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There were footsteps outside her door. The blankets were heavy and warm and came up to her nose. There were voices outside her door. They were voices she knew.
“Is it normal for a four-year-old to sleep so late?” That was Dad.
“She’s not sleeping,” Mom said. “She’s just not getting up.”
“She seemed asleep when I went in a few minutes ago.”
Lief lay flat on her back and looked at the ceiling. It was very far away. The blanket was up to her nose, but she could see it, sort of, just under the things she could see.
“This is phase,” Mom said. “I think it’s important we let her do things at her own pace.”
Sometimes it seemed that she could touch the ceiling. When she held her hands up, it looked like they might be able to reach it. Other times it didn’t. The door looked close enough to touch. But it wasn’t. It took six steps to get to the bed. Mom and Dad kept talking. Lief’s nose was cold.
“I just don’t want her falling too far behind, is all,” Dad said.
Mom said something, then Dad did, but Lief couldn’t really hear them.
Then Mom said, “When she’s ready.” Lief closed her eyes. She pretended to be asleep. Sometimes being asleep and being awake felt like the same thing. Lots of times though they felt different.
Dad was stroking Lief’s hair. “Hey Leapfrog,” he said. “It’s time to wake up.”
Lief opened her eyes.
Dad pulled the blankets down gently so he could see her face. “There you are,” he said. He tickled her neck.
Dad was in his uniform. Dad had come from work. Dad would probably go to sleep soon.
“Mom says I should let you sleep,” Dad continued. “You’ll get up when you get up.”
Lief looked to the doorway. Mom wasn’t there.
“I think you want to get up now,” he whispered. “You’re missing a lot of fun stuff.”
Dad looked at her for a long while, then sighed.
Lief shook her head.
Dad kissed her forehead and ran his knuckles across her cheek. “Alright,” he said. “I love you, Leapfrog.”
She smiled, but it was slight, barely there.
Dad smiled back. “I’m going to get some sleep myself, sweetheart,” he said. “Be good for your mother.”
He kissed her again on the forehead and walked back towards the door.
“I love you, sweetheart,” he said, from the doorway. He looked close enough to touch.
Lief walked down the stairs slowly. She held onto the railing and put her first foot on the next step, then the other one. There were a lot of stairs. She held onto the railing. One foot, then the other.
Venus sat on the rafters. Her tail wagged back and forth. She meowed, and Lief turned to look at her. Venus was a cat. She had soft fur and sharp claws. Venus meowed again. Lief saw her teeth. She put one foot on the next step, then the other. Venus meowed once again, but then Lief was out of her sight.
Mom was on the couch by the fire. She was reading her comic book. Lief climbed beside her.
“Good morning, sweetness,” Mom said and kissed her forehead.
Lief made a little noise. Mom tipped her comic book. “You don’t like these ones,” Mom said.
Lief nuzzled up against her. The fire was warm, and so was Mom.
“Are you sure?” Mom asked. “The last one gave you nightmares.”
Lief pulled Mom’s big sweater at the sleeve and held it under her noise. It was like a blanket that smelled like Mom. Lief nodded slowly.
“Okay,” Mom said. “Last time, Darkseid sent all the Forever People back in time,” she explained. “So this one’s called ‘I’ll Find You in Yesterday.’”
Lief listened and looked at the pictures for a little bit, but she mainly just listened, but not really to the words. She closed her eyes and listened to her mother’s voice.
“’Our experience was very sad,’” Mom read, “‘We tried save a man from ---history!’”
The fire was warm. Mom’s voice was warm. Lief was warm.
Later they drove, and later they were in the thrift store. Lief always looked out the car window when they drove. Everything looked like it was moving, and Lief was staying still. The trees looked like they were moving. The buildings, too.
They came to the Thrift Store a lot. “We need to get you a new winter hat,” Mom told her. The aisles there were big and wide. Lief could walk down them with both arms out and not be able to touch the clothes on the racks. The lights were bright and her shoes made a funny noise on the floor.
“What’s your name, sweetie?”
An old lady bent over in front of her. She smiled at Lief.
“You’re just so darling,” the lady said. “What’s your name?”
Mom stood behind Lief. “Her name’s Lief,” Mom said.
The old lady opened her mouth really big. “Oh, what a beautiful name!” the woman said. Lief looked from side to side. She hadn’t seen where the old lady had come from.
“She’s really shy,” Mom said.
The old lady got close to her. She had necklaces that made noise when she moved closer to Lief. “Oh, there’s no reason to be shy,” the woman said. Lief took a step back, but Mom’s legs were there. There was nowhere for Lief to go.
“How old are you?” the old lady asked.
Lief turned around and put her face in Mom’s legs. It was warm and dark in there.
“She’s not really that verbal,” Mom said.
Lief could hear the necklaces make noise. “Verbal?” the old lady said. “What do you mean?”
Mom touched the top of her head. “C’mon Lief,” she said. “We need to find you a hat.”
Lief looked up. Mom smiled down at her.
“C’mon,” Mom said.
Lief turned around. The old lady was walking away. Everything seemed sad now. Lief watched her until Mom touched her shoulder and said, “C’mon, Lief,” again.
