It was half-past two according to the fourth hand of the scuffed gold watch that otherwise read ten minutes to the hour of six. Six o’clock in the evening, that is. It lay in the grass just inches from Michaela’s now bare face. Aunt Hazel would have iced murder for this breach of almighty rule number two, as if it were Michaela’s fault an extended nail from an old school bench had targeted her bag for a savage attack.
The gold gleam had captured her eye, while something else had captured her foot. Michaela’s landing was implemented with practiced expertise. The contents of her arms spewed everywhere. She had long ago learned that life and limb were much dearer than physical possessions and her instinctual habit was to relinquish whatever she was holding—this time a weighty stack of school books, notebooks, pencils, loose papers, chewing gum, and a torn book bag—and brace herself for the inevitable.
She landed on a concrete path that wound through four acres of trees surrounded by high fencing toward Aunt Hazel’s vine-smothered house. Eraser-skinned markings ruptured both of her wombling hands, but her eyes were drawn to the distracting gleam resting in the grass.
Michaela unburied herself, smeared a crimson dotted palm in the grass, and reached for the timepiece, the face of which had popped open.
It wasn’t so much that Michaela had found a watch with a peculiar fourth hand, which was certainly unusual, it was more the place she had found it—proof that an illicit someone had been inside the grounds.
The piece was one of those old wind-ups attached to a chain with the initials “JM” carved into the back of its delicate surface. A miniature painting of a dark-haired woman was pressed into the cover. Perhaps it had been tossed the hundred yards or so through the trees, and over the ten-foot railing with barbed-wire staves.
Michaela gazed at the watch for a few more curfew-stolen seconds, tucked it safely into her pocket, and searched through the jumbled wreckage for her missing specs.
The offending trip site appeared to be the unlucky combination of over-stacked arms, a renegade tree root, a peculiar gold gleam, and vision-obstructing spectacles… either that or she had just tripped over her own feet, which wouldn’t be the first time.
The bulky frames, which more resembled bat wings, were bent under a heavy textbook with torn brown paper—Advanced French disguised as Advanced German—but luckily the lenses were spared. Luckily. Which is an odd thing for someone with perfect vision to think with an awful sense of relief.
To say the least, these were no ordinary lenses. They were heavy-rimmed, yellow tinted, rhinestone-bearing spectacles that were an acute source of misery and humiliation dating as far back as Michaela could remember.
The first pair had started out well enough in comparison, but each successive pair had grown with over-zealous compensation as she aged into her teen years. The latest design, which had only been forced upon her with considerable objections and was the almighty thorn of contention between herself and Aunt Hazel, sported wing-like protrusions which not only blocked views but often clipped walls, doorways and occasionally other students as she maneuvered her way through the school halls.
Those horrible bat-like contusions were conspicuous to the highest degree and had attracted far more than her fair share of unwanted attention, exposing her to much ridicule, and turning her into ten times the spectacle she normally was, which wasn’t much, as misbehaving around Aunt Hazel brought severe psychological punishment to the wrongdoer.
Hazel Fidelia, Michaela’s aunt on the maternal side, had the rigid posture of an iceberg—personality included—and became an extreme recluse after her entire family was killed in a horrible accident nearly twenty years ago.
Of her long list of unbendable rules, the number one, rock-solid, mother enchilada, which must never be broken under any circumstances whatsoever, was this: the bubbly, yellow spectacles were never to come off—except at night when sleeping, of course. Michaela added that last part without Aunt Hazel’s knowledge. Punctuality was also a biggie in the vast rulebook of Hazeldom.
Aunt Hazel had ashen hair, piled atop a skeletal frame, and exuded the impression of towering impunity. Michaela imaged she must have been a prison warden in a former life. One tap of her pointy shoe was a sure sign of impending volatility, which is what Michaela earned for her tardiness this day.
After years of acceding to Hazel’s because-I-said-so explanation regarding her eyewear, Michaela was forced to consider that there had to be a practical reason for such extreme measures, and as a young girl, finally summoned up the courage to question her aunt about it.
Aunt Hazel lowered her article entitled Changing Your Identity and turned slowly to face Michaela—a rare occurrence in and of itself. She looked down her long, straight nose with intense scrutiny, and as the temperature gauge on her tolerance barometer plummeted to sub-zero, her lips curved with contempt, causing ice crystals to crust over a young Michaela’s heart.
