Hidden in the Kingdom
The grasshoppers rubbed their legs, like a chorus of tiny sharpening knives. The junebugs darted close then hissed, and retreated when they realized we were little girls. The pink popsicle oozed down the stick and onto my fingers and wrapper. Lani and I sat side by side, our knees melting into each other. We admired the criss-cross shapes the plastic chairs pressed into our thighs as we licked our fingers. The neighborhood seemed to be slowly wading through molasses under the summer heat, but it was no match for the firecracker disposition of my sister and me. Mama always threatened to sew velcro into our pants to keep us sitting down.
We were always ready to run. Always leaving the house with pigtails, knee socks, and homemade dresses made by one of the kind church ladies, but after a day of digging holes, catching black beetles, and skipping rocks at the pond, layers of dirt disguised us and left a black ring around the tub. Mama used to say we looked like wildlings. I thought she looked like a beautiful princess who wore jeans and a tank top.
“Wildlings were full of mischief, just like my two girls. I wonder where my two girls are? They seem to have disappeared,” she smiled and joked with us while she filled our bath. The twinkle in her eye made my body feel soft and warm.
“We don’t know. We are magical creatures come to trick you,” we would howl, then chase her round the house until she pretended to fall down and we would tickle her on the shag rug.
Mama laughed so much more before Angus.
The houses that lined our neighborhood looked like broken teeth in the mouth of an evil wizard. There was the promise of magic, but their cracks and rot held the secret of something awful.
Before summer, a rusty green truck with the back window taped up pulled into the driveway of our house and a man came out of the driver’s seat. His hair was greasy, and he smelled like the cigarette that hung loosely from his lips. His jeans hugged his narrow hips and his shirt was buttoned low showing a gold necklace.
Lani and I were in the front yard in our underwear because we were now grown ladies of five and seven. Old enough to not get our dresses dirty, our sitter, Ms. Mildred, told us. So we had taken them off before filling our pool with dirt to make our own swamp.
“I like your jewelry,” Lani said, admiring the gold chain.
“Uh, thank you.” he said looking at us like we were bugs or something else he might swat away from disgust or aggravation.
“Did you steal it from a dragon?” Lani continued, not understanding that this was when we needed to play the invisibility game. Mama explained sometimes when one of her friends was over, especially her man friends, we had to make ourselves turn invisible. Not talk too much, bother them, keep it down and then we could stay up late and eat all the ice cream we wanted because no one would see us.
“No. No dragon. Is your mom around? I think she has my key. Ms. Mildred is my auntie.The name is Angus.”
He came closer to us sitting in our swamp, then recoiled once he realized just how dirty we were.
Mama had this way of drifting into a scene like a cloud. Hair in a crown braid, wide smile, she slipped him the keys to Ms. Mildred’s house. Ms. Mildred sometimes looked after us when Mama worked a double. Her house smelled of stale fig newtons and had a million tiny cat figurines she liked to talk about, but we were never allowed to touch. Lani always wondered how her hair was always so perfectly permed and how she managed to get so much lipstick on her teeth. Never wanting to offend, Lani would always whisper gently into my ear. Her lips brushed against my lobes like butterfly wings. I, on the other hand, wondered very loudly to Mama when Ms. Mildred wore her bra on the outside of her pink polyester blouse to get the mail before she went away. This might be why Angus had come to take care of her place.
Angus’ hand lingered on Mama’s fingertips and he looked at her like he was a starving man in front of a feast. Shivers ran down my back and my heart felt a seed of worry planted deep inside. I felt small, quiet, and separate from Mama. Her heart seemed light and happy. Mama was a sunflower bending toward the sun.
“Here she goes again,” Lani whispered without looking up from her funnel cake of mud. Lani’s voice was like the quietest bird perched atop a tree so far away you could scarcely hear it, but when it dropped down a few branches you could see she was really a wise old owl.
“An old soul” is what Ms. Mildred had called her. Ms. Mildred liked to fold laundry with us in the afternoons. Her soaps were on the giant box of a TV and she liked us there to get up and switch the knob on it for her. She held a cigarette in her mouth and tapped the ashes absentmindedly onto the floor or into the clean laundry basket. She did this between sips of amber liquid. The ice would shift and clink against the glass as she brought it to her bright red lips.
Amy Kelly is a former-midwife, registered clinical counselor, Infant-Parent Mental Health Facilitator, mother of two, and soon-to-be farmer. She has worked under LaTanya McQueen and Sarah Darer Littman at the Yale Summer Writers Workshop 2021 and 2022 and was selected for the Alumni program for 2023. She is polishing two novel-length manuscripts that she plans to query this spring. When not writing, she is beekeeping or hiking. Her last great adventure was hiking to Everest Base camp for her 40th.