Originally written: March 20th, 2019

Sun in an empty room
Sun in an empty room by trench_mouth

The last piece of work from Winter term. This is the longest piece I’ve posted yet (2,750 words) but it’s also one of the ones I’m proudest of. For this assignment we tried to emulate the style and feel of a Joy Williams story.

This piece involves some of the same characters as A Moonlit Secret, but you do not need to read that one, or know the larger project they come from in order to read this story.

Mansurah never planned to have children. They were cute for three years, and a time-consuming hell for the rest. In a world of planners and meetings and deadlines, an additional task was not what she needed. Yet it was what she’d received. In technical terms, the girl is too old to be considered a child. In her personal opinion, age meant nothing in the face of actions.

They stared at each other from across the kitchen table. The girl had said nothing since the officer released her into Mansurah’s care. She’d said nothing before that, really. He’d brought her to the front of the fluorescent room, and upon seeing Mansurah standing there, eyes red-rimmed and breathing shaky, she’d simply said “huh.” Silence ever since, broken only by the uneven rolling of the washer against the floor.

“Your mom—” Silence broken again, interrupted now by a cough. Mansurah pressed a tissue against her mouth. If she pressed hard enough, perhaps the thin paper would mesh into her skin. Then she would have an excuse to continue the silence. “Your mom will be back soon.”

No reply came. Mansurah never expected one. To be the adult meant certain patterns and responsibilities needed to be fulfilled. One box ticked off the foggy mental checklist. One more and she would leave, return to her room where she could stop being the adult, and return to being herself. There’d been no babysitting clause in the contract she’d signed. There’d been no mention of safety measures either. Mansurah rubbed at her eyes.

At some point she’d managed to stand up and complete her task. An icepack sat on the table in front of the girl. Old fashioned, wrapped in a ragged towel to dull the heat of the ice and pause its melting. Mansurah felt as though she were melting. The thermostat said it was 22℃. “Your mom is coming,” she repeated, paused, blinked, and coughed. “Take care of that bruise.”

The girl said nothing, but Mansurah heard ice crunch as she left the room.

When Mansurah entered the kitchen the next morning the girl was gone, and a water stain sat in her place. Beside the stain sat the mother. They shared a similar pallor, but there was greater abstract to the stain. With the mother, one got what one saw. Mansurah does not ask about the girl, and only strained her vocal cords to give a polite greeting. The mother was a spitting older image of the girl, but not by much. She’d clearly had her young.

“So death hasn’t reached you yet.” The mother’s voice was as feather light as the hair that fell over the peaks of her collarbones. “I knew you were a fighter. Tea?”

Mansurah nodded, then gripped the chair to steady herself as the room became a smudge. It cleared with five blinks and a groan. The tea cup greeted her as she sat down. “Thank you.”

“No, my thanks to you.” The mother always smiled when she spoke to her. Mansurah often found it vapid, but on occasions where the lights were dimmed and wet paint stained boney fingers, it became almost pleasant. She never lingered on those thoughts, even as canvassed reminders of them sat drying in the living room. “Alycia inherited my penchant for inconvenient timing, alongside the olive allergy.”

Mansurah did not speak, for even with a honey-smoothed throat, her words would only be harsh. She knew of inconvenient timing from the office. It was meetings being rescheduled to a moment so near present one could blink and be late. It was a printer running out of toner on the last page of a proposal needed yesterday. It was not getting notified in the middle of teaching a class that your child had been arrested. Mansurah never planned to have children, but she knew that in the alternate reality where she did, she would drop everything to get them.

The mother did not drop everything, only her smile. The girl stood in the doorway of her room. There was no telling how long she’d been standing there, but it hardly mattered. The apartment was small enough to twist privacy into a foreign concept. Her face was yellowed with a large bruise—spotted grey-purple at the edges in such a way that one could easily mistake it for a port-wine stain. It was not, though, because the girl had no (visible) birthmarks, and the only stains she left were ones of ice water on old tables. Mansurah envisioned puddles splashing with every step the girl took towards the kitchen. She strode with confidence, and had Mansurah not already learned of another of the girl’s ‘penchants’ months ago, it would become clear in this moment. The door to her room remained opened, and a collection of pinned and circled maps could be seen hung upon the walls inside.

“Tea, honey?” A smile returned to the mother’s face, but it showed less teeth than before. Mansurah watched green eyes watch every movement made. They never blinked.

The girl yanked the refrigerator door open, and the space filled with cool air. Her back replied, “I’ll be here for lunch.” For breakfast it was an apple, bitten into cold and unwashed.

