It bothers her when her daughter jokes about how she never says the words I love you, first because she doesn’t speak English with her daughter, but also because she’s told her daughter many times over that her own parents never said I love you, not once in the forty years of being a daughter in America, and it wasn’t until her twenties that she even realized it was a thing, it’s definitely a thing she learned after three boyfriends in a row break up with her because they didn’t believe she loved them enough, and maybe she didn’t, I love you or not, and though she tried to reassure her boyfriends that she did love them with homemade cream puffs and pour-over coffee, they still broke up with her, they left, one after the other, until she started writing Post-it note reminders that she hid in her purse, her planner, anywhere she might come across them once in a random while, reminding her to say the words out loud, preferably when a boyfriend was around to hear them; despite the practice the words don’t fall naturally from her mouth, no matter how many reminders she writes to herself; she doesn’t even know what the words sound like in Vietnamese, theoretically she knows the actual words, but she has never heard them spoken, not like thank you, which her mom doesn’t bother saying in Vietnamese, if her mom wants to thank her she says thank you, in English, like the Americans do in every other breath, thank you and I love you and sorry like they say bye or hi or pass the peas please, she had to learn that too, how to pass peas, at home they don’t pass anything, dishes wait in the center of the table for her dad to start, a different arrangement than when her college boyfriend invited her to his rural New Hampshire home, and handed her a plate that his dad’s large hands had filled up from the sideboard, a piece of furniture she’d never encountered before, with portions a tall, confident white boy would eat, not a small, dark-haired immigrant, she can’t remember if she was able to clear her plate, how embarrassing that must have been, no less embarrassing than not knowing how to pass platters, the plates piled up in front of where she sat until the boyfriend rescued her by leaning over with his long arms to move them on down the table; at home the food stays in one place and the chopsticks move, she doesn’t understand why everyone doesn’t do that, family style they call it, she thinks they should call it everyone gets what they want with a minimum expenditure of energy—efficient and egalitarian—isn’t that what America is about anyway, total individualism? she doesn’t want to be told what to eat or how much, what if she doesn’t like eggplant, which she doesn’t, it’s a bit slimy, though in polite company she eats whatever is in front of her, unless it’s an American-size plate loaded with broccoli, pork chops, and two heaping servings of potatoes gratin and then there is only so much she can eat before her bowels explode, which happens more often than you would think, making for inconvenient bathroom runs in the middle of walking home with her friends, they never say anything because she doesn’t let on how much the cramping pains her to walk, just like she doesn’t say anything when her genetic inheritance, never fully acclimatized to Western milk and alcohol, rejects mozzarella-laden pizza or when someone exclaims her English is so good after she’s told them she was born in Saigon, she was born there and left because the South was collapsing and no amount of American soldiers could prevent the Communists from winning, which is what they did, and why her dad two times in his lifetime has had to leave everything behind, once fleeing his home village, crossing from north to south and then later across oceans and continents, unsure of when he would see his home country again, twenty-one years if you were wondering, twenty-one years of learning to call co-workers by only their first name and the difference between a salad fork and a dinner fork, and that’s why her own daughter never hears her say the words I love you because she herself never did, or maybe it’s because she grew up in a Vietnamese microcosm bound by the walls of a two-story house in the suburbs of Virginia where sideboards and English didn’t exist, her parents were very strict about that, so strict that her Connecticut-raised brother-in-law mildly resents family gatherings, knowing her parents speak perfectly correct, if heavily accented, English, but choose instead, as if it were a choice made consciously, to speak their mother tongue in the comfort of their home, away from the gaze of others, a safe place where she never thought the lack of I love you was a deficit until her husband’s family looked at her in horror over dinner one night, she had been trying to make a joke of it, but it fell and fell to the bottom of the shoes they wore in the house, trekking dirt and germs and dog shit in from the street, does no one care about dog shit in the house? she never understands that, though she does understand the consternation of her in-laws’ faces bothers her, as if she were a monster to have been raised without the constant refrain and reassurance of I love you, but she only notices when she sees her brown skin reflected in their pale faces, it never bothered her growing up because she knows her parents love her even if they sometimes forgot her birthday or never came to visit her in college, because they couldn’t afford the flights with three more children to put through school, that they love her is crystal clear in the frown they make when she brings home less than an A or in the frozen homemade meals her mom sent her every month while she was in college, by overnight mail, which, though expensive, was still cheaper than a plane ticket and tasted of clicking chopsticks clustered around the dining table, consuming the foods she misses by being more than several states away in the one school to offer a full ride, which is also the only reason her parents agreed to let her go be surrounded by a trove of literary experiences written in a language they have no hope of fully understanding, a place that at first leaves her breathless, astonished to hear dead white men describe the inner longings of a seventeen-year-old girl who wasn’t even born on the same continent, their intuition for the human experience transcended the spaces she inhabits, but eventually she yearns for words that don’t need to be said, words that don’t lie strewn like pebbles on the shore, each unique but nearly indistinguishable from one another, piled up in a landscape of literary canon determined by figures she has no resemblance to; she wants to read about feelings conveyed in kimchi clay pots buried beneath the earth, left to ferment for months, she wants the wet mud of rice paddies to ooze up between her toes, she wants to hear about a wife who writes Post-it note reminders and prepares plates of freshly cut fruit every night after dinner so that when her American husband eats each piece of peeled and sliced apple, he swallows her love, and in exchange she hardly ever says I love you out loud, but that doesn’t help her daughter who lives in the English-speaking world, she doesn’t want her daughter’s friends to feel sorry for her daughter, feel like her daughter has an uncaring and uninvolved mother, when she knows they already think that since she sometimes forgets about birthday parties and sleepovers, even as they fight over the homemade cookies she sends to school with her daughter’s lunch, so sometimes she’ll say, as she leaves her daughter with her friends at a playdate, love you too, in English, all casual-like, as if she said it all the time.
We are going to get better. Our yoga mats and workbooks and whispered mantras are going to fit like plaster into our broken places. There are nine of us, all girls, all survivors of our own secret traumas, sitting in a semicircle at the front of the university chapel, a long room outfitted with pews and a nondescript altar capable of being repurposed for any god. Jesus, Yahweh, whoever. I think the point is we’re supposed to be goddesses, that we’re supposed to cultivate faith in ourselves, establish a sacred connection with the part of us we lost. Some kind of hokey shit like that. I don’t know. Dr. Ling is going around the circle, asking for introductions: names, majors, something about ourselves that we love.
“I’m Taylor, a freshman biology major, and I love, um—” Taylor looks down at her mat, blushing—“that I’m a good student.”
I study her from across the circle. Frizzy topknot, high school Beta Club T-shirt. She’s still got braces, pink and purple Xs dotting her teeth like a tic-tac-toe board. I look at her and wonder why she’s here. Illicit affair with her AP chemistry teacher, probably. One look at her baking soda volcano and he was done for. I don’t know. Maybe her dad’s dead, maybe her brother. She looks like the kind of girl who brought all her favorite childhood stuffed animals to college.
