I shivered and stared at the long crack, which started halfway up my wall and ended at the floor, and imagined I was a teeny-tiny ant. No, smaller than an ant. An amoeba or something, and the crack was a gigantic canyon carved deep into red-brown mountains. I could usually wish myself into any world I could dream up, but this time was different. Her shouting was louder. Scarier. Just when I got to the point where I could almost imagine hiking down into the canyon, just when I could almost smell the dirt and hear the wind in the trees, I snapped back to my mattress on the dirty brown carpet in this freezing room in this smelly old apartment. I wasn't usually scared, but this time, I was. Part of me wanted to open my door and sneak down the hall to see if things were okay, but something deep inside told me to go exploring the canyon instead.
Mother screamed and something hit the wall so hard that if I had been down in my wall canyon, I would have turned the sound into thunder. Why couldn't I disappear this time? What was wrong with me?
Daddy's low voice rumbled, and I thought about thunder again. If thunder had a voice that could calm lightning down, it would sound just like Daddy. Still, I wished he'd stop talking. It never helps. Thunder is just noise. It's harmless. Lightning, though...lightning can burn the house down. It can kill you.
"Don't be so stupid, Libby. She's not lightning and she's not gonna kill anybody."
Sometimes saying things out loud makes me feel better, like I can make it real. I have to be careful what I say out loud, though, because if some of the things I think really happened, I'd live in a world with no lightning. Maybe that might seem like a relief, but without lightning, there'd be no thunder. Then where would I be? In some orphanage run by scary nuns like Mother is always threatening to send me to? No way, Jose. I'll take my chances with being zapped.
I don't know how long I slept, but when I woke up, my room was dark. The street lamp outside my window was busted out ages ago, so no light came through the cracks in my blinds.
Stupid, I thought as I remembered we didn't have electricity. I should have taken a shower while it was still light.
The whole apartment was quiet, and I wondered if it was safe to make my way to the kitchen to find something to eat. Sometimes after a big fight, Mother and Daddy went to their room for a nap. Sometimes, they left me all alone in the apartment and would be gone until the next day. If either of those things happened, I'd be safe. My stomach grumbled and I thought about what I could make myself for dinner. Maybe I could bring a spoon and the peanut butter back to my room. And Daddy's thermos. I could fill it up with water and bring that back, too, because peanut butter always makes me thirsty. I opened my bedroom door and listened. I held my breath and imagined my ears growing as big as a bat's. Bigger. As big as Dumbo's. So big, I could hear Mother blinking if I concentrated hard enough.
I was about to step into the dark hallway when I remembered the last time I thought it was safe after a fight. I walked into the kitchen and froze when I saw her sitting at the table. She was smoking a cigarette, the ashes a long, grey snake. The heavy green ashtray sat in front of her, heaped with a miniature mountain of butts. Her eyes were far away and she didn't seem to notice me. I turned around to go back to my room, but before I could take a single step, the ashtray smashed the wall next to me. Ashes stung my eyes and the ashtray clanked to the floor in three big chunks.
"See what you made me do," she screamed after me as I ran back to my room. Somewhere between between the kitchen and my bedroom, I had an accident.
“Stupid baby,” I whispered as I quietly clicked my door shut.
"No way, Jose." A grumbly stomach wasn't worth the risk. I shut my door and moved back to my mattress. I climbed under the old blanket and wrapped myself up like a burrito, only I left my face poking out so I could see and breathe.
After a few minutes, I got tired of lying in the complete dark. The stick on the blinds was missing, and if you pulled on the string, the blinds went up all crookedy and got tangled, but even a little light from outside would be better than sitting in a freezing cave. When I got the blinds up as far as I could, I went back to my mattress and stared at the crack. At first I had to stare so hard my eyes hurt, but after a few minutes something happened.
A thin thread of golden light started at the top of my wall canyon and moved like the sun all the way down to the bottom. I watched, not breathing, not blinking, until my eyes burned and I had to squeeze them shut against tears. When the light hit the bottom of the canyon, it got a little brighter and moved back up to the top of the crack. Warm, golden light soaked the wall like some kind of weird paint.
"I must be dreaming," I thought. I walked over to the wall, reached my hand toward the light, and pulled it away. It was warm! How could that be?
The light kept moving up and down the crack, getting brighter each time it came to an end. After a while my whole room was filled with light as warm and bright as the sun. I closed my eyes and tilted my head back. The sun made orangey-red patterns behind my eyes. My face was close-to-a-campfire warm. Keeping my eyes closed in case opening them made this wonderful dream go away, I lowered myself to the floor and sat cross-legged. I didn't think anything at all as I let the sun wrap me up. I just sat there feeling safe and warm.
Wind whistled through treetops and I opened my eyes. I wasn't in my room anymore. The dirty carpet had turned to dirt underneath me. I was in my canyon. I had managed to wish myself there after all!
