By Maggie Mitchell
Featured art: Figures by Benjamin F. Berlin
Maddy is thirteen, almost fourteen. Her chest is as flat as a boy’s and she does not own a pair of Jordache jeans.
“I hate Fridays,” she tells her mother. What she means is that she hates everything.
“I know you do,” says Jude, understanding perfectly. “I’m not sure what you want me to do about it.”
“It feels like I’m in prison. There aren’t any windows in there.” She’s referring to her room behind the bar, to which she is more strictly confined than usual on Friday nights: Jude insists that she stay out of the way when it’s crowded. “I can hear people but I can’t see them.”
“Why would you want to see them? They’re adults at a bar.”
“But that’s all there ever is,” Maddy rails, not even caring if she makes sense. “Adults at a bar. I wish we could be normal.”
“That’s what you keep saying. You tell me what normal is, and I’ll see what we can do.”
Maddy whirls around and storms into her room behind the bar, daring to slam the door. She knows only what normal isn’t.
Later that night, after the dining room has closed, Jude knocks sharply on Maddy’s door and immediately steps in, music and voices swelling behind her. Maddy waits a few seconds before looking up sulkily, pretending to be engrossed in The Scarlet Letter. “Someone wants to talk to you,” Jude says. “She has a—a proposition for you.”
“A proposition?” Maddy repeats. Automatically, she injects her voice with skepticism. Inside, though, a glimmer of hope explodes across her mind.
A proposition of any kind would involve change. Something new. She has half convinced herself that she is dying of boredom. She follows Jude, feigning reluctance.
Amber Gilbert is sitting at the waitress table in the lounge, massaging her calves and sipping a strawberry daiquiri. Wisps of mousy hair have escaped from her ponytail. She is just a few feet from the very spot where she once crashed into the Christmas tree in a rage, searching for her straying husband. Moments after her departure, Maddy remembers, Jeff Gilbert emerged sheepishly from the men’s room, trying to laugh it off. Later, people had said Amber was unstable, that she needed help, a pronouncement that was more of an accusation than an expression of sympathy. To need help betrayed weakness.
Now she looks a little older, but cheerful. Perfectly stable, at a glance. It’s her first night of work. “Hi, Maddy,” Amber says, her voice soft and low. “I don’t know if you remember me. Jeff Gilbert’s wife? Well—I’m going to be hostessing on Friday nights, for a little while anyway, till we see if it works out.” She glances sideways at Jude. “And your mother mentioned that you were looking for something to do on Fridays. So . . . I wondered if you’d be interested in babysitting for my little girl, while I’m working. Since I can’t very well expect my husband to stay home every Friday. God forbid,” she adds, as if to herself.
“Well—” Maddy’s imagination reaches out in all directions, groping, trying to feel out the possibilities latent in this offer. “I’ve never done it before,” she says uncertainly. “I mean, I don’t know much about kids.”
“It’s easy,” says Amber, trying not to sound desperate.
Amber is almost thirty now. She never returned to college, has not worked since marrying Jeff. Emily, now nine—almost ten—remains their only child. It seems to Amber that her daughter is beginning to shape a life of her own. Pathetically, she is jealous. Over the years, she has realized that Jeff’s attitude toward her isn’t vicious, isn’t, in a strange way, even personal. What wives do, he thinks, is stay home. They cook and clean and wait on people. They put up with things. She has learned this, in part, from Jeff’s mother. She is trying to blame Jeff less for assuming that his mother is more or less what she would become. He must think it’s a natural process, she imagines, like caterpillars turning into butterflies, only in reverse: back to the cocoon.
Mirrors inform her that her pale prettiness is fading early.
Everyone knows she begged Jude to hire her. Jeff disapproves, sees it as an affront to his ability to do what he calls “provide.” She doesn’t have to work; why would she choose to? And if she must work, why in a restaurant?
Teenagers work in restaurants, or poor women with stringy hair and bunions and lazy, abusive husbands. Jeff is embarrassed, and worried about what people will think. But she has his attention, for once, which is something.
