Agatha has always been stuck in between. When she was born in the Gateway to the West, the doctor reading his watch on her mother’s left declared it 11:59 PM, March 31st. The doctor reading the wall clock above her mother’s head said it was 12:00 AM on April 1st.
Unsurprisingly, Agatha’s mother advocated for the March birthday while her father insisted she be born on April Fools. Agatha’s mother fainted from the combined exhaustion of arguing and giving birth, and the doctors had the common decency to record that Agatha was born in March. Agatha’s father was not thrilled by this outcome, but he made do because the tiny purple thing that looked more worm than human was gripping his thumb so it, too, turned puffy and swollen.
If babies could be wise, Agatha was that. She had the good sense to never allow herself to be propped up by flimsy cabinets or child-swallowing chairs, so her poor parents resorted to carrying her wherever they went and hardly got a moment’s rest. Furthermore, Agatha insisted that baby food was made by the devil and wasted away until her mother realized her daughter would eat her own mashed food. She bought a portable blender to nourish the poor, starving creature, and Agatha was so grateful she allowed her parents to sit down while they slept instead of leaning against a wall, as they had been before.
Agatha grew into her life. It had been challenging at first, the doctors likening her phenotype more to a prune than a human, but her wrinkles flattened into the face of a child, and her skin turned from ripe plum to creamy gold.
When Agatha opened her eyes for the first time, she didn’t close them for a whole week straight. Her mother is convinced this is why her daughter was fitted with glasses at age seven, but the doctors say it’s just plain old bad genes.
Despite this unfortunate physical impediment that made her flee at the mere sight of a basketball or squash ball or any other type of small flying object, Agatha had remarkably good vision. She saw through her father’s petty lies and friends’ bravado and earned the class title of master poker player and best confident. People told her things because they could feel her seeing them. Some of those people thought they confided in her because she was trustworthy and emotionally adept, but others came to her seeking absolution, hoping to justify their actions and relieve themselves of their troubles.
By middle school, Agatha’s locker became a sort of confessional, and people waited by her slatted door or slipped little notes inside, asking for advice or catharsis. Agatha became the great secret-keeper of the Eastern Building hallway. She even knew more about most of the teachers than the administrative staff. Everyone from the principal to the class clown came to her for information or opinions. Of course, Agatha never revealed anyone’s secrets unless they were dangerous, but she wasn’t above throwing a few helpful hints their way.
Despite her Napoleonic rule over the middle school, Agatha committed several faux-pas that threatened her reign once she got into high school, the first of which forced her to adapt her standards of “dangerous.” Selling out the class drug dealer earned her a good citizenship award in middle school and a fair amount of notoriety, but she’d been victim to a series of underhanded threats from a collection of boys shielded by daddy’s money for the same feat several years later.
Although most people talked to Agatha, were friendly with Agatha, and even paid Agatha not to look at them next Thursday during the calculus final, Agatha didn’t have many friends. She’d had a best friend in elementary school, but that friend wouldn’t so much as acknowledge her presence on the first day of sixth grade.
She’d known the moment she walked into the classroom. She saw the altered clusters of kids huddled around the desks and understood the expression on her friend’s face when she stared pointedly at the wall behind her. A pang of hurt struck Agatha’s chest and crept up her throat, but what could she do? She smiled at her now ex-best friend and sat with a cluster of girls hanging around the whiteboard speaking loudly about dragons and the properties of dragon scales. Agatha liked dragons a lot.
The older she got, the harder it became for Agatha to keep a friend. They’d feel her seeing them and become increasingly uncomfortable. After a single conversation, she could see their comforts and their strengths alongside their vices and their insecurities, and the more time she spent with them, the more their lives unfurled before her.
She was always encouraging, always supportive, and never ever shared what she saw unless they asked. People stopped asking; wanted to figure things out for themselves, she supposed. Got lost and didn’t want to find their way. But they still felt her seeing them. She couldn’t very well walk around with her eyes closed all day, so they shied away. Even her own mother felt judged by the harsh glare reflecting off Agatha’s glasses.
So, she just sat back and watched them struggle: flounder around and gasp for air and smack away any lifeline she threw. Agatha realized this must be simply human nature, so when her most recent friend took the lifeline, ripped the plastic from the edges of the floatation device, and lashed Agatha’s face until blood ran into her eyes, Agatha realized it was time to walk away. Well, drive away.
Agatha had a spiffy red Ford named Darla and decided that she was her new best friend. Maybe it was because Darla wouldn’t run away from her stare or blanch when she smiled, but Agatha decided Darla was her best way out of this mess. Even though she hated driving. It would have been better if they hadn’t shown her all those horror flicks in Drivers’ Education.
Every Saturday afternoon, Agatha donned her red sneaker-shoes, jumped into Darla, and set out to explore the city. She liked what she saw. St. Louis was beautiful—made nearly completely of red brick structures with grey sidings and feathering overhangs that fluttered in the wind. When she parked her car to walk the city streets, she felt like a macabre film star walking the streets of a desolate city on her way to do something important.
