Selective, Like a Choice
by Hilary Rose Berwick
Edited by Misha Boone
On the day they stopped visiting doctors’ offices, Kelsey was five, but she didn’t really start to worry about that until she was seven.
That last office was made to look like a playroom, with a carpet that had images of alphabet blocks on it (even though she knew her letters, she was too old for that), but she knew it was a doctor’s office anyway. She knew why she was there, too.
She played with the dolls in front of her, even though they weren’t very good dolls: they were worn and old, and felt clinical. Clinical was a word she knew because of these doctor’s visits. There was a doctor in the room with her even if she wasn’t wearing a white coat. Other doctors watched her through the glass, and she knew they were there too. She didn’t know if they were wearing white coats or not. She was really too old for a carpet with alphabet blocks on it. That was for little kids.
The doctor asked, “Are you hearing anything now?” and Kelsey felt stubborn and smart and a little sneaky when she responded, “I can hear you.”
Kelsey was six, and Auntie walked her home from school every day: down West 61st, up West End. Sometimes, if they had time, or the weather was nice, they’d walk down to Riverside and wave to New Jersey, but then they had to walk back up West 66th anyway, so usually they just went straight to Auntie’s. Kelsey’s dad worked all the time and her mom worked during the day and Auntie worked too but she worked from home so, she told Kelsey, she took her lunch in the afternoon. When Kelsey asked her once what she did, Auntie told her she programmed self-driving cars. That didn’t make sense to Kelsey—didn’t they already drive themselves? Kelsey imagined grooves in the road that tires settled into.
She liked spending time with her Auntie. They had a lot in common. When she was around her Auntie, Kelsey didn’t really worry whether she was crazy. Crazy was the word her dad had used when he had said he was done taking Kelsey to doctors.
“She’s not crazy,” he had told her mom in the car on the way home, but it had felt more like he was defending himself than defending her and maybe like he wasn’t convinced.
She was showing Auntie what she was learning in school: fingerspelling.
“And then the teacher went—” and she made her fingers into three shapes: a sideways hook, a gentle fist with the inside of her wrist facing her Auntie, the same shape, but with her thumb across her fingers—“and I said ‘cat!’ before anyone else could.”
And then she meowed, because it felt good to meow when you thought about cats.
Auntie looked at her hands when she said ‘the teacher went’ and then looked back down at the cheese she was slicing.
“That’s good, kiddo,” she said.
Auntie always called her ‘kiddo’ or ‘my love’. Mostly kiddo. It was nice. She liked her Auntie, and spending time with her—more than with her parents, honestly. Kelsey’s dad had a plug in his ear and was on the phone all the time. When she was little, she often couldn’t tell if he was talking to her or not. Now she always assumed he wasn’t and was usually right. Kelsey’s mom had skin that looked more like hers, a light brown compared to her dad’s pale-pale, but Auntie’s skin looked most like hers out of everyone. Her mom said it was because they were one sixty-fourth Cherokee, even had a card, but she was pretty sure her dad didn’t believe it; she was pretty good at reading faces. Anyway, it wasn’t the only thing she and Auntie had in common, but Kelsey liked that their skin matched when they held hands. Plus, sometimes her mom looked at her like she was afraid and Kelsey didn’t really know why.
“What else are you learning?”
Kelsey scrunched up her face, because that helped her think.
“I can say,” and waited until her Auntie looked at her and then held her hand up flat facing her Auntie, waved it a little, put her flat hand on her heart, and then—oh right!—tapped two fingers on top of two fingers, like an X in front of her, and then flashed through her name: K-E-L-S-E-Y. That was the first thing she’d learned to fingerspell; her name.
Auntie smiled, nodded. “And how do you spell my name?”
Kelsey grinned: she knew this one. She made the signs for A-U-N-T-I-E and watched Auntie laugh like she always did.
