- Ray Christian-Dickens
This World and That
I had reached a fork in the road of my life. My destiny was split in two and hinged on a matter of fate. Either I would be given what I wanted or sent head first into a destiny far greater than I was prepared for. If my premonition of the other worldliness inside me, tightly wound coils of magic waiting to be released and spring out from inside me were true, then I could leave this place. This house had secrets in its walls. I wiggled my bare toes against the hardwood floor of my room. I took in a breath and paused. Relative silence. Anyone who might interrupt this moment was in the far corners of the house. I had tried this many times in my five years of existence but never had the stakes been this high. It was time.
I was going to attempt the Whoopty-Dooper-Loopty-Looper-Alley-Opper Bounce.
I had all the details worked out in my head. Successfully executing the bounce that I had witnessed numerous times in Tigger Movie would certainly awaken something in me. My inner Tigger-ness would manifest itself most likely in a tail springing from my backside. Stripes, maybe, but definitely a tail. From there I would start my new life in the Hundred-Acre Woods alongside Tigger. Ever since witnessing his pain, the loneliness of being the only Tigger, I had felt an aching longing. We we're kindred spirits and I was determined to be his family. If not...
I grounded myself, pressing my heels into the floor. I twisted my body around, winding my arms around my torso to the point of pain. I curled my fingers around themselves and when I felt as if I could twist no more, I bent my knees, jumped, and released my coiled body. Time slowed as I went airborne and began to fall back to the earth. This was it.
I landed on the unforgiving hardwood. Flat on my back I stared up at the ceiling and sighed. I wanted to cry. I was not a Tigger and Tigger was still somewhere out there, lonely and without a family, and I still had to live here in this house. Inside these walls.
There were more important things to do than cry.
The path from my bedroom to the upstairs bathroom wound around the staircase to the first floor like a very angular snake. As I began my trek, I ran my hand against the bannister. Each thunk of my knuckles seemed louder. I took a moment to procrastinate, peak through the wooden bars and peer down into the open space below. Mommy walked out of her bedroom and disappeared into the dining room without looking up and asking something of me, delaying my mission. I sat down and slipped my legs through the bars, gripping them tightly just in case as I let my legs dangle. I ran my hands up and down the wood. It was smooth. I pressed my face to it and inhaled. It had that perfect smell that only shiny wood had and I hummed in pleasure. I released one hand from the bar, slipping my middle and ring fingers in my mouth. I pressed my ear to the bar I was still holding and maneuvered my fingers around so I was both rubbing my ear and touching the nice soft wood. I felt warm on the inside. It was very quiet.
After an unknown amount of time, I heard the sound and froze, all the warmth gone. There was a moment of relative silence, save for the distant mumble of voices and the whir of various machines in the background. Then it came again, an alien shuffling from not too far away but muffled. I scowled deeply, my body tightening with disdain for myself. I had gotten distracted. Quickly, and while purposely knocking my joints hard against the wooden bars, I stood up, facing myself towards the bathroom that lay straight across the hall.
Each step was far too long as the bathroom sped towards me. Before I had fully realized it, the ground beneath me had changed from warm wood to cold linoleum. I looked up.
The bathroom closet door was enormous. Dark, ugly metal with a dull copper colored handle and hinges dusted with rust, it screamed evil and I was determined now to find out if that was for a reason.
My hand looked so tiny against the doorknob. I wondered if I was even big enough to budge the thing. I gave an experimental twist and pull and for a moment, there was motionless tension. I almost exhaled. Suddenly, there was a creek and a give and I yelped, releasing the door but not before it could crack open just an inch, cool air rushing out around and brushing against me like escaped spirits. The door fell back, not entirely closed and I numbly realized it was too late to back out now. If there was a something or a someone behind there, they knew now that someone was on to them. I had to know for sure in order to keep the upper hand.
I steeled myself and pretended to be big.I was being a hero, attending to the dangers my family overlooked. The fear yielded to this thought. I opened the door.
There was no skeletal, demon creature, no feral animal, no fanged assailant, no pile of corpses and yet my imagination was far from dissatisfied. There, floating in the darkness were two, big, round, glowing grey eyes that peered into mine and they were wet and shiny and swayed back and forth ever so slightly. They disappeared and reappeared as eyelids slid back and forth over them, slow and fearfully.
