Photo by Jacqueline Anders on Adobe Stock

When her uncle came to visit from Florida, he brought a bagful of shells.

“Look at you! How big you’ve gotten! C’mere, c’mere! Give your Uncle Glenn a big hug! Aren’t you glad to see your Uncle Glenn?”

Her siblings (“half-stepsiblings,” as her mother joked about her confusion over the distinction between stepsiblings and half-siblings) were jealous that he gave her the big conch shell, but her Uncle Glenn had said that she was the youngest, so she would appreciate it the most.

She understood their jealousy because the other shells from the bag were small pearly disks covered with sand, whereas hers was larger than her hand and had a store sticker on the bottom.

Her mother told her that she could hear the ocean if she held the shell up to her ear.

She didn’t hear the ocean, so her mother showed her exactly how to position the shell, and when her mother raised her eyebrows and gasped, Jasmine knew that her mother was hearing the ocean.

Jasmine listened more carefully when she tried again, and sure enough, there was a shushing sound which surely must be the ocean (she had to take her mother’s word for it since she had never been to a body of water larger than a lake).

She set the shell down on the table, and it rested naturally on the side that opened up. It seemed to have a pointy nose and a tail. With her fingertips she patted the rows of spiky spines striped with the exact same rosy pink as the nail polish her mother had painted on her fingernails the day before Uncle Glenn arrived. She picked her shell up again and held it against the light, discovering that it was thin enough to see through. She tried to peer deep inside, but the tunnel of light curved around so that she could find no angle which would allow her to see the center.

She held it to her ear again. The sound of the ocean, or at least her concentration on it, was so strong that it drowned out the cacophony around her (“I’m hungry;” “gimme that;” “stoppit!;” “would SOMEONE pick up that baby?!;” “Jesus Christ;” “what-ev-er”).

It made Jasmine sad to think that the shell had such a strong connection with its home that the ocean sang out to it all the way from Florida to New York. The little shells her half-step siblings tossed aside did not seem to mind that they were so far from their home.

Jasmine had to hide the shell because otherwise one of her half-stepsiblings would break it out of resentment. She hid it in the garage behind the house.

When, later that day, a half-stepbrother said, “I wanna see it,” she shrugged.

“Where is it?”

“You tell me.” Which made him think someone else got to it first. He looked at her suspiciously before deciding that the investigation or the fight wasn’t worth it and then laughed in a sort of snort.

The adults would not ask about it. It was given and then it was gone.

Everyone was so enamored with Uncle Glenn’s stories about Florida – the cars he decided to leave home in his garage, the snakes and the alligators he wrestled, the mermaids who swam up to the boardwalk and pulled him into the water – that the ordinary rules which would have demanded from her half-stepbrother a greater effort in his seek and destroy mission were temporarily suspended.

By the end of the first week of his two-week long visit, remnants of the usual ways returned. No one lit pretty smelling candles in the kitchen, so the house began to reek again of wet ashtrays and unlaundered clothing. No one cleaned up the potato chip bag that was dropped on the living room floor and in the morning, it was filled with ants. The oldest half-stepsiblings had places to go at night, having lost interest in the novelty of Uncle Glenn’s bravado. His gradual inebriation in front of the TV turned each day’s more wildly outrageous stories into repetition.

“The drugs down there, Jesus Christ, what I seen.  A woman completely naked running down the street, begging any one to . . .

“The winds, oh my God, the winds picked up an entire tractor-trailer truck and sent it flying into a building, and the guy driving it lived to tell the story . . .

“The girls, yeah, let me tell you, the beaches, holy shit, there is so much, I mean that one man on any given day can get . . .yeah, yeah, but these boys are old enough to know what I’m talking about, hey? aren’t ya. Heh-heh-heh I know you know what I’m talking about . . .

“The drugs down there . . .”

He left one afternoon and no one except her, one half-stepsister and her mother were home to see him off.