“You’d make a lot more waiting tables,” Jude tells her when she asks about hostessing. It’s true, but she has a feeling it would be going too far. As hostess, it’s part of her job to look nice, to be gracious. She’s set apart from the waitresses. She doesn’t serve people, exactly. She guesses that, when he gets used to the idea, Jeff will find this easier to stomach than if she were brandishing trays of fish fries in the air, scrounging crumpled dollar bills and piles of change off stained tablecloths.
Besides, she likes it. She smiles almost too much as she leads people to their tables at Jude’s that winter, hands them their menus, pours their water. She announces with nearly indecorous enthusiasm that their waitress will be with them in a moment. She buys new clothes, which she hasn’t had occasion to do for years. She loses a couple of pounds. She is very nearly happy.
“Babysitting,” Maddy quickly realizes, isn’t exactly the best way to describe her job. As an only child, Emily is accustomed to entertaining herself. Maddy’s role is to keep her company, really, and make sure she doesn’t stay up all night. They play Barbies—Emily has several, all with extensive wardrobes. Emily’s Barbies inhabit colorful fantasy worlds where they are forced to flee dragons and outwit evil princes, usually in evening gowns and high heels. Sometimes they die. Maddy’s Barbies are rulers of nations—or sometimes spies, shaping world events from behind the scenes, leading double lives, always in highly inappropriate attire. When Maddy dares to enter one of Emily’s kingdoms, her prime ministers and secret agents become sorceresses and cruel queens; it’s an easy enough transition. Mostly, though, they maintain separate but adjacent worlds. Their Barbies are loners. They change their costumes frequently and talk mostly to themselves.
Maddy pretends that she is doing all of this for Emily’s sake, humoring her childish tastes, but in fact she feels oddly content. They play for hours.
What she likes best, though, is the time when she is downstairs alone, after Emily has gone to bed. She is entranced by the cupboards in the pantry. “Go ahead and help yourself to snacks,” Amber said in the beginning, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. Greedily, Maddy surveys shelves lined with crackers, microwave popcorn, tortilla chips. Multiple boxes of cereal. All brand names, products she’s seen ads for. Stacks of Campbell’s soup cans, boxes of Kraft macaroni and cheese, brownie mix. She becomes especially fond of Triscuits. Jude doesn’t keep much food in their house; it would only go bad, she has explained on the rare occasions when Maddy has ventured to point out this domestic shortcoming. Odds and ends pile up in their kitchen cupboards: unimportant mail, extra bottles of cheap shampoo. On days when the restaurant is closed, Maddy and Jude subsist on leftover soup-of-the-day and not-quite-stale rolls. Maddy is accustomed only to the kitchen at Jude’s, with its knee-high plastic vats, huge frozen slabs of meat, industrial-sized cans: food purchased in bulk, not designed to be visually appealing. The Gilberts’ pantry is colorful, vivid, like a TV show. Maddy wants everything in it. This, she thinks, is the kind of normal she means. Despite Amber’s casual offer, though, there’s something illicit about Maddy’s inspections of the pantry: she tries to choose things that won’t be missed, and she takes care to leave no evidence.
She makes a dollar an hour. She is saving for Jordaches.
Amber surprises everyone. She does well; she’s efficient and level-headed, and everyone likes her. She gets along with the waitresses, who were skeptical at first. Jeff still comes into the bar, where he pretends not to watch her, but he and his friends have also been hitting a dive bar out in the country. “It has a pool table,” he explains, to prevent Amber from flattering herself that he is avoiding Jude’s because of her. She prefers it when he’s not there; she’s less self-conscious when she doesn’t feel compelled to imagine herself through his eyes. But whether he’s there or not, she takes to having her free after-shift drink at the bar, rather than in the lounge. She talks to Jude, whom she has come to like. She takes her ponytail down, plays Pat Benatar on the jukebox.
“It must be hard, raising Maddy on your own,” Amber ventures one night, although she’s noticed that most people don’t get too personal with Jude.
Jude shrugs. “Maybe if I had something to compare it to, it would seem hard,” she says. “But I’m not so sure. I mean, would you really say Jeff makes things easier for you? Amount of time he spends in here, I find that hard to believe.”
