*Image: “Changeling” by Eduardo Ford, 24×30, Oil on hardboard
By Loan Le
On Halloween, the veil between the living and the dead lifts. That’s what Dad tells me every year, as if I need to be reminded, as if I can ever forget. Today is special. The air shifts and presses harder into my skin. Shadows move on their own, growing larger and stranger in shape. The things I can’t see make their appearance in another way, like when hair, in places I never knew I had hair, stands up.
The other kids in my fifth-grade science class think candy and costumes make Halloween what it is, but I think of pagan rituals and graves and prayers for the dead on their way to Heaven. I want to tell them what Dad has taught me, but Mrs. Hendricks is giving a lesson on the chicken eggs in our incubator. They won’t hatch for another ten days. After a few minutes of listening, my eyes drift to the trees outside the window, their dancing branches and dying leaves fluttering like hummingbirds. From the front, Mrs. Hendricks says to me, like always, “Eyes to the front, Callie. Not to the stars.” Which never makes sense to me. It’s daylight outside.
The bell rings at 2:35 PM. Mrs. Hendricks wipes the chalkboard clean. Kids pack up their things. Some swarm the incubator to watch the eggs glowing orange under the heat lamp. Kelly, who sits in front of me, turns around, which is never a good thing. All day I stare at her black hair, its long ends draping over my pencils and pens in the dip of my desk. If Empusa the evil goddess were a fifth-grader, she’d be Kelly. I look for Mrs. Hendricks, but she’s outside in the hallway with another teacher.
Kelly is the only girl in class who wears perfume. It smells like the Lysol we spray into our trash can at home. “What are you going to eat today?” she asks. Her friends, a girl Ryan and a guy Ryan, surround me.
“Don’t witches eat children on Halloween?” Girl Ryan says.
“Shut up,” I say, though my voice sounds small even to me. I start to stuff my things into my backpack, including the encyclopedia Dad gave me for my birthday last month. I’ve been reading it each night under my blankets but still have three hundred pages left to go.
Kelly’s hand slaps the book, keeping it in place. “An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures.” Her face turns ugly and shadowy. “Do you actually believe all this? You are so weird.”
I yank the encyclopedia toward me and wince when my index finger catches the pages. I get up, but I almost trip over one of the Ryans’ legs. A laugh bubbles from behind me. I leave before it can fully form.
∞ ∞ ∞
Outside, I suck the blood out of my paper cut. Kelly and her friends don’t like anything else besides nail polish and Justin Bieber, so they make me feel bad about what I like. But it’s not just me—they make fun of other kids in my class. I never tell Dad. Most of the time they leave me alone, let me read. I turn invisible, and my book becomes a shield against everything bad. If I get lost in another world, they can never find me.
The air chills my lungs, so I zip up my jacket that lost all its goose feathers. I walk home, which isn’t what people in Somerville expect should be home for me and Dad. Everything about Dad—from his uncontrollable hair to his Harry Potter glasses to his way of saying things different, like calling his pants trousers—makes people assume we live on a brooding hill where lightning always strikes. Maybe in a Victorian house with hanging portraits of ancestors whose eyes shift with the shape of the light. That would be awesome.
But Dad’s a professor who teaches folklore at Harvard. His position might get cut soon. “Bullish bureaucracy,” he said. A gray, sorry-looking two-bedroom house is all we have. There’s a gnarly nest of trees in the back, where I used to pretend to be an Okla-Chocktaw Indian, living out the stories Dad recounted from when he did research with a tribe in Oklahoma. The grass hasn’t been cut since March. We have a birdbath covered in bird poop. And our mailbox is lopsided, but we don’t do anything to fix it. Before unlocking the front door, I lean down into the side garden to rub the nose of Ellis, our gnome friend who hides our extra key. His nose has turned bronze over the years.
