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sophie monatte

New Fiction


by Sophie Monatte

October 27th, 2009
      Devoted fanatics, we contemplate Benjy; barely aware of our presence, unabashed as he polishes newly acquired babbling skills resembling Buddhist incantations. Swaddled in Mommy’s arms, he blinks a few times, progressively losing ground in the battle against sleep. Surrendering without notice, his eyelids close abruptly and his miniature body relaxes. Knocked out.
      We look at one another with wide, stunned eyes, Molly and I laugh with a hand on our mouth while Mommy seems to be hesitating between smiling and shushing us. Instead she frowns like someone suffering from a migraine and indicates the light switch with a twist of the head. Devoted disciple, Daddy lets go of Benjy’s tiny hand and turns off the main light, the bedroom now dimly lit by the bedside lamp.
      The sleeping baby pops his thumb into his mouth, sucking hard, unconcerned with the damage he is inflicting on his microscopic and almost transparent nail. “It also affects the shape of his oral cavity,” Mommy adds while pulling the finger out. Benjy instinctively opens his gummy mouth, searching for something to suckle on. For lack of anything juicier the thumb ends up back inside his mouth within a few seconds. This little game makes my ten-year-old sister Molly snort. I pinch her left arm; being five years older, Mommy expects me to exemplify maturity.
      Daddy shrugs with a smirk and murmurs, “It’s all right Nancy, he’s only five weeks old, just let him be!” He settles down on the bed too clumsily for Mommy’s liking. She lets out an annoyed sigh and Daddy apologizes, mumbling something about the mattress being too lumpy while inspecting every inch of his son’s bare skin, now and then brushing lightly Mommy’s arms.
      “Look at that!” We all lean over to admire a tiny mole we hadn’t noticed before on the inside of his left foot.
      “Oh wait no, it’s not a mole!” Molly whispers, using her fingernail to scratch off the little piece of dirt on our baby brother’s skin. It’s Daddy’s turn to shush our giggles, even though he’s laughing louder than us. Even Mommy’s smiling.
      As if ready to throw punches at us for disturbing his nap, Benjy clenches his fists in his sleep. Carefully holding the back of his head, Mommy lays him down in the center of the king-size bed. The brand new cradle next to it has yet to be used. The four little blue elephants from the musical mobile have yet to be unwrapped.
      Mommy and Daddy slowly position themselves on each side of the baby with the seriousness of two lions guarding their cubs, even their synchronized yawns look like quiet roars meant to keep predators away. Molly and I kiss them goodnight, switch off the bedside lamp and tip toe out of the bedroom.
      The next thing you know, Benjy’s dead.

November 19th, 2009
      Being neighbors, Anthony and I tend to coincidentally meet every morning in front of the lift—unless I’m not fast enough to grab all my stuff when I hear his front door squeals open and his nonchalant feet shuffling down the hall.
      “Hey,” I say, it’s so much more detached than “Hi.” Once, we greeted each other at the same time, it was beautiful. We listen to the mechanical buzz sound of the lift lazily going up. Anthony keeps rocking back and forth and blowing on the blonde hair lock that constantly covers his eyes, while I stare at my friends’ scribbling on my school bag as if I was discovering them for the first time. You’re my favorite blonde! To my best friend! I love U! Justin Bieber sucks! Sedar Hill sucks! I smile at the drawings of cute bunnies, silly faces and even an anarchist sign, courtesy of Goth Jacky.
      Three weeks ago after class, Anthony sat next to me in the school bus and held my hand for the whole ride back home. We haven’t seen each other since. Well I have seen plenty of him through our front door’s peephole. He rang the bell once with his mother, holding flowers. Flowers die. Mommy doesn’t want to see any more people in our apartment. She is tired of listening to family, policemen and all these people with kind and understanding faces. They upset her when they say there’s nothing we could have done and no one is to blame. They upset her when they decide that we’re fine and ready to move on with our lives.
      The ride down to the lobby is 36 seconds of silent happiness.
      I head for the empty seats at the back of the bus while Anthony chooses to sit by himself in the front.

December 8th, 2009
      Hysterical cries wake me up with a jolt. It sounds like these Middle-Eastern women on the news, shouting and weeping, their husbands and sons’ bloody limp bodies still warm in their arms after a bombing or a street shooting. Molly has crawled up in my bed again. I stare at my arm, this dead piece of meat she used as a comfortable cushion. Like a prosthetic arm surgery gone wrong, it’s just hanging there yet it’s not really there. Kind of like Mommy, whose shrieking resumes, bringing me back to reality. Using my other arm, I shake this limb awkwardly until the tingling returns. Asleep, Molly still has the instinct to cover her ears with both her hands to protect herself from the howling. I’ve heard it before, this odd rhythm, it starts with languid feverish moans, “No, no,” like a delirious person. It intensifies with each word, until the word itself disappears, giving way to an endless hollering.
      Molly wakes up and stares at me with terror in her eyes.
      “It’s ok, I’m here,” I murmur, looking at my alarm clock. 3.46am.
      We step into the hall, so close to each other our shadows merge into one, and follow the shouting to our parents’ bedroom. Mommy is kneeling on the floor, sobbing, holding Benjy’s teddy bear in her arms and shaking it.
      “No, no,” she starts again.
      “Mommy?” It sounds like a whisper compared to her cries. Molly stares at our mother and repeatedly hits her ears with her small fists, following Mommy’s beat, as if pain might somehow overpower the horrifying sound. I grasp her hands to hold her tight against me. The muscles of her body are so tense; she resists my embrace then suddenly lets go, allowing her head to rest on my chest.
      “Mommy?” I ask louder. She doesn’t look up. She keeps shaking the limp teddy bear, its soft head rolling back and forth.
      “He’s dead! He’s dead. Your father killed him. It was his turn to wake up and check on Benjy. It was his turn. He killed my baby.”

Jan 8th, 2010
      Anthony is a jerk. I couldn’t care less about him.
      I’m actually glad that he hooked up with Goth Jacky; I don’t want a boyfriend with a fake diamond in his ear anyway. I white-out the grotesque anarchist sign on my school bag.

