Title pitch by Lisa
Story by Michelle Kicherer
One purple-socked foot hung off the left side of the mattress. One yellow-socked foot hung off the right. I marveled at the flexibility of such a round little woman, and wondered if the great splay caused her discomfort. She ran one of her soft fingers down a page in her Bible and stopped midway through, as if she’d found the perfect verse to share with me.
“And He, the Lord, hugged all the bears, and said to pray, to them,” Tina said each word slowly, as if she were really sounding them out.
Pray to them? The bears? I covered a smirk under my blanket, knowing she could not read. Knowing how advanced I was in relation to this woman nearly twenty years older than me. I was aware the comparison was a pathetic one, but I made it anyhow.
I looked at my watch, which I never took off, even in the shower. As if in fourth grade I had a real tight schedule to keep. “A few more minutes.”
Tina glanced at me out of the corner of her eye and held the book up to her face.
I lay in bed hugging my stuffed dog and wondering what the world was like through Tina’s eyes; what she saw amongst the words of her Bible. The front of the Book was adorned with glittery stickers: flamboyant lions leaping over sparkling rainbows; flirty bears prancing with canes; multi-colored ponies tipping their top hats. The decorations gave a sort of magical vibe to the text within, and it seemed the Book was for her a mystical land of happy animals and flowers, with Jesus thrown into the mix from time to time.
“Then, all the bears, all hugged the lions.” She nodded to herself, eyes still on the text, seeming pleased at her translation.
I rolled my eyes and swished my covers loudly as I turned to face the wall. I gazed upon my poster of John Stamos and admired the fit of his jeans; the way one hand was in his back pocket and the other ran through his thick hair. The way he looked down and smiled, as if he had just realized something wonderful and wasn’t sure how to express himself. I smiled dreamily into his face.
“Teeny!” Tina made wet kissing noises.
I snapped out of my mildly inappropriate Stamos daydream.
“Sshh. Don’t talk to Teeny.”
Teeny’s metal wheel spun to the rhythm of her frenzied nightly workout, squeaking sporadically as the little gray hamster took breaks then sped up again, sprinting for her life.
I admired my poster again. Tina better not interrupt Full House tomorrow. The previous week, she had sat on the couch next to me, loudly going on about her alleged boyfriend, Danny, whom she’d met at her adult disability workshop. Work, as she professionally called it. I had angrily shushed her and she had angrily spilled chocolate milk all over me, in what my mother and I agreed was an act of defiance. Another ruined day.
Tina slapped her thick Bible closed and dropped it onto our shared bedside table.
“Sssh!” I clenched my hands and strangled my poor stuffed dog.
It’s only one month, Sarah. Almost there. My mother had reminded me just that morning.
Tina’s bed creaked loudly as she rustled around.
I lingered one more moment on my poster then turned to face her. “Okay, turn your lamp off.”
I hated her bright pink lamp, which her parents had brought for her. To make her feel at home.
Tina rolled very slowly onto her stomach, letting gravity do most of the work, pulling her big belly downward. The twin bed creaked painfully, warning like a rattlesnake’s shake that its beams may snap if she wasn’t careful.
I grimaced at Tina’s backward descent, disgusted by the large, spandex-covered rump that shimmied down the bed. She dangled her toes until they found the carpet, then carefully connected both feet with the floor. She stood and smoothed the wrinkles in her nightshirt attentively as if it were a finely pressed suit. It was long and purple, and had the bright, smiling face of a sparkly tiger on the front.
“Tina, what are you doing?”
She ran a hand down the front of her nightshirt once more then stopped.
“Nothing.” Tina glowered at me out of the corner of her eye, her nose in the air as if she didn’t have time for such petty conversations. She put a piece of her short black hair behind her ear. “I’m older than you.” She reminded me.
Yea, okay. I lay there watching her, hugging my dog.
She turned toward the hamster cage on my bookshelf and tiptoed across the room as if I could not see her. She knew she was not allowed play with my pet.
Tina leaned her forehead and both her hands on the small metal bars of the cage. Her purple nightshirt hung down to her knees, except in the back, where it was stuck in her bright green leggings. I rolled my eyes again at my roommate.
“We have the same name!” she pointed at Teeny and looked back at me with a very happy smile. “Teeny and Tina!”
“Tina, it’s time for bed.” I was not amused. I tsked as if I were her disappointed mother then glanced at my watch again.
