Written by Trey Briggs || Art by Monte Miller
Astrid didn’t need anyone to explain that life would be terrible. It was something she could feel in her bones, something that vibrated through her teeth at night. When she slept in the room with Chaunce, her best friend in the entire world, she could feel that life was going to be horrible for both of them.
She didn’t need anyone to explain it to her.
When Astrid got up in the morning, taking in her brother’s grumpy voice, she could feel it.
“Astrid, Chaunce! Get up! Chaunce, you’re with my dad today. Astrid, you have school!” The feeling fizzled around her teeth, right there with the fluoride, right there with the baking soda. When Moose grumbled by, pulling on his shirt, telling her to ‘spit it out already’ she could see it going down the sink.
When Astrid walked to school, she could feel it in her shoulders. Right where her backpack pulled her arms down, she could feel it indenting her skin. When her mother, still in her nightclothes, swerved the car beside her and rolled down the window, she could feel it in the pit of her stomach.
“Where are you going without your inhaler?”
“Sor- sor-” When her mother tossed the inhaler out of the window, waiting to make sure she caught it and then peeled off around the corner, she could feel it.
“Sorry.” She felt it sitting in her hand right with the inhaler, weighing her soul down. Astrid could feel how terrible her life would be when she walked into the school parking lot, could feel it in the air.
“Well, don’t you look enchanting today?” When the woman said this, eyes big and mostly pupil, Astrid could feel it. When she surveyed the woman’s grotesque scar, veins nearly bursting from her right eye all the way back under her hair, Astrid could feel it. The woman approached her, sauntering from behind a tree, long legs barely covered by her flowing dress.
“Thank.” She said, and she didn’t correct herself. This woman patted her hair, tilting Astrid’s head up. Astrid smiled, and the feeling vanished.
The lady was every bit of scary, but Astrid never felt terrible around her.
“Well, Astrid. I promised I’d take you somewhere nice again today. Do you want to go to the Botanical Gardens?”
“Yes, Gran- Gran- Granny!” Even when she couldn’t feel it, she knew it was there. It hid in the swirling motion of her granny’s dress. It was in her long fingers, hidden behind the way they engulfed Astrid’s tiny hand.
“Do you hear anything,” Granny asked, pulling her forward, and Astrid didn’t answer. She could hear it, of course. It was always there. But Astrid always smiled, danced, laughed, and sung. Astrid could feel it everywhere, but she never gave in to it.
It was always there, and Astrid didn’t care if she could feel it or not.
Sometimes, they went to the garden; the real garden, the one with the big plants and all the people. Astrid loved it there. It made her feel like that thing, that terrible thing, couldn’t reach her. How could it find her in the plants and the trees? Her granny held her hand and walked with her, telling her the names of the plants.
Her granny was so smart!
“Do you like plants, Astrid?”
“I used to as well when I was a young girl,” she cooed, rubbing Astrid’s hair. “My mother always kept a garden.” They explored every inch of the botanical garden, every inch, and Astrid thought she might burst from joy. Astrid walked into the gift shop, and her granny followed close behind, digging in her bra for her wallet. There was a stuffed bear on a shelf, the eyes prominent, shiny, and empty.
Like Granny! It’s just like Granny!
“Will know.” She said, and her granny got it right away.
“Well, she can know whatever she wants, can’t she? What would your mother do to me? I’d cut her in half.” Granny’s smile could hide terrible things, and Astrid felt that, but she smiled back and eyed the bear. When they left, she held it tight to her, amazed.
Granny isn’t even afraid of Mommy, not even a little!
“Moose ma- mad, an- and he will be mad if- if I bring…” Her granny’s hand tightened on hers, and suddenly she was looking up again, thick and long nails pressed against her face.
“Relax. If your brother touches your bear, I’ll cut him in half, too. I can cut everyone you know in half if you want. Now say what you were trying to say. Say it slow, child, and don’t repeat yourself.” Astrid stared at her.
“No. Can’t. Too bad, too bad.” To her surprise, her Granny laughed and let her go.
“You know why you’re my favorite person in the world, Astrid? I can’t bully you. I’ve never met anyone so bully-proof. You’re my little invincible star.” Astrid smiled, laughing with her.
“Nope! No bullies. Jus stars, just stars, jus star!” The next few things that Granny said sounded different. They sounded like colors instead of words. She watched Astrid close, still talking, and Astrid couldn’t understand what she was saying. She listened anyway, and after a moment it felt like they were all alone in the botanical garden.
“Do you understand?” Astrid watched her, silent.
Granny pointed to a mirror by the gift shop, and Astrid saw something she didn’t understand. She watched it for a long time, eyes wide. The mirror shuddered a little, and then something filled it that wasn’t with them in the real world.
Astrid turned to look for more plants.
“Astrid. Don’t deviate, girl, can you see it?” Astrid turned back, her face blank and intense. Every sound in the park that wasn’t her granny’s voice disappeared. She felt that thing everywhere, that terrible thing, and then she laughed. Granny jumped.
Again, her Granny spoke in colors, and this time Astrid just shrugged.
I wonder if we saw all the plants already?
“Astrid. Do you understand what I’m-”
“Nope.” Astrid pulled away and walked toward a big, beautiful plant. “What name?” She leaned over to read the placard, but Granny’s nails dug into her shoulder. When she turned, Granny wasn’t smiling anymore.
“Astrid. Don’t deviate, girl. Listen carefully.” Granny spoke again, and this time Astrid heard another voice. It came from the thing in the mirror, and it asked her something terrible.
“No, I do- don- don’t wan- wan to do that, won’t do that, won’t do. Sorry!” Astrid gave her Granny a polite smile, ignoring her shocked expression. Alicia pulled her lips in finally, hiding her smile.
“My bully-proof little star, indeed.”
They walked until Granny checked her watch, gasping.
“Well, we need to get back! The school day is almost over.” Astrid sighed, wishing they could walk around forever. But everything had to end sometime.
The woman in the mirror told her that.
They stood across the street from the busy school parking lot, watching all the students pile into buses and cars. Astrid held her granny’s hand tight, on the verge of tears, but didn’t speak.
“Girl,” her granny said, and she sounded close to tears herself. “You don’t have to look so sad. I’ll be back tomorrow. And the day after. I’ll be back every day if you’d like.” The woman didn’t sound comfortable with saying nice things. They came out of her mouth wrapped in a venom they didn’t need.
“Why come?” Her granny cleared her throat, surveying the crowd. Moose walked around, looking for his sister, hand on his head in worry. Astrid laughed, pointing at him, and couldn’t stop smiling.
Moose is so stupid. I’m right here!
Her granny watched her for a moment, giant pupils growing even bigger somehow. “Well, Astrid. You don’t have much time left. Your mother is too busy being fragile to make sure you understand that, and it’s not my place to. So, I want to make sure you enjoy these last months or years as much as possible. While you have the chance.” She said it with a sad smile, and Astrid nodded, still beaming.
“Good job!” Granny laughed out loud this time, smiling back with genuine pride.
It didn’t matter. Astrid didn’t need anyone to explain that life would be terrible. Not Granny, Moose, Mommy, Chaunce, or anyone else.
She loved every bit of it, and them, anyway.