Most of the girls here are pretty, and I assume the worst. Frat parties with spiked punch. Boyfriends with tempers. Lecherous uncles who just couldn’t help themselves. This is the wrong impulse, I know, but I’m cynical. I know how bad men operate, what they look for. Getting dressed this morning, I put on an oversized T-shirt, didn’t bother with makeup. I don’t want anyone here assuming anything about me.
In spite of everything, the girls love themselves. Grace loves her bubbly personality. Katya loves her ability to empathize. Maria loves her smile. Izzie loves her legs. She says it with such conviction and earnestness that I am certain she still feels ownership over her body, that no man has taken that away from her. Someone in her family must have just died.
Dr. Ling’s expectant gaze falls on me. Her hair’s pulled back in a sleek, black ponytail that accentuates her angular features, her square jawline and tiny nose. She is beautiful, and her beauty strikes me like a fun house mirror, a surface in which I see myself distorted and disfigured.
“Hi,” I say, snapping the hair elastic on my wrist. “I’m Christine, a freshman who’s undeclared, and, uh, well…hmm.”
In this body, I don’t feel at home. I’m a motel guest tossing and turning on a cardboard mattress. Sometimes, I get stuck in front of reflective surfaces. Darkened storefronts, bus windows. I stare and stare, wondering if the figure in the glass truly belongs to me. Who is the landlord, I sometimes wonder? Who is the manager? Get me another room, I want to shout. This is the kind of woman I want to be: someone unafraid to make demands.
“I don’t know,” I say finally. “I can’t think of anything.”
I expect Dr. Ling to move on to the next girl, but she’s looking at me, determined. “Yes, you can. I believe in you.”
She believes in me. As if I’m a god. What I feel like is a reluctant martyr, someone being burned at the stake. I look at the stained glass windows and the pretty, violated girls around me and wonder why I agreed to this, why I told my therapist, sure, whatever, I guess I’ll give yoga for trauma survivors a chance. I wonder what they’ve assumed about my past, what my reticence has led them to believe.
“Just one thing. It can be anything,” Dr. Ling says. There’s not one flyaway hair on her head.
“Yes, you can.”
“You can do it!” Taylor cheers, and I shoot her a murderous look.
“I’m going to need another yoga for trauma survivors just to cope with attending this one,” I say with a pointed laugh, but nobody else joins in. “Look, I can’t think of anything.”
Dr. Ling, polished as silver, gives me a sad smile, and there I am, warped and tarnished. “How about we come back to you?” she asks. “At the end of class, at the end of the semester. Whenever you’re ready. Give it as much time as you need, but know that I’ll be checking in from time to time, all right?”
“All right,” I say.
But the weeks pass, and she doesn’t ask. I fold myself like origami while soft acoustic music plays and Dr. Ling firmly insists that we are enough. She teaches us to become cats, cows, dogs, frogs, pigeons. We are supple as paper, calm as corpses. Instead of warriors and eagles, I mold myself into the class clown, a role with which I am familiar.
In tree pose, I wobble and collapse. “Tally ho!” I cry, a line that gets a giggle or two out of the traumatized girls. Dr. Ling only smirks, then opens her mouth. Here comes the question—what do I love about myself? Why not my wit, my ability to entertain?
“Let’s try to be a little more serious,” she says instead.
Before yoga, we sit on our mats and talk. Group therapy. The girls’ stories are operatic and Oscar-worthy, building in intensity and detail each week like a prestige miniseries. Izzie’s parents used to lock her out of the house at night whenever she made them angry. She slept in the grass, woke up with ant bites. Katya’s ex-boyfriend had flown all the way from Ukraine to knock on her window at two in the morning, insisting she drop out of grad school or he’d kill himself. Grace, lecherous uncle. Maria, spiked punch. Taylor keeps her mouth shut, and I entertain the idea that I’ve maybe scared her into silence.
But I don’t divulge much, either, choosing instead to deal in maudlin abstractions.
“I feel like a renter,” I say, “like my body doesn’t belong to me.”
Everyone nods in agreement, praises my profoundness. Dr. Ling is beaming, thrilled with this observation. She has the look of a woman in love. “Do you want to elaborate on that?” she asks, skipping the obvious question.
“Let me take a rain check,” I say.
If we’re tired or just aren’t feeling the flow, we’re allowed to dip into child’s pose and stay there as long as we want. In child’s pose, you look like a doomed subject bowing to her king. It’s a form of surrender to that which we can’t control, Dr. Ling tells us. The implications of the move—that subservience brings peace, that we should prostrate ourselves before some higher power—annoy me, and one evening, I decide to say so.
Nondescript guitar music plays. The lights are dimmed. Dr. Ling asks us to lower ourselves into child’s pose, and from the floor I say, “They should rename this one something else. ‘Guilty Catholic Pose.’ ‘Marie Antoinette Awaits the Guillotine.’ You know?”
After yoga is over and the girls have left, Dr. Ling pulls me aside. From the uncomfortable look on her face, I can tell she’s not going to ask me if I love my boldness, my willingness to speak my mind. She is kind but firm in her admonitions: Yes, sometimes yoga may seem silly, but I should keep my thoughts to myself or present them during group therapy in a constructive way.
“If you don’t feel like you’re getting anything out of these sessions, you don’t have to come,” she says after a moment of hesitation.
I don’t get anything out of these sessions, but I keep coming back because I don’t have an HBO subscription. The drama sustains me, gives me something to look forward to each week, a reason to leave my dorm. I need to find out what happened to Katya’s maniac boyfriend, what Izzie is going to do after her dad called last week and asked to meet for lunch, if Taylor will ever fess up.
“I was so nervous, I couldn’t eat,” Izzie tells us. “And he made fun of me for it. He noticed I was picking at my food and said maybe that was a good thing, since I’d gained some weight since he saw me last.”
I lean in closer, ready for the next delicious development. I want her to turn the table over, throw water in his face. No, hot coffee. Melt his skin, pluck out his eyes. The drama I’m looking for has classical dimensions, a triumphant plot that sees the villain vanquished and the heroine redeemed.
Izzie closes her eyes, allows a tear to escape. “He said he was sorry for the way he treated me as a kid, but that I had to understand I forced him to do it, because I was so bad.” She’s holding herself rigid, trying to be strong. “I just don’t understand what I did wrong.”
A disappointing turn. Izzie lets go of herself, lets the sobs ebb and flow.
These girls are milquetoast, flimsy and sodden. Katya says she’s considering visiting her ex-boyfriend when she’s back in Ukraine for the summer. Grace says she’s angry with her uncle, but understands that he grew up in an abusive household and couldn’t break the cycle. Maria says at least she was drugged and can’t remember anything. Taylor says she prays for each of us before bed. This is not the content I signed up for.
The semester crawls by. Taylor gets pink and red braces for Valentine’s Day, green and white for St. Patrick’s. In a rare burst of extroversion, she asks what colors she should get for Easter.
“Yellow and blue? Blue and purple?”
“Red and brown. For the blood of Jesus Christ.”
