Ohio summers were suffocating, hot and sticky. Wanda could feel the heat crawling up her arms and engulfing her until she almost gagged. It might have had to do with the fact that she was walking down the middle of a dusty road at high noon, and she was used to the cooler climate of her old home. Her clothes, which had formerly served to protect her from cold nights and winds, now seemed out of place in this country. Outdated, dirty, unneeded, unwanted. A little bit like her.
The sun seemed to glare down with an even brighter shine, bringing with it the high pitched whistling of cicadas and chirping of birds. Wanda closed her eyes and tried to make them into familiar sounds. People speaking in Sokovic, crowds of people walking around the square, cars driving down busy roads.
It was too late that Wanda realized she wasn’t just imagining the car part. She heard the screeching sound of a car hitting the brakes last minute just as a breeze fluttered up behind her, causing her to turn around and come nearly face to face with a red truck lurching forward. She yelped and fell off balance as she tried to jump out of the way, landing on her stomach and just barely avoiding faceplanting into the dirt road. The truck came to a halt, black smoke billowing from the exhaust pipe. Wanda heard the door swing open with a creak, then the sound of someone apologizing. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you, I was distracted and-Jesus, that’ll teach me not to be on my phone while I drive. You okay?”
Wanda nodded slightly, wincing as she turned over. Still lying on the ground, she held up one small hand above her forehead so she wasn’t blinded by the rays coming down from the sky. She squinted slightly at the figure in front of her, kneeling down with a hand outstretched. A golden haired woman in an unbuttoned flannel shirt. Wanda gaped at her. After a moment or so, the woman asked, “Do you have a concussion? Because you’re kinda looking at me like you’re really not with it.”
“I-I-“ Wanda forced herself to sit up straighter. “I don’t think so. Concussion. No.”
“No. Good. Okay.”
They stared at each other and it was still very hot. Wanda felt the stones on the road digging into her scraped up palms and she winced. The woman was still holding her hand out and eventually just sighed, “I’m offering to help you up, by the way.”
“Oh!” Somehow, that’s what it took to snap her back into some semblance of reality. Wanda let the other woman take her grimy hand and pull her up. “Thank you. I-I shouldn’t have been walking in the middle of the road. Sorry.”
“Nah,” she shrugged, “You sure you’re good?”
She nodded, then suddenly yanked her hand back, realizing she was still holding it. Golden Hair grinned at her and asked, “You need a ride someplace? Kind of a hot day to be walking.”
It was. Wanda had really just gone out at first to get some time to herself, and then to cry, because if she did that at Clint’s home, they were sure to hear her. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, to get out of the house, but she was seriously starting to regret it.
“I can’t make you do that,” she finally said, “I…it’s just a few miles up the road, I can get there.”
“Oh yeah? You don’t look like you’re gonna make it up a few miles before dying of heatstroke. C’mon,” she nodded towards the truck, “I promise I’m not a serial kiler.”
She certainly didn’t seem like a serial killer, and Wanda supposed that if on the off chance she was, she’d be able to fight her off. Against her better judgement, she gave a tentative nod and let Carol lead her to the machine that had almost ran her over. It looked like it was well taken care of, sans the rust on the hood and the slightly creaky doors. It was big, and Wanda felt uncomfortably small in it. She fumbled with the seatbelt at first, then gave up. Golden Hair got in the drivers seat and started the ignition.
“Thank you,” Wanda said to her, “So much. You didn’t have to-“
“Forget it. Sorry I almost ran you over.” Her voice wasn’t quite husky, but it had a certain edge to its softness. She was serious, measured. “I’m Carol.”
Carol made a turn down a sharp bend in the road. Her radio was on low, quietly playing some indie song that Wanda was sure Pietro would have liked. She couldn’t make out the words very well, but she did find herself tapping her black polished fingertips to the melody at the edge of the rolled down window. Carol looked over at her briefly before turning her attention back to the road. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
“Did the weird accent give it away?” Wanda had been considering trying to talk more like an American. Her voice made her stick out as someone who didn’t belong here. Every word she spoke marked her as an outsider, no matter how hard she tried to blend into the United States, to press herself into the fabric of a country she didn’t understand.
“Kind of. But I’ve also never seen you before, and I know everyone around here. It’s not a super big town. Where’re you from?”
