Mom and Dad spent November deep-cleaning the house and stocking up on every little thing we might want to eat. Glass canisters stood full of pasta, rice, beans, and nuts. Every kind of jarred and canned good crowded the pantry shelves. On the counter, outrageous displays of fruits, vegetables, bread, cakes (a white, a chocolate, and the pineapple that was my favorite), fruit pies and pudding pies, boxes of candies and plates of cookies. The fridge and freezer held tofu and imitation sausage as well as real sausage, bacon, several varieties of beef and chicken, and an extensive collection of milks, creams, sauces, and condiments.
So overwhelmed with choices, our Mole-Year’s Eve dinner was a simple baguette sandwich cut in five, accompanied by a pitcher of lemonade. We had to eat quickly and get to the meeting.
“This will be our year,” said Mom, as she always did.
My little sister Lucy said, “It doesn’t ever happen. None of us have seen it.”
“That’s not true! You know your brother had a mole-year,” said Dad.
“Only I was a baby and can’t remember,” said William, blushing fiercely. He was sixteen and unpopular, thinking surely of something vile and debauched he planned to do if, this once, our prayers converged and the time was granted.
Unlike my sister, I believed. The new gray kitten sat tense on my lap getting bits of cheese from my sandwich, and all I could think was that if we woke to a mole-year, she would be gone. She didn’t even have a name yet, and if everyone here had their way it would be a year before she had her name, or grew, or anything. And I would have to live a year apart from her.
“Why don’t animals get to, though? I don’t understand,” I said, stroking her soft head.
“They can’t vote,” Lucy snapped.
Mom said, “They can’t pray for it, dear. They can’t wish.”
Dad scooted his chair closer and said, “What will you do, Perrie?”
The kitten had dropped off my lap, and I hardly thought of her now, absorbed instead in “the plan.” I said, “I will live in the forest with Rosie. Can we?”
“Good idea,” Dad said.
“In the green cottage that’s empty now. Can we live all alone if we like?” I added.
“Of course,” he said, “if Rosie wants the same, that is.”
“We always want the mole-year to come, don’t we?” I said.
“Well, you and William will vote as you like,” said Dad.
Mom held the kitten belly-up in her arms like a baby. With a furrowed brow, she said, “Dad and I always pray, and wish, and vote in favor. Who wouldn’t want more life?”
“But people do vote no,” I said, and we were quiet, each perhaps imagining what might bring someone to vote no.
In a moment Mom had put on her coat and was holding out Lucy’s.
“What will I do?” said Lucy.
“You’re too little. Can’t vote, can’t choose,” said William.
Lucy stood and backed into her coat, scowling. “It isn’t real anyways.”
The meeting at Town Hall was quite short: once we’d filled the folding chairs, the mayor went over voting instructions. We voted on slips of paper and passed them to the end of each row, where children my age collected them in baskets. A group of four women got up to sing about winter and endless time. Lucy sprawled on the floor by our feet with coloring books, oblivious to it all, and I thought wistfully how a year ago I had lain right beside her sharing crayons.
The mayor came up and said the discussion was open. People lined up in the aisles.
“What are they doing?” I whispered to William.
He only rolled his eyes. He was playing a game on his phone.
A large woman took the stage and started talking about how, now that she was widowed, her dogs and horses were all she had. She broke down in tears and hurried back to her seat.
Another woman helped a sick-looking old man to the stage. He spoke about how painful his illness was, and she chimed in saying he was not expected to live one more month, but the family was all resigned and prepared.
“Why are they speaking?” I whispered to Dad.
He only petted my head and gave a thoughtful look. At that moment I spotted Rosie with her parents. We waved.
Two hollow-eyed young people with a bundled-up baby came up and said how hard it was to miss so much sleep. The baby squalled, and they sighed.
“We’ve already voted, but we can still change our wish,” I whispered.
Dad said, “Yes, that’s what they hope,” and then, frustrated, he stood and said how he’d spent a mole-year with an infant, and it had bonded him to his son William like nothing else. Hearing his name, William looked up and nodded.
Next was a small group of people who were concerned about gaming. I didn’t quite understand. The meeting fell apart then, with people in the audience following Dad’s lead and speaking out of turn.
We left when it became clear that no one would put an end to the disorder. When we sighted snowflakes on the drive home, Mom wept about how beautiful a good snow is on Mole-Year’s Eve.