"Woo-hoo!" My voice bounced off the steep canyon walls. I jumped up and down until I ran out of breath, got dizzy, and had to sit down. The canyon in my imagination was so much smaller than this one was. In my mind, I was able to throw a stone from one wall and it would hit the other. This one's walls were too far apart for that. I dug my feet into the powdery, hot earth and wished I was wearing shoes instead of just old, holey socks.
In geography, we learned that The Grand Canyon was carved by a river over the course of billions of years. Just thinking about all that water made my throat burn with thirst. I scanned both directions, looking for signs of water. Nothing. I'd have to go exploring. Either that, or try to wish myself back home and risk an ashtray to the head in the kitchen.
I hadn't been walking all that long when I heard a sort of trickle-splash coming from around the bend. I tucked my head and ran as fast as I could, ignoring the fact I learned in science: Water out in the world usually isn't safe to drink. It's contaminated with all sorts of bacteria that can make you sick or kill you. It didn't much matter, though. I was so thirsty, I would have picked up a dog bowl and gulped it all down.
Around the bend, the canyon spread out even wider and I lost the feeling I was even in a canyon. Now, I was in a in a meadow or prairie or something. I couldn't remember the difference, but it didn't matter. Canyons don't work like that. They don't go from deep to flat just like that, but what did it matter? All of this was in my head anyway. Sure, it felt real, but I knew I was huddled in my blanket in my dark room. This was all just a pleasant dream, and I was going to enjoy every second of it. Starting with the cabin I somehow hadn’t noticed right away.
I didn’t even think twice as I walked up the sturdy front steps. Lacy white grandma curtains hung in the open front windows and the breeze poofed them in and out. The front door was open and inside, dishes clanked together as a lady hummed. Something inside made my mouth water and my stomach grumble. It was too inviting not to go inside.
“Hi, Libby!” The beautiful woman smiled at me like she’d been waiting for me all day. “Come in, sit down. Lunch is ready, honey.”
She gestured at the small table set for two. A loaf of bread bread, still warm-smelling from the oven, sat next to a big pot of something thick and brown. I wondered it if was stew. I’d never had stew before, but always wanted to try it. But as much as I wanted to sit and shove my face full of food, I stood in the archway between the front entry and the dining room.
“Oh, honey, don’t be shy. I know you didn’t come all this way to just stare at me. Sit, eat!”
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you.” I slid into the nearest chair and tried not to let my mouth water. Why not? Whatever the lady gave me to eat in this dream had to be better than the big Nothing Sandwich I’d have if I let myself wake up.
“I appreciate your manners.” She took my bowl and heaped the brown stuff into it. “But there’s no need to stand on formality here. You can call me Margot.” She set the bowl in front of me and began filling the second bowl for herself.
“Thank you, M--Margot.” I shoveled a heaping spoonful into my mouth and didn’t even care when it burned my tongue.
I had so many questions. Who was she? How did she know my name? How did she know I was coming? How did she know I was starving?
“Is any of this real?” I dipped a hunk of bread into the stew. Definitely stew.
“As real as anything, I suppose. What’s it matter? Real or not, you’re here now, so you may as well fill that empty belly of yours and get some rest. You certainly deserve it.
The more I ate, the less important my questions seemed, and by the time I finished my second bowl, I had almost forgotten I didn’t belong here. Really, I think I would have forgotten all the way if I hadn’t heard mother calling from far away. I dropped my spoon and stood up so fast, I knocked my chair over.
“I have to go.”
“Nonsense.” she picked up my chair and refilled my water glass. “Of course you’re welcome to leave if you like, but it’d be wonderful if you’d consider staying. Nobody can get you here, Libby. And I promise you’ll always have plenty of food and a warm bed.”
“Libby,” Mother called again. Fainter this time. Like she was walking away from me.
“I don’t know. Mother needs me.”
“I know she does, Sweetie. And if you must go back to her, then go. But you need a mother. Someone to look after you and keep you safe. Someone to be the adult while you get to be a kid. I think you know she’s never going to be able to do that for you. Not her, or your daddy.”
As if he heard Margot say his name, Daddy shouted for me. Louder than Mother, but still distant. Still far away.
“I can’t.” I almost couldn’t get the words out. I wanted to stay so bad it hurt.”I can’t just leave them.” I looked up at Margot and she smiled.
“You already did, sweetheart, and that was the hard part. I promise.” She set a piece of chocolate cake in front of me.
“Libby!” Mother and Daddy called again. Only this time, I could barely hear them at all.
“Maybe I’ll go back later.” I drug my finger through the thick frosting and licked.
Margot smiled, but didn’t say anything.
I closed my eyes and listened for Mother and Daddy again, but all I could hear was the wind in the trees and the sound of Margot’s fork hitting the plate as she dug into her cake.