Lilit Abernathy…Lilit…that’s a really pretty name, but I just can’t put a face to it.”
“She’s about this high,” Mrs. Abernathy said, holding her hand out flat at eye level. “She’s got sort of brown hair, brown eyes, light skin…” She sighed. “She probably sat near the back.”
“Oh, Heung’s friend?”
“Heung? I don’t know that name.”
“Mr. Bisotti stroked his goatee for a minute. “Come to think of it, I haven’t seen either of them for a few days. I didn’t think anything of it because the weather is getting nice – I’ve got a lot of absences.”
She went home, thinking that it was all a mistake. Lilit would be home when she got there. As she stood at the bus stop, she turned to look in the window of the appliance store on the corner. A dozen televisions showed the traffic on the street, captured by a camcorder at the top of the window. Mrs. Abernathy did what she always did at this bus stop, sizing up herself in her wool coat and knitted cap, then scanning the street behind her. Cars passed, business people talked on cell phones, but her eye went to a couple walking down the opposite side of the street.
She knew that hair, that mousy, lank hair. She knew that tattered pink backpack. She knew that slumped, defeated walk, and when the woman turned and looked at the camera, Mrs. Abernathy saw Lilit’s face and whirled around.
“Lilit!” she shouted, and although everyone in the street turned to look, there was no couple across the street. Blushing, Mrs. Abernathy turned back around to the televisions, but the couple was gone there too. She thought briefly about running down the only street they might have turned on, but before she could make up her mind, the bus came. With a sigh, she climbed aboard thinking She looked fine. She’ll be home soon.
And she was. With no fanfare and no excuses, Mrs. Abernathy came out of the bathroom the following afternoon and found Lilit sitting at the kitchen table, her homework spread out in front of her.
“How long have you been sitting there?”
“Since lunchtime,” Lilit said, not looking up from her books.
“Where you been, kiddo? I was so worried!”
“I was with friends. Well, a friend. I was fine.”
“Kid, you been gone for days. I panicked. I went to your school and asked your professors. Is he your boyfriend?”
Lilit looked up at her mother in disgust. “No! He’s not my boyfriend!”
“Well, is he your friend?”
“Yeah, mom. Yeah.” She turned back to her books and ignored any more of Mrs. Abernathy’s attempts at conversation.
Mrs. Abernathy had all but forgotten it just a few days later when she found the first drawing. She’d gone into Lilit’s stark, spare bedroom and saw something pinned above the drawing table. It was a letter-size piece of paper, torn at one corner, covered in scribbled lines like a crazy spiderweb. She put her face close to it but couldn’t make any sense out of the mosaic of tiny shapes, each line bordered by a tiny mathematical equation that seemed to swim in and out of focus. Tiny numbers or letters shaded many of the tiny angles and tiny shapes. She knew that it was nothing like anything Lilit had ever done, and assumed that it must have been her friend Heung. As she walked to the door looking over her shoulder at the piece of paper, the image resolved itself into a picture of a figure standing at a bus shelter in front of a shop window full of televisions.
“What are you doing in here?” Lilit said, and although she sounded alarmed, Mrs. Abernathy could still hardly hear her voice.
“I’m sorry, kiddo. Just putting your clean laundry on your bed.”
“Well, you’re done. Can you get out now?” Lilit crossed the room, pulled the picture from the wall, and turned it upside down on the drawing table.
“It’s really good, sweetie. Did you do it?”
Mrs. Abernathy sighed and closed the door on her way out.
“Mom!” Lilit’s call was barely audible through her door.
“I’m sorry.” The door opened a crack. “It’s his. Heung’s. He drew it when we saw you at the bus stop.”
“You were there?”
“Sort of. I mean, we both saw you there when Heung started drawing. He told me that, if he has the right formula that describes a person, he can make calculations that show where they are, and he just needs to do the math to see whatever he wants.”
“Huh,” Mrs. Abernathy said. “That’s really…something.”
Lilit’s face fell, and the door started to close.
“No, really, that’s fascinating, kiddo,” Mrs. Abernathy said, hoping the note of panic wasn’t audible to Lilit. “Could I see something of yours? You never show me your drawings no more.”
“I know,” Lilit said, even more softly than usual. She pulled a pad from under her drawing table, chose a pen from a box, and began drawing. The pen was a dark, purply blue, and drew a series of concentric circles interrupted by jagged lightening bolts.
“This is what’s going on in your mind right now,” Lilit said. “You’re confused, and you’re trying to hide it. You’re suspicious, but you’re also desperate.”
For a brief second, Mrs. Abernathy felt as though she’d had the wind knocked out of her, but she continued to look at the picture. It was true. She could see how it showed her mind turning in on itself with questions and doubts. She followed each jagged line that grasped at Lilit’s affections, which seemed to constantly slip through her fingers.
“How do you do that?”
