by DL Shirey
Part 1 appears in this issue.
Today I start to swing alone, waiting for Kimmy. With the blur and no yellow, I feel safe enough to think about the wooden Chinese puzzle box. So I hold it in my daydream hands, looking for the Jenga piece. That’s when I see it again, the monster. He presses his face from the inside of the box, and the wood gets all stretchy. When it does, I can see sharp teeth and horns, but the wood is strong enough to hold him in. The face on the box looks so weird and scary that I lever edge harder, hoping more blur will make it safer.
Even though the box is in my magic nation, I see it clear as anything. I see the teeth smile from behind the wood, then the monster stops pushing the wood and makes the box sides flat again. One, two, three, four, five six. Side four slides out and I know the monster knows which panels to push and where the Jenga piece hides. He wants out of the Chinese puzzle box and needs me to help him do it. So I use more lever edge, more blur. I’ve got to be safer if I’m going to open the box.
Then I hear Kimmy scream. Her voice cuts through the blur, past my daydreams. It feels like I’m flying. Then my butt smacks hard into the swing seat, harder than ever before. And I’m scared, not of the monster this time, but because I’ve never swung this high. Kimmy’s there, standing next to Miss Bechler, hugging her waist. All the kids are standing there looking at me. Miss Bechler shouts at me, says I’m going too high, to slow down, to get off the swing right now.
It takes me longer than other kids to stop. You have to use your legs to stop swinging, and it always hurts when my feet smack the ground. Kimmy tells Miss Bechler why it takes me longer, but Miss Bechler is still mad. She tells the other kids to go back to class, the bell’s about to ring anyway. Miss Bechler grabs the chains and makes me stop. She says she isn’t mad mad but more afraid for me. She thinks I might hurt myself when I swing so high. She says if stopping hurts my legs, maybe I shouldn’t swing at all.
How can I explain to Miss Bechler that I don’t want to stop swinging? It’s fun. And so is my magic nation. I wish there was some way to get the blur without using the swings.
* * *
Mommy is watching TV when I come back from brushing my teeth in my PJ’s. It’s not even cold, and she has her Granny Blanket, the one with all the squares and colors and patches. It means Mommy wants to snuggle. I tell Mommy it’s too hot under the blanket, but I sit next to her on the couch to keep her company. I’ve been hot all day, ever since the swings.
Mommy leans over and puts her head on my shoulder. I ask her why she needs a blanket when it isn’t cold. Mommy says it helps her remember Granny. Granny was my great-grandma who died before I was born. Mommy doesn’t use the word “die”; she says God called Granny and needed her in Heaven. Mommy doesn’t talk about her real mother, says Granny was the only mother Mommy ever needed.
When I was a baby, I had an older brother. Mommy doesn’t talk about him either.
Mommy tells me to quit being wormy, but I can’t help it. Squirm worms, Mommy calls it, and I got them bad tonight along with being hot. I ask Mommy if it’s okay if I color instead of watch TV. Mommy smiles yes and takes her glass to the kitchen for more wine.
Most times, I color on my bedroom floor. Mommy says it’s because I like to spread out, but on the floor it’s easier for the colors to choose me. I keep my coloring stuff in a big green basket in my room. I take the coloring books from the basket and put them on the floor, making a circle with me in the middle. Then I point to each one like eeny-meeny-miny-moe, except moe is the one that becomes bright when I point at it.
There’s no Weasel Song when the colors choose me. The book I’m supposed to color becomes the brightest in the circle — almost alive — like the book wants to spring open to the page it wants colored. And it does that, too, sort of. When I pick it up, my thumb turns right to the page I’m supposed to color. Then the crayons tell me which colors to choose and which order to choose them. But not tonight.
Tonight is backwards. I hear the color first.
I’m just about to go down the long hallway when I hear Brown. Brown says I only need one crayon and one coloring book, and to go get them now. Trouble is, they’re in the green basket in my bedroom, and I don’t want to go in there with the monster on my dresser. He wants out of that box.
I try not to start my magic nation, but it’s hard not to think it. I don’t want to see the Chinese puzzle box or the monster’s teeth and horns pushing on the inside of the wood. That’s when I hear it, the jack-in-the-box music. I try to make my ears go someplace else, listening hard for Mommy’s TV, but the Weasel Song starts up anyway. It’s all out-of-tune and playing slow like it’s never going to pop. I’m scared because I know the pop is coming anyway, and I’m not on the swings, and I don’t have a blur.
Then I hear Brown again, telling me to color and be safe. Brown makes me feel cooler, and I trust the brown voice because it makes the Weasel Song stop. Brown says to keep the lights off, go into my room, grab the top coloring book and one crayon. One is all I need. Don’t even look at the puzzle box, Brown says, the basket is right beside the bed, easy to find in the dark.
So I walk slowly down the long hall, my metal crutches sounding all echoey. The door to my room is open, and it’s even darker in there. Then the Weasel Song starts up again, but this time it’s not all slow and out of tune; it’s a million times faster, like in a crazy cartoon. So unless I hurry, I know it’s going to pop before I can get my coloring stuff.
But Brown says no, just walk in the room and over to the basket, keep my back to the dresser and everything will be all right. Brown is right, and I know because the voice makes the music stop again. I’ll be brave and strong, like Daddy says; listen to the voice inside me, like Lilla says. And I do listen, because the voice inside is safe and brown.
