From the author: The creatures in Demi's backyard love her, and she loves her mom. Life should be good with the love that surrounds her, but Demi has challenges too: Mom is sick, the neighborhood is rough, and what's a good daughter to do?
A week after her twenty-second birthday, Demi sat exactly in the middle of the yard between the oak-tree carpenter ants and the elm-tree blacks, trying to make peace. The war had raged since May’s first warm days thawed the soil, and just like last summer centered on the area beneath the sycamore, where the tent caterpillars dropped to the ground and made easy prey. The afternoon sun cast long shadows so her silhouette reached nearly to the chain link fence between her and the street. She pulled at her skirt again to cover her knees. If Mom looked out the kitchen window and saw her sitting cross-legged on the lawn, she’d be sure to yell at her. Not that it was likely Mom would look out. Since January she’d spent more and more time on the couch, surrounded with hot water bottles and warming blankets and medicines.
Even with the ants warring, Demi was happy. One time, when Mom was in a good mood, she’d held Demi on her lap and said, “Life is full of happy-sads. You’re my happy-sad.” But Demi didn’t understand what she meant. You’re either one or the other, Demi had thought.
Demi closed her eyes to feel the ants’ minuscule lives better. It took a lot of relaxed concentration. She sensed them like tiny red spots in the hundred-yard radius of her awareness, the nest to her left, a loosely tangled ball of thread burrowing into the oak’s dead roots, filled with scurrying ants, and the other nests under the elm, reaching nearly a yard deep, with passages more complicated than any human building, even more confusing than the community college’s hallways where Demi attended remedial night classes for adults. She was taking Introduction to Reading for the third time.
In the lawn between the two colonies, ant trails wended their ways between the blades. She watched the ants moving to and fro, some foraging, some carrying food, and some battling over a tent caterpillar that wasn’t quite dead yet. Demi bit her lip. There was plenty of food for both populations. No need for them to kill each other. But another one died, and then another, their tiny lights winking out in her mind. The only place they didn’t fight was at the gift rock on the garden’s edge where trails from both tribes intersected. Here they piled seeds, wisps of grass, and once, by Herculean effort, a shiny dime. Demi collected the tiny offerings every day and broadcast her thanks.
She sent soothing signals to them, directed them toward dead beetles, spilled garbage in the alley. “There’s feasts awaiting!” she broadcasted, and some turned aside from the combat, but others ignored her. Demi sighed. She put her hands behind her and arched back to let the setting sun bake her face. When she sat very still and quieted her mind, she sensed the entire yard, all the vibrant lives scurrying, burrowing, flying, lying in wait around her, from the sluggish pink haze of earthworms like fat yarn in the dirt, to her favorite, the bright yellow nimbus that was the barn owl in the oak.
Behind closed eyes, she saw Ethan’s bilious green aura long before he spoke. As he entered her field of vision, she ordered the wasps off who’d been resting on her shoulders. He moved slowly along the fence and stopped. Maybe he was looking the other way, she hoped, but she straightened anyway, wrapped her arms around her chest and tried to stay small. If I don’t make a noise, maybe he won’t know I’m here, she thought, but she could feel him staring at her. Had her skirt moved above her knee again?
The miniature life lights winked out, leaving the red-tinted blackness of light through her closed eyelids.
“Hey, little darling. What ‘cha doing, sitting in the sunshine like a flower?” His voice reminded her of the squishy sound in the kitchen drain.
She opened her eyes. His arms draped over the fence. He was all smiles and oily hair. Wide-set swampy-brown eyes. Untrimmed, ragged fingernails with burger grease under them. They’d been in school together until the third grade when they started holding her back. Now he lived by himself in what had been his parent’s house, two doors down. Twice in the last month she’d caught him peeping in her window. Stiffly, she stood, turned away and marched toward the house.
