes slowly, counts. It is worse when she gets herself worked up, she knows, because then the stress closes her throat. She has to relax. She has to breathe very slowly and count. She is eight and she is breathing in the bathroom stall, breathing through warm, wet paper towels. She imagines her mother at home, worries about the new baby. Her mother, the baby—she’s worried, and this takes shape in the way that she breathes. Slower, more slowly, she tells herself. Count. Count numbers, make them go up. She sees someone has drawn a dinosaur bird—a pterodactyl—with a spike on its head on the bathroom stall door. It has been drawn with colored pens. There are these really delicate veins in the wings, and the ink is green and blue and pink, and she wonders for a moment whether the color is right. Because no human has ever seen a dinosaur, so how would we know? How would we know what the flesh of beasts looked like before our own species was born? The dinosaur is beautiful there on the wall of the door, but the counting isn’t helping. She has to shift gears. The dinosaur’s head looks like a hammer to her, and then she thinks, the alphabet. The alphabet, she thinks. She runs each letter through her mind, then winds back to the beginning. Her mother, the baby. Breathe. The wheezing stops then, her breath evens. The alphabet, she thinks, not numbers. Because she can see the end of the alphabet, like she can imagine the end of this asthma attack. That must be why numbers don’t work: because they just keep going. But, she thinks, the alphabet—it ends. The dinosaur is beautiful, she thinks, breathing slowly now, steadier, and the alphabet ends.
Her mother says she’s going down for a nap, but that was five hours ago. The baby is fine. She has been playing with him—first blocks and then an electronic book with the sounds of animals that the baby echoes in his baby voice. She pushes up her glasses with her finger, picks up her baby brother to go knock on her mother’s door. She’s got to try to wake her. The baby is nearly her size—the girl has slimmed down, has heard her grandparents ask her father on their rare visits, Why do you think she’s lost all that weight so quickly? Why?—and she kind of shifts the baby to her hip and walks sideways to get her balance. He goes for her glasses, and she gives him a definitive no and offers him one of her braids, and he plays with it, and she lets him. She is walking to her mother’s room, which is really her parents’ room, but she doesn’t think of it that way. The baby nuzzles his face into the side of her neck and then lays his head there, sighs loudly. She knocks on the door to the room, but there is no answer. She knocks harder, waits a beat then yells, Mom? She says, Are you awake? Mom? But there is no answer. There was also no answer two hours ago, when she last attempted to rouse her mother. She tries the door handle again, but it is still locked. She weighs her options as she shifts the baby to the other side of her hip, looks at the digital clock in her bedroom. She has trouble telling time on the analog face of the clock, keeps failing her clock tests in school. The digital clock reads late, and she understands it is long past time for dinner, and she’s worried if she doesn’t wake her mother now, her mother will sleep until the morning. The baby yelps twice, and she says an empty, Yep, that’s right, as she always does when he yelps, and—balancing the baby on her hip—she goes to her room and takes the paper clip she has stretched out into an uneven line from the secret drawer in her dresser. Also in the dresser: her collection of fossils; a card with an autograph from Annie Lennox, which she received in response to a letter she wrote her; and every pen her father ever got her from his business trips. When the baby starts to fuss—just the beginnings, just the very start of a fuss, a single unhappy grunt—she starts to bob him up and down on her hip. He is getting heavy, she thinks. She returns to the door and pokes the paper clip through the thin hole in the doorknob. There is a click, which is the lock releasing, and then she turns the knob.
Her mother is there, beneath a mound of blankets. She walks to the far side of the bed, her mother’s side of the bed, and whispers her name. Her name, her name, the girl whispers, bobbing her baby brother on her hip. There is no movement, and for a moment she gets scared, a shiver of fear runs through her, and her throat tightens and she breathes deeply to ward off something more. Then she leans over with the baby and twists him a bit. She lets him sort of push on their mother, add pressure to her form.
Their mother stirs instantly, responds by jolting upright, snaps, What?!
Are you coming out? the girl says. She used to whisper this, but she doesn’t anymore. She knows whispering when her mother is in this state gets her nowhere.
Please leave me alone, her mother says.
The girl rearranges the baby on her other hip now and leaves the room. She is halfway down the hall when her mother calls her back. Close the door, she says. When the door is shut it’s for a reason. Keep it closed, her mother says, and so she does.
