She’s the sweet-but-silent angel in the adoring eyes of her Daddy. He’s the only person who understands her, and all Hanna wants is to live happily ever after with him. But Mommy stands in her way, and she’ll try any trick she can think of to get rid of her. Ideally for good.
She loves her daughter, really, but after years of expulsions and strained home schooling, her precarious health and sanity are weakening day by day. As Hanna’s tricks become increasingly sophisticated, and Suzette’s husband remains blind to the failing family dynamics, Suzette starts to fear that there’s something seriously wrong, and that maybe home isn’t the best place for their baby girl after all.
A recent study disclosed that children are often misbehaving for their mother as the child is most comfortable around this parental figure; but with Hannah it a whole different ball game. Suzette, a stay at home mom, spends her days trying to figure out where she’s gone wrong with Hannah and where her darling little girl has gone. Hannah absolutely adores her daddy and never reveals her true self to him. Hannah hates mommy and is determined to have daddy all to herself and will do whatever it takes to get Mommy out of the way.
There’s no need to rehash the synopsis further for you as there is no questions what you are about to embark on when diving into BABY TEETH’S cover. Zoje Stage has crafted one controversial and diabolical debut novel. The creep factor is off the chain in this book! As a mother to a toddler boy, this book gave me the sensation to give my little bugger the side eye from time to time in response to his (typical) toddler tantrums. Zoje will have you battling to choose a side between Suzette and Hannah. Is Suzette a “bad mommy”? Is Hannah just an evil child? You will decide but trust me the internal battle you will face from chapter to chapter will have you head spinning!
There is no surprise that this will be one of the most controversial book of the year. And while it may not be for everyone, there is no doubting that the chapters flow smoothly as they alternate from Suzette to Hannah’s perspective on the events as they occur. And trust me, the manner in which Zoje captured the mind for a six-year-old is damn impressive. Zoje writing is crisp and that of a seasoned author. BABY TEETH will have you turning the pages and sleeping with the lights on. In that regard, I do agree with many readers that this book would be better classified as a horror.
BABY TEETH may not be for everyone but it certainly left me pondering before, during and long after. This is one of those books that you will not forget long after you have read it. Any book that leaves a lasting impression ranks high in my book. I can even begin to conjure up a thought on what Zoje will come out with next, but what I do know is I need to get my hands on it!
I am hosting a giveaway on my Bookstagram, so if this is a title you have wanted to get your hands on click the image below and enter! Giveaway end Friday, July 20, 2018!
Maybe the machine could see the words she never spoke. Maybe they blazed in her bones. Maybe if the people in the white coats blew up the pictures they’d see her thoughts, mapped like mountains and railroad tracks, across her ghostly skull. Hanna knew nothing was wrong with her. But Mommy wanted them to look. Again.
The room in the hospital’s dungeon carried the threat of needles and smelled like lemon candies tinged with poison. When she was little, the machine scared her. But now, seven, she pretended she was an astronaut. The rocket ship spun and beeped and she scanned the coordinates, double-checking her course. Through the round window, tiny Earth dropped from view, then she was in the darkness with the glimmering stars, zooming away. No one would ever catch her. She smiled.
“Stay still, please. Almost finished—you’re doing great.”
The flight director watched her from his monitor. She hated all the ground control people, with their white coats and lilting voices, their play-dough smiles that flopped into frowns. They were all the same. Liars.
Hanna kept her words to herself because they gave her power. Inside her, they retained their purity. She scrutinized Mommy and other adults, studied them. Their words fell like dead bugs from their mouths. A rare person, like Daddy, spoke in butterflies, whispering colors that made her gasp. Inside, she was a kaleidoscope of racing, popping, bursting exclamations, full of wonder and question marks. Patterns swirled, and within every secret pocket she’d stashed a treasure, some stolen, some found. She had tried, as a little girl, to express what was within her. But it came out like marbles. Nonsense. Babbling. Disappointing even to her own ears. She’d practiced, alone in her room, but the bugs fell from her mouth, frighteningly alive, scampering over her skin and bedclothes. She flicked them away. Watched them escape under her closed door.
Words, ever unreliable, were no one’s friend.
But, if she was being honest, there was another reason—a benefit. Her silence was making Mommy crazy. Poor Mommy made it all too clear, over many desperate years, how badly she wanted her to talk. She used to beg.
“Please, baby? Ma-ma? Ma-ma?”
Daddy, on the other hand, never begged or acted put out. His eyes lit up when he held her, like he was witnessing a supernova. He alone really saw her, and so she smiled for him and was rewarded with kisses and tickles.
“Okay, all finished,” said the flight director.
The ground control people pushed a button and her head slid out of the giant mechanical tube. The rocket ship crashed back to Earth, where she found herself in a crater of ugliness. The blobby people emerged—one with her hand outstretched offering to take her back to Mommy, like that was some sort of reward.
“You did such a good job!”
What a lie. She hadn’t done anything but come back to Earth too soon. It wasn’t hard to be still, and not speaking was her natural state. She let the woman take her hand, even though she didn’t want to go back to moody Mommy and another suffocating room. She’d rather explore the hospital’s endless corridors. She pretended she was walking around in the intestines of a giant dragon. When it exhaled its angry flames, they’d catapult her forward into another world. The one where she belonged, where she could race through a gloomy forest with her trusted sword, screaming the call that would summon the others. Her minions would charge behind her as she led the attack. Slash, crash, grunt, and stab. Her sword would get its taste of blood.
She smoothed down the back of Hanna’s hair where it had gotten rumpled during her test.
“See, not so bad. Now we’ll see what the doctor says.” Her tight smile forced her eye to twitch. She dabbed at the corner of it with her index finger. A terror clawed beneath her skin, making small rips in her equilibrium. Doctors’ offices, medical buildings: institutions of torture. They pressed on her like a heavy slab. Hanna sat with her elbow on the chair’s armrest, head on her hand, absorbed and expressionless like she became in front of the TV. Suzette glanced at the framed print that held her daughter’s interest. Squares of watery color. She tried to guess, by the movement of Hanna’s eyes, if she was counting the total number of squares, or collecting them in groups of similar shades. Hanna pretended to be unaware of Suzette beside her, and she read the usual rebuke in Hanna’s refusal to look at her. After so many years, she’d lost track of the moments for which she was being punished.
Perhaps Hanna was still angry at her for running out of bananas. She’d slammed her fists on the table, glaring at her naked bowl of cereal. Or maybe Hanna couldn’t forgive some perceived slight from the previous night, or week, or month. Hanna didn’t know that Suzette had resisted bringing her in for another CT scan—500 times the radiation of a single X-ray—but relented to Alex’s wishes. Her husband’s concerns remain rooted in the pragmatic insistence that something might yet be physically impeding her verbal progress. He didn’t see what she did, and she could never tell him what was really wrong—that it had all been a mistake: She didn’t know how to be a mother; why had that ever seemed like a good idea? So she played along. Of course she’d have Hanna tested again. Of course they needed to know if anything was physiologically awry.
She considered her daughter. They looked so much alike. Her dark, dark hair. The big brown eyes. If only she’d inherited some of Alex’s fairness. She had Hanna put on a nice dress, brand-new knee socks, and Mary Janes. Suzette wore a silk shirtdress, loosely belted to show off her figure, and shoes that cost a fortune. It was silly, she knew, for both of them to dress up for a medical appointment, but she feared situations in which her mothering might be judged, and at least no one could say her child looked neglected or ill. And Suzette had so little opportunity otherwise to wear her finer clothes when all she did was stay home with Hanna. She used to dress up for Alex’s office parties and loved the way his lustful eyes followed her around as she sipped wine and chatted, enjoying the rare company of other adults. But no babysitter would ever come back, and they finally gave up. Alex, considerately, made the gatherings rarer and shorter, but still. She missed the casual normalcy she once had with Fiona and Sasha and Ngozi. She never asked if Alex talked about her at work, or if they all acted as if she no longer existed.
Nervous about what the doctor would say—how he might criticize her—she patted a jumpy rhythm on Hanna’s arm. Hanna pulled it away, lowering her chin as the colorful, blocky print continued to mesmerize her. Suzette held each part of her body too tightly—her crossed legs, her tense shoulders, her hands curled into fists. It made the tender part in her abdomen twist and squeal in protest and she fanned her fingers, trying to make herself relax. It was her first big outing since The Surgery, eight weeks before. They did it laparoscopically this time so the superficial part of the recovery was faster, though she’d asked the doctor to fix her horrible scar while they were there.
The misshapen canyon of a scar had always bothered her, falling in a deep, wonky six-inch diagonal on the right side of her navel. Alex insisted it was part of her beauty, her strength. A marking of survival, of the suffering she’d endured as a teenager. She didn’t need any reminders of those lonely and disgusting years, of the enemy within or her own mother’s deadly indifference. As it was, that first surgery at seventeen put such a fear in her that she’d put off Dr. Stefanski’s recommendation for another resection until her intestines were in danger of perforating. In the beginning, the stricture only caused a bit of pain and she reduced the fiber in her diet. She’d expected her heavy-duty medication—an injectable biological drug—to eliminate the worst of her Crohn’s symptoms. And it did. But as the inflammation receded, scar tissue built up around a narrowing in her intestine.
“Don’t take too much!” she’d pleaded with the surgeon, as if he was about to rob her, not restore her to health.
Alex had kissed her white-knuckled hand. “It’ll be fine, älskling, you’ll feel so much better, and be able to eat so much more food.”
Yes, reasonable assessments. If it wasn’t for her inconsolable fear of losing so much small intestine that she’d lose the inalienable right to shit on a toilet like a normal person. People did it every day—lived with ileostomies and bags attached to their abdomens. But she couldn’t. Couldn’t. The very thought of it made her start shaking her head until Hanna twitched, glancing at her with a soured frown as if she was already stinking up the room.
Suzette got herself back under control, at least so far as her daughter would notice. But her dark mind played on, resistant to more-comforting distractions in the weeks since her surgery.
What if she got another fistula?
That was the thing that haunted her every day since she agreed to schedule the procedure. The last time, it developed about six weeks after her emergency resection. She’d woken up one morning feeling as if she was sleeping on a brick, but the mass had been in her own belly, a pool of waste that needed to be drained. It had been eight weeks since The Surgery, so maybe the danger had lessened. Alex said his usual “one day at a time” platitudes. Dr. Stefanski said no no, just keep doing your injections, your inflammation markers are low. But in her head the oozing puss and shit waited in the wings, and what if Alex had to play the role her mother played, nursemaid, replacing the soiled packing in a wound that wouldn’t heal—
A quick knuckle rap on the exam room door dispelled her thoughts. Sometimes the presence of a doctor only made her trauma worse, but this one was here for Hanna, not her. And she was here as a good mother, a concerned mother, unlike her own. She pressed her palm against her tingling abdomen and made herself smile as the new doctor gusted in, grayer than the last one. His eyebrows needed a trim and Suzette struggled to maintain eye contact with him with his nose hairs on such display.
“Mrs. Jensen.” He shook her hand.
He pronounced her name as everyone did, incorrectly. It didn’t bother her as much as it did Swedish-born Alex, who, after nineteen years in the United States, still couldn’t accept that Americans would never make a J sound like a Y. The doctor sat on the rolling stool and brought Hanna’s records up on the computer.
“No changes from the scan she had . . . When was it? Two and a half years ago? No abnormalities of the skull, jaw, throat, mouth . . . upon examination or on the scan. So that’s good, right? Hanna’s a healthy girl.” He smiled at Hanna’s turned-away head.
“So . . . There’s no . . . ?” She tried not to sound as disappointed as she felt. “She should be finishing first grade and we can’t even send her to school, not if she doesn’t speak. We don’t feel like she needs a special class—she’s smart, I homeschool her and she’s very smart. She can read, do math—”
“But it won’t be good for her—it’s not good for her, to be so isolated. She doesn’t have friends, won’t interact with her peers. We’ve tried to be supportive, encouraging. There has to be something we can do, something to help her . . .”
“I know an excellent speech language pathologist, if Hanna is having trouble—”
“We’ve tried speech pathologists.”
“—she can be tested for any number of things. Verbal apraxia, semantic pragmatic language disorder . . .” He scrolled through her online chart, looking for something. “Maybe auditory processing disorder, though she presents atypically for that. Has she had any of these tests?”
“We’ve tested her for everything. Her hearing’s fine, no muscle weakness, no cognitive problems. I’ve lost track of all the tests, but she takes them, seems to think they’re fun—but she won’t say a word.”
“Won’t?” The doctor turned to face Suzette.
“Won’t. Can’t. I don’t know. That’s . . . We’re trying to find out.”
Suzette squirmed as the doctor flicked his overeducated attention between the two of them. She knew what he was seeing: the daughter, lost in her own head; the mother, a carefully groomed, but wound-up mess.
“You say she can read and write? Can you communicate with her that way?”
“She’ll write out answers in her workbooks, she doesn’t seem to mind that. We know she understands. But when we’ve asked her to write what she’s thinking or wants—any type of actual communication . . . No, she won’t speak to us that way.” Her interlocked fingers started hurting and she glanced down at them, a little surprised by how forcefully she’d been twisting them. She took hold of her purse strap and started strangling it instead. “She can make noises—so we know, maybe, she could make other sounds. She can grunt. And squeal. Hum little songs.”
“If it’s a matter of her refusing . . . Won’t requires a different type of doctor than can’t.”
