She remembered the day Sophie’s grandmother told her about the gold coin.
The gold coin existed only if you were paying attention.
It existed only during certain times of the day.
Above all, it existed only in Mrs. Meecham’s living room, next to the sofa covered with quilts, near the stairs that would lead you to the rooms above.
On one of the walls in the living room, there was a small stained-glass window forming the image of a benevolent lady sitting by a garden; it came with the place, Sophie’s grandmother had explained to her; and, when bathed in the sunlight, the stained glass would produce a circular reflection on the floor of the living room. A gold coin. Millie first noticed it back in the early days of her and Sophie’s friendship. She had noticed the coin because she had nearly stepped on it. She let out a surprised sound, a treasure found, and, bending her knees, tried to catch it, fingers ready to touch the coin, finding only the hardness of the polished wooden floor.
Sophie’s grandmother laughed warmly at the scene.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “When Gil and I bought the place, I did the same thing. I saw the coin and thought it was real. I tried to catch it—what a lucky find! In our new place!—but it’s only a trick.”
A trick. Like a magician pulling knickknacks out of people’s ears and hair. Millie stepped on the coin. The coin now shone on her sneaker.
• • • •
“Can I tell you a secret?” Mrs. Meecham asked. Millie nodded. At this, Sophie, who was sitting by the couch, watching TV, simply rolled her eyes, as if she had heard many a time the story her grandmother was ready to share. “You see, the coin is not always there,” and Mrs. Meecham pointed to the bright, circular spot. “But, sometimes . . . it is. You have to check it every time you go by.” Every time, Millie thought. Bending, trying to catch something that wasn’t real. “One day, not so long after we had moved in, I tried to catch it again—and, this time, I made it! There it was: a coin. Made of pure gold.”
Millie tried to imagine a younger version of Mrs. Meecham holding the coin in the palm of her hand, the weight of the gold.
“Grams . . .” said Sophie, but she was promptly ignored.
“I kept the coin,” Mrs. Meecham went on. “I kept thinking about what I would buy with it, but the coin was so beautiful—I could never bring myself to spend it. So I slept with the coin under my pillow. For luck, I guess. That’s when they came for me—during the night.”
“They? Wait, who came?”
“The Good People,” Mrs. Meecham said, with a wink. “Faeries. Goblins? I just call them the Good People. In Ireland, that’s how my mother’s family would call them. They came and they said that, since I had found their coin, I was now their queen.”
“So . . . you’re the queen of the fairies,” said Millie. She was thinking of little girls wearing glittery wings. “What powers did they give you?”
“Abundant happiness.” Mrs. Meecham stretched her arms, encompassing the whole of her kingdom: that beloved house. And she laughed, and Millie laughed too, because of course it was a joke.
But she never let go of the image: a queen crowned with a beautiful crown, holding a coin made of pure gold.
• • • •
They lived in a small town in Pennsylvania, once an industrial town, now a place that was neither here nor there; a place most people forgot about once they left it behind. During summers, they’d lie lazily on the grass in Millie’s backyard, where there was a pool. They’d be wearing bikinis and their heart-shaped sunglasses, bought at the same convenience store—cheap, plastic sunglasses, Millie’s with lenses tinted blue and Sophie’s pink-tinted. They’d wonder at that world they knew so well, now pink and now blue, trading the sunglasses and laughing at how the colors changed everything, made everything strange. They’d suck on lollipops and feel their lips and their whole mouths grow sticky, and they’d be unbothered by the bugs trying to crawl over their bodies.
“Please tell me you’re using sunscreen!” Millie’s mother would say whenever they went inside the house, wrapped in towels, their shoulders always a tone darker, Sophie’s gone from milky white to lobster red, and Millie’s own black skin getting richer and warmer—she’d sometimes touch her skin and feel as if the sun itself was emanating from inside her body. “Wear sunscreen! Emilia, Sophie, are you listening to me? That’s how people get cancer!”
And they’d laugh. They’d laugh and laugh.
• • • •
wanna show u something, Sophie texted her.
what? Millie answered.
come and i’ll show u, Sophie wrote.
That’s how it began, usually. That’s how a descent started, even when nobody noticed it. A descent that could be dark like a burrow, hidden somewhere very close to where you lived—and maybe you never knew.
• • • •
She truly couldn’t remember a life without Sophie, but she remembered the day they met. Millie was nine, and she’d spent the whole summer skating up and down their street on her new rollerblades. By the end of the street, in the smooth curve of a cul-de-sac, sat Sophie’s grandmother’s house, where lived the old lady who Millie would sometimes spot sitting on the porch, or watering her plants—so many plants on that porch. A reclusive, nice neighbor, Millie’s parents often said. Mrs. Meecham. Sometimes, Millie would greet her out of pity, because she thought reclusive meant sad, and Mrs. Meecham would smile and wave. Her hair was short and pure white, a cotton cloud. She often wore rings and bracelets that weighted down her bony hands and arms, and she had piercing blue eyes, the color Millie expected the sea to be.