From the basement comes his muffled “Hello,” like when he bites down on a No. 2 pencil. I drop off my things in my room at the end of the main hallway, passing the basement door. The hallway is the darkest place in the house because it has no windows. It takes me four-and-a-half seconds to sprint down its length, which is what I do at night, because of the shadow monsters chasing me. Plus the sconce lights have been dead since September. Dad added this to his list of “things-to-fix,” which is three pages long and folded quadruple times. I’m not sure where it is now, but I think he should call it “things-to-break-even-more.”
I take the stairs to the basement, mindful of book piles and dirty plates of half-bitten toast with Nutella. Dad starts bringing the plates back up until he remembers something else and leaves them on the steps. I’m not saying I’m clean or anything, but this drives me crazy.
The basement is half-finished with skeletons of wooden beams and yellow stuffing on one side, the other dressed up with a worn sofa, a scratched-up desk where Dad likes to work, and three humongous bookcases. He’s giving me one when I turn thirteen. Our washer and dryer are also downstairs. The dryer is running now. Something batters its inside.
“Dad, why’s the machine making that noise?” No answer. Maybe I should check if he accidentally popped a sneaker inside, but my mind flashes to age seven, when I found my dead hamster, Macy, wrapped up in my bedsheets. I used to sleep with Macy, but I must have forgotten to put her back. Then it was laundry day.
Dad’s black hair sticks up in the back, made even messier by his hands whenever he gets frustrated. His pencil moves across his pages, paints words into maze-like sentences that I still can’t understand. I saw a title once: The Hallowed Eve: Dimensions of Culture in a Calendar Festival in Northern Ireland.
He finally looks up from his pages. He blinks rapidly behind fingerprint-smeared glasses. “Hmm? Did you say something, Callie?”
“Nothing.” I hop onto his desk, sitting on his paper so he can’t work. “How did class go today?”
“Packed.” He spreads his arms as far as they would go. “Always like that on All Hallow’s Eve. My students are never more engaged. Did any of your friends ask questions?” He calls all my classmates friends.
I don’t want his smile to go away, so I answer, “Loads.”
“Did you teach them about the Otherworld? The Christians?”
“What did they say?”
I push the skeleton bobblehead sitting on the desk. “They loved it.” Dad grins too hard. He’s had too much coffee. “What are you working on?”
“My next project. Remember I told you about little people? How fascinating it is that almost every culture speaks of little people? Most of them dwelling in trees. Very mischievous—little people!” Dad clicks his tongue. “Nimerigars. Menehunes. Patupaiarehe.” He chuckles and shakes his head, like he’s hearing a funny joke. Do you actually believe all this? Kelly had said.
“Dad, these things you tell me, like the stories about Halloween and little people and other things from when I was younger…they’re real, right?”
His face twists like when he reads one of his students’ term papers. “The stories I recount are valid and based off the circumstances of time, people, and place.”
“Does valid mean real?”
“Yes and no. There are things, which are real. Things everyone understands to be true, like water, air, night, and day. Real. We have other matters we disagree on, but just because we do doesn’t dictate or comment on how real those things can be. So people might say instead, ‘That is valid.’”
I try to think of what to say, words that won’t “stain” anything. Dad said to me a while ago, “When you say something bad and someone hears, they won’t be able to forget it. Your words will stick with them—like a stain.” He wasn’t too happy when I’d called our neighbor Eric Beelzebub because he didn’t clean up the present his German Shepard left on our lawn.
But I don’t have a response now. Dad can be really confusing sometimes. One minute I understand everything he’s saying, then he goes off. Like when he says this or that is wrong just because “Mercury is in retrograde.”
I know I zoned out again. “Would Mom say that?”
I don’t get to know what Mom likes and thinks because she’s gone, like Macy. Dad tells me that nothing, not even a spell or potion, can bring her or Macy back. But it’s okay, because Dad knows everything about Mom—what she liked and what she would have thought about anything. All married people share a soul, and Dad and Mom are one person split apart. When I was tiny, I asked him all the time where that legend came from—the Incans? The Aztecs?—but it’s actually something my grandpa had told Dad.
