When Hanna did, eventually, find sleep, it was disturbed and fitful. She longed for the relief of deep unconsciousness, without ever reaching it. And she knew, in her semi-conscious anguish, that she would be useless in the morning.
She should not have felt rested. The fact that she did, was cause for concern.
She remembered mornings like this. When the troubles that had been achingly real in the darkness, became insignificant in the light of day, floating away, like a dream. When she could smile in the knowledge that, while she had slept, a benevolent God had been at work in the world. They gave her hope. They lifted her up, setting her feet in a place from which she could fight through the next challenge.
She didn’t have those mornings anymore. She didn’t remember when they had stopped, but they had. Years ago.
And yet, this was one of those mornings. Unmistakeably.
Everything was different. The light that warmed her face, glowing red through her eyelids; the springiness of the mattress; the coarseness of the blanket scratching her neck. And more than that – more than her surroundings. The changes ran deeper. Inside of her.
It was a feeling of lightness. Of buoyancy, rather than weight. It was the absence of an ache in her chest, the one that had become so much a part of her, she’d forgotten what it was like to be free of it.
No pain, no dread. No thick, heavy fog, clouding her way and dragging her down.
With unaccustomed clarity, she knew that today was special. She should want to hide under the covers in misery. Instead, her body was tensed, ready to spring out of bed and meet the day, and whatever it brought for her.
And it wasn’t waiting any longer.
Her eyes opened. Nimble hands ripped the sheets and blankets away in one swift motion, and she was up – almost, and then not. Squinting reflexively at the sharp crack of skull against wood, cringing back into the softness of the bed.
And then, opening her eyes again, more hesitantly this time, she looked. And saw.
She stared at the familiar surroundings. Gaping, for long seconds. Then, slowly, carefully, put her feet on the floor. Ducked her head as she stood up from under the bunk above that had just assaulted her, and walked to the middle of the room. A small, cluttered, homey room, outdated and unpretentious. A room she had never expected to see again.
She stood on a carpet, the colour of pea soup. White walls, with a flowered paper border, angling high above her, hinting at an attic. Two tall windows to her left, hung with plastic horizontal blinds, and filmy, blue curtains, with a small desk snuggled between them. A wood-paneled closet and cupboard spanning the far wall. To her right, a white dresser, shoulder high. The top of it holding, on one half, a neat arrangement of porcelain dolls around a wooden jewellery box; and on the other, a mess of vaguely girlish clutter.
She breathed, deeply, taking it all in. Turned back to the set of bunk beds, and the rumpled pile of blankets in the bunk above the one she had just emerged from.
She didn’t disturb it.
Almost instinctively, she retreated. Out the door, straight down the hall. Bare feet on cold linoleum, hand running along the railing bordering the stairs to the main floor, and right again – pausing, here, at the closed door. Stained wood. Glass doorknob.
It felt cold, and hard, under her small fingers. The hinges creaked softly as she pushed it open, ever so slowly. She crept from green linoleum to more green carpet. And here, again, was a set of bunk beds.
The upper one was another tumble of blankets, with only a pale hand peeking out. But the bottom – she took two hurried steps forward, and crouched beside the mattress. Stared at the little girl stretched out on her back, tiny hands curled by her head on the pillow. Took it all in: the shallow, even breathing; the hint of a snore; the button nose in the middle of the face; parted, tear-drop lips; long, light lashes resting on round cheeks; wispy hair spread out all around her head.
She reached out a hand, unable to draw it back, to touch the soft skin under the child’s jaw. Little Sarah, still clinging to babyhood. Sarah, who cried when Hanna left for school. Who crept into Hanna’s room at night to ask if she could sleep with her. Lizzy and Emily would grouch that they had no room, but Sarah knew her eldest sister wouldn’t turn her away.
Sarah. She tried to stop herself, but couldn’t. Hanna gathered her little sister into her arms, knowing she would wake up, and she’d be grumpy, as she always was in the morning.
It didn’t matter, she knew, smiling sadly. She looked down at the small body in her arms, the face now scrunched up in semi-conscious displeasure. This felt too real, too vivid, which meant it would be over soon. She had to enjoy it while it lasted.
