Two children receive a gift of memory and magic in “Don’t Lose This,” a short fable by San Francisco author Noah Sanders that explores redemption’s strange and demanding burdens. Illustration by Fabulist house artist Adam Myers.
Stella sits in the window frame and rolls the big globe of dirty plastic in her tiny hands. Raoul, 4’10” and the shortest kid in his class, stands a few feet behind her. “I’m telling you,” Stella says, angelic, “the man said this was a crystal ball, and that if we could figure it out, there was magic in it.”
“Where’d you get money for that Stella?” Raoul shuffles from one foot to the next, rubs together the two quarters in the pocket of his oversized cargo shorts, and hopes someone didn’t take Stella for her snack money again.
“He didn’t want any money,” she says with a broad smile, “he just said,” and her tone becomes conspiratorial, “‘Don’t lose this girl, don’t forget it either.’ And then he just pushed his big old shopping cart down the street.”
Raoul is giving her his older-brother look from the hallway, arms crossed, dark eyes distrusting. “I’m not kidding!” she shrieks, grabbing the plastic sphere with two hands and shaking it violently in his direction, her mouth gritted in anger.
Raoul takes a few steps back. Stella’s been getting mad lately, getting in trouble in her 4th grade class for hitting a few of the other girls, and she’s liable to toss that dirty old globe at him, regardless of its magic powers. “Alright, alright Stell, stop waving it at me.”
“Stop not believin’ me then, Raoul!” And she drawls out the whole of his name in some approximation of a cat’s howl.
Stella’s now sitting cross-legged with the plastic globe cushioned between her pink sweat-pant-clad legs. “What should we ask it, Raoul?” she says, the anger gone, all of her focus now directed at this supposed magic item. Outside, a car alarm bleeps long and flat and persistent.
He checks his watch, a grimy little black thing he found in the gutter; their mom will be home soon. She usually pops back up around now, either drunk or looking to drink, and it’s probably best if she doesn’t find them mucking around with some filthy thing Stella brought off the street.
Stella’s looking at him now though, her eyes wide and wet with eager anticipation, a little patch of sunlight illuminating the thin scar that cuts across her forehead. Raoul scrunches his mouth up and takes a step forward out of the doorway.
“Okay, let’s ask it what you’re going to be when you grow up, Stell. You’re always saying you want to be a plumber, but who knows,” and he lifts his hands like he saw in a movie, “but who knows what the crystal ball will say.”
Stella squeals in laughter for a second, and then stops, suddenly serious, all of her nine-year-old attention coming to bear. “Let’s ask where dad is and if he’s ever coming back.”
Raoul doesn’t say yes or no, he just sits down on the dirty stretch of carpet between the end of the bed and the bay window stoop. Stella slowly lowers herself so she’s sitting across from him, the plastic globe in between them.
They place their hands on the scratched surface of the globe; Raoul closes his eyes, hoping Stella has done the same. “Um,” he says, suddenly nervous, “We wanted to ask,” he inhales loudly from his nose, “where our dad went?”
They’re both quiet, the only sound a woman’s loud crow of laughter outside and the gentle in-out of their breath. Raoul feels the globe suddenly grow warm, hears Stella gasp quietly and then a wave of sounds and images hop, skip, jump across his brain.
He hears his mother and father, drunk, and laying in to each other on the street in front of the hotel. He sees them in the light of the doorway, their arms locked in something between a hug and a wrestling hold. He sees Stella then standing next to them, younger then, a little more innocent, her arms reaching up.
His mom curses and her father swings his arm wildly, striking Stella in the forehead, the corner of his watch making contact with a fleshy thump.
He hears a scream and sees a flash of something wet and red and sees Stella fall and his father, quickly too sober for the moment, throw his arms up and bellow like a sick animal before screaming a final “fuck you” to their mom and charging down the stairs. He sees Stella sitting on the ground screaming and his mom trying not to sway saying, “Oh baby, it’ll be okay,” over and over again.
And then the images and sounds are gone. He feels tears on his face and opens his eyes slowly expecting to see the same from Stella, but she’s just staring back at him, almost all of her teeth exposed in a smile.
“Daddy looked so happy, “ she says, and he starts to respond but hears the front door of the hotel slam shut and his mother yell, “Stella? Raoul? I brought food from the corner store.” Stella shoots up and runs out the door yelling “mommy,” the plastic globe already forgotten.
Raoul wipes away the wetness from his face and slowly puts the globe on the ground. Don’t lose this, he thinks, don’t forget it either.