Re: Helena’s Retreat (Ch. 1-6) [Upd 1-31-11]
This third-to-last chapter is probably going to be edited more than the others before the story is declared complete. It’s a small resolution before the big payoff next chapter, but I wasn’t too happy with the way the ideas came out. So I’m definitely looking for feedback on whether it all worked.
CHAPTER SEVEN: LOST
“One. Two. Three. Five.”
Helena pressed the game piece down onto the sixth space. Bouncing giddily with her diapered bottom resting on her heels, she didn’t mind that she’d confused the words for four and five again because she only needed a three to win the game next turn. Her new sister smiled across the brightly colored board from where she lay on her tummy, still in her school uniform. They’d been playing together since lunch. It was a fairly simple game in terms of rules and seemed designed for preschoolers, but Helena didn’t care about the suggested age-range. Playing and understanding the game made her feel big. She had learned to count to six, learned some color words, and was doing it with her new sister’s help. It didn’t matter that only half an hour before she had spilled food on her pants and now wore only a t-shirt and sagging diaper.
Her big sister rolled a six and and counted aloud for Helena’s benefit as she moved her own game piece. This game and many other activities had been her idea, proof that she’d taken well to her new role over the last few days. Part-sister, part-babysitter, part-teacher, she no longer felt jealous. She grinned when she drew a card: a free turn! She rolled again, moved and drew another card. Another free turn! Helena squeezed Bunny in anticipation. They were neck-and-neck now. With one more roll, her sister won the game.
“Yes!” she cheered as she moved her piece forward.
Her victory stolen, Helena’s eyes dampened. It wasn’t fair. She’d been so close! She held Bunny to her chest and sobbed. Her sister made sympathetic sounds, scooted over, and wrapped her arms around the smaller girl. Inside, Helena was all mixed-up. She was upset about the loss, but also worried about what was happening to her. She couldn’t believe she was crying over a stupid board game. She knew winning didn’t matter, but she still couldn’t stop her tears. These days she cried daily, hourly. If she lost control, she’d go from smiling to bawling in a heartbeat. This house, these people, they had turned her into a baby. She liked being pampered, but now she was scared that it was affecting her more deeply than she ever imagined. She wanted her old life back, her old friends, her old school, but her first response to every obstacle now was to cry or throw a fit. She feared all the board games in the world couldn’t make her big again.
When Helena began to cry even louder despite the hug, her sister scampered up the stairs and came back with a big stuffed lion. She was becoming an expert on little sisters and knew stuffed animals were high on their list. She held the lion by Helena’s knees and mewed pleadingly. Helena set Bunny aside to gently pet the lion’s mane. Nearly as tall as she was when sitting, it was so soft and fluffy that it demanded to be touched. The sister pressed the toy into Helena’s arms and the little girl squeezed it. Helena couldn’t resist it any more than she could keep from crying. The feel of the lion’s fur completely erased the defeat.
Her sister took her hand and led her through the kitchen into the adjacent wash room where their mother was hanging wet clothes. They started to talk about “the baby” - which Helena had worked out was their name for her - and gave her sympathetic looks. She sat on the floor with the lion and waited quietly though tears still dribbled down her cheeks. When her sister pulled her to their mother like this it usually resulted in a change, a bottle, or a snack. As expected the mother scooped her up.
“My little baby,” she cooed.
In the bedroom upstairs, her mother sang and waltzed around the room with Helena on her hip. These were Helena’s favorite moments, the highlights of her day. Why had she been so angry about being a baby before? This wasn’t terrible at all. If only she could be held forever. Once the little girl smiled again, the mother laid her on the changing table. Helena played with the lion only half-aware of the scent of the wipes, oil and baby powder or of the touch of the quilted pad and the mother’s hands. Yet it put her at ease. She was almost asleep before she even reached the crib. As the mother whispered naptime wishes, Helena’s eyelids drooped.
Bunny! Helena’s eyes shot open. Bunny was downstairs! Her tears broke free again. She was already alone in the room, but she stopped herself just short of calling out. She felt angry and stupid for forgetting but more so for being upset over a mere toy. The toy didn’t have real feelings. It didn’t know it had been left behind. Helena knew it was all pretend, she swore to herself that she did. But why did it hurt? She turned and the lion’s eyes stared into hers. He had such a calm and protective expression. She could hear his voice in her head.
Call for your mommy, the lion said. She’ll make everything right.
But I’m really a big girl, Helena insisted. I shouldn’t be crying. I shouldn’t need a doll this badly.
It’s ok to cry, the lion said. And Bunny is a good friend. No one will think anything bad. I promise.
“MOMMY!” Helena cried. “MOMMY! BUNNY!”
The mother was instantly at the crib and lowering Bunny down. She stroked Helena’s face until the sobbing stopped then left her to nap again.
