Ginny by Stacey Yu

"Ginny" by Stacey Yu was the second runner-up in Quarto's 2017 Chapbook Contest.

CW: suicide, bullying

She likes sleeping because sleeping means dreaming and dreaming means Roberto. Roberto is kind. Roberto loves her. They are each other’s once-in-a-lifetime best-friends-forever. They are each other’s first kindnesses. First playdough partners. Roberto is brave, and real. Roberto forgives her. She likes sleeping because sleeping means she can tell him how much she loves him, finally, and he can answer and tell her the same.

--

Ginny is an ugly girl. Even her mom thinks so. Nevermind that they both have the same features: narrow, upslanted eyes, sallow cheeks, and pale, thin lips. Frizzy hair defying its Asian board-straight stereotype. Ginny is an ugly girl, and her mother says it like it’s no big deal, like it’s the same thing as calling someone “tall” or “loud.” But of course it isn’t. Ginny wears “ugly” like a scarlet letter. The word makes her feel heavy and small.

Her classmates are casually cruel in the way that children can be. She’s 11, older and taller than them all, because her English isn’t so good yet. On her third day, she said, “Can you pass the mirrors, please,” but what she wanted were the scissors. Everyone laughed so hard that she slowly started laughing too, nervously, naively hopeful. Maybe they thought she was funny. Cool, even. But they laughed harder, then. And the realization that they were laughing at her crescendoed insidiously like pipe organs in the soundtrack of a horror film. Tessa -- evil, angel-haired Tessa -- stood up and said, “What do you need a mirror for, anyway? You don’t even brush your hair.” And though she then realized they were laughing at her, Ginny still couldn’t stop laughing. She laughed until her eyes burned with tears. “Now, now,” Ms. _____ said hastily, glancing at the clock above the door. That was the day everybody decided she would never have any friends.

She waited for her mother four blocks away from the entrance school (“Too much traffic, it’s a waste of time,” her mother had fumed when she’d picked Ginny up on the first day, hair tamed in a tight knot at the nape of her neck, lips pursed so tightly they almost disappeared). Strangers passed, laughing, sipping at Starbucks frappuccinos, chattering brightly about their day. Ginny tried to understand them, but they always spoke so quickly. She couldn’t help but run her fingers through her hair each time she heard footsteps or the brakes of a car. Her ugly burned. Her feet tapped in impatience. When she spotted her mom’s familiar car, she breathed a sigh of relief.

“Ma,” she waved.

“Did you have a good day?” Ma said.

“Yes,” Ginny smiled, lips pulled so tight and white they almost disappeared.

“Make friends?”

“Yes.”

Ma clucked her tongue. It was a comforting sound. Like she knew Ginny was lying, in the way that mothers always do. Ginny’s stomach turned. The rest of the ride was thick and awkward with words dissolving at the tips of mother and daughter tongues. The nervous silence grew and grew until it dripped like glue down each throat. Ginny blinked to keep herself from crying, and Ma kept either glancing the other way or compulsively checking her blind spot.

Home was plain. They had a small front lawn with yellowing grass, but Ma had lined the porch steps with pots of tulips, which, like little angry red faces, glared emptily at the peeling paint of the wooden banister. They pouted at Ginny as she stomped through the front door and into her room. She dug through the piles of books scattered under her bed, pulling out her thick and deeply loathed Xue Ying Yu Kuai: Elementary English 1, flipping to Chapter 3 and reading and rereading the vocabulary list until her eyelids burned. “Scissors. Scissors. Scissors.” Ginny muttered under her breath. “Jiandao. Jiandao. Jiandao.” When she looked up for the first time in hours, she caught her blotchy reflection in the corner of her bedside mirror. “You don’t even brush your hair,” she repeated, the words careful and cruel on a tongue that didn’t feel like her own. She ran her fingers through her hair for the forty-seventh time that day.