“Come on, gimme a hug there, Jazz. Stop growing up, kiddo. Next time I see you, I don’t want to see you grown up anymore. Jeez, Monica, they grow up too fast. Give all the other ones a hug for me. I might be back for Christmas. I’d like to be back for Christmas. We’ll see. One of these times you gotta jump in the car and drive down to visit. I could put all of you up. Hell, I got a good friend next door. Guy’s a fireman. Makes a shitload of money. Got a wife, but no kids, and a huge house. They’d put you up, I know it. This guy’s a nice guy. I never knew you could make so much money as a fireman, but he says the storms keep him working a lot of overtime. But don’t be afraid of the storms. You should drive down. Right, Jazz, wouldn’t you like to visit Florida? We could go to the beach, and you could pick up all the shells you want. You just nag your mother like crazy ‘til she says she’ll drive you down to Florida. Heh-heh-heh. You just go ahead. Ask her all the time.”

The way he called her Jazz made her feel especially shy.

Her mother wagged her finger at her brother Glenn. “She nags me, and I’ll send her alright. And you’ll be sorry. No more mermaids for you when you’re raising a kid.”

“Okay, okay, Jazz. Don’t nag. But don’t let your mother forget that she keeps telling me one of these days she’s gonna be the one visiting me for a change. You can just remind her every once in a while.”

As soon as he left to return to Florida, her mother slumped into the recliner in front of the TV for her nap.

Jasmine said that she was going upstairs, but she shared her bedroom with three half-stepsisters, and even when they weren’t there, the space didn’t feel like hers.

She knew her mother was tired enough not to care about the difference between upstairs and outdoors, so as soon as she heard snoring, she went outside instead.

Jasmine was proud of the garage since her house was the only house on the block to boast both a driveway and a garage.

The driveway was very narrow and short. Hers was the only family that got to use it – part of the lease agreement, her mother explained – but since her mother’s car wouldn’t start one morning, and it was too expensive to fix, no one used the driveway.

However, three families – hers and the two families in the other units in her house – used the garage, for storage. It was never locked, so the only things stored there were junky, and no one would want any of it. Underneath the rusty frame for a swing set were an old push mower, a car exhaust pipe, cracked PVC connectors, several bicycle pieces, and a couple of cardboard boxes containing greasy engine parts, the boxes black with mold and collapsing from moisture. Two overstuffed garbage bags had old clothing spilling out of them, and a large mattress leaned against one wall, ripped at the bottom where mice made their nests. Strewn across the rest of the garage were broken toys, scraps of splintered wood, empty cans, milk jugs and glass jars. Cigarette butts had been ground into the earthen floor. In one corner were stacks of paint cans, the paint inside hardened and cracked, left from some optimistic age; leaning next to them were a pile of magazines, Good Housekeeping, Women’s Day, Oprah, left from some literary era.

Jasmine made a fort in the upstairs of the garage until a stray cat took over the space and sprayed everything so that it stank.

She moved her fort to the back corner of the garage underneath the steps, using planks and blankets to enclose the space.

She set out an old towel for a rug and a plastic crate for a table. She dug a hole in the earth under the first step and buried the plastic grocery bag with all her treasures in it: the conch, a necklace with a sparkling diamond, a tiny book with nursery rhymes, a picture of her parents holding her when she was just born, a barrette one of her half-stepsisters gave her, and two Canadian nickels. Anyone looking for her hiding spot would be unlikely to venture into the narrow and dark space between the first step and the earthen floor.

But for extra security she positioned a rag she found in the corner of the garage, stiff from whatever it had been used for, on top of her buried treasure. She sprinkled some powdery dirt over it as additional camouflage.

She spent more time in the garage, as the days became longer. Often when her mother thought she was playing with her friends down the street, she was in the garage alone. Her mother and her half-stepsiblings knew about her fort. They thought it was cute that she liked to “playhouse,” but they did not know how often she was there.

Once she left the apartment in the middle of the night and slept wrapped inside her mother’s winter coat. She crept back into the house through the back door early in the morning, her bare feet washed by the dew. Instead of returning to her bedroom to wait for everyone to wake up, she draped the coat over the kitchen chair as she had found it, claimed a blanket that had fallen off the couch where one of her half-stepbrothers was sleeping, cleared a spot on the living room floor, and watched the crime show that was on the TV, “In New York City, the dedicated detectives . . . dun dun dun dun dun dun,” until she dozed back to sleep.

She was awoken by the half-stepbrother who had been sleeping on the recliner: “What are you doing here? Who said you could sleep downstairs?”

