Fiction: Selections from Niamh Carmichael

Silly Millie and Her Ditzy Dad

Millie couldn’t recall a time she’d ever been sick enough to require medical attention, so she’d never been to the hospital for herself, never lay in a bed with tubes pumping the life throughout her body. Her father, however, knew this quite well, and because of that, Millie had learned the names of most of the nurses and even a few of the other long-time patients in the Saint Francis Hospital. She went almost every day, but there was no place she hated more.

               She couldn’t stand the harsh antibacterial scent that attacked her nostrils or the feel of her shoes against the slippery tiles, but what she hated most were the sounds. The anxious bustling of nurses and low murmur of people talking to their loved ones in their hospital beds, often receiving no reply, and the beeping. The hospital machines often faded into a high-pitched drone in the back of her head, a metronome drumming out the lives of countless people, including her father. It drilled into her where she could feel it inside, thumping her stomach in tune with her own heart, so that she could hardly sit in her father’s room more than an hour. Sometimes she could still hear it away from the hospital, when trying to fall asleep or during school it would creep up on her slowly and then all at once, like a disturbed anthill, until it drowned out every other sound and thrummed behind her eyes. The only place she felt it would finally subside was her old treehouse.

Millie visited her dad in the hospital one afternoon, dropping her backpack down as she sat in a squishy armchair next to his bed. He looked worse than he had yesterday, his skin drawn and his pale green eyes yellowed with jaundice, but he smiled brightly and asked how she was.           

Her day had been awful. She’d lost count of how many people had come up to her to do what they considered their duty, murmured comments like, I heard about your dad, Are you okay, I’m so sorry. She appreciated it, of course, but she wished she didn’t have to be reminded of his cancer and the hospital machines so many times a day. They acted like he was already dead.

               “It was great. I got a 98 on my French test!” She forced her voice to sound cheerful. 

               He didn’t buy it, she could tell, but he let it pass. “That’s good, dear, I’m so proud of you.”

               “Oui, oui,” she said, before adding, “I’ve been going into the treehouse a lot lately.”

               Her dad smiled, his eyes crinkling in the corner. “Yeah? Does its fine architecture still hold up?”

               She nodded. “I mean, it’s been years since I went up there. It was much smaller than I thought. Much shabbier, too. But it was nice.”

               “Shabby? You’re calling my handiwork shabby?” He gasped.

               “Yes, Dad, I love you, but we all know you’re not the handiest guy.” She spoke only the truth, looking at his thumb where the nail was purple and wrinkled from when he had hammered his own finger years ago.

               Their treehouse had been built when Millie was very small, too young to use it until she grew a couple years, and then it became her favorite place in the world. Her dad, as she had said, was not the best with tools, and the “treehouse” was more a network of planks and boards nailed between branches. Despite its shaky workmanship, it was sturdy and quite an impressive feat. It expanded between three trees clumped together in the wood behind their house, a veritable plywood palace. When Millie was seven, and obsessed with travel, she had begun to decorate it with maps, pinning them to the branches and between the planks to create walls and ceilings, and she continued this throughout every phase she had growing up. There was even a spiderweb of string from when they had tried to train ladybugs and roly-polys to tightrope (it had not been successful). She’d wanted to take down some of the decorations as she moved out of the phases, but her dad had convinced her to keep them, and she was glad he did. 

A map of South America, the very first thing she’d put up, conjured the memory of their dreams to visit Machu Picchu and pet a llama. She’d also liked crochet at the time, and had crocheted small llamas and hung them around the map. She’d tried to teach her dad but he had just produced a garbled mess of yarn. They’d strung it up anyhow. A yellow and green tapestry was when they sat and made daisy chains in the trees and he told every story he could remember of his childhood. She’d laughed until she felt sick when he told her about the awkward first time he talked to a girl and how he’d tripped over her bag. Even a bit of yellow fuzz fastened to a plank reminded Millie of the day they’d taken a basket of tennis balls into the treehouse and spent hours bouncing it off of branches to see if they could land it in a cup. When they’d grown bored of that, they’d come up with the idea of throwing it over the fence to try and hit things in the neighbors’ yard, but they had to stop when the neighbor’s dog began barking at them.

