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10 Things I Can See From Here

Stupid Things People Say

You are not your anxiety.

Don’t worry your pretty little head.

It doesn’t matter.

Don’t exaggerate.

Why get upset about something so small?

Just put it out of your mind.

All good things. All good things.

Ignore it.

Let go and let God.

Think positive.

Move on.

Get back on the horse.

What’s the matter, honey?

If you visualize good things, good things will happen.

Manifest destiny, Maeve. Make it happen.

You be the master of your life. Take charge!

Don’t underestimate the power of positive thinking.

Keep calm and carry on.

Don’t worry; be happy.

What is there to worry about?

All the things.

Being Hit by a Train

I could easily admit that it was nicer and faster to take the train from Seattle to Vancouver. But the last time I took the train, a woman threw herself in front of it just outside Everett. None of us had any idea what was happening while the train dragged the woman along until it finally screeched to a stop, spreading out her brains and entrails along the tracks. Which I knew because I researched these things. Her name was Carol Epperly. Thirty-­six years old. Mother of two. Struggled with depression. No kidding. I read her obituary (of course), and it sounded like someone really angry wrote it. I’m guessing it was her husband, and if so, he was pissed. His name was Doug. He had a lawn-­mower repair shop in Everett. She struggled against the depression, but clearly not hard enough. That’s what it said. And at the end: Never mind a charity; please consider donating to a fund for the boys, who will only know life without their mother from now on.

I would not be taking the train again anytime soon. That one moment was all I talked about with my therapist for almost three months straight. Nancy actually told me that it was time to move on. She had never said that before. That was like admitting defeat. That was like saying I had stumped her. She had never once offered a platitude before that.

So I took the bus, which I’d taken often enough to admit that it wasn’t the worst thing, even if it was slower. Mom drove me from Port Townsend to Seattle. I started crying before the stop sign at the bottom of our road.

“Oh, Maeve, sweetheart.” She drove with her hand on my knee. “It will be okay. I know it.”

There wasn’t anything for me to say. I’d already said everything. So I cried. The mountain of tissues in my lap grew tall and teetering. I was still crying as Mom looked for a parking spot at the bus station.

I cried while she bought my ticket. I cried and cried and cried when it was time to go.

“I love you,” Mom said.

“I love you.” But I didn’t say goodbye, and neither did she. We never said goodbye when I went to Dad’s. It was our superstition. Or mine, and she just played along. No goodbyes. Especially this time.

Nancy had told me that I should take the train again so that I would realize that people don’t throw themselves in front of trains all that often. This is your horse, Nancy said. Get back on it, Maeve. Besides, Nancy told me, it was far more likely that my bus would get into a terrible crash than that another person would commit suicide by train. Which was not helpful in the least. But I just couldn’t do it. I just could not get back on the train. Not yet. Not after Carol Epperly.

You could always walk, Dad had said. Which would be kind of epic. It could be a whole coming-­of-­age spiritual experience happening right along the I-­5. Imagine that.

I didn’t want to do the train, or the bus, or walk. And there was no excuse to fly, considering how close it was, for one thing, and the litany of possible air disasters, for an­other. I just wanted to stay home. But that was not an option either. You’re too nervous, Mom said. Imagine being alone at night. You’d just sit there trembling and anxious, which you do even when I’m home. And it was true. I worried and worried and worried until I was sick. But she was going to Haiti, so I was going to Dad’s. For six months.

The wait at the border took extra long because some guy didn’t have the right papers, and they took him into a room and questioned him for half an hour while the rest of the passengers just stood around wondering what the hell was going on and I chewed my nails and thought too hard. Were they interrogating him? Was he a terrorist? Or wanted by the FBI?

He looked pretty sheepish when he came out. Everybody else looked royally annoyed. Not me, though. I’d made the mistake of surfing the internet to distract myself from the potential serial killer in the little room, and because I couldn’t help myself, I’d looked up Greyhound bus deaths.

