“So, Sasha-bug. You excited to get out of the city?”
I hate it when Mom calls me that. I finish texting Daniel—these may be the last words you ever get from me—and look out the car window. Miles of forests and pastures spread out in every direction. I used to love seeing this. Now, it looks lonely to me—everything so far away from everything else.
“Yeah,” I say as quietly as possible, but the truth is I’m nervous. I imagined my first summer as a teenager would be different than this. I haven’t visited my aunt and uncle’s house since Uncle Lou died two years ago. Not since his memorial, when things got worse.
“Remember, Sasha, you love it here! All these trees and meadows? Maybe you and Aunt Ruthie can catch frogs at the pond! This place really filled your bucket.” She’s always saying stuff like this to me. I know it’s part of her job as a social worker, but I don’t really feel like filling my bucket with anything here—especially frogs. “I know it will be hard without your uncle Lou. You two were so similar.” She goes silent for a minute before continuing, “But you’ll see. The forest, the trees—it used to be your happy place.”
I know she’s right. It used to be. But since Uncle Lou died, I try not to think about this place. Uncle Lou spent as much time as he could outside. For him, nature was safe. He took me fishing, taught me how to make wood carvings and skip stones. When the world felt too big, he always understood. Uncle Lou knew what it was like to see and feel too much. He called my sensitivity a “gift”—the way I could see and hear even the quietest of animals hiding in their knotholes or the beat of the woodpeckers in the trees, and sometimes, if I was quiet and still enough, the slimiest salamanders in the pond would swim right into my hand.
But the things that make me happy just aren’t the same anymore. My worlds are the ones I create on the computer with my friends. I don’t want to catch frogs anymore, or cook anything. What if a month at Aunt Ruthie’s feels like a year? My skin prickles. So many things are about to change.
“I know four weeks sounds long, but it’ll go by fast,” Mom says. “Remember that Aunt Ruthie is getting older.” She pauses. “Be polite and do all the chores she asks you to do, okay? We will check in with her as often as we can.”
She turns the radio down just a bit. “You know, we think it would be great if she moved back to the city with us.”
“Aunt Ruthie? You mean like in our apartment? Seriously, Mom? I can’t picture it,” I say.
“Well, keep an eye out for her, okay? She’s tough, but everyone needs a little help sometimes. Talk to her about it, if it comes up. I know that’s not why you’re going, and really, I want you to just enjoy everything. Play at the pond like you used to.” Play at the pond? I’m not a baby. “And—” I already know what she’s going to say, so I cut her off.
“And don’t use any devices?” I say in my most sarcastic voice.
“Right,” she says. I see her eyes flit over to look at me in the rearview mirror. “But it’s not like screen time will be gone forever. It’s about finding balance. Dr. W says this summer should help.”
I trust Dr. W, but will a whole month away really help? I don’t understand why I can’t try to make these changes with my friends rather than without them. Daniel’s going to be leveling up, basically getting all the best stuff in every game, and I’m going to miss out. I’ll be so far behind when I get back. What if he moves on to some other game? I won’t even be able to check notifications or game status. I probably can’t even communicate with him. And Daniel is pretty much the only friend I have. The thought makes my hands get a little sweaty, cold. What if “getting away from it all” makes things worse?
I lean my head against the glass. My breath clouds the window. I listen to the hum of tires on pavement, the world speeding by in a blur. Cows graze in fields alongside hills spotted with barns. A tree-covered hill rises up through wisps of fog, and I think about what it was like the last time I came here. That trip was when I first found myself in the Gray.
We drove up here for Uncle Lou’s memorial two years ago. My aunt and uncle’s house is usually cozy, like a fire is blazing in the fireplace and everyone is snuggled under a blanket of warmth. That day, the house felt cold—empty, even though it was full of people. Family I’d never met. People I didn’t know came up to me, the low hum of their words stuffing my head with too many voices asking too many questions that I couldn’t answer. I just wanted everyone to get away from me.
Then I saw a man I didn’t know holding Uncle Lou’s favorite walking stick—the one with the horse head on it. It looked to me like he was trying to take it. I went up to him and told him he couldn’t have it, snatching it right out of his hands. He yelled something at me, and things began to change after that. It got hard to breathe. I ran to the door, through the grabbing hands of all the grown-ups reaching for me. Everyone was trying to talk to me, but all I could hear was the sound of my heart beating in my ears. I burst through the door and out into the misty forest. When I turned around, everything looked different. The trees seemed to grow longer, spreading over the house, their branches like the arms of faceless giants reaching into the sky. A gray fog clouded over everything. I waved my hands, but I couldn’t clear it away. People poured out of the faded house, the front door like a mouth opening wide. But they didn’t look like themselves. They were shadows of people, like the ghosts in the stories Uncle Lou used to tell me, tall and wispy, like dark-suited tree trunks. The world was swirling. I felt off balance, queasy, like I might flip upside down. The next thing I remember was Aunt Ruthie sitting with me on the porch in the moonlight. She was holding the horse-head walking stick while I shivered in the cool air, my stomach tied in knots.
