She searched every corner of her nose with her pinky, scratching at the sides until she found the treasure she was after. She pulled her pinky out and examined her findings, but only briefly before she wiped it carelessly on the flowered wallpaper against a green leaf belonging to a lily. Lilies were her favorite flowers, and she took a moment to admire the lilies that were scattered on the yellow walls of her bedroom.
She heard a honk suddenly, bringing her attention back to reality, and she jumped to her feet and ran to her window, looking down on the street below. There, waiting as it always did, was her carriage waiting to take her away for the day. She hurried out of her bedroom, down the stairs, and grabbed the backpack from beside the front door, swinging it over her shoulder. She shouted goodbye over her shoulder as she opened the door and slipped outside into the warm, spring air. She climbed into the carriage and took the seat beside a young, dark skinned girl, as she always did.
“Hi, Tammy,” the girl greeted her, but she did not smile.
“Hi, Keisha.” Tammy smiled as she sat beside her, swinging her bag around to sit on her lap. “What’s wrong?”
Keisha shook her head. Her dark curls bounced around her face. “Nothing.”
But Tammy was accustomed to her friend’s behaviors. Some days - most days - she was sad. Her eyes were red, and Tammy was sure she had been crying.
“I brought some bubbles for recess,” Tammy said.
Keisha smiled at this, and that made Tammy happy.
“We can play castle again,” Keisha suggested.
Tammy raised a brow at her. “Play castle?” she echoed. She rolled her eyes dramatically. “It’s not a game.”
“I know,” Keisha said slowly, though she seemed confused.
Perhaps she meant that she wanted to play in the castle. This made more sense to Tammy. They always played in the castle. That was where the carriage was bringing them. Every day the carriage brought them to the castle where they roamed long corridors that brought them to amazing rooms. In some rooms, books seemed to line the walls from floor to ceiling. This room was her favorite; the floor was soft and fluffy pillows could be used anywhere you wanted. When she and Keisha came to this room, they always built a fort out of the pillows and read books inside.
Other rooms seemed to transport them into a whole new world entirely. One brought them to a lush, green rainforest, while another brought them to sandy beaches where they could hear the sound of crashing waves from the ocean. And, of course, no castle was complete without a grand dining hall where all the children gathered to eat at the exact same time every day.
Tammy was familiar with the routine. Some days, she began her morning outside on the playground until the rest of the kids arrived, but other days, she joined Keisha in the dining hall for breakfast; a special treat that wasn’t offered to all the other kids. She and Keisha were special; they weren’t princesses, but it was likely they were being groomed to take the role when they got a little older.
Once all the other kids arrived, they gathered together in groups - always the same groups - and followed their specific teachers to their designated rooms. It was in these rooms where they learned so many things that princes and princesses needed to learn. Tammy and Keisha had seen so many wonderful things since they came to the castle. It seemed impossible that the world was so large and that they could learn everything about it, but Tammy was trying her hardest.
It was after learning when they gathered together for lunch, and following lunch they got to play outside. Tammy didn’t like to be outside as much, though. Sometimes, Keisha would leave Tammy behind to play with her friends. Tammy wasn’t friends with Keisha’s friends, and on these days, Tammy sat alone on the bench and watched Keisha play.
Tammy was happy to see Keisha happy. But still, she missed her friend on these days, and no one else ever talked to her. They only did when Keisha was with her. Sometimes, it felt like Tammy didn’t have any friends at all. So she was glad to hear that Keisha wanted to play with her. She was glad she wouldn’t be alone today.
The carriage finally stopped in front of the castle, and Tammy looked up in awe as they stepped out. She was always happy to be at the castle. The castle felt like home. She wished she never had to leave. But every day at the same time, the carriage returned to take them away. Tammy wondered where the other children went. She supposed they had homes, too, like her and Keisha. But were their homes like hers? Just as empty and lonely and dark?
Keisha was already walking into the castle, and Tammy had to run to catch up to her. She slipped her arms into the straps of her bag as she ran, looking up hesitantly at the adult she had passed in the process, certain she would get scolded for running, but the adult didn’t seem to notice her, and she sighed in relief.
Today was one of the days where they would eat breakfast in the dining hall. Tammy could already smell the maple syrup wafting through the halls as they made their way through. Pancakes were her favorite breakfast. It was going to be a good day. She followed Keisha as they walked to the counter and an old woman who Tammy always suspected to be a witch handed her a tray of food. She smiled, and Tammy shivered. She followed Keisha to a table and sat beside her.
“Are you sure it’s not poisoned?” Tammy asked as Keisha took a bite.