I don’t know about the others, but I was a long time getting to sleep that night. I stroked the sleeping kitten curled beside me. I had voted yes, and I wished it too, not without a pang for the sick man and for the pets we would all lose from our lives for a year.
I woke too early and had to wait to be sure. It was dark outside at seven, dark still at eight, and that’s how I knew we had made it into the first mole-year of my young life.
I looked for the poor kitten, though I knew I wouldn’t find her. Mom didn’t emerge from the bedroom, and Lucy was so angry to be wrong she was playing sick, so it was only the three of us going back to Town Hall for the second meeting. It was foggy outside—nighttime but with bright moonlight falling on all the white. Indeed the snow had made everything beautiful, and plows had come by in the night so we did not have to fret about the roads. I thought the air felt warmer than it ought to, with a strange blur in it giving everything a rainbow aura as though glimpsed through pearly glass. Sounds were muffled.
“Strange,” said William. “Everything seems a little strange.”
Dad passed him the car keys, and I noticed how happy both were.
The four women came up again to sing about winter and endless time. William wasn’t playing on his phone now because the internet no longer worked, but everything else was as it had been twelve hours ago. We sat in the same seats, most of us, and yet it felt a long time had passed and that we had entered a different world.
The mayor tried to read off facts and rules about the mole-year, but soon the chattering drowned him out. Dad hopped up and went to the aisle, where Rosie’s dad joined him. They talked seriously for just a moment and then laughed together. Dad then went to a group of older ladies.
When he returned, Dad passed me a key on a rabbit’s foot chain. “Your cottage, my dear,” he said. “Ralph can take you tomorrow.”
Rosie waved excitedly, and I waved back. I felt hopeful and a little disturbed.
“You’re the best age you can be for your first mole-year, Perrie,” Dad said.
I looked toward William, but he was not in his chair.
“Older and you’d have more to worry about. Younger and you’d have to stay home like Lucy.”
“Where’s William?” I said.
“Oh, they took the teenagers to learn about birds and bees. They’ll be done soon.”
They were done soon—William looking pale and cowed—and we hopped back in the car. William drove again. We were quiet most of the drive, Dad gazing across at William and then back at me.
There was something on his mind.
“You were a baby last time,” Dad said, “so that was fifteen years, but there were only five years between that and the previous mole-year. Your mom and I were newlyweds that time.”
“We’ve heard,” said William. I didn’t see his face but watched his neck blush.
“Can you imagine?” Dad said. “We’d just gotten the house—we were working hard to afford it, and then we were gifted a year with no work, a whole year to just enjoy each other.”
William said, “Some of the kids were hoping to set up in the high school this year.”
“We’ll talk about it later,” Dad said curtly.
He turned back to me. We were pulling up in the driveway.
“Are you trying to tell us something?” I said.
He sighed and said, “When a person goes into the year pregnant, they stay that way the whole year. When they come out, the pregnancy finishes. They have the baby.”
“But if they get pregnant during the mole-year—” said William.
“—or, rather, if it’s early enough that the baby’s born before the end of it, then, well, the baby stays … suspended in time. You only see him during mole-years,” said Dad.
We were at the door. I felt uneasy.
“I mean to say,” said Dad with his hand on the doorknob, “You are just about to meet your brother Jeffrey.”
In that instant I imagined a boy older than William—a man—who had raised himself in this strange, dark mole-time. I shivered to think of what a brute he must be, but when Dad opened the door, we saw Mom and a transformed Lucy cuddled in blankets before the fire, a happy baby between them.
We went and knelt and met our brother.
“He was still sleeping right where I left him fifteen years ago,” Mom said.
“Do you remember him, William? You played together when you were both babies.” But this baby couldn’t play anything much. This baby would forever be about three months old. For the first time it occurred to me that William had spent a whole year being one, and I wondered how that had changed him.
The baby slapped at William’s hand. My brother only shook his head slowly. He didn’t remember at all.
“How did he get to be as big as he is?” I asked.
But Dad, Mom, and William were all absorbed with the baby, pretending not to hear.
Lucy said, “Yeah, if you’re saying he never gets older—”
Dad said, “We think his body didn’t know, at first. There’s a certain … momentum in the body.”
