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Roger came back in the middle of Christmas break, when Chas had two essays due and a soon-to-be-full house to deal with, and was struggling not to sleep more than ten hours every day. Tito Rick and the twins arrived from New Jersey that morning. The twins complained about how California had no winter, how the hell did they celebrate Christmas without any snow, that was stupid, then running up and down the stairs in protest.
“You’re going to break something!” Chas shouted. She gave up after the third try. Mom grinned at her as if to say, bear with it for just a few days, honey, and Chas grinned back, which meant, I love you, but that doesn’t make this okay.
Tito Rick was very sorry that Tita Maybelle was going to arrive on Christmas Eve, but could Chas maybe look after the twins in the meantime? He needed a break after the long trip. Besides, they adored her, really, and had promised to do whatever she said. Turned out this promise only held if she said everything in her best Darth Vader impression. This led to many conversations like:
“I don’t wanna take a bath!”
“You stink. You have to.”
“No way! You can’t make me!”
(She would then pause and consider hitting them. Hard. But Chas was done hitting things. She had fixed that, years ago.)
“I can too.” Palm lifted, she would monotone, “The force compels you to take a bath. Luke, I am your father,” repeated ad nauseam as they ascended and descended the steps. When the twins finally passed out in the guest bedroom from travel fatigue, she slipped away to study. Which of course meant that she spent an hour clearing her email and clicking around YouTube. She was considering the importance of the Renaissance, while videos of screaming goats loaded, but it was ages before she finally dredged up the willpower to open a Word document. Only then did she notice Roger standing behind her.
“Um,” she said. “Where did you come from?”
“Hey now, don’t say that.” He grinned. The grin sort of swished from one end of his face to the other. Chas realized she had never remembered how he looked until this moment. “How about, I’ve missed you, Roger?” Now that his voice was deeper, his impression of a girl talking was even worse. “Because, not gonna lie, I missed you, Chastity.”
“Don’t call me that,” she replied, frowning, because since when did Roger try flirting with her? And say things like, not gonna lie? “I have an essay to write. And I’m really going to write it now,”—what was up with that smirk?— “So could you sit on the bed and be quiet? And we’ll—we’ll talk later.”
“Sure thing.” He flopped on the bed, stretching out his arms til he was starfish-shaped.
They played this game when they were little, Roger doing one of his Amazing Perpetual Handstands and Chas sitting on her butt, scrunching grass between her toes. Find Me, they called it, but really it was only I Spy with a ten-second time limit. She’d look at the sky and say, “Find me a horse with steam coming out of its nose,” and he’d reply, “Find me a flower being attacked by a bee.” Find me shapes in the clouds, four-leaf clovers, the sun before it comes down too low. Find me the ice cream truck that rolls by at five o’clock. Find me the sound of your mother’s slippers as she comes outside.
Chas would approach the door and Roger would hang behind her, hands in his pockets. Mom would spread out her arms for an embrace, and even then Chas understood she was being loving in her way, although it stung, how broken she looked, how little she thought Chas knew. Roger would cross his arms and laugh.
That was one of the things that cheered her up when he left. She wouldn’t have to put up with Roger snarking about Mom anymore. She wouldn’t have to deal with Mom’s soothing voice and worried eyes. She wouldn’t have to listen to Mom ask, with such controlled kindness, “Is your friend here again today?”
She spent five minutes trying to type before she couldn’t ignore him anymore, and turned around in exasperation. He had fished a guitar out of the air and was tuning it, soundlessly.
“Why are you here?” She immediately wanted to take back the lilt on that last word.
“It’s been six years, cut me some slack.” He plucked the strings on his silent guitar. A guitar was such a typical instrument to learn. She wouldn’t have expected it of him.
“I know the trumpet, too,” he said. “And the ukulele, and the oboe. What? Don’t look at me like that. I still know you better than anyone else.” He still said whatever he wanted to and that pissed her off as much as it made her smile. She ignored the urge to sit next to him.
“Not better than me,” she answered.
“You were the one who stopped talking to me.” He sounded hurt, so of course her only response was to be mean.
“What? Didn’t see that coming?”
He shrugged and said nothing.
She stopped talking to Roger because she wanted Mom and Doctor Rosalind to stop giving her treatment. They were so kind, and so sorry when they were doing it, sliding the needle into her arm every other week, and Mom cried so much. Mom said, “If only your Dad was here,” and cried some more. And Chas would think about Dad on a boat in the ocean, Dad sailing to bring back goods from Manila, Dad never coming back. That giant storm on TV, replayed endlessly on every news channel.
