“I can see it now,” She says nervously. Her big blue eyes stare over you, out the window. “I can see the rain now. It wasn’t raining before, was it?”
You pretend to be asleep. Rise and fall. Rise and fall. You force yourself to take big, deep breaths, breaths like the ones Aria takes, the times she’s fallen asleep faster than you. You let out a little sigh, a sleeping sigh, and pray it wasn’t too dramatic.
Aria is sitting up. She had been asleep—then the storm started. Probably woke up to the sound of the sky cracking in half and booming as it broke.
Not literally, of course. But by the thundering growls outside, it sure sounded like it.
‘Iris?’ Aria’s small hand taps your shoulder, ‘Iris? Are you asleep?’
You choose not to answer.
Your eyes are closed, but you can still feel her eyes on you, in the way most sisters can. She’s watching for a twitch of the eye, a flick of the wrist, a jerk of the leg.
And you won’t give it to her.
The thunder roars, past the yellow flowered curtains, lighting filling up the night sky like flying electric eels. Squinting your eyes the littlest bit, you see shadows dancing and twirling and waltzing on the bedroom wall. The room, and the world outside the window, looks eery and dark. The clouds cover the moon, but sometimes they shift to let its light through.
The soft glowing white rays illuminate the walls and the objects in the messy bedroom, filling places that shouldn’t be filled with a sheet of ghostly white. The storm and the night work together to play tricks on your eyes, on your mind. You see a shape flick past you, to your right. Or maybe you don’t. you hear a howling in the distance. Or maybe you don’t. a hill to the west, not visible through the small window, but there nonetheless, would make a perfect place for howling at the moon. A perfect place for dangerous night things. A perfect place for fear.
But you’re thirteen years old. Storms don’t scare you. You’ve studied them in school, studied their patterns and formations. And you’ve lived on this farm all your life, lived near the hill to the west, and you have never seen a dangerous night thing.
A small hum comes from your side, light and high and worried. A siren. Or a little girl.
You remember Aria next to you. In truth, you never forgot. You feel her weight shift, as she lays back down, seemingly giving up on the thought of waking you.
Not that she could. You like to consider yourself the best fake-sleeper there is. Seven years of sharing a bed with Aria does that to you.
You wait until you hear her breathing slow, hear her whimpers resolve. You turn slowly on your side, facing her, silently hoping she’s really asleep. Or even in that land between sleep and waking, that land filled with tunnels of light and explosions of dreaming particles. You like that feeling, that feeling of being half-asleep, half-awake. You like feeling like time has frozen in place. You feel safe there, in that land, so close and yet so far away.
You hope Aria feels safe, there, too.
Her little body is curled in on itself, frilled, clumped. She holds a small bundle—a bundle of rags. A bundle called Rugs. A bundle called love.
Her young, plump fingers squeeze the tighter and tighter and tighter. Unflinching. Clenching. Because it seems she’s still awake. It seems she hears the thunder. Though her eyes are closed, she must see the bright flashes of lightning behind her lids.
That’s alright. You used to worry that you subconsciously liked Aria best when she was sleeping. A strange worry, that was. You’ve had a lot of strange worries.
But you know now, for sure, that even though you like sleeping Aria, you like awake Aria better. Normally. But maybe not now. Not an hour past midnight.
She looks so peaceful, even if she’s only faking sleep.
And then, the thunder cries louder than it has before. The ground seems to rumble the ceiling fan swings ever so slightly, casting a dancing shadow—a large bird flying in the dim light.
Aria’s eyes fly open. Her death grip on Rugs loosens and she reaches her small arm to you. She needs you.
‘Iris,’ her little voice—the voice of a bumblebee, mother says—calls to you.
‘The storm,’ she whinnies, a pony with pigtails, ‘Rugs is scared.’
Rugs is scared. Of course rugs is scared. Rugs is a bundle of rags. If you were a bundle of rags, you'd be scared, too.
Fine. Fine, she wants you awake. You had both been faking each other, in truth. And you both knew it, too. You weren’t asleep, and neither was she.
‘What, Ari?’ your voice comes out more crackly than you thought it would, ‘What can I do to help Rugs feel better?’
A roaring thunderous boom.
Aria sits bolt upright. Her hair is sticking up at all angles, and you would laugh, if she didn’t look so terrified.
‘Rugs wants a story. Can you tell him a story, Iris?’ she says.
‘Ari, its late. Later than late. I’m not sure if a story’s a good idea.’
