You have never heard of Belfast, Northern Ireland, or the IRA. Never shared a room with anyone other than your little sister, Erica, who will sleep in your parents’ walk-in closet while an eleven-year-old Irish exchange student named Paula takes her bed.
This is how your parents have explained Paula’s coming: In Northern Ireland, the Protestants and Catholics are fighting. You are one of several families who will host children from both sides with the hope that one day, as grownups, they will remember that they are not so different from each other.
Paula’s hair is the color of honey (like yours), eyes a murky green (not like yours). She arrives in black jeans and a Madonna t-shirt. You are not allowed to listen to Madonna. She does not look you in the eye when you are introduced.
Dinner is at McDonald’s by the airport. Paula sits beside your mom and picks her cheeseburger apart like she’s hunting for something. When your dad asks about Belfast she rips her french fries into tiny pieces, talking softly. “It’s like any city, really. A bit of trash everywhere.” She carves curlicues in ketchup piles with her fry pieces.
It’s an hour’s drive home and Erica makes you play “I Spy” until it gets so dark that you can’t pick anything out of the window. Paula falls asleep. You had wanted to explain how your house sits alone on a square piece of land surrounded by maple trees that spin off tiny boomerangs in the fall.
Paula wakes as the car pulls into the driveway. As she stares out the window, you wonder how she’s seeing your brick house, the porch light shining on the boxwoods out front and the stilled rockers on the porch.
Outside the car, she stands very still. “Are the streetlights out?” she asks.
“Oh,” your dad laughs. “We don’t have them this far out in the country.”
“Is this anything like Belfast?” you ask, and she shakes her head.
You hear the giggles first, feel sweaty breath on your cheek and sit up. The pink-blue glow of your seashell night-light gives the room a hazy feel. Then, darkness.
Something over your face makes it hard to breathe. A sheet? You lunge right, left. You pinch at the gaps where your eye sockets are. And then, the something slacks, slides to the floor.
You palm your chest to slow down your racing heart. It’s okay, you tell yourself. You’re okay.
“Gotcha.” Paula sits Indian-style on her bed.
You cannot speak though there are words, lots of them, that want to tumble out. “You ever seen someone blow up?” she asks. “Body parts flying in the air?”
When you finally fall back to sleep it’s to the image of a parade with body parts falling down like rain.
You face her, covers pulled up to your chin.
“My brother’s a cop.” She scratches and pulls at her knee. “He’s a hero in Belfast. He’s been in parades.”
You say nothing, watching until her head leans back against the wall. When you finally fall back to sleep it’s to the image of a parade with body parts falling down like rain.
In the morning, Paula is curled into a ball, face burrowed to her knees. You hear your dad in the kitchen grinding coffee beans, and shuffle toward the comfort of him. He gives you a hug.
“Sleeping,” you say.
“I thought we’d take her to the lake today,” your dad says. “Do a little swimming. It’s supposed to be hot.”
You love the lake, the little colored strings the lifeguards clip to your wrist after you’ve paid, a diving board you swam out to last year for the first time. You hope Paula can swim. You don’t want to be stuck with all the little kids behind the rope. At ten o’clock your mom tells you to go wake Paula.
Her blankets are bunched into a circle by the pillow. You can’t see her.
“Hey, Paula.” Nothing.
You inch closer. “Hey,” you tap the highest point on the mound of covers. “Wake up.” You pull the covers back so that the white strip of her shoulder pokes out. “Get up.”
When you reach over to touch her again she grabs your hand, squeezes so tightly that you yank it back, more forceful than you realized because it jerks her out of bed. “Owww!”
She glares at you.
“I’m sorry,” you say, cradling your pinched hand, but you’re not really sorry.
She stands and stretches and you can see the tips of her nipples through her tank top. You do not yet have nipples that poke through shirts.
“Fine,” she says, the word in her Irish lilt sounding like she’s happy, but you’re pretty sure she’s not. “I’m up.”
You pull the covers up on your bed, folding them back over the pillow. “Can you swim?”
“Please,” she says. “Only a baby can’t swim.” She stands beside you, heavy like a wet towel.
When Paula takes off her jeans and t-shirt at the lake, she’s wearing the tiniest bikini you’ve ever seen—squares of black connected by neon orange strings. Your mom would never let you wear that, not in a million years, but she doesn’t even glance at Paula.
