by Allen Lu Charlie’s toothbrush was just for show. Their mother always used to say: “I don’t care if you’re running late, half asleep, or on your death bed! The first thing you do when you wake up and the last thing before bed should be to brush your teeth!”
Lydia drags herself out of bed at five in the morning on Thanksgiving Day, because arson cases don’t solve themselves, and tonight is one family dinner she can’t afford to ruin with overtime. She trudges into the bathroom, splashes frigid water in her face, and robotically sticks her toothbrush in her mouth, all the while squinting blearily at her haggard reflection, tangled light brown hair and all.
Then her image distorts, stretches, and something tumbles out of the mirror, streaking into Lydia’s face and slapping the toothbrush out of her fingers. Lydia slams into the floor, the bathroom tiles greedily leeching the warmth from her aching back and bones. She blearily rubs her eyes, then again, then again, but sure enough, there’s a little blonde girl sprawled on her chest, peering at her with wide and wary blue eyes.
“What the hell,” Lydia says, mouth full of toothpaste, and shoves the girl off of her, because at this rate, she’s going to be late for work.
Lydia focuses on the way her breath comes out in short puffs of fog as she jogs to the bus stop, runs through her mental checklist to make sure she hasn’t left her ID at home. She ignores the magical mirror child trotting behind her, cooing quietly at the faded blue elephant plush that defi- nitely hadn’t been in her hands five minutes prior. She tries not to think about the elephant at all.
The bus driver doesn’t spare them a second look, even when Lydia doesn’t pay the addition- al fare. None of the tired commuters even complain about the girl’s sounds of delight when a flock of birds zoom past the windows.
“Quiet,” Lydia hisses under her breath.
The girl hides her face behind the elephant and whispers, “Don’t wanna.” Something must show on Lydia’s face, though, because the girl presses her face into the elephant’s worn fabric and doesn’t breathe another word until the bus shudders to a halt at the station, the doors creaking open, ushering in the chill, ushering out the people.
There’s an old man camped outside the front door of the station, swaddled in a worn parka and huddled under the large blue letters spelling POLICE overhead. Homeless, Lydia assumes. But he glances up at her as she skirts around him and she damns herself by glancing back, their blue eyes meeting. She pauses at his splotchy pink face before realization washes over her like a cas- cade of freezing water. Before she realizes what she’s doing, she’s already seized the little girl’s wrist and hastened past him through the front doors, ignoring his muffled cry of “Detective, if you could please—!” and slamming the glass door in his face.
The sudden switch from dim predawn fog to inside fluorescent lighting is dizzying, and Lydia shuts her eyes for a moment, disoriented. Someone coughs, then coughs again, pointedly, and Lydia belatedly looks up to see Captain Jun, her dark eyes narrowed.
“Harsh,” Jun says, as if she hasn’t done worse herself.
Lydia jabs a thumb over her shoulder, casually masking that the hand still gripping the girl’s wrist is shaking. Maybe the girl’s shaking too. “What’s with the old guy?”
“He’s been here since dawn, apparently. Wants someone to reopen a case that went cold twenty years ago.” Without warning, Jun tosses Lydia a thin folder, the contents almost slipping from manila confines in midair, and Lydia just barely catches it with her free hand before its papers have a chance to go flying. Jun’s mouth quirks a little at the edges. “And he wants Detective Sheridan to be the one to do it.”
Lydia swallows. “What? No, I don’t—I can’t,” she protests. “I’m busy with—the arson case. Captain.”
“I hear you, but he’s desperate. I doubt he’ll leave—” Jun pauses. “—the station alone if we tell him what he doesn’t want to hear.” And Jun leaves it at that, striding down the linoleum hallway in brisk steps, her mind likely cleared of the man altogether. Lydia, too conscious of the little girl trembling in one hand and the condemning folder in the other, isn’t as fortunate.
Work doesn’t distract her from the manila harbinger of doom tucked under her elbow, but it does keep her mind away from the little girl perched on her desk between the stapler and the com- puter, so Lydia stubbornly plunges into her duties. She checks the suspect’s file, recites her lines, as- sembles a squad, and runs through possible scenarios, all the while keeping her eyes away from the girl hugging her elephant, inquisitive blue eyes darting every which way, taking in the passersby who rush past her with uniforms, medals, and half-empty coffee mugs.