I say that. This is the first thing I’ve said in two weeks. If I am a motel dweller, then let me act the part: crazed and obscene, someone who pushes their belongings in a grocery cart and shouts obscenities at passersby. Over the last three months, I’ve cultivated an air of mystery. Nobody knows why I’m here or what I love about myself. In a room where I can cycle from cat to cow to cat again, I use my silent meditation time to invent stories more compelling than my own. Maybe I’m the child of doomsday cultists, or someone who escaped from some billionaire’s covert but widespread sex trafficking ring. In this room, you get to choose what you believe in. If Dr. Ling asks, I’ll tell her I love my peeling wallpaper and faded curtains, the dead roach in the corner.
As finals week draws near, I realize my first year of college is almost over. Year nineteen is coming up, one last round of the teenage blues. My parents call sometimes, asking if I’ve made friends, if I’ve decided what I want to study, if I’m happy here. They don’t know about the yoga or the reason I’m doing it. They tell me they love me, but they don’t give specifics.
Taylor arrives at our penultimate session with braces the colors of Easter chicks and Peeps marshmallows.
“Jesus would not be pleased,” I say. She answers with an awkward giggle, a kind of desperate squawk. I’m secretly proud that, after all these weeks, I still intimidate her.
Taylor smiles broadly to show her teeth to the room, but she does it quickly, careful not to expose too much of herself. Tonight’s therapy is focused on boundaries. We’re going to learn the power of the word “no.” Dr. Ling says it’s the most powerful word in our arsenal.
“What are our experiences with setting boundaries? Are we good at it? Is it something we need to work on?”
“I’m an expert,” I say, miming being trapped behind a wall. “Nobody’s getting past this thing.”
There’s scattered laughter. Dr. Ling looks ready to lecture me, but Taylor, of all people, raises her hand. Sheepishly, the elbow bent. First the braces, now this. We look at her in amazement.
In a small voice, she says, “But what if you say no, and they don’t listen?”
Dr. Ling nods. “That’s an extremely valid question, and a tough one to answer. Who do you want to set boundaries with, Taylor?”
My ears perk up. Finally, a twist in the plot. I crane my neck to get a better look. “I’m a pushover, and I know it’s all because of James and Caleb. My neighbors as a kid,” she clarifies, taking a deep breath.
“It’s okay, Taylor, take your time,” Dr. Ling says.
“At first ‘no’ was enough, but then they started saying they’d cut my hair if I didn’t do what they asked, or push me off the trampoline, or tell my mom I was the one making them do—”
She puts a hand over her mouth. She has said too much. Dr. Ling reaches across the circle to hand her a box of tissues, but Taylor refuses them.
Grace scoots close to her, rubs circles on her back. “It’s okay, sweetie.”
Taylor pushes her away. “I’m going to go,” she blubbers, and she puts on her shoes. They’re some kind of off-brand Converse. Bubblegum pink. She doesn’t even tie them, and on her way out, she nearly trips over the laces.
I snort. It just comes out, discreet and unwelcome, like a mouse darting across a kitchen, or a man’s unexpected hand. Behind me, I hear the heavy oak door bang shut.
Dr. Ling asks the girls to excuse us, and she beckons me to follow her to the back of the sanctuary. I watch her perky ponytail bounce, wonder what kind of conditioner she uses. When she turns to face me, I expect her impeccably waxed eyebrows to be furrowed in anger, but she only looks disappointed.
In a pained voice, she lectures me about the sanctity of this group and the trust I’ve violated. “You can’t do that,” she says, cupping her face in her hands. Her nails are manicured. French tips. “You just can’t do that. Do you understand me?”
Not the question I was hoping for, but I nod anyway.
And just like that, Taylor’s gone. No goodbyes, no resolution, a television show cancelled in its prime. When she doesn’t show up to our next yoga class, Dr. Ling asks if anyone knows where Taylor is. We shake our heads. Of course nobody has heard from her. We signed a contract at the beginning of the semester agreeing we wouldn’t contact each other outside of class until it ended. We’re a clique-free zone here in the university chapel. The only parts of each other we’ve seen are the bruises. When I first heard about the class, I didn’t know I’d have to sign a no-friend clause. The dim hope that I might make a friend or two was what initially spurred my interest. I thought a few of us would gather for dinner afterward, that we’d bond over rape and incest and the vicissitudes of girlhood. Everyone else on this campus is so unblemished, unmolested and whole. How do you talk to people like that?
Our last yoga class, Dr. Ling brings cupcakes and sparkling apple cider and tells us how proud she is of our growth. She dabs her perfect eyes with a tissue. Her mascara must be waterproof. I fidget through her speech, snapping the hair tie on my wrist until my skin is pink. Ask me, Dr. Ling, what’s to love about this dirty motel room. The soiled sheets, the moldy shower. Ask me why this place fell into such squalor.
But she doesn’t. “Namaste,” she says one last time, even though we haven’t done any yoga tonight. We echo her before rolling up our mats. The girls leave in a huddle, freed from the no-friend contract at last, and I walk a few steps behind them.
It’s a little after seven, purple sky, people going places. It’s getting warmer out, and girls are pulling sundresses from their closets, wearing them on first dates. Couples walk by. It’s still cool enough out to hold hands without them getting sweaty. I had a boyfriend, once. Summer after senior year of high school. A community college student, a cool older boy with a beard and a beat-up Firebird. He was my first yoga instructor, the person who taught me how to lie still and empty my mind, to become something else entirely. Sometimes, he was sweet. Gentle, the big teddy bear type. In his car late at night, parked in my parents’ quiet driveway, he’d hold my suppliant body against his shoulder and whisper his mantra: I love you I love you I love you.
At night, we hear mice scratching in the walls, soft like they are sharing a secret. We feel the mice moving around us, hear their nails scuff across the rafters. The house is alive—little vibrations, fingers on a waxed car, door hinges. Liz thinks they are playing with her, some game of hide-and-seek.
“We should get a cage for them,” she says, “so we can take care of them.”
I like the idea. I’ve never had a pet before. One peeks its nose out from a hole around the outlet.
“That one we’ll call Nosey,” she says.
She reaches her finger toward the hole in the outlet and says, “Here Nosey, Nosey, Nosey.”
I reach out too and touch the tip of its nose. It feels like a tiny bead.
Our Aunt Maggie has tried to get rid of them with mouse traps. They litter the cabin. Liz and I have to watch our step so we don’t lose a toe. Aunt Maggie doesn’t have the energy to notice her traps are not working. Most days she sits in her chair on the porch and drinks Majorska. We hear her rocking all morning, banging her bottle against the side of her chair.
We live in a cabin in the Adirondacks. The floor of the cabin is jagged. The cabin is infested with mice, among other things. But, we have a roof over our heads and food in our bellies and as Aunt Maggie likes to remind us, that’s more than enough for us ungrateful little rodents.
Aunt Maggie is a religious woman. She wears high-necked dresses, long enough to sweep the floor. When she’s not too hungover, she goes to church on Sunday. She says, “God only helps those who help themselves,” and “Some people need to take the plank out of their own goddamn eye.” Aunt Maggie used to work at a greenhouse taking care of flowers when a shelf fell over and broke her back. She collects unemployment and walks with a slight limp.
We should be with our mother right now in an apartment above A&A Deli in New Jersey, but a few months ago she robbed three Starbucks. The State of New Jersey picked us up from school, while I was sitting in science class and Liz was busy telling off her teacher who had tried to tell Liz the proper way to hold scissors.