Ginny didn’t want to be cruel. She didn’t mean to have dreams in which she burned Tessa’s hair off. Ginny wanted to be happy. To be pretty. But her ugly is unrelenting, and her ugly burns. Her ugly wriggles its way into her head. Forces her to do things, terrible things, in her dreams. Forces her to like them. When she wakes up, when she goes to school, she’s always disappointed to see Tessa’s hair, still long, still golden, still pretty. One day, she thinks, she’ll cut it right off her head.

--

“Ginny, you’re so skinny,” said Maisy. “Is it because your lunch looks like brains?”

Ginny looked down at her cold dumplings. She didn’t respond. Didn’t know how to.

“Skinny Ginny,” shrieked Tessa. “Skinny Ginny eats brains for lunch!” Her ponytail swung. In another world, the sun would set it on fire. Tessa would scream and scream and scream. But in this world. In this world, Tessa is laughing, and the sun hits her hair in all the right ways, bringing out the gold, making it look like glitter. She is so, so pretty it hurts.

“It’s not brains,” Ginny says quietly. “Do you want to try some?”

Ewwwww, no!” Maybe the sun would shine hot enough for Tessa’s lips to melt off her face. Maybe her cheeks would bubble and rot.

“Okay,” said Ginny. “Sorry. But it’s not brains.”

“Whatever, it looks gross,” Tessa said. She and Maisie laughed. They peeled the crust off their sandwiches. Ginny imagined that salami suddenly turned to glass. Their teeth would fall off. Their lips would bleed in shreds.

--

“Ma, I don’t want to go,” Ginny stuffed her face in her pillow so that her tears wouldn’t show. “Please. Please, Mama. Please.”

“Ginny,” Ma said. Her voice was tired. “I know. I know, bao bao. It’s hard. But you have to go. It’s the law.”

“I’m not American, so I don’t have to follow the law.”

“That’s not how it works.”

“Just one day.”

“No, Ginny.”

“Ma, please. I promise, just one day.”

“I said no. Ginny, no. Get up, you lazy girl.”

So Ginny screamed. She screamed until her face burned hot and prickly, the way she imagined it would first feel when the sun burned off Tessa’s cheeks. She could feel her heart shaking. Her stomach ripping. Pinky toes breaking. She could feel heat like a shipwreck destroying every one of her bones slowly. Maybe she’d just scream until she died. That wouldn’t be so bad. She couldn’t go to school if she was dead. She couldn’t hear Ma because she was screaming so hard.

Eventually, when she stopped screaming, she couldn’t hear Ma at all. “Ma?” she croaked, lifting her head from the pillow. It was wet with tears and snot and spit. She looked around her room. Ma wasn’t there. She was alone.

--

She was Skinny Ginny, ugly Ginny with brains for lunch and unbrushed hair, from the beginning of the school year to the middle of January. She was quietly, secretly cruel for four and a half months, dreams stained in red or colored by her classmates’s dying shrieks. Sometimes she felt bad about it, but when Tessa or Maisy or Julian laughed at her drawings or the way she pronounced bird or telephone during storytime, she looked forward to them. Only at night could they suffer like she did.

But then there was Roberto, and everything changed. Roberto was taller than she was, but not by much. Still, it was enough to make him taller than everyone in the class, who quickly realized that his freakish height wasn’t due to him eating all his vegetables or genetics but in fact because he was, like Ginny, freakishly older, freakishly dumber than them all, with large dopey eyes and a girlish laugh. Roberto didn’t know the answers to any math problems and always finished his vocabulary quizzes last. He was stupid, his classmates soon concluded. Not that they really cared. From the moment he stepped in the room, flanked by his tiny mother and the school principal, they only really saw one part of him: a polypropylene and titanium prosthetic where his left leg should be.

He walked with a stutter, like the way Ginny talked. He looked at her sad, small, wary eyes and sat next to her -- not entirely by choice, for the desk beside hers was one of the few vacant ones. Their classmates snickered. He smiled. She shrank.

