“Tell me a story,” he says.
They’re sitting crouched in the corner of the room. Amanda has upended a table so that the broad side of it hides them from view. If you were standing in the middle of the room, looking toward them, you’d only be able to see the top of her hair, the frizz of her curls.
Amanda shakes her head. She’s squeezing her teeth together so tightly that the line from her jaw is etched all the way up to her forehead. Her arms are braced against the table and his body is tucked in the hollow between her elbows and the floor.
“Please,” he says. His voice is barely a whisper. Amanda’s spent a lot of time with kids – she knows how they whisper. This isn’t a child’s whisper, all sharp shh sounds, almost louder than a shout. It’s more adult than that. He bites into the consonants. It comes out like a rush of wind through trees.
“All right,” she says. She’s whispering too. The words rise from her gut and when they come out into the air they sound like they came from someone far away. She doesn’t recognize the sound of her own voice when it’s this quiet. “What do you want to hear a story about?”
“Don’t you know any stories?” he asks. His voice is a little louder this time, accusatory. Everyone knows stories. “Aren’t you a teacher or something?” trying to use her Teacher Voice. She tries to put melody into the quiet of her words, tries to make
“I know a lot of stories,” she says, trying to sound soothing, them a lullaby. “I’m just trying to decide which one to tell you.”
He scrunches up his face. He has a smear of dirt across his nose. The light coming in through the window is gray and grimy except where the window is broken. The light paints patterns across his face, the one stripe of brightness cutting across his neck like a noose. “Do you know any stories about pirates?”
Amanda practices breathing a little before she answers. Over the past few hours she’s learned a lot about the value of breathing. “Are you sure you want to talk about pirates right now?”
The little boy looks up at her. “Yeah. I like pirates.” He has very long eyelashes. “They aren’t pirates.”
“Fair enough.” Something moves a little inside Amanda. Her breath comes softer and easier out of her nose. She relaxes a little, leans back against the wall behind her and takes her arms off the table. They’ve been braced there for so long that she can feel the shape of the table when she lowers them – she worries for a second she’ll never be able to sit normally again, that she’s somehow gotten stuck like this, but she’s able to push them down, cross them around her body as she settles onto the ground.
The boy leans against her shoulder a little.
“Hey,” she says. He looks up at her. “Are the pirates good guys or bad guys?”
“Good guys.” Definitively.
“All right.” She goes to clear her throat and stops herself just in time. So softly it’s barely more than a breath: “Once upon a time…”
Before it began she’d been looking at the sky and wondering whether it was going to rain. The clouds were gathering in gray clumps around the sun and the sky was darkening ominously. The city was thick with humidity. She’d pulled her hair up into a bun and she could feel the hair sticking to the back of her neck.
The drumming in the distance could easily have been thunder.
“There was a group of pirates called the Fearless Buccaneers.
“And they lived up to their name – everyone in the whole world said they weren’t afraid of anything. They spent their time on the ocean robbing ships with cargo that didn’t belong to them, and they spent their time on land – ” What did pirates do on land? Amanda couldn’t think of anything savory. “What did they do on land?”
“They visited their families.”
“Right, right. They spent their time on land visiting their families.”
She’d gotten a call from her mother. As she crossed the street she’d felt the vibration in her pocket and silenced it. She wasn’t in the mood. The ringing ended. The phone displayed a “missed call” notification. Then –
Her mother called again.
“Where are you?”
“Nice to hear from you too, ma, I’m – ”
“I mean it, Amanda – where?”
“When the pirates were away at sea, they missed their families terribly. They spent long nights looking out over the water, counting the stars and wondering if their families saw the same stars.”
“They did,” says the boy.
“Sometimes,” says Amanda. “But sometimes you can be so far away from someone that the stars are actually different. You can see completely different constellations.”
“But they were still looking at the stars,” says the boy.
“Yeah,” says Amanda. “Yeah, I guess so.”
In the subway station the air felt even heavier. Amanda felt like her head was pounding from the pressure. “I’m getting on the seven, ma – I can barely hear you, you’re breaking up.”
“You’re getting on the subway?” Her mother’s voice through the phone sounded small, frantic.
“Yes, I just said, getting on the subway right now – are you sure you’re okay?” For a long time, Amanda had suspected that her mother had not always been well. She’d heard, from whispers from her aunts and incidentals that cropped up in stories about her dad, stories of her mother not leaving the house, of blockading herself inside with the television blaring, pieces of tape over the camera on her laptop, the microwave unplugged.
“Please don’t get on the subway, Amanda.”
Amanda swiped her card at the turnstile and stepped onto the platform.
“Mom, I’m going to lose service soon,” she said. “Can I call you when I get home?”
The phone beeped in her ear. The call had been dropped.
The room where Amanda and the boy are hiding behind the table is a concert hall of some kind. The walls are papered with flyers and posters for bands she’s never heard of. A couple of them flap in the wind coming in through the broken window, through the door she regrets leaving open and can no longer see. Amanda shifts where she crouches. She’s becoming more aware of her thighs, of the need to ease the tension that has built in her joints. Her body is exhausting itself past the point of fear.
