The house across the street was dark. It looked as if it had burned down and been re-built from ash and tar and human bones. Bits of wood crumbled off the roof like Play-Doh, and windows were cracked. The grass was too tall, so that you had to look very closely to see the small garden of flowers right up against the house. I was six years old and I thought all the spiders in the world must hide there in winter. I thought there must be demons inside, plotting with maps and charts to trick people into coming in. For those first few days after my mother and I had moved in with my grandma in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, from across town, I watched the house, waiting to see a candle flicker or a hand drag across a window, but there was nothing.
On a summer evening not long after we moved to Grandma’s, the sun hummed over the Earth’s surface, so that there was a pressure, little hands pushing everything down, little bees filling space with white noise. The whole world felt tired and the sun scorched the ends of my hair, turning it to straw. I sat in the gravel of the front yard petting Oscar the cat, watching the house. A car pulled up after days of no sign of life; a man and a woman stepped out of it. The man went inside right away while the woman stayed, fiddling with things in the back seat. She was wearing a long dress like a river. Her hair was braided and longer than any hair I’d ever seen. When she spotted me from across the street, she smiled the way I might smile if I’d finally made it to Disneyland. A cavity in my chest filled rapidly with warm liquid. She picked up a paper grocery bag with something shiny sticking out of it, and came to me.
“Hello,” she said, glowing.
I thought of a dream I’d had: I was in bed and couldn’t speak or move, and then a witch came out my closet and said she was going to eat me. I stared up at the woman.
“What a pretty girl you are,” she said, digging in her paper bag and pulling out the shiny thing, which turned out to be a necklace with a huge cross on the end. “I’ve just come from a church conference, you see. The pastor gave everyone one of these to hang around their necks. It’s nice to have God’s love so close to your heart.” She touched her own cross, which hung exactly at her heart and caught the sun, so that the orange of it stung right into my eyes. “I have one left over, but no daughter of my own to give it to. You look like you might like it.” She hung the extra necklace over me. “My name’s Peregrine, and that man is my husband, Daniel.” She pointed behind her at the house. “You can call me Peregrine. Do you have a name?”
I kept looking at her heart. The necklace was heavy and I was small, and the cross hung closer to my belly button than my heart. “Saige,” I said, so quietly she must have barely been able to hear me over the sound of a bouncing basketball up the street.
Peregrine went back to her house and I sat in the yard, thinking about this cross around my neck, about whether I should tear it off and bury it in the gravel, whether it was evil and Peregrine was evil and something in that house wanted me doomed. But I also thought maybe Peregrine had fallen into this house accidentally, that she didn’t know it was evil, and that she was even sent here by God to save it. The way she spoke to me, her voice soft like petals, and the way she gave me this necklace, made me want to believe in her. The sun hung lower and I went inside.
I found my mother where I often found her that summer: in her rocking chair near the window, just looking out. She was wrapped in an afghan she had made back when she did things like that, back when she did anything at all. My mother was twenty-three. My best friend in first grade, Abigail Johnson, had a sister who was twenty-two. My mother was thin all over and had dusty hair she kept tied up with a ribbon. She wore dresses in different shades of brown, like paper bags holding the sticks of her body together.
My father had left her a few months before I met Peregrine for the first time. He simply told my mother there was someone else and drove off. She hadn’t told me yet, but kept saying he was away on business. My father was a trucker. I knew he wasn’t coming back, because his trips never lasted as long as two months, and besides, I’d overheard my mother telling my grandma about it. Still, I imagined him driving along the coast, watching seagulls fly and waves crash out the window all the way to California. I’d never been to the ocean. I didn’t know how to tell my mother I thought she was a liar.
Shortly after my father left, my grandmother showed up at our apartment with a U-Haul and a bundle of trash bags. She said it was time for an intervention, and when I asked what that meant, she said my mother just needed a little help right now, sweetheart, that’s all. My mother sat in her rocking chair without a word while Grandma carefully inspected each item in the apartment, scrunched her nose, and scrubbed the item furiously with her handkerchief before cramming it into the truck.