She has a point. But Emily loves Jeff, worships him even; on his daughter he showers the charm Amber only vaguely remembers from before-Emily, before time sped up and the years began to blur together.
Down at the other end of the bar, the Boddingtons sit comfortably side by side; they don’t talk much, but occasionally they glance at each other and exchange strangely beatific smiles—smiles that seem to contain decades of conversation, distilled into something more perfect and pure than words could ever be. Meanwhile, at the table by the window, Paul Fowler and Samantha Holleran lean toward each other, foreheads nearly touching. They are just home from college and on the verge, people say, ofgetting engaged. The red and blue beer light above their heads gives their faces a rosy, somehow unreal glow, as if they’re in a movie and the lighting has been designed to make them look as romantic and as flawless as possible.
I’m not lovable anymore, not like that, Amber thinks. But by late spring, she has acquired an admirer. He comes in every Friday, half an hour or so before closing; sits alone in a corner near the fireplace, and orders a steak. For this the cook hates him. By the third Friday, it’s become obvious to everyone that it’s not the cheap steak and end-of-the-night french fries that are drawing him. Even Amber blushingly concedes that this might be the case. Somehow, he manages to convey his interest without crossing the line of respectability: no one dubs him a pervert or a slime. Instead, they hint that Amber is lucky. He has a boating tan, wears khaki pants with handsome lightweight sweaters and boating shoes, and an expensive watch. Not, they note, a wedding ring. He pays with Canadian money. The waitresses, tired of being kept late by his odd schedule, eventually take to leaving his check for Amber to close out, even letting her drop his food if it hasn’t come up yet by the time their other tables are gone. “Keep the tip,” they say. “You’re the one he wants anyway.” He tips generously, but not enough to cause alarm; not enough to imply that he thinks something besides the food might be for sale.
Jeff, who seldom ventures into the dining room, has no idea. Amber feels slightly guilty about this but reasons that, really, there’s nothing to tell. She has a regular customer, that’s all.
Maddy descends the carpeted stairs, trailing one hand along the banister, idly examining the framed school pictures of Emily that line the wall—a diagonal map of the girl’s development from kindergarten on. Although Emily has worn glasses since she was quite young, she insists on removing them for her pictures. As a result she gazes blindly out from the mottled blue backdrops, her blue eyes dreamy and unfocused. Briefly wondering what Jude does with her school pictures—stuffed in a cabinet behind extra bottles of gin, she imagines—Maddy decides that the pictures are a little eerie: Emily, she tells herself, has the otherworldly look of the kids in missing child photographs, children you know will never be found. But then she wonders if she is making this up— and she feels a flash of guilt, as if the very thought has exposed Emily to danger. If Emily ever disappears, she thinks matter-of-factly, it will be her fault.
Although after a few Fridays the novelty of babysitting has dimmed, Maddy still feels a sense of adventure when Emily goes to bed. She’s never been in a brand-new house before; it seems to her that she can still smell the raw wood. Pale ruffled curtains veil the dark windows. The quiet, irreproachably clean house seems full of possibility, blandly exotic. She surveys the pantry as though it’s a travel brochure, shimmering with promises. She selects a bag of Ruffles, already opened—one of her rules—and resealed with a plastic clip. She fills a small bowl, which she will later wash and replace in the neatly organized cupboard, and makes sure the clip is placed precisely as it was before. Settling onto the soft, rose-patterned couch, flanked by matching chairs, Maddy flips on the TV with the remote control—which it has taken her a while to master, ashamed to ask for instructions—and picks up Amber’s latest library book from the coffee table: Anna Karenina. It looks less frivolous than Amber’s usual choices, though the title means nothing to her.
She’s only about ten pages in and hasn’t yet decided what to make of the book when the phone rings. Maddy steels herself: it’s always some man for Amber’s husband. She doesn’t like talking to them: it feels improper, somehow; disconcertingly intimate.
But it isn’t for Jeff Gilbert. “Maddy?” says a girl’s voice. “Am I speaking to Miss Madeleine Stone?”
No one calls her. No one, except Jude and Amber, knows she’s here. “May I ask who’s calling?” Jude has taught her very formal telephone manners, but politeness can’t disguise the tremor in her voice.
