"I don't give a shit what you think!" A tinkle of ice cubes in a glass. "Get the Christ off my back!" And then weeping, ever the soulful crying from her mother. Every week or so it was the same thing. "What are you? My jailer? Well, warden, here's to you . . ." Bitter words from a bitter man. She could see him swallowing his rye while her mother was slumped in a chair, one hand covering her eyes. "You have something to tell me?" Her father's voice roared, "Then tell me!"
"I-I-I . . ."
"Ayeyeye, what are you? Some stammering idiot?"
"Why are you so cruel?" A door slammed.
Jessica lay warm in her bed, hugging her teddy close. The dark night clung to her like a blanket, thick; and cold. Stars in the sky. Lonely. Once upon a time they'd taught her to pray, though the last time she'd been to church was far beyond memory. She had a standard prayer. It went like this:
"Our Father, Who art in heaven, Now I lay me down to sleep, Hail Mary full of grace, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, Should I die before I wake, I the pray the Lord my soul to take, But I'd rather you didn't just yet. Lord, my parents are yelling again - are you listening somewhere out there? This is me, Jessica, ten years old 'til June. But that's a long ways away. Bless my mommy, who's crying right now, and my daddy though I don't know why. Bless Kevin, my little brother 'cause he's just a baby, and my dog Kermit. Mommy said the guy who talks for Kermit is dead but I think it's a lie 'cause I see Kermit on t.v. But if it is, God, keep him warm. It's isn't nice to be cold. Please don't let my daddy be angry with me or sick tomorrow. I don't like it when he's sick, but it happens so often. Is he alright? Anyways, don't let mommy cry tomorrow. I don't like it when she cries. It makes me feel sad. Do you know what I wish most, God? I wish I had a friend I could talk to. Mommy says it isn't right to let other people know your business so, God, I don't talk at all. Except to you. And teddy. But he's just a bear. I wish there were someone to play with. God, a girl at school said her Sunday School teacher told her you love the little children. Do you love me? Do you God? I'm sorry. You probably can't hear me, if you're there at all. Goodnight, God . . .Oh ya - amen."
A prayer's a good thing if the night is long and lonely. But the moon shining through the window, wind slapping tree branches against a dirty window will keep even the stoutest of hearts awake sometimes. Especially if you're only ten years old.
Around two o'clock, Kevin wailed. Mommy went to feed him. And good little girl, she lay in bed listening. Her father's stenorous snore hiccoughed in the darkness and from where she was lying, she knew he was on the couch again.
Before the dawn, in a dream, a little boy came to her and said 'Jessica, will you take my hand?' She did willingly, through the streets that led to her school, and then the schoolyard. They stopped at the swings for they were her favourite thing. No problem. When she was up, he was down and still smiling and they had a rhythm going. Finally, her small shoes scraping pavement, he took her hand again and said, 'Wanna go inside?'
In her classroom her spelling test was posted on the cork-board, a shiny gold star on the upper right hand corner. He pointed to it. "What's that there?" he asked her.
"Oh it's cause I got all the words right."
"Isn't that great!" he exclaimed.
"No," she said, "those words were easy. The teacher does that to make you feel good."
"No. She does that 'cause you got them all right." He turned away, eyeing the classroom.
"Well, I read . . ." she stammered but it seemed he didn't hear her. He was staring at the blackboard which was green, and the large script letters above it.
"You write like that, don't you?" he said quietly.
"Yes, since grade one."
Silently he shook his head, turned, walked back to her. He led her out of the classroom, out of the schoolyard down the street. At the door to her lowrise he let go of her hand, and still silent, hugged her.
She closed her eyes, feeling the warmth of his embrace. When she opened her eyes finally, she was back in her bed, dawn casting a roseate glow in the air. She didn't remember falling asleep.
It was too early to get up, but she had to pee. She hoped she didn't wake anybody, especially her father as she crept to the bathroom and gently closed the door. As always, when done, she didn't flush the toilet. Just in case. Years later, late at night she'd still worry about flushing the toilet. Even though she knew it didn't really matter anyway. Who would hear it?
Who indeed. Jessica was never alone, though she didn't know it.