When my parents were together, my father worked and my mother stayed at home taking care of me. A lot of mothers in Coeur d’Alene did this, especially married mothers who dropped out of high school to give birth to babies they’d gotten in backseats of rusty Toyotas, with one of the doors duct taped to the body. When my father was actually away on business, things were different. My mother taught me to bake all kinds of cookies, to draw bubble letters, to play “Happy Birthday” on the piano. She gave me a special bible for kids and read to me while I sat on her lap, examining the patterns in her afghans and knitted scarves.
“Mom, I met a new lady,” I said to my rocking mother. “She lives in the scary house. Is she bad? She gave me a necklace.” I held it up for her to inspect. I knew she’d seen the whole thing out the window.
“How should I know?” she asked. She went to the kitchen and pulled a can of tomato soup out of the cupboard. “Saige,” she said, “come help me stir the soup for dinner.”
Even though she didn’t do much else that summer, my mother still tucked me into bed and sang to me each night. She had a beautiful singing voice, better than anyone’s at church. More like an angel than a human. She’d been in her high school choir before she got me in her belly. Once I asked her why she didn’t join the church choir now, but she just said she didn’t want to talk about it. After she finished her song to me each night, she’d remind me to say my prayers to Jesus and leave my door open a crack in case I needed her. Oscar perched on the window like a little bird-cat and looked out.
One night after she left, I snuck into the hallway. I spied on her through the crack she left in her bedroom door, careful not to make any noise because my grandma was across the hall in her own room, probably reading some book from the dollar bin.
My mother sat in bed, her eyes streaked with the Vaseline she used to take off her makeup. She was sifting through old photographs. I imagined what they might be: Dad hiking on the Olympic Peninsula, Dad drinking a beer outside a tent at Priest Lake, Dad holding me as a baby, so small my cross necklace would have reached my toes.
The next morning while my grandmother was out grocery shopping, the doorbell rang. My mother was in the habit of not answering the door, letting the sound of the bell pass over her body like the gong in meditation (I saw this on TV, but my mom said Buddhists were heathens—those are people who don’t believe in God—and she’d tell them that to their face, too). It would end, and whoever it was would leave her with me and the cat and the blank space that used to hold my father. But this time the person at the door did not leave; they kept ringing the bell a zillion times. Finally my mother moved to the door. I crept up on the first stair, so the wall would hide me from whoever it was. I peeked out slightly.
“Hello,” said Peregrine, smiling.
There she was on the porch. She stood very straight and tall, as if little strings from the sky were tugging her up. The cross hung from her neck, and she held a plate of green Jell-O with pears. “My name is Peregrine. I live across the street with my husband, Daniel. Your mother told me you were coming to stay here, and I wanted to personally welcome you to the neighborhood. I made you some Jell-O; I hope you like it.” She handed the plate to my mother.
“Thank you,” said my mother, taking the plate much too slowly, her body forming a wall between Peregrine and the inside of the house. I wondered why she couldn’t be more polite and invite her in for cookies. Was it because she was jealous Peregrine still had her husband? “My name’s Sophia.”
“Pleasure to meet you. I already met your daughter, Saige, last night. I gave her a necklace like mine; I hope you don’t mind. She’s such a sweet girl. Doesn’t talk much, though. Is she very shy?”
Adults always called me shy.
“She’s always been quiet,” said my mother. I thought my mother had always been quiet, too.
“Listen, Sophia,” Peregrine said, her voice getting faster, “I hope this isn’t too personal of a question, but are you a Christian?”
My mother took me to Holy Gable Baptist Church every Sunday. My grandma said she had only started going to church when she got pregnant with me, and she made my father go with her, even though he never prayed a day in his life and didn’t even accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.
A leaf drifted down from the sky and landed on Peregrine’s shoulder. She brushed it off, twitching her nose a bit.
“Yes, I’m a Christian,” said my mother.
