A story about separation anxiety. Though it's still a work in progress, I shared the first chapter on Instagram recently, and that was a lot of fun. Illustrations by Ceyhun Sen. Story by Ali Almossawi.
Amaranta was terrified of the night.
Her room was too bright, her room was too dark, it was too loud, it was too quiet. More than anything, Amaranta dreaded being alone. Mrs. Marquez, kind though she was, had many young girls to take care of, and Amaranta didn’t want to be a bother.
Her room was on the second floor of a hundred-year-old former mansion. In a corner, facing the main road.
Whenever the headlights of passing cars lit up her ceiling, she remembered that last drive home with Papa. She remembered the truck approaching, then swerving. Tires scrambling to grip the icy road on that winter night. A crash. Broken glass. Her cheek resting on the soft mud of a layby, eyes staring through swaying blades of grass at a mosaic of lights.
Whenever her room was pitch-black, so dark she could hardly tell whether her eyes were open or shut, it reminded her of that machine at the hospital. The one they fed her to whole after the accident.
Its walls clamored, mercilessly, as she lay on her back, eyes wide open inside that cramped enclosure. Wondering whether there was anything, under heaven, worse than being held in place.
Whenever her room was too loud, it reminded her of the night train she boarded with the social worker. That rattling cabin that brought her to the neighboring province while Papa rested.
And whenever her room was too quiet, it was so quiet she heard the water pipes at work. Groaning behind the walls. It reminded her of the nights she’d spent by Papa’s bed, waiting for him to get better. Her face pressed against a steel bed rail looking up at the valves and tubes, coursing life into Papa’s veins.
At the foster home, most of the girls spent their breaks in the backyard playing hopscotch and tag. Amaranta spent hers in the courtyard where a tall, gaunt woman, always in a sun hat, always in a creased, white, linen shirt could be found sauntering through it from one end to the other.
Though feeble in her old age and burdened by a raspy voice that never seemed to leave her, the gardener had just enough strength to tend to the lush green garden that sat surrounded by the home’s three floors.
Amaranta not only helped the gardener with watering flowers, with turning over soil, and with clearing nettles, but she also taught her something that Amaranta had learned from her Papa. A set of breathing exercises to help the gardener with her coughs. Mrs. Marquez would often see the two on a bench, mid session. And she thought it the most beautiful scene.
Still, the nights were difficult to bear. Amaranta, eight and true to her name, worked out a plan with Papa. She would get him to stop by every night and stay with her until she fell asleep. He would stay for as long as he could the first few nights, then shorten his visits as the nights went by.
The clock struck eight. Amaranta tucked herself into the warmth of a heavily starched blanket. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
Papa stood by the side of the bed, gazing at Amaranta. And Amaranta lay in bed gazing up at Papa.
“Don’t leave until I go to sleep,” Amaranta warned Papa with a cheeky smile.
What felt like a third of the night passed. Amaranta’s eyelids drooped. A pause. Then they opened wide. Papa was still there. They drooped again. Another pause.
Should Papa leave? He turned around as slowly as he could and tiptoed toward the door. But then Amaranta opened her eyes.
Not so fast, Papa.
Papa sat on the floor, gazing at Amaranta. And Amaranta lay in bed gazing back at Papa. What felt like another third of the night passed.
Amaranta’s blinking slowed. Her breathing got lighter. Her chest felt calmer. She finally closed her eyes.
Papa got down on his belly like an alligator and slithered toward the door. But then Amaranta opened her eyes. Papa was caught.
This time, Papa got up off his belly and leaned against the wall. He was quite a distance from the bed. Amaranta had to try extra hard to make out Papa’s face, though she still felt his presence. It was like glaring into the sun.
The more she glared, the harder it became to focus, and the easier it became to look away. And to let go. Amaranta’s vision was swimming. She was drifting.
Papa crouched by the wall, gazing at Amaranta. And Amaranta lay in bed gazing with heavy eyes back at Papa. What felt like yet another third of the night passed.
Amaranta’s lashes fluttered and her eyes surrendered. Her lips parted just a bit as her nose clogged up. The tiny crack in the middle of her bottom lip hardened as the cold dry air overwhelmed it. Her head tilted, puffing up the other side of her feather pillow. Her shoulders fell into the mattress. Her muscles relaxed. Her index finger stopped twitching. Her tiny toes lay still under the stiff blanket.
“Until I go to sleep,” she whispered from under her breath.
The plan had worked. Amaranta was finally asleep. She would get through the night. And she did.
Because the second Amaranta closed her eyes she heard the tinkle of Mrs. Marquez’s brass bell.
And as Amaranta opened her eyes to the light of a new morning, Papa faded into the darkness.
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