my life begins at the Y. I am born and left in front of the glass doors, and even though the sign is flipped “Closed,” a man is waiting in the parking lot and he sees it all: my mother, a woman in navy coveralls, emerges from behind Christ Church Cathedral with a bundle wrapped in gray, her body bent in the cold wet wind of the summer morning. Her mouth is open as if she is screaming, but there is no sound here, just the calls of birds. The wind gusts and her coveralls blow back from her body, so that the man can see the outline of her skinny legs and distended belly as she walks toward him, the tops of her brown workman’s boots. Her coveralls are stained with motor oil, her boots far too big. She is a small, fine-boned woman, with shoulders so broad that at first the man thinks he is looking at a boy. She has deep brown hair tied back in a bun and wild, moon-gray eyes.
There is a coarse, masculine look to her face, a meanness. Even in the chill, her brow is beaded with sweat. The man watches her stop at the entrance to the parking lot and wrench back her head to look at the sky. She is thinking. Her eyes are wide with determination and fear. She takes a step forward and looks around her. The street is full of pink and gold light from the sun, and the scream of a seaplane comes fast overhead, and the wet of last night’s rain is still present on the street, on the sidewalk, on
the buildings’ reflective glass. My mother listens to the plane, to the birds. If anyone sees her, she will lose her nerve. She looks up again, and the morning sky is as blue as a peacock feather.
The man searches her face. He has driven here from Langford this morning, left when it was still so dark that he couldn’t see the trees. Where he lives, deep in the forest, no sky is visible until he reaches the island highway. On his road, the fir trees stretch for hundreds of feet above him and touch at the tips, like a barrel vault. This road is like a nave, he thinks every time he drives it, proud, too proud, of his metaphor, and he looks at the arches, the clerestory, the transept, the choir, the trees. He rolls down his window, feels the rush of wind against his face, in his hair, and pulls onto the highway: finally, the sky, the speed. It opens up ahead of him, and the trees grow shorter and shorter as he gets closer to town; the wide expanse of the highway narrows into Douglas Street, and he passes the bus shelters, through the arc of streetlights, past the car dealership where he used to work, the 7-Eleven, Thompson’s Foam Shop, White Spot, Red Hot Video, and then he is downtown, no trees now, but he can finally smell the ocean, and if he had more time he’d drive right to the tip of the island and watch the sun come up over Dallas Road. It is so early but already the women have their thumbs out, in tight, tight jeans, waiting for the men to arrive in their muddy pickups and dented sedans, and he drives past the Dairy Queen, Traveller’s Inn, the bright red brick of City Hall, the Eaton Centre. By noon, this street he knows so well will be filled with pale-faced rich kids with dreadlocks down to their knees, drumming and shrieking for change, and a man will blow into a trumpet, an orange toque on his head. Later still, the McDonald’s on the corner will fill with teenage beggars, ripped pant legs held together with safety pins, bandanas, patches, their huge backpacks up against the building outside, skinny, brindle-coated pit bulls and pet rats darting in and out of shirtsleeves, sleeping bags, Styrofoam cups, the elderly, so many elderly navigating the mess of these streets, the blind, seagulls, Crystal Gardens, the Helm’s Inn, the totem poles as the man drives past the park toward the YMCA, no other cars but his, because it is, for most people, not morning yet but still the middle of the night.
Now, in the parking lot, he is hidden behind the glare from the rising sun in the passenger-side window of his van. He sees my mother kiss my cheek—a furtive peck like a frightened bird—then walk quickly down the ramp to the entrance, put me in front of the glass doors, and dart away. She doesn’t look back, not even once, and the man watches her turn the corner onto Quadra Street, her strides fast and light now that her arms are empty. She disappears into the cemetery beside the cathedral. It is August 28, at 5:15 a.m. My mother is dead to me, all at once.