“Don’t go, Demi,” he whined. She centered her gaze on the back door’s peeled paint, tried not to hear him, but it was like he’d put his mouth to her ear. “Just ‘cuz you’re retarded don’t mean we can’t have a special time. I’d be better company than your dead-end mom.”
The door slammed behind her. Faintly she heard his last shot, “You won’t be twenty-two forever!”
She checked the stove while trying to figure out what Ethan meant. Nothing there. She took a package of dried noodles from the cabinet, poured water into a pot and set it on the stove.
Her mom coughed in the next room. “Demi! Where’ve you been? I’ve needed to pee for a half hour.”
“Coming,” Demi said. The dark living room smelled of old blankets and too much breathing. Mom sucked on a lozenge, her thin lips pursed, the skin on her face stretched so thin that she almost seemed like a skull already. Demi pulled the covering from Mom’s thin legs, then put an arm behind her to lift her up.
“Be gentle,” Mom gasped.
“Sorry.” Demi lifted her, a feathery weight with no substance. Demi remembered a moment from years ago when Mom towered over her, her hand open and coming down. The hard slap. “You’re stupid!” Mom had shouted. Demi couldn’t recall what Mom had been so mad about. Maybe Demi had spilled the sugar or not picked up her toys. In those days, Mom had been a bulky, ominous presence in Demi’s world. “I’ll try to be better,” Demi had said. Mom hit her again. Later that time, or maybe some other–they got mixed up in Demi’s mind–she had sat in the middle of her bed trying to figure out how to make Mom happy. “I’m a bad baby,” Demi had thought, and she wept, thinking about how much she loved her mom.
Even then she sensed the other lives: the carpet mites, a family of mice behind the walls, spiders, termites, centipedes, rolly-pollies, cockroaches, bees, all in or around the house, and they were a great comfort. To entertain herself, she made two flies weave an intricate flight before her, cavorting in loops and dives and pretty patterns until they were too tired to stay aloft and they settled on the floor.
Demi helped Mom untie her pajama bottoms and supported her until she sat on the toilet. “Oh, baby, it hurts,” moaned Mom.
After Demi carried her back to the couch, Mom said, her voice querulous again, “When’s dinner? I think I might be able to eat something today.”
“Good, Mommy. Doctor Davis said you needed food to get better.”
Mom smiled wanly. “Some beef noodles, maybe.”
When Demi got back to the kitchen, she stopped in front of the stove and stood numbly for a few minutes, not thinking, just staring into a middle distance somewhere beyond the kitchen but short of eternity.
A synapse snapped to life in her brain, and she looked around her as if she’d never seen the room before. “What are you doing, you dumb cluck?” she asked herself.
“Dinner, Demi,” came Mom’s voice from the living room.
“Ah.” Demi looked at the water in the pot for a while, then dipped her finger in. Cold. Shaking her head, she turned the stove on, then carefully set the timer for ten minutes.
Outside, Ethan had gone. Demi settled back into her favorite spot. The sun dipped behind the tenement across the street, but light bathed rooftops. The ant war had ended. In the corner under the eaves, a garden spider glowed in her mind like a tiny sun. It must have just fed. With her eyes closed, Demi in her backyard was no different than an astronaut floating in space, the piercing light of a thousand lives beating from every direction. Lines of ants walked the long paths in the grass, heading toward the gift rock. Wasps orbited her. She could even feel the somnolent owl gazing down on her sleepily. In the yard, she felt loved.
Her awareness deepened, penetrated the grass, felt the dandelions’ vegetable glow. Even soil fungus wafted a faint light. Something wasn’t right. She probed around her. Some part out of place or misfocused. After a while, she found it. The owl was hurt, its wing nearly broken. How did it get back to its high perch? Demi could feel the damaged muscles and the owl’s hunger. Had it been like this for a long time without her noticing? She concentrated mightily, gathered a little light from all the lights, sending it toward the owl. Gradually, the hurt mended, while every insect and animal and plant within her globe of awareness was slightly reduced.