Mom said, “He grew for a while and then he couldn’t grow any more. It’s a blessing, don’t you think?”
We let it be.
Late morning, we ate whatever we wanted. I had pineapple cake and a slab of ham. In the evening we all had chocolate pie and cherry pie with ice cream, and Dad made fried chicken and a tofu stir-fry to go with it. We’d suffer no bellyaches, couldn’t gain or lose any weight. Most importantly, we wouldn’t run out of anything.
In between the meals we played board games and napped. Some of us set up with books. It didn’t snow or melt. The fire kept burning all day with no one adding a log to it. It would burn all year if no one choked it or threw water on it.
“Do you miss the kitty?” Dad said.
I nodded, and he lay the little baby in my lap to play with.
Mom was packing some of the food into brown grocery sacks.
“Are we going somewhere?” I called.
“You are,” said Dad.
Oh, yes. Off to the forest with Rosie.
“I’m just so happy to have everyone together,” Mom said, “even if it’s only one night.”
Rosie’s dad Ralph had her bike latched to the back of his car and made a big production of latching mine on there too. In the cargo space were my bags of food and Rosie’s, as well as a big backpack of clothes and books and things for each of us.
My family gathered by the front door to wave one last time. I noticed all our footsteps from the day before were gone—everyone’s were. The snow would be fresh each morning all year, just as the pineapple cake at the bottom of my grocery sack would be whole, fresh, and uncut each time I thought to have a slice.
Rosie and I got in the backseat and started talking about what all we’d do. It felt like we both were trying too hard to be excited, but it worked. We faked enthusiasm until it became real.
“You’ll be safe,” her dad said. “Don’t worry, and if you are afraid, or if you are lonely, or if you want anything—”
“Yes, we know,” said Rosie.
“You can call on the landline and I will come, or you can get on your bikes. The roads will stay plowed.”
There wasn’t so much snow in the yard at all, so thick were the trees here. This little green cottage had been Rosie’s great-aunt’s. No one had had the heart to disturb it yet, so when we walked in, it was as it always had been, everything sweet and small and girly.
Rosie’s dad set about building a fire for us while we put away our food.
As he was leaving, he said “Listen, girls. I don’t know if anyone’s said …” He fiddled with his keys so that I didn’t want to hear what he was going to say.
“Sometimes there’s magic?” said Rosie.
He smiled. “Yes, that’s all I wanted to say. Sometimes you see magical things during the mole-year, and sometimes animals—not the normal ones, but you’ll see. You’ll be safe. The fire will warm you, but it can never burn you, and that’s true for anything you see that is strange. I think this is a good place for you girls. I think you will be happy here. But if you see something, don’t be afraid, and if you are afraid—”
“Call,” we both said.
“Or get on our bikes and come home,” said Rosie.
We hugged him, and then he was gone, and we were all alone in the forest.
We managed quite well, I think. Though no one was there to tell us to, we checked off a day on the calendar each time we woke up. We bathed and brushed our teeth, got exercise and, after the first few meals, ate quite reasonably. We spent a great deal of time exploring the forest, which was lovely with evergreen plants and strange rocks and barely any snow at all. We grew accustomed to the dim, misty light that lay over everything, and the rainbow edges, and the silence.
Inside, we sampled each other’s books, and though we were too old for it, we played dress-up in the old lady’s clothes and jewelry, rubbed her strange-smelling cosmetics into our faces. We explored the little cottage from attic to cellar and tried sleeping in the guest-room beds until we settled together in the great-aunt’s queen-sized bed, which was heavenly soft and smelled of lavender.
Mostly, we lazed around the living room talking, playing board games and card games, and making each other laugh.
It was everything we’d hoped for.
We both kept one eye out for signs of the magic Rosie’s dad had spoken of. A rock with a greenish glow to it, was that magic? Was the sparking sound we sometimes heard in the forest magic?
But no, when we saw magic, we were sure. Our first sighting was a ghost, the little great-aunt. She strode through the kitchen while we made tea, sending a chill down my spine. We searched the cottage but saw no more of her until several days later when, returning from the forest, we caught her squatted down pulling weeds in her vegetable garden.
“She never was able to get much going. Not enough light,” Rosie said.
The great-aunt was not see-through, but she had that foggy, rainbow-edged feel to her that let us know she was a ghost and not a real old lady come to challenge us for the cottage. We let her be that day, but after that she appeared more often, always bringing a chill and a jolt.
