Allie had been grieving since she lost the babies. Dr. Ballister prescribed an anti-depressant to help her through, and she swallowed one whenever she felt caught in the wake-dream where a mad scientist loofa-ed out her womb, altogether too carefree in his work, like the prizes he pried, tiny roots and all, were the seeds and stringy, sloppy insides of a cantaloupe. Pills only succeeded in making her sleepy. Under their influence, Allie’s clenched fists loosened — not so optimal. This morning her fingers almost let Ben slide under his bath water. The stiff upper lip she’d been showing to the world dissolved. Her voice — hardly identifiable in her head as Allison Carlisle speaking — quivered on the high wire. A shrew shrieked over the phone, while the saner part of Allie, off in the quiet corner of her mind, was as much a partner with Jack as ever in trying to decipher what this mad woman wanted. What she wanted, screamed the shrew to Jack, was for him to come home from work and save her and their baby boy NOW.
Inside their front door in record time, a disheveled Jack said, “I don’t understand why you can’t let go.”
“I almost did let him go,” Allie said, holding a half-damp Ben suspended over the Karastan rug so her husband had to pitch forward and catch him. The old hand-off. Testing, testing. Jackson had a running-back’s swift reaction time, his cut-across fluid and beautiful as ballet. If he can adapt his player’s skills to parenting, Allie thought, it’ll bode well for us all.
Jack hoisted the boy on his hip, let Ben strangle him with the badge around his neck from Lightborne, the video and graphics agency where he designed websites.
“I don’t mean Ben. I mean the . . . others.”
The Others . . . like the spectral children in the Nicole Kidman movie, who shunned the light of day, where a sinister secret ambushed an inadequate mother. Allie’d only seen the trailer, but that had been enough to spook her and keep her out of the theater.
“You have work. It’s easy for you to go back to life. Why is it so easy for you?” She wanted to pound Jack’s chest, but she also never wanted to touch him again. Where she stood, positive and negative exerted equal force. It was the one thing keeping her in place, upright.
“It’s not easy; it’s hard,” Jack said. “I’m sad you lost the babies, too.”
In her head, the tiresome Tisket a Tasket refrain: “. . . I lost them I lost them and on the way I lost them. . .”
“I did NOT lose them, they were taken from me.”
He stepped toward her with Ben, but Allie would not be touched. She imagined a cartoon force field; she was a woman with superpowers: Activate armor!
Dr. Ballister did the D & C, a simple procedure thousands of women have endured, most without complication. Why couldn’t she get over it?
Over it, like it was a hillock or some stile from a nursery rhyme, her pretty maid’s foot stepping over in calf skin ankle boots, Versace. Or no, a My Fair Lady shoe, dainty, and not to be mussed by mud, in gunk, smeared with scraped-out babies.
Allie’s babies: the Three Fates, the Three Graces, the triplet fairies Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather.
She and Jackson had rejoiced — okay, unplanned, Ben was only a year old, but — they were ecstatic when she took the EPT and the stick showed baby. If it was a girl, and it would be a girl, they’d call her Vanessa.
To be fair to Dr. Ballister, she, Allie, understood logically, as an intelligent and educated woman would, that it was not a viable pregnancy. The three of them, they weren’t much, each not even the size of a pea. They weren’t growing, had no heartbeats. The ultrasound confirmed that.
Three amniotic sacs, and nothing doing in any of them. Not how Dr. Ballister broke the news, but still the grim truth. No baby, no Nessa. My God, there’d been three of them. Flopsy, Mospy, and Cottontail.
“Just think,” Jackson said, “how would you have handled three infants anyway, and Ben-Bear, too?”
Jack’s clumsy comfort. Allie knew in her head he was right, but she couldn’t stave off the guilt and grief that dug its nails into her like Ben’s little fingers not wanting to give her up at bedtime. She’d consigned her three babies to the dark, the forever dark. What kind of mother did that? For them there’d be no good morning, Sunshine, bright new day, all the ways she entered, singing, Ben’s room and eased him into grin instead of grumpy.
“Well, I’m home now,” Jack said, more to Ben than Allie.
It’s the way the marriage was surviving, just barely, Allie deflecting Jack, and Ben catching the round-off. Thank God for the kid, the kid stays in the picture. The kid was holding Allie and Jack together, while everything else worked at ungluing them.
“What should we do today, Ben-Bear?”
