by Katy Van Sant
Ryoko came to our house on a rainy day. Everyone liked the rain at that time because it made us feel cleaner. The virus was everywhere and we all felt filthy and sticky with it. We had to assume it might be clinging to us somewhere, somehow. The rain gave us the illusion that it would be washed away. But in truth, at that time, it was multiplying madly and oozing itself all over us no matter how hard we tried to hide away from everything we ever knew.
It was the third week of doing sixth grade at home with my mom. I was sitting at my desk in my room and she was perched on a stool to my right. It was killing her. Every time I wrote a sentence in the Chromebook loaned to me by my school, I could see her hand start to rise and then she’d catch herself and set it down. As much as she drove me crazy breathing down my neck and trying to correct every little thing, making the grammar perfect which is totally unnecessary, I still wanted her there. I didn’t want to be alone in my room, learning about the cardiovascular system. All I wanted to do was lay in my bed and look at TikTok videos on my phone. I could do that all day.
My mom’s iPhone was face down on the desk. Every so often, she’d pick it up and start scrolling through Facebook and reading about the pandemic. She was obsessed. I hated that she was always saying stuff about it and making me feel worse. I wasn’t really scared for myself, because I knew that the Corona didn’t get kids. But I was scared for my grandparents, and also for the end of the world or something. That was when I first got insomnia, during the lockdown. Each night was a different and unbearable question mark. When would I sleep?
We were taking turns reading the lesson out loud. I slid my light blue scrunchie off my ponytail, put both my wrists in it and rolled them around while I read about the alveoli, which allow the oxygen into the blood and the carbon dioxide out. At that time my science teacher had chosen to give us lessons on Pathogens, Respiratory System, Diabetes, Innate Immune System, Inflammatory Response.
As I read, my mom’s phone made the tinkling sound that means that someone is at the front door, or a lot of times it just means that someone walked by or a car double-parked in front of our house. I kept reading and my mom picked up her phone. I could see her out of the corner of my eye, squinting at the screen. She put her face closer and did that thing where she pushed her eyebrows together making a big, deep vertical crease right in the place where she always plucked. Then I heard her say, What the…? So I stopped reading and grabbed at her phone. She hates it when I grab her phone, and I do understand that it’s rude, because when she grabs my phone it really makes me mad, but sometimes I just do it without thinking. She held on tight and glared at me.
“What is it? Is it a package for Paul?” My step-dad was addicted to ordering things online. We usually got at least one package a day. And that was before the Corona. I tried to look over my mom’s shoulder.
“It is her. I know that woman.” My mom was mumbling to herself.
“What woman? Let me see.”
I could tell she wasn’t listening to me at all, so I picked up my phone and started looking at TikTok. She got up and walked out, all the while staring at her phone. She went into their bedroom and began talking to Paul, but I couldn’t tell what they were saying. I could hear The Ring door-bell sound repeating over and over from their phones. Whoever it was, was still down there. They weren’t going away. Why didn’t my mom just go down and open the door? I crept out of my bedroom and listened.
“She’s leaning against the wall. I think she’s sick, Paul. And she’s old. What should we do? How did she even get here?”
“Okay, explain it to me again. Do you know her?”
“I just told you! She hangs out outside my work. She’s homeless, and she’s been there for years. We all know her. But I’ve only actually spoken with her once. And it was about a month ago, right before the shelter in place started. I thought she was Japanese, but Carrie thinks she might be Korean. She’s really hard to understand because she’s both crazy and English is her second language. She asked me for a light.”
“Okay, so what is she doing here?”
“Maybe she needs a light again? Oh my God! I just told you. I have no idea. But she’s not leaving. It’s probably been almost five minutes by now. What should we do?!”
My mom sounded frantic. There was literally a sick, old, homeless lady at our door. No one had come to our house in weeks. No one had gone to anyone’s house in the whole world, I think. I felt like she had to have the Corona. But how did she know where we live?
“Come with me, Paul. I don’t want to go alone. Let’s just see what she wants and then we’ll take it from there.”
I zipped back into my room and closed the door as they opened theirs and started down the stairs to the entryway of our house. I came out and down too, stopping right before they could see me. It sounded like they were putting on their masks and gloves. Then I heard the door open. The lady had a raspy voice and spoke in short snippets.
“Why you take so long open door? Hep me! I sick. I real sick. Hot. See? Also, I need light again. You remember? You have light now? No candy, just light. But sick too. So sick. Please. Lay down. Please.”
“We can take you to the hospital,” my mom said.