Your suit, underneath shorts and a t-shirt, is a blue one-piece with thick straps, a hand-me-down from a girl at church.
“Well,” Paula says, crossing her arms, “are you getting in the water in that?”
“I have to go to the bathroom.” You turn and sprint up the hill before anyone can stop you.
The women’s bathroom is warm and smells like suntan oil. You slide out of your clothes, folding them carefully on the bench by the mirror. Your bathing suit sags in the butt, your hair is stringy and damp from the heat. You have a mole on your neck the size of an eraser tip and you wonder if anyone will ever find you pretty.
Outside it smells like french fries and the sunlight makes you squint. Girls toss their hair back and laugh at the boys plucking their bathing suit straps. Your bare feet burn on the concrete walkway.
Paula is no longer under the tree where your parents sit with books open on their knees. Erica isn’t there either. You toss your clothes on the blanket and walk quickly toward the beach.
“Hey, Alli, over here!” Erica waves from the water where Paula, waist-deep, stands with her hands on her hips. “Paula can do lots of flips underwater,” she says. “Show Alli.”
Paula shrugs, ducks under, and you can’t see anything other than the bottoms of her feet. Erica climbs up onto your hip, and you let her despite how heavy she is. One, two, three, four, five, six. You can’t do six flips. You make sure you are looking away when Paula comes up for air.
After lunch, as the two of you stand by the shallow area watching Erica slide into the water from a bright orange mushroom, Paula asks if Catholics come to this lake. You shrug. “It doesn’t look like it,” she says. You wonder how she knows.
That night you dream your entire family lives underwater in a sunken ship and you’ve lost Erica in a room lined with shelves of teacups. You call her name over and over until your voice runs out.
You wake to the weight of a body on yours.
You twist and kick, and finally, she rolls off. You push yourself up against the wall by your bed.
Slow breaths, you tell yourself, just take slow breaths.
“Have you ever seen someone starve to death?” She is talking to you from the floor. “My brother has when he worked in the prison and the Catholic boys did.” She stands up and you do, too, though the mattress is squishy and your balance is off.
“I bet nothing interesting like that happens here,” she says, flopping back on her bed. “It’s boring. You’re lucky.”
“Have you ever seen anyone starve?” you ask.
The room is quiet except for the air-conditioning humming on.
There are parties scheduled every Sunday afternoon for the four weeks the Irish group is in Virginia. All the families are supposed to attend so the children can be together. Your mother says it helps with the homesickness. It’s also where the Protestant and Catholic groups are supposed to mingle.
You don’t understand why you have to go to all of them. “Because,” your mom says as she smoothes your hair in a way that annoys you. “You’re her connection to here, to this experience. It’s different where Paula lives. It’s—” She trails off and bites the inside of her cheek. You wait for her to tell you what it’s like because you’d really like to know.
“It’s just a completely different world where Paula lives and she needs to understand that that’s not all there is.” She looks at you hopefully, as if that makes perfect sense, though it doesn’t. Not really.
At the party, Paula is immediately enveloped by her Irish friends and they swarm out the back door. She doesn’t even look at you. You stand besides your mom and study the green Jello salad, counting the cherries floating inside.
But finally the Martins, your friends and partner family, arrive—a refreshing flood of blond hair and freckles. “Hey,” says Margaret, the oldest, when she sees you. She pulls a blond girl in front of her. “This is Mary!” You can tell she is happy to be with Mary, who has kind blue eyes that flutter up to yours and then back down again. “Hullo,” she says.
Mary laughs easily and you wish she lived with you instead of Paula.
There is a flurry of hugging and introductions and, for a few minutes, you are able to forget that Paula is outside, that she will still be getting in the car with you when it’s time to go home.
You ask Mary her favorite subject in school. Math. If she has siblings. Four. She laughs easily and you wish she lived with you instead of Paula. You are about to ask her what she wants to be when she grows up when Paula arrives, sits down next to you. “Paula,” your dad says, “this is Mary. She’s living with our friends, the Martins. We’ll be spending lots of time together over the next four weeks. I understand you and Mary both live in Belfast.”
Paula studies her plate, says, “Hi.”
“Hullo,” Mary says, looking off to the yard.
