The answer for me back then was yes—most numbers vibrated. They vibrated in Pittsburgh, they vibrated in Chennai, and the sense that I was deeply connected to everything in the world by numbers was infinitely comforting to me. My toes quivered when Miss Wabash—despised by the other fifth graders for her strictness—teased out these reverberations in purple chalk during the math hour. Amma, noticing how much I loved numbers, had asked Miss Wabash to give me extra math worksheets, even though it was not computation that thrilled me, but the numbers themselves—the accounting of all that was domestic or wild, safe or dangerous, a kind of language that remained stable no matter the city. I faithfully tallied the number of fruit jelly candies Amma bought at the green grocer’s, the number of perforated ceiling tiles in my father’s office, the number of thrushes sipping from the bird bath by my classroom, the number of former friends that called me a terrorist in the months after 9/11.
The trouble began during our annual three-week winter trip to Chennai in 2001, just a few days before we returned home. The prospect of returning to Pittsburgh filled me with dread, even though this time my grandfather was coming to live with us because his heart condition was worsening. We were staying at his small, sparely furnished two-bedroom flat with its orange and white tile floors and pit toilet. Thatha was a retired mathematics professor and the beige walls were lined with overflowing bookshelves. It was a Friday with no cosmic significance according to the numerology book I'd convinced my mother to buy that morning. Yet it remained seared in my memory because for many years afterwards, my mind worried over how easily everything could have gone differently. If only they had.
After lunch, I'd read the frontispiece of the numerology book: an optimistic promise that inside were answers about why there was so much chaos in the world. I finished calculating my family's karmic numbers according to the instructions, and then I'd laid out all of Thatha's heart pills on the dresser and counted them. Sixty-one. When I was done counting, I gathered the pills and rearranged them in their five respective bottles. I wandered out to the narrow cul-de-sac in front of my grandfather's stucco split-level. On the porch, my grandfather was smoking a cigar while my mother scolded him for not taking care of his health in a blend of Tamil and English. "You're doing this to yourself," she said. Thatha rubbed his swollen legs under his veshti. I didn't like how shrill Amma's voice got when she spoke to my grandfather, and tried to hurry past them with my book in hand.
"Put that rubbish book away," my grandfather called after me. I pretended I didn't hear him, although he continued chastising my mother for buying the book as I walked into the cul-de-sac.
Pot-bellied clouds, the grey of gunshot, rolled overhead, signaling an impending monsoon. Up the street, near the busy intersection, idle young men chewing betel leaves hovered on the sidewalk and cattle lumbered alongside nimble yellow rickshaws and bulky motorcyclists and honking cars. In the other direction, housewives squatted in front of their houses drawing elaborate kollam with white, pink and green chalk. The neighborhood kids chased each other screaming and laughing, and for a moment, I wished I was among them. My old friends from the convent school had returned to the classroom after Christmas, so I'd tried to play with the neighborhood kids, but my accent had changed in the three years since we'd moved to the States, and they'd mocked me. It was not as painful as my life in Pittsburgh, where the kids teased me about the veil of downy hairs on my upper lips and arms, and shunned me because my mother packed me lunches of rice and sambar in a steel tiffin every day. Some of the girls had told me sambar was the grossest thing they had ever smelled or seen someone eat. Often, one of the boys would grab the tiffin tin and throw it away, leaving me to fish through the trash for the tin so I wouldn't have to explain to my mother why I'd come home without it.
Next door were our family friends, the Kumaraswamys, who we'd known well before we moved to Pittsburgh three years before. Through the crisscrossed black metal bars of their front gate, I saw Latha Kumaraswamy sitting with her toddler in the dimly lit room, listening to the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil."
I called through a diamond-shaped opening.
Latha unlatched the heavy gate and tugged it open. “What do you need, Hagar kutty?”
I asked for her birthdate, explaining about the numerology book, its practical magic, and how much it seemed to explain. She sniffed. “We don’t believe in that kind of superstitious nonsense,” she said, but invited me in for tea.
In the sitting area, an army of porcelain animal figurines looked out from the curiosity cabinet. Anju placed a doll’s cup in front of me. “Paal venama?” I nodded and she poured milk into the cup.
Latha said, “Tell me about America, Hagar.” As I talked, she smiled, not in the condescending way that adults did when they thought they’d made headway with a recalcitrant youngster, but as if she were genuinely interested. “And do you like your school?”
