It’s dark outside. The velvety black swallows and engulfs anyone who dares challenge it. My brother strides away from the danger; strong, brave, defiant. As I watch behind the invisible barrier that is my window, I feel safe. Safe that I’m inside, testing the strength of the night, safe that my brother is home. I don’t seem to notice her at first, pacing cautiously beside my brother.
I remember the first time I met her. Grace. She was shy. She spoke in a soft, quiet voice telling me her name and that she was pleased finally to meet me. I remember her being as small as a mouse. Timid. As if she was scared of me. I remember thinking how odd it was to see a grown-up nervous of a little girl. It wasn’t a nice feeling to see my brother holding someone else’s hand and not mine. It was an evening like this, only colder, darker. More threatening. I remember feeling dizzy.
Outside my head I hear myself shrieking with excitement, running as fast as I can towards the back door. The handle turns and I feel a sudden rush of exhilarating love, like when you swing too high at the playground. It’s almost scary, and yet breathtaking at the same time. Out of the darkness steps my brother, tall and rebellious, smiling silently through his green eyes down at me. I run with open arms and he scoops me up and I’m truly happy. My brother, a true hero.
She tries patting my hair. I don’t understand why, maybe she sees it as a sign of affection. I hide under the table in my den, constructed yesterday afternoon from blue sheets and patchwork blankets. I try to recognise my brother as I watch legs and feet traipse around the kitchen. Legs in black trousers, legs in funny coloured see-through tights, legs that are completely indistinguishable. It’s hard. So instead, I emerge. All I can see now is knees. The people in my kitchen soar above me, beanstalk trees that touch the sky. I wander around the lamp-lit room, attempting to catch the attention of my family. I sigh, loudly, but to no effect. Stamping my feet doesn’t work either, so I give up and stomp into the sitting room. She follows, which infuriates me further. I only want my brother, not someone who has taken him away.
“What’s wrong?” she asks.
Thankfully, he comes through the door and saves me from replying. I don’t want to talk to her; I just want to talk to my brother normally. Again I rush towards him, hugging his legs. They’re talking, but I don’t care. I start to plan all the games we can play before he has to go back to his house in the city. Its lovely when he comes home, its like it used to be, before he moved to his new house with her. I remember once she bought me an ice cream with pink and yellow sprinkleys on it; much more special than the plain ones my brother buys. But I still don’t want my brother to have someone else. Just me.
“Sis,” he says, “want to know a secret?”
“Grace and I, we’re getting married.”
The horrible realisation creeps up and smothers me.
“I don’t want it.”
I wanted to hide. I ran to my den.
Thinking about what my brother said makes me feel funny. I suppose, I can’t really imagine my brother getting married. I don’t want him to belong to someone else. He’s mine, not Grace’s.
Under the table, I feel protected. No one can take my refuge away. I hide my face in the sheets and count the squares on the patchwork. There seems to be a huge number of them, every one different, each with their own pattern and colour. As I look at them, some appear to merge into each other; others just stay apart, appearing hostile and intimidating.
I stay under the table for a long, long time. It feels like an eternity. And then, Grace comes into sight. Her head pops through the crisp, blue sheets and looks enquiringly at me.
“Want to play?”
For a few moments I ponder this request. Play with Grace and enjoy myself but betray my previous thoughts. Don’t play with her and feel bored, but loyal.
“All right,” I mumble through a quilt.
Grace scrambles in. Grown ups aren’t supposed to scramble. Nevertheless, she clambers into the den without knocking down the material ceiling. It’s a bit of a squeeze and at first I find it thoroughly uncomfortable.
Grace fumbles in her bag for a few minutes and produces a large, square box, which she places ever so gently in front of me. She looks and smiles at me. And then she beings to tell me about what’s inside. “It’s my doll. When I was younger, I used to make houses just like this. Lily and I used to play for hours in them.” Grace tells me all about the games. She talks for so long, describing the secret places she made, what games she played and all the ideas for games she had. Lily, her doll, gazes at me with striking blue eyes that close when Grace lies her down. Lily has silky golden curls that fall down over her shoulders. Her face is made of porcelain and she looks so delicate. Her dress is pale pink with puffed sleeves and lace edging. I want desperately to touch her, but she belongs to Grace. Every time I stretch out my hand, something stops me. It feels like a wall around Lily, not allowing me in.
It was Grace who finally reached out to give her to me. At last I could touch the beautiful doll, gingerly stroking her hair. I touch her dress, amazed at how smooth the fabric is. When I look up, Grace is watching me, with a strange look on her face. I think she was proud but I’m not sure.
“Do you like her?” I don’t know how to answer. The doll is lovely, perfect. “I don’t play with her now. It would be sad for her to be lost, away in a box in a darkened room.” She pauses, as if to draw in breath. “You have her. It would be a shame for you not to.”
My mother’s voice calls for me, and I realise that I must go to bed. But I can’t go; I haven’t seen my brother, not properly. I find it so hard to believe that I must have spent most of the evening playing with Grace, someone that I wasn’t even sure I liked just a few hours ago.
I climb out from the tent, clutching Lily close to me, just in case Grace changes her mind. When I turn to see her behind me, I notice how small and suffocating the den is. I want to tear it down, to break it, to crush it.
Once it’s gone, I feel free, open to possibility. In my mind I see the playground, it’s a blank, open space. I look to my brother but he just watches me. It’s Grace who smiles.