Content warning: references to suicide and death
She scrolled past image after square image of happy mothers, fathers, children with their toothy smiles, all appearing candidly full of joy and wonder. This specific photography account she began following a few days ago was becoming one of her favorites. The photographer had a distinct talent at capturing families at their most perfect, their most beautiful. Of course, she knew that photos like these weren’t always real life, but as she looked at a young mother cradling her newborn son on her bed, her husband’s arms wrapped tightly around her waist as he looked adoringly into the baby’s sleepy eyes, she could tell that this wasn’t fake. They really did love each other in that special way that made people forget there was a camera pointed at them.
Some people might say that an 11-year-old having a social media account on Instagram was a bad parenting choice. It probably was. Violet’s mother wasn’t exactly on her way to win a Mother-Of-The-Year award. Violet supposed she could download porn and watch it on full volume and her mother wouldn’t come out of her Ambien-induced stupor to put a stop to it. In fact, Violet had done just that last night, seated in the floral upholstered chair not ten feet away from her mother, who was snoozing on the couch, a tumbler of whiskey balancing precariously on her stomach. Violet had turned up the volume on her phone as high as it would go, the moans of two women reverberating off the tall ceilings in their living room. She wasn’t even interested in watching these adults have sex, only in getting her mother’s attention, which was sorely lacking these days.
She continued scrolling through the photos until she stumbled upon a face that looked familiar, though it was hard to tell due to the photo being taken at a distance; a playful family scene on a pebbled beach in which a mother was holding her daughter’s hand and the father was tossing a small boy into the air. Their smiles were rapturous. She pinched her screen, zooming in on the woman’s face. It was Mrs. Kessler (or Rachel, as her mother called her), their neighbor a few doors down. She supposed the man in the photo was Mr. Kessler, though Violet had never met him despite having had at least five play dates over at the Kessler family home. They had a 2-year-old son named Carson and a 9-year-old daughter, Annie, who Violet would play with occasionally, seeing as how their neighborhood was made up of mostly retired couples. She didn’t particularly enjoy Annie’s company – she only wanted to play with Legos while Violet much preferred spending time in the kitchen, baking something with Mrs. Kessler – but it was an excuse to get out of her house and away from her mother.
Violet saved the photo of the family so she could look at it again when the mood struck. She stood up from her seat at the kitchen table – where she’d once again found herself alone after pouring a bowl of Frosted Flakes for dinner – and went to her mother’s bedroom. Her mom was zonked out on her bed, fully clothed, and flanked by Eddie and Reggie, their other cockapoo. Eddie growled as Violet approached. He had never taken to her, and Violet always wondered why her parents had adopted him when the shelter had explicitly stated that he didn’t like children. Her mother was sure she could change his ways and encourage him to love Violet, who was then just a toddler. He never did. Old dogs and all that.
She held the photo in her mother’s face, careful to keep her distance from Eddie.
“Why aren’t we like them?” she said out loud, knowing full well that her mother couldn’t hear her and wouldn’t respond. She pulled the phone down by her side. “Why are you the way that you are? I hate you. Did you know that? That I hate you?”
It was at that moment that Eddie lunged for her, but she backed away in time. He continued to growl from his perch at the edge of the bed, but Violet could only laugh.
“Stupid dog,” she mumbled on her way out, heading to her own bedroom where she would inevitably fall asleep, scrolling through Instagram.
It wasn’t that Violet’s mom was afraid to leave the house. She didn’t have agoraphobia, according to the Google research Violet had done. She would occasionally leave to go to the pharmacy for her Ambien pills. Sometimes she would take the dogs on walks - though most days she just let them out into the backyard to do their business. On her better days, she might walk to the corner pizzeria and bring home Violet’s favorite, Hawaiian pizza. But most days, she just slept or stared blankly at the TV while HGTV jumped from show to show.
The internet called it depression. One quiz that Violet took on behalf of her mother said it could be posttraumatic stress disorder. Regardless, it was serious. Violet tried to convince her mom to get help, showing her the WebMD articles she had found, imploring her to “talk to her doctor” as the articles suggested. But her mom just shrugged her off, telling her to leave her alone, to “go play or something”.
It had started a year ago when Violet found her father in the unfinished basement of their old home, hanging from an electrical cord that was looped around a wooden beam that ran the length of the room. His face was drained of color and his neck was bent at an unusual angle, but otherwise, he looked like he was just sleeping. Violet didn’t yell or scream; she suddenly couldn’t remember how, even though her mom always joked that she had “solid pipes” on her when she was an infant. She fell to the cement floor and hugged her knees. She stayed like that for an hour until her mom returned home from work. Her mom screamed when she found them. She remembered how.