January 20th, 2010
      Half-hearted, the lonely tear slowly rolls down her cheek and disappears down her neck. Mommy looks like a dummy someone abandoned on a chair; even her eyes forget to blink.
      Molly has spent the last hour immobile on a chair, looking out the window. Daddy is sitting right next to me on the sofa, his eyes are closed but his clenched jaw tells me he’s pretending to be asleep. Just like kids spot animals when watching clouds, I am mesmerized by the ghostly figure that stands out in the background of the wall paper floral pattern. It’s hiding between two blooming flowers, reminding me of this painting of a man screaming, if my brain wasn’t numb from staring so long I might remember its name. Am I the only seeing it?
      Something on the computer screen catches Mommy’s attention. She’s back; breaking a silence so thick even the sounds of urban chaos down the street do not reach us anymore. “SIDS claims the lives of about 2,500 infants each year in the United States.”
      “What’s SI—?” I bite my lower lip. Why words sometimes refuse to connect with my thoughts before coming out of my mouth I do not know. I glance at Daddy, still pretending not to be there.
      “Sudden infant death syndrome,” she replies crossly, throwing me a dark look, as though she finds it unacceptable that at fifteen I’m still not an expert in this field. By way of apology I nod but she takes it as a request for more details.
      “SIDS is when you find your newborn stone cold dead in your bed in the middle of the night. It tends to happen when his stupid and selfish father is too tired to open his eyes for a second and put his hand on his son’s chest to make sure he’s still breathing.” Her voice is getting more intense with every word. She pauses, shuts her eyes for a few seconds, exhaling deeply, like a self-control trick. From the corner of my eyes, I see Daddy is now wide-awake. He puts his hand on my right knee, slowly, carefully, as if making sure he will remain unnoticed.
      “So let me see, 2,500 dead babies per year, that’s—” She takes out a calculator, “Six point eight deaths per day. Gosh.” She hastily switches on her brand new printer and prints the article right away, as if it might be removed from the web any second now for being too obscene. While browsing through the deadly facts one more time, she gently blows on the sheet of paper. We know for a fact that the tiniest ink drop dripping reminds her of a baby drooling. She carefully inserts the paper in a transparent plastic sheet, which she places next to a dozen others in a large folder. Blue folder: Newborn deaths. She’s keeping track. Reading reports online, collecting newspaper clippings, recording documentaries.
      “It’s all right,” whispers Daddy when our eyes meet. “It’s her way of grieving. We all have different ways.” His smile is weak when he removes his hand from my knee to smooth my hair.
      “Don’t touch her, you child murderer,” barks Mommy without even looking up from her arts and crafts project. Startled, Molly immediately covers her ears and puts her knees to her chest. I expect her to start rocking back and forth like an autistic child but her unpredictability never ceases to impress me. Daddy abruptly lets go of my hair like someone who just realized he was stroking a tarantula. He forces a smile with his mouth closed before disappearing into their bedroom, the crime scene.

February 17th, 2010
      Anthony tells Peter who tells Vanessa who tells me that he will kiss me during my birthday party. He says not to tell Goth Jacky. He hopes I will let him touch my boobs.

February 21st, 2010
      My birthday party at the swimming pool is canceled. “On average ten people die of unintentional drowning every day,” Mommy snaps, her voice becoming impressively dry and hoarse over the days. She opens her newest folder, the green one: Deadly Outdoor Activities. Daddy concentrates on his Blackberry.

      During dinner I break the silence and mutter, “We will still celebrate my birthday, right?” They all keep staring at their plate, as if their overdone pork chops might be holding the answer. I observe Daddy, sitting in front of me with his back to the wallpaper. I feel the screamer’s eyes on me. “Daddy?”
      He extends his hand towards his glass of wine, realizes it’s empty and freezes. He takes a peep at Mommy sitting to his right, her back to the kitchen. He hesitates before answering, “Why don’t you ask Mommy?” He smiles wearily and places his hand on hers. She jumps as if the ear-piercing beeping sound of a fire alarm had just been let off, stands up and keeps her hands busy on the table. If Molly doesn’t stop lowering her head, her bangs will mop up the mashed potatoes.
      She keeps still for a few seconds before meeting my eyes. “Now,” she starts, stirring the scalding soup, “Tell me something, why on earth would you want to celebrate the fact that you’re getting closer to your death?”
      That’s a good question I guess, I never really thought about that. Holding my chin in my cupped hand, I open my mouth to speak when Daddy throws me a desperate wide-eyed look. He resumes breathing when I awkwardly end up taking a sip of water. He swallows his last bite of bread and quickly steps out of the room. Without looking at us, Mommy disappears inside the kitchen. Dinner is over.
      Molly sits down next to me on the sofa and leans on my shoulder. I hear loud music coming out of the earphones I gave her last week. She rarely takes them off, even at night.
      I pull out one ear bud. “Molly, it’s too loud. You can get deaf.”
      She questions me with her eyes, which seem to be shimmering with hope.
      I shrug, “That’s what my teacher said.”
      She hasn’t smiled like this for the past 123 days. She turns the volume up to the maximum and lies down on the sofa, resting her tiny head on my thigh, staring above me at the ceiling. I remember watching this weird Spanish movie a few years ago. After their death, people would sometimes appear in a room, holding on to the ceiling like spiders, upside down, silently witnessing life underneath them. I glance up; no one’s here. There’s only a crack in the paint of the ceiling between the front door and the kitchen.

March 3rd, 2010
      Anthony had so much fun at the swimming pool party that he broke up with Goth Jacky by telepathy—it turns out Goths can’t swim but have the ability to read minds—and kissed Jenny of all people, the only ninth grader I cannot stand. He’s just my stupid neighbor.

March 26th, 2010
      Molly climbs up on a kitchen stool to take a glass from the highest cabinet and accidentally drops it on the tiled floor. Mommy rushes in and carries her out of the room like a fireman. Within an hour contractors arrive to install locks on the kitchen door while Mommy prints interesting statistics about kitchen-related accidents. Daddy comes back home late, he’s about to take off his shoes when Mommy instructs him to go back to the stationery shop to get a few more folders. “No flashy colors,” she yells without taking her eyes off the computer screen.

