he texture of the carpet caught her first. Lucy was down on her hands and knees, feeling under the bookshelves for a doll's shoe that one of the kids had lost. As she ran her hand lightly over the carpet, the individual bumps and nubs grew distinct under her fingertips, like a message in Braille that she could almost comprehend.
nstead of going directly home, Lucy turned and walked in the opposite direction, toward the little urban park where she'd taken the kids a couple of times on sunny afternoons. Today had been overcast, but the clouds had marched on and now hung in a line to the east. In the west the sun shone brightly in a pale sky, obscured only by the occasional tree.
She pulled out a battered crayon and a scrap of dirty paper, but no plastic shoe. Lucy bent down farther, tilting her head sideways to peer under the bottom shelf of the bookcase, on the chance she'd missed something.
And she saw colors. The drab old carpet was full of them. Curling loops of turquoise, gold, mauve, orange, lavender, and rose. Sky blue, maroon, green, teal, lemon yellow. Dozens and dozens of colors, many that she had no names for a shade between the rose and the maroon, with just a hint of lavender ...
She pushed deeper into the colors, or they grew larger around her, until they filled her vision entirely. Her eyes searched for a pattern in their placement, repetitions too vast to be obvious. The colors were compelling, fascinating, promising safety and escape ...
She blinked once, pulled her eyes into focus, and looked up. A woman stood above her, tall and angry. The awful pressure flooded in upon her then, a roaring inside her ears and something invisible pushing against her head. Or not quite invisible. Silvery-dark shapes grew and shrank like moire lines in the corners of her eyes.
Squeezing them shut, Lucy did something which felt like thrusting back against the pressure, until it receded. When she opened her eyes again it was only Margaret standing over her, with the half-worried, half-exasperated expression that she often wore when speaking to Lucy. "What are you doing down there?"
Lucy sat up and shrugged. "Looking for one of the doll shoes." She had only been working at the day care for two weeks, but already she had learned that it was impossible to explain to Margaret about things like colors in the carpet.
Margaret still looked unsatisfied, but Lucy could see her decide that it wasn't worth pursuing. "You remember we have a new student this morning, a girl named Katie," Margaret said. "I asked her mother to bring her early so we'd have a chance to talk and show her around the room before the other kids arrive." Margaret looked at her watch. "They should be here any minute. Actually, they should have been here ten minutes ago."
Lucy stood up, bracing one hand on the bookshelves. A new girl. Some of the kids would probably try to pick on her. Matthew, in particular. "Did you tell her to wear paint clothes?"
Margaret frowned. "Oh, dammit, no. I forgot. Well, she can wear something from the box." The tin bell on the front door jangled as it was opened. "That's probably them," Margaret said, hurrying out of the room.
Lucy glanced down. From this height, all the bright varied colors of the carpet blended together into the muted, nondescript shade of brownish-gray she was accustomed to. She resisted the urge to get down again and make sure that the colors were still there.
Margaret returned, followed by an elegant woman in a business suit who was holding the hand of a brown-haired little girl in a white blouse and red corduroy jumper.
"Hello," the woman said to Lucy, without waiting for Margaret to introduce them. "You must be ... Ms. Turnbridge? I'm Ellen Bartholomew, and this is my daughter Katie." Ellen's tone was faultlessly polite, but she hesitated, glancing at Lucy's paint-daubed jeans and t-shirt.
Lucy ignored the mother and squatted down in front of the child. The girl was thin to the point of fragility, large brown eyes eloquent in the small face. "Hi," Lucy said solemnly. "I'm Lucy. What's your name?"
"Kate." Her voice was so soft it would have been easy to mistake, but Lucy was paying careful attention.
"Kate," she repeated, and was pleased to see a spark of interest in the girl's eyes.
Ellen broke in then, with a tug on Kate's hand that made her take a step back from Lucy. "Katie, you remember what I told you in the car. You do exactly what Ms. Valdez and Ms. Turnbridge tell you. If I hear that you've been any trouble whatsoever, you'll be in a lot more trouble when you get home. Do you understand?" She jerked the girl's hand again to get her attention.
"Yes ma'am," Kate answered, looking down at the carpet.
Lucy was torn. She wanted to take Kate's other hand, but she worried that it might make her mother cling harder, or that it would seem threatening or controlling to Kate. What she really wanted was for the mother to leave as soon as possible, so that maybe she could get Kate to relax a little.
Fortunately Margaret broke in. "Lucy, would you show Katie around the room while I get Mrs. Bartholomew to sign a couple of papers?"
