Fiction Fiction 2008

Nine

If Tess takes ballet lessons, Meredith will give Tess tights and toe shoes, and marry Tess’s father. She will stay forever.
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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.

At school, Miss Morris chooses people to act out the assassination of Lincoln. She tells the class how Lincoln studied by candlelight and ended slavery and always told the truth. “Honest Abe,” they called him, because he could not tell a lie. Miss Morris says that after Lincoln was shot, they saved the bloody pillow he died on, and you can still go see it. “Of course, they keep it covered with plastic now,” she says.

At Tess’s school, they don’t like guns or toys that look like guns, so the boy who plays John Wilkes Booth points his finger at the back of Lincoln’s head and says, “Bang!” Von Maxwell, who is playing Lincoln, has taken a packet of ketchup from the cafeteria, and when John Wilkes Booth shoots him, he slaps the packet against the side of his head so that a little stream of ketchup burps onto the floor. “You got me!” he yells, and drops sideways out of his chair. “I’m a goner now!”

Today is Tuesday, and after social studies Tess has to leave (Thpeech Therapy). But her lisp is only pretend, and she does not go to the speech therapist. Instead she goes to see Dirk and Deborah. Dirk and Deborah are new at the school this year. They have an office next to the janitor’s closet, with kitten posters on the wall and little bags of animal crackers that they let Tess eat while they ask her questions about her mother or about what color she thinks her insides are. Dirk and Deborah keep felt puppets in their office that they try to make Tess talk to when she doesn’t want to talk about her mother or her insides, which is always. Once a week Dirk and Deborah bring their puppets into Tess’s classroom and put on shows to teach the children about things like not talking to strangers and what to do if you catch on fire.

Today, Tess tells Dirk and Deborah about Honest Abe and how they shot him and saved his bloody pillow. Dirk sits on his desk with his legs crossed Indian-style and asks if learning about the assassination made Tess sad, because she can tell them if it did. Or if it didn’t, Deborah says, Tess can tell them that too. When Tess does not answer, Dirk and Deborah glance at each other, and Tess knows that she is going to have to give them something soon. She does not want to talk to the puppets. Last week, Dirk put a puppet on his arm and made Tess sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in a round with him. He wouldn’t shut up until she did it.

“My birthday’s soon,” Tess says. “Two weeks from now.”

Dirk and Deborah’s eyebrows lift, and their mouths open into happy gaping holes. This is wonderful news!

Tess shrugs. Certain ages are more important than others. Seven, for example, was an age you could really sink your teeth into, so much older than six. Ten would be the same—a whole new world. Nine is just one of the bald-headed numbers in between. Tess could take it or leave it.

Deborah writes the date down in her calendar. “We’ll remember to bring you something special that day,” she says.

The other kids in Tess’s class do not like Dirk and Deborah. They call them “queers” and “retards” and shoot tiny balls of paper at their heads with rubber bands while they perform their puppet shows. Tess is always careful to keep her eyes on her desk, to not show that she knows Dirk and Deborah better than anyone else. But now, in their office, Tess imagines Deborah at the mall, picking out a night-light or a bracelet with Tess’s name on it, then taking it home to wrap it in white paper and a pink bow. She feels like crying. “It’s all right,” she tells them. “You don’t have to.”

Deborah leans forward and squeezes Tess’s knee. “It’s OK to be happy about the good things,” she says. “It’s OK if something makes you feel like smiling.”

Dirk nods. “Or if it doesn’t,” he says. “That’s OK too.”

After school, Tess watches One Life to Live with Mrs. Stuart. Nora is recovering from brain surgery alone in her beach house, and Todd Manning, who has been out for revenge ever since Nora sabotaged him during his trial for raping Marty last summer, is stalking her. Tess sucks on one of the butterscotch Life Savers that Mrs. Stuart keeps in her purse, while Nora wanders through the beach house in her nightgown and neck bandage, stumbling into walls and tripping over furniture. Todd Manning is coming for her, waiting around every corner, hiding in every shadow. The lights have gone out, and Nora falls to the floor.

