Leonie won't hurt the girls. She's promised to be good.
Their whispering sounds like taffeta rustling. Little sssps. Sssp . . . .sssp . . . .giggle-giggle . . . .sssp . . . sssp.
The girl-sounds make Leonie want to go into her daughter's room and watch them. Maybe they're dressing dolls or playing with the tea set. Is Jan too old for that now? It's been so long since Leonie's been home. Jan must be what? Ten now? Maybe eleven.
She wouldn't hurt the girls. She could just stand in the doorway. She's promised to be good. She is going to be good. She has to be. She won't hurt them. She'll just watch.
No, she can't go into Jan's room. Not even near Jan's room. Can't even press her ear against the keyhole. Or her eye. Shouldn't even stand outside Jan's door. She's promised to stay in her room. May Dean made her swear. May Dean will bring lunch soon and if she's not in her room, May Dean will say, "Now, Ms. Bennet, you don't wanna go back to the loony bin, do ya?" Sometimes May Dean says "hospital." Sometimes she just turns her back and leaves with the tray of food, and today is eggs benedict. May Dean makes such good eggs benedict. The Canadian bacon is fried just right. The heart of the egg is soft and the white flesh is firm. Not runny like the eggs at the hospital. And May Dean's béarnaise sauce—she can almost taste it.
Leonie hears a sound like a horse. A snort. Then laughter. Little girl laughter. A squeal. A shriek. Then silence. The silence goes on for a long time.
What if something bad happened? She should check. She is a mother, isn't she? Mothers can't just stay in their rooms, waiting for lunch. Mothers have responsibilities.
Leonie opens the door, checks for May Dean, then tiptoes out. Jan's room is right across the hall from hers. All she needs to do is be quiet as a mouse and May Dean won't know she's out.
Her fingers hold the handle on Jan's door but she doesn't turn it. Just listens. There's no sound inside. That's not a good sign. When the children were little, she knew they were fine so long as she heard them playing. Silence meant trouble.
She turns the knob oh, so slowly. Twist. Twist. Click. Eases the door open a crack, pauses when she hears a noise below. The clanking pans downstairs in the kitchen. Good. May Dean's busy. Another inch. Enough for a peek. Just a little wider and the door suddenly flies open. Leonie lets out a startled Oh! and presses herself against the wall as the girls run out.
Jan's friend points. "Who's that?"
"No one," Jan says and, grabbing her friend's hand, she runs down the hallway and they disappear around the corner.
* * * * *
It's late afternoon, raining hard. Jan hasn't come back. Leonie sits by the window and files her nails. All they allow her is a cardboard emery board, no scissors, no sharp points. How is she supposed to get the dried blood out from under her nails?
Before the storm started, she watched the girls cross the lawn toward the gardener's house. She doesn't like Art Pebbles and his wife. Their living room is full of pictures of Jesus. Jan spends a lot of time at the Peebles. They teach Sunday school and bring her coloring books.
"Jesus loves you," Art always says. "If you trust in Him, you'll get better."
She doesn't like the coloring books they bring her—inky black outlines of Joseph and Mary and Peter and the disciples drawn on dirty-looking paper. But she thanks them. She was raised to be polite.
She sets down the emery board and chooses a bottle of nail polish. Blushing Rose. It's old, from the last time she was home. They don't let her have nail polish at The Place. They keep her nails short. Clip, clip, clip. She hates those man scissors. Hates them. They cut right down to the quick.
Now her nails are growing, a few even have some shape. Nice and sharp. Her husband told May Dean to cut her nails while he was gone. Al doesn't like nails that bite. He hides the scars on his neck and back and buttocks, but she catches glimpses of them when he's changing for bed. One of them zigzags like the sign for rain she saw in a cave on their honeymoon. She always looks for that one—three wavy lines—right under his shoulder blade. Before he left for ... where did he go? Costa Rica? Argentina? Some coffee country. No matter. Before he left, he told May Dean, "No scissors." But he didn't say anything about emery boards.
She twists open the top of Blushing Rose, breathes in the heavy lacquer scent, presses the brush against the edge of the bottle. A drop of red slides back inside. Like blood. She likes the way it beads up, gets so heavy it has to run. Like tears.
That's something she's lost—tears.
