Our house was too big. It dwarfed me and my mother, who cried every year when we received the first winter heating bill. It left room for ghosts in every season.
But to the kids on my bus ride home, the house looked like a grand place, with columns and porches and gray shutters on tall windows. It didn’t matter that up close you could see the cracked paint. My schoolmates couldn’t tell that the flat roof was covered in moss and leaky shingles. Inside we had water-stained ceilings and black mold in every closet. The rooms were wallpapered with peeling, hideous prints (lime green bald eagles in my bedroom) and carpeted in stiff, brown rugs laid down in the ’70s by the sister of the woman who had been my kindergarten teacher. The sister died alone, her naked body found decomposing in a waterless bath, a suicide. Soon after she was discovered, my mother got a deal on the house. We moved in just before I began the first grade, just the two of us. I did not know my father.
The house was surrounded by two acres of meadow, several of woods, and one of grass kept trim by a widowed dairy farmer who loved my mother even though she was unkind to him. We lived far from the small elementary school I attended, and I was always one of the last students off the bus in the afternoons. During the 45-minute ride along back roads—all we had in Helena were back roads—I stared out the window and waited. When I was in the fifth grade, I was teased almost daily by two girls, Angela and Tuesday.
“Rich girl,” they would chant, their pretty mouths stained red from cherry lollipops. “Your parents have 100 cars.”
Inseparable friends, Angela and Tuesday dressed alike: long, dark blonde hair in scrunchies at the tops of their heads, oversized sweatshirts that made them appear large and resilient, even though they were string beans underneath. I felt meek in the wrinkled button-downs my older cousins sent me from Elmira.
I should have known not to argue. “It’s only me and my mother. And we just have one car.” A Pontiac Sunbird with mustard-yellow, plastic seats. The car smelled like mothballs, and my mother had needed to borrow money from the dairy farmer to buy it.
“I bet you have 50 more in the garage.”
“Or behind the house.”
“Hidden in the woods.”
When the bus finally stopped, Angela and Tuesday and the other remaining children would watch me cross the street. Sometimes I would turn around to see their faces pressed against the windows of the bus, licking the glass and laughing.
Once I was safely making my way up the long, uphill driveway, the bus would shudder and lurch on, and I would watch it go with some relief. I did not love my house, but I did not envy Angela and Tuesday theirs in the trailer park a mile away, where the homes were crowded into grassless, haphazard lots. The owner of the park tended the area only insofar as he threw gravel down on the main drive once every spring. In the winter, the drive went unplowed. One time I told my mother I’d heard some trailers had no reliable running water or electricity, and she shrugged. “That could be,” she said, but she didn’t look as aghast as I expected. It turned out she blamed the park for keeping the value of our property lower than she believed it should be. “I’ve put everything into this money pit,” she said. “Don’t you think some day I’d like to sell the fucking thing for a profit?”
People who met my mother often told me she was beautiful, and it made me swell with pride to hear others say it, though I didn’t always see it myself. Even when she wore her wrinkled scrubs to the grocery store after work, men turned from rows of canned soup to look at her, but she never seemed to notice. She was too busy planning how to keep our house from complete disaster.
My mother had dreamed of being rich and comfortable, but as an undergraduate she fell in love with her married Spanish Literature professor, got pregnant with me, and had to drop out of college to work a series of jobs that disappointed her. According to her, my father said he supported her decision to have a child but not her wish that he be a part of my life. Instead, he gave my mother a small sum of money and asked her to go away. He would not let this mistake break up his family, he said. As I grew up and asked about him and whether there was ever a chance I could meet him or just see him from afar, she told me he had moved away, to some college town in the Midwest. She would not name the exact town or state, would only refer derisively to Ohio, Michigan, Iowa—places she had once driven through on a conflict-filled road trip with her parents and sisters. Her tone drew a picture for me of a kind of landlocked purgatory—a place with worse winters than ours.
Most of my mother’s family did not have money, but she had gleaned her desire for wealth and a big house from them all the same. They had lived in thrall of Aunt Evelyn, my great-great aunt and namesake, who had married a much older man, a former lumber baron from Maine.
My mother never called me Evelyn. Just Eve or Evie or sometimes E. Sometimes nothing at all.
In her closet, she kept a box of crystals that had once dangled from Aunt Evelyn’s dining room chandelier. She took these out at Christmas to hang on the tree in front of the colored lights she preferred to the plain white ones I asked for. Our tree always gleamed with tiny rainbows. When my mother wasn’t looking, I would sometimes take down the crystals, and in front of a mirror, hold them up to my ears. I thought they would make lovely earrings, but they were actually quite heavy. We could only place them on the sturdiest tree branches—usually those toward the bottom or interior of the tree.