"Sure," said Lucy. She stood up, decided against offering Kate her hand, and waited. Ellen brushed her hands over the girl's hair, which wasn't messy, and straightened her jumper, which hadn't been crooked. "You be careful with those new clothes, now," she warned the girl. "Don't get them dirty." Lucy winced internally but kept her face impassive. Ellen followed Margaret out of the room, leaving Lucy and Kate alone. Lucy smiled at Kate for the first time, then, and tried not to be disappointed when she only stared back.
"Why don't we " Lucy began, then broke off as Andy barrelled into the room, shouting her name. He ran up to her and wrapped his arms around her legs in an enthusiastic hug.
"Hello, Andy." Lucy patted his back and then pried his arms off. "Andy, I'd like you to meet a friend of mine, Kate. Kate, this is my friend Andy."
"Hi," said Andy. "Lucy, can I do the calendar today? Please?"
Lucy sighed. Kate had turned around and was looking at the books. "Andy, you know we go by turns. You can do the calendar when it's your turn."
By then the other kids were straggling in, and Lucy had her hands full getting everybody settled. She pulled an extra chair one of the round tables for Kate, putting her between Andy and Shanika and across the room from Matthew. Lucy introduced Kate quickly and swept right into the morning routines, before the girl could feel too uncomfortable being the focus of attention. They did the counting off, and the calendar, and fed the fish. While the kids stood clustered around the aquarium, Lucy noticed Matthew sidling up towards Kate with mischief all too clearly in mind.
Lucy sighed and sent them all back to their seats. She asked for stories of things that had happened yesterday, and made sure every kid who wanted to speak got a turn. Most of them wanted to explain the plots of TV shows, which Lucy bore with suppressed annoyance.
Finally it was time for the big morning activity. "Did everybody remember to wear their paint clothes today?" she asked.
This provoked a ragged chorus of yeses, escalating as the kids began to compete in loudness. Rather than trying to shout at them over the rising din, Lucy sat dropped without warning straight down behind the table as though she had fallen through a trap door. The unexpected movement caught the kids' attention. As their voices trailed off, she heard one cheerful fearless "no" on the left.
"Who said no? Matthew?" She popped her head up over the table's edge just to the level of her eyes. Several of the girls giggled, and Matthew nodded his blond head vigorously. "Okay, then Matthew needs to go pick out a t-shirt from the play-clothes box. Will you show Kate where the box is so she can pick out a t-shirt too?" Matthew nodded with self-importance and stood up, waiting for Kate, who froze under the sudden attention.
Several places away, Amy half-stood in her chair and leaned forward over the table, wiggling her hand. "Lucy, I need to pick out a t-shirt too."
Lucy checked Amy's clothes, but her denim overalls bore the marks of previous paint sessions. The other kids watched intently, poised to insist on their own t-shirts. From the corner of her eye, Lucy saw Kate stand up and follow Matthew. "Amy, I know what you need more than a t-shirt."
Amy sat down partway and thought about that. "What?"
"You need to paint a bright orange flower right on the front of those overalls you're wearing."
Amy ducked her chin into her neck and peered down at her front. "Okay," she conceded. "But I want a yellow flower, to match my clip." She fingered the plastic barrette that held back her curly black hair.
Under the windows, Matthew was making a big show of holding the stack of play-clothes for Kate while she pulled a shirt from the bottom of the box. Lucy smiled. "That's a good idea," she said to Amy.
"Okay, let's get started." Lucy called up two kids to pass out the sheets of wax paper and paper towels for wiping fingers. She opened the plastic jars of tempera paint herself and scattered them around the two tables.
Lucy let the kids play with the paints for a little while on their own, only listening to make sure the squabbles over who-had-what-color didn't get out of hand. Then she began to circle around the room, looking at the different pictures and offering encouragement.
She came up first behind a girl with dark hair in two pigtails. On one side of her paper was an unidentifiable eccentric smear of black and white and grey, with two odd smudges of red and hot pink; on the other was an irregular blotch of deep and vivid blue.
"It's a pumpkin," Lisa explained anxiously. "Jamie kept hogging all the orange."
On impulse, Lucy tilted her head and tried to focus on the picture in that particular way, the way that revealed all the different colors in the carpet. The blotches and lines blurred further, then resolved into recognizable objects. "I see," she said. "A fat blue pumpkin. Oh!" She smiled as she recognized the other shape. "And a glass cat sitting next to it, washing her face with one paw. You can even see her pink brains. That's very pretty, Lisa."
Lisa was staring up at her, astonished; when Lucy met her eyes she broke into a delighted grin. Lucy grinned back and moved on to the next one.