She examines the nail on her index finger. It may be sharp enough. She tests it on her forearm, the soft white underside. Digs, then digs deeper. Feels the flesh rip. Watches the red well up. Yes.
A creak outside. Footsteps on the stairs. May Dean!
Blood is carving a little stream down her arm. She brings it to her lips, presses her tongue against the soft spot, licks. Warm tongue, kind tongue.
The door opens. She drops her arm just in time. May Dean steps inside, blinks in the darkness. Leonie sits by the window, in shadow. May Dean won't see the blood.
"Miz Bennett, I just heard on the radio that the airport's closed. No visibility. Mr. Al won't be comin' in tonight."
Leonie looks out the window, sees shadows, high oak branches tossed about in the wind.
May Dean follows her gaze. "It's pretty bad out. How 'bout I just bring your dinner in here?"
Past the ancient tree, Leonie sees two dark figures running. The rain blurs them into animal shapes. "The girls?" she says.
"They'll just have fish sticks or somethin' in the TV room."
"I was hoping to do Jan's nails."
"It's best to leave Jan alone tonight. She's got a friend over. Don't wanna bother 'em, okay?"
Outside the window, the shapes are gone. Rain slides down the glass, not in drops or rivulets, but in sheets. She sees her face reflected—eyes ringed in shadow. Dark holes above perfect cheekbones. Beautiful once. Her finger moves down the inside of her forearm till it reaches the indentation, moist and sticky.
"That will be all, May Dean," she says, and quietly digs in as the door closes.
* * * * *
The room is dark, the distant whisper of television gone. But the girls haven't come back to Jan's room. She hasn't heard them upstairs at all. Maybe they used the service stairs to go to Jack's room at the other side of the house. He hasn't been around all day. May Dean said he's at a friends' and isn't coming home tonight. She misses him. He usually comes in to say 'hello' in the morning. He brings her things. Yesterday it was his football. He's been learning to throw spiral passes from his friend Matt. He held out the ball and let her touch it, but he didn't stay long. Or let her touch him. She hasn't been home very long. He's much taller now than when she left.
Rain is the only sound in the room. Except for thunder cracking the air. The center of the storm is close. She's been counting. Lightning. One thousand one. One thousand two. One thousand three. It was ten miles away just a few minutes ago, but it's coming fast. She can feel it. The static. Makes her skin feel like it's covered in lice. She has to get out. Out of this room. Out of her skin.
Another flash of lightning. Then, half a beat later, thunder. Loud enough to tremble the house. She opens her door, listens. Nothing. May Dean must be asleep by now. Or hiding in her room. And the girls? It's past their bedtime. She should've tucked Jan in long ago.
She touches the door to Jan's room and it falls open. A slash of lightning electrifies stuffed animals, turns bears, monkeys, elephants, lambs metallic, their dead button eyes glaring at her. No girls.
Darkness. Wind whips trees. Lightning. Branches crack and break and crash to the ground. Out the hall window, she sees a red glow in the heart of the oak, fire, its trunk split open and it feels like she's been struck, that tree the reason she bought this house for Al, that ancient trunk rising, then bowing back down to earth before it rose again toward the sky, one of the last "Indian trees" the Illinois tribe tied to the earth as a sapling so it would grow into a sideways ess pointing the way to Lake Michigan.
Al has a scar like that on his chest. She didn't mean to make an ess. It just came out that way. In the hospital, she painted it dozens of times.
"What's that?" the nurse asked her once.
"Trees grow toward the sky, not the earth."
"My tree does both," she said and wished she could touch it, sit in the curve where it dipped down. She and Al had sat there the day they moved into the house. They held hands and he kissed her there.
She can no longer see the red glow. Maybe it's been doused by the rain. She imagines the hiss as it died and pulls her sweater tight around her. How could Al leave her here, night after night, not a single letter or phone call? At least in the hospital there were people to talk to, nurses to come see how she was doing, doctors who even if they didn't care, acted like they did. But the children...they weren't there. And she missed them. Jan hated coming see her. She could tell. Buttoned into a stiff Sunday dress, Jan squirmed. A can't-hold-still child. Mercurial. Didn't like to be touched. Turned to ice as soon as Leonie reached for her. Still, this was the one she thought of most when she was away. The other two, Ann in high school, Jack not far behind—they were on their own. But Jan still needed a mother. She should check on the child.