“I just want to look at her.” Tina faced the cage with a toddler-like tone of defiance, crossing her arms and uncrossing them; tugging at the underpants that were apparently stuck between her butt cheeks. She looked back at me, frowning with her thick black eyebrows, which matched her thick black hair, which she always wore in a bob. On the first night she stayed with us, Tina had trimmed it herself. She’d emerged from the bathroom with various pieces missing from one side of her hair; her bangs uneven and so short they looked like a third eyebrow.
Well, you will have to assume the role of adult, Sarah. My mother told me as a blessing and a warning. People with Down’s syndrome need extra help all of their lives.
“Do not touch her, Tina.” I said, sitting up.
“I’m not.” Tina turned to face me with both hands on her hips, feet spread wide to keep proper balance. The plastic bangles on her wrist jingled as she put her hair behind her ear. “Will you do my hair, Sarah?” she smiled widely, biting on her lip as she eyed my collection of hair spray and mousse.
“No, Tina, go to bed. It’s almost nine o’clock.” I flopped down on my back, as if that aught to settle it.
The two of us looked at our prospective watches. Mine was black and waterproof. Hers had a thick white nylon band with the words John 3:16 written across it in very wobbly black pen.
“It’s almost nine.” I said again, knowing that she couldn’t decipher the meaning of the little hands on her watch.
“What time is it in Italy?” she asked me as she blew a kiss to Teeny over her shoulder. Tina’s folks were quite a bit older than mine, and had left to visit their birthplace one last time before they met Jesus, as they put it. My parents, being absurdly wonderful friends, had agreed to let Tina stay with us for the entire month of June while the couple took their trip. And though it was deeply, terribly against my will, I had agreed to let Tina sleep in the other bed in my room. The bed we had gotten for when I had sleepovers.
“It is nine hours ahead. So, it’s 6 A.M. there. Too early to call.” I said, anticipating her next question.
“I miss my mom.” She said woefully, stepping back to the hamster and running her finger down the side of its cage.
“I know.” I sighed with her and stared at the water stain on my ceiling. The previous summer I had gone to a weeklong choir camp. Four days into it I had wept for my mother all night, clenching my pillow angrily as if the cruel world had taken her away from me. As if I would never see her again. I cried so much I gave myself a headache and threw up, then spent the following day moping and refusing to sing.
I sat up and watched Tina run her finger up and down the little bars of Teeny’s cage, creating a brassy vibration. The wheel stopped squeaking.
Tina leaned forward and made kissing noises to my little pet. I could picture Teeny in there, looking up at Tina’s smiling face. A face that was so full of love, often unreturned.
“You’ll see her soon.” I said to my roommate. I lay back again. “Go to bed.”
Tina sighed and turned back to her bed, then sat cross-legged on top of the covers. “Will you sing to me?”
The question threw me. Part of me wanted to turn off the lights and ignore the annoying woman. But the other part of me could not help but comfort her. She is like a young child, Sarah, my mother had said. She loves you, she had also said.
“Get under your covers.”
Tina giggled and crawled under her blankets, covering her face then popping out again, smiling. “But will you sing to me?”
“Okay but then we’re going to sleep.” I turned out the lights while I began a moving rendition of What if God Were One of Us. I pulled my quilt up to my chin and closed my eyes while I finished the song.
My roommate positioned and re-positioned herself in bed, making moist comfort noises with her mouth.
I pictured Tina’s slightly oversized tongue, which was cracked from nervous biting. A habit my mother tried to explain to me, but I just cringed and shook my head, refusing to accept such a behavior. Mom it’s gross, I’d told my mother, who had calmly replied, She can’t help it, Sarah.
“Tina. Sssh!” I warned from my post, glaring at the mound under her covers until it was still. I lay stiffly on my back and frowned at the ceiling, crossing my arms like a night watchman trying to stay awake.
The room was silent again briefly before being overtaken by Tina’s snoring. It was like a Saint Bernard was in the bed next to mine, its mouth flapping open and closed from time to time to clear its throat. The sound soon became rhythmic enough to lure me to sleep, though as with most nights that June, the stressful woman infiltrated all of my dreams.
Tina stealing a doughnut from the grocery store, eating the entire thing while standing in a corner, as if no one could see her; the chocolate in the corners of her mouth; her steadfast No to the manager when questioned about the pastry’s whereabouts.
Tina screaming I’m bleeding! from my bedroom until my father and I found her there, sitting pantless on the floor, holding up fingers stained with dark womanly substance. She panicked as if she had never experienced such a thing before, though surely every month she did.
