This short story was first published in Allies as a finalist in the Fall 2019 Aura Estrada Short Story Contest, and is featured in our new special project:
We were asleep going there. We were two. And too ancient. Ten and a half and five and three quarters. That is too old. That is antique. That is considered lost. And it means having no family forever and ever. It means having no home.
We were asleep. It was such a miracle that it made us fall asleep on the road.
Most people want a cute baby. Doesn’t matter if it’s white or black, so long as it’s a small little baby. The sort that doesn’t understand anything. Most people don’t want an older child. A child who knows how to curse and bite, and steal keys, and wet his bed.
That morning, a lot of people came to the boarding school. Volunteers. They wore black T-shirts with a red heart and our boarding school name written in English above, and in Hebrew below: “Matrix ❤︎ The Children’s Village.” That was what their shirts read. The volunteers printed them specially, because their workplace is called “Matrix.” That was what Clara explained to us. She’s the one who takes care of us.
The people in the black T-shirts built stalls on the grass. Cotton candy, and inflatable slides and darts. They played the best music ever. They kept smiling and shouting, “What’s up kids? Are we having fun today, or what?”
At first, we just peeked out the window, then we left the room and went outside and did what we had to do—we slid on the slide, and ate pink cotton candy on a stick, and jumped on the trampoline.
And after we ate hot dogs and even more pink cotton candy, we went to take a peek in their SUVs. They were parked by the dining room. Their windows were dark, but when we pressed our faces against them, we could see everything. Those little trees that spread a nice smell hanging from the mirror, coins scattered like gumballs by the driver’s seat. We even saw the little chairs fastened with seat belts to the rear seats.
One SUV was open. We found that out after pressing the handle and the door opened. We knew we shouldn’t, but we still climbed inside and sat in the little chairs at the back. We folded into them and then it was hard to get up. Which was funny. Chair by chair, we held hands. We thought about what would happen if we fell asleep in the SUV and the owner only found us when he reached his home. But then Clara showed up.
“What are you doing here?” She was furious. “Are you two crazy? Get out right now!”
Then the owner came. He had grey cropped hair, and even though the SUV was his, he wasn’t angry at all. He even kept smiling and spoke loudly. “What’s up, kids? So, you like cars, eh?” Clara said she was sorry and sent us back to the trampoline.
We saw her whispering with the SUV guy. We saw her crossing her hands. We knew what she was saying, we could read it on her lips: “Those two! I don’t know what will become of them.” That’s what she always said. We knew she was acting out the words with those hands she crossed, and with that throaty, Russian accent. “Those two—they’re tight,” she probably told him. “Those two—they’re always together.” Clara needs her hands to talk for her because nobody understands her Russian, and she doesn’t have enough Hebrew words. First, she wipes them on the red robe tied to her hips, then she laces the fingers of one hand into the spaces between the fingers of the other, and then she tightens them together. “Those two—like Siamese twins!” Her fingers are like two rakes with their blades tangled. “We’ve tried everything with those two.” She must have sighed. “Everything. First, we separated them . . .” That was what we imagined her telling the SUV guy, because we’ve heard her say it before. “The little one in the little boys’ house and the girl in the older girls’ house. But the little one ran out to be with her every night, and we had to drag him screaming back to the little boys’ house every morning. We even started locking the little boys’ house.”
The SUV guy listened and kept saying yes with a nod of his head. We guessed Clara’s words. We could imagine her L’s, like liquorice melting in spit pools in her mouth.
• • •
We were only seven and a half and two and three quarters when we came to the village boarding school. Each put in a separate little house; each with strange children the same age. We lay on the beds and forced ourselves to keep our eyes open so as not to fall asleep, so we wouldn’t dream of all the things adults do to children. We heard a door creaking and dreamed of heavy footsteps in the corridor and remembered the smell of bodies, and hair and sweat. Our stomachs were crushed. We couldn’t fall asleep.
Because there was no chance anyone would ever want us, when they told us, “You’re going to meet parents,” it was like they had said ashtray, or ball, or rag. We understood the sounds and that’s it. Nothing happened in our bodies.
On the third day, after we found the drawer where they hid the keys in the staff room, they found us together. Fast asleep. Huddling on the same bed. The next night, they hid the key. We banged our fists against the door. We went crazy. We bit Clara. We cried. We cursed. And we ended up winning.
Most people want a cute baby. Doesn’t matter if it’s white or black, so long as it’s a small little baby. The sort that doesn’t understand anything. The sort that you can do things to without him talking; do things next to him without his understanding. A baby who knows only what his body knows—burp, sleep, cry, yawn. Most people don’t want an older child whose mouth is already dirty. A child who knows how to curse and bite, and steal keys, and wet his bed, and sometimes even stinks it out with smelly poop. What do they need with a kid who pulls scary faces? What do they need with a kid who hisses through his brushed teeth, using dirty words like “son of a bitch,” or “motherfucker,” or “fuck you and your family”? Do they need a kid like that? They sure don’t.
