The phone-call could come at seven, Mimi Bautista lolling in bed, full from a fried chicken dinner in the dining hall. It could come at ten, when she was about to step into the shower after a long night of studying or writing papers. It could come when she was already tucked into bed, under her covers, slipping into uneasy sleep, breathing slow and deep, trying to steady her fluttering pulse.
Tonight, it was at 2 AM. Her eyes, clamped shut. Her breathing, becoming as regular as a metronome, before the phone rang.
She shouldn’t answer. If Mimi had ever bothered to tell her roommate, Erin, about the nature of the phone calls, she imagined Erin would counsel her against answering them, at least every time. She couldn’t tell Erin the whole truth, all of it, about who was calling; it always stuck in her throat, unchewed, undigested.
She picked it up.
“Mimi,” her sister Paola whispered into the phone. “Mimi, are you there?” Paola’s voice was hoarse, Mimi suspected, from the endless crying, the crying that had driven Mimi from her childhood home to another state for college. The crying, the talking wildly at nothing, the long stretches of silence, the long stretches of time in bed, staring at the ceiling.
“I am,” she said softly.
“Mimi,” she kept saying. “Mimi, Mimi, Mimi. . .”
“It’s me,” said Mimi. She was conscious of how many calls Paola had made this month already, how long the calls tended to be. How her father probably stared at the bills and paid them in silence. There was not much else he could do; very little besides this, Mama told her once over the phone, made Paola so animated, as calling her little sister across the country, even if it was only for her to babble nothings into the phone. “Accept the calls, Remedios,” she had told Mimi. “Please.”
“It’s me. I’m here.”
The fact of the matter was this: Her sister, Paola, had been studying to be a doctor. Perfect, polite Paola, with good grades that she received near-effortlessly, as far as Mimi could tell. She got into medical school in Chicago after a run in undergrad that only underscored her perfection: Phi Beta Kappa, SGA vice-president, and head of a dozen do-gooding committees.
It was too far from the family home in the suburbs, it was decided, so Paola went hunting for housing. After being disillusioned by skeevy ads on Craigslist, through word of mouth, she found a house which three older medical students were sharing. She and Papa had driven there, to see for themselves; Mimi had tagged along. The house was in good shape, in a safe neighborhood filled with other graduate students, young professionals, and married couples.The girls were uniformly chatty and pleasant and kept a clean house. Papa especially liked that one of the girls was from the Philippines and could, “Maybe teach Paola Tagalog.” Paola and the girl, Magdalena, laughed, and they were bonding, as far as Mimi could tell, whispering something about how silly Papa was, probably.
All looked well. Paola signed the lease, and her first semester went smoothly.
On December 12, just a few days away from her winter break, Paola was reading a Nora Roberts book in her bedroom. Her roommate, Abigail Davidson, 24, from Pennsylvania, was studying late in the kitchen, eating peanut butter cookies and chugging down coffee laced with Kahlua. The Filipina girl, Magdalena Rivera, 26, had just come out of the shower and was getting ready for bed in her room. Sarah Foster, 25, Ohio, was watching Dancing with the Stars in the living room.
Mimi could hardly bear reading or hearing about what happened next, even though that was all the country could talk about for weeks, even months, afterwards. How That Man had broken into the house, through the sliding glass door. Such a weak lock. He was armed with a knife.
This is the order in which the girls were said to have died: Abigail, Sarah, Magdalena, then Paola.
Paola was the unlucky survivor. The knife had just missed her heart, her major arteries. She was left with raised, tangled masses of scars on her stomach and chest. It was never quite clear if she had the presence of mind to play dead or if she had passed out from the shock.
That Man had not been careful. It was said he had been high, he had been drunk, it had been a cocktail of substances. He confessed easily, when confronted with the evidence. The abundance of DNA and the confession prevented Paola from having to testify. She was excused. Mimi and her parents had been glad; at that point, Paola was in the first of many hospitalizations to come.
When it came time for Mimi to go to college, two years after the incident, she decided to leave Illinois. It was not as if people could easily figure out, upon meeting her, that she was related to Paola and thus to what they called the Med Student Massacre. People’s attention spans were short, and as long as Mimi didn’t draw attention to the subject, they wouldn’t think of connecting her to the Massacre.
