She wished she could make it happen right now, but it only seemed to happen at special times—at the purply time between day and night.
She needed to talk to her mommy about what had happened the other day. It had been so bad. One minute, she’d been looking at the pictures in her book, and the next thing she knew, there was a scream inside her. She knew it wasn’t good to scream in school—the other kids already thought she was stupid—and she’d tried really, really hard to keep her mouth shut. She’d clenched her hands into tight balls and squeezed her eyes shut so hard she’d seen stars in the darkness.
She had felt so scared and so lonely she couldn’t breathe right. The scream had started as a little yelp that slipped out. She had clamped a hand over her mouth but it hadn’t helped.
All the kids had stared at her, pointing and laughing.
And the scream had come out. Loud, louder, loudest. She’d clamped her hands over her ears so she couldn’t hear it. She’d known she was crying, but she hadn’t been able to stop that, either.
The teacher had grabbed Izzy’s gloved hand, squeezing around all that nothingness. It had made Izzy scream harder that she couldn’t feel anything.
“Oh, pumpkin, it’s not invisible,” Mrs. Brown had said softly; then she’d gently taken Izzy’s other hand and led her down the hallway.
And the scream had gone on and on and on.
She had screamed all the way down the hall and into the principal’s office. She had seen the way the grown-ups looked at her—like she was crazy—but she couldn’t help herself. All she knew was that she was disappearing, one finger at a time, and no one seemed to care.
As quickly as the scream had come, it went away. It left her shaken and weird-feeling, standing in the middle of the principal’s office, with everyone staring at her.
She had inched her way into the corner, wedged herself between a yucky green sofa and the window. The grownups’ voices kept going, talking about her, whispering. . . .
Everyone cared about why she didn’t talk anymore, that’s all. That Dr. Schwaabe, all he cared about was why she didn’t talk, and Izzy heard Lurlene and Buddy. They acted like she couldn’t hear because she didn’t talk. Lurlene called her “poor little thing” all the time—and every time she said it, Izzy remembered the bad thing, and she wished Lurlene would stop.
Then, like a knight out of one of Mommy’s fairy tales, her daddy had walked into the principal’s office. The grown-ups shut up instantly, moved aside.
He wouldn’t have come to the school if she hadn’t started screaming, and for a second, she was glad she’d screamed. Even if it made her a bad girl, she was glad to have her daddy here.
She wanted to throw herself in his arms, say, Hi, Daddy, in that voice she used to have, but he looked so sad she couldn’t move.
He was so handsome; even since his hair had changed color after the bad thing, he was still the most handsome man in the world. She remembered what his laugh used to sound like, how it used to make her giggle right along with him. . . .
But he wasn’t really her daddy anymore. He never read her stories at night anymore, and he didn’t throw her up in his arms until she laughed. And sometimes at night his breath smelled all mediciney and he walked like one of her wobbly toys.
“Izzy?” He said her name softly, moving toward her.
For one heart-stopping minute, she thought he was going to touch her. She wormed her way out from the corner and baby-stepped his way. She leaned toward him, just a little teeny bit, but enough so maybe he’d see how much she needed him.
He gave a sharp sigh and turned back to face the grown-ups. “What’s going on here, Bob?”
Izzy almost wished for the scream to come back, but all she felt was that stinging quiet, and when she looked down, another finger was gone. All she could see on her right hand was her thumb and pointy finger.
The grown-ups talked a bunch more, saying things that she wasn’t listening to. Then Daddy went away, and Izzy went home with Lurlene. Again.
“Izzy, sweetheart, are you in there?”
She heard Lurlene’s voice, coming through the closed bedroom door. “Come on out, Izzy. There’s someone I want you to meet.”
Izzy wanted to pretend she hadn’t heard, but she knew there wasn’t any point. She just hoped Lurlene wasn’t going to give her another bath—she always used water that was way too cold and got soap in Izzy’s eyes.
She sighed. Miss Jemmie, we gotta go.
She clutched the doll with her good arm and rolled out of bed. As she walked past the vanity, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. A short, skinny girl with dirty black hair and one arm. Her eyes were still puffy from all that crying.
Mommy never let her look like this.
The bedroom door swung open. Lurlene stood in the opening, her big feet smacked together, her body bent at the waist. “Good morning, sweetheart.” She reached out and tucked a tangled chunk of hair behind Izzy’s ear.
Izzy stared up at her.
“Come on, pumpkin.”
Wordlessly, Izzy followed her down the hallway.
Annie stood in the entryway of Lurlene and Buddy’s triple-wide mobile home, on a patch of pink carpet.
Lurlene’s husband, Buddy—nice ta meetcha—sat sprawled in a burgundy velour Barcalounger, with his feet elevated, a Sports Illustrated open on his chest, his right hand curled around a can of Miller. He was watching Annie carefully.
She shifted from foot to foot, trying not to think about the fact that she wasn’t a psychiatrist, or that the child’s trauma was a dark and bottomless well, or that Annie herself was lost.