I nodded, though what I really wanted to say was that I desperately missed my old friends, and I missed my grandfather. Latha continued asking questions—there was something exciting about being asked questions by a grown-up, as if I were an expert on America. “And the other children are nice to you?”
I hesitated a moment, and then I answered yes, as I knew my parents would want me to answer. In truth, just before our trip, Bobby Jamison had ambushed me in the cafeteria. He grabbed me by the shoulders and shoved me up against the concrete wall so that the back of my head banged against it and my teeth rattled. His freckles loomed so close to my face, I could smell the tuna fish on his hot breath and the gathering sweat under the brim of his backwards baseball cap. He pinned my wrists over my head, and squeezed them with such force he left painful, moon-shaped violet bruises. Beyond him, I saw the lunch lady, her hair wrapped in a net, watching from ten feet away. She did nothing. "Go back to Iraq," he yelled. I told him I was Indian. He spit at me, and let go of my wrists, and walked away without a backward glance. Afterward, I went to the girl's bathroom, curled up in the corner, and counted the tiny powder blue tiles on the floor until I could not longer see the beige grout between them, until they blurred into a sea. Miss Wabash rolled her eyes when I told her about the attack and said nobody likes a tattletale and boys would be boys.
The worst of it, though was not the bruises, but what had happened with Anne. Last year, Anne and I had slept over at each other's houses, French braided each other’s hair, and played on the same handball team at lunch, and even on 9/11 when we learned of the nightmarish crashes of the airplanes, one of them in nearby Shanksville, we huddled together and whispered over our matching mauve ballerina lunchboxes. One day we were trading fruit roll-up flavors, and the next, silence. When my mother called out of concern, Anne's mother said Anne couldn't come to play dates at our house anymore. My mother's lips tensed after she told me, like she was keeping herself from saying something else, and when I asked her why, she only shrugged.
“Are you getting good grades?” Latha asked.
The commotion from the neighborhood children outside subsided as Latha’s cook arrived to prepare dinner. Clanging pots, red chilies frying. The warm, comforting golden smell of ghee and cumin, the sound of mustard seeds sizzling. Latha would soon tell me it was time to return home. That's when it happened.
I dug my teeth into my lower lip, and said, “The teacher, she puts me in a garbage can.”
“What?” Latha asked. She swung Anju onto her hip. “What are you talking about?”
“She makes me come inside during the lunch hour every week and forces me to stand inside a garbage can.”
“What? In America? Truly?" Latha's eyes narrowed. "Are you making up a story? Hagar, it’s wrong to make up stories.”
“No, auntie, it’s true! She thinks I'm a terrorist.” I added, “I'm not a liar.”
Latha slipped her feet into her black chappals. “Come, I’m going to walk you home.” In that moment, I remembered the scolding my father had given me for being so sullen before we boarded the plane. This is India, not the States, so smile and be pleasant, my father had said, and what had I done instead? Made up an awful story. I was mindfully backpedaling, trying to come up with some way in which what I said was true.
“You don’t have to walk me." I'd lit a match and given it to someone else to hold. What surprised me in that moment was that there were no signs I would lie, nor any that Latha would respond so strongly. It was December 28th. An odd number. A seven. It should have been a lovely day, like all odd days were, and it almost had been. I dragged my feet as we returned to my grandfather’s house in the darkness and drizzle. Rain clouds obliterated the moon. The narrow street smelled like running mud and leaves. Above the neighbors' houses, the lanky palms shivered against strong gusts of wind.
“I want to talk to your mother,” said Latha when we reached Thatha's gate. She forced her mouth into a smile, but the corners of her eyes stayed in place.
Inside, Amma sent me into the bedroom. Standing with an ear to the closed door, I could hear them firing back and forth in Tamil, my mother’s voice rising both in pitch and volume, compared to Latha’s hushed replies. Amma opened the door unexpectedly, knocking me back. Latha was gone. “You told her your teacher puts you in a garbage can? What is this?”
“Amma, she did. She hates me.” Even after I'd done all her extra math problems correctly and quickly, Miss Wabash had said offhandedly that I was probably not going to be good enough at advanced mathematics to be a mathematician, and this statement alarmed me. In my convent school in Chennai, I had been at the top of the first, second and third standards. Most of what Miss Wabash taught in our Pittsburgh classroom, I had learned from my grandfather before starting school, but every time I raised my hand, she said, Oh my god, enough! Let somebody else answer.