During recess, when everybody poured in a frenzy out the room, he instead struggled to stand. Ginny stayed put. Her stillness was made all the more apparent by the rushing of everybody else. “Why aren’t you going with them?” He asked, kindly, though she could not tell, though she couldn’t look him in the eyes.

“Don’t like it,” she said. “I would like to be alone more.”

“And Ms. _____ is okay with that?”

“Yes. She does not care.”

“Cool,” he said. “I can’t play on any of the structures, anyway.” And he sat back down. Ginny’s ears burned. Her one period of sanctuary, a vacant classroom, was being threatened. She almost wanted to tell him to leave, but of course she couldn’t, what right did she have?

“Do you want some goldfish?” Roberto asked. When she didn’t respond, he put a handful of the salty orange crackers on her desk, anyway. “I’m Roberto. Who are you?”

“Ginny.” Her voice was short and clipped. She wished he would leave.

“Do you like it here? Are people nice?”

At that, Ginny laughed, for the first time since the first day of school, for the first time since she cried. It was a quick burst of harsh laughter at first, but quickly turned into peals of mirth that shook her entire body, that made the seat and table and goldfish tremble. When she finally quieted, Roberto was smiling at her, but sadly. “No,” she said, “I see,” he said, at the same time. She looked up at him. She realized that he was scared, too. And she smiled. “No, they’re not.”

“Well,” he shrugged. “I guess we have to be nice to each other, then.

Ginny hesitated. She was out of practice in the art of speaking with people. In that moment, though she had only just met him, she was terrified of messing up and losing the warmth of Roberto’s kind eyes and, more importantly, the comfort of his abnormality. “Okay,” she said, after a pause. “I will be your friend.”

“I will be yours.”

--

Ma didn’t like looking at Roberto. The boy was old, too loud, and disfigured. The first time he came over to work on a geography assignment with her daughter, he had quickly broken the almost sacred coat of silence that usually blanketed the house with his enthusiastic “Hi, Ms. ____!” and the clanking of his fake leg against the kitchen table. Ma was happy, at first, when Ginny had told her that a friend was coming over. She almost couldn’t believe it. Ginny, with a friend? She must be lying. But she wasn’t, and when Roberto first walked in the door, Ma’s eyes lit up with joy: a real friend, she thought, a real friend with kind eyes and a goofy grin. But then he walked some more, and she noticed that he wasn’t walking, he was limping.

Glad as Ma was that Ginny’s school days were no longer marked by the bitter scarlet letter of solitude, she could not help the dark gray, ugly feeling that sulked at the back of her mind when she realized that Roberto, whom she thought would make Ginny feel normal, feel on par with her peers, was not in the least bit an ordinary classmate but instead someone whose disability invited taunts and jeers of freak and weirdo more rampantly than her daughter’s crippling quietness and dissonant accent.

But Ginny didn’t seem to care. No, Ginny and Roberto giggled over their coloring pencils and atlas, whispered about things in English Ma was surprised Ginny even knew. Ginny teased Roberto about his messy coloring and Roberto teased Ginny for being so ridiculously meticulous. They shared American snacks that Roberto brought from his home, little orange crackers in the shape of fish and artificially colored strips of candy. Ma, keeping occupied by slicing oranges in the kitchen, tried to listen to their conversation, and was surprised to discover that they spoke too quickly for her to understand.

When it was time for Roberto to go, Ginny looked sad. Roberto’s mom was a lovely woman, enthusiastic and bright-eyed like her son. For the first time, Ma didn’t feel uncomfortable speaking to another adult; she would never admit it, but the littlest things like small talk with cashiers at grocery stores or even politely declining telemarketers made her nervous and hotly embarrassed about her broken English. She was a proud woman and acutely self-aware, so much so that she often read more in strangers’ exaggerated gestures and slowed speech than was actually there. But Roberto’s mom made her feel comfortable, somehow. Her instant ability to make others feel at ease, marked by an unfiltered warmth and humble charisma, was a rare talent, innate and impossible to develop through practice. It seemed she had passed it on to Roberto, as well.