She knew that love was important—maybe the most important thing—but she’d learned in the past weeks that it wasn’t a magic elixir. Even Annie wasn’t naive enough to believe that every problem could be solved by coating it in love. Some pain couldn’t be assuaged, some traumas couldn’t be overcome. She’d known that since the day her own mother had died.
“Nick ain’t comin’. Did Lurlene tell you that?”
Annie frowned and glanced at Buddy. “Oh. No. I didn’t know.”
“He don’t never show up when it matters.” He took a long slug of beer, eyeing Annie above the can’s dented rim. “You’re taking on a hell of a job, you know. That Izzy’s as unscrewed as a bum valve.”
“Nick told me she hasn’t spoken in a while, and about the . . . you know . . . disappearing fingers.”
“That ain’t the half of it. She’s got the kind of pain that sucks innocent bystanders under and drowns ’em.”
In other words: you’re out of your depth here, city girl. Annie knew how she must appear to him, with her cheap jeans that still showed the manufacturer’s creases and the tennis shoes that were as white as new-fallen snow. She went to tuck a lock of hair behind her ear, but there was no hair there. Embarrassed, she forced a smile. “That rain yesterday hurried spring right along. Why, at my dad’s house, the daffodils are busting out all over. I thought maybe—”
It was Lurlene’s voice this time. Annie slowly turned.
Lurlene appeared at the end of the hallway, clad in a neon-green sweater and a pair of skintight purple faux snakeskin leggings. She clashed with everything in the house.
A child hung close to her side, a small girl with big brown eyes and hair the color of night. She was wearing a too-small pink dress that had seen better days. Her thin legs stuck out from the hemline like twin beanpoles. Mismatched socks— one pink, one yellow—hugged her ankles and disappeared into a pair of dirty Beauty and the Beast tennis shoes.
A little girl. Not an assortment of psychological problems or a trauma victim or a disciplinary problem. Just a plain, ordinary little girl who missed her mother.
Annie smiled. Maybe she didn’t know about traumatic muteness and how the doctors and books and specialists thought it should be treated. But she knew about being afraid, and she knew about mothers who disappeared one day and never came back.
Slowly, with her hand out, she moved toward the girl. “Hey, Izzy,” she said softly.
Izzy didn’t answer; Annie hadn’t expected her to. She figured Izzy would talk in her own sweet time. Until then, Annie was just going to act as if everything were normal. And maybe, after what Izzy had been through, silence was the most normal thing in the world.
“I’m Annalise, but that’s a mouthful, isn’t it. You can call me Annie.” She kneeled down in front of the little girl, staring into the biggest, saddest brown eyes she’d ever seen. “I was a good friend of your mommy’s.”
A response flickered in Izzy’s eyes.
Annie took it as encouragement. “I met your mom on the first day of kindergarten.” She smiled at Izzy, then stood and turned to Lurlene. “Is she ready to go?”
Lurlene shrugged, then whispered, “Who knows? Poor thing.” She bent down. “You remember what we talked about. Miss Annie’s goin’ to be takin’ care of you for a while, durin’ your daddy’s work hours. You be a good girl for her, y’hear?”
“She most certainly does not have to be a good girl,” Annie said, winking at Izzy. “She can be whatever she wants.”
Izzy’s eyes widened.
“Oh.” Lurlene pushed to her feet and smiled at Annie. “God bless you for doing this.”
“Believe me, Lurlene, this is as much for me as anyone. See you later.”
Annie looked down at Izzy. “Well, Izzy. Let’s hit the road. I’m positively dying to see your bedroom. I’ll bet you have all kinds of great toys. I love playing Barbies.” She led the way to the car, settled Izzy in the front seat, and clicked the seat belt in place.
Izzy sat in the passenger seat, strapped tightly in place, her head tilted to one side like a baby bird’s, her gaze fixed on the window.
Annie started the car and backed out of the driveway, steering carefully past a crowd of ceramic gnomes. She kept talking as she drove, all the way past the Quinault Indian reservation, past the roadside stalls that sold smoked salmon and fresh crabs, past a dozen empty fireworks stands. She talked about anything and everything— the importance of old-growth trees, the viability of mime as an art form, the best colors, her favorite movies, the Girl Scout camp she and Kathy had gone to and the s’mores they’d made at the fire—and through it all, Izzy stared and stared.
As Annie followed the winding lake road through towering trees, she felt as if she were going back in time. This rutted, gravel road, spackled now with bits of shade, seemed a direct route to yesterday. When they reached the end of the road, Annie found herself unable to move. She sat behind the wheel of the car and stared at the old Beauregard place. Nick’s home, now.
I’m going to own this house someday.
It had sounded like a silly dream to Annie then, all those years ago, a bit of glass spun in a young man’s hand. Something to say on a starlit night before he found the courage to lean down and kiss the girl at his side.
Now, of course, she saw the magic in it, and it cut a tiny wound in her heart. Had she even had a dream at that tender age? If so, she couldn’t remember it.