The feather-haired boy is about to be seven and has just learned to recite the alphabet backwards. He sits perched on his grandmother’s lap, playing with a loose thread of her sweater, twisting it around and around his finger, the tip of his pinkie turning whiter and whiter. His grandmother shakes him gently.
“Look up there. That one’s Hercules. Are you paying attention querido? What do you see?”
“Hercules.” But the air is too heavy, and the stars are too bright and he’s too awake to really see Hercules. Instead, he sees his sister’s plastic earrings shining in the night sky and the flash of pearls against his mother’s frail chest. He sees the squares of light their church’s stained-glass windows left on his hand. Soon his grandmother’s fingers grasp his arm, and they walk back into the house where he crosses another day off the calendar hanging on the refrigerator door. His father kisses his forehead as he tucks him into bed, and he dreams of Hercules.
He’s almost ten and has just gotten the bike he’s been asking for for years. The kids in his neighborhood don’t play with him because they say he’s too small and his father’s too quiet and his mother’s too dead and therefore he must be cursed, so he rides by himself. He likes it outside. He likes the colors of autumn and how sometimes the wind is so cold it’s hard to breathe. Somehow, he’s not careful enough and skids into a tree. The rough bark scrapes his forehead. A bird’s nest tumbles from one of the high branches and he wills himself not to hear the shatter of the eggs. He bikes back quickly, and his father curses when he sees his tears and his cut but then quickly brings a warm cloth to his forehead.
“Tell me what happened hijo. What did you see?”
“I hit a tree. I think a nest fell.” He sees flashes of red and gold, the tips of bird feathers out of the corner of his eye. He thinks about how wonderful it would feel to be able to fly. His father shushes him soothingly, and his grandmother makes him those potato tapas he loves and tells him more stories of Hercules. At night, he remembers to cross another day off the calendar hanging from the refrigerator, and his father kisses him goodnight. As he drifts off to sleep, he thinks of how those baby birds died by the side of the road and how no one ever said anything about it and no one ever did anything about it.
The boy is older now, and his grandmother has just baked him his very own birthday cake, with fresh strawberries and coils of white frosting. He’s too excited about the cake to notice the way her hands shake, the furrows on his father’s brow. His grandmother reminds him to think of his wish, to envision it sharply in his head. He blows out the candles, their smoke curling into the cracks of the ceiling. The cake melts into his mouth, and he giggles when his sister accidentally gets frosting stuck in her hair.
“So, what did you wish for? What did you see?” she asks him later.
“I don’t remember.” He does remember, but he can’t tell her that he wished she would stop strewing her Barbie dolls all over the floor only to shove them under her bed whenever her friends come over, because he keeps tripping over them. He can’t tell her he wished the kids at school would stop asking about his accent because he doesn’t know either. He can’t tell her he wished the cake would’ve been chocolate because chocolate is too expensive. He can’t tell her he wished their father would look more alive because he’s not supposed to wish for these kinds of things. He can’t tell her he wished he could see their mother again. So he just tells her buenas noches and crosses another day off the calendar hanging from the refrigerator. His father doesn’t kiss him goodnight until he asks.
He’s in high school and everything’s changing. The kids are getting taller and meaner; the adults are getting shorter and sadder. A week ago, he listened to his sister crying in the bathroom when she was supposed to be asleep. His grandmother keeps coughing. He can’t remember what his mother looks like anymore; he thinks she only appears in his dreams but he’s not sure. One day he kisses a girl on a rooftop. Her laugh is the shape of wildflowers and her lips taste like plum drops and ash. They stand close together and breathe in the dandelion wine of morning.
“What do you see?”
“Nothing.” Another lie. He sees everything.
“Have you ever thought about it?”
“I don’t want to die.”
“I’ve never wanted to die.”
“Is that the truth?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Yes, it does.”
The young man walks home alone and does his chores silently because his grandmother’s asleep on the couch, and his father looks like his collar is choking him. He crosses another day off the calendar hanging from the refrigerator and doesn’t bother telling his father goodnight. He thinks about what he said to his rooftop girl and hopes to God that it’s at least part of the truth.
He’s too young yet too old now. He has enough memories, seen enough of the depths of this universe, to last him a thousand lifetimes. Sensing the end of the world, he goes into the bathroom and watches his life pass by in the smudges of the mirror.
“What do you see?” He thinks of his poor, tragic, beautiful family. He thinks of how hard he has tried and cried and laughed and loved and lived. He thinks of robin’s nests and vanilla cakes. He thinks of Hercules. He thinks about crossing another day off the calendar hanging from the refrigerator because it’s almost midnight. But he stays in the bathroom. Because he isn’t really sure he can make it to tomorrow anyway.
Amelia Ao lives in Wayland, Massachusetts with her parents and sister. Art and writing have been a fundamental part of her identity, and she’s excited to be sharing her work.