She smiled at her dad, laying in his stark white bed in his stark white room in the stark white hospital. The walls suffocated her. Completely plain and white, except for a couple mass-produced IKEA paintings of color ombres. They should’ve been a collage of their memories. He was so different to her sometimes, in this room. As if the white walls washed him out, draining personality and not just health.

“Actually, I brought you something today!” Millie exclaimed. She reached over to her backpack and pulled out a map. It had been creased unevenly, so when she unfolded it, crisscrossing lines ran all over it. It wasn’t her South America map, but rather one that showed the whole globe, projecting the countries onto the paper so that South America was tiny and Greenland was huge. Her dad had taught her that it was a Mercator projection many years ago. 

She grabbed a roll of Scotch tape and stuck the map up to the wall facing his bed, so he could always see it, then stepped back to admire her handiwork.

“Doesn’t it brighten up your room?” She clapped her hands together softly, then another thought occurred to her, and her smile fell. “Are you allowed to put stuff up? Are they going to take it down?”

Her dad put a finger to his lips. “Shh.” He paused before looking around, as if trying to keep a secret. “Millie, what’s that? How did that map appear out of nowhere?” He spoke loudly, overenunciating his words to sound dramatically sincere, and Millie laughed.

“Oh, no, it’s impossible to take down,” she joked, lightly tugging on it. This made him laugh his deep belly-laugh she loved.

He started to say something else, but broke off into a hacking series of coughs. The steady beating of his heart rate in the background increased in frequency and a nurse bustled in, checking over the machines and Millie’s dad. She ushered Millie out of the room, not unkindly. Millie strained desperately to hear her dad try to say something but couldn’t make it out over his coughing. She didn’t know if she should stay or not, but his coughing scared her and the nurses seemed stressed, so she left, trying not to panic and trying not to think of how raspy he sounded.

Millie bicycled back to her house in a daze, unable to calm her breathing until she climbed up to the treehouse and collapsed onto a beanbag on one of the larger planks. She rolled off it, over onto her back. She was in one of the only parts of the treehouse with another board for the ceiling instead of a hanging of some sort. She and her dad had drawn all over it. There were clumsily illustrated giraffes and little notes like “silly millie & ditzy dad.” Millie thought she’d been around eight when she wrote that, and very into Dr. Seuss-like rhymes. It occurred to her if maybe “silly millie & dying dad” would be more accurate, but she shook her head vigorously and the thought dissipated.

The chill February air nipped at her face, but she lay there, breathing deep, for so long she lost track of how much time passed. It felt like days, though she knew it had to be less than an hour. She could hear only the rustle of leaves and the creaking branches in the wind. Finally the beeping in her head ceased. She heard a voice and sat up reluctantly to see her mother climbing into the treehouse, still in her veterinary technician scrubs. 

“Hey baby. Y’know what I was thinking about earlier?” asked her mom. “Peaches. We haven’t had peaches in so long. I think they’re in season right now. We should check the next time we go to the store, don’t you think?” 

Millie looked sideways at her mom. “Peaches are in season best during summer, Mama.”

“Oh, right. I always forget how much you know about agriculture,” her mom said. “Fifth grade, wasn’t it? That you got really into that? My smart girl.”

“Yeah, fifth grade,” Millie repeated. “Why peaches?”

Her mom shrugged. “Who knows. They just came to mind.” Her voice was shaking.

“Did something happen?” Millie asked tentatively. “Why are you home so early?”

There was no response.

“Is Dad okay?” Her mom still didn’t say anything. She looked like she couldn’ t. She sat tense and wired up, fingernails digging pink crescents into her palms. “Is he—”

Millie’s mom shook her head, then forced out words Millie wasn’t sure she wanted to hear. Her dad had caught a blood infection and was in a coma. 

“But I’m sure he’ll be all right, baby.”

Millie didn’t respond. She didn’t know what to say.