When the show is over, Mrs. Stuart goes into the kitchen to make dinner for Tess and her father, and to pack Tess’s lunch for the next day. The television is off, and through the curtains, the light looks blue, as if the room were under water. Tess closes her eyes and imagines blindness, entrapment, a loose bandage on her neck. As Mrs. Stuart chops vegetables in the kitchen, Tess thinks of her mother’s raincoat hiding in the hall closet like a bloody stranger. When her father gets home from work, Tess will make him feel her head for tumors. She will make him check her bedroom closet for men with knives.

But when her father gets home, a woman is with him, and he says that he will feel Tess’s head for tumors another time, when they don’t have company. The woman’s name is Meredith. She is tall and thin, with pale hair and so many freckles that, up close, her skin looks like the pink marble steps at the public library. Meredith stands in their kitchen with one hip cocked, swirling the red wine in her glass. “Your daughter has tumors?” she asks.

Tess’s father coughs into the back of his wrist. “Oh,” he says. “She’s just being funny.”

While Tess and her father eat, Meredith sits at the table, moving the food around her plate with her fork. Tess’s father says that Meredith is a dancer with the city ballet and maybe they can go see her perform sometime. Won’t that be fun?

Tess has been to the ballet before. When she was little, her mother took her into the city to see The Nutcracker. Tess wore a green velvet dress, and her mother carried her good purse. They sat together in the darkness, watching girls in white dresses twirl beneath fake snow. Tess fell asleep halfway through. She cannot remember if she had fun or not.

While her father clears the dinner dishes, Tess watches Meredith from across the table. Her sweater dips down into a V, and Tess can see the bones, like a ladder, on her speckled chest. Meredith lifts her wine to her lips, and the cuff of her sleeve falls away from her wrist, exposing a bone as small and perfect as a glass marble. “Are you anorexic?” Tess asks.

Meredith sets her wine back on the table without drinking. “Are you rude?” she asks.

“You can die from it,” Tess says.

Meredith leans her chin into the cup of one freckled hand. “You’re the expert.”

Tess and Meredith watch each other across the table, and Tess feels a tickling in her spine as Meredith lifts one pale eyebrow into a perfect arch. They do not like each other. This will be their secret.

“I have low blood sugar,” Tess says. “If I don’t eat, I faint.”

“Wow,” Meredith says.

“Sometimes I throw up,” Tess adds. “While I’m fainted.”

Tess’s father makes a pot of coffee, and he and Meredith sit at the table smoking cigarettes. Tess stands behind her chair, and her father pinches her on the ribs to make her laugh. When she goes to kiss him good night, she can smell wine and cigarette smoke on his lips. In times past, Tess would wrap her arms around her father’s neck to kiss him, but now she only touches her mouth to his—not a real kiss, but something that looks like one. Tess knows that even these pretend kisses will stop soon. She will be nine, then 10, then 11. Soon she will be too old to tickle. And then they will not touch at all.

Tess says good night, then stands outside the door, listening.

“She’s adorable,” Meredith says.

“Thank you,” Tess’s father says.

“What happened to her mother?”

At night, Tess’s bedroom fills with shadows, and the trees tap secret messages on her window. Her dolls think only of themselves—their yarn hair and dead eyes. On her dresser the little ballerina holds perfectly still, her toes pointed, her arms lifted, reaching up toward her glass sky. No one sees Tess cry. And so it doesn’t count.

Tess begins crying for a number of reasons. Tonight, she thinks about Mrs. Stuart’s dog, the one that was struck by lightning. Tess did not know the dog; she has only heard stories about him. He was Mrs. Stuart’s dog when she was a little girl, and before he was struck by lightning, he slept in Mrs. Stuart’s bed, with her. Mrs. Stuart has told Tess that the dog smelled like wet grass and made low, doggy snores in his sleep. Tess cries for the dog who died, and for Mrs. Stuart who missed him, and for herself, a girl who has never had a dog.

Much later, Tess hears noises in the hallway—her father and Meredith, their voices low and thick with laughter. “I love you, I love you, I love you,” her father’s voice says through the wall.

Love. It is a word that means nothing and everything at the same time. When Tess was little, her mother used to cry in the bathtub. All the time. Tess would creep into the bathroom and kneel beside the tub, while her mother held the black egg of soap in her hands and wept into her knees. “I love you,” Tess would tell her. “I love you, I love you.” And her mother would cry and stroke Tess’s hair into cords of gray lather.