The next day at school was torture. No matter how hard she tried to keep her eyes open, little points of grit glued her lids dryly to her eyes and weighed them down. At recess she took her book to the corner walls and sat on the pavement reading as she usually did, while the other children whirled around her in noisy streaks of colour. She never paid attention to them. Nor they to her.
It was a grey November day, the air chill with the scent of snow promising an early winter. She'd worn her ski jacket, just right for this kind of weather. She didn't like hats though, they squished her hair down. And she hated mittens because Tim Reilly said they made her look like a geek. Same with boots. So she didn't.
She liked this book. It was full of brave animals who talked like people and did courageous things. She wished she could be like them. The funny thing was, if she just let the story read itself to her, she could be in it, for a while anyway. And the whole world would fade away from her. She was tired though, and soon the words began to swim before her, and the same sentence replayed itself over and over again. Her eyelids drooped and soon she fell asleep. She slept so soundly that she didn't hear the bell ring, and no one thought to wake her, because no one noticed she was there.
Mme. Lacroix, the third period French teacher had a heavy schedule to fill and in her rush to complete the syllabus, decided she would take attendance at the end. But the bell rang before she knew it, and she never had the chance. She didn't notice Jessica wasn't there.
Mr. Buchwald, the science teacher, took attendance, and assumed Jessica was away again. He'd have to bring up her repeated absences with the school guidance counsellor. She was a bright girl, but her marks were suffering because of her poor attendance. The parents must have impressed upon them that a child won't die if she goes to school with a headache now and then. They'd have to discuss this with her mother soon.
Jessica held a rabbit on her lap and as she stroked him he told her about his travels and his love for his Queen. He was an older rabbit, his muzzle streaked with grey and his flanks peppered with scars from the fights he'd been in. What a great old rabbit! If she had a grandfather, she wished he would be like him. And when the words were done, he laid his head on her chest while she stroked his cheeks. A happy rabbit was he.
A tap on her shoulder, and the rabbit nuzzled her then leapt away.
"Oh it's you!" she cried, for there beside here was her friend from the night before. "Hi," she said shyly. "What a good rabbit. Do you know him?"
"Yes," he replied, "his name is Jones. You're early. Why aren't you in school?"
"Don't be silly," she giggled, "I am at school."
"Are you? Are you Jessica?"
"Of course! I don't skip school." She replied, indignant.
"Well, no matter. I've found a special place for you to see. Would you like to come?"
"Oh yes! But wait. Who are you? I don't even know your name."
He studied her carefully. "My name is Nathaniel. Come." And stretched out his hand.
"Where do you come from?"
"My name is Nathaniel," he said and took her hand. In a flash she stood on a riverbank, green grass growing tall to her knees and water gurgling on the shore. "Do you know where we are?" he asked.
"No," she responded, "but it seems like heaven to me."
He sat down by the shore, clasping his knees in his arms, sighing. "Heaven. What do you know of heaven?"
"And what do you know of it?" she said, exasperated.
He turned to face her. "Will you sit by me?" And, grasping her hand, pulled her down beside him. "Do you know where we are?"
"I'm by a river, thank you." She wasn't sure where this river was, she'd never seen it before, and she was tired of him asking her that.
For a while they just sat there together, warm sun dancing off the water. Bright red and orange leaves floated downstream. He never let go of her hand, and she didn't want him to. It was a good feeling, this quiet contemplation. And besides, no one touched her much anymore. Yes, she liked this fellow. Even if it was just a dream.
When the sun reached the water's edge she knew it was time to go home. She would ask him to please take her back, but not before she asked him something far more important.
"Nathaniel?" He smiled at her. "Will you be my friend?"
"I already am," he replied. Then suddenly he pulled her to her feet, saying, "Quick. We must leave now."
When she opened her eyes she was still in the playground. She didn't know what time it was, but she knew school was probably over. She was so cold her hands and feet were numb, and her book lay open on the ground beside her, its pages fluttering in the wind.
She blew on her hands to warm them, then gingerly stood. Her parents would be furious with her coming home so late, and all the more so when they found out why. How could she have slept the whole day? How come nobody woke her? Surely someone must have seen her there.
Thankfully her father wasn't home when she arrived, and Kevin, teething now, was screaming blue murder. Her mother was so busy trying to quiet him that she simply looked up at said, "Don't come home so late again!" And, "Wash your hands and go put a pot on the stove. We're having macaroni tonight and I need you to make it. Don't just stand there, move!" So she did.
