This story is by Céline Tcheng and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Elizabeth could not pinpoint what was amiss. Loneliness had become her second skin long before the epidemic lockdown, so it could not be it: she was constantly surrounded by people, but never felt a connection with any of them. All they wanted was to benefit from her ‘shine’, but they never gave her anything in return.
She tried to brush aside the nagging feeling from her mind, but it crept under her skin until she could not focus. She took a deep breath, got up, stared at her reflection:
“Spill it out”, she demanded.
That young girl she met weeks ago was still on her mind.
One day after the lockdown was mandated, she heard three gentle knocks on her door. She opened it to see two wide eyes were smiling at her. They belonged to a skinny six-year-old girl.
“I’m hungry”, she announced.
Elizabeth decided to ignore all social distancing rules and welcomed the girl inside her apartment. Thank God I have some leftovers, thought Elizabeth. With food down her stomach, the girl started whistling.
“So, what’s your name?”
“That’s not your real name, is it?”
Instead of answering, the girl said proudly:
“I, on the other hand, know who you are. You’re Elizabeth!”
Silence hung in the air. Elizabeth was used to people recognizing her, but definitely not kids. How on Earth could they know what Ernst & Young was and what it meant to be a partner there?
“So you really don’t remember me, huh?” continued the girl. “We used to play dragons together. We even flew to the moon together!”
“I think you are quite mistaken my dear. Finish your plate and go home. You are mixing me up with somebody else.”
But Princess’s mind had already hopped on to Elizabeth’s notebook.
“What are you working on?”
“That’s none of your business.”
Princess flipped through the pages.
“You have such a beautiful handwriting!” She grabbed the closest pen to her.
“Don’t you…” started Elizabeth.
“I promise I won’t spoil anything. PROMISE! I’m just trying to help you.”
Elizabeth sighed. Princess circled words at random.
“There you go!”
Elizabeth read the words out loud: “Management, consistently, fails, stars”. Amused, she could not suppress her laugh.
In their next encounter, after those three knocks, the girl slipped in Elizabeth’s apartment as it were her own. She saw Elizabeth and her whistle suddenly stopped:
“You’re a smoker! I don’t understand… Smoking is really bad for your health. Why? Why do you smoke? Why?”
Elizabeth didn’t want to get into that conversation.
“It’s just a pastime.”
“How boooring!” blurted out the girl. There were so many other fun things to do, like dancing or singing!
To make her point, Princess grabbed Elizabeth’s free hand, and shook her body while singing “Billie Jean is not my lover…”.
Caught between irritation and amusement, Elizabeth realized she hadn’t heard that song in years. Has it been so long? To Princess’s delight, Elizabeth put the song on.
“Yes! Come on! Billy Jean is not my lover…” continued Princess. “Wait, why are you stopping? Come on, dance with me!!”
Children… How can they be so annoying and yet so confident and charming at the same time? Although her mind was telling her that this was absurd and a complete waste of time, Elizabeth let herself sway to the music with an enthusiastic Princess.
The music was still playing after the girl’s departure. Memories from Elizabeth’s own childhood unfolded. To her surprise, she still knew all the lyrics by heart. She was reminded of how carefree and spontaneous she used to be, always a tune in her head and dancing at every occasion. Now, her body just felt awkward, as if its only function were to sustain her rational brain.
As the music stopped, Elizabeth felt the weight of her own life dragging down her shoulders: a life striving to meet other people’s expectations to succeed, a life planned to the second because there was no time to lose, a life without surprises because it was easier to control. In her heart, she started longing for the lightness of her bubbly Michael Jackson years.
Other encounters with Princess like this one succeeded in Elizabeth’s mind. Her rational brain was trying to get rid of that nagging feeling, but it would still not go away. Was it concern? Or even guilt? Why would she feel guilty? After all, it was not her kid. It was her right to ignore the child’s knocks on her door. She was a stranger to her. But now that the knocks were gone, deep in her heart she hoped that they would come back.
“Fine, I’m going to look for her” she said after a while, looking herself straight into her eyes. Elizabeth left her apartment, trying to guess where the girl could be by recalling her last encounter with her.
That time, the knocks came from her kitchen window instead of her entrance door.
Elizabeth’s heart skipped a beat when she saw the child was hanging outside of her window, her belt attached to a rope by a carabiner. “I’m flying!” shouted Princess. Unbelievable, the girl was actually giggling.
In no time, Elizabeth opened the window, took the child in her arms and made her swear that she would never do that again. Princess flinched, and after a while, replied: “I promise, but you know I will become a pilot and an astronaut when I grow up. And a singer and a dancer, obviously.”
Elizabeth had to concede that there was something quite endearing about Princess or perhaps kids at that age in general: they truly believed that everything was possible.
What an empowering feeling, thought Elizabeth. As she started letting herself dream, she wondered how life would have been like if she had not followed the rules that were dictated by society’s idea of success, i.e. getting straight A’s, go to an Ivy League school, climb the corporate ladder.
She would have had more time to watch the stars. Elizabeth used to love them when she was young. She had spent countless of evenings identifying the various constellations and imagining what was out there in the universe. As she grew up, her successful life took her to global cities where stars were often invisible, either due to lack of darkness or lack of time…
Elizabeth shook her head. What was the point in dwelling on the past or on what could have been? She decided after that encounter that Princess was taking too much space in her life. In the next days, Elizabeth deliberately ignored all the knocks wherever they came from.
After a week, she got her desired result: no more knocks. That’s when the nagging feeling started haunting her.
I don’t know what I want anymore, thought Elizabeth. She felt embarrassment rising to her cheeks as she knocked on her neighbor’s door:
“Have you seen a 6-year old brunette girl? Dark eyes, skinny, goes by the name of Princess?”
She was ashamed to know so little of that young girl.
Elizabeth knocked on every single door of her building, but her attempts were to no avail. Surely Princess was living not far, otherwise how would she have been able to come so often?
Defeated, Elizabeth returned to her apartment. As she opened the door,
“Elizabeth!” The young girl was sitting on her couch.
“How did you get…”
Her sentence was interrupted by a warm hug. Relief rushed over Elizabeth’s shoulders.
“What happened to you?”
“Well you didn’t want to see me.”
“That’s not true.”
“Liar.” Princess busted out laughing.
Then, she pulled out a small sheet of paper:
“This is for you.”
I <3 You. Even IF YOU SMOke. YouRe FunnY and KinD. Can I stay PLEASE? We Can play DRAGooons in the Morning then Dance ON the Moon in the AFTernoon. Or whaTEver YOU LIKE. Please LET me STAY. <3
Elizabeth smiled. The letter was full of angular hearts and flowers that only her 6-year-old self knew how to draw.
Of course, my dearest inner child. I apologize for having avoided you all these years. I promise I will take very good care of you from now on.