Hanna Cochran sipped on the weak hotel coffee as she looked at her daughter, playing on the bed. Her short, black hair was still wet from the swimming pool, and she was cross-legged, drawing on her chalkboard. She was never without that chalkboard.
Hanna wished Issie would talk. Sometimes she did, but only to her daddy. Nobody else. Not even to her. Her own mother. She tried so hard to make her daughter happy and always worried that, despite the doctors’ and Ross’s assurances otherwise, it was something she was doing wrong. A girl should always be closest to her mother, and Hanna wished she knew how to get Issie to just talk to her. But, she would talk to Ross. The door opened and daddy himself came in with a bucket of ice and some soft drinks.
“Hey, sweetie,” he addressed his daughter,” Want a drink before we go?” Issie shook her head no and went back to her chalkboard. He handed a water to his wife and put the bucket on the small table.
“Are we still on for shopping this morning, Hanna?” he asked her.
“We are, as long as your sister is still okay with taking Issie out to the botanic gardens this morning to see the butterflies. It’s her vacation, too, Ross.” Hanna said.
“She’s the one who insisted, remember? Besides, we deserve a date out in the city, just you and me, don’t we? And tomorrow, we’re going to see Wrigley Field. The point of this whole trip, right, babydoll?” Ross called to Issie, who looked up briefly with a smile.
That’s why they had come, after all. Issie had tried in vain to get them to go to the ballpark today, but the schedule said some of it was roped off for maintenance. So, Issie, unhappily had to comply with going the next day, even though she kept insisting that it had to be today. Sometimes Issie got real hung up on things.
For a few years, their daughter had maintained a fixation with Chicago and she was always drawing pictures of the baseball stadium on that little chalkboard. They always went somewhere on family vacation every year, but Issie had been particularly insistent that they go to Chicago this year, and since Ross’s sister was huge baseball fan, it worked out. Issie would draw birds and a football field, and the “Welcome to Chicago” sign and point emphatically and smile a big, wide grin. They understood the sign and the baseball easily, but the birds were confusing. Issie had told Ross they were crows, but Hanna thought they looked more like purple and green pelicans. If Issie was going to keep insisting on talking through that thing, Hanna was going to pay for art lessons.
Issie usually drew butterflies. All kinds. Blue, red, multi-colored butterflies. She seemed fixated on them, in fact. But, she always drew these crows in association with the baseball field, and Hanna just shrugged and assumed it was just another symptom of her daughter’s Selective Mutism disorder and those particular drawings would disappear after they saw the stadium. Her way of saying strange things through that chalkboard was, according to her doctor, her own way of coping. She always drew a lot when she was cocking her head to the side as if listening to someone.
Her own mother used to do that, so Hanna sometimes wondered if Issie’s disorder was genetic, although she really couldn’t back that up scientifically. Hanna had distant, dream-like memories of rain, rice fields, a nice sandy-haired American soldier, and her beautiful mother. She never talked about Korea, though. Most of her long, ugly childhood after she was eight was a blur of big cities and her yelling, disapproving grandparents. She could never make them happy. She did what she could to get out of there, and as far from that life as possible. She studied hard and got a scholarship to study in the United States and was proud to say that she was now a successful geneticist. The last time she spoke to her grandmother was the day she left for college.
Hanna’s husband snapped her out of her reverie.
“Ready to go, my love?” Ross asked her. His sister was knocking on the door to take Issie for the day.
The bells above the shop doors rang merrily and Stuart looked up to see the same little girl as the day before, only this time, she was dragging a disgruntled looking woman along with her.
“Can I help you?” Stuart asked amiably.
“No, I don’t really know why we’re in here,” she said, out of breath, “Issie just dragged me in here. We’re supposed to be visiting the botanical gardens today.”
“Ah! So that’s her name!” Stuart said.
“Well, it’s just that I’ve seen your little girl before. When she came in yesterday all by herself. But, she doesn’t say much, does she?” Stuart said.
“She was here by herself? Issie, really!” the woman called and Issie just shrugged.