One evening, as the sun went down and the lights began shining inside the houses, Millie, with her rollerblades, made her way to that quiet cul-de-sac and saw a girl sitting on the porch’s swing bed, gently rocking herself.
“Hey,” Millie said, under her whole apparatus: the helmet, her knee pads and elbow pads. She always felt like a Transformer when she was skating.
“Hi,” the other girl said.
“What are you doing there?” Mrs. Meecham was a widow and lived by herself; that much Millie knew.
“I’m Sophie,” the girl said. When she seemed to realize that didn’t mean much to Millie, she added: “The granddaughter?” More of a question than an affirmation, as if the girl herself doubted her current status. Millie’d never heard about any granddaughter, but she knew next to nothing about Mrs. Meecham’s life.
“I’m Millie,” Millie said. “I’m your grandmother’s neighbor.” They stared at each other, silently. “Okay, then. See you around,” Millie said, and she skated back to her house, aware that Sophie was watching from the swing.
She came by the next day, as Millie was putting on her rollerblades. She brought rollerblades of her own, shining new, pink and white.
“Hi,” Sophie said. “Grams told me where you lived.”
Since she didn’t know how to put the rollerblades on, Millie helped her. She held Sophie’s hand as Sophie tried to stand up, as she trembled with the fear of falling. Millie helped her move one foot after the other, to find her balance. In the end, they looked as if they were dancing on the garage pathway.
“You look like a robot,” Sophie said.
“I’m Optimus Prime,” said Millie, and then she made an attempt at imitating robotic noises. Sophie rose her eyebrows a bit, somewhat stunned—but then she laughed.
And that was it: they became friends, no other explanation required. They became friends in that urgent way lonely girls sometimes would. They shared clothes, they shared toys, they became each other’s reflection. Only later, when her parents explained the whole situation, would Millie understand how Sophie ended up on that porch: Sophie’s mother had been ruled unfit to take care of her daughter, so Sophie’s grandmother stepped in and became her legal guardian. Before being taken by her grandmother, Sophie had spent most of her life moving from one place to another, wherever her mother could hold a job; they’d live in one-bedroom apartments while Sophie’s mother would spend most of their money on drinking.
Sophie never told those things to Millie. Her past was a private matter, in contrast with the present, in which Millie knew every single one of Sophie’s secrets. Sophie would barely speak of her mother; when she did, she’d repeat the same thing: that her mother would one day come back for her, and they’d move to some other place.
“You’ll come and visit us, of course,” Sophie would always add; and, to that, Millie wouldn’t say a word. She’d rather not think about it, about Sophie gone, leaving her alone.
• • • •
At school, they were the weird girls. They’d spend a lot of time in the bathroom. Not smoking things they weren’t supposed to smoke, as a lot of people would presume, but taking Sharpies out of their backpacks and answering rude messages written on the stalls. Much of the time, the messages weren’t even meant for them—but they’d answer all the same. And sometimes they’d use those same sharpies to draw on each other’s arms, since they were too young to get real tattoos. Millie was the better artist.
Draw me a snake, Sophie would ask. Right here, she’d say, pressing on the inside of her own wrist.
Draw me a heart. Put my name on it. Put your name on it.
And Millie would draw everything Sophie asked, and then Sophie would return the favor; their skin, some days, would look like a fading writing board, hearts and snakes and names fading slowly.
• • • •
wanna show u something, Sophie texted her.
what? Millie answered.
come and i’ll show u, Sophie wrote.
Millie put on a coat. It was early autumn, and a sharp breeze already blew through their street, the leaves in the trees that lined the sidewalks growing a deep red—before the time they’d become yellow and orange and finally fall over the concrete, creating a carpet Millie loved to walk on. As she walked towards Mrs. Meecham’s house, Millie found herself thinking about it: even surrounded by other houses, in that cul-de-sac, it seemed like a remote retreat, with its white paint cracked, the porch and the old swing Millie came to know so well, the plants growing in their pots, luscious and fragrant.
She rang the doorbell and waited until Sophie opened the door. Millie was taken a little aback by how pale Sophie looked. They were sixteen, at last. Puberty had caught them, had pulled their bodies in this and that direction, transforming the little girls they had been. Millie had become almost a head taller than Sophie during that time. Sophie’s limbs had become long, bony knuckles and bony knees, and whenever Millie would think about her, she’d think about the word fairy.
“Is your grandma speaking to the plants again?” Millie asked, in an attempt to humor Sophie—because Sophie’s face was strangely solemn. However, it was true she’d seen Mrs. Meecham talking to her plants before, mostly those she kept on the porch, as if she could make the flowers bloom with some pep talk.