Keisha shrugged. “I dunno,” she said simply.
The dining hall was relatively empty and quiet. Keisha did not offer much for conversation. She didn’t finish her breakfast, either, and it was almost time to go.
“What’s the matter, Keisha?” an adult woman asked. She sat on the other side of Keisha and smiled. “Aren’t you hungry?”
Keisha shook her head. Tammy saw the sadness return in her eyes. She didn’t know why, but she wanted to cry, especially if Keisha did.
But Keisha didn’t cry.
“Not really,” Keisha replied to the adult.
The adult woman frowned. “Did you eat at home?”
“No, you didn’t!” Tammy stood. “Don’t lie!”
The woman stood. “Alright, Hun. You can go throw your food out and I’ll walk you to your class.”
Keisha did as she was told and the woman led them out of the dining hall.
“Why did you lie?” Tammy asked, but Keisha ignored her.
Tammy was starting to feel angry with Keisha. She wasn’t normally this mean to her. But when they stepped into the room, she no longer felt angry. She felt excited. She felt at home.
And it seemed Keisha did, too. For a moment, she had forgotten about being sad, and she hurried to bring her bag to her assigned cubby. Tammy shared a cubby with Keisha; it was brightly decorated by the two of them when they first came to the castle. It was a good memory; they had so much fun decorating it together. Tammy placed her bag beside Keisha’s, then the two of them joined the other children at the front of the room. It was time to sing songs.
Keisha and Tammy loved to sing. They sang songs about the weather, the time, about colors and letters and numbers. And when they were finished singing, they joined the other children, sitting at the tables placed around the room where they practiced writing and coloring.
Tammy was in the midst of her latest masterpiece, focused only on the details of her drawing. She was making sure she utilized every color crayon she could; it was necessary, of course, to complete the rainbow she placed in the top left corner of the page. She was just about to reach for a goldenrod yellow when the boy across from her grabbed it as her hand hovered over it. He pressed the crayon hard against the page as he began to scribble, and Tammy whined.
“Georgie!” she shouted at him. “I was going to use that!”
But Georgie ignored her, and she frowned.
“Georgie! Give it back! You took it! I need it!”
Still, Georgie paid her no mind. Tammy turned to Keisha desperately, hoping for help from her friend, but Keisha seemed to be ignoring her, too.
Angry, Tammy stood. She swiped her arm across the table, sending her paper and some of the crayons flying off and onto the floor. This got Keisha’s attention.
“Why did you do that?” Keisha asked.
“You guys are ignoring me!”
Keisha frowned. “Do you want to color with me?”
“Why do you talk to her?” Georgie sneered.
“Because she’s my friend!” Keisha said.
Georgie laughed. “You’re weird.”
Tammy frowned, but she was grateful that her friend finally acknowledged her. She sat back in her chair and moved closer to Keisha, peering over to see what she was coloring. Her sheet had the outline of two puppies playing, and Keisha was coloring one in purple.
“Do you want to color the other dog?” Keisha asked.
Tammy smiled. Purple was Keisha’s favorite color. “Can I color it green?” Green was her favorite color.
Keisha smiled and nodded, and Tammy picked up a green crayon and began to color in the second puppy.
When they were finished coloring, it was time to leave the room. The children lined up in a neat, orderly line as they always did, and together, they made their way excitedly through the castle and to the gym.
The castle had a really cool gym, and twice a week, they were allowed to play in the gym, often with other children from other rooms in the castle. It was the largest room in the castle. Their favorite songs always played when they were there. And after spending a few minutes stretching and running, they got to play games.
Sometimes the games were standard games, like soccer and basketball. Other times, they played with scooters, ropes, and scarves. It was always very loud in the gym, but none of the children minded. It was one of their favorite parts of the day.
Except when they played team games. Tammy didn’t like when they played team games. It seemed the other children didn’t like Tammy, and most of them all ignored her when it came time to picking teams. But today, they were playing in groups of four, and Tammy was relieved when Keisha chose two other girls to play with them. They were of the few that talked to Tammy.
“Jaysha and Meghan - do you want to play with me and Tammy?”
The two girls approached them excitedly, skipping arm in arm. They each carried a jump rope with them.
“Hi, Tammy,” Jaysha said with a wide grin.
“Do you want to do double dutch?” Meghan asked.
Tammy loved double dutch, and she and Keisha were the best at it.
“Yeah!” Keisha exclaimed.