“I bet your mother would use the word valid. Sure.” He puts down his pencil and stretches, raising his arms, cracking his back. “So what do you want for dinner? Greg said he might want to stop by.”
I scrunch my face at the mention of GG. A Gaw Gaw in the Maltese lore roams at night and pulls children breaking curfew by their ankles into the sewers. I was six when Dad told me about Gaw Gaws, and he said they were big, hairy, and round. Then I met GG, or Greg Gere, who went to school with Dad for the same field, but dropped out to become a boring lawyer. In another life he would have been a Gaw Gaw. His belly is big like he swallowed a boulder. He wears a belt, but it just gives his belly a place to rest. His arms sprout crazy brown hair that used to be on his head, and when he brushes up against me, I want to jump away like a scared cat. I don’t like it when he smiles.
GG eats at our place at random times of the week, on his way home from his law office on Main Street Plaza, between 7-Eleven and Dunkin’ Donuts. Which is why I’m not surprised when Dad says he’s coming over.
“Dad, he’s going to eat everything like always.”
“That means we’ll have to make something we don’t actually like and won’t miss.” He winks at me. He leans back in his chair, drums his pencil against his papers.
Our minds click. “The lentil soup?” Like a lot of my cooking experiments, it didn’t turn out so well. It’s been sitting on the stove for four days, and it smells like old shoes.
Dad nods. “Lentil soup.”
∞ ∞ ∞
“This is great!” GG says, slurping the last of his soup. I catch Dad’s eyes across our round kitchen table. We smile.
GG rides a motorcycle. Imagine the number of people he’s mooned! A couple of hours ago he parked curbside, the sound of the motorcycle shutting off like a prolonged belch. I said hello without really wanting to and grabbed the munchkins he brought. We can always count on him to bring desserts, but anything else, not really.
GG grunts when Dad asks him about the larceny case he’s prosecuting and says he hates his job. He sits back and pats his belly. He untucks his boring navy tie from the inside of his dress shirt. But I see it wasn’t safe from whatever he ate earlier in the day. He reaches for an orange from the woven totora reed boat basket at the center of the table. It was embroidered by a Bolivian shaman that Dad met on a trip five years ago. He couldn’t take me, so I had to stay with a woman named Aunt Beverly, even though she was like ninety years old.
“Quit then,” Dad says to GG.
“What, and find a job like yours? No way, I like making money.” The chair creaks under GG’s fat. Our kitchen is already small, but his body makes it feel really tiny.
Another reason to hate GG: he thinks he knows everything. But Dad’s not the type to take any bait. He smiles at GG like teachers do when a hopeless student gets an answer wrong.
“I make enough money to support me and Callie here. And I happen to enjoy my work, which never ceases to fascinate me. You used to love it, too.”
“Yeah, then I had to pay bills,” GG mutters.
“I’m going to be like you, Dad,” I say before smiling sweetly at GG.
He grunts again, shakes his head. Then he holds up his hands like he’s surrendering. “Certainly, I’m wrong. Apologies to the Lees. Must be the case talking.” He surveys the kitchen. “Jesus, though, I wish you had something harder. I need it today.”
“Tea?” Dad asks. Chamomile tea, my favorite, has been steeping for a few minutes.
“By tea you mean gin, right?” He sighs. “Sure, why not?”
Dad squeezes by the space between GG’s chair and the countertop. I push my half-eaten bowl to the center and pull the box of munchkins toward me. Jelly or chocolate? GG turns his attention to me, asks how school is. I tell him about the incubators, and he nods slowly, though his eyes look beyond me. His expression is slack, like he sees something I can’t. I look over my shoulder.
GG shakes his head. “David, she looks like you most of the time, but then the light hits her face in a certain way, and you know who she looks like?” Behind me, Dad stops pouring the tea. The cups rattle against their saucers—Dad’s bad at balancing things. He slides one to me, then GG, and places a hand on GG’s shoulder.