Sophie didn’t answer. There was even more solemnity to her silence. She stepped outside, carefully closing the door behind her.
“Come with me,” she said, and guided Millie to the backyard.
That was another stark difference between Mrs. Meecham’s house and the other houses. Millie’s own house had a fenced backyard; if one would try to jump over the fence, they would land in another’s person’s backyard, on the backstreet. But Mrs. Meecham’s backyard had no fences, had no back neighbors. Her garden extended itself for a good measure, and then, suddenly, it was engulfed by trees that never seemed to end, like a private forest.
“What’s there?” Millie asked Mrs. Meecham one day.
“In the woods?”
“Well. Trees—and more trees. And then, I suppose, at some point, you’ll reach something else; another street. Houses, maybe,” But Mrs. Meecham’s eyes glinted with a bit of mischievousness. “Or maybe the woods go on forever—maybe you’d find a castle, eventually. With a princess living inside.”
“And the Good People,” Millie added.
“And the Good People,” Mrs. Meecham agreed.
“There are no castles and no princesses in Pennsylvania, Grams,” Sophie’d say. Later, she’d admonish Millie for indulging in her grandmother’s stories: “If you believe that shit, you’re just as stupid as she is.” And that’s where their conversations would usually end—at that tender point, the stories Sophie’s grandmother told them.
“Sophs, where are we going?” Millie asked, as they ventured into the shadows of the forest. She could hear the birds singing somewhere far and above.
Sophie put her finger over her lips. They walked for about five minutes—until Millie couldn’t see the house when she looked over her shoulders.
“Sophs,” she said.
“Here,” Sophie said.
Here? Millie looked around. Where was here?
Sophie approached what seemed to be a mound—a rock, really, covered by beautiful green moss. And then, under the rock, there was a hole. Roots half-covered it, like a curtain—and beyond that, there was only darkness.
“Here,” Sophie said again, as she crouched before the hole. “I saw her here.”
“My grandmother. I saw her right here. She was singing to it. She spoke to it.”
“Spoke . . . to what?”
“I don’t know. She was just singing, and then she was speaking. It wasn’t English.”
“Is it, like, a raccoon burrow?”
But Sophie wasn’t looking at her. She continued to contemplate the hole under the rock.
“That’s what you wanted to show me? Really?” Millie asked.
“Take a look,” Sophie said. She started parting the roots, revealing more and more of that darkness.
“Cool,” Millie said, crouching side by side with Sophie. She squinted her eyes, but couldn’t see anything beyond the darkness. Still, the thought of Mrs. Meecham singing and talking to baby wildlife was strangely endearing to Millie; it added up to her loony old lady aura, it fitted her like a perfect coat.
Millie noticed Sophie’s hands were trembling.
“What’s going on?” she whispered.
Sophie just shook her head. As if gathering courage, her lips somewhat pressed, she said: “Hi.” Not to Millie, but to the burrow; her voice echoed, deep in that hiding place, and Millie was shocked at the thought that it could be a cave—something deeper and hollow, and right there, at the end of their street. She put her hand on Sophie’s shoulder and waited. They both waited, the sounds of the woods dying around them. They waited, but nothing came from that burrow. Nothing to greet Sophie back.
“Let’s go,” Sophie said, grabbing Millie’s arms with urgency and helping her up. “Let’s go.”
When they emerged from the woods, back in the garden, Mrs. Meecham was waiting for them.
“Where have you been?” she asked, her fingers shining with her rings, gripping her long floral skirt.
“We found a burrow or something,” Millie said. “Have you been talking to the Good People?” She smiled as she asked this—and she expected Mrs. Meecham would respond in the same spirit; that perhaps she’d even wink at Millie’s joke. But Mrs. Meecham went pale. She clasped Sophie’s wrist.
“Don’t do this. Don’t you ever do this,” she said, her blue eyes almost burning with anger.
“Grams, you’re hurting me!” Sophie said.
And Millie, at the same time: “Mrs. Meecham, no!”
Mrs. Meecham blinked. Her anger subsided, her expression turned soft, and she released Sophie from her grip.
“Oh, love. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I just don’t want you two to harm yourselves. You can break a leg if you step into a hole and fall. You can . . .”
“Fine, whatever,” Sophie said, while her grandmother touched her own mouth with her fingertips. Mrs. Meecham’s lips quivered. She seemed to be about to cry.
“I just want you to be safe. That’s all,” Mrs. Meecham said. “You know—ticks. There are a lot of ticks in places like this, and I don’t want you to . . .”
“Whatever,” Sophie said again; she left her grandmother behind—Mrs. Meecham staring at the woods, silently—and Millie went after her.