She puts the baby back in his bouncy chair, then wheels the chair to the kitchen so she can keep an eye on him as she’s warming up a can of ravioli. She drags her step stool over to the oven, turns the electric stove on to medium heat. She’s been in this pickle before, which is why she started asking for ravioli cans that have tabs like soda, because she can’t use the can opener. Tried it once, cut herself. Never got that can open. Had to put waffles in the toaster that night.
The girl pops the tab of the can and curls back the metal lid, asks her brother in a singsong voice if he is hungry. He’ll get Cheerios and a banana, cut up small. The ravioli is for her. She stirs the can’s contents with a large plastic serving spoon, waiting for the food to heat up, and she peeks behind herself at her brother. He is smiling and bouncing up and down in his bouncing chair, his feet not long enough to stand, so they hang and jostle like he’s on a ride at the fair.
The fair, she thinks. Her favorite is the Ferris wheel, because you can see so much all at once. She used to be scared of it, but not anymore. She stirs the ravioli and thinks about turning up the heat so it will cook faster, but she did this last time and she burned it. She keeps the heat on medium and keeps stirring. She is patient, she thinks to herself. She looks at her brother, his feet bobbing below him. Soon they won’t, she knows—soon his feet will extend so that he will become mobile. He’s already growing so quickly, she thinks. She’s excited to help him learn to walk, but also nervous, because it means she’ll have to keep a better eye on him.
She stirs the ravioli and starts to make the sound of animals from the digital book. She makes a single sound, and when she makes it her brother echoes her. She turns around and smiles at him. Yep, that’s right, she says, and tries another. He echoes this one too. A cow, a cat, a duck, a dog. She pushes her glasses up her nose. The lenses grow foggy from the heat of the stovetop. Yep, that’s right, she says.
The fair, she thinks, making more animal sounds. She does the math until next summer, which is eight months from now. She glances at the analog clock in the kitchen, tries to discern the time. The hour hand first, round down, then the minute hand—five ticks between the numbers, one minute for each tick. She thinks she’s got the time, but when she looks at the stovetop’s digital clock she’s off by an hour and ten minutes.
She stirs the ravioli, makes the sound of a chicken. Her brother echoes her. She can’t tell the time, she thinks. She just can’t do it. The sound of the chicken again and again, and her brother echoes her, and she stirs the ravioli and tries to think about how she got it wrong, what the hour hand tells, where lie the minutes, until she is jolted back to what is before her, which is the smell of her dinner wafting up from the pan and her brother making the sound of a chicken, over and over again.
This morning her mother doesn’t wake up. Or she wakes, but it’s another bad day—two in a row. This is rare for her, but the girl is learning rare is something elastic, something that bends and stretches and folds so that what once felt like it seldom happened expands to become the new version of everyday. She can’t get her mother to wake up, but she’ll be roused enough to yell something at the girl, tell her to leave her alone.
The baby is still sleeping—thank goodness he is such a good sleeper, she thinks, which is a thought she’s adopted from her grandparents. She didn’t know other babies didn’t sleep well until her grandparents mentioned that he did. Her mother isn’t up, and she thinks about the baby. It’s not a good day for her, but it is a Monday, and what is she going to do about school?
There is something inside her that knows what she has to do is both wrong and right. It is both a lie and not a lie, what she’s about to do. Or maybe that’s the wrong way to see it. Maybe the question isn’t about what’s right. Maybe it’s about what’s necessary.
She pulls out the phone book and flips to the pages that share a first letter with the name of her school. She runs her finger down the long line of names on the left, then the long line on the right, and she sees that the sweat from her fingers has smeared the ink, so she presses more lightly. Now the ink stays put.
She flips the page once, then again—this is delicate work, the pages so thin, she has to be sure she doesn’t tear them—and then she finds it toward the top on the left: the number for her school. She pulls one of the kitchen chairs from the table, drags it slowly, quietly, so as not to wake the baby, and puts it below the phone that hangs from the wall. Then she sings the numbers to herself in order to remember. Sings them again, then uses her finger to press the seven numbers in the order that she sings.
When the secretary gets on the phone, she fakes difficult breathing—she wheezes through her speech. Another asthma attack? the secretary asks. And then, Why isn’t your mother calling?
She’s loading my baby brother in the car, and we’re headed to the doctor’s, she wheezes.
Okay, well, we’ll see you tomorrow, the secretary tells her, and the girls hangs up the phone.