They were Mama Bear, Papa Bear, and Ben-Bear. They lived in nursery rhyme and fairytale, where nothing Bad could wedge in, and if it managed to, it was always vanquished in the end by Good. Good won out. It’s how the universe kept turning, why when you lay down at night you still woke up the next morning. Good conquered all. And what Good couldn’t best, medical science could. Except for losing babies. That still seemed to happen no matter how many miracles the doctors and scientists could fathom. Babies were lost, never to be found or known or loved.
“What about a trip to the park, Ben-Bear?”
Ben was chewing the plastic edge of the Lightborne badge. “Yes.”
He was the only toddler, Allie’s mom said, she’d ever heard say yes when he meant yes. Most children first learned the word “no,” and used it in every instance, even when they meant yes, most positively. How brilliant their Ben was. He said yes. He didn’t even lisp.
“Go to the dog park,” Allie said. “Take Wiley, too.” Wiley, their SPCA-rescued mutt who looked like a cross between a greyhound and a hyena, but in the most lovable way, flicked his yellow-spotted ears when he heard his name. He lay on his doggie mat by the television; he’d adapted to back-seat status when Ben arrived on the scene. Wiley’d been an only Carlisle child, too, once.
Jackson lowered Ben to the floor — “Give Daddy just a sec, Bear” — while he scared up the leash and a sippy cup of juice and a sweatshirt for Ben.
The dog was up and dancing at the sight of the leash lifted from the kitchen counter. Ben also squirmed and clamored, first because he’d been deposited on the ground and then because his daddy plunged Ben’s arms, which he could make noodly when he wanted, through the sleeves of the Pooh-Bear sweatshirt.
Daddy didn’t know how to cajole and distract and butter up Ben like Mommy did, Allie thought, smug and satisfied as she witnessed Jack struggling with their son.
She handed Jack the diaper bag.
“Jeez, Al, do I really need this, too?”
“You’ll be sorry if you don’t have it, I’m telling you.” She was the baby authority, the Ben authority. She wielded the power and Jack salaamed before her. He shrugged the bag’s strap over his Gore-Tex jacket.
He took it on the shoulder, he took it on the chin, Allie thought.
The disaster of man, boy, and dog went out the door, leaving her with the ruptured morning. She lay down on the couch and thumbed the remote to let the next installment of “Buffy” play. One of the cable channels was showing the Vampire Slayer’s whole last season, and she’d taped it. It hooked Allie with its gruesome camp and its fem-tough attitude. Slayers rocked, and they were girls. It was all high stakes, ha-ha.
Allie watched Buffy wipe out demons through two episodes. Honestly, how did Sarah Michelle Gellar keep a straight face when uttering so sincerely some of those lines they wrote for her? Allie dozed. In her nap she was a Slayer pounding the pointy wood stake with a mallet into a demon and from his heart spouted blood and in that blood bath, three amniotic sacs. Allie was drenched in her triplets. On her lay the rot of their fetal limbs, not yet calcified. “Talk about a horror show,” said Sarah Michelle Gellar. Sarah wore great Versace boots, encrusted with jewels along the ankles. Allie couldn’t stop pounding the mallet, her hand was John Henry’s hand, her arm John Henry’s arm. She was a steel-driving, vampire-slaying woman. Get in her way and she’d knock you over. She woke with a painful thirst, like she’d just busted her way from an underground mine and had inhaled a ton of coal dust along the way. Something rapped outside the house. Her adrenalin zipped and then audio clicked in and lined up alongside memory, telling her she had nothing to fear.
The boy next door was throwing his knives. She heard them thump when he hit the mark. Kid started this mania about three nights ago. When Allison happened to look out the kitchen window, her eyes had skipped up from the sliced and salted eggplant draining in the colander in the sink to see this pudgy teenager hurling knives at the wooden storage shed in his backyard. The boy and his mother lived on the corner of the cul de sac so the rear of their property butted up against Allie and Jack’s side yard, yielding them a perfect view of the knife throwing.
“A special child,” Jack had said then, his voice full of precious irony. He’d observed these antics, standing behind Allie in their dark kitchen with his chin resting on her shoulder after he’d put Ben to bed. The October time change hadn’t happened yet, and dusk petered out for good around 7:30. For that last half-hour, all anybody could see were knives glinting toward something they might stick in.
