A Mango-Shaped Space Read online

  The hammering begins and the familiar mottled gray bursts of color appear about a foot away from my face. The color and shape of a hammer hitting a nail has become such a part of my existence that I barely notice it. I can see right through the color-bursts, but they still distract me from whatever I’m doing. If it was a nicer color, I might not mind as much.

  I slip into my sneakers as I approach the back kitchen door, stepping cautiously around wooden planks, hammers, nails, and one very scary-looking chain saw. As always, the smell of sawdust is in the air and on my clothes and in my throat. It is inescapable around here, and it has long since mingled with the taste of multicolored chalk dust that still haunts me from third grade.

  I go up to my room and look for Mango, whose official name is Mango the Magnificat. He usually sleeps at the foot of my bed on my old Winnie-the-Pooh baby blanket, completely covering the faded Pooh and Piglet walking into the sunset. He’s not there now, but he left behind his favorite toy — a stuffed Tweety Bird that he likes to carry around in his mouth. I call out his name and hear a faraway, orange-soda-colored meow in response. I trace the sound to Beth’s room and find the little gray-and-white traitor curled up on Beth’s pillow. I swoop him up in my arms and glance at Beth’s night table. By some huge oversight on her part, Beth left her diary right out in plain sight when she went to California. When I first noticed it, I thought maybe she wanted me to read it. Then I decided that she had probably booby-trapped it somehow and she’d know if I peeked.

  I deposit Mango on my blanket, where he belongs. I start to shut the door behind me, when Zack sticks his foot in the way.

  “Just a sec, Mia,” Zack says, pushing the door back open. “I need to do something.”

  “You need to do something in my room?” I ask, instantly suspicious. Zack has only recently gotten over his destructive phase. For years, nothing in the house was safe. He was very good at taking things apart but much less skilled at the art of putting them back together.

  “Don’t worry,” he insists. “It will only take a second.”

  “On one condition,” I say, trapping him in the doorway. “You have to tell me why it’s bad luck to walk under a ladder.”

  He rolls his eyes. “That’s easy. It’s because you’re disrupting the sacred triangle of life formed by the ladder, the ground, and the wall.”

  “Huh?” I let my guard down, and he takes this opportunity to brush past me into my room. He heads directly over to my clock collection on the far wall. I follow him and notice he’s clutching several watches in his small hands. Two belong to my father, one is my mother’s, and one is Beth’s.

  “What are you doing with all those wa —”

  “Shh,” he says, cutting me off. “I have to get this exactly right.” He stares at the faces of my clocks as if they have a message for him.

  “Get what exactly ri —”

  “Shh!” His eyes dart from the wooden cuckoo clock to the fluorescent star-shaped one, over to the big digital one, down to the clock in the shape of a train, and across to the electronic one that speaks the time out loud. I’ve collected clocks since first grade. Every Christmas, I get to pick out another one.

  “I have to set these watches exactly right,” Zack explains, busily twisting the watch dials to match the time on my synchronized clocks. “Otherwise, some of us will be living in the past and some in the future. In the very same house! Can’t have that. Very bad.”

  “What difference could a minute or two make?”

  “It has to do with folds in the space-time continuum, obviously,” he replies, as though I should clearly have known that.

  “Where did you get that from? It sounds like something from Star Trek.”

  He shakes his head adamantly. “I read it on the NASA Web site.”

  I should have known. Zack is addicted to the Internet. “You can’t believe everything you read on the comput —”

  I don’t get to finish my sentence because at that moment all the clocks strike five. The cuckoo pops out and cuckoos. Loudly. The train blows its whistle. Really loudly. All the alarms go off at the same time — buzzing and chiming and ringing and shrieking — all much louder than I’ve ever heard them. My father is still hammering. My mother honks in the driveway to let us know she is back from the airport with Beth. Beth slams the front door open and drops her suitcase on the floor. Mango runs under the bed. I put my hands over my ears and shut my eyes to stop all the colors that are bombarding me.

  It doesn’t work. My sight is filled with blurry purple triangles and waves of green and floating black dots and balls of all sizes and shades of colors, spinning, swooping, swirling in front of me and across the room and in my mind’s eye. If I had been prepared, I would have been able to anticipate the onslaught, but now it is overwhelming and I feel like I’m suffocating.

  “What’s wrong with you?” Zack shouts. I’m crouching on the floor now.

  “Why is everything so loud?” I cry above the noise.

  A second later the chimes stop. No more honking, no more doors slamming, just the usual hammering. The colors and shapes quickly fade away, and I feel like I can breathe again. I open my eyes to find Zack staring at me with a combination of concern and surprise. I stand up and quickly turn one of the clocks around. The volume was turned all the way up. The same with the others. My hand shakes slightly as I pull them all off the wall and rest them on the bed.

  “I don’t get it. I always keep the alarms turned off.”

  Zack tries to slink out of the room, but I grab his sleeve. I hold him there until he confesses.

  “Okay, I switched on the alarms and turned the volume up a little before you came home. I did it so I’d be able to hear them from my room.”

  “You could have heard them from your room if your room was in Alaska!” I push him into the hall and lock my door.

  “Hey,” he says, knocking hard. “I only did it so I wouldn’t be in your room without permission.”

  “You were in here without permission to turn the alarms on, weren’t you?”

  Silence. Then, “What’s your problem anyway?”

  Ignoring him, I switch off the alarms and hang the clocks in their rightful spots. I watch them silently ticking and blink back the stinging tears. How could Zack be so unaffected by the noise? What if I’d been out in public when something like that happened? I’d look pretty ridiculous crouching in the hallway at school.

  As I stand there feeling sorry for myself, Mango peeks out from his hiding place, looks around, then tentatively crawls out and winds himself around my legs. I pick him up and head over to the closet, where I store my art supplies. I have a painting to finish and a grandfather to visit. I always put music on when I paint, but for the first time I can remember, I’m afraid that the colors will overwhelm me. I never want to feel so out of control again.

  I try to finish the painting, but I can’t concentrate. It’s too quiet. Even the hammering has stopped. I choose a Mozart piece that Grandpa used to like, turn the volume way down, and press the Play button before I can chicken out. The colors immediately and gently flow over me, energizing me, reminding me that I can still enjoy them. The glossy red-barnlike color of the violin, the silvery-bluish white of the flute, the school-bus yellow of the French horn. All of them layering on top of one another, changing, shifting, belonging, at that minute, only to me.

  Chapter Two

  I stand back to admire my work. Against a background of blue-gray sky, my grandfather seems to gaze right at me. His round face has the look of someone waiting for something that has been a long time coming.

  But something is still missing. Staring at the painting, I finally realize what it is. I wash off my brush and prepare the gray and white paints. Brush stroke by brush stroke, Mango appears, perched on Grandpa’s right shoulder. I can only fit a kitten-size Mango in the small space. I stand back and study it, pleased with the result. After a whole year, the painting is now finished. Mango fits on Grandpa’s shoulder like the las