“Actually,” GG says after a moment. “Do you have sugar?”
∞ ∞ ∞
We leave a bowl of candy on our front porch for trick-or-treaters. Dad brings out our jack-o’-lanterns when I remind him. He stares at mine, pretends to shiver at the face that I carved.
“No evil spirit will come here, that’s for sure,” he said.
“Perfect,” I tell him.
We turn off the lights after three hours. I’m floating in bed now, my stomach rumbling because I didn’t eat much. The rest of my body’s not ready to sleep yet, not ready to surrender to dreams. The time on my alarm clock blurs before my eyes. An hour ago it was 1 AM. Then 3:16 AM. Then 4:48 AM. The pounding at the front door jolts me awake. 5 AM. Did I imagine it?
The outside roars, wind wailing, rain falling like scattered marbles, and branches skittering against my window. The spine of my encyclopedia digs into my butt. I had tried reading to fall asleep and glossed over the entry on the Barghest, or what’s more commonly known as the Grim.
The knock comes again. Dad trudges up from the basement. He never sleeps when he has a new research project. I hear glass shattering—probably one of those plates toppling down the stairs. He curses but makes it up to the main floor. He unlocks the door, and the wind howls. Just barely, I hear him talking—but who would come here in this weather? My feet touch our hardwood floors, and shivers travel up my legs from the chill.
I ease my door open to peek into the hallway. Dad is in his flannel pajamas. He is blocking my view of this person; then he steps aside. A woman. She wears a long black rain coat, collar stiff, like a detective in those black-and-white movies Dad likes. Her hair, the color of coal like mine, is falling out of its ponytail. She has a suitcase as soaked as she is.
I don’t know why, but Dad lets her in.
∞ ∞ ∞
Last night feels like a dream. I go downstairs, rubbing my eyes. I nearly walk into a wall. Dad must be up and ready with my coffee, filled with a big dump of hazelnut cream. And of course, it’s there, steaming in a mug that reads Number One Daughter. Dad leans against the stove, talking with the woman from last night. She sits at the table, now dry, dressed in a loose pink shirt and comfy pants.
Dad clears his throat. “Callie. This is Jean. She’ll be staying here for a while, so I want you to make her feel at home. She’ll be upstairs, and I’ll stay in the basement.”
I pad into the kitchen. “Hi, Jean.” Dad pushes the mug closer to me. I sit down. Her eyes are lazy like she’s woken up from a nice dream. She has wrinkles, but I think they are the tired kind that Dad has on his forehead. She pushes our salt shaker between her hands. I’m not sure she knows she’s doing this.
“I’ve been drinking coffee since I was seven,” I say after seeing her stare at my mug.
“Three years. Wow,” she says. I didn’t think she’d know my age, but I guess Dad’s been talking about me.
“Are you Dad’s friend?” I don’t see many of his other friends. They have their own basements.
“Yes,” Dad and Jean answer at the same time. He adds, “Jean and Greg went to the same law school.”
“Oh, so you know GG, too?”
“GG?” the woman asks.
“She means Greg Gere,” Dad explains.
“GG also stands for Gaw Gaw,” I say. Right away I realize my mistake. I’m making a stain, an ugly coffee stain. Dad never knew this, so his mouth falls open.
Jean laughs. “Now that you mention it, Greg could be a Gaw Gaw.” She says this as if she knows what I mean when only Dad usually does. She scrunches her nose. “He smelled like one, too, if I remember correctly.”
Her smile is lopsided. Once in a while, you look at some people, and a part of you clicks inside. I feel that now, even if I don’t know anything about her. “You know about Gaw Gaws?”
“I hung around your Dad too much.” Jean says this to Dad, but he looks away, as if he doesn’t know what to do with her words. His hair is less wild; he combed it this morning.
“Where are you from?” I blurt out. “Why are you staying here?”
The salt shaker moves to her left hand. “From Connecticut. I guess I’m here because I’m looking…” She pauses.
