Chapter 1: Home
Ana was a peculiar child, not in a bad way, but in a way that made you wonder if other worlds existed.
It was the way she stared into space, as if she had seen something in the unseen. It was the way she would speak to herself during playtime and mutter words indecipherable but strangely concise, as if it were another tongue. Or the way she spoke about her nightmares, like those escapades were real.
And this peculiarity extended its hand upon her appearance. The color of her eyes was an odd mixture of browns and grays; other times, a surprising purple. At first glance, her appearance seemed mysterious. It was hard to place her heritage and sometimes her age. Ana looked so much like the child she was in one moment, and yet like a girl who lived much in her brief lifetime.
The most striking of all her features was the sprawling patch over her right eye. It was usually written off as a birthmark. When she was a baby, it was a mere pink speckle. What troubled the adults was how the speckle sprawled larger each year she grew. After confirming it wasn’t a flesh-eating disease, they let it be.
By now it covered her right eye and temple like a permanent pink bruise–a source of loneliness but also of learned strength for Ana. Her peculiarity had certainly punished her quite a bit with all the ridicule she got. Children could be surprisingly cruel when left to their own devices. Yet, the unwarranted cruelty made her brave in certain ways. Where others might be afraid of being alone or not having like-minded friends, Ana was perfectly contented to venture out on her own. She would do her own thing solo and in solitude, which made it frustrating for her foster families who were trying to keep tabs on her.
Ms. D. found herself checking one last checkbox that would further confer the word “peculiar” on the girl. The circumstances in which she had found Ana were peculiar. Alone, in an empty apartment with a packed suitcase and the tag still on. Peculiar. And how had Ms. D. even known of her abandonment? At this, her hair stood on end. It wasn't through a phone call or tip-off, Ms. D. had just sensed it. She had sensed there was something she needed to find in that old apartment and followed her haunch like a dog followed a scent. Very peculiar.
Apart from that, it seemed like one of those cases of child abandonment. The apartment’s landlord assumed one of Ana’s parents had probably picked the lock and squatted there for weeks before realizing it was best to leave Ana to the care of the State. There she was for a number of years, like a library book in circulation.
Peculiar or not, Ana deserved what every child deserves: a home. And like an answer to a prayer, with a bizarre stroke of luck, Ms. D. received a phone call that changed everything. An aunt had claimed Ana as her sister’s long-lost daughter with medical records as proof.
This meant that today Ana was on her way home.
Ms. D. navigated through the thicket of cars on the merciless streets of Manhattan, not without moments of self-righteous road-rage.
“When we get there, remember, sit tight and try not to look like a serial killer,” Ms. D. piped out with a wink from behind the steering wheel.
“Let’s hope they buy that,” Ana answered from the backseat. Ms. D. clucked her tongue at the smart retort as Ana suppressed a smile.
She glanced at Ana from the rearview mirror and hesitated before adding, “They’re going to love you.” It was a lousy stab at positivity, but that was all she had as far as the pep talk went. “You know when Mr. Turner told me someone had called that afternoon, never in my craziest, wildest dreams would I have imagined… it would be your family.”
Ana tried to smile. She could feel Ms. D.’s gaze on her through the rearview mirror. “I mean, it’s not every day a child gets to find a home.” Home. “So... give them a chance...,” Ana stared out the window silently.
“It will be different this time,” Ms. D. turned around and gave her the look.
Ana had seen that look before. That was five years ago when she was first introduced to the Lees. Then fast-forward four years that was when Miss Vandal took her in, along with the twins–twin terrors that broke everything in sight. The look had come more frequently in the last two years, as she had gone from one family to the next. It was Ms. D's campaign to inspire faith. It said everything, yet recently, it also said nothing at all. Perhaps at the ripe old age of eleven, Ana had learned that adults don’t always tell the truth. Yet, if there was anyone in the world she trusted more, it would be Ms. D. It was both sad and heart-warming that the only constant in her life was her case worker.
Despite her seeming disinterest, Ana’s heart flooded with a searing longing to find home. It wasn’t that she had stopped believing, she was just afraid to. Sometimes hope, while beautiful, had a cruel edge to it. But like any child, or most humans for that matter, there was no other way to live apart from it. So Ana took another brave step forward and believed again. She started braiding her hair to look a little more presentable. Perhaps they–these people who call themselves her family–would want to keep her this time.