Agatha looked around at the crumbling, empty buildings and felt very important for no particular reason at all. The suburbs where she lived were lovely and sweet, but this, the city. It felt like her. It felt like home.
In her red sneaker-shoes, Agatha felt dark and unstoppable and free. She felt cold and brave and fierce. She reveled in it. She stood under a faded red awning and took a deep breath.
She hadn’t noticed it before, but something foul was rearing its way through the streets. The haze was reeking and putrid and choked her. Agatha opened her eyes. There it was. How could she have missed it?
It lived in faces of shop owners and the glanced off car windows as they whizzed by, doors tightly locked. It crawled through the alleys and lingered at the bus station. Clear as day, it was etched into the very bones of the city, an unearthed relic that flooded and strangled and drowned.
Agatha’s stomach clenched, and she hurried back to her car, sticking her extra quarter in the meter as she went. This city certainly needed it more than her. When she made it home, Agatha crawled into bed, ignored her mother’s concern and her puppy’s preening, and stared blankly at her white sheets until her retinas burned. She stared and stared and tried to force those faces, that fear from her mind’s eye, but all she saw was the glazed looks, the clutched purses, the hurried walks.
She stared and stared and stared.
Later, in school, Agatha learned about the division between the city and the county: how St. Louis warred against itself, forcing its pieces and people and taxes apart. How schools and parks and police bowed to the invisible fear of voters who kept them separate, kept them “safe,” hoarded their wealth. The misers of the new age.
She learned how the Gateway to the West, once proud and bolstering progressive ideals that flaunted the very essence of a “New America,” fell flat. Its hopes forgotten. The people within cast aside by their own neighbors.
By the time Agatha learned about the Delmar Divide, where the disparity between income, property values, and race was so ingrained in the populous an actual line of de facto demarcation existed, Agatha had closed her eyes. She didn’t want to see.
She stopped taking Darla for adventures in the city, fearing for her safety and seeing the destruction her own lifestyle wrought. She didn’t want to see the shaking hand of the people who stared or reached their empty cups toward her. What was she to do—stop living? She hadn’t chosen this for anyone. She couldn’t fix this for everyone.
On her last trip out of the city, Agatha squeezed her eyes so tightly shut, Darla smashed into poor Mr. Abernathy’s new Honda. Once Agatha calmed the fluttering in her chest enough to get out of the car and hand over her insurance information, Darla rolled away. Agatha had parked her, but Darla was tired of all the seeing and decided to leave, rolling out of reach and into the intersection of Olive and Price instead.
Agatha bemoaned the loss of her beloved car and her mother’s accompanying fury, but she was secretly relieved. She hated driving and never wanted to listen to a car radio again. In fact, she never wanted to listen to any radio again. If news or current events podcasts or local press aired, she closed her eyes, practiced her deep breathing, and carefully felt her way out of the room with her hands.
And Agatha knew she was a coward.
She made a point of leaving the city while school was out to go somewhere cooler, nicer, with tortoises or homemade fudge shops or bookstores built into the walls of bank vaults. In those places, she saw declining wildlife populations, mass obesity, and the sweat and love that dripped from the thinning pages of books.
Somehow, it was easier there.
When Agatha finally graduated high school, she packed her bags and resolved to never look back. Never revisit the horrors or beauties that haunted her memory and chipped away at the lives of her loved ones. Agatha was subsumed by fear, and she would never let it happen again.
She did everything possible to stand by her oath. She lived in the quiet and dark corners of rooms to avoid any harsh light, and people jumped when she emerged to talk, her face veiled in shadow. She became affably known as the ghost on her college campus, and Agatha thought it seemed fitting because she felt dead.
She’d closed her eyes so tightly she couldn’t see the feats of her brave novel heroines or revel in the sunlight of the city. She couldn’t fret over tortoise populations or listen giddily to intriguing secrets. Dead people didn’t do those things. She might as well have been the breath of her own city’s corpse, flowing in and out and going nowhere.
But her city wasn’t dead. In her heart, Agatha knew that, just as she knew the ant-like people she saw buzzing around under the tall St. Louis Arch weren’t dead either. It was time to come alive again, feel the beauty and the pain and the power of life coursing through her.
Agatha looked in the mirror and rubbed her eyes. They were sore from disuse.
She threw herself a lifeline and grabbed ahold.
Agatha dedicated herself to gripping the possibilities that prostrated themselves before her and building something beautiful with them. She ran her fingers over each new prospect and folded delicate origami cranes and stars out the pieces of life fluttering around her. The knots in her chest subsided. Slowly, only halfway realizing what she was doing, Agatha opened her eyes. The veil lifted.
Her eyes themselves got progressively worse, and each year she slid into a thicker pair of glasses, but Agatha looked beyond her fear and her friends’ fear and her lovers’ fear and the fear of her city. She saw the haze, widened her eyes, and peered through it.
At last, Agatha donned her red sneaker-shoes again, jumped into her new car, Bertram, and headed west for the city made of red brick and blue awnings. The city full of sights so horrific and beautiful, it could have been a postcard for standard American living. Its depth and pain gave it meaning, a goal for the future, a purpose. Its wounds made it alive.
Agatha headed home.