Because this was a dream. It was beautiful, but it was only a dream.
Strange, that after the night she’d had, she hadn’t been visited by nightmares; but this. Holding her baby sister in her arms, long before any of her troubles had started. Back when she had been herself.
Her parents had sold this house ten years ago. She’d been in university, then, and hadn’t felt the loss. She’d never liked this town anyway, and the house, though cozy, was inconveniently small. But seeing it again, the way it was, filled her with a strange nostalgia. Life had not been bad here. There had been difficulties, of course. Homesickness to overcome, a new school to attend, an inferior culture to get accustomed to. But, eventually, this had become her home.
Sarah had settled down in her lap, deciding not to wake up quite yet. Hanna wondered how old she might be. She was bigger than Adele, Lizzy’s little girl, who was right in between three and four. But Adele was pixie-like, while Sarah had always been a sturdy thing, strong and tall for her age. Though she was a substantial weight in Hanna’s arms, she was probably no older than four.
Hanna studied her. She hardly remembered Sarah being this young, but now she saw every detail. A little Shirley Temple. They used to call her that, with her head of curly hair, and her beautiful, chubby cheeks. The curls hadn’t lasted – but here they were, again, hauntingly perfect.
A small, rustling sound reached her, from above. Hanna tilted her head back, to see two huge eyes, looking down on her. Blue eyes, in a round face, with a pointy little chin, and pink lips and cheeks. Emily.
“Good morning,” said the smiling urchin, cheerily, in a voice Hanna had almost forgotten.
“Good morning,” said Hanna.
Then came a noise from downstairs. Footsteps on the hardwood floor. Hanna’s eyes darted to the door, and again to her watcher, who dove back under her covers.
Hanna felt her own heart, pounding. Her mother was coming, and she had no idea what to do.
The footsteps reached the top of the stairs. When they rounded the corner, and took the first of two steps that would take her into Emily and Sarah’s doorway, Hanna saw her. And she saw Hanna.
She smiled. Amused, to find her eldest on the floor, holding the youngest in her lap.
She bent down, to touch Sarah’s cheek, with the back of her hand. “Morning, sweetie-pie.”
Their mom was in a good mood. She didn’t throw around mushy endearments like that. Or had she, when Sarah had been this little?
Sarah groaned, twisting away from the noise of wakefulness, searching for a few more minutes of sleep. But Hanna hugged her, squeezing her to life.
“Time to get up,” she said, mimicking her mother’s tone.
Sarah, cracking an eyelid, looked at her with utter disgust. Elbowed her in the stomach, as she pushed her way out of Hanna’s arms, and stomped away solidly, out the door. She’d never been a morning person.
Their mother had turned her attention to Emily, who, Hanna now realized, was pretending to be asleep. From where she sat, observing, she couldn’t see their mother’s face, but heard her singing.
Good morning merry sunshine,
Why do you wake so soon?
You’ve scared away the little stars
And shined away the moon.
Then Emily, with fake drowsiness – “Good morning, Mom!”
A light chuckle. “Up you get, sweetie.”
“Cause we’re going to our new school today?”
So, that was it. The excitement that Hanna had felt, when she first woke up – it was their first day of school in Dorville.
Emily continued to ask questions – would grade three be different from grade two? – would her teacher be nice? – could she wear her purple shirt? Mrs. Graham answered them all, indulgently, while she laid out clothes for Sarah – who returned from the bathroom in a much better mood – and Emily, having undressed on her bunk, climbed down, in her underwear. The tiny room was a flurry of activity, which Hanna observed, intrigued, curled up in a corner of the floor, at the foot of the bed.
Then Mrs. Graham went back downstairs, and Emily – wearing a pair of green pants, but no shirt, as of yet – asked, curiously, “Why are you still on the floor?”
Hanna scrambled up, quickly, surprised by how easy it was.
“Right,” she said. “I’d better – go, get ready.”
“Yeah, Hanna,” chirped Sarah, with childish admonishment. “You can’t be late for our first day of school.”
