Helen Silverwood, fourteen, sat on the roof with her legs dangling off the edge. She swung her feet back and forth and stared out across a nondescript city whose name didn’t matter because she wouldn’t be here long anyway. It was dusk, so the street lights were just coming on and windows that had been blank grey rectangles just a few minutes ago were lighting up from inside like tanks in an aquarium. The occupants swam around at different speeds and with different qualities of energy. Some seemed uncaring and inert and others darted back and forth nervously. Helen wondered if any of them knew each other. Or were related. Or used to be married. Maybe they were spying on each other. Maybe they were watching her.
Outside, it was windy and noisy. Horns honked and people shouted. Dumpsters were dumped. Helen watched people and their dogs and bicycles and luggage and other add-ons maneuver around one another, presumably headed homeward to their own aquarium tanks or maybe a suburb. A truck double-parked and somebody loudly objected and gunned their engine. A block away from that someone unlocked a bike from a tree and took off weaving in and out of a line of cars waiting at a stoplight.
A gust of cold and unfriendly wind snatched Helen’s attention away from the scene below. She peeled a strand of hair off of her face and pulled out a folding knife and started carving into the brick next to her.
She made a circle first, and then a smaller square inside it. She added a spiral shape starting at one corner of the square and working its way out to the edge of the circle. This was her tradition in each new place she lived in. To leave her mark. So there would be some evidence she had been there. Or anywhere at all.
The knife was something Helen’s father gave her. It was her favorite thing. It wasn’t very big, and had maybe a three-inch blade. Its handle was black and shiny and unadorned except for three buttons the size of the head of a nail and a tiny screen.
Helen wondered what would happen if she dropped the knife from here. She imagined what it would look like falling twenty-two stories to the sidewalk. She wondered how long that would take. She wished she had a pebble or a rubber ball to drop instead. She took a deep breath and lifted up the knife in front of her and closed the blade. She pressed a button with her thumbnail.
“RECORDING,” the knife said. Helen began to speak.
Hi Dad, It’s Helen. Obviously.
I know it’s been a while since I made a journal entry. It’s because of the same reason it always is, which is that we were moving. Again. Now we’re in this big building. I found the way to the roof today. So here I am. Talking to you.
What to say about this new place. Well, it’s super grimy. It’s damp, and the walls look like you could peel the paint off with your fingers. It’s like a big sponge. The whole place smells like medicine. There’s no way this was Mom’s first choice to go to. Or tenth choice. Or maybe any choice.
I just carved my little logo up here. I’m sure you would tell me I’m wearing out the blade. But I’m not, I promise.
When I got up this morning, I could have sworn the bio reader in this knife was lit up. Just for a split second. I thought maybe finally you were close enough to set it off. But maybe I made that up. Or maybe the sunlight hit it just right. Because it’s never lit up. I probably imagined it.
Mom’s been gone every night this week and she’s super edgy. Me and Henry just try and steer clear and let her eat her egg salad in peace. But I wish I knew what she was up to. Of course, she won’t say. She says her job is to “keep us safe,” whatever that means.
She comes home in the mornings looking pretty rough and beat-up. She looks like she’s been in a fight or something. Maybe she’s doing crimes? How am I supposed to know?
I wish you were here so I could ask you.
Henry and I have developed some pretty good theories. Our first theory is that she’s a bodyguard for a mob boss and the mob has operations all over the world and that’s why we move so much. Our second theory is that she’s a repo-woman. You know, the person who goes out and steals people’s cars back when they haven’t paid for them and sometimes they have to use force. Or shoot at people. Or get shot at. Our third theory is that she’s a bouncer. She would be good at that job.
Henry keeps asking mom questions like she’s gonna answer. I mean, he’s nine, so he’s persistent. He thinks she will just look up and start answering at some point. I don’t really think she will.
Okay, so about Henry.
Henry is not exactly what I would call, thriving. He’s not terrible, but he’s just – he is very sad. That’s what I would call it.
Every time we have to pack up and leave someplace, which is a lot, he’ll just stand there with his sketchbook and his pencil and cry without making any sound. He doesn’t say words. Doesn’t get mad. He just looks small and lost, and I hate it. I don’t even know what to say to him. It makes my stomach hurt.
