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art by Jonathan Westbrook

Ansa and the Lost Thing

Sophie Wereley lives in Chicago, Illinois, where she studies English literature and linguistics at the University of Chicago. She has a soft spot for feral cats and a great admiration for guerrilla gardeners. Her free time is consistently eaten by her work as an associate editor at Shimmer. You can bother her via Twitter (@sayitwhirly) or her blog (sayitwhirly.wordpress.com). This is her first published short story.

Papa was always losing things, from his car keys to the car he'd just put them in, so when he ended up losing himself, Ansa and I figured we had more important things to do than find out where he went. If he came back, he'd bring dinner. If he didn't, we could turn his office into a TV room.
Ansa and I hatched these plans in the dark underneath our bedclothes, and spent too much money on chocolate bars. We were only two years apart, but born opposites. Ansa was much lighter than I was, born during the winter when Mam said the sun couldn't burn her brown. I used to think we had one mind, and that everything we thought was a shared thought.
When Papa lost himself we were sitting in Ansa's room and leafing through family photo albums, cutting out faces and rearranging their features to suit us. We pasted together, little by little, a story of family resemblance.
Mam was drinking coffee and watching us make carnage out of two generations of Sinbae family photos when she stood up and walked upstairs, following a sound Ansa and I couldn't hear. She left her coffee cup, which made me worry. Mam never walked around without her coffee in the morning. Caffeine gave her a headache, so she drank eight cups of placebo decaf every day before eleven. It tricked her brain into being awake, she said. I figured if she left the cup behind, it meant something had startled her brain into wakefulness.
She came back downstairs a few minutes later, carrying a second mug of coffee. She sat down in her red canvas chair and took a sip.
"He's gone. Try not to lock the doors until he gets back. He left his keys on the counter."
"Okay," we said, as I taped a bulbous nose onto Ansa's face.
Maybe four days after Papa had lost himself, I decided to catch a unicorn. Mam was sitting at the kitchen table, surrounded by old coffee cups, when I went to her with this news.
She looked up at me, her eyes bleary.
"Can you bring me the bag of frozen peas in the fridge?" she asked.
Mam drank so much coffee after Papa left that it heated up in her stomach. The heat rose out of her gut and into her head and sat there for hours, causing migraines and crankiness and flushed red cheeks, until Ansa discovered that covering Mom's head with frozen food items would mitigate the pain.
Mam was having a real hard time, Ansa said, Papa was gone and Mam didn't think he was going to come back. I knew he was going to come back, though, because I had noticed that whenever Papa lost something he eventually found it again. He'd find himself sooner or later, and as long as we didn't move houses, he'd come and find us.
Lately, though, I was starting to worry that Mam might run away next. I'd been naughty. Months ago, I painted the kitchen with lipstick while she was in the claws of one of her afternoon migraines, and then, only days before Papa's disappearance, I found his old razor and cut jagged strips of hair away from my scalp.
When Mam saw me, she just sat there with her hands limp in her lap, then disappeared into her room for an hour. I guess she didn't mind me and Ansa running wild as long as we didn't stop looking civilized. She wouldn't talk to me for the rest of the night, not even when Papa lost the chicken we were roasting for dinner and we had to search in all the pantries for it. Ansa eventually found it floating in our pool.
So I told Mam about the unicorn, because I figured everyone likes unicorns, and having one would make her happy. I had a plan to make a lasso out of virgin's hair, and then the unicorn would have to listen to me. I could ride it to school every day, and Mam wouldn't have to drive during her coffee time, and we would reduce our CO2 emissions.
I told her all of this.
Mam sat with the bag of peas on her head and watched me for a while.
"You're going to catch a unicorn," she said. "How? You don't have any hair."
My sister and I discussed the problem of unicorns and hair that night, in a tent we'd made from our comforter. Paper eyes and mouths lay forgotten on the floor.
"Can I help you catch it?" Ansa asked.
"You can if you have a shovel. I'm going to dig a big hole."
Ansa rocked back and forth. I could only see half of her face, where the light from our flashlight hit the curve of her nose and cheek.
"I can use Papa's shovel," Ansa said. "He put it in the basement. I know because it was on the notes he left."
"What notes?"
"Mam says she was looking through his pockets and there were all these notes like, 'Don't lose your car again, Arlo,' and 'Remember where you live, Arlo' and 'Don't forget who you are.'"