“Oh, good. I am so happy for you.” Peregrine’s face filled with a bit more color. “You see, I run a bible study for the children in the neighborhood. I’ve been doing it since Daniel and I got married and moved here three years ago. The children come over once a week, and we sing songs and recite verses and I teach bible stories. It’s so good for the children to get to know each other and to share God’s love. I would be thrilled to invite Saige to join, if it’s okay with you.”
I clenched my teeth.
My mother crossed her arms, gripping her sweater closer around her. “That’s very kind of you, but I don’t know . . . we go to a Baptist church, and I like that, but there are so many different denominations. I’m not sure if I want her learning about God when I can’t see what she’s learning.”
Peregrine didn’t respond right away.
My mother said, “Just, you know, I don’t want to confuse her. Things are so complicated as is.”
The color in Peregrine’s face faded slightly. “Oh, okay . . . Of course, I understand,” she said. “Things are very complicated. Well, if you change your mind, you know where to find me. The invitation is always there. Your mom told me about your situation, you know. I’m sure it’s all very hard on Saige. It might help her to have some activities.” Her eyes moved in my direction and I pulled my face back at once, hiding it completely behind the wall. She knew I was here. I wondered if it was because she snuck around too, spying on people and hiding in corners.
“Nice to have met you,” my mother managed to say. Peregrine, I’m sure, smiled before turning away down the steps. The door shut and I scurried up the stairs and into my bedroom.
I thought all day about the bible study. I set up my stuffed animals on the bed, draping the cross necklace around my biggest bear, and taught them about God. I tried to explain everything.
“A long time ago,” I said, “God made everything, bears and people and flowers, and it was all beautiful. He lives in Heaven in the sky, I think floating around on clouds all the time. He made Heaven too. Everything was perfect, but there was an angel Lucifer who wanted to be bad, so he left Heaven and created Hell. Even though Lucifer lives in Hell, which is underground, he is always coming to Earth and filling it up with evil and temptation.”
The animals looked worried.
“But don’t worry!” I said. “You can escape Lucifer and his evil friends, but the only way is to trust Jesus Christ, that’s God’s son, as your savior, because He is full of love and wants the best for us.”
One of the bears asked why we should trust Jesus, not God, when God is the one who made everything in the first place.
“They’re the same person,” I said, “and there is also the Holy Ghost. He’s part of it too.”
The bear wanted to know how three things could be one thing. A rabbit wanted to know if you dug a deep enough hole, would you get to Hell. I decided there was much more work for me to do before I could go on teaching. My mom never wanted to answer my questions, but I was sure Peregrine would.
Peregrine spoke a sweet way to my mother. She loved us both, I was almost sure of it. Why had my mother said no to her? Was it because she figured anyone who lived in that house must be evil?
The next morning, Oscar was staring out my window at something. He always discovered the most interesting things. I looked out with a pair of binoculars my father had left behind. I adopted them as my favorite toy; with them I saw far away from the place I lived. On the sidewalk outside Peregrine’s house, there was a white bucket with flowers sticking out of it. I ran down the stairs immediately and, still in my pajamas, out the door and across the street. There were twelve flowers sticking in the bucket, all different kinds: a tulip, a daffodil, a rose. There was a sign on the bucket that said Flowers: 25 cents. Please be honest. God is watching. I looked around. No sign of anyone who could have put it here. I was touching the petals of the red tulip when I heard her.
“Good morning, Saige,” Peregrine said. She startled me. Where did she come from? “What a pretty nightgown. What have you found there?”
I quickly put the tulip back in the bucket. She had on a sunhat over her braid today, with the widest brim and the longest ribbon I’d ever seen, like two halos.
“Beautiful flowers for beautiful girls,” she said. “Which is your favorite? I bet it’s that tulip.”
I nodded, not making eye contact.
“I see they cost a quarter. Let me buy it for you,” she said. Peregrine dropped the light silver coin into the bucket. It rattled in the bottom for a moment, and she handed me the tulip.
“Thank you,” I managed to say.
“You’re very welcome,” she said, and patted me on the head. I felt her fingers there, like a hat of paper, for the rest of the day.