Helena felt ashamed. Was this really what her life had become?
Helena had a nightmare of being crushed again, but it was already fading by the time she was being dressed in a pair of light orange overalls with a snap-crotch. Once her shoes were fastened, the mother and the girls walked hand-in-hand out the front door and through the neighborhood. Helena clutched Bunny tightly. This was all too new for her. The mother hadn’t taken them walking before. She nearly dropped her doll when they came upon a massive park with a playground that had everything: swings, monkeybars, slides, a suspended bridge and more. Little kids ran around with their parents or older siblings supervising. In the distance kids were kicking a football across a field.
The sister took Helena’s hand and they ran toward the playground. The spring-mounted rock’n’rides were closest, so Helena climbed onto one and her sister climbed onto another. They laughed as they rocked, but there was so much else to try that it wasn’t long before they jumped off. Helena climbed up the rope ladder to the suspension bridge. When she made it to the top, a boy about her height blocked the way. The boy started talking with a tone that was dark and bossy. Helena clung to her big sister once she’d reached the top too. The boy fired off questions and the sister tried to answer them. Eventually he seemed to stump her, so he leaned forward to peer at Helena.
“Me Piotr,” he said and thumped his chest.
Helena could only stare. Had he just introduced himself? No one else in this whole strange country had done that. It made sense when she couldn’t talk at first, but she found it funny that a five-or-six year old Tarzan fan had just outsmarted everyone. Or maybe, she wondered, was he just the first to see her as an equal?
“Me Helena,” she said and, as an afterthought, thumped her chest too.
The sister stared at Helena in amazement. Her wide eyes revealed that she shared Helena’s thoughts.
“Me Rana. Me big sister.” She thumped her chest too and added the last part as she stepped between Helena and the boy’s suspicious squinting.
The boy grinned from ear to ear then motioned for the girls to cross the bridge. Rana took her new little sister’s hand and they ran across the quivering bridge. Piotr followed and the trio tackled every challenge the playground threw at them, smiling and laughing together for an hour. The best was the merry-go-round. With six legs between them, they kept it spinning faster and faster. Helena hadn’t many chances to interact with another child before and couldn’t have known what to expect. But Piotr accepted her as if she were a toddler without question. Despite their similar size, he treated her like she needed help and protection. As they played, Rana and Piotr were always there to show her how to do something or catch her if she climbed or slid down the slide as if she were too small to do anything on her own. Never without someone by her side, Helena felt free to let go and it filled her with joy.
When Piotr’s mom called him away, Helena was sad but Rana pulled her toward the swings. They dared one another to fly higher and higher. Helena dropped Bunny on accident, so she dragged her feet to slow down and pick him up. In the few seconds it took her to step away from the swing a taller boy stole it from her.
“Mine!” she said and grabbed the swing.
The boy said something and shook the swing. Helena fell back. Rana jumped off her swing and ran toward the boy. She grabbed at the chains, gave them a fierce shaking, and the boy tumbled off, unhurt. Helena crawled away as the two bigger kids shouted at each other. When Rana realized how angry the boy was, she too backed up just in time to dodge his first punch. She hadn’t intended to start a fight but this boy was serious. She’d reached the sidewalk when the boy finally connected a punch. Rana fell to the ground, but the boy kept swinging. She threw her arms and knees up to block the blows and grunted each time she was hit. A teenager came by and grabbed the boy by the collar of his shirt. The boy struggled but the teenager managed to lock his arms behind his back. The teenager seemed to apologize to Rana then led the shouting boy out of the park.
The mother was already at the scene, frowning. Talking a mile a minute, she examined Rana’s bruises and scrapes. Helena gripped the mother’s arm, keeping near. For her part, Rana seemed more angry than afraid or in pain, and Helena couldn’t believe how her big sister took the fall and punches without crying. Even for a big girl, that was impressive. Rana said something that included Helena’s name. Helena smiled sheepishly once she recognized it.
“Helena?” the mother asked and looked at the girl sideways.
“Me!” Helena said brigtly.
The mother let go of Rana long enough to give Helena a big hug, repeating the name again and again.
The three went into the park’s restroom. With wet paper towels the mother cleaned Rana’s scapes, and Rana cried out in pain each time her cuts were touched. Helena stood by, cringing at each cry. Her diaper already sagged some, but she hoped that she wasn’t going to be changed on the mildew-stained floor. Sticking her thumb into her mouth, she hugged herself and realized she’d dropped Bunny again outside. Her mother and sister were busy, so she decided not to interrupt them and slip out. As Rana cried out, neither seemed to notice the door open and close.
