I didn't know what had woken me that night, but the unwelcoming shadows was enough to push me out of bed, down the hall until I was staring up at the twisting staircase that seemed to stretch into the darkness. As I placed my palm on the cool wood of the first step, I realized that my attempt was hopeless. But now I was stuck half way between my bedroom and the attic, and as I glanced behind me, I knew I couldn't go crawl under the covers and hide from my nightmares. I needed comfort. I used my knees to haul myself up the stairs, one step at a time. I was panting, both from my desperation and the effort, when I looked up and saw the last two steps above me. Finally, my safe haven. I was not alone.
I placed my hands on the edge of the wood, and pushed with my feet. My heel slipped, and I came tumbling down the stairs, my arms and legs flailing as I hit each step with my head and chest. I was too stunned to cry out. Finally I stopped when I collided with a wall, and I curled up, panting. My nose was bleeding. I was dizzy, and I fell unconscious in my own pool of vomit.
It was maybe seven in the morning when I slid quietly out of bed and tiptoed down the stairs, the wood creaking softly beneath my clammy skin. I was eight then, and my unquenchable hunger for something sweet was unbearable. I knew it was wrong. I knew that if I got caught, bad consequences would result. My guilt sank deep in my stomach, but I continued my way through the house, past the living room and into the kitchen.
Light streamed through the thin white-and-red curtains, creating bright squares on the tiled floor. I placed both hands on the marble counter, and pushed myself up. I glanced behind me, paranoid that they were watching me with disapproving eyes.
The kitchen was still.
I turned my attention to the cupboard, opening it slowly. Stop, I told myself. This is wrong. I'm better than this. Go back to bed. I bit my lip, and inhaled in frustration. The mouthwatering scent that filled my nose was overwhelming, and I grabbed the closest piece, then shut the cupboard and hopped off the counter. I held the hem of my shirt in one hand, prepared to tuck my treasure out of sight, and ripped open the wrapper with my teeth. I bit into the milky chocolate and closed my eyes blissfully as the sugar melted on my tongue. Then, immediately after it had been devoured, I felt guilty all over again. Stupid, stupid. I shouldn't have done that. What was I thinking?
"Maya? What are you doing?"
I snapped my head toward the doorway, the chocolate sinking deep into my stomach as I swallowed nervously.
"Nothing, Dad," I said. I smiled sweetly, then closed my mouth quickly in case any evidence was visible on my teeth. Dad frowned, glancing between the open cabinet and me. Oh, no!
"Why is the cabinet open?" he asked quizzically.
"I don't know," I mumbled. Dad glared at me, and I turned away, walking through the kitchen, to the back door. My snowsuit lay on the floor with my boots that were piled next to the heater, warm but still a little damp from yesterday. I wiggled into both items, and shoved my hands into my mittens.
"I'm going to go play," I announced to Dad. Asking for permission had never occurred to me, or any other kids in the neighborhood; running around outside was our life.
"Be back before dark," he said. I pulled the sliding door open and jumped into the cold morning air. My boots left imprints in the deep snow, and I reveled in the sound of my feet breaking the powder, like biting down on a mouthful of popcorn. Or a chocolate bar.
I grabbed the plastic O-shaped sled and knocked the snow off, then proceeded to walk past the neighboring houses, down the gray streets where big vehicles had come to push the snow in a pile at the end of each parking lot. Winter was my favorite season. Everything was coated in a layer of snow; the naked trees, the houses, the mailboxes and swings and bikes and fences. Winter meant snowball fights and Christmas, sitting on the couch, curled up by the heater munching on pebber nodder, a small cinnamon-rich cookie.
The air was bitterly cold, but when I arrived at the hill a layer of sweat had already collected underneath my snowsuit. I stood in the middle of the street, watching the other kids drag their sleds up the hill. I was hoping I would recognize someone—a neighbor, perhaps, but everyone looked the same in the colorful suits. So instead I climbed to the top of the hill, sat down on my plastic disc and flew down. I skidded to a stop in the street, and stood. A girl was watching me as she brushed some snow off her blonde hair, and we continued to glance at each other as we hauled our sleds back up the hill. I could tell she was shy, and that gave me the confidence to smile and introduce myself. Her name was Sabrina. She had white skin and a flaky scalp, and was almost as skinny as I was. Like me, she didn't know anyone else there besides her mother, Pia, who stood aside and took pictures of her daughter. Sabrina giggled a lot as I made jokes and pushed her down the hill, and we became attached, as any carefree and open child would.
The clouds grew darker as the evening approached, and soon Pia was calling for us.
"Are your parents coming to get you?" Pia asked me.
"No," I said. My sled was in my right hand and Sabrina hovered at my left. "I'm just gonna walk home."
"Oh. Well, Sabrina was supposed to meet her friend here and bring her home to stay the night, but she hasn't turned up . . . " Pia smiled at me. Could it be? Was I being invited to their house? Had my shy self already made a new friend?
Sabrina smiled at me. "Do you want to spend the night at my house?"
I nodded, filled with glee.
"Okay, well, we better get going. It's getting dark," Pia said. She brushed the snow off Sabrina's wooden sled and patted the surface. "Hop on," she said. "I'll drag you guys home." Giggling, Sabrina and I climbed on the sled, and Pia trudged down the street, toward home.