“The house, the forest, they were different,” I whispered, my teeth still chattering. “So cold and gray.” Even though this must have been the hardest day of her life, she put her arm around me and squeezed.
“I understand.” She sighed. “Today everything is a little colder. Everything feels swallowed up in the Gray.”
I’ve called it that ever since.
* * *
My heart beats a little bit faster at this memory as the car rounds a big curve. I exhale. We’re getting closer to their house. I look out the window at the forest as we speed by it. On one of the lower hills, two horses gallop through a meadow. One is dark brown, its wild mane flying in the wind. The other is smaller, the color of tree bark, but you can tell it’s strong. Its legs push the ground away as it tries to keep up. It looks like they’re running faster than the car. I imagine the sound of their thumping hooves echoing my heartbeat.
Finally, things begin to look familiar. We pass the huge horse ranch, the long pastures spread out against the hills, and turn up the gravel road. I see places I know, small clearings and creeks we used to visit. I imagine the crunch of leaves under my feet. I see deer spring into the trees and disappear. It’s like the forest wants me to remember it. I think about taking a picture. I grab my phone, but it just reminds me that somewhere, Daniel is playing Earthforge and I can’t. I can’t for a whole month. No computer. No video games except on my phone. My server will be annihilated by the time I get back. Everything I built—gone. I look at my phone, the screen looking as empty as I feel.
Mom rolls down her window as we drive up the gravel road and takes a deep breath.
“The air here is wonderful! Get outside as much as you can,” she says. To me, the air smells like manure. “You know, Aunt Ruthie would go to the ranch if you asked. Maybe you’ll spend time with the horses? Remember Dr. W talked about this. Horses are amazing. Being with them could be helpful.”
“Okay,” I say. Everyone has different ideas about what they think will help me.
“And Sasha,” Mom says, leaning in even more to her professional, social worker voice. I recognize it from going to work with her sometimes. She uses it when things need to get serious. “Remember, if things get tough—try using the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique.”
I sigh. There are so many things to remember. The 5-4-3-2-1 technique is the newest thing we’ve been working on. It’s supposed to help me when I feel the most out of control.
“Please, Sasha,” Mom says. “Please promise me you’ll try?” Her voice sounds so tired, like it sometimes does after a long day of work. I think about how even on those long days, she always makes time to help me—does everything she can. I nod, then pull a folded index card out of my pocket. We worked together to write it all down on the card. I stare at it, trying to remember everything.
5—LOOK: Look around for five things you can see and say them out loud. Keep it simple.
4—FEEL: Pay attention to your body and think of four things you can feel and say them out loud. Don’t make it up, just feel what you feel: your socks, the soft chair, whatever else.
3—LISTEN: Listen for three sounds. Maybe the sound of traffic outside, the sound of someone typing, or the sound of a power-up in a video game. Say the three things out loud. (If listening is possible—if not, try to remember some sounds.)
2—SMELL: Say two things you can smell. Move and find something if you have to … If you can’t smell anything at the moment or you can’t move, then name your two favorite smells.
1—TASTE: Say one thing you can taste. Maybe it’s toothpaste from brushing your teeth, or pizza from the corner shop. If you can’t taste anything, then say your favorite thing to taste.
Take another deep belly breath.
I show her the card. “See!” I say, holding it up. I can tell she wants to say something else, but she smiles instead, letting tears flow down her cheeks.
“Almost there,” she says.
* * *
My mom isn’t afraid to show how she feels. But my dad likes to keep things private. He thinks I should take more responsibility. I’m thirteen now, and it’s supposed to be a time of big changes.
“You don’t have to play video games all the time,” he says. “Why don’t we go hit a baseball in the park? Get outside and off those devices.” I know he’s just trying to help. I know as an engineer he’s always trying to figure out how things work, how he can take them apart and put them back together—including me. When I was little, when the world got “too big” or I was teased about my name, all I could do was sit by myself with eyes full of tears. My name is special—from my great-grandfather, who came all the way to America by way of Ellis Island to start a new life. But people don’t always care about other people’s stories, so they just make fun of them. My dad had a way of scooping me up in his arms so I felt safe again.
But it seems like now that I’m a bit older, he doesn’t know how to help me. I know I’m hard to help. Most of the time, at school, I look and behave like every other kid. But inside, I have too much going on. I see and feel everything around me—the people walking from class to class, the bells ringing, the clicking of keyboards, the shouting in the cafeteria.
Sometimes it’s all too much.
It was when my friends and I started playing and creating video games that things got a lot better. It helped the world feel more in control. At least for a while. But everything also got a lot more complicated.
Copyright © 2023 by Chris Baron