Paula is quiet, but everyone else talks a lot—the parents, the Martin girls, you and Mary. When you leave, you feel the happiest since Paula came and that night, she falls asleep first, and fast.
Fingers dig into your shoulder, digging, it feels, for the bone. They lift your shoulders and shove them down again. All this before your eyes have opened. Paula straddles you, her voice low and raspy. “You think you can talk to that Catholic bitch so easy?”
You try to push her off but her grip is tight, so you rock from side to side, flailing your arms, and eventually, she slides off and stomps back to her bed.
You are awake until the first beams of sunlight slide through your window blinds.
Your parents and the Martins keep everyone busy with trips to the lake, a museum with dinosaurs, blueberry picking. Mostly on these trips, Paula hangs out with Erica and you hang out with Mary unless one of the adults suggests they sit next to one another.
One Saturday, your mom says Paula will be going with the Martins to the mall in Greensboro so that she and Mary can buy some souvenirs for their families. You are thrilled. When your mom pulls out of the driveway with Paula in the backseat, you do six cartwheels around the living room.
You are tucked into the couch reading Anne Frank’s diary when Paula returns, goes straight to your room, and shuts the door. You keep reading. Later, the phone rings. You hear your mom in the kitchen, a lot of “mmmhmmms” and “oh dears” before she hangs up. She stands at the edge of the couch and looks at you, beginning to say something but stopping. She scratches her head and disappears down the hall. You hear knocking and the creak of a door, your bedroom door.
Your father leans against the kitchen doorframe, arms crossed, picking at the beard hair on his chin. You sink deeper into the couch and try to breathe as quietly as possible. It’s obvious Paula is in trouble. You don’t see her at all that evening, and when you go to sleep, Paula is pressed tightly against the wall.
This time, it’s just her voice.
“Get up. We’re going for a walk.”
You try to find her in the darkness of your room. The night-light is off.
“Get dressed.” A mass of soft things lands on your head and slides off.
Paula twists open the blinds. The moon turns her into a human glow stick. You see her outline, thin-shouldered in a tank top, the threads of cut-off shorts hanging angrily down her thighs.
You don’t, of course, have to do what she says, but there is also a part of you, a very small part, that is intrigued with where you are going. You can’t help but be a little jealous of how she acts, like she’s scared of absolutely nothing. You put on the shorts and t-shirt she’s thrown at you.
You cross the yard side by side, not talking. She leads the way straight into the woods, not even hesitating with the way the branches and leaves nip at your hair and clothes. The moon makes everything seem to glow from inside. Within minutes you are deeper than you’ve ever been allowed to go without your parents.
You see the man doubled over, blood between fingers clutching his belly. You try to think of something else.
“A hermit lives out here,” you say, as if it doesn’t matter and you’ve never been frightened of running into him. You overheard someone at church telling your dad about him once.
“What’s a hermit?” she asks.
“Someone who lives alone in a house and doesn’t talk to people.”
“Oh, like a squatter.”
Your hermit is far more terrifying than a “squatter.” “This guy’s lived alone for a really long time. He goes for walks at night and shoots BBs at anyone who comes too close.” You’re making this up, but it sounds good.
“BBs aren’t bullets,” Paula says.
“They’re a kind of bullet.”
“But they don’t kill people.”
Paula plunges through the tall grass. “One time my mum and I watched a man get shot, right on the sidewalk. Bullet hit him square in the stomach, went right through him.”
You see the man doubled over, blood between fingers clutching his belly. You try to think of something else.
Finally, Paula stops in front of the biggest tree stump you’ve ever seen. “Sit,” she says, pointing to a section haloed by the moon. “I’m going to teach you how to smoke. Because God, after today, I need a smoke.” You know that smoking is bad for you and you’re both just kids.
She pushes a cigarette between her lips. A flame appears at the tip. You can’t see her eyes or the freckles just under them. The end of the cigarette catches and settles into a black orange glow. “Here,” she says, handing it over.
“I don’t want it,” you say, although you do. In the same way that you’d like the old men sitting outside Frankie’s Exxon to whistle as you walk inside.
“Well, we’re not going back until you have a smoke.” You can no longer see her eyes, but you feel them. You take the cigarette.
“Good.” The lighter flicks again in front of her face, making her eyes seem darker.