The thought sends a wave of resolve through her once more.
“One night, when they were looking at the stars, their leader had a thought he’d never had before. His name was – what’s your name?”
The boy looked up at Amanda. “Darren,” he whispers.
For some reason hearing his name makes her feel wobbly. She blinks back sudden tears that sting at her eyes.
“That’s funny,” she says, “their leader was also named Darren.”
“No he wasn’t,” says Darren, amazed at the coincidence.
“Yes, he was. And Darren was thinking something he thought he’d never think – he was thinking, ‘what’s so bad about being afraid?’”
“He’s a pirate,” says Darren.
“Yes,” says Amanda, “but pirates can get scared too.”
“What’s he afraid of?”
Amanda is making the story up as she goes along. She’d been thinking of big, adult fears – intangible threats – but she realizes now that those kind of fears wouldn’t suit Darren the Fearless Buccaneer.
“Oh,” she says, stalling for time, “you’ll see.”
The subway car was, somehow, even hotter than the platform. Amanda felt she was swimming in a sea of sweat and body odor. Under her breath, she cursed the New York summer.
Someone at the end of the car was crying. At first Amanda didn’t notice, but as the car rattled through the tunnel her crying grew louder, until it was more like wailing. People studied the ground to avoid looking at the crying woman. The man sitting next to her stood and stretched, to justify standing, and walked away to hold onto a railing.
The doors to the next station opened to an empty platform. Amanda checked her phone. Her mother had called twice more. Amanda resolved to talk to her about seeing someone, a Professional Someone, who could help with these feelings, who could stop her from calling her daughter when she knew Amanda wouldn’t pick up. It was getting to be too much.
A few people got off at the platform.
Amanda looked back at her phone. She waited for the announcement – “We’re sorry, experiencing delays” – but it didn’t come. The crying woman was shaking and hugging her knees to her chest now. The volume of her weeping had grown too extreme to comfortably ignore. People were staring in earnest now. Someone went to put his hand on the woman’s shoulder but snatched it back almost immediately when the woman’s teeth gnashed at his fingers.
A few more people got off the car, shaking their heads.
Amanda’s mother called again.
“Who else would it be? Listen, mom, you have to – ”
“Where are you?”
“I’m on the subway. Listen – ”
“Get off the subway, Amanda.” And it was something about her mother’s voice that propelled Amanda forward, something about the absence of frantic energy over the phone. Amanda got off the subway, pushed through a turnstile, the phone cupped between her head and her shoulder.
“What’s going on?”
“I don’t know.”
“What?” That wasn’t the answer she’d been expecting. Amanda started climbing the stairs up to the street.
“I don’t know. Are you off the subway?”
“I’m off the subway.” A few droplets of rain landed on her head as she climbed. She thought she could hear thunder above her and she thought, Oh, good, maybe now the humidity will finally break. And then she saw it –
The places the rain touched were in chaos.
“He’s afraid of the kraken,” says Darren.
“Okay,” says Amanda. “He’s afraid of the kraken.”
“Make them fight,” whispers Darren.
Amanda wonders, briefly, if that was a good idea, if maybe she should tell him a simpler story while they crouch here behind this bench. Then again, she figures, maybe he knows what’s best for him right now.
“Okay,” says Amanda. “They’re going to fight.” This time, she does clear her throat.
“Darren, the Fearless Buccaneer, turned to his crew as they looked out at the stars. ‘There’s something I need to tell you,’ he said.
“The pirates looked at him with respect. They loved their brave captain and they would do anything for them. Darren hoped they would respect him even after he said what he was going to say.”
“They will,” says Darren, the frightened child.
“They might,” says Amanda, crouched behind a table. “But these pirates are brave. Not only that, but everyone knows that they’re brave. They even call themselves the Fearless Buccaneers. When they stop being brave, they won’t even be able to call themselves that anymore.”
Her breath grates against her throat. Behind their voices, suddenly, she hears something else. She can’t tell if the movement inside her has made her body start to shake.
“But they’ll be able to – ” Darren begins, but he’s stopped by Amanda’s hand. She hits him full-force in the stomach and, betrayed, his eyes widen and fill with tears immediately. Looking up at her, a tear trembling at the tip of his eyelashes, he’s a heartbreaking sight. Amanda makes a fist in his hair and pushes him down to the ground.
The hall they’re hiding in is enormous. The echoes of the footsteps on the other side of the room ricochet through the building. It sounds as if there are a thousand people in the room with them.
Darren is shaking now. Amanda wraps her hand around his small one and squeezes. He squeezes back.
They sit, blinking against the light from the window, trying to brace themselves from a crouching position.
“Is anyone there?” The voice is huge, male. “Is there someone in here?”
Darren looks up at Amanda, questioning. All she can see from this angle are the whites of his eyes.