Ms. D. glanced into the mirror and saw Ana braiding her hair. Her dark grey-brown eyes were glazed over as if deep in thought. Ms. D. pondered what could be going on in that curious child’s head. The warmth of a home would do her a world of good. She silently prayed this would truly be Ana’s last placement.
Ms. D. made a sharp turn into the bourgeoise turfs of Butler Street in East Elmhurst. This quiet street in Queens bore a family-friendly vibe, boasting of a comfortable upper middle-class. She stopped outside a large house and pulled the brakes. “Okay... here we are!” said Ms. D. with genuine enthusiasm.
Ana stared at the towering house. Its aged facade bore a kind of charm. One-side of the wall had vines creeping all around it. Her quiet nonchalance gave way to nervousness. Ana was about to meet an aunt. She hopped out of the car, carrying a backpack and a black trash bag of other odds-and-ends she had amassed. Ms. D. led her through the front porch until they stood at the door.
Ana slipped her hand into Ms. D’s. Surprised at this sudden show of child-like vulnerability, Ms. D. squeezed it back and broke into a warm smile. “Ready?” she asked. Ana nodded and Ms. D. rang the bell. They heard a loud exchange inside. A girl around Ana’s age answered the door. For a split second, they saw the scowl on her face quickly switch to a put-on smile.
“Hi! You must be the people from social services!”
“Um…yes, that’s right, and you must be little Laura?”
“Laura, Laura Wu-McGee. But I’m not little anymore. I’m going on eleven this year. My birthday party is going to be in June! Mom says I need to focus on qualifying for the Junior Olympics first, which is like a month before my birthday.”
“Um… that’s great, aren’t you the little– oops, not little, aren’t you quite the athlete.”
A lady with sophisticated grace and long, ebony hair arrived at the door, saving them from the awkward small-talk exchange with the ten-going-on-eleven-year-old. “Laura! Invite them in! I’m so sorry, she just answered the door and left you standing there,” Mrs. Wu-McGee welcomed them with placating warmth.
“It’s good to finally meet you Danielle, what with all the phone calls and emails,” Mrs. McGee said.
“Yes, absolutely! Thank you for your patience with this long-drawn process. There were so many things we had to verify and wait on. It must have been a pain!”
“Oh no, of course not. I mean it’s standard procedure, right? The state needs to know what it needs to know…” her voice trailed off as she saw Ana.
Ms. D. cleared her throat and nudged Ana forward. “Ana, meet your aunt, Mrs. Wu-McGee.”
“Please, call me… Aunt Mei,” Mrs. Wu-McGee said with a smile. Her piercing gaze overwhelmed Ana and she quickly looked down, feeling self-conscious. It struck her that she looked nothing like her aunt or cousin. Her hair didn’t fall quite so straight but stuck out in dark, almost black, waves. Her skin was also more olive than pale. She was clearly neither a “Wu” nor a “McGee”.
“Laura, did you say hello to your cousin?”
Laura sauntered back and feigned interest. “Hello! What’s your name?”
“Oh, that’s nice! I have a friend called Anna too.”
“It’s not Anna, it’s Ah-Nah, Ana.”
“Pee-KHAN, Pee-CANNE… same thing!”
“Laura!” Mrs. Wu-McGee chided her.
“What? It was just a joke!” she giggled. “Also…,” she squinted her eyes, “what’s that on your face?”
Ana quickly turned and pulled some hair over to cover the unsightly mark.
“Laura! Go call Daddy and tell him Danielle and Ana are here. Then finish your homework, you have skating practice at 5PM today and we can’t be late!”
“Okay, okay…,” Laura said with a drawl and marched off dramatically.
Aunt Mei shook her head with a laugh, “Children these days, they are like little adults. I don’t know if you can tell, but she’s not even eleven! Growing up way too fast for her age though... How old are you again, Ana? …Oh, that’s nice. You’re about her age then. Well, I don’t know if you girls will get much playtime. Her schedule is packed with practices these days. We just heard from the coach that she has a really, really, good chance of qualifying for the Junior Olympics. So she has a lot of work to do,” Aunt Mei complained in a boastful sort of way.