“No! No hospital. No! I no go to hospital. In hospital, they kill me. They jail me. They jail me, then kill me. I free. I stay free. I live. Only you help me to rest. I only rest.”
“At the hospital they can help you breathe. They won’t kill you.”
“No, I say, no! They put me in jail. I not go back to jail.”
“Do you have a warrant?” Paul asked.
At that moment I decided to peek out.
She was glaring at Paul. Her salt and pepper hair was short like a man’s and looked like she cut it herself. The brown skin on her face had deep folds and glistened with fever. She wore Crocs and several layers of clothes which made her look bulky, but she was actually quite petite. “Who he? Why he say that?” She looked at my mom like she was disappointed in her. Her eyes were beady and piercing. She didn’t like Paul’s question.
“He’s my husband. We just wants to understand so we can help you.”
“He police. This a trap. He kill me. I go!” She had been leaning against the side of the house. She placed one hand on the wall to push off, but it looked like she didn’t have enough strength. “I go. I go soon. You not hep me. You go inside. I go. But first, give me a light.”
“Okay. I’ll get you a light. Why don’t you just sit down there on the stoop. I’ll be right back with the light.”
The lady set her mouth in a straight line and stayed standing. Now she was glaring at my mom, the way she had glared at Paul.
“He’s not a policeman.” My mom added.
They closed the door and locked it and I came around the corner to the landing. My mom looked up at me and didn’t say anything. I was invisible to her. She and Paul went back upstairs into their bedroom and closed the door. I listened again.
“She must have Covid, Paul, I think this is a sign or a test or something. We have to take her in. She could stay in the empty Airbnb room and never come out. If we let her go, she could die. I don’t want to have that on my conscience. She clearly won’t let us take her to the hospital. And we can’t call the police, because it sounds like she might have a warrant and she could die if she’s taken to jail.”
“Are you out of your mind? We can’t take in a mentally ill homeless woman who probably has the virus! What about us? We don’t know shit about her. She could be dangerous.”
“Dangerous? She’s an old and sick woman! I’ve been seeing her outside my building for years and she’s never been picked up. She’s mentally ill, Paul. She probably just thinks she has a warrant.”
“Exactly! And you want to let her into our house with our children! Maggie please! Don’t twist this around and try to make me the bad guy. Why don’t we just call 911 and they’ll take her to the hospital?”
“Forcibly? That’s going to be a real pretty scene.”
I went over to the kitchen window and looked down to see if she was still there. You can’t see the stoop from there unless you open the window and lean out, and even then you can’t see the whole thing. I pulled up the blinds, slid the glass to the side and leaned out, bending at the waist. There was a break in the rain at that moment. The neighborhood was slick and gray. I could see her legs sticking out into the short walkway that leads from the sidewalk to our stoop. She was only visible from her waist down. At her ankles I could see three layers of pants: faded red, blue and green. Her legs were sprawled in a way that made it look like she had fallen, or decided to lay down on her back. One of her Crocs was off and laying in our walkway. She wasn’t wearing socks.
I ran back to my parents’ room and tried to open the door. It was locked.
“Nina! How many times have we told you to knock?” My mom yelled.
“I think she fell down or something!”
They both came out and went over to the window where they could see her legs, as I did.
“She’s moving. She’s getting up,” my mom said.
She was now standing in the street so we could see her. She swayed as she glared up at us.
“I leave! You not hep me!” She yelled. Then she looked down the street towards our neighborhood park. She seemed to be talking to herself, but she was still addressing us. “Maybe I die. I don’t know. It’s okay. You stay in there. You safe.” She started to walk down the steep incline of our street, pausing between each step. I looked to see if any neighbors were watching, but didn’t see any. They probably knew how to peek out without being seen.
“I’m sorry, Paul. I can’t. I just can’t.” My mom ran down the stairs, and then, through the window we were still standing at, Paul and I saw her running towards the woman. She stopped six feet away and put on the mask she had grabbed on her way out.
My step-brother Caden came out of his room. It had been enough commotion to pry him away from his video game. Actually, it was probably the quiet after the commotion that alerted him. Quiet can be scary. I don’t know why Paul didn’t try to stop my mom. We couldn’t hear what my mom said to her. She spoke softly and through her mask. The woman looked up at us and her eyes were fierce and smug and it seemed like she almost smiled. Paul began rocking slightly back and forth like he does when he’s upset. The woman started to walk slowly toward the house and my mom stayed six feet behind her, talking to her as they moved. They were coming into the house.