Helena couldn’t see Bunny near the swings nor the sidewalk, but she did spy a rabbit at the edge of the wooded area. When it saw her, it darted into the woods. Follow me, it seemd to say. Maybe the rabbit knew where Bunny was? She stepped over fallen limbs and crept into the woods. Within a dozen feet she’d lost sight of the rabbit but came across a dirt trail. She looked back over her shoulder. She could barely make out the park through the trees but she could still hear the children playing. She didn’t want to get lost, so she decided to stick to the muddy trail.
The woods were quiet and still. The shade from the trees made the dim air chilly, but for the first time in weeks Helena was alone but not lonely. As she followed the trail, her head cleared and her little worries and fears began to peel back. She felt such a bubbling sense of adventure as she explored on her own that she didn’t notice when the sounds of the park receded.
She had been walking for a few minutes when the trail led up a hill, the other side of which was steep and muddy. On the way down Helena tried to pass from tree to tree for support, but she missed one and slid all the way to the bottom. Nothing was injured, but her overalls were a muddy mess. That’s going to be fun to climb back up, she thought. When she tried, just to see if she could, she only made it a few feet before losing her footing again. She would have to find a way around.
Nearby, she saw a rabbit sitting only a few feet from her. If not the same rabbit, then identical. They both stared at one another.
“Hi, Mr Rabbit,” she said in her old language.
The rabbit perked its ears but didn’t run.
Helena sat down on a log to rest her legs. She hadn’t walked this much in a long time.
“Bunny didn’t really come here,” she stated after a while.
The rabbit didn’t respond, not that Helena expected it to. She was simply noting a change in her own thoughts. She’d wandered there looking for a stuffed animal. It seemed laughable now, but instead of finding it funny, her chest ached. Not with the desperate fear that she’d known too well recently, but with a quiet grief she’d never felt before.
“I miss mom,” she said aloud once she put a name to the grief. “My real mom. And Nico. And daddy. I… I think mommy’s with daddy. Because of the accident. She would have found me by now. She wouldn’t have given up. Even if the hospital tried to keep her.”
A single tear fell down her cheek. She hadn’t put these thoughts to words before, but now they came rushing out.
"I know I’m supposed to be a big girl, Mr Rabbit. Mom and Nico would be mad if they saw me like this. Disappointed. That’s what mom would say. But it’s hard. It’s hard to be big without them. When I’m little I don’t have to worry. I don’t even remember to miss them. I know that’s wrong. But it helps.
“They have bottles and pacifiers and they take care of me so well. I don’t tie my shoes or put my socks on. I don’t even get to take them off. But I have nightmares. And I cry all the time. When you’re little you don’t know why you cry. Nobody knows why, but it doesn’t matter. You just cry and someone makes it all better. If you knew why, maybe they couldn’t help.”
She wiped the tear from her cheek during a long pause. What she’d said while rambling bothered her. What was it that they couldn’t fix?
“Maybe I’m crying for mommy,” she said in time. “Maybe she knows. Maybe she isn’t be mad. She wants me to be safe. Now I have a whole family.”
Helena looked up. Dust danced in the patches of thin light which broke through the blanket of red, orange, and green.
“I miss you mommy. I hope you found daddy.”
The woods were so cool and quiet, Helena was half tempted to lay down, but before she could, she saw a woman and a little boy approaching. The woman studied Helena with concern. The little boy looked about two, and he mercilessly thrashed at the scenery with a stick as he walked. They stopped near Helena and the woman started talking. Helena knew she was being asked questions but didn’t understand a word the woman said.
“Me Helena,” she said at last.
The woman smiled politely and called her by name when she asked the next question. Helena still didn’t understand but had a good guess.
“Mommy,” Helena said and pointed in the direction of the playground as best she could.
With a light hand on Helena’s shoulder and the other holding the boy’s tiny hand, the woman led them back along the trail. On the way, Helena stuck her thumb in her mouth, but the woman gave her an odd look so she removed it, her cheeks flushed. They came to a clearing with picnic tables and a pavilion, and although it looked like the same park, the playground was nowhere to be seen. Helena guessed they’d come out on the wrong side. The woman leaned down closer to the girl’s level and pointed to each of the families in the park.
Helena shook her head at each question. “No.”
The girl searched the distance for any sign of the playground while, hand on shoulder, the woman pushed her toward the first table. With paper plates piled with food, the large family was enjoying a big picnic. As the woman spoke, they squinted at Helena, who stared at her feet, but everyone shook their heads. The next group did the same. Before the third, the boy tugged on the woman’s sleeve urgently. The woman quickly pulled Helena and the boy into the pavilion’s women’s room.
