There are approximately 170,000 words in the English language, yet I don’t know any that can describe nor explain my sudden appearance in Bakersfield, California.
Somehow, in this impossibility-filled world, I am here. I’m not quite sure of where I was before, but what does that matter? I know that at this moment, I am in a kindergarten classroom, so nothing else could possibly be as important. Alphabet blocks litter the floor, and children run around the classroom, their faces smudged with markers and glitter and other, unidentifiable substances. Those who don’t run and play are either doing crafts or talking. There is a colorful, rainbow carpet spread out on the floor, and educational posters cover the walls. I resist the unmistakable urge to join any of these children in their carefree ways. I’ve got to go find someone. My whole being is being dragged towards another, even though I’m not sure who they are.
It sounds crazy.
It probably is crazy.
But I still have to find out.
Since all of the children’s feet are touching the ground, I decide that it would be best if I try to do the same. I try to rest my feet on the ground, but they just pass through it. I guess that I’ll just have to float for now.
Another quick look around the room draws my attention to a small girl sitting at a table in the corner of the room.
She is wearing a pink dress with fairy wings protruding from the back of it. It’s awfully poofy and flouncy, but she doesn’t seem to care. The figure she is drawing has a bright red sheen of crayon hair, and peachy colored pencil skin. The drawing’s green eyes are disproportionately large.
I gently wave a hand in front of her face. She looks up, distractedly brushing her bangs away with her hand.
When she sees me she makes a small noise of surprise and sets down the pencil.
“Who are you?” she asks. “Are you new?”
Unsure of what to say, I nod.
“What’s that on your arm?” she asks, pointing at my sleeve.
I look down. There’s a tear in the bright red sleeve of my jacket, revealing a cut that looks just deep enough to give me a scar. “Oh, it’s nothing,” I say, even though I don’t actually know what it is. “What are you drawing?” I point to her paper.
“You,” she says, her voice quiet amongst the shouting of the other kids. Then she flushes and says, “I’m sorry, you just have nice hair...” She clenches her fists and closes her eyes.
I laugh slightly, and she opens one eye. “Thanks!”
“Ah…?” she asks, looking up.
“I’m flattered,” I say, beaming.
Now that she has deemed that she isn’t in trouble, she presses onward cheerfully. “What’s your name? I’m Gabby,” she says.
“I—uh…” I fumble for a name. When I blink, a neatly written name stands out against the blackness of my eyelids.
“Phoenix. Phoenix Undertaker,” I say confidently. Even as I say it, it feels right. “Pleasure to meet you, Gabby.”
She carefully prints the name at the top of the page, a goofy smile plastered onto her face.
We hear shouting from across the room, and turn to see a young, bespectacled woman with a messy bun separating two screaming children.
“That’s Ms. May,” Gabby says. “She’s the teacher. You’ll like her.”
Ms. May catches sight of Gabby and I in the corner, and she sets down the children. After she has properly scolded them, she makes her way towards us.
“Hello, Gabrielle!” she says. “What are you drawing?”
She doesn’t say anything, instead indicating the drawing.
When Ms. May reads the name, her eyes widen a bit behind her leopard-print spectacles. “Gabrielle, maybe you could pick a different last name for your drawing.”
She snatches at the paper protectively. “No! Phoenix is my best friend, and that’s her name! And my name isn’t ‘Gabrielle,’ it’s Gabby.” She looks at me. “Right, Phoenix?” she asks.
I nod, because nothing she said sounds like a lie. “Of course.” I put my hand on her shoulder comfortingly.
As soon as my skin makes contact with hers, a tidal wave of thoughts, memories, and emotions sweeps over me. I nearly fall over as the colors and lights, the uncontrollable laughter and helpless sobbing consuming my thoughts. When the thoughts slow enough for my own to start working, I realize that they’re Gabby’s thoughts. Her emotions. Her memories. If I know all of this about her, the connection that I have with Gabby must be strong.
But if it is, then why can’t I remember it?
Gabby continues to work on my drawing throughout the day, even when the teacher tells the class, “Put your projects away; it’s time for naptime.” And from what I can tell, Gabby loves naptime. I must admit, it is a bit flattering that she is willing to put such an important subject aside for a drawing of me.
Before long, I become engrossed in watching Gabby draw. She really is talented. I am so focused, however, that I don’t notice when Anabelle Perkins comes up behind Gabby and spills her strangely large glass of Kool-Aid. The sticky, colorful liquid splashes across her hair and clothes.