In the living room I stacked up colored blocks, building the tallest tower I could, trying to make it bigger than the piano my grandma bought at a garage sale when my mother was in high school. I hadn’t heard her play since my father left. Like everything that was my mother’s, it sat there, collecting dust.
“Mom, why can’t I go to the bible study?” I asked.
My mother sighed. “Because, Saige, we go to a Baptist church. I don’t know that lady. I don’t know what kind of church she goes to or what she believes. There are lots of churches: Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, Liberal Christian. She could believe anything: that we shouldn’t celebrate Christmas, that Jesus was married and had babies, that Hell isn’t real, that Noah’s Ark never actually happened. You can’t go; I’m sorry. But you can keep going to Sunday school with me.”
“What’s so good about Noah’s Ark being true?” I asked. “Why did God want to flood the Earth, anyway? All those people died. And the cats, too.”
“I can’t answer that, honey,” she said.
“Was it because people were bad?”
“Yes, because people are bad.”
“I thought God was nice and the devil was mean.”
“God is nice not to flood the Earth now,” she said. Then she went away to feed Oscar.
Sometimes I wished God would flood the Earth. I wanted rain, so much that I’d float on top of it, a lake covering the whole Earth. I would have a raft, and I’d take all my best things on it with me: my cat, my binoculars, my tulip, and my necklace. I’d splash myself to quiet the sun’s loud rays.
That summer, my grandma had a lot of private conversations with my mother, which I often listened to even though I wasn’t supposed to. This time, they were in my mother’s room, and I crouched outside, my ear pressed against the closed door.
“Sophia, you have to get it together,” said my grandmother. “You have to do something. If not for yourself, then at least for Saige. She needs you.”
“It’s not like I’m doing this to hurt Saige, Mom,” said my mother. “It’s not like I’m doing this on purpose. I’m not the one who left; he is. This isn’t my fault.”
“I know you’re upset, Sophia. But you need to push past that. If you don’t, things will begin to unravel. Think of Saige. She’ll—”
“She’ll turn out like me?” Her voice was raised. “She’ll drop out of school and get pregnant? That’s what she’ll do if I don’t get out of my chair?”
“Oh, Sophia, that’s not what I meant,” she said. “But I think it’s time for you to get a job. What would you like to do? You used to love music—”
“Look. There’s a music store down by the lake. You could get a job there selling instruments. Maybe it’s not ideal, but it’s something. Because the truth is, he’s not coming back. Saige is your responsibility. You are your responsibility.”
“Why did you tell that woman across the street all about my life?”
“Oh, stop it. She seems like a good person. She has a bible study, you know, for children, and Saige—”
“Saige is not going to her damn bible study.”
There was a silence. “I think I need a glass of water,” my grandmother said.
The floorboard creaked; my grandma was moving toward the door. I quietly scampered down the stairs and into the kitchen. I heard my grandma coming close behind me.
“Saige, were you listening?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“Eavesdropping is wrong and lying is wrong. You should know that. Your mother wants you to—”
“My mom doesn’t want to help me,” I said.
“Saige!” she said, gasping. “Don’t say those kinds of things about your mother.”
“But it’s true,” I said, “and you just said lying is wrong. She doesn’t want to get a job to buy food for me. I need to eat or I’ll die! She is just like a demon wanting to kill all the people.”
“Saige!” she said again. “That is extremely rude and is not true. Your mother is doing her best. I don’t want to hear you say anything like that again. Children obey and respect their parents and you will do the same.”
She washed my mouth out with soap and said no Jell-O for me. She went back upstairs to my mother, closing the bedroom door behind her.
I immediately got the Jell-O out of the fridge and stuck all my fingers into it at once. I didn’t even want to eat it; I didn’t even like Jell-O. My mom said it was made out of cow’s feet. I scooped up pieces of it and shoved them in my mouth. It was slippery, like little fishes about to die, not sure if they should swim down my throat or out my lips. I wondered if they took fish on Noah’s Ark even though they could live underwater. I left the plate on the counter, most of the Jell-O still on it.
I went outside to my gravel, careful to close the door quietly behind me. My mother was not like she used to be. She had opened up the top of her head and allowed the cloud that held her soul to float out. She was like the watercolor I painted and left out too long in the sun: she had dried up and gone white.