April 7th, 2010
      Even the scabs on his knees are to die for.

April 30th, 2010
      Summer holidays are canceled. “There are so many dangers out there,” Mommy proclaims while Daddy laments that she constantly takes decisions without consulting him. “You go on vacation if that’s so important for you,” she replies without the slightest sarcasm in her voice. “We’ll be fine, really. We might even survive without you.”
      Summer is death’s peak period: drowning, sunstroke, thunder, sharks, snakes, insects, car accidents, electrocution, deadly falls, plane crashes, train crashes, shipwrecks. She stops for a second to breath, Daddy begs her to quit enumerating. Molly turns the volume of the TV so high that we all turn to look at her. I grab her hand and ask her if she wants to play a game of Uno in our room. When did the living room get so cramped?

May 11th, 2010
      Yet another weekend spent inside the apartment playing card games and waiting for nothing. I have received five new event invitations through my Facebook account. Anthony plans to attend every single one of them. I dare not publicly reject them all. Social suicide. I click on Maybe nonchalantly. She might still change her mind by then.

May 16th, 2010
      Things keep disappearing from the apartment.
      “Have you seen Molly’s scooter, Mommy?” I ask.
      “I sure have. It’s in the trash outside the building,” she explains coolly. “I did some research. Scooters are such deadly weapons,” she adds, shaking her head in exasperation. “So—I threw it away!” She oddly has the widest smile on her face, like a proud doggy expecting a reward for bringing back the ball in its stinky drooling mouth. She almost giggles while looking at us all in turns, first me, then Molly, and finally Daddy. In a second her expression changes, as if covering her spirited and smiley face with a dark and angry-looking carnival mask. She starts shouting at Daddy—whose gaze is fixed on his newspaper. “Oh don’t you look at me like that. I decide what’s good for them. You don’t.”
      “What’s that?” He finally realizes she’s talking to him and looks up.
      She walks towards him fast, pointing at him accusingly, getting more hysterical with each step. “You don’t! You don’t! You don’t!” Only his eyes are moving, going from the newspaper to us, as if he had just been caught watching porn. She is so close to his face I almost expect her to stick a finger in his eye. He doesn’t even dare to wipe away the tiny white bubble of saliva that just landed on his forehead. Molly lets out a little cry of terror, jumps from the sofa, makes a detour to avoid Mommy and runs away towards our bedroom. I follow her. We lie down flat on the bed and listen to music until dinner; Molly keeps trying to turn the volume up even though it’s already to the maximum.

      Mommy welcomes us in the dining room with a waitress smile. “I would have lighted candles but I got rid of them a few days ago.”
      A rolled piece of paper tied with a colorful ribbon is laid on each plate like a wedding menu. Inside a breadbasket there are a few dozen more pieces of paper. I let my shoulders relax when I realize Mommy has only been researching online scooter-related injuries and deadly accidents, I don’t really feel like looking at pictures of dead kids again. Calmer than a Buddhist monk she invites us all to sit down, slowly read every single article on the table, and ponder. I’m starving but I’m not sure if I’m supposed to eat while I ponder. Instead I observe. Daddy is trying to blow his nose in a napkin without making any sound. Molly looks incredibly peaceful and at ease. Only the noise of the printer diligently throwing up news articles breaks the silence of this unusually long and quiet meal.

May 31st, 2010
      Slutty footsteps in the hall. Through the peephole, I see Anthony chatting with a cackling blonde girl I’ve never seen before. He coolly leans on the threshold, chewing gum with his mouth open, a cigarette on his ear. They disappear inside. I spend the rest of the day reading magazines on the floor, in the space between the main door and the kitchen.

June 2nd, 2010
      A baby, a kid, a teenager, a dog, someone, something, somewhere in the world, might have been attacked in his apartment by a confused gull or an angry wasp. Contractors are back to seal off all windows. “Look Mol, the tall guy has a new tattoo.” She nods, not even bothering to remove her earphones. When did she learn to read on lips? Back home Daddy asks what happened. No one replies.

June 3rd, 2010
      During class Anthony winked at me—and there was no one behind me.

June 9th, 2010
      School bus rides are canceled. Mommy accompanies us to school and picks us up after class. I spot her observing me through the school gate during recess. Back home I ask her why she is not working today, and she tells me she quit her job at the insurance company.
      “I can’t say I will miss the job, some people are really—” she sighs and doesn’t bother to finish her sentence.
      In the evening Daddy comes home to grab a few things. He is staying at a friend’s tonight. “Why?” I ask. “Oh you know, things right now are really—” he sighs and doesn’t bother to finish his sentence. He wants Molly and I to go with him but I would rather stay home. Anthony-wise.
      Daddy sighs and finally asks, “Is your mom all right? Her boss called me after she was fired. After the—incident.”
      Long-time customers walked in Mommy’s office yesterday. They were having a barbecue with friends when it suddenly caught fire and the house burnt down within a few minutes. They couldn’t save the two boys sleeping upstairs. Mommy kind of lost it. She burst into tears when she heard the story, and when the grieving couple tried to calm her down, she went mad, accusing them of murdering their kids. The lady began to cry, the father banged his fist on the desk and denounced the inappropriateness of these accusations. Mommy kept insulting them. Her colleagues tried to calm her down but she pushed them away and locked herself up with the couple. She started throwing everything around, papers, folders, glasses, family pictures, even her laptop. She had the couple sit down and recall the whole night, like an improvised amateur hypnotherapy. What were the boys wearing, what did they eat for dinner, which toys were scattered on the living room floor— She wanted to know exactly what the kids looked like when they were found charred to death in their beds. Were their eyes still open? Popping out of their head? Did they look like melting dolls? She made them imagine the whole scene from the brothers’ perspective, ordering the couple to imagine that the kids were awake when the fire reached their bedroom. Mommy started imitating the boys’ cries for help and their agony while their skins melted under the heat of the flames. Husband and wife both refused to participate in this Let’s Pretend game, and Mommy was holding a paper knife when the police finally broke the door open and rescued the sobbing couple.

June 25th, 2010
      First day of summer break. Summer fun programs, camps, barbecues and beach parties have yet to be mentioned.