“May I ask who’s calling?” the girl mimics, her voice mincing and prissy. Maddy hears laughter in the background. She knows now that she should hang up—should have hung up already—but she doesn’t. “Sure, you can ask. It’s a free country, right? But we don’t have to tell you. Let’s just say I’m calling from a small organization called As Bayview Turns.” This, Maddy knows, is a reference to a soap opera, though she has never watched one: soap operas are expressly forbidden by Jude. There is more muffled giggling in the background. She distinguishes at least two separate voices, maybe three. They’re slightly distorted, but naggingly familiar.
“I’m going to hang up now,” she says, trying to sound dignified. But she doesn’t hang up.
“We only need one moment of your time, Miss Stone. It has come to our attention that you are desperately dying to go on a date with Mike Savage— that, in fact, you want him to make passionate love to you.” She’s reading this from a script, Maddy thinks miserably. They have this written out. Tanya, she thinks: who but Tanya Van Tassel? Mike Savage is a borderline bad-boy—a smoker in the bathroom, a possessor of facial hair—who’s recently become a sort of pet of the popular girls.
“That’s ridiculous,” she says. Somehow it has become too late to hang up.
The voice continues. “We regret to inform you, Miss Stone, that we cannot consider your request until you have—ahem—begun to menstruate. Mr. Savage, of course, does not date little girls.”
“Especially wicked skinny red-headed ones,” the background voice chimes in. Both voices dissolve into laughter and before Maddy can summon the presence of mind to hang up, she hears a click on the other end of the line.
It’s true. She’s a freak.
And although she has no interest in Mike Savage—he has never occurred to her as a subject for her vague romantic fantasies—the mere suggestion is coercive, and suddenly she is drowning in shame for a desire that is not hers.
Anna Karenina rests heavily on her lap. She has lost her page. Fiery tears stream down her face.
Just before her fourteenth birthday, two tiny, tender bumps appear on Maddy’s chest—practically overnight, she is convinced: one night they weren’t there; in the morning, they were. She’s glad that so far they are too small to be detected by anyone but her: for now, they feel like a secret, and also a reassurance that her body is at last doing what it’s supposed to. “Everyone develops at a different pace, there’s no ‘normal,’” Jude has repeatedly consoled her; but until now, in the absence of evidence, Maddy has been skeptical.
The bumps keep up a low, steady throb, a friendly kind of pain that makes her always aware of their existence. She feels much older than Emily, suddenly: more like a real babysitter, less like an oversized companion. They still play Barbies, but now that the Gilberts have HBO and Cinemax, they spend more time watching movies: My Tutor, Porky’s. Teenagers on TV are sly and lust-obsessed. They embarrass but also fascinate her. She changes the channel when there’s a sex scene—ostensibly for Emily’s sake, but also to spare herself. When there’s nothing on TV, she keeps plodding through Anna Karenina, which Amber regularly renews from the library. Maddy is keeping pace with her. Sometimes, confused or overwhelmed, she considers abandoning it, but the book has become a sort of challenge, and she’s unwilling to admit defeat. Also, she is curious.
His name is Alan Croft, straightforward and harmless. He comes in twice a week now.
Business picks up in June, as summer people begin to trickle northward and boating season kicks in. Amber takes on another shift, sparking a showdown with Jeff. Their first, really. “We don’t need the money,” Jeff says. “It’s obvious that you just want to get away. How do you think that looks to Emily? Or my parents? Christ, Amber, what kind of wife and mother cares more about some crappy job she doesn’t need than she doesabout her family?” He sounds genuinely interested in her reply: he’s not being melodramatic, she realizes; this is really how he sees it. Pity outweighs resentment, for once, and she tries to make her explanation kind. Her efforts are wasted. Although for years he has gone out night after night with his friends, indulged in weekend-long fishing and hunting trips, and played softball with a league, he isn’t capable of understanding that she, too, might need to get out every now and then. That night, after she has reluctantly put Anna Karenina aside and turned off her bedside light, he rolls over roughly and more or less forces himself on her, not waiting for a token response, a concession to wifely duty. He just does it. It’s the first time in a long time, and it puts an end to her pity.
