Dr. Tariq’s gaze was as stunning as I remembered. I was in his office, divulging everything I could about Stitch Mouth and Balloon Girl, rambling along in a convoluted mixture of stories which included things the three of us had done together, along with stories of their pasts.
“Sarah,” he interrupted.
“Will you look up, please?”
“There. Now we may speak together.” He was smiling, with no hint of amusement or condescension. “I want you to continue. In fact, I shall say very little. But I wanted to make an observation.”
“At our first introduction, you were someone who appeared to be hopeless. I may have even described you as someone who was doomed, or at least as someone who considered herself to be.” He waved a hand over me. “There is stark evidence of change.”
“That’s good, right?”
He smirked. “It is wonderful. Now, continue with the story of your friends, your beloved Stitch Mouth and Balloon Girl. I want to hear the rest. But I want to hear about the time your friends spent in the house of the witch, long before they ever came to you.”
“Why do you want to know about that?”
His countenance dissolved into something severe. “Because you have focused on all the wonder of your two friends. But you have purposefully left out the parts that are necessary for me to know.”
“Um, yeah, sure. Okay.” My gaze lowered again to a spot in the carpet. The room seemed to darken. Shadows at my shoulders. “Stitch Mouth and Balloon Girl met at the witch’s house. It was as terrible as you could imagine. The witch was obsessed with being called ‘mother.’ Every night before bed, one child was chosen to brush her long hair while all the children were forced to sing.”
“The witch chose those children for the same reason she chose you. For your voice.”
It was a puzzle piece I had added weeks ago. “Yes. At first, the witch just wanted the children to love her and to pretend that they were a family. Because she used to have one too, but she killed her own children after her husband died.” I looked up to see how Dr. Tariq would respond to this, but he appeared neither intrigued nor surprised. “But one night, there was a boy. He wouldn’t stop crying because he wanted his real mom. The witch shushed him, but he wouldn’t stop, so she led the boy downstairs after telling everyone to go to sleep. Stitch Mouth could still hear the boy crying. Then there was the sound of an axe snapping through something. Stitch Mouth told me that’s when the witch really changed. That’s when other children went missing.”
“The children with the most gifted voices lived the longest.”
“Yes. That’s why Stitch Mouth and Balloon Girl lived as long as they did. Stitch Mouth still has the most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard.”
“And Balloon Girl?”
“I don’t know. She can’t speak or sing.”
“She has no lungs,” he concluded, almost disappointed with himself for not already guessing the fact.
“What happened next?”
“Well, one night, when it was time for everyone to sing, Stitch Mouth and Balloon Girl sang a different song. It was a song that made fun of the witch. The witch slapped Balloon Girl. Some of the children ran to their beds. Some hid in the corners. The witch turned on Stitch Mouth and began beating her. Stitch Mouth just kept singing with her mouth full of blood. Balloon Girl jumped onto the witch, but she was too little. They were both too little. The witch tore Balloon Girl from her back and began dragging her towards the door. Balloon Girl blew a kiss to Stitch Mouth. The door was shut and locked. Stitch Mouth banged against it, screaming. But then she heard the rushing sounds of the furnace.” I stopped, wiping my eyes.
“Continue,” Dr. Tariq said.
“I don’t think I can.”
“Because. What happened next, Sarah? Tell me.”
“Stitch Mouth listened to Balloon Girl’s screams until they finally stopped. Then the witch returned to the bedroom. Stitch Mouth began to sing again. The witch strapped Stitch Mouth to her bed, took a needle and thread, and sewed Stitch Mouth’s lips together. But when Stitch Mouth sang anyway, the witch choked Stitch Mouth to death.”
“Why are you crying?”
“How can’t I?” I asked, almost angry at him. “It’s all so sad. The way they died. Living in that horrible house. Losing their families like they did. Having to relive it all.”
“Yet they do not wallow in their own sadness.”
It was true. “I know.”
“They have returned for you, Sarah, to help you do what they were never able to.”
“That’s what scares me the most.” It was the first time I had admitted it, even to myself.
“What is it that scares you?”
“That I won’t be able to.”
“Able to do what?”
“Then say it, Sarah.”
“Say it before you lose the nerve. What is it, Sarah, what is it that scares you the most? Say it!”
“That I won’t be able to kill the witch!” I screamed at him. Then I turned away.
“Good. Yet, Sarah, you are hiding a deeper fear. Back when you first entered my office, you were afraid that the witch would hurt you. What scares you the most now?”
“That Stitch Mouth and Balloon Girl will get hurt because of me.”
“Sarah, may I provide you with a word of encouragement?”
I turned back to him. “Of course. Please.”
“If you do nothing, your friends will die.”
It felt as though he had stabbed me.
Dr. Tariq continued, “You cannot live like this forever. Even if you want to.”
“But that’s all I want. To spend time with them.”
Dr. Tariq nodded. “Sarah, you have been witness to your choice.”
“Yes. Your two friends made a choice years ago. And they have made a choice in returning for you. It is a choice that comes by caring and love. A choice found in a song. Do nothing, Sarah, and that song ends.” Dr. Tariq raised a silent hand before me, his palm towards the ceiling, as though cupping water. Then he raised the other, displaying two possible outcomes. Staring at me with those golden eyes, Dr. Tariq shook his head.