She didn’t answer right away. She could easily pick any Eastern European country and assume that this woman wouldn’t know the difference. The silence became a little awkward, and finally, Wanda just blurted out, “Sokovia.”
“Oh,” her eyes widened slightly, “I’m sorry. Did you just…did you just move here?”
She nodded. “Yes.”
Wanda felt very alone, and she easily could have just said yes. After all, Pietro wasn’t there anymore, and without him, it felt like she was just constantly surrounded by a heart wrenching emptiness that was never going to go away. It suffocated her like the Ohio summer air, but it hurt more.
“Some nice people are letting me live with them,” she said tentatively, “A foster family. But I don’t want to burden them for too long. I want to go back to the city-I like it there better anyways.” The sounds of traffic and bustling streets were what she was used to.
“I want to go back too,” Carol said, “To the city, I mean. This place is a nice refuge, though. Right or left?”
Wanda looked up at the fork in the road and pointed to the one with the bright purple wildflowers growing at the edge. They drooped in the hot sunlight. “That one. You are not from here either?”
“Huh? Oh, no. I’m from Boston. You been to Boston yet?”
She shook her head.
“It’s just okay. Maybe I’d go to New York if I move out of this place. See some Broadway show or whatever. I heard that Hamilton is good.”
Wanda had no idea what that was, but nodded along as if she did. For some reason, she wanted Carol to keep talking, and it wasn’t just because she didn’t want to divulge anymore into her own life. By the time the house appeared in the near distance, Wanda felt vaguely hypnotized by her voice. She blinked, trying to snap herself out of it and said, “That’s it. Thank you for the ride.”
“Don’t mention it.” She slowly came to a stop. “So. Maybe I’ll see you around.”
“Maybe.” Wanda felt a tightness in her throat that came right from a heart beating too fast. She opened the door and hopped out onto the gravel road, meeting Carol’s eyes one more time before she shut the door again. “Um…bye Carol.”
“Later, Wanda.” She winked and flashed her a quick grin. The truck turned and drove away, leaving plumes of dark smoke and dust in its wake. Wanda stepped back, coughing, and felt the smoky air engulf her lungs, her eyes, until Carol was a little red spot in the distance.
Nathaniel cried louder than the whistling of the kettle Clint had on the stove. Wanda bounced him on her hip and shushed him a little bit, trying to move around with Lila clinging to her leg.
“Lilia,” Laura chastised, looking up from the newspaper. “Get up, kiddo. You’re going to drive Wanda crazy.”
Lila didn’t drive her crazy in the least. Wanda adored Clint’s children, every one of them. She loved Cooper and all his books, his pieces of paper covered with scribbled words putting together his own stories that he told them. She loved Lila and the towers she made with her blocks and brightly colored crayon pictures she hung all over the walls. They were full of butterflies and princesses and innocence. All Wanda remembered at that age was destruction and the mangled bodies of her parents pulled out of the rubble. That’s what she would have drawn.
She wouldn’t say it, but Nathaniel was secretly her favorite. How could he not be, with the name of her brother etched onto his birth certificate? Every time she cradled him in her arms, she was able to pretend he was Pietro back with her in a way. Nathaniel’s cries were her brother’s voice all over again in a new image.
Clint poured Laura coffee into a ceramic mug with I RUN ON CAFFEINE printed on it in big black letters. “Kinda nice having a babysitter around.”
“I like children,” Wanda said, her voice voice coming as a bit of a surprise. Laura looked up from her drink, eyes poised on the skinny, black polished hands holding her baby boy. It was a slightly nervous look, and Wanda barely needed to stare back at her to know what she was thinking. She couldn’t blame Laura for it at all. She knew she was lucky as hell that out of the kindness of her heart, this woman had been willing to take in a refugee with what the psychologists had called, “various untreated mental health issues.”
A danger to her family. And they were a beautiful family, everything Wanda had ever wanted.
Don’t be selfish, she snapped at herself, her internal voice harsh and unforgiving. They’re not your family.
“I’m going into town,” Clint announced, “Need to pick up a buzzsaw and a few things. Any of you want to come?”
“Lila’s going to a birthday party,” Laura said, “And Cooper has a scout meeting. But there’s no reason for you to be alone. Wanda, do you want to go with?”
It was a poorly veiled attempt at getting her to be around other people. Wanda didn’t want to be around strangers. She didn’t want to argue either.
