Anna felt the bed sag beneath her. The blankets bunched under her weight, drawing in pleated wrinkles that splayed out around her like a crown. She thought of her grandmother’s face, eyebrows like two dusty caterpillars, at the sight of the creases. It didn’t matter now.
She sat on the bed, and watched her hands. They were average for a twelve-year-old, she supposed. Not terribly remarkable. The rash covered the backs of them from nearly half-way up her forearms to the tips of her fingernails, an angry, poisoned flush. Its crags and gulleys seemed to burrow all the way down, deep inside, and through her. Where she flexed her fingers, the skin pulled too tight, and blared white like a warning, like the scaffolding beneath. And where it didn’t stretch, she bled.
Anna applied the balm again, and the tiny plasters. She wondered if in other houses, the plasters were sticky enough to stay on for more than a few hours. When she finished, she met her own dark eyes in the master bedroom’s long mirror, and she hesitated.
Her mother’s brush sat at the base of the mirror, where she’d left it two days ago.
‘We’ll be back faster than a thought,’ she’d said. She hadn’t kissed her daughter goodbye, or hugged her. Neither had her husband. They’d all simply looked at each other, pregnant with unsaid words, and had left.
‘It’s only a small test, sure,’ her father had told her. His throat bloomed from all the scratching. ‘It’s the same one they gave you. We’ll be fine.’
Anna stared into her own eyes in the mirror, and left the room. She didn’t bother smoothing out the covers.
Without even thinking, she found herself in the little bathroom under the stairs, the one with the diagonal crack in the top-right corner of the looking glass that reminded her of a hinge. Already her trembling hands were reaching for it, and the hot water was running. Or, at least, the hot water tap was turned. The water itself wouldn’t be hot enough until she was nearly finished. And the seconds counted up slowly in her head.
Bubbles frothed between her finger tips. The whole house still smelled of bleach and hours scouring, though since it was only a few small rooms, and the little bathroom under the stairs, it hadn’t taken them all very long. That was before the tests, though. When everyone ignored the news, and went out, and pretended--
She sang that same song in her head, two times at least, three times to make sure. She wondered, not for the first time, if she’d like hearing ‘Happy Birthday’ ever again. She was pretty sure she wouldn’t.
Anna didn’t bother brushing her hair, but she did try to flatten the snarls a little with her stiff fingers. She sat on the corner of the worn grey carpet of her bedroom and looked out into the garden, where once there had been a tall rowan tree, filled to bursting with tiny sparrows. She saw it there, in her mind’s eye, where now it was just the parking lot of the burger place. But the image shifted, and she saw her parents driving away in the little blue car again, and she imagined them in the white gowns. She swallowed.
Hours went by. She was sitting on the floor of her room, with the door closed. Was she hungry? She didn’t know. Her chest hummed, too fast, and an icy coldness nestled there, where her heart should be. Her shoulders seemed to live perpetually beneath her ears like two bony mountains. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
‘Imagine it like a little vacation,’ her mother had said. ‘No school, no work. Though we’ll only be gone a few hours.
‘Remember when you used to make up stories? Why don’t you do that?’
Anna stared at a puff of dust in the corner. It didn’t move.
Yes, when she was younger, she’d make up all kinds of stories. Astronaut stories and sailing stories and stories about fairies under the mounds. She’d combine them sometimes, to make her parents laugh.
The neighbour was meant to check in on her, but Anna had refused to open the door. She’d waved at Blanchard from the front window, so he knew she was ok, and without much else he could do, the young man had waved back.
‘Do you need anything?’ he’d shouted through the glass. ‘Food? You ok?’
Anna had shaken out her best smile and put it on, and he had left. That was yesterday.
She was back in the bathroom again. The bubbles burned. Her eyes wandered to the corners of the little room, so difficult to air in Ireland, where damp blossomed like invisible crocuses year-round. She looked at herself and hated what she saw, though she couldn’t have said why.
Immediately she shook to attention. Her ears picked apart the silences, but--
There it was again.
Her hands still wept over the sink, and the door was closed. She sought every line and angle of the little room, the base of the toilet, the curve of the pipes, fingertips dripping clear and dripping red as she bent and searched--
She whipped around.
The mirror hadn’t moved, no. Everything was still.
Her heart fluttered in her chest. In her mind she saw each room in the house, her boxy bedroom, the dim kitchen, the sliver of a living room at the back like a lonely, forgotten closet, and her parents room at the top of the stairs. There was really only one way in or out, but the windows--
Another muffled creak, and anxiety crackled up the back of her neck and into her hair.
But then the angle of the glass shifted, and her reflection seemed to bend, just for a moment, before the glass creaked back, and settled as if buckled beneath the wind.
Anna trembled. Her mind seemed to stutter, but then--
She grasped the bottom edge of the mirror, smearing the glass, and gently bent it up.
Behind it, the comfortable darkness rested. The air was warm. Her heart thundered in her chest, but it felt different from before.
Anna stared into the dark, and the dark stared back at her.