By that time, she had slept enough, so she went into the kitchen and ate some cereal feeling very grown up and powerful. She, like her half-stepbrothers and sisters, could navigate the night. She owned a secret. Piling up secrets was the key to adulthood.

Yet after she had finished her breakfast and had returned to her fort, she realized that secrets and dreams were easily confused. She wondered if it was possible that she had only dreamt about her middle-of-the-night adventure.

Disappointingly, she could find no evidence one way or the other.

She remembered that the day before she had heard from the shell a particular melody, a string of notes repeated over and over, and she put the shell back up to her ear to find the song again. It didn’t come back right away, yet eventually she was able to hear the music again. She hummed along quietly so that she wouldn’t forget it. She strained to hear it more deeply, believing that there was more to the song, and if she listened carefully enough, the melody would unfurl itself from the shell and into her ear.

She imagined that the shell had established a trust with her, and, once it was certain she would be faithful, it would share its songs of abandonment and loneliness.

She thought about the shell when she was at school, and she went to the garage as soon as she got home in the afternoon when her mother said that she could go outside, as long as she stayed away from that boy who was always playing at the rain grate.

“His family’s a bunch of trash,” her mom said.

She sometimes put stones in the grate with him when her mother was not home, and one of her half-stepsiblings was in charge of her and didn’t care where she went.

One awful weekend morning when the grass cracked with frost, she entered the garage and found three people huddled close together in front of the mattress.

One threw a bottle at her.

“Shut the fucking door,” he growled.

She did.

She was afraid to return for several days. She spent more time than usual in her bedroom, morosely watching YouTube on her half-stepsister’s laptop.

This particular half-stepsister tried to be kind and generous. She told Jasmine that she should work hard in school so that someday she could have something better.

But even this particular half-stepsister could lose her sweetness.

“Why don’t you ever wear the good clothes I bring home for you?” She pointed to the trash bags filled with the good clothes that she was able to buy at the goodwill store for next to nothing.

Because – she didn’t have the words to tell her half-stepsister – those clothes aren’t mine. The ones that I’m wearing are mine. The ones I’m wearing look like me.

She was wearing pajama pants, faded yellow stars on blue flannel. She had these pajama pants as long as she could remember. They were hers. They weren’t someone else’s.  She wore them to school whenever her mother was too tired to object.

“Look at these,” her half-stepsister said, throwing a pair of jeans at her. “These would fit you. They’re expensive jeans. I don’t know why I give a shit.”

They weren’t expensive jeans. You got them for a dollar.

She didn’t say this, though. She said it once before and her half-stepsister grabbed her and shook her for being “so stupid” and such a “fucking smart ass little bitch.”

This half-stepsister had been with her all her life, so she wouldn’t give up on her. And they were a team against another half-stepsister who had only recently joined the family, along with her baby, Kylie.

“Watch Kylie for me while I go out,” the other half-stepsister told Jasmine on a Saturday when Jasmine was still without her shell because she was afraid to return to the garage.

“I’m not supposed to.”

Her half-stepsister suffered their mother’s wrath the last time Jasmine was left alone with the baby.

“Well, I’m leaving and if you don’t look after her, I guess no one will.”

So, a car came and picked up her half-stepsister. Her half-stepsister called out, “Thanks, Jasmine. I’ll bring you home a present.”

Her half-stepsister was always bringing home presents.

Jasmine liked it best when the presents were candy.

The baby Kylie slept a lot. She was fat and content. Jasmine knew to give her a bottle if she cried. She knew how to change her diaper and that she shouldn’t change it unless Kylie pooped. Diapers cost a lot of money.

Baby Kylie was six months old and weighed twenty-five pounds. “More than she was supposed to,” her half-sister beamed with pride.

Jasmine was nine years old and weighed sixty pounds. Her half-stepsister laughed at the way Jasmine had to arch her back to carry Kylie on her hip, but Jasmine could carry Kylie for hours.

“You’re pretty strong for a pipsqueak.”

A little while after her half-stepsister left, Kylie woke up crying.

Jasmine lifted her out of the crib and used the babytalk she had learned was the key to appearing comfortable taking care of an infant even if you were just nine years old.

“Well, hello little sweet pea. Are you ready for some baba? Little Kylie want some baba?”