She was in bed by the time her father's feet stamped in the hall. Her mother, exhausted, was sound asleep. When he opened her door, she pretended she was asleep too so she wouldn't have to talk to him. She could smell the rye on him from across the room. He swayed slightly as he stood in the doorway, his body outlined by the light from the kitchen. "Sleep good Jessica," he slurred and gently closed the door. Jessica let out her breath, and, hands shaking, curled up in blankets and fell quickly asleep.
That night she dreamt she was running, running, her lungs burning as she ran from the heavy footsteps chasing her. She was in a house and as she ran, just when she thought she'd found the front door, when she opened it she was in another room, door after door, the house grew in front of her. She tried to scream but no sound came from her throat and she knew when the man caught her, he'd kill her. Suddenly, talons gripped into her arm and she bolted awake. She was crying, terrified the creature was under her bed.
She willed herself not to fall back asleep, but she did, and the rest of the night, if she dreamt at all, she didn't remember.
Walking through the schoolyard she was regaled with a chorus of "Hey Rip Van Winkle!" "Rip Van Twinkle!" "Rip Van Twit!" and roaring laughter from several of the children in her class. She tried to ignore them, but five feet ahead of her were three girls from her class, the prettiest, most popular ones. One of them whirled around and shouted at her, "Quit following us Jessica! See that - what a snoop!"
They haughtily turned away and Jessica, who simply wanted to melt in the ground and die, realized she couldn't walk behind the three in front, and if she stood here too long, the boys would catch up with her. Her face burning with embarrassment, she started to cry, walking slowly behind them while they loudly complained about her spying on their conversation.
Her mouse blonde hair covered her face as she stared at the ground, walking like a woman damned and shuffled into the classroom. She placed her books on the desk, then lay her head on her books, her arms around her head, trying desperately to stop crying. Daniel, who sat behind her, poked her in the back. She started, and knocked her pencil case on the floor, scattering pencils across the linoleum. They class whooped in laughter as she scrambled to pick them up; her favourite blue pencil, its lead the colour of an April sky, lay right beside Steve's foot. Grinning, he stamped his foot over it. "You want your pencil?" he sneered.
She did, but not that badly. Resigned, she went back to her seat, and, head on the desk again, ignored Daniel's repeated poking. A voice in back yelled, "Look at her sleeping. I thought you'd have had enough sleep yesterday!" Again the class broke out laughing.
Sobbing, quietly she said, "leave me alone, oh please leave me alone," over and over but if any of them heard her, they didn't pay any attention. At last the bell rang; she heard the teacher close the door. She read out the names, and when the attendance was done, was she said, "Jessica, sit up straight. After home room you and I are going to the office. Now, the rest of you, there's an audition for this year's school play, Cinderella. Cynthia, I'd like you to try out for the lead . . ." the announcements continued, the national anthem was played, and then the bell rang. Daniel gave her one final poke saying, "You're in for it now, dummy."
When the class had left the teacher picked up her purse. She stood in the doorway. "Coming?" Jessica slowly got up and joined her. She knew why she was being called to the office. By now everyone knew she'd spent the whole day yesterday sleeping outside. She'd have detention 'till she was twenty probably. And what would she say? What could she say?
The vice principal gave her a stern lecture on her repeated absences, most notably yesterday's, her quickly decreasing marks and, for a girl whose IQ was as high as it was there was no excuse, she should be ashamed of her performance, and finally the dreaded, we're calling your parents this evening.
She wanted to scream to them, No! Don't do that it's Friday night and her father had money, and he'd yell at her for sure. It was a mistake, it'd never happen again, oh please don't call my folks.
But she didn't. She simply listened, then, when the vice principal told her to go back to class, she stood up and fainted.
She spent the rest of the day in the nurse's office, her temperature taken periodically, the nurse asking her if her stomach felt queasy or if she had a headache. She did, both. So she remained in that cool white sanctuary the rest of the day until after the final bell rang, just to make sure no one would see her leaving the school.
She didn't want to go home. She just wanted to step out the door and walk far, far away; maybe to that river, maybe to Nathaniel even though she knew neither really existed. Thoughts of the river carried her home, until with heavy heart she turned the door handle.