Suzette felt her face reddening, as if her hands had moved to her throat, squeezing the life from her. “I—we—don’t know what to do. We can’t go on like this.” She gasped for air.
The doctor wove his fingers together and gave her a sympathetic, if lopsided, smile. “Behavioral difficulties can be just as difficult to manage as physical ones, maybe more so.”
She nodded. “I always wonder . . . Am I doing something wrong?”
“It causes strain in a family, I understand. Perhaps the next thing to try . . . I could recommend a pediatric psychologist. I wouldn’t recommend a psychiatrist, not until she has a diagnosis. In this age, they’re so quick to write prescriptions, and maybe this is something you can work through.”
“Yes, I’d prefer that, thank you.”
“I’ll send a referral through your insurance company . . .” He turned back to the computer.
Suzette worked the kinks out of her purse strap, feeling slightly dizzy with relief. She tucked a piece of Hanna’s hair behind her ear.
“I try to avoid toxic things,” she said to the doctor’s slouched back. “Not that all medication is toxic, but like you said, society’s so quick to find a pill for something, never mind the side effects. But if it’s not a disability . . . An organic solution, that sounds good.” She turned to Hanna. “We’re going to work this out. Find someone you might talk to.”
Hanna took a swat at Suzette’s fussing hand and curled her lip in a snarl. Suzette shot her a warning glare, then peeked at the doctor to make sure he hadn’t seen.
Hanna bolted to her feet, crossed her arms, and stood by the door.
“In a minute, we’re almost finished.” Suzette made her voice sound endlessly patient.
Spinning back around on his stool, the doctor chuckled. “I don’t blame you one bit, young lady, cooped up at the doctor’s on a sunny day.” Suzette stood as he did. “The referral will probably take a few days, then you can schedule something directly with Dr. Yamamoto. She’s a developmental child psychologist and has a great way with kids, very established. And hopefully Hanna will connect with her. They’ll print out all the information when you check out.”
“Thank you so much.”
“She might even be able to recommend some schools for you.”
“Perfect.” She looked over at her daughter, not surprised to see the angry scowl on her face. Through bad behavior, Hanna had made herself unwelcome at three preschools and two kindergartens. Suzette had come to believe that their mother-daughter relationship would improve only when they had some distance—when Hanna went off to school. And Suzette wanted their relationship to improve. She was tired of yelling “Hanna, stop!” and maybe she shouldn’t yell, but there were endless reasons—small and large—why she’d needed to. Plucking all the leaves off the houseplants. Pulling on every loose thread, no matter what it unraveled. Mixing a cocktail of orange juice and nail polish remover. Throwing balls against the glass wall of their house. Staring at her and refusing to blink or budge. Hurling sharpened pencils like darts across the room. Hanna had creative ways to amuse herself, and most of them were intolerable.
Since the doctor confirmed there was nothing physically wrong, then, for the sake of her own health and sanity, it was time to convince Alex that they needed to find a school for Hanna. Maybe someone else would succeed where she hadn’t in disciplining the girl. She couldn’t phrase it to him as a desperate need for her own time and space; she couldn’t make it all about herself. Hanna behaved quite lovingly in his presence, and often he saw silliness where she saw mischief, and her more-provocative antics he ascribed to intelligence. He remained blind to his own hypocrisy, all the things he explained away as normal while exulting her precocity. So that would be her argument: Gifted Hanna was bored; she needed more stimulation than what she was getting at home.
One way or another, she wouldn’t let Hanna continue to derail her life.
Hand in hand, they engaged in a silent contest of who could squeeze the tightest, as Suzette smiled at the nurses on their way out.
Sometimes Mommy was an octopus with a sharp blade in each hand. It seemed fair to Hanna that when Mommy bruised her heart, or made her feel all icky crumbly inside, that she should be able to hurt her back. She didn’t like Dr. Caterpillar Eyebrows scanning her with his X-ray vision, trying to find out what was wrong with her. She didn’t like how Mommy talked about her, like she was broken. Bad. Worthless. And to make it worse, it was all an act. Mommy just wanted to find a good reason to return her. She’d seen her do it before, in line at a store.
“This is defective—can I get a refund?”
She knew Mommy wanted to get rid of her; she was always trying to leave her behind. That’s what school was all about, though Hanna had other reasons to resist. The noises. The grabby children. The piercing red panic of not having her own space. By the age of four she was on to Mommy’s other tricks, like the babysitters. It was unacceptable; Mommy was failing her tests to prove her motherly love. And the more she failed, the more opportunities Hanna tried to provide for her to redeem herself. Though she wasn’t always sure of the rules to their war games. And when she scrunched up her brain, she couldn’t quite remember who had started it.
Abha. She was the last babysitter. Hanna always remembered her name because it reminded her of ABBA, a musical group from where Daddy was born. He liked to sing the “Dancing Queen” song to her, holding her as they twirled and bopped around. It wasn’t Abha’s fault. Hanna was ready to burst before the girl even rang the doorbell. She wanted to dress up and go to the party and have Daddy’s friends smile at her and say nice things that made her feel like she was full of bubbles. Not stay home, forgotten, with another bug-eyed stranger.
She remembered tiptoeing into Mommy’s room. When she saw Mommy in the bathroom, standing in front of the mirror in an oil slick of a dress, she dropped to her hands and knees and crawled over to Mommy’s side of the bed. It wasn’t Hanna’s first spy-and-capture mission. She knew all of Mommy’s habits, like the way she always picked out her jewelry before getting dressed, and then left it sitting like lost treasure on her bedside table. Mommy planned to wear a pair of sparkling little hoop earrings and a swimming-pool colored gemstone that dangled from a delicate chain.
Hanna plucked the earrings from the table and whisked them away to her room.
There wasn’t much time—Mommy looked almost ready to leave—so she tucked the earrings into a little hole in Mungo’s back. Mungo was a very, very old stuffed monkey who loved to help Hanna hide things. She quickly changed into her shimmery lavender dress. It was a teensy bit small, she hadn’t worn it for a while, but it was the fanciest thing in her closet.
When she bounded back into her parents’ bedroom, Mommy was still in the bathroom, leaning against the snowbank sink that glittered with suspended ice crystals, putting on mascara. Hanna waltzed in, holding out the ruffled hem of her dress as she did a couple of spins. It was still such a pretty dress, even if it was tight across her shoulders.
“I thought you were putting on your pajamas.” Mommy’s reflection glared at her with one misshapen eye.
Hanna did a little jump, then pointed at Mommy. Go go go, she said in her head.
Mommy stuffed the brush back into the tube and turned to her. Hanna thought for sure she would notice how special she looked, so dazzling and grown up and ready for the party. She giggled, thinking about how Daddy would carry her around and say, doesn’t my squirrely girl look beautiful.
“I told you before. And Daddy told you this morning. It’s for big people, no kids will be there, and it’s all stuff you don’t eat or drink. And you need to go to bed soon. The babysitter will be here any second . . .”
Hanna tilted her head back, squawking in protest. As Mommy strode out, she scrambled after her, gripping the edges of the shimmery dress in her fists. It wasn’t fair. Mommy had floated around all day—have to get this done before the party, Mommy needs to change for the party—it was all so obvious. She’d sounded so chipper confirming with the babysitting company, and checking in with Daddy: Do you need anything? Should I pick up anything else? Hanna had to eat her supper alone while Mommy stood in the little downstairs bathroom, putting up her hair. It was all Mommy wanted all day. To stop thinking about her. To leave her behind.
Hanna reached out and let her fingertips whisper her desire, gently on Mommy’s naked arm. It was the way she said “please.” Tears knotted up in her throat.
But it was too late. Mommy stared at her bedside table.
“Where are my earrings?” She fastened the little necklace, even as her eyes searched. Tugging up her dress, she got down and peered along the floor, running her hands over it like maybe the earrings had turned invisible. When Mommy looked at her, they were at eye level. “Did you take my earrings?”
Hanna didn’t move. Didn’t even blink.
“They were diamonds. An expensive gift from . . . Did you take them?”
The doorbell rang.
Mommy stood. Her belly went in and out as she breathed, glaring down on her.
“Please, Hanna. The last time, those were just . . . They had no value, but . . . Please.”
No moving. No blinking.
The doorbell rang again.
Mommy chuffed and marched out. Hanna chased after her. Maybe Mommy would lose her temper and send the babysitter away and then tear apart the house in search of the earrings. What a sight that would be, Mommy making a mess! Hanna would “find” them and return them to her. And Mommy would be so happy, she’d take Hanna with her to the party.
In her dark and shiny dress, Mommy moved like a crashing wave, spilling down the stairs toward the front door.
“Hi, thanks so much for coming—I’m Suzette, this is Hanna.”
“Hi Hanna, I’m Abha.” She had straight black hair that fell in a swoop over her shoulder when she bent to smile in Hanna’s face.
“Come in. She’s not verbal yet—”
“Is she potty-trained?” Abha asked, stepping inside.
Hanna roared like a lion who’d stepped on a thorn. Stupid Abha would regret thinking she was a baby; she was four.
Mommy showed her the kitchen—help yourself—and how the TV remote worked—in case you want to watch something.
“I have some studying to do, after Hanna’s in bed.”
“You’re at Pitt?” Mommy asked.
“Yes, third year.”
Hanna followed the tour upstairs, growing more disappointed and growly. Mommy clearly still intended to leave her with the babysitter, even without finding the precious diamond earrings.
“Hanna might throw a little fit about wanting to sleep in our room—she’s tried that with other sitters before—but she knows she’s supposed to sleep in her own bed.” Mommy flicked on the light in Hanna’s room. “She can watch TV for about fifteen minutes after I leave, then she should come up to bed. You can read her a book.”
“It looks like Hanna’s dressed as a princess—are you a princess?”
It’s a party dress, you dodo.
“She has clean pajamas under her pillow.”
Abha held her hand out to Hanna. “Want to watch a little TV? What shows do you like?”
Mommy led them downstairs and Hanna did not take Abha’s hand. “She knows which channels she’s allowed to watch. Our cell numbers are on the fridge . . .”
Hanna ran ahead and leapt onto the couch. She heard the dress rip a little, but so what—she’d show Daddy and he’d say, time for a new one. She pushed the little buttons that controlled the big TV . . . But Mommy wasn’t done talking to Abha.
“Um, I’d asked the agency for someone really experienced, because Hanna—” she met Hanna’s eyes across the room “—can be a handful. I just want to make sure, you’re really—”
“Don’t worry. I’m certified in CPR, I know how to treat a choking child. I was a nanny for a year for two-year-old twins, I’m a big sister, a little sister, an aunt—I’ve been around kids my whole life.”
“Okay, I just don’t want you to . . . It can be hard because she doesn’t talk. So please, call if things . . . It’s fine to call us.”
“I will, don’t worry.”
“Goodnight, baby. Be good.” Mommy blew her a kiss that evaporated before it reached her on the couch. “Why don’t you go put on your pajamas before you watch TV. Are you sure you don’t know where my earrings are?”
Hanna turned up the volume on the television, but she still heard when Mommy left, shutting the door behind her. Abha sat down near her, and Hanna fought the urge to swing on her long hair. The babysitter smiled, but Hanna only glowered in return. Until a pang in her tummy gave her the most wonderful idea.
She sprang up and jumped over the back of the couch, racing to get upstairs.
“Changing into your pj’s?” Abha asked.
Hanna nodded, grinning, so excited to execute her plan.
She was already half out of her dress before she got to her room. She threw it on the floor.
A minute later, she stood in the threshold of her bathroom, panties at her feet, and started wailing. For good measure she let out a shriek or two, in case Abha couldn’t hear well over the television.
The startled babysitter bumbled up the stairs, and Hanna made sure to keep crying, even though she wanted to laugh, as Abha took in the problem: the puddle of pee and pile of poop she’d left on the floor.
“Oh no, did you have an accident?”
Hanna nodded, still crying.
“We’ll just get everything cleaned up, it’s okay.” But Abha crinkled her nose and Hanna knew the mess was disgusting. That’s what Abha deserved, for thinking she might not be potty-trained.
She let Abha clean her off and dress her for bed, even though Hanna could have managed it all herself. One foot over the other, she leaned against the hallway railing, eager to see Abha’s technique for cleaning up pee and poo. She knew how Mommy would do it—had even seen her do it once, when Hanna, at two, had legitimately not made it to the potty in time. Mommy had gloves and cleaning stuff stashed under every sink, but Abha didn’t know that.
Abha stood with her hands at her waist, weighing her options. “Does your Mommy have spray bottles and sponges in the kitchen?”
Hanna nodded, sucking in her lips so she wouldn’t grin. It was turning out to be not such a bad night after all. She skipped after the babysitter, thrilled by her every move.
Abha took off all her silvery rings and set them on the kitchen counter. Hanna took such interest in them, she barely noticed Abha anymore. She nodded when asked a question, and let the babysitter return upstairs alone with her paper towels and gloves and cleaning stuff.
There were four rings, each one enticing in its own way. But in the end she chose the smallest one, with a braided band and a reddish stone in the middle. She knew Abha would ask her later “What happened to my ring?” and she didn’t want another round of blinking-and-not-moving, so she opted to go to bed. But first, she hid the remote control so Abha would be stuck watching loud cartoons all night.
The mess was gone when she reached the top of the stairs, and Abha was on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floor. Hanna yawned and headed for her room.