“Excellent, kiddo. Good job.” Her Auntie put the plate in front of her and went back to her laptop. She’d work at the table where Kelsey did her homework, and that was also one of Kelsey’s favorite things about her time at Auntie’s, that they did their work together, but—
“Can’t Bobby have some, Auntie?” ‘Some’ was Ritz crackers and cheese slices, her favorite after-school snack.
Her Auntie made an eyebrow twitch, just one. Kelsey liked it when she did that.
“Bobby,” she said, and pointed. Bobby sat in a chair at Auntie’s round old wood table, just like Kelsey herself did. He had thick brown hair in bangs over his wide brown eyes, and skin pale like her dad’s. His haircut made him look a little silly, but she knew it would be rude to say so.
Plus, she was surprised.
“Auntie, I thought he was your friend,” she said, making her voice like her mama’s when she was reminding Kelsey’s dad he’d forgotten something he’d promised. “He’s at your house.”
Kelsey listened for a moment, head tilted.
“He says it’s his house, too, Auntie. Or was?” she shrugged.
She watched Auntie think about that. It was another thing she liked about Auntie: she thought about what Kelsey said. Auntie looked long at the place where Bobby sat. Bobby didn’t say anything, but his eyes were big.
Finally, Auntie said, “Of course, my love,” and set out a second plate.
Well, maybe Kelsey started to worry when she was six, then.
When they walked along Riverside, the days when they waved at New Jersey, sometimes people sat on the benches that faced the water. One day they were walking and Kelsey saw a lady there, an old lady, like grandma-old, and she looked sad. She looked sad and lost even though she was sitting down. And next to her sat an old man, like grandpa-old, and he looked at the grandma, but she didn’t look at him. He looked sad too, but not lost; like he knew exactly where he wanted to be but just couldn’t figure out how to get there from where he was.
Kelsey heard him say, “Elspeth. My love. Can you hear me?” but the grandma-woman did not look at him, did not appear to hear him.
Sometimes when Kelsey worried, it was because her mom looked afraid, but sometimes it was because she was afraid herself; if she was hearing people who weren’t really there—who really weren’t there—that was scarier than ghosts. Ghosts, she was kind of okay with. Not all ghosts were scary.
Like this grandpa-man. He did not seem scary. But what if she talked to him and then Auntie looked at her like her mom did, sometimes?
She gathered all her courage and squeezed her Auntie’s hand and then let it go and walked over to the grandma-woman. She sat down next to her on the bench and the grandma-woman looked at her and Kelsey reached out for her hand. The grandma-woman’s hand was cold and felt fragile, her skin like paper. The grandpa-man next to her watched Kelsey, watched the grandma woman, watched Kelsey. He looked so hopeful.
Gently, because it was sometimes rude to ask people about their disabilities, Kelsey asked, “Can’t you hear him?” Sometimes she couldn’t hear people, and she didn’t want the grandma-woman to feel bad.
It looked like she felt bad anyway: her eyes were all teary and she shook her head.
“No,” she said. “But I miss him so much. It has been so long since I have lived without him and I do not know what to do with myself or this hurt.”
Her accent was thick and lovely: one part German-sounding, one part New York. Kelsey, whose family did not have any kind of accent she knew about, felt her heart swell up a little. It gave her courage to ask.
“Would you like to?” And suddenly she had their full attention, all of them: the grandma-woman, the grandpa-man, and her Auntie, who she’d kind of forgotten about, which was also rude but she didn’t think Auntie would mind. Auntie’s mouth was open a little. Kelsey could feel her heartbeat in her chest, ka-thump, ka-thump, because she could hear things on her insides just fine and this was scary and she really didn’t want this woman or her Auntie to look at her like she was crazy, she really didn’t want to be crazy, but she very much wanted to be brave.
The old woman nodded. Her eyes never left Kelsey’s face, and she felt a little afraid, but also this was why her Auntie called it a superpower, right? She said lowkey superpower. And even at six Kelsey knew a superpower wasn’t really a good thing, or not just good: it was also a hard thing, because people don’t know what to do with people who are different, and it was something you had to choose how you deal with, because you could do things other people can’t, even if it was just use ASL, and even if you made mistakes, the best way to deal with it was to help people, or at least to try.
