Jane lives with her mother and a stranger in a white house by the sea. Red roses with blossoms the size of a baby’s head grow wild over the windows, and there is a tiny freshwater pool out back where schools of minnows frantically multiply and move together as one dark, quivering arrow. Jane crouches over the pool and watches them. She’s eaten one or two. She can catch them with her hands.
Jane’s mother is thin and young and pretty in a tired way. She’s barely through with high school. She is afraid her daughter will choke on a piece of candy and she’ll have no idea what to do. She takes care of an old cripple who lives in a room upstairs. Jane has never seen this man. Her mother has tried to show her pictures of when the cripple was mobile and fecund and lived in this same house when there was a war happening and they needed to donate all of their cutlery and pans to the effort. Her mother says that this person is so old he’s got white eyes and crooked, yellow fingers and thinks he still has parents. Every so often the cripple asks about the victory garden in the yard. The mother says it is beautiful, tended, and rife with strawberries and summer squash. In truth, the garden is overgrown and muddled by wild herbs and rabbit holes. Jane crawls through a hole in a raspberry bush and devours the fermenting fruits.
Jane is cruel to her mother. She doesn’t like the house by the sea. She doesn’t even like the sea. She can’t swim, is averse to the sunlight and hasn’t got a single friend. Her mother sends her down to the shore with some sandwiches and a pail to collect shells. Jane feeds the bread to the gulls. She sits on the jetty at low tide and watches the whirled, pink lights on a distant boardwalk Ferris wheel. She imagines finding an oyster shell big as her bed and sailing to China in it. Her mother watches Jane from the kitchen window as she ladles plain, boiled oats into a bowl for the crippled man. If she hadn’t gotten pregnant, she mused; she might have been an actress. Or, at least, the spokes model for some detergent company. Jane comes through the door and says, “I threw your sandwiches into the ocean.” Then she knocks a glass off of the table and frightens the cat before disappearing into her room. Sometimes an entire week passes without Jane speaking to her mother at all. She glares at her from the other end of the table and tears the final pages from dog-eared romance novels. She drinks directly from the milk jug and allows Jehovah’s Witnesses inside the house.
Her mother comes into Jane’s room and sits on the edge of the bed. “Jane,” she says “I don’t understand what’s wrong with you. You’ve never been hungry. You have a beautiful, blue rain slicker and boots. You’ve had the polio shots. Measles and mumps, too.” Jane shuts her eyes and turns her face into the pillow. “If you don’t act right I’m going to send you somewhere very far away.” Jane hisses like a bobcat and pulls the quilt over her head.
They live like this for months. The crippled man upstairs moaning and darting his milky eyes from side to side, the mother scrubbing urine from the carpet and watching her daughter through the window, the daughter knocking over the damp, elaborate sandcastles of other children and yanking legs off crabs.
One night there is a tremendous storm. Crushed up sailboats tumble like dandelion pods across the beach. There are fish flying through the air, their red, flat eyes stare glumly at the surf. Sirens are rung and quickly blotted out by the shrieking wind. Huge waves lap close to the sidewalk and carry off several mailboxes, a small wheelbarrow and a loose dog. Up above the moon is swollen, low and yellow.
Jane’s mother flits around the house boarding up windows with cardstock and errant pieces of balsa wood. She lights candles in the bathroom and tries to get the cripple downstairs to safety, but he bites her in the shoulder and kicks hysterically. Mother gives up. She and Jane sit in the bathtub listening to the wind force its way through the crevices in the house. Jane blows out the only candle still left burning. “Don’t do that.” Her mother says as she strikes another match.
“There isn’t any electricity right now.”
“Because of this storm.”
“When is it going to end?”
“I don’t know. I am not a weather girl.”
“You couldn’t be a weather girl. You couldn’t be on television. You have a face for radio.” Jane has no idea what this means. She read it in a comic and got the impression it was a sharp, pithy thing to say.
“Don’t talk like that.” Her mother warns. Jane repeats, “Don’t talk like that.”
“You’re a brat. I can barely stand you.”
“The feeling is mutual.” Jane also read this in a comic. Her mother gives her a hard slap across the face. Jane howls like a wild dog and impulsively grabs the cold-water knob, turns it and soaks her mother’s perm. She runs down the hall to her bedroom and slams the door shut behind her. After a few minutes she hears her mother’s feet shuffle outside. Her mother’s voice is low and even, “I gave you fair warning but you didn’t listen.” Jane hears her go up the stairs to check on the cripple. She drifts asleep to the sound of seaweed slapping against her window, waves roaring close by.
Jane wakes to a soft, white light. She peels the covers down far enough to see a thin man in a pale green suit with long tails and bright opal buttons. He wears a tall hat and carries a cane with a crystal globe on top. His teeth are long and he grins like a fox. Jane wonders if she is dreaming. She isn’t frightened. The thin man has fantastically long eyelashes.
“How did you get in here?”
“Through the door, of course.”
“Do you know my mother?”
“Oh, yes.” He says, “I’ve known her since she was your age.”
“What’s your name?”
“Everyone has a name.”
“That simply isn’t true.”
Jane sits up and switches on her bedside lamp. She examines the man’s face and sees that he’s wearing a thick, pale layer of pancake makeup on his skin. Blush is dotted high on his cheeks in two uneven circles. A few of his nails are very long.
“You look like one of those funny men.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” he says “How do you like school?”
“Not very much at all.”
“What about living in this little house with your mother and that old man upstairs?”
“I truly hate it. Sometimes I think I’d rather die.”
“You don’t have to, you know. It’s very easy to leave. It’s the easiest thing in the world.”
“What are you saying? Are you some kind of a clown? A magician? You’re pulling my leg right now.”
“I’m not, I’ll show you.”
