With a fresh chalk, Stitch Mouth sketched feverishly at our feet, leading us downward. We descended, burrowing ourselves into the basement of a basement of an even lower in-between room. Stitch Mouth was desperate still, mumbling to herself, trying to figure out what had happened, blaming herself. Balloon Girl touched her arm. The chalk dropped. Stitch Mouth fell into a gasping and hyperventilating fit. Her hand went to her chest, her shoulders shaking. Between the tight breaths, she began to utter, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.”
I lowered myself to her. “Stitch Mouth. We’re okay.” But she couldn’t see me.
Then she shrieked, seeing something I couldn’t, and began sobbing horribly against the wall.
Balloon Girl stepped forward and slapped Stitch Mouth across the face.
Wakened from her trance, Stitch Mouth asked with a hand to her cheek, “Why’d you do slap me?”
It was the only way to help you. The voice was like a quiet echo.
“Wait! Who said that?”
They turned to me.
“Balloon Girl? Was that you?” I asked.
You can hear me?
“Yeah. If that’s you.”
Well, we are the only ones here. So it likely was me.
I asked the hollow eyes of Balloon Girl, “That’s you?”
It always has been.
“That’s amazing!” Then I asked her, “Is Stitch Mouth okay?”
“I’m right here, Sarah,” Stitch Mouth said, still rubbing at the reddish glow on her cheek from the slap she’d received.
“I know,” I said.
“So why did you ask Balloon Girl?”
“Well, because you look terrible, and sometimes, even when you’re not okay, you pretend you are anyway.”
She knows you well.
“I’m fine,” Stitch Mouth said, irritable at being the topic of concern.
“You didn’t seem fine. Are you sure you’re okay?”
Stitch Mouth’s eyes flashed red with a sudden fury. “Stop asking! I’m fine!”
Stitch Mouth, you cannot blame her. You scared the both of us. You were still in the home of that witch, reliving the moment –
“Shut up,” Stitch Mouth commanded.
Balloon Girl bowed her head. I’m sorry. You had us both concerned, that’s all I’m saying.
“I’m fine now.”
But you weren’t. You were acting like a baby.
“I was not!”
Now you sound like a baby.
Stitch Mouth huffed. “Well, I’m very glad Sarah gets to hear you now. That way I’m not the only one who has to hear how mean you can be. And stop looking at me like that. I’m fine.” But a spasm of nerves interrupted her, telling us she was lying. Stitch Mouth gritted her teeth into an angry smile in an effort to regain control.
That’s more like it. No, not that smile. The other smile. Nope. The other one. Wait, wait. There we go!
Stitch Mouth smiled a ridiculous fake smile. “Is this better?”
No. I don’t like that one either. I like the angry smiling face.
Stitch Mouth scowled with a grin thrown in. “This one?”
Yes! It brings out the color of your eyes.
“That doesn’t even make sense,” Stitch Mouth said.
Sure it does. All I’m saying is that your smile, the one you use to make us think you’re happy, is stupid sometimes.
“My smile isn’t stupid.” Stitch Mouth sounded hurt.
I’m sorry. It’s not stupid. But I like the angry smile more.
Stitch Mouth placed the dropped chalk back into her purse. “I don’t have to be like you, Balloon Girl.”
But you don’t have to wear your smile like a mask.
Stitch Mouth’s shoulders sagged. “Then what else should I do? Tell me that. Cry? Lose control like I just did? Because that’s what will happen if I don’t.”
We only want to see you smile when you’re happy. It’s my favorite. I’m tired of your vain attempts at being more mature than us. Besides, Sarah is the oldest between us, and I’m two months older than you, so you’re the youngest of us. So stop trying to act like you’re the oldest or something.
Stitch Mouth twirled in frustration. “Oh my gosh! That doesn’t even matter! The both of us are like a hundred years old! But of course, there you go! Doing like you always do! As if two months means you’re that much older!”
Well, I am older.
“Not when we’re decades and decades old!”
Well, I’ll always be older, whether you like it or not. And when you’re a thousand years old, I’ll still be a thousand AND two months.
“Oh, my gosh! Sometimes I just want to punch you in your dumb skull face!”
Do it then.
“Maybe I will.”
Maybe I’ll unlock the rest of these balloons and watch them pummel you.
“You would,” Stitch Mouth accused.
That’s right. Good luck punching me when that happens. I’ll probably just sit back, watch, and eat something.
“So food can just drop out from your ribcage,” Stitch Mouth teased.
That was mean.
“Come here,” Stitch Mouth said.
They hugged. You weren’t doing very well for a moment.
“I know. Returning there forced me to remember. But I’m okay now.”
There. That is the smile I have always loved. The one your mother gave you and that your father taught you to keep.