There were two beds in Little’s room. Put back to back they were as long as his father was tall. The walls were covered in a light floral print. The window was covered by thick wooden blinds, their slats menacing late at night when cars passed and thin lines of red and yellow light scissored through like the glowing eyes of a monster waking up.
When the tile floor was swept and the beds were made, the room looked like a cheap hotel. It smelled of cigarettes. Maisie insisted that she didn’t smoke, but Little heard her at night on their balcony, taking deep drags, sucking in the world around her like she was hungry.
The closet was Little’s favorite place: Two mirrored doors that, when shut, reflected back his beds, the walls, and the window in the corner of the room. Sometimes he hid in the closet. Most of the stuff inside was his sister’s anyway; blue jerseys and pleated skirts from her old school, long girly blouses that she refused to wear but still wouldn’t throw away.
When he hid, it was because no one was looking for him. He hid in the long afternoon siesta hours, the slowest, hottest time of day, the time of day reserved for families and lunch and poorly-dubbed episodes of the Simpsons. The restaurants in Fuengirola were closed but the pubs were always open. When others were sleeping off their beers or doing their homework or outside playing football Little hid in the closet, smelling the frayed hems of his sister’s clothes.
One day Mum discovered him in the closet. He could hear her stomping around in the kitchen, chasing the rings of her mobile, which she always misplaced. Mum yelled something loud but he didn’t move. Instead he stretched out on the floor of the closet, curling up next to Maisie’s old school shoes. He closed his eyes and balled his fists. This was his favorite game. With the closet door shut, the world was so dark that he could be anywhere. With his eyes closed he re-landscaped, redesigned. He heard the phone stop ringing and the footsteps falter.
It might have been Mum, but it might have also been Da, lying in the bunk opposite him the night they went to Edinburgh. Little had only been on an overnight train once, late that spring before Mum shipped them out, when Da had taken him to Scotland to see a man about a boat. They had left Bristol in the late afternoon, and by nightfall the train had transformed. After supper, Da led him down the hall to their narrow room, about the size of Little’s closet, just wide enough for two bunks, two pillows and a small porthole window. The lady on the train had given them two matching felt pillows and thin blankets that barely covered Little from chin to knee. He asked Da why he had taken him, and not Kenny, who at 11 knew much more about boats, or Maisie, who at 15 was forever asking to get out, to go anywhere, and Da had smiled, saying, “Never you mind.”
And then Da helped him up onto the cot, and still the train kept hurdling forward. Da wrote in his black notebook and snuck a single long cigarette, leaning off the edge of his cot to let the embers fall into the wastebasket, and the train kept moving. When Little complained of the cold, Da got off his cot and grabbed the thin blanket in both his hands, folding the sheet into the mattress with the strength that only fishermen have. And still the train kept its pace, the rattle of cars over track hypnotic.
Little tucked his hands under his side. He felt the swish of Maisie’s dresses overhead, the clack of Mum’s hard shoes on tile. He kept his eyes closed, listening for the train, missing the feel of his father’s hands pulling the blankets tight.
He heard the door to his room open, her heavy footsteps on the other side of the closet. She slid open the closet door and was standing over him, her thighs pink with sunburn, her face small. Little shook his head, wishing she was the lady from the train, calling him to breakfast, but instead Mum slid the closet door open wide, letting the light filter in.
“What are you doing?” she said.
He put his hands over his face and tried to block her out, willing the train back. Bring back the fog, bring back the cold. She knelt down on the floor next to him, pushing a dress aside.
“Is there room for one more?” she asked.
She was changing the rules of the game. She got in next to him, propping her legs against the back wall. She filled the closet with her smell: a deep black licorice, the remnant of a harsh British soap that was hard to find here.
“Your brother,” she started. “That’s the second time this week that the headmaster has called. Ever since we got here, he’s been up to something.” She sighed. “You don’t think he’ll turn out like your father, do you?”
Little stayed quiet.
“I wished there was a way I could explain it to you,” she said. “He was never a terrible man—just mixed-up. You remember, don’t you?”
Little remembered his father teaching him and Kenny and Maisie to fish in the fog of the Bristol harbor, and what a miracle it was, watching his big hands slip thin strings through hooks. Mum had stood by with a small club, ready to tame the fish as they pulled them out of the water. Maisie was the only one to catch anything, a long, slippery tiger shark that was so strong it took all five of them to pull it in. It was so beautiful and alive that not even Mum had the spirit to use the club.
“Do you remember how he’d be gone for weeks at a time?” Her voice lowered to a hush. “When he came home, he’d be so full of piss and vinegar that he’d take you out on some grand adventure and leave me alone in that damn apartment with nothing but the telly and a bottle of Scotch.”
Little balled his fists and kept them at his sides.
“I suppose you don’t remember,” she sighed. “But I suppose none of that matters now, does it.”
He wanted very badly for her to leave. Instead she squeezed in next to him.
“So how’s this work?” she asked. “What do you do in here?”
He reached over her and slid the closet door shut, closing his eyes. He waited to see it all again—Da, the train, the blue felt blanket tucked in close under his chin. But it wasn’t working. She was breathing too loudly. Her smell took up too much room.
He wanted to tell her to get out, that this was his train, and then she grabbed him by the hand, hard, the way she used to when he was very small. He still hadn’t said anything, but that didn’t keep her from whispering, as if she were about to fall asleep, “Oh, you’re right. This is nice. We could be anywhere.”
JULIA HALPRIN JACKSON’s work has appeared in Okay Donkey Mag, Cutleaf, West Branch Wired, Oracle Fine Arts Review, Fourteen Hills, California Northern and elsewhere. A graduate of UC Davis’ master’s in creative writing program and alumna of Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Mendocino Coast Writers Conference and the Tomales Bay Writers Workshops, she is the co-founder and publicity director of Play On Words, San Jose’s collaborative literary performance series, and a 2021-2023 Lighthouse Book Projecteer. juliahalprinjackson.com
An artist, art writer and guest curator, ELIZABETH JOHNSON began writing reviews for artpractical.com in San Francisco, California, and later covered exhibitions in New York City, Philadelphia, and the Lehigh Valley for theartblog.org. She has written for artcritical.com, Artvoices Magazine, Figure/Ground, PaintersonPaintings.com and DeliciousLine.org. She interviews gallery artists for Gross McCleaf Gallery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.