“You should still drink something.”

The pantry was opened next, a water bottle taken out. For a moment it appeared as though the girl would leave with no further words, but she paused in front of Mansurah. “Thanks for the ice,” she said, then continued out the front door.

Mansurah touched her forehead. Still feverish, but the room remained clear and her thoughts rational. The girl had never thanked her before. It felt sweet, yet tasted sour.

“She’s warming up to you.” Those green eyes turned on her. Paired with that ever-present smile, they seemed far more piercing than usual. “Finally.”

. . .

The next time the girl was the cause of another call, the mother had been home. Mansurah had been asleep. She woke when the front door was not slammed, but not treated with care. She knew for a fact it had experienced worse, but something about the late hour made her want to comfort it. As though the door was living, and understood the concept of comfort. Maybe it did. The mother would argue it did, at least.

The mother rarely argued in Mansurah’s presence. Mansurah didn’t know if the mother knew how to argue. She appeared so light that it seemed the mere energy needed to begin arguing could topple her. Yet there was no mistaking the edge to the mother’s voice at that moment, even muffled by walls and interrupted sleep. Another door was abused. Mansurah heard the girl’s voice begin. Stop. Begin again.

“…give a damn…care…art…” There was a pause, and suddenly the girl was speaking directly into Mansurah’s ear. “Just admit I was a mistake already!”

The mother’s voice must have lost its edge, for Mansurah did not hear it again. Silence stretched throughout the apartment to the point of discomfort. Mansurah ignored her better judgement and stood up. The living room lights were dimmed, but the mother’s form shone in its paleness from the couch. Her head was bowed, and Mansurah could see the rungs of her spine pressing against skin. They would break through if pressed any farther—or maybe they’d bruise, and the mother would have yet another similarity with her daughter. Mansurah felt a desire to grasp those rungs, straighten them out and mold them into the form of the mother that she knew best. But she’d never been much of an artist. She returned to bed.

It was easy to ignore the incident. It hadn’t left a physical mark on the girl like the previous one. Mansurah wasn’t sure if this meant she’d gone with the police willingly, or she’d simply learned the correct way to be tackled. There had been no new calls for some time, but the girl continued to make scarce appearances at the apartment. She was full of a lively energy the mother lacked, but between the two, was undoubtedly the more ghost-like. Dinner became a two-person affair. It appeared that the mother was ignoring the incident as well. She greeted her daughter when she passed, but the girl never did more than nod before she entered her room. Mansurah caught only a glimpse, but it looked as though the maps on the wall had changed.

The girl and her angsty teenage attitude had become part of Mansurah’s daily routine. When she failed to appear one-night Mansurah noticed, but thought nothing of it. Children were unpredictable with their own routines. The phone would likely ring while she slept again. If it did, she would not wake up this time. When she returned to the apartment the following day, she found the mother seated on the couch.

“Have you seen Alycia?” Her plaster smile remained steady, even as her voice shook.

No call came in. The mother made calls out. Mansurah sat by her side and looked through spreadsheets as the scripted conversations played out. It seemed as though the girl had gone to school, but no one knew anything about afterwards. There was still time—it hadn’t been 24 hours yet. Mansurah pointed this out.

“You’re right,” the mother laughed louder than was necessary. “I’m becoming my own mom, so worrying.” She stood. “I was an impulsive thing too.” Wisps of blonde white hair flew as she shook her head, then smiled.

Mansurah expected the mother to continue, but she said nothing else and walked into the kitchen. The sound of pots and water running signaled the start of dinner. Mansurah remained on the couch until the food was done. Dinner that night was chatty—one-sided.

. . .

With the girl gone, Mansurah began to notice signs of her existence littered throughout the apartment. A half-finished box of energy bars stuffed into the far-left corner of the pantry. The pink jacket thrown atop a pile of clothes next to the washer. Piercing cleaner carefully wedged between vials of nail-polish in the medicine cabinet. Every piece belonged to a different puzzle of the same picture, but Mansurah did not attempt to put any of them together. She observed what she’d previously missed, nothing more.

The most interesting observations came from old family photos. There were just as many of them on the walls as paintings. It was the weekend, and the lights were dimmed. The mother sat in front of a purple canvas and worked as Mansurah made her stops.

Medium sized, next to the balcony window: the mother held the girl on her hip. She was tiny and pure in that way all babies appeared to be.