The man wishes so badly I weren’t there that he could scream it. All his life, he’s the one who notices the handkerchief drop from an old woman’s purse and has to chase her halfway down the block, waving it like a flag. Every twitch of his eye shows him something he doesn’t want to see: a forgotten lunch bag; the daily soup spelled “dialy”; a patent leather shoe about to step in shit. Wait! Watch out, buster! All this sloppiness, unfinished business. Me. I’m so small he thinks “minute” when he squats and cocks his head. My young mother has wrapped me in a gray sweatshirt with thumbholes because it’s cold this time of day and I’m naked, just a few hours old and jaundiced: a small, yellow thing.
The man unfolds the sweatshirt a bit, searching for a note or signs of damage. There is nothing but a Swiss Army Knife folded up beneath my feet. My head is the size of a Yukon Gold potato. The man pauses. He’s trying to form the sentences he’ll have to say when he pounds the door and calls for help. “Hey! There’s a baby here! A baby left by her mother—I think—I was waiting for the doors to open, she put the baby here and walked away, young girl, not good with ages, late teens, I guess? There’s a baby here, right here. Oh, I didn’t look—” He looks. “It’s a girl.”
There’s a small search. The police mill around and take a description from the man, who tells them his name is Vaughn and that he likes to be the first in the door at the Y in the morning, that it’s like a little game with him.
“Gotta be first at something, guy,” he says to the cop. They look at each other and laugh, a little too hard, for a little too long.
Vaughn is wearing his usual garb: navy track pants with a white racing stripe, a T-shirt with a sailboat on the front, new white running shoes. He is still young, in his early thirties, six feet tall with the build of someone who runs marathons. His red hair is thick and wild on top of his head, and he’s growing a goatee. It itches his chin. He fiddles with it as he talks to the officer. What did you see?
By now Vaughn is used to the way his life works: he is the seer. When the cars collide, he knows it two minutes before it happens. He predicted his parents’ divorce by the way his mother’s lip curled up once, at a party, when his father told a dirty joke. He was nine. He thought, That’s it. That’s the sign. It isn’t hard, this predicting, if that’s what it’s called; it’s a matter of observation. From the right vantage point—say, overhead—it isn’t a matter of psychic ability to see that two people, walking toward each other, heads down, hands in pockets, will eventually collide.
Sir, what did you see?
Vaughn pauses before answering. He feels time slow, and he feels himself float up. From up here, he sees what he needs to: the sequence of events that will befall me if I am raised by my mother. It’s all too clear. He wasn’t meant to see her. He wasn’t meant to intervene. He has seen the look in my mother’s eyes; he has seen women like her before. Whatever my fate, he knows I am better off without her.
What exactly did you see?
And so the officer takes down a description of my mother, but he doesn’t get it right: Vaughn tells him that her hair was short and blond, when the truth is that it was swirled into a dark brown bun. (When she takes it out, it falls to her collarbone.) He says she wore red sweatpants and a white tennis sweater—he finds himself describing his own outfit from the day before—and that she didn’t look homeless, just scared and young. Maybe a university student, he says. An athletic build, he says.
By now, twenty people have gathered in the parking lot of the Y. Some lady pushes through the crowd of officers and people in track pants. She swirls her arms and her mouth opens like a cave.
“My baby!” she shrieks and sets a bag of empty beer cans in a lump at her feet. Her head jerks. The cops roll their eyes and so does Vaughn. She’s the quarter lady—the one who descends when you plug the meter: “Hey, man, got a quarta’?” Her hair is like those wigs at Safeway when you forget to buy a costume for Halloween. If she had wings, she’d look ethereal.
My first baby picture appears in the newspaper. “Abandoned Infant: Police Promise No Charges.” Vaughn cuts out the article and sticks it on his fridge. He’s embarrassed by one of his quotes—“I believe it’s an act of desperation”—and his eyes fill with tears when he reads the passage from Saint Vincent de Paul, which is recited to the press by one of the nurses at the children’s hospital: These children belong to God in a very special way, because they have been abandoned by their mothers and fathers. . . . You cannot have too much affection for them.