At least, she thought that was true.
“All I have heard him say so far is ‘Elspeth’ and ‘my love’ and ‘can you hear me’,” she told the grandma-woman, and saw tears leak out of her eyes down her wrinkled paper skin. The grandma-woman closed her eyes and rocked back, but it wasn’t a bad rock-back, it was like ‘I am taking this in and it has physical force’ and Kelsey understood that. She felt a little bit of bright-lightness by her heart, like a balloon opening up.
Then the grandpa-man was talking but it was too fast for Kelsey to understand.
“Hold on, grandpa-man!”
Then the grandma-woman was laughing and crying at the same time and that was nice, too.
Sternly, using the voice her teachers used when they thought she couldn’t hear them, she said, “now, what do you want me to say to her?” and then the grandpa-man looked startled and afraid and then determined and Kelsey wondered why people even wanted to hear words, sometimes, when so much happened across people’s faces.
Gently, the grandpa man-said, “Please tell her I miss her. And that I will see her soon. And that it is so,” he swallowed, “so hard to see her in pain but I understand she must be sad and that I cannot change that.”
Kelsey nodded and tried to remember it all. “He says he misses you,” she said to the grandma-woman. “He says he will see you soon, and it’s hard to watch you be sad but he knows he can’t change it.” The grandpa man-was nodding and nodding.
The grandma-woman’s eyes got wide. “Soon?” she said, and then, “Where is he?”
Kelsey said, “Right next to you,” at the same time as the grandpa-man said “It is hard to explain,” but she was pretty sure that she had answered the question the grandma-woman was asking because she looked to her right and the man gazed back at her and both of their faces were full of hope and it felt really good in her tummy even though she was getting hungry for her after-school snack.
“Is there anything else you’d like to ask him,” she began politely, thinking now of her snack and how to end this conversation, “or,” and she turned to the grandpa man, “anything else you’d like to tell her?”
The grandpa-man nodded. “Soon is relative,” he said. “Tell her, soon is relative.”
Kelsey told her, “He says to tell you soon is relative.”
And the grandma-woman, she smiled. Her cheeks folded back and Kelsey was struck—genuinely stuck to the bench—and struck by how beautiful this woman became when she smiled like that.
“He always used to say this to me,” she told Kelsey, like she was confiding in her. “When he moved here and before I followed him, when he would write letters to me back home, before this was home. Always he would say, I will see you soon, my love, and while it feels like a long time, remember, soon is relative.” She flicked her eyes back to where the grandpa-man sat. It looked like he was holding his breath. “Okay, my love,” she said to him. “I will see you soon, and soon is relative.” She took a deep, shaky breath. “I can wait for soon. I have waited before to follow you into the unknown.”
After that the woman hugged her and they said goodbye and started walking and before they turned on to West 66th they waved to New Jersey and the whole time her Auntie didn’t really say anything but when they got to her Auntie’s building she hugged her really hard before they went inside. And this reassured her deeply, like: phew. She had used her powers for good—even if she didn’t always want them—and nobody said she was crazy or stopped loving her or any of the other things she worried about.
Plus, it was snack time.
They didn’t walk on Broadway very often because it was full of people and Auntie didn’t love a crowd—that was how she said it, I don’t love a crowd, and what she meant was she didn’t like them at all. But sometimes, they walked down to the Duane Reade and when they did, they went on Broadway for a little while. On Broadway there was a movie theatre, and sometimes when they walked by, Kelsey would practice fingerspelling the movie titles. She liked how fluid it made her fingers feel: loose fist with thumb outside her fingers, move the thumb in quick and tuck it between the ring and pinky fingers, and then a hook like C-for-cat, that spelled AMC.
She usually had to fingerspell the titles because she didn’t know a lot of words yet, and she was halfway through a title as they walked this time—tight fist with the thumb over the fingers, two fingers flat and horizontal and palm facing her, pinky up and wrist out like a fancy lady, that spelled S-H-I—when she saw Bobby.