She goes back to her bed then, crawls under her covers. She has a quilt that is all dinosaur fossils, and on her ceiling live her collected images of the extinct beasts. She loves the dinosaurs with wings best, and she collects the images from books her grandparents give her from yard sales and bookfairs, tears them out and pastes them to her ceiling. They are beasts from a time that is both imaginary and also real, a time before people. She won’t be able to sleep, she thinks. She has lied, she thinks, but somehow it feels right. This dual sense of guilt and duty will be something she learns to navigate with great care in the months and years to come.
No, she won’t be able to sleep, she thinks, but she can lie here and look up at the ceiling, at her dinosaurs and the proof of them all these millions of years later, their fossilized remains. She won’t sleep, but she can look out her window at the sunshine and the way the breeze makes the tree limbs move. Later she can study the analog clock face, try harder this time. Try to do better. She won’t sleep, but she can rest here, just until she hears the baby is awake.
She is coming home from school and she spots in the gravel of the driveway a fossil. She picks it up and licks her thumb, smears it with her spit. There, pressed into the rock are the delicate lines of some coral. It’s a Petoskey stone, her state’s rock. She had to memorize the state motto last week as part of social studies, and she says it to herself now. She lives in a place that was once a giant ocean, long before it was populated with people, and now the echo of coral lives all over the town she calls home. She pockets the rock and keeps walking, knows what she has found is dear because this particular stone is so hard to spot. It’s hard to see the fossilization when it isn’t wet, takes a real eye to find one. It’s only after it’s wet that the secret beneath is revealed—the tessellations of hexagons linked together, a network of ancient coral locked in rock that she can touch, that she can pick up and put in her secret drawer with all the others.
The state’s motto, she thinks in her head as she’s walking through her front door. She pushes up her glasses. She is walking through the door, preparing for whatever it is that will meet her on the other side. The motto, she says to herself, recites to herself, in her head, as she’s calling her brother’s name. The motto, she says over and over again, inside her mind: If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.
It has been a good day, her mother up and around enough to order two pizzas and leave her a twenty and a ten-dollar bill to pay. Her mother is on the phone in the other room with the girl’s aunt, her mother’s sister. She is crying and saying something about wanting to go away, to leave, and what does that mean, and did her sister know the feeling after she had her second child, and nothing like this happened to her after the first, and what is she supposed to do, what will she do, what is she going to do, she’s losing it, it’s lost, she’s got to get some kind of help. While it may have worried the girl the first time she overheard her mother have a conversation like this, that was months ago now. That was so long ago that the girl barely even remembers to whom she was talking. Instead, the girl is choosing to be excited because her mother let her try a new topping on her pizza. The topping is mushrooms. They are her father’s favorite, and he says that they are a whole different taste, a taste that is fully its own. She knows the other tastes from class—sour, salty, bitter, sweet—but she has never tasted the taste of a mushroom. Her father says the taste is a word that sounds like tsunami, that scary water wall that was a problem for her father’s friend from college in Hawai’i. But Hawai’i is another world away from where she is, and anything that threatens it doesn’t threaten her, at least right now. Because she’s in the middle of the country, far from any coast. Because you stay away from things that contain the propensity to hurt you. Because distance creates safety. This is something that she knows.
And she knows that she is trying mushrooms, trying something new. She cannot wait to taste this taste that she has never known.
Just then her mother raises her voice to the person on the phone. She must have hung up with the girl’s aunt and dialed the girl’s father, because this is a tone she only uses with him. The tone is a kind of moaning, a kind of groaning that reminds her of how she felt when she had the stomach flu and could only eat pieces of bread that were toasted but without any butter or jam. It’s the sound of someone with the stomach flu, but she knows her mother doesn’t have this ailment. Something is wrong, the girl knows, but it is a kind of subtle knowledge, a recognition of a pattern one notices in the world without the language to describe it. Like the way when she goes into different homes—her cousins’, her grandparents’, her dad’s coworkers’—each house has its own smell. She suspects other people detect this too, but no one talks about it. Maybe it’s because it’s not considered polite. Something is wrong, she knows, but it lingers in the air undiscussed, the way the smell of someone else’s house does. She’s not sure if what is wrong is a sickness. She doesn’t know enough about the body to know if it is, but she secretly hopes that it might be, because she is still young enough to believe all illnesses can be treated and—eventually—cured.