‘Pleasssse,’ she stretches out the word so long it sounds more like a moan.
‘Oh, alright. One story. And then will Rugs stop pestering me and go to sleep?’
She bobs her head full of straw-colored hair. Up and down. Up and down.
‘Once upon a time,’ you start, ‘there lived two sisters. One of them, the older one, was called…um…Isabel. and the younger one was named…Addy. And they were pirates. They lived on a boat called the Dangerous Night Thing, but they called it the DNT for short. Yeah. The DNT. Anyway, the two sisters were—’
‘They were princesses, right? Weren’t they princesses, Iris?’
‘Uh…well, I told you they were pirates. That’s their thing.’
‘They can have two things, though. Can’t they be pirate princesses?’
‘Pirate—oh, fine. Let me keep going, though. These two pirate princesses sailed the seven seas with the DNT, and they fought sea monsters for a living. Not because they liked too, really, but because fighting sea monsters was a stable job with a good hourly pay. And this one night, they were fighting a big sea monster with tentacles. It was like a giant octopus, if a giant octopus was neon orange. And it had one eye. One big, glaring, blinking eye. And it could swallow a whole fishing boat with one gulp, a bit like how you ate your potato salad yesterday. But it couldn’t eat the DNT, because the DNT was as big as it was. It would be like you, trying to eat a motorcycle. If you were the size of a motorcycle. But yeah. Isabella—’
‘Isabel, Iris. Her name was Isabel.’
You give Aria the stink eye. ‘No,’ you say, ‘I’m telling the story and I say her name was Isabel. But she went by Isabella, sometimes, too.’
She shrugs. ‘Keep going.’
‘That’s all there is to it. They were fighting a sea monster. In the DNT. And they were winning. The end.’
‘That’s not a very good story.’
‘Then make it better.’
You cross your arms. ‘How?’
‘Act it out.’ Aria’s little bottom lips pouts out. She seems to have forgotten about the storm outside. Good. You’ll keep it that way.
‘Alright. Lets say the bed is the boat. See that chair? That’s a lifeboat. And the ceiling fan in a seagull.’
The thunder clapped outside. Aria leaned closer to you.
‘Rugs doesn’t like the thunder, Iris,’ she says softly.
‘Well, tell Rugs that’s not thunder. That’s just the sea monster roaring as we so bravely vanquish it.’
Aria’s frown twists and flips until it runs into a grin.
‘I can tell him that. So we’re fighting it—the sea monster—right now?’
‘Yup. We’re winning, too.’
And, looking out into the bedroom, you let yourself imagine. You haven’t, in a long time, but you do now. The carpet dissolves into a black ocean. Your guitar in the corner tangles into a school of piranhas. There have to be piranhas. Obviously. Aria’s soccer ball becomes the DNT’s anchor, slowly sinking so that you can keep fighting the monster.
Oh, the monster. It roars and growls and hisses. It gets louder every few seconds, then dies down as you stab at it with your swords. Side by side, you and Aria take on a beast.
But the roaring gets louder. Louder than any living thing could get. And the carpet turns to carpet again, and the guitar and soccer ball become just that. And you and Aria find yourselves squatting on the bed together, facing a monster that never existed.
A powerful crash of thunder.
‘Iris?’ Aria’s bumblebee voice squeaks, ‘I don’t want to be on the boat anymore. Rugs is scared. Tell me another story.’
And you do. Because you want to feel that feeling again—that feeling you get when you imagine, and everything dissolves into something better. You want to feel alive.
This time, the story starts in a jungle.
‘Not just a jungle, a jungle cave. Two super smart and brave scientist ladies are there together, studying the rare one-footed dart frog. The frog lives on trees but will squirt poison at your through its eyes if it sees you. So that’s why they’re hiding in the cave. And in this jungle, it never rains or thunders. Ever. Never ever.’
‘But Iris,’ Aria interrupts, ‘How are there trees if it never rains?’
So smart, that one.
‘Well,’ You say quickly, ‘The trees get their water from an underground river. Like a aquifer.’
Take that big word, Aria. You’re smart, too. Aquifer. Ha.
‘Where’s the cave for us?’ she asks.
‘Under the bed, of course. Ready to go?’
And together you crawl under the bed. Its warm and stuffy, and its cramped (because you seem to have grown since the last time you were there), but a jungle cave is warm and stuffy and cramped, too.