“Miss Wabash wouldn’t do that to you." Amma sounded desperate. "She gives you those extra math problems. I know you like those. On back-to-school night she was so welcoming. You're lying.” Perhaps Amma was thinking of all the times over the last few months when she’d caught me stuffing cookies into my mouth because I'd missed lunch, hiding in the bathroom. I'd lied then, in spite of the crumbs around my mouth.
“I’m not lying!” I insisted, frantic now. “Why don’t you believe me?”
I could imagine it so clearly, standing in the garbage can, my feet covered in five crumpled papers, two apple cores—one red and one green—the stink of half a tuna fish sandwich. “It happened over and over. And she makes me recite the times tables while I stand there. Because she thinks that I’m a show-off.” Of course, it was freckle-faced Bobby Jamison and a band of boys who'd called me a show-off at lunchtime while making me recite the times tables, which I'd known for years, and mimicking my accent, but this fact was only a trivial detail now, as were the after school games of cops and robbers Bobby and I played after we arrived in the States. It seemed truer that it was Miss Wabash who never said anything when they teased me about my lunches, Miss Wabash who made me feel forgotten because she was in charge.
“I thought she was trying to help you with maths? You love numbers,” Amma said. The rain pelted the windows.
“No, she just wanted to make fun of me,” I said. I pushed away the memory of Miss Wabash recommending a novel about an Indian girl she thought I might like to get from the school library and the mixed feelings it stirred in me, both gratitude for the gesture and resentment that she assumed I'd only be interested in Indians. I plunked down on the hard cot in the living room where I slept, and flipped through my numerology book as the cook prepared dinner.
When my father returned from visiting his old classmates from IIT, I ran to hug him. As I wrapped my arms around his neck, Amma emerged from the kitchen and told him what Latha had said.
"The world has gone mad," Appa said. He pulled me from his neck and studied my face. "Is this true?"
I bit my lip. "Yes."
"No, I can't believe Miss Wabash could be so cruel," Amma said. "Americans know that Indians are not behind that attack."
"White people know no such thing. Anyone dark could be a terrorist in their minds. And at work, there's been a chill for the past few months. I've told you that."
Amma looked away, and then she said, "Well, that could be anything. Maybe it's just a bad fit with the office."
I had heard them talking about the chill my father experienced at work before that night; although we'd all lived there the same amount of time, they saw two different Americas. Amma with her fawn-colored skin believed that the white graduate students saw her as their equal and that they made a place for her, while Appa with his blue-black skin was convinced that a number of white Americans in his program were racists who saw him as inferior. Later I would look back and realize I had taken something away from my mother that night—a confidence in the dream that brought us to America—and she never quite got it back again.
At the dinner table last night, Thatha asked, "Why these long faces?" He looked right at me.
I wasn't sure how to answer. My grandfather had criticized my parents over the last few nights, telling them they shouldn't have moved to the States, and that they should come home. Amma said, "We're just talking about how the world is a mess." Before she hid her face inside a teacup, I saw her blanche with anxiety.
Appa began talking quickly about the terrorist attack at the Parliament House in New Delhi. Later I would understand that this was so they could avoid getting another lecture from my grandfather. "We're discussing the suicide vest and these morons that blow themselves up for ideological reasons."
They commented on the rise of terrorism and violence in the world today, the clatter of their voices rising as they momentarily forgot about me and what I'd said. "You ignore the way America bullies other countries, the way it has supported fanatics for its own ends," my grandfather said. "No country deserves 9/11, but as Noam Chomsky said it is only in children's stories that power is used wisely to destroy evil. I'm not looking forward to living in a country like that."
"What would a professor of linguistics know about terrorism? And if you would take better care of your health, you wouldn't have to." Amma responded in irritation.
While mopping the spicy orange molaga podi with my dosa, I read the numerology book again. I brought the book with me when we went to have snacks and tea with my father's sister, and when we went to an older cousin's wedding on the penultimate day of our trip, but no matter how many times I reread the book, there seemed to be no numbers to explain my lie, or what would happen because of it.