Alan Croft wants her to come down to the harbor to see his boat. He’s gentle but persistent. “When’s the last time you were out on the river?” he asks as she’s topping his water off. “It’s a shame to live in a place like this and not take advantage of it.” He makes it sound so natural, so harmless, that it’s hard to know how to refuse. “I need to get home,” she always tells him, but he knows she doesn’t: knows Maddy wouldn’t mind staying longer, knows Jeff won’t be home until late. “I can’t,” she finally insists one night; she’s gone to pick up his check and he holds it out to her, then pullsit back at the last second, drawing her hand in along with his twenty-dollar bill. “Why can’t you,” he says softly. “You know exactly why,” she says, drawing her hand back sharply; this is the closest they have come to a direct acknowledgement of what is happening, or not happening. “I want to see you happy,” he says.
She knows how this will turn out.
Maddy buys Calvin Kleins instead of Jordaches, and she wears them to the fireworks. They’re still stiff, unwashed. Gripping every inch of her flesh, they make her strangely aware of her legs, of her body. She walks self-consciously, wanting and fearing to be seen. Emily, more appropriately dressed for the Fourth in shorts, walks beside her as they trek across town; together they have overcome Amber’s reservations about this unsupervised expedition.
It’s just dusk: not nearly dark enough yet, but already there are hundreds of people staking out spots or roaming around downby the docks. Firecrackers echo like gunshots off the water and the old warehouses. Roving groups of boys toss them at girls’ feet. All over town, dogs are howling in protest. Music drifts from car radios, windows open, songs clashing—Joan Jett and Alabama, Madonna and Ratt. Scraps of lyrics set up meaningless loops in her mind as she scans the crowd for people she knows, wondering who she’s hoping to see.
A group of girls swoops down on Emily, and Maddy watches with a kind of reluctant admiration as the calm, slightly aloof girl accepts her friends’ attention, slips effortlessly into the superlative-laden slang current among fifth graders, and then, after a few minutes, smoothly disengages herself. “Can you come with us?” the girls are demanding. “I’m with Maddy,” Emily says, as if that’s an adequate explanation. “I better go, we’re meeting some people. See you later!” she calls, waving languidly, leaving them behind. Her status, Maddy can tell, is only enhanced by this casual dismissal: yet another of the secrets Maddy has never learned. Emily smiles up at Maddy. “Sorry about that. I figured you wouldn’t want all those kids hanging around.” Maddy is touched, and grateful. She buys them each a glowing pink tube necklace from a densely tattooed vendor; she loops hers around her wrist, having admired that effect on someone else, while Emily makes hers into a headband, pushing her light brown hair offher forehead and framing her narrow face with a neon glow. It’s original without being flamboyant, and once more Maddy admires the girl’s seemingly effortless social adeptness. She resists the temptation to copy her.
Out of the corner of her eye she glimpses Tanya Van Tassel, lovely in a white miniskirt and delicate pink top. She’s walking alongside a boy, laughing up at him—her fake, sparkling laugh, Maddy thinks, but the boy doesn’t seem to notice. He’s older—maybe a senior, Maddy guesses, slightly shocked. According to rumor, Tanya was the first girl in the seventh grade to lose her virginity. It might or might not be true, but it complicates her reputation: half slut, half heroine. It doesn’t seem to damage her; in fact, she seems more powerful than ever, more sure of herself.
It’s getting darker. Weaving their way through the unfamiliar throngs to the old ferry docks, Maddy and Emily find standing room at the water’s edge and look out across the river at the dozens of anchored boats, rocking gently with the waves. They are beginning to turn their lights off, one after another.
Just before the last trace of light fades, Maddy hears Emily draw in her breath sharply. “Is that my mom?” she exclaims, tugging at Maddy’s sleeve. “It can’t be, can it? Over there,” Emily insists, pointing toward one of the long narrow docks that snakes out over the water. “Can you see? I’m almost sure it’s her.”