Millie only went to the hospital one time the rest of the week after her mom had come up into the treehouse. The day after her dad fell into his coma, she visited him. He lay in his hospital bed breathing steadily, an ugly yellow tint to his skin. His hair lay lank and dull against his head, and his arms were placed neatly on either side of his body. He looked like a corpse. She brought a Willy Wonka DVD with her and tried to put it on, as per one of their traditions, but it didn’t feel the same without the two or them indulging in enormous amounts of sugar, so she stopped it. She wasn’t really sure what else to do, but she had remembered when she read about people in the hospital talking to their loved ones.

“What’s up?” She almost laughed at the absurdity of asking such a common question of her comatose father, but she kept going. “I almost got stabbed by a nail sticking out of the treehouse the other day. Pretty shabby, I’d say.” The steady beeping of the heart rate machine was the only response she got. “Not up for conversation right now?” She had meant to make herself smile, but her voice croaked coming out of her throat and she stopped. On her way out, she almost took the South America map with her but looked at her dad again and left it be.

She didn’t go very often after that, and after school for the next few days she went straight to the treehouse. She didn’t do much there. She would sit and doodle on the planks, or maybe wander through the branches, or see how high she could climb until the tree swayed unsteadily beneath her and she felt she would fall. She would stand there in the tips of the trees balanced precariously, so distant from the rest of the earth. She liked the distance.

               She would look down on the treehouse from her perch and imagine she could see her memories projected onto the trees, a 3-D movie only she could see. Sometimes she would get the urge to bike to Saint Francis Hospital and see her dad again, but then that image flashed into her head of him lying there, motionless. She didn’t think she could see that again, so she would dive back down into her memories of him instead, and there was nowhere her dad was livelier than in the treehouse.  Hanging just under all of that was the pit in her stomach, a shark swimming in the depths just out of sight, that never let her completely escape reality. Her father probably would’ve asked what kind of shark, and she would’ve said a scalloped hammerhead, flush with knowledge of them from when she was nine and researched them for hours. Her dad liked scalloped hammerhead sharks because he thought their faces were goofy and they always looked concerned. He appreciated their solicitude.


               A couple weeks later, she was in the treehouse as always. In those two weeks, she had been to visit her ditzy dad exactly twice and had hated it both times. That thing in the bed was not her father. It looked like him, breathed like him, but it was not and she knew that. It seemed as if she was the only one who could tell those sheer white walls were leeching the life out of him faster than the machines could pump it back in. She didn’t like sitting in the squishy armchair, boxed in by those walls, hearing stifled sobs as her mother held his hand and held back tears. So she kept avoiding the hospital, thankful every night her mom didn’t ask her to go. A few nights Millie had even taken to sleeping in the treehouse. She would huddle up in the green beanbag with a blanket they had knitted together, look at the pockets of night sky visible between the boards, branches, and leaves stretched out above her. That afternoon she was sitting in a hammock they had made out of an unused tarp years ago, reading a book, when she heard a car pull into her driveway. She climbed down from the treehouse to meet her mom in the kitchen.

               “I texted and called you a hundred times,” her mom said dully. Millie didn’t think she meant to sound accusatory, but it felt that way. Her stomach dropped.

               “Why?” Millie asked. Her words hovered in the air.

               Her mom shook her head and dropped into a chair. More than anything, she looked exhausted, so tired she was almost lifeless. 

Millie backed away into the yard until she tripped on a tree root and fell right against the base of a tree trunk. She looked up and saw the treehouse reaching into the sky above her. She tried to keep her breathing steady, tried not to let the sound of a monitor flatlining replace the consistent beeping in her head. For the first time in her life, she wished she could hear the machines’ incessant heartbeat again, wished she could have heard its last moments instead of the once-comforting silence of the treehouse. So chock-full of memories. It seemed absurd that at one point that was comforting to her. 

She looked back up at her lattice of branches above her. It spread out for what looked like miles. Sitting at its base, she became conscious of the life pumping just under its bark, traveling up all the way to the tips of its twigs. She could feel it streaming up behind her back, and it terrified her. The network branches suddenly seemed ominous, twisting down to grasp at her with bony fingers and bring her back into the treehouse, suffocate her in tapestries and strangle her in ladybug tightrope strings.