Tina calling for the congregation to join her in Praise! as she shook her bangled wrists in the air and stamped her feet, making proclamations not when the pastor told of miracles and sacrifices, but when he had referenced someone playing a lute. At one point a terrific voice called out There’s a mouse in my bed! which repeated until I became conscious enough to realize that the deep, terrified voice was not just a fantastical character of my nightmare.
A mouse? I asked, lying there puzzled and half awake.
“There’s a mouse in my bed!” Tina wailed. A great movement occurred next to me. Tina sat up in bed and scurried backwards until she hit the bed frame. The wall boomed as her weight slammed against it.
“Tina! Sssh!” I hissed.
“There’s a mouse, in. My. Bed.” She panted each word, gripping her blankets up to her eyes.
The silhouette of a rodent became clear in the dark, like a tiny cartoon projection on the side of Tina’s quilt. It crawled up the foot of her bed and paused, grasping onto the blankets with its little pink claws.
“A mouse!” Tina howled again.
The creature continued its upward journey toward a fate it could not fathom. Tina’s large outline loomed at the head of the bed, her arms flailing as if the creature might take flight and attack her face.
The mound cried and called Mommy! into the night.
“She’s not your mom!” I shouted back, immediately ashamed at the argument I chose to take with the poor, scared woman. But I hated her. “I told you not to mess with Teeny’s cage, Tina.”
I swished my blankets off in a pissy flutter and went to the foot of the bed, where at last Teeny’s journey had climaxed. The clueless hamster sat hunched at the bottom of the quilt, frantically cleaning her face. She stopped and stared forward as if she might bolt but surrendered instead to the fate of my hands. I cupped her furry body and kissed her with cautious affection as I checked for injuries before returning her to her cage.
At that point my folks burst in, nearly blinding me when they flicked on the light. I still stood at Teeny’s cage, and raised my hands like a parent who was at a loss for words.
“She opened the cage,” I started, looking over at Tina. “And Teeny got out.”
My parents stood with disheveled hair, looking at my quietly crying roommate, who was hugging her Bible and wiping her snotty nose on her blankets.
My dad tied his faded green robe around his exposed waist then pulled a tissue from his pocket. He dabbed his nose and looked at my mother, who stood shivering in a t-shirt and underpants, squinting without her glasses.
“Tina,” my mother started and walked over to the woman. “We will talk about a punishment in the morning, okay?” My mother said as she sat on Tina’s bed and helped her back under the covers. She rubbed the terrified woman’s back.
“I miss my Mommy!” Tina sobbed with a loud and open mouth.
“I know, sweetheart.” My mother ran her fingers through Tina’s thick black hair.
I raised my hands again and looked at my dad, who put his tissue back in his pocket and massaged the top of his nose. He smiled at me with one side of his mouth, looking tired in a way that sleep can’t quite fix.
“Dad.” I whispered, pointing at the hamster cage then looking at my mom and Tina, who were hugging and whispering.
“I know, Sarah.” My dad nodded and I knew he understood me. He winked as he pulled a pair of yellow earplugs from his robe pocket and squished them into his ears. He pulled a second pair out of his pocket and handed them to me. “Snore shield.” He winked and kissed my forehead, then put his hands into the pockets of his faded green robe and shuffled back to his room.
The next morning, I woke surprisingly refreshed. I put on a t-shirt with a large yellow smiley face on it and brushed my unruly curls. I packed a tiny pink suitcase with the essential items for a slumber party: pajamas, make up, candy, and at my mother’s reminder, a toothbrush.
“Have fun, sweetheart.” My mother said as she dropped me off at my friend’s much-anticipated sleepover. “Tell Katie I say happy birthday.”
“Thanks, Mom.” I smiled and hopped out of the backseat, then glared at Tina in the front. “Don’t let Tina touch any of my stuff.” I said to my mother, without saying goodbye to my roommate as I marched off toward twenty-four glorious hours.
“Bye, Sarah!” Tina called after me.
The following day, I returned exhausted but happy, with a bag full of sour candies and a tattoo of a scowling giraffe on my neck. I marched up my driveway with confidence, waving goodbye to Katie and her dad as they drove off.
I walked through the living room, where Tina sat cross-legged on the rug, letting her tongue hang out while she concentrated very hard on knitting.
“Hi.” I waved, refreshed and ready to take on five more days of living with my exhausting roommate.
“Hi, Sarah.” Tina replied quietly, then called to me as I passed. “Sarah, I’m making a scarf!”