My mother worked late hours—first as a nursing student, then as an emergency room nurse, and before she left or when she came home, she’d take a bath and drift from room to room in her terrycloth robe, gazing from windows with her damp hair in a towel. She treated that bathrobe as if it were a silk dressing gown—hand wash only, line dry even in winter—though she’d bought it on clearance at Sears.
She loved meandering through the house; she said it made her feel like an aristocrat looking after her manor. Although she cursed the house for taking so much time and money that she didn’t have to give, it did deliver tall ceilings and a grand staircase that swept upwards from the front entrance—double doors with intricate molding and the original hand-blown glass windows, which she said reminded her of the front doors of Aunt Evelyn’s Queen Anne in Peekskill. On summer days, my mother liked to leave these doors open and sit outside in her bathrobe on the front porch to survey her land and the few cars that passed by on a road that was once paved with bricks. The house had a sense of history, which she said was important in a home.
She did not mind that a woman had died there. I once asked if she thought Mrs. Anderson’s ghost lived in the house. My mother laughed. “If she does, she’s got a lot of company.” Our house was nearly 170 years old, built by one of the founding families of Helena. In a nearby cemetery, I had found ornamented headstones with their family name on it—de Groot. Many of the graves were small—little rows of graying molars—which my mother said were for the children who had died of cholera or scarlet fever.
Their lives had probably been both more opulent and more difficult than mine. Prettier clothes, shorter life spans. I used to worry that if I ever encountered one of them in my travels through the house, they would take one look at me and dislike what they saw: a healthy girl with a rambling house almost all to herself.
One bitter February afternoon, Angela and Tuesday swept into my seat, shoving me against the window so the three of us were crammed in together. Angela sat on the outside. As if trying to block my escape, she held her hand against the seat in front of us. Her nails were painted a soft lavender, and where the polish had chipped away, I could see the dirt tucked underneath.
“You think you’re too good for us,” she said.
“You think you’re better than everyone.” Tuesday sat in the middle, jacketless, her arm pressed against the length of mine.
“Look at your stupid outfit,” Angela said. “Your stupid face.”
She had green eyes. Not long before, I’d run into her in the bathroom at school, just as she was fishing something out of her eye, rapidly blinking away tears. As I washed my hands in the sink next to hers, she’d said hello in a friendly, unembarrassed way that caught me off guard. When she’d traipsed out the door, waving good-bye, I’d felt lightheaded with pleasure and surprise.
Now I tried to imagine what she saw. I agreed that my outfit was stupid; I was tired of hand-me-downs. My coat was puffy, my jeans sat too high on my waist. But my face? I did not mind my freckles or pale skin. I liked how one of my cheeks dimpled, but not the other. I thought it might be a trait I shared with my father, although I’d never even seen a picture of him.
“What’s wrong with my face?”
“Baby face,” Tuesday said.
Angela nodded. “Because you’re a spoiled baby.”
I felt heat in my cheeks. A boy sitting in front of us turned around to peer over the top of his seat. “This should be good,” he whispered to no one. His mother worked at the post office, where our mail was delivered.
I scowled at him and he grinned.
Angela and Tuesday chanted: “Rich girl, spoiled girl, baby face.”
“At least it’s not an ugly face.”
Tuesday leaned close, her lollipop breath on my skin. “Ugly?” she said, mouth contorted.
I shook my head, ready to take it back, knowing it wasn’t true.
Angela squeezed in further. I felt my chest compressing. “You think we’re ugly?”
The words appeared to me, and I said them: “At least I don’t live in a shithole.”
They were quiet for a moment, and then Tuesday lashed out. Swiftly, with the palm of her hand, she smacked my head against the window, and the crack rang out around the bus.
The boy in front of us gasped along with others I had not realized were watching. Angela watched me steadily. Her fingers tapped the plastic seat. Against my will, I started to cry.
Angela laughed first. The sound was bright and contagious, and everyone around us started laughing, too. “See what I mean? Baby, baby, baby.”
As I climbed my driveway later, I felt revolted at myself—for caring what Tuesday and Angela thought, for crying in front of them, for saying what I had and proving their point. It was the first time I’d ever sworn in front of someone, and now I felt embarrassed. Shithole. I stood on our back porch and cursed the rotted steps. Some animal had crawled underneath them and died over the summer, and even through the chill in the air I could still smell it.
Inside, I could see my breath. I turned up the thermostat, then wrapped ice in a towel and held it to my head. I was alone as usual.
In my mother’s absence, I wandered from dark room to dark room, lingering over the heating vents to warm my feet. I would let the hot air catch in my shirt, then walk to the vent in the next room. Some rooms did not have furniture. We could never fill the house with the few things we owned.
