Fiction by Valerie Laken
I am the sitter of last resort, gray-skinned and riddled with bulges. Of mysterious provenance, with an unplaceable accent, I am neither fond of children nor particularly concerned with their safety. Compared to the new houses replacing those around mine, my home must look like a warren of mysteries—a brick husk whose time-warped windows are knitted over by vines. The inside is dim and reddish, like the chambers of a body. My dog, Rosenberg, a clumsy Great Dane I wouldn't presume to control, has broken the skin of strangers more than once. I sign no petitions, support no fundraisers, offer no holiday treats. The neighbors exhaust their options before ringing my doorbell.
So it’s a measure of her family’s desperation that Olivia is here again, this coltish ten year old from next door, for the second time this week. I realize her family’s in crisis, but have they no friends? Maybe not: they are the weedless sort, always out sprinkling something or polishing their vehicles. But the girl, Olivia, is graceless and limp these days, gone to seed. Her little brother broke into the world last week, three months early, less than two pounds. Her mother, though healed, refuses to leave the hospital, while her father goes home each night, a phantom shuttling Olivia from one sitter to another each morning. After a decade of the princess life, she is learning the wound of abandonment. To be honest, I like her better this way. She’s quieter.
Today she’s inching her way through my library, her head tilted sideways as she runs her slender fingers along my volumes. As she reads the titles her lips move—never a good sign. She slides out a great illustrated hardcover on the reproductive practices of mollusks, then slips it back into place. Now she pauses to study a small, elaborately framed pencil drawing propped up against the collected works of Chekhov. It’s a miniature portrait by Renée French, of an invented creature coiled like a new tadpole but covered in fur—each hair a soft revelation in mechanical pencil. Caught in profile, the animal shows just one enormous glimmering eye and a row of jagged teeth.
“This is gross,” the girl says, and under the circumstances I must concede her point. “Why do you have so many weird things?”
“They must give me some sort of pleasure,” I say. The oil paintings of tortured saints; the bird cage full of wishbones; the crude wooden carvings of children lined up like soldiers along the mantel. My late Howard liked to bring home queer treasures and arrange them in our surfeit of rooms. How I savor that expression you have in English, late husband, as if he’ll return at any moment, with an apology and a good excuse, if I just keep waiting.
“Would it make you feel better if we burned it?” I ask the girl.
She gives me an odd look, sniffing for sarcasm, so I kneel at the hearth and start crumpling newspaper, stuffing it around a cluster of pine-resin sticks .
“I try to burn at least a few things a day.”
Her brow pinches up, and she studies me, then the picture, tilting it forward and back, as if comparing us. She returns it to the shelf, but facing inward. She has redecorated.
“Maybe burn something else then?” I ask.
She looks around the room, and I sense all my curiosities pulling their shoulders back to stand for inspection. She goes over to the reading bed in the corner, over which dangle dozens of railroad spikes, pointing downward like the arrows of the gods coming at you. Howard felt this focused the mind—or at least his mind. Olivia fluffs one of the big, stained pillows, picks up a two-headed doll, lays it back down. All the poor girl allows herself, in the end, is a good-sized stick from the basket of wood by the fireplace. A paltry imagination. Rosenberg watches her from his armchair to see if she’ll throw it for him.
She chucks it into the fireplace, on top of the kindling, and I hand over the matches, but she hesitates. So strange, in this country, how you keep the simplest, most essential tools from your children—matches, knives, hammers—and render your little helpers useless as kings.
“It’s good for the soul, burning things,” I say, nudging the matchbook at her until finally she takes it. After a few clumsy strikes she gets the fire going. I pull one of the wooden children off the mantel, a yellowing boy the length and weight of a bowling pin, and I lay him on the flames. The boy’s thick lacquer flares up in marvelous greens, and we watch the fire strip the painted clothes from his body.
The first day Olivia’s father brought her over, he explained about their new, impossibly small baby. He said the doctors worked absolute marvels nowadays, and the hospital was top ten; he wasn’t worried. “We’ve got a team of specialists from all over the world,” he said. Entombed in his optimism, he used the child’s name many times, described the boy’s baby-bird skin, his sealed eyelids. He cupped his upturned hand around a grotesquely small section of the air and smiled down at it. He said all this without so much as a quiver in his voice, and I thought, here it is: the difference between his century and mine.