“Cool.” I said as I continued to my room. I threw the little pink suitcase on my bed and put my hands on my hips, surveying for any suspiciously moved items. Tina’s lamp had been moved to the middle of our shared bedside table. My hair products were no longer in order from short to tall. The pillow on my bed looked crooked.
“Tina!” I yelled from my room. “Were you touching my stuff?”
There was a pause before a very unconvincing No replied from the other room.
“Tina, you liar! I can smell the hairspray!” I shook my head, as if I had hours’ worth of rearranging ahead of me. “God, it’s strong.” I crinkled my nose at the hearty combination of nineties aerosol hair products.
God, did she use all of them? I picked up a bottle of hairspray and shook it to test its weight.
“I didn’t!” Tina called from down the hall, as if she’d read my mind.
I walked up to where Teeny’s cage lived on my bookshelf. “Hi, Teeny,” I said just before I looked in.
And there laying on her furry little back was Teeny. Each of her pink paws pointed to the ceiling. Her fur no longer appeared a downy gray fluff, but was stiff and spiked, and partially purple.
“Oh my God. Teeny?” I gasped and stepped back, searching my shelves for the purple hairspray, and finally saw it one shelf down from its usual spot. It was uncapped and sitting between volumes one and two of my animal encyclopedias. She hadn’t even hidden the evidence.
“Mom,” I could barely yell but she appeared in my door as if she’d been on call for me.
“Phew, stinks in here,” my mother said, waving a hand in front of her nose. But she paused the casual gesture when she saw my face, which felt tense and distorted, like the expression people make right before they become sick.
“Oh my god.” I said again, staring at Teeny. Her shiny black eyes were frozen open.
Tina appeared in my doorway, hugged my mother around the waist and kissed her shoulder. She smiled at us and walked over to her bed and sat down. She swung her purple-socked feet as if she were sitting on a swing, letting them smack against the bed frame.
“How was your party, Sarah?” she asked, innocent as a baby.
I leaned both hands on my bookshelf, light-headed as I looked down at my spiky, purple friend.
I turned around and pointed at Tina.
“I. Hate you. You stupid idiot.”
My mother gasped. “Sarah!”
Tina covered her mouth with one hand and her eyes with the other, as if that would prevent her from hearing me.
“Hello? You killed her, you dumb, stupid idiot!” I banged my hand loudly against the brass cage.
Tina gasped and cringed as if I might strike her.
I looked at my mom as if she might help me, but she just looked at the ground, shaking her head, waiting for my next move.
“God, Tina.” I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I knew that somehow, I was the wrong one.
A weight fell over me then, over the room. As if we all knew Satan himself had convinced me to use the cruelest words I could think of. I sat down where I was on the carpet and pulled my knees to my chest. I covered my face and cried for everything. For the blood, for the snoring, for my hamster.
She doesn’t understand. My mother had told me in many scenarios. She loves you, Sarah.
I rubbed my forehead, feeling like a monster.
My tears were silent until I heard Tina join me, sniffling quietly at first then quite loudly with her mouth open, her hands covering her eyes. The two of us cried freely with remorse and sorrow.
“Teeny!” Tina bawled up to the heavens then covered her face again, wailing.
I cried harder, knowing that not only was Tina lamenting the death of our friendship, but the disturbing loss of our little furry friend, and the guilt of what she had done, even though she did not mean to.
“I wanted to do her hair!” Tina wailed, rubbing at a line of snot trickling down the front of her lip.
“Tina,” I took a breath and uncurled my legs. I sat up straight, hands on my knees. “Tina, it’s okay.”
And as I said it the woman lowered herself from her bed and crawled over to me on the floor. She hugged me, sobbing into my shoulder. She rubbed my back, pausing and patting it occasionally. She patted me so hard it stung, but it felt good.
I glanced to my mother, who leaned in my doorway watching us with a hand over her mouth. She said nothing as she dabbed an eye, allowing us each the space to learn our own lessons.
“I’ll get you a new Teeny,” Tina said, nodding and sniffling. She leaned back and took both of my shoulders in her soft hands. “I love you, Sarah.” Her plastic bracelets jingled as she hugged me again then sat back and folded her hands across her lap, smiling freely.
I looked at the floor, then at my roommate. She beamed at me as if I were completely fantastic. I couldn’t hold her loving gaze, and instead turned my eyes to Stamos. He combed a hand through his thick hair and smiled, as if he had just realized something wonderful and wasn’t sure how to express himself.