#2 on GoodReads Middle Grade Novels of 2016
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I grab the box of midnight-purple hair dye from my book bag and squeeze my way down the narrow, overstuffed hall into the only bathroom in our apartment. The shower hasn’t worked since it was turned into a storage closet, so I clear the sink of the old cat food cans Auntie has stockpiled, turn on the cold water, and dream
about the day when I’ll have my own apartment with a shower, hot
water, and food.
“Agatha, are you still pouting?” Auntie yells from her recliner. ”I told you, Uncle will pick something up when he’s done with work.”
My foster parents, I call them Auntie and Uncle, are not what I would describe as parents, or even aunt and uncle, they’re more like babysitters. Uncle hasn’t been home for three days, and I doubt she believes he’ll be here tonight. She just wants me to tell her that I’m okay with her not picking up dinner. I’m not. Today is my thirteenth birthday. It’s not like I was expecting a cake, but something to eat would’ve been nice.
After I dye my hair, I take a shirt from the pile of laundry I’m standing on, wrap it around my head, and carry the remaining hair dye back to my bedroom. I love my tiny room, mostly because I’ve been sketching and painting jumbled and disjointed art on these walls since I was old enough to grip a pencil. Part of the reason I chose what the box calls boysenberry for my hair is because the
extra dye is the perfect hue for the raven I’m painting on my
Dipping the number-three flat brush into my dye calms me and all is forgiven. Auntie’s not a mean person, she’s just a bit off. Being angry with her is like being mad at one of the cats—pointless.
I wrap a blanket around my shoulders and open the window. Queens is especially chatty tonight with the noise of cars, people fighting, dogs barking, and the laughter that only I can hear. I stand on the bed and fill in the gentle face of my birdie while humming along with the chorus of voices outside.
Tonight, the singing is boldly wafting through my window. I can’t understand the words and don’t know the tune, but the music is sweet and peaceful. It’s sad that I can only hear my songs some of the time, when I’m tired and relaxed, and sadder still that no one else can listen with me.
My dye runs out long before I’m satisfied with my raven so I give up and climb into bed. The song I’m listening to now is particularly soothing, a hymn or possibly an opera. Maybe one day I’ll be a great songwriter or something.
A muffled thud near my window startles me from a sound sleep. There’s an eerie red glow casting moving shadows across my room. I blink a few times to make sure I’m not still dreaming and follow the source of the light. Just to the side of the foot of my bed kneels a tall, hooded figure with luminescent red eyes. It’s stroking the long ears of a much smaller creature that looks withered and dying.
I’m not scared, which is weird, but it might be because I’m not sure I’m awake. I turn on the lamp to make the dream disappear and end up blinding myself. When my eyes adjust, I see the sickly green skin of a long-eared frog-boy lying on the floor and the tall cloaked being that’s cradling it. The tall black monster who closely resembles the Grim Reaper appears to be even more stunned than I am. We stare at each other while my brain struggles to figure out what I’m looking at. These things don’t exist, so how can I be seeing them so clearly? The black-hooded creature never takes its red eyes off me while it stands and lifts the small sickly frog-boy off the floor.
“Agatha?” it whispers.
This monster is actually in my room! My insides seize, trapping my scream. What is this thing and how does it know my name? I want to run, but I can’t move or look away. My fluttering heart stops when my door flies open with a crash. A scream unseals my lips, amplifying my terror.
Auntie charges in, wielding a large kitchen knife. She’s yelling in her nutty made-up language, but it works. The creature jumps out my fifth-floor window, taking the frog-boy with him.
She whips around toward me, still holding the knife, and looking like she means to use it. “What did you see! What was that? What were you doing!”
Auntie has her kind moments, but she’s crazy. I mean, truly mental. Whatever just happened, she mustn’t know that I saw it too. She probably suspects I did, but if I confirm it, she’ll nail my window shut and my songs will disappear forever. “I had a nightmare. Was I yelling in my sleep? Did I wake you?” I’m trying to sound calm, but I’m failing.
She takes a few deep breaths while she sizes me up. She pauses and tilts her head to the side. “There was something here. I saw it. Did you see it?”
“What was here? What did you see? And what’s with the knife?” I want her to tell me if she saw the Grim Reaper and a dead rabbit-frog-boy at the foot of my bed. If she saw them too, then I’m not crazy. But then again, if I see the same thing as a crazy person, we’re probably both insane.
Auntie attempts a comforting smile and mellows her tone. “I thought someone broke in. I thought you were in danger. It’s not safe for you to sleep in here. Come to my room.”