She would think about her teachers saying, “Chastity Suarez, please, stop it!” And then the shameful quiet of the hall where she stood as punishment. The weekly visits to Doctor Rosalind, where she would take tests and lie repeatedly. Every time Roger was there for her, he never was for anyone else. It became unbearable. She stopped eating; she barely slept. Sometimes when Mom asked her about Roger a black rage would surge up inside her, filling her with fury, a powerful desire to hurt. And sometimes she succeeded, and Mom would grab her hands and beg her to stop, please.
One night Roger crept over and said, “Knock knock.”
She whirled around and snarled: “Find me a reason to keep on talking to you, when you’re not even really there.”
He looked shocked for a moment. Then he held his hand against her face, but she felt nothing against her cheek. She couldn’t remember if he was trying to hit her, or just touch her. She couldn’t remember if she slapped his hand away, or did nothing. All she remembered was how his surprise became a smile—how he shrugged and said, “I can’t make you do anything you don’t want to.”
The next day he was gone.
There were cracks on her ceiling where they’d once found Nessie, strawberries, a rabbit like the one in the Madeleine books. She leaned back in her chair and traced the shapes with her eyes, wondering if he was doing the same.
“Look,” she said. “Things got so much better after I did that. I go to the doctor only every few weeks. I’m in the right year level again.”
He was drumming on the fretboard; it made no sound. As if he was asking, things are better than being with me? and she hated herself for thinking no, not really.
“So what’s the essay about?”
“The Renaissance.” At least he wasn’t making a thing of it. “And what are you playing on your guitar?”
“A song called Imaginary Friends,” he said, and when she made a face at him he grinned fiendishly.
She completely forgot that Veronica was arriving that day. Sometimes it was a real pain to own the house with extra rooms. Mom was doing laundry, so when Chas opened the door and Veronica exploded inside with three suitcases, smelling of vanilla and more gorgeous than ever, it was all Chas could do to slap on a smile and let Veronica air-kiss her. “Shit, Chas, you are growing up so fast,” Veronica said, hands a-flutter. “Don’t tell your mom I said shit,” she added, giggling. “The weather here is sooo much better than Vancouver. Anyway! Where are the twins? Where are my precious little boys?”
She was only three years older than Chas, but that was probably the age when one graduated from the Cousin Table to the Adult Table. Chas had seen Walt do that, too, although he joined the Cousin Table whenever he ate dessert. “So they won’t hate on me for getting seconds,” he would say. Chas knew it was actually because he preferred the cousins to the grown-ups, who were always wondering about his grades and whether he was looking for a job.
Roger kept out of Veronica’s way as she torpedoed up the stairs and into the twins’ room. Chas tried not to think about what a headache dinner would be. And Christmas Eve was still two days away. She slouched into the kitchen to see if Mom needed help with her chicken pastel. Roger had given up writing his song the same time she quit her essay (two paragraphs in), and was now matching her every step, just like the good old days.
“This is nostalgic,” Roger said. Mom looked up from where she was crouched next to the oven, sweating.
“Did Veronica come already? Oh god, I don’t think I’ve fixed her bedroom yet. And her parents are arriving later tonight. I’m sure she’d rather sleep on the pull-out. Do you think you could go and…?”
“Sure, I’m on it.”
Roger had picked up an apple from the fruit bowl and was turning it over in his hands. Chas felt uneasy dread that he would bite it and it would get bitten, but Mom didn’t seem to notice him. Thankfully, he put the apple back the way it was. He stared around the kitchen with interest. They had re-tiled it since his last appearance.
“Find me a green-and-brown duck, followed by a yellow one,” he said.
Mom opened the oven and pulled out her chicken pastel. “Right there,” Chas muttered, pointing along the wall. Roger gave her the thumbs up.
“Did you say something, honey?” Mom said.
“I’m going,” Chas said, on her way out.
When they first met, she thought he was just a kid from somewhere else; that they were in the same place only when they played together. “Do you live in Norway?” she asked. She had a phase when she was obsessed with Norway, the noun. It sounded like nowhere and no way combined, which was cool. “Maybe you live in Norway, and you have a friend named Chas who lives in California,” she said.
“I don’t live in Norway,” Roger replied. “If I did, I’d speak Norwish.”