“I’m so sorry,” her mother would say, hiccuping. “I start crying, and I just can’t stop.”

Hemophilia is when something gets started and then can’t stop. Tess learned all about this from One Life to Live. It exists in families, mothers passing the sickness down to their babies so that wounds, once open, can never be closed. People die from it.

“I love you, I love you,” her father’s voice says on the other side of the wall, and Tess wants to rush to him and cover his lips with her hand. She wants to save him from all the things he hopes it means, from all the promises it cannot keep.

Instead, she presses her face into her pillow and thinks about having something all her own to love—something small and furry that she could kiss and name and touch with her hands. In Tess’s classroom, they have hamsters: a girl hamster named Marigold, and a boy hamster named Bon Jovi. Once, they had baby hamsters, pink and hairless like a pile of squirming thumbs. Miss Morris said that when the hamsters got bigger, she would give them to the students who knew their state capitals best, that those students would each be able to take a baby hamster home to keep. Every day after school, Tess sat at her little table and wrote the capitals over and over again, until the words became part of herself, as real and familiar as her own name. She would have gotten a perfect score except that she mixed up the Virginias. But in the end, Bon Jovi ate all the baby hamsters, and nobody got to have one.

In the next four days, Meredith spends the night twice. The first time, she is gone when Tess wakes up. The second time, Tess goes to brush her teeth in the morning and finds her in the bathroom. Meredith is standing at the sink in her tank top and underpants, holding her hair off her pink-speckled shoulders and making kissy faces at herself in the mirror. When she sees Tess in the doorway, she jumps.

“Morning,” she says, as Tess reaches across her for the toothbrush. “Want me to leave?”

Tess stares at Meredith in the mirror, her long corded neck and smeared eye makeup. Yes, she wants Meredith to leave. She wants her to take her cigarettes and her perfect posture and never come back. But this is not what Meredith means.

Tess squeezes a glob of toothpaste onto her brush and scrubs until her gums burn and the foam inside her mouth turns pink with blood. Meredith shifts her weight from one foot to the other, staring at her own reflection instead of at Tess. “I could fix your hair for you if you want,” she says after Tess rinses and spits into the sink.

“My mom used to do that,” Tess says. “Before she died.”

Meredith meets Tess’s eye in the mirror. “Your mom isn’t dead.”

“How do you know?” Tess asks.

“Your dad told me.”

The bathroom is not cold, but Tess’s teeth begin to chatter. Her ankles wobble. She holds her head with both hands and crumples onto the floor.

Meredith jumps sideways. “Jesus,” she says. “Are you all right?”

“It’s my blood,” Tess says. “My sugar is low.”

“Should I get your dad?” Meredith asks.

Tess waves at her face with one open hand and peers up at Meredith through the slits of her eyelids. “Food,” she whispers, and Meredith runs into the hall. When she comes back, she has a glass of juice and a slice of plain wheat bread. Meredith has not poured the juice into a juice glass, but into a regular glass. Tess begins to point this out, then decides that a person in her weakened condition should not be bothered with such details.

Meredith sits on the floor while Tess sips her juice and takes little nibbles of bread. “Feeling better?” she asks, and Tess nods.

Meredith pulls her knees to her chest, circling them with her spindly arms as she watches Tess eat.

“My mom might be dead,” Tess says.

Meredith tilts her head. “You shouldn’t say that.”

“She was sick,” Tess says.

“I’m sorry,” Meredith says. “Your dad didn’t tell me that.”

Tess does not have to look at the bathtub to know that the sliver of black soap is still curled in the corner of the soap dish. Two years have passed, and no one has thrown it away. “Maybe he didn’t know.”

At school, Tess’s class watches a puppet show on how to know if your parents are abusing you. It’s about Billy and Billy’s mom. In the story, the Billy puppet realizes that the Billy’s mom puppet is abusing him. He sings a song about it, and afterward Dirk and Deborah teach the song to the class so that they can all sing it together while Deborah plays the guitar.