“You do it. I just hold the pen. You make it move,” Lilit said, capping the pen and putting it back in the box.
At her book club meeting the next Thursday, Mrs. Abernathy waited for the better part of 45 minutes for some opportunity to slip Lilit and Heung’s drawings into the conversation, but the latest Margaret Atwood novel didn’t leave her any. It wasn’t until Amelia served tea that she had the courage to bring it up.
“I was at the museum the other day and I saw the most interesting thing,” she said, taking a cookie. “There was an installation of art by two new artists. One used math in his drawings. The write-up said that he could draw people using a mathematical formula. And the other one claimed that she just held the pen and other people’s feelings drew the pictures. Have you ever heard such a thing?”
The other ladies looked at her.
“No, I haven’t,” Amelia said. “And I didn’t see that when I was at the museum just yesterday.”
“That installation must have moved on,” Mrs. Abernathy said quickly.
“Wait, how can you draw someone with a mathematical formula?” Phoebe asked.
“Isn’t that how they draw buildings? It’s like drafting, isn’t it?” Karen asked, taking her third cookie and topping it off with half a can of diet soda.
“But a human being ain’t a building,” Mrs. Abernathy said.
“So, one of them does drafting of human beings, and the other one does some kind of ouija board thing?” Amelia asked.
Mrs. Abernathy tried to recall precisely what the drawings looked like, but the more she thought about it, the more she forced herself to remember them as just that. Drafting and ouija boards.
When she got home that evening, she heard a murmuring coming from Lilit’s room. She knocked on the door, and the murmur went suddenly silent. The door opened a crack, and a single eye peeked out.
“You got company, kiddo?”
“Can I get you anything?”
“Sure. Can we have some chips and sour cream?”
Mrs. Abernathy left and came back with the requested snacks on a tray, along with a couple of bottles of pop. When she tapped on the door with her foot, it opened into the darkness.
“Mom, this is Heung,” Lilit said, staring at the floor.
A pale, slightly doughy boy with wiry black hair sat hunched over the drawing table. He raised a hand in greeting, but not his head.
“Can I see what you’re working on?” Mrs. Abernathy asked, but Lilit stepped between her and the table, reaching for the tray.
“Mom, can we just work, please? We’re doing homework.”
“Of course, kiddo,” Mrs. Abernathy said, and allowed herself to be ushered out of the room.
When school let out for the summer, the soft, constant hum of their conversation turned into the backdrop of Mrs. Abernathy’s daily life.
Around 4th of July, the buzz stopped. Mrs. Abernathy came home from the market expecting to hear the mouse-warren sounds of the two artists at work, but could tell from the utter stillness in the house that she was alone. She knocked on Lilit’s door, and when no one answered, she calmed the lurch in her stomach by telling herself that they were probably just kissing. She breathed hard for a few seconds, trying to seem cool and blasé before bursting into her daughter’s room, the room where she fully expected to see the girl entwined with a pale college freshman on the bed.
She opened the door to an empty room. She stood staring at the bed, trying to will it to contain her daughter in whatever company, but nothing appeared. She stood, breathing so loudly that she could hear nothing else. She looked at the neatly-made bed, its plain blue blanket even all around, only now there were drawings pinned up on the walls around the bed. His mathematical mosaics entwined with her emotional swirls, now on the same piece of paper, now on different ones. She turned on the light and looked at them all, moving backward and forward, squinting and tilting her head, trying to see the picture hidden in each of them.
Some pictures appeared easily enough. Herself sitting on the couch and watching television, her image distorted by the image on the screen. Outside the frame tiny clouds punctuated faint wavy lines. Boredom, with occasional thoughts. Another one with her one hand reaching up, out. In the picture she looked down, her other hand somewhere out of the view. Mrs. Abernathy leaned over, trying to emulate the picture – one hand up, the other down. It took her nearly five minutes of stiff pantomime to realize that this was the crouch she employed at the ATM. Long lines in boxes surrounded her tiny mosaic face.
She could make no sense of the rest. Perhaps they were things that hadn’t happened yet, or things that were happening to other people in other places. One looked like a far-away view of a group of children playing, but it could as easily have been a pack of dogs or cars in a parking lot.
The next morning, she came out of the kitchen with a cup of coffee to find Lilit sitting at the dining room table eating cereal.
“You went into my room again,” Lilit said, and Mrs. Abernathy couldn’t tell whether she was angry.
“I was just looking for you. I see you made a lot more drawings.”
“Did you see the one of you at the ATM? Heung did that one by himself. Money doesn’t have any feelings.”
“What were the lines around the picture?”
“That showed where all the bills you took out had been before, and where they’d go next. Heung says that money’s even easier than people, because the basic formula is always the same. Although really old money – money that was minted a long time ago – is harder because it’s been more places.”