Jaysha and Meghan held the two ropes between them, and Keisha and Tammy stood in the middle between them. They began to swing the ropes around them, and they jumped in perfect synchronization, their feet never touching the rope. Jaysha and Meghan cheered them on as they jumped and jumped and jumped. It felt like they jumped a thousand times in a row! But neither of them could actually count that high. Still, Tammy thought that was how many jumps they did, and she couldn’t wait to tell everyone. They were the best jump ropers in the whole world.
When it was time to leave the gym, the children made their way into the dining hall. It was time for lunch. The best part about lunch was that they could go outside and play after. Tammy looked out the window longingly. The sky was clear and blue and the sun shone brightly. She couldn’t wait to get outside and play some more.
Outside, things were different. She wasn’t ignored and was often allowed to play with Keisha and her other friends. She didn’t understand why things were different outside, but she liked it. She liked swinging and sliding and playing hopscotch. Sometimes, all they wanted to do was run and play tag. Tammy was fast. She loved being fast. And she loved hiding during hide and seek. Inside the castle, there were often rules. Sometimes they couldn’t run or be as loud. Sometimes they had to be quiet, and it was often hard for Tammy to sit still. But outside, those rules didn’t apply. She loved every bit of the castle, but sometimes, being outside was the best.
Tammy and Keisha were about to join the other children to play when one of the adults stopped them. She got down to speak with Keisha.
“It’s too hot for a jacket, don’t you think?”
Keisha frowned. “My mom says I can’t take it off.”
The adult lady frowned. “Why not?”
“Well, I say you can,” she said, and she helped Keisha remove her jacket. “It’s silly to wear a jacket when it’s so warm out. You’ll get hot, right?”
She pulled at Keisha’s arm and examined it with a frown. “How did you get these cuts and bruises?”
Keisha shrugged. “I fell.”
“Tell me the truth, Keisha. What happened?”
She sighed. “Go play, Sweetie.”
Keisha hurried away from the adult to join her friends, but Tammy held back. She watched as the lady joined with the other adults. They spoke quietly, and Tammy could not hear what they were saying, but she could tell they looked sad and angry.
Outside always seemed to be too short, though, and before she knew it, they were being brought inside the castle once more. But Tammy didn’t mind too much. She had gotten hot outside, and the castle was dark and cool. She got to drink some water at one of the castle’s magic fountains, then they were in their room again.
They sat at their tables where brightly colored blocks waited for them. The blocks fit together perfectly, and already, the boys started to press them together as long as they could, using them as swords to fight one another. But it wasn’t time for them to train as knights, and they were immediately told to take their blocks apart.
Tammy stared out the window, lost in thought as the adult spoke to them, and the children listened. Together, they sorted the blocks into groups, counting each group. Then, they pressed the blocks together and counted the blocks again. Tammy watched Keisha as she followed the instruction, but otherwise did not partake in the activity. She stared down at her own blocks.
“I ran out,” Keisha said. She looked at Tammy. “Can I borrow some of yours?”
Tammy nodded. She wasn’t using them, anyway.
When they were finished with the blocks, the children were allowed to play once more. Different stations were set up around the room, and they were allowed to choose where they wanted to play. Keisha and Tammy joined Jaysha and Meghan at the kitchen. Jaysha was rocking a baby in her arms, and Meghan was on the phone.
“I need twenty pizzas and twenty sodas,” Meghan said. “Five hundred dollars? Do you take credit cards?” She turned to Jaysha. “Hey! Gimme your credit card!”
Jaysha rolled her eyes dramatically. “Buy diapers, too.”
“Oh yeah. Five hundred diapers, please,” Meghan said into the phone.
Jaysha smiled to Keisha and Tammy as they approached. “Do you guys like my baby?”
“Yeah!” Tammy said.
“What’s her name?” Keisha asked.
“I named her Jasmine. Meghan is buying pizza. What do you want?”
“Ice cream!” Tammy and Keisha said in unison.
“And five hundred ice creams!” Meghan said into the phone. She nodded. “Okay. Thanks. Bye!” She hung up the phone and turned to them. “I’m glad you’re here. I have to go to work. Here’s the credit card. Bye!”
Keisha took the credit card and watched as Meghan left. Meghan made her way to a box with clothes in it, and she quickly dressed into doctor clothes.
“Oh, wait!” Meghan ran back to them. “Ding dong!”
“I got it,” Keisha said. She opened the door.
“Here’s your pizzas and sodas and diapers and ice cream!” Meghan said.
“I thought you were at work?”
“I am!” Meghan stamped her foot. “Just pretend I’m the pizza guy, too!”
Keisha handed her the credit card. “How much?”