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Red Twilight


June 26


I am cradling Pete’s head in my lap, sitting by the tent flap, looking out. Wildfires are closing in from the west and the south, with smoke so thick it’s like a bank of fog across the whole sky, turning the sun, that is just about to slip behind the mountain, into a blood-orange ball. In this strange twilight, everything looks like it’s been washed in thin blue shadows. Even Pete. He looked so red in the daylight, because of the fever, but also because of the orange nylon of the tent he has not been out of since yesterday. The air in here smells like sour milk and the rankest body odor you can imagine. Not Pete’s regular body odor, which I once described to him as skunk cabbage and cinnamon stew, with a dollop of sour cream past its best-by date on top. Call me weird, but I never minded it. But this is different. Not quite like how Gigi smelled with the lung cancer chewing her up from the inside out, but similar. Dangerously sour. Uniquely foul. Scary, if a smell can actually make you afraid.

I close my eyes and will something beautiful to take over, something to make this moment simple and quiet and dim and safe. Gigi, her hair in rollers, sitting on the back porch in her sateen dressing gown with the peacocks on it, painting her nails while I shuck a bowl of Dad’s peas, sweet and plump. The sun just about setting, and Gigi telling me why she thinks Robert Redford is the man she should’ve married. My mom playing the piano inside. Pete climbing that slant of rock a few days ago, and me, with my bare feet on the hot dirt, looking up at him and the blue sky beyond. That was the last time we saw blue sky. He let go with his right hand and reached up. I wish I’d taken a picture of that one moment, when he looked like he was about to scoop up a handful of sky and drink it. I don’t need more pictures of the two of us, like the ones we did take. I need pictures of him. Just Pete.


It’s almost dark enough to use my headlamp, but I’m not going to waste the battery. Outside the flap, I watch the moon rising so slowly.

“It looks like a werewolf movie just before the transformation,” I say. “What’s that one Gigi loved?” I know what it is, but I hope he’ll say it. Or say anything. He hasn’t said a word for too many hours to think about. I give him what feels like the longest time to think of it and say it, but he doesn’t. “American Werewolf in London,” I say. “That’s the one.”

He nods, a tiny smile on his lips.

“She was definitely not a movie snob,” I say with a little laugh. “Remember when she took us to see Children of the Corn that Halloween? How old were we? Way too young. That scene right at the beginning in Hanzer’s Coffee Shop, when the kids poison the coffee and then murder all the adults? They stick that one guy’s hand in the meat slicer? We were only eleven.”

He shakes his head and barely lifts both hands, fingers splayed.

“Ten?” Right. Just a few months after his mom died. “Way too soon, right?”

He nods.

“She knew it,” I say. “Or else she wouldn’t have told us not to tell the dads.”


I wish we were actually having a conversation about Gigi’s obsession with Hollywood, and not here wondering if the fires are going to close in on us. Like this tent, which is closing in on us.

We bought this tent after almost a year of walking dogs, when we were fourteen. It weighs only as much as three blocks of butter, but we can sit up in it and play cards and drink cheap powdered hot chocolate we buy in bulk at Thrifty Mart. It’s a very, very tight fit, especially considering that Pete grew three inches after we bought it. Gigi said that he grew three inches the day after we bought it, but the truth is that we bought it on Black Friday, and then we didn’t use it until spring break, so I guess no one should’ve been surprised, considering Pete was as tall as his dad by the time we were thirteen. That’s when Gigi put a mark above all the others on the doorway where my dad has been tracking our heights. She used permanent marker and wrote the date of his sixteenth birthday. Her prediction, she said. She was absolutely right.

Right now this tent feels like a coffin.

We have to get out.

“American Werewolf in London was a bad one to bring up,” I say. “Sorry.” Best friends backpacking, attacked by a pack of wolves. One is mauled to death, one becomes a werewolf.

“You be the werewolf,” Pete murmurs.

“Pete!” I hold his cheeks in my hands. “Hi!”

He opens his eye just for a few seconds, and I really get to see him, because otherwise he doesn’t look like himself. His forehead is slick with sweat, and his puffy cheeks are red and shiny with oil. I can’t look at his nose, or lips, or ears, which are black at the tips and getting worse. Look at his necklace instead, Annie. An instant of panic sends my fingers to find the matching one around my neck. It’s still there, thankfully. If I lose mine, or he loses his, things will only get worse. This is very hard to imagine. We need all the serendipity, magic, and luck we can muster. God too, if it’s a believing sort of day. I touch his necklace with one hand and mine with the other.