It wasn’t Bobby, not really. Bobby was older, for one thing, and his eyes were closer together, and his face was thinner, but he had Bobby’s haircut and she’d never seen anyone else with a haircut like that, all bangs and fluff on a boy. She stopped walking because she was surprised and then Auntie stopped walking because they were holding hands. They always held hands on Broadway.
“What’s up, kiddo?”
Kelsey pointed. “That’s the haircut Bobby has.”
Her Auntie looked at the poster she was pointing to. “Who’s Bobby?”
Kelsey rolled her eyes. “Auntieeeee. The boy at your house who I thought was your friend and you made him a snack. Bobby.”
Her Auntie squeezed her hand. “Right, Bobby. Bobby has the haircut the kid from the Shining had? Bobby has a pageboy?”
She didn’t know pageboy, but that was what she’d been spelling: S-H-I-N-I-N-G. She didn’t know the word for that in ASL.
“Right. I was fingerspelling it because I don’t know the word for it.”
Her Auntie let go of her hand, there on Broadway as the crowd she didn’t love moved around them. The people were a river breaking around a stone: no one ran into them, no one stopped, they just kept moving as her Auntie showed her the sign. Hands loose and palm down in front of her chest, middle finger curled a little, and then elbows bent more, hands moving up to shoulder level, and Auntie added a little twinkle to her fingers, just a little movement, and Kelsey got it: like sun shining and sparkling off of an object, that’s what that sign was. She mirrored her Auntie, practicing, smiling.
“That means The Shining?”
Auntie took her hand again.
“That means shine or sparkle, and that counts,” she said. Auntie looked at the poster until it was out of sight, and when they came back from Duane Reade, they took the long way around, and that way didn’t pass the theatre. And Kelsey felt that feeling in her tummy again, the same feeling as when her mom looked afraid at her, and the same as when Kelsey wondered if she’d done something wrong, or if maybe her lowkey superpower made other people uncomfortable because it meant there was something wrong with her.
One day, when Kelsey was seven, she and Auntie were walking home from school. Kelsey was quiet, and Auntie was letting her be. Kelsey sighed, felt her shoulders rise and fall, and asked, “Auntie, how come Mama doesn’t like me sometimes?”
It wasn’t quite what she wanted to ask, which was if Mama is afraid of me, will she stop loving me?, but it was close.
Her Auntie squeezed her hand, but she didn’t tell Kelsey not to say things like that. That was another thing Kelsey liked about Auntie: she took Kelsey’s feelings seriously.
After a while, Auntie replied. “When you have kids, you love them more than you ever thought possible. Like, so, so, so, so much. With nieces and aunties, too.” The hand came on on the crosswalk sign, and the river of East Side traffic paused for Kelsey and her Auntie to cross, two in a stream of people. “So much it hurts, and so much it’s scary, and so much it makes you crazy. Your mom will never stop loving you. You hear me?”
“I don’t mean literally. I mean, do you believe me?”
Kelsey flicked her eyes up, not quite a roll, and Auntie laughed.
“Okay, okay. So your mom loves you. A crazy amount. I think - I think parents have ideas about who their kids are going to be. And it’s not the kiddo’s job to be that, at all. It’s the parents’ job to adjust their ideas, to meet the children they have. That’s really important, Kels—it is not your job to be who your mom thought you’d be. You hear me?”
Kelsey dragged her Auntie’s arm down, there along the avenue, putting all her weight into it. “Auntieeeeeeeeee.”
Auntie laughed again.
“Okay, okay. Just making sure.” Auntie squeezed her hand. “So I think your mom feels like she failed you sometimes. You know? Because of me, and my hearing, and yours. Like she gave you your—”
Kelsey knew this one. “Selective hearing loss!” she crowed. Her Auntie had taught her to sing it, and it made her auntie laugh once more.
“Yes,” she said. “Our superpower.” Her Auntie sounded thoughtful, and that was how Kelsey felt, too. She knew a superpower was when something happened to you, like you got bit by a spider, or your parents were killed, and then you chose to use that thing to help others. She knew it was hard to do that, sometimes.