It was that she was tired, simply, of Paola, which no sane person would ever admit. After all, her sister was the final survivor of a nightmare, the kind of crime that fueled Nancy Grace and America’s Most Wanted, that was many people’s not-so-secret worst-case scenario. But, caring for her sister, the sister who had once cared for six-years-younger Mimi, was sapping, she felt, her youth and vitality.
Mimi had little to spare to begin with. While Paola always had a ready smile and a knack for turning out cupcakes for last-minute charity bake sales, Mimi had spent her adolescence half-heartedly rebelling. She wasn’t good at it. She smoked pot and cigarettes in high school but hated both. Alcohol was a little better, because she could mix her vodka with plenty of juice. Her lack of effort in school didn’t alarm her parents, since she made it out with B’s and a couple of C’s. Mimi had always figured every family needed a black sheep, but she even failed at that.
She got into all the Midwestern schools she applied to, except for Michigan, which had been a stretch, and Notre Dame, which had been an even bigger stretch. What she chose, though, was a small women’s college in Atlanta, which had offered her significant funding, not a full-ride, but enough to be feasible.
“Are you sure?” her parents had asked. To their credit, they hadn’t begged her to stay. Mimi hadn’t been sure, until she saw her parents mail the deposit check. She inherited slightly musty and dusty dorm materials from Paola, and her winter coat was stored in mothballs (“You won’t need it where you’re going,” her Dad said with a half smile. There were only half smiles in the family now).
She didn’t know anything of the South, much less Atlanta, and vaguely imagined Gone with the Wind. Genteel, drawling ladies and gentlemen, fried chicken, no snow, lots of racism. Instead, she and her parents found themselves befuddled by an insanely wide, looping highway, the infamous Perimeter, surrounding a sprawling landscape of skyscrapers, desperately trying to find the right exit.
She discovered, to her surprise, that she liked her college, a tiny, green-lawned campus speckled with trees and brick buildings. She liked her classes, the other students, the professors. She liked the traditions that were silly, bonfire sing-a-longs on the Quad, being tipped into the fountain by upperclasswomen in what they called an “initiation rite.” Initially slotted into the biology track (pushed by her parents; she hadn’t protested), she instead took a liking to history. She thought of majoring in it, focusing on the American Civil War. She even came to like the weather and the lack of snow in the wintertime, how she could wear a hoodie and smirk at the Southern-born girls who walked around in wool peacoats when it was forty degrees.
But Paola called nearly every night.
“Mimi,” she told her one night. Mimi was already out of bed, in the common area, out of respect for Erin, who was a light sleeper. Erin was a women’s studies and political science double-major from a tiny town in South Carolina she could never remember the name of, but she always let Mimi borrow her hairdryer and never mentioned the number of times she heard the phone go off in the middle of the night.
“Yes?” She was sitting on the gray-green, nubby couch, specked with mysterious stains.
“Mimi, I had another dream.”
“What is it?”
“In the dream, I was running down a street in our neighborhood. The streetlights were all off except for the one at the end, the one in the cul-de-sac. I was running towards it. Someone was behind me.”
Mimi didn’t ask who. All of the psychiatrists, doctors, counselors, therapists she ever talked to had counseled her to let Paola talk, to tread carefully when it came to anything that could have something to do with what had happened to her. She was, after all, not a professional. Unlike her mother, they told her she could set firm boundaries, let Paola know she needed to sleep or eat or study or go out with friends, but she was never sure where to draw these firm boundaries. She had thought moving out of state would be the best boundary and had been disappointed to discover that wasn’t the case.
“I looked down, and my hands were bleeding blue, Mimi. Blue.”
“I woke up and called you.”
Mimi stared at a particularly oddly shaped stain on the sofa. It was like a heart or a kidney, she wasn’t sure. “Paola, what else do you want to say?” She winced at her harsh tone.
Luckily, Paola didn’t seem to notice. “Did I tell you about the dream the other night, Mimi? Did I?”