July 12th, 2010
      Perhaps in August?

July 20th, 2010
      Anthony’s lazy footsteps in the hall. I open our front door without even coming up with a single excuse for standing there.
      He speaks first, “You’re still alive.” It does not sound like a question so I just stare at his shoes. Mommy comes rushing from her bedroom; she grabs my ponytail and pulls me back inside the apartment, slams the door on Anthony and slaps me in the face.
      “You do not go out without my permission, do you hear me?” She disappears in the kitchen and locks the door behind her.
      I’m just gonna go lie down for the rest of my life if that’s all right.

July 22nd, 2010
      “Sending them to school is like having them roll about on a minefield all day long.” Mommy decides we will be home-schooled after summer. Daddy’s firm refusal takes us all by surprise, even Mommy opens the wrong folder.

July 27th, 2010
      “Before you go,” Mommy tells the contractors, “Could you sand all sharp angles you notice in the apartment? Dining table, TV stand—?” They look at each other, stunned, craving an explanation. “My younger one, she’s extremely ham-handed.” She points to ten-year-old Molly, taller than all pieces of furniture in the house. She is sitting straight on a chair, her head resting on the wall, staring into space, earphones protecting her from reality. I’m not even sure she realized there were people in the apartment.
      The boss laughs nervously, they all do. Mommy doesn’t. “Do you have any idea how many deaths occur after a seemingly meaningless head injury?” From the look on their faces, I’d say they have no idea. I know the number, in case someone’s interested. They open their toolbox and get busy.

July 28th, 2010
      The creaking sound of Anthony’s front door gives rhythm to my summer. Sometimes I run fast enough to glimpse at him through the peephole. Some other times I just happen to be spending a leisurely time in the space between the front door and the kitchen, holding my breath.

July 30th, 2010
      Dad keeps insisting we come with him every time he stays at a friend’s. I have to be around the peephole.

August 1st, 2010
      “It’s too hot to play outdoors.”

August 2nd, 2010
      “Too windy to go out.”

August 3rd, 2010
      “UV index too high.”

August 4th, 2010
      “Too uncertain.”

August 5th, 2010
      “Too—you know.”

August 17th, 2010
      The contractors spend more time in our apartment than Dad. They are having a blast today, blinking at each other and murmuring every time Mommy is not looking. Molly is now officially a sleepwalker. While the contractors put locks on our bedroom door, I browse distractedly through the newspaper clippings locked up inside Mommy’s favorite folder, the yellow one: Deadly Household Accidents.
      “Wow, this one is getting really thick,” I observe to no one in particular.
      Dad misunderstands, “Yes, she’s getting really sick.”
      He’s late for work, kisses me on the forehead. “Have a great day kiddo.”
      I really don’t know if today is going to be a great day. To keep us entertained indoors during this endless summer, Mommy came up with a very creative idea.
      “It’s time for our little memory game,” she announces cheerfully as soon as the contractors are gone for the day.
      Molly and I sit down next to each other at the dining table, Mommy and her folders facing us. She spends time going through them, her lips puckered, patiently picking the right one for the day. The chosen one is red: Transportation Disasters.
      “All right, plane crashes or car accidents?”
      For no reason, I raise my finger before I speak. “We did plane crashes last week.”
      “We did?”
      I nod.
      “All right then. Hello car accidents!” she says with the silly voice of someone stroking a kitty.
      She picks up a bunch of newspaper articles on her desk. “I’ve been working hard yesterday night.”
      She makes two equal piles and places them in front of us. “All right, get busy girls.” Molly exhales heavily. I hit her with my elbow. Mommy stares at us coldly. We get busy.
      “Mommy, this one is about an elderly couple driving on the highway in the wrong direction. Does it still count?”
      “Well, they died, didn’t they?”
      “Yes but aren’t we supposed to focus on kids only?”
      “Why is that honey? Old folks don’t deserve to die?”
      “Well. I guess they—I don’t know. Oh wait, never mind, they actually did hit a grey Mercedes and killed a whole family. With a baby and a teenager!”
      “See, there you go!” she replies, palms up, a knowing smile on her face.
      She jots down in an excel sheet all the interesting figures from our analysis. When we’re done with our respective piles, Mommy says excitedly, “I’m going to prepare a few statistics while you guys learn all these figures, ok? Quiz after lunch!”

      “What was the age of the girl who went through the windshield of her parents’ Lexus in Michigan on April 3rd, 2010?” That one’s easy: she was two years old. We nail all the questions and get to spend the rest of the afternoon watching Worst Case Scenario on Discovery. I think Mommy has a crush on Bear Grylls.

September 6th, 2010
      First day of school. Mommy hasn’t mentioned homeschooling for a while.
      The amount of fresh air in the outside world is overwhelming.
      I’m sitting right behind Anthony in Social Studies. He has this thing about scratching his underarms when he doesn’t know an answer.

September 6th, 2010
      Anthony’s new girl friend—whose nose is bigger than her brain—is always clinging at his arm like a leech. I accidentally bump into her when leaving the classroom. As I walk away, I can’t help looking over my shoulder. When our eyes meet, Anthony leans over and kisses her, awkwardly moving his head sideways to avoid hitting her nose. They look ridiculous.

September 13th, 2010
      Molly refuses to remove her earphones during class. “Kids can be so stubborn,” remarks Mommy. She laughs hysterically when the school principal shyly suggests introducing a very kind psychiatrist he knows personally and whose office just happens to be located one block from our building.
      “Molly is not crazy, she’s rebelling. She’s a teenager.”
      “She just turned 11,” the headmaster mutters, avoiding Mommy’s eyes.

October 8th, 2010
      Lift accidents are problematic. Do they belong to the Transportation Disasters or the Deadly Outdoor Activities folder? We walk down. We walk up.

October 27th, 2010
      Big-nosed Leech wanders around the school sobbing and accusing Anthony of being a cheater.

November 12th, 2010
      All private tutoring classes are canceled. No potentially-full-of-germs foreign body is allowed inside our apartment. Instead of wearing the reusable, washable antimicrobial face mask Mommy just bought, Dad puts a few clothes in a bag and tells us he’s going to spend a few days away. Molly and I decide to stay here.
      Mommy does not notice Dad’s escape. There is a documentary on TV about pets attacking people, kids being their first target.