Kelsey knew about her diagnosis. She knew what the word ‘diagnosis’ meant and she knew what ‘hearing impaired’ meant and she knew what ‘selective hearing loss’ meant. She’d spent a lot of time looking at knees behind lab coats and knees in scrubs and knees in skirts, crossed in front of not-that-comfortable couches, while she played on the floor and pretended she didn’t know they’re watching her and they pretended she couldn’t hear them. She didn’t mind, but she did wish they wouldn’t pretend.
She knew what ‘selectively deaf’ meant, but to her it was a superpower—a thing that happened to you and then you tried to use it to help others but sometimes people didn’t like it—because Auntie was selectively deaf, too. Kelsey liked that phrase ‘selectively deaf’ because it makes it sound like she chose this. Selective, like a choice.
Sometimes, it felt like she had. She read a lot, and knew a lot more than people thought she did, and she really liked that. Auntie was selectively deaf with men, and when Auntie told people that, she told it like it was a joke, and people laughed. Kelsey liked that, too. She liked that selective deafness could make people like Auntie more, because it meant it could make people like her more, too. Maybe. And her Auntie said it did make some people not know what to do with her, but that was okay, because it meant she was more likely to hear the people that others ignored—people who spoke softly, or at higher registers—and that was the part that felt like helping, sometimes.
Her selective deafness wasn’t as obvious as Auntie’s, though. Auntie said the thing about her own deafness was that it was in the inner ear and meant she couldn’t hear low voices, which was why she couldn’t hear men when they talked. Kelsey’s deafness was in the part of her brain that listened to her ear, and the reason she’d seen so many doctors (and some of them the kind of doctors who just talk to you, not the kind who look at you) was because they didn’t know why, or what she was selecting for. Sometimes she could hear her parents, sometimes she couldn’t. Sometimes she could hear other kids, sometimes not. She could usually hear her teachers, which none of her doctors could account for, unless it was psychological, a word she learned when she’d been to the doctor with the playroom for babies.
And her Auntie was still trying to explain.
“So, kiddo, your mom loves you more than I can possibly describe or maybe even understand, and that’s why she is afraid.” The river of people flowed around them, but all Kelsey heard was Auntie’s voice. “I think - I think sometimes she is afraid that, on top of maybe doing this thing to you, she is also afraid underneath of - of something happening that she doesn’t fully understand.”
Crazy, thought Kelsey miserably. She’s afraid of crazy. The way her dad had said it, crazy was a pretty bad thing.
But then Auntie said, “I think she is afraid that you have a connection to a world the rest of us don’t, and she doesn’t know what to do with that at all.” Auntie shrugged, which brought Kelsey’s hand up with her arm. “So that might be what you see on her face sometimes.”
Kelsey thought about this. It would explain why her parents kind of decided that it didn’t matter why Kelsey was selectively deaf and were just treating her like she was deaf-deaf. But she liked learning ASL, and she liked that she got to practice it with her Auntie, and she liked that her Auntie was selectively deaf too. Her Auntie was not tired of her, and didn’t really care about the ‘why.’ Auntie believed her when she talked about hearing people that other people couldn’t see, even though sometimes Auntie’s face got kind of twisted up a little when they talked about it, like she had a tummy ache.
Plus, maybe if Mama was afraid, it wasn’t really Kelsey’s fault, and at least if Mama was afraid that Kelsey could talk to ghosts, rather than that she couldn’t, it meant Kelsey probably wasn’t crazy. It was only kind of reassuring, though, if it meant Mama was afraid of her.
They were back at her Auntie’s. Auntie was typing on her computer; Kelsey was trying to focus on her worksheet. It was fingerspelling and spelling. She felt like that was a little bit unfair, to have to do both. Superpower, she reminded herself. You can do things other people can’t, even when they’re harder... even if other people didn’t have to. She snuck a look at Auntie. Kelsey sometimes saw her sign when she was thinking, and it soothed her.
