by Jay Duret
The man paused on the doorstep, huffed into his palm to check his breath, and then shook his jacket straight. Ignoring the bell to the side, he gave a stout knock.
A girl opened the door. “Hello?” She had a wide, serious face and the kind of long straight hair that fell like a shower curtain.
“Hi,” he said brightly. “You’re Angel, right?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “I have heard so much about you. I’m Chris. I’m picking up your mother.”
“I know. She’s been getting ready for hours.”
“May I come in?”
“She’s still in the bathroom.”
From within the apartment a woman’s voice called out. “Chrissy? That you? I am almost ready. Just relax.”
Chris called out, “I’m fine, Amanda. Take your time. Angel and I will have a chat.”
Angel slightly widened the door opening and Chris entered. He went straight from the entry hall into the living room and without removing his tweed sport coat dropped down heavily on the couch.
Angel followed. She stood in front of Chris shifting from side to side and twisting a handful of her hair. Her pink translucent glasses had slid down her nose. With one thumb she pushed them back up.
For a moment neither said anything. Then Angel said, “I have dyslexia. Not the reading kind, the kind with math and thinking things…”
Chris gave her an encouraging look.
“…and another interesting thing about me is that last year I designed a game.”
“What grade are you in, Angel?
“…I’m in fifth, and it was sort of like—have you ever played Zombies vs. Werewolves?”
“…so you’re 10?”
“Eleven… it was a lot like that but I didn’t have any werewolves. It was at a school and all the teachers were animals so when the zombies came…”
“Where do go to school, Angel?”
“Hillside. And the thing is that when the zombies attacked the school there were all these animals guarding the kids…”
“I thought you were at Country Day?”
“I used to go there. And you know what the principal was?”
“Who is the principal these days?”
“I made him a dog with a top hat and a tie.”
“I remember when Clifton was there. He was there for years and years. I thought that Clifton would always be at Day but then he dropped dead.”
“I am really proud of my friend Mary Louise ’cause she got up after being in the hospital two days and walked around her bed on her own two feet.” Angel opened her eyes very wide at the heroism involved.
“Did you like Day?”
“The girls were all fake. Like TV fake mean girls. And I was bullied. I only had one true friend.”
“I always thought Day had good sports. Maybe not as good as Charter, but after all it’s only half the size. That makes a difference, don’t you think? Small but mighty. What sports did you play?”
“Like Mary Elizabeth. In the first grade, the year that she moved here, we were best friends. We were together every day, and then the next year she wouldn’t talk to me. She would pretend not even to see me. Never another word. Like I didn’t exist.”
“My kids did lacrosse. Even the little one.”
“I love my new school. On a ten-point scale it’s elevendyish. Everyone is real. They aren’t fake.”
“At Hillside? That’s what you said, right? At Hillside school?”
Angel didn’t respond and Chris continued, “…Hillside is all girls, isn’t it? Do they even have lacrosse?”
From another room a woman’s voice rang, “I’m almost there. Angel, get Chris some water, will you?”
Angel looked up at Chris and rolled her eyes.
“I’m good, hon,” Chris shouted back. “Angel and I are talking sports.” Chris smiled at Angel.
Angel said, “Amanda’s really slow. She takes forever. She thinks she looks old.”
“What are your sports, Angel?”
“I like basketball.”
“What position do you play at school?”
“I couldn’t play this year but I wanted to play—I am not sure what you call it—the one in front…”
“How come you couldn’t play?”
“I had other things I had to do. I am sooo busy. I had to go to physical therapy to strengthen my core. And then to speech therapy. You may find this hard to believe but I had trouble putting words to my thoughts. I would open my mouth and nothing would come out. I would say ‘like’ and ‘um’ and ‘uhhhh,’ and ‘well…um…um….I mean…like, like….’”
“I can hear you fine, Angel.”
“I had a broken bone once. Actually I had a cast ’cause they thought it might be broken but they weren’t sure. They tried to look and see but it was right where my hand and arm meet together…” Angel held up her right arm and waggled the hand. “… and they looked and they couldn’t really see anything for sure ’cause there is so much stuff in there but they said I probably broke something so I had to have a cast. Technically I had a bandage for a week then a cast for a week and then a bandage again for a week.”