Mrs. Abernathy sipped her coffee to cover the fact that she had no idea what to say. When she’d tried to explain it to her new therapist, she hadn’t been able to make herself understood: how the children made the drawings, why they were so disquieting. Her therapist had asked her to bring one of the drawings in, and when she pulled one out of her purse that showed her from above, sitting at the laundromat and reading a book, lines of boredom and wariness coming from the machines and going into her like industrial fumes, Dr. Frankel’s face went carefully blank.
“This doesn’t look like a child’s drawing,” Dr. Frankel said in his always-neutral doctor voice.
“This one isn’t Lilit’s,” Mrs. Abernathy said. “This one is Heung’s.”
“How old is Heung?”
“I don’t know. I think he’s nineteen, maybe twenty.”
“Isn’t that a bit old to be spending time with your daughter?”
Mrs. Abernathy looked at the doctor in confusion. “But she’s twenty years old.”
Dr. Frankel seemed to lose his composure for just a second – long enough for Mrs. Abernathy to see the shock below the surface. “Mrs. Abernathy, I thought she was five or six. I think this by itself shows that we have a lot of work ahead of us.”
The next time she spotted them, Mrs. Abernathy was riding the bus. This time, the images of their faces created by the pattern of type on a newspaper stared up at her from the sidewalk. Mrs. Abernathy twisted around in her seat, looking until they were out of sight. From then on, instead of reading a book or watching the televisions in public places, she looked for Lilit and Heung.
Once she began looking, she started seeing them everywhere. In the burn pattern on her toast at the corner diner, walking next to her on store surveillance camera footage, but most often in the static patterns of any video monitor not picking up a signal.
She laid the armload of coats over the couch to let the smell of mothballs air out of them. She turned on the tv out of habit and realized that the cable was out again, the screen a tiny snowstorm. As she spread the sleeves out over the couch, she looked up to see Lilit watching her. In the flickering gray of static, the pale, lank-haired image raised a tentative hand and waved.
“Hey, kiddo,” Mrs. Abernathy said, and then wondered whether she should feel self-conscious for talking to the television. The ghostly image smiled.
“I washed your sheets and now I’m airing the winter coats,” she told the television. “It’s not gonna snow for a few weeks yet, but there’s a nip in the air.”
The flickering image smiled, but shook its head.
“Well, it’s here when you want it, anyway.”
From then on, she spoke to all the images, wherever she saw them. She clipped every magazine image, collected every wallpaper sample, took pictures of every water stain that could possibly be either Lilit or Heung. She studied the images, looking at every digit, character, pixel, analyzing its meaning.
“Are you still seeing her?” Dr. Frankel asked.
Mrs. Abernathy looked a little ashamed. She pulled out a new series of drawings of herself at a lunch counter, herself at a baseball game, herself crossing the street, each a mosaic of lines and formulas and waves and colors.
“Have you tried just turning the set off?”
“I can’t,” Mrs. Abernathy said. “I’d miss her.”
Mrs. Abernathy looked at the drawings arrayed on the coffee table. She reached out and touched each one of them. “They make me feel closer to her,” she whispered.
“But they’re all drawings of you,” Dr. Frankel said in the exasperated tone of a man who has been trying to make the same point for a long time.
“But they’re hers.”
“She’s not there. She hasn’t been there for months.”
Mrs. Abernathy looked at Dr. Frankel with something akin to pity, and sighed. “You know,” she finally said, gathering up the drawings, “I don’t think there’s anything more you and I are gonna solve together.”
When she got home, she carefully pinned the pictures back up onto the walls of Lilit’s room. Lilit’s smell, faint as it always had been, was gone now. The room smelled damp and un-lived in. Mrs. Abernathy sat on the bed and looked at the furniture and the walls, now covered in tiny drawings. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, but no amount of desire could conjure Lilit’s smell.
When she opened them, she turned her head from side to side, taking in the hundreds of drawings without focusing on any of them. She turned her head faster and faster, the lines blurring as she stared, her eyes going glassy. As she continued to move, rather than becoming more blurry, the scenes began to resolve themselves.
The drawings she hadn’t been able to make out before were clear. Here, Lilit lying in a bed, waves of contentment and tendrils of dreams drifting from her inert body. There, Heung sitting in a park with a sketchpad in his lap, lines in the background showing everywhere he’d been earlier. Lilit and Heung having a meal together, Lilit smiling a big, confident smile that Mrs. Abernathy had never seen before.
Her head started to hurt, and she slumped over and rested it in her hands. Her eyes felt hot and swollen and she thought she was going to cry, but the tears didn’t come. After shaking and heaving for a few more minutes, Mrs. Abernathy got up from the bed. She smoothed back the perfectly-smooth covers and left, closing the door behind her.
Lise Quintana is a former editor for Lunch Ticket magazine and head of Zoetic Press. Her work can be found in Red Fez, Extract(s), Children Churches & Daddies, and upcoming in SLAB. You can see more at www.lisequintana.com.