“Sophie,” Millie said, but Sophie didn’t answer. “Sophs?”
“She’s crazy,” Sophie said, once they were back to the porch.
“Don’t say that about your grandma.”
Sophie stared at her, her eyes strangely opaque—dead eyes, Millie thought, with a shiver. There was no emotion there.
“You like her because she acts nice around you,” Sophie said. “But she isn’t nice. She isn’t.”
She didn’t say goodbye to Millie as she opened the door and then closed it again; she didn’t invite Millie in, and she didn’t wait for Millie to say anything. Millie stood there for a few seconds, hands deep in her coat’s pockets, without knowing exactly whether she should feel worried or insulted. She walked back home, sometimes looking over her shoulders—somewhat expecting Sophie to open the door again and run to her, laughing and apologizing—but it didn’t happen.
• • • •
Sophie missed school for a few days; then, for a full week.
where r u?
Sophie never answered. Millie would sometimes stand at her own front door, looking at that last house on their street—and wonder. Wonder at what made her not want to go there.
• • • •
Millie had a job at a yogurt place. She spent lonely afternoons scooping yogurts and sprinkling them with berries, serving them to groups of young girls or couples. (For some reason, and it was forever a source of entertainment to Millie, she had never seen a single male or group of men walk into the shop.)
During her breaks, in the small storeroom in the back of the shop, Millie was always deep in her reading. Octavia Butler, Ursula le Guin, Anne McCaffrey. Millie loved fantasy and science fiction. She even enjoyed stories about fairies—other people’s Good People—and in those books, to her, every protagonist was Sophie, and every kind old lady was Mrs. Meecham.
There was a knock.
“Hey,” Lillian announced herself, opening the door. “Your friend is here.” Lillian was the other girl who worked during Millie’s turn. A goth, older girl, who always had to clean her face and destroy that beautiful make-up of hers, her beautiful eyeliner, before putting on her uniform and ditching her black boots for Walmart working shoes. Whenever Millie saw Lillian coming in, her lips still black—or a deep red—she’d feel something funny stirring inside herself. She’d feel her face get hot, and the urge to start silly conversations—which was why she mostly kept her mouth shut.
“My friend?” Millie asked.
“Sophie? I think that’s her name,” Lillian said.
And it was Sophie. She was waiting in the driver’s seat of a red car Millie had never seen before.
“You like it?” Sophie asked, smiling proudly.
It was an older model, something probably cheap, but polished and taken care of.
“Where did you get the money?” Millie asked.
“Oh. I’ve been saving.” Sophie didn’t have a job—at least, not that Millie knew of. Once they’d planned on starting a babysitting service, but Sophie’s serious stares, and the way she didn’t know how to behave around children, made most potential clients back off. When Millie got her job at the yogurt shop, Sophie said she was being considered for a job in fast food, but it had been months already, and Millie never heard of it again.
“C’mon, let’s go for a ride,” Sophie said. Millie looked back at the yogurt shop. Lilian was watching them, an eyebrow slightly raised.
“I only have fifteen minutes,” Millie said.
Sophie shrugged. “That’s fine.”
She drove like a wild thing. Millie grabbed her own seatbelt in silence, but when Sophie turned to her and laughed, Millie managed to produce a burst of nervous laughter back. The car was clean and shining—and to look at Sophie driving, it was like looking at someone else. Her cheeks had gained color, her hair seemed softer, and her lips were always curled in a smile.
“Let’s get something. Ice cream, not that grub you sell,” Sophie said.
Millie felt defensive: “There’s nothing wrong with frozen yogurt,” she said, but her voice lacked any conviction, and Sophie just laughed louder. They stopped at a Dairy Queen. They had their sundaes sitting on the car hood. For the first time in her life, for the first time since she had known Sophie, Millie found herself out of words. Sophie didn’t seem to care. She devoured her sundae eagerly, watching the stars. When a couple of guys left the Dairy Queen, she howled at them—she actually howled at two grown men, startling Millie, who almost let her own sundae drop. The two guys seemed surprised, too. They smiled, waved, but made no attempt to approach the girls. Instead, they walked away.
“Cowards,” Sophie said under her breath.
A few moments later, just so she could fill the silence, Millie said: “So . . . are you planning on going back to school?”
“Ah. Sure. Gotta get those grades, right?” She elbowed Millie very softly. Sophie never particularly cared about her grades, whereas Millie had been obsessing over college since they had turned fifteen. Millie wanted to go to Penn—that was the dream. And she desperately wanted Sophie to go with her, but Sophie always made fun of the idea.
“Like I’d get financial aid,” she used to say. “Like my grandma would bother with the tuition.”
“I’m sure she cares,” Millie would answer, inevitably.