“Ready for bed?”
“I’ll just finish up and come tuck you in.”
Before slipping into bed, she offered Mungo another treasure to keep safe. She heard Abha next door, scrubbing up her hands under a gush of water. When she came in a few minutes later and put the back of her hand on Hanna’s forehead, it was still a little damp.
“Feeling okay?” she asked. Hanna nodded. “Good. Want me to read a story?”
Hanna shook her head. She only liked Daddy to read to her. But she pointed to her cheeks, one, and then the other, so Abha would kiss her goodnight.
Smooch. “Sweet dreams.” Smooch.
When Abha went to sit back up, Hanna grabbed hold of a thick chunk of her hair. It seemed possible that it might be strong enough to swing on. She gave it a little yank, testing it.
Abha tried to pull her hair free, but Hanna wouldn’t let go; she gripped it in both hands.
“What are you doing?”
Hanna just gazed at her, a satisfied smile on her face.
“I have to get up now.”
But Hanna wouldn’t give up the grip on her hair.
“Hanna . . .” Abha tried to pry her fingers off, but that just made Hanna squeeze as tightly as she could. She yanked it again, bringing the babysitter’s face closer to hers. Abha looked a little freaked out.
“Stop it, this isn’t funny.”
Hanna kept pulling. Slowly. Closer. Knowing Abha couldn’t pull her head away without making it hurt worse.
When they were nose to nose, they engaged in a stare-off.
“I’m telling your mother.”
Hanna shrugged. But Abha had bad breath. She didn’t want the babysitter in her face forever. Time to make a move.
Ruff! Hanna barked. To her own ears it sounded very authentic.
It startled Abha enough that she jumped backward and yelped. Tears stood in her eyes as she pressed one hand against her scalp, and grabbed her shank of hair in the other.
Hanna laughed and let go.
Abha gave her a crazed look. She hurried from the room, switching off the light and shutting the door.
Hanna knew she wouldn’t come back in, even to inquire after her missing ring. Abha would probably tell Mommy and Daddy everything, but that was good. Mommy would wonder if she stole Abha’s ring, or pooped on the floor on purpose. But Daddy would say, “Poor lilla gumman isn’t comfortable around strangers.”
When Hanna awoke many hours later, the house was dark and quiet. For the night’s final act of revenge, she fished the jewelry out of Mungo’s plush back. But on second thought, she put the ring back; she liked it, maybe she’d want to wear it someday, when she got bigger.
Plop! Plop! Two diamond earrings, into the toilet. For good measure, she had a quick pee before flushing everything away. She remembered watching the shiny baubles circle and spin before the tidal wave carried them away forever.
Mommy never set her treasures beside her bed again. Or called in another babysitter. The memory of it made Hanna grin, but it was hot in the car and she was hungry. A part of her wanted to get back in the tube, where she could spin around like a ship in orbit. Sometimes she couldn’t tell where she wanted to be. Far away in outer space? Or closer than close. Sometimes she wished she could remember being in Mommy’s tummy. Were they both really happy then? When their blood was all jumbled up and they shared a mystery?
She tucked the little travel pillow against her abdomen before fastening the seatbelt. It wasn’t such a necessary precaution anymore, but sometimes when she hit a pothole it made her wince. She described for Alex how it felt, feeling the places inside her knit back together. Once, on a slow day at Phipps Conservatory in their early months of dating, they meandered from room to room, lingering in front of whatever odd plant caught their attention. The sweat dripped from their temples as they stood shoulder to shoulder in the sun-filled glass enclosure, entranced as they watched a grassy plant burst upward in spurts of growth. The sound attracted them first—they could hear the plant growing!
“That’s how it feels inside sometimes. Like, little bursts of mending. It’s like I can feel filaments reaching out, webbing together. Like that plant we watched grow at Phipps.”
“Must be weird,” Alex had said as he gently caressed her tender flesh.
“It doesn’t hurt exactly, but it startles me.” And it was reassuring that her body knew how to put itself back together. Though she still willed it to mend correctly, without the aberration of another fistula.
Suzette concentrated on the traffic; midday Oakland was always a mess. She regretted not going in the other direction. She could have stopped by Alex’s office if they’d gone that way—his firm owned a building on McKee Place that had once been a church. He and his partner Matt had fully remodeled it, keeping the main room—open and airy—as a conference room with an immense table made of recycled paper. She knew Hanna loved the atrium, which had once been the altar. They’d installed skylights so the trees would reach for the light. Visiting Daddy would have been a treat; he’d give Hanna his effortless kisses and affection. Sometimes it bothered Suzette, how Hanna lit up in his presence, becoming as loving toward her Daddy as he was toward her. It wasn’t that Suzette had never tried to be more loving, but her efforts waned as Hanna continually pushed her away. Still, she’d behaved very well through her appointments; she deserved a little reward.
“So Hanna, I want to thank you for being so good today.” She looked in the rearview mirror, but Hanna wouldn’t meet her eye. “Why don’t we stop at Trader Joe’s and you can pick out a little—”
Hanna burst into happy clapping. Suzette smiled, pleased with herself.
“You’re becoming such a big girl. And the doctor had good news: you’re totally fine. Perfect health. It might be a good time to start looking for a school. It’s been a while and you’ll probably like it better—”
Hanna slammed her hands against the window, shrieking as if she’d awakened in a coffin.
“Stop it!” Suzette didn’t think Hanna was strong enough to break the glass, but the girl seemed determined to try. Suzette regretted spoiling their good moment.
“Okay! You wouldn’t be going to school now, not right now. We’d be looking for the fall—”
Hanna kept pounding the window, squawking in anger.
Suzette wanted to whip around and slap her knee, but the cars inched together nose-to-tail; she couldn’t risk turning away. Why had she said anything? Another of her stupid parental fails. The light mercifully turned red and she put on the brakes. She snapped off her seatbelt so she could turn all the way around.
“Stop it right now! We’re not going to Trader Joe’s if you keep acting like a brat!”
Hanna switched off her tantrum. They competed in a stare-off, which Suzette lost when she glanced at the streetlight. But she quickly re-engaged with her daughter.
“You think this is funny? These games you play? Someday it’s gonna get you in real trouble. You’re not going to get your way forever.”
Hanna smiled. And nodded her head.
A car beeped at them. “All right!” Suzette put her foot on the gas and the car lurched forward. With one hand, she refastened her seatbelt. “And I expect you to behave well in the store—you behave well, and you can pick out what you want.”
Suzette saw the smug grin on her daughter’s face; Hanna might have thought she’d won, but the issue of school wouldn’t be dropped that easily. She’d get Alex on her side before they brought it up again. In the Meanwhile, if she was lucky, she could appease Hanna with a bag of dark-chocolate covered blueberries, and hope they could maintain the peace for the rest of the day.
In the store, Hanna dropped her favorite items into the cart while Suzette pushed it along, lost in thought. Alex. Naked. Alex’s mouth. Alex’s comforting arms. Alex’s torso and the way they fit together. She didn’t love his trendy beard, but he looked good in it. More reddish than his corn-silk hair, and he kept it fairly short. He liked his beauty products. He liked beauty—Suzette’s, their daughter’s. He dressed well and kept himself fit, but he wasn’t traditionally handsome. His features were too crowded in the center of his face; when they first met, she had an impulse to pinch his cheeks and stretch them out, giving his eyes, nose, mouth a little more room. But the minute he started talking to her by the coffee machine at her first and only post-school job, he exuded such warmth and interest. His kindness transformed him, making him so easy to talk to. And so gorgeous.
They were all the way to the refrigerated section when Suzette realized she’d forgotten the bananas. She scanned the cart, pleasantly surprised that Hanna hadn’t picked up any strange items, just her Puffins, a jar of peaches, a bag of organic tortilla chips, and a frozen spinach pizza. Suzette experienced a rare bloom of pride, hopeful that she’d managed to teach Hanna about healthy food choices.
“Did you want to get your blueberries?” she asked as they backtracked past the fruit, nuts, and chocolate.
Hanna grabbed up multiple bags of various chocolate-covered fruit.
“Hey, how about just one of each.” That was still more than she usually allowed, but she wanted Alex to have proof of the reward she’d given to Hanna. She knew how he envisioned their family: his good daughter and his perfect wife. The loving, caring mother who successfully eased her daughter’s fears of the scary machine and found a new path to try on the quest for their sweet child’s health and happiness. (The perfect, devoted wife who worried her family was slipping away. She spent years in the pre-Alex abyss and couldn’t survive another descent.)
When Hanna didn’t listen, Suzette plucked the extra pouches out of the cart. Hanna only whined a little, halfheartedly stamping her foot.
“It’s still four times what you usually get.”
Flashing a triumphant grin, Hanna bounded off to the produce section.
From elsewhere in the store, a young child was crying. Recognizing the long, determined wails of a tantrum, Suzette felt immediate sympathy for the parent. The cries increased in volume when she reached the produce area, where a mother struggled to hang on to an erupting toddler in one hand as she pushed a full cart with the other. The toddler’s screaming grew louder and more determined, and Suzette made out individual words—Want! No!—as he raged.
Just as she was about to tell Hanna to stop licking the lemons, Hanna abandoned them to go watch the tantrum. Suzette kept a watchful eye on her and quickly placed bananas and apples, Brussels sprouts and salad fixings into the cart.
“Hanna, come on.”
The toddler, red-faced, tried to wrestle out of his mother’s grasp. When he realized he couldn’t, his body went rigid and he howled at the ceiling. The other shoppers made a wide arc around the commotion, their faces pinched and judgmental. Hanna stepped right in front of the bellowing little boy, bending at the waist as she put a finger to her mouth. Sssshhh.
It startled him for a moment and he quieted.
“Hanna, come on—we’re ready to go.”
“She’s a sweet little girl,” said the other mother.
“Thanks.” Suzette, not trusting in Hanna’s sweetness, extended her hand, knowing Hanna wouldn’t take it, but hoping she would move along.
The toddler exploded again, this time with Hanna as the object of his rage. He lashed out at her with a sloppy punch and resumed screeching.
“Brandon, you know better . . .” said the other mother.
Before Suzette could stop her, Hanna drew back a closed, determined fist and struck the boy in the side of the head.
The boy tottered, stunned, then dropped to his bottom.
“Oh no!” Suzette rushed over, tugging Hanna away. “I’m sorry—we’re so sorry!”
The mother scooped Brandon into her arms, her face alight with shock. He burst into tears, breathy cries of pain.
“Is he okay? I’m so sorry!” She glared down at Hanna. “We do not hit people!”
Hanna pointed at the boy, her silent way of condemning him as the instigator.
The mother held him away from them, checking his eye, his ear, the soft spot along his temple. She bounced him, trying to soothe his tears.
Reading the hateful, how-dare-you-make-my-day-worse glower in the mother’s face, Suzette clutched Hanna’s hand and escaped to the checkout lanes. She would have just left, abandoned the cart, and fled in shame. But things would get worse if Hanna had to leave the store without her treat.
Suzette’s hands shook and she babbled as the cashier scanned her items.
“Hanna, you absolutely know hitting is wrong. And he’s just a little—it doesn’t matter, you can’t hit people, ever. That is not okay, and you know that is not okay . . .”
Hanna sighed, bored. Suzette kept her head down as they left the store, certain everyone would recognize her as the mother who couldn’t control her violent child. Slugging a toddler.
“I can’t believe you did that.”
After buckling herself into her car seat, Hanna gazed at Suzette, expectant and unblinking. She tilted her head and quirked her mouth, and Suzette knew exactly what she was threatening. A tantrum of her own, unless Suzette handed over the goods.
Suzette put the shopping bags in the front seat, far from Hanna’s reach, and dug out a pouch of dark-chocolate covered blueberries.
“This is not a reward for what you did in the store,” she said before handing them over. “You earned this by being good at the doctor’s, but Daddy and I will have to talk about what you did, because hitting is unacceptable. Okay?”
Hanna grinned, tearing open the bag, and God help her but Suzette saw nothing but devilish pride in her daughter’s face. She wanted to rip the pouch from her hands. But she was too tired. Too tired and she just wanted to get home.
It was always too much to hope for that an entire day would go well.
As they drove, Hanna nibbled her blueberries and hummed a nasally tune that almost made her sound cheerful, normal. Suzette prayed the chocolate would be enough to mollify her until Alex got home, when Hanna could be counted on to put on her angelic mask and become Daddy’s good little girl.
Their house was different from the other houses on their tight Shadyside street, like it was from the future. She loved it because it was safe, and familiar, and Daddy designed the whole thing. He always said Mommy helped him with the inside, but Hanna knew she just picked out the furniture—stuff not so different from things she’d seen in the IKEA catalog. Everything was white or natural-looking wood. But the magical part was all Daddy’s doing: The glass wall that overlooked the big garden, even from the second floor. The space-age stairs. The cool cleanness of the whole interior, better than a flying saucer.
The L-shaped living room couch was custom-made. Hanna liked to leap off the built-in slats that stuck out at the ends. Mommy always yelled “Stop standing on the tables!” but to Hanna they looked like diving platforms. She liked to stick her fingers in the potted plants to see if they needed to be watered, but Mommy always yelled at her for sprinkling dirt on the floor. Mommy liked things to be clean. And she liked to yell, when Daddy wasn’t around. Hanna liked to play in the walled-in garden, the high fence and hedges a barrier that obscured the other houses, and hid them all from the neighbor’s curious eyes. No one bothered her as she ran around saving all the passengers from the sinking ship. She filched the money from their pockets and the gems from their necks before pushing them into the lifeboat. Sometimes she galloped around and around, astride her magnificent gray horse.