Jasmine carried her to the kitchen. Unlike her mother and half-stepsisters, she wasn’t able to prepare the formula while she was holding Kylie, so she set the baby down on the floor while she mixed two scoopfuls of powdered formula with tap water.

Kylie was a little fussy while she waited for Jasmine to pick her up again, making little jerking motions with her feet and fists, and squinching her eyes shut as if she were going to start crying again.

Jasmine finished shaking the bottle, took it into the living room and set it on a little table next to the recliner where she planned to watch TV as she fed baby Kylie. She returned to the kitchen, bent down deeply to pick the baby up off the floor, reminding herself again, as she did often, of her half-stepsister’s observation that she was pretty strong for a little pipsqueak.

She sat cross-legged on the recliner and positioned Kylie on her lap.

But Kylie refused to wrap her mouth around the nipple. She whimpered.

This was unusual because Kylie always loved her bottle.

“What’s the matter this morning, hmmm? You need a diaper change? You got a sore bottom? Let’s see.”

She checked the diaper first by pinching it to test how heavy it was, then by opening the back.

No poop, and the diaper could hold a little more pee.

Jasmine maneuvered Kylie off her lap into a slouched sitting position on the recliner so that she could steady her feet before lifting her up again.

By this time Kylie’s whimpering had progressed to a low, plaintive bleating.

She bounced Kylie on her hip, but this didn’t help.

She set her down on the floor and tried to make her laugh, running her fingers up from her feet to her shoulders and making a popping sound as she tickled her neck.

But the crying had become wailing. Each deep breath the baby took was followed by a sharp, distressing bawl the pitch of a scream. The pink of her cheeks darkened. Her eyes were squeezed shut. Her body was rigid.

Jasmine tried every trick she knew to calm a fussy baby. She talked to her, sang to her. She kept trying to feed Kylie until streams of formula ran from the baby’s mouth into her ears. She changed the baby’s diaper, she shook rattles at her, she said, “now, now, there, there . . .”

Kylie’s cries became rhythmic screeches, like an alarm, her chest heaving with each terrible exhalation.

Jasmine put a Cheerio on her tongue, but she didn’t swallow it, and, as it dissolved, the baby choked to get it out of its mouth.

She set the baby down again thinking that maybe Kylie just didn’t want to be touched. Her half-stepsister had sometimes yelled at her, “Would you just leave her alone?”

After some time, Kylie’s screams became hoarse.

By midafternoon, her cries had become shuddering breaths.

She had fallen asleep again, waking up in brief jerks to whimper.

The whimpering would be interrupted with a short desperate pull at the air in sort of a hiccup.

Jasmine had to do something. Her half-stepsister would get home and yell at her for letting the baby cry.

She waited until the baby was quiet for long successive minutes. Then she left the house.

She stood on the top back step for a moment, looking for signs of stirring in the garage.

She knew that the three people huddled together next to the mattress were dangerous.

She didn’t want to go in unless she knew the garage was empty. And most especially, she didn’t want to be caught in her fort and then hear them come in. She knew that if she surprised them, they would hurt her.

The windows were too dusty to peer in.

She stood outside the door and listened.

If only she had cut out a little secret door in the back of the garage so that she could enter unnoticed, or escape if she had to, a small secret door that only she was small enough to fit through.

It was a project, perhaps, for another day.

She had to turn the doorknob without making any noise. She held it with both hands, braced for the possibility that if one of the strangers was inside and heard her, he might pull the door open from the other side. She was alert for any sign of movement, ready to let go suddenly so that she could run back to the house before the stranger had time to cross the threshold.

Gripping the doorknob tightly, she was able to turn it all the way around without a sound. She held it still for a moment as she readied herself to push the door open just a crack.

But the door, weather-beaten and swollen inside its frame, had to be nudged open.

Maintaining her grip on the doorknob, straining to keep it from springing back, she put her shoulder against the door and with a strong steady push was able to force it ajar. The tattletale screech of a hinge caused her to stop in alarm. Before she could think how to proceed, a bullet-like force knocked her backwards, and when she hit the ground, her own breath exploded out of her chest.

She opened her mouth for air, but it would not come.

A stray cat that had been waiting to pounce its way out skittered by her.

Jasmine tried to laugh when she realized what had happened, but as she stood up, she found herself whimpering, as the baby had, in little hiccup sounds.