Jane and the thin man stand on the beach observing a pale staircase that winds all the way from the shoreline up to the moon. The steps glow faintly and waves rush over the bottom few. There is no trace of a storm, the sand is white and luminous beneath the starlight and the ocean is a flat, glossy stretch of black. Jane asks, “Did you walk all the way down those?”
“Of course,” the man replies “took me but a minute.”
“How come they aren’t always there?”
“Perhaps you just haven’t noticed them.”
“You seem a little full of it, mister.”
“You seem like you might like to go up these stairs? Would you like that? It’s very breathtaking. You can see everything from the top.”
Jane rushes past the man and kicks some sand back at him on her way. From this distance she can see her whole house. Light flickers in her mother’s bedroom window. The rose bushes look ominous and wild in the dark. The man appears beside her, “Are you certain?” he asks. She nods ecstatically. Every house for miles is a doll’s house. Jane believes she could pick them up with one hand and toss them out to sea. The man taps his cane twice on the side of the stairs and each step behind them dissolves into a cloud before vanishing entirely. Jane is alarmed. She stares up at him, tugs on his coattail. “What?” he asks. “You wanted to go, so we’re going.”
The ocean is clear and still below them. There are blue and red stars burning furiously about their heads. Comets with curled white tails drop down all around Jane and the man. She can feel their heat on her cheeks. She sees tiny planets spinning through the dark. Some are barren and grey with enormous holes. One is covered by a calm, green ocean. Jane looks up at the moon they are climbing toward and sees that its surface is glimmering with diamond quarries. There are children darting in and out of the crevices. They are catching winged fish in muslin nets.
She thinks of her mother back down on earth. In the morning she’ll wake up and see that Jane isn’t in her bed. She’ll walk through the halls, slowly at first, shouting her daughter’s name and pausing every few moments to listen for a rustling behind doors. Then she’ll walk faster, checking every room with urgent efficiency and turning over pillows. She’ll tear the linens from the closet and check beneath the kitchen sink. After a while she’ll go upstairs and check the cripple’s room. She’ll grab him by the shoulders and say in a clear, urgent voice, “Have you seen a child?” and the cripple will grin blankly. Then the mother will tear down the steps and out onto the beach. She’ll scan the horizon with her hand over her eyes like a visor, she’ll think she sees a body in the waves but it will just be a piece of driftwood. The police will be summoned and after weeks of combing the sand and boardwalks everyone will give up and her mother will never sleep again. Jane smiles at the thought. She is going to live forever in a diamond quarry.
When they reach the moon the thin man taps his cane twice more and the last few steps dissolve behind them. Jane looks over the edge and sees that earth is a tiny blue eye somewhere below. She turns her back on the void and looks out across her new home. There aren’t any children or flying fish. Nothing looks like a diamond. She sees a vast stretch of grey dust. Every so often a stray dog ambles across the plane and disappears into a crater with something in its mouth. It’s cold, and she has no jacket. The thin man smokes a pipe and examines his fingernails with an insouciant expression that concerns Jane. “I’m cold.” She tells him.
“There are no children here. Where is everything?”
“This is everything.”
“It can’t be.”
“I promise it is. I’ve lived here for a thousand years.”
“I’m frightened of those dogs running around.”
“I recommend you avoid them.”
“I want to go home.” Jane demands, “I want to see my mother.”
“You’ll need the key,” the man explains, “you can’t go home without it.”
“Well, where is it?”
“Oh,” he says “somewhere in there.” He gestures to a huge, sprawling pile of debris. Old tin cups and broken doll heads heaped up on top of rusted wagons and watering cans and rotted books. Jane is deflated. She turns to him, “That’ll take me a hundred years to pick through!”
“It very well may.”
Jane doesn’t sleep. She spends every minute of her days wading through piles of chicken bones and pieces of glass. Her hair grows long and is matted by dust. The trash seems to grow by the hour. Every time it seems she’s through with one section another rises on the horizon. Sometimes the dogs come around, teeth bared, and she has to frighten them away by banging pots and pans together. She finds hundreds of keys. None of them are right. Each one she finds she brings to the man and asks, “Is this right?” He always shakes his head no. She finds him in a tiny cave nearby where the stairs let them off. He sits in a tall white chair and eats candied violets from a bowl. He never ages. His makeup never comes off. One day he lets her look through a telescope down onto the earth. There she sees her mother sitting on the beach reading a book. She doesn’t look particularly sad or happy. She seems older, and her hair is short.
Jane digs through the piles until her palms are thick and calloused. She’s developed a violent cough and a terrible rash. She looks for the key inside dented refrigerators and empty syrup bottles. Every mildewed jewelry box is shaken. Every milk jug smashed. She finds torn portraits of babies and these make her sad. So do broken necklaces, cracked mirrors and bedpans. There are an incredible number of toy space ships. In all of her time spent among the detritus she has only ever seen one spoon.
One day Jane finds a tiny copper key inside of an old cigar box. She wearily brings it to the thin man, who is sitting on the floor of his cave playing marbles. “Here,” she says as she drops it in the gravel in front of him, “what about this one?” The man absently glances at the key and says, “Go home.”
“Do you mean it?”
“I don’t know what to do. How do I get back?”
“Go back down the stairs, the way you came.”
Jane grabs the key and rushes to the edge of the moon where the stairs have re-materialized. She doesn’t look back at the trash heap. The man doesn’t wave goodbye.
She peels down the steps past the same planets she saw on her way up. The land beneath her gradually comes into focus; a group of seagulls picking at something in the sand, the grid of sidewalks. She thinks that when she gets home she will bake her mother a pink cake with five layers.
What she sees is a house half eaten by the wind.
Justine Champine is a writer and illustrator living in New York City.