She stood in front of the giant television, flipping through the channels.
“Hanna—it’s not time for TV, you haven’t done any schoolwork today.”
Behind her, Mommy put away the Trader Joe’s stuff in the cabinets that reminded her of fog. When she was little, she climbed onto the counter and carefully took out all the plates and bowls. She was about to hoist herself in, wanting to see the foggy cabinet from the inside where she imagined it would be like being in a cloud. Then Daddy scooped her into his arms. “Whatcha doing, little monkey?” He wasn’t mad and she giggled.
She kept pressing the buttons on the remote control, aware of her sticky fingers. She saw it in her mind, and then it happened: Mommy marched over and grabbed the remote. She made her disgusted face. “You’ve got chocolate . . .”
Mommy clicked her tongue and switched off the TV. She carried the remote back with her to the kitchen and got a paper towel and the fancy spray bottle and rubbed away Hanna’s cooties. Hanna grinned behind her hand, licking it clean.
“Come on, we’ll start with a little spelling bee, it’ll be fun. You can impress me with all the hard words you know.” Mommy got some supplies out of the cupboard where they kept the school things.
Hanna trudged over. She sat on her knees in a chair at the big tree-slab table that hovered between the kitchen and the living room.
Mommy stuck a pencil into the electric sharpener, whirring it until it was sharp enough to poke out an eye. Hanna liked that part, and watched as Mommy did a second pencil. Mommy handed them both to her, and slid over a piece of paper.
“We’ll just do a few. It’ll be a short school day. First word : love. I love sleeping. You love the color yellow. Love .”
As Hanna wrote down an answer, Mommy tucked the reading book under arm so Hanna couldn’t see the answers, and went back to the kitchen to get herself a glass of water and two white pills. She swallowed the pills as she came back.
“Got it? Ready?” Mommy sat across from her, looking weird and wobbly as she rubbed at two spots on either side of her head.
Hanna held up her paper so Mommy could see what she’d written.
“Nice try. But this isn’t word association. Do you want to spell out love?”
Hanna shook her head. She knew Mommy tried to be her most extra patient when they did schoolwork, because it was Important. Daddy said that all the time, so Hanna usually tried her best so Daddy would gush about how smart she was. But she needed Mommy to understand how it would be if she forced her to go to school. Mommy should never have brought it up.
“Okay, we’ll do a different word. How about . . . summer. In a couple of months it will be summer. Hanna’s Farmor and Farfar come to visit every summer.”
So easy peasy. Hanna wrote something on her paper, then turned it around to show Mommy.
Mommy’s sigh half-melted her and she could barely keep her floppy-self sitting upright. “That’s not a nice word. I’m not even surprised you know how to spell it. Could you please spell the words I’m asking you to spell? The sooner we finish this, the sooner we can move on to other things.”
Hanna sat poised, ready for the next word.
“Strawberry. Straw-berry. She couldn’t eat just one strawberry.”
Hanna covered the paper with her hand so Mommy couldn’t see what she was writing.
“That seems a bit long for one word—what are you spelling over there?”
Hanna giggled and kept writing. When she was ready, she held up her masterpiece.
Fuck Mommy. She is week and stupid.
A vein squiggled next to Mommy’s eye and she clenched her jaw.
“Okay, that’s it, you can work on your own for a while.” As she got up, Mommy reached for the spelling test.
But Hanna was ready: she tore up the page into little pieces and sprinkled them on the table.
“Of course, no evidence for Daddy. Hanna, I don’t want to do this with you right now. I know you couldn’t have loved the CT and new doctor—don’t you just want the rest of the day to be easy?” She scooped the paper scraps into her hand.
It wasn’t just easy, it was fun. And here was Mommy, losing her patience. Bad, bad Mommy. Maybe she’d make a report card on Mommy and show it to Daddy, with a big fat failing F. But Mommy wasn’t quite ready to give up. She opened another workbook and spun it around so Hanna could see it.
“You can read this short section . . . It’s about ancient Egypt: the Pyramids, and the Pharaohs—they’re like kings and queens, you’ll like that. And then on the next page. Look, you’ll get to write something out using hieroglyphs—that’s like a secret language. You can write Daddy a secret message. Okay? Write him whatever you want. Tell him you hit a baby at the store. Tell him you’ve mastered spelling profane words.” She headed for the kitchen. After sprinkling the spelling test into the recycling bin, she gathered up her cleaning supplies and trusty rubber gloves. “And by the way, you used the wrong spelling—it’s w-e-a-k. Because Mommy is not a day of the week.”
Hanna wasn’t sure whether to laugh or scowl. She didn’t like to be corrected. But she always enjoyed seeing Mommy like this, in her natural state of hating and giving up. If only Daddy could see it, then he’d understand that Mommy was phony. When he was around, Mommy was kissy and helpful. But it was an act she couldn’t keep up. If Hanna kept trying, Mommy’s face would dribble off and Daddy would shriek and toss her out of the house.
Hanna experimented with sounds as she read through the paragraphs. “Nya. Bya. Fya. Pwa. Bwa. Dwa.” She liked how French they sounded. She turned it into a repetitive singsong. “Dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dwa bwa pwa. Mee mee mee mee mee mee mee mee nya fya bya.”
Mommy glanced at her over her bucket of vinegar and water. “Little more reading, little less singing.”
“Bee bee bee bee bee bee bee, laa laa laa laa laa laa laaaaaaaaah! Di dee do do di dee do di ba ba baaaaaaah!”
“If you want to be vocal, say something. You’re only giving away the fact that you can say something.”
Hanna squished her lips together and batted her eyelashes. Mommy glared at her for a moment and went back to scrubbing the already clean kitchen. What a dumbo.
She liked how the Pyramids looked, but she wouldn’t want to live in one. No windows. Then she read that they were tombs for the Pharaohs. Homes for dead people. Weird. They were buried with gold and food. Weirder. Like dead people would wear jewelry and get hungry. It reminded her of some research she’d done online. On Daddy’s computer (because he let her use it sometimes). Fairy tales were full of ghosts and witches—people who weren’t like regular people, capable of fascinating and creepy things. Once she even wore a black dress and a pointy hat for Halloween. She was desperate to know But are they real? and heaped her library books about witches onto Daddy’s lap. He misunderstood. He patiently read them with her, but didn’t understand what she was trying to find out. She Googled it on her own.
Yes. Witches were real.
There were lots of them, especially in the golden days. Her search on “real witches” led her to Mother Shipton and Agnes Sampson. She’d read about young girls who were burned alive or tossed into a river to drown, weighted with stones, while the stupid villagers cheered. Nobody liked witches, that much was clear, but Hanna couldn’t understand why. It made her giggle, thinking about the fun games she could play if she had a witch for a friend. Maybe such a friend could finally help her do what she’d struggled to do on her own: make Mommy go away and never come back. After digging around some more, curious about the witch hunts, she found a big list of people who were killed. One of them had a name she very much liked and still remembered—a pretty French name with soft letters, not like the ugly N’s that trampled through “Hanna Jensen.”
She silently tested the words Marie-Anne Dufosset with her lips and tongue. Maybe if she repeated it enough, the French girl would come to her in spirit and be her bestest friend. She and Marie-Anne could make up songs and sing them together. Marie-Anne could teach her how to cast spells with the words no one else understood. Spells that would make Mommy’s heart explode.
Marie-Anne Dufosset. Marie-Anne Dufosset.
Ha, it worked! Marie-Anne helpfully instructed her on how to get her vocalization just right.
“Nya nya, nya nya. Boo dee boo dee baaa! Bwa bwa bwa bwa loo lee loo lee laaa!”
Mommy tilted her head. Hanna loved the look she gave her—the one that said I give up.
“Fine.” She gathered up her bucket and sponge and, head held high, marched away. Up the space age stairs and into the master bedroom.
Hanna cackled. It was a start. They made Mommy disappear.
She tended to the house as if it were a newborn, needing constant attention to thrive. She knew what squalor looked like—a grimy bucket or chipped bowl beneath every exposed pipe, every ceiling a topographic map of peeling paint—and as long as she was with Alex she need never see it again. To enjoy the tactile sensation, she went around the house barefoot, and the bathroom floor was her favorite: cool, smooth stone. The tingling against the soles of her feet traveled all the way up to her throbbing head, offering more relief than the Tylenol. In circular scrubs, she worked her way across the quartz countertop. Alex spared no expense to make the master bathroom the spa she longed for. A long trough sink. A soaking tub with sleek, oceanic curves, large enough for the two of them to share like a womb. The shower with its pair of rainfall nozzles, so they could stand together and close their eyes, transporting themselves to distant places—misty Ireland, balmy Thailand. Toilet. Bidet. A tall window, the bottom half frosted. Everything white. Everything clean. The only thing he hadn’t been able to give her was a skylight, because of his third-floor home office.
It had been an extravagance: gutting the whole house; reframing for larger, more efficient windows throughout; moving the interior stairwells. He’d only just started Jensen & Goldstein, but Pittsburgh was a hot market for homeowners and businesses wanting Scandinavian-inspired green renovations: the most modern finishes, state-of-the-art recycled materials, creatively readapted objects and architectural bits. They employed—and were hired by—bright young visionaries. The firm, and its reputation, grew quickly; they designed or rehabbed interesting homes and buildings all around the city. After their office was featured in a local newspaper, repurposing old churches became one of their specialties. So Alex turned the house that once looked so unimpressive, purchased right after their wedding when they were both twenty-six, into their dream home. They’d already decided they would have a child and Suzette would be a stay-at-home mom, at least for a few years.
It was a mistake, she realized, to examine the mirror for smudges, because all she saw was herself. A charred but unexploded stick of dynamite. She peeled off her gloves. Smoothed down her hair. Fixed the smears of mascara. She took off her belt and lifted her dress to examine the healing scars. Three laparoscopic ones, each about an inch long, lay strategically around the newly remade one: The canyon of uneven flesh removed; the skin pulled together tight and stitched back up in a tidy line. It was better. Not better enough for a bikini, but maybe in its new form the old trauma would start to dissipate.
She’d told Alex about her health problems on their second date, a picnic in the park, because they’d kissed after the first movie-pizza date, and she was afraid that if things grew more intimate he’d be repulsed by her scar. It was hard for him to understand everything at first, because he hadn’t been raised in such a dysfunctional household, but he listened, really listened. His attention was comforting, and she told her life story for the first time. How, at thirteen, the stomach pains started, followed by almost constant diarrhea. Her world spiraled downward.
“My mother shrugged it off. Said it happened to her at the same age. Hormones.”
“But . . . When you never got better?” Alex asked.
“I didn’t think of it as being sick anymore. It became normal.”
But what she and her mother called normal, other people called Crohn’s disease.
She retreated from the world and became afraid of food; maybe if she stopped eating, her stomach would get better. But it didn’t. On the night before her seventeenth birthday, she lay awake as her intestines twisted and screamed with wrongness. Sometimes she wished she’d had the bravery to lay there and accept her slow and agonizing death. Instead, she awakened her mother.
They arrived at the hospital, and her mother played her best parlor trick and transmogrified into a commonplace person. She wore nice clothes and a facial expression of parental concern. When the triage nurse asked how long Suzette had been having abdominal pain, she said it started overnight. Her mother, in her mother costume, nodded and asserted that it was out of the ordinary. “I brought her in straightaway.”
Suzette declined to have her mother present for the exam.
The doctors ravaged all her virginal orifices in search of a diagnosis. Suspecting appendicitis, they performed emergency surgery and found her lower intestines in a knot.
Her mother wasn’t there when she awakened in a dark room, a tube in her nose, her midsection alight with a throbbing exigence for which she had no words.
Weeks later, when it seemed as if she’d recovered well, she developed a fistula—a slender channel that grew from the site of her bowel resection to the surface incision. She found herself on the operating table with a cloth across her eyes. They cut into her jugular and inserted a central line without anesthetic. “Young people can handle the pain,” the surgeon explained to someone she couldn’t see. She didn’t scream (though she wanted to). But she never forgot (though she wanted to). They put her to sleep a few minutes later to reopen her abdomen.
The idea was to keep the incision open and let the fistula heal on its own. Shit and puss oozed through the hole for the better part of four years. Four years during which it seemed impossible that she would ever live a regular life, or do ordinary things like kiss a boy or have a job. She thought often about killing herself, but she developed a career plan and eventually got herself into art school. And then there was Alex.
“If I hadn’t met you . . . The freakish existence of my life might have gone on forever.”
He kissed her then, with tears in his eyes. And months later, he admitted that he fell in love with her on that second date, seeing her so vulnerable, and inspired by her astonishing resolve and inner strength.
A light hand rapped on the other side of the door.
Suzette clenched her jaw and shut her eyes. Go away. Go away. Please go away.
“Just a minute.” She let the dress slip back down to her knees. Gave her right abdomen a comforting little rub to encourage the healing.
“Mommy needs a minute.”
She ripped open the door, her teeth bared. “What is so fucking important?”
Her daughter looked so small. The picture of a good girl in a pretty dress. Her mouth hung open a bit, in fear or shock. The workbook dangled from Hanna’s left hand, and in her right fist she gripped the pencil.