I’ve never been invited to sleep in her room before, not even when the heat went out last February and I thought I’d freeze to death.
I follow her round body out my door and into the maze that was once our kitchen. I cautiously climb over the avalanche of junk that Auntie caused in her haste to get to my room. How did she know I was in danger? The creature whispered and I did
“We should clean this up,” I say right before I take a nasty tumble over hundreds of old magazines.
“Leave it. I’ll take care of it in the morning.”
Translation: I’ll be stacking them up again when I get home from school. Hopefully she won’t add to the pile while I’m gone.
Auntie’s room smells of cat, body odor, and rotting garbage, but I’m happy for the company. I’m still shaking from what I hope was a nightmare. She doesn’t say a word to me as I climb onto the pile of dirty clothes next to her bed. I try to watch the old movie on the television, but my mind keeps going back to the strange
creatures and Auntie’s reaction to them.
Finally, in the wee hours of the morning and well past the time Auntie started snoring, I chalk it up to an overactive imagination. I was probably still dreaming when I thought I saw something. Auntie is skittish by nature, so her response wasn’t that strange. At least, this is what I tell myself so I can get some sleep.
“Get up, my dear. It’s your birthday,” Auntie says with false cheeriness.
I wake up groggy and sore from my terrible night’s sleep. I slept on a mound of what I thought were clothes, but something under the pile is hard and lumpy. What sleep I got was far from restful, and I desperately need to go back to my bed.
Auntie is standing over me with a bowl of cereal, which she thrusts at me as soon as I sit up. I sleepily grab it and shovel the soggy flakes into my mouth. I can’t remember the last time I ate breakfast at home. She must have gone out early this morning to buy the milk and cereal.
“Stop looking at me like that.” Her smile doesn’t reach her eyes. “It’s your birthday. I wanted to do something nice.”
My birthday was yesterday. Auntie never cares if I eat, and certainly never does anything for me on my birthday. Maybe she’s getting thoughtful in her old age. However, I change my mind when, before I can finish my cereal, she yanks the bowl out of my hands.
“Okay, that’s enough. Time for the birthday tradition,” Auntie sings with genuine enthusiasm. From the bed, she lifts a small wooden chest that’s crafted out of many different colored woods. It’s intricately carved with depictions of strange beings standing guard over a door with an eye in it. The case is truly beautiful, but what’s inside confirms that Auntie has truly lost her mind.
I do this ridiculous tradition every year somewhere around my birthday. I used to ask questions about the box and the ceremony, but she never answered me. She just tells me to enjoy it. However, there’s nothing to enjoy. I’d rather have a cake.
Auntie lifts the chest in the air and mutters her strange guttural words. Then she puts the case back on the bed, kneels beside it and opens the lid. Inside is a small crystal sphere nestled in red velvet. She brings the ball close to my face, waves it above my head and utters more strange things.
Not only does Auntie dance around like this on my birthday, but she also talks to herself nonstop in a made-up language, and barricades us with garbage in this tiny apartment. Nevertheless, she’s all I’ve ever had for a caretaker and I want to make her happy. I usually fail, which is why I always dread this ceremony.
She lowers her arm and I reach into the chest to grab the ordinary glass marble. It’s about the size of a golf ball and rather plain compared to the box it comes in. She crouches down near me and whispers the words I loathe. “Now, what do you see?”
I see a crazy lady with a glass ball is what I want to say, but this ritual makes her happy and it’s the only thing she ever asks of me. I would play along if I knew what it is that I’m meant to see. One year I made up a story about seeing the future and that made Auntie livid, so I never lied again, and this year is no different.
“I see a crystal ball.”
“You’re getting older. You should be seeing something. Concentrate. Relax. Look at the orb.”
I gaze at the marble with what I hope is an expression of concentration and relaxation, but it’s just a ball. I stare at it for what I deem is an appropriate amount of time and repeat, “I see a crystal ball.”
Auntie scowls and follows it with a sigh. “Well, next year.”
As she puts the marble away, the light catches it for a second and it takes on an orange glow, but by the time my lips part to say something, it disappears.
When she hears my intake of breath, she jumps. “What! What is it? What do you see?”
“Nothing, the light just hit it funny. I thought it was something, but it was nothing.” I tell myself that sane people don’t see things in glass marbles, but her disappointment makes me feel like I should.
Auntie snaps the case closed. “Go get dressed before you’re late for school. And fix your hair. You look ridiculous.”
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