Anne and I sat wide-awake on our beds, watching our Peter Pan VHS for the fourth time that week. From the next room, Dad’s voice ricocheted off the walls, gravelly and uneven, as though rising from some deep sinkhole under the house.
“Yes, yes, you can pick it all up tomorrow. I’ll have the boxes outside.” A pause. “Do we get a tax write-off for this?”
I turned up the sound on our TV set.
After a few minutes, Dad burst in the room, phone pressed to his chest—“Quiet down, girls, you’ll wake your mother, and I’m on the phone.” He closed the door gently, but firmly.
I lowered the volume as Anne giggled, pressing her face into her Pillow-Pet to suppress her laughter. We had reached the scene where the mermaids splashed Wendy, inconveniently trying to drown her. I tucked my legs together on the bed, and flapped them like a mermaid’s tail. Through the thin walls, Dad was asking the Salvation Army if they also take furniture. Then his heavy footsteps left the office, and plodded downstairs.
Anne said, “I’m bored. I can quote this whole thing in my sleep.”
We flipped off the TV. The fuzzed glow was erased from the room.
I lay down, surrounded by the stuffed animals and toys that adorned my bed. One was a Bitty Baby. Sometimes at night, I stuffed a pillow under my shirt and placed my hands across my stomach. I’d spread my legs, and Anne would play midwife saying, “Push, push!” and out would come Bitty Baby. I’d croon, “Hush little baby, don’t you cry, mama’s gonna feed us sweet moon pie!”
But tonight, I couldn’t look at Bitty Baby.
I rolled over and stared at Anne through the dark. Her eyes were milky moons in the adjacent twin bed.
“Do you want to talk to Natalie?” I said.
She hesitated, then shrugged, “Sure.”
I reached into my pillowcase for the laser pen. The pen was a gift Dad received from a client, then passed along to me. It was also the source of Natalie’s secret light.
I shined the pen, moving the beam along the wall.
“Oh why, hello there, Anne and Tess! Hello, hello, how are you?”
“Good,” said Anne, kicking back her comforter. “Fine. How’s Fairyland?”
I made a figure eight on the wall.
“Very well, very well. I got caught in the rain today. The rain got my leaf dress all wet. Gross! It’s hard to fly with wet leaves. So I had to make a new one, but that’s okay.”
I cupped my hand around my mouth, trying to throw the sound across the room. Natalie’s voice needed to be high and airy, with a distinguishable squeak.
“How was your day, Anne?”
“I took my favorite snow globe to class for show and tell and broke it,” she said. “I forgot it was in my backpack.”
“Boohoo. That’s too bad. Maybe I can fix it for you. Leave it by my fairy door tomorrow morning!”
“Sure,” said Anne. But I knew she wouldn’t do this.
I jiggled the light, darting Natalie around the room.
Then Anne said, “This is stupid. I know it’s you, Tess. Just stop.”
“Why, it’s me, your friend Natalie!”
“I said, just stop it already.”
Anne huffed and rolled over. I flipped off Natalie’s light, and slid the laser pen back inside my pillow.
Anne believed in Natalie, that she lived in a matchbox house in our closet—that I alone could translate her silent language—until Mom came home from the hospital last week. She looked pale, skin translucent like paper, her stomach still swollen. She said nothing to us but “Oh—girls,” as though surprised to recognize herself in our faces, and then went to her bedroom. Dad sent us upstairs, said she needed quiet. We watched Peter Pan. But after a few hours, we crept down, stood outside her room and listened. We tapped on the door and waited. Then we slipped inside and watched her sleeping, open-mouthed, with a whispering shallow breath. How like Sleeping Beauty she looked, stoic on the bed. I wanted to stand close, place my hand over her nose and feel her moist breath. Wake up, I thought. I didn’t understand that she was hiding in the sheets, willing time to unspool, that she couldn’t look at me or Anne just yet.
Days passed and I feared she would sleep forever, that the hospital had put her under a sleeping curse. I told Anne my theory that some doctors were witches and some were fairy godmothers, but she didn’t believe me. Dad took sick leave from work and watched us, which meant we ate cereal or mac and cheese for every meal. He told us to be patient, and that Mom would emerge when she was ready. Meanwhile, we watched as he poured out mugs of un-drunk tea and dumped her trashcan of wadded tissues. She didn’t leave the room.
Anne lay still for several minutes. I listened for the sound of her heavy slumber breathing. Then her voice unearthed from the mountain of covers, “I tried talking to Natalie once when you were in the bathroom. She didn’t answer.”
“She needs me to translate,” I said.
“Or maybe she was on vacation. Or fell asleep. She’s not available every night, remember?”
“Only when you want her to be.”
“And how’d you learn to speak fairy, hmm?”
Anne used to be convinced. I introduced Natalie and Anne about a year ago when the flickering red light first made an appearance. After school, I would leave tiny notes around our room, which I printed in Dad’s study with the smallest possible font.