Small, pinned to the corkboard beside the front door: the girl could now reach her mother’s hip simply by standing. Her hair looked as though it’d been recently done and un-done. The mother looked resigned—the girl looked satisfied.

Large, above a plant on the side table: the girl was to her mother’s chest, but a head shorter than the boy next to her. The boy featured in a few other photos. The girl always smiled in those ones. Mansurah did not know him, but had seen the mother talking to him not long after the girl disappeared.

“He’s even bigger now.” The mother wiped her hands on a cloth. Every rub stained it red. “Maybe Alycia would have stayed if he were able to visit more.”

Mansurah looked at the photo again. The boy was paler than the other two, but his hair was similar in color to the mother’s. Mansurah looked back at her, studied her features.

The mother grinned. “I was impulsive, but not that much.”

It’d been a silly thought. Fleeting. Mansurah tapped the background of the photo. “Where were these taken?” Each photo had the same set of trees and flowers. Only variations of light and shadow told Mansurah that the setting was real, not studio.

“Just up town, at the park.” The mother stretched her fingers out. They cracked as they unfurled. It sounded painful, but her smile appeared relieved. “Summer is the best season. Do they have summer at your concrete castle?”

“We can wear lighter clothes.” There was nothing more Mansurah could gather from the photo. She stepped away. “As nice as summer is, variety is good too.”

The mother laughed. It had returned to an appropriate volume, but now echoed in a hollow way. She closed her eyes and sunk back into the couch. “I like familiarity.”

Mansurah turned towards the door to the girl’s room. She thought back to her first day in the apartment; a humid day that required every door and window be opened. The maps had been different, even then. Had they changed again between the girl’s last sighting and now? Mansurah grabbed the doorknob, and was surprised at how the action brought bumps to her skin, and left a familiar sour taste in her mouth. The mother remained on the couch behind her. She was powered down, the energy needed to remain oblique more than expected. Or maybe she was truly only tired. Mansurah did not have children, let alone a child. She would only ever be able to think in alternate realities and what-ifs. There, the girl’s room would be the first thing checked.

Mansurah pulled herself away from the door and left the living room. She’d just entered her own room when the mother’s voice floated in from behind her.

“Goodnight, Mansurah.”

The mother hadn’t moved from her spot on the couch. Her eyes were still closed. Mansurah watched her, but when nothing happened, dropped any expectations she’d begun to form. “Goodnight Nadiya.”

. . .

The girl had her hair pulled into a loose braid. She wore ripped jeans and worn sneakers with a pink jacket that looked similar to her old one from a distance, but upon closer inspection had numerous variations in design. She was looking down an alley, turned away from the sidewalk where Mansurah stood.

A figure emerged from the alley. Mansurah recognized the boy from the photos. He’d told the mother he didn’t know where the girl was. He began to speak, then stopped when he noticed Mansurah. They’d never spoken before, but he clearly knew who she was. The girl turned around. There was a bruise on her jaw, and her cheek was scratched. Mansurah focused on the injuries. Was it another encounter with the police? If so, why had there been no call?

The girl’s lips twisted into a frown. “You going to tell mom where I am?”

They were on a sidewalk downtown. Mansurah’s office was a ten-minute walk away. She had her routine, but knew nothing of the girl’s. “I don’t know where you are.”

For a moment, the girl’s expression softened. It was the first time Mansurah had seen her look like the vulnerable teenager she was supposed to be.

She amended her question. “You going to tell mom?”

Mansurah looked at them both. The boy remained by the girl’s side, but was silent. He was taller than Mansurah even in her heels, but he made no attempt to intimidate or interact with her. He merely watched the scene, arms folded across his chest. The girl looked clean, and not like she’d been on the streets for the past few weeks. The corner of something folded with a red circle drawn on it stuck out of her jean pocket.

To notify the mother would be the correct thing to do. In a different world, within different circumstances, she would have already done it. But Mansurah had seen the girl now, and she was clean, with a trusted friend, and free of whatever box she’d felt herself stuffed into. The incident had always remained in the back of Mansurah’s mind, and now it returned to the forefront. A sound bite of the girl’s voice, repeated through bedroom walls. A mistake. The mother’s spine bent in silence.

“It’s not my place to tell her. I may live with you two, but I’m only renting.” Mansurah reached into her pocket and pulled out her phone. She checked the time, and saw it was fifteen minutes into her lunch hour. Mansurah did not wait for the girl to reply before she began walking away. After six steps she paused and looked over her shoulder. “Take care of that bruise.” She continued walking, and did not look over her shoulder again.

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