King and the Sky

by Christina Qiu

They all lived in the purple house across the street. The sorry boys, the gray girls, and some tired mothers. Four broken families stuffed in a purple house in northern, near-nowhere Jackson. Stuck on Silver Road. Something out of a movie. But there they were, and that day in September, right at the sad tipping point before the leaves turn too ripe, there was the police car that pulled up to their driveway, singing a siren that surrounded our neighborhood like a sorry sorry song. All of them were lined up in a row—little Li sucking on some ghost of a caramel, King with his arms up, the twins, and the other kids I couldn't recognize. Mothers trailing behind, handcuffed. Locked in the police car while the kids watched in awe. The police buzzed off, and there was nothing us neighbors could do but stare at the scene like the air stopped letting us breathe.

* * *

King's in my grade with no mama now, not since the police shipped her back to China. Him lurking like a corner shadow in my math class can make me sad like the morning birds singing in winter. But King's got his big brothers to take care of him, who all go to the high school way over from us, and who all can do everything. But King left for a week, and when he came back, teachers kept asking him what happened but he had no clue and we had no clue and we all kept the conversation straight and stiff at that. By then, King'd turned into a shadow and wouldn't speak when spoken to, and soon, we all gave up. Just that sound of the siren still in our heads. Or the click of the handcuffs. Or the way the car buzzed off and King was left standing, his arms still above his head like he knew nowhere else to put them.

* * *

I'm Cielle, and I'm nine years old, and unlike my best friends Lucy, Samantha, and Jill, who were all born here, I've never kissed a boy and I'm not planning on ever kissing boys. I don't like the boys and the boys don't like me, because even though they pull Lucy's and Samantha's and Jill's hair and like to sit next to them on bus rides home and call them ugly, they don't go anywhere near me. But I don't mind because I can be as ugly as I want to be and kick as far up on the swing as I want to go and yell whatever un-pretty insults I want to as they go past. During recess, when Lucy and Samantha and Jill go over to talk to them, I sit in the blacktop corner and balance as many woodchips as I can on my pinkie nail.

Lucy, Samantha, Jill, and I, we were all born here. The other girls, born there, on the other side of the bluest blue on the map in Mrs. Michael's classroom, in the big pink country, they all talk funny and dress funny. Talk funny like my mommy, but sounds weird coming from kids. Can't understand them when they sit with each other over lunch or on the playground and talk like clapping dolphins. None of us can find their purple and pink and jeweled hairties that make them look like dolls in Lucy's mommy's beauty shop, where we can get lost in the piles and rows and columns of $5 lipsticks in lily orange or snail pink and the $3 lipglosses that get sticky where our fingernails meet our fingerskin. The other girls, born there, they're so skinny I can wrap my fingers around them. Skinny like the thin bed red lipstick I pocketed in my shirt the last time I went to Lucy's mommy's beauty shop. When I left, Lucy said she lost it, but her mommy didn't believe her.

Lucy, Samantha, and Jill go to the boys from the playground and the bus-rides during class and give them petty nicknames, but King is not a boy because he became a shadow, so I go to King. We never talk, but today, when I look at him he looks back, and when I press my elbow against his he doesn't move away.

* * *

I walk home. The cherry blossoms all died after they bloomed last Sunday, splayed on the pavement like butterflies. I try hard not to step on any of them, but when I do, I feel the pink fluffy body flat on the back of my foot the whole walk home. Here's the part of town where a lot of born-there kids live, four blocks from Silver Street.

Mommy's door is locked today. Won't jiggle open even when I do that trick with the bobby pin Lucy taught me. Asked her to open it up, but don't think she heard me. The door stays shut and I slump back to my room where King's purple house stands still outside my window like a painting. The purple house can get so loud sometimes, like today, King's brothers are spitting phlegm at the grass with some of their friends, and sometimes, we hear beats and screams coming out of that house that bleed into ours. I wonder how King the shadow slips into that picture, or if the picture's what made King a shadow.