Maddy follows her gaze, wondering at the edge of panic in Emily’s voice. It’s highly unlikely that Emily is right; Amber should be at work for another hour. “I don’t see anyone,” Maddy says, which is true. But she also finds herself wanting it to be true; Emily’s apparent overreaction alerts her to some unspoken threat. “We’ll meet her at Jude’s after the fireworks,” Maddy reassures the girl. Just as she hears the first firework launch, like a quick intake of breath, Emily grabs her elbow, and Maddy looks down to see the first firework of the night exploding in her glasses, dancing across her set, determined face. Maddy spins around in time to see a bolt of red light fracture against the sky, quickly followed by a cascade of blue. She can feel herself smiling in the dark.
But Emily is tugging at her: “I want to go up to Jude’s after all,” she insists. “I don’t like watching from here.”
“Oh, Emily! Please! Trust me, this is so much better. You didn’t see your mother, did you? I told you so.”
“I just want to go to Jude’s. I want to see Mom. I don’t like it here.” “But you wanted to come,” says Maddy hopelessly. Her Calvin Kleins will mean nothing at Jude’s. They’re for the crowd—for anyone willing to see that she is different, more normal than they had thought, and also more interesting.
“Please,” says Emily, staring straight ahead, ignoring the fireworks. “You’re still my babysitter, right?”
Maddy considers possible responses. She looks down at Emily, shards of light still reflected in her glasses. She remembers Amber’s admirer, quite suddenly. She’s heard the teasing, the innuendo. But no, surely not. This—which is nothing, she reminds herself; nothing but a suspicious girl’s imagination—is nothing to do with that.
“Fine,” she says finally, her voice harsh and unfamiliar. She starts up the hill, dragging Emily behind her. She feels eyes on her, or imagines she does. She wonders what people are thinking.
At Jude’s, employees and a few customers are gathered along the back windows in the darkened dining room. A quick scan doesn’t reveal Amber. Emily frees herself from Maddy’s grasp and runs toward the kitchen; Maddy catches Jude’s eye and her mother immediately extricates herself from the small crowd. Jude always knows when something’s wrong.
“We’re looking for Amber,” Maddy says in a low voice. “Emily thought she saw her down at the docks, and for some reason she’s all worried about it.” Emily reemerges from the kitchen, face flushed, letting the door swing violently behind her.
Jude turns from Maddy to Emily. “Maybe you did see her. I told your mother to leave a little early tonight,” she says, her voice calm, her eyes locked on Emily’s. “She always stays late, you know, so it seemed fair. She’s probably down watching the fireworks with everyone else. There’s nothing to worry about, Emily.” Her explanation is perfectly plausible. But Maddy, who has spent years learning how to read Jude’s face, sees the cloud that hovers behind her gray eyes, the faint line between her eyebrows that deepens as she speaks. Jude is hiding something. She might not be lying, but there is something she isn’t saying, something that makes all the difference. They turn back to the windows in time for the grand finale. Maddy sees their dim reflections through the glass, hovering like dazzled ghosts as dozens of fireworks shatter across the sky.
“Charlene will give you a ride home,” Jude says when it’s over, nodding at a waitress who stands nearby. “I’m sure Amber will be there soon.”
Amber watches the last of a spray of gold lights shiver into the darkness. The air still vibrates with the last deafening series of explosions and trails of smoke scar the sky like a battleground. Her arms are clasped around her knees; she’s tucked into as small a shape as possible. As if she’s hardly here. She can feel Alan Croft sitting next to her on the deck of his boat; she can tell he’s looking at her. Any minute now he will reach out to touch her. Her knee? Her hand? Her hair, which has fallen across her face? It will be something harmless enough, at first.
“I have to go,” she says. “I have to go back to Jude’s and pick up Emily.” “She’s with Jude’s daughter, right? No hurry, then. You can at least finish your beer, can’t you?” His voice gets lower, suddenly; more intense. Now he will touch her . . . But he doesn’t, not yet. “You’re not doing anything wrong, Amber. We’re not. You’re out with a friend. Having a drink. People do it all the time. Your husband, for one.”