I noticed a sign on Peregrine’s house that said, “Bible Study Tonight, 7 pm.” That meant it was happening now, and that meant I was going, because even if my mother didn’t want to help me, God would want to help me, and Peregrine would, too.
I made my way into Peregrine’s overgrown yard and to her window. Peering in, I saw Peregrine standing beside an easel, attaching several felt shapes to it: a camel, a person, a boat. Four children I’d seen around the neighborhood sat in front of her, singing. A man came out of the kitchen, holding a tray of cookies. He looked right at me, and I ducked.
I was kneeling in their flowerbed under the window; they would be so mad I was trampling their flowers. I noticed a tulip plant, and thought immediately about the tulip Peregrine had bought me from the bucket.
“Hey there!” said the man, stepping out the door. “You must be Saige. Peregrine’s told me all about you. I’m her husband, Daniel.”
How did he know I was Saige? He looked like he was waiting for something, so I nodded.
“Nice to meet you, Saige. Would you like to come inside? We’re having bible study.”
The hum of the setting sun got louder and higher pitched, as if God had instructed an orchestra to begin the crescendo.
“Oh, that’s right, your mother doesn’t want you to come,” he said. “Okay, I understand. Well, have a nice evening!” Daniel turned to leave, but Peregrine appeared in the doorway at just the right moment.
“Saige!” she said. “What are you doing out here alone? Where’s your mother?”
“She’s in the house with my grandma,” I said.
“Oh, well, why don’t you come inside? The two of them might like some time alone. Daniel made cookies!”
I realized I was actually going to go inside the house across the street, and my heart and stomach did a few somersaults around each other.
“I’ll explain it to your mother later. It will be fine,” she said. Her eyes looked right into mine, like they were not just her eyes but mine as well, and everyone’s. I felt like liquid as I stood up, dusted off my shorts, and followed Peregrine into the house.
“Peregrine,” I said, “did you put those flowers in the bucket?”
“Of course not!” she said. “Don’t be silly. I was just as surprised to see them there as you were. But they sure were beautiful.”
She led me into the living room, where I sat by the other children.
The house looked normal, which seemed strange. There were couches, some photographs of Peregrine and Daniel’s wedding, a few plants. A painting of a flower. A painting of a boat.
“Now, Saige, we were just discussing Noah’s Ark,” said Peregrine. “Do you know that story?”
Of course I had heard the story, but I wasn’t sure if that meant I knew it, the way you could know your address, or the color of your hair, or the name of your neighbor.
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you like it?”
“Well,” I said, scrunching my forehead, “I’m not sure. I don’t know why God would want to kill all the people. I thought God was perfect and never sinned, and that’s why we have to trust Him. My mom says He flooded the Earth because people are bad.”
“Saige!” she said, shaking her head. She was looking directly and only at me, as if the other children had vanished. “People aren’t bad. They sin, but that’s just because they’re imperfect. They’re human. But they don’t deserve to die.” I noticed a cross-stitched picture of Jesus hanging on the wall, and I liked how small and perfect the stitches were. “Some people believe stories like Noah’s Ark are parables—they aren’t true facts, but made-up stories intended to teach us lessons. Noah’s Ark teaches us that we should obey God, or there will be consequences. But God doesn’t want to kill everyone.”
Daniel passed around the cookies. Everyone was eating; it seemed the lesson was over.
“I’m so glad you could make it to bible study, Saige,” Peregrine said. “Ever since I met you, I knew you were special. I knew you were one of God’s favorite children.”
“My pastor says God loves everyone,” I said. The other kids smiled and nodded.
“Oh, He does!” she said. “The point is, Saige, we’re so glad you could be here.”
Daniel came over with his plate of cookies. “Peregrine made a special cookie just for you, Saige!” he said. He handed me a cookie shaped like a tulip.
I asked to use the bathroom.
“Yes, of course,” Peregrine said. “There’s one on this floor—just there to the left. You don’t need to go upstairs. It’s an awful mess!”