She’d only come to ask a question, to get help. A better mom would have known that. Or at least not have lost her temper so quickly.
The brittle bones in Suzette’s chest collapsed. Even the easy things were hard. “I’ll be down in a minute. Sorry. Be right down to help you.”
She shut the door and quickly locked it so Hanna wouldn’t see her cry.
For several moments she paced, huffing in and out like a runner at the end of a race. Get it together. Get it together. Get it together. A twinge, electrical, poked beneath her incision like a warning. This is what anger, frustration, stress of any kind did to her: sent her body into overdrive, signaled the soldiers to come out and kill, and everything they shot was collateral damage. Life with an autoimmune disease. She couldn’t afford prolonged periods of distress, and she worried how her murky internalization of being Hanna’s frustrated mother was taking its toll.
The ileostomy bag taunted her—I’ll make you more disgusting than you’ve ever been. You’ll have to handle a nub of your own intestine and make sure your bag of shit doesn’t overflow. How was she going to turn this around and not let it become her inevitable future? Being a stay-at-home mom was meant to be part of a low-stress solution; it wasn’t a choice made because she lacked drive or talent.
When they met, before Alex had his own firm, she was an interior designer—as ambitious and adept with her work as Alex was with his. They were paired on a project, the green-loving newbies who clicked into a companionship that became inseparable. But the overtime and juggling of deadlines took its toll. It was her first career position. Her ambition started to crumble as her wretched bowels became more unpredictable. Shit shit shit.
She didn’t need to work after they got engaged and she moved into his apartment. She thought she’d do some free-lance work, but mostly she cooked and cleaned and waited for Alex to get home. Her Crohn’s quieted down. She started sketching again—not just elegantly functional interiors, but more-abstract things from her imagination. After starting Jensen & Goldstein, Alex brought her in as a consultant on a part-time basis, and let her choose the projects that appealed to her. She credited him with loving her back to health.
Then she got pregnant.
She’d expected a spiritual revelation; instead, her pregnancy demarcated the beginning of an extended sense of loss. Loss of self. Loss of Alex as the sole and cherished member of her tribe. Loss of her regained health.
Her body became more and more foreign, more and more distressed. In the middle months when she was meant to be gaining and expanding, all systems rebelled. She had so much cramping and diarrhea that she struggled to gain enough weight during the pregnancy. Dr. Stefanski advised her to double her daily intake of Imodium, but the drug he promised would help the most would have to wait: the biological injections were too dangerous to risk on a growing fetus. The exhaustion was so debilitating they considered hiring a full-time nanny if her health didn’t improve after the birth. She started to hope the baby would come early, not caring if it was slightly premature. She needed relief and wanted the medication, no matter how toxic.
She tried, during her worst moments, to hold on to the earliest days, the glorious days. When she and Alex beamed with radiant light. Their love had created a living, breathing creature who would someday hold the universe in its eyes and look at everything with wonder. But when it reached a size that she could feel within her, it seemed not like a baby but a mass. And then they made the mistake of rewatching Alien and she burst into tears, knowing that’s how her baby would emerge, a monster that would tear her apart.
“It’s just the Crohn’s, she’s fine,” Alex cooed, drying her tears, caressing her extended mound. “Right after she’s born, we’ll get you on the new meds.”
As much as Alex tried to comfort her, she couldn’t stop the flashbacks, not when a pregnancy was, after all, a medical ordeal. Not a spiritual awakening.
She dreaded all the necessary doctor appointments where she was supposed to surrender her own privacy and fears of being tortured for the benefit of the baby. Like it was already someone else’s body and their needs superseded her own. The minute she felt herself getting selfish and resentful, she thought: this is how it started, how my mother came to hate the responsibilities of motherhood. And then she’d have a change of heart and embrace her precious, fragile creature, and of course she’d do whatever it took. Endure the indignities of invasive exams because her beloved baby monster needed her, and she would prove that her instincts were strong, in spite of learning nothing from her own mother. Nothing but what not to do. Suzette vowed—with a savagery that put a spark of fear in Alex’s eyes—she’d never be a mother who dismissed her child’s pain. She’d never not care, she’d never be indifferent toward her child’s quality of life.
“Of course you’re not like that,” he said. “You’re a loving, talented, wonderful woman—you’ll be a wonderful mother. Full of love and life.”
But it was his love that created her life. Did she have enough of her own love to spare? The baby wasn’t supposed to remind her of an internal mass of pooling waste. The forty weeks weren’t supposed to be remembered for the new pains of a Crohn’s flare-up, or the demanding medical regimen that modernity required. She told Alex many times she wished they could go rent a farm, and while harvesting the cabbages she’d squat in the earth and give birth. In the end, she had her epidural and pushed like a champ, and it was worth it for the look on Alex’s face as he held their newborn daughter in his arms. The moment sealed it for him: Hanna was perfect, and Suzette his hero. In the years since, she did everything possible not to disrupt his mirage of familial tranquility; at least one of them was consistently happy.
Her health and digestion improved dramatically after starting the injections, but it remained a source of guilt that she’d never nursed Hanna. What unintentional harm might her baby have suffered? Might Hanna have developed differently with the early benefits of her milk’s precious antibodies? Suzette tried to compensate by laser-focusing her love as she fed Hanna a bottle. She cherished Hanna’s infancy. By the time Hanna was three months old, she prided herself on her knack for mothering. Baby Hanna was like an ever-changing work of art, with those expressive eyes, her little eyebrows that wiggled with concern.
It should have kept getting better as Hanna grew into a toddler and started establishing her own identity. She and Alex prepared themselves for tantrums and rebelliousness, and looked forward to hearing her say “No!” and “Mine!” But while the tantrums started on schedule, other milestones were left behind. At first, when they started to worry about her verbal skills, helping Hanna gave Suzette a purpose unlike anything she’d ever experienced. She worked with Hanna every day, enunciating words, trying to make fun games out of teaching her. But more often than not, Hanna stared at her with an unnervingly skeptical look, then burst into smiles when Alex entered the room. Suzette tried for a long time, but as the years went on the constant failure was a punch to the gut. A gut that couldn’t take much more trauma.
She pulled the rubber gloves back on. Sometimes she wished she had a full rubber bodysuit. It was armor against the germs—the drug compromised her immune system—but more important, the gloves made her feel purposeful. They symbolized hard work and productivity, cleanliness, and ultimately beauty. It was something she strove for, physical perfection. Her own might always be flawed (though she compensated as she could), but the house was something she could master. Through the effort, she manifested her worth.
She set the bucket on the floor and got down on her hands and knees. And scrubbed along the path where she had paced, erasing her own invisible footprints.
Usually, such methodic movements lulled her into a spacey, unfocused state. A place where she could decompress. But she worried on what to tell Alex. Good news: nothing’s physically wrong with Hanna. Bad news: the problem might be in her head. Would he be upset? He never saw Hanna do things like lash out at a much younger child, and disbelieved much of the bad behavior that her kindergarten teachers had reported. He was convinced they were exaggerating because Hanna wasn’t milestone typical. They’d started referring, between themselves, to “Hanna’s disability,” and while Alex insisted the world was becoming more tolerant and inclusive of such differences, the elite schools they’d enrolled her in were not.
“She’s so smart, way above average, even without being verbal,” Alex had boasted many times.
Suzette knew he still hoped for full, if delayed, integration. Had enough time passed? Would Hanna be ready by fall? Perhaps the new developmental psychologist could help them prepare her. It worried Suzette that Alex didn’t know everything—she’d stopped the daily updates years before when she saw the growing annoyance in his face. He made her feel like a complainer; incompetent. Their time together went more smoothly without the behavioral reports. But if she repeated the doctor’s assessment—that refusing to speak required very different treatment than being unable to speak—then Alex would have to accept that some-most-all of Hanna’s willfulness was intentional. Their daughter was playing with them, in different ways. Fucking with them. Manipulating them for her own sadistic purposes.
She threw the sponge into the bucket and cautioned herself to stop. Accusing a seven-year-old of sadism might be taking it a bit too far. But though Suzette had tried, she couldn’t figure out her daughter’s game. She loved the girl so effortlessly when she was a baby, a toddler. People told her those were the hardest times, before a child could speak her needs, but for her they were the easiest. Baby Hanna had simple, intuitive needs. Girl Hanna was a box within a box, each layer wrapped in a bow that was really a trickster’s knot. Once, she and Alex had orbited each other, their hands clasped together as gravity spun them in perfect circles. The addition of Hanna made it all wonky.
An image flashed behind her eyes. A runaway asteroid, knocking Hanna out of their orbit. If it were just the two of them, they could find their equilibrium again.
She blinked away the treasonous thought.
Hanna was still there? She hadn’t gone back downstairs? Suzette sat back on her heels and didn’t respond.
“I said I’ll be right down.”
Whap-whap. Hanna slammed her palm on the closed door. Kicked it. Uttered a high-pitched squeal of protest.
“Hanna! Go downstairs! Move onto another question that you can do on your own and I’ll be down in a minute!”
She waited, listening, hoping to hear an exasperated humphh of defeat and the retreating sound of small feet. But no. The doorknob jiggled. Tentatively, then more insistently. Hanna kicked the door again.
They didn’t spank. And Alex never even yelled. The only profanity he used in front of her was Swedish. But the kid was pushing it. Suzette unlocked the door and whipped it open.
“For fuck’s sake, Hanna. Why don’t you ever listen to me?”
The girl stood there, arms loosely at her sides, considering her mother. Then her eyes rolled back until they were solid white. Dead nothingness in the sockets.
“Because I’m not Hanna,” the girl whispered.
That’s all Mommy said. Then she shook her head, harder and harder so her eyeballs rattled around. She clutched her tummy and slammed the door. Hanna pressed her ear to it. The lock clicked. Mommy moaned, but she didn’t cry or scream. It got too quiet, so Hanna raked her fingernails down the door’s wooden grain. Water ran and splashed. She got down on her belly to peer into the crack of space beneath the door, but all she could make out were Mommy’s feet, standing in front of the sink.
Not quite the reaction she’d been hoping for—she thought Mommy would be more impressed. Or scared. And in case she had been more inquisitive, Hanna had a list of short answers at the ready, stuff she remembered from her Google search. It was a little disappointing that Mommy didn’t want to know about her special friend. Poo-poo to her; Hanna would try again later.
She skipped out into the hallway and dropped her schoolbook at the top of the stairs. There was nothing fun to do in her room, so she padded down the hall and up to Daddy’s attic study. By far, it was the best room in the house. The angled ceiling made it so cozy, like the walls were giving her a hug. Daddy’s study revealed that he and Mommy were nothing alike. He had a mess of stuff, though he kept his big worktable tidy. A squooshy chair, a fluffy rug, and shelves and shelves of books and weird things. Light poured in through the windows in the roof. She picked up one of his models—her favorite, the Viking ship—and carried it over to the window that looked out over their street. The glass came all the way to the floor, so she sat and watched a bubble car try to squeeze in between two silver tanks. The bubble car just fit, and the lady who got out grabbed her yoga mat from the trunk and hurried off down the street.
Daddy always said he liked Shadyside because they could walk everywhere, which reminded him of the city where he grew up. He always talked about Sweden with a big smile on his face. She often wanted to ask him about where he was from. Sometimes he told her things, like how he’d left with his parents when he was a teenager because Farmor got a position at Carnegie Mellon University. Farmor was proud that her son followed in her footsteps, which baffled Hanna because Farmor and Farfar later moved all the way across the country, to Tucson, Arizona, and Daddy had not once tried to walk there.
She bobbed the Viking ship in an invisible sea. When it landed, she stormed ashore with her battle-ax, ready to chop up the villagers and steal their gold. Daddy said most Vikings were farmers who did little, if any, raiding, but she had no interest in being a boring farmer. When she had all the gold she could carry, she put the boat back and turned off the light. She passed her parents’ big bedroom, but inside, the bathroom door was still closed. She scooped up her book and pencil and headed downstairs.
She was still in front of the TV, practicing writing in hieroglyphs, when Daddy got home from work. She ran to greet him. He was so tall, so he always got down on one knee to give her a hug.
“How’s my squirrelly girl?”
She jumped up and down as her fingers played in his cantaloupe-tinged beard and his coffee breath tickled her nose. Daddy was the most handsome man in the world. He dressed nicely, in crisp shirts and colorful ties, and his favorites were the ones she picked out for him. When she grew up she’d marry him, and then Mommy wouldn’t be competition anymore.
She nodded like her head was huge, and flashed a big smile of uneven teeth. It bothered her that they were falling out, but Mommy said it was normal. They celebrated every time she lost one, but to her it remained a horror. She liked her little baby teeth. She didn’t want a snarling mouth of adult-size teeth. Not until the rest of her face had grown up, too.
Daddy put his lunch kit on the counter and took out the used containers that once held his food.
“Where’s Mommy? Did you have your big round and around scan today?”
Affirmative, said her head.
“How’d that go?”
She mushed her lips together and shrugged.
Mommy slunk down the stairs, perpetually alert for Daddy’s voice.
“My two girls, in fine dresses,” he said.
Mommy stood on tiptoe to give him a kiss. “It was better before, with the belt and the shoes.” She glanced at Hanna with red-rimmed eyes.
“Have you been crying?” Daddy asked.
“Tired. A little stressed.”