Ms. D. and Ana nodded politely and rather stupidly.
“Anyway, my husband should be back any minute now. He had to take our son to soccer practice.” They adjourned to the living room. “Does Ana play any sports?”
Ana glanced at Ms. D., who nodded at her to carry on the conversation.
“No,” Ana said point-blank.
“Oh… well, maybe we could try signing you up for classes.” She paused, then said quietly, “Your mother was quite the runner, so maybe some of that has rubbed off on you.”
“That’s very thoughtful of you,” said Ms. D.
“Yes, of course! She’s part of the family now!” replied Mrs. Wu-McGee with great enthusiasm.
Despite the warmth in her voice, there was a tentative watchfulness Ana felt from her gaze, as if she were an insect being studied. Ana kept to herself, afraid that if she spoke, she might ruin whatever image Aunt Mei was trying to piece together of her.
“I prepared these to show you. I thought seeing pictures of your mother might be special for you,” Aunt Mei said as she took out a photo album and turned a page. An old photo of a young girl in her school uniform smiled back at them. Ana stared at the photos, mesmerized. There was one of her mother at the park, another of her at the beach, and, as she kept turning the pages, the young child before her morphed into a teenager with distant, dreamy eyes.
“Min had a way with words. She was always writing poetry. She wanted to take literature in school, but Ma and Pa encouraged her to be a lawyer instead,” Aunt Mei chuckled as she reminisced. “As for me, they convinced me that being a doctor was similar to being a psychologist.”
Ana held the album a little closer. It had never occurred to her that her mother had had a life she could get to know. Since she was little, Ana owned an odd-shaped piece of jewelry and she had always imagined it was her mother’s. Without thinking, Ana pulled out the piece she now wore around her neck. “Was this from mom too?” Aunt Mei held the piece, eyes misty as memories took hold.
“Yes, she treasured this very much. She told me to give it to you if she wasn’t able to,” Aunt Mei said, wiping her eyes.
“What about my father?” Ana asked.
Aunt Mei averted her eyes. “We never got to meet him,” she replied with a tight smile. “Maybe when you’re older, you’ll understand.” Ana caught sight of Ms. D. who shook her head subtly, as if hinting at her not to ask more questions. Ana obeyed and fell silent again.
Aunt Mei looked like she might have more to say, but the front door burst open. “So sorry we’re late!” Mr. McGee called out as he entered. A younger boy, tired but still boisterous, ran into the living room and tumbled onto the sofa.
“Leslie! Can you at least say hello?” Aunt Mei called out to him.
“Hello,” he said, eyes glued to the screen of a smartphone, fingers swiping left and right.
“Who gave you that?”
“Daddy says I get thirty minutes of phone time if I listen, and I did.”
“Okay, thirty minutes. I’m counting.” Aunt Mei said.
“You’re timing me, you mean.”
Aunt Mei laughed at her son’s wit. She took great pleasure and pride in her children. “Aren’t you clever, Les! Leslie was selected to take part in a piano recital next week. So we’ve gotta get him to practice.”
Mr. McGee popped his head in and waved at Ana. “Hello there, Ana! Welcome, welcome, welcome to the humble Wu-McGee abode. You can call me Rich!” He spoke in a showy, booming voice, much like those TV talk show hosts Ana had watched on repeat when living with another family some moons ago.
“Hello,” Ana replied and waved slightly.
“You got to meet little Les, didn’t you? How about Laura?”
“Yes, hon, they’ve met.” Aunt Mei chimed in impatiently, “We should head over to the dining room. I think Danielle has some papers for us?”
“Yes, that’s right.” Ms. D. resumed being business-like.
“And you will need to see the room she’ll be staying in?”
“Well…yes, I hope you can understand, it’s standard procedure.”
“Of course, of course! We want you to know that Ana will find she is part of our family here!” Mr. McGee replied reassuringly.
The adults left, and Ana continued to flip through the photo album. After a few minutes, like any eleven-year-old, she got bored and wondered about her new family and the ivory tower they lived in.
“Um… excuse me?” she asked. “Where is the bathroom?”
Leslie paid no attention to her.
He continued playing on the phone. The game sounds echoed loudly in the silence.
Ana decided it would be alright for her to find her way around the apartment. She was, after all, about to live there. She walked quietly down the corridor and soon heard hushed voices from the dining area. She peeked in from behind the wall.
