*We are delighted to present our first-ever fan fiction! Written in response to “Restoring the Effigy,” by M. Leona Godin. “The Whole Entire World Ever” is a prequel written from the point of view of Effie’s little girl Artemis on their mother-daughter trip to San Francisco. Leona admits to tucking in an embellishment or two amongst Caitlin’s beautiful words*
Last year, I had the best hairstyles of anyone in first grade. Mom can do hair a bazillion different ways, and I like them all, but my favorite way is the “braid with ribbons stuck all through it” way.
Mom always lets me pick the ribbon colors. She can see colors when they’re close-up, but she still lets me pick the ribbons because she knows I like choosing.
“You’re standing so still!” Mom’s impressed. I can tell by her voice, and I can see her smile in the mirror.
“Because I’m almost a second-grader!”
“So I’ve heard.” Mom rubber-bands the end of my braid. “Ready to go?”
“Do I hafta bring a jacket? I don’t wanna—it covers my dress up.”
“It might get cold later. I can put it in my bag, if you don’t want to wear it right now.”
Mom has one of those purses that’s like a cave. She squishes everything in there, especially my favorite thing ever, snacks. I always make sure she has both good kinds of teddy grahams—the regular, cinnamon ones, and the chocolate ones—because I like to eat them together. Mom thinks that’s gross. She eats disgusting health-food bars. They feel like dirt in my mouth.
“Hurry, kiddo.” Mom gives me a little hug, then turns me toward the bedroom part of our hotel room. “We have a big day today.”
The sun’s bright. We slept in and had hotel breakfast, then came back upstairs to get everything.
I check my Dora The Explorer watch. She tells me it’s ten thirteen.
I grab my fuzzy pink jacket off my hotel bed and roll it up. That’s how you get big clothes to fit in small places.
“Thanks, sweetie,” Mom says as I hand her my jacket and her purse. “Wow—you aren’t even crumpling your clothes anymore. You must be growing up.”
I beam as I tie my purple sneakers. I wanted to wear my fancy dressy shoes, but Mom reminded me that San Francisco has tons of giant hills. And we’re gonna be doing lots of walking.
Even though Mom can’t read street signs or maps, we ask people for directions a lot, and I’m a good helper. I’m good at reading and writing and mathing and figuring things out.
I like adventures. And after Dora, I like maps and exploring even more than I already did.
Going down in the elevator, I do that thing Mom hates where, when the floor drops down, I jump up. It makes me laugh and Mom groan.
“Okay, Artemis the Almost Second-Grader.” Mom catches my arm to hold me still. “Shall we transform?”
I read a lot of books—probably way more than even the third-graders at school—but I actually have a favorite character of all-time, Cam Jansen. She’s this girl detective who has a photographic memory. Whenever she sees stuff, she takes a picture with her eyes and brain. She says, “Click!” when she does it. Then, when somebody does something bad, usually stealing or lying or both at the same exact time, Cam looks through all her brain-pictures, finds clues, and solves the mystery. She gets the bad person every single time.
She also has this kind of clueless friend, Eric, who doesn’t really help her a lot, but he’s nice. I have lots of friends at school, but I don’t have an Eric sidekick. I want one … but I have Mom. No other kids like their mom as much as I like mine, I don’t think. But also that’s because their moms don’t usually do that much with them. Moms just take pictures of their kids and then say they did stuff together, even though they actually didn’t. Mom’s not like that … and I don’t think that’s just because she doesn’t care about taking pictures.
I love Cam Jansen, but I think she solves mysteries wrong. I take pictures, too, kind of, but instead of keeping them as pictures, I turn them into words. I look around and soak everything up with my eyes—not like a camera-click, but more like a sponge, because I’m careful, and I think at the same time.
First, I think about the big picture, like buildings, and the way people look and act with each other, and what’s going on in corners and on edges. Then, I think about the littler things that still matter, like colors, and weird or sticking-out stuff, and what’s most important. You can’t always see or know that right away. You have to pay attention to everything, then ignore some things and keep other things.
“Context,” Mom told me, when I asked what it’s called to pay attention to everything before deciding what’s big and what’s small and what’s in the middle.