After a moment of peaceful stillness, my body caught up with me, deciding I should be afraid. I jumped and gasped and blew the eyes away, back into the thick, deep darkness.
I slammed the door shut and let my body process the excitement, bouncing up and down on my toes, my hands flicking wildly at the wrist. I wanted to come up with a hypothesis, a plan, an attack, a story but all I could do was bask in the warm and yet not so comforting light of knowing I had been right. I had been so right.
"Stop playing with your food, Baby." Mommy said, directed at me I could tell though I had my eyes focused on the table, following the swirls in the wood. Without looking up, I began to pull the peas off the end of my fork and push them back onto the plate.
"Do you hear me?" Mommy said and of course I did. That’s why I was correcting the situation. It occurred to me, distantly, to say yes and explain what I was doing but my brain was preoccupied with more important things and the very thought of trying to form that sentence and say it out loud frustrated me.
"Anna! You listening?"
My body jumped as Daddy cut in. His voice was loud and maybe angry, but I wasn't sure. I nodded harshly, still with my eyes fixed to the table and put my fork down. Now there was nothing more to be upset about.
Daddy made a snorting noise and him and Mommy began talking about something entirely unimportant considering the situation at hand. I wanted to talk to them but they were already upset with me. If I did try to speak, they'd find something wrong with my manners or my volume and in the process of trying to obey them, my message would get lost in frustration, gumming up my throat and not coming loose until no one was around to hear it. Why even bother? Just like most things, I had to do this myself.
I shifted in my seat, irritating my bruised backside. A short gasp escaped my lips, catching the attention of my mother.
"What's wrong, Anna?"
Her voice was soft and plain so I looked up at her. Sure enough, there was not much more to read on top of her familiar face. The smooth, shiny, brown forehead had no mysterious lines, the full, dark red painted lips were not pursed into a circle or stretched out wide in a way that entirely contradicted the thin wispy eyebrows pinching together. It was just Mommy's face. My throat loosened.
"I was tryin'na do the Tigger bounce. It didn't work yet and I hurt my bottom." I poked my lip out and widened my eyes, pleading for sympathy or, better yet, advice.
Mommy laughed in short bursts in the back of her throat and Daddy did a big "HA" followed by lots of little snorts. I felt myself recede, felt the icy cold start to spread from my heart all through me and the pain was my fault. I should have known that I was silly.
"I'm tired." I announced, sliding out of my chair. I bounded upstairs, quickly slipped into my pajamas and laid in bed, the anxiety of my mischief keeping me awake until Mommy and Daddy came in. Daddy twisted my nose and tickled me with his beard until my arms and legs flailed with over excitement and Mommy told him to leave me alone. Mommy kissed me on the forehead and wished me goodnight and when they were gone, I almost felt bad for breaking the rules. Almost.
When all was entirely silent, I crept downstairs, avoiding the creaks in the steps and the floorboard, holding my breath as I passed my parents room until I finally reached the kitchen. I opened up the bottom door of the big cabinet, filled with snacks I was allowed to get myself. In that sense, I wasn't entirely breaking the rules but I still snatched the pack of zebra cakes and scurried upstairs with all the speed and stealth I could muster.
Safe in my room, I clutched the zebra cake to my chest. What if I was wrong? What of this really was a silly thing to do, trying to bait this mysterious stranger with snacks?
I heard a thump that came distinctly from the wall and all doubt disappeared. I placed the zebra cake on the floor on the side of my bed away from the door where Mommy wouldn't see it and crawled into bed, staring at the ceiling, awaiting another thump that didn't come.
The zebra cake was still there in the morning but I couldn't find it in myself to be worried or upset about it because it's hard to be upset when things are going very right. It was recess and my ant city built from sand was proving to be an incredible success. Within the walls they all scurried around the rock buildings and only a few were escaping and even they were easily placed back inside. Watching their movements was absolutely hypnotic and I didn't realize the peace it brought onto me until that peace was broken as three of my classmates ran past, kicking up sand that, while miniscule to me, was devastating to my ant city, covering almost all of its inhabitants. Why were they even chasing each other? No one seemed to have done something wrong or taken someone's possesions.In fact, they were all smiling.