The apartment was quiet; no one was home. Maybe the school would phone now! She could pretend to be her mommy if she lowered her voice and spoke carefully, she was sure she could do that. Failing that, and wiser still, she could unplug the phone. That was it! That's what she should do! So she did. That done, she heaved a sigh of relief.
She heard her father's footsteps and his key turn in the lock. He was whistling. That was good. It meant he was in a good mood and maybe he'd be himself tonight. She liked it when he was himself. He didn't yell, he'd even tell her jokes, and her mommy would sing as she made them their dinner.
"Jess! There's my girl." He set two paper bags down on the counter and went to her; he ruffled her hair and kissed the top of her head. "Have a good day sweetheart?"
He poured them each a glass of milk, pulled up a chair and sat. He patted the one next to him. "Tell me about it."
"I, uhm, there were these girls, the really pretty ones. I was walking behind and they yelled at me to stop following them. Then they called me a spy. But I wasn't spying daddy! I was just going to school . . ." She started to cry. "Then Daniel poked me and I spilled my pencils and everyone laughed at me cause I was crying and Steve wouldn't let me pick up my blue one and Daniel said I was a dummy!"
Her father pulled her to him, cradling her and stoking her back. "Don't listen to them, they're snots. And you know sweetie, it doesn't matter how old you are or if you're at school or working in an office, those people will be there. You have every right to feel hurt. What they did was pretty mean, wasn't it?" She nodded. "Well you just forget about them. You're better than they are and don't ever forget that. Just don't try to be like them to make they like you; it won't make you popular."
"But they already say I'm a snob!"
He laughed. She loved that deep rumble from deep down in his chest. "You? A snob? You're so shy you say sorry when you bump into a chair. Don't pay them no mind. They just don't know you is all. And that's their loss." He held her for a while longer, until her tears were dry then gently let her go. "You go have a shower then get changed. We're having Bill and Nancy over."
"Okay." She said, then finished her milk. Quietly she brought her glass to the sink, rinsed it and placed it on the counter.
"You're a good girl, you know that?"
She smiled weakly at him, nodding as she left the room. In the bathroom she locked the door behind her, got undressed and folded her clothes neatly on the toilet. She stood before the little mirror cabinet over the sink. If she stood on tiptoes she could see the reflection of her whole face. Her eyes were puffy from crying, her cheeks streaked with dried tears. She looked tired, and she was.
She studied her reflection. Her hair, thin and slightly curling at the ends was turning brown. She figured it would be the same colour as her mother's eventually. Her nose was wide with a bump in the middle; she hated it. She wished it was thin and straight with a slight upturn on the end like Cynthia's. Her eyes were a muddy blue; her mother called it hazel but she just thought they looked like they couldn't make up their minds between being blue or grey or green so they were all those colours. Her face was round; if she had any cheekbones, she couldn't find them. Her mom said all girls her age have round faces but she knew better. Look at Tiffany. She had nice cheeks.
The examination was getting depressing. She stared in her eyes one last time before pronouncing "Ick!" and standing down.
She spent longer in the shower than she'd intended, but the water felt good running down her back. She washed her hair twice for good measure, scrubbing well. She wanted to look pretty tonight, if such a thing were possible. Well, she'd be clean anyway. She liked Bill and Nancy. Suddenly, a vision of the phone ringing flashed through her mind, souring her pleasant thoughts. Please no, God, please don't let them phone my parents . . .
Wrapped in her towels, she picked up her clothes and dashed to the bedroom, wet feet slapping across the tiles. Her mommy was laughing; yes, tonight would be good. Sitting on her bed towelling her hair dry, she prayed. "Please God, don't let them phone. I did a bad thing unplugging the phone, but I'll put it back in before bed. They wouldn't phone after nine, would they? Nah." Maybe they weren't going to phone at all. Yah, that was it. They just said that to scare her. No way she'd fall asleep at school again, surely they knew that; no sir, she'd learned her lesson.
Dressed in her best blue jeans and her bright yellow shirt, her hair tied in ribbons at her ears, she was all set. She went out to the livingroom to say hi to her mommy and Kevin.