I believe in the talismans that I keep in a bulging Altoids tin, so many tiny pieces of the planet that Pete and I have found. I believe that if Pete has them, everything might end up better than if he didn’t have them. Not to say that I think they will fix this. I just know that they won’t make it any worse. I lift the top of his sleeping bag, trying to see where the tin ended up after I tucked it in there just a few hours ago.

A wave of rotten air rushes out, and I have to stifle a gag. I don’t see the tin.

Pete lifts a hand to show me that he has it, bulging with luck and good fortune and all things wishes-come-true. There is so much good luck in there that I am absolutely certain something, something, something good is going to happen. A plane overhead. A fire crew within earshot of the whistle I sound as often as I think to. Enough rest and water and PowerGels that Pete gets strong enough to walk out of here, orI develop the superhuman strength that moms get when they have to lift a car off their child with their own bare hands. I need that strength, to carry Pete out of here on my own.

“Show me,” Pete says as he hands me the tin.

I pull off the elastic band that keeps it from popping open because it’s so full. That’s how much good luck is in there.

Inside, on top, a small, clear, perfectly faceted crystal. I hold it up to the light. It seems impossible that it came out of the earth, and we found it just days ago, when nothing was wrong yet. When we were digging in the dirt like two little kids, putting our treasures into plastic beach buckets.

“Where did you get that?” he says.

“You know, Pete.”

“Tell me, though.” His words are thick and slow. “Each one. Story.”

We’ve been through the tin twice.

The last time was only an hour ago, when the sun was still high but slanting toward the end of the day.


Pete’s wearing his favorite shirt, soft and thin, dark blue with a silver unicorn leaping over a silver mountain, with a silver moon overhead. It is caked in vomit, though, and so wet with sweat that I could wring it out. His body is trying to fix this, and for days I had absolute faith that it would, but now I’m restless with dread. I can’t leave him, and I can’t stay. If I go, he’ll be alone. If I stay, there will be no help. I have rocks spelling “SOS” by the creek, in the clearing. I was sure that one of the water bombers would’ve seen it by now. That was my Big Plan, and it hasn’t worked. Neither did setting signal fires. A triangle of three, which means “help.” But no surprise that one more little fire gets ignored when half the state is on fire.

Right now I’ll take him outside. He can get some fresh air--smoky, yes, but better than the heady air in the tent. He can feel the breeze on his wet face, let his sweaty and impossibly swollen, red body feel the world outside this tent, even if it’s burning to the ground out there. And maybe I can think just a little bit better.

“Let’s go outside,” I say. “Get some air. Do us both good.”

He nods.

“I hate it in here,” he whispers in a slur. “Like a coffin.”

“Let’s get you out, then.” I close up the tin without the band and give it back to him. “Hold that for a sec.”

He nods again, fingers tightening around it.

“I’m going to slide you,” I say. “Fast or slow?”


“Good choice.” I ease his head off my lap and onto the makeshift pillow of clothes folded into his hoodie. I shift him over so he’s centered on the sleeping mat. He’s lying on his thin quick-dry towel, and I am so grateful that we decided to bring those; otherwise, he’d be sticking to the foam because it’s been too hot even to lie on the sleeping bag, and he can’t stand anything on him, because the lightest touch hurts. He grunts a little, but I keep working. I clear the things away from the door of the tent. Our headlamps, the pot and pocket stove, the Uno cards we haven’t touched for a couple of days.

“Outside will help so much, Pete. I saw a few bats last night. And an owl. You can really hear them in this valley. Maybe we’ll even hear some wolves, which would be awesome, so long as they stay way the hell away from us. Maybe coyotes instead. Yeah, that’d be better. Just little scrawny coyotes yipping.”

He grunts.

“Hang on,” I say as I take hold of the foot of his sleeping bag. I shimmy him down to the vestibule as gently as I can. This is not fresh air at all, but it’s better than being in the tent. I stand up, my muscles aching from having sat on the hard ground for so long, my legs so wobbly that I have to take an extra few seconds to get solid footing before I use my feet to clear a path through the pebbles and pinecones and sticks. Don’t stop, Annie. This is doing something. I turn back to the tent and see that Pete is moving.

“Stay still, dumb-ass,” I say. “Give me a sec. I’m going to pull you all the way out, but not over a bunch of rocks.”