You examine the red-tipped end.
“Put the non-burning end in your mouth, stupid. And then suck in the air, like a straw.”
When you start coughing, she laughs. “You’ll get it,” she promises, her voice almost kind. “Keep practicing. It took me a while when I first learned, too. My brother taught me before they locked him up. Said it would help keep my nerves steady when things went to hell.”
You don’t know anyone who’s ever been to jail. She tips her face to the sky. “He could be having a smoke right now, too.”
You try the cigarette again, taking a slow, short breath then blowing it out immediately. No coughing.
“Good,” she says. “Better. That’s all for now. I’ve got to make this pack last. Let’s go back.” She turns away from you, but not in the direction you came.
“I don’t think that’s the way.” You try to laugh in a hard way, like she does, a way that isn’t really laughter. You can feel her staring at you even if you can’t exactly see her eyes.
You’re unfamiliar with night sounds this deep in the woods. You imagine the cicadas surrounding you, thumbing miniature tambourines.
The fingernail moon, so bright before, slides behind clouds. Bad things happen in the dark, in the woods, to girls alone. And as much as you don’t like Paula, as much as you might even hate her, you don’t want anything bad to happen to her. Or to you.
“Follow me.” You stand up and head toward a clump of bamboo trees whose trunks look too skinny to hide anything dangerous. “People actually build houses out of this stuff,” you say.
“Not in Ireland,” Paula says.
“Of course not in Ireland. I mean on islands and stuff.”
“Ireland is an island.”
“But not a tropical island.”
You hear barking dogs in the distance and wonder if there are coyotes or even wolves you should be worried about.
“It sounds weird out here,” she says.
“Just regular country sounds.” In truth, you’re unfamiliar with night sounds this deep in the woods. You imagine the cicadas surrounding you, thumbing miniature tambourines. Up in the trees you can’t see inside, birds call to each other.
“I don’t hear birds in Belfast,” Paula says. “Only honking cars and trains and people yelling. I miss that.” She is quiet for a few steps. “Not the sirens, though. I always wondered if it was coming toward our part of town, for someone we knew.”
Sometimes an old car heaves its way up the two-lane highway in front of your house, but you can’t even imagine what it would be like to hear a train at night. You’ve only heard a police siren once, during a school field day.
The bamboo forest ends at a small clearing. The moon hangs like a skinny Christmas ornament with enough light so that you can see a house with a porch cluttered by old bottles, cans, and newspapers, a couch flipped on its side and chairs turned upside down.
“Whoa,” Paula whispers, and you can smell the smoke still on her breath. “Who lives here?”
You have no idea, and you wonder if your parents know about this house. There’s a hazy glow coming from the back and you both walk toward it, taking slow, quiet steps. Eventually you stand side by side, up on tiptoes, fingers clutching a window ledge, just able to see through the lowest pane of glass.
It’s a room filled with plants, fat and leafy, arranged in a circle under an orange light.
“Is this a greenhouse?” Paula asks. There’s a blue sleeping bag crumpled on the floor.
A branch snaps. Maybe it’s you. Maybe it’s Paula. But you don’t know for sure.
You find her hand in the dark, and you run and run and don’t remember in what direction or how, but you keep going until you arrive in another clearing: your own backyard, where you collapse together on the grass.
The sky is full of tiny stars at every angle, stretched wide like the planetarium you visited with your class last year. When your breathing finally slows and your heart is no longer railing against your rib cage, Paula whispers, “I didn’t do it. What they said I did to Mary. Her busted lip. She tripped. Honest to God.”
You want Mary to be okay. You like Mary. You are not sure about Paula. “What does Mary say?”
“She wants me to get in trouble. Catholics.”
The wind rattles the trees. Paula lights another cigarette, hands it to you, and you suck it just like she showed you, blowing smoke you can barely make out, and watch the sky. A slip of light moves slowly across your field of vision. Maybe a plane, or maybe a shooting star.
Over breakfast, fingers tapping her coffee cup, your mom tells Paula that there will be a meeting with the Irish chaperone, today. Paula nods and spins the spoon around her cereal bowl. Paula doesn’t look up and neither do you, but you can feel your mother watching Paula, hunting down signs that she is either violent and dishonest or innocent and misunderstood.