She smiled. The owl thanked her in its mute manner. The other lives thanked her for their sacrifice. Demi gave and she took away. She showered them with her affection, and they received it with insect joy.
The stove timer buzzed too soon, and Demi went in to finish making dinner.
“I can’t eat this.” Mom dipped a spoon into the bowl, stirred it around until a coughing fit took her. When it ended, she said, “My stomach hurts.”
Demi sat with her hands in her lap. “Maybe if I blow on it for you? That always makes it better.”
Mom closed her eyes and grimaced. “It’s not hot, dammit. The smell’s making me pukey again. I need my medicine. Come here, girl.” Mom waved her hand toward her. Demi thought, Mom’s clothes are getting so big! The blouse’s cuff gaped like a cave, while Mom’s wrist looked like a pale branch sticking out. Mom said, “I’m going to pin the prescription to your shirt. Here’s the money. You’ll have to wait for the pharmacist. It’s just two blocks. You can do that, can’t you?” Mom exhaled minty lozenge breath, but underneath some other smell lurked, slate-hard and relentless, like the vegetable drawer long after old cabbage had gone blue and liquid.
“A cup of ice first,” said Mom. “My throat gets so dry.”
After filling a glass with ice cubes, and leaving it on the table by Mom’s couch, Demi put her jacket on. A street light flickered as she went out the front door, illuminating a pickup truck on cinder blocks and a trash pile that hadn’t been collected. A mongrel dog worried something from the pile and hurried down the street with it between its teeth. Demi pulled the jacket close around her neck. She didn’t like the neighborhood at night. Boys hung out on the corners or porch steps and called her names, but Mom needed her medicine. How else would she get better? Demi steeled herself. Her mother depended on her. I’m a good daughter, thought Demi.
At the pharmacy, the clerk gave her change for a ten, although Demi was sure she’d paid with a twenty. Outside the store, Demi counted the money twice. A car rolled by, blank faces ignoring her on the other side of the windshield. If she came back with the wrong money, Mom would be mad, and that would only make her worse.
She went back in.
“I made the right change, dunderhead,” said the clerk. He leaned against the register, his thumb hooked into an apron string. Overhead, the bare fluorescents buzzed
Tears swam behind Demi’s eyes. “Mommy gave me twenty dollars, mister. We need that money. Mommy’s sick.”
“Shit. Everyone has a story.” The clerk shooed her away with one hand. “That was a ten spot. Take a hike.”
A large black woman came from behind an aisle, a clipboard in her hand. The clerk didn’t see her. He sneered, an ugly expression that pressed his eyebrows together and made her think of Ethan. “You got a problem, take it up with management.”
The black woman stepped forward, reached past the clerk, startling him, and opened the register. She looked into it for a second. “You don’t have a ten in there, Gerald. Give the lady the rest of her money.”
The clerk stuttered momentarily. “You going to take this rum-dumb’s word over mine?”
The woman snorted impatiently, then counted out two five-dollar bills. “I don’t have to, Gerald. You don’t have a ten in the drawer. But if I did, I probably would. Why don’t you clean out your locker? I’ll cut you a check tomorrow.”
Demi felt a flood of relief as she stuffed the bills into her pocket.
The woman smiled at her, pulling her face into a friendly map of creases and dimples. She said, “I just bought this store, darlin’. Got one of those investment zone loans. Too bad they couldn’t loan us some good help. I’m Marjorie.” She put out her hand.
Demi shook it gratefully. “Demi’s my name. I’ve always lived here. My mommy’s sick. I’ve got to take her the medicine.”
She rushed from the store without waiting for an answer. What a nice lady, she thought, and for the first time in weeks the neighborhood looked good to her, the moths circling streetlights, the parked cars like indolent hippos taking naps beside the sidewalk. She whistled part of “Pop Goes the Weasel” as she walked, not paying attention.
Ethan caught her as she passed an alley. No warning. One second she was whistling, and the next, he had his arm over her shoulder, squeezing her to him.