Plus, Bobby was sighing next to her. He was sad. She was trying to focus but Bobby was clearly sad even if he hadn’t said anything and that was making it hard to concentrate.
“Auntie,” she said, trying to feel like she wasn’t being a tattle tale. “Auntie, Bobby is sad.”
Auntie looked at her, tilted her head. She raised her eyebrows, raised her right hand toward her face, pulled it back down and stuck out her pinky and thumb: why?
Kelsey shrugged. How was she supposed to know?
Auntie was still looking at her. Another thing she liked about Auntie, and something she liked about school, too, selectively deaf or not: you had to pay attention to someone if you wanted to read their hands, pay attention with your whole being or at least your eyes, and Auntie did that. And she usually still spoke and didn’t even ask Kelsey if she could hear her, because she could tell by paying attention to her.
Kelsey’s feelings seemed complicated for a seven-year-old, and that wasn’t very fair, either, even if it was part of the point of a superpower to be unfair.
“Is Bobby sad about your mom?”
Kelsey had to remind herself what about her mom would make anyone sad.
“Auntie. No.” She pointed to her chest, drew a closed-fist-and-thumb along her chin and forward while she shook her head, and then made her flat hand into a line and pulled it down her face while frowning: I am not sad. “Bobby is sad, not me.”
This did not seem hard.
“You’re not listening. Usually you’re a very good listener.”
“Okay,” Auntie said. “Why is Bobby sad, then? I’m listening.”
Well, she’d set herself up for that one. Kelsey sighed and turned to Bobby.
“Bobby, why are you sad?”
His eyes lit up.
“I was hoping you’d ask.”
I know, she thought.
“It’s my mom. I want to talk to my mom and I can’t, but I can talk to you so maybe you can talk to her for me?” It all came out in a rush. “If you can talk to her maybe I can go with you and that would be so great.”
Kelsey sighed again and turned back to Auntie.
“He says he wants to talk to his mom and can’t, but he can talk to me, so—” she turned to Bobby and asked, “Why can’t you talk to your mom?” She felt kind of annoyed, but underneath that, she was afraid. She had done this for the grandpa-man, and that had gone well, but she didn’t know how to turn this superpower off and sometimes she didn’t want to be brave and talk to strangers, ghosts, or both; she just wanted to do her worksheet and maybe watch cartoons before she had to go home.
Bobby paused and looked at her, like maybe she should know and he wasn’t sure how to tell her. Carefully, he explained.
“My mom lives in a place upstate. It’s called—” his face screwed up in recollection. “It’s called Tuckahoe Evergreen Elder Care Facility. She moved there because she fell down and I couldn’t help her up and I couldn’t call 911 for her and it was really scary and besides,” he shook his head, “besides, she couldn’t hear me after anyway. She was really sad and I couldn’t tell her I was okay, and now she’s sad and I can’t even be there but you can hear me so maybe you can tell her, if we go up there, I don’t know how, though, so I don’t even know—”
Auntie leaned over and tapped Kelsey on the shoulder, waiting for an explanation with confusion on her face. When Kelsey looked back at Bobby, Auntie tapped her again and raised her eyebrows. Her face said ‘what is going on? Talk to me.’
Bobby finally fell silent. Kelsey hitched a big breath in and sighed it out.
“Well,” she told Auntie, “I think - I think Bobby is sad because he’s a ghost and can’t talk to his mom and she was sad when he died,” she kept half an eye on Bobby but he was nodding enthusiastically, as if to say ‘yes, this is what I was hoping you understood, yes!’ She could tell Auntie was worried; she had been pretty sure that Auntie was going to have that worried look on her face when Kelsey said this next part anyway, even though Auntie had asked, so Kelsey continued, “but it’s okay, because she’s upstate in a - a - a elder faculty,” she stumbled over the words. “and we can go there and tell her not to be sad anymore.”
She thought she was being very brave, considering she was still not sure she wanted to do this.
Auntie held herself very still.
“Hold on, kiddo,” she said, but Bobby was talking again, and Kelsey tried to translate as he went.
