Special woke up sometime around lunch. She ate the two pieces of toast that were left by her bed. The toast didn’t have the same kind of crunch that it usually had, but it was enough to push away the hunger in her belly. She wondered for a second if she had had a bad dream about Shawn coming back. How funny would it be to walk into the living room and see that no one was there—no one except her mama?
But it wasn’t a dream.
The loud TV in the other room gave it away. Her mama would never watch TV that loud.
Special changed into some clothes and attached six red bows to the end of her pigtails. She never liked that word: pigtails. It made her feel like she was an animal or something. She loved her hair, the way it moved, the way it bounced when she walked. But pigtails? There had to be something else you could call it, something less brute.
Ianchelle was making sandwiches in the kitchen when she noticed Special shuffling her feet toward the table. “Special … you’re up. Are you feeling better?”
“I am. I ate the toast.”
“Good. Are you still hungry?”
“How about some juice?”
“I called Mrs. Woodfork to let her know that you were sick.”
Ianchelle poured Special a glass of juice. Special sat down at the table, eyes on Shawn in the other room. He was on the couch, shoes still on. The sight of his dirty sneakers digging into the carpet was almost enough to send Special back into her room, screaming into a pillow. Instead, she stayed cool, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly.
Shawn laughed at something from the TV. He looked so relaxed, like this was his house and no one else’s. In a way, that was true. He did own their house, like he owned their money, like he owned their fear. Shawn’s power was that he could own you without ever putting it into writing.
Feeling brave (or maybe foolish), Special decided to finish her juice on the couch next to him. There was an invisible barrier between them, impenetrable. And he had a smell; not bad, just … different. Like he didn’t belong to the other smells in the house. Words were not exchanged. Shawn mostly watched the TV, but now and then, his eyes would shift to the side to see what Special was doing. Special was more obvious in her approach. Any time Shawn reacted to what was happening on the TV she would look at him and sip her juice. This went on for a while, a cat and mouse game, who will acknowledge the other first? Neither one of them gave in. Special finished her drink and got off the couch, setting the empty glass in the sink. Later, when she told me this part of the story, she didn’t give a reason as to why she had sat next to Shawn. “I felt like I needed to,” she said to me. “And we didn’t say a word.”
I have a theory: Special wanted to size up her opponent. Yes, the sweet little girl who couldn’t hurt a fly wanted to look her enemy in the eye before she unleashed the paper mushies upon him. I told you, she was growing up so fast. Like two boxers about to touch fists, she wanted to get as close to him as she could before it was about to go down.
Special did her best to extend the lie about her sickness. Intermittent coughs were common. Blowing of the nose was too, but not overdone. She didn’t want to waste the Kleenexes. Water was also consumed, although, in addition to the juice it made her have to go to the bathroom too much. Random chores were performed as a thank you to Ianchelle for staying home with her. Shawn neither cared to socialize or show concern for Special’s pretend illness. He remained on the couch with a dimly lit lamp illuminating the side of his face.
Ianchelle needed help folding laundry in her bedroom. Special was put in charge of pairing up all of the socks. No easy task, mind you, especially when they were almost all the same color. She sat down and made a circle of socks around her, playing a matching game and folding them, the flip & tuck method.
“Thank you for helping me,” Ianchelle said.
“No problem, mama,” Special said. “What do I do if I find some that don’t match?”
“Set them aside. We’ll look for their twin later.”
“The other sock that matches with them.”
Special noticed that some of the socks were Shawn’s. They were much bigger than the others and had holes in the heels.
“What do I do with Shawn’s socks?” Special said.
“You can put them with mine.”
“Is he going to be here for the rest of the day?”
“I think so. Why?”
“I don’t know.” She had avoided it all day, but the time had come to tell her some of the truth. “Mama, can I talk to you about something?”
Ianchelle looked at Special, folded shirts in her arms. “Of course. What is it?”
“Well … do you promise not to be mad?”
“Mr. Potmis and I are working on a project with the paper mushies. We’ve been making them out at my play spot and I need to go over there today so I can finish them.”
“So that’s your big secret? Building more of those paper things?”
Special nodded. She didn’t like partaking in serious talk. She felt like she was alone in a boat, out to sea—a sea of socks.