Most of the other pictures were more abstract, the kids just having fun with the feel of the paint on their fingers or the way two colors blended together. Kate, however, had taken all the bright cheery paint colors and mixed them together until her whole paper was covered in a huge muddy swirl of brownish purple. A few streaks of red and yellow had escaped around the edges, and Kate was now busy systematically covering each of them over with the dull purple-brown. It was disturbing. It was the opposite of finding colors in the carpet, Lucy thought, and almost in the same moment understood that she was afraid to look too closely at Kate's picture. A hard knot formed in the pit of her stomach just thinking about it.
She couldn't even come up with anything nice or encouraging to say about the girl's effort, though she knew her silence would be noticed and she felt guilty. Lucy laid an affectionate hand on Kate's head as she passed by, and felt hurt and even more guilty when she ducked away.
When the kids began to exhibit more interest in painting each other than the wax paper, she had them leave the pictures on the tables to dry and line up in front of the sink to wash the paint off of fingers, arms, elbows, and noses. Lucy let them do it themselves but stood by to help, scrubbing with a damp paper towel at places the kids didn't see or couldn't reach. Kate, because she'd had to wrestle out of the oversized t-shirt, was last in line. She climbed the stool and washed her hands very thoroughly without help. As she turned away, though, Lucy glimpsed a brownish-purple smudge on the back of one thin arm.
"Hang on a sec," Lucy said, and caught the girl's shoulder. Kate breathed in sharply and twisted, trying to get away. "Hey, be still," Lucy said in surprise. "You missed a place back here." With her other hand she stretched over and grabbed a clean paper towel, ran it under the trickle of water and began to rub at the spot.
She'd barely touched Kate's arm when the girl whimpered in pain and tried to pull away again. Shocked, Lucy let go of Kate's shoulder and stared after her as she ran partway across the room and stopped, uncertain. Lucy thought she could feel the pressure again, still far away but waiting.
At that point, she almost let it go, but the memory of the girl's immaculate mother and her admonishment to keep clean was too unsettling. Taking a deep breath, Lucy crossed to where the girl was standing and squatted down in front of her.
"I'm sorry, Kate," she said, watching the small, unhappy face in concern. "I didn't mean to scare you or to hurt. I just saw where you'd gotten some paint on the back of your arm and was trying to wash it off." She paused, wanting to communicate the urgency she felt without frightening the girl further. "Don't you think we'd better try to get it clean before you go home?"
Kate hesitated, then nodded, and followed her back to the sink. Once more, gently, Lucy scrubbed at the purplish smear. This time Kate bore it soundlessly, head down. After some effort Lucy realized the adjacent skin on the girl's arm was beginning to turn pink from the abrasion, though the paint wasn't coming off. She checked the towel a hole was wearing through the damp brown paper, but there was no paint on it at all. She glanced again at the purplish splotch on Kate's arm, parallel stripes like fingers. There was a roaring in her ears
The pressure didn't advance in a wave this time, but came into existence suddenly and relentlessly all around her, as though the very air had turned to water and was drowning her in silvery darkness. Desperately Lucy tried to push it away, with no more effect than if she had been pushing water. There were voices in her head, voices she didn't want to hear. She tried to shut them out, but they were all around and through her, pleading, no no please don't please no ... and there was pain oh god the pain ...
When she came back to herself, she was huddled on the floor, kneeling doubled over with her elbows tucked into her stomach and her hands clutching either side of her head. She had no memory of assuming that position, no idea even how long she'd been like that. Her face was wet, and as she became aware of the silence around her, she realized she didn't know if she had been sobbing aloud, or speaking, or had made any sound at all. And that realization, that total loss of continuity, was more coldly terrifying than the pressure itself.
She looked up. All the kids were staring at her with varying expressions of shock and concern and dismay. Lisa looked like she was about to cry. Kate was standing several feet away, hugging her arms tightly to herself, eyes wide. The silence was total, and it held her frozen for a long moment, knowing that every second would frighten them more but still unable to speak.
Then she took a small breath, and a bigger one, and found her voice again. "It's okay," she told them, trying to sound gentle and firm. "I just had a very bad headache all of a sudden, but I'm okay now." It occurred to Lucy that at least she must not have screamed, or else Margaret would have come in to see what was wrong. The thought brought more panic than relief.
Andy slid out of his seat and crossed the room, knelt down next to her and began patting her back. Lucy smiled self-consciously at him, touched and embarrassed both. "Thank you, Andy." She took a deep breath and stood up. The room dipped and she blinked against the dizziness.
Looking at the wall clock, Lucy made the decision to go ahead with lunch. It was a little early yet, but she honestly didn't think she could direct any sort of activity at this point. The kids pulled out their lunchboxes and ate, speaking in subdued whispers.
After lunch was naptime, and Lucy had an hour in which to pull herself together. She couldn't calm down, though; thoughts chased each other in her head, snapping with their sharp teeth.