Von Maxwell leans over from the desk beside Tess’s and holds his face close to hers so that she can smell the chocolate cake from lunch souring on his breath. “You’re ugly,” he whispers, and sticks her arm with the point of his pencil. “You have big, ugly ears.”

Tess’s ears prickle. They are pink and naked at the sides of her head like two cupped hands sticking out through her hair. She stares straight ahead at the Billy puppet, at his flat, lipless mouth and blank circle eyes. It is the same puppet that played Andy last week in a show about how to know if your friends are selling drugs.

When the song is finished, Deborah asks if anyone has a question. Beth, whose mouth is always wet and spitty in the corners, raises her hand. “Does Billy’s mom ever hit him with a rolled-up newspaper?” she asks.

Dirk frowns. “Mmm, maybe,” he says. “But mostly she does really bad things, like hold his hand on a hot stove.”

Dirk and Deborah pack up their puppets and squeeze between the rows of desks on their way to the back of the classroom. As they pass, Deborah winks at Tess and gives her the thumbs-up sign.

“What’s with that?” Von asks.

Tess stares down at her hands. “Who knows?” she says. “They’re such retards.”

Tess is going to be nine soon. This is the way her father begins the conversation. Tess can tell that it is going to be a serious conversation, because her father asks her to sit at the kitchen table with him, and mealtime is hours away.

Tess’s father says that an active imagination is a wonderful thing to have. But you have to know the difference between what is imaginary and what is not. “Do you understand about truth?” he asks.

Tess looks into his face and tries to think what the right answer might be.

“Your mother,” he says, and taps his fingers lightly on the tabletop. “She isn’t dead. She isn’t sick. She’s just gone.” He holds up the palms of his empty hands to show her—gone. “Do you understand?”

Tess understands that she sometimes tells lies. She does. But they are little, unimportant lies. Sick. Dead. Gone. What do her lies matter to anyone else? Why does the world care?

Her father reaches across the table and squeezes Tess’s fingers in his. “Some things are real, and some things aren’t,” he says. “Part of getting older is learning to understand the difference. OK?”

Tess’s head feels heavy on top of her neck. Her brain is smooth and shiny like plastic. Her blood is ketchup. She could hold her own hand against a hot stove and not feel a thing. “OK,” she says.

The morning of Tess’s birthday, she stands in front of the mirror in her pajamas. She is exactly the same as she was yesterday—big-eared.

When she passes her father’s bedroom, she can make out the shape of Meredith’s body pressed against his in the bed. Her father sleeps with one leg thrown across Meredith at the hip, his face buried in the tangles of her hair.

Downstairs in the refrigerator, she finds a rectangular box wrapped in balloon paper—a present from Mrs. Stuart. Tess opens the package on the kitchen table and takes a step backward. It is a lunch box, bright red, with a picture of Raggedy Ann riding a bicycle. Raggedy Ann is smiling wide with her pink cartoon lips and black cartoon eyes. The sky is blue. The sun is shining.

Tess can’t express what will be done to her if she shows up at school carrying this lunch box. No one will kick a girl. No one will hit her or push her or throw a clump of mud at her head. But they will laugh at her. They will stare. They will stand to the side and watch her be alone.

When she goes to the hall closet for her raincoat, the stripe of red stops her. She pictures her father’s square hands, open and empty—just gone. She slides her mother’s coat off the hanger, thinking it might smell like soap or perfume. But when she sniffs at the cuffs and collar, nothing of her mother remains. The coat smells like the closet. The hem falls to Tess’s ankles, and she has to roll up the sleeves, but as she looks at herself in the hallway mirror, she thinks that the coat does not look so wrong on her. It might have belonged to her the whole time. She walks through the front door in the red coat, leaving the child’s lunch box on the kitchen table.

At school, no one knows that today is Tess’s birthday. She has not brought cupcakes or cookies. She is not wearing a new dress. During craft time, the children in her class make silhouettes of Lincoln’s head out of black construction paper, then glue the black paper heads onto white paper. The work isn’t hard, just tracing, but somehow Tess’s head looks more like a duck than like a president, and she has to stay inside during morning recess to do it over.

“If you’d drawn somebody like Jefferson or Washington,” Miss Morris says, “I wouldn’t care so much about you redoing it. But Lincoln was a really important president.”