“For work,” Dad finishes. “She won’t be here for long. No worries about that.” Why does he think I’m worried? He leans a hip against the counter and sips his coffee while flipping through the Saturday paper too hard.
“Oh,” I say. I’m not sure why I feel let down.
Jean covers my hand; hers is warm and soft. “But I do want to get to know you, Callie. David, you said you needed to run errands today. I can look after Callie, if you’d like.”
Dad pinches a page. I see the red in his fingers. “I don’t know.”
Jean’s hand moves away. “I know what you’re thinking,” Jean says, her voice hard.
“Really?” His voice is like a wet towel being wrung. He exhales and closes the paper. “Okay. I’ll only be gone for an hour or two.” He pauses and looks down at me. “You okay to stay with Jean?”
I nod. After Dad drains his coffee and picks up his keys, he finally leaves us alone.
Jean pushes the salt shaker away, leans in. “Your dad tells me you like to cook. How about we make something together? Would you want to?”
I can barely sit still. I’m going to cook with her! Dad never cooks with me, because he wants to be at a “safe distance.” I dig through the bottom cabinet for aprons. She ties hers easily around her waist. I have trouble tying behind my back.
“Here, let me, honey,” she murmurs, bending over. Honey. Her breath tickles the back of my neck as she makes the apron fit snug around me. “What should we make?” She grabs a cookbook from the line of books we keep on our fridge. She cracks it open and flips through it, her index finger tapping on certain recipes.
We think about making stew, but Jean says we need wine. I tell her Dad doesn’t keep anything like that in the house. “Well then,” she says. “We’ll find something else.”
While we cook, she asks me questions about my friends. I say I don’t have any. I don’t know why, but she stops turning the pages, presses me close to her. She smells like cherry blossom. She wants to know everything about me, so I let it all flood out. As I pass her a knife, a wooden spoon, whatever she wants from me, I tell her about my encyclopedia and the things in it. She knows some of the creatures too, says she’s seen some. How can she be friends with GG? She’s amazing.
The kitchen smells beautiful and toasty and makes me feel full. Dad gets home and looks around the kitchen like everything exploded. We made tomato soup, grilled cheese, and an apple tart from ingredients I didn’t know we had. He lets out a noise of surprise when he sees that Jean has cleaned up the plates on the basement stairs.
I hope she stays.
∞ ∞ ∞
A week passes before GG comes by on Sunday evening. GG hands Jean a chocolate pie from the clearance rack at 7-Eleven, which Jean tells me to hide. They hug briefly; Jean looks like she’s getting absorbed by him. GG also carries a large brown bag with things clinking inside. He claps Dad on the shoulder, grinning, only Dad doesn’t grin back. His forehead wrinkles reappear. I want to rub them away. He leads me into the kitchen with a gentle hand on my shoulder.
Dad has been quiet. Every day I come home from school, he and Jean are in the kitchen, sitting at the table like they’ve been waiting for me. Jean is different around Dad. With me, she smiles and laughs and gives me two thumbs up when I make something taste good. When it’s the three of us together, she talks to me, but looks at Dad.
GG inhales the roasted chicken me and Jean made. Clean bones sit on his plate. Jean laughs as she tells us about the time GG tricked their classmates into thinking he was the professor. The professor was running late on the first day, so GG stood up and started reading from a textbook. I believe it. GG has been bald for a while. Dad, by now, is cracking a few smiles, shaking his head. It’s nice to see him out of the basement, away from his project.
“The three of us, Callie. Boy, we used to have fun.” GG reaches into his bag and pulls out red wine. It gleams under the light. “Just a little,” he says, uncorking it with a bottle opener. “What do you say?”
Dad fixes his glasses. His eyes flicker toward Jean. “I don’t know.”
“Jean?” GG tips the bottle toward her. A drop lands in her glass, which she holds by the stem.
“One glass sounds fine.”
“Are you OK with that?” Dad asks.
