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Illustrated by Thom Berger

♠ ♥ ♣ ♦

“It will take twenty-three hundred evenings and mornings.”

♥ ♠ ♦ ♣

Mily took a tumble on Saturday, July 14th, 2001. As she fell, Mily lost all her marbles in the overgrown grass along the edge of her backyard. The jar that she had been holding shattered on the pink granite rock when she tossed it to free her hands and catch herself from crashing to the ground –

As usual, Mily was quick enough. She was a clumsy kid, but her reflexes were good. But that was too bad because even though she had reacted fast, it just so happened she was tripping face-first into a bristly patch of pitcher’s thistle.

Mily caught her weight on her palms, and that instant her eyes went wide with pain. She tried to turn her head in time, but it smacked the ground on the left side, and her hands and cheek were stuck with what felt like a billion needles. She’d squeezed her eyes shut and kept her eyeball from a brush with the thorns – but it didn’t save her skin.

She could feel them, lots of them – her skin was coated in splinters, each one stinging as bad as a bumblebee. All at once, she was afraid to move a hair. If Mily shifted her weight one bit, a fresh blast of briers embedded themselves in her hands – and now her wrists – and her chin – Poor Mily was halfway through crying out when she spotted something strange.

At first she thought it was just those white spots she sometimes got when it was too hot outside, but they didn’t go away even after she blinked eight or nine times. Then she thought she must have injured her right eye because she couldn’t be seeing right.

But seeing didn’t hurt – both her eyes were just fine. She’d gritted her teeth and thrown herself backwards, landing bottom-down in the tall grass. Luckily, she’d escaped a scrape with scattered glass shards. Some of her bright-colored marbles had even split right in half, and they were sprawled about, making the brush glitter – In fact, Mily was seeing quite clearly, which was why she panicked when a cloud of buzzing white heat-spots started flying straight for her!

As they drew nearer, Mily saw that they were some sort of bugs – they were shaped something like cottony dandelion seeds, the way they glided on the wind, they were everywhere! The critters landed all in her hair, on her shoulders, coating her knees and bare feet, covering her head-to-toe with a glittery dust – but those spindly things were living. She raised her hands to swat them off, but her palms were so full of thorns – She was powerless to stop them as they crawled up Mily’s nose and into her ears –

They’d gone and nested in her head!

Mily leapt to her feet and barreled across the yard to the driveway, screeching, “Get em off me get em off get em off!” By the time her toes touched the cement a few seconds later, her big brother and both their parents had come out the garage to the driveway, and their two cousins, the twins – Eyani and Esabel, who had just witnessed the entire ordeal just past the tall grass – appeared behind her.

“What’s wrong? Are you hurt?” Bird said firmly.

Mily started crying and sat down, overwhelmed, a stiff and frantic mess in front of her mother. Bird hovered over her, inspecting, not touching until she could find the source of distress. “Calm down. Where does it hurt? You’re okay. Show me – ”

Everyone present held their breath as the light went on behind Bird’s eyes – her gaze combed Mily’s face and made their way down to the upturned hands, frozen aloft for fear of touching anything. She’d identified one source for sure.

Fresh tears poured out after Mily saw pore-sized blisters popping up like red rash across her callouses, skin swelling between her fingerprints, standing each and every one of the splinters on end – Like spiders legs! she thought suddenly, feeling like she might get sick.

“Mily tripped and fell into a patch of those pitcher plants!” Esabel exclaimed.

“Those flowers that never bloom, the ones with the thorny stems!” Eyani explained.

“I better go find my tweezers,” Bird concluded. “They’re in the vanity drawer upstairs. I’ll be right back.”

The evening was dream-sickle tinted and humid, and Mily’s heart banged loud in her ears – but the sound was changing, turning sharp and brassy, like scanning static between FM station frequencies. She’d forgotten to breathe because the incoming noises voided all other sense, and after a few moments, black dots spawned across her field of view, trailing wayward as raindrops on the train window – Heat-spots are black, not white, Mily thought with a fright, sucking air through her teeth.

Queeries, Uncle Dog thought. What’re queeries?

It must have only been seconds but each one seemed to stretch on and on and on… Mily’s sense was slow but brilliantly lit: her skin, the sky, and silhouettes of bluegrass blades outlined silver, focus-magnified, motion-blurred edges made of light….

D i d I j u s t h e a r — E ?

Mily you can hear me?

She gazed at Eyani’s wide-eyed double-blink and felt her stomach twist and do a somersault. Mily’s thoughts burned too close to the surface – she felt dangerous and dizzy, waving timidly like she liked to savor the last bursts of an Endependence Day sparkler.