But then I realize that he’s having a seizure. Not a huge one like you see in movies, but as if someone turned the dial down on one like that. Without thinking, I reach in and grab the foam mat and yank him out in one incredible pull. Three steps and he’s clear of the tent. He is a foot taller and fifty pounds heavier than me, but he feels as light as a little kid. I grab his shoulder and far knee and pull him onto his side, like the home nurse showed me to do with Gigi when she started to have trouble swallowing but was still eating mashed everything.

“Stop it, Pete.” I hold him from tipping right over, his entire body stiff and shaking, his legs kicking at nothing, his eyes wide open and staring at me without seeing me at all. “Stop it.”

I should’ve been counting.

“Stop it, Pete! Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!”

How long has this been happening? What about when I wasn’t looking? Is this it? Is he dying? Right now?

I lift my eyes up and whisper to the god that I don’t believe in but wish I did.

“Please make him okay. Please, please make him better. Please tell me what to do.”

When he is finally still, he doesn’t say anything. He just breathes, shallow and fast. I squat beside him and watch him for a long time, waiting for another seizure. When my knees buckle, I lie down beside him, my head on my arm, the cool dirt and pebbles under me. He’s better now. I can close my eyes for just a second, like an amen.

I am sure that I don’t sleep, but it is so much darker when I open my eyes that I know I must’ve dozed off, my arms around him. Something is different on the horizon, along the ridge of low-slung mountains to the west, where the sun is just disappearing. It’s like it’s actually touching down on the forest, because there is a gossamer thread of rippling orange flames, the air above it giving up and melting into a watery wash of heat.

Pete is asleep. This is good.

The little tin full of good luck and good fortune and hope and beautiful things and tiny treasures lies open on the ground, the talismans scattered on the dirt.

I lean forward, about to let go of Pete to collect all the shiny bits of hope from the hot, dry forest floor, where they are lost under pine needles and debris. I squint, and realize that I can see only some of them in the hazy moonlight. If I want to go get them, I have to let go of Pete. I can’t do that.

My talismans are still good luck, I tell myself. Even if they are scattered on the dirt in the wilderness. They are my good luck, and so I get to say that they can still be good luck if they’re lost.

But I don’t really believe that they are lucky anymore, because this has been the unluckiest time of all.

This might even be the way that we actually die, with no one left behind to write the tragic event in the Notebook of Doom. When we get home, I will write ten pages about this. At least.

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Chaotic Good




The girl section.



“Your boyfriend won’t like that one.” He smiles at me through his patchy, barely grown-in beard, leaning against the wall of shelved comic books. I hang my head. This is exactly what I was afraid of. I knew I shouldn’t have come here. I knew I wouldn’t be welcome. With a jerk of his neck, he flicks his greasy brown bangs out of his eyes. He looks me over, his arms folded tightly in front of his puffed-out chest. He hovers close by, waiting for my response, dying for me to acknowledge him, not taking silence for an answer. His name spelled out inside a bat-signal pin: brody.


“I’m sorry, what?” I ask, not daring to look directly at his face. I knew better; I knew better and I came into the shop anyway. I read the reviews online: five stars from the guys, two stars from the girls. I don’t need his advice; I don’t need a debate. Right now I need inspiration. And this guy’s killin’ my vibe.


“It’s super girly. He probably won’t like it. When’s his birthday?”


“I--I don’t have a boyfriend. It’s, you know, for me.” Dingbat. My fingers squeak against the cover of the latest The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, holding on tight. I’m kicking myself for painting my nails sparkly pink and curling the rat’s nest out of my hair this morning. I brace myself for what’s coming next. All I wanted was a few new cosplay ideas without having to pass the geek-girl quiz.


“Oh! No wonder!” Brody laughs, and his expression softens. “You should check out the girl section.”


“The .?.?. girl section?” I scowl, feeling my dark brown eyes turn black.


“No worries, tiger. You’ll love it.” He ushers me, hand on my back, toward one narrow shelf in the corner. I step away from his touch as soon as I can, but I can still feel his phantom palm resting there. The shelf is in disarray, with a few pastel-covered graphic novels and some very kawaii manga.


