(This story contains mentions of dark themes that might not be suitable for readers under 13.)
I don’t read though, just pretend to. Instead, I watch the other kids start up a game of pirates; the plastic play-set turning into an imaginary boat. My chest aches, feelings of loneliness and sadness flaring before I shove them violently away. I know better than to play with anyone.
Mommy liked to play with me. Her favorite game was “What Does Vinny Want?” I never won that game. I never could win the “Make Mommy Happy” game, either. Soon, I became so bad at playing games that they took me away from Mommy. Now I live with Mr. and Mrs. Johnson and other kids who can’t live with their real mommies and daddies.
“Vinny?” It’s Mrs. Johnson, her voice quiet as she sits next to me in the garden. Her blonde hair is in a ponytail, and she’s wearing her favorite shirt. It’s pink with white flowers all over it. I look at the flowers instead of her eyes. That’s a bad game to play too, Mommy taught me that.
“You can go play with them, you know. You don’t have to sit here all alone,” she tells me. She tells me this every day, but doesn’t she know I’m not alone? Mrs. Johnson is sitting here with me, and I have my book. I’m not alone because I know in ten minutes Alice will sit down next to me right after Mrs. Johnson leaves, and she will read my book to me.
Mrs. Johnson makes us all come outside after lunch, because she thinks that kids need to play. I don’t know if she’s right; she’s an adult though, so she knows more than I do. I just don’t like playing very much. It hurts a lot. When Mr. Johnson comes home from work we will get to go back inside. When it’s raining or snowing we don’t have to play outside, but are told to play inside instead. I just hold my book and watch. I always watch.
“Remember Vinny, you don’t have to hide anymore,” Mrs. Johnson says, standing up and brushing the dirt from her dark-blue jeans. As soon as she steps back into the house, I see Alice jump off of the monkey bars, waving at the other kids before running towards me. I draw my legs up, letting my head rest on them as she drops to the ground right where Mrs. Johnson was sitting at.
“Hey! Do you want me to read to you?” she asks, just like she asks each time she reads to me. I nod, handing her my book. Alice is in 10th grade, and can read the words that don’t mean anything to me. I listen to her start telling me about how Chris, the clumsy knight, was trying to rescue Princess Emily from the evil dragon.
I close my eyes, letting her words make pictures in my head. But even though Princess Emily is supposed to be tall and thin, with long blonde hair, I see the short and chubby Alice with her really short brown hair instead. She makes a much better princess, because she’s much nicer than the mean and rude Emily. I wish I could be the clumsy knight, but I can’t put myself there like Alice seems to be the princess.
Because I can’t save anyone.
“Hey Vinny,” Alice says, touching my shoulder. I open my eyes tiredly, staring quietly into Alice’s eyes. The only light is from the large moon outside, and it’s making her brown eyes look black instead. I sit up, letting the bed sheets fall backwards. Alice isn’t supposed to be in the boy’s room, since she’s a girl. I tilt my head, and Alice keeps talking.
“I had a nightmare, please come sit in the living room with me?”
I hesitate, knowing that the question is part of a game, the one Mommy always played with me. But Alice looks scared, her hands are shaking; she doesn’t look up to playing games right now. So I take her hand and slide out of bed. We walk down the hallway with the nightlights in each outlet, and it goes to the living room. Alice climbs on the couch, tugging one of the puffy pillows against her chest and hugging it. I sit next to her, hugging my legs instead of a pillow.
“Uncle Joe was there,” Alice whispers, and I just listen. Alice said once that talking about it makes it less real for her. Nightmares are scary, so I want it to be less scary for her. “He wouldn’t leave me alone… It was so dark and I couldn’t breathe. I could hear him laughing, the dirt hitting the top of the box…” I could hear her voice hitch, the sob coming right after.
“It was so real, I was back there, and the cops never came. Uncle Joe kept laughing and laughing… and I died.”
I reach out and touch her hand, my much smaller hands wrapping around her wrist. I can feel the throb of her heart in the wide limb, and her skin is too cold. I press on the heartbeat in her wrist, as if reminding her she’s alive right now.
“I know, it was a dream. But if they hadn’t found me, I would be dead right now. I wouldn’t have met you, and you would be all alone. It scared me.”
I nod, and she moves over, wrapping her arms around me and crying. I look up to see Mr. Johnson standing in the hallway. He smiles at me and mouths a couple words before leaving back towards his room. I know he will tell Mrs. Johnson that Alice is okay, because he told me ‘Thank you.’
“So do you ever think you’ll talk out loud?” Alice asks me, swinging her legs back and forth on her stool. I shrug, picking up a different color and filling in the square. I think I’ll make all the squares blue, and do the triangles green. The hearts will be brown though. Brown is my favorite color.
“I wonder what you sound like. You’re only seven, so maybe your voice is like Jesse’s voice. But you’re also very gentle, so maybe it’s like a young version of Dad?”
Alice calls Mr. and Mrs. Johnson “Mom” and “Dad,” though I don’t know why. They aren’t her mom and dad, so she should call them Mr. and Mrs. Johnson. Maybe she’s just playing pretend?
“Have you ever talked before? Before coming here to live with us?” she asks me, and I nod. I talked, but that was a long time ago. Talking made me lose the “Make Mommy Happy” game, so I stopped doing it.
I’m not sure if I can do it again though. I don’t remember how to anymore.
“What did you sound like?”
Stupid. Mommy didn’t like it, so it couldn’t have sounded like Alice is thinking. Alice sounds nice when she talks. I like listening to Alice talk. It makes me happy.
“Come on, I’m bored. Let’s go make a fort in your room!”
I follow her, and do what she says to make a fort. She says only good people can come in. She also says I’m allowed to be in there because I’m good. I don’t believe her, but I don’t dare disagree.
Alice is gone. The doctors took her away in the ambulance, and Mr. Johnson is with them. I heard them say that they have to make plans to bury her. Alice is scared to be buried, don’t they know that? Her Uncle Joe did that to her and the police rescued her. Why are they doing it again?
“Come on, let’s get you cleaned up,” Mrs. Johnson says, and I shake my head, pointing to where the big red ambulance is at with Alice. I shake my head, mouthing the word ‘bury.’
“She’s not coming back, honey. When people—when they die, they go in the ground.”
‘Scared,’ I mouth the words, pointing again.
“She’s not scared anymore, honey. She’s going to be in a better place from now on.”
I frown, but Mrs. Johnson starts leading me away. I don’t want to take the clothes off. It has Alice’s blood all over them, from when I was trying to wake her up. I don’t want it to go away. I won’t have Alice anymore, so I want to keep the clothes on. I don’t want to forget.
I lost the game. I can’t keep playing anymore. The game of life is over for me, but you need to play for me, okay? Take my turns, and win. I know you can, this is a game you need to play. I tried to teach you, and I hope you learned. Mom and Dad love you, and they will help you win the game. I wish I was strong enough to play with you, but I always knew we never were going to play together.