I stood over a vent in the upstairs hallway, gazed into one of the antique mirrors my mother found at garage sales, and surveyed the gash administered on the bus. It was already red and hurt to touch. I kept touching it, replaying what I had said, what the girls had said, the moment Tuesday took hold of my head.
High above, the hallway light flickered and dimmed. A shadow passed behind me in the mirror, but when I turned, I saw nothing.
Again, a flicker and a shadow. The de Groot children, Mrs. Anderson? I did not want to see the old woman—if I did, I imagined she would come in the form in which she had left the world, and the idea of her rotting skin terrified me. My own skin tingled with anticipation. Behind my reflection, I could almost make out the shape of a child, braiding her hair. I tried to smile, but the girl did not seem to notice my overtures of friendship. She remained indistinct and disinterested, nodding her head to a melody only she could hear.
I made myself a bologna sandwich and ate it in front of the television. Every so often, I would look up, hoping to see the girl again, but she did not reappear. The house remained still. My skin no longer tingled, no lights flickered, no shadows crept. Before, I had been afraid of meeting a ghost while alone in the house. Now I understood that being alone was the thing that haunted me.
The next morning, an angry welt developed above my eye. It was a Saturday, and I heard my mother humming in the kitchen while I read on the living room couch. She approached me, carrying her coffee and a powdery donut. Her hair was long down her back, dark against her white bathrobe with its satin cuffs.
“What happened?” She touched the welt with her donut-eating hand, and I blinked away the powder that fell from it. Her touch was clinical and competent, as if she were inspecting a bruise on her own elbow or a wound on a patient’s leg. I felt relieved to submit myself to her care, and I was nearly ready to tell her the story about Angela and Tuesday when she smiled mildly and sipped her coffee. “Another battle scar sustained at recess?”
She could be forgiven for assuming; I’d been known to take a kickball or tetherball to the head. I shrugged because it took less energy to agree with my mother’s view of the world. Also, I was still embarrassed by my weakness and my own, easy cruelty.
“You put ice on it?”
“Poor baby. Always had your father’s coordination.” She offered me the last half of her donut, which I accepted with an open palm. She bent down to inspect my hand.
“Filthy,” she declared. “Make sure you wash under your fingernails, too.” She took away the donut piece and dropped it in the trash.
When she left, I licked the powder off my fingers, very slowly, savoring my anger: my head was purple, and she wanted me to wash my hands!
My mother rarely spoke of my father, except at times like this—to blame him for our current woes or to attribute my flaws to him: my lack of coordination, my self-containment, my sizeable ears. In her blame, I now saw regret—what a life she could have had without clumsy me! And in this regret there was room to mold my family’s history to my liking. Though I had never met my father, he felt as much a part of the house as the ghosts that belonged to its bricks and mortar and ugly rugs, and with his filmy presence surveying me, I decided that my mother was wrong: my father did want to know me, but it was she who had never let him see me. I suspected I had received other, more fruitful gifts from my father, and I wanted to uncover them, but I worried my mother would never tell me.
A few weeks later, Tuesday climbed onto the bus alone, and I assumed Angela was sick or skipping school. She often bragged how her mother didn’t care if she went to school or not, how she could stay home whenever she wanted. And yet as far as I could remember, she hadn’t missed a day.
She did not appear the following day, or the day after that, and by the end of the week, I could hear everyone whispering on the bus: I heard Angela’s name. In the afternoon, I chose a seat close to Tuesday’s and leaned across the aisle to get her attention. She was staring out the window as we waited for all our fellow classmates and riders to come streaming out of the school and onto the bus.
“What happened to Angela? Where has she been?” I spoke nervously and kept my distance. Tuesday stared at me, annoyed.
“I don’t know. With her father. Probably in Pennsylvania by now.” She turned to the window, then after a pause, back to me. “Why do you care? She’s not your friend.”
I didn’t answer, because I knew the reason would sound unlikely—that I was drawn to Angela, even though she seemed to hate me.
My mother returned home while I was brushing my teeth, getting ready for bed.
She stood behind me as I finished flossing. Her usually creamy skin looked flushed and blotchy in the bathroom mirror. Her eyes were baggy and tired.
Something about her face like this, drained of its usual beauty, made me want to confess everything to her—my loneliness, my hatred of our house, my longing to know my father in spite of what she’d said about him. Instead, I told her about Angela, how she usually rode my bus but suddenly didn’t anymore, because she’d gone somewhere with her father.
My mother was quiet for a long time, and I couldn’t tell if the reflection she was studying was mine or hers. When she finally spoke, what she said surprised me.
“When I’m gone, make sure all the doors are locked. Do you lock all the doors like I’ve told you?”