“Please come out, if you’re here. It’s over now.” The footsteps come a little closer, then sound farther away. “Everything’s going to be all right. Just come out.”
Inside Amanda there is a tsunami that sends bile up her throat. Her skin is icing over. She feels that if someone were to touch her she would shatter into a thousand pieces. She thinks, almost absently, that she couldn’t move even if she wanted to. Darren is looking at her as if she knows what she’s doing.
“Hello?” says the voice. The footsteps are circling. His movement is sending little drafts of air that make the posters on the walls flutter and then fall still. Like a stadium doing the wave between innings.
The rain made it harder to tell what was happening. Some of the people looked more like bright splotches of color than people, not least because there were so many of them, out in the street. Some of them were marching forward, drumming. Others, it seemed, were running from the drummers, darting between yellow taxis that just stood there in the street, taking cover behind cars and busses.
“Mom? Have you been outside?”
“No,” said her mother’s voice on the phone. “But it was on the news for a while. It was on the news for a while and it isn’t anymore.”
“What are they saying now?”
“They’re not saying anything anymore, Amanda.”
She’s still not sure why she did it. But Amanda started walking through the streets toward the drummers. As if she was dragged to them. The streets were full of sound but Amanda felt she was in a tunnel – she couldn’t hear the people behind her, beside her. Someone grabbed her arm. She shook them off.
Suddenly she was face to face with one of the drummers. His eyes seemed blanker than she was expecting. He wasn’t looking at her. He marched straight ahead, drumming, and the sounds rushed in all at once – the world was made entirely of sound and she was able to pick them apart, drums and shots in the distance and now shots closer, something that sounded like fireworks and something that sounded like the screaming of the woman on the subway, only amplified and warped and multiplied, like the whole city was screaming.
She turned and she ran.
“Hello?” says the owner of the footsteps in the hall one last time. Darren opens his mouth and Amanda feels the breath leave her. She’s not sure what she’s hoping for – she’s not sure if she’ll hit him again if he tries to talk or whether the sound of his voice cracking through the stillness in this place will bring her to tears – but he says nothing. Just sits there with his mouth open like a fish struggling to breathe on land.
And then the footsteps recede and she hears the sound of the door pulled closed, knows it’s been pulled closed because a rectangle of light forms and then dwindles rapidly until they are sitting in the semi-darkness, lit only by the window.
Amanda had dropped her phone somewhere while she was running but the thought made her almost feel relieved – her mother was inside and she was not, and she needed to be, and she couldn’t make sense of what was happening and didn’t want to have to try to put it into words.
She ran until she couldn’t run anymore and then, standing on the sidewalk, her whole body heaving and her insides screaming at her that she couldn’t go anymore, she saw a car idling. There was a man standing next to it, his body contorted, vomiting a thin wet stream onto the sidewalk.
Amanda had always thought that when she was faced with a moral decision that she would recognize it as such, and choose to do the right thing, but her body didn’t even process the decision. She was in the car with her foot on the gas before she had a chance to catch her breath, rolling up the windows tightly so that the sounds from outside, the screaming and the drumming and the gunshots, were muffled. Even a little.
The streets ahead of the marchers were oddly empty. Amanda drove without using the brake, driving up onto the sidewalk if she overshot a turn. She wasn’t sure where she was going. Had to get out of the city. Had to get out of this heat.
The little alarm in the car dinged at her. It was low on gas. She hit a button to stop the noise. It dinged again. It wanted her to put her seatbelt on.
She almost didn’t see the little boy in the road. She slammed on the brakes but it didn’t feel like enough – the car was still hurtling forward, the tiny alarm still sounding rhythmically. She swerved and watched the windshield shatter as the front of the car met the side of a brick building. She opened the door. The alarm was still dinging. She felt herself staggering as she got out.
The boy was still standing in the center of the road.
“Are you okay?” she asked him. “Where’s your mother?”
“Where’s yours?” he asked.
“Enough of that,” she said. “We have to find someplace to hide.”
How can they be sure the man is gone? Amanda realizes, suddenly, that she doesn’t care. She pushes the table off her. “Do you want to hear the end of the story?” she asks.
The table falls to the ground with a thunk. For the first time, Amanda can see the outline of the stage at the other end of the room.
“Yeah,” says Darren.
“All the other pirates looked at Darren. And then each of them started admitting that they were afraid, too. One at a time, all of the Fearless Buccaneers told Darren that they were only pretending to be fearless, because they were sure that at least Darren wasn’t afraid of anything.”
“Even the kraken?” says Darren.
“Even the kraken. But Darren was afraid of the kraken. So he – do you still want them to fight?”
Darren stares up at her and shakes his head a little.
“What? Okay. Okay. So the Fearless Buccaneers did what they did best. The Fearless Buccaneers sailed, and sailed, and sailed. And when they were finally done sailing, the stars were the same ones they were used to, and all the Fearless Buccaneers went home.”