“That’s not always true,” Chas said. “My Daddy lived in Manila but he didn’t speak Manilish.”
“Your Daddy?” Roger squinted at her.
“Where’s your Daddy now?”
She paused, heart drumming, suddenly afraid of what Roger knew. He only showed up after Dad’s accident; of course he couldn’t know if she didn’t tell him. “Um…he’s in the ocean.”
“Oh. Cool.” Roger shrugged and continued drawing a robot wizard.
Chas attempted her own Perpetual Handstand. She propped her feet up against the wall and held herself there for a few seconds. “Well, maybe you—live on—a different—planet,” she gasped. “The Secret Universe!” When her head started throbbing she came down and shouted, “Or maybe you live in Nowhere!”
Roger snorted, grabbed her hand, and forced her to do a double cartwheel with him. They ended up in a laughing, dizzy heap. She noticed he did not say no.
She bumped into Tito Rick backing out of his room, because the twins were now awake and playing the world’s loudest game of charades. “Why does Veronica always do that?” He groaned. Tito Rick always needed someone to commiserate with. It was tough having to rely on Tita Maybelle; having to stay at home and watch the twins when he just wanted to work again.
Mom had told Chas that Tito Rick might go back to school next year. Tito Rick was Mom’s little brother. The two of them often talked on the phone for long hours after dinner, mostly about other relatives and the state of the economy, and whether it would be a good idea to migrate back to the Philippines and take over the family steel business. Whenever Chas listened in, she could barely follow. Sometimes she thought taking economics as her senior elective might help, but she knew that was a goody-goody thought, a lie.
She shrugged. One of the twins shrieked, “Python! Python!”
“No, you dumbass, it’s a deflated balloon!” The other yelled.
“Hey!” Tito Rick stuck his head back in the room. “We do not use the word dumbass!”
Roger slipped past him and scrutinized the cousins. “Woah, these guys used to be, like, babies.” He stuck his arm out, measuring their height. They came up to his stomach. Chas had thought that she and Roger would stay the same height forever. She never thought he’d get so tall.
“They are still babies,” she mouthed, because Roger was an excellent lip-reader.
“But Veronica is now a babe,” Roger said. She rolled her eyes and continued down the hall. If he wanted to piss her off, he was doing pretty well.
“Just kidding!” Roger caught up with her, steps light on the carpet. “Hey, where’s Walther?”
“At Davis, for college.”
“Isn’t he coming home for Christmas?”
“Yeah. But he’s bringing his girlfriend.” Mom didn’t really like Cassidy-the-girlfriend. Chas didn’t like her much either, because their nicknames sounded too alike. It was a stupid reason, but because of Cassidy, Walt was home less and less. Sometimes he didn’t call for a whole week, and when he did, Chas had to pretend she hadn’t been missing him. Which really wasn’t fair because by now she should be used to people going away, leaving her and Mom to hold everything together.
“Oh.” Maybe Roger could tell she didn’t want to talk about it. That didn’t stop him from asking, “Do you have a boyfriend?”
“Not interested.” She started yanking the pull-out from the couch. Roger swept dust off the dresser and bedside table with his arm. It gathered on his sleeve, and he shook it out above the waste bin. She fluffed pillows from the cabinet and dumped them by the headboard, then smoothed down the bedspread.
“Have you ever had a boyfriend?”
I don’t need one, she thought of saying. And no one’s going to want that weirdo from elementary school, anyway, which by the way is your fault. But she only glanced at him and said, “I don’t have time, okay? I’m trying to pass high school here.”
“So you’re living up to your name,” Roger said brightly.
“You’re lucky I gave you Roger,” she warned. “At one point I wanted it to be Franklin.”
“Or Pepito.” The Madeleine books, again. “And you came pretty close to Grover. And Tikki Tikki Tembo-no Sa Rembo.”
“Oh, and Clifford.” That still made him wince. But they had concluded Roger was the best, it could only be Roger, and he bopped her head and said Why do you get the fancy name? and she laughed and said I don’t like it either, just call me Chas, fingers tangled in a pinky swear to be friends forever, somewhere between real and real enough.
There was another theory she didn’t like to remember, because it still chilled her sometimes.
The kids in her class were all about ghost stories those days. Roger usually didn’t come with her to school; it was too noisy, he said, and he didn’t need lessons. When he did come he mostly hung around the playground. That was fine, because six-year-old Chas worried that someone would find him, or he’d go with the wrong kid and never come back. It was always with relief that she’d spy Roger sitting on the monkey bars, or on an empty swing, when it was time to head back home.