But there’s only so much preparation she can do, and so eventually all Lydia can do is wait for the other members of her team to get ready. She returns to her desk and falls back into her seat with a thump, the dreaded manila folder outstretched above her and framed in the glowing halo of the ceiling light. She gingerly flips it open above her, staring blankly at its contents. There’s not much—a photo here (featuring blue eyes, platinum blond hair), the missing person report there (the five-year- old was last seen in a public playground, playing hide-and-seek), blocky red letters declaring PRE- SUMED DEAD. It’s just as she’d expected.
She idly plays with the paper clip holding the photo in place, then lowers the folder and peers over the top at the little girl seated on her desk, fidgeting with cotton tusks. Lydia’s gaze flickers to the name partially covered by the red. “Amalie,” she hears herself murmur aloud. The syllables are stiff and bitter in her mouth, lingering sourly on her tongue.
The girl jumps and peeks up at her, blonde strands falling over her expectant blue eyes.
“Ugh,” Lydia says, and lets the manila folder fall onto her face, papers askew and barely held in place. She forcibly relaxes her stiff shoulders, suddenly aware of the dull ache in her back from her morning fall, and slowly drifts off.
Images flit in and out with her consciousness. She dreams that she brings Amalie to the old man, begs him to take her ghost off her hands. He shakes his head. Amalie isn’t dead. And then Ama- lie’s not holding her hand, and the old man’s gone, and she’s alone in a playground, where no one can see her run—
Lydia’s leg shoots out as she jolts awake, and as she numbly notes that she’s shaking again, she knows that she can’t avoid it any longer.
The man is still sitting at the front of the station, parka-covered back pressed against the glass. Lydia swings the door open, cell phone in hand, and speaks before the wide-eyed man can get a word in. “Your phone number,” she says curtly, because any less brusqueness would leave room for the tremor in her voice to slip in. “I’ll call you if I stumble across a lead. But you have to— stop waiting for me at work. Please.”
The old man stumbles to his feet, startling the little girl, who’d been peering intently at his face. “So you’ll find her,” he says, breathlessly. “You’ll bring my daughter back to me. Do you prom-
“I’ll—” Lydia says, alarmed. Up close, she discovers that beneath his wisps of white hair, his
eyes are very blue. The lie clogs in her throat, clinging and viscous. “I’ll do my best, sir.”
He recites his number, shakes her hand with profuse gratitude, and walks away. Amalie waves cheerfully at his departing back, looking only too glad to see him go. Lydia glances down at her phone, and blankly realizes she hasn’t texted her father back about her dinner contributions. As she scrolls past Mom and Jun, past the unnamed contact now saved to her phone, guilt softly gnaws in her chest, roused from hibernation and teething still.
The young man who answers the door nearly chokes on his beer when he sees Lydia and the two officers flanking her on his doorstep. Lydia imagines what he would think about the little girl beside her, her nose scrunched at the smell of booze.
“Detective Sheridan,” Lydia says automatically, then adds, “good afternoon. Is Julia Brenton home?”
“Julia’s—no.” The young man shifts to block entry, filling the doorway the best he can with his lanky, loungewear-clad form. “Wh-what’s this about? Do you have a warrant—?”
“We’re not here to search your house, sir. We just want to have a few words with Ms. Brenton at the station.”
He takes a nervous sip from his beer can, peering suspiciously at her over the metallic rim. “I’m not gonna let you interrogate my girlfriend for something that wasn’t her fault.”
Lydia’s just about to explain that an interview is in no way equivalent to an interrogation when Amalie tugs urgently at her shirt, pointing away. Lydia whirls around and catches a glimpse of a young woman dashing out a side door and diving into the neighbor’s bushes. “After her!” Lydia snaps, the two officers immediately racing down the street in response, and Lydia makes to follow when the young man stumbles out the door after her, grabbing her arm.
“Julia was nineteen when she ran away!” he cries. “That’s not a crime—”
“Trust me, I know,” Lydia says grimly, yanking herself out of his startled grip and sending him toppling to the grass. She breaks into a run and promptly jumps the fence dividing the property with the neighbor’s, leaving the confused young man sprawled there on his front lawn in his grass-stained socks, one foot stinging, as if a child had stamped on it in a fit.