Then her mother screams into the phone, and the girl jumps from the suddenness of the sound, and her mother slams down the mouthpiece from her bedroom. The baby is in his Pack ’n Play in the living room, watching TV. Her grandparents say they shouldn’t be allowed to watch so much television, but her grandparents are here so rarely. It’s hard to abide by any kind of rules when no one is here to enforce them.
The pizza is coming—she is getting excited about the mushrooms. Will they taste bland or piercing? Like vegetables or meat? What is the taste that her father knows but she does not? What will she tell him when she tries it?
The phone rings then, but her mother doesn’t get it, slams her door shut, and the girl can hear the sound of the lock. Her brother giggles at something on the TV and bangs two blocks together, yelps three times in a row. Then it sounds to her like he is talking to himself. Maybe, she thinks, he’s making a decision. He must be old enough now.
The phone rings again, and she drags the chair under the phone where it hangs on the wall, reaches up and answers. It is her father. He asks how it’s going, and she has to do that thing again, has to negotiate the guilt with the duty. Because if she tells him the truth—if she tells him how it is really going—what will happen is that he will do a thing he threatened once last year, a thing that scared her so deeply, so fully, and so much that she spent nearly an entire night without sleep. She didn’t sleep at all, sweating and breathing really hard as she kept thinking of the thing he threatened, and she watched on her digital clock as the hours moved through the night. What he had said was this: If your mother can’t take care of herself—which means she can’t take care of you—then we’ll need to put her in the hospital. And while she is getting better, you and your brother will need to stay with your grandparents.
So she lies—it’s deceit but it’s in service of safety, the safety of their family, keeping them all under one roof. Because exchanging a situation that is really bad for a situation that is unimaginable is not an option for her just then. It’s not an option yet. The problem with being eight is that the unimaginable is always scarier than what is right in front of you.
Everything is good, she tells her father. Everything is fine. She’s okay, for now, she tells him, because she knows he won’t believe her if she says she’s great or well or better. She’s okay, the girl tells her father in so many ways, spinning in circles, twirling the cord of the phone around her body even as she is on the chair. She turns the cord around her until it is tight and then untwirls it so that she is released. She leans toward the living room to peek in on her brother, who is raptly watching the television show, sitting inside his Pack ’n Play. It’s been a good day for her mother. It was a good day today.
And then her father asks how she is doing—the girl—and something inside her breaks open, blossoms and blooms. Because this is attention for her, not for her mother. This is her father asking about her and her alone—the girl—and no one else.
She tells him everything in a single sentence: about the bully at school who teases the kids who play four square; the response she got to her artwork from the teacher, who wants her to enroll in a special program next summer; her troubles with telling time on a clock face because she can’t understand which arm is the hour arm and which is the minutes, and suddenly now the teacher has added a third arm, and she can’t keep them straight, which is why she’s had to retake the clock test twice; the state’s motto; the new addition to her fossil collection; and the song she just learned in music that they sing in a round on the bus—she sings for him the chorus—and then she says, at the end, at the end of this monologue, as she is running out of breath, her breathing starting to get difficult, she says that she has ordered pizza and she got hers with mushrooms, just and exactly—precisely—just like him.
He is happy, and she can tell, and she is thrilled that she has pleased him.
When are you coming home? she asks him, and because even the topic, even acknowledging the topic of him being gone, creates in her a very instantaneous and visceral sorrow, she suddenly wants to cry. But she is fierce and she is fearless and she is resolute in her lying, and she knows if she breaks down he will know she’s deceiving him. And if he knows she’s deceiving him, her world order—her whole sense of the structure of her life—will unravel, fall apart. She holds the tears in by pressing the nails of her right hand into the very delicate flesh on the inside of her left wrist so that the sorrow is made minor by the pain. When the pain takes over, the sorrow is missing, and she can stop. This is how she does not cry.
The answer is next week. His return is next week, and man, does he miss her, he tells her, and she says she misses him too. I got you a cool pen this time, a really stellar one, he says, and she thinks of her pen collection in her room. She has never used any of them, not once, because that would break the spell of them. That would make the pens not gifts but tools, and that would change them from beautiful emblems full of meaning to practical instruments that are disposable.
Just then her father says he has to go and to kiss the baby, and she says okay and that she loves him, and he says he loves her too.
Oh, and kiddo? Her father says. The third hand—on the clock. It’s seconds. The short hand is the hour, the long one the minutes. The third hand is also long but skinny and counts the seconds as they pass.