As we got into her SUV, the lady dressed in black told us our mother was going to the big house. I told her I wanted to go to the big house with my mother and she said that maybe one day I will, but not now. She told us that it wasn’t our fault, our mother was bipolar, possibly schizophrenic. Liz gripped her fists and said, “You’re lying!” Our mother only ever suffered from one thing: a lack of funds. She used to tell us poverty stuck to her like white on rice. The DYFS lady in the passenger’s seat said we’d be living in Upstate New York with our Aunt Maggie. She turned around and looked at us with big pitying eyes and promised us our aunt was sober now.
My sister kicked the back of the seat, pounded the window. She didn’t quit, not on any of the trips we had to make before we got there. I watched the DYFS lady’s head bobble from my sister’s kicks all the way up and into the forest.
In my dreams, I tell my mother what it is like up here. I tell her about the crickets when it gets dark, how loud they are through the walls. I tell her about the lake always changing colors depending on the time of day. I tell her the trees are not like the ones at home. They are bigger, greener, thicker. Even the dirt, the dirt is a deep red and it is always getting in my hair, under my nails.
And the mice; I always tell her how Liz and I love the mice.
In my dreams, she holds me like she used to when I was sick. “Don’t you go rotten on me too,” she says. “The world is so rotten, don’t you go rotten on me, too.”
I have made one friend here, Ronnie. He has a birthmark that spreads like a web across his face. Everywhere else his skin is pasty like dry glue, but the web on his face is so dark, in the light it looks purple. Ronnie doesn’t look at me the way most people do. Kids upstate always look at me like there is a joke hidden somewhere in my face, within my clothes, or my hair, or whatever else might become a punch line. Adults look at me like I might give them an infection.
Ronnie likes to talk to me because I don’t make fun of his birthmark.
He comes over after school and we sit by the lake. It is spring and the Adirondacks are warm and breezy. He shows me how to skip rocks and though I am no good at it, I like watching him. The rocks leave his hand like rockets and dance across the water. I think he likes making me smile because he can skip rocks all day. Liz tries it too and gives up quickly. Instead, she throws the biggest stones she can find into the water and laughs when the splash drenches our clothes.
When we’re tired we sit in the shade. Ronnie puts his arm around me while we watch the speedboats. I ask him where he learned to do that. He says his dad does it with his mom when they aren’t fighting. I ask if he has any pets. He says his father brings home dead deer and hangs them up in the garage. His mom says their house is haunted; she can hear their hooves clicking around the house. I smile. My mother saw ghosts on her bad nights, too.
Aunt Maggie comes out with her dress twisted to the side and her hair out of the braid. She is swinging an empty bottle around her head. I can tell she’s angry. She comes next to us and puts her face by my cheek. “Did you do anything to my car?”
“No, Aunt Maggie. What’s wrong with your car?”
“You know what’s wrong.”
I look at Ronnie and Liz. Both of them are frozen.
“Were you playing with it? Crawling under it? Did you touch it?”
I swear to her I didn’t. She stands up and stomps over to the car. She kicks the wheels. She gets into the car and tries to turn it on, but it makes a click, click, click sound. “Damn it!” she screams from the car. “Son of a bitch!” She holds the key in the ignition, click, click, click.
She calls my name to get over here and so I do, embarrassed that Ronnie is watching. She says she needs me and my friend to ride down to the liquor store to pick up more Majorska. I can see hints of my mother in her, the pointed nose, the eye wrinkles. Like a shell of my mother without the love.
We get on our bikes and ride to the liquor store.
I like the speed and the sound of my bike. I can’t hear myself think about sad things.
The liquor store is a small, white house. It is covered by overgrown bushes and sits tightly between two trees.
The man who owns the store has to lean over the counter to look at us.
“It’s for my aunt,” I tell him.
“Let me guess. Good ole Mags?” he asks, and we nod. He shakes his head like he disapproves, but he has eyes that say he understands.
When we return, we barely walk into the house before Old Mags is pulling us close to her and kissing our heads. My head is squished into one dirty yellow flower in her dress design. I try to pull away, but the hug feels nicer than I would like to admit.
“You guys are the best, have I told you that lately?” she says.
At night, Old Mags passes out early. Ronnie sleeps over. We curl under the quilts and turn off the lights except for the flashlight. We wait for mice to come looking for food. We name the mice we see—Tippy, Shadow, Rex, Pinky, Curly, Baby, Lady—mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers. We make up stories for them. Our favorite stories are about Nosey, the mouse who is most adventurous. He was the first to say hi to us, the first one we’ve touched, so he is our favorite. Liz especially. I can hear her whispering into the night.
“Don’t be afraid,” she says to him, “There is nothing to be afraid of. I will protect you always.”
We talk about buying cages. We reason it would keep them safe from the mouse traps. We talk until our eyes get heavy. We listen to the mice squeak until we sleep.
“I will protect you always,” I hear Liz say over and over again.
We wake up to Old Mags puking in the bathroom. Liz and I stare at the ceiling from our bed and pretend like we don’t hear anything. I focus on the crickets outside. They sound like waves, loud and soft and loud again.
We go downstairs to make breakfast. There is a note on the table and a twenty—get some more on your way back from school.
We walk down the dirt road to the main road where the bus lady picks us up. The bus lady has red hair and is missing her left eye—from a fall when she was young, she tells us. We make up other stories: stab wound, a gunshot wound, perhaps she was a warrior in a past life. She smokes with the windows up in the heat. We hate her for it. There is a stop sign about halfway to school and the bus lady stops there for five minutes and tells us a story, something about New York City on a windy night, a movie theater, someone famous. I suppose she is lonely.
At the stop sign, Liz and I see an old antique shop. It is small and brown and has big windows. I notice a birdcage hanging in the front window. It is gold and the top of it is shaped like a palace. I point it out to Liz and she smiles. The mice would love it. How wonderful it would be to live someplace like that.
After school, the three of us have to run to the liquor store. I find the red bottle cap, the red and gold curtains. We drop the twenty in a hurry and bolt out of there to make it to the bus in time. I shove the bottle in my backpack and hear it swish next to my homework. The bus lady with her sunglasses glares at us as we walk on. Ronnie and Liz giggle behind me.
Old Mags is waiting at home for us with four glasses of orange juice. When I give her the vodka, she pours it in her cup and asks me where the change is. My heart drops to my stomach. Her face turns angry.
“Are you trying to steal from me?”
“I’ll get it tomorrow, I promise.”
The three of us chug our orange juice and run out to the lake.
“Don’t you ever try stealing from me! You’re just like your mother!” she screams after me as I run as far as I am allowed to go.
By the end of summer, Old Mags is drinking every day and the heat will not quit. The humidity sticks in our hair. Ronnie leads us to a trail that takes us around the lake and into the woods. I think Ronnie is someone who will stick around. I imagine what life we might live in a place like this. We would eat food together, wash the floors, have real pets.
We reach Ronnie’s secret lake, which isn’t really secret, just a lake smaller and more hidden than Great Sacandaga Lake. We take our shoes off and dig our feet into the sand. Ronnie turns to us and says, “This is a nude beach.” He takes off all his clothes and a part of me is a bit surprised that his birthmark is only on his face. The rest of his body is smooth, dull. He runs off of the dock, does a cannonball into the water. Liz and I look at each other. When I start undressing, she does too. Liz cannonballs into the lake. I follow.