We brought my grandfather back home with us when we returned to Pittsburgh. This was just days before the Indian government announced it would lay landmines along its border with Pakistan. In America, pundits were exploring who was to blame for missing all the signs that 9/11 would occur. We were detained longer than other passengers at customs in the airport, and I caught Appa looking at Amma, as if to say I told you so. "Where you coming from?" asked the rough-spoken blonde man at the counter. "No trips to the Middle East while you were there?" He dumped out the bags of clothes from the tailor's, my mother's turmeric creams and gold jewelry, the cowrie shell souvenirs they'd brought for friends, the sealed bags of seedai and jars of Latha's homemade lemon pickles. He searched thoroughly, and then we had to pack everything back in the bags, while the passengers behind us grumbled.
In front of our tiny rented house in Squirrel Hill, the pale January sky burned whiter than it had in Mandaveli, and my red plastic boots sank deep into the snow on the front lawn. I walked into the foyer and set my suitcase down. It looked exactly as we left it, furnished entirely by our American landlord because m parents were too busy working on their graduate degrees to make it look like it was ours. But the rooms smelled strange, like a doppelganger family had been living there in our absence, cooking their curries and burning our sandalwood incense.
"Very nice house, very nice," Thatha said in an impressed tone as he poked his head into the dining room. "But I am feeling a little faint." My mother helped Thatha settle in, and by next morning, when I woke up, the smell had vanished, or perhaps I'd grown used to it.
Usually my parents drove together to the university. But on that day, my mother called my school's principal. They parked in the school parking lot, my mother commenting on how dangerous it was that children were dropped off and picked up in such chaotic conditions. At the meeting with the principal my mother repeated what Miss Wabash had done and my father, zippered up in his stiff green winter jacket, watched the principal’s face remain stiff and unmoved. When my mother spoke, it sounded like she was telling a true story about another girl who was being humiliated and I flooded with anger on her behalf.
“I’m sorry, but that’s difficult to believe,” said the principal after my mother stopped speaking. He rose from his seat and smiled at me. “Come now, Miss Wabash isn’t cruel. She’s new, but she’s a very good teacher.”
A faint pink flooded my mother’s cheeks. “Hagar doesn’t lie.”
That was true, or at least it had once been true, which seemed like it could be the same thing. I hid my ice-cold hands in my pockets.
“There must be some misunderstanding,” the principal said. “I’ll investigate. I’ll speak with Miss Wabash, but I’m sure this is some sort of mix-up or… exaggeration. We're in the midst of difficult times, as you know.”
I said nothing. It was too late to say anything of significance. Amma paused, her face tightening like she didn't want to say what she said next. "It's not like we're Muslims."
“Do you want to take Hagar home for the day?” asked the principal.
My father had been silent the whole time, sizing up the principal—I had seen him do this in many other situations, erupt with anger after a few minutes of observing a person to see if he or she understood the moral gravity of a situation. I slouched deeper into my chair. “Miss Wabash should be suspended,” he said suddenly. “Immediately.”
“Afraid I can’t do that,” said the principal.
“She made my daughter feel like trash.” Amma's voice was trembling, and my father put a hand on her sleeve. I had never seen my mother cry before.
Appa said, “If you don’t discipline this teacher, we’ll go to the press, to the School Board, to anybody who will listen to us.”
The principal frowned and removed his wire-rimmed spectacles. He rubbed the scabby red skin under his glassy eyes and said, “Hagar, I’ll ask you this once. I want you to tell me the truth now, hear? Is what your parents said true? Did Miss Wabash put you in a trashcan during the lunch hour? Did she call you a terrorist?”
“Yes,” I whispered. “All true.” I willed myself to cry to add a much needed emphasis to what I was saying, but by now, I was too anxious, distracted by the need to survive, and my facial muscles wouldn't let loose any displays of emotion.
“All right. I will talk to Miss Wabash and if there’s truth in what you're saying, I will suspend her. While I get to the bottom of this, we'll put Hagar in the other classroom.”
After my parents left, the principal took me down the breezeway to the other classroom and whispered to the teacher. Thirty-one students stared at me. “Why are you in our class now?” asked a girl sitting next to me during social studies. I didn't answer.
"Terrorist," whispered a boy who'd built Lego castles with me after school two years before.
That day, I sat alone in the cafeteria rereading my numerology book, but the magic had already started to leech from the pages, and I felt nothing but dread. Picking at my rice, I noticed Miss Wabash, wearing a dazed expression as she glided down the breezeway towards the cafeteria with the principal. Her fine red hair was unspooling, slipping out of its clip. “I didn’t do anything to you, Hagar. You know that,” said Miss Wabash when they reached me.