Once I have my eye-picture, and once I’ve figured out some of the context, I mix it all up in my head, like stirring, and then I start talking. I fit my words together like a puzzle, only it’s more like Scrabble, putting words together instead of cutout chunks of pictures.
The cool thing about my pictures is that everyone can see them, even if they can’t actually see much for real. Even if they can’t see anything.
Every Wednesday night, Mom goes to this chorus that’s only for people who can’t see. Some people can’t see anything, and some can see a lot better than Mom. Mom’s about in the middle, I guess, maybe a little closer to the side where people can’t see.
The people who can see a lot don’t usually pay much attention to me. They’re busy holding their sheet music way close to their faces, and they sometimes help the people who don’t see as much as they do. They help too much half the time, and then the blind people get snarly at them.
Most of the people who can’t see anything like me a lot. I think it’s because of my word pictures, and also because I don’t make a big huge scene if I see they need help with something. I just help them. Usually I don’t even say anything unless I have to, like if I need to explain where something is. But most times, I just move whatever I know they’re looking for closer, or shove music stands and people’s bags out of their way. Lots of times, they’ll find my hand on the thing and pet it, like I’m a good puppy. And they’ll say to Mom, or sometimes just to the air if they don’t know where Mom is right then, “What would we ever do without Artemis? She’s such a sweetie.”
I don’t mind helping. And I think it’s nice that they like me, and that they listen to my word-pictures. Like when we went Christmas caroling, I walked with my mitten tucked in Mom’s glove, and I started telling her about the falling-downy snowman this group of kids was making in the park, and about the decorations on trees and in stores, and how the fluffy iciness of the windows made buildings look like gingerbread houses, or like a picture on a Christmas postcard. People were listening to me so much they forgot to sing, and one of the old guys told Mom, “You have a budding author on your hands, Effie.”
I liked that. I love books. It would be the coolest if I could write one one day. So I keep practicing with my words, because I think my word-pictures are good practice. And also people like them, and I like that.
“Is it gonna be like a roller-coaster?” I’m holding Mom’s hand. It’s daytime, which means she can see best, which means I don’t actually have to hold her hand, like I do at nighttime when she can’t see all of me, which is dangerous. But I like holding hands with Mom, so mostly we just do it all the time.
“Not a roller-coaster,” Mom says, “and before we go inside this hotel, I need you to promise not to jump in this elevator.”
She doesn’t have to tell me that! No one would jump or be silly in these beautiful elevators with the lights on top that shoot up and down, with windows looking into the sparkling hotel with its floors and floors of balconies, and the weird metal sculpture in the middle that sits on a perfectly flat water fountain. I try to tell Mom everything, but it’s hard. My words get all scrambled while we wait in line to ride the glass elevators.
Finally, we smoosh into one, and everyone says, “Go ahead, sweetie,” and pushes me gently to the window so I can see.
I stare at the perfect, shiny floor as it disappears, and the fountain getting small with the people.
The elevator suddenly shoots into darkness. Before I have time to wonder if it’ll go sideways like Mr. Toad in The Wind And the Willows, it pings, and we all turn away from the window .
The doors open and we step into a huge room with windows all the way around. I don’t notice anything strange about the room at first, but we’re really high up and I can see the water, all glowy in the distance.
The waiter puts us at a table next to the huge window. It’s not like a roller-coaster. That would be cool, but probably wouldn’t work: sitting in a bouncy chair in front of a table that spun. I imagine it and see stuff spilling.
This whole room’s turning, not like a ride, but more like the music-box Yiayia—that’s Greek for Grandma—gave me last year. It has a little ballerina figure that spins in place while the song plays. I feel a little like that ballerina in the middle of this music-box room, but it’s all moving a lot slower. I have to really pay attention to catch the buildings slipping past, inch by inch. My brain is taking picture after picture, so I don’t miss anything.
I love that a thing exists where I can sit still and the most amazing, real window-pictures in the world just keep sliding past my eyes. “It’s like a big merry-go-round restaurant,” I breathe.
“We can go on a real merry-go-round later.” Mom pats my shoulder. “There’s one by Ghirardelli Square, and I know you’ll want something sweet.”