One night she sat up in the bed between us, shrieking, “I know someone’s here.”
“Are we afraid?” said Rosie, after.
“Not precisely,” I said.
It was as though time had a geography we were learning our way around. We were no longer sleeping exclusively in what we thought was night, and yet the time did have shape. There was a recognizable length for what we still referred to as days.
Certain things had no fixed time: the regrowth happened nonstop, for example. Often we’d watched our footsteps filling up with snow and the pineapple cake slowly weaving in around its missing slice. We wrote or drew and then watched the page erase itself from the bottom, the pencil slowly sharpening. A smear of icing left on a sweater would evaporate like water within an hour.
Other things had a cycle: fog at a certain time, and then a breeze and a light dusting. The snow and fog would clear and the stars come out bright as we’d ever seen them, and that would last a few hours before the fog rolled in again. We knew a spot in the forest filled with large rocks that had, above it, a clear view of the stars. We’d take pillows and blankets out to watch them. After we’d done it a few times, we spoke and found we both felt better there than in the house.
It should have been cold, but it wasn’t. We felt braver out-of-doors.
When we had planned this year in the woods, we had expected to have visitors, even parties. We expected our parents to call and check on us all the time, but they had not, and after Rosie’s dad’s reminders, I suppose we thought we should call only when we were afraid and wanted to be brought home.
We had stopped marking days on the calendar, had stopped laughing quite as much. Our time inside was beginning to feel like a chore.
“Where are all the moles?” said Rosie.
“I think we’re the moles. I think it’s called that because we burrow down,” I said.
Rosie sighed. “Would you like to go back home?” she said.
I thought of the great variety of food in the kitchen, the little baby Jeffrey, my loving parents, and, yes, even Lucy. “Some time I’d like to. Not yet.”
“How would you feel about an adventure?” she said.
We loaded my backpack with a thin blanket, bread, cheese, jars of lemonade and water, cocoa packets, oranges, and a few nuts and candies. Rosie’s backpack held two pairs of sweats, extra socks, a box of matches, a large shawl of the old woman’s that we thought we might make a tent of, and all the bills from the old woman’s jar of mad money. The poor pineapple cake was abandoned along with most of what we’d brought. We thought about books, but didn’t want the extra weight.
Besides, we were done living in books for the moment. We were going to have an adventure.
Perched on our bikes contemplating the foggy road ahead, we turned to each other with nervous smiles.
“Are we afraid of anything out there?” she said.
“We haven’t seen any animals.”
I didn’t know. My feeling was that everyone had all they needed, that everyone stayed home happy with their families, but I knew that was not true. I had been to Town Hall and seen those bitter, anguished people crying for us to change our wish. I knew that most years—the last fifteen in a row, in fact—there were more of them, or anyway they wanted what they wanted more than we wanted time. Not to mention that I was certainly old enough to know that people sometimes hurt children.
Only I was not afraid.
I said, “I think our parents would not leave us out here if there was anything, really, to fear.”
She nodded. “I had the same thought.”
“So what does that mean?” I said.
“If we die in the mole-year, we aren’t really dead.”
“If we’re hurt, we’re not really hurt.”
“We’ll hurt, for sure—”
“—but we won’t be damaged.”
That was that, then. We set off down the dirt drive toward town. It would not be a forest adventure, not with the bikes. Besides, I had an urge to see people.
What we saw first, though, was our next bit of magic. Ever since Rosie’s dad had told us we would see an animal, we’d been looking everywhere for them. It took only ten or twenty minutes on bikes to see our first, at the side of the road. We slowed and circled back to catch a second’s worth of pewter-colored salamander slithering into the snow. I thought I saw folded wings.
“Too cold for something like that,” said Rosie.
“It isn’t cold at all,” I said.
“But the snow.”
It was strange. We had both touched the snow before, but she kept forgetting.
“It isn’t cold,” I said, bending down to press a palm into it. Cool but not cold.
Rosie smiled anxiously. We circled back onto our route.
Rosie didn’t like to watch our footprints fill with snow. She didn’t like to talk about anything strange but, rather, she liked to pretend that life was as it had always been.
I realized then that she probably wanted to go home—that’s all this adventure would add up to for her.