Lief’s new hat was warm, but itchy. She scratched her head with her hands, her hands in mittens. She couldn’t scratch good with her mittens, with her hat on. But her head and her hands were warm. Her nose was cold. She would put her mittens over her face when the wind blew.
Mom gave Lief some paper and some crayons, but Lief didn’t know what to draw. It was hard to draw with the mittens on, and it was too cold to take the mittens off. Lief held the yellow crayon in her fist and drew a circle. She drew the circle over and over again, until it was dark enough to see. She couldn’t think of anything else.
She used the sidewalk to draw on. Little stones and sand on the sidewalk were under the paper and made the circles wavy and bumpy. She wanted a perfect yellow circle, but it was hard to do.
Mom was nearby. Lief could always see her, and Mom could always see Lief. Mom had pieces of paper, too. Lief didn’t know what was on them. Mom gave one to everyone she saw.
Lots of people walked by. Some of them stopped and talked to Mom, some just ignored her. Some asked about Lief.
“She’s my daughter,” Mom said.
“It’s awful cold out here for a little girl,” they replied.
Mom would smile. “She’s a trooper.”
Lief made some more circles. Her crayon got flat and it couldn’t write that good anymore. She put it back in the box.
A man stood behind Mom. Lief saw him, but Mom didn’t. He stood there a long time. He was bigger than Mom and looked mean and scary. Lief held onto the crayon box tightly. The man wasn’t moving or saying anything. Lief didn’t like it.
Her drawing flapped away in the wind. It lifted up and was gone so fast. Lief watched it go.
Mom turned back suddenly to Lief. The man said something to her. It was low and grumbly, and Lief couldn’t really hear it.
Mom held up her papers. The man pushed her hand away.
“Don’t touch me!” Mom yelled.
The man grabbed her arm. “Spoiled,” he grunted. “Uppity bitch.” His face was all red.”
“Nixon’s a fucking bastard!” Mom yelled. “China shoulda kept him!”
Lief tried to stand up but she couldn’t. She couldn’t help it. The pee soaked her legs. She couldn’t help it. It soaked through her corduroys. She couldn’t stand up.
The man was breathing hard. “Commie,” he sputtered. “Lesbo bitch.”
He yanked her wrist and Mom dropped all her papers. They scattered across the grass. Some people were coming and the man saw them and let go. He shook his finger at Mom and walked away.
“Fucking bastard!” Mom yelled. “You fucking faggot!”
Lief was crying. She tried to be quiet but the noises kept escaping. She couldn’t hold them in.
Mom came over and rubbed her back. “It’s okay, sweetness,” she said. “Nobody’s hurt.” She felt Lief’s corduroys. “Oh, Lief,” she told her. “It’s okay. Don’t be scared.”
Lief couldn’t hold them in. The noises were big and wild and she couldn’t hold them in.
“Shh,” Mom whispered. “I need your help, Lief.”
Mom brought Lief close to her. Mom was making little noises too now.
“I need your help,” Mom said again, “I’ve got to pick up all these papers.”
They held each other on the cold sidewalk. The wind was so harsh on Lief’s skin it hurt. The big noises were coming from both of them now.
“It’s wrong to litter,” Mom said.
They picked Norrin up from school. He slid beside Lief in the front seat.
“Why’s Leap sitting on newspapers?” he asked.
Mom checked the rearview mirror and pulled out onto the street. “She had an accident,” she explained.
“Gross,” Norrin said. “Why is she such a baby?”
Mom made her mom face. “Don’t talk about her like she’s not here,” she said.
Lief shifted on the newspapers. They made a loud crinkly sound.
“She doesn’t talk,” Norrin replied.
“Stop it,” Mom told him. “Tell me about school.”
“Mom, you’re driving too fast,” he said.
Lief wasn’t looking out the windows. She was looking down at her shoes.
“I need to get your sister home and changed,” she said.
“Mom, you just ran a red light,” he whined.
Mom shook her head. “Yellow.”
“It stinks like pee in here,” Norrin said.
Mom slowed down at the next light and stopped. “Be nice to your sister,” she said. “One day you’ll look around and see everybody else has abandoned you, except each other. Brother and sisters stick by each other, no matter what.”
Lief looked up from her shoes. She smiled at Mom. She turned to Norrin. He was looking out the window.
They pulled into the driveway.
“Get a snack and try not to wake Daddy,” Mom said. Norrin nodded and got out of the car. Mom took Lief’s hand. “And we’ll get you changed.”
Mom and Lief walked up to her bedroom. Mom closed the door.
“Let’s take off those corduroys,” Mom said. Lief took them off. Mom bunched them up in her hand. “Underwear, too.” Lief took those off, too, and let them drop to the floor. Mom picked them up between her finger and thumb.
Mom brought her face close to Lief’s bare legs. She took a few sniffs. Her nose was cold against Lief’s skin.
“You smell alright.” She reached into Lief’s dresser and handed her a clean pair of underwear. “You can put these on.”
Lief took the clean underwear from her mother.