“Oh!” I forget my indoor voice. “There’s a skinny triangle building!”
“That’s the Transamerica Pyramid,” Mom says, handing me the menu. “Can you read the drinks, sweetie?”
I do, spelling out a few because I don’t know how to pronounce them. When the waiter comes over, Mom orders two “virgin strawberry daiquiris,” which I first accidentally pronounced like “verging strawberry day-queries.”
The drinks come really fast, and I gasp at how pretty they are. “They’re dark, dark pink,” I tell Mom. “And they have little paper umbrellas in them!”
She smiles, like she knew this was what they’d be like.
“My umbrella’s yellow and yours is purple. Could we trade? Please? I really, really want purple.”
“Of course.” Mom laughs a little. “I bet you want my pineapple and cherries, too.”
“I do!” I slide the pineapple and bright red cherries off my umbrella before putting my yellow one in her big curvy, frosty glass.
I take a long sip, and gasp with excitement because it’s so good—tart and sweet and cold. The waiter’s hanging around, watching us. He smiles at Mom and winks at me. Mom doesn’t see the smile and wink, though, and the waiter looks a little sad. But my strawberry thing’s so good that I’m getting mind-blown all over again, and I start babbling to Mom about how beautiful everything is, and she smiles and nods. She lets her ears be sponges, listening while I go on and on and on. I can’t even stop, and I’m pretty sure she doesn’t actually even want me to, because Mom loves my word-pictures, too.
After a little while, when our strawberry things are just ice, Mom asks if I’m ready to go see something else. I don’t want to leave the windows, but I do want to see more stuff. I want us both to see everything, like we always do.
Mom asks me to wave the waiter over. “Check, please,” she says when he arrives.
“Oh, that gentleman over there picked up your tab.” The waiter points, and I follow his hand.
“He’s talking about this really handsome guy in a suit,” I tell Mom. “He’s really big and smiley. He’d look better if he got a better haircut, though.”
“Artemis!” Mom can’t help laughing. Her face is getting all red, but I don’t know if it’s because I embarrassed her when I said something I shouldn’t have, or because some handsome guy paid for us.
“She’s so darling,” the waiter says, like I’m not here. Adults do that a lot.
Mom gets up and reaches for me. “Let’s go say `thank you`.”
I lead the way across the room. When we’re close to the guy, he looks over at us and smiles. Mom doesn’t always see when people are watching us, so I speak up.
“Hi, sir! We wanted to say thank you ’cause you paid, which was really nice. You don’t even know us.”
The guy’s smile gets bigger, and he slides off his barstool. “You’re both very welcome. What’s your name, doll?”
“Artemis. It’s nice to meet you.” I hold out my free right hand—Mom still has my left—and look straight into his nice blue eyes. He seems sort of amazed, which I guess I get, because most kids my age don’t really go around shaking hands and looking at grown-ups in their eyes. But Mom always tells me making a good impression is an important thing to know how to do.
“Lovely to meet you, too.” He pumps my hand up and down a couple times. “I’m Ted. Are you going to introduce me to your gorgeous mom?”
I look at her, and she seems embarrassed, the way she got with my teacher last year, because he’s handsome, too.
“Yes,” I say, “I’ll introduce you. Her name’s Effie. We’re here ’cause today’s her thirtieth birthday, and Yiayia—I mean, my grandma—bought us this big trip for her present. I mean, this trip is my mom’s present.”
Mom’s getting red again, but she puts out her hand. “You didn’t have to pay for us. Thank you—it was very sweet.”
“The pleasure’s all mine. Will you join me for another official birthday round?”
“Oh, that’s too much, but thank you,” Mom says.
“Yeah,” I say, “We have lots of stuff to see today.”
He laughs. “Well, have a wonderful time.”
“We already are,” I tell him, “so you should say, `Have a more wonderful time!`.”
Now he and Mom both laugh. Mom doesn’t look embarrassed anymore. She looks happy. It makes me wonder if maybe I should try to get this guy to come with us. Maybe he’ll fall in love with Mom. Except I’m not so sure I want that. The more I think about it, the more I realize I don’t want that at all. Lots of the kids in my class complain about how their parents go out to boring parties on the weekends, or even off on whole vacations over breaks from school. The kids have to stay with grandparents or aunts or uncles or random family friends. I’d hate that.