We’re not babies anymore. We’re just too big. And there’s two of us. One’s hard enough, so two? There’s no way in hell. That’s what we heard Clara saying to Nahum with a sigh one day. Then we realized why new kids were coming—old kids had gone, and only we were still here. Oh, and there’s Abeba, who’s thirteen, and the Leonidov twins, who are also big, and also two. Like us.
Anyway, we were sleeping when we got there. We fell asleep because we were tired of all that fun day of volunteering. And because of the miracle. It was too much for us. In a second, we fainted in the backseat of Nahum’s car. We barely managed to see him smiling from the rear-view mirror, saying, “Fasten your seat belts, children,” before sleep crawled all over our bodies. We sank into the upholstery, our nostrils filled with the familiar smell of our own bodies. We got high on it. The soft flesh of the stomach, the pursed lips. Cords of spit dripping onto the seat. Body within body, heat within heat. There’s a song that goes something like that. The first foster mommy sang it, or was it the second? We can’t exactly remember.
We were old. Because there was no chance anyone would ever want us, we heard when they told us a week ago, “You’re going to meet parents. You don’t have to.” We understood the words—“Parents. Meeting. Don’t have to.” But understanding something in your head is worthless. It’s like saying ashtray, or ball, or rag. You understand the sounds and that’s it. What we mean to say is that you hear them, but the words are just floating in the air. Nothing happens in your body. And nothing happened in ours.
A week ago, Nahum drove us to a shopping mall in another city. He walked with us like he was our dad and we were his children. The sort of children who ran around in the shopping mall telling their mommies and daddies they wanted them to buy them stuff. We walked by the stores holding each other’s hands. Hard. The shopping mall had this wonderful smell. And the lights. And all the people there. And the noise.
We wanted to sniff the little soap bars that looked like donuts on a tray. We wanted to put them in our mouths, those little soaps with green and blue leaves frozen inside, like the fossils in the science room. We wanted to bite them. But Nahum told us not to touch and took us straight to the third floor where everyone was eating.
Even before we got there, we knew. We squeezed each other’s hands—there they were, the parents we might be having soon, sitting on the McDonald’s benches. She had a yellowish face, and he was tall with a bent back. They looked sad, but started smiling when they saw us. Nahum shook the bent man’s hand, and the yellowish woman’s, who gave him this sad smile. Nahum looked at us through his blue eyes. “Children,” he told us, “I’ll just leave you here now, all right?”
After Nahum had drifted away a little, the woman asked, “What do you feel like having? Are you hungry?” We shrugged. She tried again. We looked at each other. We had eaten before going to the mall. Still, this was McDonald’s. We didn’t answer.
“I’ll get you something, all right?” She smiled. “And if you don’t want it now, they can wrap it up for us to take away.” We looked at each other. We spoke with our eyes. She could see our hunger, and that was a good sign, even though we always kept it hidden.
The woman went to order and we sat in front of the tall man with the bent back. He wasn’t smiling, but his eyes were as soft as a sponge, and half closed, and tired. He said, “You know this is my first time eating in McDonald’s? Can you believe it?”
We looked at each other. “This isn’t our first time!” we said immediately. “It’s our fourth!”
He was impressed. “Well, thanks to you two, I’m eating here today too,” he told us. “What do you say about that?”
It was weird, and we didn’t know if we should believe him.
The woman brought us a tray with hamburgers and Cokes and fries, and we stormed at it like our stomachs were empty and not just our thoughts.
Most of the time she was silent and smiling, and looking very confused. She dipped her fries in mayo instead of ketchup. We talked about food and what we liked to eat most in the world. Actually, they asked, and we answered. The daddy told us funny names of funny foods we had never heard about—mamaliga and borscht. It made us laugh.
We squeezed each other’s hands—there they were, the parents we might be having soon, sitting on the McDonald’s benches. She had a yellowish face, and he was tall with a bent back. They looked sad, but started smiling when they saw us.
The mommy had a million questions. “How old are you, Meital?”
“How about you, Ben?”
And—“What subjects do you like most at school?”
And—“Who do you like to play with most in kindergarten?”
And—whether or not we had friends.
And what made us happy.
We answered everything, even though we didn’t like it. Too many people were always asking us too many questions. But we answered because they looked kind of miserable with the bent back and the yellowish face. And after we ate all the food, we went to the play area by the McDonald’s where they had these slides with mattresses, and you can climb.
At first, they sat on a red sponge bench and looked at us with their sad smiles. Then, the bent-up daddy took off his shoes as well, and climbed and slid with us on the slide. He was the only daddy doing that, and it looked like the yellow mommy liked that, because she couldn’t stop laughing and got up from the bench and walked barefoot to the edge of the slide and waited for us and caught us when we slid down. It was as if she was hugging us. We slid again and again, and all over again. It was nice. She had this smell.