“Okay,” she said, “Okay.”
“Great.” Clint patted her hand and tried to ignore her flinch. “Finish up and we can go. Do you need anything, Laura?”
She shook her head. “No. You two have fun. Wanda, there’s a nice little bookstore in town. Do you like to read?”
Wanda knew that she was making an effort, so she didn’t tell Laura that she could barely read at a first grade level in her own language, let alone English. She always liked the idea of books, though-especially ones with pretty covers and titles in curly letters. She nodded, and when she said that she liked books, it wasn’t really a lie. She liked looking at them. And some of them had pictures-she could at least pretend to read those.
“Great. Clint can show you. You’ll like it.”
Nathaniel started crying again, and Wanda didn’t think to give him back to Laura. She swayed with him in her arms and pretended that her brother stood beside her.
The drive into town over the rocky, gravel road only took about ten minutes. Clint didn’t say anything, but he didn’t turn the radio on either, so the whole way the car was just filled with an uncomfortable silence. Wanda tapped her fingers against the top of the rolled down window, feeling a slight breeze offer some comfort from the eighty degrees outside.
Clint turned into town and parked the truck on a curb. Before getting out, he took a deep breath and asked, “You okay?”
Wanda looked at him blankly.
“The bookstore’s right over there,” he pointed, “Go in, get a coke or something. Please sit. And read.” He sounded a little scared, and Wanda knew why.
“You know what my number is. Find a phone if you need it and-“
“I’m not going to kill myself,” she said half-heartedly. She didn’t really mean it-in fact, Wanda was more than ready to commit suicide, she just didn’t want to do it there. It wouldn’t be fair to Clint or Laura. Too much of a mess to clean up.
“I don’t believe you,” Clint said matter of factly. “I’ve been around a lot of suicidal people and I can tell.”
“You can’t always tell,” Wanda raised her voice, “Can’t I be…sad?”
“Sad is when your pet fish dies. That’s not what this is. You heard what the doctors said. You have PTSD. And right now, I just need to know that I can leave you on your own. I worry every time you go off by yourself.”
She repeated, “I’m not going to kill myself. I won’t. Can I go now?”
They looked at each other in silence for a moment or two before Clint let out a heavy sigh and nodded. “Go on.”
Wanda swung the car door open and hopped out onto the sidewalk. Small towns were so strange to her after living in a concrete jungle all of her life. The cute little buildings with flower pots in the windows and people greeting each other by name because nobody was a stranger…she felt like she was on a different planet.
The bookstore had a little bell that rang when you opened the door, and stacks of teetering old novels all piled on top of each other like Jenga blocks. The cream colored paint was chipping off the walls in some places, revealing cracks underneath, and one of the lights overhead was flickering, which barely made a difference since sunlight was streaming through the windows. Wanda liked it a lot more than any place she’d seen in town so far.
A friendly looking man with a wild red beard and glasses looked up at her from the front desk as soon as he heard the bell ring. “Welcome! Can I help you with anything?”
Wanda opened her mouth to speak, and what came out was a failed attempt at sounding like an American girl. “I-no, I’m just looking…” she gave up. “I just wanted to look around.”
“Well, we’ve got plenty for you to look at. Let me know if there’s anything I can help you find.”
She nodded politely and took a few steps forward in between two shelves. One of them held a dark blue volume with silver lettering. She picked it up and flipped through the paper covered with tiny black print and suddenly felt a lump in her throat that she swallowed down as soon as it showed up. There was something in that book, a story that she was never going to know about.
You’re being so stupid. Who cares if you can’t read?
The bell at the door jingled again and the man at the front desk greeted the newcomer with more familiarity. “Now there’s a nice face to see. Haven’t caught you around here in awhile.”
“I promise you’ll see me way more now.”
Wanda’s heart stuttered. She tentatively peeked out from behind the shelf to see if the voice really belonged to who she thought it did and…yep. Definitely her. Blonde hair and long legs and all.
Carol made a move in her direction and Wanda immediately ducked down behind the shelves, letting her long, dark hair cover her face as if it was actually going to hide her. Fortunately, Carol moved on somewhere else, and Wanda let out a sigh of relief. Then she mentally slapped herself. What the hell was wrong with her? Carol was a nice person she had met yesterday and yes, she’d almost gotten the woman in trouble for a hit and run and she had probably been awkward as hell for the whole conversation after just staring at her while lying on a dirt road but-
Never mind. She had perfect reason not to want to see Carol.
