The little girl is strange, and special, and full of stories; the man across the hall is tall and old and lonely. He has no one to talk to but the little girl. Every day the man comes home from work and jingles his keys in front of his door, and like a cat the little girl bursts out of the apartment across the hall and flings herself at him. And she follows him into his apartment and he makes her cocoa, and she sits at his tiny kitchen table and takes little sips, wiping the foam from her lips in between. And she tells him stories.
Like the one about how in France there was a monster with a giant claw for a hand, and he was five thousand feet tall, and he could have ripped down the Eiffel Tower and killed all the people with his poisonous breath if he wanted to. But he didn't want to. He was a kind and gentle monster, and he couldn't help that he had a claw for a hand and poisonous breath, so he just lived mostly in the sea and ate fish. And since he could have killed them all but didn't, the people worshipped him (from a safe distance) and he was happy.
The little girl is my sister, and we are waiting for her to come home so we can eat dinner. She has always been full of stories. Even when she was just learning to talk, she told us her peas were really bullets, and if she ate them her mouth would turn into a silver gun and she would shoot us all, bam, bam, bam. She told Miss Shirley at KinderCare that all the dogs in the world had a terrible disease, and soon they would turn purple and start shrinking, smaller and smaller, until they were tiny enough that all the cats would swallow them like rats. Miss Shirley called my mother and said, Your daughter has emotional problems.
No, no, my mother told Miss Shirley, my daughter just has stories. Like it was a condition. Which I guess maybe it is.
So my mother smiles when my sister tells us tales about the man across the hall. She tells us how the man sometimes turns into a small white dog, or sometimes into a snake. And that one time he turned her into a snake, too, and showed her how to slither under the doors and furniture without any feet or hands. She says that he has a magical garden, right under the windowsill, with hundreds of different kinds of exotic flowers. But if you don't believe, she says, they go away.
My sister puts on her yellow rain boots before school every morning, even when the sun is out. She calls them her Good Boots. They are magical, she says, and when she walks they glow like a thousand fireflies and keep away all enemies and evil things. The kids at school make fun of her. They think my family must be poor, that she doesn't have any other shoes to wear. I tell them my sister is crazy.
Are you visiting that man across the hall again today, my mother asks. My sister rolls her eyes and says yes, of course, she visits the man every day. Duh. She tells us how the man has said that soon, he will teach her how to turn into a robin, and they will fly south for the winter and return in the spring. She will be sad to miss the winter. She likes stomping in the snow in the Good Boots, she says, but instead she says she will make friends with colorful birds and fall asleep listening to jungle noises and tropical rain.
My dad pours cream into his coffee and shakes his head. I don't know where you get your imagination, he says, but it certainly isn't from the rest of us.
It's true. We have no stories to tell, my mother and dad and me. We are flat, two-dimensional; stories do not burst from our heads like roses. We have no real character arc. We go from home to school to soccer practice to work and back and never change. And we don't believe in magic glowing boots, or little girls who turn into birds and snakes and silver guns.
One day we wait for my sister to come home from dinner, just like we do every night. Only this time we wait, and wait, and wait, until finally my dad gets angry and goes across the hall and bangs on the door. There is no answer. When the police finally arrive and force open the door, my mother grabs at my father's shirt in panic. There is nothing at all in the apartment: no tall old man, no little girl, no furniture, no rugs or plates or knives or cups of cocoa. There is nothing at all in the dim, dingy place except a pair of yellow rain boots, neatly placed under the living room windowsill.
My little sister is full of stories, but she has packed them up and flown. We eat our dinners in silence and at night our dreams are blank and empty. We watch the snows fall and melt and fall again, and we dare not make up stories of our own. None of us will admit it, but we are a restless audience. We are waiting and watching for the first signs of spring.