November 13th, 2010
      In the morning there’s a brand new purple folder on the dining table: Deadly Animal Encounters.

December 21st, 2010
      Anthony has a new girl friend from his karate class. I hear she’s taller than him and can kick his ass if he doesn’t behave. Like I give a fuck.

January 4th, 2011
      Something’s wrong with Facebook. My friends’ number went down to 164.

February 6th, 2011
      I’m sixteen. Molly hid a handmade birthday card under my pillow. It’s just two girls holding hands and giant headphones.

February 27th, 2011
      “Go ask your Dad where he hid my knitting needles, I can’t find them anywhere.” We haven’t seen him for the past two weeks since he asked us—again—if we would like to go live with him on the other side of the city, and we—again—refused.

March 5th, 2011
      During Social Studies Anthony turned around nine times. He borrowed my ruler, he went through my pencil case and grabbed a red-ink pen, he handed me back my ruler and pen, broken, he peeped at my homework notebook twice, he thanked me, he asked me which chapter we were reading from, and then which page, and then he thanked me again. This is the best subject ever.

March 17th, 2011
      Saturday: PP Day, Procedures Practice. Today we’re working on the Heimlich Maneuver.
      “All right, sit down next to Molly. Now, pretend you two are having lunch at school.”
      “Mommy, we don’t have lunch together.”
      “No, Molly eats first with the rest of the fifth graders.”
      “You never told me that. I have to call the principal. How can you save each other if you’re not even together? This is ridiculous.” Even the room suddenly feels restive.
      “Maybe we just pretend for now,” I suggest weakly. “Mommy?”
      She is biting her fingernails, three at a time, a vulture ripping apart an elephant cub.
      “Mommy? Until you talk to the principal, ok?” Staring into space, she starts working on her left hand. I slowly, slowly refill my glass, and take tiny sips, tiny tiny sips of water. Molly carefully ties her hair in a bun, then unties it and gets started on an elaborate-looking braid.
      “Okay, where were we?” Mommy’s back. “Molly, you put a piece of meat in your mouth. Stop playing with your hair, will you? Now is not the time, really.”
      A compliant, diligent, patient-looking Molly starts pretending to choke on her imaginary piece of pork. She holds her neck with both her hands and makes strange noises, as if she’s trying to speak but cannot. She stands up, skillfully falls down on the carpet face first, and starts shaking.
      “Okay, not bad.” Mommy looks at me. “Now what do you do? Remember she cannot breathe and you have to act now. Now! She’s choking!”
      “Mommy, give me a second. We’re only pretending.”
      “Pretend you’re not pretending for Christ sake. Don’t just stand there like a useless scarecrow.”
      I get around Molly who’s still on the floor, alternating real yawns with fake shakes. I recite, “From behind, I wrap my arms around her waist.” I can’t reach her like that. “Wait, it’s much easier when she stands up. She usually stands up.” I bend down while she gets off the ground, we bump our heads and stumble down the floor, giggling.
      “Oh yes, that’s very funny girls. Let’s see who’s laughing when it happens in real life.” We start poking at each other. Molly squirms when I tickle her belly.
      “You guys don’t take it seriously. Very well. No more lunch at school. And from now on, mashed vegetables and yogurts only.”
      I stop tickling Molly, stand up and look at Mommy. “Sorry, we’re just having fun you know.”
      “Sorry, we’re just having fun you know,” she repeats, imitating my voice, though I’m pretty sure I didn’t sound angry. “You go ahead and have fun, that’s so much more important than saving each other’s life.”
      “Sorry Mommy. It’s just that I forgot the procedure. Can I take a look at the steps again? Please?”
      She drops the grey folder on the floor: Save your life. No exclamation point. I pick it up; we sit down and start reading while Mommy sits at her desk, browsing news online. After a few minutes of awkward silence, Molly points to the last few lines of the article. This maneuver should only be done when a person is actually choking. Do not do it just to practice since it can cause harm internally.
      I whisper, “I know. No need to tell Mommy, ok?”
      “Tell me what?” She pushes back her chair and strides towards us, her face distorted as though she is suffering from a terrible tummy ache. She freezes in front of Molly and I, her eyes far behind us in a lifeless expression. It lasts a few seconds; it’s just as nerve-wracking as waiting for the clap of thunder once you spotted the flash of lightning in the sky. She puts her hands up slightly above her head as if she’s praying to a god and starts yelling. Not yelling any words. Just yelling. Her eyes are on the verge of popping out of their orbits and her neck muscles are tensing up. The first scream lasts nine, ten seconds; she stops to catch her breath then resumes her shouting. Without taking her eyes off our mother in this trance-like state, Molly tries to take hold of her earphones on the table. But Mommy’s faster, she drops them on the floor and steps on them a dozen times, still shrieking, resembling a possessed kid throwing a tantrum. She stumbles and clutches the table to hold herself up, breathing hard and sweating, a few wet hair locks hiding her eyes. I’ll never sleep again. Molly disappears. I can’t move.

      Half an hour later, I step into our bedroom, filled with the musty pungent smell of patchouli oil, giving me an instant headache. Since Dad gave Molly a sample bottle, she worships the fragrance, sacrificing a few drops on her Angelina Ballerina assorted bed sheets and curtains on special occasions.
      Molly is sitting at her desk, looking a little suffocated in the ballet tutu she outgrew a year ago. She is looking straight ahead at a poster of the pink smiley mouse painlessly lifting her right leg. All kinds of stationery are spread out in front of her. I close the door and step forward. Oh that’s not stationery, that’s—utensils. Like on a dentist tray. A geometry compass, hair pins, different sizes and types of pencils, a stapler, two pairs of chopsticks—Molly turns her head towards me. There’s a knitting needle in her right ear hole. She’s holding it straight with her hand, ready to push it further inside, as if she wants to pierce her earlobes by herself, only her knowledge of anatomy is somehow confused and she’s poking at the wrong place. A homemade surgery. She smiles peacefully but doesn’t resist when I slowly remove the knitting needle from her ear. I take the rest of her arts and crafts project away from her and kiss her forehead. She remains still, staring at the poster. In the bathroom’s cabinet I find old earplugs Dad bought a long time ago when he was travelling so much for his job. I bring them back to our bedroom, Molly hasn’t moved, she shrugs and accepts my present.