“You speak just fine, Angel, don’t let anyone say anything different.”
“Would you like to see my drawing?” Without waiting for a response Angel plopped down cross-legged on the floor. She opened her purse and took out a pink leather book a little bigger than a large cellphone. The book was the kind of book with a zipper around it. Angel unzipped it intently, pressed the spine flat on the floor and then with two fingers began to root around in a pocket inside the front cover. In a moment she extracted a very small scrap of paper and held it out to Chris.
“Is that your journal?” Chris asked. “Your mother says you are quite a writer.” Chris leaned forward and held out his hand, palm up.
Angel pulled back the piece of paper and held it close to her glasses, like she was inspecting a diamond. She took a pair of pink scissors—the rounded-end kind that kids use in art class—and carefully trimmed a bit of excess from the paper. Then she reached back out and gently laid it on the meat of Chris’s pink palm.
Chris brought the hand to his lap where he shook the paper onto his thigh. He fished inside his blazer and found a leather glasses case. “Need ‘em to see. Haha. Don’t ever get old, Angel, haha.” He put on the glasses and then carefully pincered the paper between his thumb and forefinger.
Chris examined the paper from several angles. He flipped it over to see if there was anything on the back. “Very nice.” He held the paper out to Angel.
Angel had inserted her forefinger through the thumb hole on the scissors and was twirling them in a circle. She made no move to retake the paper. “It’s Bugally,” she said, “See?”
Chris gave another inspection, this time bringing the paper very close to his heavy glasses. “Yes, very nice. Here you go.” He held out the paper at arm’s length and gave it a little wave to make sure that Angel could see it was there.
“Bugally has only got one eye. You see it? Right there in the middle.” Angel made no move to reclaim the paper.
“I wrote a story about Bugally and his family. Would you like to hear it?”
Chris turned in the direction where the woman’s voice had come before, “How’s it going in there?” he shouted. “You making any progress?” With the hand that was not holding Bugally he fished in the side pocket of his jacket, extracted an iPhone, and gave it a glance. He yelled again in the direction of the bathroom. “We said we’d pick them up at 6:30 and there’s that construction, Amanda.”
Still twirling the scissors, Angel opened her pink book and leafed through it until she found the page she was looking for. She raised the book to her eye level and began to read. “What would you do if you were a one-eyed mollusk named Bugally? Would you be brave enough to swim in the ocean all by your own self?”
Chris apparently thought he was supposed to answer that question. “I suppose you’d have to. If you wanted food. You’d have to risk it or you’d starve.”
Chris brought Bugally back to where he was sitting and shook him onto the couch.
Angel kept reading. “Bugally was nervous. There was so much water. And big fish with sharp teeth. Bugally was so small…”
Chris throat-hummed the music from Jaws. “Uh-Hum. Uh-Hm.”
“…and he only had one eye so he couldn’t see who was coming behind him…”
“Uh-Hum, Uh-Hum, Uh-HMM.”
“…but he was a brave mollusk and so one day he climbed out of the shell where he was making his home and started to slowly swim around. But Bugally did not see the giant tuna fish who was circling in the water looking for little people to munch on.”
“Uh-oh. This might end badly. Tell Buggaleo to keep his wits…”
“Bugally! Not Buggaleo. Bugally.”
“He is gonna be Lunchaleo if he doesn’t pay attention. It’s a jungle out in the ocean, Angel.” Chris snorted with laughter at his joke. He swooshed Bugally in front of his face as if helping him swim away from ravenous tuna fish. “Seriously, it’s a jungle.” Chris’ voice softened. “You know that don’t you, honey?”
Chris leaned forward as if to pat Angel on the head but she was reading again and, lamely, he tapped the front of the pink book and returned his hand to his lap.
“Brave Bugally saw the shadow of the big tuna and he swam down and tried to hide under the sand.”
“Ta-Dah!” Amanda appeared in the entranceway to the living room. She had her hair tied up on her head and a gold and orange infinity scarf around her long neck. She had thrown one hip out to the side and she rested her hand, palm down, on her hip as if she expected her picture to be taken. “Ta-Dah!” she said again with extra emphasis, this time slightly flexing so her large chest extended forward even more prominently. This time Chris got the cue and he rose to greet her. But he still had the paper in his hand and when he stepped forward to kiss Amanda’s cheek, somehow Bugally ended up in a fold in the infinity scarf on Amanda’s shoulder.