“What’s a firefly like you doing out on a dark night like this, Demi?” he said. She could smell beer on his breath, and he reeked of cigarette smoke.
Her skin went scaly cold, and she tried to shrug him off. “Stop, Ethan. I don’t like it.”
He dug his fingers into her upper arm and kept her close. They were a long way between street lights. No cars. No pedestrians. Every porch was empty. He steered them into the alley. “Don’t you get lonely, Demi, day after day hanging out with your mother? I’ve seen you, you know, sitting at your dresser just starin’ into space. Don’t you get lonely?”
“Let me go, Ethan. Mommy’s waiting.” But he held tight and moved her into the deep shadows between the houses. Her legs moved mechanically; her arms seemed incapable of motion. Then, he was pushing her down onto an old mattress that smelled of mildew and dog fur.
“Give a kiss, won’t you, sunshine.” He pressed his lips to her neck.
Demi turned herself inward. It was like she was at the doctor’s office for her yearly visit. “Feet in the stirrups,” Doctor Davis would say, and she went away in her mind, far away from the cold instruments, the uncomfortable pinches. She’d listen to the office music, look at the ceiling tiles, imagining she was a cloud floating over plowed fields in winter, everything covered in white, lined into squares. Where are the farmers in winter? Isn’t it peaceful, drifting along, disconnected?
Vaguely she felt buttons being undone. Ethan said something incoherent. He pinned her hands above her head, digging her knuckles into a brick wall. She heard crickets. Watched a high haze rush across the band of stars visible between the roofs. It was like the doctor’s office, but she was frightened, so frightened that the balloon that was herself shrank up, became a peanut deep, deep inside her, and it was crying.
Ethan’s voice from far away said, “We’ll have to do this again, buttercup.”
It took a long time for the tiny, tiny Demi, who’d fled inside herself, to come back outside to look. At first she was only aware of the smelly mattress. A button dug into her back. She rolled, reached to feel the spot, and was puzzled to find her skin was bare. Her shirt was hiked up around her armpits. Slowly, she pushed it down, then tried to sit. She moaned. Her muscles ached; her crotch burned, and when she felt down there, her fingers came away wet. “And me without a plug, you dumb cluck. What would Mommy think?” she said.
Mommy’s alone! she thought, but even with that thought to rush her, it took several minutes to adjust her clothes. A muscle strain in her neck sent searing sparks whenever she tried to look to her left. She limped from the alley and headed home.
When the door clicked shut, Mom sat under the reading light on the couch, blanket-covered and shapeless, her eyes hollow and dark. She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. After a painful swallow, she croaked. “I could have died twice in the time you’ve been gone. Where’s my medicine?”
Demi’s hand flew to her mouth. “I had it.”
Mom turned her face to the wall, sighed in disappointment, then breathed shallowly without speaking.
She should yell at me, thought Demi. I’ve been bad. I lost the medicine, but it’s not my fault! Not my fault!
Demi shuffled down the street, head down, her eyes scanning the sidewalk and gutter. The prescription came in a white sack with the pharmacy slip stapled to it. She hoped the streetlights would be bright enough to find it. How could I drop it? It must be in the alley. But the closer she got, the slower she went. What if Ethan is there again? Behind the houses and dumpsters and busted-down garages of the alley, impenetrable shadows could hide a dozen Ethans. She stood on the sidewalk, facing the tunnel of graveled darkness and broken glass, closed her eyes, and forced herself to relax. Gradually a sphere of lights brightened around her. It was if she was coming from an arc-lit room to a dim cave. Her eyes adjusted, and the world that emerged was beautiful, all soft, fuzzy, living lamps that as soon as she saw them, they saw her. A slinky, purple cat wove around a trash can. Two aqua-colored rats peered at her from beneath a stack of broken pallets. Sleeping flies, creeping millipedes, huge water roaches waving silver antennae in her direction, but no Ethan.
She found the package by the mattress, the paper torn, the plastic bottle smashed, and all the pills crushed to powder.