“It’s because you have a rare disease,” said Aunt Hazel, emphasizing the last word with a double measure of disdain, “which causes your eyes to need extra protection from the light.” Aunt Hazel made as if to turn back to her article then paused with a second thought. “And if you stop wearing them, you might go blind.”
Even at the ripe old age of seven and one-half, Michaela could see that this uncontested wisdom had a few holes in it, and one day when her spectacles were broken at school during a lethal game of field hockey, Michaela took her chance to question the school nurse about it.
The nurse chided her directly for believing, “such tall tales,” and Michaela’s eyewear was declared to be “no more protective than a drop of honey.”
It was at this stage that the bat-like extensions became the new norm on Michaela’s face. Hidden behind those double-lensed apertures were brilliant green eyes pricked with gold reflections to match her long, light hair that was forever in tangles. She had a small frame and looked ordinary enough when de-spectaclized, or so Michaela thought most nights when reviewing her reflection.
After finding the watch and pulling on her pajamas, Michaela switched off the lights, and as she crossed the room to slip into bed—free of all eye restraints—two green blurs rippled across the windowpanes, an occurrence Michaela had never thought to be unusual. As she curled up to a rag of dark-blue silk with faded gold threading and a chunk missing from one corner—the only gift her parents had left her and which had once resembled a blanket—every so often, unbeknownst to Michaela, two tiny green blurs would blink back at her from out in the darkness.
Michaela begrudgingly continued to wear the kamikaze lenses out of fear of getting caught, and on the one occasion she did daringly slide the unruly specs from her face, paranoia lurked and multiplied in abundance, and every person she met became a potential spy for Hazel’s monarch of misery. It was the longest ten minutes of Michaela’s life and remained a hushed secret in her miniature stockpile of seditious moments.
In retrospect, however, Michaela began to wonder if the true reason behind the social-killing monstrosities might have something to do with her other secret.
On the first day of the eighth grade Michaela made an alarming discovery. The bell between classes had just rung. She pulled out her schedule and squinted through the bubbly lenses to see what was next on the agenda: German.
Podge, who was the bullying bane of her grade school existence, approached in the hallway, flanked by his trademark gang of troublemakers. He was tall, freckly and heavy-set with bleached bangs against black hair. He gave off the impression of an overstuffed skunk with permanent sweat stains on his chest and pits. Michaela sighed and prepared for the worst, lamenting that he had survived the summer without falling off the planet or dying of a serious case of smelliness.
“Ahoy, Wings,” he taunted with his usual unimaginative greeting, “Those things are so big, you could light them on fire and jump hoops through them!”
His gang broke into laughter.
Michaela rolled her eyes. It’s not as if they could see her anyway.
“You should join the circus!” Another boy from the gang chimed in, as another began a rousing chorus of When I See an Elephant Fly. They all started flapping their hands next to their faces as the singing escalated.
Other students stopped to observe, many of them laughing, many of them frozen. Most of them, apart from the regular hecklers, only joined in to keep from getting on Podge’s bad side. Michaela got a few apologetic looks before people dashed into other hallways and classrooms.
At long last Michaela finally managed to make it to class, disheveled, but feeling lucky to have avoided ramming into any lockers or students or even the vice principal. She took a seat at the back of the class, where she could hide in the blissful void of unacknowledged existence while mapping out a Podge-free path for future use. Sometimes, the breaks between classes seemed longer than the rest of the day combined.
When the teacher got up and introduced herself, Michaela assumed she would be speaking English for at least the first few minutes, but her assumption was wrong:
“Bonjour. Je m’appelle Madame Bouvier. Comment allez vous?”
Michaela jerked up in her seat, fully alert. This wasn’t German at all—everyone knew “bonjour” was French. There must have been an error on her schedule. As she fumbled to recheck her room assignment, the teacher continued speaking, drawing Michaela’s attention, as she understood every single word, and more astonishingly, began responding in her head. There were times during the lesson when it felt so natural Michaela lost track of which language they were speaking.
A small thrill warmed her from the inside out. It was the first time Michaela had ever encountered anything that might be linked to her past, and French class became Michaela’s guarded little secret. She even went so far as to learn a few German verbs for Aunt Hazel’s benefit. The language she was learning in school was much less elaborate than the Esperanto version in her head, and Michaela greatly enjoyed adding to it, rearranging it, filling it with the formal parts she innately knew were missing.