“Here you go,” he lilts, eyes lighting up his pallid face. “All your comics lined up just for you. That way you don’t need to get lost in the big-boy stuff.” Another patron snorts from the board game section. This is humiliating. I’m trying not to flush, not to show a reaction. I can’t let him know he’s getting to me, but I don’t think it’s working. What year am I in? What kind of backwater wasteland is this? I swallow hard.


“Welp, I am a big boy, so, if you don’t mind.” I sidestep him on my way out of the “girl section.” I try to stomp my feet as I go, but I’m wearing ballet flats, so I hardly make a sound. Brody’s black leather boots echo through the shop as he follows me. Why is he following me? Leave me alone.


“Big boy in a pink dress, huh?” Why, oh why, did I wear the doughnut dress today?


“Yep.” I try to sound preoccupied as I flip through an old issue of X-Men, looking for Jubilee. I’ve been dying to replicate that yellow coat of hers.


“So you like X-Men?” Brody stands over me, reeking of arrogance and body spray.




“Gen X, First Class, ’92? What’re we talkin’ here?” He combs through the comics, pretending to help. I don’t want to answer him, but the way he reaches over my head is a little intimidating. Maybe if I answer, he’ll leave me alone.


“Whichever one Jubilee is in.”


“Jubilee? Jesus.” He pinches the bridge of his nose and winces.


“Jubilee is awesome.”


“Jubes is the worst X-Men of all time. The worst. Worse than Dazzler.”


“Who?” Crap. And with that one little word, I know I’ve screwed up. One little word out of my big mouth and I’ve sealed my fate. Again. Why should it matter if I know who Dazzler is? How am I supposed to learn without buying the comics first? I pivot over to the next shelf and cough, hoping he didn’t hear me.


“I knew it! I knew you didn’t know anything about X-Men. What are you really looking for? Attention? A boyfriend?”


“I’m looking for comics!” I snap at him. My black hair flies in front of my face. I brush it away. I try to channel Liv, who would know exactly what to say. She would put him in his place. “Is my girl cash not worth as much as your boy bucks?” I feel myself shrinking; he laughs at me while I try to remove the gold ballet flat from my stupid mouth. “Who said I have to be an expert to like something, or to shop here?” I wave the comics in his grinning face, trying to distract from the awkwardness. I’m a thousand percent done. I wish I were She-Hulk. I’d have smashed him and the entire “girl section” to bits by now.


“You don’t have to get all snippy. Just hoping you can explain,” he starts, “why you’re buying comics if you don’t even read them.” Brody doesn’t get angry. He doesn’t even look annoyed. He talks to me like I’m six years old. Like he knows better. He doesn’t.


“Excuse you--I read comics. I love comics,” I say under my breath. I’m scared to raise my voice despite how angry I am. From now on I’ll be doing all my shopping online, that’s for sure.


“But you don’t even know who--”


“I know enough. Okay?” I snap. “I know all their costumes by heart, and one day I’ll be making--”


“Costumes?! That’s what you’re into, their outfits? Oh God .?.?. you’re not one of those cosplay chicks, are you?” Brody reels back, face scrunched up as if he caught a whiff of something more rotten than his body spray. He looks me over again from my shoes to my shoulders, not bothering to look me in the eyes, disgusted. Every second I stand here is excruciating. I wish I had never come in. I should have waited to go back to Portland. I should have saved up to buy an iPad so I’d never have to leave the house to buy a comic again. I can’t bring myself to say anything else. There’s nothing I can actually say. Nothing that would make a difference. I’m ready to run--screw inspiration--when the staff door bangs open. Another employee stands in the doorway, balancing six boxes in his dark brown arms. Great, now he’s got backup.


“Ayo, Brody! New Dark Horse shipment came in,” he says, nodding toward the back room. Brody takes his cue and leaves us with one last laugh.


“Come on, I’ll ring you up.” I follow without questioning, keeping my eyes focused on his red Vans and rolled-up cuffs.


“Oh! Nice choice. Let’s kick some butts and eat some nuts!” he chants while typing into the staff computer. I nearly choke on the spearmint gum I’m chewing.




“You’ll see.” He smiles. He’s younger than Brody, with a short golden-bleached Afro. His name tag only says why. “It’s one of my faves.”


“Yeah? You shop in the girl section?” I growl back at him under my breath. Just ring me up so I can get out of here. The attention is getting to me. I start peeling the polish off my nails; the glittery flakes fall to the ground.