There was nothing she could do. The pharmacy would be closed by now. She was a bad daughter, and it wasn’t her fault. That’s all she could think. Not my fault . . . not my fault. She thought about Ethan holding her, stopping her from going home with her delivery. The cat fled. Insects froze as she strode by.
Demi walked toward home, fists clenched, eyes closed, navigating by mental vision until she passed Ethan’s house. She stopped by his mailbox. Her globe of awareness encompassed the house. Cockroaches swarmed in his unclean kitchen; termites gnawed at the floor joists, and in his bedroom, she sensed the long, sickeningly green light of Ethan himself, lying in bed. She hated him. “We’ll have to do this again,” he’d said. He’d destroyed Mommy’s medicine. She rubbed her hand against her neck where he’d kissed her. Won’t someone protect me from him? she thought. He’s a bad man. He needs punishment, and those thoughts ran over and over until a kind of calm came to her. She relaxed. Her vision had never seemed this clear. All the house’s lives stood out as brilliant beacons. She sorted through them until she found what she wanted: in the attic, five black widows; in Ethan’s box springs, a brown recluse. He’s bad. He made me unhappy. Ethan has hurt me, she broadcast.
Demi had no plan. She didn’t think that far ahead, but she knew what she felt at the moment she felt it. When the sun was high in her yard, and the lives surrounded her with love, and seeds covered the gift rock, she felt love. When Mommy scolded her or turned away or sighed her deep sigh, Demi felt despair. When she looked at Ethan, she felt simple hate. That’s all. No plan. But she knew what was going on as the spiders began to move, climbing from their attic webs, crawling out from the bed springs. The deadliest bite, the brown recluse, he didn’t react to, most people don’t. It continued to bite Ethan while Demi watched until he rolled in his sleep, crushing it. Forty minutes later, though, when the black widows reached him, he did scream, and his screaming followed her down the street as she walked to her own house. It wasn’t until she shut the front door that she heard him no more, but by that time she wasn’t thinking about Ethan. He’d slipped from the plate of her awareness. It wasn’t until she was inside that she remembered she still didn’t have Mommy’s medicine.
“Mommy?” she said to the dark room. In the kitchen, the clock ticked. The refrigerator kicked on with a noisy rumble. “Mommy?”
Demi rubbed her hand along the wall until she found the light switch. Mom lay on the couch, propped by her pillows, head to one side, mouth open.
Demi’s mother didn’t move. Her hand dangled below the blanket’s edge. Two small pieces of melted ice floated in the cup behind her head.
Her fingers to her cheek, Demi crossed the room slowly to kneel by Mom. She took Mommy’s wrist and held it like she’d seen doctors on television, but she didn’t know what to feel for.
Demi sat on the floor, her back to the couch, holding Mommy’s hand. She’d never looked at the room from Mom’s point of view before. This low, Demi couldn’t see what was on the kitchen table top. She couldn’t see the clock on the table by the door, but she could see her baby pictures. Mom had put them on the wall below the front window’s curtain. Demi cocked her head to the side. Three pictures hanging from the wall at knee level: Mommy cradling Demi in a yellow-checked comforter. Demi sitting in a sandbox, holding a blue bucket. Demi on a swing, clinging to a chain with one hand while trying to get a sucker into her mouth with the other.
She closed her eyes. Mommy loved her after all. Gradually, Demi opened her mind to her other world, the household zoo, the backyard jungle, teeming with life, flowing in multicolor dots, and she realized her mother still glowed, dimly, a pulsing watery blue not much brighter than a fungus or a cloud of gnats, but she still lived.
The owl had been hurt, and Demi made her better. It had never occurred to her to try to help Mom this way. The yard world and Mommy’s world were separate. The animals and insects loved her; they brought offerings to gift rock. Mommy . . . well, Mommy was strong. Mommy loomed in Demi’s memory like a moving mountain, all loud voice and raised hand.