Paola had. Mimi could describe it in minute detail: Paola was sitting in the bathtub then she realized the bathtub was floating in the middle of an endless sea. The sky above her was a merciless white. Water came up from the drain, but the water was green, a nasty, unhealthy green, “like from a pond killed by algae,” Paola had said. She woke up before the tub sank beneath the surface.
“No. Go on.”
And Paola repeated the story. Every single detail. Almost exactly the same. Mimi dug her nails into a bit of exposed thigh. Gritted her teeth. She listened. She tried not to let her thoughts drift; she imagined the dream that Paola was describing to her again, what it would like to be in that tub. She wondered if she’d be terrified, if she thought she would drown.
Mimi was scared of children and didn’t like preteens much better. Yet, Erin had persuaded her to come with her to an orientation with a local middle school, for an after-school mentorship program.
“Why should I?” she asked. She knew that she sounded unsympathetic, especially in a school of intense over-achievers, who believed, naively and energetically, that they could change the world. Mimi knew better, knew the world had a habit of stomping on you when you least expected it, but she kept her mouth shut in the presence of people like Erin, who planned on going to law school and doing public policy or whatever. Erin was blonde, thin, tall, and toned. Her nickname on campus, that she wore with pride, was the “Teutonic goddess,” from some admirer in her German class. She ran track and cared about a wide range of causes and was slowly, surely, narrowing down the list to the ones she would spend her life fighting for. Mimi sometimes found this single-mindedness annoying; other times, she envied this energy, this ferocious focus.
But Erin knew how to get her. “They’ll have donuts and coffee; I’ll drive.” That settled it. Mimi liked free food and drinks and liked it even more if she had to make little effort to get them.
The spread was even better than donuts and coffees. There was a homemade coffee cake and chocolate chip cookies from a local bakery, to go with the Krispy Kreme donuts and boxed coffee. Mimi, as discreetly as possible, piled her plate and dumped milk into her cup of coffee. In the room, altogether, were twelve other college students, besides Erin and herself, some from their college and the rest from other schools.
But now, she was listening as a teacher and a senior from her college talked about the program. How it had changed students’ lives for the better. How many of the more at-risk students had benefitted from one-on-one time with successful college students such as Erin (not Mimi, who was doing fine in college but wasn’t on the dean’s list or anything). How the college students had benefitted in tangible (i.e., line on a resume) and intangible (i.e., some did go on to public school teaching or at least Teach for America) ways.
Then, much to Mimi’s shock, they announced they would bring some of the students in, to get to know them.
Paola would have loved this, thought Mimi, her palms sweating. When they visited their cousins in California, a wriggling pile of limbs and shrieking, as far as Mimi was concerned, Paola was able to pluck them out, coo, identify each one by name. “JoJo, Lindsay, Lea, Ben, Joaquin,” she’d say. She’d ask about school, their art projects, the odd games they played with sticks and a kickball in the yard. By the end of the trip, she’d be weighed down with flower chains and HotWheels cars and little toy soldiers and friendship bracelets. She kept them all in a box, and once, when she was still in the hospital, Mimi brought her the box, and Paola, hollow-eyed, turned away, when Mimi held up a red-and-purple friendship bracelet, asking, “Want me to put this on you?”
A small group of students clustered in. Not screaming, at least, Mimi thought grimly, but she supposed they were too old for that.
The teacher in charge nudged them. “Introduce yourselves!” Finally, one stumbled forward.
And on and on it went. Mimi wasn’t much interested in them, only seeing a blur of middle-school faces: braces here, a prominent forehead zit there, incipient mustache here. The last girl, though, for some reason, Mimi bothered to look directly at her face.
She looked twice.
When she looked at the girl’s face, she saw the face of Paola, twelve years ago. A face she only vaguely remembered but was preserved prominently in albums and in photos on the piano (that only Paola ever played).
Paola’s wide-set, dark eyes. Paola’s round, tiny mouth. Even the way she did her hair, a long sleek ponytail.
Only the expression was not Paola’s. Paola would have thanked them graciously for coming here and helping them; she would not have been in this program at all. She’d be running it.