April 6th, 2011
      The teachers refuse to accept Molly in class. With her long hair untied it took every one weeks to realize she was wearing earplugs. We’re being home-schooled starting next week.
      Dad is not around to argue with the decision. He sends us an email from Europe between two business meetings. I hope Mommy feels better. I’m sad you decided not to live with me but I’m glad you’re here for her. I miss you both so much, and I hope we will discover Europe together some day soon! Please take care of Mommy and yourselves. Vacations sound great but there’s no way Mommy will let us travel anywhere by plane, boat, train, car, bicycle, scooter, elevator, escalator—

April 8th, 2011
      This is our last day of school. Samantha asks Peter who asks Anthony if he wants to kiss me. At lunchtime, Peter approaches me. “After class,” he mumbles before running away to catch up with his group. I spend the last hour of class biting my lips to make them look mouth-watering red. The bell rings, I linger on, shakily gathering my thoughts and things. The students leave the room, followed by the teacher; someone touches my shoulder. I slowly turn around, happy-face and bulging-lips ready. Mom?
      She helps me carry my books. As we walk endlessly down the hall, I clearly distinguish Anthony’s laugh but cannot look back. I want to go home and insert a knitting needle in my belly button and churn, churn, churn.

April 14th, 2011
      Mom decided we were wasting our time learning a second language since we will not travel. “Ever,” she clarifies.

May 1st, 2011
      Recess and outdoor activities are not part of the home school program.

May 13th, 2011
      I have never played so many bored games in my entire life. I tear up Monopoly banknotes and Chance cards, and I promise I will choke on the little tokens if I have to advance to Boardwalk one more time. The only game I tolerate is The Game of Life, sometimes my husband Anthony and I have so many kids that the pink and blue people pegs form a rickety pile inside the plastic cars.

May 26th, 2011
      Molly is sick but Mom bribes a doctor into visiting us.
      “It’s just a cold, really. Some Panadol and she’ll be fine tomorrow.”
      “Are you sure Doctor? How could it be? She doesn’t go out—hmm—much.”
      “It could be exposure to other kids.”
      “They’re home-schooled.”
      “I see.”
      “We’re home-loving people.”
      “Perhaps I should bring her to the hospital?”
      “There’s absolutely no need, it’s just a cold.”
      “That’s great news because I hate hospitals. And playgrounds. Shopping carts. ATM keypads. Remote controls. Pepper dispensers in restaurants.”
      “Sorry? You lost me there.”
      “Oh. All right. So, all right—still, some fresh air would really do her good. All three of you actually. You look pale. Tired. If I may, it’s a bit stuffy here. Ok Molly? Open the windows, go play outside, just—just be a kid.”

June 18th, 2011
      Anthony gets out of his house at 7.30am, returns from school after 4pm, heads back outside with a ball at 5pm—he is so sexy wearing soccer socks—and he comes back home around 6pm—he is so sexy with mud all over his body. Can he hear me breathing through the peephole?

July 2nd, 2011
      I’m watching a documentary on National Geographic about life in prison. Forty-six percent of all convicts attempt suicide at least once during their incarceration. Apparently the lack of light and fresh air are the main causes of madness behind bars. They always dramatize everything on television. It’s not so bad honestly.
      Just like these evil murderers and pedophiles in solitary confinement, we are allowed one hour of open air every day. After the doctor left, Mom launched a thorough online investigation. Kids spending too much time inside are prone to obesity, hyperactivity and stress, not to mention the lack of vitamin D and the weakening of muscles and bones. Articles addressing the negative social effects of an indoor life were dismissed as insignificant.
      The idea is to walk around the building for an hour between five and six o’clock in the morning. It’s mom’s favorite time of the day, statistically the least risky. Drunkards and weirdoes are gone and the morning traffic is still acceptable. I’m glad we go out so early; I wouldn’t want kids my age to see me walking around with my protective gear. The boots might still pass as a kind of obscure fashion statement, but the hat-veil zipper jacket combo is possibly a big no-no among fashionistas and human beings alike. Last week she added sting-proof plastic coated gloves and pant leg bands to stop insects from crawling up our legs.
      After a few days of this new ritual, the doorman finally dares to ask us where we keep our bees. He worries we might have started an illegal honey culture in the building area. Mom laughs politely even though he is actually concerned. She could explain that malaria is not something to take lightly, I’m sure he would sympathize with her fears. She doesn’t.
      When we head back home after the stroll he greets us at the door, “See you later bee keepers.” It’s so funny! It even makes Molly smile. Mom throws him such a look that he might never ever dare to even glance at us from the corner of his eyes.

July 11th, 2011
      There’s a bruise on his right cheek.
      Peephole, peephole on the door, tell me what happened? Did he get into a fight? Over a girl?