Demi concentrated on Mommy’s color, willing it to grow. She gathered all the light she could, reaching beneath the soil to worms, taking from crickets, stealing from the ants. Frantic, the mice in the wall fled to the far corners of the house, but kneeling by her mother, Demi found them and emptied them. Their lights winked out. The ant colonies died, destroyed more thoroughly than the greatest ant war could have ever destroyed them. Wasps settled in their nests, never to fly again. Spiders dropped from their own webs. A bat, flitting through Demi’s inescapable grasp fluttered once, then dropped to the yard, its light extinguished.
Inside Demi’s head, the wire of her talent heated white hot, twisted under the strain. She’d never done anything like this before. Directing flies to dance, healing the owl, hating Ethan were like baby steps.
Still, Demi reached for more. Mommy’s light wasn’t turned up enough. Demi opened every living faucet she could reach, grass, flowers, trees, moss, algae, and the life flowed toward her mother until in Demi’s mind, all was black except for Mom, who blazed like a blue ocean.
At the end, the wire snapped in Demi’s head. She gasped, for Mom’s light disappeared. Demi opened her eyes to be sure Mom was still there.
Mom twitched. She closed her mouth. Demi squeezed her hand, and Mom squeezed back.
“Mommy?” said Demi, feeling the pressure of Mom’s thin fingers against her palm, watching her eyelids flutter.
“Is it breakfast?” said Mom. “I’m ready to eat something. Maybe an egg.”
Demi bit her lower lip. She rested her forehead against Mom’s arm. “Oh, yes, Mommy. I can make some eggs.”
Mom pulled a lungful of air in and let it out, as if she’d never breathed before. “Good.” Mom let go of Demi’s hand, opened her eyes and looked at her daughter. “For Christ’s sake, Demi, your clothes are a mess. If you’ve been outside like that, I’ll die from embarrassment. Can’t you at least take care of yourself?”
Demi’s cheeks flushed. “Yes, Mommy. I’m sorry.”
“And don’t burn down the kitchen either.”
Demi fled to the stove, made the eggs and fed her mother, who ate with enthusiasm.
When mom leaned back to rest, Demi slipped into the backyard. The morning sun had just crested over the neighbors’ rooftops. She went to her favorite spot, where grass crackled under her hands as she sat.
Demi sighed with exhaustion. Her back hurt, and raising her hand to rub her sore neck sent a medley of sharp pains along her side. Gradually the sun revealed more and more of the yard, and Demi realized the grass was brown-tinged and there wasn’t a nearby sound. No crickets or grasshoppers or buzzing wasps. The air yard was cool and quiet. A handful of leaves dropped out of the elm, skittering onto a layer of fallen leaves that were already there. Leaves coated the ground beneath the sycamore and oak too. On the gift rock, a few ants lay curled between the seeds.
Mom’s voice came from the kitchen. “Dammit, Demi. You left the stove on!”
Demi looked beyond the ants. Dead grass, dead flowers, dead bushes and dead trees. She closed her eyes and relaxed into her private seeing place. Nothing appeared. It was like probing the gap left by a pulled tooth. She knew something had been there once, but it was gone now, as dead as her yard.
A shadow flicked across her face. She looked up. The owl circled the dead oak, crossing the sun again, its huge wingspan blocking the light for an eye-blink. When it settled on a branch, a dozen leaves rained down. The owl folded its wings to its side and looked at her, locking gazes. Demi felt she could walk up to the owl and touch it. It would let her. There was no hate in the scrutiny, no condemnation. It bobbed its head, dropped off the branch in a long swoop directly toward her. A wing-tip brushed her forehead as it passed, and then it was gone. The caress was a gentle one, not a hello or goodbye, but an acknowledgment. Even if she could never see them the way she had before, the ants would return. The grass would renew, and in her backyard, saplings would grow.
Mommy’s alive, Demi thought, and she couldn’t understand why she was crying.
This story originally appeared in Talebones.