by Lizzy Lemieux
My daughter tells me her dream while I pack her lunchbox. What a terrifying nightmare! I say and kiss the top of her head. She narrows her eyes. Mom, she says, It was not a nightmare. It was a dream. She smiles, showing off two lost teeth.
I do not correct her. Even though it is polite, when you dream up terrible things, to pretend that they are unwanted. But she is still learning, still puzzling over the sound an ‘o’ makes. When is it a short exhale? When is it a sharp howl? I add a sticky note to her lunch and make myself proud. Motherhood is contained in small gestures. Later, I get the call. My daughter has decided today the ‘o’ makes the howling sound.
When I arrive at her school, the teacher says, Your daughter is crying because she cannot read the sticky note in her lunchbox. She pronounces love like loaves of bread. I bristle. She is very fragile, I say. I collect my daughter from the timeout corner.
As we are leaving, the teacher grabs my arm and says, I’m worried about her dream. I say, It was just a nightmare. No, the teacher says, It was a dream.
I drive to a department store. What are we doing here? asks my daughter. I maneuver the minivan into a parking space. We are shopping for a solution, but I just say, Shopping. Inside, I let her ride in the cart’s basket and she pokes her fingers through the holes. Which do you prefer? I hold up two nightlights. One is pink and pig-shaped. The other is a white rabbit. Bunny, my daughter decides. I agree.
Look what Mom bought me! my daughter shouts, at home, holding the gifted light out to my husband. He takes it, studying the high gloss packaging and the color-coated cardboard, and hands it back. It’s my money, he says, Mom did a very nice job picking it out. My daughter wraps her arms around his legs and says, Thank you! Thank you!
Then she plants herself in the middle of the kitchen and holds Bunny at eye level. They stare at each other, and she lisps words I cannot understand. Sometimes, she falls silent so that Bunny may respond. I want to sit with her and speak her language, as I had imagined we would commune before she was born, but I sense that Bunny holds answers which I do not. This must be how she feels when I spell secrets to my husband. I-c-e-c-r-e-a-m. B-e-d-r-o-o-m.
Eventually, she forgets the novelty and leaves the nightlight on the hardwood floor. When I tuck her in for the night, I pull it from the inside of my bathrobe, like a conjurer performing a trick. Look who’s back! I say. She yawns, waves lazily, and drifts off to sleep. I leave Bunny in the electrical socket. Light radiates from his nose.
I had the dream again! my daughter tells me on our way to school. Everyone was burning! she announces. All my teachers and all my friends! With each word, air escapes from the spaces her teeth left behind, filling our car with morning breath and a low whistle. She continues, My best friend Hannah said she saw the light, so that’s where I put her. Now that she is dead, she is going to live with us. With each detail, my daughter defeats me. Bunny was meant to soak up her nightmares like a sponge, leaving me an untroubled child, the clean surface I was promised.
I swerve to the side of the road and turn around to face her. Do not tell Hannah about your dream, I say. The fire would frighten her. Not everyone is as brave as you. My daughter laughs. Don’t worry Mom, she says, I won’t tell her. But I do not trust my daughter’s judgment. She is a child without pity. Or, she is without pity because she is a child. Either way, I cannot stop myself. I clean the kitchen. I make her bed. I launder her clothes. I worry.
The phone rings. My finger hovers over ‘accept call’, the sound echoing in our high ceilings. I am a brave woman. I answer. I say, Hello, who’s calling please? and I am glad, at first, that I do not hear my daughter howling. Instead, I hear the cries of a dozen children. I’ll be right there, I say, thinking the teacher must be on the other side, although she has not spoken since I picked up.
Blue mats are spread out on the kindergarten floor. The children have tired of screaming and instead rest their surprising weight on the ground. Some snore. My daughter is wide awake, sitting upright in the corner. When she sees me, she averts her eyes, burying them into her knees which pulls close to her chest. She is scared. She has disobeyed.
I go to her, crouch down, stroke her hair, do not ask what happened because I already know. What could scare them more than death? Most of them are so young they have not encountered it. Maybe they have squashed a beetle. Maybe the cat has brought in a mouse.
My daughter clings to me as I carry her out of the classroom, and I allow it, because she is only now learning that there are things our family can stomach that other people can’t. Tragedy is our common trait. I blame my husband. He is an oncologist who specializes in a rare form of cancer. He makes a lot of money off dying people, which makes death seem advantageous, joyous even. Although he would blame me, I’m sure.
