The small room holds just the two of us, a square table, four metal chairs, and a million secrets. My mother and I sit side by side but the other two remain empty. The officers in their dark-colored suits have stepped out to get coffee and water. The men are exactly like actors—short hair, straight-faced—no-nonsense curt enforcers. Maybe, one has a soft side and likes to garden but I don’t know because I didn’t touch either of them.
My mother begins to talk the moment they leave. Her words come out fast. Her sentences trip over one another because we don’t have much time.
“Jane will pick you up. I already texted her. She’ll meet you at Arrival 3. They should release you soon but if it takes longer she’ll wait. You just have to—” She doesn’t finish but I already know what I have to do. We’ve talked about this—planned for a “just in case day,” like today. When I was younger she wanted me to be proud and grateful for my “gift.” But when I was being swallowed up by memories I hated it. I was a time traveler. I was a body snatcher. I was lost in plain sight.
She looks at the mirrored panel on the wall. I’ve seen enough crime shows to know that it’s a one-way viewing window. They’re probably watching us right now so I don’t ask her about Jane. Jane is probably Samantha or Richard or Joe. The names don’t matter. They are just temporary handlers. The first of many that she arranged to take care of us if there was a problem.
My mother must’ve had endless plans. I always knew there was a chance of us having to leave one another but I never really thought it would happen. Not really. I mean, how could I imagine the impossible? It’s always been the two of us.
My eyes fill up with tears as my mother closes hers. “Ugh. I just wish they would ask us their questions already. My neck is killing me.” She rubs the base of her skull and tilts her head to the side. With her eyes closed, she seems unreachable.
I tap my fingers on the desk—frantically. I need her to talk and reassure me. I rap out the morse code patterns again and again but she opens her eyes and silences me with a look. No.
“Hand me your phone.”
I don’t want to give it to her but there’s no point in arguing, my freedom has already been taken away. She takes it from me and holds it underneath the table, away from anyone’s gaze other than mine. She slips out the Sim Card, puts it underneath her shoe, and digs her heel into it. She appears anxious but she’s all business as she taps her foot and destroys it. When it’s nothing but tiny pieces she slips the hollow phone into her purse and smiles. “I’ll give it to you later.”
She won’t. Later, I’ll be in the car driving with Jane or Samantha or Richard or Joe. At some point, I might get a Burner phone but it won’t matter because, without my mother, I’ll have no one to call.
She looks at me and laughs. “Swings and roundabouts, right?”
I lean closer. “Mom—”
She grabs my shoulder. It’s gentle at first and then her grip tightens. Her eyes aren’t on mine. They’re focused on the door that will open any minute.
“It will be fine Penelope.”
But it won’t, no matter how much I beg or cry I won’t ever be able to return home again and I won’t have her.
I shake my head again. “I can’t—”
She throws her arms around me. She presses her body closer to mine and I can feel her breath in my hair.
“Someday—” She says.
—when it’s safe. Someday, when she’s sure neither one of us is being monitored or hunted for what I can do. Someday, we’ll find our way back to one another. Someday.
They ask me questions. “Is your mother happy? Has she ever hurt you? Showed signs of abuse? Expressed anti-American sentiments? Behaved in an erratic fashion?
I say no to every question but they’re not listening. I’m just a teenager, what do I know? They turn away from me and interrogate her. I lean back into my chair as if I have nothing to hide.
She talks about my grandfather. He was a veteran. He devoted his life to this country, and so did her brother and three of her cousins. She was raised to be patriotic she would never go against her homeland. She would trade her life for it. She moves her hands while she talks and the lies bend and sway.
After we’ve sat for an hour, the officer with the darker blazer says, “Penelope, why don’t you get yourself something to eat while we talk to your mother. It shouldn’t take much longer and then you can both go home.” He holds out a twenty-dollar bill. “Why don’t you grab a bite on the U.S. Government.”
I lean further into my chair. “I’m not hungry.”
My mother clears her throat. She extends the sound until I stand.
She smiles at the officers. “Excuse me. It must be my allergies.”
My mother isn’t allergic to anything. The sound was a message for me. It’s time to leave. The man is still holding out the money. I don’t want to touch him or the cash without my gloves but I have no choice.
Our fingers gaze and I’m inside his childhood bedroom. It’s so bright that I blink. The walls are painted Canary yellow. The orange carpeting is shaggy and worn down bald in parts. I reach down to touch the fibers and spot the boy. He’s hidden underneath his bed with his knees curled into his chest, his eyes clenched tight and his hands cupped over his ears. Before I can react someone is throwing the door open. It’s his father. He isn’t a big man but this isn’t a fair fight. Now I see what the boy sees. His father’s hands are oven mitts. His teeth are sharp and bared. Cruelty has erased every other emotion from this man’s face. When did it change? The moment he became a father he transformed into a monster. He pulls the boy out from his hiding spot by the back of his shirt. He throws him on the bed. I watch as the seven-year-old officer yells out—as he begs. “Please, Dad, no.” But if his father hears the protests he ignores them. He beats him until he’s red and raw.
I inhale like I’m coming up from being underwater. My chest is constricted. My breath is unsteady. I cough several times.
The officer’s eyebrows knit together in concern. “Are you okay?”
I’m back in the tiny room—back in the present day. I want to tell him that he’s nothing like his father and that he should let us go. After all, he must know in his heart that my mother and I are not evil, that we are nothing like his father. If anything, it was our kindness—our compassion that got us stuck in this room. But that argument will fall on deaf ears.
This man is a protector. He’s not someone who believes in magic or miracles. My ability would only confuse and terrify him.
My skin is still alive with the memory but my breathing is once again normal. I turn to leave but when I’m in the doorway my mother taps the table. Her fingers dance in code. I love you. I love you. I love you. I nod and let the rhythm of her message carry me away.