“Your home is lovely,” she said. Ma smiled. “My son has talked about Ginny so much, and it’s so good to finally meet you two.”

“Yes, I have heard much about Roberto, too,” Ma said, though she had not, though Ginny never told her anything. “He is a good boy.”

“He is, isn’t he?” said Roberto’s mom, smiling fondly at Roberto and Ginny embracing goodbye. “And I can’t tell you how difficult the past two years have been for him. This is his first year back in school since his” -- she paused -- “accident, and I’m glad he’s found a friend so quickly.” The genuine gratitude in her expression made Ma ashamed that she ever felt negatively towards Roberto, that she had wished he was more normal. She vowed to think more kindly. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Roberto slip a pack of M&Ms in Ginny’s backpack while she wasn’t looking. Her heart flooded with warmth.

Roberto continued to come over even after the geography project was complete, and Ginny’s laughter grew louder and louder throughout the weeks; it was oddly surprising to hear Ginny’s voice, for she often spoke so quietly. Not anymore: now, she yelled, she shrieked, she hollered. Roberto had unlocked something in her daughter, had somehow found a secret bright spot that even Ma had never known. Ma liked going downstairs to peek at the two. She never knew what she’d see. Roberto with an orange slice bared behind his lips and over his teeth, Ginny giggling and trying to do the same; Roberto making playdough castles for Ginny’s playdough animals; Roberto and Ginny hopping across the room in a one-legged race. By March, Ma regarded Roberto with pure fondness. That boy could light up any room.

But April came, and April happened, and Ma wondered at how the world and children could be so cruel. Ginny didn’t smile for a whole year afterwards.

--

Ginny thought Roberto was an angel, her angel. He was kind, he was beautiful, he made her laugh. But, more importantly, he saved her from Tessa and Maisie and everybody else. It wasn’t anything he did. He was simply more of a freak than she was, and new, and people had gotten tired of making fun of Skinny Ginny with the brains for lunch. Now, they snickered at Roberto’s limp and his funny laugh and his dumbness despite his age. Ginny did feel bad for him, but the relief from both the teasing and her ugly, bloody dreams eclipsed all else.

Plus, Roberto never seemed to mind. He would simply smile when Julian pulled a chair in front of him in an effort to see him fall (he had succeeded the first time; Roberto had crashed onto the ground and onto his sandwich, and peanut butter ended up all over the carpet and his curls) or when Lily told him how weird and scary he was that he was half robot, and that maybe he should go to a school where more people were like him.

“Why doesn’t it bother you?” Ginny asked him one day, while they were lying in his backyard and picking and blowing dandelion puffs.

“I don’t know,” Roberto shrugged. “I think I would’ve cared if I was younger, but I’m thirteen, and everybody else is so small.” He laughed. Ginny laughed, too. She had always been embarrassed to be bullied by younger classmates, but Roberto seemed to think it funny. “Plus,” he said, after a long pause. He blew, and white dandelion bits twirled around their faces. “I think I’m just grateful to be alive.”

Ginny cocked her head. “What do you mean?”

“My leg,” he said. “I lost it in a car accident two years ago. And I could have died, but I’m alive. I could have lost my life, but I only lost a leg. So I was in the hospital for a long time and in rehab for even longer, and now that I’m back in school, I guess I’m older than everyone and don’t know a lot of stuff. But I’m just happy that I still get to go to school.”

There was a brief silence before Ginny yanked another dying dandelion from the grass and handed it to Roberto. “I think it is cool, that you are half robot,” she said, smiling. He turned to look at her. “Thanks,” his voice was quiet, but he beamed. Sunlight peeked through his brown curls. Angel, Ginny thought.