Millie ran back inside, trying to leave the treehouse far behind her, but it seemed impossible. Even in the safety of her room all the way on the other side of the house, the huge, hovering silence still pervaded her mind, sometimes broken by the whistles of the wind sweeping through barren branches and deserted planks, or creaks of the trees trying to bend toward her. She tried playing music, but it echoed uncomfortably in the otherwise quiet house. The only thought that managed to pierce through was when she wondered if the map was still in the hospital, fluttering in the hollow emptiness of the unoccupied room.


               Millie never climbed up there again. Throughout the rest of her teenage years, up until she left for college and her mom sold the house, her and her dad’s place remained empty. She never took down the decorations, though, not even when the house was on the market, despite her mother’s words that removing it would help the house to sell better. Years later, she imagined the plywood dark and crumbly, dappled with patches of moss. She liked to think of the squirrels that could scamper through it, playing among the planks, or that birds repurposed her old maps and tapestries for nesting. She would imagine that the new family that moved in had a pair of kids, who would marvel at the remains of the treehouse, eyes alight with wonder, and make it their own, hanging photos next to her posters and plastic superhero figurines among her crocheted llamas (in her imaginings, the llamas were still whole and formed). She wanted to think that the branches of the trees would creak under the weight of the people in them, that the memories that walked along the boards in her mind would have new companions. Millie liked to think of the treehouse as being alive again.


               Kit technically sat on her family’s green velvet couch, but really, she was in her moonglade. Her parents were talking to her, spewing sentences from a self-help relationship book, but she wasn’t paying very close attention. Besides, she had a feeling she knew what they were going to tell her anyway.

               “...So he’s going to be moving out for a couple months. This is a step up in our relationship, Kit. We’re moving forward and ultimately this space will bring us closer together.”

               Her mom finished speaking, looking at Kit expectantly for a reaction. Kit had always been glad she was an only child, because it left more time for her imaginings, but now she wished she had a sibling, maybe a little sister, just so that she wasn’t the only one who had to respond. She nodded slowly, giving her parents a thumbs up.

               “Cool,” she said. The word felt and sounded odd in her mouth, awkward and drawn-out. Her parents looked at each other. 

               “We want to make sure you’re alright with this,” her dad spoke for the first time. “We all know the atmosphere has been tense lately, and that it’s affecting all of us.”

               Tense? That was one word for it.

Kit thought of her teacher’s note on her last test: You’re smarter than this. What happened? She managed to say something to appease her parents and before they could call her back, escaped up to her room, where she picked her way through the piles of clothes and books on the floor to flop on her unmade bed. She had known what they were going to say—her mom had screamed it in an argument just last week

“Well, maybe you should just move out, if you hate it here so much!”

Followed by a thump. She’d probably hit the wall again. At that rate, they were going to run out of artwork to cover up the holes.

Her dad had responded more quietly. “Well, maybe I should.”

Then there was silence, which Kit was unused to. She stopped listening. At least it wasn’t a surprise when they told her. 

Kit looked out her window. The sun had set but it wasn’t dark yet, so all the shapes in the backyard were outlined sharply in the half light, the loops of hose coiled in the tall grass, the sagging brown fence overgrown with fragrant jasmine. Kit could see little glowing spheres like will-o’-the-wisps, the solar-charged garden lights her dad had bought her mom for an anniversary. They were once beautiful and blue, but had grown dingy and weak, their glow milky and pale. She could still imagine them as ghost lights leading weary travelers into the snake-infested ditch beyond the fence. Further along that: the moonglade.

She’d looked up the word one time, but the definition was disappointing. The bright reflection of moonlight on a body of water. What a dull idea. Her moonglade was infinitely better.

She wondered what would happen if she followed the pale blue ghost lights down to the water. In old stories, if you did that, you drowned.