“I believe it’s an act of desperation.” Vaughn sucks in a dry breath. The quote makes him cringe and he wishes he had said nothing at all.
He sits at the foot of his bed, waiting for the phone to ring. Surely the police have found my mother; it’s an island, after all. There’s nowhere to go. Once they find her, it will only be a matter of time before they get curious and wonder why his description doesn’t match. He sits on the bed all day and stares at the phone. He stares at it all night. In the morning, he hoists navy blue sheets over the curtain rods to block out the light and wedges newspaper under the door. He sleeps for an hour, dreams that he is hurtling through four floors of a building on fire.
When he wakes, the room is dark but his eyes are burning. He closes his eyes and he is falling through the building again, and when he lands there is blood under his fingernails.
On his bedside table are a picture of his girlfriend, a rolled-up magazine for killing spiders, and a triangular prism. If he opened the curtains, his face would glow a million colors.
Someone, his neighbor, is playing the piano. Poorly, absent-mindedly.
He shakes his head.
“I remembered wrong,” he tells the room, rehearsing, but the phone does not ring.
He reaches for the magazine and knocks the prism to the floor. It doesn’t break. He puts the magazine on his lap and spreads its pages in his hands.
“I space out sometimes. Especially in the morning. I must have gotten her mixed up with someone I saw earlier, or the day before.”
He watches the phone.
He tries to sleep on his back with a pillow pulled over his eyes. He tries to sleep on his stomach. He buries his head in the bedding like a vole.
“I’m sorry,” he says to his empty bedroom, to the image of my mother burned into his mind. “I’m sorry if I did something wrong.”
Finally, he tucks the article into one of the scrapbooks he keeps on top of the refrigerator and tries to forget about me, about my mother and his lie. He knows, somehow, that there was an act of love behind the abandonment. He knows, somehow, he wasn’t meant to intervene.
A wild card, a ticking time bomb. I could be anyone; I could come from anywhere. I have no hair on my head and there’s a vacant look in my eyes, as if I am either unfeeling or stupid.
I weigh a little over four pounds and am placed in a radiant warmer in neonatal intensive care. I test positive for marijuana, negative for amphetamines and methamphetamines. The hospital takes chest X-rays, draws blood from my heel, tests my urine. I do not have pneumonia; I am not infected with HIV. I am put on antibiotics for funisitis, an inflammation of the umbilical cord, and this diagnosis is printed in the newspaper in a final plea for my mother to come forward. She is probably sick, one of the doctors is quoted as saying, and most likely needs treatment. The antibiotics run their course, my mother never appears, and the Ministry of Children and Family Development files for custody.
One of the nurses on the night shift calls me Lily. Her name is Helene, and she is twenty-five years old. She has chestnut-colored, shoulder-length hair that frizzes when it rains, thick bangs, and a small plump face
with a rosebud mouth. She stops by on her breaks and sings me “By a Waterfall.”
There’s a whippoorwill that’s calling you-oo-oo-oo
By a waterfall, he’s dreaming, too.
Helene lives alone in an apartment on Esquimalt Road with a view of the ocean. She looks at my tiny face and imagines what her life would be like if she took me home and became my mother. She rearranges her apartment in her mind, puts a bassinet in the small space between her double bed and dresser, replaces one of the foldout chairs at her kitchen table with a high chair. She bakes a Dutch apple pie for me while I watch; all the time she is singing. But Helene meets a man a few weeks later, and her thoughts overflow. She cannot make space for both of us in her mind. She marries the man. They move to Seattle.
I am passed back and forth, cradled in one set of arms and then another. Once it is safe for me to leave the hospital, I am placed in a foster home.