“One thousand dollars!” Meghan took the card, slid it through her machine, then handed it back to Keisha with their pizza, soda, ice cream, and diapers. She hurried off again.
“Hi, I’m Dr. Meghan! It looks like you broke your legs and your arms and your butt!” She giggled to herself.
“Let me help you with that,” Tammy said to Keisha, taking some of the items. “Time to eat!”
Keisha dug through a bin of food, placing several slices of pizza on plates. She handed them to Tammy and to Jaysha. Jaysha took her piece and shoved it into her baby’s mouth.
“Oops! She has a dirty diaper!” She dropped the baby onto the table and began to change her.
“This is good pizza,” Tammy said as she chewed.
“The pizza was on sale,” Jaysha said. “It was really cheap!” Jaysha frowned down at the baby, then. She picked her up and her nose crinkled.
“She cries too much!” She threw the baby across the room.
“I’m home!” Meghan announced. She took off her doctor coat. “Phew! I had to do a hundred surgeries today!” She looked around. “Where’s Jasmine?”
“I didn’t want her anymore.”
“That’s okay. I’m pregnant with fifty babies.”
“Oh, man,” Jaysha said. “Does that mean I need to get a job?”
“We’re bajillionaires,” Keisha said.
Jaysha sighed in relief. “Thank God.”
“Alright, everyone. It’s time to clean up and get your bags to go home!”
Some of the children whined, but they quickly started to pick up their things. Some of the boys threw their toys across the room, shouting when their items landed in the appropriate buckets. They frowned and apologized when they were yelled at. Tammy didn’t bother to help with clean-up, however, and she hurried around the corner to her cubby where she sat and waited for Keisha.
One by one, children gathered in the cubby, talking and laughing as they gathered their backpacks. Keisha and Tammy grabbed theirs, then returned to their seats at the table. Once everyone was ready, they left the castle and waited outside for their carriage.
“Are you coming over?” Keisha asked Tammy.
Tammy smiled. “Yeah!”
Keisha returned her smile. “Mom said we can have a sleepover.”
Tammy always slept over Keisha’s house. Sometimes it was really fun. Other times, she wished she were back at the castle. She didn’t understand why she couldn’t stay at the castle all the time.
When the carriage stopped at Keisha’s house, Tammy followed her off the bus. Inside, the house seemed to be empty. Keisha dropped her bag on the floor. It tipped backwards and fell against a small table, rocking it. The motion caused a small, glass item to fall to the floor where it shattered. Keisha hurried into her bedroom, but Tammy took a moment to look around. It always smelled funny, there, but Tammy had grown accustomed to it. She didn’t know what the other kids’ houses looked like, but she imagined they were all the same.
They entered into a single room where there was a stove, sink, and refrigerator. In front of the kitchen area was a small table with two chairs, one on either side. They appeared old and dirty, even broken in places. A single brown couch was near that, wip rips and holes in the fabric, and a small tv sat in front of that. The walls were plain in color and bare and appeared yellowed and dirty at the edges. There were stains in places, both on the walls and floors, and the ceiling had spots of yellow as well.
Tammy moved across the room. There were two doors on the opposite wall, one which led to Keisha’s bedroom. Keisha was already inside, sitting cross legged on her bed. She smiled when Tammy entered and scooted over so Tammy could sit beside her. She had an old book open in her lap. The corners showed signs of age and abuse. The colors of the pictures were faded, but the story could still easily be read. The title read “Oh, The Places You’ll Go.” It was Keisha’s favorite book.
They read the book quietly together, pointing at the pictures and their favorite parts. They couldn’t read all the words, but neither of them cared. They made up their own stories to go with the pictures, and they giggled when they got silly. They fell quiet only when they heard the door open and yelling quickly followed.
“Your mom and dad are home,” Tammy said.
Keisha did not respond. She continued to look down at the book in her lap.
“Can we have mac and cheese for dinner?”
Keisha shook her head. She looked up as she heard footsteps, and the door opened. Her father stood in the doorway, and he looked at them angrily. Behind him, Tammy could hear Keisha’s mother’s voice.
“Leave her alone!”
“Did you do this?” Her father held up the pieces of the glass item that broke.
Keisha pressed herself back on the bed until her back hit the wall. She had started to cry.
“It was an accident,” she sobbed.
Her father threw the pieces on the floor and grabbed her arm. He threw her across the room. Keisha bit back a sob and quickly crawled to hide in the closet. Tammy sat beside her in the darkness, listening as her parents shouted at one another. She put her arms around Keisha and hugged her.
“It’s okay,” Tammy said. She had Keisha’s book in her hand, and she offered it to her.