We tread water for a bit, not knowing what to do. Ronnie suggests we play Marco Polo. We giggle a whole lot every time our hand reaches out and touches a bare body. We are acting wild and shouting too much. Liz and I have never known a place this beautiful existed. This is the world we create for ourselves without adults.
It is my turn to be Marco. I hear Liz breathing next to me. I keep reaching for her. Marco! Polo! Marco! I keep reaching and reaching until I run into the dock and hit my head. Liz is laughing at me and I laugh too. I rub the sore spot.
I feel a hand around my wrist. In one motion, I am yanked out of the water.
I see Liz too, hanging next to me. Old Mags is holding us, her face and eyes glowing red and sweating.
“Hannah and Elizabeth! What do you think you’re doing? Swimming naked with a boy? What is wrong with you? I’ve been calling your names! Where have you been?”
I smell stale liquor. I look at Liz, who is flailing in the air, her feet kicking nothing.
“I was calling your name! Why didn’t you answer me?”
I yank my wrist from Old Mags, but she clamps down like a pit bull. I pull my arm back and she pulls me forward, my feet dragging on the ground. I look back at Ronnie who is still in the water, horrified. Immediately, I am aware of my nakedness. My eyes burn with tears. I pull my arm as hard as I can, but Old Mags’ grip tightens. I try covering myself with my free arm, my feet keep tripping. As we pass our clothes, I lean down and pick up my shirt and hold it over me. She drags us all the way back to the cabin.
When we are in the house, she still does not let go of us. I hear Liz’s screams bouncing off the walls. They are loud and angry. She kicks every wall that is in reach, banging into door frames with her feet, kicking the floor if nothing else.
As Old Mags walks, a mouse skitters across her path. With one motion, Old Mags’ shoe crashes down on it. There is a crunch, like she stepped on a bag of chips. I hear the long, demon-like scream from my sister. “Nosey!”
To Liz, there is no way it could be any other mouse.
Old Mags throws us into our room and closes the door. Liz bangs on the door with her fists, her feet, like she wants to knock down the walls.
At night, my face burns with embarrassment. I cry still, thinking about Ronnie’s horrified face, the crushed mouse. The mice shuffling inside the walls keep us awake.
“We have to protect them from her,” Liz whispers. “I’ll be damned if she ever hurts another one of them again.”
Liz turns to me in the middle of the night and whispers, “I hate her. I fucking hate her.”
The sound of the word fuck rolling out of my sister’s mouth shocks me and feels right.
“I fucking hate her, too,” I whisper back.
Winter comes fast. It snows once and never melts. Aunt Maggie’s drinking is getting worse. Her hands are always shaking. She gives us more and more money. My legs beneath my knees freeze on the walk to the bus, on the walk to the liquor store, on the walk back home. Thawing my legs is the best part of the day.
Ronnie sleeps over most nights. We make forts in our room and sleep in them. It is warm there. We hear the mice. They are warm, too.
A snowstorm blows in sometime in December. The snow is so high it reaches our windows. The three of us eat whatever we find in the house. We play whatever we want. We get tired and bored, lay around, sleep, fight, laugh.
After three days, the snow melts enough for us to open the front door.
Old Mags bangs on my door early in the morning. She tells me I have to make a trip to the store. She holds out a fifty. She looks in bad shape, sweaty, her eyes bulging. I am tired.
“Later, Aunt Maggie.”
“No,” she says. “Now.”
School is still not open. The buses are not running. The store is miles away. Aunt Maggie’s eyes are red-rimmed and desperate.
Ronnie, Liz, and I dress, putting our clothes on slowly. We soak up the warmth as long as we can. Then, we begin walking.
The sun is rising. The snow is hard and dirty. It slushes around our feet.
“Hey Ronnie, if you could live anywhere, where would you live?”
“Under the Eiffel Tower.”
Liz says, “That’s silly. I would live in the ocean.”
“It’s cold there. I never want to live anywhere that’s cold ever again.”
“I’d be a fish, stupid. Fish don’t get cold.”
I only think of my mother. I say nothing.
After too many steps, my stomach growls. My head aches for food and rest. I think of a warm grilled cheese, a hot barbeque on a summer day.
We reach the antique shop by the stop sign. It is a square cabin with a pointed roof. The sign painted out front is wood and reads: “Tree-Eater Antiques.” We go in. There is no way we are making it to the liquor store like this.
Inside the shop is better than I imagined. It is all clutter—strange paintings, newspapers, taxidermies, old lamps and lanterns, old furniture and radios. We can’t move, don’t know where to go. Dust swirls around in the hot air being blown out of the space heater.
An older woman shouts from another room that she is closed. We don’t leave. The warmth has just started to seep into our clothes.
She emerges from the doorway. She wears a skirt with bright flowers and a dirty brown shirt. She has massive earrings and a bandana tied in her hair. Her glasses magnify her eyes. She reminds me of Ms. Frizzle. None of us know what to say. When she sees it’s just a bunch of kids, Frizzle lightens up.
“Are y’all hungry?” she asks. Our faces must give away our hunger because she laughs and says, “Come in! Come in!”
She disappears and hobbles around. “Did you know ‘Adirondack’ means tree-eater?!” she shouts from behind the wall. “It was meant as an insult between two groups of Native Americans! Tree-eaters they called each other! What a riot!”
I like her voice. Unlike most adults, her happy voice is sincere.
Each of us shuffle around the store as Frizzle continues to shout stories at us from behind the wall. Ronnie and Liz reach out to touch old radios, swiping the dust from dials.
I sneak around one of the shelves. I see the cage, long and thin, painted a dull gold. Ivy vines are engraved along the bottom and up some of the bars. It is small with a hook on top. Inside, I can see little swings. There is a small lock on the front of the door.
“…Meaning ‘porcupine’ which in fact is just an animal that eats bark, but the Mohawks had no written language so we can’t be sure.” Frizzle holds microwaved pizza. We can hardly wait until she puts it down. I eat quickly, trying to get more than Liz or Ronnie. I can feel the pit in my stomach filling, the hunger headache subsiding.
“You were looking at that birdcage?” she says, as she points to it with a heavily ringed finger. I look up and still keep eating. I nod.
“That one is as old as they come. Made in the 1880s and owned by a man who used to live up here before it was even a town. Paint is probably not safe for a bird, but it still is pretty to look at. Rumor has it, the owner held onto it until he died. Literally, he died holding it.”
I look at the birdcage. I want it. The want goes deep. It’s as heavy as the bread and cheese sitting in my stomach. I have never really owned anything.
“It’s about $100,” she says, eyeing me closely.
I look down at my pizza, trying to figure out how I can make the fifty in my pocket turn into a hundred. I reach into my pocket and pull it out.
“What do you have?” she asks, and I tell her.
“You can have it,” she says. “I like you.”
I feel Liz and Ronnie looking at me. I don’t care. I want the birdcage.
It still doesn’t hit me, what I have done, when we leave the antique shop. We walk in silence, Ronnie and Liz on either side of me. I hold my birdcage to my chest.