My new parents don’t baptize me because they aren’t religious. They name me Shandi and we live in a noisy brown apartment building in a part of the city that has no name. We are on one of two side streets that connect two major streets, which head in and out of downtown. At night we listen to the traffic on one side coming into town, and the traffic on the other side heading out. There is a corner store a block away, a vacuum repair shop, and a park with a tennis court. City workers come in the morning to clean the public restroom and empty the trashcans, and in the late afternoon, young mothers push strollers down the path, shortcutting to the corner store. At night, the park comes alive. The homeless sleep on the benches or set up tents under the fir trees. The tennis court becomes an open-air market for drugs. In the morning, it is littered with hypodermic needles, buckets of half-eaten KFC, someone’s forgotten sleeping bag. Teenagers from the high school down the street play tennis on the weekends, pausing to roll and smoke joints. It is an otherwise beautiful park, with giant
rhododendrons, yew hedges in the shape of giant gumdrops, and Pacific dogwoods with dense, bright-white flowers. A few long-limbed weeping cedars stand here and there amid a barren grassy field.
My foster father’s name is Parez, but he goes by Par. He is satisfied with my meager medical records but my mother, Raquelle, searches my face and body for abnormalities. The night they bring me home, the neighbors, who have three foster children of their own (There’s good money in foster care, they’d said), are waiting in their kitchen with a tuna casserole. “This one’s got no real father and no real mother,” my father, Par, says to them by way of introduction, and sets me on the kitchen table like a whole chicken. “She comes from the moon, from the sky.” He spins around, his arms in the air. He is happy and proud.
In the months that follow, Raquelle feeds me shaky spoonfuls of bouillon, mashed carrots with cinnamon, and finally, cubes of cheddar cheese. She sits for hours placing things in my mouth and watching me chew. The kitchen has a sour smell from a gas leak somewhere in the stove, and dark wooden cabinets that reek of turmeric and curry. A few grimy rag rugs line the peeling linoleum floor. I sit in an orange plastic high chair with a dirty white bib around my neck, and take food from Raquelle’s delicate hands. She is a tall, lean woman, with straight black hair and an angular face. She is thirty-four. We listen to Lionel Richie on a tiny portable radio. On the weekends, she takes me to the Salvation Army and St. Vincent’s, where she tries on huge piles of clothes while I lie in my stroller, smelling the cheap detergent on the clothing and the pungent leather stench from the racks of black, scuffed-up shoes.
As a teenager, Raquelle had a pituitary tumor, and is now infertile. She has wanted a baby for as long as she can remember. She studies her calves, her muscular feet, in the dressing room mirror. We are there for hours.
I don’t cry much, and during my first week home Par discovers that I fall asleep if he sings the national anthem, which is all he can think of when Raquelle suggests he sing me lullabies.
“Ohhh, Caaa-na-dah,” he croons. He has a face as round as a beach ball, with a thick, almost comical moustache and salt-and-pepper hair that
he keeps in a short, tight ponytail. He moved to Canada eight years ago to start a restaurant and marry Raquelle. The restaurant is called, simply, Par’s. His English is improving, but he still thinks “true patriot love” is all one word. He sings it fast and doesn’t know what it means.
“She’s going to be a model,” Raquelle decides, because I’m a string-bean baby and a bit longer than average. “Top model. Superstar!”
“Nah,” says Par. He is holding me while Raquelle beats the rag rugs over the balcony. He is a decade older than she is, thinks he knows how to raise an industrious, confident girl. For starters, he won’t let Raquelle dress me in pink. “I want her to work in trades. That’s where the money’s at. Plumber, ’lectrician.” He dangles my rattle in front of my face, and I grab it expertly in my small hands. “See how good she is with her rattle? Maybe an athlete. Full of sport.”
Raquelle sniffs. His English embarrasses her. In her worst moments, she looks at herself in the mirror and thinks that she shouldn’t have married him, that she could have done better. “A dancer,” she says. “I want her to take ballet. I never got to.”
