Writers (in order): Eman Hussain, Maggie Zhang, Nidhi Nadgir, Grace W., M.S., Lyra Thompson, Sophia H, Elaheh Khazi, CL, Mariarosa Cerritos, Alyssa Tang, Lyna Sun, Eman Hussain, and Maggie Zhang. Editor: Irene Tsen.
The first time she sensed someone’s death, Bela was seven years old, and it happened on the other side of Rainbow Montessori, where the shadow from the church steeple fell in the perfect shape of a cross on the playground. She had stepped right onto the shadow and felt a small tightness in her head. She left the shadow but the feeling grew, first invading her head, until Bela felt it aching throughout her whole body. And then it stopped. Just like that.
She didn’t think much of it at the time—after all, she was just a seven-year-old child. But Mother was late to pick her up that evening, and when she arrived, face tight and drawn, Bela realized, as all perceptible children do, that something was terribly, terribly wrong. Running into her mother’s warm embrace, she smelled faint traces of iron and bleach and shuddered. Mother leaned down to Bela’s level and grasped her arms tightly.
“Bela, darling,” Mother choked out, her pasty white face trembling, “I have something to tell you.”
Bela’s eyes widened and the blood seemed to drain out of her face, leaving it pale as a ghost. She watched as all the children were ushered out of the building, each of them holding their parents’ hands tightly and wondering what was going on.
None of those children saw their Montessori teacher again after that day.
Later that night, Bela snuck out of her room, unable to sleep. She couldn’t get the strange smell out of her system, not to mention the throbbing pains that she had also felt earlier in the playground. She peered down the staircase, seeing her parents sipping coffee in the kitchen.
“I can’t believe the brain cancer got her. She looked healthy—I thought she was on the road to recovery.” Her father sighed, squeezing his wife’s hand.
Bela’s mother nodded. “It was a shock. I feel bad for the children, poor things.”
A sense of dread enveloped Bela. “What did you just say?” she asked, almost staggering into the kitchen. “Are you sure?” Slowly, her parents turned and looked at her, faces twisted in sorrow.
Bela sank to the floor, cupping her face in her hands. As she shook with sobs, her mother and father rushed to comfort her. They rubbed slow circles on her back, whispering soothing words that did fairly little to alleviate Bela’s discomfort.
Her five-year-old brother poked his head around the door. He, too, had been rushed out of the building by the teacher’s assistants and was too lost in the crowd to find his older sister. But Bela’s acute empathy was no surprise to him. Two years ago, when Bela was five and he was three, their parents had rushed to the hospital for some emergency. On the way, their father ran over a squirrel. While everyone else in the car felt a tiny bump, Bela curled up into a ball and sobbed. Tears streaked down her face as she shook violently, almost as if she was that squirrel whose life had ended so abruptly.
Bela contemplated hard about whether she should tell her parents about the strange sensation she had felt on the playground that day. She hadn’t told anyone about the squirrel incident, but this was different. This was a real human life. Whatever she felt, even though she didn’t really understand it—it scared her.
She had to tell her parents. Trembling, Bela opened her mouth to tell her parents, only to find that she couldn’t speak. The words were clogged up in her throat, and no matter how much she tried, she couldn’t free them.
Bela squirmed and ran upstairs. She slammed the door and started to cry. The pain she felt ran through her, aching in every corner of her body. She finally took a deep breath and opened her drawer, decorated with old, faded stickers of stars and curled-up cats her teacher had once given her for every assignment she got a full score on. A puff of dust appeared as she grabbed a red notebook from the bottom of the wooden drawer. Bela flipped the notebook to a blank page and documented her experience.
If she couldn’t speak the words, she had to write them down. This dairy was the only outlet where she could express her feelings and the pain she had been encompassed with earlier. For Bela, the diary would keep her sane.
Suddenly, a loud screech followed by a murmur was heard from below. Bela tossed the diary under her bed and rushed downstairs.
Reaching the bottom of the staircase, she slowed, suddenly aware of the overwhelming stillness of the lower floor. Slowly, she shifted her weight from one foot to another, so as to avoid the cold tile lining the hallway. Her previous hesitation vanished when she heard a sniffle coming from the kitchen. She quietly padded towards the dining table where she had heard the noise. Her voice seemed to find its way back to her throat when she was once again met with heavy silence.
“Mom? Dad? What’s going on?” Rounding the corner, she saw her parents standing on either side of the table, eyes locked in a tense battle. A chair was knocked over about two feet away from where her father stood. Bela guessed it was the source of the screeching sound. Her mother’s eyes were teary and red, but they softened when she saw Bela standing in the doorway.