Ianchelle was the first to answer when I knocked on the door that evening. She said hello and thanked me for taking to time to watch over her daughter.
“You’re very welcome,” I said. “Not too often that I get to babysit someone as bright as Special.”
She offered to pay me for my time, but I told her h-e-double-hockey-sticks no.
“Do you have any children, Mr. Potmis?”
“Oh, I suppose I do. They ain’t around here anymore.”
“Have you tried to reach them?”
I shook my head and looked down. “Unreachable, I’m afraid.”
I didn’t need to say any more for Ianchelle to understand that treading down that old road was a long and hurtful journey. She gave me a nod and called for Special.
Special skipped over to the door, her pigtails flopping about. She was holding her notebook with both hands, ready for me to relay important information.
“Mama, can you go in the kitchen for a second,” she said. “Mr. Potmis and I are working on something secret.”
Why, you should have seen Ianchelle’s eyes get wide, like they’d been pried open. “Well, ok then,” Ianchelle said. “I won’t interrupt.” She laughed and walked away.
I dug into my pockets and pulled out a handful of paper pieces. It was all that was left of Ariel.
“It happened like you said it would,” I said to Special. “Fell asleep with Ariel in my lap. Woke up and she was in pieces. All the same size too. I’m so sorry.”
Special picked up a few of the pieces and examined them. I don’t know what she was trying to look for. Perhaps, she wanted to make sure that the pieces were a part of Ariel and I hadn’t somehow stolen her. Thought never crossed my mind.
“Poor Ariel,” she said with a whimper.
“What does it mean?”
“Maybe the paper mushies are connected to us,” she said. “But they only stay alive for a short while. Only when we’re awake. Have you ever seen Cinderella?”
“She could only be a princess until midnight. Then, she changed back to a regular girl. Maybe the paper mushies are like that. Maybe the magic only stays for a little bit before it’s gone.”
I hadn’t seen Cinderella in quite some time, but I understood what she was saying.
“If this magic only works when we’re awake, then maybe we should take turns with the paper mushies,” I said. “I can watch over them when you’re sleeping. I can stay up for a long time. After you get home from school, I can give them to you and nap until dark. Then, you return them to me. We go in shifts; see how long they can stay alive with us.”
“I like that idea!” she said. She wrote it down in her notebook.
“There’s one other thing that I’ve been thinking about.”
“What is it, Mr. Potmis?”
I hesitated to say what had been on my mind since Ariel’s disintegration. “If Ariel and the other paper mushies are alive, and I mean really alive when they come out of the barrel, then are they dying when they break apart?”
She stared long and hard at her notebook, thinking of what to say next. I wish that I knew what all of her thoughts were at that moment.
“Can they be alive and not alive?” she said.
“When they come out of the barrel, they’re alive. But if we go to sleep they fall apart. That means they need us to stay alive. They can’t do it on their own.”
“It’s like you’re describing a virus.”
“The paper mushies are not some icky virus!”
“Is everything ok over there?” Ianchelle said from the kitchen.
“Yes, mama. We’re just having a very important discussion.”
“Ok, just checking.”
“I think what you’re trying to say is that the paper mushies are alive because you allowed them to be,” I said. “You created them. You gave them life. You can take it away.”
“Now you’re making me sound like God.”
“I don’t know what to say! This is all so confusing. I don’t have the answers you’re looking for. Maybe they don’t exist.”
We didn’t have a clue what we were talking about. It was going to take some time before we could narrow down the rights and wrongs for the entire situation.
“I’ll see if I can get some more supplies tomorrow,” Special said. “Mrs. Woodfork said that I couldn’t have anymore, but it can’t hurt to ask one more time!”
“Sounds like we got ourselves a plan.”
She reached forward and hugged me. It had been a long time since someone embraced me. “Thank you, thank you, Mr. Potmis. You were a big help today.”
“My pleasure.” I looked down at her. “And remember what I said earlier. You come to me if you need help.”
After she said goodbye and closed the door, I took a stroll down to one of my usual spots on Grixdale East. Cars were flying by like crazy. A couple was walking a kid in a stroller who waved to me. A teenage boy was riding his bike, blasting music from a speaker attached to the frame. The world moved on as it always did. Nobody had a clue that just down the road, a little girl was performing miracles. I sat down near a telephone pole where someone had tossed out an old chair cushion. The orange fabric was stained and shabby, but it was a welcome seat amongst the overgrown weeds and cracked sidewalk. I stretched out my legs and leaned my back against the pole, letting the events of the day sink in. Have you ever taken the time to just sit and wonder?