Through backyards, around pools, over walls—the chase is long and grueling, Lydia’s calves throbbing in a steady burn. Infuriatingly, Brenton laughs all the while, her mirth taunting and audible even with three residential lots between them, drifting back to mock the detective. Amalie’s quiet giggling doesn’t help. She blinks in and out of existence with an ease that has a winded Lydia spite- fully envious.
Still, half an hour later, Brenton is clearly just as winded. She staggers into an empty neighborhood playground ten blocks down and leans on the plastic slide, breathing heavily. Lydia sprints, forcing Brenton’s arm behind her before she can do more than spin around in alarm. “Gotcha,” Lydia pants, lungs heaving, and clasps cuffs around the girl’s wrists with a satisfying click.
Beyond the playground boundaries, Amalie lingers, balancing the elephant plush on her head and warily eyeing the colorful structures.
Lydia tiredly reports her successful chase through her radio, clips it back her belt, and takes a tentative seat on the tanbark, tugging the girl down to join her on the ground. “I really was just—go- ing to ask you some questions,” Lydia rasps out through her sandpaper throat, adrenaline ebbing.
“Yeah, yeah, just questions, I’m sure,” Brenton grumbles. “‘Did you do it, and why,’ right?” She lets out a short puff of air at the stray bangs hanging over her eyes. “‘Twas I who set the house ablaze, and all that.”
“Right to remain silent,” Lydia says, uneasily.
“Whatever. You already think it’s me.” The girl rolls her eyes. “Suspect is just lip treatment at this point, and I’m not gonna pretend we don’t both know that.”
“You were racing through bushes a minute ago.”
“I mean, it was fun, right?”
“You ran—you ran because it was fun?”
The confessed arsonist only sticks out her tongue in reply, looking more like a teen than the
twenty-four-year-old she actually is. Lydia wonders how they can possibly be the same age.
Lydia glances towards the street—no back-up yet—and the cuffed young woman beside her whistles a short melody, slightly out of tune. Amalie wanders over, staring uneasily at the slide before plopping down beside Lydia. Any tension or gravity that the chase might have bred quickly bleeds
out, leaving only idle puzzlement.
“…why your parents’ house, Julia?” Lydia asks, against her better judgement. (In her head, Jun
berates her for lowering her guard.) “Was that fun too?” Julia shrugs non-committedly.
“Did you know they were in there?”
Lydia gazes at Amalie, who’s now burying the elephant below its blue head in tanbark, patting down the mound as if it were made of sand. “Do you hate them?”
Julia grins. “I mean, I don’t like them. But—but I went back, for the first time in years, just to see them. Maybe look through their window, or something.” Her grin fades a little. “They had another kid while I was gone, I guess. So I turned around and left. Came back the next day with, y’know.” She jerks her shoulder, miming the flicking of a lighter behind her back.
Amalie crosses her arms and mutters, “Fire is bad,” with the simultaneous reproach and know- ing confidence of someone who’s dabbled with it once herself and learned the consequences. Lydia knows it all too well.
Julia shrugs. “It’s kinda selfish. And dumb, I know.”
It’s criminal is what it is, and if the girl’s looking for some kind of therapeutic catharsis, Lydia refuses to give it to her. “I can’t say—I understand you.”
“Don’t worry, I don’t really get me either. I’m just going to keep trying to figure it out.” She shifts her head, chin resting between her knees as she ruminates. “I mean… they made it out alive, right? All three of them? So I’ve got some time to think.” She sticks out her tongue again. “I’ve been doing nothing but think, lately.”
Absently, Lydia brushes off stray pieces of tanbark from her pants as her mind draws a blank as to what to say, and shouts of detective announce her backup’s arrival before she can scribble in an answer. She nods to the two officers without looking at them, having eyes only for Julia, who makes a silly face at her in response even as she’s gently yet firmly hauled up to her feet. Off to the side, Amalie mirrors the face right back at her.
What will you do when you figure it out? How will you ever face them again? Lydia wants to ask, to demand of this girl who can question herself and share her secrets, with all the carelessness of someone who would leave a candle burning in an empty room.
“Yeah. Take her in,” she says instead.
Amalie shyly approaches, her playful glee from the chase long since faded into apprehen- sion. “I don’t like this place,” she informs Lydia, hugging the elephant tightly with one arm and reaching out with a small hand. “Can we go home now? Toots wants to leave too.”