Aunt Hazel had a strong aversion to discussing Michaela’s origins, particularly her family, so this new discovery awakened a fresh vigor in Michaela’s efforts toward her studies, in the hopes of finding more clues from her past. According to what little she could glean from Aunt Hazel, her parents had died in a hiking accident. Michaela was nearly three years old before coming to stay with her aunt, and very few memories existed before that time, just a few vague scenes that flashed in the wee hours of the morning before fading with consciousness: a mossy pond in a courtyard of stone and an ethereal voice that whispered a form of her name.
Every so often a high-pitched tune played solo in her head, one she could never quite catch. At first it was comforting, but it always left her feeling empty and vulnerable. Michaela sometimes found herself humming the melody, but the moment she became aware of it, the tune would vanish from her head.
The lonely ticking of the gold pocket watch had become a talisman of sorts to Michaela. The miniature painting was finely detailed. The woman had light-blue eyes and dark ringlets around her oval face. Her expression was soft and warming, as if observed by the one she loved. Michaela was drawn to it, staring at it for long periods of time, feeling somehow filled by it.
A few weeks after coming across the watch, Michaela awoke in the dead of night to a loud slam. Her bedroom door had crashed into the wall as Aunt Hazel flipped on the lights.
“What is all this racket? Who is here?”
“N… no one,” Michaela croaked, shielding her eyes from the sudden brightness. Her pajamas and forehead were damp, and she was pretty sure she had awoken from a nightmare to a real life nightmare. Aunt Hazel swiftly searched the room, ripping open the closet doors and flipping back the curtains. She checked the lock on the window and pulled at drawers before peering under the bed.
“I know very well that someone was here. I’m sure the whole neighborhood could hear you!”
A comment which seemed doubtful to Michaela, as they lived at least a mile from the nearest neighbor and the property was surrounded by giant trees and a wire-topped fence, installed by the crazy, paranoid recluse who was her aunt!
“And what langua—you are supposed to be learning German!” Aunt Hazel’s voice took on a dangerous, unstable tone, and daggers shot from her narrowed eyes.
“Who is this Conrad? Some boy from school I presume?”
Aunt Hazel’s voice trembled and Michaela saw that she needed that to be the truth as she clutched the cross that hung around her neck. Aunt Hazel was not religious, but she clung to it, desperately, as she re-surveyed the room.
“Who?” Confusion lit Michaela’s bright green eyes.
“Oh, do not try that innocent act with me. When I find…” but Aunt Hazel did not elaborate on how she planned to deal with this imagined intruder. Instead, she re-searched the room, this time pulling clothes from the closet, tearing things out from under the bed, and emptying drawers onto the carpet.
A dull thud hit the floor and the gold pocket-watch popped open.
Aunt Hazel jerked to a halt, her eyes ablaze as she stared at it. The small portrait seemed to fill the whole room. Aunt Hazel’s translucent face drained to a pale lilac as the veins in her neck strained against her skin. Her voice shook with a dangerous, wild edge.
“Where did you get this?” Her teeth sheared across each other in cruel scrapes before she crossed the room and whip-slapped Michaela’s upside the cheek—hard.
“Where?” she shrieked, but didn’t wait for a reply. She had finally looked Michaela directly in the face and leapt back as if scalded by hot water. In a frantic move, she grabbed the bat-wings from the nightstand and jammed them onto Michaela’s ears.
“These do not come off!” Her voice amped up several thousand decibels and now resembled the mating screeches of eels. Aunt Hazel stood in the doorway, her flimsy chest heaving, the watch dangling from her clutches. After regaining some of her rigid composure, her icy voice cut the air.
Michaela’s cheek tingled where a reddening handprint surfaced. She sat on the bed in a slight daze. Aunt Hazel had inadvertently imparted valuable information, and it sank into Michaela with a light feeling of perfect rightness. Familiarity rang in the very essence of that name.
Michaela whispered it until it became a part of her and she fell into a happy slumber, spectacles askew.
Peace, however, does not last forever, and Aunt Hazel’s wrath was swift and relentless. Were it not for the refuge of renewed inner warmth on the arctic island of Hazel-gone-nuts, the next few weeks of Michaela’s life would have been unendurable.