The purple house across the street with no more mamas. I stare at it until the purple turns into blue and the sky turns a dark red. The sorry boys stay on the roof, and the gray girls, I can see them in their window walking back-and-forth back-and-forth, rolling their shirts up with their elbows creased so their belly button rings glisten in the sunlight like teardrops. But then I see King in front of the house, his elbows on his knees, alone like a siren. I press my face against the glass of my window to get a better look at him, at how his back slumps just like it does in Mrs. Michael's class. But then he looks up so our eyes meet, and I close the curtain fast as possible.

Tonight, when I sleep, I live in the purple house, and I get lost in it, in the belly-button room of King's older sisters and the ghost room of King's locked mommy and way up to the roof where shadows like me will slide off the edge. But the world turns flat when I go up to the roof, and the rainclouds kiss the cherry blossom trees as hurriedly as ticking. And King the shadow surprises me, moves his elbow next to mine on the lips of the chimney, so we watch the sky swirl together.

* * *

On Saturdays, I go to the library and get myself a nice kid book and some lollipops that turn my lips purple by the time I'm done with all the flipping and the sliding and the moving around in some other person's skin. I get the kid books with the kid pictures that kids at school would call me dumb for reading, with pretty Angelina and her pretty blond curls with her eyes more sparkly than the tip of a pencil. Angelina fights ghosts, demons, and mean people. I don't like the words, not really. They make me dizzy like too many smells at once. I like sitting on the front step of the library hunched over so people can walk over me, and I like chewing on the white part of the lollipop stick until it can't fit in my mouth right anymore. I like how my skin feels when the sun sets. Watching the older girls walking around with their legs long like Angelina's in the picture books. Smelling the smoke of people's new cigarettes from the drugstore across the street. I don't have any work in a mommy's store, in a daddy's restaurant or in an auntie's laundromat, like Lucy or Jill or Samantha, because my mommy's got work as a teacher in the college and I've never had a daddy, not even from before I was born. So I stay squat on the library step where the sun brushes the building and everything looks golden in the late afternoon. I stuff all the lollipops from the librarian's front desk in my shirt and walk out with the sticks poking my belly. High school girl at the counter goes That's a lot of shit to suck on and laughs.

Today it looks like it will rain, so I shuffle the whole way to Silver Road like a big long sigh until I spot the purple-house boys, skinny and glistening. The purple house and its children can get easily broken, which is what my mommy says when I bring them up at the dinner table. And it's hard to see what that means, except sometimes, they walk on their feet as if they're stilts and sometimes, they look over their shoulders when they don't need to. Like when I hide in the bushes so softly no one can hear the rustles of leaves under my feet, King's brother in eighth grade whips his head around fast. I stay there until they all disappear from sight, limping like puppets into the skin-soft sun. When they leave, I've dropped all the lollipops from the library on the broken dirt floor, and run away as fast as possible from the spot, because I know if what I read about Angelina is true, someone unwanted will take my lollipops, sniff them, and track me down in the middle of the night until I can't breathe. And mommy will have no Cielle to talk to when she's tired from the college, and I will have no me to keep myself occupied when there is no purple house to watch.

* * *

"Hey you!" I say to King on the playground one day after lunch, swinging on a tire swing all by myself because Samantha and Jill and Lucy are flirting with the bus boys. "You!" I say again, when King tries to shuffle out of sight. "Hey you!" He stops and looks at me. His shadow eyes are thin, which make me kick the woodchips without meaning to.

"What happened to your mama?" I ask.

King looks around like his brothers do before talking in a whisper. "My mama's deported."

I cock my head to the side and kick the woodchips some more. "What does that mean?"

"The cops shipped my mama back to China because she's got no papers."

"So you don't have a mama?"

"I have a mama. But she's gone."

"Mamas don't get gone," I say. King looks around some more before shifting over to the tire swing and leaning over it like a tall, skinny cave, his back curved like a question mark.

"My mama calls and says she misses me every week."

