When I Grow Up

This is the first chapter from my attempt at NaNoWriMo this November. Although I never finished the novel (the Outtakes were so busy this November), I really like the concept! I edited the first chapter a little and decided to post it here.

Dear Elsie,

Hey! I bet you thought you wouldn’t hear from me again after that last letter. It’s true, I’m super busy with college and everything right now, but I’m starting to grow out of my habit of disappearing. I’m still here, even if I’m not. I hope fourth grade is going well for you.

That’s all people talk about with you, isn’t it? School? Well, I guess if you want to talk about school, you could email back and tell about it. Or not. I’m glad your mom let you get an email address, even if it wasn’t really her choice. 🙂

I know you’re probably still a little bit mad at me for everything that happened last summer, and I understand that. I wasn’t thinking, Elsie. I don’t know how to tell you I’m sorry besides these emails. It’s kind of lonely here at college. They say the first semester is the hardest, but… anyway. I hope you’ll write back to me.

I was thinking about when I met you today. You thought dandelions were flowers, remember? We were both pretty innocent then, I guess. It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since that stupid dinner. A lot’s happened to both of us. But it wasn’t all bad, was it?

Can you tell I’m starting to be a writer? I don’t know how much you know about prose, but after my Intro to Fiction Writing class this semester, trust me, I know way too much.

How’s Henry doing? And the dog?

Tell Kira I say hi if you get a chance. Hope she’s doing well too.

Take care,

Sam

*   *   *

 

THE BRINTELS didn’t plan on moving three states away in the course of one month, but then again, Julia Brintel didn’t plan to be divorced at the age of thirty-four. The summer before Elsie started first grade was one of unexpected endings and beginnings, a weird, shaky, transitional phase where nothing felt definite anymore. Julia was afraid of this new feeling, this untethered drift through life that felt purposeless. The only thing that kept her going these days was her children. She pitched the move (both to her children and to herself) as a fresh start, a new beginning—something optimistic and different and fun.

The truth was, Julia was more lonely than she’d ever been. So when Mrs. Angelica Redding, their next-door neighbor, invited the Brintels over for dinner, Julia took her up on the offer immediately—something she never would have done back in New Haven. She looked forward to meeting her neighbors, but mostly she looked forward to eating something that didn’t consist of lukewarm mac and cheese or dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets. An invitation to dinner meant that Julia was still alive, that someone else knew she existed, even if she herself had forgotten that.

Elsie, of course, was very excited that she got to go and explore the neighbor’s house. After being cooped up in the quiet house for what felt like eternity, surrounded by boxes and the smell of fresh paint, the five-year-old girl was desperate for a change of scenery. Besides, her mom didn’t want her in the house while she was unpacking (which she was always doing). She’d already learned that drawing on the walls didn’t help the new house feel more like Connecticut. The “final straw” came when she tried to help by moving Henry’s toys out of the box and onto the kitchen floor. Elsie was finally shooed outside to play when the Red Power Ranger attacked Julia’s foot.

As soon as she stepped outside into the late-afternoon sunlight, the little girl was drawn immediately to the Redding’s backyard. Mr. Redding had forgotten to call the landscaping company to spray for dandelions in the spring, so by August, the lawn was sprinkled plentifully with the yellow pestilence. Mrs. Redding constantly complained about the fact her backyard looked like “an abandoned construction site”, but Elsie took one look at the lawn overrun with “flowers”—so much more interesting than her boring, green yard—and danced into the Redding’s yard without a second thought, declaring herself queen of the fairies. She didn’t bother to ask her mother’s permission. Elsie knew that since the divorce, her mother said yes to anything she asked. She was too young to realize that it was not because her mother was suddenly more lenient about rules, but because her mother had stopped listening to Elsie’s questions.

Because of this, the first time Samuel Redding saw Elsie Brintel was when he stepped out of his back door with a bulging black garbage bag slung over his shoulder. He squinted at the tiny blonde girl in the uncomfortably bright sunlight, who was bent over something intently.

She broke her concentration only when she heard the loud noise of the garbage bag being thrown into the waiting receptacle. She stared at Sam, frozen, for a second, dandelion crown lopsided on her head.

“Hey,” Sam said, unsure of what else to say. “What’re you looking at?”

Elsie snapped out of her trance and pressed one finger to her lips, imitating Julia. She beckoned Sam over with the other hand.

“Do you think he’s lost?” she asked in a voice just above a whisper, pointing to the small painted turtle that was ambling slowly through the grass.