Tess is nearly finished with her second Lincoln head when Dirk and Deborah come through the classroom door with their guitar cases and puppet bags. They are wearing headbands with fuzzy pink balls attached to spring antennae. Tess looks over her shoulder at them. They are not supposed to be here today.

Deborah holds her arms out from her sides. “There’s the birthday girl!” she cries, and Tess’s whole body goes dead.

“Are you here to do a show?” she asks.

“A special one,” Dirk tells her. “Just for you.”

The recess bell rings, and Tess can hear feet pounding toward the building. Her mind spins in circles, searching for an answer. The nurse’s office. She needs to be sick. She needs to be injured. She looks down at the scissors and thinks about jamming them into her leg, but they are schoolroom scissors, short and fat with round, plastic tips. Useless. Dirk and Deborah pile their bags on a table at the front of the room and begin to unpack their puppets as Tess’s classmates tumble through the back door in a noisy, muddy stew.

As a last resort, Tess turns to God. She does not go to church, does not pray before bed or meals or spelling tests. But she prays now. She prays to burn with a fever or shake with a deep, phlegmy cough. She knows that girls can make themselves throw up (she saw a puppet show once), but she is not clear on the technique, and as she wills her stomach to turn and seize, she knows that this hoping is fruitless. She is not sick. She is not dying. God hates her.

And then, maybe for the first time since she was born, God looks down from heaven and sees her. She can feel the moment, the exact instant when God knows that she is there, that she needs help. Tess looks over her shoulder and there, standing in the doorway, is Meredith. She holds up the Raggedy Ann lunch box. “You forgot this,” she mouths, and Tess knocks her chair over as she runs to the back of the room. By the time she reaches Meredith, she is already crying.

Meredith squats down. “What?” she asks. “What’s happened?”

Tess points to the front of the classroom, where Dirk is untangling felt limbs, his pink antennae bobbing above his head like two wads of cotton candy. “Those puppets are gonna sing to me,” she gasps, between hiccups. She prays that Meredith will understand, that she will hear the words Tess cannot find.

Meredith looks over Tess’s head at the front of the classroom, then at Miss Morris, who is helping Beth unjam the zipper of her jacket. “Grab your coat,” she says. The rest of Tess’s classmates are slipping out of their muddy shoes and making their way to their desks. No one sees Tess and Meredith leave.

In the car, Tess pulls her knees to her chest and cries until she thinks she is going to break. “Maybe you need to eat something,” Meredith suggests, and cracks her window to light a cigarette. This is not exactly convenient for Meredith—she says so several times while Tess is crying into her knees. She doesn’t have time to take Tess all the way back home. Tess will have to come along.

Tess turns her face sideways. “To the ballet?” she asks.

“To the rehearsal,” Meredith says.

But Tess does not want to go anywhere. She closes her eyes and waits for the world to disappear from the inside out, to swallow itself inside of her and go away forever.

“So,” Meredith says after a minute, “do puppets sing to you a lot?”

Tess opens her eyes, and they are still driving, the windshield wipers beating against a backdrop of drab sky. “Today is my birthday,” she says.

Meredith winces. “Oh God, I totally forgot,” she says. “Happy birthday.”

“Thanks,” Tess sniffs.

Meredith exhales a silvery stream of smoke through the slit at the top of the window. “Did you get anything cool?” she asks.

Tess looks down at the Raggedy Ann lunch box on her lap, and her face spasms into a fresh wave of tears, her shoulders heaving.

“Oh no.” Meredith covers her mouth with her hand as she starts to laugh. “I’m not laughing,” she says.

“It’s from Mrs. Stuart,” Tess says.

“Well, it’s truly awful,” Meredith says. “Relax, though. Your dad got you some good stuff.”

“Did he get me a dog?” Tess asks.

Meredith flicks the end of her cigarette out into the rain and rolls up her window. “No.”

Tess traces her finger around the edge of the lunch box. At one time she would have carried it without a thought, back when her shoes had Velcro straps and her mother put her hair in braids before she left for school. Back then, Tess could accept blue skies and bright suns and cartoon worlds where she could expect nothing but happiness. She cannot remember who she was then. “Sometimes,” she says, “I start crying and I can’t stop.”