She still won’t look at him, and she finds herself liking him a little less for pretending that this isn’t what it is. She’s been liking him less since she agreed to leave Jude’s with him; she wonders, now, whether she ever really liked him at all. He had placed his tanned hand on her back, at one point, as they maneuvered their way through the crowd, and instead of the shock of physical attraction she half expected, she had felt a slight revulsion. She had walked more quickly, to escape his proprietary touch. She thinks now that there’s something smug about him. And something dishonest, she suspects: something he hasn’t said. A wife, maybe. Or simply a more sordid kind of interest than he pretends. Either way, she knows perfectly well what this is about. Or what it could have been about. What he’s offering, what she’s going to refuse. As soon as the smoke clears, and the crowd thins.
How many people have seen them together, she wonders. Everyone. There will be explaining to do.
Charlene drops them off. “You guys okay?” she asks. “I can come in and wait with you.”
“We’re fine,” says Maddy. “We’re always alone on Friday nights.”
She doesn’t mean this to sound like a complaint. But Charlene squeezes her shoulder and gives her a lopsided smile, as if she’s made a plea for sympathy. “It’ll be okay,” she says. “You’re a good girl, Mad.”
In the empty house she turns on the oven for a frozen pizza, hoping to pacify Emily, who is sulking. They try to watch The Road Warrior on HBO but Emily pronounces it too violent, and Maddy agrees. She wonders what it would be like to be shot by a crossbow. Nothing else is on. The silence in the house is dark and heavy, though firecrackers echo in the distance. Emily drifts off to her room and returns with her Barbies, arranging them neatly on the thick white carpet with their colorful wardrobes displayed beside them. Maddy joins her—tentatively, not sure if she is welcome, feeling her jeans stretch tight across her knees as she lowers herself cross-legged to the floor. She picks up the brunette, smoothes her long dark hair, and idly creates a series of femme fatale costumes for her: silky evening gowns, flirty pencil skirts and sheer blouses cut low over her hard, jutting bosom. A hat, a trench coat. She’s a femme fatale on a mission. She’s a black-and-white-movie star, she’s Hester Prynne, she’s Anna Karenina, throwing herself beneath the train and wishing she hadn’t. (Last Friday, Maddy cheated: she skipped ahead, learned Anna Karenina’s fate. She’ll never finish the novel now.)
She’s Amber, who is entering quietly, hoping to find Emily asleep. Her eyes are tired, but a small smile flickers about her lips and she looks pretty in a red sundress and sandals.
Amber pauses for a moment at the door, admiring Emily’s serious face, its features long and sharp, like Jeff’s, incongruously embedded in a soft round little-girl face. Maddy, who usually looks painfully awkward these days, is for once unselfconscious, intently slipping a pair of stiletto sandals on her doll’s pointy feet. The girls look vulnerable in their absorption, and all at once Amber feels enormous, all-encompassing, big enough to enfold them both, to protect them from everything, from all the things they don’t even know about yet. Acting on this rush of feeling, she swoops down to hug Emily and press a kiss on the top of herhead, at the same time reaching for Maddy’s Barbie. Wordlessly, Maddy hands it over. “Look, it’s me!” Amber exclaims merrily, holding the doll out to assess the resemblance. The latest costume is a red cotton dress, belted tightly at the waist. It’s not exactly like Amber’s, but the similarity is undeniable.
“Yes,” says Maddy. “That’s the point.” She turns her green eyes up at Amber and there’s something fateful in her gaze, Amber thinks, something both accusatory and pleading. Emily is intently ignoring her; she’s pretending to be absorbed in draping her doll’s velvet cloak just right, but Amber sees her lower lip tremble slightly. They think they know something, she realizes. They think she’s betrayed them. Averting her eyes from their dark stares, she looks instead at the doll she is still holding. Its wide blue eyes look emptily back at her. But I didn’t do anything, she thinks. I stopped. I’m here. Here forever. I don’t have to feel guilty. The doll doesn’t blink.
Maggie Mitchell is the author of the novel Pretty Is, which The New York Times called “a stunning, multi-layered debut.” Her story “It Would Be Different If” is included in The Bedford Introduction to Literature. She has been awarded fellowships at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Millay Colony for the Arts. She lives in Atlanta and teaches at the University of West Georgia.
Originally published in NOR 9 Spring 2011