Kevin was gurgling on the floor, his floppy blue bunny clutched tightly in his tiny fists. Mommy was in her easychair, sipping a Molson's Ex; she wore the flowered dress Jessica liked so much - it made her think of spring. Daddy sat on the couch, nursing a beer too and watching the t.v. A cigarette burned unnoticed in the ashtray beside her mother, smoke tendrils curling up under the lampshade, up through the top. The news chattered off in the distance, slices of tragedy in thirty second clips.
Jessica sat on the floor, tickling Kevin's fat little belly. Laughing, he let go of his rabbit, his hands and feet pumping in the air. She picked up the bunny, waved it in front of his face. "See baby? This is Jones. Nice rabbit!" She handed it back to him.
The doorbell rang and Bill and Nancy joined them, bearing pizza and red wine. "Pizza!" Jessica cried, kissing them both.
With a coke and a steaming slice of pizza dripping cheese into her hands, the adults stream of conversation flowing in the background, Jessica thought, everything's alright now and 'cause they can't call, tonight's a good night. Everything's fine.
The t.v. shut off and music playing on the stereo, her father and Bill drinking rye and laughing, telling dirty jokes. Kevin had been fed and changed and was lying in his crib cooing. Jessica glanced at the VCR; the clock read 7:30. She was sure she was safe now. In two hours she'd kiss them all goodnight and plug in the phone. No one would be the wiser.
At a quarter to eight, Jessica was on the toilet, humming softly with the song on the stereo, when off in the distance she heard a phone ring. It gave a bit of start, then she thought, oh, it's just the neighbour's. It rang twice, three times. She heard feet running down the hall past the bathroom door and her heart froze. She'd forgotten the phone in the bedroom. She listened to her father's murmur; she couldn't make out what he was saying, but from the tone of his voice she knew who it was.
Her heart raced. What could she do? She was trapped. No window to sneak out of, but fortunately she'd remembered to lock the door. At least she could stay in here until she could decide what to do. She heard him bang the receiver down. She heard his footsteps pounding down the hallway; she let out her breath when he passed by the door.
Her daddy was mad. She knew it. She could tell from the way he banged the cupboard door shut; she could tell from the way he slammed his glass on the counter; she could tell by the way he thumped the bottle down on the table. She heard the sound of his voice and then the hush that comes when the conversation dies. All that remained was the sound of the record on the stereo and that too was halted with the scrape of a needle across vinyl. Then all that was left was the sound of her brother's mindless babbling and her heartbeat drumming in her ears.
Breathless moments she waited until finally she knew what she had to do. She flushed the toilet, washed her hands. Then she took a deep breath, quietly opened the door, ran to her room. She wasn't quick enough.
"Jessica! Get your butt in here, RIGHT NOW." She did. The walk to the livingroom was the longest walk of her life and the shortest. She noticed the brown spoons printed on the kitchen wallpaper; the handtowel draped across a chair, even the drip of the tap in the sink. She noticed her mommy, one hand covering her eyes and she knew tonight they'd both be crying; she saw Bill and Nancy, faces white and staring at the floor. And her father, standing by the stereo, hands clenched into fists, knuckles white, face flushed to the tips of his ears.
She started to kneel on the floor by her mother when her father, his voice even and hard said, "You'll come here, little lady, that's it, you stand right there. Do you know who was on the phone just now? Do you?" She shook her head.
"Oh yes you do! That was your goddamned vice principal! At eight o'clock on a frigging friday night. And do you know why?"
She stared at the carpet, saying nothing. When he was like this, there was nothing she could say to make it better.
"You not going to talk to me? Are you? Look at me. LOOK AT ME! Little bitch . . ." Her mommy tried to hush him but there was no stopping him now. "Shut up. I'm talking to your daughter . . ." On and on he went until she lost track of the time or number of tears that fell down her cheeks, or the number of times Bill told him to cut it out she's only a kid for chrissakes ease up won't you . . .Nancy took her arm and led her to the bedroom.
The music came back on eventually and the conversation returned, though much more subdued. She got undressed and sat in her nightie on the corner of the bed. She had to brush her teeth but she was afraid she'd meet someone in the hall and she didn't want to show her face to anyone ever again. Finally, thirsty and worn from crying, she built up her resolve and ran to the bathroom; behind the locked door she performed her ablutions, then raced back to her bedroom.