“I’m sorry,” Mom said. “The world’s such a shitty place. Filled with shitty people. It’s like they all have just one idea. One idea of how the world works, or of who they are, and they’ve never had another one, so they’re scared to let go of it.”
Lief stepped into her clean underwear and pulled them up.
“If it doesn’t fit into their little box, if you don’t fit into their little box.”
Mom bit her lip. She nodded her head up and down.
“It’s just as well you don’t talk, Lief,” Mom told her. “Nobody listens to what we have to say anyway.”
Mom helped Lief button up her new pants. She took the dirty corduroys and underwear and dropped them in the hamper.
Norrin was sitting on the stairs.
“Venus is up on the rafters again,” he said.
Mom looked over. “I think she’s going to have babies soon,” she said.
Norrin stuck his head between the railing slats. “How can you tell?” he asked.
Mom shrugged. “I’ve had cats my whole life,” she replied. “You can kind of tell, looking at her belly.”
Lief sat on the stairs beside Norrin. She watched him.
“Why is she on the rafters, though?” he asked.
Mom sat down too. She put her finger to her lips. That meant keep quiet. Dad was still sleeping. “She’s looking for someplace safe to have her kitties,” she told him.
“It doesn’t seem safe,” Norrin said.
Mom stroked Lief’s hair. “No,” she replied.
Norrin pulled his head back through. “I want to name the kitties,” he said.
Mom smiled. “You can both name them.” She patted his back. “Let’s read a story and get dinner ready for Daddy.”
Norrin stood up and barreled down the stairs. “Can we read ‘Forever People’?” he asked.
Mom took Lief’s hand. “I think we should read one Lief likes,” she told him.
They curled up together by the fire.
“ ‘The Sky is Full of Birds’,” Mom read.
Lief looked at the drawings. Mom took a deep breath.
“Till and Tad were hand in hand, walking though the wood,” she began. “Tad said ‘Could I question you?’ And Till, she said he could.
"‘What's today?’ Tad inquired. ‘How do I know it's come?’Till shook her head politely and said ‘when you wake and see the sun.’”
Lief looked out the window. The sun was behind the trees. She could not see it.
“’But I saw the sun yesterday,‘ Tad said. ‘And a week and month before, which of those days was today? Oh, Till, I'm just not sure.’
“‘Today's today!’ shouted Till, ‘Yesterday's the day we had. Tomorrow's the day that's coming.
Don't you see, dear Tad?’
“Tad did not. He told Till, ‘I like to know amounts. But unlike rocks or licorice twists, todays I cannot count.’”
Norrin shifted on the couch, squirming until he seemed comfortable, or tired of squirming. Lief dared not move. She was listening.
Mom cleared her throat. "‘Look at that tree,’ Tad explained, ‘I could count every leaf and stem,
but no matter how many todays I have I count just one of them.’
“‘Today's today!’ Till exclaimed, ‘Oh, Tad why don't you see? Today's not a rock or licorice twist
(though how delicious that would be!) And today has no leaves or steams because today is not a tree!’
“The two friends argued through the wood, they boomed, bellowed and clattered.”
Norrin stopped her. “What’s bellowed mean?” he asked.
“To be loud,” Mom explained.
Lief closed her eyes.
Mom continued. “Until every bird on every branch came to see what was the matter.
“Every sparrow and oriole, every shrike and wren. Every titmouse and woodpecker
from every field and glen.” Mom stopped. “These are all bird names,” she explained. Norrin nodded. So did Lief.
“And woodswallow and long bill, butcherbird and crow, seagulls and pardalote: rows and rows and rows.”
Lief watched the fire for a minute. It moved and made crackles.
“Until every hawk, every grouse, every grebe took flight. The sky so full of birds it may as well been night.”
Mom coughed again. “Excuse me,” she said. “And every bird up in the sky, had a song they sung but if you listened to all of them, you couldn't hear a single one.”
Mom turned two pages at once and had to flip back.
“Till and Tad were quiet, listening, until the birds were done. And slowly each fell from the sky
one by one by one, until the sky returned, and lo! there was the sun!”
Lief looked at the drawing. It didn’t look like the sun, but still looked like the sun somehow. It was very beautiful.
"‘I see the sun!’ Tad proclaimed, ‘So today must be today!’ Till just smiled at her friend;
she had nothing to say.”
Lief could hear a door open upstairs. Dad’s footsteps were heavy and everybody could always hear them.
Mom looked over her shoulder and smiled.
“So the two friends continued walking,” she read, “continued on their way. Every bird has its song to sing, and every day could be today.”
Dad was coming down the stairs.
“The End” Mom said.
Norrin put his head on Mom’s shoulder. “I don’t get that book,” he said.
“I don’t know if I do either, sweetness,” she told him. “Lief really likes it, though.”
Norrin picked up the book. “How can you tell?” he asked. “She doesn’t talk.”
There were lots of noises. The fire made some, and so did Dad’s footsteps. Mom made thinking noises, and Lief could her them, too. Then Mom said, “A mother knows these things.”
Norrin made a noise like he wasn’t listening. Lief could hear it over the fire, over Dad’s footsteps, over the noises she could hear inside her.
“I just know,” Mom told him.