Later, in your room, Paula pulls on her black jeans and Madonna t-shirt.
“Just tell the truth,” you say, because you believe in the truth, that it always wins out and makes things right. Even so, you don’t know if what Paula has said is true, that it was raining when they left the mall so Mrs. Martin told her and Mary to wait under the awning at Belk while she got the car. Mary wanted to sit on the bench but slipped and fell, busting her lip. No one saw it happen and when Mrs. Martin asked Mary she refused to utter a single word, just looked at Paula.
Your parents are talking quietly when you both return to the kitchen. Your mother’s black purse hangs from her shoulder and she is wearing a skirt. She only wears skirts to church.
After they leave your dad crosses his arms and leans against the stove. “What do you think? Did she do it?”
You shrug and look out into the backyard. You think you can still see the impressions your bodies left in the grass last night.
Later, your father comes to your room and sits on the edge of the bed. “Paula and Mary will be flying home this weekend. They’ve been kicked out of the program.” You’re surprised when you start to cry. He pulls you into his lap and you lean against his shoulder that smells like the patchouli incense he sometimes burns.
“I told them they better not put me next to that little bitch on the plane ride home.” She lights a cigarette and hands it to you.
Your mom brings pizza home for dinner. Erica does most of the talking. Paula doesn’t speak at all, eyes swollen, and her cheeks, normally pink and freckled, are red and splotchy.
Your mom also brought home The Mighty Ducks from Blockbuster and lets you and Paula stay up late to watch it. Just the two of you.
When the movie ends, you think she’s sleeping until she asks if you want to try to find that house again, the one in the woods.
When you are halfway across the yard you tell her you’re sorry she’s leaving.
“I told them they better not put me next to that little bitch on the plane ride home.” She lights a cigarette and hands it to you. “I’ll get us to the tree stump if you can get us to the house.”
The trees seem kinder, leaves fluttering like butterfly wings. It’s windier tonight and you can see the shadow of Paula’s ponytail swaying ahead of you. You like the way the breeze lifts your hair just slightly. You like the fact that it’s a little brighter out, the fingernail moon on its way to being full again, though Paula will be long gone by the time that actually happens.
“How did you find this stump?” you ask.
“I didn’t,” Paula says over her shoulder. “I figured if we walked long enough we’d eventually find a good spot.”
“I’m not usually allowed in the woods alone.”
“That’s a funny rule,” Paula says. “It’s not like anyone is going to shoot you out here.” Her fingers trail the leaves at shoulder height.
“Does that happen often in Belfast?” you ask.
She doesn’t answer until you are both in front of the stump. “Sometimes it does.”
You spot the bamboo grove off to the left. “This way.”
The bamboo thins and the house wafts out of the darkness. You see now that paint has peeled off the front in long strips. In other spots, there remains a white that flashes when the moonlight hits it. As you edge closer to the porch, you can see the names on glass bottles lining the edge: Crush, Coke, Dr Pepper. Paula picks up an old magazine, fanning its pages.
After that, everything freezes. Or maybe just you. Because you see the flame from her lighter and you see the magazine glow orange and you see her throw it on the couch and you see the couch catch quickly, the flames cracking and roaring and illuminating the porch as if someone finally switched on the light. But you do not move.
When you do, it’s to back away from the flames that have made your face hot. Then you remember the blue sleeping bag and run to the back window, a wide circular path because the flames are too hot to run straight up to the house. The sleeping bag is still there, but there is no one in it. There is no one anywhere out here except you and Paula.
You are out of breath when you get back to the front of the house, flames winding around the porch columns like streamers. Paula is crying. “You can tell them I did this. I did not hurt Mary, but I did this.”
You both jump at the sharp sound of something exploding. Flames are making their way inside the house now. If anger had a sound, you think, this would be it.
Paula coughs and cries and you pull her back, away from the house, her green eyes wet, her cheeks shiny. “I’ll write you letters,” she says in between gulps of air. “I promise I will.” Had you answered, she wouldn’t have been able to hear you anyway. The roar of everything burning up is far too close.
S. Hope Mills studied fiction at Pacific University and spends most of her time shaping stories at a creative agency in Virginia. She can be found at SHopemills.com. Her favorite virtual watering hole is Twitter: @shopemills.