She must not like drinking, like Dad. “Yes, I’m fine. I’m fine.” We watch the red liquid waterfall into the glass. “Just one.”
“Like old times,” GG says, smiling at Jean. Then he winks at me. Only Dad can wink at me. “It’s been years. Why not celebrate?”
“Celebrate? Wouldn’t that be ironic?” Dad asks. I’m trying to remember what that means, but it’s not coming to me. Dad’s using his professor voice; I don’t like it when he uses it on me, but GG probably deserves it.
“Jean’s back! Yes, it’s cause to celebrate.” He turns to me. “Right, Callie? Don’t you like her?”
I look at Jean, who smiles at me like she does when we’re cooking, just the two of us with a pot of water boiling on the stove and mouth-watering garlic in our sauté pan, its smell so strong that if vampires wanted to get us, they wouldn’t be able to. Of course I like her. So I say so, and it makes even Dad smile.
“Can I have some?” I ask. Everyone seems to collapse into themselves. They eventually forget about me being at the table, because they start talking about boring, normal stuff like GG’s work and the economy and the elections. The louder they get, the quieter I feel, so I head off to bed, back under my blankets, and read about changelings, forest creatures that replace humans overnight. Most of them are children, but there have been old cases with adults. You’d know if it was a changeling if the person’s mood changes without reason. When this happens, there are different methods of getting the real human back. They would light the fake one on fire, and the changelings would come out of their hiding place—like the small forest behind my house—and bring back the human in exchange for the safety of their own.
I part my curtains to check the forest. I haven’t been back in there since I was little. Maybe they are watching, but if they are there, I can’t see them. The trees and branches embrace each other tightly; only wind can break them apart. They don’t want people like me to peek inside. If a changeling took me, Dad would do anything to get me back. I would do the same for Dad.
Dad, Jean, and GG are still downstairs having fun. Their chatter carries throughout the house and through the vents. I’ve tried to fall asleep, but their laughs shoot like bullets against the wall. I leave my room for the kitchen. There are three more bottles on the table—empty. Jean is drinking wine still. Leaning against her is Dad, who looks deflated in his seat. His cheeks are the color of a papercut before it spills blood. The light glints against his glasses.
“Callie! Sorry, honey, did we wake you?” Jean says, her words slippery. She reaches for me, brings me into her lap. She warms me up.
“Sorry, Callie. We’ll be quiet.” Dad’s voice is a bunch of giggles. Across the table, GG’s eyes are drooping, and he smiles like he’s sleeping. He makes a joke about them being naughty and how they’ll get in some trouble. I like hearing them laugh. I like that all the heat in the house has settled in this room and will stay here if only they keep laughing. Jean’s voice vibrates against my spine. She hugs me tight like the first time we cooked together.
Near me is Jean’s half-empty glass of red wine. Its rim is smeared with her pinkish lipstick. My hand grasps the stem. “Can I?” I whisper to her. Dad and GG are still laughing at something.
“Of course, honey.” I bring the glass to my lips.
“No,” Dad says, ripping the glass from my fingers. Red splashes onto our table, on me and Jean.
“That was close!” GG says. And he laughs.
∞ ∞ ∞
Next morning, the kitchen is cold. Dad sits slumped at the round table, ripping a packet of Alka-Seltzer open. He slowly drops two tablets into his water. They pop and sizzle. A big pile of paper sits next to him, held together by a rubber band. My mug is on top as if the pages might fly away.
“Where’s Jean?” I ask, expecting to see her.
“Sleeping.” Dad hands me my mug. I taste it but spit it out.
“Dad, the cream!”
“Sorry, Callie.” He yanks the fridge door open and pulls out our jug of creamer. He still won’t look at me. I did something wrong, because the party ended after I tried sipping the wine. Dad went into his basement. GG stumbled out of our house. He took a taxi home, leaving his motorcycle parked outside. Jean slunk out of the kitchen to the upstairs bedroom, but before that, she whispered goodnight to me, hugged me. Her eyes were flooded. I thought about her when I went to bed, how they made me feel like crying, too.