If he was a ghost then it explained where he came from, why he acted so much like a real boy. Why he mostly lived in her house and knew all her secrets, like that time she peed in the garden, and that time she kissed Walt in his sleep. It explained why she felt cold when he hugged her; and why no one else could hear him, even when he was singing at the top of his lungs.
But then, Roger wasn’t transparent. He didn’t float. He talked normally. They could thumb wrestle and wrestle-wrestle. If he was a ghost, then why was he getting bigger, like her, and why did he pee in the garden after she did? It didn’t explain why Roger could get hurt, and it didn’t explain her certainty that he was real.
“Are you a ghost? What are you?”
“It’s not funny!” She was crying, suddenly, hiccupy tears that made her nose bubble. She tried to wipe them away, but smeared snot across her face instead. Roger froze, eyes huge and desperate. Chas hit him, the blackness surging inside her, roaring into her eardrums. Clawing at her. Each whack made her feel victorious and terrible. “My Daddy’s a ghost. He’s dead. He’s nowhere—like you! Mom pretends he isn’t sometimes. It really makes me sad!” She kicked his knee, and Roger flinched, but didn’t try to stop her or kick her back. Maybe he couldn’t; this made her more upset. “You—really—make me—sad!” She screamed. “Always—always—sad!”
“I’m sorry.” Roger looked around wildly, as if something would appear to comfort her. But nothing else was there. Was he even really there? “I’m sorry I laughed. I don’t know, really, Chas. I don’t know what you want me to be.”
“What I want you to be?” she shouted, hand raised to smack him again. The purpling patch on his cheek made her inhale sharply and drop her hand. The blackness reared back, sank into her stomach, leaving her drained, exhausted. Feeling sick. But he was bruised. Bruised! That was a relief. She squatted next to him and threw up spit, while he goggled. “I want you—to just be—Roger. Be here,” she said wetly.
“I am,” he said. “I’m here.”
That was the first time he’d saved her, with the idea that she actually had control over some things. She didn’t have control over Roger, but after that incident, he often pretended she did. Maybe that was his way of apologizing for making her cry. Maybe that was his way of avoiding her question, because he didn’t want to know the answer either.
Dinner. The twins flicked mashed potato at each other. Mom and Tito Rick asked Veronica about college applications. Chas tried and failed not to listen; it was too hard, knowing it would be her turn in just three years. If Roger went away tonight, would he show up in her college dorm room, with an ear piercing and six-pack abs? This high school Roger wasn’t cute or handsome, just nice-looking. Which was already saying something, if the boys at school were any kind of standard. But that was just Chas being stupid, trying to distract herself.
Mom’s chicken pastel was delicious. Veronica ate only tidbits because she was dieting for the JS Prom. Her parents arrived, as if on cue, when Chas was bringing out the tiramisu.
“We brought cake, too!”
“Oh my goodness, Chas, you’re so tall!”
“Isn’t California great! Thanks for having us!”
Tita Betty and Tito Archie did their best to hug Chas around the tray of dessert; she didn’t have any hands free, so she had to let herself be squished between them. Veronica saw them, squealed, and air-kissed them on tiptoe. As a trio, they were a bit unbearable. Veronica dragged them to the table. “Have some chicken!”
Chas answered the usual questions about school: yes, AP History was hard. No, she wasn’t really sure about which college yet. Yes, she worked at a frozen-yogurt shop over the summer for some pocket money, but now she only worked some weekends because it was tough balancing everything. Besides, fewer people ate fro-yo around this time.
“You worked?” Tita Betty said, eyes popping out of her head. Tito Archie shot a warning glance at her.
Chas could see Mom across the table, freezing up. But Chas was good. Chas was prepared for this. She smiled, wiped some condensation off her drinking glass, and said, “Yes, I did, Tita. It was totally fine.”
“That’s great, really great, Chastity,” Tito Archie said, with a too-big grin. Tito Rick stared at the ceiling. Mom beamed at everyone, eyes bright and shiny, and talked about the latest news from cousin Buboy. The adults started a Serious Conversation, and Veronica took on her Deeply Understanding Look. Chas volunteered to take the twins back to their room. Jetlag was starting to hit them; their eyes were getting glassy.