“Ugh. He brought that up? I’ve been trying to talk him out of that girl section since I started here--it’s hella annoying.” Embarrassed, Why pushes his red frames up onto the bridge of his nose. The lenses are covered in so many fingerprints and smudges I’m surprised he can see me at all.




“No, really. I know it’s stupid, right? But his uncle owns the shop. Brody pretty much acts like he runs the place.”


“Good for him.” I hand Why my debit card, no receipt, and rush to the door.


“Hey, wait! Do you want to enter a raffle? It’s for--”


“No thanks!” I cut him off, and get the hell out of there.




Atomix Comix is the only decent place left to buy comics in Eugene after Vanishing Planet vanished. Apparently, they went under without the extra income from selling board games, toys, and knickknacks. I never even got a chance to shop there. Now I’m stuck buying comics from grody Brody and the He-Man Woman-Haters Club.


I squint into the summer sun. The main drag is all washed out and white as my eyes adjust to the light. I try not to think about Liv getting to work at Books with Pictures this summer. How she’d never have her comics-cred questioned because she works behind the counter. Liv gets to be on the inside. I wonder if she kept the Lightning cosplay I made her. After all, it was her idea to dress as Final Fantasy characters. And yeah, I don’t know who any of them are, but I liked the designs. I had no idea I was going to get called out. Not like that, anyway.


I need thread. I need buttons. Hot glue. Sequins. Armature wire. A new thimble for my ever-growing collection. I list out all the things I’ll buy at the craft store to soothe my sore ego. I wish it were a longer walk; I don’t want to taint the one place I like in this town with the bad vibes from down the street. The bells on the door at Kozy Corner jingle quietly as I step into the shop. The air is heady with the smell of dust and fake flowers.


I’m home. I pace the aisles, tracing my fingers along stacks of folded fabric. My mind races through the possibilities. This vinyl could be Black Canary’s corset, and that intricate weblike brocade could be the lining for Spider-Gwen’s hood.


And then I spot it. A summer-night-blue fabric, a blue the deepest depths of the oceans, an almost-black blue that practically glows under the shine of the fluorescent lights overhead. This bolt of midnight-blue satin calls to me, crammed in the wrong spot between some yellow and green felt.


“Who put you here?” I ask the satin as I pull it out. I feel like fainting from just the sight of its cerulean perfection. I want to spray it with bleach and create a pattern of nebulas and galaxies. Hand-paint in stars, wire it up using fiber-optic strands so it twinkles, and, damn, what a gown it would be.


I would wear it to the premiere of my first summer blockbuster. And everyone would know that’s Cameron Birch; she’s the girl who designed the costumes. I fabricated them too, but I forgive their ignorance this time because I’m too busy posing with Chris Pratt for the press. I’ll buy five yards of it.


“Don’t you just look lovely today?” Dotty with the lilac-gray hair sighs as she rings me up.


“Thanks.” I hope when I’m her age, great-grandma age, I look as cool as Dotty. She dresses sharp, severe. Slick black capes and pounds of pearls and baubles. I’ve never seen her wear the same pair of earrings twice.


“All pink and poofy and perfect.” She kisses her thumb, her own personal gesture of approval.




“What’s wrong? You’ve got a face like a wet weekend.” She folds the satin carefully before slipping it into the plastic bag.


“Maybe too pink,” I tell her as she swipes my debit card. I look over my pink doughnut-printed dress, the one I spent last weekend sewing after a serious bout of homesickness. I never liked the doughnuts at Voodoo Doughnut, but I loved seeing tourists with their pink boxes. I even sewed on little beads that look like sprinkles. Now I wish I had made something more normal. Maybe I should just start buying clothes at the mall again.


“No such thing as too pink.” Dotty hands me my fabric while the printer screeches out my receipt.


“Thanks, Dot. See you round, I’m sure.”