As I looked up, I saw Mommy on the other end of the playground talking to Ms. Gibson. She didn't like me very much, I had concluded. She spent a lot of time staring at me and shaking her head. I didn't like her either.
They both looked at me at the same time and upon realizing I was looking back, Mommy smiled and waved me over. I ran over, attaching myself to Mommy's leg as she finished up her conversation with the teacher.
"Let's get going," Mommy finally said and I detached myself from her leg, taking her hand and using my free one to wave bye to my teacher. She waved "bye" back and smiled big even though she didn't like me. It was odd.
Once I was buckled up in my car seat and we were leaving the parking lot, Mommy looked at me through the rearview mirror.
"Ms. Gibson says you don't play with all your friends during recess."
"I build ant cities," I replied. "During inside time I built a house for my hermit crabs but I left it so I'm gonna make another one tomorrow."
My answer seemed to satisfy her which was odd, as the honest truth almost never seemed to. She simply smiled and looked back to the road.
"Do you have fun?" Mommy asked.
I nodded emphatically and smiled when I saw Mommy smiling.
"Well alright then." She said.
When we got home, I trotted up to my room and immediately went to my TV. I hit the buttons in the order Mommy always did and made sure the correct VHS was inside and sure enough, Tigger Movie was on the screen. I hit play and hopped up onto my bed. As I did, my eyes became transfixed on a spot on the floor for a reason I couldn't quite identify. It was just the floor... the empty floor.
The zebra cake was gone.
I grinned and my arms and legs flailed about. I was right but now what to do, how to best utilize this information? What did I even want to do with the stranger? Did they want something to do with me?
The wonderful thing about Tiggers!
Tiggers are wonderful things!
My favorite song was starting. I leapt off the bed and got to bouncing and singing, blissful enough to leave the hard questions for later.
The next night I was told Grandaddy was dead and despite not knowing what exactly was going on, I couldn't stop crying.
Mommy had told me just before dinner and eating and crying were very hard to do at the same time. Mommy sat across from me, not crying but still oozing icy cold heaviness that made it hard to breathe and hard to stop the sobbing. I couldn't look at her so I kept looking at Daddy. His regular lines were a little deeper but I focused on the little black dots on his cheeks and the way the tip of his nose was shiny and he looked regular enough.
I looked down at my plate to realize all my food was gone. It tasted like air. Without any ties to this incredibly oppressive room, I escaped upstairs to mine, shutting the door behind me. I pressed my back to the wall and slid to the floor, pulling my knees to my chest. Dead. Gone. I would never see him again. How did people die? I knew it had something to do with the tubes attached to the big tank he had to have and how he went outside to smoke cigarettes which always made Mommy mad but he was just alive a few days ago. How?
"Grandaddy's dead," I said aloud, hoping that maybe speaking the words would bring some clarity. It didn't but in the ensuing silence I heard a familiar bump in the wall. The stranger.
With all these questions swirling around in my head, I couldn't stand the thought of never having answers but, then again, I couldn't ask my parents. Daddy would make very confusing faces that were supposed to make his words make sense but ultimately just made them more confusing and Mommy was far too sad to look at or even listen to. The stranger, however, was a whole wall away. Maybe...
"How do people die?" I said. I waited and waited and was met with silence. But maybe the stranger had a reason not to talk. I found it hard to talk to strangers too.
"Do you know how people die? You don't have to talk. Instead, you just tap one time if you mean yes and two times for meaning no." I'd seen it on TV once, on an adult show that I watched with Daddy that I wasn't supposed to understand. I felt proud for grasping the concept.
"Do you know how people die?" I repeated. Silence filled the room. I heard Mommy and Daddy talking downstairs. A car drove by outside. The neighbor's dog barked.
Two taps sounded from inside the wall.
I flipped around, pressing my hands and face to the wall.
"It's you... were you here when my Grandaddy was here? Do you know him?"
My mouth twisted wildly, forming the beginning of questions, none of them yes or no. Where are you from? How did you get here? Why do you stay? Can you explain death to me? Are you friendly? They were all questions that suddenly had to be answered now that this stranger was real and willing to communicate. Cross legged and staring at the blank wall, I spoke.
"What's your name?"
Silence. I leaned forward, desperate to hear a shuffle or a breath but there was nothing but emptiness
"I promise," I said, clenching my fists to keep the tension from hardening my voice. "...I won't tell."
