Lit Up
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Lit Up

pic by Tracey Mansell

When I look back on this corona time, I’ll remember the way we were housebound, occupying the same space, but not really occupying it together. Each of us developed a kind of unnatural insularity, a personal quarantine, inhabiting a box within a box. We were distracted by work and school and by each other. The impression that will remain with me is the one of a girl playing alone in her room, building a house out of blocks. A house, within a house, within a home.

The girl, who shall be named Nora, built a blockhouse with her grandma’s house in mind. Grandma’s kitchen smelled like rosemary and fresh bread. She had a chicken coop and an apple orchard. There was a gurgling well with a motorized pump that automatically turned on and off depending on the water level. These sounds, sights and smells were nonexistent in Nora’s apartment.

Nora placed the dolls in and around the house. Father was an old Ken doll that Nora had inherited from an older cousin. The toes had been bitten or severed off by someone or something. He wore grey polyester pants and a florescent green shirt that had the words totally fresh written in big cursive letters. Brother was an action figure from Burger King. He wore a mask that covered his whole face. Sister, a stocky little blonde doll with a blue dress and oversized shoes, fit in the house perfectly. Mother was Nora’s favorite doll. She had red nylon curls that reached to the back of her bendable plastic knees. She even had rotating hands. Nora dressed mother in a short checkered dress with black leggings and a jean jacket.

Nora went to the dining room to show her mom the doll. “Nora sweetie, I’ve got a meeting in five minutes. I can’t play dollies now.” Mom kissed Nora on her head.

The dining table was the permanent home of mom’s work computer, her laptop, phone and Nora’s tablet. Nora and her family hadn’t eaten a meal at the dining table since the pandemic started. During the two hours of school, Nora sat at the edge of the dining table with adult-sized headphones on, headphones that her dad had purloined from business class on his way back from Dubai, while her mom tapped away at the keyboard. Nora’s dad spent most of the day in the spare bedroom, behind a closed door, talking to his computer. Nora’s older brother stayed in his bedroom most of the day because he supposedly had school. Nora could hear him playing Roblox or watching YouTube through the wall that separated their bedrooms.

Back in her bedroom, Nora undressed mother, which was a shame because she’d spent fifteen minutes meticulously picking out the outfit, and draped her in a plain long shirt that had been part of Ken’s wardrobe. She tied up mother’s long curly hair as best as she could. The ponytail she made looked more like a 1950s bouffant. She painted her cheeks with a red marker.

Nora went back to the dining room to see if mom had finished the meeting. The sliding door rattled and squeaked as she pulled it open. Mom swatted her away. Nora, pretending not to see mom’s hand gestures, walked to the dining table and stood between her and her computer. She held out the doll in front of the camera. Nora and her doll filled the foreground and mom’s panicked face filled the background. Some of mom’s colleagues laughed. “Excuse me,” mom said and then turned off the camera.

Mom swiped at the doll, intending to snatch it away from Nora, but she involuntarily hit the side of Nora’s face. Nora froze.

“Oh honey, I’m sorry. It was an accident.” Mom reached out to apologize.

Nora ran to the bedroom and slammed the door.

Nora cut off mother’s hair. Her bald head was painted the same shade of red as the nylon curls. Mother’s head looked more like a red balloon. Nora stared at the nest of curls on the floor and was mortified. Nora threw mother under the bed, then knocked down the blockhouse. Father and brother flew into the corners of the room with the smaller, lighter blocks, but sister, buried under a mound of big blocks, was still standing, held down by her stumpy legs and blocky shoes.

Mom knocked on the door. “Nora, I’m sorry,” she said softly.

“Go away,” Nora said, when she meant to say, come in.

Mom opened the door and sat down on the floor next to Nora and the pile of blocks. She put her arm around her. Nora didn’t back away; she melted into mom’s chest and cried softly. They hadn’t had a real hug in a long time.

“School’s about to start in a few minutes. What do you say that we build a house together when school finishes. We can make it look like grandma’s, just like we used to.”

Nora’s eyes lit up.

“Maybe we can actually visit her soon too. It’d be nice to get away for a while.”

“Really?”

“Yes.” Mom squeezed Nora’s hand. “We need to go somewhere without any distractions.”

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