               Probably Kit would just trip into the ditch and land in a thin layer of murky water, hear the swish of snakes retreating into the plants. But maybe she’d find something else. She considered. She could walk downstairs and into the yard, barefoot through the thick grass. She would slip between the reeds of the ditch and wade into the brown stream at the bottom and feel the mud between her toes. She would duck between overhanging bushes and emerge into an open stretch of water all lit up by the moon and before she realizes it, she leaves the dirty brown and wades into the patch of silver from the moon’s reflection. She falls into the moonglade, and there she roams for hours.

               Kit dances to violin music with the will-o’-the-wisps, which have come to life and swirl around her as if she is in the middle of a carousel and they are the glowing horses bounding around her. She goes treasure hunting with the sister she never had and digs holes in the dirt to bury their silver. She drinks starlight and eats comets and sometimes, very rarely, she thinks of the parents she left behind, wonders if her dad would still move out and if her mom would eat dinner in that empty house alone. Maybe they would stay together, united by her loss, and clean up her room hand-in-hand. Maybe their problems dissolve if their problem child does too. But in the moonglade, Kit never, ever, remembers the first time she got detention, the way her parents screamed at each other that night as if she couldn’t hear them. She drowned that memory in the dirty ditch puddle before stepping foot into her sterling water.

               Wandering in the moonglade, she walks through moments she never lived in, sees the silver sheen of her mom’s long white dress and her father’s fancy gray tux, sees them beam as they never have before. Kit runs deeper into the moonglade, away from her memories and away from her parents’. 

Usually, Kit doesn’t like running, but sprinting there is not like it is on land, all heavy thudding and tired legs. Her limbs grow longer and lighter, she bounds so freely her feet leave the earth and there she somersaults in the air like an acrobat with years of training, lacking all of the clumsiness she would usually have. No matter how far she goes, the moonglade spreads farther. She can see marigold meadows and stretches of snowdrops, like the sun and moon, rolling out ahead of her and she drops from the sky to land in the flowers. There are no bugs, no ants to crawl up her sleeves and bite, but she sees little glowing creatures, like children of the wisps that brought her here. They tickle her skin and make her laugh when they brush too close. Dozens of them float around her, settle in her blond hair and eyelashes, making her glow as if she’s surrounded by a halo.

It looks like how she always imagined heaven, and dimly she occasionally wonders if she’s dreaming, if she fell face down and drowned, or was bitten by a snake and lies silently behind the house, but those thoughts leave as quickly as they cropped up. 

               Maybe her parents hear her leave the house, see her vanish as she wades into the moonlit water and try to follow her, but they are not let in. Conflict doesn’t exist in the moonglade, and there’s no other outcome with them. She knows that all too well.

               Maybe Kit should be astonished, but she isn’t. In a way, she’s been here more times than in her own house. After all, where else would she go when her mom cries to her for comfort, or when her dad locks himself in his office? Where else can she turn when the thuds of punched walls and shatter of glass keeps her awake at night? Kit’s moonglade is more familiar to her than the cold tiles of her own kitchen. 

Lying on the unmade bed in her messy room, gazing down at the ditch, Kit could see the moonglade — the actual silver-lit water, not her little world she had just been imagining….

Maybe they were one and the same. Maybe she could make her world magic. 

She slipped downstairs, trying not to hear her father pacing in his office, skipping the step that creaks, and out the back door. Through the sagging gate, down to the bush-tangled ditch. Follow the path she’d imagined too many times before and walk down to the water. It was colder than she’d always imagined it to be, and thick, as if the mud had merged with the liquid. Kit continued under the cover of low-hanging branches and then to the open stretch of water. She hesitated, then stepped delicately into the moonglade with her eyes squeezed shut. Surely when she opened them, she would be in her marigold meadows and snowdrop stretches. 

Her heart fluttered in her chest. She opened her eyes.

Kit stood in the silver ditch water. Her moonglade was simply that. 

The bright reflection of moonlight on a body of water.




Niamh Carmichael is a writer currently based in Charleston, South Carolina. When not writing, she enjoys baking, playing violin, and spending time with her dog.


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