She had made enough noise to know that fully opening the door would not surprise anyone; still, she hesitated at the threshold, scanning the space until she was certain that no one was there.

She darted to the back of the garage to fetch the shell and ran out again, leaving the hiding space under the steps exposed and the door open for the cat to come and go as it pleased.

Her fear followed her back to the house. What if the strangers had stolen baby Kylie in the short time she was gone?

But as she crossed the kitchen, she could hear Kylie’s whimpering, like wheezing noises. The sounds came as a relief, that baby Kylie hadn’t been stolen.

She held the shell to the baby’s ear. She hummed a shell song.

She cupped her hand around the baby’s other ear to make it easier to hear the music.

The baby’s expression changed.

Little Kylie heard the song.

So, Jasmine hummed and smiled and cooed.

Her eyes glistened with self-satisfaction.

“There, there, little Kylie. Want the shell to sing again? Want to hear from the other ear? Can you hear the ocean?”

Although Kylie had quieted down, snot crusted her face and too much crying had matted her eyelashes.

When Jasmine’s mother arrived home a little while later and saw the baby, she dropped her purse and lifted her hands in front of her face as if ready to catch a large beach ball.

“Oh my god! What’s wrong with her?”

In one sudden motion, she lunged forward, grabbed baby Kylie, and turned her back, as though to shield the baby from Jasmine.

“What happened? Tell me what happened!”

She cradled baby Kylie in one arm. She put a hand across the baby’s forehead to gauge its temperature. She set her down on the couch, removed her sleeper and her diaper and hissed, “Where’s your sister? Where the hell is your sister?”

She wasn’t looking at Jasmine when she asked these questions; she seemed to expect answers from baby Kylie. Jasmine was momentarily confused that her mother would ask those kinds of questions of the baby.

When she realized her mistake, Jasmine offered with cautious pride, “I’ve been taking care of her since first thing in the morning. She’s better now.”

However, the commotion had unsettled Kylie again. She had begun emitting cries that were raspy sighs.

“Oh my God – you’re kidding me – right? This is better? This is better? What the fuck! Oh my God –”

She picked up the naked child, bent her knees deeply in rhythm with her cries, and hissed in a voice meant to demonstrate restraint, “Can’t you see there’s something wrong? Are you a fuckin idiot? She’s burning up! Why didn’t you call me? What the hell’s wrong with you? What the hell are you doing with that? Gimme that!”

She grabbed the shell from Jasmine’s hand and threw it across the room.

Because the baby was still crying, and because frustration and indignation had caused a terrible pain in her back, Jasmine’s mother shouted as Jasmine scrambled to find the shell, “Jesus Christ! Get the hell out of my sight! You will never, ever get near this baby again! Get upstairs! Now! I want you out of my sight!”

Jasmine found the shell on the floor beneath an end table. It had not been shattered.

She ran upstairs with it.

She would have to find another hiding place for it. At least temporarily.

She looked around her bedroom and decided to bury the shell in the garbage bag filled with clothes. She pulled out the jeans, the sweaters, the blouses, one by one, thinking that she would find a certain jacket that she knew was in there, somewhere, which had several zippered pockets. She would hide the shell, and later her other treasures, in a pocket, and then stuff the clothes back in the bag.

Her half-stepsister had been right. A lot of the clothes were brand new, still adorned with their tags.

A heap of clothes she would never wear.

They, too, belonged in the garage.

From her window she could see that the garage door was still open, which, she realized, meant that strangers hadn’t returned.

She would make certain to leave the door open, and she would watch the door day by day and, if it remained open, she would know that they were gone for good, and she could return to her fort.

Her spirits lifted.

She picked up one of the blouses from the floor, a frilly, floral, thin thing, and tossed it out of the window. It was caught in a draft and hung suspended in the air momentarily like a parachute. She was amused by its flight. She rummaged through the heap of clothes for another garment that felt light enough to fly. She found a white blouse with black piping. It expanded like a cloud and then wafted to the ground like a mushroom.

She giggled to toss out a bra. And then again with a pair of pantyhose.

Because of the heft of the maroon corduroy dress with a matching belt, she was able to hit the garage roof, which was a good ten feet away from her window.

She imagined that the clank of the belt buckle against the roof would have made the people huddling in the corner jump and ask each other, “What was that?” if they were there.