‘That pile of clothes? That’s a rare berry bush. Called the shadow berry. The lamp it the tree we’re watching. And that stain on the lamp, from when I spilled my chocolate milk, is the one-footed frog. It looks asleep, but its only faking.’
Aria stares at the frog with an intensiveness you match. You can hear the tropical birds calling to each other from high above.
And then you hear a scratching sound. Like a fingernail against a blackboard. But it’s not, obviously. No, it’s the big oak outside the window dragging its branch across the glass.
It might be the spookiest sound you’ve heard all night.
Aria shivers beside you. She’s not looking at the stain or the lamp or the pile of dirty clothes anymore. She’s looking out the window, at the dark silhouette of the branch, like a witch’s hand, dragging on the sill.
And before you can stop her, Aria’s squirming out from under the bed, Rugs in hand. In a flash she jumps under the covers and pulls the quilt over her eyes. You hear her ragged breathing coming fast from beneath the fabric.
It takes you longer than it took her, but you join her on the bed.
‘Aria?’ you ask quietly.
‘I don’t want to be in the cave anymore,’ she says, ‘Rugs is scared. Tell a different story?’
Its late. And you’re starting to feel tired. The adrenaline from studying the poison-shooting jungle frog is wearing thin.
‘I think we need to get some sleep. Rugs, too.’
This affects her instantly.
‘I caaan’t!’ she whines. If Rugs talked, he would be whining, too.
You rub you temples. But you have an idea.
‘Fine. One more story. Once upon a time, there was a little girl. This little girl wasn’t a pirate, or a princess, or a scientist. She didn’t live on a boat, or in a jungle cave. She lived in a little house on a farm with a hill to the west. And she was sitting on a bed with a blue quilt. And she was holding a ball of kitchen rags wadded together. She called it Bugs.’
Aria’s eyes narrowed. ‘This girl sounds a lot like me. And Bugs sound a lot like Rugs. I don’t know what you’re doing, Iris, but whatever it is, stop it.’
You go on.
‘And its storming outside. But here’s the thing: this little girl and her bundle of rags—Bugs—loved storms. And so she walked up to the window and looked out. And she saw God. Well, maybe not God, but she saw something that looked a lot like God. She saw little drops of silver, falling from the sky in the smallest drops. Where had those drops been before? She saw a flash of bright light, like a ray of sunshine, only faster, quicker, smarter, filling the night sky with a powerful blanket of a thousand stars. She saw the fingers of a motherly oak, stroking the windows in a caress. And she heard the most spectacular sound. Like a billion moments of laughter, all bundled up together. Like a collection—a chorus! Of miraculously hilarious instances, let out in a few seconds of built up noise. It was awesome. And the little girl just sat there, for the rest of the thunderstorm, with Bugs by her side, and she watched and listened. And she felt so small. But that felt good. Because there was so much out there—so much awesomeness. And the storm reminded her of that. And then, after she got really tired, she went to sleep. And because she was asleep, her big sister felt safe and secure. And her big sister kissed the little girl’s cheek, and kissed Bugs’…well…kissed on of Bug’s rags, and went to sleep, too. The end.’
You cleared your throat. And sat in a moment of silence. Was Aria asleep?
You turned to face her. No. no, she was awake. She wasn’t looking at you, though. And she wasn’t looking at the bed-boat, or the lamp-tree. She was looking out the window, at the rain. The lighting. The oak branch rubbing the window. And the thunder boomed loud and powerful and good, and she didn’t hide. She didn’t curl closer to you. She just held Rugs a little tighter, and kept watching.
And she didn’t say a word. She just sat there. And you sat there. But oh, were you tired. Slowly, ever so slowly, you laid down. You closed you eyes. You fell asleep.
Later, you awoke—but not really. You were half-awake, and half-asleep. Maybe your eyes opened, and maybe they didn’t, but the next morning, you could have sworn you had seen Aria, still watching the window, a small smile playing on her lips.
Hours passed, and then you woke up for real. It was still dark outside. The storm was over. Water droplets were racing each other down the window pane, and the oak’s branch wasn’t waving in the wind anymore.
Aria was next to you, fast asleep.
You leaned over and kissed her forehead. And then you kissed Rug’s…well…rag. And you laid down next to your little sister, and let yourself drift off into a world of your on creation. You dreamt of pirate princesses and neon orange sea monsters. Of explorers and poisonous fake-sleeping frogs. And you dreamt of new things, wonderfully crazy things, until morning came.