This Amanda, she scowled. After stating her name, she stared at her purple Converse as she shuffled away, Mimi staring so intently that Erin had to nudge her when the presentation was over. “Hey, so are you going to sign up or what?”
Mimi shrugged, Amanda’s hair — Paola’s hair — swishing away in her mind. “Maybe.”
The person to call Mimi the second-most was her mother. It would have been okay, if annoying, if Mama had called about the normal empty-nesting mother things: grades, drinking, whether she was burning through her monthly allowance too quickly. And she did, but this was only after she spent minutes upon minutes talking about Paola. It wasn’t quite complaining; Mama was always sure to follow up any seeming complaint with “But she’s still healing, you know.” But Mimi sensed that Mama was using her as an unpaid therapist, too proud to go to one herself, despite the strain of care-taking. Mimi wasn’t sure if it was some weird Filipino thing or if it was just her mother.
After the orientation, Mimi was sitting in the common room, reading some oral histories from former slave women after the Civil War, when her mother called.
“Do you remember when Paola used to make us dinner? The coconut shrimp she once made! Today, I made her favorite salmon, grilled with onions, and she wouldn’t stop staring at it. Then she got up and left the table. But she’s still healing, you know.”
“She is,” said Mimi, the book on her lap flipping over as she shifted, losing her page. “Mama, do we have —” Do we have a cousin, someone I never met, named Amanda? In Atlanta? A girl with Paola’s face I just met by happenstance?
“And yesterday, I was just watching TV, you know? And I was flipping channels and it landed on some awful movie, too much blood, and I didn’t know Paola had wandered in and then she started again —“
“I mean, she’s still recovering, but I want to know when —” And Mimi could hear the cracking underneath her mother’s words. The unmooring. Her poor mother, just an accountant who wanted to make a nice living for her family in America. She and Paola had used to laugh at her for her fearful gorging of Law and Order (or she did — Paola was always good enough to not make fun of her too much), her admonitions. Then, it all came true.
“Yes, Mama,” said Mimi, picking up the book. Closing it. She would have to find the page later.
Amanda was staring at the top of the table, scored with middle-school graffiti, the usual “I <3 ________” and “Fuck ________.” Mimi could see the worn-out blue glitter polish on Amanda’s ragged fingernails.
“How are you doing?”
“How was class today?”
“Do you, like, like school?”
This answer was pushed out reluctantly and was soft but pointed. Okay. At least she could work with this.
“I didn’t like school much either,” Mimi said. “I didn’t do too well, but um —” She thought of what to say. College is great so study hard? I overcame my problems and you can, too?
False shit no one actually said, not even Paola. Her thoughts drifted to the brief file she’d been given on this girl, a questionnaire Amanda had filled out (reluctantly, Mimi imagined) to help mentors find their best match. She had given the other files a cursory glance, to make it look like she was trying, before snatching up Amanda’s, nervous, giddy.
Amanda Reyes was thirteen and in eighth grade. She had been born in the Philippines before coming to the USA at seven. She could still speak Tagalog. She was in Ms. Parker’s homeroom. Her interests were anime and band, where she played clarinet but “Never practice.” Her favorite food was pepperoni pizza. Under favorite subjects in school, she wrote, “Nada,” which was a step-up from leaving it blank, Mimi figured.
“I didn’t do too well,” repeated Mimi, “And to be honest, I still don’t really care about eighth grade. It sucked, and it didn’t matter. High school does, for college. So as long as you don’t mess up too much now, you can start over again, in high school.”
She hoped her moment of candor would work. Instead, Amanda continued staring at her impassively. If it wasn’t for the fact that cellphones were confiscated at the door to this designated classroom, she bet Amanda would be on it right now, playing Candy Crush or Snapchatting or Vine-ing or whatever app was in vogue now.
“Excuse me.” Mimi reached under her table and aimlessly rooted through her backpack. A notebook, pens — she hadn’t been sure what to bring, so she had grabbed random stuff, useless stuff, from her desk. Here was a rubber band ball, here was a pack of crayons and a never-used adult coloring book that Erin had given her to de-stress, as a moving-in present. She pulled them both out.