Liz whispers, “Old Mags is going to kill you.”
We stop walking and I turn to look at them. “She can’t kill us if we don’t go home.”
We walk to Ronnie’s house, where his father sits on the couch and watches TV.
“Hey,” he mumbles to us as we slip in. We have peanut butter sandwiches and we spend the night there, talking about how we might lure the mice into the cage. No one says anything more about the money or Old Mags.
When we finally go to school, I bring the cage with me and I carry it around all day to my classes. I am still scared to go home.
What I’ve done begins to weigh on me and I can’t sit still in my chair. The clock ticks, and every moment I forget about Old Mags is a blessing. But then, I remember again and my heart sinks.
I sleep at Ronnie’s with Liz and carry around the birdcage for three days before Mrs. Silbernagel asks me to talk to her after school. I go to her office when the bell rings. My heart throbs in my ears.
Mrs. Silbernagel is there with the school counselor and the vice principal. All three of them look more concerned than the next. They look at the cage. They look at me. The school counselor says she wants to ask me a few questions.
“It is all going to be okay,” she says.
Whatever these adults are planning, I want none of it.
“I just want to go home now,” I say. But, I don’t have a home.
I turn and I walk toward the door of the classroom. Slowly, at first. I shuffle my feet. I keep walking. When I get to the door, I run. I hear my name—Hannah? Hannah!—but I just keep running until I am out the door, the birdcage clonking like a ball and chain behind me.
I run to the nearest bus. I don’t care what bus it is.
I get off as soon as I recognize where I am. I have to walk another two miles to get to the house. I hug the birdcage.
When I get to Old Mags’ house, Ronnie and Liz are sitting in the snow, asking what had happened to me. Nothing, I tell them. The door is locked, they say, and they can’t get in. I knock. No one answers. I break the side window. I’m already in trouble for the cage and for not bringing Aunt Maggie the liquor.
When I walk in, Aunt Maggie is laying on the couch under blankets. There is a putrid smell. I walk over to her. She is white. She does not look like Aunt Maggie. Her teeth are bared in a stiff snicker. I touch her arm and know.
It is terribly quiet in the room when I turn and look at Ronnie. I see him take a step forward, like he might reach out and touch my arm.
“She’s dead,” I tell them.
Liz takes a step forward and looks herself. She tilts her head like she is trying to figure something out.
“Why?” she asks.
All I know is that it has something to do with the fifty dollars and a birdcage.
Ronnie takes another step and I wait for the weight of his hand on my shoulder.
“Good,” Liz says, “I’m glad she’s dead.”
Ronnie begins to back away. I see in his face he is scared of me. He is scared of all my trouble.
When he runs out the front door, something in me breaks. I am tired of people leaving me.
I am angry at Old Mags. I am angry at my mother. I am angry at Ronnie. I throw the cage after him. It hits the door frame. I hear it crack. When it hits the ground, it breaks again. Pieces of the broken cage lie on the floor. I can’t look at it.
Liz and I aren’t upset that Aunt Maggie is all empty-eyed on the couch. We have a different worry. We will lose the mice. Liz and I run into our room and bang on the walls with our fists. The walls are so fragile, they crumble in our hands. We keep at it, tearing the walls down. We can see the movement between the rafters. We pick up a whole handful of baby mice and load up our pillow cases. Some mice bite at us and we don’t care. The mice are screeching. We are screaming like mad and chasing the mice and putting what we can into pillowcases.
The police show up on our doorstep with the school counselor.
They look a bit horrified when they see Liz and me standing there with pillow cases full of mice, our faces covered in wall dust. We grip the bags in a way that says, Don’t you dare take them away from us.
It takes many officers to hold us and to pry the pillowcases from our fingers. We’re screaming and kicking at them. The school counselor tries to say nice things to me, but I scream so that I can’t hear her. The police put us into the back of their car while other policemen throw the bags into dumpsters. We sit in the car and push our crying faces against the glass.
The cops are too busy with Aunt Maggie to notice the first mouse crawl out of the dumpster. One after another they tuck and dive into the snow, their furry backs flowing like gray ripples over the white ground, squeaking something that sounds to me and Liz like freedom.
Beacon Street Prize Winner, Fiction, 2021
I had been embroidering dead people on pillowcases for seven years before I ran into any trouble. It was a long, quiet stretch of time, during which I sat in the front room of my house at a small table, colored embroidery floss hanging around me like a web, stitching in the light of the window.
I’d started seven years ago because seven years ago was when Miller died. We’d been married only three years, two months, and eighteen days. That meant there were only three years, two months, and eighteen days where I got to wake up next to him as his wife and see his face on the pillow next to mine. Sometimes serene and still, sometimes slack and twitching, sometimes already awake and looking around the room like he was readying himself to get up and become part of the world again. Sometimes he was already looking back at me, his toes essentially tapping in anticipation. When we first got together, I spent a few nights camped over at his place, and I would feel his hands reach over in the barely-there blink of morning light and rustle me awake so I would turn to face him. Then he’d want to talk or kiss or just be there, awake, together.
“Let me sleep,” I’d beg. “It’s barely six.”
After a while I’d started to snap at him, some mornings when I was particularly tired.
And he’d apologize, eventually explaining, “You know why I wake you up so early every day? It’s because I can’t wait to see you.” It made me roll my eyes, but it was also the first time I ever considered that maybe I would spend the rest of my life with just one person.
Eventually, Miller learned to sleep in and then we’d take turns waking up first and waiting for the other. After he was gone, especially in the early days—like for instance, three years, two months, and twenty days after we were married, or three years, two months, and thirty-six days after we were married, I’d lay with my back to his side of the bed, begging a phantom limb to reach over and shake me. My fists clenched hard and white with wanting. I longed to be woken before six, or to never be allowed to sleep again.
So Miller’s was the first face I embroidered. My mother taught me to sew when I was young, and after years of doing other things instead, things like drinking and running and working, things I did whether I was lonely or not, I dug her old case of floss, hundreds of bobbins of glossy color, and her needles and hoops from the back of my closet.
You’d be surprised how many colors make up a white man’s face when you really look at it—violet, blues, browns, yellows, pinks, and that’s just the skin. Dark slashes of chocolate brown for eyebrows, flits of black for lashes. One thousand tiny stitches for the hairs of his stubble. Twelve shades of blues and grays for his irises. Two moles, a scar on his chin, a left nostril that was slightly larger than the right. I stitched my dead husband on a pillowcase to be sort of funny, to try to snap myself out of it with dark humor, and I figured that maybe I’d put it on his pillow for a night or two, freak myself out, then pack it away. I thought that sewing it would be my grieving process, concentrating so hard on his face that I would wean myself from ever wanting to look at it again. Once the last stitch went through, I thought I would be able to roll over in bed and sleep again. But that didn’t happen. Actually, the opposite—lying next to that pillow, turned sideways so it would look back at me, I suddenly found myself unable to get out of bed at all. I took a leave of absence and lay with my knees curled to my chest, staring at that pillow all day, sometimes flipping it over and sobbing into its soft, cool underside, smooth as Miller’s back had been. The only time I was able to get myself up was late at night, when I’d crawl into the kitchen and bring boxes of crackers, toaster pastries, and cereal back into bed with me. With us. I let the mess accumulate in an embarrassing way that the real Miller would not have allowed, but it didn’t matter anymore; his lips were sewn shut and I could do what I wanted. This went on for weeks until my sister Margaret finally pried her way into the house and demanded I get up and rinse myself off.