July 18th, 2011
      Doorbell. Peephole. Anthony’s mother. Mom is taking a nap. I open the door.
      “Good morning honey. It’s so great to see you! How are you?
      “Fine.” I’m trying to look up, slightly dazzled by the neon light from the hall. I put a hand on my forehead to act as a visor; my eyes are becoming more sensitive since we keep the curtains closed during the day. There is no evidence online to support any death-related theory on the subject but the afternoon sun bringing out tiny dust motes makes Mom feel restless. The hot and humid air in the hall is stifling; it must still be summer time. A wave of wooziness suddenly hits me. I’d like to pass out for a few seconds.
      When she breaks the silence, the high-pitch tone of her voice almost bursts my eardrums, “It’s good to see you.” I look over my shoulder at Molly, reading a book on the sofa, narrowing her eyes, frowning. “I haven’t seen you in a while,” the woman points out in a confidential tone, slightly bent over.
      By in a while do you mean one year, eight months and twenty-one days? I’d like to tell her that I see her every day, ask her why she comes back home late on Tuesdays and congratulate her on her weight loss. But then I don’t know if she’s a peephole-friendly person so I just nod and smile, silently encouraging her to keep talking.
      “You remember my son Anthony?”
      “His birthday’s coming up. I would like to invite you both to his party.”
      “Oh,” is my deepest answer. I’m 16 and I almost got kissed once.
      Everyone will meet in Ocean Park on August 6th at ten o’clock and spend the whole day there. Next week. “Would you like to come?”
      The vocabulary to describe how I feel is still under creation. In the meantime I’m about to attempt an answer using unfitting existing words when I feel Mom’s ghost-like presence creeping behind me. She barely greets our neighbor who starts all over again: you remember my son, birthday, Ocean Park, next week, ten o’clock, party. Mom mumbles something about another birthday celebration we promised we would attend on this day, and that’s really too bad we did not know earlier and perhaps next year, that would be great. Ms. Smith smiles awkwardly, nods politely and exits rapidly.
      Mom closes the door behind her. I almost expect her to flash a stethoscope or make me take a bath of disinfectant gel, but all she says is, “You didn’t shake her hand, did you?”
      “Mom, please, will you let us go?”
      “Go? To Ocean Park?” She lets out a dry laugh. “Go get me the green folder.”
      I step inside her bedroom, the brand new cradle still waiting beside her bed, the four little blue elephants from the musical mobile still wrapped up in their packaging. I open her wardrobe, almost empty of clothes, which disappeared over the months to make space for The Folders and piles of clippings waiting to find a new home. For no reason I exit the room almost running on my tippy toes, desperate not to make a sound.
      “Ok. Let’s see, what’s wrong with Ocean Park?” She opens the Deadly Outdoor Activities folder and goes directly to the Amusement Park divider, split into three sections, Amusement Rides, Roller Coasters and Water Rides. The paper from the press clippings is already slicker than old love letters. She goes quickly through the printed Excel sheet summing up the results of her recent investigation.
      “1995. Cable car accident. Two cabins plunge into the sea. Seven dead, including two brothers of six and thirteen years old.”
      “1998. Leak in balloon ride. Plunged two hundred feet to the ground. Five injured. One coma.”
      “2001. Train accident. Two cars collided. Nine injured.”
      “2007. Huum, bad year. Wild West Mine Train coaster. Gosh…” Tears expected any second now. “The lap restraint opened while the ride was in motion. Two teenagers fell to their death. Molly, are you listening?” she snaps her fingers and bangs on the table until Mol looks up from her book.
      “Come here. Sit down. All right. Now girls, I want you to close your eyes. Do it. Ok, good. Focus now. Remember what it feels like to be hanging upside down on a moving roller coaster? It’s fun, isn’t it? The adrenaline kicking, kids around you screaming from delight and laughing their heart out. God, I cannot stand this stupid expression. Anyway, are you with me?”
      I nod, keeping my eyes closed. I know what’s coming.
      “All right, now, you know the biggest loop is just a few seconds away, the grand finale, the one everyone has been talking about at school! Just a second now. Here it comes, here it comes! You’re upside down! Yeah! Haaaa! Oh wait a second, what’s going on? You can feel the bar suddenly opening up, it’s completely loose now and before you know it, you’re sliding out of the cabin. You’re holding on to the bar for as long as you can, you scream, you look at each other. Your hands are slipping, slowly, though much faster than in the movies. You are dying. You. Are. Dying. Kids keep laughing and screaming around you, these little fucks, completely unaware that you are living the last seconds of your short pathetic life. You look at each other. No, really, open your eyes and look at each other. Molly! You lose your grip, one hand, then the other.”
      For the sake of reconstruction, our virtual descent to hell ends with Mom screaming as authentically as possible. A slaughtered pig utters the most horrifying harsh squealing cry for as long as five minutes while it’s bleeding to death, a dark thick blood gushing out of his open throat. Reconstruction merges with reality. She won’t shut up, her face is awkwardly distorted and the veins from her forehead and neck are about to burst out. She’s facing us but she’s not looking at us any more, she’s not here any more. Molly runs away from the room. I can’t move, I’m paralyzed, and I can only wait for it to end.
      The howling slowly weakens into a death rattle. Mom clears her throat, takes a sip of tea from her cup, gives her hair an expert finger comb and scratches her skin behind her right ear. “Five more minutes girls, and then it’s time for a little memory game!” Her smile is more chilling than the screamer’s face hidden in the wallpaper.

July 19th, 2011
      Going to Anthony’s birthday party is worth dying in the Wild West Mine Train coaster.

July 20th, 2011
      I’m going.

July 22th, 2011
      Whatever it takes. My plan involves the sleeping pills hidden in Mom’s bedside table. Molly is coming too. We’ll be back by the end of the day.
      Mom will be mad. Oh, wait—

July 29th, 2011
      Internet Day. Mom plugs the cable that we’re never ever allowed to touch, electrocution being the fifth leading cause of occupational injury death in the United States. “Ok, girls, you have an hour.” Internet addiction disrupts nerve wiring in the brain of teenagers while social networking causes brain damage and cancer. And suicide.
      Anthony created a page for his birthday party. Join? Maybe? Decline? Join. I log out right away, let go of the mouse and look around the room, almost expecting a siren and a flashing light to betray me.

August 3rd, 2011
      Sleeping pills. I crush and crush and crush until it can be mistaken for baking soda. Four pills. My arts and crafts project. To each his own.