“Toots—oh.” Lydia firmly grasps Amalie’s outstretched hand with an awkward smile, ignoring the disquieting feeling that settles in the back of her mind, humming softly. “Sure, Amalie. We’ll go… home. With Toots.” Gears in her head turning, she turns away from Julia, who’s being escorted into the police car. “Please, just wait a little longer.”
On the way back to the station, Lydia pulls up the old man’s number. I’m sorry, she texts, and turns off her phone.
(She realizes, to her own surprise, that it’s not a lie.)
Lydia storms into Jun’s office and practically falls into the chair across from her. Amalie makes a small whine in the back of her throat, and Lydia rolls her eyes but allows the girl to crawl into Lyd- ia’s lap, where she and Toots settle contentedly.
Jun folds her arms on her desk. “Sheridan,” she says calmly, “what on earth are you doing?” “I need your help, Captain. Jun.” Lydia looks up at her pleadingly. “Alice.”
Jun sighs. She shuts the office door and closes the window blinds, and suddenly it’s not the precinct, not the office, but their space. “Lydia, all I ever do is help you,” she says fondly—and just like that, it’s like they’re in high school again, sneaking into the principal’s office at night, in college, setting up cameras in the dorm kitchen to discover the culprit behind the stacks of dirty dishes in the sink, in the academy, cajoling forensics into deconstructing the components of the cafeteria food. Lydia fights back a smile, forcing a scowl instead. “Yeah, helping.”
“Help. Criticism. Same thing. Sometimes. And you’re a better detective for it.” Jun crosses her arms, leaning back—not with her back straight, posture poised and authoritative, but relaxed, like she used to in class when the teacher’s back was turned. “You want to talk. What’s on your mind?”
Lydia glances down at Amalie, who’s staring at the medals affixed to Jun’s uniform in open awe. “…you know how I used to get randomly upset about—somebody, some days?”
Jun rolls her eyes. “Yeah, I remember. And if you’d have just told me who he was, I’d have personally beat him to a pulp for you.” She pauses. “I thought you hadn’t seen him in years. Don’t tell me he’s hurt you again—”
“No! I mean, not exactly. I just—can’t help him. Not anymore.” Lydia absently combs her fingers through Amalie’s blonde hair. “But the situation’s… complicated. I’ve been hiding a lot from people, more than I should have. So even if I can’t help him, I do need to come clean to someone else.”
Jun squints at her. “…but not to me.”
Lydia smiles wryly up at her. “I do want to tell you, really.”
She’s desperate, after all, and Jun is—Jun is always, always right, from things like blue’s a better
color on you than green to I don’t think our dear principal has anyone actually waiting at home to if you’re going to be the best detective ever, then I guess I’ll just have to be your captain and keep you in line. And maybe Lydia just wants to feel as if she’s just as right, too, just as justified in avoiding the elephant in the room.
She’s been keeping it to herself for too long, if Amalie is any indication. But as much as Jun has been there for her, has always been there for her, she wasn’t the first to be, and Lydia never so much lied to Jun as much as she withheld, but when it came to lying to them…
“I do want to tell you,” Lydia repeats, and Amalie makes a happy sound akin to a purr, rumbling both their chests. “But not until I’ve told my parents first.”
At that, Jun’s face breaks into a grin, outwardly pleased in a way no one at the station but Lydia has likely ever seen. “Good choice. You have my blessing, or whatever.” She gestures towards the door. “Now get out of my office; you’re already late as it is.”
“Late? For what?”
“Supermarket closes at six, Sheridan.” Jun smiles again, just slightly. “Can’t go to Thanksgiving dinner empty-handed.”
The text blinks at Lydia from her phone as soon as she finishes paying for the fruit platter, the notification innocent but the message so maddening that Lydia shoves the plastic platter into Amalie’s startled hands and marches right into the nearest bathroom, vision red.
I don’t understand, the text simply says.
“You don’t understand?” Lydia fumes into the bathroom mirror, glaring holes into her reflection in the mirror again, furious eyes ablaze with ice-cold fire. “I don’t understand! Why did you wait so long? What are you trying to get out of this? What do you expect from me? Why did it—”
The venomous frustration in her voice cracks along with the sound of smashing glass. Some- thing wet trickles down her wrist and slides down her arm, and Lydia blankly realizes she’s punched the mirror, jagged fissures splitting from the impact and spider-webbing across the reflective surface.