But this morning when he dropped off Olivia he wouldn’t speak of the baby. His eyes were bruised by sleeplessness. He said, “Either it’ll go on for months or it’ll be over very soon.”
In the corner by the dining room now, Olivia is spinning the great old globe, feeling its topographical ridges bubble up under her palms the way I showed her. Then she pulls back and spins it so hard its old wooden frame wobbles and shudders. She slams down one fingertip to stop the spinning and leans close to look.
“Where’s your old country again?” she says, which is rude. I showed her last time.
“Three fingers outside Vienna,” I say. But she won’t find it. The country is long gone even from my globe.
Out in the street some boys squeal past in bright red rain gear on new bicycles, and Rosenberg rustles to his feet, looks around, but cannot find the source of the problem. His ancestors hunted wild boars, but here he is settling back into his green velvet chair, trying to chew his shoulder.
Olivia watches the boys through the windows, though she seems more irritated than envious.
“You can go play with them if you want,” I say, perhaps too eagerly. Then the boys circle back, onto the grass—these three little rich boys playing at hoodlums. They erupt in a series of complicated jeers, aimed in our direction.
I’ve been on your soil sixty-eight years now and work your Sunday crosswords in pen, but there are still, now and then, some phrases I miss. But I see the girl’s ears redden; I see that much.
“Do you know them?”
“Idiots,” she says, with such juicy disdain I think maybe her parents haven’t yet ruined her.
The boys leave their bikes in a pile on my lawn and march right up to my front windows—the insolence in this world has gone to all the wrong people. They cup their hands to their temples and squint inside.
Rosenberg leaps up and goes rabid, gouging the window sill with his claws, spraying the glass with a field of spittle. The boys recoil, then laugh at one another: two blonds, a redhead. All the children are fat here. The boys seem to realize the dog’s noise troubles us more than them, for their chanting grows louder, and they bare their teeth at him.
“Is someone testing my resolve?” I ask the girl.
Olivia shakes her head. “It’s not you.” Then she clamps her hand on top of Rosenberg’s head, and he goes absolutely silent. Her powers are beyond mine. Stepping up to the window, she raises both hands over her head and does something ghastly with her face, which I see only as a flash in the reflection, before she slams her forehead and palms against the glass. The boys shriek and scatter.
So the world still contains a few wonders, after all this time.
“Well done,” I say.
She mutters, “I’m hungry.”
We head down the long, dark hall toward the kitchen at the back of the house, with Rosenberg shoving past us to get there first. “What were they shouting?” I ask.
“Nothing. They think I’m a witch.”
“Really. Why’s that?”
In the kitchen, she climbs onto the tall bench by the window and briefly digs a finger in her nose, just scratching. “Little things.”
“Did you do something that scared them?”
She turns her back on me to look out the window at the back yard. You might expect me to have a magic garden, with narrow paths through exotic perennials, but I am all blight. Just weeds and bric-a-brac. “I probably shouldn’t talk about it,” Olivia says.
“Fair enough.” I put bread and cheese and a knife on the table in front of her, then climb onto a chair to extract Howard’s old apparatus from the cupboard over the refrigerator.
“What’s this?” the girl says.
“Just cut the bread,” I say, and she studies the long, serrated knife, moving it through the air like a cutlass.
When she’s done hacking up the food we go back to the library and construct a sandwich, clamp it between the metal irons of the device, and stick the thing in the fireplace. The dog stands ready for any mishaps.
“Rack up,” I tell him, and he stares back a long moment before climbing into his chair.
“It was a thing that happened in recess. It kind of surprised me,” the girl says.
“Oh.” I won’t stoop to dig information from a child.
She watches the flames for a while and says, “They think I made a branch fall on Brendan Kiehl.”
“Ah. Was he asking for it?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “I mean, I guess. I didn’t really mean to do it. I just sort of saw it in my head, and then it happened.”
“An accident,” I say.
“Do you . . . believe in things like that?”
“Accidents happen,” I say. “A kid like that, he probably had it coming.”
“He’s not one of those three,” she says. “He’s still in the hospital.”
She traces her finger along her collarbone and then makes a chopping gesture at the side of her head—to show me his wounds, I suppose.