She returned to the dining room, brought out the dishes, wiped mashed potato off the table, then excused herself, saying she wanted to finish all her homework before Christmas Eve. Walt and Cass were flying in then, along with more relatives, who were staying at nearby hotels. That meant more screaming kids, and more titos and titas who would comment about how grown-up and—and how okay Chas now seemed.
Roger’s shadow melted into hers as she climbed the stairs. Halfway up, she paused to look at their tiny Christmas tree, with the lopsided angel on top, because neither she nor Mom was tall enough to place it properly. If Roger had been here when they set it up, he could have reached it.
He had been quiet during dinner, standing behind her. Once, he leaned over her shoulder like he wanted to taste something on her plate. She shot him a look—quick enough that no one else would notice. (They had all been very concerned with her, when she was growing up. Walt was okay, but Chas not. She was moody, quiet, prone to hitting things; she had no real friends. Wasn’t she a poor little girl, so confused, so miserable without her father—and so cruel, sometimes? Didn’t her poor mother have too much on her plate?) In protest, Roger had rested his chin on her shoulder. That had made her feel really weird.
When she got to her room, she opened her window and climbed onto the slanted rooftop. Roger slid down beside her. Neither of them mentioned the dust or grime.
Next year, maybe, everything would change and she’d be like Veronica, adoring the twins, wanting very much to look intelligent. Or like Walt, grunting about the lack of jobs and taking selfies with Cassidy. But right now she didn’t care about any of that. Which was okay. Everything was okay, fine, normal. So why was Roger back?
The blackness hadn’t blinded her in ages. She wasn’t particularly sad—not more than usual, anyway. School was busy, Mom was fine, their Thanksgiving screaming match had been less violent this year. She was eating all right. She hadn’t broken anything in months; hadn’t smashed anyone’s face in, even when they deserved it. She wasn’t waking up in tears anymore.
“Why are you here?” She asked again, softly, through the weird pain between her ribs. Maybe she was happy to see him after all, and wanted him to know that. Maybe their forever friend promise was still valid. Maybe in another dimension he was on a rooftop listening to her talk, but not daring to touch her cheek, hold her hand.
“Find me a reason not to see my favorite person,” he said, “As a Christmas present to myself.”
“I wanted to see if you were okay. If things were different. But I guess that doesn’t matter anymore.”
“Bingo,” she said, and suddenly it was hard to swallow. Why are you still real to me? she didn’t ask.
Roger waited, and it was now awkward, but she didn’t mind too much. She was tired, and there was no easy answer: Christmas was always difficult, Dad had died eleven years ago, in a roomful of people she could still feel her dark heart barely beating, Roger was the anchor that had been swept away, she both wanted and didn’t want him back ever.
It was scary, how much he knew. How much she sometimes wanted him to know. It wasn’t nice, forcing that on someone, and she didn’t want Roger thinking he mattered to her that way. Why couldn’t he have stayed in Norway, or Texas, or the Underworld, so that she’d never have to remember him? If she closed her eyes and fell asleep, he might leave again. And this would be another dream, and she’d forget that he was nice-looking and tall, that being with him was easier than breathing.
To ignore these thoughts, she said, “Find me a string of shells in a mermaid’s hair.” He pointed at them, all four shells, twinkling in a loop to the left of the moon.
“Find me the guillotine Pepito made.” Right there, that zigzag cluster of stars for the blade, a flat cloud cutting through it for the string.
“Find me a smiley face. This one’s easy.” On the fence down the street, where an enterprising punk had tested some purple spray paint.
“Find me a crystal ball.” That was an old favorite. She stuck a finger at the moon. Watched as he stuck his finger out and let the tip of it knock into hers, so that they were in the same space, or at least that small part of them was. Their shoulders were touching. The black sky felt like it was inside her. The black sky had so many stars. If he left, she wouldn’t miss him. She had spent six years not missing him. She dropped her hand.
“Find me a name for this,” she said. Resisted the urge to ask, what was the name of your song again? Can you really play the oboe and guitar? Can you be here, now, at last?
Roger said, “Don’t worry, Chas. I’ll find you. Whether you’re in California pretending to be Darth Vader, or sailing to Manila, or in another dimension, somewhere up there, next to the mermaid and Orion.” She could see the white puffs his breath made in the air. “I’ll be there.”
She smiled at him, then faced the sky. Squeezed her eyes shut, and counted to ten. Felt his hand move over hers, and her fingers lock with his. Felt the warm flush of his skin, and when she gripped his hand tighter, felt nothing at all.