Allie ran the tap for a drink of water. She naturally looked up and out the window. The kid dressed Gothic, which looked really pathetic on his pear-shaped frame — all black and chains and things with pointy metal on this Weeble man-boy. He wore a dog collar, for God’s sake, and leather bracelets, mini-dog collars for his thick teenage wrists. The kid had dyed his usual sand-brown hair jet black. It stood up all over, not in crew cut and not spiked like 80s’ punks (my era, Allie claimed nostalgically), but some sorry no-style in between. His ripped Black Sabbath T-shirt was maybe hip, but his grey sweatpants betrayed his geek-ness. “Grey sweatpants,” Jackson would have pointed out in great derision.
Allison watched and gulped her water, having set to “pause” the third “Buffy” installment (or was it fourth? She might have slept clear through one entire episode). The kid’s progress was going downhill. His aim had grown worse. When he began knife-throwing three days ago, Allie had watched him hit somewhere on the shed door, if not the bull’s eye he’d x-ed in white paint, probably a good three out of five. Now the knives were just lazing through the air, without enough oomph to stick, if they even crossed the couple yards to the shed. The kid was scowling. He was trying too hard, Allie thought, trying to perfect what had come easily when it was child’s play. The bloom was off the game because it had evolved into task, and like all tasks it mattered too much. Even a past-time like knife-throwing, little more than a way to let off steam, faltered when you tried, on purpose, to score.
Allie wanted to tell the boy to lighten up.
The kid had set a board across two sawhorses about twenty paces from the shed and he stood behind it, lining up his five knives like they were part of a table setting. Pepe, the schnauzer that lived over there, whipped into a frenzy the minute Allie emerged from inside the garage. When she let Wiley out to piss before bed, that yappy dog would race on his stubby legs for the fence between their yards. Wiley sniffed the annoyance and ignored him or sometimes lifted his leg on Pepe’s nose if he was shoving it close through one of the low chain links. The dog and his bark were a pain in the ear and in the ass.
Allie put her hands in the back pockets of her jeans, jeans that fit perfectly since pregnancy was a no-go, and she leaned toward the fence so the kid would recognize this overture was meant for him.
“How’s it going?”
He shrugged and the Black Sabbath T-shirt rode up, remained above his belly roll at the sweatpants’ waist. “Two out of five most times.”
He was lying.
“Practice makes perfect,” she said.
“Practice doesn’t mean shit.”
She agreed. The unexpected trumped all practice.
He adjusted his T-shirt so the hem hit his hips, and Allie exhaled a big breath.
“Maybe you’re trying too hard.”
“I’m not trying at all.”
She could hardly hear him over that damned dog.
“Pepe, shut up.” The kid threw a knife at the dog, Pepe high-tailed it to the deck, the knife blade stuck in the ground, marking the dog’s former spot.
“That one was close,” she said.
The kid took the knife, wiped the mud from the blade on his thigh, then retreated to his place behind the sawhorses. He threw, without force, without grace, and the knife flipped through the air instead of hurling straightforward. It didn’t make it to the shed. He threw knives two and three the same way, then turned to Allie and said, petulantly, “What?”
“Can I try?” It wasn’t what she’d planned; she didn’t know what she’d planned. The words just tumbled out of her mouth, without gumption, same as the kid’s knife-throwing.
“You can’t be half-hearted about it,” he said.
Who was he to be talking?
She took the long way around the fence so she could enter the gate near his driveway, had to walk past the deck, and that started Pepe up all over again.
The kid ran his big heavy limbs across the yard, stomping and yelling, waving his arms. “SHUT UP.” He had explosion in him, for sure. The dog cowered in the farthest corner of the deck, next to the house, looking like he’d make himself into a brick if he could.
When Allie reached the sawhorses, the kid handed her a knife. His fingernails wore midnight blue polish, half eaten off and chipped. He’d also dyed his eyebrows to match his jet hair, which made his skin as pale as the vampires on Buffy. Or maybe he wore Goth makeup, some creepy face powder. But no, this kid had pasty skin that resulted from the typical teenage diet — junk food, soda, no green vegetables. Forget about fruit.
Allie weighed the knife in her palm. This one was a pocket knife, clicked open, thin and stiletto-like. “Where the hell do you get something like this?” she said.
The kid shrugged, mysterioso eyes, like he knew secrets she’d never be able to pry out of him, even if she did hold the knife. He wore more eyeliner than Allie. The days were few when she mustered energy enough to apply serious makeup.