C a n y o u h e a r D a d , E ?

Then Dog, Mily’s father, and Will, her brother, crouched down catcher-umpire style to where she was sitting on the driveway. Both carried unwavering gaits in their forward chins and the braced casts of their shoulders. Looking back at the pair of them, Mily went aloft: their gazes were a safety net: she fixed her eyes to their lines of sight and started breathing again.

“Looks like Outside gotcha good. Ye’all right?” Dog asked. As he spoke the time ticking on Mily’s inner clock reset and felt more like her till-then sense of real time.

“It hurts,” is all she found herself saying.

Will thinks how is Mily so unlucky?

It’s not UNlucky! It’s just my bad luck!

Will was mouthing out the end of his thought like he tended to do right before landing on a question: “Are the splinters the worst? Does anything else hurt?”

She wanted to scream, ‘There’s bugs in my brain!’ but the fact knocked the wind right out of Mily’s lungs. Bird was back then – she blinked at the sound of her mom’s tread on the garage steps and an odd ringing, a ting-ting! over and over. Mily felt her brow twist, bewildered by her sense hearing – It’s the tweezers Mom’s squeezing.

My ears are ringing…

“I think we should do this at the kitchen sink,” Bird said, looking right at Dog. “Can you walk inside, Mily?”

She nodded at her mother but couldn’t see her expression because her eyes were bleary with tears again. Raising her arms up stiffly, she felt her dad’s hands slip under her pits and lift her up to carry her inside the house himself. Mily had indicated that she was capable of walking, but she didn’t fight it when Dog let her rest her chin on his shoulder and swing her arms over so she could hang there without hurting too much.

With her eyes squeezed shut, Mily was inside before she knew it, being put down on the counter beside the double-basin stainless steel sink. She peeked at her palms and was appalled at the number of splinters her mother’s tweezers would have to pull out. The sight almost made her sick.

“Do I have to look, Mom?” Mily asked. Then she clenched her teeth to keep from weeping again.

“No, you don’t have to watch. Which hand would you like me to start with?”

Mily couldn’t bear to look at them to consider, so she just stuck out her left which was nearer the sink and said, “This one, hurry please.”

“It might hurt, but try to sit still, all right?” Bird cautioned and hopped straight into plucking the little splinters one by one. It did hurt, but Mily was distracted by the others, who were lingering in the doorway to the garage, speaking to each other in hushed tones that quite frankly were pointless because for some reason she could hear everything they were saying.

“She trips all the time inside, but never outside…”

“That’s why we didn’t know what to do, Uncle Dog – I never saw her fall like that before…”

“All her marbles got dropped in the grass, can we get them?”

“They all scattered because the jar broke when she – ”

“ – ditched it – ”

“ – on top of that big pink rock under the oak tree.”

“If there’s broken glass, I don’t want you to go digging in the grass without good shoes and gloves,” Bird ordered. After a brief pause, she suggested, “Why don’t we wait until tomorrow when it’s lighter outside?”

“But my shooter!” Mily bawled, picturing the pebble-sized sterling-silver starfish, encased in a crystal-clear orb. She prayed it wasn’t halved like some of the other marbles that had cracked when she tossed the jar. It was her great-grandfather’s best shooter, and she’d sworn up and down to Grandpa Bill that his prized-favorite would be safe in her possession. Mily’s insides hummed uncomfortably. She caught sight of the hand her mom was working on and almost threw up — it was covered in tiny holes, some bleeding and some not, like all the pores in her skin had opened up wide enough to see.

Will will find your silver starfish, Mily.

Mily blinked hard. Everything in her line of sight was far too bright — all depths of field fell into sharp focus no matter where Mily shifted her gaze, but the space between each focal point was filled with a brilliant, feathered gleam. It made her brow pinch and her eyes squint, and when her face tensed she became painfully aware of the pitcher’s thistle thorns still stuck to her left cheek and temple.

She keeps forgetting to breathe – Mily! Just breathe!

E! Mily jerked and Bird’s tweezers stabbed the end of her age-line where it faded into her wrist. Tears sprang to her eyes, but her teeth were clenched so tight already that she was braced for the pain. Her mother inhaled sharply but didn’t say stay still like she thought Bird usually would have. Overtaken by the changes occurring in her senses manifest, Mily didn’t question taking advice from her cousin’s voice in her mind — for some reason, she simply trusted her sudden, sprung-up understanding that E was using telepathy.

“I’ll go look for it, Mil!” Will volunteered from the door frame with vigor. Then he looked right at their dad and went on, “I’ll take the sand-bucket from the bin in the garage — Dad, is that flashlight still in your truck?”