Since then, Violet’s mother had been out of work, relying solely on the considerable savings the family accumulated over the years. Violet ordered groceries using her mother’s credit card. She set her own alarms for school. She packed her own lunches and laundered her clothes. These things, she didn’t mind doing herself.
It was the lack of attention that angered her.
All of her grandparents were deceased. Her father was an only child and her mother hadn’t spoken to her sister in over a decade (apparently, Aunt Teresa had tried to “make a move” on Violet’s dad). Violet wasn’t even sure whether or not her aunt knew she existed.
There had been a few coworkers of her parents’ who stopped by in the first few weeks with sad faces and even sadder casseroles. But even those visits petered out once her mother stopped returning calls and texts.
Violet’s mother hadn’t been perfect, but she used to read her stories before bed. She used to kiss her forehead when she dropped her off at school. She used to take her to the local pool in the summer and sledding in the winter. Now her mother was a ghost of her former self.
And Violet had had enough.
That Saturday afternoon, while her mom was sleeping off the sleeping pill and wine combo from last night, Violet put on her pink coat and laced up her boots. She trudged through the newly fallen snow down to the Kessler’s house and rang the doorbell. Carson came to the small, narrow windows beside the door and stuck his face on the glass. Violet shook her head at the absurdity of it. When the door opened and she saw Mrs. Kessler’s kind eyes and honey-blonde hair, she perked up, a smile working its way onto her face.
“Hi there, Violet! Carson, look! It’s our friend Violet. Can you say hi?”
Carson ran off in the other direction, seemingly uninterested in the family’s visitor.
“He’s been a little shy lately,” Mrs. Kessler said. “What are you doing here, sweetie? How’s your mom doing?”
She asked a lot of questions, but Violet liked it. Mrs. Kessler seemed genuinely interested in her.
“She’s fine! My aunt’s visiting next week, so she’s doing a lot of cleaning,” Violet lied. “I’m kind of bored at home and my mom said I should see if Annie wanted to play.”
“Oh, I’m sure she’d love to, but she’s actually with her dad today. They went ice-skating. Rob used to play hockey in school, so he’s been wanting to show her the ropes for a little bit!”
Violet’s face deflated and she knew that Mrs. Kessler could tell, because a look of pity swept across her face and she cocked her head to the side in that way that so many people had done in the last year when they encountered Violet or her mother.
“Oh...okay. Well, thanks.” Violet waved and started to step down off the porch. It wasn’t slippery with ice like their porch was. It was carefully salted to avoid any accidents.
“Would you like to come inside with us? I know a 2-year-old isn’t the best company, but we’ve got Frozen II booted up on the TV and some donut holes and hot cocoa. How’s that sound?”
It sounded perfect.
Mrs. Kessler was making the hot cocoa on the stove from scratch and the smell filled the room with a heavenly scent. Carson came over and grabbed onto Violet’s hand, sticky in that way that most toddlers hands always are. He led her over to the couch where their giant Newfoundland, Jack, was already sprawled out. As she sat down, Jack scooted over to sniff her and then proceeded to plop his giant head in her lap. She kept her hands at her sides. She didn’t know what to do with a dog that didn’t want to murder her. Carson seemed to notice her hesitation and squealed, “pet, pet!” over and over while guiding her hand across Jack’s head and ears. He was soft and warm. Was everything about this place soft and warm?
“He’s such a loverboy,” Mrs. Kessler said as she appeared with two mugs of cocoa and a plate of donut holes balanced atop one. Violet helped her by setting down the plate, at which point Carson grabbed a tiny toddler fistful of donut holes, but before he could shove them in his mouth, his mother grabbed them out of his hands and ripped them into smaller, bite-sized pieces. It made Violet wonder if her mother would do the same or if she’d be content to let her toddler choke.
As Frozen II played in the background, Mrs. Kessler seated in between the two children, Violet took in her surroundings with new eyes. Sure, she’d been to this house half a dozen times, but most of it was spent with Annie in her room among her hoard of mismatched Lego pieces. The house was a little messy, as most homes with toddlers are on a weekend, but was otherwise homey and well-decorated. A candle burned from its place on the mantel and a Christmas tree sat in the corner. The scent of vanilla and pine filled the room, mingling with the chocolatey smell of the cocoa.
Carson fell asleep a mere 20 minutes into the movie and Mrs. Kessler picked him up and carried him off to what she assumed was his room.
“I’m actually surprised he went down so quickly,” she said when she got back, smiling. “Normally nap time is much trickier than that. Maybe you’re my good luck charm!”
“Maybe!” Violet returned the smile in kind.
“So how have you been, Miss Violet? I know it’s probably been a tough time for you.”
Understatement of the year.