I’m supposed to always be with Mom. That’s where I’m happiest, and I hope that’s where she’s happiest, too. Maybe it’s not … but if it’s not, I don’t actually want to know.
Mom and I squeeze a lot of things into the day. We walk over part of the Golden Gate Bridge, and I describe the foamy water, the boats, and the people.
I love describing people best. The ones at the bridge all look different—Mom says they’re tourists, probably from lots of different countries—and they’re mostly running around taking pictures instead of actually having a good time.
We stop at the carousel near Ghirardelli Square, and I pull Mom around fast to find my horse—I want pink and purple and gold and silver altogether, and finally I find it. Mom boosts me up and stands next to me while I ride. It’s too hard for her to keep an eye on me when I’m spinning.
I love the feeling and the music. It goes a lot faster than the spinny room on the top of the hotel, but I can’t see as far as I could up there. Now I just see smiling faces passing by. I take a couple word pictures—of a little boy with a pink cotton candy as big as his head, and a tall black poodle that looks like a queen. I tell Mom what I see, and she laughs.
I love the carousel so, so much that I beg to go again. Another cute guy Mom’s age hears me asking, looks over, and smiles. This one’s tall and skinny, and he has darker skin. I could be wrong, but I think he might be Greek, like Mom, like half of me.
He comes over and says he’ll run to the operator and buy me another ticket. That way, I can even keep my horse. Mom tries to talk him out of it, but I get so excited and say “thank you” so many times that they both wind up laughing, and the guy goes to get my ticket.
I ride around again, cheering and waving my hands over my head, half-listening to their conversation. He says I’m “adorable” and “precocious,” whatever that even means, and Mom tells about how much help I’ve been reading street signs and flagging down cabs. When he asks her how much she can see, she gets a little uncomfortable, like she usually does when people want to know that. But he’s being nice about it and not annoying, so she explains.
The guy actually seems interested and asks more questions, but in a curious way, not that way that makes me want to stomp on people’s feet when they do it. Mom says something about having a “degenerative retinal eye disease.” That makes me stop having a good time, because the word “disease” makes me feel sick inside. And it’s not because my stomach doesn’t like the dip-swooping of the merry-go-round.
Miss Zhao’s class is our buddy class at school. They’re third-graders, and they read to us and help us write sentences. Sometimes we do easier things like art projects or singing songs.
This one boy named Cameron, who had glasses and a round face, was my buddy. He was really nice, but halfway through the year, he started missing lots of school, and I had to be with Shelby, this annoying third-grade girl who was always telling me what to do, even though I already knew.
When I asked Shelby where Cameron was, she said his dad had a disease and was in the hospital, and that Cameron had to be with him a lot. She also said Cameron was too sad to come to school, but I didn’t like thinking about that. In my head, Cameron was always happy and smiling. I could tell he knew I was smart. One time, he patted me on the head and told me I read better than any first-grader he’d ever known or would ever know. I liked that. I liked him. I hoped he was okay, and I hoped his dad was okay, too.
That word, “disease,” stuck with me until the year ended, even once Cameron was back. Cameron never mentioned or explained it. His clothes were too big when he got back to school, and he looked tireder and sadder, but I was too afraid to ask what happened to his dad.
Mom’s not sick. She’s never even stayed in the hospital, not even once. She can’t have anything wrong with her. But then why did she tell this guy she has a disease?
I want to ask her about it, but Mom helps me off the carousel and introduces the guy, saying he’s offering to walk us to his favorite spot for clam chowder. I’m still upset about the “disease” thing, though … and I don’t want to share Mom with some man we don’t even know. This is supposed to be our weekend, Mom’s and mine. Yiayia would be mad if she knew what Mom was doing—she even said “this trip is just for the two of you.” And she meant Mom and me. Not some guy. Even if he did buy my merry-go-round ticket. Even if he does have a nice smile.
