“You shouldn’t be eating that,” Siri said placidly. I frowned as I handed over the money to the ice-cream vendor.
He smiled unbothered, filling a cone with sweet frozen chocolate milk. I heard Siri sigh as I grabbed the dessert from the man, immediately smashing it onto my tongue.
“Seriously. You’re gonna have a huge breakout tomorrow,” she said, spreading her tiny fingers wide over her small, heart-shaped face.
I shook my head as I turned to walk over to a bench under the trees. “Can’t I enjoy things in peace,” I muttered.
We sat down in the shade, temporarily cool and covered from the hot sun. Siri looked up at the sky, a gentle breeze blowing her long brown hair over her bare shoulders. She was wearing her favourite dress, a sleeveless, striped one-piece covered in blue and white flowers. The flared look was back in fashion.
“Do you want some?” I asked, without really offering.
“No thanks.” She replied, as usual.
I shrugged and continued licking. We sat in comfortable silence, as we always did since Siri first showed up in my life.
At first, I was reluctant to have a precocious little 10-year-old hanging around me, sharing my space, my time, my energy. But after a while I got used to her quiet company.
It felt as though I’d always known her, as though I’d been waiting for her to arrive.
I whittled down the ice-cream to the wafer, and bit into the cone greedily. Pulling out my phone, I opened the map application to check where we were.
“How far away are we?” Siri asked, shifting closer to look at my screen. She seemed to know what I was going to do before I even did it.
“Not far,” I replied, tapping the screen. “About a 20-minute walk, it says.”
“Hmm.” Siri murmured thoughtfully. “We should go soon. It’s already past 5,” she pointed to the time in the corner of my screen with her little finger.
I nodded, chewing into the cone with a little more haste.
Understandably, Siri was anxious to get there. I’d planned the whole trip for her sake after all.
We stood up and dusted our clothes. The back of Siri’s dress was a little dirty from the bench.
“Want me to clean that up?” I asked.
She glanced around her, twisting her small body to look at the seat of her dress. “Nah,” she replied, as usual. “It doesn’t really matter.”
I made a tiny, involuntary movement at those words. She ignored it.
We left the cool shade of the tree and started walking towards the path that would take us out of the park. It was summer, so of course everybody was milling about, enjoying the weather. I had some anxiety about that, especially because Siri was with me.
I looked down at my phone, trying to distract myself from the people, the chattering, the laughing. We stopped at an intersection to wait for a green light. As more people approached, I felt my heart flutter. I stared straight ahead at the red walking man, willing it to change colour.
Sweat was pouring down my back. I was worried that people could see the wet patches darkening my t-shirt.
What if they’re all looking at me now? I thought, biting the skin on my lips, until I tasted blood.
Suddenly, I felt Siri’s cool hand slip into mine. She gripped her small fingers around my palm, holding tightly. I glanced sideways at the top of her little head. She too was staring straight ahead, willing the little red man to change colour.
As the light turned green and we stepped forward together, I smiled a little sadly.
Siri was not usually affectionate. She hated being touched, even by me. The first few months with her were difficult: she hardly spoke, she wouldn’t sleep and she would startle at the tiniest sound or movement I made.
I learnt early on that I had to be gentler with her. Give her space, time and books. She loved reading. She also liked silence, which was unusual and rather disconcerting in a child.
“Look,” Siri said suddenly, using her free hand to point. “A dog!” her face lit up as she said it. A rarity.
“Want to pet it?” I asked kindly. She smiled at me sweetly, nodding.
I walked over to the dog and nodded to the owner, an elderly woman, politely. I didn’t need to rehearse what to say this time, because I’d said this a hundred times before.
“Excuse me,” I started. “May I pet your dog?”
“Oh!” the woman replied chuckling. “Of course!” she gestured towards the fluffy terrier.
“Thank you,” I said quietly. I knelt down, Siri knelt next to me, letting go of my hand.
The dog looked at me curiously, sniffing my outstretched fingers. It must’ve smelled the ice-cream because it stuck it’s tongue out to lick me.
“Ah!” I exclaimed chuckling hastily, pulling my fingers back and using my other hand to scratch its head. The dog bent it’s head in assent, allowing me to rub its back.