She felt the knife’s smooth handle, pearl, old, something you’d find at a garage sale or in a pawn shop. She thought of the surgeon scooping out her babies, the cantaloupe seeds, the stringy mess, the mesoderm and endoderm, what soaked out of her and into the bloody pads for days afterwards.
“Try,” the kid said.
Dr. Ballister said there was no reason why Allie and Jackson couldn’t try again.
“Whenever you’re ready.” The kid’s smart-ass voice suggested, I ain’t got all day.
Allison thought about thrusting the knife into his chest, just one more demon down in a long career of facing demons. And she considered aiming the knife at the shed. Instead she lay the open knife, point towards her fingertips on the back of her outstretched hand.
“Ever play mumblety-peg?” she said. “My grandpa taught me. It was a street game he played. They didn’t have video games back then, or television, for that matter. You’re knife-throwing; this was more knife-tossing. You rest it on the back of your hand here and toss it up in the air; your hand retreats quick, like this.” She demonstrated, deftly, though she hadn’t done this in years.
She’d have killed Jackson if he was fooling with knives and giving Ben ideas that it might be okay for a boy to have something sharp.
It’s not a toy, she could hear herself disciplining already, saw herself smacking Ben’s little hands until he cried and knew she meant business.
The knife stuck in the ground, pearl handle straight up.
The kid took it out, slashed mud on his thigh again to clean the blade. “Cool,” he said. “But then what?”
Obviously not enough thrill for this twenty-first century kid. Allison remembered tossing knives with her grandpa in his backyard by the roses. “Don’t let your grandmother know, or she’ll skin me alive,” he’d warned her. He snuck a look over his shoulder, as if Grandma might be spying from an upstairs window, but a hill blocked the house from them and them from the house. Grandpa was in a nursing home now, a widower. “Whatever you do, don’t cut me off from my oxygen,” he told her one visit.
“It’s a game of competition,” she said. “If you miss, it’s the next guy’s turn. If you make the first move, then you try the same with your other hand. Then toss it off both your feet, and then you hold your ear and flip the knife through the triangle you make with your arm.”
“Goofy,” the kid said.
She held her left earlobe with her right hand and flicked the knife through the space. The blade stuck in the ground. It hadn’t even been her dominant hand throwing. That she could still master these tricks pleased her.
“Not so goofy. Harder than it looks. Try.”
The kid bobbled the knife off the top of his hand every time. If his throws at the shed had been listless, the energy in his toss-ups were pitiful. The knife fell on its side in the grass.
Why did Allison tell him that story? She’d never even told Jackson about her grandpa’s knives. She couldn’t name one reason she’d stepped inside her neighbor’s fence.
“I cut myself once,” the kid said.
“Hmmm.” Me, too, she thought. Cut, got cut, whatever.
“Let me show you,” he said.
He stripped out of that T-shirt faster than Allie could blink. It was a point of pride to conceal her revulsion at the sight of the teenager’s torso. But then, she and Jackson were such fitness freaks, a couple pounds extra to her was bound to look like lard. Thankfully, the kid turned to show her his back, pointing a bitten-down blue fingernail on his shoulder blade, or what would have been a thinner person’s shoulder blade. A Swastika scar. Well, it would be either that or a Pentagram, wouldn’t it?
Perverse, but Allie wanted to touch it. She clasped her hands to keep them occupied, and then let them detour to the knives instead of the kid’s back. She picked one up and twirled it among her fingers, the way you’d fool with a pen while you chatted on the phone, a mini-baton. “Did you do that on purpose?” she said.
He smiled at her, neck twisted, his chin jutting over his shoulder. “My friend did. Too hard for me to reach back there and still get the lines straight, you know?”
“What does it mean?” she said.
The kid gave her his blank Goth face, his painted eyes goofy and ghastly. “Doesn’t have to mean anything.”
“Didn’t it hurt?”
“Then why do it?”
“Everybody’s got some kind of mark. See?” He rubbed his finger over the welt. It was reddish-purple and, Allie figured, maybe six months old. “Permanent like a tattoo,” the kid said, “but I got it for free.”
Allie’s three babies she lost, they sat in the permanent darkness she’d consigned them to, three sisters, weaving just as they had in her womb, where they’d barely knit-one-purl-two, before the pattern guiding their multiplying cells aborted, all three strings snipped. But this kid, he might live to be as old as her grandpa if he didn’t hurt himself too badly pursuing this knife fetish of his.
