I was lying down, my back on my bed, my legs against the wall, pounding my feet as my sparkly Mary-Jane sneakers scuffed the wallpaper. Pink with butterflies, because I was a girl and apparently girls automatically love pink things with butterflies.
My desk at school had pink on it, too, but that one was a pink rose. Every girl got a flower—yellow daisies, white dandelions, blue lilies, or even purple geraniums, which I could sometimes spell—and every boy got a bear, but not a real bear like a panda bear or a black bear but multicolored teddy bears with plastered smiling faces. I asked for a bear and Ms. Davison said no, she was all out of bears and you-get-what-you-get-and-you-don’t-get-upset, but I saw her give another red bear to George after he ripped his first red one at recess so Ms. Davison was a liar, liar, but her pants weren’t on fire.
First grade itself was a lie. It wasn’t kindergarten where I got to color all day, because I already knew how to read and write short sentences, but in first grade you had to actually do worksheets. Like addition. I hated addition, and I could say that because I wouldn’t hurt additions feelings, and I hated math in total. Blah blah blah, who cared if four was four and five was five and none of them could ever change because some old man was sitting in a room and decided to shrink everything down to its bare, boring bones. There was only one equation that mattered to me: Mom plus Dad plus me plus the twins equals bad.
When Mom got pregnant—Hailey Beck taught me that that’s the word for when you’re having a baby—the first time after me, she told me that I would be a big sister. She said that because I was growing into such a big girl I ought to give up things, like diapers, which are gross, and sippy cups, which are messy, and pacifiers, which hurt my teeth. Then, on the first day of Pre-K-3, Ms. Sue shook my mat during naptime, waking me up, and sent me out to Dad who roughly shoved me into my car seat—once again, pink—and bucked me in. He sped off, even busting through a red light, though when I scolded him he just scolded me back, and parked right outside the hospital’s front door.
I felt yucky. Tommy’s dad died in a hospital. Lucy went to a hospital every Friday until all her springy blonde hair fell out and she had to quit our school. I hoped I wouldn’t die from my hair falling out.
I was very happy to see, then, when it was Mom—but I still called her Mama, then—in a hospital bed, her swollen belly stretching from end to end while she sweated in a papery smock. She hugged me tight and I felt tears tickle my neck.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, but she only answered by repeating that she loved me, until a doctor came to the door and Dad shoved me out.
The whole event was weird. Dad would leave for months and his only goodbye was a kiss on the head. Mom came back home a week after the hospital visit. She was fine, just with a little scar on her flatter, jiggly belly, but when I touched it she sobbed. When I opened the doors and the windows of the baby’s yellow, lacy, bumble-bee room, she sobbed. And when I called her “Mama,” the wails racked her hollow and she couldn’t leave her bed for an hour.
It was strange. I asked Dad what happened to the baby and he told me there was none. But there was one, because it was in Mom’s belly! So then I asked the doctor one day when I saw him at the post office and he kneeled down so our eyes were aligned and said that the baby had ripped out Mom’s stomach, her organs, and skin, and because it was so bad it left the face of the Earth forever. And the pain from all that ripping had spread through her heart and up to her ears, where it stung if she heard the word “Mama.”
I proudly relayed this during show-and-tell when I came back to school, proudly because I was a very smart girl for remembering it all, then Ms. Sue so rudely corrected me by saying that there was no ripping, just a miscarriage, whatever that is. She told me to stop making things up and to “save my imagination for play-time.”
I kicked the wall, harder and harder, until a small tear appeared in the paper and an indentation in the wall behind it. I thought Ms. Sue was mean but Ms. Davison was meaner, because on top of being a liar without fiery pants she made us do math without playtime, so I had no time for imagination aside from recess. Teachers don’t understand my mind. I can’t just switch it off all morning, on again for twenty minutes, then back off. It chugs steadily like the trains reserved only for boys.
Downstairs I heard mom giggle and whisper. She was happier after being pregnant again, this time with twins. She came home last year on the last day of kindergarten with a box of cupcakes that said “It’s a son,” except the cupcakes were very large because there were two sons: twins. I cried because it was my graduation but all I got was a little brothers’ cupcakes, and when Hailey called me a baby I shoved the cupcake down her backpack so it made a big mess and her mother pulled her into the hallway for a shouting-at.
I heard the forbidden word. “Mama.” I stopped kicking and pressed my ear to the thing wall.
“Shh….Mama’s here,” Mom cooed.
Oh, no. This could not be happening. This was not happening! The stupid twins were replacing me! Then they would replace Mom, then Dad, then the president, and would probably take over the world, and I wouldn’t be able to do anything because it would be too late. That couldn’t happen. That wouldn’t happen. I had a plan.