When he’s at school Henry gets in a lot of fights. The other kids pick on him and say he draws weird stuff. I mean they’re right, he draws super weird stuff. But they’ll say rude things about his drawings to make him mad and then he gets in fights. Almost every day, practically, at whatever school. I’m kind of proud of him for standing up for himself, if I’m being honest. But every day?
The main thing that’s bothering me though is when he gets quiet.
He’ll be his normal nonstop mile-a-minute self for a while, but then sometimes he’ll just change and go for a long time, sometimes even a whole day, without saying anything. I mean, not a single word. And I don’t know why, but sometimes he gives me the feeling he might try and run away. I’m worried about him. His drawings are getting even weirder, if that’s possible. The monsters have these arms that come out like big spider legs and they keep getting longer and longer and wrapping all around the paper and going on the back side like they extend forever. He goes over the lines until there’s holes in the paper. Sometimes he draws when there’s no ink in the pen, he just does the motions.
So, being the big sister, I try and reassure him. I say stuff like, someday we’re gonna stop moving around, and we will finally be “safe,” whatever that means, and we will have a real home, with real friends, and a real bed, and Mom will be there and you will be there too. That’s what I tell him. But I’ve got no idea, Dad. You could be on another planet for all I know. I’m just sitting here talking into this knife like it’s a telephone or something. I know you’re not on the other end, Dad. I get it. Mom comes home in the mornings, and drops her boots on the floor, and craps out like she’s just run a marathon. And then gets up in the evening to do it again. This is our existence. This is what we’ve got. But I try and put some spin on it, for Henry. Even if I have no idea what I’m talking about.
There’s one thing Mom likes to tell us. She says, “Say something positive.” She says she got that from you. So we try and do it. Even if it’s just saying something nice about pizza or socks or something. So, here. I’ll try and say something positive.
At least every time we move, I get a break from the weird dreams. That’s positive. I’m happy about that. Who wants to dream about shape-shifting monsters every night of their life? Definitely not me. So that is something positive that I’m glad about. We move, and then I get two or three nights without nightmares.
I’ve told you about the weird dreams, right? I guess they’re not actually nightmares, technically, since they’re not particularly scary at least to me. The monsters are pretty creepy looking I suppose. But they don’t bother me that much. Anyway in these dreams, I’ll call them dreams instead of nightmares, these beings show up, and they come toward me, and then I hold out my hand. When I hold my hand out, the monster transforms into a human person. Which is a big improvement, ‘cause when they first show up they are like seven feet tall with black scales and tentacles and stuff. They are ug-ly. They are such a mess you can’t even tell which part is the front or the back. Maybe it’s a disease of some kind. I don’t know. To be honest they kind of look like Henry’s drawings. Anyway I reach out, and then the creature transforms into a person, and then they say thank you over and over, and they go away. It’s a different person each time. Then I wake up.
After I wake up, I feel tired like I just sprinted a mile. Which doesn’t make any sense since I’ve obviously been laying there sleeping. But it’s a tiring dream. That’s another reason why it’s nice not to have them for a few days. Maybe my brain gets distracted from dreaming when there’s a new place to think about. But then, the dreams come back and then I’m all tired again.
Hang on, I’m supposed to be saying something positive, aren’t I. It’s nice to have a break and do some quality sleeping, that’s all. I’ll stop there.
I gotta go downstairs and check on Henry. I’m trying to keep an eye on him, Dad. I really am. He’s crafty, though. You never know what that kid is thinking. But I’ll do my best. That’s another thing Mom says you say a lot. She says, “Do your best.”
That’s it from the roof, Dad. Talk to you again soon. Maybe.
Helen swung her legs off the ledge and exited the roof through a dull grey door that led to a dull grey metal staircase that descended to a dull grey apartment containing Henry and a mess of cardboard boxes that looked a little bit like the city skyline.
Just as the door on the roof slammed shut behind Helen, a second door appeared next to it, and stood there for a few seconds, and then faded away.