What if she were crazy? She'd lose her job for sure. Lucy had been glad to get this job, even though it didn't pay much, because she liked working with kids. The kids liked her, too it was, finally, something she was good at. Maybe the only thing she was good at. She'd been fired from two waitress jobs already; she couldn't seem to keep all the dozens of things straight in her head, and all the yelling and crashing of dishes in the kitchens panicked and paralyzed her.
She'd thought this job would be different. Oh, the kids could be loud, but their high voices never alarmed her in the same way. She sometimes didn't deal so capably with their parents, but Margaret took care of that side of things. Everything had been going well. For the first time in her life she'd maybe started to feel proud of herself and now she was messing it up again, the way she always did. Lucy held back a sob of frustration, not wanting to disturb the kids on their floor mats, but the tears ran down her face unhindered.
Tentatively, she circled back again and again to that time she couldn't remember, but it remained a dark hole in her mind, a bottomless chasm with no bridge across it. It terrified her. She could remember forwards through the fingerpainting, washing the kids up and Kate last and then her mind sheered away from itself, from the edge of that dark fissure.
The pressure hovered, silvery-gray, at the edges of her mind. She'd felt it occasionally for about a month now, but she could no longer deny that it was getting both worse and more frequent. Now she was even hearing voices. People who heard voices were crazy.
She'd have to quit, she realized. She was responsible for the safety of ten kids. if she lost control like that again anything could happen while she was blacked out. They could get hurt. She might even accidentally Lucy veered away from that thought before she'd even finished it. It led to places she didn't want to go.
So she'd have to start looking for another job. The thought of waitressing again made her stomach knot up. But she couldn't afford the sort of clothes she'd need to work in an office, and she doubted anyone would hire her without experience or a college degree, anyway.
Suddenly thinking about it further was just too painful. Lucy picked up her novel and tried to lose herself in it until it was time for the kids to get up.
The rest of the afternoon went smoothly, as though nothing had changed. At storytime, Lucy read aloud from "The Patchwork Girl of Oz." The kids were entranced by the tough, wisely nonsensical Scraps, and the Glass Cat's single-minded obsession with her own pink brains ("You can see 'em work") brought gales of giggles with every repetition. Lucy finished the customary two chapters, and when the kids begged her to keep going she continued with a third. After that, she turned them all loose to play with blocks and dolls and crayons and puzzles.
Five-thirty came quickly, and for several minutes the tin bell on the front door jangled almost nonstop as parents came in to collect their kids and left again. Lucy had her hands full matching up fingerpaintings and lunchboxes with their owners. What a mess it will be, she thought, when the weather turns cold and we have jackets and gloves to deal with as well. Then she remembered, like a punch in the stomach, that she wouldn't be here that long.
Lucy waved goodbye to Amy's dad, then glanced around the room. Only Kate was left. The girl was kneeling down in a little hump, her arms hugged around herself and her head on the floor turned sideways, staring.
Lucy swallowed hard, her heart thumping in recognition. She sat down crosslegged on the floor nearby. "Kate?" She hesitated. "Are you do you see the colors?"
Kate didn't answer, didn't move her head at all or even blink. She just stared out across the carpet, unfocused. Lucy began to be concerned. She considered touching the girl to rouse her, but held back at the thought that Kate might react by flinching away or even screaming.
Very slowly, Lucy began to mirror Kate's posture. She rose up, unfolding her legs and tucking them beneath her, then began to bend forward over her knees. A lock of hair fell down across her mouth, and Lucy pulled it back behind her neck without taking her eyes from Kate's face. She lowered her head until her cheek rested flat on the rough carpet, and her eyes were opposite Kate's brown ones. The colors were there, all around her, rose and saffron and turquoise. Falling into them was temptingly easy, but she resisted, concentrating instead on Kate's eyes. They were like polished amber, deep warm brown with gold glimmers and rays around the center, framed by long feathery eyelashes. And Lucy saw them swim back into focus, pull away from whatever far country they travelled, until they gazed into her own eyes, and blinked.
"Hi," Lucy said, very softly, and smiled.
To her shock and joy, Kate smiled back. It was a tremulous thing at first, a quiver of the lips on one side only, but it made Lucy so relieved and happy that she broke out in a full grin. And in a moment Kate was smiling too, so broadly that her eyes crinkled up and nearly disappeared. She let out a high, tiny giggle, and in a moment they were both lying on the floor laughing out loud over nothing at all.
Finally it died away, and they sat up together and caught their breath. Lucy ran a hand lightly over the top of the carpet. "The colors are pretty, aren't they?"
Kate nodded. "Sometimes at home I have to stay in the corner for a long long time, and I watch the colors in the floor. Or I make up colors in my head if it's dark like in the closet." Her voice was quiet and matter-of-fact. "But these are better." She put a hand down and rubbed the nubby pile back and forth with her small fingers.