Mily loved her big brother for that; Will was always fast to start solving problems.

Dog grinned great big and said, “I know just where that flashlight is: right under the middle seat. And there’s more good news…” He left it unsaid until Mily swallowed hard and looked up at him. She held his gaze — even though his eyes were strange, luminous as icicles at twilight — so her dad would know she was listening.

“There’s work gloves right under the seat too!” Dog was grinning so big that Mily felt herself return the smile without thinking about it. “Will and I will be back in a flash.”

“Dad!” Mily called because her dad was always fast to act on his words, and she wanted to warn him about the bugs before they went digging through the grass. She was just about to open her mouth when another one of E’s thoughts got caught in her throat —

Uncle Dog thinks he sprayed the yard Sunday and Huh maybe queeries ain’t died off yet after all.

Does Dad know about the bugs? Mily wondered. It was entirely possible, she guessed, because Dog knew just about everything about nature as far as she could tell. He always knew all the names of the trees, grasses, and other green things, and now that Mily was thinking about it, he’d taught her about every kind of fish, snake, squirrel, bird, bug, and in-between she could remember ever seeing in Diana. He probably does know about them, Mily told herself firmly, realizing Dog was still stopped next to Will in the doorway of the garage, waiting for her to go on talking. “Dad — um — watch out for bugs.”

He and Will gave yapping laughs and promised to be careful before turning on their heels to gather the scattered (hopefully, mostly unshattered) collection of crystal balls. That left just Bird and the twins in the kitchen with Mily as a wave of dizziness made her start to sweat.

“Almost done with this one,” Bird said perkily. “Oh, my silly Mily, you’re so accident-prone.”

Mily rolled her eyes and huffed. It was true — Mily loved to play rough, so she was usually sporting new bumps and scabs because her depth-perception had always been somewhat bad. Except now she was seeing wide and hearing open in ways she didn’t understand.

“What happened, Mil?” Esa asked as she came nearer the counter to stand beside her Aunt Bird. “How’d you trip?”

Mily grimaced because the moment she pictured her fall out back in the overgrown grass, her ears smarted — her sense of sound was flooded by a painful, high-frequency ringing. She squeezed her eyes tight to try to shut it out, but a sob broke through her lips instead. Then she was crying again, and Mily hated crying—especially in front of her mother. And up till then, seeing Mily in tears was really a rare thing.

“Left hand’s done!” Bird exclaimed, ploughing by her niece’s inquiry. “That wasn’t so bad! Right hand or your cheek next?”

“R-right hand,” Mily muttered back, choosing to ignore Esa’s question too. Her eyes were still closed, and she didn’t want to open them back up until her mom was finished pulling out all the thistle thorns.

Mily received a tap on the knee to tell her she should turn sideways, so that Bird could reach her right hand easier. She shifted around so that her feet were sitting in the sink instead of hanging over the edge of the counter, barely opening her eyes because she was trying to stop crying. Her senses were so sharp that she could still hear everything despite the loud ringing, which seemed to be coming from behind the inside of her ears. The sound didn’t drown out other noises but sort of brushed their voices with an echoey, metallic edge. Shut up, bugs! Mily shrieked at her brain. Get out of my head!

What’re you talking about bugs, Mily?

There’s BUGS in my HEAD!

“What do you mean!” E exhumed. Mily’s eyes burst open to greet her cousin’s befuddled expression. Esa stared back and forth between the two of them with puckered lips, looking perplexed. Then Bird’s tweezers stopped ting-ting-ing, and her forehead wrinkled like it did when she might giggle.

“What do you mean, ‘What do you mean?’” Bird teased. Her mom’s gaze faltered when she met Mily’s eyes. “I’m not nuts am I? You weren’t talking?”

“No, Mom – nobody said anything.” Mily waited till her mother shrugged and went back to plucking splinters before giving E a look of reproach. Stop! I can’t hear ME when you’re thinking at me!

Welcome to my world.

Mily decided to ignore him entirely so she could put her energy into not crying anymore. After a few moments of silence, the painfully high-pitched whine subsided a bit, leaving Mily feeling a little less sense-blinded. She wiped her half-dry eyes with the back of her left hand just as Bird plucked the last splinter from the end of her right ring-finger.

“Ouch!” Mily hissed. Bird’s tweezers had pinched too close to her skin.

“That one was pretty deep,” her mom apologized. “Let me see…” She tapped Mily’s hiked-up knees again as a way of telling her to turn back to how she had been sitting before. Mily lifted her feet out of the sink and spun her legs over the counter again, holding her palms face-up for Bird to do a final inspection. “Nice, clean hands! We’re almost done!”