I crept around the whole floor but could not find a bathroom. Maybe the door was shut and I assumed it was private. I really had to go, and I knew Peregrine said not to go upstairs, but I couldn’t help it. I tiptoed up and moved to the right.
Soft, violet light shone out of one door. I pushed it open and snuck inside.
This was not a bathroom at all, but some kind of room I had never seen before. Someone had stuck thousands of silver pushpins into the walls. It seemed the person had been very careful about how they stuck each one in, as if the wall had skin and could feel pain. The pins made a picture of a tulip and a little girl’s face. There was nothing else in the room, except for a tin box of pins in the middle of the floor.
I plucked a single pin out of the wall, a piece of the girl’s mouth, and dragged it lightly over my hand.
I thought of the tulip Peregrine bought for me after planting the bucket there and waiting for me to come find it. I noticed the girl on the wall had big eyes, but that she looked only at the tulip, as if hiding from anyone who might see the picture. She was scared. Again, a cavity in my chest filled with hot liquid, and I realized this was my face, and that Peregrine had stuck all these pins in the wall. It must have taken hours and hours, and she barely even knew me, and my mother would never do something like this. Why would Peregrine make this? Was Noah’s Ark a real story or a fake story? Why didn’t my mom want to get a job so she could buy more cans of soup for us? Where did my dad go, and why didn’t he want to buy me soup? And if God was so nice, why would He let any of this happen? I couldn’t stand anymore. I sat on the floor.
I heard the door creak open and quickly stuffed the pin into my pocket. Peregrine was standing there, hands on her hips. “Saige,” she said, her voice a little less sweet than usual, “I told you not to come upstairs.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I couldn’t find the bathroom downstairs. I really couldn’t find it.” I was about to ask if I could ask a question but was interrupted by a heavy sigh puffing out of Peregrine’s mouth.
“You want to know why all these pins are in the wall,” she said.
“Yes,” I said. Peregrine had a way of knowing what I was thinking.
“I stuck them in,” she said. “I’ve been working on it for the past few days. I bought thousands and thousands of pins. I studied a single tulip and a photograph I took of a little girl. I stuck the pins in one by one, slowly and deeply, thinking all the time about the girl and how happy she’d be when she saw it. I think I did a pretty good job, don’t you?”
As she looked at me for approval, I noticed how long her eyelashes were, like legs of a wolf spider.
“You did a good job,” I said.
“And do you know whose face this is?” she asked, coming closer to me.
Of course I knew whose face it was. I knew whose picture she had studied. I knew because I was always sneaking around, hiding behind doors and listening to conversations, spying. Peregrine was just like me, only she was older, so she had thicker curtains and sneakier tricks. She’d been watching all along.
“No,” I said.
“Saige, it’s your face,” she said. “Don’t you love it? I made it for you. It was supposed to be a surprise, for later, but you found it on your own. I guess God wanted you to see it tonight.”
“When did you take the picture?” I asked.
“Never mind that,” she said. “Saige, you are very special to me.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. “Thank you,” I said.
“Saige,” she said, moving still closer, “I see that you’re unhappy. And I want to make you happy. Your grandmother told me about the trouble your mother is going through, and how she won’t give you what you need.”
She looked at me, as if waiting for me to tell her she was right. “My mom doesn’t want to get a job,” I said, “but my grandma says she’s trying her best.”
She shook her head like a disappointed teacher. “Saige, you deserve to have someone who loves you.” Did she mean my mother didn’t love me? My mother was sad but she still kissed my forehead every night, and she still prayed for me, and she let my grandma scoop us up in the U-Haul, maybe because she thought it would be better for me. Peregrine sat down next to me and took my hand. “You see, I can’t have children of my own. I have a condition. But if I could, I would love them so much I’d make them a new push-pin picture every day.”
I was sorry she couldn’t have children, and I wondered what kind of condition this was. I imagined a little demon in her belly, keeping all the babies away. “Peregrine,” I asked, “why does God let bad things happen?”
Her face was closer to mine than it had ever been and I saw she had wrinkles. She was much older than my mother.