Once again, the pressure engulfed her. Lucy had almost expected it this time; she gripped her knees until her fingertips turned white and fought to push it back, to retain control. A vision blossomed in her brain, a thin yellow crack of light leaking under a closed door, and darkness all around. Tears welled up in her eyes and she turned away, both to hide them and to escape from the picture in her mind.
Only a minute later, it struck her how this gesture musthave seemed like a rejection to Kate, and so she turned back. But the girl had pulled one of the picture books from the shelf and was absorbed in it. Lucy's heart sank to see the expression on her face as closed in on itself as fingers, or a flower at dusk.
Lucy wiped her cheeks dry with both hands and searched for some way to recover the connection. "Do you want me to read that to you?" she offered.
"No, thank you," said Kate with careful politeness. "I can read it myself."
Lucy was startled and a little skeptical. She was pretty sure Margaret had told her earlier that Kate was only four, and though the book had lots of intricate, eloquent pictures, she thought much of the text would have baffled a bright second-grader. "Well, would you read it to me, then?"
Kate nodded, turned back to the first page and began reading in her quiet voice, only stumbling a little over some of the stranger proper names. Lucy had to make a special effort to keep her jaw from dropping.
They were almost halfway through the book when Margaret entered the room. Kate fell immediately silent, and Lucy whispered, "I'll be right back." She stood up and crossed to the door where Margaret waited.
"I just got a phone call from Ellen Bartholomew," Margaret said, low enough that Kate couldn't hear. "Or, rather, Ellen Bartholomew's secretary, who said that Ellen was tied up in a meeting and would be late to pick up Katie. As if that weren't already obvious," she added, rolling her eyes toward where Kate sat, still turning pages.
Margaret paused and stared at Lucy more closely. A frown puckered between her thin eyebrows. "You look exhausted. Listen, why don't you go on home. I'll stay with Katie until her mother comes."
Lucy hesitated. She wanted to stay with Kate, but the thought of dealing with Kate's mother again, without Margaret, twisted her stomach. "Okay. Be sure and tell her mother tell her Kate was very well-behaved. There were no problems at all."
Margaret nodded. "All right. Try to get a good night's sleep, okay?"
"Yeah." Lucy grabbed her novel from the desk and glanced around the room, stooping to pick up a stray crayon.
Margaret held out her hand. "Here. I'll take care of cleaning up. Really. Just go home."
Lucy handed over the crayon and returned to the bookshelves. "I have to go home now, Kate," she said, and did not add, as she would have with another child, that her mother would be there soon. Kate shot her an anxious look that made her heart turn over.
"I'll be back tomorrow," Lucy offered. "I'll see you in the morning, first thing, okay? You can finish reading me the book." She felt instinctively that this was the right thing to say, that it was what Kate needed to hear, yet she felt a chill as she heard the words come out of her mouth, thinking of her earlier decision to quit. Surely it was cruel to befriend the child when she knew she would soon have to abandon her? But Kate seemed to need a friend so badly, and how could she ignore that? Lucy didn't know how to reconcile the paradox of responsibilities.
Kate looked unhappy, but nodded. On impulse, Lucy risked patting the girl's shoulder, and was encouraged when Kate allowed it without pulling away.
The tin bell on the outer door clattered as it shut behind her. Lucy crossed her arms over her stomach, feeling a wrench, as though she'd left part of herself curled up on the carpet in the quiet classroom.
The park was almost empty. At the far end, a man tossed a ball for a spotted dog and talked to a punk teenage girl in a black leather jacket. Three kids, two grade-school boys and a smaller girl, played around the sand pit and the jungle gym, and two women sat chatting on a bench nearby. Lucy walked on past the playground until the kids' yells were faint enough she could block them out. Then she stuck her hands in the pockets of her jeans and leaned up against a tree trunk, closing her eyes. The sun was warm on her face, tinting the insides of her eyelids red-orange. Lucy took a deep breath, smelling the green smell of grass and trees and trying to shut out the sharp stink of car exhaust and new asphalt.
"Hey, have you seen my doggie?"
Startled, Lucy opened her eyes, blinking against the sun. The punk teenager, a girl of maybe fifteen or sixteen, was standing off to one side, arms straight and hands clasped behind her back. She was wearing ripped fishnet tights, some sort of low-cut red shirt just visible under the leather jacket, and a flouncy, apple-green miniskirt. Her hair was pale blond and shaved very close to her skull except for a hot pink forelock that fell curling over one eye. "Hi," she said solemnly, staring until Lucy broke out in goosebumps and shivered. Yet she couldn't look away.
"Hi," she said back.