The hallway is dark. She doesn't dare turn on a light—May Dean would notice—but she can feel her way. She has to be careful of the paintings, mustn't, mustn't knock one off the wall. And her arm, the tender inside of her arm...there are three wounds now—one, two, three. The film that will turn into scabs has started to form. It always surprises her how much the body wants to heal. Mustn't let Jan see. She pulls the sleeve of her nightgown down.
The side of the house where the girls ran off to is like a labyrinth, down the long hall past the circular stairs that lead to the entry hall, past the door to Jack's room, then Ann's room, around a corner, down three steps, another corner, more steps, then the door to the service stairs on the right, stairs that lead to May Dean's room. Leonie tiptoes. Must be quiet. Very, very quiet.
A floorboard creaks. She freezes. Only a yard or two further and she'll reach Jack's room. Light escapes from under the door. The girls are talking. She hears the ssssp, ssssp, ssssp of girl-voices.
Wait till they're asleep, she thinks. Then go in and pull Jan's blankets up. Maybe even kiss her. No. She might scream. No, mustn't kiss her. Mustn't. Mustn't. Mustn't.
Leonie lies down on the floor, inches forward until she can look under the door. Can't see much of anything. There's the sound of springs squeaking. One of the girls must be on the top bunk and the other is bouncing her up and down with her feet. She remembers doing that with her brother. Her little brother. Her lying on her back in the bottom bunk, bouncing him up and down with her feet, him laughing and laughing just like Jan and her friend are laughing.
Don't. Don't think about him. Don't. But she can't help it. She sees his bones poking through snow, bones gnawed by wild animals, her brother lost somewhere in the Himalayas. Eaten.
A clap of thunder. The house itself seems to shiver. Sounds of laughter disappear. She hears Jan's friend ask, "Do you know any ghost stories?"
"No good ones," Jan says.
The girl starts to tell the story about the golden arm and whenever she says "Who stole my golden arm?" in a funny deep voice, Jan laughs, but the story is long and convoluted and hard to hear through the door. Leonie pulls her knees to her chest, curls up in a ball, content just to be near them. But just as she's drifting off, Jan's friend asks, "Who was that woman, the one down at the other end of the house?"
"Nobody," Jan says. "She's nobody."
* * * * *
Sparkles wakes Leonie up, licking her face with his big, dumb tongue. He's old and he smells and she usually makes May Dean keep him away from her, but his tongue tickles her ear and for a moment, she is a little girl, her dog Scopes waking her and she's impossibly happy, heart-breaking-open happy.
Then she realizes where she is. On the floor. In the hall. In the house. Outside the door to Jack's room. Her left arm's asleep and her bones hurt where they hit the floor. The girls are making a lot of noise in there, the bunk beds creaking. What are they doing?
Jan says, "Spit!"
The other girl says, "Spit!"
"Hey, aim at the pile, not at me," Jan says.
"It's a long way down from the top bunk."
"Try spinning it!" Jan says.
There's no sound of a card slapping down. Instead there's a gasp, then a terrible thud on the floor, the sound of a body crumpling, then a high-pitched yelp, then an "OOOOOO!"
She doesn't know if it's her daughter's voice or the other.
Leonie opens the door and sees the girl staring at her left forearm, the bottom half of it dangling at a 45 degree angle, the bone apparently broken halfway between the wrist and the elbow. She must have followed the card down from the top bunk, broken her fall with her outstretched hand. The girl circles the middle of the broken arm with her good hand as if to hold the arm together, then seeing the open door, runs.
After a moment's hesitation, Leonie follows, chases her up the hall, around one corner after another till she can grab the child. She seizes a shoulder, then slips her other arm under the girl's knees and lifts her up, saying, "It's okay. Don't worry. I've got you, I've got you." The girl goes still in her arms, doesn't fight and Leonie carries her to the nearest room, Ann's, a room with light, where she lays the girl down on the bed and gently lifts the girl's head onto a pillow. She doesn't touch the arm the girl is gripping so tightly her thumb and middle finger are white where they meet.