Siri was smiling wide, her small, white, teeth making a rare appearance. Her face look liked the child in the photo collections of the many, many social workers she'd encountered.
“Who’s a good boy,” she muttered. The dog turned to her, tilting it’s head quizzically. It let out a low and playful growl. Turning it’s whole body to face Siri, it moved forward to sniff her, pulling back a second later, its ears rising suspiciously.
I glanced at Siri. She had both her hands outstretched to pet it, but it was useless. I sighed and stood up abruptly. Thanking the lady again, I turned to Siri and nodded.
She was already on her feet, waving to the dog, whose ears were still raised in alarm, tail no longer wagging.
“Time to go,” I muttered. Siri nodded turning away, looking down at the pavement. This time, I reached out for her hand and was surprised - but happy - to find it.
We walked on steadily down the street, I, with my phone in one hand looking down occasionally to make sure we were headed in the right direction. When we got to another intersection, I heard Siri let out a small breath, invisible except to me.
"Look there," she said pointing across the road to the left. "That comic book store-"
"Caped Crusaders," I murmured. The sight of the old shop filled me with unexplained emotion. For the first time since we set off, I lowered my phone and locked my screen.
When the light turned green, Siri and I both walked towards the store, drawn to it in unison, feeling overwhelmed together. This store used to be the only good thing Siri and I had – our very own Fortress of Solitude if you will.
At the entrance we both hesitated. Across the dirty, rusted metal doors was a large sign: Condemned. Siri let out a gasp. I balked a little. Letting go of her hand I walked around to the unwashed windows, squinting to look inside.
"Looks like it's been empty for a long time," I said, stepping back and dusting my clothes. I felt disappointment, mingled with sadness. I tried to push it aside.
I was startled when I heard a low wail next to me. Siri was crying. Tears were falling down her small cheeks. She turned to look at me, choking on her sadness. I sometimes forgot that she was just a 10- year-old. She had the emotional intelligence of a young adult.
It reminded me that things shouldn't have been that way. She was just a child, who should've been allowed to feel her feelings. I stepped towards her and opened my arms, still surprised by the lack of impact she made as she flew into me.
She sobbed for a full 5 minutes, I held onto her tightly, caught between her emotion and my own. Some people passed by, looking at us curiously, glancing back and murmuring in confusion.
"It’s okay, it’s okay," I said. Siri let go of me, stepping back and wiping her face with her small hands. My t-shirt was wet with tears.
I shifted my backpack around and pulled out some tissues, but she shook her head pulling up the neckline of her dress to wipe her face.
I sighed and used the tissues myself.
"Why did they close it?" she asked thickly.
I glanced at the sign and pointed. "It says right there on the sign "Condemned".
"I dunno what that means!" Siri cried, raising her voice uncharacteristically.
"Calm down," I muttered, looking around us. People were still passing by, staring.
"It means the building is very old, they're probably going to tear it down and build something else," I continued.
Siri looked up at the block, her face flushed, eyes still wet.
"The store probably moved somewhere else," I said gently.
"Where to?" she demanded, without looking at me. She sounded angry now.
"I don't know," I replied getting irritated. "What does it matter? We didn't come here to see a stupid comic shop."
Siri lowered her eyes from the sky and turned them on me. "You never thought it was stupid before," she said softly, hurt by my tone.
"Yeah well I'm older now and we don't even live here anymore," I snapped.
Siri winced. Her eyes were welling up again.
A fresh wave of guilt covered me. I shivered. "Okay, I'm-I’m sorry-"
"Why are you always so - so -"
"So what?" I demanded quietly.
Siri wiped her eyes, then wiped her fingers on her dress. She looked down at her sandals, small and dirty around her small and dirty feet.
"You act like you don't care but you do," she said accusatorily. "You act like it doesn't matter but it does."
I stared at her, this small thing telling me about myself. And she was right. I inhaled to control my temper.
"Let's go," Siri said suddenly, stepping forward quickly and brushing past me.
"Wait," I said turning to grab her arm, and not being able to.
She walked on ahead of me. I sighed as I moved to catch up, walking a pace or two behind her. Neither of us needed the map now. We both knew the way.
As we neared, I began to feel sick. Siri had her back turned to me, her long brown hair shining chestnut in the setting sun. She looked more unearthly than ever.