Suddenly the girl grinned. "Wow, your head is all full of pretty colors." Lucy decided she looked younger than she'd first thought, maybe twelve or thirteen. "Like a kaleidoscope," the girl continued, "all jumbled and swirly. Or an imbroglio." She pulled a long strand of blond hair out over her ear and began twisting it around her finger. "My sister gave me a kaleidoscope once. I forgot where I put it though. He's kind of black and brownish, with pointy ears. The kind that stick up." She held her hands cupped on top of her head to demonstrate.
Lucy blinked, trying to catch up. "Your dog?"
"Well, he's not my doggie really, I mean my brother sort of gave him to me, or at least told us we were s'posed to stay together. Um." Her forehead wrinkled and she looked uncomfortable. Up the street a car horn blared.
Lucy shook her head. "I haven't seen him. I'm sorry."
The girl smiled again. "That's okay. Destiny said I'd find him, and he knows everything. Except for a couple of things that I know that he doesn't. Don't you think it's a pretty word?"
"Imbroglio. That's what the doggie said my realm was. He's very clever."
"I like 'marmalade,'" Lucy offered. "And 'wobble.'"
"Wobble's nice." She grinned. "I think you're nice." The girl cocked her head like a puppy. "What's your name?"
"My name's Del. Except that's not really my whole name, but I don't like to say my whole name out loud and anyway it changes. Is Lucy your whole name or just a part?"
Lucy considered. "Well, just a part, I guess. But I don't like to say my whole name either," she added hastily, to stop the girl from asking.
"I like Del 'cause that's what my brother always called me. I looked for him too, and I found him, only then he went away again. But first he gave me coffee. It was icky." She scrunched her face up.
Lucy laughed. Weird, she thought, definitely weird, but endearing.
"Look." Del bent over abruptly, like an out-of-control marionette. One hand swooped down and plucked a stalk of dandelion fluff out of the grass. She straightened up and held it out to Lucy. "Here."
Lucy took hold of the stem. The other girl's hands were small, the fingernails bitten short and ragged like her own. Del picked a second stalk and tickled the end of her nose with the fuzzy tip. Then she glanced over at Lucy. "Well, you have to blow on it, silly! Blow as hard as you can."
Obediently, Lucy took a deep breath and blew on the dandelion head. Tiny feathery parachutes scattered and spun out in an expanding cloud. Lucy watched them all, her eyes flicking from one seed to the next as they dipped and drifted in the wind.
Beside her, Del blew out so sharply it was almost a whistle. Lucy glanced over, a little startled to see her fluff behaving differently. It fluttered and sparkled like glitter, and it fell up. Del, frowning at the naked head of her own stem, appeared not to notice this.
"What's the word for when you used to love somebody and now you don't anymore but every time you look at them you remember sort of that you used to love them?"
Lucy shook her head, smiling bemusedly. "I don't know."
Del dropped her stem, walked over and peered at the stalk Lucy still held. Lucy looked down. One thin brown seed with its white shock of hair still stuck to the top.
"Hey, you get a wish!" Del pirouetted once, her red-orange hair fanning out around her head. Sunlight glinted off the zippers on her jacket, sharply white. "Neato! Whatcha gonna wish for?"
A wish? Lucy's mind went blank. What did she have to wish for? "A blue pumpkin," she said. "And a glass cat with pink brains." She smiled wryly at her own whimsy.
"Oooh!" The girl's eyes widened. "That's good!" Lucy suddenly noticed that Del's eyes were different colors. Her right eye, the one that the thin variegated braid kept falling over, was as apple-green as her skirt. But her left eye was pale blue and shimmery. Staring into it, Lucy was reminded of something, though exactly what kept slipping out of her grasp.
"I counted all my feathers once," Del said. "I had six hundred and twenty-two."
The memory clicked into place. "Sequins," Lucy blurted.
"Really? How many?"
Lucy gave a small shrug, still dazed. "I don't know. Hundreds. Or maybe thousands. On this pale blue dress my mother had when I was little. She called me into her room, and she was wearing this dress, and she ..." Abruptly her head filled up with the pressure again and she swayed and sat down hard on the ground. It receded quickly this time, but it left Lucy so weary and frustrated that she began to sob anyway, her shoulders shaking.
Del squatted down next to her, hugging her arms around her ankles. Both bony knees poked through gashes in her fishnet tights. She smelled strange, though not unpleasant, like sour sweat and roses. "You're having a really bad day, aren't you?"
Lucy took a deep shuddering breath and nodded, swallowing past the lump in her throat. "Everything keeps pressing in on me."
"I have days like that all the time. I kept going all butterflies, before. And fishies. I couldn't help it." She sat down and put her elbows on the ground and her chin in her hands where she could look up at Lucy. "Sometimes it's too hard to hold everything together. I think it used to be easier but I'm not sure. Maybe you could be fishies for a while instead."
