When the bell finally rings, waste no time. Grab your Kipling from the cubby and head straight to the front of the carpool line, where your mother usually waits, since she arrives everywhere twenty minutes early on principle. Not today. Today, her car, a silver sedan with a dent in the bumper, is conspicuously absent from its regular spot, like a missing tooth.
You walk down the glinting row of minivans looking for her. Smile politely at the parents who wave to you—Miss Soo, Ginny’s mom, with the bright orange lipstick; Mrs. Cheever, Harold’s mom, who squirrels away packets of fruit snacks in her purse; Mr. Glynn, Patrick’s dad, whose car you keep your distance from, remembering how your mother regarded him at the community pool last summer, when she caught him peeking into the women’s locker-room. When Mrs. Tobias rolls down the passenger window to ask if you need a ride, you breathlessly say, Nothankyou—your mother will be here soon. Only after soon passes does the panic set in.
Will yourself not to make eye contact with Mrs. Fortenberry, the owl-eyed carpool monitor. Do not, under any circumstances, ogle her enormous chest—the Uniboob, as Reggie Nichols calls it. Instead, go stand by the red picnic table nicked with students’ initials, where a cluster of fifth-grade girls—girls a year above you—are playing M.A.S.H. An air of exclusivity hovers around them, an iridescence you dare not breach. Some of the girls you recognize: Brittany R. (unpierced ears), Brittany T. (pierced ears), and what’s-her-name with the leopard-print snap bracelet. Alannah Raskin, your next-door neighbor and former best friend, sits in a yellow dress at the center. Though she is not the prettiest, she is the one who draws your attention. An aura of world-weariness surrounds her, like she knows everything you do not.
Behind your back, Alannah has nicknamed you Smelly Melly. The older girls pinch their noses dramatically when you approach, pretending to gag. Their laughter, a flame to your cheeks. Ignore the pinpricks of tears at the backs of your eyes. Crying will only make it worse.
About-face to the row of cars and squint into the distance, as if to consider the day. Weather: chilly. Sky: a pale denim. Later, when you think back to this afternoon, your memory will patch the holes with stock images of suburbia in autumn—flaming trees, sweet smell of peat, a world rendered in lurid swatches of red and yellow.
Where is she, your mother? Why hasn’t she come? You tell yourself that she will be here. If she is not here, there must be an explanation: her car broke down, she believes it’s your father’s day to pick you up, she got held up at the office where she works as a speech pathologist. Her usual day is made up of one-on-one meetings, plus an extra-long lunch break, when she goes out for a jog in the nearby woodlands. Before you can help it, you are wishing that something bad has happened to her. Better that than being forgotten.
After a few minutes, which might as well be forever, the Raskins’ car pulls into the line. You wince as Alannah brushes past you and checks your shoulder, hard. This acknowledgement of your presence is enough to kindle a heat in your stomach. Alannah climbs into the backseat, a studied cool masking her face. How deeply you love her; how much you long to be her.
Mr. Raskin waves to you. Melanie, he says, in his marked singsong. How nice to see you.
Good to see you, too, you say.
You remember that it’s Friday and wish Mr. Raskin a good Sabbath. Though you are not Jewish, you have spent many Friday nights in the Raskin household and know the rituals by heart—Mrs. Raskin circling her hands three times over the candles to bring their light inward; Mr. Raskin pointing to you and Alannah, saying, May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah; Alannah’s grandmother, known to you only as Bubbe, slouched at the head of the table, reciting incomprehensible Yiddish proverbs, like, You can’t outrun the moon, nu?
In an instant, you are transported back into that kitchen, enveloped in the yeasty smell of Challah baking in the oven. Mrs. Raskin twists back her hair as she peers into the tureen, leaning over as though it’s a great abyss. You wished so badly to stay there, in the warmth of that home, with its strange phrases and rules, its quiet holiness. How sad and empty your own home felt when you returned to find your mother sobbing in her nightgown, the phone pressed to her ear.
And how are your parents? Mr. Raskin asks, jerking you back. Nearby, a leaf blower yawns to life.
Goodthankyou, you shout. My mom and I are going to an orchard this weekend.
Ah! He nods, revealing the checkered yarmulke lopsidedly bobby-pinned into his hair. You’ll have to bring over a bushel. Mrs. R. makes a mean apple pie, yes? He turns to Alannah, who gives a half-hearted shrug, then glances away.
I’d like that, you say.
Do not explain to him that Alannah is the reason you are never at their house anymore. Perhaps this omission, this small demonstration of loyalty, will win back her friendship, cause her to remember that you are an excellent secret keeper (like how you didn’t tell anyone that she has a crush on Peter Klimp, or that the reason she does is because she’s obsessed with Anne Frank, who was also in love with a boy named Peter.)
Finally, Mr. Raskin drives away. You feel your entire body tug after them, and suddenly you remember today’s science lesson on gravity: the more massive the object, the greater its force. In the atmosphere of your childhood, Alannah is the largest planet of them all.