Immediately concerned, he took Mommy’s hands. Hanna hung by the kitchen counter, watching everything.
“Everything okay with . . .” He flicked his head toward her.
“Yes.” Mommy flashed a fake smile. “Let’s talk later. I need to start supper.”
“Need help with anything?” He pressed in close, his eyes glued to her.
“Help Hanna with her homework?”
“Sure, älskling. Sure you’re okay?”
She nodded like a clackety-clack skeleton that was about to fall apart. Daddy was reluctant to let her go, to leave her alone, but finally he reached out to Hanna.
“Okay, squirrely girl, it’s you and me. What are you working on today?”
Hanna scooped up her book and the pair of deadly pencils. She pointed up—way, way up.
“Want to work in my study?”
Excited, she grabbed his hand and did a little gallop.
“Sounds good to me.”
Daddy started pulling off his tie as they headed up the stairs. At the landing, Hanna turned back to look at Mommy. She stood with a hand on her hip, studying the contents of the refrigerator. She caught Hanna’s eye, so Hanna smiled and waved. Mommy’s mouth shrunk into a tight line.
Usually she made Alex something a bit nicer, a bit more involved, but she didn’t feel like chopping vegetables and messing with ingredients. She just wanted to get him alone. To tell him what Hanna said.
What did it mean? Could Suzette have misheard her? Were they just nonsense sounds, one of her little singsongs? She could’ve sworn she heard an accent. It didn’t make any sense. Hanna’s first words should have been something to celebrate, but Suzette writhed with uncertainty. And dread. If she heard Hanna correctly . . . If she wasn’t Hanna . . . Around and around, the doubt and terror spun. Was one of them going crazy? Both of them? And those empty eyes still made her crackle with fear.
By the time they all sat down to her basic garlic-and-olive-oil pasta with last night’s leftover veggies and a fresh salad that Suzette declined to try, she questioned if she should even tell him. It was too easy to imagine him overlooking the specificity of Hanna’s ominous words in favor of celebrating the achievement of speaking. Or, knowing Hanna, she’d screw up her face, puzzled, and act completely baffled by Suzette’s announcement and pretend it never happened. Whose side would Alex take then? Even Suzette thought it more likely that, mired in worries, she’d misinterpreted what she saw and heard. A nightmare mingling with life, not reality.
She let him dominate the conversation, grateful for the upbeat normality of his presence. He filled her in on Jensen & Goldstein’s latest success, a commission for an all-new, all-green structure on a tiny empty lot of prime downtown real estate.
“They’re going to give us a lot of freedom in choices of materials. We’ll really be able to make a unique statement. I’ve always wanted to take a crack at a really skinny, unusual space.”
“This house was practice,” she said, trying to share his enthusiasm.
“Definitely—I showed them some of the pictures. You should help us with the interiors; they like your style. Nothing complements my clean lines the way your aesthetic does.”
Her fine, considerate, supportive man, always trying to include her.
“Skål!” She clinked her wineglass against his. “And congratulations.”
She hoped her happiness for him seemed genuine, because it was, to the degree that she could muster it. He went on and on as she moved bland pasta around her plate with a fork. She couldn’t not tell him—this was something they’d been waiting for. If only Hanna had said something—anything—else.
“It’s going to be four stories, and we’re thinking of ways of making it look like a ship, round windows . . .”
What a heartwarming moment it could have been, if the girl had come to the door and said “Mommy.” She hadn’t heard any semblance of her name on her child’s lips since she’d babbled “mamamama” as a baby. Alex would have been so proud—of both of them—if she could have made such an announcement. He would have kissed and cooed over them both, allowing her the victory of good mothering.
What sort of mother had a child who showed up like a demon to announce she wasn’t even your daughter? And if Hanna didn’t think she was Hanna, was she more disturbed than either of them had ever considered possible?
“ . . . while still making it fully handicapped accessible. Matt suggested long sloping walkways to connect—”
“Hanna spoke today.”
Alex and Hanna stopped chewing in unison, turning their high-wattage shock on her in unison.
“She spoke. Said words. Out loud.”
A grin started to eclipse his face. “Älskling . . .” Then he turned from her to Hanna. “Lilla gumman, that’s so—”
“She said she wasn’t Hanna.”
The grin faltered. “What?”
Suzette shrugged. “That’s what she said. ‘I’m not Hanna.’ With her eyes rolled so she looked like . . . I don’t know what she looked like. Something . . . monstrous.”
Alex got that unseemly look that befell him when he was perplexed, or thinking too hard, where his features morphed together like the continents retracting, becoming the formless blob of Pangaea. Clouds of doubt whisk across his face. He put on a smile to try to mask the confusion.
“Is that what you said, lilla gumman? Did you talk to Mommy?”
Suzette expected Hanna to shake her head. And she did. She didn’t expect her to go wide-eyed with fear and huddle beside her father. Hanna slapped her palm repeatedly against her little chest, pleading with Alex to understand.
She nodded and started whimpering, her eyes filling with tears. She slapped her chest harder.
“Of course you’re Hanna; no one’s saying you’re not Hanna. You didn’t talk to Mommy?”
She shook her head again and reached out for a hug.
Suzette sighed, exasperated, and propped her elbow up on the table so she could rest her weary head. Why had she fucking bothered?
He squeezed Hanna and kissed her hair. “Why don’t you go up to your room for a little bit so Mommy and I can talk.”
Suzette saw the moment Hanna registered her victory. And changed tactics. She pointed to the living room, the television, but Suzette had no intention of coddling her false anguish.
“I think you’ve watched enough TV for today.”
Hanna slammed her foot on the ground and angrily shook her head.
“You did. I heard it from upstairs, the entire time I was in the bathroom.” Alex quickly turned to her, a question on his face. “I wasn’t feeling well,” she said to him.
She didn’t look at either of them as she got up to clear the table. “You can play in your room with some of your toys. Or read a book?”
She knew what was happening behind her: Hanna would put on a sad face and try to get Alex to cave to her desires. Half the time he did; a true diplomat, he evenly divided the amount of time that either one of them would be mad at him. But tonight he was on Suzette’s side.
“Listen to Mommy. I’ll be up later to read you a story.”
Hanna drooped and trudged out of the room. Suzette watched her daughter’s dainty feet move slowly up the stairs. She expected her to glower at her from the landing, but Hanna quietly retreated to her room.
Alex caressed her back as he joined her at the sink. “So what’s going on?”
“That’s what she said. She knocked on the door when I was in the bathroom and said, ‘I’m not Hanna.’ I knew you wouldn’t believe me.”
“It isn’t that I don’t want to believe you—I’d love for Hanna to speak. But that seems like a weird . . . I can’t see her saying that, what does it even mean—”
“I have no idea—”
“And she seemed pretty scared . . .”
Suzette leaned her back against the counter and massaged the sore spots under her eyebrows, her thumb on one, index finger on the other. Hanna’s announcement had worsened her headache.
“You weren’t feeling well today?”
“Being there, at the medical center . . .”
He kissed her forehead and started massaging the rest of her scalp. “Have you thought more? About finding someone to talk to?”
“I’m not crazy, she really—”
“For the PTSD. I hate that you get like this, maybe someone can help. Did you take any Percocet today?”
She lurched away from him.
“I was not on drugs! I was not high. I knew I shouldn’t have told you.”
“There’s nothing wrong with taking it, if you’re still having pain—”
“Alex. Are you even listening?”
For a moment they stood there, still and watchful as hunters. Or the beasts about to be shot.
“Yes. I was listening. And I was trying to find a logical explana—”
“There’s no logical explanation, just forget it. Forget it.”
She dumped their leftovers into Pyrex containers and shoved them into the refrigerator. Alex studied her, his expression cautious.
“Was she whispering? Was she maybe just singsonging—”
“Yes. I’m sure that’s what it was. Because she couldn’t possibly be a different child with me than she is with you. She hit a toddler while we were at the store.”
“Today. I took her for a treat.”
“I can’t help it if I don’t see—if I’m not always there—”
“There’s the rub of it.” She reached back into the refrigerator and grabbed the half-empty bottle of white wine. “She’s smart enough to make sure you never believe me.”
She scooped up her wineglass from the table and carried it over to the couch, refilling the glass on her way. She set the bottle on the coffee table and stretched her legs out, flipping on PBS NewsHour. After a moment, Alex joined her, refilling his own glass as he settled in beside her. Neither of them said anything through an entire segment analyzing extreme weather events and the impact of climate change.
Finally, he slipped the remote out of her hand and lowered the volume. He eased closer to her, his head on her shoulder.
Maybe this was her moment, when Alex was being contrite. “She’s bored. She’s too smart to just . . . be with me all day. And I’m tired . . .”
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have had you schedule her stuff so soon after your—”
“No, I’m glad. I’m glad we went. The new doctor was helpful.”
The peace brokered, they angled toward each other, the news program forgotten.
“He found something?”
“Nothing’s physically wrong with her—we can definitively put that concern to rest.”
“That’s good, right?”
“I think so. He suggested a psychologist—a developmental psychologist, and was quick to say not a psychiatrist, because he didn’t think she needed medication—”
“Okay . . .”
“But, maybe there’s something else going on. Something . . . There could be something bothering her, holding her back.”
Alex took a moment to consider her words. “That makes sense. We understand her so well. But I hate to think that she won’t have opportunities, and people won’t get to know her. I don’t know why she . . . But from all the sounds she makes . . . She’s so expressive, and I think she can talk—”
“You do?” She sucked in her lips to keep from pointing out his hypocrisy.
“Maybe it was something she struggled with at first. Maybe she’s self-conscious about it. Sometimes I wonder if she talks to herself, and has a lisp or something and doesn’t know how to fix it, doesn’t want to sound different. Maybe she’s become obsessed . . . That’s what worries me most, I guess. That she’s telling herself negative things. And because we don’t know what they are we can’t undo them.”
Suzette squeaked her finger along the rim of her glass. Typically, Alex had a different explanation for Hanna’s continued silence: the hopeful possibility that she might be self-conscious, not defiant.
“Well . . . I’m hoping the therapist can reassure her, in some way that we can’t. I just wish . . .”
Alex cupped her cheek with his hand, his face earnest and full of compassion. “I know you just want the best for her. Don’t feel like you’ve failed.”
She wasn’t sure anymore which failure should bother her most. That Hanna wouldn’t talk, that Alex wasn’t fully on her side, or that she’d lost faith in her own instincts. For far too long they’d tried to justify, each in different ways, Hanna’s aberrant behavior. Should one of them have suggested a psychologist sooner? Were they behaving more like Suzette’s mother than they realized?
“This is a good thing to try. Dr. Yamamoto sounds very experienced,” she said, her tone more urgent than she’d intended, as if they could yet ameliorate whatever damage might have been caused to Hanna by their delay.
“And I’m fully supportive.” As he reached out to her, his face softened. “I don’t mean to make you feel like you’re on your own, and especially . . . You need to heal and be well. I don’t always know how to help, but I want to . . .”
A tiny, hard rubber ball came bouncing down the stairs. A second later, another one followed. At the bottom, they sprang about wildly and Hanna scampered down after them. She spun in circles, trying to catch them.
“Hanna. Go back to your room, please.”
Hanna ignored her. She caught one of the balls and bounced it again, loping after its drunken movement as she swayed and held her arms out for balance.
“Hanna?” Suzette got up and walked around the couch, her arms crossed, her back to Alex. She didn’t want him to see how she strained to control her temper. She wanted to lash out, scream, “Or whoever the fuck you are!” but couldn’t. “Can you play upstairs until we’re finished?”
A ball bounded past Suzette. Without even giving her a glance, Hanna flew after it.
“Lilla gumman? Mommy and I are talking. Go on up, I’ll be up soon.”
Plodding as she gathered up her bouncy balls, Hanna finally drifted upstairs.
Hanna’s rebukes had become minor, but constant, acts of torture. A pinching of delicate skin. A solitary, but well-aimed, punch. Suzette felt purple and damaged, and didn’t have the energy to hide it.
“She always listens to you,” she said, sinking back down so she was perpendicular to Alex.
“She doesn’t see me as much.”
“She likes you better.”
“That isn’t true.”
“She doesn’t speak to me either, älskling.”
There was that. Maybe it was a victory, however fiendish, that Hanna had spoken to her first.
“Maybe it’s time to give Sunnybridge a call,” he said.
Suzette held her breath. She couldn’t let it all gush out and reveal her relief. Slowly, she reached for her wineglass and took a sip.
Alex had always been reluctant about Sunnybridge. The stupid name aside, it was an alternative (hippie) school that focused on the arts, and he thought it wasn’t academically inclined enough. When Hanna was still a baby, they’d debated between sending her to Green Hill Academy or the Frick School, which both proved to be impressive and pioneering in their academics.
Hanna was asked to leave Green Hill after five weeks. Suzette and Alex sat before a small panel of teachers and administrators and were informed that Hanna just wasn’t emotionally ready for kindergarten. Her “inability to interact” proved to be “more troubling than anticipated.” Alex, especially, grew offended as the meeting deteriorated and the teachers’ polite facades fell away. He’d never seen Hanna “snarl aggressively” and couldn’t believe their accusations that she “hid toys just so the other children couldn’t use them” and “broke things to be spiteful.” They feared that eventually Hanna would hurt another student—“We suspect her of setting the cafeteria trash bin on fire”—at which point Alex demanded a refund for the remaining tuition and stormed out.