Lucy shook her head, wiping roughly at her cheeks. "I can't, though. They ... there's this little girl. Her name's Kate. And I think ... I think she needs me. I've got to pull myself together, or " Her eyes filled with tears again.
Del nodded gravely. "My brother Dream went all splooey once." She wiggled her fingers. "And I had to. Um." Her chin quivered. "It hurt a lot. But I had to help him. He was my friend."
"Yeah," Lucy said, thoughtfully. "Sometimes you can do stuff to help someone else that you would never do for yourself."
Del's brow furrowed, then cleared. "I know!" she said, sitting upright. "I could give you a song. I did that once before. I saw this man with the very saddest face, and it made me sad too, so I gave him a happy song to cheer him up. One of the ones where the end is the same as the beginning so it goes around and around and around like a whatchacallit. With the horsies."
"Yeah!" She grinned happily. "Like a carousel. I put it in his head so he would remember it for ever and ever. You want me to put a song in your head? I'd pick a really pretty one."
Lucy blinked. "No, I don't think so, thank you," she said carefully.
"Okay." Del pulled a lock of lime green hair forward from the nape of her neck and put the ends of it in her mouth.
Lucy let her breath out slowly. "The problem is, I keep getting this this pressure in my head. It's like everything goes all silvery and I lose track of where I am or what's happening. And the worst part is, I don't know why it happens, so I can't control it, or even prepare for it. And now it's getting worse," she finished miserably.
"But you do know why." Del blinked at her solemnly. "You just forgot that you knew. Only now you're starting to remember that you forgot." She plucked a blade of grass and held it up so that she was looking at it nearly cross-eyed. "If I were going to make coffee, I'd make it taste good. Like pumpkin pie."
Lucy pulled back and stared at the girl. "What do you mean?" Her voice skirled upwards in panic. "I don't know why this keeps happening to me. I don't know what's wrong!"
"It's okay," Del said. "You needed to have it that way. Sometimes you gotta pretend not to know stuff just to keep going." She opened her fingers and a green dragonfly flew off, dipping drunkenly. "Only, you can't pretend forever and ever. It's too hard."
"But why is it happening now?" Lucy wailed. "Everything was fine before!"
Del tilted her head, biting at a fingernail. "You know what the word is for things not being the same always? I do. It's 'change.' I asked Dream that and he told me and I remembered."
Lucy opened her mouth to protest, then stopped and thought about that. She'd been feeling the pressure for about a month what had changed a month ago?
And then she knew. "Del?" she said, her heart pounding.
Now dragonflies were crawling out from under the lapels of Del's jacket, narrow blood-red bodies and ocean-blue, and papery-thin wings that blurred into nothing as they swooped off. "Uh-huh?"
"My whole name." She forced the words out. "My whole name is Lucianna Eileen Turnbridge." The silver pressure was so tight and near she could see it from the corners of her eyes, rippling like sunlight on water. "Eileen ... is my mother's name. Was her name. She died last month."
Del shed a few more dragonflies and didn't say anything.
"I didn't even cry. I must be really awful, I mean, I cry at the drop of a hat, but not when I found out my mother died. I wasn't even truly sad. Just ... relieved. That she wouldn't be around to hurt me any more." Lucy burst into tears. She hadn't planned to say that out loud at all, hadn't even let herself think it until now. She sat and hugged her arms around herself and rocked, sobbing and sobbing for all the old hurts and the relief from fear.
"Hey, are you okay?" Del said diffidently, after a little while. "I'm sorry. I'd touch you, but ..." Her lip quivered, and the mismatched eyes filled with tears. "But I don't think you'd like it. I don't want to hurt you."
Lucy suddenly realized she was bawling in front of a total stranger, a kid no less, and the embarrassment helped her regain control. "It's okay. I'll be okay." She tried to take a deep breath and coughed instead. "I'm sorry. I don't know why I gabbled on like that. You don't even know me. I'm sorry. I guess I just needed to talk to somebody."
"I talk to lots of people. Lots and lots. Most of them don't understand me though. My brother came to see me once when I was mad."
Lucy shrugged. "I never had any family, except my mother."
"That's sad. I'd be really sad if I lost my whole family. Desire's kinda mean sometimes and Despair and Dream can be pretty scary, and I don't see my other sister much 'cause she's so busy and Destiny's kinda, I dunno. Distant. But at least they're there so I don't get so lonely." She hugged her arms to herself, suddenly frail. Lucy was reminded of Kate. "Except I get lonely anyway," Del continued in a small voice, looking down.
A wave of tenderness and pity washed over Lucy. The girl was so confused and forlorn. "I'll be your friend," she said softly.