“... and that’s all the papers I have for you to sign,” Ms. D. said. “It’s really wonderful Ana has found family! You can’t imagine how happy I am.”
Aunt Mei nodded with an emotional smile. “It has been quite the journey… I’m glad we could find her.” Mr. McGee put his arm around his wife supportively. “It was always in her heart to find Min’s daughter, and now we have.”
Ms. D. cleared her throat. “It sounds like you didn’t know your sister’s intention of giving up her child then?” There was a tense silence in the room. Ms. D. cleared her throat again and apologized for her question.
“Oh no, it’s okay, we’ve been speaking so much these past months. I feel like you’re a family friend now.” She took her time. “It was complicated. Years ago, my sister went missing for a while. We were so worried. We filed a kidnapping report, but there were no leads. For years, we didn’t hear from anyone, not even her. So the police concluded that perhaps she had run away. I mean, she was young and wanted her freedom… But one day, there she was, back and pregnant. She had the baby a week later and my parents wanted nothing to do with it. One morning we woke up, and they were gone, both her and the baby. That was my last memory of them.” Aunt Mei paused, as if debating if there was more to be shared. “It’s always complicated with family,” she finally said.
Ms. D. nodded. Nobody knew what else to say.
“Okay, that’s probably enough family history for one day, isn’t it?” Mr. McGee saved the day. “We don’t want to keep Ms. Daniels here for another hour, do we? Shall we see Ana’s room? I think Ana would like that.”
At this, Ana bolted right back to the living room. The adults returned just in time to see Ana still poring through the photo album. They took her bags and ushered her up the stairs. As they walked through the second floor, Ana’s mind spun with the strange new story she had heard about her mother. She had always wondered what her parents were like, and in her wildest dreams they were heroic crusaders who would be back for her at the right time. Now, hearing about her mother’s mysterious past, it further sealed Ana’s fairytale-like hope.
As if reading her mind, Ms. D. whispered to Aunt Mei a question, “Have you also tried looking for your sister then?”
“I have… but the thing with Min is, she’ll always be a mystery,” Aunt Mei smiled ruefully. “I could never quite understand her,” Aunt Mei continued in a low voice, “I guess it’s safe to assume that she could also be… dead.” Ms. D. nodded silently.
As they turned round the corner, Aunt Mei announced in a loud, cheery voice, “I’m sure Ana will be happy to know that because we’ve never moved. Thank the heavens and lucky stars, she gets to inherit Min’s room. Your mother’s room.”
At this, Ana snapped back to attention. Her mother’s room?
Ana took a deep breath as she entered. The bright sunlight kissed its four corners, making everything seem more dazzling than it already was. The room was a cheerful yellow, with aged drawings of animals and other creatures of lore on the walls. By the window was a bookcase filled with a plethora of books and other trinkets a young tween girl might have kept as treasure. It was not perfect, and things were peeling and turning brown here and there but, to Ana, she was quite close to being in heaven.
“I have to admit, I haven’t had the time to redecorate. Some of the items should be thrown out. But we will get round to that. Ana, what’s your favorite color?” Aunt Mei asked.
Ana did not reply. She walked around the room, exploring the space. She ran her hand across the lace curtains and touched the walls with a dreamy expression.
Aunt Mei and Mr. McGee exchanged looks. Ms. D. quickly jumped in, “It takes time for her to warm up to people. I hope you can be patient with her.”
“Like mother, like daughter perhaps…” Aunt Mei replied quietly.
“Well, I’m a little more of an extrovert, so she would have to be patient with me!” Mr. McGee responded with a laugh.
“This is a lovely room, isn’t it, Ana?” Ms. D. asked. Ana nodded, “Yes, it’s very nice.”
Aunt Mei beamed brightly. “Well, it’s your home now. ” her aunt replied.
Home. Ana looked at her new family and, for the first time in a long while, she smiled.
The next few minutes passed Ana like a blur as she sped through a confusing array of emotions. She remembered hugging Ms. D. as they said goodbye and, before she knew it, she was alone in her new room, watching through the window as Ms. D.’s beat-up red Honda drove away.