We did manage to have an adventure, though. Picnicking in a pasture, we saw creatures far off walking against a fence line. Three adults and a long line of their young moved like great apes, though they came up just above the grasses. When the breeze arrived with its dust of snow, we stopped again to sit on a fallen log with the shawl over us and saw something like a rainbow forming in the sky above a cluster of houses.
“I’ve never seen one at night before,” Rosie said.
“I think there’s more magic than we suspect out here,” I said, and just then we saw our third type of animal, which was something like a slender white deer. It came close, showing its pearly coat, delicate goat-like mouth, and oversized eyes. We sat rigid, barely breathing, and when it was gone, we felt satisfied.
The stars came out, and the going was easy. Clusters of houses became blocks of houses, and then we entered the small downtown. We passed the mayor sitting on the Town Hall steps. I kept Rosie company all the way to her tall yellow house in the blocks past downtown. The smoke billowed happily out of its chimney. Her parents came out on the stoop.
“I’ll be in, just a minute,” she called, and they went inside.
“Thank you,” I said. “It was wonderful.”
She drooped in relief, got off her bike, and hugged me. I stayed on my bike, and when she backed away, I kept my hand on her backpack strap.
“Of course,” she said. She scrunched her backpack down into my bike-basket.
“Thank you for spending all this time with me,” she said, the tears starting in her eyes.
“I’ll never forget it,” I said. I was crying too, and so I turned and pedaled away before I changed my mind.
I pedaled right back to the mayor. I had questions for him.
My adventures alone brought me almost to panic sometimes. I saw ghosts walking the roads and heard unsettling sounds. The first night I planned to sleep in an empty barn that still smelled of livestock, just off the road that would lead me, with any luck, to the farm of Margorie, the large woman who had lamented the loss of dogs and horses. The mayor had given me her address and others’, after I explained what I wanted to do.
I had never slept alone and couldn’t seem to do it, so alert I was to the sounds around me. I tried to tell myself the worst I could do was die, and then I’d wake up whole and new on Mole-Year’s Day. No harm in dying or anything else. I wrapped myself tight in the blanket and the shawl, thinking that might help, but the best I could do was lay alone and alert with no book and no light. I tried to rest my body for the day ahead.
I set off early in the fog, sure that I had learned something: there need not be more than one night like that in a life. If, at any point soon, I had the chance to sleep, I would sleep long and well and would not be afraid. I would sleep when I should, and when I could, for the rest of my life.
I came to the farm thinking to help Margorie. I wanted to tell her about all the animals living in the mole-year, but long before I reached the door, I realized she already knew. The closer I came, the more I saw—the deer and the apelike creatures, and so many metallic-looking winter birds. She’d strung the trees with feeders and left pans of water and food out in the snowy pastures with salt and mineral licks beside them.
She answered the door in drapey velvet pajamas with a glass of wine in hand, a pair of binoculars around her neck, and a soft, curious expression. “Yes?” she said, looking beyond me for a car, for someone she knew.
Soft music played in the house. I glimpsed an easy chair pointed toward tall back windows framing a view of pastures and hills. She’d been sitting there watching for animals.
I hadn’t decided what I’d say, and so I went with the truth. “Ma’am,” I said, “I know this is odd, but I was touched when you spoke during the Mole-Year’s Eve meeting. I came out here to make sure you were all right.”
“Oh honey,” she said, stepping back with a welcoming gesture so broad, I knew she was tipsy. “I’m good. I’m good, but come in. Did you walk here? What are you doing for mole-year?” We walked past photos on the wall—Margorie on horseback, Margorie and her long-gone husband in fancy rodeo clothes, two golden retrievers playing in a stream.
She fed me well. As we watched out the window, she told me what she knew of all the animals I’d seen and of other, rarer ones she’d glimpsed. One of the deerlike animals had taken oats from her hand that morning. While she spoke, her husband passed behind her chair on his way to the kitchen. He was all rainbow-edged and dim, but I thought it must be nice having him around again, even if he couldn’t do much.
Margorie’s eyes got tired and she reclined in the chair, but we kept talking about how I was doing, what all I’d learned during the mole-year so far, and what my plans were for the rest.
“Sleep here, honey—in my bed, or the guest room, or where you will. I can’t drive you now, but in the morning I’ll take you wherever you like.”