I tug on Mom’s hand and she gets the message. “Nice to meet you,” she says, “but the kiddo’s got her own plans.”
She’s smiling, sort of. Is she disappointed? I don’t want to think about it. I just pull her away.
“What’ve you got against clam chowder, Artemis?” Mom says as we walk.
“Nothing,” I say. “We can still go. Just not with him.”
“Artemis!” Mom sounds more surprised than mad. “What’s this all about? You love new people.”
“I know.” I hold her hand really tight and push against her. “But not today, okay? I want today to be just us.”
Mom strokes my hair and kisses my head. “You’re my favorite person. Do you know that? Even when you can’t even share your old mom with anyone for a second?”
“Keep your eyes open for the Fog Harbor Fish House, young miss,” she says, and I do.
We find the restaurant and order clam chowder and fish and chips, which are actually fries. It’s all delicious and warm and salty. Mom looks happy, too.
We’re really full, so we walk around looking in the shops, especially the ones with crystal rocks and shell jewelry and telescopes. I try to describe everything to Mom the best I can. Finally, after lots and lots of store windows, we have more room for ice cream!
I read all the flavors to Mom. She always likes the weird stuff and wants rose and honeysuckle, but I get the double chocolate fudge. We lick our cones under the big Ghirardelli sign. I ask Mom about the funny spelling of “Ghirardelli,” and I count fifteen pigeons looking for cone scraps. Mom says, “Ugh” when I tell her why I keep yelling out numbers.
Then we take a boat ride, and this time, we go under the bridge, and it’s windy and salty. We laugh because our hair’s whipping around and getting in my eyes so I can’t hardly see to describe.
When we get off the boat at Fisherman’s Wharf the sun is going down, our legs are all jelly from the waves, and people are selling big, stinky live crabs and fish off their boats. I’m so busy word-picturing everything that I forget all about the “disease” thing the whole afternoon.
I fall asleep on the cab ride back to the hotel. I’m so full and happy that there’s no way I can keep my eyes open.
Mom shakes me awake, and I open my eyes enough to get us to the elevator.
“Sorry, kiddo.” Mom hugs me as we ride up. “We did an awful lot today.”
“It was a perfect day,” I tell her. “I’m glad we did a hundred things.”
The halls are really bright, so Mom doesn’t have any trouble counting doors to our room, which is good because I’m too tired to help her.
I wake up a little when Mom sits me down on the closed toilet seat to wash my face with a washcloth. Then she puts toothpaste on my toothbrush and hands it to me. I close my eyes while I brush.
Mom unwinds my braid, and helps me take off my clothes and put on my nightgown. Then she tucks me into my super-comfy, super-squishy hotel bed. Nothing has ever felt so cozy and so good. Mom kisses my forehead and whispers, “Night-night, sweetheart.” My bones feel tired after so much walking and playing. My eyes and tongue are tired from so much word-picturing.
In the middle of the night, I wake up and remember.
I sit straight up. I’m suddenly scared. Really, really scared. Today was so perfect, and I’m so happy, and if Mom has a disease, I need to know, because maybe this wasn’t just about her birthday. Maybe this is the last time we’ll ever get to do this, and she just hasn’t told me yet. I didn’t even remember to wish her happy birthday before we went to bed.
Frantically, I look at the bedside clock. 12:09 AM. I missed her birthday.
“Mom.” I whisper at first, but I’m starting to cry, and she doesn’t stop snoring, so I forget to whisper. “Mom!”
She jolts upright. “What’s wrong?” She’s sleepy, but also worried.
I can sort of, kind of see her, but not much because the only things glowing are the clock radio and the moonlight coming in at the windows. I sniffle.
Mom gets up fast. She hits her foot on the nightstand and says a bad word, which makes me laugh, except it’s more like half a laugh and half crying.
“What is it, sweetie?” Mom sits on my bed and touches my head, brushing my hair away from my face.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I sound like a kindergarten baby. A preschool baby, even.
“Tell you what?” Mom pulls me into her lap and hugs me tight.