"'Arlo?'" I guessed.
"No," Ansa said. "He forgot to write his name on that one. Mam thinks that's why he lost himself. He was reading all of those notes, remembering that he was Arlo, and then he got to the last one and poofed away."
We played with the cut-up faces for a while, choosing a long-dead relative's eyes to place on a photo of Ansa as a young girl. Cut out ears and eyes and mouths moved and swapped, until we forgot who heard and saw and spoke with what. Then we got bored.
"If we catch a unicorn, can we make it find Papa for us?" Ansa asked. She raised a pair of photo-paper eyes to cover the ones on her face.
"If we catch a unicorn, we can make it do whatever we want," I said.
"Mam says you need hair. You can use mine if you want."
Ansa had a long mass of hair that Mam had spent her entire life helping her to cultivate. It fell down past her waist, and her bangs, snipped close to her forehead, frizzed around her face like the wool on a lambskin.
I smiled.
The hole we dug in the backyard was six feet wide and six feet deep, with a metal ladder leaning against the side. It smelled like pennies and looked like a burn in our grassy lawn. I squished at the bottom of it, shoeless, and mud rose up between my toes.
We wondered if we would find something extraordinary in all the dirt.
"If this were a fairy story, you'd find dinosaur bones or fish skeletons in rocks," Mam said, as she drank her coffee with a bag of frozen peas tied to her head.
Ansa wanted to find treasure. She leaned against the shovel and stared up at the sky.
"If this were a fairy story," she said, "we would find gold."
We needed to bait our trap, of course, and I didn't know what qualified as unicorn bait, except for virgins. But I didn't suggest we camp out in the hole, because it was muddy and getting cold outside. Instead we dug around in our attic until we found the old box of religion.
Inside there were jumbie beads and old translations of the Bible, with Korean on one side of the page and English on the other, a crucifix, and tea that smelled like feet and mothballs. Mam found us bringing the box down from the attic and stopped, one hand pressed to her forehead.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"It's unicorn bait," Ansa explained.
Mam grinned and slid her wedding ring off her finger.
"Try this, too," she said. "Love is a potent trap, even for unicorns."
We dumped it all in a blue tarp and wrapped the corners tight, so water wouldn't get in and ruin everything, and then we dumped it into the hole.
Two days passed without any unicorns. We grew discouraged, but continued with our preparations. Ansa tore out strands of her hair, and we braided it into rope. The rope got longer and longer, until finally Ansa couldn't bear another pluck. She hid all the tweezers and cried until Mam came downstairs and asked us would we please be quiet while her head was raging.
We stopped and waited for the sound of her folding her body into bed, and then we went back to photos and Frankenstein faces.
"Where do people go when they lose themselves?" Ansa asked one night. We were lying in bed, staring up at stars we had made from metallic paper and what was left of the photo albums. They hung down from strings attached to the ceiling, almost within reach. It was dim, because the only light we had was from the hall, but I could tell that she was crying.
"Probably the same place that unicorns come from," I said.
"Do you think it's nice there?"
"Yes. There are unicorns. Everything is soft and shiny, and people are kind to you even if they don't have to be."
Ansa sat up and pulled down one of the paper stars.
"Do you think Papa likes it there?" she asked.
I wanted to say no, that the world of lost people and unicorns was terribly unfulfilling, and that he would come home and be with us soon. But I didn't want Ansa to think of Papa alone in a world he didn't like, one that was shiny but didn't have any shine for him.
"I don't know. But when he comes back he'll tell us either way."
Mam's headaches got worse from worrying about Papa, so bad she stopped drinking coffee. She lay in bed all day instead, with the curtains closed, tipping water into her mouth and feeding aspirin to her aching head. Ansa and I wore three pairs of socks each and didn't speak to each other, except outside, when we'd stare out at the unicorn trap.
When Mam's headaches didn't get better, and the pills stopped helping, Ansa and I started to cover the house's walls to block out light and sound. First with blankets, then newspapers and the broken-down shells of cardboard boxes. We ran out quickly, though, until Ansa remembered Papa's notes. We covered the last of the windows with them and our paper stars. 'Don't forget who you are' stood out black against the sun-yellow paper.
"When we catch the unicorn, it'll cure Mam's headaches," I said, as we listened to the moans coming from upstairs.
Ansa ran her hands through the remains of her hair.
"I hope it comes soon. She sounds sad."
