Tears stung my eyes and tracked down my face, and I gave myself that one time to cry over the loss of a child who would be better off without me, along with the cold-hearted boy I was better off without. Staring at the unused rocking chair in the corner of the homey little room, I swore I would leave that place and put it all behind me. I would go live my life and establish my brilliant career. I would forget all of it, starting the moment I stepped out of the hospital.
Two days later, my br**sts were swollen and leaking. The doctor had mentioned this probability, but I didn’t count on the reality of it. My stupid body assumed it had a baby to feed. Or a dozen babies, from the looks of things.
‘What the hell?’ I wailed to Kathryn. ‘What the hell is this?’ I felt like someone had shoved soccer balls beneath the too-stretched skin of my once-perfect br**sts.
‘Honey, your body doesn’t know you don’t have him.’
I sputtered with indignation. ‘This is disgusting! Make it stop!’ My ni**les dripped painfully, soaking my T-shirt, and I sat on the floor and cried, all previous strength vanishing under hormonal shifts I couldn’t bring under control. My body was betraying me.
Kathryn called the doctor, who refused to prescribe anything but painkillers, which I refused to take. For three weeks, we bound my comic-book giant boobs, and Kathryn gave me packages of frozen veggies to hold against them while I watched television and read scripts.
Observing this, Kylie, home for the weekend, suggested I think of it as a bizarre sports injury. ‘Basically, your tits are on injured reserve,’ she said, and we laughed hysterically as Kathryn just shook her head at us and brought me two new bags of frozen peas.
‘I will never be able to look at peas the same way,’ she observed, pressing the cold bags to my chest and carrying the thawed, squishy bags to the trash.
Kathryn. She’s who I need now. Without another thought, I grab my phone.
‘Brooke, how are you, honey?’ Just those words from her and I’m bawling. Dammit. ‘I’m here,’ she says, waiting while I give up the search for a box of tissues and use a decorative hand towel to soak up the spontaneous tears and stop up my runny nose. Good thing I wasn’t planning on going out tonight.
‘I found him, Kathryn. I found him, and I think maybe … he needs me.’
‘Slow down, Brooke. You found who?’
I sniffle into the phone, unprepared to speak just yet.
This is why I called my stepmother. She’s so perceptive, and always so attuned to me. I hadn’t even told her I was searching for River, but I tell her I found him, and she knows.
I am small. I am quiet. I wish I was invisible.
In my old house, I hid when people came. One time, I was asleep on the couch next to Mama when her friend Harry came over. Harry is mean and loud, and I hate him the most. I pulled my blankie over my head. I held my breath and didn’t move.
But he pulled the blankie away. ‘This worthless critter’s still here?’
When he grabbed my arm, I shook my head until he was blurry. I’m not a critter. I’m not.
He laughed, and his mouth smelled like the trash under the sink. ‘Critters like this are even scrawnier when you skin ’em.’ His hand was like a claw, and I couldn’t make him let go even though I tugged hard as I could.
‘Harry, let him be.’ Mama’s eyes were squinty, but her lips weren’t pressed together, like when she was about to yell or hit. She never hit me very hard, but I didn’t like her to be mad. Sometimes she hugged me after and said she was sorry.
Harry squeezed my arm harder, like he wanted to snap it into two pieces. I wondered what sound it would make if he did.
His fingers looked like bones from a skeleton.
I found bones in the yard one time, under some old boards. They were a bird shape, but flat. I was real careful when I dug it loose and took it to show Mama, but her mouth made a flat line and she squinted and yelled to get that dirty dead thing out of her kitchen. I dug a hole in the dirt and put the bones in and covered it, because you’re supposed to bury dead things in the ground.
Skeletons are a lot of bones that make up a whole thing. I saw a person skeleton once, at Halloween. It was sitting in a chair, like it was waiting for somebody. There were big holes with no eyes, but it looked like it was smiling. No guts or brains or heart, either. It was empty.
Harry was like a skeleton wearing a skin T-shirt stretched over his whole body. Mama told him all the time he didn’t have a heart. When he wasn’t around, she told me he didn’t have a brain. I don’t know if he had guts.
‘Don’t he ever talk?’ Harry stared at me like I was a bug. Like he was thinking about squashing me.
‘Not really.’ Mama sighed, because I made her sad.
‘A boy his size that won’t talk? So he’s a retard? You should give him to me for a week or so. I’d learn him to talk.’
I stared at Mama, telling her no with my eyes. My eyes promised her that I would be good every day. I would do everything she said.
‘This little shit don’t even look like you. You sure he’s yours?’ When he laughed again, I tried not to breathe in the stink.
‘You adopted him? Why the f**k would you wanna do that?’
Mama looked at me and shrugged her shoulders. ‘I wanted a baby, I guess. A family …’
‘Shit, woman – you better not start whining about your old man again, because I will up and leave right now –’
Mama’s eyes got wide. ‘I won’t. I wasn’t.’ Her voice was shaky.