“I can’t,” I said. I was about to say that my dad was picking me up. It’s the kind of meaningless lie that comes to mind. Instead I said, “I chickened out on sleeping alone, and I want to try it again. I think I’m tired enough now to do it, and if I do it, I might not be afraid to do it again for the rest of my life.”
“Good idea,” she said. She was almost out.
“Can I ask just one thing, before I go?”
“Oh, sweetie, sure. Ask away,” she said, perking up a little. She still didn’t open her eyes.
“You’re old enough to have lived through the last mole-year and the one before.”
“And others besides.”
“Then why were you upset at the meeting? Didn’t you know it would be all right with the animals to watch and your cozy house and all?” With the wine and the music and the friendly, harmless ghost.
Margorie laughed lightly, opened her eyes. “I forgot how it was,” she said. “It’s been so long. Maybe you’ll forget too. Some do.”
She asked me to wait until she was sleeping to leave. She was unafraid of sleeping alone, and yet it was nice to have someone beside her this once. It was a treat.
On the way out to my barn, I thought long on what she’d said. She had forgotten, William had forgotten because he was too little. My parents had never forgotten, and Jeffrey had to be the reason for that. They couldn’t forget him.
Rosie would forget much of our time together, I felt certain. She would remember only that our days were pleasant and that we were closer now, like sisters. We would be best friends for the rest of our lives.
I felt I would not forget the details of this time, but how could I be sure?
The barn appeared on the horizon. I pedaled toward it, certain that when I reached it and wrapped myself in the blanket, I would sleep instantly, well, and long. That’s just how it turned out.
When I woke, I was hungry but not for cold bread and cheese again. I made a fire and treated myself to a toasted sandwich, all the time congratulating myself about how grown-up I was and assuring myself that I would never forget this moment or any of the other vivid moments that made up this most extraordinary year.
The next stop was right at the edge of town, a neat white mobile home in a park of such homes. The hollow-eyed husband, Troy, opened its door and welcomed me in without question. Their place was very pretty, everything new and pastel-colored. Lots of houseplants all around. Billie was at the table feeding mashed carrots to their baby Lillian.
“Come on in, sit down,” she called.
We introduced ourselves, and I sat. Billie looked very tired still—but happier than she’d been at the meeting.
“I should say why I’ve come,” I said.
“Oh? Didn’t you come to babysit?” she said.
“No—I mean, I can if you need me.”
“There are so many kids around here we lose track,” Troy said, “and they’re all bored. They’re over here all the time. But not you. I know you.”
“I do too,” said Billie, pointing at me like my name was on the tip of her tongue.
“You’re old enough to vote. You were at the meeting,” Troy said, and both of them laughed.
“It was my dad who got up and talked.”
“Ha! We thought he was such an asshole.”
“But was he right?” I said.
They looked at each other, smiling but not sure. “Yeah?” said Troy.
Billie said, “It’s complicated. But hey, if you don’t mind, watch her while I get a shower and a nap?”
Troy had moved to a stool beside the door and was putting on snow boots and a coat. He noticed me watching and said, “Not everybody has the mole-year off.”
A knock at the door, and a boy my age came in with a shy little girl about Lucy’s age.
“The real babysitters have arrived,” Troy said. “Hey, Perrie? Want to come with?”
We went out behind the trailer to his pickup, the back of which was loaded with plastic sleds.
As we drove, he said, “Yeah, most jobs just pause. No teaching, no selling groceries or selling anything much, no cleaning, and the electric and such takes care of itself just like magic—but some folks still have to work. I work for the Parks Department, which means I’m in charge of winter recreation. Surprised I haven’t seen you at our events.”
“I haven’t been in town,” I said.
“No? That’s the best part of mole-year, all the events. No school and all the kids playing all day. I was seven years old for the last one, had a blast. Hadn’t thought of it before, but that might just be what got me working in this field.”
“Do they pay you?” I asked.
He laughed. “It’s more like a bonus. Not a year’s pay, that’s for sure.”
It was the breezy part of the day, just before the little skiff of snow.
Soon, we’d arrived, not at a park but at a steep hill ending in pasture. Many cars were parked along the side of the road, many families waiting in coats and scarves passing around boxes of donuts and thermoses of hot cocoa. The snow wet their shoulders and caps. They cheered for us when we exited the truck. They lined up for sleds.
One little girl came running right into my arms.