“Honey, I know,” she kept saying, even when I hadn’t said anything. She took one look at the piles of boxes and plastic wrappers hiding in the bedding, and she speed-dialed her own cleaning service to come (“ASAP!”) and sweep away the Froot Loops and rainbow crumbs. She glanced at my Miller but her eyes kept moving, like all she could see was the mess I’d made.
“It’s on me,” she said of the service, by which she meant she would pay for it because she knew I wouldn’t. Margaret left when the cleaning woman got there, as I’m sure she did whenever it was her embarrassing mess being cleaned, but I refused to leave with her. My eyes were used to the dimness of the house.
The cleaning woman was shorter than me and built like a small tank. I envied the look of her strong calves under her cropped cargo pants, and the way she moved through my house so surely. I followed her around and watched her clean like it was something I’d never had the chance to learn. She dug through the blankets and removed package after package, shaking bits of cookies out of the sheets. As she flipped blankets, the pillow came into full view. The woman looked at Miller’s face for a long time, then reached a hand toward it. She stopped and looked back at me.
“Is it okay to touch?” she asked. I nodded.
“Your husband,” she said. I nodded.
We stood there looking at Miller and he looked back at us.
“You made it?” she finally asked.
“Will you make one for me? I’ll pay anything.”
I felt myself nodding again, without even pausing to consider.
Most of my customers were widows or widowers like myself. Occasionally, I got a wildly heartbroken youngster who had just been dumped by a boyfriend and had somehow come across me on the internet, probably by typing in “something to waste money on when you’re desperate,” and in these instances, I made sure to issue an official form, signature required, stating that all orders were final and there were no refunds under any circumstances to protect myself from that inevitable moment when there was a new boyfriend in the mix and he was sufficiently and understandably “weirded out” by his girlfriend’s pillowcase with some other sixteen-year-old’s face on it, perhaps even the face of someone who they rode the school bus with every morning. My hours and hours of work were unable to be refunded due to the fickleness of children.
In seven years, I did hundreds of faces. I used every color of DMC-brand floss available, just for faces. I only accepted a job if the buyer had an adequate picture of the subject, which was most of the time, but sometimes I got someone who thought they could just describe a person to me and I’d be able to nail it. I’d turned people down for the following reasons:
“Here’s the picture. She’s the one in the second row, far right. You can just about make out her face.”
“But can you do him with blond hair instead? And blue eyes? Blue was his favorite
“He looked like Brad Pitt.”
“Here she is. But can you make her look twenty years younger?”
“He actually looked a lot like our dog. I only have a picture of her. As a puppy.”
And I’d only ever done two animals—both dogs, both of whom were the only family members the buyers had. I charged fair prices for the faces, but enough to make a living from. I rarely spoke to or saw anyone, and in that way, it was perfect.
The trouble came along with Thea. Thea herself was not the problem. She came to me with a typical story of a deceased husband of twenty years and a clear, close-up photo. She didn’t have any questions or concerns. Her husband was handsome and a pleasure to stitch. He required mostly earth tones, a spread of pink in his smooth cheeks, and long stem stitches of dark hair with lines of pearl floss woven in near the temples. Thea asked for him exactly as he was in the photo, taken on an ordinary day when he was forty-six years old, the year she said she found him “most beautiful.” In my reply to her email, I found my fingers itching to type back that I knew that feeling; there wasn’t a certain year I found Miller most beautiful, but rather there was a certain time of day. But I stopped. I did not speak of myself to customers.
Thea lived in town, so I made a home delivery once her husband was complete. I delivered directly when I could so that I could spare myself the worry of having a package lost in the mail or stolen off a front porch.
Thea had a slender oval face and dark features, which would require careful shadows stitched around her angular bones, a couple of French knots for beauty marks, and a few lines of age near the eyes, if she were the dead one. But she wasn’t; instead, she was the one who opened the door after I knocked and waited. She asked me inside and I agreed, which I usually never did, but I loved something about the sparse white walls I could see behind her and the sweep of chestnut floors, the wood grain chasing itself in spirals before my feet as she led me down a hall and into a kitchen.
“Sit,” she said, motioning to a table, fingering the box I’d given her at the front door. Thea’s nose was small and pointed. Her skin would have been an alabaster or coconut floss.
She set the box on the table and sat. She offered me water, which I declined.
“My daughter won’t like this,” she said, looking at the box. I opened my mouth, frowned with my eyes, then closed my mouth again. I almost said, “No refunds,” but I knew that wasn’t what Thea meant.
“She’s already put away so many photos of Henry, she’d put all of them away if she could. My daughter. She thinks it inhibits me from moving on, Sascha does. That’s the trouble today, isn’t it? Too easy to just clear things away, too easy to just hit ‘delete.’”
“Mmmm.” I nodded.
“But she doesn’t fool me,” Thea continued, sipping at her own glass of water. “She’s still even more heartbroken than I am. She just hides it. Can’t control her own emotions so she wants to control mine.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Why do you do it?” Thea asked then. “Why pillowcases?”
There were so many places in the room to look besides her face but I couldn’t find any of
“Sleeping is something we argued about,” I said. “So this is my final concession. He was right. We should have spent more time lying awake in bed, looking at each other.”
Thea opened her mouth to respond and I abruptly pushed back my chair and stood. “I’ll leave you to it,” I said, nodding at the small box on the table.
“Oh.” Thea stood and walked me to the door.
“Does your daughter live here?” I asked suddenly, standing in the doorway. “She does. She’s in college, studying psychology. She’s very busy.”
Thea smiled and I watched the ways it changed the colors of her face. “Thank you, Alyse.”
“Enjoy,” I said ridiculously, and walked away.
It took Thea’s daughter three days to find the pillow, if Thea had even bothered to hide it.
I had just finished replying to an email asking if I did family portraits (“No.”) when Sascha’s message appeared in my inbox.
I am writing in regards to an order you recently filled and delivered to my mother, Thea Zugravescu. While well-made and true to detail—almost disturbingly so—I must ask for your
assistance in convincing my mother to abandon the item and return it to you for a refund. I only have her best interests at heart. I’m sure you understand.
Yours respectfully, Sascha Zugravescu Dept. of Psychology Keaton University
I stared at the message for a while before I hit ‘reply.’
I do not understand. Also, no refunds.
A few minutes later:
Thank you for your reply. I do understand your policy of no refunds and I am willing to work within it. It is not so much the money that is a concern, but rather my mother’s state of mind. She is still a young woman with so much to offer. How will she be able to overcome the death of my father when she has a—again, disturbingly lifelike—replica of him next to her in bed every night? All I ask is your help in convincing her to return it. She refuses to let me anywhere near it for fear that I will destroy it or throw it in the trash. I assure you I have no wish to do so.