I decided to go back into my room and Caden followed me. I caught him up on what had happened and we sat on my bed and waited. I scrolled through TikTok and he played a game on his phone. I was more scared of the argument I knew my mom and Paul would have than the lady down in our Airbnb room. I didn’t want to get the Corona, but I also kind of did. That way I’d have immunity and I wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore. We could all get it and all have immunity. For some reason, I felt confident that we’d be okay if we got it. But Paul was fuming. They had one of those low-talking arguments, so I couldn’t hear much of what they said. Their voices raised a few times and I heard Paul say, “I will protect my family, Maggie! You cannot do this!” I couldn’t hear my mom’s answer. My stomach started to hurt a little. Caden looked up at me from his screen and said, “Trampoline?” He had a sixth sense, especially with me. We were step-siblings, but had been together for as long as I could remember, and we were the same age, only a week apart.
When Covid shut down our schools, our parents finally bought us the trampoline I’d been asking for for years. To get away from what was happening in the house, we went out to the backyard and took slow-mo’s of each other jumping. From there we could see the sliding glass door to the Airbnb room. The thick curtain was open, but not the translucent one. She was in there. The Corona was in there. I felt a pull towards the room. As we jumped and I got more and more sweaty and out of breath, I couldn’t stop turning my head towards that glass door. It wasn’t just the Corona, but this person who had chosen us. Why us? As I looked at the door, I thought I saw some sparkles around it, like the ones on the Snapchat filter. I buckled my knees to stop my bounce.
“Caden! Look at the door to the Airbnb room! Do you see that?”
But it stopped and Caden thought I was messing with him.
Then we both saw the curtain move.
The homeless lady stayed.
I’m not sure how my mom convinced Paul, but she did.
My mom needed something to do, someone to save. Saving me wasn’t working because sometimes I just couldn’t make myself do my schoolwork. I would get overwhelmed and feel frozen. My mom would get so mad when I wouldn’t obey. She had worked her whole life and staying home with us didn’t suit her. When she walked into the room you could feel it right away. Her restlessness. She told us that the lady’s name was Ryoko. I looked it up on Wiki and learned that it means refreshing, helpful, good, understanding or distant child. That was reassuring.
My mom became obsessed with the Ryoko project. She would bring her food twice a day and she had a special outfit she’d wear when she went into the Airbnb room, which had its own bathroom.
No one else was allowed to go in there.
My mom wore her Christmas onesie pajamas, her driving gloves, socks and Crocks, an N-95 mask from Paul’s stash left over from the smoky time from the fires, and the goggles from the shed that were for weed-whacking and using the power saw. When she came out, she’d go straight into the laundry room which was down there next to the Airbnb room and put the onesie, gloves and socks in the dryer, spray off the goggles, mask and crocks with disinfectant, and put on rubber gloves and wash the dirty dishes in the utility sink. Then she’d wash her hands for a really long time, and after that a few squirts of hand sanitizer for good measure.
After Ryoko came to stay with us, my mom stopped caring so much about whether I got all my online schoolwork done or not. She was always on her phone or computer, reading about how to treat Covid at home. She checked our temperatures three times a day. She brought Paul’s snoring machine down to the Airbnb room. I started spending a lot of time on the trampoline. There was some mystery about Ryoko that I couldn’t put my finger on. I wondered if she had put some type of spell on my mom that even reached to Paul, because why else would they let her stay? What if she died? Would we be blamed for her death? Charged with a crime? Put in jail? When I asked my mom about this she assured me that she knew exactly the right moment to call an ambulance, and that Ryoko was not there yet and hopefully never would be.
I saw Ryoko through the glass door for the first time on the third day she was in our house. I was on the trampoline filming myself doing the Carole Baskin dance for TikTok. I was eleven years old at that time and all the kids I knew had TikTok and learned all of the dances. During the lockdown, TikTok really took off and many adults started doing it. They said, oh it’s because we’re stuck in our homes, bored. But that’s not why. TikTok was always great. They just hadn’t taken the time to try it. So, some adult made a song from a really weird show on Netflix they were all watching called Tiger King. In the song a country redneck type guy says that a woman named Carole Baskin killed her husband. Everyone was doing the dance and singing the song.
We had a big backyard that sloped downward. The trampoline was down at the bottom against the back fence. I looked up across the weeds to the house and the sliding glass door to the Airbnb room and I saw it again–a splash of sparkles across the glass. They were only there for an instant and when they disappeared, the curtain had been drawn back and Ryoko was standing at the glass, looking out. She motioned to me and I climbed off the trampoline and walked slowly up toward the house. I wasn’t scared. And then I was standing right in front of her, face to face with her through the glass. She was the same height as me, five feet. She was wearing my mom’s gray sweatpants, fuzzy socks and a sweatshirt with my elementary school logo on it. Her straight hair was sticking up all over the place, except where it was pressed down by the elastic straps of Paul’s snoring machine, which she was wearing. She looked like an elephant with the tube stuck to her nostrils and hanging down in front of her. Her shiny black eyes smiled at me.