Meredith glances sideways at her. “Well,” she says after a minute. “Welcome to the wonderful world of womanhood.”

They pull into a gas station, and Meredith hands Tess a quarter. “Call your father at work,” she says. “Explain.”

Tess crosses the parking lot to the phone booth, the rain soaking the back of her neck. Inside, she slips Meredith’s quarter into the slot and dials the number. The phone rings, and Tess thinks about what she will say to explain. Dirk and Deborah were wearing headbands, they brought guitars. Of all the things that had ever happened, this was the thing Tess would not have been able to survive. It would have killed her.

But these are all the wrong words. Her father will not understand. He will say that the puppet show would not have killed her, that she was being impossible. He will tell her to go back to school. “Good morning,” her father’s voice says, and Tess clicks the grimy receiver back onto its hook.

“Copacetic?” Meredith asks, when Tess climbs back into the car.

“Everything’s fine,” Tess tells her, and blows a chilly circle of fog onto the window. “Don’t worry.”

Watching Meredith’s ballet, Tess sees no white dresses, no toys that come to life underneath fake snow. Instead, she sees women with spines that move like ribbons of knucklebones beneath their sweat-soaked leotards, and a short, barrel-chested man with a bald head like Daddy Warbucks who yells for them to do it higher! Faster! Better!

Tess sits with her back against the wall, and the floor trembles beneath her as the dancers leap and twirl, their feet pounding again and again. Up close, nothing about it is pretty. The dancers’ faces are splotched with red, the cords of their necks are hard and throbbing, their hair is darkening with sweat as they rise and land, punishing their pink-slippered feet against the dusty floor. When one of the dancers stumbles, Daddy Warbucks shouts that she is a worthless waste of bone and cartilage and would be better off spending her time looking for a husband. The woman’s face cracks as he yells, tears spilling over the rims of her eyes and down her sweaty cheeks. But she doesn’t cover her face or run from the room. She keeps dancing.

Afterward, Tess sits in the locker room, nibbling at the sandwich from her Raggedy Ann lunch box, while Meredith and the other dancers peel off their ballet slippers and leotards. Their feet are cracked and swollen, with open blisters and shiny pink calluses, and they wince as they massage their heels and ankles. Tess’s heart flutters in her throat as she watches. Regular people see only the finished show, with lights and costumes and music so loud that it covers the sounds of feet striking the floor. But Tess has seen the ugly truth: blood and bruises and sweat. She is special.

“What did you think?” Meredith asks in the car. Tess sits on the edge of her seat, electricity coursing through her veins and muscles. Where to begin? “I want to be a dancer.”

Meredith gives her a sideways glance, and for a moment she looks pleased. But then her face screws up, and she turns her eyes back to the road. “You’re a little old,” she says. “Most people start when they’re itty-bitty.”

All of the air seems to suck itself from Tess’s lungs. She will never be a dancer, insect-thin, with bloody, aching feet. She is nine years old. She has wasted her life. But then she thinks of Honest Abe, how he was poor and lonely, how he studied by candlelight. “I would practice really hard,” she says.

Meredith smiles. “I know some people who give classes,” she says. “I could make some calls, if it’s really what you want.”

Tess can feel the thoughts spinning inside Meredith’s head—if Tess takes ballet classes, they will have something in common, something they can talk about while they move their food around their plates at dinnertime. They will speak the same language. Meredith will give Tess tights and toe shoes and fix her hair before school. She will marry Tess’s father. She will stay forever.

“It is,” Tess says. “It’s what I want.”

They pull up to the house and see two police cars in the driveway. The front door is open, and Mrs. Stuart is crying on the porch. Meredith sinks back against the seat as she looks up at the house. “Oh shit,” she whispers. The policemen are running toward the car, Tess’s father behind them. Tess and Meredith get out of the car, and everyone begins yelling.

The phys-ed teacher was out fixing a tetherball when she saw Tess get into a car with a woman. She told the police that Tess seemed to know the woman, that Tess looked like she was crying. One of the policemen is holding Tess’s school picture. The other is holding a picture of her mother.