At night, Raquelle and I take the bus downtown and visit Par at the restaurant. He stands behind the host’s lectern in a crisp white shirt and red bow tie, his round face beaming. When we walk in he disappears into the kitchen, dries off a small amber snifter, and pours Raquelle a little Turkish raki from a bottle he keeps under the sink. The restaurant has no liquor license; Par cannot afford it. Raquelle sits at a circular table by the window and feeds me from a jar of maraschino cherries. The restaurant has only one customer, a man in his seventies with deep-set eyes and skin like wax paper. He is hand-rolling a cigarette with loose tobacco and looks over at us.
“Beautiful baby,” he says. His voice is low and Raquelle leans in to hear him. “What a lovely family you have.”
Par stands behind us, one hand on Raquelle’s shoulder, the other holding a mop. “Thank you,” he says to the man.
“She looks just like you,” the man says back, motioning to my little round face.
Par leans on the mop. The men look at each other for a minute.
Outside, the street is empty. It is ten o’clock. The light from the movie theater marquee across the street flashes through the glass-block window, brightening the room intermittently. It is a small restaurant, with ten tables. The tables are still perfectly set, except the one where the man with the cigarette is sitting, his napkin in a loose pile on top of his plate. He takes a final sip of water and thanks Par for the meal. On his way out, he nods at Raquelle and me, flips up the collar of his coat, and lights his cigarette in the doorway, waiting until the door has closed behind him to blow out the smoke.
“Thank goodness,” Par says and makes a big show of wiping his brow. He motions to his one employee, a teenage girl with a pimple on her forehead. “Go on home now, Liesl. See you tomorrow.” We sit there while he mops the floor.
I like to think that if I’d stayed with them, I would have become a ballerina with a pipe-fitting business on the side, but after a year, Par’s restaurant went bankrupt and his brother offered him a job back home.
He is a changed man, angry. He has failed, and now Raquelle and I, too, are a symbol of his failure. After he leaves her, Raquelle starts waiting tables at Scott’s downtown, where she worked before she got married. She likes the pink vinyl booths and has missed the handsome cook, who calls her “dearest” and kisses her hand. The restaurant is open twenty-four hours. During her shifts, I am left with the neighbors’ foster children, who look after me in exchange for soda pop and comics. We sit on the fire escape and I play with a big tabby cat, who runs his sandpaper tongue over my little hand when I pat him. The children carry me inside and tell me not to make a sound. They view me as a guinea pig or suckerfish—something foreign to be prodded and experimented on—something fascinating, but not at all, not for a second, human.
One day at the restaurant, the cook holds out his hand to Raquelle, a small mound of white powder in the webbing between his thumb and index finger. Pretty soon, that’s where her paycheck goes, too.
“I’m real sorry, superstar Shandi,” Raquelle says, tapping her nails on the social worker’s desk. “But your new parents’ll have lots more money than me.”
They do. Julian and Moira have me baptized and change my name to Shannon. They are both lawyers. We live on Olive Street in a periwinkle character house with white trim, in a nice, middle-class neighborhood two blocks from the ocean. Some of the houses on our block are built to look like ships, porthole windows lining the top floor, curved white walls like windblown sails. Ours is a big, bright house, two stories, with wainscoting in the living room and an upright piano. A wooden spiral staircase leads upstairs to a master bedroom with cathedral ceilings and an en-suite bathroom with a newly glazed claw-foot tub. My bedroom is across from theirs and is the size of a jail cell. I have a squeaky white crib, a small antique dresser, and a nonworking coal-burning fireplace.
It is colder in this part of town, and the air smells of salt and seaweed. The park across from our house is filled with families during the day and empty at night. We have a large front yard and an even bigger backyard; instead of a fence, we have a rock wall. It surrounds the property, save for the entrance, which is marked by an ornate wrought-iron gate, chunks of sea glass wedged between the tracery. A Garry oak takes up most of the front yard, and the back is carefully manicured, a shale stone path leading from the deck to a wooden gazebo with a bench swing.