Del looked up, hope lighting her face. "You will? Really?"
"Oh, goody!" She clapped her hands in delight. "Then you can come live with me in my realm and we can make stuff up and sing songs and we'll find my doggie and the three of us will be happy forever and ever and I'll never be lonesome again."
Oh dear, thought Lucy in alarm. She shook her head. "I can't," she said gently. "You know I can't."
Del frowned anxiously. "But. You said you'd be my friend," she pleaded.
"I will. But I can't go away with you. I have to stay here so I can be Kate's friend too." Well, Lucy thought, I guess I'm not quitting my job. Something eased in her chest at the decision.
Del sighed unhappily and looked away. "You were wrong. You know. About what you said before." Her tone was hurt.
Lucy frowned. "What?"
"You said I didn't even know you. But I do." Del tilted her head back and began blowing spit bubbles. Lucy watched her lips, fascinated, as the bubbles changed colors. Green blue indigo purple. Pop. "You've always belonged to me." Purple magenta red. Pop. "Where did you think all the colors came from?"
A drop of spit trickled red from the corner of Del's mouth. Lucy looked away, uneasy. The sun was low between the buildings and tinged with orange. A gust of cool wind lifted the hair on Lucy's arms, and she shivered. "I should go home," she said.
"Okay," Del said, still hurt. She blew an orange bubble.
Lucy got to her feet, brushing bits of grass from her jeans, and then just stood there for an awkward moment while she searched for a way to say goodbye. "Good luck finding your dog."
Yellow green pop. Del lifted her head. Her shaggy hair fell around her face, cherry-red. "Lucy." The mismatched eyes looked into hers, serious and wise in a way that made Lucy wonder how old Del really was, after all. "It never stops hurting. But we can see things nobody else lets themselves see." Then she grinned, looking like a child again. "I'm glad you're my friend anyway. Maybe after I find my doggie maybe I'll bring him here to meet you."
"I'd like that," said Lucy, smiling. She waved goodbye and started walking back toward the playground and home.
s she passed the block where the daycare was, she turned on impulse and walked down it. The t-shirts that Matthew and Kate had worn to fingerpaint in would have to be washed, and Lucy was pretty sure she was going to have to do laundry tonight anyway. She thought she was out of underwear.
She dug the keys out of her jeans pocket and unlocked the door. There was just enough reddish light from the sunset for her to navigate the hallway, but the classroom with its east-facing windows was night-dark. Lucy flipped on the lightswitch. It occurred to her then that she had never seen the room except in daylight. It seemed strange, and too quiet.
She pulled the two t-shirts from the box of clothes, and grabbed a couple more that looked dirty enough they must have been overlooked the last time. On her way out, she noticed a large piece of paper lying on one of the round tables. Curious, she veered toward it and saw that it was Kate's fingerpainting. "Oh, damn," she said aloud. Of course Margaret didn't think to make sure Kate took it with her.
Well, it wasn't the end of the world. She'd just send it home with Kate tomorrow. It was really very ugly, she thought ruefully, stepping closer to look again at the huge muddy swirl the color of a it looked like a
Her mind stopped. Suddenly Lucy was irritated and impatient. Say it, she told herself firmly.
"Like a bruise," she whispered into the empty room. Like the marks on Kate's arm, which hadn't been paint at all. Lucy felt dizzy and sat down on one of the small plastic chairs without really noticing, without looking away from the paper.
We can see things nobody else lets themselves see, she thought. Like colors in the carpet. Like the intention of cats and pumpkins behind a child's smeary painting. Like a bruise on a child's arm, or misery and horror in her eyes.
Lucy took a deep breath, bracing herself, and focused on Kate's picture in that particular way, the way that revealed all the different colors in the carpet. Immediately she was drowning again in silvery darkness. A slap stung her cheek, and a woman's voice yelled at her, furious and incomprehensible. She crouched in a small dark place, huddled in upon herself against the pain confusion fear chaos hurt terror pain ...
Lucy came back to herself staring at a whorl of yellow green turquoise orange blue purple red. She blinked, and they swirled together into the muddy bruised color once more.
"Oh god," she whispered. "Oh, my god. I'll get you out, Kate, I swear it." And she buried her face in her hands, and cried.
rriving home a little while later, Lucy unlocked the door to her apartment, flipped on the light switch and then stopped short. A fat blue pumpkin squatted on the low coffee table in front of the couch. Sitting next to it was a delicate glass cat, one paw raised as though she had been frozen in the act of washing her face. She had emerald green eyes, a ruby red heart, and pink jewel brains. You can see 'em work, Lucy thought, and chuckled in delight.
The tip of the cat's spun-glass tail twitched once, irritably, and then was still.