Rachel and Jasmine stared warily at each other while their mothers went through the long process of two grown-ups greeting each other. It’s been so long! Let me get your bags. Let me get your coat. Sit down, May, you look exhausted. How was the trip? The girl at the gas station said what? Girl, remember that time when—
And so on. Jasmine stood with her arms clasped behind her back, leaning forward a little, weight on the balls of her feet. She wanted to look like a cat ready to spring. Don’t think I forgot what happened in the pine grove, she thought, loud and clear inside her own head. Don’t think I forgot even a bit.
Rachel hung back by the doorway, arms crossed over her thin, bony chest. She looked just like Rachel remembered her: same haircut, same pinched-up eyes. She was even wearing the same Hello Kitty necklace that she’d worn that day in the pines. She met Jasmine’s cool stare with a glare of her own.
“Rachel!” Mama Trish squealed. “Look at you! Nearly all grown up. How old are you now?”
Rachel dragged her eyes away from Jasmine. “Nine and a half,” she said. Her voice was just like Jasmine remembered: nasal and flat, pitched high. Aunt May talked like that too, a little bit louder, but she didn’t sound half so mean as Rachel.
Aunt May swooped over and hugged Jasmine. “This one’s starting to get tall, too. Kept the short hair, I see?”
Jasmine smiled, putting her teeth on display. She remembered crying as Aunt May cut her hair, wondering aloud how a girl could get it so matted with pine pitch.
“Her hair takes forever to grow,” Mama Trish said. “All those curls.”
Aunt May tugged on one of the tight ringlets that hugged Jasmine’s skull. “Well, I think it suits you. Makes you look even cuter.” She pinched her cheek. “I’d kill for cheekbones like this one’s got, Trish.”
Jasmine liked Aunt May. Too bad Rachel was so awful. Aunt May deserved a better daughter.
I don’t like you, Jasmine thought, looking back at Rachel. She’d heard about the bad stuff Rachel got up to, when Mama Trish and Mama Cheri were in the kitchen, usually late at night, gossiping after one of Aunt May’s phone calls.
“Why don’t you girls go play?” Mama Trish said. Go play meant don’t bother us for a while. And that suited Jasmine fine.
She smiled with all her teeth again. “Sure, Mama.”
Then she held out a hand to Rachel. “Let’s go up to my room. I’ll show you my fort.”
Rachel looked at the proffered hand like it held mud, or a palmful of bugs, but still took it, and Jasmine led her away. Rachel was quick to shake off her hand once they were out of the room, and their mothers’ voices receded as the two girls trudged up the narrow stairs. On the second floor landing, she stopped and said, “I’m not gonna play with you. I’m not a baby who still plays with dolls.”
Jasmine bit her lip against some noise that tried to make its way out of her, some kind of laugh-wheeze. It came out sounding like a cough, which was good. “I told you, I’m going to show you my fort. I made it myself.”
Rachel rolled her eyes. “Can’t I just play on your iPad or something?”
“I don’t have an iPad.” Mama Cheri had one, but it was for work and Jasmine was only allowed to use it for an hour after dinner or on car trips.
“Why not? I bet your mom — sorry, your moms — don’t let you to watch TV either. Your family is so weird.”
Jasmine ignored this diatribe and continued into her room. Rachel followed her.
“Wow,” she said sarcastically. “What a cool fort. It’s, like, amazing. And invisible.”
“It’s in the closet,” Jasmine said, grinding her teeth a little. She’d told herself she’d keep calm. She didn’t want Rachel to get angry or scared — not yet anyway.
Jasmine opened the closet door. The entrance to her fort took up half the doorway. It was a squat, lopsided threshold, framed by a big suitcase on one side and an old laundry hamper on the other. A shallow drawer from an old rolltop desk formed the lintel, and a pillowcase hung down from it, tacked on as a curtain. Jasmine was proud of her fort.
“Come on,” she said. “I’ve got candy in there.”