So, if they returned, she had a plan. She would scare them out.

She rolled up a pair of jeans and threw them with all her might, and strong little pipsqueak that she was, they hit the roof and then slid down to the ground.

Her half-stepsister had given her a lot of clothes, so she amused herself for some time with this game. Whenever she threw a garment that hit the roof with a “plunk,” she took great pleasure in imagining the strangers scattering out of the garage.

They would be like blind mice running away from the farmer’s wife.

The clothes were all gone, and she had even thrown out the big, black trash bag.

She scanned the room. There were still plenty of things around for her to throw at the garage. A picture frame. A digital clock. A lamp.

And later she might retrieve some of the things she had thrown in order to throw them again.

Or not, because maybe the people from the garage would see the mess as a warning not to return.

She curled up on a blanket under the window and dozed off from the exertion of the day.

It was getting dark when the commotion began. First the screaming. Then things crashing. Then the doors banging. Then the crying. And the pattern repeated itself.

As soon as she woke, her first thought was to look out the window to see if the garage door was still open. It was. There was no need for her to find anything to throw at the roof.

She thought if she had to do it, she would throw out all the books she owned.

But she was reluctant to throw them out because her half-stepsister, the one who had given her the clothes, gave her the money to buy them.

The teacher passed out a list of books every month at school. Pictures of the books were printed on thin paper that looked like newspaper. Her half-stepsister asked her to choose the one that most interested her, and she would fill out the form and enclose the money in an envelope.

She was especially proud of her books.

Her attention was diverted away from them, however, as one of her half-stepsisters stomped up the stairs and banged on her door. But she had locked it, and she could withstand a lot of banging and screaming.

The banging and screaming continued for quite some time.

Until several half-stepsiblings seemed to be involved.

She listened carefully past the noise outside the bedroom door. She heard a low humming that wavered with a pulsing beat. If she concentrated, she could hear a line of notes that sounded like birds singing.

Her mother banged on the door: “Jasmine, open this door! Do you hear me? Open it!”

She threw the frame, the clock, the lamp, and, finally, the shell at the door.

She was amused by the variations in sounds, crash, donk, ping!

She saw the doorknob jiggle, and she watched as it fell in, chickle, chickle, branktuck, tink.

When her mother stepped in the room, Jasmine saw that her face was red. Her eyes were swollen. Her half-stepsister was standing behind her, baby Kylie on her hip, and a half-stepbrother was pushing between them to see what was going on.

This particular half-stepbrother had a scar on his shoulder from years ago when Jasmine bit him because he had picked her up and threatened to throw her down the stairs. She had pleaded for her half-stepbrother to let her go, but when he wouldn’t, she bit him so hard that she tore a chunk of his flesh away with her teeth. Her Uncle Glenn, who had been living with them at the time, defended her, telling her half-stepbrother, “Serves you right, the way I see it. Guess she probably told you once or twice before she bit you to leave her alone.  Maybe you learned something about how everybody’s got their limits.”

Ever since the incident, this half-stepbrother was more cautious around her.

Her mother and her half-stepsiblings were strangely silent when they stepped in the room.

Her mother appeared to be talking and sobbing at the same time, and her oldest half-stepsister was moving her mouth.

But Jasmine discovered that she could listen around them, as though she could hone in on any wavelength of sound which she chose.

She cocked her head to one side. And then to the other side.

She could listen around them with both ears.

Her half-stepbrother scanned the room and certainly saw the shell near the bed, but Jasmine’s possessive instincts had been quelled. She smiled as though to invite him to help himself to taking it.

The smile made him reconsider.

The value of the shell had been depreciated by her indifference to it, so he abandoned the idea of stealing her most prized possession and he left.

She heard another track of sound under the pulsating hum:  a slow strum like the sound of a violin bow drawn across the side of a timpani.

It gave her a sense of fearlessness.

She reached out her hands for the baby. “How’s my little baby Kylie? Hmmm? Feeling better now? Want to come to Auntie Jasmine? Want Auntie Jasmine to hold you?”

Jasmine wiggled her fingers.

The little baby Kylie, whose fat cheeks were chapped from all her crying, smiled at her and cooed.

“C’mere, c’mere. Let Auntie Jasmine hold you.”