“I know you’re having a hard time with the other kids. That’s why we work on those extra problems you love so much. I’m trying to help you. Why are you claiming I did something like that?”
“Nobody loves extra work.” I covered the book’s title with my hands and felt my front tooth sinking into my bottom lip. “You put me in the garbage can. You wanted me to be embarrassed.”
“I swear I didn’t do anything.” Miss Wabash turned to the principal, with her palms turned up. “She’s lying. Let me meet with her parents.”
When I returned home, Amma was waiting in the foyer. “Your teacher says she didn’t do it. They’re asking other students if they’ve seen anything.”
I shook my head. “She just doesn’t want to be punished."
“They’ll start the paperwork for your transfer to the other class in any case.” My mother went into the kitchen.
I thought she would come back and accuse me again, but instead she called my father and said that I was going through such a tough time, there was no way to force me to take back what I said. "Latha called to check on Hagar," Amma said. "I told her we don't know what will happen. Maybe my father is right. Maybe this isn't the right place for us." I wondered if we would move back to Chennai, into my grandfather's house. I'd see my friends at the convent school every day again. We'd be next door to the Kumaraswamys again.
Thatha came downstairs just then, walking slowly. He was holding a book of mathematical puzzles, and caught me standing just outside the kitchen door. "What are they saying?" he asked.
"Nothing," I said. "I was just counting the cracks in plaster." I pointed at the wall where a mysterious web of cracks spread.
"I count, too."
"You do?" I had never noticed him counting.
He beckoned me over to the dining room table, too far to eavesdrop any further on my parents. "I'll show you something else. Maybe it will help." He turned on the television, handed me a pencil, and opened the book to a puzzle, which he placed in front of me. Thinking about the difficult abstract problem took me away from Pittsburgh and all my troubles for a few moments. "See, isn't this better than that numerology book?"
But just then, on the television, a blonde anchor was talking about how war clouds loomed over India and Pakistan. Both countries were mobilizing their offensive army formations along the border and had conducted nuclear tests. "Secretary of State Colin Powell has issued a warning to Pakistan to rein in two militant Islamic organizations. The United States is trying to reduce tensions between these two hotheaded nations," she said.
"Hotheaded nations. Such condescension from the superior West. So rational! So righteous!" Thatha snorted. If my mother was with us when he went off on his tirades, she would tell him he shouldn't talk that way, and he would respond that there was no point in coddling children and I was smart enough to understand. I could hear the quiet hum of her voice—she was still on the telephone. "When it was convenient for Americans they allied themselves with militant Islam. Just to fight the Soviet Union. That's how these bloody fanatics have flourished."
A chill rippled through my body, as the blonde anchor kept talking in her easy, lukewarm voice about nuclear war and terrorists. Outside, snow fell in great white drifts, and the warm golden lights of the other houses were blurred. "Is there going to be a war?"
"Where will we go?"
"If it's up to your parents, we'll stay right here," Thatha said. He rubbed his leg.
"Is it safe here?"
Thatha didn't answer. After a moment: "What I like about numbers is that they are eternal. People are the opposite. Inconsistent. Fickle. Things with people are always changing, and what's the right answer with people one moment is not the right answer the next. You can have faith in numbers. Here, let me explain the sultan's dowry problem to you."
Every student in Miss Wabash’s fifth grade class was called to the principal’s office that week to ask if they’d seen anything. At lunch on my second day back, Anne stared at me from across the cafeteria. She said something to the group of girls sitting with her, and then they all looked over with accusing expressions. It was the eighth of January. The book said eight had the worst vibrations. Eights were heavy karmic debt. That meant I had to accept whatever happened, swallow it whole as I had the truth. Outside the cafeteria, rain and snow battered the school. I ran out of the cafeteria and took shelter in a bathroom stall, waiting for lunch to be over, for the truth to come out.
On Thursday afternoon, the principal phoned Amma. They were not quite finished with the interviews, but the principal wanted all three of us to meet with Miss Wabash.
"Why are you agreeing to go?" Thatha said in a belligerent tone. By then, my parents had explained to him what was happening. "Why do you let these Americans push you around? You believe Hagar, don't you?"
"Of course we believe her."
"This is just how things are done here."
My parents looked at each other.