“Anyway, you say these dandelions are for wishes?” she asked, twirling the damp stem of one she had already blown. Roberto nodded. “Do you wish for your leg?”

“No,” he said. “I wish for my dad.”

“Oh,” said Ginny, confused. “But where is he?”

“He’s dead,” said Roberto. “From the car accident.”

“Oh.” And for the first time, Ginny felt ashamed that she ever wished Tessa and Maisie and every other mean, sniggering classmate would suffer, even die. Surely, if Roberto found out about these dreams, these hideous thoughts, he’d be horrified. She took another dandelion, closed her eyes, and wished for something else for the first time; she wished for Roberto’s dad, too, wished that Roberto’s face would never wear that sad, ill-fitting expression ever again.

--

But it was hard to forget the children’s cruelty. Ginny tried and tried, but she knew she could never be as purely good as Roberto, anyway, that he was an angel and her angel and that he had the strength to smile over everybody’s meanness when she could only cry. So April Fool’s day happened, and she could have been his angel, she could have returned the favor that he lended her since the first day he stuttered into the classroom and redirected all her classmates’s attention away from her, but she didn’t know how.

In the back of the classroom was a tall, two-door coat closet that the children and Ms. _____ rarely used. It was starting to get warm out, after all, and the only time it was ever opened was when Ms. _____ needed craft supplies or construction paper, which were stored inside. And on April 1st. The children planned on staying inside the classroom during lunchtime, after Ms. _____ had left, to tape paper all over the whiteboard; they giggled at their perceived ingenuity, excited for Ms. _____’s reaction to their little prank, glad that the white board would no longer be in use for instruction.

But that was only the first of their pranks. The second was far less innocent, though they didn’t know that at the time, though they saw both as clever and hilarious. The second prank was supposed to go like this: a student crawls into the closet and stays there for the rest of class, and when Ms. _____ realizes he is missing, Ms. _____ freaks out and calls the principal or runs outside looking for him in vain. The children spend the rest of class looking for said student, knowing all along where said student is -- that’s the best part, because all children relish the taste of knowing something adults don’t. They watch Ms. _____ become frazzled and worried and, finally, before the end of the day bell rings, yell, SURPRISE, or APRIL FOOL’S, and fling open the closet door. Ms. _____ is relieved and laughs.

That is how the second prank is supposed to go. But instead, it goes like this:

Ms. _____ leaves the classroom, all the students stay inside. Ginny and Roberto sit and eat together at the back of the room, as per usual, only this time, they are joined by the buzzing of everybody else. Ginny is anxious that her safe space, her alone space with Roberto, has disappeared (because, of course, the children neglected to fill them in on their April Fool’s plans). They watch the kids laugh and cover the white board in construction paper from the closet. Even Roberto feels a little jealous of their camaraderie. When the time comes to shut the closet door, when they no longer need construction paper, when the first prank is complete, the children realize that nobody is actually willing to step inside the closet. That won’t do. Their second prank is their triumph. It transcends all the previous little pranks that children had once performed in the school in its boldness and daring. They argue for what seems like forever until Tessa -- evil, angel-haired Tessa -- slowly turns around to look at Ginny and Roberto. “One of them,” she says. “They’re quiet. And they haven’t helped at all.” Nevermind that none of the children had asked for their help, or tried to include them at all. Nevermind that Ginny’s eyes resemble those of a deer caught in headlights and Roberto’s head is bowed in an intense and almost religious fear, as if terror were a prayer that could save him.

“Him,” says Maisie, and Julian yells in agreement, and everyone else laughs. How embarrassing, how perfect: the oldest, tallest kid in class hidden quietly in the closet!

“No,” Roberto says, his voice quavery. Ginny almost didn’t recognize it. “Please.”

“Come on, Robot,” says Julian. “Don’t be useless.”

“Please. I don’t want to.”