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Bad Dog

Bad Dog

also available: Hardcover
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The Dragon Thief

The word whistles through the air and pricks the back of my neck. I turn to find Aunty’s black eyes fixed on me. She was snoring loudly when I crept into her room just a moment ago. That gave me the courage to pull a chair over to the mountain of boxes and stuffed plastic bags she keeps in the corner. At the very top of the mound of junk is a wire birdcage that’s shaped sort of like the Taj Mahal. I need it--and I need it now.
I inch up on my tippy-toes and reach for the birdcage. My other hand sinks into the soft, squishy contents of a yellow plastic bag that’s wedged between two boxes. I don’t know what’s inside the bag, and I don’t care. Mummy would never let me keep my room like this, but no one ever criticizes Aunty--Papa won’t allow it. She’s the oldest person in our family and spends almost every day buried under the heavy, colorful quilt that covers her bed. Sometimes she hums to herself and stares out the window. Other times she watches game shows on the little black-and-white TV that sits next to her bed. Now I see her pointing a wrinkled brown finger at me.
She says it louder this time. I feel my cheeks burn with shame.
“No, Aunty--I--I . . .” By pressing my hand deeper into the squishy plastic bag, I manage to steady myself and turn all the way around to face her. “I just need to borrow-- Whoa!”
I was so close to reaching my prize, but then I lose my balance. I fall off the chair, bounce off the foot of the bed, and land on the floor with a thud. My fall brings down an avalanche of boxes, and so I cover my head with my hands. When I open my eyes, the empty birdcage is rolling on its side next to me.
“Tut-tut-tut.” Aunty makes the strange sound without opening her mouth. “What a mess you’ve made.”
“Aunty? Is everything all right?”
My eyes open wide. If Mummy comes upstairs, she’ll want to know why I’m in Aunty’s room. And if I tell her the truth, she’ll want to know why I need an old birdcage. I can’t tell her that there’s a dragon in my bedroom. I can’t tell anyone that I’m a dragon thief!
Aunty watches me with a slight smile on her face. Against her dark skin, her black eyes sparkle with amusement. I don’t think she’s angry with me, so I decide to plead for help.
“Please don’t tell on me, Aunty! I’ll clean everything up--I promise.”
We both know Mummy’s standing at the foot of the stairs. Her hand is probably on the railing, and she’s wondering whether she needs to come upstairs to check on Aunty. My heart is pounding fast and hard, but I don’t yet hear Mummy’s slippered feet climbing the stairs. “Please, Aunty,” I whisper.
Aunty clears her throat and calls, “I’m fine, dear. I just knocked over some boxes. Kavita’s here to help me.”
We wait, frozen and silent, until we hear Mummy’s voice floating upstairs. “Okay, Aunty. I’ll be up soon with your lunch.”
Because she’s an elder, Aunty doesn’t have to do much around the house. She really only leaves her room to use the toilet and take two-hour baths. Aunty doesn’t even come downstairs to eat with us unless we have company over on special occasions. Mummy brings Aunty’s meals up on a tray. I scan the messy room for a clock and find one on the nightstand next to the bed. It’s a square digital clock that Vik and I gave to Aunty last Christmas. Its giant blue display reads 11:38.
I hop to my feet and scramble to pick up all the things I’ve just knocked down. Aunty waves her hand at me and says, “Leave it, child. It makes no difference to me whether they are up against the wall or on the floor. What is it you came to borrow?”
I feel guilty, so I set the chair back on its legs and stack a couple of boxes on its seat. Then I point to the pink wire cage and say, “I came to borrow your birdcage, Aunty.”
Her dark eyes narrow as she squints at me. “You don’t have a bird.”
My cheeks burn again, and I dig my toes into the thick green carpet. “No, Aunty.”
After studying me for a moment, she says, “Do you have some other kind of pet?”
I nod without looking up. How much should I tell her?
“I put it in a box, but . . .” I stop and decide not to tell Aunty that the dragon set the cardboard box on fire. “I need something stronger.”
Aunty leans back against her pillows and smooths the quilt with her hands. “I see. And your mother doesn’t know about this new pet of yours.”
It’s not a question. I nod again and dare to glance at Aunty’s face.
“Then you’d better take it,” Aunty says with a nod at the cage on the floor. “I had a songbird once, but I set it free before I left India. I only keep the cage to remind me. . . .”
I pick up the cage and hold it to my chest. “Remind you of what, Aunty?”
She sighs and closes her eyes. “That every living thing wants to be free.”
I look down at the cage in my arms. It might be shaped like the Taj Mahal, but it’s not a palace and certainly not a good home for a baby dragon. My cheeks burn again, and this time tears spill from my eyes.

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