Keisha sniffed and opened the book on her lap to look at the pictures once more. Her parents had moved out of her bedroom now, but their shouts could still be heard. The two girls tried to block out these sounds as they huddled together and spoke quietly to one another.
It got darker out until it was nearly too dark to see. There was only a small night light in the corner of her room, but neither of them moved from their space in the closet. For a while, the shouting had stopped, but it soon returned, along with sounds of things breaking and slamming. There was the sharp sound of a slap and Keisha’s mother cried and begged for something to stop.
And then it fell quiet again. Not a single sound could be heard in the entire house. Soon, they fell asleep against one another until the morning sun woke them. Keisha’s mom greeted them with a smile. Her eyes were red, and she smelled like the rest of the house, but otherwise, Tammy felt comforted by her presence.
She was quiet as she searched through some cabinets, then sighed. She turned to Keisha. “Will you eat some breakfast at school?”
Keisha nodded wordlessly and grabbed her bag. It was no longer at the door where she left it, but across the room on the floor and on its side, as if it were thrown there. Her mother kissed her, patted her cheek, and said goodbye. Tammy followed Keisha outside where they stood in silence until their carriage came to bring them to the castle once more.
Keisha didn’t talk to Tammy for the entire ride to the castle. When they got there, Tammy followed Keisha to the dining hall where she got breakfast. She sat at the table in silence, staring at her food, but she did not eat. Like yesterday, a lady approached her.
“I’m not hungry,” Keisha said.
“Honey, you need to eat breakfast.”
“I already did.”
The lady sighed. “Are you sure?”
Keisha nodded. She got up to throw out her food, then hurried to her room, leaving Tammy behind.
When Tammy got to their room, the children were already seated and singing. She found Keisha at the back and sat beside her, but they did not sing.
They colored and practiced their writing at the table. Keisha had a blank page in front of her. She drew two stick figures in black crayon. She drew a third in red. There was no sun in the sky, making for an incomplete picture.
“Do you want to make a rainbow?” Tammy asked, but Keisha did not respond.
“I’m making a killer whale,” Georgie said. He did not look up from his drawing. “It’s got a really cool sword!”
Today they did not go to the gym. Instead, they went to the library. But Keisha did not build a pillow fort. She sat alone on the floor and flipped quickly through a book, not really paying any attention to the words or the pictures. Tammy sat beside her, but still, they did not talk to one another.
It was lunch time. Keisha did not eat her food. She sat at the table and listened to the other children talk and laugh, but she did not partake in the conversation. When it was time to go outside, Jaysha and Meghan approached her.
“Do you want to go on the swings with us?”
Keisha nodded and followed them outside. Tammy followed a few paces behind them.
“I still have my bubbles,” Tammy suggested to Keisha. When Keisha did not respond, she continued. “Can I swing with you, too?”
“There’s only three swings,” Keisha said.
Tammy frowned. “We can take turns.”
“I don’t want to play with you.”
Tammy could feel her eyes well with tears. “Why?”
“Because we’re not friends!”
Tammy stared at her. Not friends? How could they not be friends? They were always friends. They did everything together. Keisha told her everything.
“Yes we are,” Tammy sobbed. “We’re best friends! Remember?”
“No we’re not,” Keisha insisted. “I don’t need you anymore!” She turned her back on Tammy and ran to join her friends on the swings.
Tammy stayed where she was, watching as Keisha left her alone, and she cried.
Keisha continued to ignore Tammy for the rest of the day until it was time for them to go home. Tammy stood beside Keisha, hesitant, as they waited for their carriage.
“My mom is picking me up today,” Tammy said in an attempt to talk with Keisha. “Do you want to sleep over?”
Keisha did not respond, and Tammy frowned.
“Can we please be friends again?” Tammy begged her. She started to cry again. “Why can’t we be friends?”
The carriage pulled up and Keisha ran to join the other children in line. Tammy watched wordlessly as Keisha got inside, then sat in a seat, looking out the window. Their gazes met and the carriage pulled away.
Tammy stood alone. She watched as the other children got into other carriages, some in groups, others alone. They talked and laughed with their friends and hugged their mothers and fathers who picked them up. One by one, the children disappeared. Tammy watched as the adults, too, disappeared, slowly making their way to their cars in the parking lot. The lot emptied. The sun began to set behind the trees, bathing the world in a golden glow and casting long shadows across the school grounds. And Tammy was still alone.
The sun disappeared, taking with it the shadows. The world darkened. A single street light illuminated the parking lot, and the world fell still.