As I say, it is an exquisite piece. Perhaps you could use it as an example photo on your website? Or even enter it in an art show. Either way, you must take it back. I only have both your and my mother’s best interests in mind. Surely you must deal with this all the time.
Yours respectfully, Sascha Zugravescu Dept. of Psychology Keaton University
I do not deal with this all the time. The children of my customers usually mind their own business.
I have tried to appeal to your sensitivities as a daughter and a morally intact person, but I am losing patience. My education and training informs me that it would be best to allow my mother to come to the conclusion that any item in the likeness of her deceased husband kept in her bed will yield only adverse results on her mental and emotional health, and that I should do little more than give her a supportive nudge in the right direction, which I’d hoped you would help me with. However, since you seem to have no one’s best interests at heart except your own, I must make a more drastic attempt to physically separate my mother and your handcrafted
likeness of her deceased husband, my father. I now only ask that you do not allow her to place another order for a replacement item, no matter how much money she offers.
Sascha Zugravescu Dept. of Psychology Keaton University
I closed my laptop roughly. Fine. What was it to me if this girl wanted to rid her mother of all attempts at emotional comfort just because she couldn’t get a handle on her own grief? I wished someone would have taken the Miller pillow away from me so soon and saved me weeks of eating children’s cereal in bed. Maybe Thea was actually fortunate to have someone looking after her so closely.
The next morning, I had another email.
Will you take the pillowcase back? I don’t want any money returned. I just don’t want it to end up destroyed or in a garbage dump, which might happen if Sascha gets her hands on it. It’s too lovely for that.
Goddamn it, I said to the email. I closed the computer again and put it away. I cracked my knuckles and threaded a needle to continue work on my current job. After an hour of stitching in the pale light of my front room, the web of colored floss hanging around me, I put the hoop down and found myself heading to Thea’s house without having thought much about it. So maybe I could take the damn pillow back and maybe I could even give her a small partial refund, because I found that I liked Thea in a vague kind of way. Maybe it was more that I disliked her daughter, Dr. Sascha of the Psychology Department at Whatever University, and how she felt that she had to keep someone else’s emotions on such a short rope. Even my sister Margaret didn’t encourage me to get rid of Miller, she just encouraged me to clean up and get out of bed. And that, I thought as I knocked on Thea’s front door for the second time that week, should be the most that anyone else ever asks of you.
I could hear them arguing through the door before it opened, and when it did, they were standing there in the foyer. Thea had her arms clamped pitifully around the pillow and Sascha, taller than her mother and without the pronounced angles of her face, glared at me.
“Well, here she is,” Sascha said. “I imagine you’re Alyse? I hope you’ve come to take this thing back.”
“If that’s what Thea still wants,” I said, looking past Sascha at her mother.
“It’s more about what’s best for everyone and not necessarily what she wants,” Sascha said, as though speaking about a child who wasn’t standing two feet away.
“I imagine you’re the expert, Doctor.”
“Oh I’m not a doctor quite yet, still in training,” Sascha said, pleased at my comment in a way I did not intend.
“But you must agree with me,” Sascha continued. “Look at her. Still so young and beautiful. How will she ever find another husband with this thing around?”
“I’m not sure that’s her main priority at the moment.” Again I looked to Thea to see if she would say anything, but she only looked back at me, still holding her husband’s face tightly to her chest.
Sascha ignored that and leaned closer to me.
“I heard her talking to the thing, Alyse. This is not the way to grieve.”
She used my name in an effort to make it seem like we were on the same side of the argument. To make it seem like we were pals about this and both had her mother’s best interest at heart. To make it easier for me to help her. Instead, I felt a long-dormant storm rise inside me. I leaned right back toward Sascha.
“Do they teach you how to grieve in school?” I asked, perhaps more cruelly than I wanted. “Is there a chapter or two in your psych textbook on the subject? Do you have notes you can refer to from a lecture on the appropriate response to the death of the one person you believed would be with you for the last fifty years of your life, and how to correctly handle yourself? Is your mother doing it wrong, and is that making you uncomfortable, Sascha?”
She stepped back, her face reddening.
“Enough about this ‘best interests’ line you keep feeding everyone,” I continued. “It’s pretty obvious who—”
“You don’t know anything about it!” Sascha shouted, almost stamping her foot in anger.
Then Thea stepped forward and pushed the pillow toward me. “Please take it,” she said. “She’ll take it if you don’t.”
I took it. Thea looked at me for a moment before turning away and disappearing down the hall. Sascha took the few steps toward the door with me, and I could feel the heat coming off her; she burned with a mad grasp for control and with displeasure about winning in a different way than she’d wanted.
“I think you will agree—,” she began, but the door was open and I was already walking away.
I planned to keep Thea’s pillow in the closet until I decided what to do with it. But that night, after I’d locked the doors and turned off all the lights, I took it back out and set it on top of the dresser, leaning against the wall so we could look at each other. He really was handsome. I imagined him and Thea standing side by side, he a foot taller than her, their hands clasped together, an easy and comfortable silence between them. I imagined them lying in bed, their chests rising smoothly with sleep, the heat of closeness passed between their bodies. I imagined Thea smiling in her sleep as she felt him readjust in the night and move closer. I imagined Thea waking up one day to find that warmth and movement suddenly and irrevocably gone.
I fell into a sleep of my own with my arms around Miller, my body diffusing warmth into the pillow until it felt reciprocated. Thea’s husband and the night shadows watched us.
And so the next day I went back. When I knocked, Sascha answered. Her eyes were red and swollen; if I were to stitch them, I’d need a dozen shades of pink, peach, rouge, and garnet, and stone for the shadows underneath. She scowled when she saw me and what I held.
“I’m here to see Thea,” I said firmly. “I have something for her.”
Sascha looked at me from beneath her own veil of loss. She would be beautiful like her mother someday, probably soon. She would learn to love a man who wasn’t her father. We stared at each other.
“It will be all right,” I finally said.
And after a moment, she nodded and slowly stepped aside for me to pass. “She’s down the hall.”
When I turned the knob and pushed the door open, Thea did not stir from where she lie, tucked into herself on the bed, her body turned toward the opposite wall. She exhaled, shaking slightly, trying to quell her sobs. The shades on the window were drawn, the daylight muffled through them. I saw three glasses on the bedside table with an inch of water in each and a heap of clothes on the floor near the closet.
I looked at this woman lying in bed and then I did what I wished my sister Margaret would have done instead of calling a cleaning service. I set Thea’s pillow on a chair near the door. I got into the bed and lie down next to her, put my hand on her shoulder and, when she reached up and pulled my hand into both of hers, clasped under her chin, I curled around her and held her close, my face in her uncombed hair. We’d begun as wives to other people and this is what we’d become—two women cradling each other for warmth against the chill of graves that weren’t yet our own.
“Will it ever stop?” Thea whispered.
I closed my eyes against the faint light trilling through the strands of her hair. “I don’t know.”
Erin Cecilia Thomas is a writer originally from Upstate New York. She has a BA from Berklee College of Music and is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at Lesley University. Her work has been published in Anomaly, Oyez Review, Into the Void, Illuminations of the Fantastic, and Archipelago: The Allegory Ridge Fiction Anthology. She currently lives in Nashville, TN, and can be found atexcxt.com.