Lydia hisses, finally feeling the sting from the slices in her knuckles, and hurriedly tries to staunch the bleeding with a ball of toilet paper. “What am I doing,” she mutters, glancing up and gazing help- lessly at her own shattered reflection, taking it all in—the graphic t-shirt and shorts she uses as sleep- wear, the smear of stray toothpaste under her bottom lip, the tangled mess of brown hair, the tired, tired blue eyes.
“Why did it have to be you?” Lydia whispers.
Silence reigns in response, the air pregnant with it, until Lydia hears a quiet sniffle behind her. She turns to see Amalie peeking her head past the bathroom door frame. Her crocodile tears flowing uninhibited as she visibly struggles to keep herself from bawling outright, and Toots is propped on top of the fruit platter she still dutifully holds through her trembling.
“Oh, Amalie, I—” A wave of shame washes over Lydia at the sight, and she squats down to the tearful girl’s eye level to take the platter off her hands, miserable. “I’m—I’m sorry, sweetheart.” Maybe she’s crying because of the shouting, the resounding crackcrackcrack of breaking glass, the dripping blood, the implications of Lydia’s words.
Maybe she’s crying because she came from a mirror and can’t go back.
“You’re bleeding,” Amalie whimpers, pawing at the soaked toilet paper. “Does it hurt?”
“I’m fine, Amalie,” Lydia chokes out, hugging the girl tightly. “I’m fine, I promise.”
Amalie buries her wet face into Lydia’s shoulder.
They stay like that for what feels like forever, until Amalie sniffles one last time and pushes
Lydia away, managing to steady her facial expression into something resembling bravery, though her blue eyes quiver with unshed tears. Lydia gazes back, then rises, stretching her legs. She splash- es water on her face with one hand, resolutely slaps her cheeks, and hurries out of the bathroom, her hand still prickling in pain.
Amalie smushes her face into Toots one last time before scurrying after her.
Lydia calls the old man’s number at the bus stop, even though she hasn’t the faintest clue what she wants to say. It doesn’t matter, in the end; the phone rings and rings and rings but he doesn’t answer, and Lydia’s surprised—surprised, but not guilty—at the relief that sweeps through her when she hangs up, sweeping the anxiety from her system.
She deletes his unnamed contact information from her phone and wonders if this is closure.
On frigid Thanksgiving night, Lydia Sheridan arrives at her parents’ doorstep with a store-bought fruit platter, a cotton elephant, and a little girl with bright blue eyes and short blonde hair, small hands clutching her coat. She rings the doorbell once, twice, and waits. When there’s no response, she knocks instead, only for the door to swing inwards—unlocked. “…Mom?” she calls out cautious- ly, peeking inside. “Dad?”
Silence answers her, along with a yawning darkness, the streetlight-ridden night behind her casting a faint glow into the house’s unlit interior—unlit, save for a single blinking green light. The flashing answering machine crackles to life. You have: (1) Saved Message. Saved Message. “Hey, it’s Lydia—sorry for the short notice, but I’m coming over early. I—I need to talk to you. I’ll be there in—”
Lydia’s knees buckle, because it can’t be, not when she’d finally worked up the courage, but then Amalie lets go of Lydia’s hand, wrapping both arms tightly around Toots, faded blue suddenly matching the brilliance of her own eyes. “I’ll see you soon,” Amalie says, smiling—
—and Lydia blinks, the door closing behind her, and the house is flooded with light again, the small talk drifting to the front door from the kitchen—and Amalie is gone, blue elephant and all. Swallow- ing around the lump in her throat, Lydia slowly approaches the dining nook.
She’s rushed in by her fussing mother, where her father is setting a table for three. His brown eyes crinkle in relief at the sight of her. The fruit platter in its premium plastic plate claims the spot of honor next to the glistening bird her mother’s carted over from the oven. A waft of the rose- mary-roasted turkey provokes a ravenous growl from Lydia’s stomach and a laugh from Lydia’s moth- er, who encourages her to dig in.
Lydia takes a deep breath, smiles, and tells her that food can wait a few minutes.
Later that night, she goes upstairs, pushes open the door to her old room, and heads straight for the closet, where a toy chest is tucked into the dark corner. She pulls out worn plushies and dolls through the dust, one after another, lining them up one by one on the floor. Her faded blue elephant is not among them.
(She never sees Amalie again.)