“He says his mom thinks he just disappeared, that she doesn’t know what happened to him.”
Auntie’s face went kind of pale when Kelsey said that part, like their skin didn’t match as well anymore, and Kelsey could tell she was going to ask what happened; maybe Bobby could tell too, because Bobby was already shaking his head, so Kelsey also shook her head and continued.
“He says it wasn’t that, it was just an accident, he says it was just a bad accident, bad luck.” Kelsey felt a little afraid about that, but that was better than whatever alternative was on Auntie’s face. After that, she felt more afraid because even if it was just a bad accident, she didn’t want to do this one. Could she say no? What happened if she said no? What happened if Auntie said no?
Bobby stopped talking after saying it was just a bad accident and looked at Auntie’s face. Kelsey looked, too. She had a lot of favorite things, and one of her favorite things about hard-of-hearing peopl—people who used ASL; people like her and Auntie—was that they got to look at each other’s faces a lot, and that they used their faces to communicate. Sometimes, it seemed like her mom closed her face off deliberately, especially when mom and dad were talking, but Auntie didn’t. Auntie’s face said a lot: it said ‘I’m scared’ and ‘I don’t know what to do’ and ‘I’m thinking as fast as I can.’
Out loud, she asked, “Can Bobby hear me?”
Kelsey nodded, and Auntie sighed.
“Kels, we can’t just go upstate to see a woman we don’t know. We don’t even know where she is. Not everybody wants to hear from - from ghosts.”
Kelsey saw Bobby’s face light up.
“Tuckahoe Evergreen Elder Care Facility!” he crowed. “I remember, because my aunt called and my mom said,” and his face kind of twisted up and his voice got a little higher, “Really, Debra, Evergreen? What kind of bullshit is that?” and then he smiled, like it was a nice memory. Kelsey could kind of understand; the rare times Auntie cursed were funny memories to her, too.
She turned back to Auntie.
“He says he knows the name of the place. It’s Huckatoe - no. Tuckahoe Evergreen,” she looked back at Bobby, who repeated the name for her, “Elder Care Facility.” She was proud of herself for pronouncing it right this time. Proud of herself but also torn about whether to be brave or to try to say no, because being brave was good but saying no was a kind of bravery too, wasn’t it?
Auntie was still looking at her.
“Kiddo, you can hear everything he says, huh?”
Kelsey knew why she was asking. Sometimes her selective hearing loss was selective even with individual people. She didn’t always hear her mom and dad. She always heard Auntie, but Auntie also used ASL with her, and that helped take some of the pressure off. She could almost always hear her teachers. Most other people she couldn’t hear, or couldn’t hear often.
“Yes,” she nodded. “I can hear everything he says.”
Auntie’s eyes searched her face; Kelsey didn’t know for what. Auntie put a finger to her chin, like she was shushing someone but missed her lip, then moved her whole hand toward Kelsey and raised her eyebrows: are you sure?
Kelsey nodded again, even though she wasn’t, and Auntie nodded back at her, and the rest was just details. Even if Auntie’s words haunted her: Not everybody wants to hear from ghosts.
They told her mom they were going to the Bronx Zoo. Her mom looked a little suspicious, because Kelsey didn’t really like zoos and Auntie didn’t really like crowds, but she nodded anyway. The train ride took a long time. First it was the subway, and then a proper train. It was hard to hear; she heard a lot of whispering, and she heard Auntie, but she didn’t hear the conductor. Kelsey thought about what Auntie hadn’t said out loud, but that she’d figured out; she’d kind of figured it out with the grampa-man and grandma-woman, but hadn’t really thought about it then: if she could hear someone clearly and all the time, that person probably wasn’t alive, and if she couldn’t hear someone, that person probably was alive. Thinking about that took up a lot of the train ride. Thinking about, it kept her mind off her tummy, which had a not-hungry-but-hurting feeling.
Bobby sat next to her in the four-seat table they’d sat in when they got on. She was pretty sure he was nervous: he fidgeted, brushed his bangs out of his eyes, couldn’t sit still. She thought about that, too.