Rachel liked candy, she knew. She’d been eating it, that day in the pine grove, a big bag of miniature candy-bars leftover from Halloween. Her breath had smelled like sugar and sour milk.
“You do?” Rachel seemed dubious.
“Snickers and Almond Joys. And a Cadbury Creme Egg left over from Easter.”
Jasmine worried that the last might be too big a lie to be believed — who would have a Creme Egg left a month after Easter?
Rachel’s eyes narrowed. “Why are you being so nice? I thought you hated me.”
There was a sneer in her voice — she expected Jasmine to hate her because she hated Jasmine.
Jasmine shrugged and lied. “I dunno. I don’t hate you. And our moms really want us to get along.”
Rachel scoffed, but her heart didn’t seem to be in it. Jasmine wondered if it was tiring, thinking everything was so stupid all the time.
She crouched down and crawled into the fort, not waiting to see if Rachel would follow her. Her head and shoulders brushed against the fabric walls, made from old clothes and sheets, dresses and scarves and towels. She’d built this part herself, emptying out boxes of winter clothes and old linens.
“Your closet is super big,” Rachel said, a few feet behind her.
Jasmine ignored her, continuing towards the heart of her fort. The smell of must and mothballs became more pervasive. The light from her room grew dim. The fabric forming the tunnel wall changed. Her skin brushed against polyester, tulle, threadbare cotton, moldy-smelling wool, and scraps of leather.
She hadn’t built this part of the fort. It built itself.
“We’re almost there,” Jasmine said.
“Almost where?” Rachel asked. Her voice was hushed and quiet. Jasmine couldn’t tell if she was scared, but she was following along and that was enough.
“To the attic. I found a secret way in.”
They reached a little room, about as wide as Jasmine’s bed. The fabric forming the walls twisted, tenting upwards towards a square hole in the ceiling. It was high enough that Jasmine had to hop and pull herself through.
It wasn’t the attic she’d seen when Mama Cheri renovated their house. That had been dusty but spacious, two small windows on either side illuminating the whole place. This was a different kind of attic — dusty, but neither spacious nor bright, and crowded with things that had been left behind by other people. It felt different than the rest of the house. Jasmine liked it, and she thought that it liked her too. It gave her gifts, old toys, and photographs of people she’d never meet.
“I don’t—” Rachel started.
“Come on,” Jasmine said, cutting her off. She pulled herself up into the attic, then turned and helped Rachel up. She was nice like that.
“Isn’t it cool?” Jasmine asked. She nudged an old box with a thing like a flattened dinner plate on top of it, with a thin metal arm resting above. She’d had to draw a picture and ask her mothers what it was — a record player, for playing music on flat plastic discs. “There’s all kinds of old stuff up here.”
“I…” Rachel hesitated. “I thought you said there was candy.”
“I lied,” Jasmine said. It felt good to say it, to watch Rachel’s face flicker — disappointed to scared to mad.
Rachel glared at her. “I’m going back. I’m—”
“Gonna tell?” Jasmine said, and let her voice go nasal and high and flat, just like Rachel’s had, that day in the pines. “Gonna run and cry to your mama?”
“You’re a bitch,” she spat.
“Ooh, bad word, so scary.” Jasmine tossed her head, missing the feeling of her curls against her shoulders. “Good luck finding your way back to my room. The fort doesn’t always keep the tunnel the same. Likes to change it sometimes.”
It was true, though Jasmine herself had never gotten lost. There was only the one tunnel, but sometimes it was longer than it had been, or shorter. She hoped it was enough to keep Rachel here, in the secret attic with her.
Rachel kept glaring, but her feet stayed planted on the dusty floor.
“I got something to show you,” Jasmine said.
She moved forward, picking her way through the piles of junk: stacks of moldering magazines and papers, old-fashioned boxy televisions, a heap of frames with fading pictures in them, leather suitcases with clothes spilling out.