Children were waiting in line for the slide, but we pushed past them to slide even more. Until another daddy, short and nervous-
looking, went to the bent-back daddy and began to shout. “You should educate your children a little better!” His hand slashed the air. He sent it forward like a sword, as if to say there’s a line here!
We spoke with our eyes. The short daddy thought that bent back was our real daddy and that yellow face was our real mommy. It made us feel good all over our bodies.
Just when we were about to leave, Nahum came back and the mommy and daddy asked if we had had fun and if we’d like to meet them again. We said yes. We held hands.
The daddy said, “Thanks to you, not only did I eat in McDonald’s,
I also slid on the slide!”
The mommy said, “See you soon. I’ve had so much fun with you.” She smiled.
Nahum said, “All right, children, now let’s head home.”
Saying home is just like saying rag, or ashtray, or ball. It’s just sounds. But that day, the sounds made our bodies feel something. Home. We felt it all over our bodies.
That all happened exactly a week ago.
• • •
Today, after the Matrix people went away and left our grass empty of stalls and trampolines, Nahum called us and said we were going away for the weekend, that we should pack quickly because we’d be leaving in an hour, so we had to hurry up.
We slept the whole way. It was so much of a miracle that it made us fall asleep. Even though it was still light outside.
They have a beautiful house. Real big. With a garden and rooms and everything. “There, you see?” The yellow mommy smiled in the corridor. “You’re right next to us. This is Meital’s room, and Ben’s room is just next door.”
We stood behind her holding hands. We spoke with our eyes. We asked if we could sleep together, and she got a little scared. “Sure, of course. I just set this up for you, but you can sleep any old way you’re used to.”
The daddy made meatballs. He asked if we wanted to help him make the meatballs and put them in the pot with the red sauce. We helped him. We were happy the meatballs turned out so nice and round. We wanted him to know we were good kids.
We didn’t go to McDonald’s. Even though we kind of hoped we would. The daddy made meatballs. He asked if we wanted to help him make the meatballs and put them in the pot with the red sauce.
We helped him. We were happy the meatballs turned out so nice and round. We wanted him to know we were good kids. That they should definitely take us.
We ate the meatballs with mashed potatoes. Then the daddy asked if we knew how to do long passes with a soccer ball. He had once played soccer for a real professional team. Which was nice.
Every time they asked us a question or suggested something, we looked at each other and spoke with our eyes.
Before going to bed, we watched a movie in the living room. Frozen. The mommy laid down on the sofa and we sat on the other side. The daddy was next to her and hugged her. It felt kind of awkward. We looked at the movie, and at the yellow mommy and bent-back daddy lying next to each other eating the popcorn they’d made for us. Our eyes kept darting from side to side. On one side Elsa was singing on the television, on the other side was daddy with his tired eyes, and mommy with her yellowish face. The way they were glued to each other on that sofa! The way they lay side by side with the popcorn between them. And love.
We went to sleep like we were used to. In the same room, on the same narrow bed. Real tight. That was why we didn’t notice the mommy coming in. Because we were sleeping. But we suddenly heard her whisper, “Oh my, everything is all wet here . . .” She woke us gently. “Come cuties, get up a little moment.” She stroked our cheeks.
We stood with our eyes closed and heard her taking new sheets and blankets from the closet. “Maybe you’re afraid of sleeping on your own?” she said. “After all, this is a new house,” she muttered, as if to herself. Our eyes turned into little slits when she changed our pajamas, but we didn’t open them. On purpose. “Maybe you’d like to sleep in our room, eh? What do you say?”
We didn’t say anything.
She picked the mattress up from the bed. “Come with me.”
We went with her. Wobbling. Through the slits that were our eyes, we saw her spreading the narrow mattress on the floor beside their double bed. Through the slits we heard the daddy waking up. He asked, “What are you doing?”
“Don’t worry about it, babe, go back to sleep. Everything’s fine,” she said. She brought our pillows and blankets from the other room and said to us, “That’s it. Now lie down. We’re right here next to you. If you need anything—just holler.”
Shadows crept up the walls. The daddy snored a little, the mommy didn’t.
We listened to the silence. We followed the shadows. And our eyes closed.
There was this smell hanging in the air.
I didn’t know if I was allowed to, but I felt I was.
I got up from the mattress. I climbed on top of the double bed and lay in the empty space between the daddy and mommy. She was soft. She had boobies. I heard her breathing.
I pulled up the blanket and pressed the place where I’ll have boobies myself one day against her back. I circled her tummy with my hand. I felt it. Soft. Smooth. Just like that word, “Mommy.”
“Who’s this?” She opened blue eyes that twinkled in the dark and turned her gaze to me, “Meital? Is that you?”
“Yes,” I whispered back quietly, and hugged her tummy even tighter. “Yes.” I looked through my slits straight into her eyes, “I am me.”