The police yell at Meredith, and Meredith yells back. Tess’s father walks toward Meredith, and for a second, Tess thinks he might hit her. Instead, he reaches out, pushing Meredith with both hands so that she stumbles and her head snaps back on the string of her neck. Tess’s father stands over Meredith and drops his arms to his sides, balling his hands in fists. His face is white, his mouth wrenching back in the corners when he yells, “What the hell were you thinking? What the hell’s wrong with you?”

Meredith is shaking, her mouth opening and closing in soundless gasps. She looks up at Tess’s father through the narrow slits of her eyes, and the policemen step between them. “You called, right?” Meredith asks Tess. The rain is falling in sheets, flattening Meredith’s hair against her skull and streaking her face so that Tess cannot tell if she is crying. “You explained?”

Everyone looks at Tess, and she stands in the middle, trying to explain. Meredith is breathing hard. Her father’s hair is messy. Mrs. Stuart stands behind Tess with her hands on Tess’s shoulders, leaning forward to cry onto the top of her head. The policemen twitch their mustaches, while Tess explains about Dirk and Deborah, about the forgotten lunch box and the felt puppets and God suddenly caring that she was alive and sending Meredith to save her. When she says this last part, her father closes his eyes, and Meredith stares down at her feet, rotating the toe of one shoe in the soggy grass.

It was all a misunderstanding, this is what the policemen say. No crime has been committed. No harm has been done. They clap Tess’s father on the shoulder and tell him to get a stiff drink and a good night’s sleep. As they leave, one looks seriously at Mere­dith. “For future reference,” he tells her, “you can’t just take somebody else’s kid out of school.”

“For future reference,” Meredith says, “don’t worry.”

Mrs. Stuart leaves after the policemen, and then just the three of them are left. They stand on the front lawn, the rain pelting down on their heads and shoulders. “Well,” Meredith says after a moment. “I guess I ought to go.”

Tess’s father lifts his head and takes a step toward Meredith, but she steps backward, massaging her neck with the heel of one hand. “We have a cake,” her father says, and Meredith laughs without smiling, then turns toward her car. Tess looks at her father, waiting for him to stop her. But he stares down at the grass and says nothing.

Tess runs across the lawn after Meredith, reaching for the cuff of her sweater. “You could come inside for a minute,” she says. “You could have a slice of birthday cake.” Again, Tess’s father lifts his head to look at Meredith, and again, she looks away.

Tess wants to remind Meredith about the ballet classes, the phone call she has promised to make, the new life that they will all live together. But before Tess can find the words, Meredith takes a breath. “Look,” she says, holding her arms out to her sides. “I’m just a chorus dancer. It’s not like I’m anybody cool.”

Tess stands on the front lawn watching as Meredith climbs into her car and shuts the door. And then she is gone.

The lights are on inside the house, the windows glowing like squares of sunshine. In the kitchen, Tess sees a birthday cake, presents­—the good stuff Meredith said Tess’s father got for her. But they do not go inside. Tess’s father sits on the porch steps, and she sits beside him, the rain soaking through the raincoat, dampening the seat of her jeans as the sky darkens above them. The pictures rest on her father’s lap—the one they took of Tess at school, the one of her mother. In the picture, her mother is wearing a pink headband that Tess does not remember. She is smiling. “Where did you find that?” Tess asks.

He reaches one hand toward Tess’s, his fingers hovering over the cuff of the red raincoat. And in that moment, Tess can feel all the answers welling up behind his lips, all the truths she’s been waiting to be told. But then he pulls his arm back, turning the picture over on his lap so that her mother’s smile disappears, and Tess sees only a blank white square. “Look at the rain,” he says, and Tess looks. “You were born on a night just like this one.”

Tomorrow, Tess’s birthday will be over. She will get dressed and go to school. Mrs. Stuart will cook dinner, and Tess and her father will eat it. Today will just be something else that they don’t talk about, something else that probably never happened.

Aryn Kyle’s first published story, “Foaling Season,” won a National Magazine Award in fiction for The Atlantic in 2004. The story became the first chapter of her novel, The God of Animals, published by Scribner (2007). Kyle lives in Missoula, Montana, where she is completing a story collection.
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