Annie Hartley: The Lonely They

Short Story by Annie Hartley ’15.

Black polka dots appeared across the Bubbles-the-Powerpuff-Girl blue sky. We all knew what it meant. Mommy said we had exactly five minutes and seven seconds before they came. The teachers let us out of school, and we waved goodbyes before we went home. Nobody hurried, so different from my hamster in his wheel; they just packed up whatever they were doing, locked their shops, and joined us kids in the streets.

I balanced on the curb as I walked, arms held out to either side of me and tongue poked out my mouth. This was the fifth time this week that the sky had looked like one of my mommy’s summer dresses. I turned onto my street, hopping over the metal sewer mouth, and counted each house until I reached mine.

One, two, three, four, five. Like me. That was how I remembered.

Mommy was waiting in the doorway, leaning against the frame. She straightened when she saw me and beckoned. I skipped up the sidewalk, up the stairs, and into the house. Then Mommy shut the door. She turned the lock and reached up to touch the sigil above the frame, waking up the ward that would keep mean visitors out. I didn’t really know what sigil meant, but that was the word Mommy used, so I knew it was important. In the other rooms, Daddy was doing the same to all the windows.

We had been taught not to look at them and certainly don’t let them into your house.

I slipped my green backpack off and reached up to hang it on its hook that was decorated with stickers, stretching up on my tiptoes. I kicked off my rubber flip-flops, making sure they were perfectly lined up against the wall. We went through every room, and I turned off all the lights while Mommy lit the scented candles that would mask our human smell.

Outside, the air began to crackle. I could hear them coming. It reminded me of how sometimes you could hear the music coming out of someone’s headphones. My mommy always talked about them like the words ‘them’ and ‘they’ had a capital ‘T’. She wouldn’t tell me anything about them. She only warned me that they had come to steal our manna.

I didn’t see why we shouldn’t give it to them. None of us could use our manna, anyways.

Mommy never replied when I said that.

Sometimes, Daddy would say that the manna wasn’t ours to give.

I never understood what he meant.

Mommy ushered me into the kitchen. We couldn’t eat until after they were gone, because they could sense our absorption of the food, and it would draw them to our house. Those were Mommy’s words. I didn’t know what absorption was. Still, we liked to sit at the dinner table with empty plates in front of us and pretend that everything was normal.

Sometimes, they stayed for hours. Sometimes, it was just minutes or even seconds. Once, they stayed for two whole days, and Mommy kept looking at Daddy and then at the fridge, but he kept shaking his head, and I sat there with my tummy hurting, wishing the stupid they would go away.

I liked it when they came at night. Mommy and Daddy taped my curtains shut to protect me from them, but sometimes I liked to peel the tape back and peek outside to look at their light. They made the whole town glow like Christmas.

They came through portals, Daddy said, but that was another word I didn’t know.

“Why?” I asked every time.

“Because They want our manna,” he repeated.

“Why?”

“I guess because they need it.”

“Are they hungry?”

He never knew what to say to that.

“Is it their food?”

Daddy looked at Mommy. She shrugged, and they didn’t answer me.

I wanted to see them. I searched the light through the crack in my curtains, but it hurt too bad, and I had to squint my eyes shut and close the curtains.

“Do they make the polka dots?” I asked.

“No. The dots are warnings,” Mommy answered.

“From who?”

Mommy and Daddy didn’t know the answer.

Sometimes, I stood before the door and stared at it, watching the purple glow start at the sigil and float all the way down the door to the floor. I wanted to open it up and step outside to see what they were. In my mind, I saw it happen. I reached up towards the sigil, touching it and turning it off. I grabbed the knob and turned, stepping out into the lights. Mommy always grabbed my arm and led me away before my fingers touched the carving.

This time, they stayed longer than just a day. They stayed longer than two days. On the third day, I couldn’t move from the couch, and the only thing I’d put in my mouth was water. My tummy hurt. Mommy and Daddy wouldn’t even let me watch cartoons, because the noise would attract them. On the fourth day, Mommy finally opened up the fridge, and we all had something to eat. A feast. She let me have ice cream for breakfast. Afterwards, I threw it up. Mommy held my head in her cool hands and stroked my hair, and I fell asleep in her lap.

That night, they gathered around our house.

My best friend, Ami, told me she’d seen one of them once, but I didn’t believe her. “How come they didn’t steal your manna?”

“They were too busy stealing my grampee’s.”

They wouldn’t leave our house alone. The wards around our doors and windows glowed red like a cherry lollipop, and their music was louder, but only I could hear it. When I asked Mommy and Daddy about it, they looked at me with huge eyes and pressed their hands against my ears.

My twin heard the music, too, but he had disappeared two weeks ago when I had been waiting them out at Ami’s house.

“Do you think they’re lonely?”

“No. Be quiet before They hear you.”

“I would be lonely.”

Mommy put her hand over my mouth. It wasn’t cool anymore. It was warm and sweaty. Icky. Like a boy’s hand.

Mommy and Daddy fell asleep, but my eyes just wouldn’t close. I could still hear the music, and I felt like it wanted me to sing along. I loved singing along to all the little tunes my teacher taught us in kindergarten. I slipped out from Mommy’s arm. She shifted and whispered something, but she didn’t wake up. I went to the door, and I reached up to touch the sigil.

I opened the door after the cherry lollipop color had disappeared. They were waiting outside with outstretched arms. I saw my twin.

They were like me.

Lonely.

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