Inside the handicap stall, the woman pulled down the boy’s pants and pull-up and sat him on the toliet. He started to pee as soon as his cheeks hit the seat. The woman asked Helena a question, but the little girl only blushed, embarassed to be in the restroom with them. When the boy finished, the woman praised him then helped him wipe and pull his pants up. She said something to Helena as she did, calling her by name, but the girl only stood there failing to understand. When the boy was clothed, the woman turned to Helena and unfastened the braces of her overalls and let them fall to the girl’s ankles. She seemed shocked to find a wet diaper beneath and paused for a long moment before untaping it. The woman pointed Helena toward the toilet. The girl’s face turned a deeper shade of red as she sat down. Of course the woman had been asking her if she needed to go. What else would you do in a restroom? Helena didn’t think she had to pee, but after a few seconds she felt a sudden urge. Surprised, she indistinctively squeezed to hold it but found she was already peeing by the time the need had registered. She didn’t have to go as badly as the urge had felt, so she was soon done. The woman spoke more words of priase while she handed Helena toliet paper and helped her into a pull-up and her overalls.
The woman had to hold the boy up to the sink so he could wash his hands. Helena stood by idly until the woman tugged her toward an empty sink. She was embarrassed that the idea of washing her own hands hadn’t even occurred to her, but the pull-up had also been distracting her. It felt thin and airy.
Outside, the woman led the children toward what looked like a police car. She and the two officers inside had a long talk, pointing at the woods now and then. They asked Helena a few qustions, but she didn’t know what to say. Other than her name and “girl” she didn’t understand a word. One of the officers opened the back of the car, and the woman gave Helena a weak hug before directing her into the backseat. It was plastic, uncomfortable, and didn’t feel at all safe. When the door closed behind her, Helena realized the woman and boy weren’t coming too. Where were they taking her? Was she in trouble? Helena pressed up against the window and cried out in fear. One of the officers talked to her in an attempt to calm her, but it had no effect. Helena gazed out the window as silent tears fell.
They circled the wooded area and came upon the playground. Helena saw her new mother sitting on a bench with her arms wrapped around her daughter.
The officers glanced at each other then pulled the car over. One stepped out, opened Helena’s door, then let her lead him by hand toward the mother.
“Mommy!” she shouted as she tugged.
Mother and daughter came running toward Helena, both red and puffy from crying. The officer and mother had a talk, motioning to the woods and in the direction they’d just driven from. Both adults seemed a mixture of upset and relieved. Helena clung to her mother’s leg, but it wasn’t enough.
“Up?” she asked.
The mother picked her up and held her on her hip as the adults continued. When the mother handed over an ID card, the officer stepped into the patrol car.
“Bunny bye-bye,” said Helena to offer what she could as an explanation.
The mother let lose a weak laugh then reached into the diaper bag to pull out Bunny. Helena gasped and clutched the doll to her chest. She wanted to tell her mother all about the woods, the other woman, and the bathroom, but she didn’t have the words. Yet she knew she didn’t need to either. She’d had a chance to be big and it had only confused her. Now she was being held by her new mother. What more could she ask for?
The officer came back and returned the ID card. Both adults said a few last words and then all went on their way.
“Bye-bye,” called Helena as she waved.
Hand in hand, the mother and two daughters returned to the house. While still on the driveway, the mother removed Helena’s muddy shoes and socks. Once inside, she carried Helena straight to the upstairs bathroom.
The mother set Helena down and started the water. She let it run while she brushed the girl’s hair. The fright of losing a child was still visible in the woman’s expression, but the little girl smiled blissfully. The woman looked like she needed a hug, so Helena wrapped her arms around her new mother’s waist. When both let go, the mother unfastened the braces of Helena’s overalls. When they fell to the girl’s ankles, the mother seemed surprised to find a damp pull-up beneath. She gave Helena an odd look then tore the sides, rolled it up, and tossed it into the trash. She pulled off Helena’s shirt, then checked the bathing supplies. She must have been missing something because she stepped outside of the bathroom, leaving the door ajar.
After only a few seconds of waiting, Helena felt a sudden urge to pee. Surprised, she glanced to the trash then the toliet, but a warm stream was already running down her leg before she came to a decision. As the short burst ended, she expected to catch herself crying over the warm puddle at her feet. She expected to feel that she’d done wrong. But she felt only indifference. The mother had left her standing naked for too long. What did she think would happen?
When the mother came back she spied the yellow spill instantly.
“Uh-oh,” she said.
Helena giggled as her legs were dried with toliet paper. She was set in the tub while the mother cleaned the floor. Helena glanced at the washcloth and soap set out for her. She felt just as indifferent about them, so she traced shapes in the bathwater and splashed.
After her bath Helena was put into her strawberry print PJs and set in the playpen. When the father came home, he was introduced to her by name. After smiles and light tickles, the adults stepped into the kitchen and had a long hushed conversation. Helena was alone, but realized she felt fine. She was safe, loved. When later that night Helena watched as the adults set up child safety gates at the foot of the stairs and the entrance to the kitchen, it only confirmed her feelings.