A week after my new parents bring me home, they have a party to celebrate my arrival. I sleep in Moira’s arms while she and Julian share what they know about foundlings. I’m eighteen months old now and although I can walk and say a few words, I still look like a baby. I have yet to grow any hair. To hide my baldness, Moira has knitted me a little cap that looks like a bluebell.
“Some mothers,” she is saying, “think their baby is possessed, and the only way to save it is to kill it.” She is tall and stocky with a down-turned mouth. She has curly, chin-length hair and an apple-cheeked face peppered with pale-brown freckles. There is something beautiful about Moira—her Scandinavian features, that white translucent skin—but something cagey in her eyes. In photographs, she is often not looking at the camera.
Five of her colleagues are gathered in the living room, all women. Julian mulls wine in the kitchen and talks to a group of men from work with whom he plays racquetball. The soundtrack to the movie Diva plays out of large black speakers.
“You know, we looked it up,” Julian says and slides a cinnamon stick into the steaming pot. He wears one of Moira’s floral aprons. “In the States, twelve thousand babies are abandoned every year—in hospitals. That number doesn’t include the trash bins.” He snickers, and the men shift their weight.
From the love seat in the living room, Moira can see her husband stirring the mulled wine. “Don’t repeat that awful statistic,” she calls.
He isn’t a handsome man. Soft in the stomach but skinny everywhere else, and his hair sticks up like a hedgehog’s. He looks a bit like a hedgehog, too. Sharp snout, full cheeked. Moira shifts me onto the lap of one of her coworkers and goes into the kitchen to put the cobbler in the oven. Since I arrived, she has rediscovered cooking, and has made molasses cookies and applesauce from a recipe her mother gave her.
The evening drags on too long, and I become fussy. Julian carries me upstairs and muscles me into my crib, where I wail so loudly that he returns five minutes later and sticks me in the back of the closet.
“Fuck, shut up,” he mutters as he comes down the stairs. One of Moira’s coworkers hears him and shoots him a look. He takes her hand later, after everyone has had too much to drink, and tells her he has always found her beautiful.
On Sundays, we walk as a family along Dallas Road, down the pebbled beaches, past the world’s tallest totem pole, all the way to Ogden Point. If it’s not too cold, we walk the length of the breakwater. The salty wind slaps against my face, and the smell of the sea stays on my skin for hours. Sometimes Moira picks me up and I put my little feet on the turquoise guardrail, spread my arms and let the wind blow me back against her.
When my hair finally starts to grow in, it is as soft and white as corn silk. Moira dresses me in her old baby clothes, which are hand-sewn,
expensive, and kept in a cedar chest. She takes Polaroid pictures of me in little velvet vests with soft white moons, corduroy overalls, and wide-striped sweaters. My hair glows in the sunlight; I am so well dressed.
When she makes dinner, Moira takes me in her arms, and I press my body into the crook of her hip. It’s soft-lit in the kitchen. She likes the lights off. Moira bends and smells the steam and her face glows blue from the gas flame. I touch her cheeks, which are freckled and soft. I twirl her hair in my fingertips. She has such coarse hair; it feels rough in my hands. She puts her face to mine. “Ay-bee-cee-dee-eee-eff-gee. Now what?”
“Aick,” I say and she rewards me with a nibble of soft white potato.
On my second birthday, my parents buy me a rocking horse, a marble night-light shaped like a lighthouse, and the complete set of Beatrix Potter books. While Moira is at work, Julian holds me in one hand and plays the piano with the other. I squirm and fidget. His hands are bony and covered in hair. His fingers hold me too tight.
Sometimes Moira has to work nights, and on these nights Julian insists that I learn how to read. We start with the books Pat the Bunny and Goodnight Moon, and even though I love petting the fuzzy white bunny and saying “Goodnight, mush” over and over, he grows tired of it and of me. When I see his face loom over mine, the look in his eyes as he points to and sounds out each word, I begin to cry. His teeth are little and coffee stained. The words look like symbols, like hieroglyphics. When he points at the word the, I stare at him and burst into tears. He forces me into my bed, our evening ruined by my stupidity.
