I, Elsie May Graham, am holding onto a balloon by its string outside the Shoppers Drug Mart that is a half a block from my house. Listen: it isn’t just any old balloon. It is a limited edition one-of-a-kind balloon slash dreamcatcher that I made to protect me. I saw a show about dreamcatchers on TV and how people use them to keep away bad dreams. I watch a lot of TV. Mom says it’s rotting my brain so now I do word exercises. Mostly, I rhyme. Climb, time, grime, dime, chime.
To make the dreamcatcher, I got a balloon that said BEST WISHES on it and attached a crow feather that I found in the back lane, plus an entire pack of gold star stickers. I’ve decided mine is a two-way dreamcatcher: it is designed to catch and send dreams. And it’s more powerful than wishing on a star. My dreams are either about Liz Lemon (good!) or Uncle Mick (bad!). Lately the bad ones are winning. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Tomorrow we have to visit Uncle Mick in jail. He isn’t really my uncle but mom said to call him that to make him feel welcome. Uncle Mick is a bad man but love is blind. About three months ago his hunting knife met my face by accident. I figure it was at least 78% my fault because I scared him when he was sleeping it off on the couch. I thought he was dead and if that turned out to be true, I was going to throw a party. No cake.
At first the cut felt cold, then it got hot. Real hot. He shoved my face under the bathroom faucet to get it to stop bleeding, yelling all the while for me to put my neck at this angle, no that angle, but no matter what angle the blood kept running into my mouth, making me gag. Later, he painted my face with Liquid Band-Aid. That stung something fierce.
You should know that I am not exactly like Liz Lemon. Her hair is dark and wavy and shiny and mine is blonde and straight and stringy even when it’s clean. She’s older and taller and stuff but yesterday when I was doing my walk by the magazine stand I saw the headline: “Liz Lemon” from 30 Rock reveals the mystery behind her scar: she was slashed across the face by a stranger when she was only five years old! I wanted to read the rest of it, but Nancy in cosmetics is like the police. “You peek, you pay,” she says to everyone, rich or poor. Sore, bore, more, core, roar.
Plan A was to stand beside Liz Lemon where the power would be the strongest but Nancy wrecked it.
“Look kid, I like you, but you can’t be in here with that balloon thing,” she said.
“It’s a dreamcatcher,” I corrected, giving the string a pull.
“Right, dreamcatcher. Whatever.”
“Well, can I stand outside?”
“Whatever floats your boat. Just don’t block the door, okay?”
So now I’m outside. Plan B.
It’s my dream to have Liz fly me to where she lives. I’m guessing she has a security guard and a bodyguard and a guard dog. Once she hears about my scar, I know she’ll want to help me. She will be able to tell me how she overcame such an awful thing. She must have found a way to handle the jumpy feeling that still rises in my rib cage at the memory of it. And now she’s on TV! That’s a private dream of mine that even my dreamcatcher doesn’t know. Sew, blow, row, stow, low.
“Hi Giuseppe,” I say, to the man approaching. He’s wearing a grey suit with a striped tie and a fedora. His eyebrows are as thick as a moustache. He’s the only man I’ve seen in a suit. Most people in our neighbourhood wear pyjama bottoms or jeans that hang so low you can see their underwear. I’m wearing the one good dress that I wear for special occasions (and not so special like funerals). It’s plain but it’s all I’ve got. Giuseppe’s daughter’s hair used to be blonde but now it’s white. She moved in to help him so everywhere he goes, she goes. If I ever get away from mom, there’s only a 50% chance I’d ever go back.
“You remember Elsie, don’t you, Pop?” she says. Giuseppe and his daughter live a couple of doors down from us. He used to have a big garden with tomatoes and grapes before he forgot how to put seeds into the ground. He doesn’t remember who I am anymore. I used to think that was sad but that was until I had something I wanted to forget. Before my stitches came out I wasn’t supposed to smile and now I can’t smile without thinking about it all: couch, Uncle Mick, slice, shit, ouch.
“I smell the ocean,” he says. “And coconuts.”
“Oh, that’s me,” I say, feeling my cheeks getting hot. “I sprayed on some perfume.”
“It’s nice,” he says. I watch the backs of their heads and think about how strange ears are: like rubbery horns.
I am too embarrassed to tell Giuseppe why I sprayed perfume. It’s called Island Ecstasy and it comes in a bottle with a bracelet around its neck and a flip-flop charm. After Nancy gave me the boot, I snuck over and did one squirt of it behind each ear and one on my wrist and then I rubbed my wrists together. Island Ecstasy smells like coconut and pineapples and palm trees. And apparently the ocean. So, salty, maybe? I don’t know.