I began to quiver. Surely I couldn't be wrong and just imagining things, like Mommy often said. I couldn't just be silly, too silly to just be sad and not sad and confused, silly enough to believe there was a person where there really wasn't. They needed to be real.
"You know how to talk right?" A hot, angry lump had formed in my throat and I bit my lip and let a hiss tear out from my lungs, violent but quiet. I slammed my fists into my thighs as hard as I could. There were tears forming, so close to falling. I had to hold on a little longer, had to make contact but I couldn't in this condition and the frustration made the lump grow bigger. The frantic energy began to consume me and yet somehow, even crushed under the weight of all my thoughts I heard it.
The universe fell silent when I heard it: a shuffle. It was a distinct shuffle, the shuffle of hands against the wall and it was as if the wall disappeared and I could see everything behind it. I saw those big, bright eyes and a head around them with lips opening and closing, ready to speak and a person attached to the head, crouched on its hands and knees, pressing its hands to the wall. I wanted so desperately to scream but instead I took a deep, slow breath.
"My name is Anna. Will you talk to me?" I whispered. "I promise I won't tell."
Again there was empty silence. The satisfaction of knowing that there was someone just an inch or two apart from me that was known only to me was not enough. They needed to talk. I needed to know.
"Aren't you lonely?" I finally said when the silence had dragged on too long. From behind the wall, I heard a small movement of air, a breath.
The voice was thin and tiny but it was there! It was real! I wanted to scream but I had to remain calm so as to not scare the stranger away.
"I promise! I won't tell anyone." I sat up straight and frowned as if they could see me and appreciate my authority. "Why do you live in my wall?"
A few heavy breaths rattled from behind the wall.
"I used to live here.. Like normal," the stranger said. There was a long contemplative pause. "My Mommy and Daddy were mad at me a lot."
"Were you bad?" I tried to speak sweetly and slowly, afraid of spooking my new discovery.
"I tried not to be but..." The voice trailed off.
I exhaled and pressed my head to the wall. They needed a hug but I also needed answers and there was, of course, this wall. I had to be practical. I wrapped my arms around my torso and gave myself a hug to do something with the energy.
"Why are you still here then?"
"They moved while I was sleeping."
"They didn't want you?" A painful and familiar pang struck through me chest.
"No. They pretended to but they didn't."
In my head, I could see their eyes turning down and growing wet, lips pursing, shoulder curling in around their body. "I understand," I whispered and hoped they heard my sincerity.
"When you came, I had to hide so I found a whole and I crawled in so no one would find me," the stranger continued."I would get in trouble if they caught me."
"You didn't do anything wrong."
"I stole stuff... food and things..." Their voice wavered and shook.
"They'll make me go back! Please don't tell! I have to-!"
"No!" I shouted. "Please! I promise, I won't tell! I promise! Please!" The tears formed again as the silence set in. I hadn't heard a shuffle away but maybe I had missed it. Maybe the stranger was gone. Maybe they didn't trust me anymore.
"I..." The voice came from behind the wall and I sighed in relief. "I don't like talking about my mommy and daddy. I don't wanna go back." The voice was quiet still but sharp, commanding.
"O-ok." I swallowed, searching for a non-offensive line of questioning. "You like being... alone?"
"Is... is it warm in there?" I asked, fiddling with my clothes.
"Yeah. Yeah it is most of the time."
I bit my lip and imagined a life where there were no consequences for not speaking, where secrets didn't have to be confined to a password journal but instead, your whole world was secrets, where it was warm and confined and safe. It made my escapes underneath my bed seem so insignificant.
"Can I-" I bit down on my tongue before I could finish the sentence.
I heard a knock at my door.
"Anna?" Daddy called.
From behind the wall, there was a shuffle and I knew they were gone. However, that was ok because I knew now what it was exactly that I wanted and what exactly I had to do to get it. This was not the world for me but there certainly was one.
I could not recall ever feeling more guilty in my four years of life than I did, sitting alone in the car with nothing but my thoughts. Mommy had warned me that Grandaddy was inside, dead in a box so I had no excuse for getting scared at the last minute and making her even sadder. He just looked so much like he was sleeping and yet he wasn't there. It was as sad as it was strange.