Lying in bed, moonlight splashing across her floor she wished she had a lock on the door. She wished she wouldn't have to wake up in the morning to face it all again, she wished she didn't have to wake up again, ever. No prayers were said that night. God had let her down.
"Jessica, Jessica, come to me dear little Jessica, Queen of my heart, where is my sweet Jessica?" Nathaniel's voice sang down from the trees. Here by the river she couldn't see him, but she could hear his song, his beautiful boy's soprano voice. She knew he would find her, this was his place after all and all she had to do was wait.
The day's events weighed heavily on her soul; even here in her dream. She didn't feel much like company, didn't want to tell him her tale and yet, for the price of a hug in his arms she would. Boys are mean hair-pulling, rock-throwing creatures, but not her Nathaniel. He was like no boy she knew. He was her friend. Her friend. Maybe God hadn't really let her down after all.
Laughter like the tinkle of chimes in the wind he was behind her then sitting beside her, holding her hand. She started to say something when he shushed her and said, "I know. Jessica, I know all about you." And laughed again, this time her laughter joined his 'cause he did know all about her and he still liked her just the same!
"Nathaniel, this place is so pretty and warm; you're such a good friend. You know, I wish I could stay here forever."
He slipped an arm across her shoulders. "Who says you can't? You can do anything you want."
"But this is a dream, you, the river, I'm going to wake up in the morning and I know I'm in trouble for sure. On Monday I'll have to go to school and they'll call me Rip Van Twit again. I can't even walk behind Cindy and Tiffany and Cheryl if they're in front of me. What am I going to do? How I wish I could just run away."
"Why don't you?"
"I can't do that! I'm not even ten years old. Where would I go?"
"Join me. Stay here. You don't have to go."
"I don't understand."
"You don't have to!" He giggled and they were on a boat on the river, floating far far away from the shore. Soon there was no sight of land at all, just endless water, porpoises leaping beside them.
As the sun faded down in the water and stars danced in the sky, she looked at her friend's face; who was he, really? Where are they? "Where are we going Nathaniel?" She asked him.
"To the land beyond dreams and the place before time."
She liked the sound of that. It seemed, well, free. The moon was big and bright in the sky; her mommy calls that a harvest moon. Nathaniel was singing to her in his beautiful crystal-clear way; soon, her eyelids were drooping, and funny thing if she wasn't falling asleep in her dream! That's really neat. She'd have to tell mommy about this one for sure.
The rocking of the boat lulled her so she lay down on floor; there was a soft blanket nearby so she wrapped it around her and the while Nathaniel serenaded her, not caring that she was falling asleep.
In the morning she awoke, but she wasn't where she thought she would be. No, she was in room with big windows and satin curtains; she lay on a bed that was covered with a down-filled quilt. She was hungry but she thought she couldn't be because this must still be her dream after all. Mommy says dreams can be strange and time means nothing at all. She's right.
But dream or not, she had to pee. She cautiously put on foot on the floor, then the other. The floor was made of stone, and chilly on her toes. Where were her shoes? She noticed some slippers, just her size, by the bed; there was a velvet blue robe draped over a chair by the door. Very thoughtful of Nathaniel. She'd had to thank him next time she saw him. Where was he?
Walked across the room, put on her robe, and opened the door. There was another door just down the hall. She assumed that had to be the bathroom, and she was right. When she walked in, she noticed there was a big bathtub with feet made to look like claws and the bathtub was filled to the brim with steaming water and soap bubbles. She just knew it was for her, so, after she went to the toilet and brushed her teeth, she climbed in.
How warm the water was, how soft! In real life there couldn't possibly be a bathtub like this, so she lay back, savouring the feeling. Soon though, her fingers and toes began to look like little prunes and she knew it was time to get out. Sadly, she towelled herself off and went back to her room to get dressed.
Her bed was made, her clothes freshly laundered and laid carefully atop. She dressed, then walked down the hall, searching for Nathaniel. She found him in a dining room where a table was laden with food; there were eggs of every kind, and bacon, and sausages, fruit, cereal, toast, oh, just everything! There were fresh flowers in crystal vases and the sun beamed brightly through the windows. To see her, Nathaniel laughed and said, "Your eyes are the size of teacups! Come, sit down. Aren't you hungry?"