This shouldn’t exist, the only part of her mind that still worked, thought. The couch is behind this wall. Even if it wasn’t, this looked like soil--
Whatever was breathing, or moving, or sweeping by, the breeze washed over her again. Warmth fizzed at the end of her fingertips and the tip of her nose.
Anna looked about the bathroom, studying the dim yellowed light above, the clean and tiny toilet, the flaking paint along the wall. It was familiar, she thought. It tasted sour on her tongue.
She buckled her fear around her like armour, and pulling herself onto the withered porcelain, gulping in one last breath, Anna crawled through.
The mirror hinged shut behind her, and the house shuddered. Perhaps it realized its own emptiness, and in its own way, mourned its loss.
But it could not know where Anna walked.
At times she felt she was falling, and stars winked in and out, in and out, and swirled far out in the velvet night in multicoloured galaxies of glass and crystal and shell. Other times, she crawled, as if in a comfortable cave, one that did not threaten to sink round and choke her—more burrow than barrow, and followed what seemed the footprints of whatever soft and careful creature that had made it. And the air, though night, kissed her skin like summertime. She’d nearly forgotten what that felt like.
Eventually, her eyes could trace the outline of her outreached hands against the ground, and she pulled herself forward with a hunger.
When she tumbled into the verge, she had to shield her face from the light. It was so bright it made her eyes swim in white lightning and pearl. But when she could blink through the soft, wet blindness, she gasped.
A June sun shimmered overhead, lighting rolling hills of wildflowers and tall emerald grass. Brushstrokes of lavender and white, ruby and gold and pink dotted them in a patchwork of colour so bright, Anna could taste it. Invisible cicadas hummed somewhere beneath her, and in the far reaches, the curtain of the sea hushed softly against distant sand.
Joy like a bird burst from Anna’s mouth, and she dove into the flowers, rolling in the grass, laughter following her like a stream. Finches and sparrows and wrens, like gemstones, glittered and flickered overhead, and sang songs she knew with invisible names.
She found herself running, and felt the lovers’ kisses of the wind as they raced past each other, and she felt her limbs pulling, lungs gasping, as she topped the next hill.
A little cottage smoked there, white stucco and yellow shutters, and an open door with a clear line to the sea. She approached it, for the first time in this place, feeling the tickling of uncertainty at the base of her spine.
But the house opened to her like a coat she could shrug on. Inside, the single room with its single bed spoke of rest, and healing, and sleep unhounded by dreams. A fire crackled in a minuscule hearth, sighing blue smoke up a terracotta chimney. And on the table, warm bread and fresh apples, and butter and cheese. Clean clothes in Anna’s size lay folded neatly on the bed, and warm socks so soft they seemed knit with light.
When she noticed the old claw-foot tub brimming with warm water and drifting vanilla, Anna needed little further encouragement. She shed her dreary jumper and her holed stockings, revealing every anxious intersection that scarred her skin in a thousand tattooed fractures.
Her breath tensed, and she stepped into the bath. She waited for the knife’s edge, the harsh searing. ‘Happy Birthday to you,’ her mind began in its wild reeling--
But the water did not brand her. Like the house, it simply seemed to be a perfect fit, like a puzzle piece, and the child slid into its flickering depths with quiet tears. She didn’t know if they were happy or sad, only that they mingled and disappeared into the pearly foam as quickly as a thought.
As she washed herself, she felt her body slough off the weight she’d been carrying for so many days. The feelings of guilt, at being the only one. The fear, too, at being left behind. The uncertainty of beds, of respirators, of time. It came off into the water like oil, shimmered, and dissolved.
She woke in the cooling bath so much time later, drawn back to waking by the shy sussurations of the waves. The gulls giggled somewhere out over the sea. She felt her mouth relax into a small smile.
The clothes carried her in soft, quiet assurance over the evening grass. The sun cast long purple shadows against the house, but the silence it created was no less warming than the rest. Anna’s bare feet drew her across the last stretch of greenery to the cresting cobalt, emerald surf, and she felt the spice of the air in her lungs and on her tongue. The waves inspected her small feet with fingers of cool velvet.
From her place on the sand, Anna watched the light shimmer and fade, and kissed the sun goodnight, and after a time, let the twilight air carry her back to her house, back to her bed, back where the birds nested in the thatch, careful sleeping, and where she might, too, burrow into the soft cotton, with clean, clear, healthy hands. She thought for a moment of the open windows, the open door, but no, they were shut. The bed was soft against her face and smooth against her hands, as she stepped lightly into dreaming--
Back in the bathroom under the stairs, time passed with narrow precision. Perhaps she could go brush her hair, she thought, staining the damp towel with her hands—and stiffened at the sound of a click outside.
She peered out from the bathroom, balmed fingers gripping the frame.
The front door creaked open, and two gaunt faces met her eyes. Purple-rimmed, thinner, but--
‘Mam?’ she whispered. ‘Dad?’
Like a magnetic current, they drew together, and they held one another, none bothering to count the moments that passed.