"Do you even remember your mama?" I ask. I only remember a little shadow of his mama from the day the siren filled our whole neighborhood like a song.

"Sure." I make some room for him on the tire swing and pat the seat so he can sit down. When he does, his knee brushes past mine and I look into his thin shadow eyes that are so light they seem to be disappearing into the sunlight.

"Maybe she'll come back one day."

"I hope so."

"Why'd she get deported?" I finally ask, after the lunch guard blows his whistle the second time saying we all have to go to class, where Mrs. Michael will yell at the born-there kids some more and they'll still not understand the writing on the board or the words in their ears.

But King doesn't answer. After we walk next to each other, his feet shuffling next to my steps in our not talking mood, I think that maybe he doesn't know either. But here, next to King, I stay in my place.

* * *

Mommy's door is not locked today. She sings while she cooks and I sit at the table. My mommy's eyes are tired and her hair is thinning but I think she moves like a dancer when she sashays through the kitchen and stirs the pot with one hand and holds it with another.

"Mommy, King's mama got deported."

"From the house across the street?"

"She disappeared because she had no papers."

"Oh. That's so sad."

I want to ask Mommy if she's got papers, but something stops me, because I don't want to know the answer, and if I do, I might have to stop and lock myself in her room so the police can't get her and I might have to keep her there forever so she can't hear the sirens calling her name and so I'll never have to stand on the street like King did with his hands up. And I don't have any daddy or any brothers and any sisters, so I'd have to cook all by myself and turn the lights out at night all by myself and tuck myself into bed even if Angelina defeated the scariest monster and his face is still in my head. And my mommy will be stuck in that pink country where all the born-there kids are from and she'll stay surrounded by people who can't understand Mrs. Michael and who can only speak like dolphins clicking and who all look like dolls, and my mommy will have no Cielle to talk to and I would have no mommy to snuggle into when it's too cold outside.

I don't talk during dinner, and Mommy asks me if something's wrong, but I don't answer. I kick the floor and start crying into the soup she's made, and she tries to hold me but I shrug her off because I don't know if she'll be here tomorrow or if she'll make me stand like King did on the street with my arms up and no way down, or if I'll turn into a shadow like King has done, with no more words to say.

* * *

Today King stays by my side when we leave Mrs. Michael's classroom, and we walk together past the old parking lot of the dead luncheonette, where there's a police car sitting still like a shadow. I start kicking forward, but King tells me not to because they'll think I'm doing something bad.

"Like what?" I ask.

"Like stealing, that's what," he says. "My mommy got deported because my big brother Mike went stealing from the mall, and that's what they did."

"What did he steal?"

"Some clothes. And a big jacket."

We go sitting in the bushes where I dropped all the lollipops from the library last Saturday, and King's on a tree stump while I'm on the grass. They were untouched by Angelina's monsters or background hedgehogs, like I must have known they'd be, or I wouldn't have led King here. They've lain still on the ground in their bright white wrappers.

"I dropped these here on Saturday," I say. "Wanna take one?"

"Sure," he says, getting off the tree stump and hovering over them like I'm doing.

"Which one do you want?"

"The blue raspberry one."

I hand it over to him and take the butterscotch one next to it. We stay cross-legged on the ground, sucking on the lollipops and smiling until our cheeks hurt. When King finishes and shows me his tongue that's turned bluer than the midnight sky, I laugh so hard I can't breathe and tumble over myself, and King starts laughing too until our stomachs hurt together, and the echoes around the whole neighborhood are laughing with us. Who thought it would happen like this, with our echoes singing like sweet birdcalls, like maybe the sad song of the siren will never speak again.

BIO: Christina Qiu is seventeen years old and a senior at Livingston High School in New Jersey. She was a 2014 YoungArts Finalist in writing, and has been recognized in the Scholastic Arts and Writing Awards, the Adroit Prizes, and Foyle's Young Poets of the Year Competition, among others. She has been published or is forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Winter Tangerine Review, and The Postscript Journal, among others.