She was, so she did, and she ate so much her stomach hurt. She'd never tasted food so good; nothing was burnt, or old and stale. When she was finished he asked her, what would you like to do today?
She didn't know, because she didn't know where she was. So he took her to zoo that was full of strange animals, some of them even could talk! Her took her to an amusement park where they spun around and around on the rides until she was dizzy and asked to stop; they held hands and picnicked on the grass, giggling together and telling stories. She liked this place, this dream so much so began to wish that it would never end. When she thought that he said, "Oh but sweet Jessica, it never has to! You stay as long as you like, forever and ever, I'll always be here. Think of it, no school or parents or crying baby brother, none of that's here."
It seemed pretty nice to her, after all, this was only a dream. And she wanted the dream to last a long time, to make up for the horrible friday she'd had. Her dream lasted for days and days; it was always the same: Nathaniel, the bathtub, the river, the park; whatever her heart desired. Finally she noticed that, however much fun it was, they were the only two in her dream. Somebody must be making her bed, and cooking their meals, but she never saw them. It was always only the two.
And soon she began to lonely for her brother, and her mommy and daddy; she even began to miss school. The kids may be nasty, but she liked her lessons and her storybooks. At last she told Nathaniel, "I think it's time to go home. I've had a good time, and I'd like to play with you again, but I miss my family. Please, can I go?"
At first he seemed mad, then he started to cry. "You can't go! You mustn't!"
"But you said I could, any time I wanted, that's what you said." She replied.
"Please Jessica, stay here with me. I get so lonely sometimes. You're my friend. You are my friend, aren't you? You won't leave me here all alone?"
"I don't belong here, Nathaniel. If I could take you back . . .That's it. Why don't you come back with me?"
He hung his head down and started to cry. "I can't."
"Because. You see, once I was very sad, my uncle beat me, he was always mean. I prayed to God that he would take me somewhere special, somewhere all my own where I could play and be happy. Then one day he did, he took me here. It was a long, long time ago. Before you were born, I think. But I got lonely so I prayed he would send me someone to play with. And you came along! But you were only visiting, and I knew you could stay, if only you asked. Please, will you stay? Ask him, will you, for me?"
She thought for a moment, and she wanted to cry to think of her poor Nathaniel spending all of time in this beautiful place all alone. But her mommy would be sad if she didn't go back, and she really did miss them all. She lifted his chin, and softly kissed him on the lips. "No, Nathaniel, I must go home."
"Then will you come back and play sometime? All you have to do is ask."
"I don't think so, Nathaniel." She took one long last look at his face, once so happy, now just a sad little boy. "Goodbye."
She opened her eyes. The light was so bright she could barely see; in her peripheral vision her mother was seated in a chair beside her bed. Everything was white, so very white. And it smelled here. Like medicine, and like sickness. She coughed. "Mommy?"
"Oh sweetheart, here I am, it's alright, mommy's here. You're in the hospital. You got pretty sick; that's what happens if you fall asleep outside in November, my silly girl. But mommy's here and everything's going to be fine."
"Are you still mad at me?"
"Mad at you? No. I was never mad at you, and daddy, well you know how he gets. You just have to understand he gets like that sometimes. Don't take it to heart, he doesn't mean it you know."
"I know." And mommy kissed her softly on the cheek, wiping damp hair from her brow.
Jessica liked to think she did well for herself in this world, thought the road had never been easy. She lived alone in a small apartment with plants and a kitten called Moe. Her father was gone now, Lord only knew where; she hadn't talked to him for at least two years. He came in and out of her life like the tides, he'd be round again she was sure.
Her mother remarried after their divorce; she was seventeen and in university - she skipped the sixth grade. Kevin was in high school now and a swaggering teen; he didn't talk about their dad, or life when he was small. He probably didn't remember too much. Well, maybe some things, but not a lot.
Sometimes, when Jessica was lonely or sad, she'd say a small prayer, the same one she'd had since she was a girl. She couldn't remember when, if ever, she'd gone to church, but that didn't matter. It was only the sound of her voice in the darkness that made her feel better, that was all. And sometimes she'd dream that a man was calling, calling her name saying do you remember? Do you remember at all?
5/8/90 cm harris davies