“Angel dear,” she said, “Mrs. Greenbaker is coming in a few. You OK by yourself ‘til she gets here?”
“Come give me a kiss.”
Angel was still sitting on the floor with the pink zippered book in her hand. She unfolded her legs and tipped forward onto her knees. Resignedly, she made her way to her feet, the pink scissors now clenched in her fist. Slowly she slouched her way towards the couple standing together in the doorway. He mother bent down on one knee to receive a kiss, but as she did, the piece of paper on her scarf fluttered to the floor.
Angel shrieked, “Bugally!!”
Startled, her mother stood up and lurched into Chris. “Jesus, Angel! You scared me.”
“Bugally!” Angel yelled again, this time somewhat more softly. And then a third time, “Bugally,” but this time it was a question, as in, “where are you Bugally?”
“What are you saying?”
Chris whispered loudly to Amanda. “Bugally is a little fish. I will tell you about him….”
“He isn’t!” Angel shouted at the two of them. “He isn’t a fish!”
Chris smiled sheepishly. “Sorry, dear.” He turned to Angel’s mother. “I meant to say that Bugally is a mollusk. A brave mollusk.”
“Well that’s nice. Angel just don’t let anyone in until Mrs. Greenbaker gets here. OK? You have your phone, right?”
Angel had dropped to her knees and was hunting around for Bugally in the carpet. “Bugally? Where are you? Bugally? Don’t worry. I will find you. I will keep you safe.”
Chris got down on his knees on the floor and he hunted with her. Angel’s mother stood above them. She didn’t join in the hunt but tipped forward from the waist to inspect the progress of the proceedings below.
“Got ’em!” Chris cried and rose up on his knees holding a scrap of paper. “I got the little bugger!” He made a show of carefully handing the scrap of paper to Angel and then he slowly got to his feet. He gave Angel’s mother a weary smile and tried to pat Angel on the head.
“Its not him.” Angel said.
“Of course it is. I found him on the floor. Right where he fell.”
“No it isn’t. It’s not Bugally at all. It’s Pisquito.”
“Come on Angel,” Amanda said. “You should be grateful. He found your damn fish.”
Chris whispered, “Mollusk.”
“I don’t care if it’s a goddamn whale shark,” Amanda said. ”You are being rude, girl. You are too old for this nonsense. Now just stop it.”
Angel stood to her full height and glared poison at her mother. “He is not Bugally. It’s Pisquito! I don’t care about Pisquito.” Angel opened her hand. The scrap of paper lay in the center of her palm. Angel lifted her other hand, the one still clutching the pink scissors, as if she were going to stab Pisquito, but before she could do anything Amanda hand encircled Angel’s fist.
“Stop. Right. Now.” Amanda’s face had gone hard.
Angel didn’t say a word but she stopped, the poison look still frozen on her face, her cheeks distended. And then the air whistled out of her.
Amanda deftly extracted the scissors from Angel’s hand and in the same motion slipped them in the side pocket of her handbag. “Now do your reading until Mrs. Greenbaker gets here. OK? Angel?”
“Yes mom.” Angel up-tipped her cheek to take Amanda’s kiss.
“Say goodnight to Chris.”
“Goodnight Chris. I am sorry I yelled.”
“No worries, Angel. It’s all good. Nice to meet you. Thanks for introducing me to Bugally.”
Amanda took Chris’ arm and turned him to the door.
Angel crossed her arms and glared at the two of them as they left. She closed the door solidly behind them, then slowly walked back into the living room. She dropped onto the carpet, opened the pink book and carefully reinserted the paper into the pocket. “You’ll be safe here, Bugally. Don’t you worry, you’ll be safe.”
Jay Duret is a San Francisco-based writer and illustrator who blogs at www.jayduret.com. More than two dozen of Jay’s stories have been published in online and print journals, including Narrative Magazine, Blue Fifth Review, Gargoyle, and December. Jay’s cartoons have appeared in Huffington Post. Jay’s first novel, Nine Digits, was published by Indigo Sea Press.
Image credit: Deraman Uskratzt on Flickr