Suzette meekly apologized to the staff and hurried after her husband.
Before the Green Hill Academy expulsion debacle, she’d known Alex to have the least arousable—and quick to dissipate—temper of any human she’d ever met. But for days afterward, he simmered.
So Suzette got Hanna enrolled at the Frick School, and Alex’s mood returned to normal. Hoping it would help, she gave the new teacher a head’s-up on the ways that Hanna had struggled at her previous school.
Suzette knew the young woman, with a delicate snail tattoo on her wrist and the tiniest stud in her nose, had no idea what she was in for. But she hoped—prayed—that Hanna would respond to her youthful, boundless energy, be enamored of her snail (or the rebellious mini piercing), and try to please her. Suzette had already decided she’d shield Alex, as best she could, from the truth if it didn’t work out. He’d never shown a remote or depressive side until the expulsion, and she couldn’t handle him in such a state for a prolonged period.
When Suzette picked her up after her first day, the teacher remarked, “She might be quiet but she’s not shy, quite the little spitfire.” The end was already in sight. On her fifth day, the young woman twisted her long fingers in worry and reported that Hanna wasn’t adjusting well. She wouldn’t stop breaking all the crayons into little pieces. But worse, she liked to grab the goldfish out of its bowl. They’d caught her at it a few times, until they finally found the goldfish dead, scattered among a collection of similarly sized plastic animals. On her eighth day, Suzette was called in after Hanna had pretended to pass out from hunger. It was one thing for them to question if Hanna had ADHD; it was another for them to doubt Suzette’s parenting.
Suzette didn’t wait for another day. She withdrew Hanna from school. And told Alex the obvious part of the truth: without an ability to speak, Hanna grew frustrated among new people. Suzette offered to homeschool her. She’d already taught her to read and do simple arithmetic. Alex embraced the idea—embraced her.
For Alex to finally come around to the idea of Sunnybridge meant perhaps he was realizing there was a bigger problem. He hadn’t, as she’d feared, been insulted by the idea of a psychologist. Maybe he had a more selfish desire, with the new downtown commission, that she’d have more time to help him. Maybe he’d become infected by her fear of rotting intestines and shitting in a bag. She couldn’t always tell what motivated him: someone else’s best interests—hers, their daughter’s—or his own. But it was possible that a school with a more playful approach would be a pleasant distraction for Hanna.
“It’s April already, too late for this year,” she now said, filling her glass with what was left of the wine. “But I can see if they’ll admit her for second grade.”
“I’m sure they will.” He was nothing if not loyal to his daughter. “She’s so academically advanced for her age, they’ll see she’s a silent genius.” The delicate skin around his eyes crinkled as he smiled.
“I’ll set up an appointment.”
Alex leaned forward and kissed her. “See? Therapist. New school. It’s all going to work out. Maybe she’ll even be talking by the fall—maybe we’ll have lots of schools to choose from.”
Did he really believe that?
Alex got up, stretched his long limbs. “Better head up. Should I say anything to her?”
“Yes—that would be great. I made the mistake in the car, I thought she might be more open to school since it’s been a while. She doesn’t realize what she’s missing. Maybe if it comes from you . . .”
She carried their wine goblets to the sink.
“What do I tell her about the therapist?”
“Maybe focus on . . . Something just for her, without us. Maybe just plant the idea, a different kind of relationship, someone who isn’t a parent or grandparent.”
Alex nodded. “I’ll keep it really low-key. I don’t think she handles pressure well, being on the spot.”
“Yes.” She couldn’t help sounding relieved. “I’m glad you understand. Jag älskar dig.” She knew how it pleased him when she expressed her love for him in Swedish.
“Jag älskar dig.” He blew her a kiss and took the steps two at a time.
Alone in the empty downstairs, it was easy for Suzette to imagine what it would be like. With her schoolbooks back in the cupboard, there was no trace of Hanna. And if the girl were in school, she’d have six hours a day to herself. Maybe she’d start sketching again. She could become a valuable member of the Jensen & Goldstein team, not a ghost on the periphery. She could take a cooking class. Or a dance class. She could start a blog. She could grow a real garden, full of fresh organic vegetables to feed her family. She wouldn’t always eat the vegetables—sometimes her finicky digestion rebelled against brightly colored, hard-to-absorb foods. But in her mind, the act of growing would earn her a prize. Better than store-bought, and truly local.
It seemed possible that’s what all the other mothers were doing, the ones whose children spent their days at small, expensive schools. They probably already knew how to knit socks and sew their own clothes. They probably stood side by side with their husbands to thatch the roof and jury-rig a composting toilet. Suzette wanted to do better. She longed for more-practical life skills, and knew Alex would support her endeavor to negate their carbon footprint.
She wasn’t opposed to hard or dirty work, even if she had a lot of catching up to do. More ways to strive for perfection, and prove her worth.
Daddy pulled the blinds across her big window that looked out over the backyard; she had the smallest but coziest room in the house. But she liked it best when Daddy was there with her, adding his splashes of color and movement to her plain cubicle. She’d given up years earlier trying to color the white walls with her fat toddler crayons, as Mommy always painted over it. “Why won’t you use all the paper we bought? Or the coloring books?” Mommy said her toys could be colorful, her bedding and books. But the toys were kept in perfectly arranged stacks of white bins, and the yellow comforter couldn’t fill the entire room. She wished she could blow into it and make it puff up into a giant sun, or a hot air balloon that would carry her away.
Mommy wanted her to keep her drawing and painting contained to the easel that stood soldierly in the corner. So Hanna left the big sheets of white paper perfect and unused. It wasn’t just to disobey Mommy, who used to plead “Just a little picture? A tiny one? Too small for anyone to see?” That was when Mommy was still in her sad phase, before it turned to anger.
She didn’t give up. On every Christmas Eve and the third night of Hanukkah, Mommy gave her art supplies. Hanna loved how the pencils and crayons looked, with their pointy unused tips. She liked the quarter-size circles of watercolor paint, like frozen puddles from a dripping rainbow. She didn’t want to mess them up. If she took the Magic Markers out of their perfect nest, she’d never be able to put them back in the right order. She liked Mommy’s presents, but she’d never do with them what Mommy wanted. Hanna made sure Mommy saw her holding them sometimes, running her fingers over the tops of the crayons, making gentle swirls in the dry rainbows of paint. Sometimes she kissed the colors she especially liked. Mommy never got mad then. She watched, very still, her eyes wet with tears. Hanna couldn’t tell if she was happy or unhappy, though sometimes Mommy frowned. But she kept buying the beautiful packages of color, and that’s all that mattered. Every win for Hanna was a you-lose for Mommy.
He slid a book from the shelf above her head and sat beside her, ready to read.
“‘There was a forest under my bed, one I had been cultivating for time quite some.’”
Daddy had the faintest of accents and there sounded more like dere.
“‘It was quite a tropical place, suitable for molds and monkeys and very small things that—’”
Daddy said tings dat.
“‘—might enjoy swinging on vines of hair and bouncing on trampolines of spider webs.’”
Hanna smiled, anticipating the next line.
“‘I had been suspicious for a while of the existence of an UnderSlumberBumbleBeast. I heard noises coming from beneath my bed as I lay in the dark trying to sleep.’”
Hanna so wished for a messy under-the-bed, but Mommy and her mops and buckets would never let such a forest grow beneath anything in the house. Hanna wanted funny-looking friends like the ones in the story, which is why she always picked it for Daddy to read.
“‘Sometimes I heard scratching sounds like it was scavenging for food.’”
Hannah wished she could sprinkle her floor with crumbled granola bars. She wanted to feed the little beasts.
“‘Other times it sounded very much like a tiny bug singing at the bottom of a tall glass. Once I could have sworn I heard something driving a bus up a very steep hill, the engines grinding and the brakes squealing. The conditions under my bed were ripe for an UnderSlumberBumbleBeast, that I knew.’”
Stuff. That’s what Hanna needed to attract her own under-the-bed friends. Bits of stuff for them to form themselves out of, broken old toys and sticky pieces of half-eaten candy—things Mommy would pinch up in her rubber gloves and throw away.
Mommy came to the door. She leaned against the jamb, watching beautiful Daddy as he read.
“‘Since I had never seen one, I wasn’t sure how to anticipate its arrival. I rather thought it would introduce itself one night—I had whispered ‘Hello?’ so many times, so certain of the existence of a creature under my bed. But I never heard a reply. Maybe it was shy. Or perhaps we didn’t speak the same language—’”
Hanna waved her hand, a shooing gesture, at her mother. Daddy glanced at Mommy, then fanned his fingers lightly over the open pages of the book, like giant moths landing in a field.
“Mommy can stay and listen. Maybe she likes this story, too.”
Hanna made a sharp, guttural grunt and gave one hard shake of her head.
Daddy frowned at Mommy. “We don’t get as much Hanna-Daddy time as you get Hanna-Mommy time.”
She saw the hate-you-don’t-forget-it in Mommy’s glare before she left. Someday Mommy would open her mouth and have teeth made of shards of glass. She’d give Hanna that hateful look, and then start eating her own hands. It would be gross, but she almost wanted to see it.
She just needed to push Mommy a bit further. Fortunately, Marie-Anne was helping her come up with some very excellent ideas for making Mommy go-away-die forever.
Daddy resumed reading, and she stuffed the sunshine comforter under her chin and smiled.
“‘As I hung there over the edge of my bed, flashlight searching, I suddenly saw him! (I assume he was male because of the mustache.) He squinted in the beam of bright light, holding up an arm that looked like a lollipop to protect his sensitive eyes. ‘Wow!’ I said. We were looking right at each other! I wondered if I looked as strange to him as he appeared to me. His body was about the size of a yam, and he wore a pair of sky-blue knitted shorts.’”
Hanna and Alex giggled together, sharing an image of a yam with a mustache in a pair of knitted shorts.
She didn’t remember falling asleep, but when she woke, it was dark and Daddy was gone. She hung her head over the side of the bed, like the little girl in the book, to see if any UnderSlumberBumbleBeasts were tottering around. She kept a compact purple flashlight on one of the shelves above her bed, but even on maximum brightness there was nothing but smooth, clean, Mommy-perfect floor. She got out of bed, tugged down her soft hedgehog nightgown, and tiptoed to her dresser where she pulled out a few random things. A white sock. A brown barrette. A red hair band. She peered into one of the bins that held her art supplies, but couldn’t, in the end, mess up any of her crayon or pencil or marker sets.
It was an inadequate collection, but better than nothing. She tossed them under her bed. Maybe she’d get a day or two to gather up more things before Mommy gasped in horror at the accumulated mess. She’d seen Mommy on her knees so many times, her vacuum wand a sword, her mission the annihilation of every colony of dusty invaders, no matter how small. It might not be enough time for an UnderSlumberBumbleBeast to assemble itself, but it was worth a try—and then she’d hide it somewhere safe from Mommy.
She heard a noise she recognized but couldn’t decipher. She crept from her room and down the hallway, toward the glow that emerged beneath her parents’ door. Breathy grunts and gasps. She’d heard such noises her whole life and knew it was the secret language Mommy and Daddy used when they were alone together. It bothered her that they never spoke it with her, though she’d tried on several occasions to duplicate their sounds. Daddy laughed, telling her she sounded like a cave girl. Mommy wrinkled her eyebrows and looked scared, “Please use your words.” Hanna supposed she hadn’t gotten the articulation just right and that’s why they didn’t understand her.
She listened a minute longer. The grunts and gasps, devoid of meaning, were a bit scary. Mommy sounded like she was drifting around a spaceship, on the verge of running out of air. Daddy’s voice kept punching something, again and again. She’d tried, when she was younger, to enter the conversation. But they stopped as soon as she came into the room. After that, they instructed her to knock first, especially when people within a room sounded busy—though she should interrupt only if it was an emergency. But they were never going to communicate with her in the language she found more interesting than words. Maybe it was only for adults, or maybe it was for only two people at a time (they never spoke to anyone else in the guttural tongue). Sometimes she wanted to ask them, in the language she refused to speak, “Why won’t you include me?”
She went back to her room, impressed with her magical ability to not make a sound. Not only could she withhold her words, but her feet stepped across the floor like she was made of air. A phantom, floating. A witch, reincarnated.
A few hours later, printouts in hand, she came down from Daddy’s study to a hallway filled with morning light. Her feet grew warm in its triangle of sunshine as she stood by the window that looked out over their private yard. She scanned the well-trimmed bushes and ankle-high grass, the wooden wall and the roof of the neighboring house. The blooming daffodils waited in a tidy row in front of the hedge, like an army about to charge. The tulips weren’t finished yet and their pink heads looked like arrows, ready to burst. Someone’s cherry tree blew a soft snow of white petals into the yard. She sniffed the glass, wanting the aroma of flowers, but got only the household smell of Mommy’s vinegar concoction.
She’d expected Daddy to get up a while ago; she’d already dressed, brushed her hair, and worked on her special project. After looking up some stuff on Daddy’s computer, she printed off a bunch of pictures onto recycled office paper. It didn’t matter if the pictures were a little crinkly or splotchy. The online images were from very old photographs, and she printed some of them in color so they were brown and white instead of black and white. With one thing still left to do, she crept off to her room to hide the photos.
