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The stranger withdrew his arm, returning both hands to his pockets.
Aliss began to breathe again, slow, her head aching as a forgotten memory resurfaced. In it, she was no more than five, laughing to herself in a green yard, squinting in bright sunshine.
Her mother was calling from the distance, somewhere inside the house. “Aliss!”
She ignored the call and covered her mouth with one hand, reaching the other into familiar back yard air to find the funny space again. Her fingers disappeared as she flexed them, and her delighted giggles grew louder. As her wrist tickled inside the new invisible toy, she felt a sharp slap on the back of her head.
Her mother whispered loud into her ear, “What the hell are you doing!” and shook her. “Don’t do that. Don’t ever do that again.” She dragged Aliss into the house and to her room by the pink suspenders of her overalls.
The look on her mother’s face scared her, but anticipation made the fear subside after the door shut and her mother’s footsteps disappeared down the stairs.
Aliss felt around the air in front of the mirror by her mini dressing table, felt her way to the slidey place she could reach into, watching as fingers, elbow, and foot appeared to go someplace else. This time, much too surprised to make any sound, she reached inside it and the rest of her followed. With strange undulating light around her — glistening silvery gray as if through mirrored glass — she had almost emerged through another side to a place where scents were different, sights unfamiliar, when the left side of her body hit something hard that stopped her. Another kind of fear came over her as she closed her eyes, turned and aimed toward home — or the space that felt like home.
Emerging from the slidey softness again, the air smelled like her room. She opened her eyes and ran to her bed. Her thumb almost went into her mouth, but she felt she’d been bad enough that day and needed to be good to protect herself from a spanking later on. She crawled up onto her bed and clamped both thumbs under her armpits, falling asleep while thinking about her new adventure, unsure but excited.
In the present, Aliss’s headache grew worse as she remembered something else — visiting with a boy in her yard. He was in third grade, a year ahead of her, but they’d met over the summer as new neighbors, becoming friends over comic books and chocolate bars and games played in the park.
“You shouldn’t go away inside the house,” she told him. “You’ll run into things and you won’t get anywhere.”
“Why?” he asked.
Shrugging, she said, “I don’t know.”
“You’re telling stories. You better show me or shut up.”
Aliss lifted her chin, letting her firmest, defiant face show. “You better not tell. Grown-ups won’t like it.”
“If you’re not lying, I won’t tell,” he said.
She eyed him, deciding if he was trustworthy. He didn’t seem like other boys, or girls for that matter, but like someone who’d listen and pay attention, so she raised her hands and fingertips vertically against currents of air she’d come to sense, searching for a pocket of smoothness she could slip into and travel to places closer than anyone dreamed. “Keep your hands this way when you search. It makes it easier.” When her hand slipped into a path, his breath was audible. When her arm disappeared, he ran home and didn’t come back until the next day, when she gave him his next lesson on how to do it himself.
Now, crumpled beneath her window, Aliss whispered, “Hugh,” and recalled his face.