Illustration by Jonathan Barlett
Tess lies sometimes. At school, she says that she has speech therapy on Tuesdays after social studies. She is careful to lisp when she says it—thpeech therapy after thocial thtudies. Her teacher says that Tess is precocious, that she tells good stories. “What a good story!” Miss Morris says when Tess tells her that she is a hemophiliac and has to be extra careful about things like blisters and paper cuts. Her illness is genetic, Tess says. Her mother is also a hemophiliac.
Tess is eight years old. Lying is something she will probably outgrow. This is what Mrs. Stuart, who takes care of Tess after school, thinks. Tess says that the stars are lonely, that the walls are crying, that late at night the trees outside her window fill with breath and whisper the names of dead children. Mrs. Stuart touches her wrinkled hand to the side of Tess’s face and clucks her tongue when she says, “That’s just pretend.”
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But everything in Tess’s world is pretend. In her bedroom, the dolls stare at the walls with their flat, sticker eyes, and the glass ballerina holds a perfect pose inside her tiny glass box. Beside the window, Tess’s little table is set with empty teacups and a plate of plastic muffins. “Would you care for more tea?” Tess asks the nobody who sits across from her. She swallows cups of invisible tea. She chews mouthfuls of air.
Tess is a child, and like any child she has fears. She is afraid of sirens and lightning and words she doesn’t understand (eclectic, infinity, precocious). She is afraid of falling off the Earth. Some nights after dinner, she crawls through the house on her hands and knees, gripping the carpet with her fingernails. Her father says that she will not fall off the Earth, that falling off the Earth is impossible. Tess repeats the word slowly, tasting the slant and dip of each letter: impossible.
Tess’s father is a grown-up. He understands with perfect clarity the things that can and cannot happen. He doesn’t let himself be concerned that Tess cannot yet see the distinction. She is his only child, and he does not think of her as a liar. Instead, he believes that Tess is peculiar in the way that very intelligent people often are. He tries to find the humor in it. When Miss Morris calls from school to say that Tess has said her father is dying of lung cancer, he laughs. He assures Miss Morris that he isn’t even a smoker (well, hardly), that he is as right as rain. Tess swings her legs against the bars of the kitchen chair as she listens to her father’s end of the conversation. She does not understand. Right as rain. Miss Morris says that Tess is bright and sensitive and doing very well in geography. When he hangs up the phone, Tess’s father pats her on the shoulder. “Everything’s fine,” he tells her. “Don’t worry.”
But Tess worries. She worries about fires and floods and poisonous-spider bites. In the car, she cranes her neck to see accidents on the freeway, to memorize details of broken glass and twisted metal. Drying dinner dishes, she holds the sharp kitchen knives and feels a tightening in her spine, a throbbing ache across the spidery blue veins in her wrists. When she walks to school in the morning, the older boys drive their cars too fast down the road, and Tess watches as they pass in a blur of noise and grit and cigarette smoke. She imagines herself pressed between them, imagines the way the air would smell of sweat and gasoline, and the wind would stir her hair into tangles. Day after day she stands beside the road in her glasses and ponytail, waiting for them to notice her, waiting for them to stop. Want a piece of candy, little girl?
In two weeks Tess will be nine. And after nearly nine years in this world, she knows that some things need to be worried about. Mrs. Stuart had a dog that got struck by lightning. A girl at Tess’s school drowned in a swimming pool. Cars crashed. Knives slipped. Sometimes, women got into strange cars with strange men and didn’t ever come back.
Tess’s mother left two years ago, and her red raincoat is still hanging in the front closet. When Tess gets her own raincoat before school in the morning, she sees the red stripe of her mother’s coat among her father’s black wool, and her knees turn soft like clay. Not much that belongs to her mother is left in this house. Her mother took some things with her when she went away—clothes and jewelry, the painting of sand dunes that used to hang in the upstairs bathroom, the goldfish. Other things her father got rid of nearly a year later, while Tess was at school. “Your mother’s moved forward,” her father said, when Tess came home to find the clean, flat squares her mother’s things had left in the carpet, the blank spaces on the walls. “We should too.”
Of course, he hadn’t gotten everything. The leftover things were small, tiny sometimes: a hairpin in the crevice of a drawer, a string of seashells over a doorknob, a sliver of black soap in the bathtub. These things revealed themselves to Tess over time, sifting up through the countertop clutter or the shadows of a cabinet. She would look down one day, and there they would be: the hairpin, the seashells, the soap. Her mother had been there, and there, and there.
But the raincoat, that is something big. Tess thinks of all the afternoons she has spent watching television with Mrs. Stuart in the living room, all the times she’s come through the front door or stood in the kitchen or brushed her teeth. For two whole years, the red raincoat has been hanging in the front closet like an open wound. And for two whole years, no one has said a word about it.
Tess walks to school with the rain making cold, fat plops on the hood of her jacket. She tries to look up at the sky, but the water stings her eyes, and she has to keep her head down. Maybe it doesn’t rain in the place where her mother lives now. And even if it does, two years is a long time. Her mother must have bought a new raincoat by now.