The smell of homemade fried chicken and small, microwaved okra wafted in through Sandrita’s window. She sat behind her curtain and watched her neighbors run from their apartment to the car. They were helping their mom get the groceries, and even though Sandrita knew it was a small thing in their day, she wished she could help someone carry food into the kitchen. She wished she could put on her mother’s big high heels, like the oldest neighbor boy had, and feel the crunch of soft gravel as she balanced plastic bags of orange juice and milk in each hand. Sandrita wanted to eat homemade fried chicken and she wanted to watch the microwave okra spin in the machine, getting hotter and more delicious by the minute. But sandrita couldn’t. There was no way she could leave this room, no matter how empty it was. Once upon a time, there was a bed in here. There was a lamp by the floor and a little refrigerator that plugged into the wall. Sandrita used to flick the lamp on and off, on and off, until one day it shut down entirely and when she woke up the next morning, it was gone, just like her bed and the refrigerator and the fourteen stuffed animals her mother gave her. She missed the rabbit the most because it was soft and the ears were made of silky satin. She missed the time when this was a guest room, and not a cell.
The neighbor children were nice, Sandrita thought, to always wave at her when they saw her peeking through the curtains. She could still remember their names, even though it had been so many years since they’d seen each other on the other side of this window, this wall. It wasn’t fun anymore for Sandrita to pretend there was some crazy fairy tale reason she was in this room. There was no reason to imagine herself as some beautiful princess, guarded away from the world and waiting for someone to save her. When she was younger, she used to pretend- lie to herself, really- that there was a mysterious person coming to rescue her on a pretty white horse or, at the very least, a large dog. Then one day, Sandrita woke up to find her last stuffed animal gone and she realized with a sudden, greater sadness that she would never be able to leave, regardless of who came to get her. There were some things that she just wasn’t going to get away with, or get away from.
Today, though, she wanted to watch her neighbors and smell their dinner. The oldest boy, Kilkini, looked up at her window and smiled, waving. He was still wearing his mom’s high heels and his shirt was too big, it swung past his knees and overlapped the bottom of his shorts. Sandrita wondered if he played basketball, or if they only had the net out in the yard for decoration. It was strange to see people laughing, moving, playing, going on and on without her as she rotted away in her little empty guest room, bare walls and locked door to match her bare feet and locked mouth. She was so quiet. What was there to say and besides that, who would she ever say it to?
When her parents first closed the door, Sandrita had a tiny bird. She called it Choi. It would sing to her and fill the silence and sometimes, sometimes, it was enough to keep her busy. And then one day she woke up and Choi was singing no more, never to sing again. The little bird had died. And Sandrita felt herself die a little more with it. She wished there was a song in her room now. She wished there was a song in her heart, too, or a bright light in her eyes. She wouldn’t know anyway, there wasn’t a mirror. There was nothing she could do to make the light come back, or the song, or her soft way of speaking. There was a time, of course, when she couldn’t stop talking. She told her thoughts, no matter how bitty they were, to her mother, her father, her friends and… her sister.
The reason Sandrita was locked in her empty guest room.
The very pretty, slightly older, very dead sister.
Sandrita blinked away the memory of her sister and focused on the smell of her neighbor’s dinner. It was wonderful to know that even if she wouldn’t be able to join her family at the table again, someone else could.
Sandrita jumped. This boy, the oldest one, was talking to her through the window. “Hey, hi!”
She didn’t answer. She couldn’t open the window. She waved to Kilkini. He grinned and hopped back inside his apartment, where she couldn’t see him again. She leaned closer to the window and pressed her palms flat against the glass. There was sunshine out there. She wanted to feel it better. Sandrita ran her fingers along the bottom of the window pane, but there was no way to open it. It was nailed shut, like most things in this room.
Her mother was at the door with her food.
“I have your dinner, will you come get it?”
“Yes. On my way.”
Her mother slid a tray under the door and Sandrita caught it with both hands. It was cold and there was no smell to it at all, so vastly unlike the chicken and okra kilkini and his siblings were no doubt enjoying this moment. “Are you doing alright today, honey?”
“Can I leave?”
There was a sharp silence, as though her mother was breathing in, and then, “No, that’s ridiculous. You’re in there to be safe. You know that.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt anyone.”
“I know. But you did.”
And Sandrita knew she had, but that didn’t make the days any shorter, or the smell of delicious fried chicken fade any less. She was still alone and she could still feel the ribs of that loneliness ebbing away at her insides, taking her apart as one would, well, a piece of crispy, fresh, fried chicken.