“What’s the big deal, though? We don’t need to go to college. We can open our own business, be our own bosses. Girlbosses.” But she never presented a plan, never said there was something she really wanted to do. She imagined adulthood as a distant star, whose dead light shone on them from an impossible distance, and Millie indulged in her fantasies.
“How’s your grandma?” she asked, as Sophie finished her sundae.
“Fine,” Sophie said. “Actually, she’s a little sick. I mean, she has a cold. That’s why I haven’t been to school lately, you know—I have to cook and shit. Take care of her. But it’s fine.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Millie asked.
“Because, like I said, it’s fine.” She instantly became moody. She jumped from the hood, her boots gracefully landing on the concrete. She got rid of their plastic cups. “Our time’s up,” she said, as she got back to the car. She drove Millie to the yogurt shop, and they didn’t exchange words until Millie was undoing her seatbelt, getting ready to leave.
“Are you going to disappear again?” Millie asked her.
“I’m always around,” Sophie said. She sounded hurt, for some reason. “See you.”
Millie waited until Sophie was gone, the highlights shining, the car going too fast. When she entered the yogurt shop, Lillian was all by herself. She eyed Millie briefly, but didn’t ask anything. They had no clients until it was time to shut the shop down. Nobody liked frozen yogurt.
• • • •
wanna watch a movie tonight?
dunno. any movie I guess
• • • •
Millie had nice memories of curling up on Mrs. Meecham’s couch to watch movies—Transformers, Marvel movies, classics like The Princess Bride and Labyrinth, everything Jennifer Lopez or Drew Barrymore had ever starred in. Mrs. Meecham would sometimes put a vinyl on—she had a beautiful wooden record player—and dance, cajoling Millie into joining her; and, sometimes, to everyone’s surprise, even Sophie would dance. Music of decades before, Mrs. Meecham closing her eyes and holding both her fists close to her heart. She loved Sam Cooke, and she would dance to the sound of “Cupid” while holding the portrait of the late Mr. Meecham.
sure, Millie wrote back.
• • • •
She wanted to give something as a peace offering, so she bought red velvet cookies in a bakery nearby the yogurt shop. When Sophie opened the door, Millie greeted her with her gift.
“Oh. Thanks,” Sophie said. She took the package and waved Millie in. The first thing Millie noticed was the smell: the house had a terrible stink, like trash left under the sun for too long. The kitchen counter was filled with the packages of old takeout, and Sophie shrugged when she noticed Millie staring. “Sorry. I know it’s a mess.” She opened the plastic clamshell, took a cookie and devoured it in a matter of seconds; soon enough, she was biting on her second cookie. “These are good.” Her voice was muffled by the chewing.
“How’s your grandma?” Millie said.
“Yeah, I know. But what’s wrong with her? Is it really a cold?”
Sophie curled her lips in a half-smile.
“It’s old age, I think. Anyway, she’s sleeping.”
“Have you called someone?”
“Who’d I call?” Sophie asked. “Besides you, of course . . .” She sighed, and put the package on the counter, among the many boxes of old takeout. Millie tried not to breathe in that sour scent.
“Do you need help with that?” she asked.
“Leave it,” Sophie said. “C’mon.” She sat on the couch, and then went through the DVDs stashed under the coffee table.
“What’s it gonna be?” Sophie asked. “Drew and Adam Sandler or—Drew and Adam Sandler?” She held two different DVDs.
Before Millie could make her choice, she heard a bump from upstairs, and nearly jumped. Sophie went quiet. She eyed the ceiling for a long time, before hissing for a moment and getting up. She didn’t invite Millie to follow her, but that’s what Millie did; up the stairs, to the second floor, which rested in darkness.
Mrs. Meecham’s door was closed, but Sophie opened it as quietly as possible. Millie stood in the corridor, holding the door, looking inside.
She stepped back when she saw the hunched figure sitting on the bed. Sophie’s grandmother. Mrs. Meecham. Mrs. Meecham, who sang to the flowers, who danced to Sam Cooke while holding her dead husband’s portrait. Mrs. Meecham was that shape on the bed, barely recognizable, her camisole so flimsy Millie could see her thin body under it. Mrs. Meecham wasn’t looking at them, but staring at the windows, her lips were moving slowly, singing a song with no sound.
“Grams,” Sophie said, and then Mrs. Meecham turned to them; to Sophie, first—and then to Millie, standing by the door. She registered Sophie without any reaction, but as she fixed her gaze on Millie, something changed. Her eyes, which seemed lost before, were suddenly alive and bright.