“Do you, um, want to color? Or play with this ball?” she said.
“I’m not three,” said Amanda, who was now picking at her polish. “I’m thirteen. I’m not retarded neither, if you think I’ll do that stupid kids’ shit with you.”
Mimi swallowed. “I’m not saying you are. You’re just not talking to me and I don’t want to waste our time.”
“This is stupid.” Amanda rolled her eyes, before resuming picking at her nails.
Mimi looked around the room and felt herself shrink. Erin, of course, was laughing with her student, Molly, who occasionally let out a loud expletive like “Bitch teacher” that caused the supervising teacher to glare, but at least she was responding to Erin. And if none of the other tables were as animated, at least they weren’t dead silent like hers.
She thought of Paola, her opposite problem. How Paola never fucking shut up, and how last night, she had kept talking about her latest dream, something longwinded and ridiculous and honestly terrifying, and before she knew it, she was saying, “Do you ever have ridiculous dreams?”
And Amanda actually looked up, confused. “What?”
Mimi felt the words leave her mouth, words she had never dared say to Paola. “Like a stupid dream. Like so bonkers you had to tell someone over and over again, until they were sick of it.”
“I don’t remember my dreams,” said Amanda, who was back to studying her nails, but something about her voice — curious — made Mimi press on, tell her Paola’s dream.
“I had a dream last night. A giant with a brown-paper-bag over his head had me tied up in a chair in a room with no windows or doors. Just white walls. White floors and ceilings.”
“What was the giant doing?” Amanda’s voice was so soft that Mimi wasn’t even sure she heard it at first.
“Nothing. Just laughing. He was holding a cymbals and every once in a while, he’d start to clang them together but at the very last second, stop.” Mimi’s eyes closed involuntarily. She remembered Paola’s near-hysterical voice, the way her voice kept getting higher and squeakier as she described it. “After he did this several times, I woke up.” She opened her eyes, glanced at Amanda.
For the first time, she was staring at Mimi, eyes wide, her lips parted in an expression of — wonder? Curiosity? She wasn’t sure. For the first time, Amanda wasn’t stoic or scowling. She was listening and rapt. She looked, more than ever, like Paola.
Hesitantly, Amanda whispered, “Do you have other dreams?”
Mimi felt a twinge, probably of guilt, before saying, “I had a dream once I was in a bathtub, floating on a green sea. . .”
If Erin commiserated with Molly about school while sneakily telling her about the joys of college, Mimi and Amanda’s sessions together, once a week, on Thursdays, continued to be Mimi telling Amanda Paola’s dreams.
The weekend after the first session, Mimi called her father, something she never initiated, except to ask for more money. Before he even could ask why she was calling, she asked him if they were related to any Reyeses.
“Not that I know about,” said Papa. He sounded confused, busy. It was about four in Illinois. He was probably still in the hospital, still in his scrubs. “I mean, you could ask Mama, but why—“ Mimi hung up but hesitated. She did not call her mother; lately, she had been letting Mama’s calls go to voicemail. At any rate, when Mimi spoke to Amanda, one of the few pieces of personal information she volunteered was that she had come from Laguna, which was not anywhere close to her parents’ hometown in Pampanga.
Even knowing that Amanda’s looks must be a coincidence, she couldn’t help but study her for signs of Paola — her mannerisms, her interests — and coming up short. Amanda is not Paola, she’d repeat to herself. Paola is not Amanda.
But Amanda, at least, paid attention when she told her about Paola’s dreams.
“Last night,” said Mimi, her eyes bloodshot and her head tight with lack of sleep and allergies. Paola had talked to her until five in the morning. “I dreamed a tree was growing out of my chest. I was just lying in bed, and it started growing. A sapling.”
“Did it hurt?” Amanda didn’t even pick at her nails when Mimi narrated Paola’s dreams. She sometimes even looked Mimi in the eyes.