In the hallway, we pass a weeping mother speaking softly to the principal. I eavesdrop. I gather the story. A child gone missing in the night. No windows left open. No doors unlocked. You never think it will happen to you, says the mother, dabbing tears with her shirtsleeve. This is how I confirm my fear; Hannah is gone.
I have no words. As we drive home, my daughter is the one who breaks the silence. I didn’t tell Hannah, she says, All you told me was not to tell Hannah, and she wasn’t even there today. This is true. So I forgive her and ask, Where is Hannah? even though I do not want to know. My daughter chews her lip. When we arrive home, we sit in the garage for a long while. Finally, my daughter offers an answer or at least, an action. Upstairs, she says. So we go upstairs.
She disappears to her room without me telling her. In this way, she is a good child. She knows when she needs to be punished. I drift to the backyard. I smoke a cigarette, a habit I kicked before I had kids because it was classless and repulsive, and which I picked up again for the same reasons. Sometime later, she pads her way down the stairs and peeks around the corner. Yes? I say, inviting her over. An object is held behind her back. Here, she says, placing it in my lap. It’s Bunny.
Your daughter did a very bad thing today, I tell my husband at the dinner table. He looks down at her and cocks his head to one side, silently asking our child if I am lying. Well, he says, I’m enjoying my meal. We will talk about this after. But we never do.
In bed, my husband says he’s sorry. He tells me, Sometimes I have to limit the day’s amount of sadness, and I nod, Boundaries are important. He is not a talkative man. His mouth is a straight line. I removed a patient from life support today, he tells me. I fondle his earlobe. You pulled the plug, I muse, That must be a hard decision. He closes his eyes, nudging my hand with his cheek, resting his face in my palm. It was sad, he tells me, But it was easy.
Tonight, I sleep with Bunny on my nightstand, and when I wake in the middle of the night he is the first thing I see. He has circular eyes and an X-shaped mouth, like a stitch sewing shut a wound. There is something strange about his milk-white body, how the usually luminous plastic has dulled. I flip him face down and shut my eyes but cannot shake the image of the metal prongs affixed to the back of his head, like the tines of a fork in soft meat.
I give in. I get up. I kneel down at the wall, feel blindly for the socket, and plug him in. Light floods his face like water fills a footprint. Then, the thread of his mouth comes loose, opening wide. I peer inside. It is like a dark tunnel. It extends so far backward that it collapses into a single point.
And from this blackness emerges a pinprick of light, like an eye floater. I rub my eyes with fists. The bright white circle grows larger. Now, it is the size of a match head. Now it is the size of a cheerio. Now, a wedding band. Now, a bottle cap. Now, a clementine. A coaster. A compact disk. A pancake.
I jerk away for fear I might be absorbed or go sunblind. The light grows and grows. Until it is no longer circular. Until it sprouts appendages. Until it takes the shape of a six-year-old girl. I know before the face forms that it is Hannah.
With a soft thud, she steps out of the mouth and lands on my carpet. I am kneeling and she is standing and so we are around the same height. Her torso is flesh. Her head is flesh. When she reaches out to see if I’m real, I feel her hands, and they too are flesh, mushy, fat, and balmy. I cover my mouth but cannot stifle the scream.
I yank Bunny from his socket. The light goes out. And so does Hannah.
My husband lifts his head, searching for the sound.
Night terrors, I explain, and crawl back into bed.
Morning beats on slowly. I watch my husband stir awake. The wrinkles around his mouth return first, then the ones on his forehead. The bags under his eyes fill up, like Michelin tires, with exhaustion. Of course, I get up first. I make breakfast. He eats and is gone before I rouse our daughter. I move to lunch making. No sticky notes. Just peanut butter and Wonder Bread and fluff.
I am glad when I drop my daughter off at school. We are lucky they let her return at all. I count my blessings. An empty house, erotic fiction. I chain smoke. I hide the remains. I have dug dozens of pits in the backyard that hide orange butts and several with other substances. Those holes are deeper.
Today I do not expect a call. I don one of my husband’s oversized undershirts, with armpits that smell like men’s deodorant. I lounge in bed. I pull the duvet over my head. I read a woman’s magazine. Bunny still sits where I left him, underneath the outlet. I ignore him successfully for half an hour. Then, I cannot resist. I get up. I go over. I plug him in. Legs crossed, as if I am meditating, I wait for Hannah.