“I can’t,” he says, when Moira gets home that night, “I can’t have her crying all the time.”
Moira ties the floral apron around her waist and warms a pot of soup. “Clint said I can have the long weekend off.” She scratches the back of her calf with her big toe, and Julian winces—he hates it when she does that. And he hates it when she mentions Clint.
She is called into work at night more and more often. When she gets home, I hear her pleading with Julian to calm down while I stare
at the glow-in-the-dark stars pasted to the ceiling above my little white bed. Julian has tucked me in so tight, I can barely breathe or move my arms.
Is she blind? Is she dumb? I want to tell her how frightened I am of Julian—of being alone with Julian—but I don’t yet have the words. I stare into her face. I cry and wail and beat my fists into her soft belly. “What is it, little one?” she says to me. “Why are you so angry?”
One day Julian announces that he is going away for a week, and Moira takes me to Willows Beach. She pushes me on a swing for a few minutes, then stops, stands on her tiptoes, and waves to a man coming toward us. It’s her boss, Clint. He’s a tall man in a burgundy dress shirt, skinny tie, and black dress pants. He has a sharp face and a long curved neck, like a heron. He’s carrying a little girl about my age—two and a half—and we stare at each other from behind the legs of our parents while they talk. She is a confident child, dark-haired and dark-eyed like her father, and I am afraid of her. Moira and Clint walk down the beach together and the girl and I are left to play. We see a garter snake dart in and out of the tall grass, and the dark-haired girl chases it until it disappears somewhere underneath the playground. She begins to cry and Clint reappears, picks her up roughly, and puts her in his car. He takes Moira in his arms and kisses her cheek, then bends down and looks at me. I have about an inch of fine white hair on my head and am wearing a little white dress. Clint smiles and says I look like an angel.
When he gets in his car and drives away, Moira gets a look on her face as though she is suddenly in mourning. She stares at me as if I am someone she’s seen before but can’t quite place. She buys me a root beer–flavored Popsicle from the concession stand, and I concentrate on eating it before it melts and falls into my lap and ruins the leather seats of her car.
When Julian gets back from his trip, he gives me a stuffed bear wearing a red- and green-striped scarf. He gives Moira a floor-length camel-haired coat. I hear them yelling one night, then a cold hard slap. After that, we do not see Clint again.
When the weather is nice, Julian rides to work on his bicycle, his briefcase secured to the rattrap with bungee cords. One night he rides home after dark, a ghost on a dimly lit side street. It begins to rain and the temperature drops fast, steaming up the windshield of a car approaching him from behind. The car hesitates at the intersection. Julian is paused at the light. When the car makes a sharp right-hand turn, it catches the wheel of Julian’s bicycle and sends him spinning. He hits the curb and is launched off the bike with such force that his back skids along the asphalt before he finally comes to a stop. He stands, curses at the car, which has fled into the night, and pedals the rest of the way home on the sidewalk. The blood on his back sticks to his suit jacket like molasses.
Moira is not home. Between the bars of my little bed, I watch him. I am three years old, my hair a big puff of white cotton, my eyes big and cloudy blue. He strips off his jacket and slowly peels off his shirt, which is caked with deep red blood. He drops it onto the carpet and walks toward me, lifts me into his arms, and sets me on his and Moira’s bed. He goes into the bathroom and returns with a wet towel and a tub of Vaseline, lies on his stomach, and tells me to rub the towel over his back as gently as I can. He finds the remote controls tangled in the sheets and turns on the television, presses Play on the VCR. I play with the blood on his back, running my little fingers down the sides of his spine. He puts a gob of Vaseline in my hands, and I smear it over the blood. I am bored and fidgety and so he makes a game out of it, asks me to draw circles and squares and letters and numbers in the pink gunk. Cat People is on the television. We watch it together while I rub his back, and when I wake up it is already morning.