“Of course not.” She plastered on a smile, and backed out of the doorway. Wary, all at once, about what was going on.
Emily went back to searching for a shirt, Sarah resumed her chatter – to herself, or to Emily, Hanna couldn’t tell – while clumsily straightening her bed. It was all so perfectly normal. So impossible. Sarah was four and Emily was eight and Hanna was in the hallway, listening to them, watching them, and it was real and it couldn’t be real and there was a very real possibility that she was actually going insane. A sensation, that felt oddly like her body turning grey, and cold, started from her head and was reaching her stomach, and she was going to pass out, no, she was going to vomit, and she clutched the railing and then – then, she forgot what she was thinking.
Because she saw herself.
She was in the hall. Her bedroom door was open, and she could see straight through. Lizzy was getting something from the cupboard shelves, and the full length mirror on the opened cupboard door stared directly at Hanna. And she stared back into it.
She began to breathe again, without realizing she’d stopped. Felt the deathly grey retreat, as life returned to her flesh.
With her eyes on her own reflection, she touched her face, lightly. Walked closer to the mirror, in awe. She had looked like this? This was her? Yes. Yes. Her first day of grade seven. She was twelve years old.
What kind of dream was this? She’d had dreams about her childhood – didn’t everybody? Dreams about her sisters; this house, even. But she’d never seen herself. Not like this.
Her image was only a foot away. She touched the glass, hesitantly.
With startling abruptness, the door swung shut, taking the mirror with it. And there was Lizzy. The sister Hanna had shared a room with until she’d moved out. Awake, and dressed, and already developing an attitude.
“What?” Lizzy asked, defensively.
Hanna realized she was staring. She shook her head, snapping herself out of the daze she’d slipped into. “Um, nothing,” she said.
Lizzy narrowed her eyes, but went back to her preparations.
Bare footsteps hurried behind Hanna’s back, headed for the bathroom. And she realized that she needed to pee.
She glanced at the bathroom door. It was a solid little thing, so short that they had to duck to enter. They never bothered locking it, because this washroom was shaped like an L. The entrance was followed by two steps down, then a little hallway, wide enough to hold a low dresser, in which they stored towels. At the end, in the corner of the L, was a rocking chair, blocking the door to the attic. From there, the main part of the room opened up to the left. So, if you walked in on someone, they just yelled at you, before you got anywhere close to seeing them on the toilet.
Hanna pulled the door open, poking her head inside. “Emily?” she called. Once the idea of peeing had occurred to her, it quickly became urgent. She hoped the desperation in her voice would encourage Emily to hurry.
“Just a minute!”
Within the promised minute, Emily emerged. Hanna scurried in, careful to duck through the doorway. Once down the two stairs at the entrance, she could walk straight, without her head grazing the peaked roof. Funny. She remembered having to crouch – but then, she had lived here until leaving for university, at 18. She must have been a bit shorter, at twelve.
All this flew through her head, quickly, while she pulled her bottoms down and squatted on the toilet seat. But then, a thought abruptly halted her actions.
If this was a dream, she was about to wet the bed.
She regularly dreamed about having to go to the bathroom, when she really did have to go. Usually right before she woke up. But something always stopped her – she couldn’t find a bathroom, or if she could, there was a party going on inside. Typically, it was a public washroom, and none of the stalls had doors. Always something like that. They were agonizing experiences. Her subconscious seemed completely willing to put her through all kinds of emotional distress, in order to prevent her from nocturnal incontinence .
But now, nothing. She sat on a perfectly good toilet. The seat slightly warmed up by the sister ahead of her. She was alone, surrounded by solid walls. There was toilet paper in the roll.
What was going on here?
It was all she could do to hold it in. Sharper than a dream. It was no use. With a nervous whimper, she let it go.
Nothing happened. Nothing, that is, except for the familiar sense of relief, as her bladder emptied itself. She didn’t wake up to find herself lying in urine-soaked sheets. It all felt very… normal. Real. She finished, washed her hands, and looked at herself in the mirror.
“Hanna, what the heck is going on here?” she asked.