"Siri," I muttered. She stopped and turned around, her face was emotionless.
"I-I'm sorry." I gulped.
"I know," Siri replied calmly. She waited for me to catch up to her.
I looked down at her face, pale from sickness, from malnutrition, from all the abuse. Etched with wrinkles where there should’ve been none, lines of a downcast frown where there should’ve been smiles.
"We're here," she said reaching for my hands with her small fingers. I looked behind her at the tall, iron gates, open to the living.
I nodded, swallowing. Why was this so hard?
Siri squeezed my hand gently to get me to move. I felt it and took a few steps forward, walking into the cemetery slowly.
It was peaceful enough, but not very welcoming. There wasn't much grass and there were only a few trees scattered over the grounds. Dusty brown sand spread out over the plots under the hot sun, like a desert of death.
It took me a few minutes to realise I was shaking, small tremors rattling my body and my brain like electric shocks. Siri was whispering something, a familiar mantra that we still used to this day.
"I am okay, it will be okay."
I repeated it as we neared the plots. We stepped unceremoniously over other dead people to get to the tombstones of my mother and father.
I was breathing fast from the heat and the anxiety. My heart felt too quick, racing as though there was an unnseen danger. My body was frigid, my arms felt like jelly, my legs giving away as I stumbled onto my knees, in front of the gravesite.
"I-I-I-I can’t breathe," I said suddenly, turning to Siri. She nodded calmly, kneeling beside me and holding onto my arm. She rubbed my back.
Tears of relief, tears of grief, tears of anger and sadness spilled over my face, choking me as I sobbed.
My hands were flat on the sand as I knelt in front of the graves of my parents, wetting the ground in front of them with emotion as an offering.
"How- How-c-c-could – y-y-you," I cried at the tombstones. "How - could – y-y-you - d-do this t-t-to us-s-s?"
Siri was looking at me, her face wet with tears. I could feel her hand on my back, her presence was as real as it had been when she first manifested, as real as when I held her a few minutes ago.
But I knew the time had come for her to spirit away.
I choked and spluttered, tears and snot mixing on my face. "How-c-c-could you n-n-n-not c-c-care?" I cried at the tombstones. "I was j-j-j-just a k-k-k-k-kid!”
I lifted my head, wiped my face on my sleeves and paused. "D-did y-y-you even l-love me?" I hiccoughed, glaring at their names, etched neatly in the stone.
Their plots lay side by side in symmetry, the words “loving” and “caring” felt like mockeries of the true turmoil of our family life.
I pulled my backpack around me to grab some tissues, mopping up my sodden face. The sun was setting slowly over the marbled homes of the dead, and I shivered slightly at the knowledge that it would be dark soon.
Reaching inside my bag, I pulled out a small envelope with my parents’ names on it. I teared up as I stared at the letter, so filled with hurt, abuse and a desperate plea for closure. I was supposed to open it and read it to them. Pages and pages of broken emotion that I'd kept inside for years.
I breathed in the dusty air. Leaning forward, between the two graves, I attempted digging a small hole. Siri was fading in the departing light, but I saw her hands move to try and help me.
Once we made it deep enough, I looked at the ghost of my childhood, a young girl who would be haunted by the abuses of her family for years to come.
Siri smiled at me sadly, nodding. I placed the letter in the hole and covered it up slowly. Sitting back on my knees, I felt the same old carousel of grief, sadness and anger. But this time, I watched the emotions swirl around and around as I closed my eyes and…let them go.
I sat on the ground with my eyes shut in silent meditation for some time. When I opened them again, Siri was gone.
The sun had melted over the horizon. Looking at the graves of my parents one last time, I stood up unevenly, dusting my sandy clothes off. I inhaled and exhaled the cool air of the twilight, gazed up at the stars, slowly emerging for the night shift. Then I turned and began the journey back home, alone.
My phone vibrated with a call as I exited the iron gates of the cemetery. I glanced at the screen. It was my therapist's office.
“Hello, Siri speaking,” I answered, my voice faltering and numb from emotion.
“Hi Serena. It’s Doctor Roy.”
“Just thought I’d check in on you. How was your trip?”
I paused. An older, adult version of myself, still broken and bruised. Still standing.
“I’m-I’m okay. It’s going to be okay.”