“Oh, you,” she said, and she got up. She made her way to Millie, she held her arms to the girl. Millie fought the urge to recoil, to get away from that figure made of bones and wrinkled skin. Her camisole was soiled, the stink of urine almost unbearable. “Here. Here. For you.” Mrs. Meecham grabbed Millie’s hands and put something inside them; many somethings. Dried petals, dirt and, Millie realized, dead bugs. “Can you help me find my coin?” Mrs. Meecham asked. “She hid it from me.” And the way she looked at Sophie—as if Sophie was a hateful thing. Millie gasped, Mrs. Meecham’s dead treasures slipping through her trembling hands, as Sophie pushed her grandmother away, as gentle as she could.
“Grams, it’s Millie. You remember Millie, right?” she asked. Mrs. Meecham said nothing, and scraped her arms on the places Sophie touched her. Her arms without her bracelets, fingers without their rings; she looked fragile, as if a push could break her into many pieces.
Something pattered onto the carpet. Mrs. Meecham was peeing again.
“Help me,” Sophie whispered.
They bathed Mrs. Meecham. She didn’t fight them, but held firmly to Millie’s arms, her nails digging enough to leave marks. The tub wasn’t even half-filled, and the water was warm, but Mrs. Meecham trembled as the water touched her skin, her eyes pleading.
“It’s okay,” Millie said. “It’s okay.” Her own eyes were filling with tears.
Sophie tossed her grandmother’s dirty camisole into the trash. She acted methodically, and barely spoke to Millie as they scrubbed Mrs. Meecham’s back, her legs, her arms; her weakened body, bent as a thin tree.
“They’ll come for me, don’t you worry,” Mrs. Meecham said.
“Who?” Millie asked.
“The Good People. They know what you are doing.” She shot Sophie a frantic look, which Sophie ignored. When they were done, when Mrs. Meecham was dried, they put her in new clothes and helped her to the bed. Millie had changed the linen, but the room still smelled terrible, worse than the rest of the house. When Millie tried to open the window, Sophie told her to stop.
“Why?” Millie whispered.
“I can’t trust her with the windows open. Just don’t,” Sophie said. Millie backed away, something burning—like bile—in her throat.
When they turned the lights off and left Mrs. Meecham’s room, going downstairs again, Millie said: “Sophie, she needs a doctor.”
“Grams will be fine. I’m going to make her some tea, she’ll feel better.” She put water to boil, murmuring a song to herself as she reached for a tin can and carefully measured the herbs with a spoon. Millie observed, hypnotized, still unsure of what she should do with everything she had witnessed so far. The tea smelled sickly sweet. Sophie arranged a tray, put the porcelain cup with the steaming tea on it. She carried the tray to the stairs, but she stopped before reaching the first step. She turned to Millie, a pause, a punctuation in her movement—as if she wanted to say something. But nothing was said; she discreetly moved her head, and gone was the moment. Millie considered many things: grabbing her phone and calling someone, her mom or her dad; 911, maybe. As she went back to the couch, where she had left her backpack, she stopped.
A round coin had been placed between her and the couch.
Millie held her breath. There was only darkness outside, no sunlight shone through the round window with its stained glass, with the lady with the benevolent face. It had to be a trick. If she bowed, if she took the coin, her fingers would touch only the floor. There was nothing there, Millie told herself. And yet, she felt her body curving, she felt the need to touch, a voice—or many voices—saying take it, take it, save her . . .
“What are you doing?” Sophie asked. Millie blinked—how much time had passed? She turned around to see Sophie standing right behind her, without her tray, a curious look on her face. She looked at the floor again, but the illusion of the coin was gone.
“We need to call help,” Millie said.
“No,” Sophie said. “We can’t call anyone. What are they going to do? If they take Grams, what is going to happen to me?”
That was an answer Millie didn’t have.
“Please. Don’t call anyone. I’m begging you. If Grams gets worse, I’ll take her to the hospital. Please, please, please.” Sophie was shivering now. She went for Millie, arms outreached—and Millie, for some reason, braced herself for violence. But Sophie only hugged her. Sophie closed her arms around her, pressing and pressing. Millie never imagined her to be that strong.
“Okay,” Millie said, one hand resting on Sophie’s shoulder.
Sophie sobbed. She was still sobbing when Millie had her lay down on the sofa, sitting by her side, caressing her head. They slept with the television on, no rom-com on the screen; just regular news. Millie’s sleep was troubled, and she couldn’t find a comfortable position. Once, in the middle of the night, she woke up with an uneasiness crawling under her skin, thinking she had just heard something breaking, something like glass. She walked around the living room, quiet and careful not to step on any splinter, her heart beating fast. The windows were undisturbed; the kitchen was the same mess as before.
She went back to sleep, listening to Sophie’s soft snores, watching the shadows in the living room until she couldn’t keep her eyes open anymore.
• • • •
She had a dream.