"We should move," Thatha said. "It's not safe for Hagar here."
On our way to meet the principal the following day, the car skidded on a patch of black ice in the residential neighborhood by the school. Appa struggled to regain control of the car, pumping the brakes as the vehicle careened towards the sidewalk. Nobody was on the road, and in a few moments, the tires found purchase, but we arrived at the principal's office badly shaken. Miss Wabash and the principal were already seated inside, talking.
The principal made small talk with my mother, who was trying to cover her agitation from our near-accident. After a few minutes, he said, “Three other students have said that Miss Wabash was inappropriate or tried to embarrass them, too. One said she made her stand in the corner the whole day. Another said she used the n-word around her.”
"I admit I may have, on the rare occasion, used excessive punishment," Miss Wabash said. She avoided making eye contact with my father or me, and looked straight at my mother instead. "I apologized to those students. But I didn't do what Hagar says I did." I felt amazement, believing that perhaps I was right to accuse Miss Wabash—she was guilty. If not of the trash can incident, then something else.
"Why would she make up such a thing?" Appa asked.
"You hate me," I said in a quiet voice.
Something must have snapped inside Miss Wabash, because her calm tone disappeared, and she turned to my father in a rage. "How should I know what your daughter's motivation is? I can't stand you people. You come to our country, you take jobs from red-blooded Americans, and then you have the gall to complain? You should be grateful, Hagar, to be getting an education in the best country on earth."
Appa jumped up as if he were ready to fight Miss Wabash. "Are you going to let her talk to our daughter like this?"
I opened my mouth to confess. I didn't want my father to get in trouble.
But then the principal intervened. "That's enough, Miss Wabash. Hagar, why don't you step outside." I waited in the hall, thinking about what Miss Wabash had said, that I should be grateful.
My parents emerged. “I’m sorry I didn’t believe you,” Amma said, hugging me. “They’re firing Miss Wabash.”
Over the weekend, during the lulls in rain and snow, I took Thatha around the neighborhood for his afternoon walk. One fox lurked by the skeletal rose bushes and one red-breasted robin hopped through a shimmery brown puddle. One deflated balloon hung from a sycamore tree in the neighbor’s yard. "But she wouldn't admit it?" my grandfather asked. "If she was willing to admit to some of those things, it seems she would admit to the others." He put on his glasses and peered at me as we shuffled down the street. He waited, breathing heavily, but I said nothing.
There was no pleasure in counting, there was only one of every living thing in the winter snow. Thatha complained that his chest hurt, and went inside, but I stood on the front lawn for a long while. My feet felt cold and moist and tender inside my soggy sneakers. I tried to reignite the old feeling of excitement when I accounted for things. It wouldn't catch.
The next week, there was a substitute teacher in Miss Wabash’s place, a gnomish man named Mr. Kaplan who had hair growing in thick tufts from his ears. During the math hour, he assigned the same problems to everyone. He did not use colored chalks. Everybody worked alone and there were no advanced problems, and nothing to keep my interest. Frustrated, I chewed my cuticles and made up fraction problems to keep myself occupied. I remembered what my grandfather had said—that numbers were eternal, trustworthy.
At lunch in the cafeteria, Anne passed my table, and unexpectedly, she paused. “What is that?” She was chewing on the end of her wispy blond braid and staring at the black numerology book.
At first I was too startled to answer her. She hadn't spoken to me in months. Finally I said, “It tells me about people based on their birthdate.” I told Anne about her personality number and then her karmic number.
“That’s not anything like me,” said Anne, wrinkling her nose. “I’m not peaceful.” All the kids at the table pressed in close around asking me to calculate their numbers. Flustered, I started to count in Tamil. The kids stared at me with uneasy expressions, and with a start, I realized I was so upset I was speaking in the wrong language, and began counting in English again.
After I gave them each the number from their birthdays—not the right ones—everyone agreed I was wrong, and the chorus of their voices in agreement was like the black whirring of wasps. I closed my eyes and opened them again. The vibration that numbers had always possessed—the special thing that connected me to the invisible sense-making structures of the world—was gone. Instead, the world buzzed with an energy entirely unresponsive to me, and the group, an unknown number of children, stopped talking and stared at me.
“That’s so dumb,” said a boy who had once thrown me against the wall. “You can’t tell the future with a stupid book. Dummy.”