Mimi couldn’t even imagine if Paola had hurt. If Paola felt hurt, even in her dreams. “Not really,” she said. “The tree split my chest apart. It grew and grew until it was tearing apart the ceiling. It was an oak, and leaves were unfurling from its branches, like flags. But the leaves weren’t just green. They were purple and yellow and blue. Then, I woke up.”
“Weird,” said Amanda.
“Yeah, weird.” Mimi was remembering Paola’s half-sobs throughout. She swallowed. “Are you sure you never have dreams, Amanda?”
She shrugged. “I told you. I don’t remember, if I do. I sleep, then I wake up.” She resumed picking at her nail-polish, which was now green and mostly still intact. “Like a log.”
“A log,” Mimi repeated. A log, an insensate object. A dead tree. One that crumbled slowly in the forest, as insects burrowed in its decaying bark. “A log.”
Every two weeks or so, Mimi forced herself to accept one of her mother’s calls. She greeted her mother, then as quickly as possible, asked to speak to Papa. Papa, unlike Mama, unlike Paola, never talked at Mimi. He asked her questions. Sure, they were mostly superficial questions:
“How is school?”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“Are you getting enough sleep?” But it astonished her how much she unclenched when her father bothered to ask her what she was doing. Even though she knew better, that he wasn’t asking about how she really felt. That she was never to say a word about Paola’s nightly calls.
It never lasted long; after he went through his patented list of questions, they would lapse in silence, her father sometimes coughing on the phone. He had a chronic cough, from smoking as a young man. He might remember to tell her never to take up smoking (he never knew she smoked, once upon a time) before he handed the phone back to Mama. She’d have to endure a parade of complaints — “But she’s healing, you know” — again, but she’d bite her lip, sometimes so hard it bled, then scabbed over later. She listened.
Selected dreams Mimi told Amanda:
Sitting in a room full of pitchers of liquid gold and methodically drinking each pitcher dry, her belly ballooning, the liquids inside sloshing, glowing through her taut skin.
Running through a series of hallways, the carpet an eerie blood red, opening door after door, finding no one behind each of them, unable to remember what or who she was even looking for, the sound of laughing ringing in her ears.
Floating in space, zooming so close to a star, she could feel the heat start to melt her skin, her hair start to crisp.
Mimi found herself becoming patient, in a way she’d never been, with Paola’s calls. No longer did she wait, one, two, three rings, before picking up the phone at night. No longer did she lie awake at night, her stomach in knots, dreading the inevitable call. She welcomed them. She was patient, eager to listen to Paola. Not that Paola seemed to register her newfound enthusiasm, her more frequent “Go ons.” Her lack of yawning or passive-aggressive attempts to redirect the conversation. She spoke the same way she’d ever had, a flowing river of words, words, words, that became a flood sometimes, if Mimi wasn’t paying close enough attention. But she let herself float in it.
She told herself that it was good she was sharing her burden with someone, anyone, even if it was a sullen thirteen-year-old with her sister’s face who barely spoke a word herself. Mimi did try to ask questions, she did, but Amanda waved most of them away with monosyllabic, mumbled answers. About the only other time she was the least bit animated, besides the minutes Amanda spent detailing Paola’s dreams, was the time Mimi brought some new purple nail polish as a gift to mark their “monthversary.” That was the first time she saw a real smile on Amanda’s face, which exposed her crooked teeth, a smile totally unlike Paola’s, in a way that caught Mimi off guard.
“Thank you,” Amanda said. For the first time, Mimi saw that she had a faint sprinkling of freckles on her nose, freckles Paola did not have. “Thank you.” She held the bottle of nail polish in her hand, before she tucked it into her pocket.
Paola was not always kind. It was easy for Mimi to forget this. Immediately after the attack, after all, Paola’s Facebook page, the family’s answering machine, had been inundated with praise, with prayers. That sweet girl. The media had been the same way; the coverage had sickened Mimi, as a matter of fact. There was something about the way Paola’s best prom and vacation photos were most prominently featured, the way teachers and friends were trotted out to drone about how good she was, the near-hysteria with which television commentators discussed the crime, the perpetrator, and the victims. If this could happen to this pretty, nice girl, all these pretty, nice girls. . .