Until they came to the doll — the Rachel-Doll that Jasmine made out of left-behind and broken things she’d found in the attic. Her hands were old leather driving gloves, stuffed with the shredded remains of a faded silk dress. The arms and legs were broken broom handles, wrapped in scarves and socks, jointed with yo-yos whose strings were hopelessly tangled. Jasmine had found an old viola for the torso, and placed a small, enamel music box inside it for a heart. She took a head from one of the dolls that were scattered around, and cut its hair to resemble Rachel’s, the way that it had been the last time Jasmine had seen her, in the pine grove. She even found a necklace like the one Rachel wore — not Hello Kitty, but a gaudy piece of costume jewelry, a little cat made out of black glass and rhinestones. Jasmine had tied it around the neck of the Rachel-Doll with a strip of dingy gray lace.
“I don’t like it,” Rachel said. Her voice was very small, and scared now.
Something in Jasmine nearly said enough, just then. She had scared Rachel. She had shown her who was boss, that it didn’t matter if Jasmine was younger and chubby or a black girl, that she had really curly hair and two moms and was adopted: Rachel now knew that, at least in her own house, Jasmine wasn’t gonna let anyone mess her around.
But the day in the pines couldn’t be taken back, couldn’t be changed, and even if Rachel apologized — which she never had — it wouldn’t make it better.
“Sit down,” Jasmine said. She made her voice deep and angry like Mama Cheri’s got when she was mad, slurred the two words together: sidDOWN. She sat next to the Rachel-Doll, which lay on the floor, hands by its sides, like Sleeping Beauty or Frankenstein’s monster.
Rachel sat a few feet away. She was still glaring, but she looked like she was gonna start to cry too.
“I’m gonna tell you a story,” Jasmine said. “Once upon a time—”
“I don’t want—”
“You shut up!” Jasmine screamed in Mama Cheri’s voice again. “I don’t care what you want! You’re gonna listen!”
Rachel was definitely crying now, big tears leaking down her cheeks, catching on her furious frown.
Enough, that little voice whispered again to Jasmine. You done enough to her.
But it wasn’t enough. Jasmine was still angry. She was still hurt, still scared, still woke up some nights with the awful taste of pitch on her tongue, screaming because she thought she was back in the pines, her pajamas and the sheets wet underneath her, crying from the shame, knowing she was too old to wet the bed and that her mothers were worrying. It was how she found the passageway in the closet in the first place — she’d dreaded going to bed, so she started sleeping in there. One night, she’d woken up, and there it had been: the tunnel, and the secret attic. She built the fort around it.
Jasmine took a breath. “Once upon a time,” she started again, “there were two girls.
“There were two girls, and they were cousins. One of the girls was good, and one of the girls was bad. She was rotten-bad, mushy apple with worms in it bad. Stinking little mean girl who’d probably end up in hell, or jail, or some other place. The good cousin went to go visit the bad one, ‘cause nobody knew she was so bad.
“One day, the good girl cousin goes looking for the bad girl cousin, and finds her in the pine grove by the school, with a whole group of bad kids. And the bad kids say, who’s that? And the bad girl says, that’s my stupid little cousin. She was adopted, she doesn’t even have a dad, just two lesbos who took her in. She was a crackbaby, so they got her really cheap from the hospital.
“And all the bad kids laugh. And one goes, aren’t all crackbabies retards? You a retard, crackbaby?”
Jasmine no longer had control of her voice. The words tumbled out, shards of glass that cut her tongue and lips as they came out. The attic leaned in closer to hear the story. She’d told it up here for the first time, speaking to all the broken things when she couldn’t tell her own mothers.
“They go on and on, and the bad girl cousin laughs with them, and then one of them hits the good girl cousin. And another one pushes her face into the mud, and another shoves pine needles into her mouth, and they rub pine pitch in her hair and tell her she looks like a cavewoman. And the angrier the good girl cousin gets, the more they laugh at her. And when she says she’s gonna tell, the bad girl cousin says she better not. The bad girl cousin says she’ll do something worse than shove pine needles into her mouth.”