August 5th, 2011 – 7.39pm
      Mom is slashing bread in the kitchen while Molly and I, sitting at the dining table, eyeball each other as my shaky hand slips a generous portion of powder in Mom’s steaming bowl of soup. I look at Molly inquiringly and when she smiles I empty the rest of the Ziploc bag inside the bowl. She giggles for a second, immediately looks down when Mom joins us in the room.
      “Shall we do something fun tomorrow?”
      “Go to Ocean Park?” Once again words win the race over my thoughts. Now is not the time to upset Mom, she has a whole bowl of pills to gulp down.
      She tilts her head back and sighs with exasperation. “Why are you being stupid? Do I have to go get the green folder—again?
      “No, sorry,” I murmur. “I was just jok—“
      “How many?” she interrupts, seizing my arm and pulling me close to her face. Not in the mood for jokes. Her stale breath reminds me of our last visit to grand-ma’s retirement home, back when we would still venture in such a deadly place.
      She snaps, “Whatever.”
      “203 accidents within the past thirty years.” Right answer. She lets go of my arm and reaches for her spoon.
      “45—I think.” The spoon taps the bowl’s edge, ringing slightly.
      “107 injured, 29 dead.” The belly of the spoon dives into the thick liquid.
      “Good girl.” Her smile is so cold that she might be the answer to global warming. “So I was thinking we might play a game of Monopoly tomorrow. Skip the history lesson for a change. What do you say?” She brings the spoon to her lips and winks at me.
      “Sounds great Mom!” But then of course drinking a whole bottle of lye mixed with bleach and rat poison also sounds heavenly. She gulps down and cheerfully goes for more.

August 5th, 2011 – 8.15pm
      Mom looks dead. Perhaps I went a bit too far with the sleeping pills. She fell asleep in the armchair so her head keeps falling forward; it looks exactly like Daddy’s imitation of people sleeping in a plane. Back when we would still joke and laugh. Chances are I’ll never fly. Last year only: 1,278 plane crashes; 490,872 deaths, all children. Something like that.
      Mom passed out before even locking the kitchen door, which remains wide open, as if daring us to enter. We dare. Holding on to each other, we carefully step inside, breathing loudly, heartbeat racing. We restlessly inspect every inch of the room, rummaging through cabinets, opening the fridge, and sticking our head inside the oven, merely upsetting the order of things. Molly giggles when peeping inside the smelly garbage bin. My eyes keep falling on all these potentially deadly weapons suddenly within my reach. Knives, scissors, heavy pans, forks, toothpicks—I want to grab them all at once, test the limits, challenge fate. I snigger at Death.

August 6th, 2011 – 8am
      We’re almost ready to go. Mom is still sleeping. Obviously.
      Molly’s Hello Kitty doll is popping out of her backpack, looking at us eagerly, impatient to become our accomplice. She has more reasons than us to complain, she has never stepped outside; she doesn’t get to wear a beekeeper freak costume to walk around the building at five o’clock in the morning. “A few more minutes all right?” I push her disproportionately large head back inside the bag, and stuff a few candies Molly has been hiding on top of our wardrobe since Daddy’s last visit. I gather some insect repellent and bandages in case of emergency. Professional quirk. I also take a sunscreen lotion and two hats—without veil—Molly’s skin is so thin I can follow the path of her veins with my finger.
      Just as we’re stepping out of the bedroom, we hear noise coming from the living room. Impossible, Mom’s waking up. I usher Molly back inside then observe Mom from the hall. Wincing and rubbing her neck, she looks around the room, probably wondering why she spent the whole night sleeping in an armchair. I walk backwards to the bedroom, keeping an eye on Mom struggling to heave herself up.
      I close the door and whisper to Molly, “It doesn’t change anything. We’re still leaving. We have to go.” I throw our bags under my bed. “Sit down, open a book.” A few seconds later, Mom is pushing her key inside the lock of our bedroom door even though she fell asleep before locking it yesterday. Our two smiley angel faces welcome her. I ask if she slept well while she rubs her forehead back and forth, right above her eyebrows. “I’m not feeling so good. A bit dizzy.”
      “A shower would make you feel better.” I keep smiling; looking even more sincere than a Miss World waving to the crowd while keeping her crown from falling off her head.
      “I’m sorry we missed our stroll. I don’t know what happened.”
      I shrug. No idea.
      I repeat, “A shower would make you feel better.” Smiling dumbly does hurt.
      “Ok, I’ll be fast.” She slowly turns around and disappears, leaving the door ajar.
      Molly stares at me as if asking, “What’s next?” I remain silent, focused on the familiar noises: the daily coughing fit, the impatient stream of pee finally set free, the explosive morning fart accidentally breaking away, the toilet paper unrolling, the roaring toilet flush, the toothbrush dropped in the sink, the annoyed sigh, the powerful brushing of the backs of the last molars, the spitting of toothpaste, the faucet water running, the spitting of water and chunks of mucus from the coughing fit, the shower curtain closing, the shower water running.
      After what seems like a lifetime of hesitation, I exhale deeply and grab our bags from under the bed. “Let’s go Mol.” She frowns. “Mol, this is our last chance. Now or never. We’ll be back by the end of the day anyway.” I feel her small, moist hand on my back as I open the door slowly, my eyes on the bathroom.
      The water stops running.

August 6th, 2011 – 8.17am
      The slippery sound of skin sliding on a wet enameled surface, the heavy sound of a body bumping against the same wet enameled surface, the dull sound of the same body hitting the cold tiled floor, a muffled groaning, a deadened sigh. Relieved silence.

August 6th, 2011 – 8.24am
      Shall I call an ambulance? “Molly, do you remember what’s the procedure in this situation?” She shakes her head, bringing out her lower lip, her eyes fixed on our still mother spread on the bathroom tiles like a lonely starfish washed up on a beach. Yellow folder: Deadly Household Accidents. I’d say it’s about time to create a Bathroom divider.
      “She bumped her head,” I deduce with the confidence of a CSI expert. Molly looks at me and nods gravely in agreement.
      She starts to hum Five little monkeys, her favorite lullaby when she was younger. One fell off and bumped his head. She gently taps her head twice with her right fist then points to the side of the bathtub.
      “You think that’s where she bumped her head?”
      She nods again then looks at my watch.
      “Oh shoot, we’re gonna be late. Let’s go! Shall we call Daddy on our way?”
      She smiles, takes my hand and pulls me away from the bathroom.
      In the living room I grab a pencil on the dining table and doodle on the wallpaper. We run, jump, hop and ballerina-dance our way towards the main door while making funny faces. I don’t know why we behave like lunatics.

Sophie Monatte has lived and written in France, New York and Hong Kong. She’s earning her MFA in Fiction at City University of Hong Kong and writing her first short-story collection in English. She’s a compulsive backgammon player and is afraid of exclamation points.

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