“Lucy!” I cried. I hugged her, set her down, and looked around for our parents.
“I came with a bunch of kids,” she said.
“She comes every day,” said Troy. He passed us a large sled, and it was strange: for a while, with Lucy, I was a kid again. We slid down the hill together three times in a row, shrieking and laughing, and then we had cocoa with her friends.
“Everything’s fine at home?” I said.
Lucy touched my arm. “They finally let William go off to live with the other kids, so it’s been lovely. You’re coming back?”
“In a while,” I said. My adventure wasn’t over just yet.
I found Troy leaning against his truck. “Thank you for bringing me,” I said.
I turned away and then back and said, “If you don’t mind my asking, are you glad the mole-year came? Would you vote the same way if you had it to do over?”
He looked down at the ground and back up, grinning. “Well, Perrie, I just don’t know. I suppose we were afraid of things going on like they had been for another year. Lillian was nice today, but she’s fussy, doesn’t sleep well. The neighbor kids didn’t used to come by to help. Not to mention one big thing we were thinking about, which was a whole extra year of diapers.”
My nose scrunched up. “I hadn’t thought of that,” I said.
“The diapers aren’t a problem, as I’m sure you realize.”
I hadn’t expressed it to myself before he said it, but I did know what he meant. In the mole-year, we still went to the bathroom. We felt the same sensations, maybe smelled a little something. Though I didn’t know about others, I still wiped and flushed. But there was never anything there. Whatever was in our bellies must have transported back to where it had been before we took it in.
“The diapers aren’t a problem, and you have help, so it’s been good?”
“It has. I still don’t know if I’d do it over,” he said. He frowned. “I can’t wait for her to start growing again. We were so excited about every new thing that she did and now she’s just … arrested. It’s creepy.”
It was, if you thought about it that way. It was a little creepy that William had such a year as a baby, and that I was spending an extra year at this age. While I did not question that I’d become much more adult over this time, my body hadn’t, and how could my mind mature if the matter supporting it did not?
And what of Jeffrey? If he always stayed three months old, he would still be a baby when Mom and Dad were (I shuddered to think it) gone. Would he be mine—or William’s, or Lucy’s—to care for then, and what about when we were gone?
I procrastinated the last stop, wasn’t sure I wanted to make it at all. The sick old man who’d had his dying extended lived close to our house, so I knew that once it was over, I would be going home for good.
I slept in the furniture store during the starry part of the day. I was walking and happened to test the knob and found it open, the store free of people and a half-dozen beds to choose from. I chose the best one, which was wide and soft with thick pillars at each corner and a lacy canopy. I slept so well I wished I could have it for my room. I stayed at the store more days than I meant to, then I rallied.
The old man didn’t live in a house but rather a basement apartment in an old Victorian that had been converted to rentals. Huge place, pretty but not well kept up. For the first time I realized that just as all the things that were perfect remained perfect over the mole-year, the things that were not perfect could not be improved. The peeling paint would stay that way until Mole-Year’s Day at the earliest. If I brought a scraper and a pail of paint, I might change it, but the paint would reappear back in the can. The chips would disappear from the trash and rebuild themselves here on the old man’s door. Finding this quite sad, I couldn’t bring myself to knock, but I didn’t have to.
A woman—the daughter, Henny—opened it for me. She looked older than she had at Town Hall. “He’s sleeping,” she said, “but please come in.”
We introduced ourselves and sat on comfortable couches. The room was plain, clean, and larger than I’d expected.
She said, “I don’t know if he’ll wake while you’re here. He sleeps more and more, which is good.”
“I was only coming to see how he’s doing and see if I can help in any way,” I said.
“There’s nothing anyone can do,” she said.
I wanted her to say he was doing fine, but I did not want her to say that if it wasn’t true. It wasn’t true—everything about her told me that. I was uncomfortable, about to excuse myself, and then I said, “I can sit here. I can do that much.”
She said, “No, I couldn’t—”
“Yes, please, go and do something nice, and I will stay here.”
“He wants to die,” she said.
“I won’t let him,” I said, though I had no plan or conviction to keep him from it. If he died, he would be reborn on Mole-Year’s Day with the rest of us and live his month and die again, I guessed.
“There were others here with me at the start,” she said. “We prayed and wished all that night, and we were so sure this would not come, and then when it did, they went away to live their lives. I don’t have a life.”