Oh, she says, sort of recalling the lesson but not really, because she then also recalls from that day, during that lesson in class, wondering why we would need to count the seconds. She would understand if life were some kind of race, but it’s not, as far as she can tell. She wants to ask him why there’s an arm for seconds, wants to ask him why we need the seconds, but he is telling her he has to go and he’ll see her in a week.
And as soon as she hears the click of his phone, the line creates the sound of a kind of low, ongoing buzz. This is a sound she thinks should make her gloomy, but she loves it because it fills her with a sense of independence. For here she is, on the line alone. She is the only one on the call. She imagines a woman on the other end picking up then, a woman who is her in the future, and she would ask that woman, What kind of person are you? And maybe the woman would list all these qualities that are strange to the girl, but maybe the woman would just be a larger version of the person she is right now. Just a bigger, fuller iteration of the her she is today. She hangs up the phone then, and at the exact time that she hears the delicate sound of the mouthpiece fit into its cradle, the doorbell rings, and her brother yelps twice and claps and gurgle-laughs, and she is full of happiness for that fraction of a moment before she runs to the door. She is full of her father’s voice and his promise to return—he will return, he will come back, this time with her mother isn’t forever, isn’t infinite—and her brother is healthy and happy and laughing, and her mushroom pizza—her first foray into choosing what she wants to taste—is on its way. She grabs the two bills she needs to hand off to the delivery person, and she knows to tell them to keep the change, and she runs to the door. And there is a lot of disorder, she thinks, a hugely massive degree of disorder in her life, but now, in this moment, everything feels like it is exactly as it should be. Everything feels just right.
Home, and she can’t breathe. It’s another asthma attack, but this time in the middle of the night. She wakes up wheezing, and her pillow is soaked from sweat. She must have been struggling a while, too sleepy to wake herself until just now. She is wheezing, but she knows she needs to be quieter or she’ll wake the baby. She leaves her room and goes to her mother’s, tries the door—it’s locked. It’s not worth spending time trying to wake her, the girl thinks. She walks to the other side of the house and pulls out her breathing machine. She flips open the box, plugs it into the wall. She uncoils the plastic tubing and presses one end into the machine, the other end into the cup part of the device. She screws the mouthpiece onto the lid of the cup, then pulls out a vial of her medication, twists the plastic to break the side of the vial, pours the liquid into the cup. She twists the bottom onto the top—she learned the hard way that you can’t twist the top onto the bottom, because it’s already attached to the tubing that latches to the machine, and as soon as the seal is tight, she flips the button, and the sound fills up the whole room. And then she puts the mouthpiece in her mouth and takes deep breaths.
She is facing the wide window, and the blinds are open—she forgot to close them last night. She keeps forgetting things. She needs to curb that. The blinds are open, and she can see the sun coming up, and then she inches closer to the window, looks outside. For there is something strange there, something otherworldly.
Her neighbor’s roof is moving. It is shifting and moving and not staying still. And the neighbor’s house next to that, and the one beside that too. At first she thinks the roofs have gone soft, melted. But then she realizes they are covered in birds. Blackbirds are all over the roofs of the homes in her neighborhood. Everything that has a surface outside that is high is blanketed by blackbirds. She cannot tell what is natural and what is artificial. It is all just a sea of blackbirds covering every roof, a canopy of blackbirds dwelling on top of every home. Every home, as far as she can see.
She breathes slowly and inhales the medication, and what she does then is this: she thinks about her own house—wonders if it, too, is covered in the birds. She wants to learn if her own house is also overwhelmed with this strange flock.
But how would she do that? She thinks. She is inside and at the back of the house and connected to the cord of her breathing machine. The sun is coming up, and she is breathing very slowly, sucking in the medication, letting it enter her chest. She looks at the birds covering every house on her street and gets a chill down her back, then another. She shivers and her skin tightens around her frame.
She wants to learn so badly if her house is also covered or if it has been spared.
But how would she know? Whether her house is the same as the other houses? If it’s also encased by this phenomenon?
How would she know, unless she could somehow get outside, far enough away to turn around, see the house as a thing separate from her? Only then, with a great deal of distance, could she look back and bear witness to that which once hovered above her.
About the Author
Lindsey Drager’s books have won a Shirley Jackson Award, been finalists for two Lambda Literary Awards, and are currently being translated into Spanish and Italian. A 2020 NEA fellowship recipient in prose and winner of the 2022 Bard Fiction Prize, she is an assistant professor at the University of Utah.