The teacher doesn’t notice, she is too busy trying to keep two kids from eating paste.
Anabelle gasps innocently, but there’s a certain glint in her eyes that tells me this was the furthest thing from an accident. “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry!” she says.
Tears spring to Gabby’s eyes, and I feel her embarrassment strike me like a bat to the stomach. Anabelle smirks at her, then walks away.
“Okay,” I say angrily, stepping protectively in front of my new friend. “That’s it.” I storm up to Anabelle, and point my finger at her head. “Listen here, you pathetic blond girl stereotype. Gabrielle Torres is my best friend, and if you try anything like that again, I will slap you so hard those tacky hair extensions fly all the way to Timbuktu.”
Anabelle doesn’t seem to notice me. She walks away, right past me.
The teacher finally gets the kids to put the paste down; her face goes white when she notices Gabby. “What happened to you?!” she cries. “Go to the bathroom and clean yourself up this instant!”
Gabby leaps out of her seat. “Yes, Ma’am!” she says with a hasty salute.
I decide not to follow Gabby, and I watch her color-splattered back disappear through the doorway. The moment that she is out of my sight, I find myself at her side again. She looks at me, a bit surprised, but says nothing. Since there is no other option, I float alongside Gabby while she walks to the bathroom.
Once we reach the bathroom, I frown. “Who sends kindergarteners to the bathroom by themselves? She should be questioned for improper caretaking of children.”
Gabby grabs my arm and hugs me tightly. “Thank you! You saved me!”
“Ew… Gabby!” I laugh, touching her sticky nose lightly with my finger. “You’re getting Kool-Aid all over me!” The substance has soaked into her outfit and mine, creating a painting like swirl on my shirt.
She giggles. “Sorry, Phoenix.”
“Oh, it’s no problem at all. I’ve always wondered what it was like to be a canvas.” My outfit morphs into a short white dress that looks not unlike the material of a paint canvas. A painting is hastily drawn onto it. “See? Now we know!” I say.
Gabby practically leaps out of her skin. “You can change clothes?!” she shrieked.
“Of course I can!” I spin around, and notice that when I do so, the painting on my outfit changes. First it was the Mona Lisa in pastel crayon, and now it has turned into Van Gogh’s Starry Night in beaded sequins.
“Can I have a new outfit?” she asks excitedly, bouncing up and down.
“I could try, I suppose, but let’s clean you up first!.” I swipe my hand, and most of the paint disappears. I don’t know how I’m doing this, or why; it’s just instinct.
She claps her hands. “Much better!”
“Hmm…” I fold my fingers into a square like artists do in movies (I don’t know what it is supposed to do, but it makes me feel smart) and pretend to have an idea.
“I know! You are an artist!”
I wave my hands like a fairy godmother, and Gabby’s paint covered dress transforms in a flash of sparkles and glitter. She is no longer a paint colored princess. She now wears a smock and a rainbow turtleneck with black leggings. Splotches of paint fashionably dot her outfit, and a beret rests stylishly atop her head.
“I love it!” she says, spinning around in front of the mirror.
“All artists need a stylist. Call me anytime you need one.” I fiddle with my black and gold nail polish.
The bell rings for recess, and her eyes brighten. “Oh!” Gabby says excitedly. “Come on! We should go to the library!”
As we walk across the courtyard, Gabby continues to talk my ear off. She talks about books she likes, and music, and many different things, but I’m only half listening; people are giving us strange looks.
I mention it to Gabby, and she shrugs. “They’re probably just jealous of our style.”
As soon as she says that, the outfit that I gave her dissolves, and I see the horrible, sticky reality. “Oh, no,” I breathe. It only lasted for a few minutes.
“Gabby!” I say. “We’ve got to go back to the bathroom. Now.”
“Why?” she asks. “We’re fine, it’s recess!”
“Gabby!” The teacher is back. “I thought I told you to clean yourself up!”
“M-m-ms. May!” Gabby trembles in her small, child sized boots. “I did! Phoenix helped me!”
The teacher—Ms. May—sighs. “Come on, Gabrielle. There’s paint all over you. Whoever Phoenix is, they obviously didn’t do a very good job at helping you.”
Gabby looks down at her outfit, and notices that it is back to the way it was. Messy and paint-covered.