Lots of people leave their dogs tied up out front of the store. Dogs make me uncomfortable because even when they look happy they can bite if you get too close to them. I heard they can smell fear. Now my fear is covered up.
I hope the dreamcatcher is working. I like to think of the good things coming in one side, the bad things leaving the other. If it doesn’t work, I’ll have to go to Plan C. I don’t have a Plan C.
Mom will take back Uncle Mick once he’s out, I just know it. The way I know when it’s going to rain because I get a headache and my teeth hurt. Ever since the incident, I’ve been off school for recovery. I am supposed to be home resting and waiting for the wires in my brain that got crossed to uncross themselves. Not that I was 100% before, more like between 80% and 85%. It’s even harder than usual for me to lie still. The lady doctor who stitched my face back together suggested that I see a counselor for PTSD but mom put the kibosh on that. She doesn’t trust counselors. Or self-help books. Or preachers. Or teachers. Or nurses. Or doctors. It’s a long list.
So when mom goes to clean other people’s houses while they’re at work, I come here to Shoppers, which is kind of like a hospital and a gift shop rolled into one. In fact, Jean who works in the post office told me there used to be a hospital here that they tore down so it’s like it’s built on sacred ground. I like it because it’s clean and bright and has an artificial antiseptic smell and there’s drugs to help you if you’re sick. Plus you can buy just about anything from juice to diapers to lipstick but mom says only in an emergency, or if it’s on sale.
If mom found out I was coming here, she’d go berserk because I’m supposed to be on my best behaviour because what happens to me is a reflection on her and what would people say if they knew she left a young girl like me at home by herself all day. I didn’t want to steal the balloon. Or the stickers. It was a one-time thing. I’m not going to grow up to be a thief. No way.
Uncle Mick says she’s passive aggressive. “Yeah well you’re just aggressive aggressive,” she snapped back once at dinner, throwing a fork at his head. It missed. If she wanted to be aggressive aggressive, she should have thrown a hot frying pan. Can you imagine how it would have sizzled? Instead, she picked the fork off of the floor and put it in the sink and then she crawled onto Uncle Mick’s lap and said she was sorry, kissing him on the head. She says sorry a lot. Nothing rhymes with sorry.
I didn’t have time for it today, but the last time I took my blood pressure it was 115 over 63. I’m what Jean calls “fit as a fiddle.” The machine is near the stacks of toilet paper that are like a fort around the post office. I thought the band was going to squeeze my arm off the first time I used it. It’s like the tightest hug you can imagine, times a thousand. Mom hugged me after I was hurt but not much before that and not much after. We’re not huggers. Uncle Mick said the scar makes me look tough. What do you do if you’re only tough on the outside?
Pain hits my teeth like a fist. I hadn’t noticed until now how the clouds have folded in on themselves across the sky. It feels like it wants to rain, like the sky is clenched. A seagull flies from the sky to the ground for garbage like a boomerang. I guess it isn’t garbage to him.
The wind has picked up and swirls the dirt around. My sweater is thin and the hair on my arms is standing up like porcupine quills. I have at least three options: go inside with the dreamcatcher and risk the wrath of Nancy, go inside without the dreamcatcher, or release the dreamcatcher to the sky. Fly, try, buy, cry, spy.
The sky is really getting dark now and there are flashes of lightning but no thunder. The Weather Network says when you hear thunder and see lightning together it means the storm is close. No thunder so far so maybe it’s a ways away still. I could run or I could wait it out.
I feel like the dreamcatcher is working. Do you know how I can tell? Because right now, I, Elsie May Graham, am not afraid of this storm. In fact, I want it to pour like mad. I want it to rain so hard the parking lot fills up and carries me up on a huge wave that will see me bobbing and dipping all of the way to the ocean. And maybe when it’s all over, there will be a rainbow.
Or maybe I want to be struck by lightning. That sounds weird but sometimes I imagine what it’s like to walk in front of a car. Say I’m crossing the street and I’m supposed to look both ways, and instead of waiting for the car to pass I wonder what it would feel like to step in front of it instead. Would I feel anything? Would it be cold first and then hot? Or hot first and then cold?
Or would it be like I imagine, the force of the car sending me tumbling up into the sky, flying through the air. Weighing nothing. Free.