Weeks went away. Papa didn't find himself. Mam's headaches got worse and worse, until the entire house had to be dark, and all Mam told me to bring home from the grocer was frozen peas.
One night, Ansa and I woke to the smell of burning paper. We ran upstairs to where Mam was frantically tearing burning sheets from her bed. I smelled burning hair.
"I got too hot! Help me!"
I ran with her to the bathroom and held the showerhead over her ruined scalp. The tips of her ears were crisped.
Ansa shrieked. In the bedroom, the fire had spread to the dresser and bookshelves.
We threw buckets of water on the flames, but they ate and ate until the house was filled with their black smoke belches, and Mam said we had to go. She picked up Ansa and held her tight.
"It'll be all right."
We ran through the rooms, the paper on the walls crumbling from flames. I had to stop, though, at the window. I had to save Papa's memories, in case he forgot everything when they burned. I ripped them free, bunched up and torn in my fists, and ran.
The house burned for a very long time, and when the firemen finally came, I was crying because it was my fault. I hadn't bought enough peas.
Ansa thought that the fire would be a beacon to bring Papa home. He'd see the fire and it would pull him towards us. He would stop being lost.
He didn't. So Ansa started asking about the unicorn.
I told her not to be hopeful, but we camped out beside the trap anyway. The fire had left it unharmed, and Mam was glad that we had saved all the religion in the house by wrapping it up and throwing it into the hole.
"Maybe this is a fairy story, and these are our lucky charms," she said. She had some hair left, a tuft behind her left ear, and a little patch at the nape of her neck.
When the firemen and the grey people from Child Protection Services left, Mam bought us a little tent and a generator and a mini-fridge. The fridge didn't have enough space for frozen peas, but Mam said she would try not to need them. We lived out in the yard, beneath the stars and beside the pit, waiting for things to find their way.
Ansa and I played games on the lawn. It was hard to come up with new games all the time, especially when we didn't have our scissors and craft glue anymore. Most of the time we ended up just sitting in front of the unicorn trap, or going down the ladder to make sure the tarp wasn't leaking.
We were always covered in mud, like real wild children, though Mam was never awake enough to notice. I was worried I would have to buy a new coffee pot, and I was scared of what might happen if Mam's head got too warm again.
I looked at Mam, rolled up unconscious in her sleeping bag.
"Papa's going to be lost forever, isn't he?" Ansa asked.
Tears were hot. I imagined they were almost as hot as Mam's head when it caught on fire. They burned into the backs of my hands and traced molten rivers down my cheeks. Ansa watched me. She wanted to know why I was crying when she was the one who was sad.
We didn't know. She sat next to me and stuck her small hand in mine.
When I realized how to bring Papa back, it was so simple. I used a piece of our burned-down house, one that looked like a thin stick of charcoal. Mam slept with Papa's notes under her pillow, wrapped in a tight packet around his keys. In the daytime she carried it in her shirt pocket, but at night it was easy to steal.
I found it, the note that made Papa go away. I wrote on the edge of the paper. Fixed it.
And now it said: "Don't forget who you are, Arlo."
I slid down into the unicorn trap. The cold metal ladder was wet from rain. The tarp had a rope tied round it, and several layers of duct tape keeping it all tight. I ripped a strip of tape off the tarp and stuck the note underneath it, then sealed it shut again.
Ansa was waiting for me when I climbed back out. She gave me an apple and a fingerful of peanut butter. We sat on the grass and watched the sky, listening to Mam move around in the tent, holding back headaches with her will alone. We waited for the ground to open up, and for Papa to emerge, elbow then arm then shoulder, until he was curled up on the dark earth, gasping for air. And we would slide down the ladder, laughing, to help him pull out his legs and brush the dirt from his skin. To take him by the hand and lead him almost home.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 2nd, 2012

Author Comments

I wrote the first draft of this story for a high school assignment, years ago, and dug it up again maybe last January. After all the subsequent drafts I did, the story and characters are practically unrecognizable. If you could compare it to the original, you'd see I only kept about two scenes! The end result is a story that's a little bit about growing up, but mostly, I think, about other stories. The ones we tell ourselves to make our lives okay. The ending was the hardest for me to write, because I couldn't figure out whether I wanted the dad to return or not. Ultimately, I realized this story is about Ansa and her sister; the path home and whether Arlo takes it, that's his story.

- Sophie Wereley
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