“Do you believe a girl could do that?” she says. “Just wish for something, and boom?”
Where I come from people lied to children all the time. They told us stories to teach and frighten us. Here, you lie to them in different ways. You lie to hide the scary things.
“Sure,” I say. “There are a lot of stories about girls like that.”
Olivia shudders and coils into herself, and I feel I’ve made a wrong turn.
“Isn’t it a good thing, to have powers?” I ask.
After a while she says quietly, “It depends.”
I pull the metal clamps from the fire and open them to reveal a perfectly blackened grilled-cheese sandwich. I tip it out onto the plate and let the girl cut it in two and build another one.
“The kid’ll be fine,” I say. “His friends should stop bothering you.”
“Do you have powers like that?” she says. When I don’t answer, she sweeps one hand around the room, as if every item I own is a piece of evidence.
“I just thought you might know something,” she says. “You have all these . . . books.”
“Well,” I say. “Well. Was that the only time you wished for something and got it?”
She looks down, and it seems to me she’s wishing she could burn a hole through the floor and be consumed by it. A fire like that does certainly have its appeal. When she finally looks up again her face is red with the effort of wanting it.
“No,” she says, lying in that obvious way kids have.
“What if I said I didn’t believe in wishes? I mean, you’ve probably wished for hundreds of things you never got.”
She nods over and over, but her face is cracking. “I have,” she says. “I’ve wished for all kinds of things.”
“Sure,” I say.
“I wished for the baby.”
“I did, a long time ago, I wished for the baby.”
“Everybody wants a brother,” I say, thinking of my own, who never made it across the border.
“But then I didn’t, you know?”
I watch all her child-feelings flickering under the skin of her face, until it gets so bad even I have to look away.
“So you wished some bad things for him,” I say, working to keep my voice very hollow and flat. “That happens too. I could tell you stories.”
She sits back on her heels and looks up at me, waiting for one.
I gather the spit in my mouth and swallow it, thinking of the woods behind the house I was born in, trying to take myself back there. All the scariest sights in my life came before I was her age. And all these miles and all these years haven’t been enough.
“The cheese is burning,” I say, pulling the contraption out of the fire. It’s smoking, and she gets up to help with it when boom, something slams against the front window. Something furry and red, a rabbit, a cat, something thrown hard by those boys.
The girl pulls a stick from the basket and goes for the door. It’s a massive, carved-out, mahogany thing, but she hauls it open and breaks free, and the dog races after her. I stand in the frame of the door, watching her long legs slice through the air. The boys’ red jackets flap behind them like torn uniforms, making the sound of flags, and she and the dog are closing in on them. The whole pack of them takes the corner at top speed, and they vanish from sight. I should follow, I know, I should watch over them, put a stop to something. But that kind of protection is always only postponement.
So I stand in the lowering sun, waiting and waiting. The neighborhood ticks on; a mail truck creaks to a stop; two squirrels chuckle and chase; my unraked leaves rot quietly in the sewer grate. The shadows grow longer. The dog comes back first, no marks on him, and then comes the girl, slow and calm now, dragging the stick. “Come inside,” I say, touching my palm to her frail, bony shoulder. I take the stick and throw it in the fire.
It will be gone to ash by the time the boys’ parents gather and deliver their outrage to my door. How could this girl, how could I, how could anyone do such a thing and refuse to apologize? They cannot process this. Simply refuse? The dog is so useful in such moments, snarling and straining in my doorway, barking over their indignation. I could point to the bloodied carcass under my window, but I will not engage in the logic of people like these. I just stand and endure. I absorb the fury they need to release in order to recalibrate their sense of what’s right in the world. I keep the girl deep inside, where they can’t see her. I refuse to acknowledge she was ever here.
After they leave, we’ll make a dark brown stew and stir it together like crones, and then she’ll fall into a long, deep sleep on that reading bed, under the arrows, with the dog’s arms all over her, feeling her up. Toward midnight I’ll see the headlights of her father’s sleek, dark car pulling into the narrow driveway between our houses, and without waking her I will go to the window and watch her parents, both of them, drag themselves from the car empty-handed. As quiet as a spider I will creep outside and ask if she can stay the night. Tomorrow she’ll be theirs again.