“You have to!” shrieks Tessa. “You have to.” The children start chanting for Roberto to step into the closet, for him not to be so scared, to be such a baby, he’s thirteen, after all, why is he being such a scared freak?

“Go,” Ginny mumbles, “come on. Just do it.” She can hear the sound of her voice blending in with the clamor of her that of her classmates -- it is an odd, strangely good feeling, the reason being, she later recognized, that it was the first time she was one of them and not simply Skinny Ginny with the brains for lunch and ugly accent. It was the first time she didn’t hear her own voice ring shrilly in the back of her mind, for it stumbled comfortably, as if with invitation, among everyone else’s. She relishes the feeling.

“Ginny, please, I can’t,” he says, mouth twisted in fear. “You don’t get it. I can’t.”

“Why?” she asks. He’s looking at her as if she could save him, but she knows she can’t, not now, not when her heart is buzzing in its newfound joy at the sound of her voice ringing united among everybody else’s. “Roberto, come on, it really isn’t that bad. Why are you such being a wimp?”

“What?” Shock breaks across his face, causing his lip to tremble, his eyelids to flutter. “Ginny, what are you saying?”

“Come on,” Julian drawls, voice thick with meanness and impatience. “The bell’s going to ring in five minutes. Let’s just take the freak and put him in. What’s he going to do, run away?”

Everybody laughs. Roberto looks at Ginny helplessly. Something about his eyes makes Ginny’s stomach drop. (When she recalled that expression later, she realized that the something was wetness, was tears, Roberto was crying.) Before she knows it, Julian and Tony are grabbing Roberto’s shoulders and arms and yanking him out of his desk, everybody crowded around them; there is a lot of stumbling, and Roberto’s shrill and girlish screams bounce against the walls for a few long seconds before they are muffled by a clank and a loud thump and the slam of closet doors.

“We have to lock him in,” says Julian, “or else he’s going to push his way out, he’s so scared.” There are nods and sounds of affirmation, and Brian runs to get his bicycle lock from the fence outside the classroom. Ginny stands, mesmerized and frozen, at the back of the crowd. She can hear Roberto’s faint cries and pounding fists. She realizes, then, that she has made a terrible mistake. That this is no longer a simple prank, a way to get Ms. _____ frazzled, a delicious secret to be mutually savored for a few hours. No, this is something terrible, this is a frenzied culmination of a year’s worth of teasing, a twisted exercise of power. With a shudder, Ginny realizes that Roberto might never forgive her. But no, she thinks, quickly shaking the idea from her mind. Roberto is kind, Roberto is brave, and at the end of the day they can talk about this over orange slices and dandelion fluff, and she would say sorry and he would say that it’s okay, that he’s simply glad to be alive because that’s all that matters anyway, right? He was never bothered by the children like she was. It isn’t a big deal. He’s been through worse. He is kind, he is brave, he is her angel.

Correction: was kind. Was brave. Was her angel.

Roberto was.

--

Ginny doesn’t remember much from the rest of that day. Especially sounds, she doesn’t remember sounds. She doesn’t remember when Roberto’s screams stopped or when the bell rang or Ms. _____’s bemused laughter at the construction paper covered whiteboard. She doesn’t remember when Ms. _____’s voice turned shrill or when Roberto’s mom burst through the doors or when the children stopped giggling and started whispering, scaredly, instead. She doesn’t remember what Tessa said when she raised a shaky hand, though Ginny assumes that it was a confession on behalf of the entire class, for immediately afterwards, Ms. _____ made Brian enter his four-digit code on the bicycle lock twisted around the handles of the closet door. But what happened afterwards, Ginny will never forget.

The right door swung open, pushed by the dead weight of a thirteen-year-old body. Roberto -- more accurately, Roberto’s body -- fell halfway out of the closet. His eyelids fluttered. They closed. Ms. _____ screamed, she pushed Brian aside. Roberto’s mom collapsed. The children stood up to get a better look. Ginny, taller than all of them, could see with terrifying clarity. There was blood. A lot of blood. And a pair of scissors.