“I can’t let you go there today,” Ianchelle said. “You’re sick.” There was a long pause. Perhaps Special’s reaction hadn’t been as subtle as she hoped.
“You are sick, right?” Ianchelle said.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
Special stood up, arms at her side, head down, starting to cry. “I feel sick, but not like real sick, a nervous sick because Shawn’s here. He said he wasn’t coming back for a week but he’s here now. Why? Whenever he’s here I feel sick, and today I felt the worst. I had planned on making paper mushies with Mr. Potmis this week but Shawn being here messed up my plan. I have to finish them today. I can’t put it off another second.”
“So you pretended to be sick so you could go make paper mushies?”
“I don’t know how I’m not supposed to be mad about that. You ditching school. Me missing work. Special …”
“I know. I know. I’m sorry, mama. I know we need the money but this is important to me. I need to show you what happens when we make the paper mushies. They come alive.”
Ianchelle shook her head.
“They do come alive, mama!” Feelings were pouring out of Special like water. She realized one of her pink socks was wadded up in her left fist. She opened her hand and let the sock fall to the ground. “When Mr. Potmis and I finish them we will show you. We will show you that magic does exist. Please believe me. I want you to see for yourself. And if you don’t believe me you can ground me for making you miss work. Ground me for life! Shawn wasn’t supposed to be back today. And the paper mushies aren’t done! I have to finish them or it won’t work!”
“What won’t work?”
“I can’t tell you, but you have to trust me. I’m sorry for more secrets. I’m sorry I sound crazy right now. I want you to believe me and the only way for that to happen is for you to let me go.”
I have to imagine that Ianchelle was at a loss over what to do. On one hand, she was mad at her daughter for pretending to be sick, for letting the lies pile up without repercussions. On the other hand, she was worried about the mental state of things.
Why does my daughter think her paper things come alive?
Why does Shawn being here make her need to go to her play spot?
Why do I get the feeling that Mr. Potmis is confusing her as to what is real and what is not?
Like Special, the why’s were probably swirling around Ianchelle’s head, pecking at her, trying to get in. She might have been worried that the trauma from Shawn’s abuse was changing her daughter, making her believe things that weren’t possible, making her different than the Special she had always known. I wish I could have been there when Special talked to her. I wish I could have given her the support she needed.
But if you would have been paying attention so far, you would know that Special can take care of herself. She doesn’t always need help from old homeless men that live in the derelict corners of Morrow Square. She only needs you to trust in what she’s doing. Your belief in her is the help she needs, you’re faith that she’s got it all figured out.
Ianchelle gently set down the shirts on her bed. She walked over to Special and hugged her, holding on for a very long time. Special’s cries became a light whimper. Ianchelle placed her hands on Special’s shoulders and knelt, getting to her level.
“I don’t want to be mad at you,” she said. “I want you to know that I love you. I don’t understand everything that’s going on, but if finishing these … paper mushies is that important to you, then I want you to finish them. And when you and Mr. Potmis bring them back here, I will sit and wait patiently to see the magic that you keep talking about. I do believe in magic; but I also believe in my daughter being happy, and I can see that right now, you’re hurting.”
“Oh, mama. Thank you! Thank you! I love you too! I can’t wait to show you.”
Special got her things in order and passed by Shawn, taking one long look at him before stepping outside. A bad feeling fell upon her when she reached the yard. What if Shawn did something while she was gone? What if by leaving, she was making her mama more susceptible to harm?
Her feet broke into a run.
I’ve known for a long time about how fear can take over your life. It’s a virus that consumes you from the inside out, telling you lies, feeding you despair. But, my friends, let me tell you another thing about fear. When times are hard, when things are about to get crazy, fear can make you run like the devil. It isn’t gasoline; it’s rocket fuel. It’s whatever they put into those fighter jets that make them break the speed of sound. Fear is a motivator. You never move as fast as you do when fear is nipping at your toes. Special was afraid. She was terrified of what could happen if she did nothing. She also was terrified of what would happen once she set the paper mushies loose. And she ought to have been. We were about to embark on a journey with no idea how it was going to end. The magic we had kept to ourselves was about to be unleashed upon the world, a magic we understood very little about.