"You keep holding your arm just like that," she says to the girl. "You're doing fine." She brushes the hair from the girl's brow and sees in the girl's brown eyes not just fear but trust. "You're going to be fine," she says. "Just fine."
"Mother, what are you...."
"Get May Dean!" Leonie says. "The girl needs to go to the hospital. And call the Peebles. Get Art to find two straight, flat pieces of wood and some gauze or cloth to make a splint."
Her daughter stares at her, disbelief in her eyes.
Still she hesitates.
Jan bites her lower lip, her cracked tooth a reminder to them both of how unpredictable Leonie can be, but then Jan looks at her friend on the bed and runs toward the service stairs calling, "May Dean! May Dean!"
The girl lies rock-still.
"You did the right thing, holding your arm like that."
"I want my mom," the girl says.
"May Dean will call her. Don't worry. She'll come." Leonie searches what she can see of the arm, looking for blood, but she knows better than to move the girl's fingers. "From what I can see, there's no break in the skin. That's good. It's much worse if the bone breaks through the skin. You were smart to grab your arm like that."
The girl's eyes are black with fear. Leonie knows the look. She knows what it is to be inside it. She strokes the girl's forehead and hums a song she hasn't thought of in years. The words open inside her like small gifts as the tune comes. "Hush little baby, don't say a word. Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird, and if that mockingbird don't sing, Mama's gonna buy you a diamond ring, and if that diamond ring don't shine, you'll still be the sweetest little baby of mine." It's been such a long time since she's hummed, it fills her head with a soft vibration and she almost forgets the reason the song has come to her. But the child is listening, looking up at her with something she hasn't seen in such a long time, at first she doesn't recognize it. Then it comes to Leonie. Trust. The girl trusts her.
"What's this now?" May Dean says from the doorway. "You gone and hurt the child?"
"Jan said her arm's broke."
"She fell off the top bunk. They were playing a game and . . . ."
"That right, child?" May Dean stands at the foot of the bed, staring at the girl.
The girl nods.
"And Miz Bennett didn't do nothing to . . . "
"I am taking care of her, May Dean."
"Miz Bennett, there's some things you can't . . . "
"I said I am taking care of her."
May Dean looks from Leonie back to the girl. "How you doin', honey?"
The girl's teeth have begun chattering.
"Shock," May Dean says.
Leonie says, "She's holding her arm straight till we can put on splints."
Jan, out of breath, appears in the doorway. "Art's coming. Is she okay?"
"She's in shock," Leonie says. "May Dean, go get more blankets."
May Dean nods. As she leaves, she tells Jan, "Your mother did good."
Distrust doesn't leave her daughter's face. Leonie digs her sharp fingernail into her palm till she feels the welling up of warm blood.
"Will you sing some more?" the girl asks.
She would like to, she wants to sing, to hear the words "Hush little baby" coming out from inside her but Jan's eyes—cold eyes, angry eyes—stop her. "Hush little baby" is her daughter's song, the song she used to sing when Jan was little, when they rocked together in the big bentwood rocker and Jan gave her that same trusting look the girl has now.
"I wish this little girl was you," she tells Jan and she's glad when she sees hurt fill Jan's eyes.
Art Peebles's heavy footsteps are coming up the stairs, and in the distance, Leonie can hear a siren. It's a sound she's heard often. Too often. It's the sound she hears when they want to get rid of her. May Dean. Her husband. Jan. Jack.
The warm stickiness of blood wells up under her fingers. She stands.
"Don't go!" the girl says, but she has to go. She can't let them take her away. She can't take the chance they'll recognize her from times past, blame her, lock her up again. Without a word, she leaves the girl on the bed. Her elbow brushes her daughter's arm as she passes. Jan flinches at her touch and Leonie barely controls the urge to hit her, hard, across the face. She forces herself to keep walking, but she doesn't stop her fingernail from digging into the soft underside of her wrist, purple veins so close to the surface, flesh so thin and tender, even the scarred parts are easy to open. She feels the sweet stickiness of blood bubbling up, raises her wrist to her lips and sucks.
MJ Roberts has won awards for her plays, poetry and short stories from such diverse organizations as the National League of American Pen Women, the City of Los Angeles, and Charlotte Repertory Company. Her plays have been produced in Los Angeles and other parts of the country, and her short stories and poems have appeared in literary anthologies.