Not long after, Moira finds a deep blue bruise on my thigh. Julian confesses that he has trouble holding me. He says I wiggle out of his arms and drop like a stone. He says he prays for me to be still. At night, he tries to shake off the memory of his father beating his legs with a belt until they buckled and bled. He is a haunted man. He shudders every time I cry.
“Will she ever stop?” he pleads. Moira sits at the edge of their big bed, her head in her hands. The guilt of her affair hangs between them. She will make it up to him, she says. She will make everything okay. What choice does she have? Despite the darkness she sees in him, she cannot imagine her life without him in it, without this solid, beautiful home.
We begin playing a game she calls the Stillness. For every minute I sit still, I am rewarded with a cube of marble cheese. If I sit still for five minutes, I get a square of raspberry-flavored dark chocolate.
“Concentrate, Shannon,” she says to me, tapping my knuckles with a wooden spoon when I break out of the Stillness and begin to move around. “Concentrate and I won’t have to hurt your little hand. I don’t want to hurt your little hand.”
I want to tell her that Julian holds me so tightly that he hurts me, and that is the reason I move around, but I am afraid to say the words. I am not bad, I want to tell her, I am in pain.
“I want you to practice the Stillness for seven minutes now. We’re going to work our way up to ten, okay?” She waves her spoon in the air like a magic wand.
At a routine checkup, the family doctor finds purple thumbprints on my limbs. He takes Moira into his office and tells her to make sure she and Julian are gentle with me.
“She’s a bit of a Jell-O jiggler,” Moira laughs, and the doctor does, too. Moira tells him it’s the staircase and my wobbly legs, the way I wrench myself out of Julian’s arms.
“She’s a very special girl,” the doctor says to her. “Take best care of her.” He gives me a lion sticker on our way out, and when Moira and I get back in the car she turns to me and says if I can’t be still I’ll have to go and live with another family.
The longest word in the Oxford English dictionary is floccinaucinihilipilification. It means “the action or habit of estimating something as worthless.”
This is the last thing Julian teaches me before I’m rushed out the door in the arms of a social worker, my little arm in the bright blue cast. One of my fingernails catches on the zipper of the lady’s coat, tears, and leaves a bloody trail. Moira stands in the doorway, her face pale. There is nothing in her eyes.
In the backseat of the lady’s car is an old video game: Pac-Man. I play it, one-handed, with a boy who is older than me, and he says if I get the keys sticky he’ll sock me in the gut. The lady straps me so tightly into the car seat that I can barely breathe. She drives a wood-paneled station wagon and the beige seats are coated in plastic. It smells so strongly of vinyl that I throw up and the boy hits me when he sees what I have done.
I am afraid of the dark. We are led by the hand down a carpeted staircase, and I can’t tell whether we’re in a church or somebody’s basement. Little wooden crosses dot the walls and everywhere I look there’s a Styrofoam cup with a lipstick smear. The room smells like Hamburger Helper. The man who’s holding my hand looks like Raffi, but he speaks in a gruff voice and there’s dirt under his nails. There are fifteen cots in rows of five and we each get a blanket and a small pillow. When he lets go of my hand, I ask him to stay, but my voice is too quiet and the room sucks the sound. Lights out, someone says and someone else says, I don’t want to be next to this stinky fucker, and someone else says, Shut it, and that’s that. The boy is in the cot next to mine. When my eyes adjust, I can see the whites of his. We watch each other, and when I reach out my hand he whispers, Baby, but takes it nonetheless. We fall asleep this way, and all night people come and go.
I am placed in a home the next day, the sixth child in a four-bed home. I share the bottom bunk with a smelly girl who wets the bed. None of us belongs to anyone. The woman who runs the house calls me Samantha, and for a while I think that’s my name. I teach the smelly girl to pee in the tub with me before bed, and from then on we are friends. Her mother died while giving birth. The girl plays with my hair at night, and this is what I remember most of all, the feel of her soft nails on my scalp while the other children cry in the bunk above us.