Mily grunted in response and thrust her chin forward so her mom would get to work on the thorns still sticking out of her face. The twins had quit talking and settled into the growing gloom of anticipation. Esa was leaning with her back against the counter on Mily’s right side, so they could easily see each other out of the corners of their eyes. Mily’s cheeks flushed — both because Bird’s nose was only millimeters from her own and because Esa’s incessant peeking was wearing her skin thin. Nerves fried from all the hype, Mily stole away to her inner seat of Stubbornness and mustered enough strength to suppress several irate groans.

“Mildred Junegrass!” Bird hooted just as she plucked the last piece of pitcher’s thistle from Mily’s stinging cheek. “You will not guess what day it is!”

“S…Saturday?” Mily answered, who year-round hardly ever knew which day of the week it was — Although, her whole family praised her knack for almost always knowing the time of day, often down to the very minute, without ever checking a clock. She thought Bird was going a different direction, but… Mily was at least sure of the day in this instance because she’d been counting down to her eighth birthday, which was only… Six more nights away.

An inkling of an idea rose from Mily’s diaphragm when she landed on the number, but Bird didn’t wait for the realization to bloom before giving it to her daughter straight: “It’s Saturday, July Fourteenth.”

Mily’s mouth fell wide open. “It isn’t.”

Her mother threw back her head and laughed. The twins were giggling in disbelief, squeezing their sides, and raising their fists at the ceiling in mock-defeat. It had become a date of strange omen in the Yoder family line. When the calendar arrived on the fourteenth day of the seventh month of the year (for reasons utterly unclear or beyond knowing), Yoders were often served with a pot of big’n bad luck from the Universe, ‘Brewed pipe’n hot and already boil’n over,’ as Uncle Earn, the twins’ dad, liked to say. Perhaps so relieved to be thorn-free, Mily forgot all about the bugs for a second and enjoyed their shared cosmic sense of ‘You’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me!’ Laughing made her lungs feel like celebration sparklers.

For a few moments, anyway. They were all still laughing when Mily’s dad and brother got back from outside, but her joy was so fragile that seeing them put out the spark of the moment before. Will wore a look of triumph that seemed awfully put-on to Mily, though she wondered if that was only because her eyes were still seeing funny.

“Good news!” Dog bellowed when he’d crossed the threshold of the kitchen. He held up a large crystal marble with a little silver starfish in the middle. “You’ll be shoot’n straight in the morn’n Missy!”

Only the twins had noticed that she was already not smiling, and Esa scooted a little to her left so that her shoulder was touching Mily’s knee. The thorns were gone, but a fresh prickly feeling crawled from the nape of her neck down her arms and legs, and it hit her full-force she hadn’t yet said a word about the critters getting cozy behind her skull. Ask about the queeries! Mily ordered herself, swallowing her caged, itchy anxiety. “Dad, were there bugs in the grass?” Mily asked. “Did you see any of those q— ”

NO Mily don’t! Don’t say it!

E’s mental beam was so loud that she choked on the word that she’d heard him say earlier Dog thought. Her dad started saying something about it being good of her to warn them because chiggers like this time of night, but she couldn’t understand the rest because Eyani raced to explain in-thought at the same time.

You can’t ask about queeries! Your dad only said it in his head! You haven’t ever heard that word before!

I heard it just now! You said it! Mily shot back, disoriented.

I didn’t say it. I’m thinking.

Mily mulled that information over long enough for everyone to move on to talking about something else. She forced her attention towards Will who was looking at her with hopeful eyes. He held a new glass ball-jar from the garage aloft, and it had been filled to the brim with marbles they’d recovered from the spill-site.

The jar that had been housing her collection before was twice as big as the ball-jar her brother presented there in the kitchen. Mily noticed this difference right away, but she was touched by the steps Will took to make the remnants seem full.

Bird bandaged her daughter’s palms with antibiotic ointment and gauze and taped two band-aids to her chin and cheek. When Mily was finally able to hold the jar of marbles in her own hands, she felt so drained that she couldn’t think of anything at all to say. How come I can hear you thinking? Mily asked Eyani in her head instead.

We dunno. It was just Esa and me till when you said –


* * * * *

/ n o t a r e

Excerpt from the Old Testament, book of Daniel, verse 8:14 (NIV).

One response to “MILY THE MILLENNIAL | The First Chapter”

  1. MILY THE MILLENNIAL | The Second Chapter – HEDERA READS Avatar

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