Wanda leaned against the bookshelf and tried to breath deeply, eyes closed. The semblance of relaxation lasted for only a moment before she felt one of the books behind her moving as someone pulled it out from the other side of the shelf. She spun around, lost her footing as she tripped over her long skirt, and fell onto her stomach on the floor. The person on the other side gasped loudly. “Oh, shit! Sorry. I didn’t mean to…”
This was not happening.
Wanda looked up to find, for the second damn time, Carol staring down at her with an outstretched arm. As soon as she saw her face, her mouth opened in surprise. “I… almost ran you over yesterday, didn’t I?”
Wanda didn’t answer out loud. She just nodded very slowly. They were staring at each other again.
Carol actually grinned at her. “This feels very deja-vu-ish. You’re on the ground staring all quiet and the extended hand is to help you up. Just so you know.”
Wanda’s face flushed bright pink as she took Carol’s hand and stumbled to her feet, finally managed to stutter out an apology.
“Hey, it’s fine,” Carol put her hands up. “I feel like I should say that we should really stop meeting like this, though.”
“Meeting like what?”
“With you on the ground.”
Wanda couldn’t argue with that. She’d now managed to humiliate herself twice in front of this woman and they barely knew each other. They didn’t know each other at all, really. She bent down to pick up the book she had dropped and clutched it to her chest. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bother you. I just-“
“What book is that?” Carol asked interestedly, “Do you like to read?”
“Oh.” She was really fumbling with her words now. “No. I mean, I would like to. But I can’t.”
Carol raised an eyebrow. “And you’re in a bookstore.”
“My foster family doesn’t know I can’t. I don’t really want to tell them. They think I’d like it here and I just didn’t want to make them feel like I don’t have anything to do. Anyways,” she looked down at the book again, “This one is pretty.”
“Yeah, it is.” Carol leaned forward to look at the title. “Frankenstein. You know Frankenstein?”
She shook her head.
“It’s a scary story.”
“Stories don’t scare me anymore.”
“Uh-huh,” she gave her a little hint of a smirk, but it wasn’t mean. “Do they make you sad? It’s a tragedy too.”
Lots of things made her sad, and Wanda was pretty sure that it wouldn’t take much from this Frankenstein book to do it too. “I think so. You have read it?”
“Yeah, in high school. But I liked it. It wasn’t like one of those reading assignments you just really hate and copy shit from Cliffs Notes, you know what I mean?”
Wanda had no idea what that meant, but she pretended that she did and nodded along. “What is it about?”
“This idiot scientist who…” Carol trailed off. “You need the full experience. Otherwise how are you gonna know whether you like it or not?”
She shrugged. “I can like the idea of it.”
“Come on. You don’t want to spend the rest of your life staring at book covers and wishing you knew what was inside them. Ask your foster parents to read it to you.”
She shook her head. “They do too much already.”
“Maybe we can find a translation in your language somewhere.”
“I can’t really read in that either,” Wanda said, “Just simple things. We only went to school when we were little.”
“Okay. Well, I’ll read to you then.”
That definitely came as a surprise. Wanda took a step backward and eyed Carol suspiciously. “You don’t even know me.”
“I know you hear a sad story,” she said a bit teasingly. “Come on, I told you yesterday I’m not a serial killer. I’m not going to attack you with the book.”
Wanda tried not to laugh at the thought. “I know that.”
“Okay, good. Come on,” Carol put an arm around her shoulders and steered her over to a corner. “Everyone deserves to have books. Honestly I used to not be a huge reader type, but I’ve been branching out lately.”
Wanda sat down next to an overstuffed cushion that was probably there to make reading experiences on the floor more comfortable. Carol crossed her legs and flipped the book open, clearing her throat and beginning in a deep and dramatic voice, “You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise…”
Wanda actually did laugh at that, which seemed to make Carol happy. She grinned. “I knew I could turn that frown upside down.”
Wanda suppressed her giggles behind her hand. “What is commencement and enterprise?”
“Commencement is starting something, enterprise is a big project.”
“This isn’t scary.”
“Be patient,” Carol winked. “I’ll scare you soon enough.”
idk what a buzzsaw is. anyways, thank you for reading, reviews make me happy *wink wink*