“I heard you.” I’m accusing her now. “You told that guy by the merry-go-round that you have a disease. And I figured it out. We came here because you’re …” I’m about to say “dying,” but I don’t. It scares me to say it. If I say it, it might actually come true. “Because you’re sick,” I finish, quiet-like, so my words won’t make it real.
“Oh, Artemis, I’m sorry.” Mom lies down across my bed, bringing me with her. “It’s not that kind of disease.”
“So you do have a disease?” I’m getting even more upset.
“Yes. But not the kind you’re thinking of. I’m not sick. It just means that my eyes aren’t like everyone else’s. They have a disease, but it’s not going to hurt me.”
This doesn’t sound so bad … but I’m still confused. “Then … if it doesn’t hurt you, what does it do?”
Mom starts to answer, stops, then tries again. “You already know I can’t see well.”
“My eye disease is degenerative. That means it gets worse.”
“Oh.” I’m so relieved that I almost feel dizzy. “So it’s just hurting your eyes.”
“Yes. Well, not even hurting them. I’m not in pain. It’s just that … well, my vision might not last forever.” Her voice gets quieter when she adds, “I could lose a lot more of it.”
“That’s okay.” I wiggle around in her arms so I’m facing her. “You’ll still be able to see. Because of my word-pictures.”
Mom doesn’t say anything. It’s so dark and my eyes are so sleepy that I can’t see her hardly at all. But I’m close enough that I can feel her kind of twitch, like I do when I hiccup.
“You’re right,” she says … and she sounds a little like she might cry, but not exactly sad-crying. Not happy, either, but definitely not sad. More like she’s realizing something new, and it’s making her feel a lot of different things. “You’re absolutely right, Artemis. I’m such a lucky mom to have a word-picture painter like you. I should tell you that more.”
“You tell me all the time.” I’m getting sleepy again, but I hug her neck with my arms and wrap her waist with my legs and press my face into her shoulder. She always calls me her “octopus python” when I tangle all around her like this. “So that’s it?” I have to check. “You’re not sick?”
“I promise.” She squeezes me tight. “I’m sorry hearing that scared you. I guess I should’ve explained it sooner.”
“Is that why you were crying?” Mom touches my face, like she’s making sure there aren’t still tears coming out of my eyes. Her fingers stay on my cheek, so I know, when I nod, she’ll feel it.
“And ’cause I missed saying ‘happy birthday’ one more time,” I tell her.
She laughs and rubs my nose with hers. “I love you so much.”
I give her a butterfly kiss with my eyelashes. “I love you more than anything or anyone in the whole entire world ever.” I’ve never said how I feel quite like this, but it’s so completely and absolutely true that I make up my mind to say it a lot more times.
I wait for Mom to go back to her own bed, but she doesn’t. My eyes are closed, but I can tell by how she’s breathing that she’s still awake. I think maybe she just wants to hold me for a little bit, make our day last a little longer. I do, too, but I can’t stay awake.
I remember what Mom said, and even though she didn’t say the exact words, I think I know what she means. The disease might make her completely blind someday, like some of the people at the chorus are. She’ll have to use a cane. She says all the time that she should already be doing that, except she never does. Maybe she’ll learn to read braille, and then she can read me stories. Right now, I read to her, but if she learns braille, we can read to each other. Maybe I’ll be too big to read with Mom, then … but I don’t ever want to be too big for that, so I decide I won’t be, even if I’m a grown-up.
I replay the word-pictures from today in my head. The last thing I think is: “If I see today in my dreams, it means my word-pictures are good enough to tell Mom about the whole entire world ever, forever. And I’ll be able to keep her seeing, even when she can’t anymore.”
And then I fall asleep, and I dream about sails on the ocean and bright, bright bridges, spinning horses and spinning windows, busy streets and rushy cabdrivers and the way the carousel guy’s eyes crinkled at the edges when he smiled at us, and that’s how I know Mom and I will always, always be okay.
—About the Author—
Caitlin Hernandez is a two-time Lambda Literary fellow whose young-adult novels-in-progress have earned her mentorships with Writing In The Margins and We Need Diverse Books. A totally blind elementary-school teacher, she aims to write books which accurately represent and portray disability and queerness. Her personal essay “In the Same Place,” was published as part of our Blind Writers Project.