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The girl sits in the moist dirt of the wooded lot next door and makes cities out of acorns and leaves. At night the people in her cities come up through the laundry hamper in her closet. After her parents say good night and close her door, she goes to the closet and opens the hamper for them. She drapes a shirt-sleeve over the edge so they can climb down. She can hear them milling about before they march to her bedroom door and under the crack. When she wakes in the morning, they are gone. And everything in the house is as it should be. Her people are careful explorers. And kind ones: they always leave her a bit of wet leaf to say thank you.
Today she is making them a tower. She carefully breaks twenty-six twigs to the length of her hand. Then she punches precise holes into the damp, sloping ground and slides the twigs into them, one by one. From the tower her people will be able to look at the stars. She doesn't know how to build them a telescope but she knows her people are clever. And they have seen her own telescope by her window, each night since her fifth birthday. They are small enough to climb inside and discover its secrets.
The next morning is filled with rain. After breakfast the girl's grandmother folds laundry while the girl's mother and the new baby nap. The girl builds her people a treasure chest using matchsticks and glue. She has to build it in her closet or Alice Whitney might ruin it when she comes to play that afternoon. Inside it she leaves a piece of mirror she took from the bathroom trash can, and the spring from a ballpoint pen that ran out of ink. Telescopes need mirrors, and she thinks they might need springs. She also leaves a bit of bread for her people.
Alice Whitney doesn't have a baby at home. When she comes to play the girl's mother gives them skeins of yarn for pretend babies. They wrap their pretend babies in blankets and rock them to pretend sleep. When the sun comes out the women take the real baby for a walk in his pram, and the girl and Alice Whitney put their pretend babies in her wagon and walk behind them. She wants to go check on her people in the woods but it's better if she doesn't while she's with Alice Whitney. Alice Whitney isn't careful about where she puts her feet.
The next morning the girl checks the treasure chest. The mirror and the pen spring are gone. There's a bit of wet leaf on her telescope, and this is how she knows her people understood what the mirror and the pen spring were for.
The bread is still there. Her people never take the food she leaves for them. She wonders what they eat instead, and whether she could eat it, too. Perhaps they eat leaves.
Yesterday's rain has caved in their tower. The girl carefully rebuilds it. She doesn't see the mirror or pen spring but she doesn't know where they keep their laboratory.
At dinner she tells the baby about telescopes. He stares at her from his bassinet, listening.
The next morning the baby is dead. He died in the night and it's no one's fault. Everyone is very sad. The girl is sad, too, especially for the baby. He wasn't here very long.
The girl wants to check on her people but today they will have to do without her. Tonight they will know why she didn't come, when they climb through her hamper. Perhaps they already know.
The pastor is in the kitchen with her parents. The girl's grandmother takes her up to see the baby. His room is very quiet, and he is small and still in his crib. The girl touches his cheek. It is soft and cool.
The girl's grandmother says let's go downstairs, and I'll make you some breakfast. The girl pushes away from the crib and sees a wet leaf on the floor beneath it. A whole one, very dark and red.
This is how she knows her people are sad about the baby, too.
She takes the leaf down to her mother. Her mother smiles and says it's wonderful that she has such kind friends, and to please tell them thank you.
The girl says she will.
This story originally appeared in Curious Fictions.