After school, I spotted Miss Wabash with her familiar shock of red hair walking with a cardboard box toward the parking lot. “Miss Wabash!” I called. It wasn't too late. This time, I would tell the truth, this time I would say how sorry I was.
But she didn’t respond to my calls. I screamed “Miss Wabash!” again and again as I ran across the frosty field, my backpack bouncing off my spine. I slid on a long patch of ice flowering the lawn, and fell and scraped my knee. I jumped back up and raced past the other kids as they strolled towards the street where the school monitor was directing traffic. By the time I reached the parking lot, Miss Wabash was already ensconced in her Volvo, pulling out of a spot.
“Miss Wabash, I’m sorry,” I screamed at the car, and beat the car windows with my fists. “Sorry. I’m sorry!”
Miss Wabash looked past me with bloodshot grey eyes and the car kept rolling backward, until it couldn’t any further, and then it lurched forward. I ran after the car in the icy lot. I slid on a patch of ice and steadied myself, and started running again, but Miss Wabash was determined to get away from me. The car picked up speed, as it screeched around a turn. Up ahead, the school monitor was turned the other way, directing kids across the cross walk.
Meanwhile Anne was galloping through a snowdrift in the lot, her blond braids bouncing. In a moment's miscalculation, she lost her balance and dropped to her hands and knees in the car's path. Miss Wabash swerved. The scream of brakes, metal on metal. A quiet thud as the corner of the bumper hit Anne. She landed on her face on the asphalt. My heart stopped. All around me, I heard screaming and wailing and crying. Horrified, I froze. All I could think was: I had done this. Parents and children were running towards Anne, running and falling on the ice. In all the commotion, there was the sound of a woman screaming, get help, get help.
Bobby Jamison stood on the sidewalk, watching. He caught my eye and narrowed his gaze, before turning back to the gathering mob. Before the crowd in dark overcoats surrounded Anne, I saw a streak of blood, a cardinal feather lost in the grey slush.
I trudged home through the slush. Thawing ash-colored snow coursed in streams in the gutters alongside me. The ambulance with its bright red lights hurtled past me, and then the fire truck. The air was warmer than it had been, and carried the smells of wet concrete and fresh yeasty bread. I started to count the snowdrop shoots in a neighbor's yard, but when I got to seven, I stopped and shook my head. Numbers would do nothing. Near my house, I stopped and opened my backpack and took out the numerology book. I threw it in the gutter. It sank for a moment, the thin cheap paper dissolving almost immediately in the murky swirling water. For a moment, I was tempted to retrieve the book, yank it out sopping-wet, and study it, lay bare all the mysteries of this new and vicious life. I would discover the eternal wisdom that the first pages of the book promised, the secret answers that had eluded me thus far, for reasons I didn't yet understand. I followed the stream as it carried the book. In a moment, the stream quickened, and the pages were caught in an eddy, which flung it over the metal grates and down into the dark sewer.
It began to rain. A sudden downpour. From the sidewalk outside I could see my grandfather and my mother through the living room window, fighting in raised voices about something, perhaps his heart pills, perhaps the war, perhaps me. Through the glass came the glow of the fire they'd lit in the hearth, the shower of blue and gold sparks. I hoped to go inside and receive the sole remaining comfort I knew existed in the chaotic, terrifying world we had come into—that my mother would run her gentle fingers through my hair and tell me everything would be all right. But I was afraid there was no coming back from what I'd done, so instead I just stood outside, watching firelight animate their faces, until I was drenched. Black smoke unfurled from the top of the chimney, and died in all that rain and wind. I couldn't have known it yet, I suppose, but there was no comfort coming, not for years.
Anita Felicelli is a fiction writer, poet, and critic based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of a poetry collection "Letters to an Albatross" (Blaze Vox, 2010). Anita is the recipient of a Puffin Foundation grant, the recipient of a 2015 Kweli scholarship, and an alumna of Voices of Our Nations (VONA). Her short stories have twice been finalists for the Glimmer Train awards and her nonfiction has received two awards from The San Francisco Peninsula Press Club.
Anita's work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Brain Child, India Currents, Blackbird, Juked, Strangelet Journal, and elsewhere. She is an associate editor at the South Asian blog The Aerogram. Anita triple-majored at UC Berkeley, holds a J.D. from UC Berkeley School of Law, and worked as a litigator for a decade. She is working on a novel and has completed a short story collection.