The late October wind chilled Allison through her blue oxford cloth. For the first time in hours she’d noted the weather, and hoped Jackson had the sense to draw Ben’s hood up around his head good and tight. The teenager was digging dirt from under his half-blue fingernails with the point of one of the knives.
“You better get your shirt on before you catch cold.” Allie couldn’t help being a mother. It’s what she was, deep in her blood, and it wouldn’t let her loose. She’d pick up the skein and start knitting, watch the rest of Buffy’s season, maybe be kinder to the neighbor’s dog. She had lots of good intentions, starting with this kid.
“What’s your name anyway?”
Buffy’s true love, who’d spun off into his own television series was named Angel. This kid didn’t look like he had a drop of Italian, Spanish, Mexican, Puerto Rican, or Dominican blood in him.
“Really, what’s your name?” Allie worked here at perfecting that tell me the truth tone she figured she’d be buffeting Ben with in a couple years.
“Harry.” If the word had any hard consonants he would have spit them.
“Like Harry Potter,” Allie said. “Or the Prince of England.” She was desperate that he find his name something to be proud of.
“Don’t know him.”
Of course you don’t, she thought. She threw the knife she’d been twirling and it stuck in the upper right edge of the shed’s white X.
“Good shot.” The kid pulled his shirt over his head and danced a little in place to make the sides fall along what waist he had.
“You go next.”
He tapped a blade against his palm. “No girl’s going to best me.”
“We’ll see about that. Just throw it.”
They were her grandpa’s words, the way he’d urged Allison to “pick up the knife and throw it, and not like a damned girl.” Because of him she’d acquired an I-dare-you glint that piqued Jack’s interest beyond their first meeting at the sorority-fraternity clam bake. Allie proved to be dangerous; she could be her own secret weapon. Too bad now Jack associated her edginess with mental breakdown.
Losing the babies jilted her and Jackson off their cozy life path. They were suddenly the stripped down Emperor and Empress, befuddled at the length of each day, unable to lift their eyes and see each other naked.
If nobody was cutting anybody any slack, then Allie wouldn’t let the kid have a do-over either, however he threw his knives. He tossed the four remaining and hit the shed with all of them, though way off the target.
“You’re getting better,” Allie said. She was pleased for him.
“I wasn’t as bad as you thought to begin with.”
He crossed in front of the sawhorses and pulled the knives free. “A couple bad throws don’t mean I’ve lost my touch.”
During the last two days from the kitchen window she’d seen his talent sputter, and she wasn’t going to let him snow her. “How about a couple bad days?”
In the kid’s shoulder shrug she saw the curl-in reflex she’d perfected, too.
Jack had said to her: “You think because I can’t make your sadness disappear you don’t have to work at it yourself, that you can just wallow?”
“I’m not wallowing,” she said out loud in her neighbor’s yard.
The kid balanced all five knives on the board, getting set for another round. “Gloating is more like it.”
“Give me those.”
He handed her the knives, she threw them quick — one, two, three, four, five — hit the four points of the X and where the lines crossed.
“Awesome,” the kid said.
Allie yanked the knife from the center. She rolled her left sleeve to her elbow and drew a quick bloody design across her forearm.
“Look, I cut myself.”
Jack would accuse her later: “Show off.”
“X marks the spot,” the kid said.
Allie thought she’d impressed him, that his surface nonchalance was just another one of his acts. Or else he feared she was dangerous. Maybe he was preparing to join Pepe in retreat alongside the house.
“Now I’ll have a scar, too,” she said.
The kid nodded. “You’ll be marked.”
“Whatever you want it to — don’t mess with me, I’m tough, I’m fucking stupid, I’m out of control and I like things that way.”
“Yeah,” she said. She rolled down her sleeve and pressed so the X bled through the blue cloth. She wore the determining chromosome of her three lost daughters. “I think I’ll go watch some TV.” She started walking, to get into her own yard, away from all the knives so close at hand.
“You’ll have it forever,” the kid said, his voice lifting so she could hear him. He sounded thrilled to welcome her as a member of his demented club.
Outside the neighbor’s gate, Allie held onto the metal knob above that section of chain link while she secured the latch. She’d keep Pepe closed in from cars driven by maniacs hot-rodding through the subdivision. She could at least do that.