She examined her face. Her twelve-year-old face, as it used to be. Her thick bangs. Her long, dark hair. Even – she grimaced – the beginnings of a uni-brow.
She swallowed. Felt her flat, boy-like chest. Her skinny legs – well, as skinny as they’d ever been.
“Hanna!” Lizzy yelled from the doorway. “Stop hogging the bathroom!”
She rushed out. “Sorry…” Lizzy had the door pulled closed behind her, before Hanna could say another word. She heard the soft click of the deadbolt.
Well. That was that.
Returning to her room, she found clothes in the white dresser she and her sister had always shared. Only their Sunday dresses hung in the closet. She discerned which drawers were hers – the ones that held items neatly folded and stacked, rather than balled, and stuffed in haphazardly. She wasn’t expecting much, remembering the meagre state of her childhood wardrobe. But she still grimaced at the unflattering styles of the mid-90’s – or rather, the mid-late 80’s, where her second-hand pants had evidently originated.
Two pairs of jeans. Both with tapered waists, and legs that narrowed down to the ankles. One pair of blue corduroys, which she had no memory of. Three pairs of shorts. And that was it.
She pulled on the most promising pair of jeans. They felt strange: not tight, but stiff, without the give of elastic. And her feet looked huge. Her first pair of wide-legged jeans had been in grade eleven, and her first impression, after trying them on, had been that her feet actually looked small from above, with only the toes showing past the jeans’ hem. For an adolescent girl who wore size ten shoes, it had been love at first sight. And now, she was back to this.
But she wouldn’t complain. No matter how ugly they were, they fit. And they went all the way up to her waist, so they didn’t have any problem covering her butt. She found an acceptable white t-shirt among the colourful, though faded, array. Just for fun, she added a beaded necklace that Emily had made for her birthday. It was a childish thing, but, she supposed, she was now a child.
She grabbed the bathroom again, when Lizzy was done, to brush her teeth. She checked the cupboard for toiletry items. The top shelf was hers, each younger sibling claiming a lower one, in order of age. There was a brush, some headbands and hair elastics – she hated the headbands, they always gave her a headache halfway through the day. A make-up kit she’d been given for Christmas, and was too afraid to use. No face wash. What did she clean her face with – soap? She just splashed it with water, for now. No tweezers, those wouldn’t come for another year or two. Same with razors and deodorant.
She moved on to her hair. It needed to be trimmed, and the bangs desperately deserved thinning. Also, they were slightly crooked. But it could have been worse. Sometimes their mom would get carried away trying to even them out, resulting in lots of empty space above the eyebrows.
She was looking for a pair of scissors, when their mom called up the stairs, with a 15 minute warning.
She heard Lizzy clomp down the steps to join Emily and Sarah, who were already down. Well, it was only one day. She pulled her hair back into a low ponytail, using two elastics – a trick she hadn’t learned until years later. Her thick hair had always defied single elastics. Of course, lately, it had seemed to be getting thinner. Unless that was her imagination.
Her sisters were at the table, eating Honey Nut Cheerios, pre-mixed with plain Cheerios – their mother considered the Honey Nut variety too sweet, on their own. Even the mixture was a treat, for them. Hanna sat down. Watched her mother, at the kitchen counter, making their lunches. The difference wasn’t as obvious as it was with her sisters, but her mother was younger. Her face had fewer lines, her glasses were bigger. Hanna had never thought much about her mom’s age. Sixteen years ago – her mother was only 34. Six years older than Hanna. With four kids.
“Are you going to eat?”
The question came from across the table. Emily was looking at her, again.
Hanna tried to smile normally. She wasn’t hungry, but she couldn’t imagine the reaction that announcement would get. Theirs was not a household in which meals were skipped. She poured herself half a bowl of Cheerios.
Emily, however, was not satisfied. “Why are you so funny?” she asked.
Butterflies would be too mild a description for the sensation Hanna felt in her stomach, at that moment. Butterflies were light and fluttery. Whatever this was, it squirmed, and it was icy cold. What should she say? What could she do? Sarah, wearing overall shorts and a green t-shirt, was happily eating dry Cheerios from the table, with her fingers. But Emily’s eyes were too observant, and Lizzy, now, was suspicious.