This time, when she asks where she is, I have an answer. My house, I say. She looks around. It’s big. Where I live now is not so big. She begins to cry, tears tinged like ash, which she catches by pressing her hands to her cheeks and crushing the murky droplets like beetles.
I lean in, envelop her in a hug I have perfected as a mother. The cotton of my shoulder absorbs her sobs as I rub her back, remembering this same methodical motion drew her out of the nightlight and landed her here in my bedroom. She sniffs and says, You smell like my dad. Would you like something to eat? I ask. She smiles and her face glows orange, like a finger held against the warm, vibrating surface of a flashlight.
Do you know how I got here? she asks, sitting at the kitchen island. I set a glass of chocolate milk in front of her. It clinks on the granite countertop. Drink up, I say. She vanishes the liquid and then inhales, suctioning the empty cup to her face. Stop that, I say, grabbing it by its plastic bottom and pulling it off with a pop. You’ll leave a ring around your mouth. She shrugs. Does it matter?
I have no answers for Hannah but am working on several for myself. My daughter was scared. It was unintentional. Already, I am making excuses for her. I remind myself this make-believe danger has tangible consequences.
The microwave flashes half past one. Hop in the car, I tell Hannah, We’re late to pick up my daughter. But we do not make it to the minivan. Hannah is stopped by the threshold. She goes through the motions of walking but only manages to kick her legs out faster, as if riding a treadmill while the belt picks up speed.
I weigh my options. I tsk, tsk, tsk, in contemplation. Upstairs, Bunny still sits in his socket. I hate to do this, I tell him, But I cannot take any more disasters. I wish my husband was here because I do not limit my sadness and it is not easy when I pull the plug. Bunny dulls. Circular eyes stare blankly ahead. Is she inside you? I ask, already certain that she is. My daughter has always been gifted. Before I pocket him and Hannah, I hold his four-inch face up to mine. Tell her I’m sorry.
The longer my daughter stays at school the greater the chance of calamity. I am a good driver. I take stretches of road at seventy miles per hour. I put on the radio to revel in tragedies that eclipse mine. An oil spill in Lake Erie. A series of three celebrity suicides. A civil war in a country the US does not recognize as legitimate. All these to distract from signs tacked up to every telephone pole. Have you seen our Hannah?
I drive home slowly, pointing each one out to my daughter. Count them, I tell her, Count how much they miss their child. Don’t you see the consequences of your actions? My daughter counts. One, two, five, twenty. She has a good grasp of numbers. Maybe she will be a mathematician. On thirty-three her lip begins to tremble and I ready myself for a flood, securing hazardous items, seeking higher ground. How, she sobs, How, How, How, How many would you put up for me? I do not have a definitive answer. I do not know the ratio of signage to loss.
At home, I plug Bunny in, rub his nose, and will Hannah into existence again. My daughter squeezes her in a hug. When she is finished with sentimentality, she announces she is hungry. I make two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cut diagonally, and serve them on plastic dishware.
Now can we talk about it? I ask my husband before bed. He massages his bagged eyes with his ring fingers and says, I bet this is the rarest condition in the world. He searches his nightstand. Leaves the sex dice but takes the stethoscope. The girls are playing dress-up. I gave Hannah all my long skirts, even the sarong I bought for the Bahamas. Leave them be, I tell him, Her heart can wait. He’s already inserted the eartips, he must listen to something. I unbutton my blouse, reveal my clavicle, my breast bone, my bra, so he can press the cold metal bell to my skin and diagnose my heart murmur for the millionth time. What is it saying? I ask. He retracts, winds the tubing in wide circles and returns the instrument to the drawer. He says, It’s saying no.
Out of fear that the missing person posters might have multiplied overnight, I keep my daughter home from school. To entertain your guest, I explain, doling out playdough and washable paints. On slabs of blank paper, Hannah and my daughter finger paint pictures. Hannah draws a yellow crescent. My daughter, a yellow disc. That does not look like the sun, my daughter critiques. I know, says Hannah, This is the moon. My daughter dips her index finger into yellow and turns the half-circle full. There, she says, I fixed it.
Hannah begins to cry.
I shut myself in the living room to watch subtitled television, as if I can keep Hannah’s disappearance from even herself.