To Do List:
-Sew leaf skirt
-Walk my bumble bee
Dear Anne, I love your purple bracelet! Would you let me bring it to my friends to show them? Give to Tess to share with me. Thanks! -Natalie
I’d glued a house of paper and leaves, and positioned Natalie’s home near my shoe rack in the closet. Anne was amazed by the thought of something so tiny having such life, such magic, such a little beating heart. I spun webs of Natalie stories—she was a seamstress in Fairyland. The paper house in the closet was her portal to the secret fairy world, which was less woodland and more jungle. Florida panthers lurking in the trees, alligators sulking in the swamps, fairy houses dangling like nets in Spanish moss. Natalie made dresses from leaves and corsets from peeled bark. She was in love with another fairy named Mickey D, who was a wasp hunter. Together, they were working on taming the swamp dragonfly.
But now that we were shy witnesses to our parents’ hurt, something in her snapped. Her belief had flown out the window.
“Well, think what you want then,” I said. “She can be my special friend. How many people do you know who have fairy friends?”
“I don’t believe in fairies,” said Anne.
“Hey!” I sat up in bed.
Everyone knows that saying I don’t believe in fairies causes a fairy somewhere to wilt and die, like a baked, aged flower.
“I don’t, I don’t, I don’t,” said Anne, her voice rising. She kicked her legs, sending a stuffed bear off the bed.
A downstairs light flicked on, a golden puddle under our door.
I shushed for Anne to be quiet.
“I don’t believe in all that,” Anne whispered after a moment. I saw her arms cross—she had a penchant for primness. “That’s baby stuff.”
We both went silent.
When Mom went to the hospital, we assumed she’d gone into labor, and that our parents would come home with a swaddled brother or sister. I had already warned Anne that babies were ugly. I could remember holding her, her infant face like a pink turnip. Our neighbor Nadine Potts watched us. She made stovetop popcorn and Rice Krispie treats. She let us eat in our beds while we watched The Black Cauldron, Snow White, and Peter Pan. Then our parents came home. A hush fell over the house.
That night, Dad summoned us to his office. We sat on the loveseat facing him in his desk chair. He was folded over himself. He said, she’d lost the baby—and my first thought was of my sibling in a Lost and Found somewhere. We sat silenced, hardly fathoming. What magic could place a baby in our mother’s body, what evil could take her away? In that moment, I was first assailed by the velocity of the world’s pain and sadness—with my mother’s need to cocoon herself, her inability to look at me or Anne, and the sight of my father crying into his hands. And I thought of the nursery I’d helped Mom decorate. Helped her pick moon mist instead of pale daffodil for the walls, helped tighten the IKEA screws, stood on tip-toes aligning art above the changing table while she said more to the left. What would happen to that room, to all the things we’d hoarded for baby? The baby they hadn’t even named.
The light outside went off again. I heard Anne get out of bed and walk to my side. She peeled back the covers and slipped under my quilt. I moved toward the wall to make room.
“You can bring Natalie back,” she said. Her breath misted my neck, smelling like sour milk. We hadn’t brushed our teeth for days. Dad forgot to check. “That is, if you want. Just know I know.”
“It’s fine,” I said.
We lay still for a moment. At night, while people slept, the world awoke—cicadas chirruping in their husks, frogs rasping, the steamy whine of mosquitos buzzing against our window… I imagined Dad boxing nursery things for the Salvation Army, then venturing into the bedroom from which he’d been exiled. Was he even now curling next to Mom, coaxing her to re-enter the world? Or was he escaping into sleep with her?
“Come on,” I said, kicking back the covers.
Anne groaned and said, “I’m tired.”
I moved through the room, hands in front so as not to bump my piles of books and Barbies. At the dresser, near my stack of VHS tapes, I found my box of art supplies, used to construct Natalie’s house. I brought it back to the bed, where Anne was sitting upright, silhouetted by the silver moon.
“Look,” I said, holding up a jar of glitter. “This isn’t just sparkles. It’s fairy dust.”
“Yes. From Natalie. A gift.”
“Want to try it?”
Anne held out her palm. I unscrewed the lid and poured glitter on her hand. She sprinkled the fairy dust over her head, the sparkles lodging in her hair, powdering her cheeks. She giggled, then sprinkled some on me.
“Will it work?” she asked, standing on the bed.
“Yes!” I said.
We bounced for a minute, suppressing our giggles, gaining momentum, and then jumped, our feet pounding the floor. We then mounted our respective beds and jumped again—and again. We danced and leapt, infusing ourselves with renewed belief.
This house with our parents would not fly. It would stay dense and laden. But we could drift in circles, we who were learning that time doesn’t wait for anyone. The world does not stop to pause and mourn one stolen life, one potential person. Time does not peer into family windows, see the color of ready nurseries, the stack of diapers by the crib, the toys in wicker baskets. The world does not feel this loss. But we did. We felt it like loss of belief. But that night, in that moment, we were still two girls leaping from our beds with the hope that at some point we would not fall. Our feet would not hit the ground. We would rise. Our magical thinking would lift us in the air. And as we soared from our window, we would encircle the world under the latticework of stars, fly from velvet night and straight toward morning.