When the line of cars dwindles and your mother still does not show, you pivot toward Mrs. Fortenberry in defeat. As much as you despise her in this moment for seeing you at your weakest, you understand that you need her—it is her job to make your parents appear. Wipe the sweat from your hands on the sides of your corduroys. Try to work your face into a hopeful expression. What will happen if your parents never show? Will you be carted off to the police station? To juvie?
You shuffle toward Mrs. Fortenberry with your head down, as if walking the plank. One foot in front of the other. Her bulging eyes slide over you. Just as you near her, the faint sound of an engine ruptures the silence. Dad. You run to him as fast as your legs will carry you. Only once you reach the car do you spot Mary, your father’s yoga-teaching girlfriend of four months, cross-legged in the passenger seat, her brown hair piled into a messy topknot. She attempts a smile, but you are observant and note her swollen cheeks, the crescents of mascara beneath her eyes.
You like Mary, you do. She reminds you of an old babysitter you used to have who would draw cartoons of your favorite movie characters on sheets of colored construction paper. Sometimes, though, Mary gives you a queasy feeling because you can tell how badly she wants you to like her. Is that how you come off to people, too?
You get in the backseat and wait for your father to ask how school was today and what you learned. His leather briefcase rests beside you on the backseat. The car clock reads 3:31. He is not supposed to return home from work until 5.
Mary glances at your father, a look passing between them. She turns toward you. Your mother, she says. But that is as far as she gets before she swivels back around, her face crumpling.
A nervous heat spreads through your body, the stomach-drop sensation of being summoned to the principal’s office. Mary is a loud crier, the sound surprisingly forceful. Your father reaches over, squeezes her knee through her leggings. His gaze meets yours in the rearview mirror. Your heart speeds up. It’s a torpedo. A bullet train. Mary’s sobs cut through the swish of blood in your ears. Sound waves, you recall, can travel through liquids, solids, and gases.
Your brain makes a beeline for the worst-case scenario, and you are certain, for a moment, that your mother is dead. What else could it be? The thought wrenches everything inside you, like your insides are pieces of Velcro that are slowly being ripped apart. To distract from the pain, you play “I Spy”: I spy a crossing guard. I spy a flagpole. I spy a woman with curlers in her hair.
Mom is in the hospital, your father says, a hint of annoyance in his voice, which you assume is directed at Mary. She’s hurt.
Oh. Relief washes over you. You absorb these words, allow them to seep beneath your skin. Is she okay? you ask.
She will be…
What follows is a blur: your father telling you that your mother was attacked on her run this afternoon. Attacked? By whom? The police don’t know. Police. The word ricochets through your mind.
Do not expect to be given details. You won’t learn these until you are a teenager, when you plug your mother’s name into Google. You’ll read about the woodlands, girded by the Hudson River on one side and the highway on the other. You’ll read descriptions of your mother: thirty-five, blonde, slight—no match for the man lurking among the trees who dragged her fifty feet off the trail. You’ll watch the local news interview with the elderly couple who found her near the drained public pool, crawling toward the equipment shed, her body so hunched and bloodied that they didn’t even take her for a person at first.
Melanie, your father says, we’re home.
Stumble out of the car, into the house. Sit at the kitchen table without removing your coat, a blank expression on your face. Since the divorce, you’ve gotten good at appearing impassive. You play that trick where you shut your eyes and talk yourself into believing that because you can’t see it, the world around you no longer exists.
Your father is speaking with a calmness that you find unnerving. The bandwidth of your emotions narrows, so you can experience only one at a time: fear, confusion, resentment. You don’t believe him when he claims to have no answers. You think he is doing that thing adults do, where they refuse to tell you about the cruelties you won’t understand. You don’t even love her anymore! you scream. What you mean is: he doesn’t love her the way you do. No one does.
Your father isn’t deterred. He hitches you closer, his arms like a seatbelt around your chest. The kindness of the gesture unlocks a valve inside you. Let your body go slack. Feel the rumble of his voice in his sternum. Your mother will be coming tonight, he tells you, and when she does, it’s your job to be gentle with her. Remember when Uncle Danny hurt his wrist? How we couldn’t play rough and had to be extra careful around him? This is like that, your father says.
But it’s not like that, is it?
No, he admits, smoothing back your hair. It’s not.
Bedtime. You put on your favorite pajamas—a Tweety Bird shirt a little too snug in the armholes, flannel bottoms with hardly any cord left—then turn off the light. In the darkness, your room is suddenly too large. You pad to the closet and fish out the teacup-shaped nightlight from the plastic bin of old toys.
It’s your father—he has come to say goodnight. He steps uncertainly into the room. Mary follows close behind, a shadow. Her shirt has ridden up, exposing a strip of midriff, a pair of hips that you regard with envy.
Is she home yet? you ask.
Mary answers: Soon.
You climb into bed, careful not to disturb any of the stuffed animals constellated around your pillow. Tears leak sideways into your ears. You nestle your face into the mattress, so your father and Mary won’t notice. You peek your eyes open and see them lean their heads together, like trees straining toward the sunlight.
Mary yawns. I need to go back to feed the cats, she says, not to you or your father exactly but to the room itself, as if pleading a case to an invisible jury.