Ana was surprised to find herself crying and wiped her tears away. She never did cry at any of her other placements. Perhaps she was afraid this might be the last time she would ever see Ms. D. again.
But was she home? She shrugged at the thought. If everyone said she was, then she must be. She proceeded to unpack her bag when she noticed a blue-gray door in the middle of the wall. She froze. It looked all at once familiar, yet a feeling of dread seeped into her heart.
Where had she seen it before? She pondered, but had no answer.
Could it be another closet she had missed? Confused, she turned to look at the other doors in the room. They were dark brown. She was sure this blue-gray door had not been there before… she took a step back and looked at it. The door was small, somewhat around her height, as if made for her to go through. The doorknob glistened under the afternoon light.
“Ana!” Aunt Mei’s shrill voice called out from downstairs, “Could you come here for a second?” Ana hesitated.
The door beckoned to her even as the back of her skin crawled when she drew near.
What are you so afraid of? That thought came like a needle, bursting her bubble of fear. Indeed, what was she so afraid of? Maybe she could pop her head in for a second? It was likely a wardrobe she could create a hide-out in. With hands still trembling, Ana reached for the doorknob.
She jumped, her heart racing. Aunt Mei called again, a little more sternly this time, “Ana? If you can hear me, I would appreciate an answer!”
The door would have to wait. She could explore it later. Relieved, Ana left the bedroom, answering Aunt Mei’s call.
And with no witnesses in sight, the blue-gray door melted back into the wall with a musical sigh. That was the last time Ana ever saw it again–for a long time to come.
Chapter 2: The Creature, The Wu-McGees & The Door
There were a few unsaid rules in the Wu-McGee’s household.
One, there are questions you can’t ask about your Mother.
Two, never, ever ask about your Father.
Three, you’re a Wu-McGee now, so start acting like one.
Ana soon found herself thrusted into try-outs and classes, all of which she tried and performed mediocre at best. At swim class, she floundered but managed to scrape through to intermediates. Ice-skating was out of the question. She could barely keep her balance let alone do twirls. She never got the hang of tennis or bowling. And, although dance and music came naturally to her, Ana realized that practice and discipline were not really her forte. This, the piano teacher got a taste of, when at the one-hour mark of practicing scales, Ana pummeled her fists on the piano and ripped the score in two before slamming her bedroom door.
“She’s a bit of a problem child…” Ana would overhear Aunt Mei share and over share with her friends when they came over for tea. “I don’t know what goes on in that head of hers. She is always in one of her moods…hiding in her room, locking the doors. When we call her, she doesn’t respond. And don’t even get me started about school.”
“Oh dear, well, you did mention she had been in foster care before. Perhaps some therapy might help?”
“It might help with the bed-wetting.”
“Bed-wetting! Oh dear, that is a clear sign of trauma, isn’t it?”
“Night times are the worst, especially now that the girls share a room while the renovations take place. Poor Laura can’t get to sleep with Ana sleep-talking and sleepwalking all the time.”
“Definitely get the number of my therapist.”
“Well Mei, it’s good of you to take her in.”
“It sure is. Wherever her father is, he clearly didn’t want that responsibility.”
At this, Ana would flinch. It was clear she was unwanted, but it had never occurred to her that her father had any fault in this. Ironically, even after finding a piece of her family tree in Aunt Mei, Ana still knew very little about her family. Questions about her mother were limited and asking the ‘whys’ and ‘when’ of things was a dicey undertaking. Despite the probable truth that they had indeed abandoned her, Ana still felt fiercely protective towards her parents, and it made her angry when someone would speak unkindly about them.
So this was what it meant to be a part of her new family; the pressure to be extraordinary or at least show some amount of talent; the pressure to “look the part”. For this reason, Ana had to cut her hair a certain way and wear certain clothes, and the family doctor was consulted about removing that unsightly mark on her face.
“Why do you look like that?” someone at school had once asked when they saw the purple patch over her eye, in response, Ana had taken the liberty of skipping school for the rest of the day, not wanting to be seen by others anymore for fear of receiving more ridicule.
Initially, Ana thought she would be glad to be rid of the abominable mark and hopefully be deemed “acceptable” to her classmates, but she soon realized she would not recognize herself without it. It was a relief when Aunt Min did not pursue the matter any further after she heard how much the procedure would cost.