Sam knelt down to get on Elsie’s level, watching the turtle with her. “He probably lives in Beaker’s Pond, back in those woods. He’ll find his way back when he wants to.”

“Can I keep him?” Elsie wasn’t concerned with whispering anymore. “My brother, Henry, he’d think it’s cool! And look how pretty he is!”

“He’s a wild turtle. You can’t just put him in a box; he’d be sad there.” Sam was itching to go back inside. It was hot out here, and he wasn’t a babysitter.

“We have lots of boxes in our house, so he’d probably be sad all the time,” Elsie said and then smiled, showing all her pearly teeth. “My name’s Elsie. I live next door now.” The wind blew through her hair, tossing it around as lightly as a feather.

“I’m Sam,” he said, unsure whether he should offer up more about himself.

For Elsie, a name was enough. “We’re going over to your house later, I think. Can you play with me?”

Sam thought about the video game he had paused upstairs, but he couldn’t bring himself to say no to this mysterious girl. “Why not?” he said, surprising himself. “We can visit the pond…if you think that’s okay with your mom.”

Elsie took one look back at her house and, for a second, sounded much older than she was. “She won’t care.”

*   *   *

Julia, Henry, and an only slightly smudged Elsie arrived to a pleasant and uneventful dinner. Mr. and Mrs. Redding covered all the right topics, dancing around things like dandelions and divorce. Julia felt at least half-full in the presence of a family, even if the dinner came with Mrs. Redding’s constant apologies for everything set in front of them.

“Oh, dessert, yes,” Mrs. Redding said when the plates had been cleared off, “Well, you see, it’s not quite out of the oven yet, I’m just a terrible hostess—”

“Oh, it’s no trouble,” Julia said quickly.

“Sam,” his mother said, “Perhaps you could show the children your room? The grown-ups can talk down here for awhile, maybe play some cards?” she offered, looking at Julia. “We’ll call you when dessert is ready.”

Sam pushed away from the table, grateful for the excuse to leave. He led the way to his room, followed by Elsie who dragged her brother behind her like a toy.

“What’s that door?” she asked, pointing.

“That’s my dad’s study.”

“What does he study?” Elsie asked. She liked this house with its white walls and framed artwork. The carpet was softer than her carpet next door.

“He’s a doctor of mathematics,” Sam replied automatically, and Elsie began laughing loudly.

“You can’t doctor math!” she said. “You can only doctor people!”

In spite of himself, Sam smiled. “You’re right,” he told the little girl. “He must be studying something else in there.”

“He’s probably a secret agent!” Elsie said, staring at the closed door with wonder. “That would explain why you don’t know. He’s probably saving the world secretly. That’s what our dad is doing, right Henry?”

Henry nodded mutely as Sam opened the door to his room and let the two of them scamper inside. Elsie surveyed the room and touched as many things as possible as Sam, embarrassed, picked up dirty socks and empty bags of chips from the floor.

He turned around after tossing both into the garbage to find her sitting on his bed as if it were her own room, holding the Webkinz panda he forgot he had.

“Where did you find that?” he asked her.  

“What’s this?” She pointed to one of the many photographs he had tacked to his bedroom wall.

“It’s a picture. What does your brother like to play with?” He was impressed at the rate the girl could talk, but a bit concerned about Henry, who couldn’t reach the bed and so stood next to it, staring blankly at the photograph Elsie was so entranced with.

“Who is it?” She wouldn’t stop staring at it.

“Does your brother know how to talk?” Sam asked, changing the subject. He opened his closet and began rummaging around for something to give the two of them to play with.

“Is it your girlfriend?” came from Elsie’s side of the room. “She’s pretty.”

“I don’t have a girlfriend.” Sam surveyed the top shelf of his closet. One of these boxes had to hold something…

“Really?” This stumped her for a second. “But you’re old.”

“Fourteen,” he replied. He opened the box he’d just managed to pull down from the shelf. Matchbox cars! He showed a few of them to Henry, who seemed at least semi-interested.

“That’s older than me.” She bounced off of Sam’s bed and began to look underneath it.

“I figured.” Henry was meticulously lining the cars up by color.

“Can I sit at your desk?”

“If you stop asking questions, you can sit anywhere you want,” Sam said, smashing his blue sedan into the side of Henry’s red convertible. The little guy’s face lit up and he looked at Elsie as if for permission.

“Yes, Henry, you can play with them,” she said, barely looking up from Sam’s desk drawer, the contents of which she was in the process of pawing through.