“B-b-but—” she blubbers.
“C’mon,” Ms. May says. “Let me help you.”
Gabby glares at me, and follows Ms. May into the bathroom.
I have no choice but to follow, inwardly cursing. How did I not see it? First Anabelle ignores me, and now I can’t even change my friend’s outfit. Something’s terribly wrong with me.
“Go away!” Gabby says when she sees me come in.
Ms. May practically chokes. “Excuse me?!”
“Not you,” Gabby explains. “Phoenix.”
“Ah, yes,” the young woman says drily, helping Gabby get a fleck of paint out of her hair. “I… didn’t notice you, Phoenix,” she says, looking in the entirely opposite direction of where I stand. ”Sorry.”
“She’s over there,” Gabby says, pointing to me.
Ms. May repeats her statement, and I say, “No harm done. You are forgiven.” I move to shake her hand, but it just swipes through her like that of a ghost.
Is that what I am? A ghost?
“Phoenix says it’s all good!” Gabby translates.
“I would never use such primitive language!” I say, gasping in mock-indignity.
“I know you wouldn’t, Phoenix!” Gabby agrees readily.
“Gabrielle,” I say. I bow low, still looking her dead in the eyes. “I apologize. I was unaware that the outfit would disappear, or that it could not be seen by others. I am truly sorry. Can you ever forgive me?”
She waves her hand dismissively. “No harm done. You are forgiven.”
Ms. May looks as if she has given up on trying to understand the conversation, and I honestly cannot blame her.
She smiles and shakes her head, like most adults do when you give them a headache. “Oh, Gabby. What are we going to do with you?”
Dr. Cullen shuffles a few papers in his hands, flipping through them. After an uncomfortably long silence, he looks up at Gabby. "So, Gabby, tell me why you're here."
She doesn't say anything, just looks up at me. I look away from Dr. Cullen's diplomas; they aren't very interesting anyway.
"You've got this," I say. "Just tell him." I smile slightly.
She nods, causing her whole body to shake.
This is Gabby's first session with her new therapist, Dr. John Cullen. So far, I can't really understand him. His stone cold face would normally terrify me, but something in his eyes looks trustworthy.
They are the color of freshly polished wood, with flashes of gold in the center. I can't imagine anyone with these eyes doing any harm to Gabby.
"E-e-every..." Gabby stammers.
I put a hand on her shoulder. "You're okay," I murmur. I know that she only ever stutters when she's nervous. Moments like this are when I wish I could protect her the most.
"Everyone says I'm crazy!" she blurts suddenly. "And I'm not!"
Dr. Cullen looks surprised. "Why do they say that?"
She looks at me from the corner of her eye. "Because I have Phoenix."
"Who is Phoenix?" he asks, his voice encouraging.
"My best friend. Except that... no one else can see her." Gabby's voice is barely above a whisper.
"That must be hard," he says. "What's it like?"
I swivel my head towards him in surprise, and Gabby's head jerks up.
I've never heard anyone say that to her before. When she does open up, most of the time the replies consist of a mumbled "Weird" or simply a look of pity. It's not like anyone has ever tried to put themselves in her shoes, or to even understand what it's like for her.
"It's hard," she says. "But there are fun parts. Like, she is always there to talk to. It was always so lonely before she came."
"Is she with you right now?"
"What does she think about all of this?" He gestures to himself first, then his office.
"It's unnecessary," I say. "You aren't crazy."
She repeats my words to him.
There's a few seconds of silence as he writes something down in his notes. I want to go look at what he is writing, but I wonder if I really want to know. He says, "What do you two do together?"
"She helps me with school," Gabby says, "and she really likes my drawings."
"What do you draw?"
She thinks for a second, then spreads her arms out as if to encompass the whole world. "Everything."
"What do you mean?"
"I just... draw what I feel like drawing. Sometimes animals, or plants, or people. People are hard, though..."
It goes on like this for another forty-five minutes, before Gabby's mother comes in to pick her up. While they exchange pleasantries, I talk to Gabby.
"What did you think?" I ask.
"I think..." she says, pausing in thought, "I think that I liked talking about it."
I want to argue, but I don't. If it makes my friend happy, I should go along with it.
On the way home, we stop and get milkshakes as a treat. Gabby sips her chocolate swirl happily, but I can't stop thinking about what happened.
It hurts, but I might have to accept that Gabby needs emotional support that I can't provide.