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Watch Over Me

The clock is a constant in a shifting world. Six women share time-related tales

Watch Over Me

Hodaya Ziv

I spent my first day in foster care with a huge smile smeared across my ten-year-old face, nodding hard when anyone asked if everything was okay, and exulting to all who’d listen about the huge bookshelves in my “new family’s” house.

Come nighttime, I had a bath, at the behest of the mother (that’s something you do every day? who knew!), and dutifully went to my room and lay down in bed. The lady (I wasn’t sure what to call her in my head yet) stood by while I said Shema, looming and unfamiliar. Then when I finished, she suddenly crouched down at my side, passed a hand over my forehead, and leaned in as if to kiss me. I pulled my head back, and even then I didn’t cry, although it was the closest I got.

As soon as she left the room, I shot out of bed. The aloneness — the first time all day — prickled and threatened. The only one there was me, and I didn’t want to spend any time with Me. Me had too many scary memories and scary future thoughts, and she made me feel icky.

There were books, though. Not just on the huge bookshelves in the living room; every room in this house had books. And even though my “new family” didn’t have any children, children’s and young adult books crammed the smallish bookshelf in this room.

One problem, though: no light.

There was a little lamp at the end of the corridor, and by whatever residue shone under the door I could read the large lettering of the titles, but no more.

Me loomed over my shoulder, that horrible, horrible girl who didn’t deserve a home, who was worthless, who needed to be punished, whose mother — stop there, stop there. I desperately grabbed a book, I think it was Harry Potter, and dove for the crack of light under the door.

It wasn’t enough. I couldn’t see the words, and as soon as I stopped focusing on the book, Me reappeared, closer and scarier. Urgently, I pulled off my watch and pressed the light button. The little digital screen lit up with a soft green glow, and a circle of words appeared on the page. I breathed again, Me banished for now.

I read that way for a while, pushing the button every 30 seconds as the light went off. I couldn’t see more than about five words at a time, which rather cramped my speed-reading style, but desperate times, desperate measures.

Finally, when the room spun, and I was so drunk with exhaustion I couldn’t walk a straight line to put the book back on the shelf (if they find out I was reading instead of sleeping, will they throw me out?), I collapsed on the bed and fell asleep before Me could get me.

After that, my watch became my nighttime guardian. Oddly, I developed an emotional connection with it that I didn’t have with the books. I connected with the characters, sure, but the books themselves were just inanimate gateways to the characters’ worlds. The watch, though, a pink plastic number with time, date, and the magical light button, became an ally.

Sometime in my first month there, maybe the second, I heard a conversation I was definitely not meant to overhear. “That lady” was speaking to someone — social worker? play therapist? I don’t know — and she reported, “She seems to be settling in well. She listens to everything we say, she doesn’t cry… no, actually she hasn’t cried once since she came.”

I couldn’t hear the other side of the conversation, but I did pick up, from my new mother’s responses, that the professional on the other end was alarmed.

I’m not clear on what went through my subconscious at that point, but somehow the confluence of a desperation for attention, concern, love, and an inability to accept it, meant I now wouldn’t cry for anything. As long as I didn’t cry, they would worry about me.

The next little while hurt, more than it had to if I hadn’t heard that conversation. Actually, everything hurt. But I had my trusty watch and shelves full of books for whenever Me crept into the vicinity, which was whenever no one else was around. I had a few near-misses, but she never actually got me.

And then one fateful night, in the middle of a book, I was mindlessly reading when the safe little circle of light died. Without warning, the universe inside the book was yanked away from me, and I plummeted to the real world. I looked up, and Me loomed, grinning eerily.

My new mother must have heard it, even though I tried to choke it. The door opened and there she stood, and then suddenly she was bending over, gathering me in her arms, and it was so warm I thought I’d faint.

“What’s wrong?” she asked over and over, with tangible concern and love, as I shuddered and choked with sobs.

I don’t know what she expected to hear, but “my watch broke” was certainly not it. She didn’t ask any questions, though, she just stroked my back and hair, and rocked me back and forth as I cried and cried over my broken watch.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 785)

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