She dreamed of opening the door to Mrs. Meecham’s room, and finding her standing on the bed. Naked, her thin body saggy and pale, her arms spread as if she was expecting an embrace. Mrs. Meecham wore a crown made of dead flowers and, around her bed, a curious congregation watched her. Creatures no taller than a human calf, green-skinned like moss. Mrs. Meecham smiled at Millie, and the creatures turned to her with their tiny black eyes, with crooked mouths and dark sharp teeth.
“They have come for me, Emilia. It will be alright. Everything is going to be alright.”
That was the last thing Mrs. Meecham ever said to Millie, in real life or in dreams.
When Millie woke up, she had a horrible taste in her mouth, as well as a dull headache. Sophie was in the kitchen making breakfast, having piled the take-out packages on a corner. She was whistling to herself, cheery. As Millie rose from the couch, she noticed a drawing on her own forearm. A rose, imprinted on her skin with a red sharpie.
“Thought you’d like it,” Sophie said, before giving her a bowl of stale cereal.
• • • •
srry for yesterday
Sophie sent her text messages during the evening. She thanked Millie for spending the night, apologizing for crying, and then told her she was taking her grandmother to the hospital.
will let u know when i have news . . .
Millie texted her back, asked her if she wanted Millie’s parents to go and help, but Sophie never answered, and then another day went by.
• • • •
Her dad woke her up in the morning, when the police came knocking on their door. He never left Millie’s side, holding her shoulders as a white man in uniform, hands on his belt, informed them that Mrs. Meecham was dead.
Millie, at first, couldn’t find her voice. She stared at the man, and then at a second white man who waited outside, near the police car.
“No,” she managed to say, devoid of emotion other than sheer surprise. “No, I saw Mrs. Meecham two days ago. I saw her.” She said it as if this sight of Mrs. Meecham, so fresh inside her mind, made it impossible for her to be dead.
“Do you know where her granddaughter is?” the policeman asked. “Are you in contact with her?”
Those questions, at the time, made no sense to Millie. Later, she would understand she’d briefly been a suspect, the gullible best friend. Her father still held her shoulders tight, watching the police as respectfully as he could, but making clear with that gesture that he wouldn’t be parted from his daughter. He and Millie’s mom accompanied her to the police station, where Millie was asked to describe that last night she spent at Mrs. Meecham’s house.
And there, at the police station, she discovered what was wrong. A neighbor that lived closer to Mrs. Meecham made a complaint, having noticed a weird stink coming from the garden, where the plants were rotting at a mesmerizing speed. A wailing, too; the neighbor swore she could hear children wailing during the night, in that same garden; they sounded like children, at least. When emergency arrived, they found Mrs. Meecham dead, laying on her bed, her body gone cold, her lips gone blue. They’d later find out Sophie had been poisoning her, and Millie wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about the tea; how casually Sophie had brewed that tea, knowing it was killing her grandmother.
They asked Millie for her phone, for her notebook, but didn’t find anything in there that made her part of a conspiracy. Sophie was located just a few days later, hiding in a motel, her bed piled with candy bar wrappers. She’d been stealing money from her grandmother for a few months, the police said, and slowly feeding her poison; she’d also sold most of her grandmother’s jewelry through websites like Craigslist, and that was how she’d been able to afford her car, which was found at the motel’s parking lot. Sophie had left shreds of evidence everywhere, paths of crumbles easy to find online. She was sixteen, not a criminal genius, and she didn’t have a plan.
When they questioned her, she made sure to say Millie had nothing to do with the murder. When they asked her why she’d done such a thing, she said she couldn’t live with her grandmother anymore. Her grandmother was abusive, and she produced bruises to prove that, faded scars that could have come from anywhere. Sometimes, her statement would change. She’d blame creatures in the forest, goblin-like monsters. She’d speak of a coin made of gold. She’d found the coin, but they wouldn’t let her keep it, they wouldn’t have her for their rightful queen.
Sometimes, she’d just weep and say she wanted her mother.
This information wouldn’t be known to Millie until weeks later, when the complete realization of what happened finally hit her. Her dad found her heaving on her own bedroom carpet, shaking near a splatter of vomit. He went down to his knees, brought Millie into his arms and let her cry and howl, as if Millie was now more animal than girl.
• • • •
Millie didn’t see Sophie for another four years. She was a student at Penn by that time, getting a degree in Psychology. Butler was there with her, as Le Guin was, in a stack of paperbacks that now also contained Delany, Iain M. Banks, Atwood and others. She had been going out with a girl who might or might not become her girlfriend, a buxom redhead who enjoyed poetry and no fantasy; nothing to do with fairies.
When Millie went home for summer, she got a job at the local bookstore. Books made her feel the companionship of old and dear friends, and were better than frozen yogurt. Every day she would come home—she had a car, now—and stop for a few seconds in her parents’ driveway, looking at the distant house in the cul-de-sac. Waiting—for Mrs. Meecham to appear, or Sophie; Sophie as she remembered her, a young, moody girl; her best friend.