What happened next amazed me. Ryoko lifted her arms, bent them at the elbows and made fists. Then, she crossed her forearms and brought her right fist up and down. Then she opened both arms wide, circled them around and brought them down in a vertical clap facing me. She was doing the Carole Baskin and she didn’t miss a move. Ryoko finished the dance and tapped the ash from her cigarette into a ceramic dish that was on the bedside table. It was one that my mom used to have on the stove to set dirty spoons down on. Then she grinned, put the cigarette in her mouth and pointed at me. I lifted my arms and she mirrored me. We did the dance together and I couldn’t stop smiling. Something about that tiny, wrinkled lady with glistening leather skin and eyes that burned with pure life, filled me with joy.
I couldn’t keep the secret. I told Caden. Of course he believed me, because he was like that. His world easily incorporated the wizard, which is what he called her. When the Corona first came, he had told us at the dinner table that he was a little scared, but he was excited about fighting the zombies with the machete he used to cut down the ivy in the backyard. I think he really thought that the virus would turn people into zombies.
The next evening we went out to the trampoline together. We bounced a little, but mostly just sat on the smooth, black expanse and stared up at the door. I got tired and looked away for a second. Then Caden said, “I saw it!” He had seen the sparkle. I immediately felt a wave of relief. I didn’t realize it until that moment, but there was a part of me that was afraid I was losing my mind. We walked up on the path we had worn through the tall grass. This time she was sitting cross-legged on the carpet looking out and wearing the snoring machine elephant nose that made me think of Ganesh, the Indian deity I had just learned about in Social Studies. And of course she had the cigarette in her mouth. We stepped onto the lower deck and sat down cross-legged in front of her, like we used to do in elementary school. The glass between us, we were two feet apart, face to face.
We waited to see what she would do. Like the day before, I felt a calmness and I could tell that Caden felt it too. She stared at us in an intense way, like she was searching through us, learning us, and we gave ourselves to her freely. When she finished taking us in, she spoke without moving her lips.
“You know why I’m here?” Caden and I both heard her voice in our heads. I shook my head no, but Caden spoke up. “The Corona gave you magical powers! No, you already had the magical powers, but they aren’t the kind that can fight the Corona. You needed a place to rest. You did a mind trick on our parents so they’d let you stay. So now, now…” Caden was shouting through the glass to her. I was afraid our parents would hear. He had run out of ideas though.
“Yes, I come here to stay alive. I’m old. I no have nothing. I live in the street. Dirty, cold, scary sometime. But still, I want to live.”
Ryoko was listening to our hearts. She squished the end of her cigarette into the dish and looked at us. Her mouth moved just a little bit up at the corners in the smallest hint of a smile. I know that Caden felt it too. A blast of soothing and electrifying water washing over and through us. It was like the most fun, not scary, happy part of a roller-coaster but a hundred times better.
We heard the sliding glass door above us open and my mom’s footsteps on the upper deck. I pictured her, looking out over the backyard, seeing we weren’t there, eyes narrowing, panic building, heart-rate increasing.
Ryoko got up and walked over to the bed and laid down. I could see on his face that we both knew to keep this between us, and that we were probably more lucky than any other kids we knew.
We heard my mother’s footsteps walking over to the stairs, so we got up quick and got over there before she came down.
“What were you doing down there? Were you bothering Ryoko? Did she open the door? Did you have contact with her?” My mom’s voice was rising higher and higher with each question. Caden answered.
“I was just looking for my nerf gun in that storage thing under there.” He was a good liar. Better than me.
“Okay. But stay away from the door. Don’t bother her. She needs to rest. And if she comes out into the backyard when you’re there, you need to come straight up here. You can’t go near her. She has the virus and she’s… I don’t think she would come out, but she’s not really reliable. Okay? Now come up for dinner.”
The next day two things happened. One – we learned that school would not reopen for the rest of the year. We were happy because neither Caden nor I liked school. I dreaded going to school. I didn’t have any friends for a while and I would spend lunchtime hiding in a bathroom stall. My mom had to go in and talk with the school counselor a bunch of times. Caden had always hated school because of his learning differences and his ADHD. It was really hard for him to concentrate and he couldn’t remember things, but he had tons of friends. Everyone liked him. He was funny and unpredictable and there was nothing mean about him. He stayed in touch with his friends through his video game. So, school being canceled was all good for both of us. Plus, now we had Ryoko.