The newscaster announces a vigil. Tapered candles to be provided. Hannah’s parents stand on screen. Her mother fidgets with her wedding band, working it on and off her pale finger. At one point, she drops it, its hollow toll echoing on camera. When her husband bends down, his hand feeling blindly for precious metal, she snaps, Leave it, and the broadcast cuts. I touch my own rings. Not the ones we exchanged vows with. My husband bought these later, after graduating med school, and I feel a pang for the original.
The door rattles, and I investigate. My daughter’s eye sits in the keyhole. What are you doing? I demand, A shut door means a private room. I breathe deep. Remember she does not know love from loaves. How could she comprehend their grief as it scrolled across the screen? As if to prove me wrong, my daughter wonders, Does this mean Hannah has to leave? My heart swells. A tender bruise. She is brighter than I thought. These things take time, I tell her, which makes her happy. She darts off, and I no longer want for my wedding ring. Just a cigarette.
On the stoop, I revise my theory: besides the rush of nicotine, what I like about smoking is its meditative quality. Forced deep breathing. Thinking in repetitive pairs, In and Out, In and Out. Letting myself gather and assess. It is like in sleep when we solidify all that is significant and discard the junk. My daughter slept so deeply her dreams calcified, a bone among soft tissue. I grind the butt into the ground.
Tonight is moonless. I drive to the community park. Tomato plants climb chicken-wire and koi swim counterclockwise in their ponds. Those mourning Hannah amass in front of the gazebo, holding candles which they flame by passing a lighter like at a concert. Some of the mothers carry meager gifts: lasagnas, casseroles, hams. I hold my candle with both hands.
On stage, a portrait of Hannah sags under the weight of floral wreaths. Her parents shuffle towards it, wearing slippers instead of shoes. The crowd murmurs. I bow my head and channel my husband, how he soaks up sadness without spectacle. It is his practice, listening without feeling too deeply.
Please come forward if you have any information, finishes her father.
We queue to present our condolences. The mother in front of me brought a lasagna. The mother in front of her, a casserole. My candle still burns in my hands. Thank you for your thoughtfulness, says Hannah’s father, relieving the woman at the front of the line of her ham. It is the least I could do, she tells him, honestly. The way Hannah’s father shoulders the ham, it appears he is holding a baby in a football hold. He looks so lonely.
I know why my daughter brought Hannah into our world. It is the same reason I brought her into this one. I was lonely. I had a secret I needed to share. I head home, to my child. The light of my life. The porchlight is left on, as I requested.
It’s well past my daughter’s bedtime. I sneak upstairs and peer through the crack in her door, casting a pillar of light onto her shag carpeting. There is my daughter, and there is Hannah, asleep like spoons, a shape my husband and I will form later that night. I know we are all holding onto something, but my daughter is simply too young to hold so fast.
That is for the adults to do. My husband has left a note on my pillow. He has an early shift at the hospital but wants me to know all is forgiven. He does not believe in anger for it has no healing properties. I stare at Bunny’s luminous face. When I exhaust sleeping positions, I pace. It must be done, I decide. The second time is easier than the first. I do not apologize, just pull. Bunny separates easily from the wall, his metal prongs warm to the touch.
Breakfast is hard-boiled eggs, prepackaged. I cannot bear boiling water or hot surfaces. On TV, new disasters are announced every minute, and I do not keep them to myself. How can a fairy sink if they have wings? asks my daughter. A ferry is a kind of boat, I explain. Where’s Hannah? she asks, and I place Bunny on her plate like a leftover yoke. I say, It’s time for Hannah to go home.
I make my daughter carry Bunny with two hands while I ring the doorbell. Careful, I say and she pets his furless face with her thumb. Before the door unlatches, we hear the rustle of slippers, the clink of fork to plate. Hannah’s father answers with a mouthful of ham and eggs. His wife appears behind him, resting her chin on his shoulder to peer out at us. Her wedding ring has returned. She fiddles soundlessly, on and off, on and off. Have you found our Hannah? she asks, the words dry in her mouth, as if she has been reciting this question in her sleep. My daughter holds Bunny out towards them, as an offering. Yes, she says, Here she is.
Lizzy Lemieux recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied English. Her work can be found in the Best New Poets of 2018, The Massachusettes Review, and Penn Review.
Cover Design by Karen Rile