“I didn’t mean it,” Rachel said. She still didn’t sound sorry: she sounded petulant and angry. And so Jasmine silenced that inside voice again, the one whispering enough, enough, stop before it goes too far. She felt a comforting thrum all around her, like the attic was encouraging her to go on.
“When the good girl goes home, she finds a secret attic. And she starts building a doll that looks like the bad cousin, because she can make a nicer version of her, not so mean and rotten. The attic told her how. The attic told her that everyone will be so relieved that the bad girl has started being good, they won’t notice that she looks a little different and is made out of old junk.
“And the bad girl will stay in the attic, with all the other things that nobody wants anymore, because they were replaced with something better.”
There was no sound in the attic but their two sets of lungs, breathing heavily like they’d been yelling and wrestling, not just sitting an arm’s length away from each other, one talking and the other listening.
“You’re a freak,” Rachel whispered. Her brassy and nasal voice had gone hoarse and small. She looked surprised, and her hand went to her throat.
“And you’re bad,” said Jasmine. “Nobody’s gonna miss you. No one’s gonna even notice you’re gone.”
Rachel tried to snarl, but it was just a hiss of breath between her teeth. She pulled her arm back to punch Jasmine, but that’s when Rachel-Doll sat up. Her glassy doll eyes slid open in unison.
Rachel tried to scream, but it was just a high-pitched wheeze, like air escaping a leaky tire. She scrambled back.
“Are you sorry for what you did that day? That day in the pines?” Jasmine asked.
Rachel shook her head and tried again to speak, but Rachel-Doll said, very clearly, “I’m very sorry for what I did. It was awful. Please forgive me.”
Rachel ran from them. Jasmine let her go. She was running away from the tiny hole that led back to the fort and the closet. The secret attic was really big. Bigger than their entire house.
“I accept your apology,” said Jasmine. She stood up, and then helped Rachel-Doll stand. She was wobbly on her feet, like Bambi on the ice. She took one step, testing her scavenged joints, then nearly toppled over before righting herself.
“I’m all right,” Rachel-Doll said, and let go of Jasmine’s hand. “Let’s go back to your room.”
Jasmine led her carefully back to the tunnel, lowering her down through the hole in the floor. She noticed that Rachel-Doll already seemed heavier than she had when she’d finished building her.
As they crawled back through the passage to Jasmine’s room, Rachel-Doll’s movements grew smoother and quieter; there were fewer creaks and rattles and rustles. Soon, even the music box in her viola torso had stopped jangling. By the time they emerged out of the doorway made of the suitcase and hamper, she sounded like a girl moving, and not a collection of junk.
Jasmine held out her hand again, to help Rachel-Doll stand. The hand that she pulled looked and felt like flesh, though Jasmine could still see fading stitch marks where the seams had been. The viola torso had filled out its curves, and the arms and legs had thickened, and the cloth felt like skin and muscle.
The attic had been right: you could build good things from broken parts. Jasmine wondered if she could build other people, remake them into better versions of themselves. Maybe a version of Mama Cheri that didn’t shout, or an Aunt May that wasn’t sad.
Rachel blinked both her eyes, slowly and in unison. “Are you sure you forgive me?” she said.
“I am,” said Jasmine, matching her solemn tone.
“Can we be friends?”
Jasmine nodded. “Let’s go see if Mama Trish will let us have a snack.”
Rachel nodded, the movement ungainly and shuddering at first, then smoothing out. “Can we have popcorn?”
“Yeah!” Jasmine said. Popcorn was her favorite snack.
On the way out the door, she paused. She could hear a soft, irregular moaning, like someone sobbing without a voice.
“Do you hear that?” she asked. The sound gave her goosebumps, like nails on a chalkboard.
“It’s probably nothing,” said Rachel, blinking again. “I’m sure it’ll quiet down eventually.”