To say her new family was bad would not quite do the Wu-McGees justice. They were, after all, her providers and were doing what they knew to be their best. And, unlike certain households where the fridge had a lock here, Ana never needed permission to eat.
Yet to say they did her good would not be entirely true. For the more Ana was around them, the more she felt herself disappearing. Soon, she became the black sheep in the family. It was a title they innocently conferred on her. And the more they pointed out her contrariness through jokes and slights, the more into her shell–a protective wall of silence–Ana would go.
It had been a year since that fateful moving day.
Ana woke up with a start in bed. It was still dark out. She felt the sheets beneath her and heaved a sigh of relief. They were dry. She was also grateful to find herself in bed, and not on the floor or some closet in the room, where Laura would find her and tease her to no end. This only meant she didn’t dream last night; that figure she would see in her dreams had decided to leave her alone.
The figure. It.
Ana lay in bed and pondered the strangeness of dreams. They were always so real and raw until she surfaced back into waking consciousness. It would only take ten seconds of consciousness to fizzle out that lifetime into blurry figments. And this was a routine. Ana would dream wildly in the night with such intensity and awaken to find herself soaked. Then, the shame of it all, as she peeled off the sheets and stripped to get changed before anyone found out, which would only make her forget why she had woken up sobbing in the first place.
But there was one blurry figment she did remember; some kind of figure would appear to her. She could never quite put together a memory of what it looked like, or perhaps she had never fully seen it. But she knew it haunted her dreams, and was afraid to probe further.
Ana lay in bed and enjoyed the rare moments of a normal morning. She heard Laura snoring quietly and thought of recording her. Sweet justice for all the times Laura had recorded Ana sleep-talking. But the thought deflated. She knew it would be pointless. Aunt Min would have her delete it and probably ground her, while Laura always had permission to record her, since it was all done in the name of helping Ana with therapy.
Someone knocked loudly and impatiently on the girls’ door. Laura groaned in her sleep. Leslie burst into the room yelling, “Mom and dad say it’s time to wake up!”
Laura threw a pillow at Leslie, who promptly dodged. “Missed!” he yelled again. Ana got out of bed. Leslie peered curiously at her. He checked the laundry basket, only to find it empty.
“Where are your sheets? Mom says you shouldn’t keep trying to hide them.”
Ana burned in embarrassment. A boy two years younger was giving her unsolicited advice about bed-wetting. “I didn’t hide them!” she said, a little too forcefully. “It doesn’t happen anymore.” She hoped this was true.
“Oh! Well, that’s great. You should tell Mom,” Leslie said.
Laura peeked out from under the covers with a smirk. “Really?” She threw her covers back and sat up. “Leslie, check the closet. Her sheets could be in there.” Leslie hesitated. Laura rolled her eyes. “Don’t be dumb Les, can’t you tell she’s lying?”
Leslie walked to the closet and opened it. “Check it properly,” Laura commanded. He did as he was told. Ana glared at Laura, who was enjoying herself. While Leslie was blunt and insensitive, he rarely took digs at Ana. Laura, on the other hand, had a calculated meanness about her and knew how to wield it, depending on her audience.
Why do you let her treat you this way?
It took Ana a second to realize that this thought was not entirely her own. In fact, she had heard this voice before and it came more frequently as she grew older.
An enjoyable story that will…
An enjoyable story that will get young readers involved, probably finding those for and those against the protagonist and the antagonist. I enjoyed the start and the flow of the tale. Some slight amendments needed grammatically but overall well written.
Thank you Ann!
In reply to An enjoyable story that will… by Ann Brady
Hi Ann, thank you so much for your kind encouraging words. I really appreciate it!
Imaginative and nicely paced writing. I like the subject matter - really interesting idea. The writing is strong and well done. Needs a little polishing. Good work.
Thank you Susie!
In reply to Lovely writing by Susie Pearl
Hi Susie, thank you so much for your encouraging words! It helps me to keep believing in the piece.
This is a fantastic…
This is a fantastic beginning. It does strike me as perhaps a little older than middle grade, but I'd reserve judgement until I saw more of the manuscript. Regardless, you're building a great story with great characters. Well done!
Thank you Tara!
In reply to This is a fantastic… by Tara Avery
Thank you Tara, I appreciate the encouragement!