“You know, you can’t stop people from being sad,” she said. She thought it was very wise, considering.
Bobby shook his head. Auntie watched Kelsey, watched the place Kelsey was speaking to.
“It’s true,” she told him. The grandpa-man had taught her. “You don’t get to decide if she’s sad. You can tell her what happened to you but she is probably still going to be sad.”
Bobby sighed. He didn’t say anything.
Auntie was still looking at her, and now Kelsey sighed, too.
“You know I’ll go with you wherever you want, kiddo,” she said, and Kelsey nodded, she did know, “but my love, you cannot just approach strangers and tell them you hear their dead loved ones.”
Kelsey just kept looking at her because it was mean to tell people when they were being stupid, but Auntie was being stupid—of course you could do that. Auntie sighed, a soft sound just like the sound Kelsey had made, and she discovered another thing she and Auntie had in common: the way they sighed.
“Okay, kiddo,” she said. “Just, please don’t get your hopes up, okay?”
Kelsey nodded, even though Auntie still didn’t understand. This wasn’t about hope, it was about trying to do what was right with your superpower. Although maybe a part of her wasn’t sure, she was going to try, because sometimes it did work.
Maybe, she thought, she was talking to her tummy and her own worry, and not to Auntie anymore.
Finding Bobby’s mom wasn’t that hard. They got to the low-slung, old-looking grounds of the place she lived and talked to someone in a white outfit and told them who they were there to see. The woman in white didn’t seem to care who they were, which made Kelsey a little sad.
Bobby pointed, arm shaky at his mom. She was old, older than the grandma lady, and small. Her white hair was short and she sat on a couch in a room with lots of couches and armchairs and two TVs turned to different channels. Before Kelsey could lose her courage, she walked up to her and sat down next to her.
His mom looked surprised, but mildly, like everything she did or felt was mild, maybe.
Kelsey said, “Bobby wants me to tell you he’s okay,” and his mom’s eyes snapped open and nothing about her was mild, now. “He wants you to know he’s okay, and—”
His mom’s face paled.
“What happened to him?” she asked. One of her hands was up out of her lap, fluttering between her mouth and her chest.
“He fell,” Kelsey told her. She was trying to be gentle and clear at the same time, and that was hard. “He was playing Hot Wheels,” she looked at Bobby to make sure she’d gotten it right, because she had no idea what Hot Wheels were, but he nodded, up and down as hard as he could, so she kept going,“under the building and he fell and hit his head. They just didn’t find him. He wasn’t in pain, he was never in pain and he didn’t suffer at all and he’s happy now. He really wants you to know that he didn’t suffer at all and he’s happy now,” and Bobby was nodding, nodding so hard like yes, I’m happy now, please tell her I’m happy now but also fading and Kelsey didn’t even have time to really think about what she was saying because—because his mom was yelling, screaming, and saying:
“No, he is not dead, you liar, how dare you, he’s not!”
Then she was just sobbing and there were nurses, and other people in white uniforms, and they were looking at Kelsey like she’d done something wrong. Auntie was holding her because she was afraid, she was shaking-afraid, this was beyond tummy-hurt-worried, and she couldn’t really hear anyone anymore, except Bobby’s crying. His mom was crying, too but now she wasn’t yelling anymore, she was calling ‘my baby, my baby’ and then she was clawing out from the nurses around her, looking for Kelsey and apologizing over and over. Kelsey didn’t know if she was talking to Kelsey or to Bobby or to someone else, but it hurt more than she ever thought something could hurt without making her bleed.
She hugged her Auntie really hard.
“Can we go home, please?”
“Yes, my love, of course, yes,” Auntie replied. Maybe
Kelsey learned about how superpowers don’t protect you from as much as you’d think they would. Later, she would think about how sometimes bravery meant saying no, but for now, Kelsey was seven and her Auntie’s arms were the only thing she was sure of in the whole world. That, and how superpowers really weren’t very fair things at all.