“I’m not funny,” said Hanna, trying to sound natural. But the strangled, shaky words could not have been less convincing.
That got their mom’s attention. She swung around, and everyone stopped eating.
Her eyes bored into Hanna’s, and then she walked toward the table. This was it. Her mother would know something was wrong. That she was an impostor, not her twelve-year-old daughter at all.
But, though her eyes were concerned, she just put a hand on Hanna’s head, and asked –
“Are you feeling alright?”
Hanna nodded. Her voice was not to be trusted. But, though she told her face to express confidence, it was clearly not cooperating.
“Nervous?” her mom asked.
Hanna swallowed. “I’ll be fine,” she croaked out.
Her mother might not have been completely convinced, but she had no more time to dig. Her eyes glanced at the clock on the wall. “Alright girls, you have five minutes to eat that cereal.”
Hanna shovelled it in, then put her bowl in the sink with the others. What else did she need to do? A backpack. The other girls were grabbing theirs, putting their lunchboxes inside. Where was hers?
She was an organized child. The night before the first day of school, she would have been especially so. The front door.
She checked. There it was, right beside the piano. Pink and grey. She unzipped it, looking inside. Gym clothes, school supplies. She supposed she hadn’t carried a water bottle in grade seven. Of course not. But how did she get through a day at school without one? She’d have to see if she could find one for tomorrow.
She stopped herself right there.
She was being ridiculous. This was nothing but a dream. And dreams didn’t have ‘tomorrows’. She would be waking up any minute now. She should have woken up already. Dreams did not drag on like this. They didn’t feel like this.
Why didn’t this feel like a dream? Her sisters, her mother – they was all too real. Not memories, but living. And though Hanna had no idea how she had ended up here – in this place, or in this time – she felt guilty. As if she were lying to her family. They deserved the real Hanna – the twelve year old Hanna, the girl she had been, and wasn’t anymore. This wasn’t fair to them.
She began to look around her, as if expecting this younger version of herself to walk in, and take her rightful place, deposing her, the adult Hanna in a child’s body, who had no right to exist in this world.
She stood in the living room. On one of the carpet pieces leading to the front door. She could see the old green sofa, the brown pull-out couch. Chairs. Coffee tables. The kick-knacks she remembered from her childhood. The wood floors her father had refinished, that summer, after they had moved in. Her dreams were never this detailed. They were fuzzy and disordered, never to be confused with reality.
What was this, then, a vision? Some divinely ordered hallucination, a message from God?
That was it. Hadn’t she asked for a sign? All she’d wanted, last night, was direction, for God to show her what to do. That was all she’d ever wanted. She could deal with miserable circumstances, as long as she knew what she was supposed to do.
So, she was having a vision. An extremely strange, lifelike vision. And if that were the case, she supposed the best thing to do was just go along with it. It couldn’t hurt. Besides, she didn’t see any other viable options.
She would try to blend in. Behave, as much as possible, like herself. Her twelve-year-old self, that was. It shouldn’t be too hard. She’d always figured, deep down inside, that she hadn’t really changed much since the age of twelve.
The girls were going past her, now, putting their shoes on in the porch. She grabbed her lunch – the only one left – and joined them. She slung her backpack over both arms – not just one, the way they had in their old town. Only little kids at their old school wore their backpacks on both shoulders. But here, everyone did. Hanna supposed it was more sensible, this way. More secure, certainly.
Lizzy looked at her strangely, though. Hanna almost wanted to explain her behaviour – but how would that go, exactly? ‘You might want to wear your backpack like mine. Trust me. I’m from the future.’
Since that was not a viable option, she ignored Lizzy’s looks. Avoided her eyes. And tried to act normal. Even a fake Lizzy was not worth angering.
She had enough to deal with, at the moment. Emily’s perception. Lizzy’s suspicion. Her mother’s youth. And now, apparently, the first day of grade seven. What had begun as a nostalgic dream, was quickly becoming more complicated. Still, she wished, with every step in this strange, impossible world, that it was real. And that she could stay.