Baby Kylie’s eyes were fixed on Jasmine’s. She opened her mouth to smile a big baby smile and kicked her legs as if she were saddled onto a pony. She clenched her little fists around her mother’s shirt and pulled at it.

Her half-stepsister leaned toward Jasmine to hand the baby over to her.

Jasmine grabbed the baby under her armpits and positioned her on her hip. She bounced little Kylie up and down in order to manage a secure hold on her. Her half-stepsister held a hand on the baby’s bottom as though ready to catch her if Jasmine were to drop her, but Jasmine turned around quickly to spurn her half-sister’s lack of confidence in her.

She took a few steps toward the window, pointing out to Kylie all the things she could see outside.

“See the fence? Can you say fence? And grass? Grass? And look at that,” she pointed indiscriminately to the strewn clothes on the lawn.

“That’s a mess.”

She turned back toward the inside of the room where sharp pieces of plastic and glass from the frame, the clock, and the lamp were scattered in front of the door.

She pointed toward them indiscriminately.

“That’s a mess,” she repeated.

“Yucky. Can you say yucky?”

The way Jasmine spit out the word “yucky,” and the way her nose wrinkled with the pronunciation made baby Kylie smile.

“Is that funny? Yucky! Yucky!”

She shook her head and wrinkled her nose. The feel of the word in her own mouth gave her a certain sense of satisfaction.

“Ha! Ha!” She tickled the baby’s cheek with her nose.

The baby emitted a high-pitched giggle.

“Yucky!” She shook her head into Kylie’s cheek.

Kylie’s giggles erupted like little bubbles.

“You like that? You think that’s funny? Yucky! That’s yucky!”

Kylie kicked when Jasmine paused.

“You want more? You don’t want Auntie Jasmine to stop, do you? Well, look at those messes! Yucky – yucky – yucky!”

Jasmine, beaming with pride, looked toward her mother and half-stepsister.

One of her half-stepsisters who shared the room with her, the one who bought her clothes, had retrieved a hand broom and dustpan and was sweeping up the shards of plastic and glass.

Her mother walked toward her, extending her arms out for the baby. “Let me take her downstairs now. She needs her medicine.”

When she leaned over to take the baby, her mother kissed the top of Jasmine’s head, lightly, as though she didn’t want Jasmine to notice.

But the baby hung on tightly to Jasmine.

“Well, I see she wants you. I’ll come back in a minute, then you can hold her while I give her her medicine.”

But when Kylie’s mother, her half-stepsister, started to object, Jasmine’s mother shut her up by saying, “You spent all day tramping around God knows where, and now you won’t let her be alone in the next room with her? Ain’t that something.”

Jasmine’s mother didn’t bother to pull the door shut behind her since the mechanisms which would keep it closed had been swept into the corner of the room.

Jasmine turned back toward the window and decided that when she was older, she’d take baby Kylie with her to see the ocean. They would stand on the beach and look out at the water, the water which stretched so far out that you couldn’t see the land on the other side.

“Want to go visit the ocean with your Auntie Jasmine? Hmmm? Want to go the ocean? Want to see the ocean?”

Kylie stared at Jasmine so intently, that she was moved to repeat the word “ocean.”

“The ocean? Want me say it again? Ocean. Ocean. Ocean.”

Baby Kylie started to kick her feet.

“Yes. We will go visit the ocean and hear the waves. The shell wants to see the ocean again, too.”

Jasmine knew that baby Kylie must have heard the shell call out to the ocean.

She wondered if Kylie knew the secret of hearing around things, as well.

She retrieved the shell and listened to it.

As the waves rolled forward there was a constant, quiet hum.

Kylie looked at the clouds. She thought she heard the wisps as they blew away.

The biggest ones had such a low tone that even if you strained, you might not be able to hear them. She would train herself to listen to them.

She held the shell to baby Kylie’s ear.

She and Kylie must go to the beach to hear what the waves said.

She wanted to hear what the waves said in person.

And she would bring the shell back to its home now that she understood its secret message.

About the Author

Sally Ventura

Sally Ventura’s work appears in various journals such as Earth’s Daughters, Educational Leadership and English Journal, and she has previously served as associate editor of The English Record. She lives and teaches in Olean, New York.

Read more work by Sally Ventura.