It pleases you to think that she will not be spending the night here, in your house. But behind her façade, something raw and desperate startles you. You understand that what she wants is for someone to stop her, to ask her to stay. You hate her for this, for needing you to be there for her; you hate your father more, for not seeing what you see.
After Mary has left, you wait, your father seated at the foot of the bed with his hands clasped in his lap. Stay very still, the way you do during lockdown drills when you don’t want the enemy to find you. The seconds stretch on. A thought lances through the fog of your mind: apple picking. It feels selfish to ask if you might still go. You try to distract yourself by counting sheep, but the thought is so tempting—a scab you can’t help but pick.
Mom told me—
You stop short: your father is crying.
In the gauzy glow of the nightlight, trace his outline. His shoulders pitched forward, his body keeled so that his tears slide straight down. Crawl toward him. Though no one has expressly told you that it is your responsibility to cheer up your parents, you’ve spent the last few months practicing jokes and funny faces. Those tricks are inadequate now. You touch your father’s shoulder. Dad? Will you lie down with me?
The cast of his face as he turns is familiar: creased forehead, downturned lips. Where have you seen this expression before? Think. It was your mother’s, after your parents first separated. You came into the kitchen one morning to find her staring out the window, scrubbing a plate in large, soapy circles, like her hand was a clock marking the hours. Mom, you said, and she blinked, slowly, as if emerging from a dream.
Force yourself to swallow the tears in your throat. When did you become so afraid of seeming weak? Was it the last time you went over to the Raskins’ to play, and Alannah said that she didn’t want to hang out with a copycat? Or was it later, when your parents split but your father hadn’t yet moved out, and the fridge was divided into a “Dad” shelf and a “Mom” shelf, and though you were allowed to take from either one, you still felt like it was your heart whose contents they had divided and claimed?
Your father extends both arms, shuttles you into them. His Adam’s apple lurches in his throat. Do not be afraid of his sadness. Hold his hand the way you hold the class bunny, firmly but with care. When he looks you straight in the eye, do not avert your gaze. You think he might reveal it, this secret that separates children from adults, this gulf of the why—why someone would want to hurt your mother—but then the backdoor slams, fracturing the moment.
I’ll be back, your father says, rising from the bed, leaving you alone.
You kick off the sheets, roll to one side, fold your hands beneath your head. Through the window, across the way, you spot Mrs. Raskin’s Shabbat candles, still burning. They look like cutouts, their orange flames bright and indistinct.
It dawns on you that your blinds are still open. Your mother usually shuts them when she comes to tuck you in, but your father has forgotten. Darkness mashes against the pane. Stay up, vigilant and afraid. This is the first of many fear-threaded nights. There will be countless others when you’ll wake, startled and breathless, certain that there is a man standing outside beneath your window, watching you.
Listen. A shuffling downstairs. Your father? In the living room? Yes. He is speaking to someone. Not your mother, but whoever dropped her off. Their voices diluted and faraway. You step onto the carpet and sidle through the hallway with your shoulder nudged against the wall. Downstairs, all the lights have been thrown on. This is disconcerting—the unnaturalness of a day that never ends.
Pause on the threshold to your mother’s cavernous bedroom. It is surprisingly dark inside, save for the lamp on the bedside table whose yellow light spills over her curled-up body. Her blonde hair is fanned on the pillow; her outline muffled beneath the duvet. Such an ordinary image, your mother in bed. You don’t want to scare her by waking her, but see there, the gleam of her wet, wide-open eyes? She is waiting for you.
At first, you cannot make out her face, obscured in the shadowy crook of her elbow. Then she shifts, and her features clarify. It takes all of your might not to gasp. Distance yourself: I spy a bruise, big as a saucer. I spy three stitches along the bridge of her nose. I spy two swollen eyes, marbled purple and red.
Her entire body goes rigid as you sink onto the mattress. A haunted expression floats to the surface of her face. Her gray pajama shirt is damp. You rest your head beside hers on the pillow, taking in the unfamiliar vinegary scent of her skin. Hi, Mama. Hesitate. A wet, scraggly sound rises in your throat.
Mel, she says, her breath sour against your neck.
You remember a movie you once watched, where the main character discovered that everyone in his life had been replaced by imposters. For weeks after, you had nightmares that your mother and father weren’t the people they claimed to be. It’s been years since you thought of that. But the old worry digs at you now: what if this woman who resembles your mother has had all the motherliness siphoned out of her? The idea fills you with a guilt that you cannot shake.
Mom? Can we still go to the orchard this weekend?
She flinches as you snuggle in closer. Yes, she says wearily, a lie that you will resent for the rest of your childhood. Of course.
Listen to her breath, heavy with exhaustion. Though she is beside you, understand that she has slipped away. Stealthily, she has packed for a trip and will not return to herself for a long, long time.
Over her head, your eyes find the window. It takes you a moment to realize what’s different: Mrs. Raskin’s candles have burned out. You imagine that the wicks are still smoking, though you are too far away, and the night too dark, to discern any wisps.
Downstairs, your father is asleep on the sofa, the mower of his snore going full blast. In this room, all is still. Your mother nuzzles into your hand. Detect the heartbeat underneath, fragile and wild. Let it be your lullaby.