Pressing her ear to her parents’ door, all was quiet within. There was no particular rule about going into their room while they slept, so she carefully turned the door handle and slipped in. Daddy lay long and naked on his side of the bed. She could almost see all his man parts—properly called a penis—but his leg, bent upward, blocked the complete view. He had one arm under his pillow and the other across his chest. His mouth was parted and he breathed in and out, unaware of her and everything else.
She gazed at Daddy for several moments, then resumed her mission. She picked up Daddy’s phone from the shelf beside his bed where he kept a few scattered things within easy reach: two books, some tissues, a mostly empty glass of water, a pickle jar full of loose change. She walked around to Mommy’s side of the bed.
Mommy lay in a similar position on her right side, her knees tucked up. She gripped the pillow between praying hands, and dark hair made stripes across her face. Mommy’s boobs flopped to one side, and Hanna decided that if she had to grow extra body parts, she’d rather have a tail. She couldn’t see Mommy’s new scar, but she liked the old one better. A purplish worm held between fleshy lips of white skin. She touched it once when she was very young, in a dressing room at the mall, but Mommy pulled away like it hurt.
She took a couple of steps backward and held the phone horizontally so she could get a picture of Mommy’s whole sleeping form. She slept on the window-side of the room, and even with the blinds drawn she was still softly illuminated. Hanna pressed the button, and the camera made its little clicking noise. She pressed it a second time for good measure, and that’s when Mommy lifted her head and sucked in air, like she’d been lying there dead the whole time. It was a wonderful thought. Mommy pushed the hair out of her face and blinked several times, and Hanna could have run from the room, but she didn’t.
Instead, she slid her feet along the floor until she was right against the bed. Mommy eased away from her, a look of confusion on her face.
“Hanna? Do you need something?”
She bent at the waist. Lower and lower until her face hovered above her frightened mother.
“My name. Is Marie-Anne. Dufosset,” she whispered in Mommy’s ear in her bestest French accent. Mommy didn’t think she’d played that French by French computer game more than once. But she had.
As Mommy pushed herself up on her elbow, the abrupt motion made her boobs jiggle. Hanna smirked, and Mommy pulled the sheet up to cover herself.
“What?” Mommy glanced over at sleeping Daddy. Then she spoke more softly. “I’m glad you’re speaking, baby. What did you say?”
“My name. Is Marie-Anne. Dufosset. Don’t forget.” Her voice still sounded weak and soft, from lack of use.
The word “who” formed on Mommy’s lips, but Hanna giggled and skipped out of the room, with Daddy’s phone still in her hand.
She made Alex’s coffee, Italian roast, dark and strong just as he liked it. Even though he was running late, Hanna managed to lure him up to his study. Something to do with his phone and the picture she’d taken. He’d protested only a for a second; as eager as he was to start brainstorming ideas for the new downtown skinny building, it wasn’t like he couldn’t—or didn’t—set his own hours or work at home over the weekend. She wanted to think it was harmless, that Hanna had come into their room to take a picture of her. But her queasy vulnerability lingered, and not just because she’d been naked. Hanna—or whomever she was claiming to be—wasn’t some innocent, normal kid.
Normal children loved cameras and taking photos; she remembered as much from her own childhood. Every few years, her mother had given her a new camera—Polaroid, then film, then digital. Her mother, in spite of other deficits, was big on gift giving. And her presents were usually well chosen and beautifully wrapped. As an adult, Suzette understood this had been her sole means of expressing love. She’d saved most of the nicer ribbons, still had them in a special box: shimmery fabric in metallic and holiday plaids. In her mind, the wrappings became the hugs she never received.
She sent a text telling him his coffee was ready. Right after it went through, her phone pinged with an e-mail notification. A smile came to her face as she read the message.
Alex bounded down the stairs, with Hanna at his heels.
“I promise I promise I promise, my lips are sealed,” he said.
“What are you promising?”
Alex slid an invisible zipper across his closed mouth. Hanna hung onto her hero’s arm, jumping up and down with malicious glee.
“If they’re really sealed, I guess you won’t be needing this.” She set his gleaming, steaming travel mug on the other end of the counter, out of his reach. Whatever Hanna had gotten him to do for her was unlikely to be a pleasant surprise. It bothered her that Alex could be working against her, even if he wasn’t fully aware of what he’d been drawn into. Hanna didn’t have fun secrets. The last time Suzette had hoped her daughter was doing something sweet, Suzette opened a small gift box filled with spiders. The long-dead ones were crumbling, but some still twitched, and a few were very much alive. Not a fun surprise—even if Alex joked that Hanna was like a cat, bringing her favorite person a precious mouse.
“No no no, the coffee is innocent in all of this.” He winked at her and reached for his mug, seemingly oblivious to Suzette’s genuine annoyance.
“Fine. So guess what, I have great news.” She wanted to tell him while they were all together, in case Hanna reacted badly. Maybe she would throw a fit that he would not only witness, but also have to deal with. Suzette handed over his mug.
“Thank you, älskling.” Alex kissed her on the cheek. He sipped his coffee and leaned against the counter, waiting for her to divulge the news.
She brought the e-mail back up on her phone. “I sent Sunnybridge an e-mail last night, and I just got a reply. They’d be happy to sit down and talk with me. They even have time today, if I’m available.”
“Sounds good.” He turned to Hanna, who stood stoic and suspicious. “Remember, lilla gumman? I told you last night about a new school, for the fall? A more fun school than the others we looked at.”
“I think we should go this afternoon—what do you think?” She made herself sound sweet and innocent, though a part of her hoped the goading would work.
Hanna only glared at her. She turned and ran up the stairs, and a second later her door slammed shut. Suzette sighed, disappointed by the lack of drama. It would make convincing Alex of her revised idea more difficult.
“Don’t worry, any school is a big change. She’ll need time to wrap her head around it. We’ll have all summer—”
“I might ask if they can take her now,” she said, all pleasantness gone from her voice.
Alex froze, startled. “Now? There’s only two and a half months—”
“You haven’t noticed her behavior?”
“She’s getting very manipulative. The way she plays us. She makes sure only I see what she does, so when I tell you . . . You can’t corroborate anything. The hitting. Spelling bad words. Talking . . . she’s taunting me. What did she drag you upstairs to do for her this morning?”
“Nothing. A project.” He squirmed in his skin a bit. “She’s trying something, I guess. I think you’ll like it, actually.”
Though she wasn’t cold, she zipped up the gray yoga jacket she liked to wear around the house and stuffed her hands into the pockets. She wanted to get properly dressed and call back the school, but Alex remained fixated on her and she wished he’d look away.
“Fine. I’ll handle it myself.”
“Hey.” He reached for her arm as she started to walk away. “I don’t disagree with you that she should be in school, you’re probably right—she’s bored, she needs a change—”
“I need a change. You don’t know how she is. She puts on her best face for you. Always sweet for you.”
“No, I believe that. But it’s so late in the school year, we already talked—”
“I cannot stay here, cooped up with her! You’re not listening to me.”
“I am. Älskling.” He took her in the great wingspan of his embrace.
Usually his arms were such a comfort, but she already felt too confined—burned out by the day-to-day trials of mothering Hanna, and the chronic disappointment of her own body. She wanted to run full speed into their glass wall and didn’t care if, like a bird, she broke her own neck. She’d run at it again and again until it was smeared with her blood.
She pushed him away and fought back a scream. She saw her wild-eyed panic mirrored on Alex’s face. It didn’t belong there, that frightened, uncertain look. It quelled a bit of her own anxiety and she wished she could swipe her hand in front of his eyes, past his nose and mouth, and restore the easy face he usually wore.
“I’m sorry, you just don’t . . .” She took a step away from him. Fidgety, she pressed a hand to her mouth, trying to keep the words from falling out. “She’s doing things. I don’t know what she’s doing, but she’s playing games—”
“Who is Marie-Anne Dufosset?”
Oh, that look he gave her. Like she’d revealed her insides to be just cogs and springs and explosions of fluff.
“Marie-Anne Dufosset! Is this some story you’ve been reading to her? Some French thing you watched together? Someone you told her about?” She stepped toward him, pleading with her hands. “Who is she?”
At the sound of her name, she stopped—moving, ranting, breathing. Not that she minded Alex’s Swedish endearments, but in the absence of ever hearing her own name, sometimes she forgot she had one.
“I don’t know who Marie-Anne Dufosset is. Why would I know that? What does that have to do with . . . ?” Such perfect, innocent confusion. Devoid of anger, and oozing with concern.
Had she lost her mind?
“I’ll Google it. Never mind. You’re late. I need to call the school.”
“Do you want me to . . . I could stay? Go with you? I shouldn’t leave you like—”
“I’ll figure it out, it’s fine.”
He did that thing she loved and took hold of her upper arms while resting his forehead against hers. Beneath the coffee, he smelled like toothpaste, and his body radiated warmth. She breathed him in. He stood there, letting her absorb him.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to freak out.”
“Suzette—we’ll do whatever we need to do. Your health is as much a priority—I don’t want you to get sick again—
“I know, I have the shots, they help . . .”
“Still, I’ve never seen you so rattled. I could work at home more—”
“You were just home for two weeks, you can’t be my nursemaid forever—”
“Was it better?”
Just thinking of how much easier it had been made her drumming heart settle into an easier rhythm. Those two full weeks after The Surgery had been like a vacation. Alex around to help with everything; Hanna on her best behavior. “Yes,” she admitted.
“I could do half days at the office.”
“I can. So don’t get upset if the school says she can’t start now. We’ll get her enrolled somewhere for the fall. And I’ll be here more, okay? Maybe we’ll switch it up, and you can head into the office sometimes, it’s been a while—would that help?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. I feel tired. All the time.”
She’d tried explaining it to him before, how her energy existed in precious spools that came unwound faster than she liked. He tried, but couldn’t really understand any more than she could about how it felt to be someone else. She gauged herself against what she saw other people do and how they moved through the world, their days filled with work and errands and chores and social lives and home lives, and no one else seemed too tired to live. But for her, by four o’clock in the afternoon she was often too weary to even stare at the television. What no one understood about her cleaning was how mindlessly purposeful it was for her. She needed to disconnect a few times a day, like a battery in reverse that recharged when it wasn’t plugged in. It was part of having Crohn’s disease, though the gastroenterologists weren’t interested in that part. Dr. Stefanski told her to take the matter up with her primary-care physician. It helped when Suzette kept a regular schedule for eating and sleeping. Sometimes a bit of light exercise in the morning spurred a burst of energy. But as she got older—as her days stretched out with Hanna—it seemed as if nothing helped. She was becoming a wind-up toy with a faulty crank.
“You need to tell me. More. Let me help you,” Alex pleaded.
Suzette nodded and finally wrapped her arms around her husband.
“You don’t have to do it all today,” he said.
“I want to. I need to, it’ll be fine. You should go, I know you want to get started.”
“Let’s talk more later, okay?”
They kissed, and he grabbed his coffee and car keys, shuffled into his shoes, and left.
She’d once imagined herself as a woman who wouldn’t need a man. She’d survived without a father, after all. The world didn’t revolve around men. But after she fell in love with Alex, she learned the truth of it: she never wanted to live in a world without him again. He smoothed the searing edges of happenstance and gave her a life that wasn’t capricious or cruel. She knew she could never live so well on her own, with the compromised income of compromised energy. And she’d worked so little that if she managed to qualify for disability, the payments would be meager. Together, they were the nurturing cycle of a life that mattered. Sun, soil, rain, roots, fruit, sustenance. Joy.
She called Sunnybridge and took the appointment they offered for eleven o’clock.
When she went upstairs, Hanna’s door was closed. She pressed her ear to it and listened. And heard what sounded like scissors cutting paper. Alex said she was making a project, but Suzette assumed it was something on his computer, not something that Hanna might assemble by hand. The thought of her working industriously in her room actually gave her hope. Maybe she’d finally use some of her markers or pencils. She didn’t know why Hanna never used them, especially because she knew she liked them. It wouldn’t even bother her if, later, she found scraps of paper littering the floor. In fact, the possibility made her smile.
“I’m taking a quick shower—everything okay in there?”
Hanna rapped her knuckles on the floor, like a knock—the code they’d developed for those times when they couldn’t see her, but needed a reply.
“Okay.” She hesitated for a second, debating whether to caution her to be careful with the scissors. She decided against it; Hanna wouldn’t like her hovering, or babying her.
Suzette enjoyed sixty seconds of hope, imagining what her daughter’s creation might be. She had faith in Hanna’s creativity, though it had rarely been applied in conventional ways. Maybe it would be the next stage in a welcome, albeit strange, process toward communication.
Her hope ended when she closed the door to her room and Googled Marie-Anne Dufosset on her phone.
She felt defenseless in her nudity, even with the bathroom door locked. She couldn’t stop imagining Hanna wielding a pair of large scissors, stabbing her to death in the shower. It was a gruesomely melodramatic concern—especially since Marie-Anne Dufosset was barely a footnote in history. But according to Wikipedia, in 1679, at the age of eighteen, she was the last woman burned as a witch in France. That the article gave scant evidence the teen had ever done anything remotely witch-like was beyond the point. That Hanna even knew of her and had some reason to admire her—to invoke her spirit—was concerning enough.
Now that she knew the name of the game—Scare Mommy—she should be able to defend herself. But goosebumps rose on her skin, even under the heat of the water, when she thought about her creepy daughter. The whites of her eyes. Her ability to sneak up on her as she slept.
Excerpted from Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage Copyright © 2018 by St. Martin’s Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.