“Can I wake Jean up?” I ask Dad.
He sighs like I’m asking the world of him. He pushes his hair back. “Go try. If she doesn’t get up, leave for school.”
I sprint upstairs to Dad’s room where Jean had been sleeping. Parts of the house smell—the basement of dust and mothballs, the kitchen of lingering meats and garlic, which Jean likes to use a lot. His bedroom never smelled like anything, but since Jean’s arrival, her cherry blossom perfume soaks the room. I follow the scent to her body on the bed, engulfed by the comforters. On the nightstand is a lamp, her wristwatch, a comb ensnarled by clumps of her hair, and some weird coins, each inscribed with a triangle. I climb onto the bed, wait on my knees.
“Jean, do you want anything to eat?”
“Go away,” she rasps.
“Dad says I can wake you.” I prod her again and again, but she doesn’t move. The third time I jump back when her hollow face appears from under the covers. It looks as if someone shaded her face with black colored pencil. Sweat clings to wrinkles on her forehead. Her long hair snakes around her neck, chokes her. It’s the look in her eyes that scares me. This isn’t someone who calls me honey.
“Leave me alone.” The blanket whooshes over her.
“Something’s wrong with her,” I say to Dad downstairs as he hands me my backpack.
“Maybe she’s…sick. But we’ll deal with it later. C’mon, we might be late.” Dad drives me to school this time, hands gripping the wheel until his knuckles are white. Multiple times, he reaches to turn on the radio, but stops. His hand drops back to his thigh. He is sighing too much.
I think about Jean at school and wonder what I can cook to make her feel better. She taught me how to make lentil soup the right way—more crushed tomatoes, less water—so maybe I can do that.
At the end of the day, we watch our eggs hatch instead of having class, which is good. I wouldn’t have been able to pay attention. Kelly and the Ryans and everyone else crowd the incubator. Eventually the chirps are incessant and fill the room. Mrs. Hendricks asks if we want to hold them. The class screams their answer. I wait for my turn, after they push me away from the line. Mrs. Hendricks doesn’t see, because she’s teaching someone how to hold their chick.
The only one left is smaller than the rest. It has left its egg, but lies there, shivering. The other chicks have walked all over it. I press my hand against the glass. Heat shoots through my arm.
I scoop up the chick, bringing it close to my chest. I wonder if it’s a girl or a boy; I can’t really tell, but I’ll go with girl. Her fur is not yet dry, and it feels like glue and felt. She shivers in my hands. Everyone coos and titters over their chicks, sounding just like them. They chase after them. They cuddle them. Mine is still limp. I whisper to her to make her feel better.
Mrs. Hendricks orders us to put our chicks back into the incubator, because she wants us to take notes. I keep my chick in my sweater’s pocket, hoping she’ll warm up in a few minutes. I can feel her vibrating in there. We take a few minutes to write notes of observation about the hatching and the behavior of the chicks. Then it’s time to pack up. I stand up and reach into my pocket, thinking it’s fine to put her back.
“Mrs. Hendricks,” I hear Kelly say. “I think Callie still has her chick.” The chick lies in my open palm. A web of fur obscures her eyes. I look at her and think she’s so small.
I should have put her back. Mrs. Hendricks might yell at me now, and I hate that Kelly and the Ryans will get to see.
Mrs. Hendricks crouches down beside me. Her voice shakes.
“Callie, honey,” she says, like Jean. “What are you doing?”
“I’m trying to make it warmer.” My teacher cups my cheek. “But I think it’s warm enough now.”
“Poor little baby just needs some sleep. Here, can I grab the chick from you?” She takes her away from me.
∞ ∞ ∞
They call Dad and let me talk to him. He asks how I’m doing. I say I’m fine. He asks if I want him to get me. But I don’t need him to. He sighs again, then says he will see me in a bit, when I get home. I leave the principal’s office, but not before he and Mrs. Hendricks talk some more. They finish in five minutes, and after, I hold her index finger until I’m out of school.