When she decided she was going to visit Sophie, she didn’t share it with her parents. She said she was going to see a few classmates after work, and that they shouldn’t wait for her. Then, Millie drove to the facility Sophie was put in after her trial, one and a half hours away. She put Sam Cooke on play as she drove, palms sweaty.
Sophie had changed a bit. They met inside a room that made Millie think of their school cafeteria, but painted in a light ugly green. Sophie had handcuffs on, and her hair was shorter, her face marked with old and new acne. Even then, she smiled.
“Never imagined you’d come,” Sophie said. “You’re looking good.”
“Thank you,” Millie said.
“It’s fine,” Millie said. She had no idea how Sophie knew she’d been accepted at Penn.
“Good,” Sophie nodded. The silence grew between them like a sinkhole, a thing that couldn’t be mended.
“Sophie. Why did you invite me? That night?” Millie asked. Sophie bit her lower lip. She didn’t say anything. “You wanted to incriminate me?”
“No.” Sophie’s answer came as a whisper.
“What did you want, then? Did you want me to know? Why didn’t you tell me needed help?”
Sophie shook her head, avoiding looking at Millie and Millie’s tears.
“I’ve learned a really cool trick in here. Nope, not a coin trick. Wanna know? It’s like that . . .” Sophie closed her eyes. “If you shut your eyes really tight—like, really, really tight. And then just . . . stay quiet—you can disappear.” She didn’t say anything for the next minute. “Can you see me?”
“No,” Millie said. “I can’t.”
• • • •
A few weeks later, days before she was supposed to be back in Philadelphia, Millie noticed movement at the end of the street. An unknown car was parked in front of Mrs. Meecham’s house, a U-Haul behind it. A white woman and a white man, both in their forties, watched a little boy running through the garden, rolling on the fresh-cut grass. All of Mrs. Meecham’s flowers were gone, all of those rotten plants cut long ago. The plants on the porch were gone as well, and the house had been given a new coat of white paint.
“Hi,” Millie said, as she approached the driveway. The new neighbor, a tall and skinny woman—the kind of woman who wore Lululemons—smiled at her. “My name’s Emilia. My parents live a few houses from here.” She pointed her thumb over her shoulder, barely indicating the house. Her new neighbor nodded.
“I’m Charmaine, nice to meet you.”
Millie nodded. In an impulse, she said: “My best friend used to live here. I sorta grew up in this house.”
“Oh, did you?”
“Yeah,” Millie said—but she wasn’t going to offer any other information. Charmaine seemed blissfully ignorant of what had happened inside that house, after all. “Can I help you?” She pointed at the boxes inside the U-Haul.
“Uh, of course,” Charmaine said. “I sure wouldn’t mind.” She laughed.
Mrs. Meecham’s house had been stripped naked. Millie found it hard to believe she had ever walked on those floors, slept many times on the couch that used to be right there, in the middle of that empty living room. She was only twenty, but it felt like an abyss separated her from those memories. The whole place smelled like fresh paint, like a fresh beginning. Somewhere, Charmaine’s son was laughing, playing with a toy that made robotic noises. A Transformer, Millie thought for a moment.
The stained-glass window was still there. The lady in the window smiled at her.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Charmaine asked, unable to notice Millie was shivering. “I don’t know what they were going for with that—but it’s beautiful. Your friend’s parents put it there?”
“No. It came with the house,” Millie said, her voice so low it was a surprise that Charmaine could hear her.
“It’s so unusual. But the moment I saw it, I turned to my husband and said: Jeff, that’s it. There’s something special going on here, we have to take the house.”
Millie decided she wouldn’t say another word. She was afraid she’d scream if she opened her mouth again.
She helped Charmaine unload a few more boxes, as Charmaine retold her life story, told her about how the recession had consumed her savings, how they wanted a new approach to life, she and her husband. Millie didn’t pay much attention to it, but inevitably produced sounds to communicate she agreed with everything. After she had put another box in a corner of the living room—the box had the word BOOKS written with a black pen (Sharpies and hearts and crowns)—she turned to go back to the porch, but then stopped.
There was a gold coin on the floor. And it wasn’t just light coming through the stained glass.
It was a real coin, a thick coin made of pure gold, and the coin wanted her to have it.
Millie didn’t move. She heard rustling in the woods outside; the sound they made, many of them, hungry and in need of a new queen.
Or it could be just Charmaine’s son, playing with his toys, getting to know that new little kingdom of his. Millie closed her eyes and opened them again. The coin remained where it was.
She’d consider. Before a final decision, before taking the coin or leaving it there, never to look back again, she’d consider.
She’d consider it for a long time.