“You know, Saige,” Peregrine said, slowly, and already I knew she wouldn’t answer my question, “I think God brought us together for a reason. Sometimes children are born into bad homes, but it’s not their fault. There are others out there who can help, who can take them away from those bad homes and care for them. And Saige, I want to help you.”
She stroked my cheek with the backs of her fingers, rocking slowly back and forth, her eyes not really focused on anything. Then she stroked my hair, then my legs, then my stomach, beginning to hum.
I stood up. “I have to go now,” I said. I moved toward the door as quickly as possible, not looking back at her.
I heard her say, in a voice like barnacles, “Saige, be careful of the choices you make. God will make you sorry.”
As I hurried down the stairs, the sound of her voice grew legs and chased me, banging against the walls and floor like a stream of tumbling boxes. It was trying to pull me backward to her, saying over and over, “God will make you sorry, God will make you sorry.” As I ran away, I planned what I would do.
I’d go home and help my grandmother wash the carrots and the bed sheets. I’d wash the cat, my nightgown I’d worn outside, my hair, and my feet. I’d wash my mother’s hair; I’d scrub and scrub until she begged me to stop because I was hurting her scalp. I’d wash my nightstand, which was dirty from the tulip I’d laid there days before. I’d wash my insides with gallons and gallons of water.
Then I’d leave. I’d scoop up everything I needed in a pillowcase: my cat, my binoculars, a few loaves of bread, the necklace, the pin, some of my mother’s Polaroids. I’d go toward the ocean, away from the screech of the sun, which, as it now dipped almost completely out of the sky, made the sound of a banshee’s scream, muffled by the pillow God pressed over her mouth. I’d float into the ocean with the things in my pillowcase, holding the pin between two fingers, not wanting to keep it but not wanting to toss it away because of what it might do to a fish.
Instead, I told my mom what happened. She stroked my hair, said everything would be okay, and sang me to sleep. She and I stayed at my grandma’s a few more weeks, until she finally got that job at the music store. Then my grandma said we could move back home. During those last few weeks at my grandma’s I mostly stayed inside
coloring—not drawing, but coloring, so all I had to do was choose a crayon and fill in the shape, already there in such clear black lines. Oscar stayed close to me.
I peered out my window at Peregrine’s house. One morning I saw her place a white bucket filled with flowers on the sidewalk. She took the bucket away that evening, but none of the flowers were gone. A few times, I saw her walk out her door and take a few steps toward the street, only to stop dead for minutes in the middle of her lawn, as if thinking about something very confusing. I wondered what things she saw me do out her window.
The bible study sign appeared the few more Tuesdays we were there. Whenever we went back to my grandma’s house after that, I pulled my hood over my face for the walk from the car to the door. I didn’t let myself look in that direction. Still, I felt Peregrine’s eyes on me, again like a paper hat.
I finally made it to the ocean. My grandma took us on a camping trip there a few months later. Standing on the shore, my mind drifted back to Peregrine. Water had a way of pushing my thoughts along like clouds in quiet wind. I stuck my hand in my pocket and found Peregrine’s pin in there, like a little demon scale or an angel’s earring, depending on how you looked at it. I couldn’t help but wonder what my life would have been like if I lived by the ocean instead of in the desert, if Oscar had been a dog instead of a cat, if my mom had left instead of my dad. I told my mom some of these things but I’d never tell her that, although Peregrine was strange and scary, I had to wonder what my life would have been like if I’d been Peregrine’s daughter instead of my mother’s. Probably it would have been part good and part bad, just like people were part good and part bad, and so was everything. I wondered if this included God. I looked out and saw where the water met the sky, like a blue sheet of paper folded and propped up against something else. I thought of Hell underground and Heaven in the sky, and I wondered if I floated out far enough I could reach that sky and touch it, and touch the cloud God floated on, and say Hello.
Caitlin Vance is a poetry MFA student at Syracuse University. Her poetry has appeared in Tin House, ZYZZYVA, and Booth.
“Tulips” originally appeared in Game Theory (TLR, Summer 2014)