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Twenty One

“Mr. Potmis! Mr. Potmis! He came back early!” Special ran past the stairwell, mud flinging from her shoes. “Shawn came back early!” She stopped at the edge of the cement pad, hands on her knees, breathing heavily. “I didn’t go to school because I was so upset. I told mama about the paper mushies; not about our plan to scare Shawn, but she knows that you’re helping me make them.” Her hands moved wildly, each whip and pan emphasizing her frenetic state. “I’m sorry I didn’t get out here sooner. I fell asleep and I … I don’t know what to do now, how we’ll have enough time. I don’t know why Shawn is here early and that worries me! I’m scared, Mr. Potmis! I—”

Her arms went slack. Her eyes diverted away from me and onto the 72 painted and dressed paper mushies laid out onto the cement, their eyes looking up, looking at her in a way, their still bodies ready to be awakened. 

“You painted them. They have clothes. They’re …” There were tears in her eyes when she looked up at me. “They’re all ready.”

“Not quite,” I said. “I’m waiting for you to put them into the barrel.”

“Oh, thank you! Thank you!”

She flew forward, arms wrapping around me. Her embrace took me by surprise. I hugged her with one hand; the other reached out to steady myself against the bridge abutment. Watching her eyes light up when she saw the finished paper mushies was one of the great moments in the long history of my life.

“I know you wanted to paint them with me,” I said. “I hope you’re not upset that I took the liberty to do it all myself.”

“Upset? No, it’s wonderful! I thought we were doomed!”

She took a few minutes to examine them, picking them up and letting her fingers run over the fine details. I was nervous that she would be over-critical of my work. Who isn’t when you’ve taken a friend’s coveted task and done it without their knowledge? Special, of course, was nothing but smiles and compliments. She had a hard time believing that I managed to get everything done so quickly. She loved the variety of colors and my choices for apparel.

“This one is so cute!” 

In her hands was a green girl wearing a dress with the left eye slightly higher than the right. Her Sharpie smile was more of a wiggly smirk. Most people would have looked at that girl and thought, ‘Boy, whoever made this has no sense of artistic merit.’ But Special was not some egotistical art critic; she was a girl who saw beauty in the strange, broken, and misunderstood things of the world. The beauty of the paper mushies was not measured by their artistry, rather, it was measured by the love and care displayed to create them. It was measured by the purpose of their existence—to live, to give joy, and to save Special and her mama.

“What now?” I said.

“We dump them in.”

“All at once?”

“Yes. That’s right.” She smiled. “All at once.”

We collected the paper mushies and set them in a pile next to the barrel. Their eyes were looking everywhere, and for a second, I thought they were already alive, but I remembered that was how the eyes were designed. I took the lid from the barrel and held it about waist high. Special delicately placed the paper mushies into the barrel. The mound inside grew taller and taller.

“That’s all of them,” she said, placing a purple man with pants and a long-sleeve shirt into the barrel.

I lifted the lid, my arms shaking, and slammed it on top of the barrel. We both took two giant septs backward, unsure of what was going to happen next. You see, even though we had done it before, there was still a teeny-tiny bit of doubt inside of us that it wasn’t going to work. Maybe what we had done before wouldn’t happen this time; maybe the magic that had brought them to life was gone, used up, and never to be seen again for a thousand years. Maybe (and this thought only occurred to me for what was but a second) we both had cracked, lost our minds because of the ongoing pressure in our lives. Maybe our imagination had gone too far.

These doubts died a quick death when the lid on the barrel didn’t slide away—it shot off like it had been punched, doing a couple of flips in the air before hitting the cement. There was a brief moment of silence where we didn’t move. The tip of a purple hand reached out from the darkness, grabbing hold of the top of the barrel. Soon, a purple man climbed up, sliding down the edge of the barrel and landing his two feet onto the cement pad. Behind him, another paper mushy crawled out, this time a girl. Then another.

And another.

They formed a singular line, facing forward but not looking in our direction. Their feet moved in unison. It was like they were already trained. It was like they knew what we were calling them to do.

The line stopped at twenty. The next paper mushy, a red girl with a dress, formed a second line behind them. I wish I had a camera or phone at the time—something to show to you what we saw, to show you how incredible it was.

Special was laughing the entire time. It was the kind of laugh that takes hold of you when you can no longer contain all of the happiness inside of you. She could see it now; her plan coming to fruition, Shawn leaving the premises, and her mama back to her old self, her old smile that was severely lacking these days.

Two more lines of paper mushies were made. There were four lines total: twenty in the first three and twelve in the last. Their feet stopped marching as the last one formed rank. Their heads turned to the side and faced us.

Special put her right hand on her forehead and saluted. “Attention!”

The paper mushies copied her, their frail hands cutting the air with their salute. I don’t know what was more impressive: their uniformed obedience or Special acting as the captain.

Special started pacing back and forth. She must have watched a bunch of war movies or read about generals in a book; she sure knew how to play the part, and play it well. I stood at ease, admiring the spectacle before me.

“My mama needs your help,” she said to the paper mushies. “There’s a bad man in our house. He hurts us. He needs to go. Now! We’re going to bother him. We’re going to make him afraid to come back. Can you do that for me?”

The paper mushies raised their arms again, preparing to salute.

“Follow me through the field and to the house!” she said. “We’ll catch him off-guard. We’ll save my mama. Come, follow me!”

Their hands cut the air again. They merged into two lines. Special took my hand and helped me up the hill and into the field.

Together, we marched.

Like soldiers, our hands swung to and fro; our legs synchronized with the 72 paper mushies behind us. There wasn’t any talking or smiling as we pressed on. No, there wasn’t any time for that. We were committed. We were ready.

We were going to war.

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