Before Violet even realized what was happening, she was crying. Salty tears rolled down her cheeks and onto her sweater. Then a thought formed in her head: she wasn’t sure if they were genuine tears or if she simply wanted to get a reaction out of this woman.
That reaction didn’t take long to form, and only seconds later, Mrs. Kessler had her arms wrapped tightly around Violet.
Violet hung on. She smiled as she laid her head on this kind woman’s shoulder and the tears petered out. However, she continued to make a whimpering sound so Mrs. Kessler wouldn’t let go.
What felt like hours later, Violet awoke to the sound of heavy snow boots hitting the wood floor. She was covered in a warm, fleece blanket. The candle continued to burn.
She could hear Annie and her dad talking loudly in the kitchen. Annie’s voice was a shrill thing, full of whines and complaints. Violet turned around and peeked at them over the back of the couch.
“I don’t want to do it anymore,” she cried to her parents as she quickly shrugged out of her coat, throwing it on the ground in a tantrum. “I hate it!”
“Honey, when you’re first learning to skate, you’re going to have a couple of falls,” her father tried reasoning with her. “You’ll get better if you just--”
“NO!” Annie screamed, storming up the stairs to her room.
Mr. Kessler - Rob - sighed loudly, clearly exasperated after a day spent with Annie. Mrs. Kessler cocked her head in that pitying way and hugged her husband, whispering what Violet could only assume were words of encouragement.
Violet thought Annie was a bitch. What kind of spoiled brat gets mad when their doting father takes them ice-skating? An image of her lifeless father flashed before her eyes and she shook it away.
“Do you want to stay for dinner, sweetie?” Mrs. Kessler said from the kitchen, pulling items out of the fridge and placing them on the giant kitchen island. “Want me to call your mom and ask? I’m sure we exchanged numbers a couple of years ago--”
“Oh, I can text her! I don’t mind!” The last thing she wanted was her mom ruining what was an otherwise perfect day.
“Okay, hun! Let her know she’s welcome to come over. It’s taco night!”
Violet pretended to type out a text and waited a few minutes before saying, “She said she can’t come - she has a headache from all of the cleaning - but said that I could stay!”
Violet was nothing if not an experienced liar. Why, for a whole year, she’d been pretending that everything at home was just peachy.
“Okay, well, why don’t you go on upstairs and see if Annie wants to play?” Mrs. Kessler suggested.
She really didn’t want to do that, but knew it would look strange if she didn’t at least play with Annie for a little bit. After all, that was supposed to be the reason why she came over in the first place.
She smiled and uncurled herself from the blanket and Jack’s body, which had been draped over her the whole time.
Annie was angrily breaking apart a Lego contraption that Violet guessed was supposed to be a ship, but looked nothing like it in reality.
“Do you want some help with that?” Violet offered as she got down on her knees.
“No, I don’t need any help.” Annie’s voice was harsh.
Violet wanted to take the toy from Annie’s rude, ungrateful hands and throw it at the wall.
“What are you doing here anyways?” Annie asked. “I told you last time I didn’t want to play with you anymore. You only want to hang out with my stupid mom and bake stupid cookies like losers.”
“Your mom isn’t stupid. You’re lucky she’s your mom.” Violet knew she hated Annie right then.
“Just because your family sucks and your dad killed himself doesn’t mean you can have my family. I wish you’d just leave and never come back.”
Something inside Violet snapped.
She grabbed a blue, rectangular Lego piece with one hand and the back of Annie’s head with her other. She shoved it inside Annie’s mouth, which was wide open in surprise. She pushed it far down her throat and then smoothly pulled her damp hand back out, watching Annie’s eyes bulge as she realized what was happening.
She began to choke. Violet looked on in curiosity. She hadn’t seen her dad die and always wondered what it had looked like. She waited a few moments before screaming for help.
Annie’s parents tore up the stairs, their faces horrified at the sight of their only daughter choking to death. Mr. Kessler quickly began attempting the Heimlich, while Mrs. Kessler shouted and spluttered into her phone, crying to a 911 operator.
“What happened, Violet!?” She yelled, grabbing onto Violet’s shoulders firmly.
Violet had already begun producing tears long before they entered the room and she managed to get out, “Sh-she was trying t-t-to take a piece off of her ship, b-but it was stuck, so she tried to g-g-get it with her teeth!”
The color began to drain from Annie’s face and Violet saw her father. She saw her mother, drooling in her bed, her tongue stained red from the wine. She hated them.
She grabbed onto Mrs. Kessler’s waist and she wrapped her arms around Violet in return, wanting something to hold onto as her husband failed miserably in reviving their daughter.
Violet wanted to smile, but held it back. She felt her heart flutter with something she hadn’t felt in a long time. It was love. She finally had a family.
And nothing was going to get in her way.