Uma made a habit of standing in front of a full mirror with a towel wrapped around her head. Always like this when she was fresh from the shower with ropes of her wheat-colored hair curled behind her ears. She forever wanted longer and longer hair, so she stood in front of the mirror with her towel wrap and pretended it was thicker, more luxurious hair than she could ever hope for.
“Your hair is already pretty,” I told her.
The very same week Dad left, we moved in with Uma, her two younger sisters, and Norman, my mom’s brother. Norman’s wife had left him earlier in the year and there was room in the house. Two months later I was sure I had fallen in love with Uma.
Uma jerked the towel from her head and stomped away. I found her in front of the television watching a show that had something to do with lizard people.
“What’s on?” I asked.
She didn’t answer right away, so I sat down next to her, gauging her body language to see if she minded. She didn’t flinch or scoot away or leave for the other room. She seemed to be in a trance, completely lost in this lizard world. I envied how she could turn off the world around her. I wanted to learn how.
“It’s called V,” she finally said. “You never heard of V? My gosh. Probably because you’re always a baby and can’t watch anything scary. Well I’m not a baby.”
We sat and watched V for the next thirty minutes. When the show ended, Uma got up without a word and went to the bedroom the four of us shared. I followed after her and got to the bedroom in time to see her spill belly-down across the bed pulling at her hair.
“It’ll make it grow faster,” she said without looking at me in the doorway.
I crossed the room and crawled into bed with her. I wanted to touch her hair.
“Let me help.”
She exhaled in an exaggerated way and turned toward me.
“Go ahead.” The two words came out in a whisper.
For as long as she let me, I curled her hair around my knuckles and pulled, sometimes gently and sometimes more aggressively. She didn’t say anything as I went from playful to rough, only wiggled her toes while scissoring her legs in the air. Her whole body seemed to move like a kind of fluid inside her clothes.
Uma explained that V was about aliens called The Visitors who came to Earth basically dressed in people suits. But underneath they were flesh-eating reptiles from outer space who wanted to take over the planet. She said they fooled everybody into thinking they were dying and needed just a few little things to save themselves. The government believed them hook, line, and sinker. And some of the people, even after they found out The Visitors were bad, still helped them.
The next night another episode played loudly in the living room. Uma and Norman and Mom all sat watching. My other two cousins, Angie and Yolanda, were asleep. I sat on the front porch watching traffic pass by in rumbling packs while the sun died. I had no interest in watching. There wasn’t much in that show I didn’t already know about and plenty.
Besides Uma, here’s what happened living with Norman and my cousins:
Getting ready for school in the mornings, always in the mostly dark because Norman worked a part time night shift and had only been asleep for about an hour when we got up. Their clothes were always newer than mine, brighter, cleaner, better fitting.
Feeling my stomach drop every time I came in the house and had to take off my shoes. My feet always smelled bad, but the carpet was new. I hurried into the bedroom as fast as I could and sat cross-legged in the floor, my feet tucked safely away, my heart flapping inside my chest.
Feeling low and small in the dark. Feeling less than good. Feeling this by myself and not sure what to do about it except close my eyes and decide not to open them until morning.
Having a contest with Uma and Norman the first day we moved in to see who could eat the most cans of beef ravioli. Not because I wanted to have fun or because Norman had picked up twenty cans free from his friend at Kroger. I ate and ate and ate because I was hungry.
Norman yelling at me for drinking the last Coke in the house.
Norman yelling at me for using too much toilet paper.
Norman yelling at me for eating too many of his snack cakes for work.
Norman yelling at me for forgetting to turn off lights when I left rooms and wasting electricity.
Norman yelling at me for taking too long to shower and running up the water bill.
Overhearing Norman say to Mom late one night, “Annie, he never was right in the head. He’s a few cards short of a full deck. Everybody knows that.”
He was talking about my dad.
The first night Uma crawled into my bed was because of the show about the reptile aliens. She didn’t say that was the reason, but I knew. The idea of reptile visitors who looked like normal people coming to your world and taking over was the kind of thing that didn’t sink in until after nightfall. And it didn’t help in the least that Norman told a whole batch of his true stories about aliens and UFOs all that evening.
He might as well have carried her into bed with me.
I spent the next three nights combing my fingers through Uma’s hair and watching the muscles in her neck pull tight and then relax again like a butterfly wing. She breathed in sort of reverse whistles every time I ran my fingers through, the air passing her lips slow and easy. She kept her eyes closed and rolled onto her side so that we spooned in the bed. I couldn’t know if Uma felt the same as I did at her house, but we shared something close together that way. We became one person trying to be better, look better, walk more quietly, use less, eat less, maybe exist a little longer on whatever we could give and take from each other. To survive.
A week or so passed and then one night I left to use the bathroom. When I came back to bed, Uma was gone. I looked through the house and then went outside to search some more.
Uma sat on the edge of the porch. Muted yellow light covered her right side, a thick slant of it from a streetlamp on the corner. Her body was drawn into itself with her arms wrapped around her knees. She slumped forward with her back arched so that it seemed she was trying to collapse in on herself. I sat beside her and after a few seconds she unfurled herself and leaned onto my shoulder.
“Sorry I called you a baby,” she said, and then slipped her hand into mine.
I had an instinct to pull back but instead settled in and let her curl her fingers around mine. “About the lizard people show? That’s okay.” This touching, hand in hand, was different than in the bed, more intimate somehow, more definite. I felt all the atoms that made up my body pulling away from all the atoms that made up her body. I wanted to dig my fingers into the bones of her hand, claw my way out from beneath her skin.
“No, it’s not okay. I’m the one that’s scared. Scared of that stupid show. Scared of ghosts and scared of the dark. Scared I’m going to lose my hair for no good reason. I’m scared of everything all the time.”
She spoke in a rush, the words tumbling out into the night, and suddenly her hand felt heavy inside mine, a jagged object becoming warmer and more dense until it seemed my own skin might peel and curl from the heat or break apart entirely. I didn’t want to hold her hand anymore. I didn’t want to play with her hair or lay together as one person. I wanted to climb her body, jump to the rooftop and veer away, disappear into the stars forever.
When it seemed the tension could become no stronger without splitting, I felt Uma’s hand relax and then the tickle of her fingers sliding across my own until we were two people again. I could sense how much she needed me to speak, to respond, to hold her in some way with words, and I opened my mouth wide, wider and wider and wider, but never offered a single sound.
About the author:
Sheldon Lee Compton is the author of three books, most recently the novel Brown Bottle (Bottom Dog Press, 2016). His most recent fiction and poetry can be found in People Holding, gobbet, Unbroken Journal, Live Nude Poems, New World Writing, and Gravel. He was cited in Best Small Fictions 2015 and Best Small Fictions 2016.
Watch Sheldon read his story here – https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x5el2w0?playlist=x4u9xd