I didn’t have an answer.
“But I will go out, since you’re so kind. I’ll go out for a while.”
“I’ll be back in … two hours?”
“Oh no, please, be at least—” but I didn’t know what to ask for. “Three days? You can stay in the furniture store if you have nowhere else.”
“I have somewhere,” she said.
The old man was no trouble at all. He slept most of the time, waking during the breezy hours to watch television in bed and then take a painful-looking stroll around the living area. He had pain medications and other pills arranged on the kitchen counter with instructions all spelled out, and he made sure I looked over everything carefully before he took it. The fridge held homemade casseroles, soups, and many flavors of protein drink, but he didn’t want anything. He said it was chore enough to do it during what he called “waking life.” He’d eat when he had to stave off hunger pangs. He didn’t need to eat or go to the bathroom during the mole-year, and so he wasn’t going to.
His name was Ralph like Rosie’s dad, but pronounced differently. He didn’t want to do anything but what he had been doing. He was concerned about taking the right pills. He’d lived through nine mole-years, thoroughly enjoyed every one except this one, and claimed to remember them, as well as his other years, in vivid detail. He didn’t like to answer questions, and so that’s about all I ever learned about him.
It was boring in the apartment. I sampled all the sick-food and fantasized about what would happen when Henny returned. I resolved that she would be cheerful, we would talk and play games and make the old man cheerful, get him in a wheelchair, take him to watch the children play. I would go home and clear out the back room for them. They would stay with us for the rest of the mole-year, which couldn’t be all that much.
Only when she arrived, she thanked me profusely, gave me a huge bouquet of flowers, and said to give them to my mom. Suddenly I was on the step and she was in the entry.
“Tell her I said she’s a great mom and that you’re a good girl,” she said, closing the door on me.
My backpacks were still inside, all my food laid out on the counter, but I didn’t knock. I hurried home.
For the first time since the mole-year started, I missed my little kitten. Being back in the house reminded me.
Dad and Mom both cried. “I’m just so happy to have everyone together,” Dad said, “even if it’s only six more months.”
“Six more months!” I said. I’d had no idea. They were smothering me with hugs and kisses. “Everyone’s home? I thought William went to the high school.”
“It was too much for him,” Mom whispered.
“But he has a little girlfriend now. So cute,” said Dad.
“Did you have an adventure? What animals did you see? What have you learned?” they asked, and other questions. I couldn’t get a breath.
Lucy came downstairs holding Jeffrey. I wondered if she’d been carrying him around all this time. When Mom and Dad had settled down and the flowers stood in a vase, she said, “Will you go with me now?”
“We said you would, if you came back,” Dad said.
“Go where?” I said.
Lucy counted on her fingers, “Sledding, art day, movies, rollerskating, nature walk.”
“I will, every day. Rosie too?”
Lucy nodded. She stood close and handed the baby off to me.
That night we had a baguette sandwich cut in six—William’s sweet, awkward girlfriend Tawny was with us. The fire still burned. We played board games and eventually settled into groups. Lucy lay on the floor coloring, and I lay beside her simply watching the colors go on. Mom and Dad put on a DVD and watched it with Jeffrey between them. William and Tawny tired of the movie and went upstairs, which made me look toward Mom.
“We couldn’t have him ‘out and about’ too early in the mole-year, but now it’s fine,” Mom said.
Sleepily, Dad said, “No more little Jeffreys.”
The two of them still fawned over their baby, even halfway through the year. I wanted to ask what would happen to him when they were gone, but it seemed unkind.
“Mom?” I said instead, “Why did we get the kitty right before Mole-Year’s Eve?”
She smiled sadly. “So we’ll have something to look forward to, when the sun rises on Mole-Year’s Day.”
That day was coming, after all. We’d greet the kitty, name her. Maybe we would throw out all the food we’d been eating for so long, or give it to someone else. Things would speed up again, the sun would rise and set, the weather become unpredictable once more. Maybe I would never vote or wish or pray in favor of this again. Maybe I would forget it all.
For now, I rolled back toward Lucy to provide an audience for what was becoming a virtuosic coloring performance. The pieces she’d done first had already faded to white.
Editor: Hebe Stanton
First Reader: Paula Keane
Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department
Accessibility: Accessibility Editors