When the bough breaks

The third-place entry in Postscript’s Short Fiction Contest, by Lauren Sampson, ArtSci ’12

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There are some things I will tell everyone. Little things that mean nothing really. Someone will ask the time and I will say “10:43 a.m.” and they will thank me and then it’s over. Insignificant. But the time is something people need, so I always wear a watch.

Before, when a stranger would ask me how I was, I’d say “I’m feeling rather confused right now; I’ve realized that the world is not as simple as I once thought it was—people will say things and not mean them in the least bit” or “I’ve just remembered that I left my workbook at home, which makes me exhausted at the thought of running back to get it, and disappointed in myself for leaving it there” because I thought I was answering the question to the best of my ability. Mother explained it to me so now I understand and just say “Fine, thank you.”

There are many things that only Mother knows. Late at night, she will slip into my bed and say “Tell me what you’re thinking.” I open my mouth and all my insides come spilling out. Lyra knows my secrets. I can tell her anything, though I do not. She listens to my words, nods her head, and then whispers into my ear which boys are the best kissers. I laugh.

Lyra shouldn’t be kissing boys, but I know she will laugh along with me.

And then there are things I cannot tell anyone. These are the thoughts that live in my head, the things that are mine. Last week, I was walking down the road when I saw something motionless lying in my path. A dead pigeon. How fascinating it was, splayed there with glassy eyes and not a feather ruffled. It went in my bag and I took it home. Mother only needs look under my bed to find it, but every night I go to sleep knowing the broken bird is undiscovered and that makes me smile a bit.

Death cannot be changed.
And I think that’s wonderful.

Under, over, under, over, intricate weaving with bony fingers and mother is doing my hair. Each morning I am awake before the sun, eating two eggs and flossing my teeth. It takes exactly 12 minutes to reach school and 34 minutes to get ready for it. I wake up early so Mother can braid my hair. As she shapes me, Mother speaks—telling stories about the old her, the not-Mother, and giving me advice. It is interesting but I seldom listen. I try to focus on untying my mind and letting it float about instead. It never works. I am tethered to the idea of being a kitten. And there are no other cats in the litter, so Mother licks my fur until it is matted and stiff, and I bring her rats from the cupboard every day.

Over, under, over, under, she has done my braids too tight this time.

Lyra is not at school again. It is the third time this week. I am not worried though, and during lunch I sit at the green table in the corner twisting my braids around a finger until it goes numb. Lyra knows what she’s doing. Lyra can be alone. Mr. Daniels walks by, and I fold into myself, trying to go unnoticed. It works, thankfully. I know he will ask me to think about the special guidance sessions and I won’t be able to refuse him.

We live in a bone white house on top of the sea. One day, it will tiptoe right off our cliff and then I will dissolve into the waves. Sometimes I wonder why it never rains but then I realize Mother has painted over the windows.

I know what people want; I give it to them. Painted bodies lie broken on the floor crying, why? Why? Why? Why do you weep? Only I see them, and it baffles me that they do not understand. People do not want what is best for them, don’t want kindred spirits or beautiful souls. People want what is easy.

I have many dolls, in different shapes and sizes, some with ruby lips, some made of wood. Dead bodies look like human dolls, I think.

Lyra comes up the cliff that night, maybe wanting to give herself to the waves, but she knocks on my door first. Her mascara is smudged and shuddering and I have never seen her this small. She opens her mouth to speak, but I am already leading her into the house and shutting the door. Mother is out and I am alone. We go up to my room and I finally ask, “What’s happened? What has he done?”

She only folds in on herself.

Lyra has been staying with her father and there are red marks on her arms. I begin to understand. I try to be the mother cat, but all I can do is pat her awkwardly on the shoulder.

Finally, Lyra chokes out, “Spilled beer and … he hit me. I … I tried to get away but … chair … tied to the chair … fucking bastard!”

We sit in silence, the words stinging us both. I say … I say … nothing.

And then “It hurts. But that can be stopped …”

Undid those braids on the way to school, and my hair hung in limp curls.

There is a pause and then—“Do you want it to stop?”

Lyra looks up with hollow eyes and maybe if I squint, I can see my dollhouse right through her. I think, she is already halfway there—where are the strings holding her on?

She moves her head left and right, the tiniest of nods, and … yes, this is something I can do. She has been such a good friend to me, and I have never, never been able to make things all right.

Rock-a-bye baby, in the treetop, when the wind blows the cradle will rock …

Rock Lyra in my arms, and poke poke poke in the heart—she is gone. No more rats in the cupboard. The body falls on me then and I topple onto my bed. The weight of what I’ve done grinds me into the mattress as her eyes glaze over.

And I smile then, because she is all mine: the best doll in my collection.

Check out next week’s issue of the Journal to read the second-place entry in Postscript’s Annual Short Fiction Contest.

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