But indeed, Paola had not always been the best of older sisters, though she often was. She liked to brush elementary-school-aged Mimi’s hair hard after baths, shaking her head when Mimi cried out. “No pain, no beauty,” she’d say, as she forcefully untangled knots. Later, she never spoke directly, negatively, about Mimi’s own pimpled adolescent looks in comparison to her perpetual swan-state, but something about the way she’d advise Mimi about her appearance. . .Mimi could never articulate what bothered her to their parents, since it was true — her middle school hygiene, her grooming routine, wasn’t the best. Her face was oily because she frequently forgot to wash it in the mornings; she had disliked deodorant so her armpits smelled faintly of garlic for years.
But when they were small, when Mimi was four and Paola was ten, there was one game that Paola liked to play, something she learned at school. It hadn’t lasted long, only for a month or two. When the fad dwindled in her fifth-grade classroom, Paola had given it up, just one of those strange, brief cruelties of childhood.
“Say, ‘mercy,’” said Paola, pushing her hands on Mimi’s tiny arm in opposite directions, twisting the skin hard. Mimi yelped, her arm turning red. “Say, ‘mercy.’”
Mimi, even then, was stubborn. She didn’t say anything for what seemed like an eternity, even when she whimpered, her eyes filling with tears.
“Say it,” said little Paola. Back then, she looked so much like Amanda did now, although even then, her expression was different. Mimi remembered her grinning. “Say, ‘mercy.’”
Erin got the bright idea to throw a Halloween party for the kids. She got permission from the teacher (who seemed content to let Erin run the show by the this point. Teutonic goddess.). She managed to get a small amount of funding from somewhere and then cajoled all of the mentors to pony up a ten or twenty. “We’re all, like, middle-class, at least. We can give up beer money for the week. Like a less bullshit version of trickle down economics,” she told Mimi.
The two of them went to Party City, loaded up on decorations. Erin found a “Pin the Tail on the Werewolf” game. She found a Frankenstein piñata. She bought big bags of generic candy and matching witches’ hats for herself and Mimi. Even Mimi had to crack a smile when she found glow-in-the-dark vampires’ teeth. “I’ll be a vampire-witch,” Mimi said, trying on the hat and teeth in the car. She smiled, and Erin shrieked and laughed.
The day of the party, she and Erin and some of the other mentors arrived early, to set up. By the time the kids filed into the classroom, even their middle school malaise had to crack a bit at the cottony spiderwebs and gift bags piled on a table. Some of them clapped, seemingly involuntarily, as they looked at their peers guiltily, daring them to judge them. Molly let out another expletive, which the teacher didn’t even bother to hush.
Mimi was in an especially good mood, because for once, Paola hadn’t called her. Even though she had become a model of patience, one that she could hardly recognize, the unexpected respite had, at the very least, given her more sleep than she had in awhile. When Amanda ambled in, she impulsively hugged her. Amanda’s skinny body tensed up at first then relaxed. “Hi,” she mumbled.
“Hi.” Mimi released her. “Come on, let’s win some candy.”
The party actually went well, the students getting hyped up enough that the teachers even had to hush them when they were throwing themselves at the ground when one of the boys, Josh, broke open the piñata. Tootsie rolls and lollipops poured in a waterfall from its stomach. Middle schoolers, reflected Mimi, weren’t quite teenage enough yet to hide their joy at the prospect of free candy.
After Erin had distributed the gift bags, the mentor-mentee pairs naturally split off, to comb through the loot. It was then that Amanda tentatively put her hand on top of Mimi’s. “You’re okay,” she whispered. “Really.”
“You are, too,” said Mimi, something warm bubbling in her chest. Pride, maternal feelings, she wasn’t sure. She squeezed Amanda’s soft hand. It was cool.
“I have something for you,” said Amanda. Her cheeks were red. She let go of Mimi’s hand and ran to her backpack piled carelessly with the others in a corner. Her ponytail bobbed as she rummaged through her bag. She ran back with an iPad.