Dad told me to talk with an adult before going through with my plan, but this was drastic. If I continued first grade, if I went to school tomorrow, Mom would likely have the twins. And even if she didn’t then, she would have it the next day, or the next, or the next. I was going to stay home and stop those twins!
How could I stay home? Last year Hailey once told me to try to be sick, so I did, then Dad yelled at me and then drove me to school in my pajamas. He said that if I wanted to spend the day in bed, I would spend the day in bed. Hailey called me a baby. I couldn’t pretend to be sick.
I could say that school was closed, but why would school be closed? There was no snow. There was no hurricane. There was no destructive fire. There were no rabid animals. Nothing could keep me home.
I slumped into the taco of my mattress and wrapped myself in a frilly, lacy, pink cocoon of blankets. Maybe if my parents cared about me, they would investigate. I smiled weakly. Now I could get my answer. And if the answer was bad, I would be more bad.
I never fell asleep. All that happened was that I looked at the clock, blinked, and looked again, and time had changed by four hours. Nothing else had changed. My bedroom was undisturbed. The sparkly, ruffly, pink curtains were still open. The wallpaper was still torn. The door had never creaked open.
Downstairs I heard the hum of the nebulizer—Mom’s doctor had taught me that word when he led a career assembly about being a doctor, and I learned that a nebulizer banished all the gunk in your lungs to the same place Mom’s first baby after me had gone, it was very scientific—while Dad chatted away, distracting Mom. Humph. I decided I would run away. They clearly didn’t want me.
What did you need to pack when running away? The nebulizer was being quite distracting. I turned on the Rain Machine, a small, electrical, white disk that played rain sounds and had been bought for the sole purpose of masking the nebulizer or thousands of other noisy machines Mom was hooked up to while I was sleeping.
The Rain Machine’s green on-light was glowing exceptionally bright. Or maybe the room was exceptionally dark. Outside, the sun was setting, so I switched on the overhead lights. And my pink-cloud lamp. And my pink-fairy lamp. And my pink-princess lamp. I had a lot of lamps, all presents from the same aunt, and I might as well use all of them before leaving forever.
I also might as well look presentable: I didn’t want my new family to think I was a slob. I crept into Mom’s bathroom, lugged the heavy purple hairdryer out from under the sink, and got to work. The hot air wasn’t doing anything other than making my hair frizzy. Maybe it was because my hair was dry…I turned to wetting it. I set down the hairdryer, the chord coiling in the sink, and switched on the faucet.
Before I could bend my head down the overhead lights flickered once, flickered twice, then with a spark spluttered off.
Oh! A power-outage. There must be a storm coming! I guess I wouldn’t have to go to school after all. I was much smarter than I realized. I stretched my arm super-long and patted myself on the back like Ms. Davison told us to do.
Downstairs Mom shrieked. What was going on with her? Then she gagged, and choked, and coughed and heaved, and I hurried downstairs. Last time there was a storm we just ate canned baked-beans, without requiring the Heimlich.
Mom keeled over but nothing came out of her mouth as Dad shoved on his coat and hopped around on one foot while fastening a slipper on the other.
“Don’t wear those slippers outside!” I hollered, but both ignored me. Dad horridly unlocked the front door and shoved a cellphone into his pocket.
“Where are you going?” I shouted. This time there was an answer.
“Hospital,” Dad stated quickly.
“Why don’t I call an ambulance?” I held up the landline.
“We don’t have insurance—you won’t understand.” He shoved me roughly by the shoulders until I was criss-cross-applesauce on the cool, cracked, stained tile floor. “Just stay here, be good, and say goodbye to your mother.”
Of course! Of course the twins had to come right now, right when my parents were finally going to notice my absence and, once they found me—because I wouldn’t run away far, I would probably just go to Tommy or Lucy’s houses, they all had spare bedrooms—shower me with love and affection but no! Now they wouldn’t! The twins were ruining everything!
“Bye, Mom,” I said softly, crossing my arms, my lips trembling as a few tears slid down my cheeks. She didn’t respond, already limp with a few drops of siren-red blood on the floor below her.
Dad carried Mom out of the house and slammed the door behind him.
I didn’t do much else for the rest of the evening. I mostly pouted, then I felt rebellious. I had candy for dinner. I left the kitchen window open. I watched cartoons late at night, even the superhero ones for boys. And when the cartoons stopped in favor of the evening news, I went to bed without flossing or brushing my teeth or even changing into pajamas.
Then, because I was filling super rebellious, my lips parted open in a gentle whisper. “Bye Mama.”