After turning the corner onto my street, I see GG rushing down my front steps. He must have come back to get his motorcycle. He knows where we hide our key, so he probably stopped inside to eat last night’s leftovers, too. He’s done that plenty of times before. He puts on his helmet, then tugs up his pants, which for once don’t have a belt. The motorcycle rumbles underneath him, and then he is off to moon all the drivers behind him.
First thing I do is check the kitchen fridge. Our food is still in its Tupperware. But there are small glasses on the table, some empty, some filled with amber liquid that reeks. I take a sip and let it set fire to my throat. It tastes like a punishment, and I wash it out with leftover coffee from the coffeemaker.
I go upstairs to find Jean, to see if she’s less sick. She looks like she was going to change but gave up. Her panties are lowered to her ankles, and her shirt is half off. Her pajama pants lie at the end of the bed. She doesn’t move.
I don’t get on the bed, like last time, because it might make her mad. I touch her forehead with the back of my hand, like what Dad does to check my temperature. She’s warm.
Jean’s eyes flash open at my touch. I back up against the nightstand. The lamp tilts, but I catch it. The coins scatter across the floor. She gargles. She spits a string of bubbles. A cry leaves her mouth. Something is fighting inside her, wanting to get out. But she hugs herself to keep it in.
I run. I run down the stairs and sprint four-and-a-half seconds down the hall until I am behind my doors and under my covers. I see the chick, wet in my hands. I see Jean—no, something, crying out. It’s a changeling. It’s a monster from the forest who’s taken Jean away from us overnight. Jean must be in the forest. The changelings might be hurting her. They might come for me next. Will I ever see Dad again? Oh, please. My tears soak the bedsheets underneath me. I cover my ears, the changeling still crying out in my head.
The door hits the wall, and all the noise stops. I curl up tighter under the covers.
Dad. He’s at the door, his hair standing up like it’s been shocked. “Why are you hiding?”
I throw off the covers and rush to him. He catches me in his arms.
“Why are you…Callie, are you crying?”
“Something is wrong with Jean.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think it’s a changeling.”
“It’s crying like it’s hurt!”
“Callie.” He crouches down like Mrs. Hendricks. His hands wipe tears from my cheeks. “Slow down. Tell me what’s wrong.”
I gulp down air. “I came home. GG was just leaving. I went inside to check on Jean to see if she’s feeling better, but she’s, she’s—” Her sunken face and the spit bubbling in her mouth spring up in my mind, and I want to hold Dad again, but he keeps me at arm’s length. He shakes, too.
“Hang on. GG? Greg was here?” The changeling cries out again. “Is that Jean? Why is she—”
This time, it calls his name. Dad lets go of me, then sprints down the hall in maybe three-and-a-half seconds.
∞ ∞ ∞
Outside, the sky is gray, and a fog hangs over the houses across the street. The police and ambulance are here. Hands to their mouths, our neighbors stand behind the yellow tape that the police set up around the house. Kids just home from after-school activities try to see more, but their parents block their view.
Dad is with the changeling. It is strapped to a gurney, where one of the paramedics is forcing a mask over its mouth. It cries though. It can’t stop. It grips Dad’s hand, wants to rip away his arm.
The paramedic helping me is named Ariel. She has claws painted bright pink and looks like an older, but nicer Kelly. She notices my gaze. “Your mommy will be fine.” Her breath smells minty.
I shoulder off the blanket she has given me. “Jean’s not my mom. It’s not my mom.”
The paramedic tightens my blanket. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
The ambulance begins to drive down our street with the changeling. I think I hear it scream. Dad watches it go. His glasses are crooked and glinting red and blue from the cop car lights. He stays this way until the ambulance disappears around the corner. He only turns back because he feels me. I know he does. He mouths, “It’s going to be okay.”
“It’s not my mom,” I say. The whisper is like a gasp in my chest.