I close my eyes and walk into the room. The room is in my head, so I don’t need my eyes. I use my crutches like a blind-man’s stick, tap-tap-tap until I get to my bed. Then tap-tap-tap past my desk and chair to the green basket.
When I reach down the Weasel Song starts to play again, cartoon-crazy fast. I keep my eyes closed and feel around for the plastic bag of crayons. I grab the first one I touch. Then the music plays a million, million times faster as I reach for the coloring book on top of the stack. I’m scared of the pop but brave like Daddy says. It’s a race, Brown says, like me and Kimmy to the top of the swings; a race to beat the pop. The pop’s almost there, but I get to the coloring book first.
I win. I beat it.
My room is dark when I open my eyes, but the coloring book is bright as anything. Holding it makes me feel cool. I sit on the bed and look at the cover: World of Wonders, Kids at Play. I’ve colored in this one before. Kids having fun in the countries where they live. There are kids riding camels in front of big, pointy buildings and kids with kangaroos throwing boom rangs. My thumb slips between pages to where I’m supposed to color. I open the book and see it.
The monster is there. His big eyes pop off the page, giant teeth waiting to eat me, horns all over his ugly head. The more I look, the white of the paper gets even brighter, like when I put on my miner’s lamp. Except I’m not wearing it at all. The page glows like anything, so I can see the outlines where I’m supposed to color. Then Brown tells me to color.
But I don’t. What if it’s a trick? What if the voice isn’t Brown at all? The page is all glowy, but everything else is dark. I can feel the crayon but I can’t quite see it. What if it’s yellow? Maybe the brown voice is really the monster playing a trick on me. What if I color and the yellow makes it the same as staring at the banana sticker? With yellow, the monster will be boss and he’ll make me open the box to let him out.
I’ve got to be brave like Daddy says. Then Brown speaks up again and says, “If it’s real, then I’m the boss of it.” That’s when I know, the brown voice is really my voice. The voice in my head is me and what I’m saying is the truth: I can tell what’s real and what’s magic nation. I know the difference. The crayon in my hand is real, and I’m the boss of my hand. If it’s not the right color, I can choose the color I want.
I look down at the coloring book and this time I can see other things on the bright white page. Sure, the monster’s still there, all big eyes and scary teeth, but there are kids at play behind the monster. It’s like a parade and the kids are holding sticks, propping up the monster’s tail. They’re playing dragon, holding up a giant dragon mask, swishing the tail as they play. It’s kids on parade in China in front of a great big wall.
I still want to color, but the glow from the page is fading. The book is real now, and I set it in my lap. The book is as dark as my room, so I really, truly put on my miner’s lamp to see better. The crayon is brown when I click on the light.
When the brown tip touches the page, the first thing I do is draw a big square around the dragon’s face, careful not to get near his horns or teeth or big, angry eyes. I trace over the box again and again until the brown lines trap him on the page. Then I color everything outside the box — the wall, the children, the sky — until all that’s left that isn’t brown is the dragon’s face. He’s still a little scary, but not as much as before.
The Chinese puzzle box is still on the dresser where it’s supposed to be. I can see it in the glow of the miner’s lamp. It scares me a little because I don’t know exactly what the dragon looks like, but I know enough. I know the Chinese puzzle box is real and the rest is my magic nation. If I don’t want the dragon to push his ugly face against the wood, he won’t. Because I’m the boss of my magic nation. Like the swings and the blur, what’s important is the lever edge. Because I’m the one pulling the chains, I’m the one shooting my legs up high in the sky. It’s me in control.
So tomorrow I’ll open the box. Be brave like Daddy says. I’ll find the Jenga piece with my own hands and solve the puzzle that way. Once I see the dragon, he will become real. But just in case, there’s one more thing to do tonight.
I walk over to the dresser and put the coloring book on top of the Chinese puzzle box. Now there’s a box around the dragon and a box around his picture, to protect me, just in case. That’s when the Weasel Song starts up again, but I know it isn’t real. What’s real is the sound of the TV down the hall and Mommy in the kitchen clinking the wine bottle against her glass.
That’s a real sound, one I can hold in my head if I want to. And I want to. It’s a happy sound from when Mommy and Daddy were happy. Back when they would clink wine together. I hold on to that sound, and the Weasel Song goes away.
The scrapbook is by the green basket, where it’s supposed to be. I bring it to bed and crawl beneath the blankets, my miner’s lamp already on. Without looking, I find the right bookmark with my thumb where the cladge is, the sound of the wine clink still in my head.
Just before I open the cladge, I see the sticker on the bottom of the bunk above me. The O in the DOLE tries to get yellow, but I don’t want to play. Not now. The scrapbook is real, the cladge is real, and it’s the only thing I want to dream about. Flat on my back, I open the cladge without seeing any other pictures. I put the scrapbook over my face like a tent and let all the old photos fill my head. I start to count backwards and try not to blink.
Thirty. Pictures of Mommy and Daddy before there was me: towels side-by-side at a beach, Daddy rubbing lotion on Mommy’s back. He’s smiling at the camera.
Twenty. Pictures of Mommy and Daddy and me: Mommy holding me at the hospital. Daddy in a chair smiling at us both.
Ten. Mommy and Daddy at that fancy dinner place where they go for their versaries. Holding up glasses, clinking wine together. I took that picture.
Copyright © 2020 by DL Shirey