I didn't cry though. I was disconnected. When Mommy and Daddy returned from inside, I stared at them with forced analytical indifference. They wouldn't be my parents any longer. Nobody would. They would be relieved of the burden of having a weird and silly child and I would not have to keep living in a world I was so obviously not meant for. It was a perfect situation.
When we got home, I went straight to my room stripping off my scratchy black dress and curling up in my underwear next to the wall.
"Hello..." I said quietly, knocking on the wall. There was a long pause but I wasn't worried.
Finally, there came a shuffle. "I'm here."
I didn't know how else to ask other than to simply ask. "I wanna come live with you in the wall."
"What? Why?" The stranger asked.
"Cuz... cuz I don't know!" It all made sense in my head and yet the very thing I wished to communicate was the reason I couldn't communicate it. "Cuz I don't belong here. Not at my school or with my family. It doesn't... it's not... I don't understand." I huffed, dropping my head against the wall. Surely, they had to hear the desperation and offer me a ticket to their world.
It was a harsh, dry response. I tensed up, scowling deeply.
"No. You do belong outside, even if it hurts sometimes. I won't let you," the stranger said, sweetly but far too stern for my tastes. I stood up, stomping my foot.
"I'm gonna find a way in myself!"
"And I'll make sure they find you," they said as-a-matter-of-factly. Negotiation ceased. I believed them wholeheartedly. Suddenly, my chances of respite from this world began to disintegrate, I felt dizzy, the walls felt tight.
Then I remembered...
I ran to the TV. Tigger Movie was paused near the end from the last time I'd watched it. I hit play, the movie serving as inspirational background music as I marched to the center of my room.
Without hesitation, I began curling my body up like a coil. When I'd reached my limit I didn't even bother counting to three before I jumped, praying for success just a moment before colliding with the ground, bottom first. I didn't stop to acknowledge the pain, jumping up once more, wisting, bouncing, failing and starting over again, each time, the familiar mantra on my tongue.
The Whoop-de-Dooper Loop-de-Looper Alley-Ooper Bounce!
The more you try the more you fly and that's what really counts In the Whoop-de-Dooper Loop-de-Looper Alley-Ooper Bounce
"What are you doing?" The stranger exclaimed from behind the wall.
"I'm trying to be a Tigger. I'm gonna get a Tigger tail and then I'm gonna find Tigger and he won't be sad that he doesn't have a family anymore," I announced.
Twist, jump, fail, back to my feet.
"Oh... oh Anna..." The stranger's voice was suddenly feather light and sad. I didn't need sad right now. I tried not to listen.
Twist, jump, fail, back to my feet.
"Anna, you'll hurt yourself."
I was too winded to explain that I already had. The pain was worth the eventual reward.
Twist, jump, fail, back to my feet.
"Anna, it's impossible. You know that."
I stuttered but didn't completely stop. I thought of Tigger's warm bubbly sincerity. I thought of bouncing through the woods. I thought of relationships and conversations that were always clear and never confusing like this world.
Twist, jump, fail, back to my feet.
"Anna!" The voice was sharp and stern again. "Look!"
I spared a glance at the screen. It was the very end of the movie. All of Tigger's friends had tried pretending to be Tiggers and when he found out, he'd ventured off alone to find his family. However, they eventually found him and in the end he accepted that it was ok to be different, that all of his friends could love him and be there for him even if they were all different. He wasn't lonely anymore.
Really, he never had been.
The world came crashing down on me and I collapsed to the floor, sobs overtaking me. I cried for my Grandaddy and the giant hole he'd left behind. I cried for the way my classmates and teachers looked at me when I was trying to be happy. I cried for the way my Mommy sighed and rolled her eyes and made me go to birthday parties when I didn't want to. I cried for the way Daddy laughed at all my ideas. I cried, for the first time, for me, a tiny little girl in a very big world she couldn't escape from.
There was a knock at the door. I heard the shuffle inside the wall as the stranger scurried away. The door opened. Mommy and Daddy were standing there, Daddy's lines deeper than ever and Mommy's face shiny. They were sad, plain and simple.
"Come here," Mommy said, opening her arms and it was without hesitation that I ran to them, crawling up to wrap my legs around her waist while Daddy squeezed us both. At that moment, we were all a perfect fit. Maybe I would stay here a little while longer.