“Guess she slipped out from under our noses. Just wait until I tell your parents that you’re slipping off again. I’m her aunt, by the way,” she said and offered her hand to Stuart. “Catherine Cochran. Issie is my brother Ross’ daughter.”
“Okay, so then I’m guessing her mother is at least part Korean?”
“Yeah, that’s right. We’re in town from New York.”
“Well, welcome to Chicago, then! My name’s Stuart,” he said. He called to Issie, “Would you like some candy, sweetie?”
Issie put back the old toy she was looking at rushed over to Stuart nodding her head in enthusiasm. She took her chalkboard out of her backpack and went to the stool behind the counter that she had perched on the last time she was there.
“Issie, honey, you can’t go behind the counter like that!” Catherine exclaimed.
“Oh, I don’t mind, really,” said Stuart as he unwrapped a sucker for the little girl. “I don’t get a lot of kids in here and it’s a nice change. She sat there yesterday, too. I think it’s her spot, isn’t it, kiddo?” Issie nodded. She took her candy and began to draw on her chalkboard.
“She doesn’t talk, except to Ross, for some reason. She has a condition called Selective Mutism. It may go away one day or she’ll just draw for the rest of her life,” said Catherine.
“Well, interesting what makes people tick, huh?” Stuart said with a smile. Issie pulled on his sleeve and showed him the chalkboard.
“Is that a picture of Wrigley Field?” he asked. Issie nodded. She pointed at Stuart and then to her chalkboard. Her aunt laughed.
“Sweetheart, it’s endearing that you decided to be friends with Stuart, here, but you can’t just fixate on people like you do your butterflies or Wrigley Field. He’s not coming with us tomorrow.” Issie looked exasperated and erased her picture and jumped off the stool to explore the shop again. Catherine looked after and she shook her head.
“Sorry. She does that. She gets these wild ideas out of nowhere and then just fixates. Lately, it’s been nothing but Wrigley Field. The doctors say it may be part of the psychology causing her mutism. We just don’t know. They say we should try to humor her where it’s harmless, but not to give in to all of it. She’s going to have to learn social boundaries.”
“Well, I don’t mind, certainly. There are people with worse problems than that, I imagine.”
“Okay, Stuart – It was so nice to meet you. You do have a lovely shop, too,” Catherine said. She shifted her purse on her shoulder and stuck out her hand.
“You, too. Goodbye, Miss Issie!” Stuart called as he shook Catherine’s hand. Issie came back and showed Stuart her chalkboard. It looked like a blue and pink mess, from what Stuart could make out.
“Um. Pelican?” Stuart asked. Catherine snorted. Issie banged her small fist on the counter angrily at her aunt. She pointed emphatically at the picture and then to Stuart.
“I’m sorry, honey. I don’t get it,” Stuart said kindly. Catherine grabbed the chalkboard and pulled on Issie to get her to follow.
“We all think it looks like a pelican. She keeps drawing them. Ross says they’re crows.” she said.
Stuart stopped cold and looked at Issie in surprise. She now had a smile on her face and she nodded and pointed at Stuart again. Catherine, busy with getting the chalkboard in her purse, was unaware of Stuart’s reaction.
“Oh, come on, child, and let’s get out of this man’s way, huh?” Catherine pulled again and, this time, Issie let herself be led. She grabbed a business card off the counter, though, and waved happily at Stuart. Dumbfounded, he waved back. He should have stopped her and asked her how she knew or if she was Temic, too, but all his brain could register was shock as Catherine pulled the little girl out of his shop saying,
“Why do you need a business card. You are so damn strange, sometimes, Issie. Now, botanical gardens like we planned?” She took the business card from her niece as she closed the door behind them.
When Stuart’s mind finally snapped out of it, he suddenly remembered what Catherine had said she fixated on. Wrigley Field and…
He ran out from behind the counter to the street outside in a vain hope that Catherine and Issie were still visible. But, they were nowhere to be seen. And there was now surely no way he was going to see that little girl for a third time.