And then there was the sound of the ambulance. Then, quiet. Quiet unlike anything Ginny had ever heard, and she had known a lot of quiet.

--

She likes sleeping because sleeping means dreaming and dreaming means Roberto. Roberto is kind. Roberto loves her. They are each other’s once-in-a-lifetime best-friends-forever. They are each other’s first kindnesses. First playdough partners. Roberto is brave. Roberto forgives her. She likes sleeping because sleeping means she can tell him how much she loves him, finally, and he can answer and tell her the same.

--

On some days, she wonders if Roberto was even real. She goes to bed imagining him, picturing his kind eyes and goofy grin, the way his curls would catch the sunlight, thinking that if he didn’t exist, she’d have made him up anyway, this beautiful friend who was the only warm thing in her world, who helped her when she felt most alone, for making sure she remembered how to smile. For introducing her to a part of herself she had never before known. You helped me know me, she thinks to him, you gave me myself.

She dreams about him, so maybe he only ever existed in her dreams. Maybe that was for the better, that he was never alive, and could never die.

--

When, two years later, Ginny learned of the word claustrophobia, she felt the ground shake. In a flash, she saw kind eyes and a goofy grin, heard girlish laughter and the clank of metal against wood, felt the breeze of a spring day and the tickle of dandelion against her cheek. She heard his voice, loud, telling her animatedly about funny American foods and the Bahamas and Costa Rica and all the places he had gone to before he lost his leg, she heard him making fake airplane whooshes accompanying their playdough pilots, she heard his messy slurping of freshly squeezed orange juice. But more than anything, when she learned of the word claustrophobia, she heard his voice quiet and hesitant. She heard him telling her about the accident that took away his father, how he was stuck in an upside down car crushed against a snowy tree, frozen both by the biting weather and his paralyzing fear, wondering why he couldn’t feel his leg, wondering why his father wasn’t saying anything, too numbed by shock that he didn’t think to call someone until two hours later, and how, when he shifted to reach for the phone in his father’s pocket, he saw glass sticking out of his father’s wrists and empty grey eyes, and then there was the waiting, the realization of being trapped, the suffocation before siren sounds and paramedics cutting open car doors.

So he was real. Ginny understood, then, that Roberto was real, and so were all these memories. She hadn’t just dreamed him up. She understood that he was brave, but not brave enough for a space so tight and dark and lonely that was the closet he was forced into. Not brave enough to forget how easily his father died. She understood that he was brave and kind and endlessly warm, but that he spent the last moments of his life terrified and alone.

Claustrophobia. Roberto was claustrophobic. She didn’t know. But even if she did, would it have mattered? Would she have valued the way her voice sounded, one with the din of that of her classmates, over her only friend? Would she have said, “No, take me instead, I’m not scared,” or something else to save him like he saved her each and every day since he stuttered into the room, bright-eyed and grinning, on a cloudy January afternoon?

--

Ginny’s good at English now. She’s gotten into the college of her dreams. Ma is so proud; she brags about her daughter to everybody she talks to, even cashiers at the supermarket.

She still visits the cemetery. She’s come every week since she learned of claustrophobia, since she remembered Roberto and the realness of him and everything else. People look at her strangely for placing tiny bundles of wispy dandelions on his grave, as opposed to fresh bouquets or wreaths. As the breeze blows them apart, she wishes for him to feel her, wherever he is. To feel the weight of her regret and gratefulness and love. She drips with love. She shakes.

He hasn’t stopped returning to her in her dreams. In them, she begs him for forgiveness. Sometimes he’s quiet. Sometimes he says no. But most of the time, he smiles at her, takes her hand, and says, “Of course,” all warmth, all kindness. And they have a one-legged race, which he wins. He always wins.

  Illustration by Cameron Lee and Lily Ha

Illustration by Cameron Lee and Lily Ha