She pulled out a notebook-sized sheet of white paper with a pencil drawing on it. “Is this the girl in the picture?” she asked.

Sam shot a look at her from his spot on the carpet next to what was quickly becoming a mini demolition derby. Elsie clapped a hand over her mouth guiltily. “Sorry. No more questions, I promise.” She set the paper down carefully and then looked back at Sam. “Can I color?”

“That’s a question,” Sam said, sighing.

“No, it’s not, it’s a form of expression. That’s what my kindergarten teacher back in Connecticut told me.”

Sam sighed and got up. He grabbed a notebook and a pack of colored pencils from his backpack and handed them to her. “Color as much as you want,” he said.

“Did you draw this picture?” She ignored the notebook and was touching the pencil drawing again.

“Yeah. I did.”

Elsie’s head tilted to the side as she studied the drawing. “What’s her name?”

“Kira.” Sam cursed himself for the sparks that went off in his heart when he said it. It’s just a name, stop being stupid. Kira. He remembered so clearly the day he took that picture of her…

Henry’s car attempted to drive up his arm, jolting him back to the present.

“Will you draw me?” Elsie asked as she gingerly set the drawing back in Sam’s desk drawer.

“Maybe sometime. It takes a long time to draw something that detailed. You wouldn’t be able to sit still long enough.”

Elise thought about that for a second before opening Sam’s notebook with renewed vigor, pulling out an orange colored pencil.

She spent a solid twenty seconds bent over the notebook before her head popped up again. “Is Kira your girlfriend?”

“No, she’s not.” The sparks again. Sam tried to concentrate on anything else.

“She’s your best friend, then.”

“I guess so, yeah. She’s pretty cool.” The Matchbox cars on the carpet had gotten into a four-car pileup, and judging from the smashing sounds coming from Henry, the accident wasn’t a pretty one.

“I’m going to draw now. Not as good as you, but I’ll do my best.” Elsie said, returning to her picture—this time with a blue colored pencil. “I can’t talk while I’m drawing, though.”

“Thank God,” Sam said under his breath, returning to Henry just as the ambulance arrived at the scene of the accident.

*   *   *

Later that night, when the Brintels had gone back home, Elsie put on her favorite princess nightgown and helped Henry into his pajamas. Just like she’d done every night now that they lived in Minnesota, she plugged in Henry’s nebulizer, added the capsule of medicine to his breathing mask, and attempted to put the mask on him. He moved his head away, and after the third attempt, started to squirm and cry.

“No, Henry!” said Elsie sternly. “It’s for your asthma. Do you want to stop breathing?”

“Mommy!” Henry replied.

“Mommy’s still on the phone. She’ll be here when you’re done with your medicine. Put on your mask now…come on…”

Henry reluctantly let Elsie put his mask on and only jumped a little bit when she switched the machine on. The loud buzzing nearly drowned out Elsie’s tiny voice as she picked up a book to read to Henry to help the time pass more quickly.

Elsie picked up one of his favorite books, full of pictures of happy families, and began to read it out loud. As always, she added her own commentary to the plot of the story.

“Once upon a time, there was a mommy and a daddy and a little boy. We don’t have a daddy right now, because he’s in Australia with the kangaroos. Do you want to see a kangaroo?” Elsie picked up another book from the stack at their feet and pointed to the kangaroo on the cover. “One day, the little boy decided to go to the playground by himself. That’s a bad idea, Henry, never never do that. What if you needed an inhaler and you were there all by yourself? Do you want to stop breathing?”

Henry managed to shake his head sufficiently for his sister. Her bedtime stories only loosely followed the plot of the book she was supposed to be reading out of. She liked adding a combination of fantastic stories about their dad, which were then usually followed up with a scare about the dangers of not being able to breathe.

Elsie finished two more books before she deemed the medicine to be all breathed in. Once she’d unplugged the machine and brought the mask downstairs to be washed off, she encouraged Henry to play Barbies with her until Julia was ready to tuck the kids in.

Julia stood in the kitchen, watching as the clock displayed her failure. 9:07 was too late for the kids to stay up, even in the summer. She hung up the phone and tossed it on the counter, head hung low. Part of her longed to stay downstairs in the kitchen and not make the long trek upstairs to the kids’ room, so full of loud energy, and then her room, so empty and silent. The contrast hurt too much when she slept alone with cardboard boxes as her companions.

“Mama?” she heard Elsie call from the top of the staircase. “We’re ready for bed! Henry brushed his teeth in record time, too!”

Julia smiled and shook her head as she began her ascent, selfishness eroding away for the night.

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