“I asked the teacher if I could bring this. I made something. Out of your dreams,” she said, her finger furiously tapping, scrolling. “I made a Tumblr. Look.” She tilted the iPad towards Mimi. The Adventures of Amanda and Mimi in Dreamland, it said in curling cursive. The website was black, sprinkled with stars. “I get, like, so many comments. There’s a gazillion new followers everyday. They say we’re so creative!” This was the most excited Amanda had ever been. Her eyes were shining; they made Mimi think of suns, boiling, devouring suns.
Something roared in Mimi’s head. It was like her brain had melted, become an ocean, a tsunami in her skull. She knew her face shaped itself a smile, something wide and fake and frozen. “Thank you, Amanda,” she said. Thank you, Amanda, echoing.
She took the iPad, to look through it, and it was even worse: There was the giant in the white room, but he looked as harmless as the BFG with his friendly smile. The bathtub on the green sea under fluffy white clouds in a blue sky. The hallway carpeted in a cheery red, “ha-has” scribbled on the side. And throughout there was Mimi and Amanda — Amanda drawing herself in a way that looked nothing like Paola, she wasn’t Paola, never had been Paola— in an anime style. All big, cartoonish eyes and grins. Sparkles erupting around their heads, like fucking fireworks. The two of them, holding hands throughout.
The room was spinning. She couldn’t even read the lines. Paola’s words — that she, Mimi, had stolen — in comic bubbles. A cartoon — that’s what Paola’s dreams had been to this thirteen-year-old child and all those thirteen-year-old children on the Internet.
“I just thought,” said Amanda, and Mimi realized that Amanda knew, that Amanda could recognize she wasn’t happy with the site. “Your dreams were so cool. I just thought everyone should see them. You know? The dreams were just so cool. I thought you’d like it.” And Amanda, for the first time, was pleading. Unconsciously, she put her fingers, nails coated in black metallic polish, to her mouth, something Paola had never done. Her nails never painted, always filed into half-moons.
“They’re not my dreams,” said Mimi. “They’re not cool, and they were not for everyone to see.” She ran out. Amanda’s stricken face, her eyes shiny with wetness, burned into her memory. Erin shouting at her, probably mad at her for freaking and not showing a good example.
But being the screw-up — again — was nothing against the memory of Paola, when she finally woke up in the hospital, dark circles under her eyes. A blank stare, chapped colorless lips. How Mimi couldn’t even greet her own sister when Paola whispered her name. She had not been able to say a word, for the whole fifteen minutes of that visit, despite her parents’ begging, Paola’s whispering “Mimi” over and over again, and maybe it was some kind of goddamn karmic justice that Paola, her mother, never stopped fucking calling her, that this girl with Paola’s face but nothing of Paola, nothing important, had shown up just to remind her exactly what kind of person she was.
“Mimi?” She hadn’t run very far. Just out the school doors, to the nearest bench. She wasn’t crying, just gasping, deep, deep gasps. Her chest was pounding. She couldn’t breathe.
It was Erin. “What the fuck?” Erin still had on the witch’s hat. There was a temporary tattoo of a spider on her cheek. She looked oddly beautiful, her blonde hair waving under the hat, over her shoulders. Teutonic goddess. “Why did you run out? Amanda’s crying her eyes out. What did you do?”
“I —” and of course, her phone started ringing again. Of course. With her luck, Paola was calling, or her mother, telling her something had happened to Paola, that’s why she didn’t call last night, that the rest she had finally had last night was a fluke, a too-brief fluke.
She pulled out her phone, about to answer, but Erin grabbed it, thrust it in her pocket. Mimi shouted something wordless when it disappeared. She could still hear the ringing. “Don’t answer that damn phone. I don’t know who’s calling, but you always look like death afterwards.” She narrowed her eyes. “Are you okay?”
Mimi felt something within her collapse. A dam cracking, crumbling. She could feel the trickle. “I’m not,” she whispered, not caring if Erin actually gave a damn, would listen. This would have to be enough, for once. “Not at all.”
Erin’s face softened, into something unreadable. Her hand lifted, tentatively, as if to touch Mimi’s cheek, then fell. “I’m here,” she said, and for once, she didn’t look like a Teutonic goddess. She looked like a girl.