But the second thing that happened was that Ryoko got more sick. My mom trudged up the stairs slowly after her first descent into the Air BnB room, the crease deepening between her eyebrows. She was holding one of our old walkie-talkies. I felt light-headed and immediately damp under my arms.I had been thinking about her all night.
“Something is wrong with Ryoko. She’s taken a turn for the worse. She’s breathing okay, but she’s listless. No energy and no appetite. And her fever was gone yesterday, but now it’s back.”
“Are you going to call the ambulance?” I asked.
“I don’t think so. Not yet. As long as she’s breathing okay, I think we can wait. She just needs to rest. I put batteries in your walkie-talkies and gave her one, so she can let me know if she gets worse or needs anything. But I’m going to have to check on her more frequently until she improves.”
The next two days dragged by so slowly I thought they’d never end. I fell behind on my schoolwork because I just didn’t feel like doing it and my mom was too preoccupied going back and forth between checking on Ryoko and arguing with Paul about keeping her, that she didn’t have time to sit with me and force me to follow the directions of my teachers and their Google classrooms. She wanted me to be a “self-starter” and do it on my own. I wanted to do it and make her proud. I hated disappointing her. But I just couldn’t get myself to do it. My mind was on hold, scared of what might happen to Ryoko, waiting and hoping for her to summon us again. But I couldn’t tell my mom that. What happened between Ryoko, Caden and me was something no adult could know about. So I just had to accept that my mom thought I was being insolent for no apparent reason.
On the third day my mom came bouncing up the stairs a hundred times lighter. Ryoko had turned a corner! The household breathed a sigh of relief. Paul perked up and started back in with his dad jokes and general silliness that we all loved. Caden and I instantly became scholarly, caught up and finished our school work by 3:00. We spent the rest of the afternoon on the trampoline waiting for a sign.
At 5:00 on the dot, Ryoko sent the shimmery signal. Caden and I smiled at one another, climbed down from the trampoline and walked through the tall weeds up to the sliding glass door. There she sat, cross-legged and smiling at us.
She didn’t have the snoring machine on anymore, but she did have the cigarette in her mouth, as usual. It wasn’t until then that I realized that we could never smell her cigarettes, not in the house or in the backyard. How could that be? We sat down in front of her, just like the time before and this time it was a little different. She started to “talk” to us right away, but there were no longer any grammatical errors in her speech. She didn’t speak like English was her second language any more. Again, she wasn’t opening her mouth and speaking, but we could hear her clear as crystal. Ryoko told us her story. This is what she said:
Ryoko’s mother Tumomi was pregnant in Japan during World War II. The people in her town heard that the Americans were going to bomb them, so they left and went to the top of a hill outside of town and they were camping there. Tumomi took her magical two-headed bird with her. The two heads got angry at one another, and one of them got the idea to poison the other one, but since they shared the same stomach they both died. Tumomi loved that bird, so she was really sad. Right at that moment when the bird died, a bomb was dropped on their town. Everything suddenly was blindingly white, like a million camera flashes on a sheet of snow. At that moment Tumomi went into labor, and as her city turned to ash, Ryoko was born. It was the atomic bomb. Tumomi told Ryoko that she carried the spirit of the two-headed bird in her. And it was true.
Ryoko told us that her life was very hard. Her dad died in the bomb and her mom was always sad because she lost both her husband and her beloved bird at the same time. Ryoko said that two forces of the bird were always fighting each other inside her. Maybe it’s because she was born when the bomb landed, or maybe it’s because of the spirit of the two-headed bird, but Ryoko has always been strange and a little bit magical. But no one understands her and she sometimes doesn’t even understand herself. Even so, she realized when the virus got her, that she still wanted to live. Because of the virus she found our mom and she found us and she will live. She told us to never give up. And don’t judge other people who are different from you. It was the regular kind of message you might get in school, but it was real because it came from Ryoko. She is a real-life magical person. She said she chose us because grown-ups don’t understand, but we’ll be grown-ups someday and hopefully we’ll still remember her.
After she told us her story, Ryoko just stopped talking. We waited. I could tell she wasn’t sick anymore by her easy movement. I knew she would probably be gone the next day. That made me sad, but I knew she needed her freedom, even if it was as a homeless person.
She stood up and so did we.. She lifted her arms forward, bent them at the forearms, and made fists.
And together, we danced the Carole Baskin.
December 18, 2020
San Francisco, CA