She had never told me to lock the doors, nor had she expressed concern about me being alone in the house. Her question now made me nervous. There were three entrances; I used the one key I had to let myself in through the back door. I never bothered checking on the security of the rest.
“And never let anyone inside, even someone you know.”
“Did I do something wrong?”
My mother sighed and sat down on the closed lid of the toilet seat. And then she told me about what had happened to Angela. How she’d been home alone, watching her baby brother in the trailer park when her father showed up and kidnapped her. “But not the baby,” my mother said. “The baby wasn’t his.”
By the time Angela’s mother returned home from work, Angela and her father were long gone, and she found the baby shivering on a blanket on the bathroom floor, his diaper only half-changed. Angela’s mother had rushed him to the hospital.
That was how my mother knew all this, because she was the attending nurse. The baby was still in the hospital for observation.
“I feel sick about it,” my mother said.
She was watching me, and I couldn’t figure out what she wanted me to say, though I was pretty sure she didn’t want to hear I wondered what it would be like if my father showed up at the house one day, unannounced. Did he even know where we lived? Would I recognize him in some deep part of me, even though I had never seen him? I felt certain I would. While I sensed that there was something dark and terrifying about what had happened to Angela, my chest prickled with envy.
“How can a father kidnap his own child?” I said.
She misunderstood my question. “I know! Some people just shouldn’t have children.”
I woke at the sound of my mother’s shrieks rising through the house. As I sat up in the dark, I became aware of an unfamiliar heat rippling beneath me. Quickly, I rushed from bed and ran downstairs to find my mother at the top of the basement steps, a tall, metal pot in her arms, water sloshing over the sides.
Seeing me, she cried out, “Call 911. The fucking furnace caught fire. And take Aunt Evelyn’s crystals outside.” She put the pot down on the ground long enough to whisk off her bathrobe and hand it to me. “This too. I don’t want it to get burned.”
Underneath, she was completely naked, and I looked away, but I did as I was told. I made the call. I grabbed the box of crystals from my mother’s closet. I folded the bathrobe and carried it and the box onto the back porch. The robe already smelled of smoke and burnt polyester threads. I returned inside, filled up as many bowls as I could find, and carried them to the top of the steps for my mother.
“What are you doing?” she yelled when she saw me lining them up for her. “Stay outside!”
At the door, I turned around. There she was again in the kitchen, filling her pot with more water. Her skin was wet with sweat, her angular profile alit with fear. She leaned over the faucet long enough to catch a drink in her mouth, then stumbled with the laden pot toward the open basement door.
Waiting for the fire department outside, I held the bathrobe and the box of crystals to my chest. I felt my nostrils freezing together and thought of Angela’s mother discovering her baby boy alone on the floor, then driving to the hospital with his shivering body. I wondered if she kept him on her lap to warm him.
When the firemen arrived, they waved me over to their truck and instructed me to wait there. They said it wasn’t serious, it wouldn’t take long, everything was going to be fine. My naked mother met two men at the door. One was our car mechanic, and the other sometimes spent the night and made us scrambled eggs in the morning. I liked him; he was a good cook. I could hear both of them asking her gently to leave the house, but she just kept shaking her head. Now I think, what strange courage it must have taken her to stand in front of them, but then I just felt ashamed.
A few months passed, and the dogwoods in our yard started to bloom white flowers that looked like snow. Angela returned suddenly and without fanfare, just when we were starting to forget about her. Her hair was chopped boyishly short, her lips pale and chapped. On the bus, she sat apart from all of us, even Tuesday. She stared out the window, listening to a new, purple Walkman the entire way to school and back home. Some kids said she’d gone all the way to North Carolina with her father. Some said they hadn’t even left town.
I sat behind her one afternoon and touched her shoulder lightly. “Angela,” I whispered. “I’m glad you’re back.”
She slid an earphone from one ear. She didn’t speak or turn her head.
I fumbled for what I wanted to say. “You were right,” I said. “I was a baby before.”
She flashed her profile, paused. “Fuck off.”
It wasn’t like when Tuesday pushed my head into the window. I didn’t cry. For a delirious moment, I even thought I could still win her over and convince her to talk to me. “I don’t know my father.”
Slowly, Angela turned all the way around, and in her face I saw neither the disgust I feared nor the interest I hoped for. Her eyes were glassy and bored. A faded yellow bruise bloomed beneath the edge of her collar.
“Let me tell you something.” Her voice came out flat and soft, and she almost smiled. I leaned closer, as if we were about to share a secret. “Your daddy doesn’t want to know a dumb bitch like you.”
She flipped her headphones back on. She never said another word to me.
I fell back in my seat, dizzy and sick to my stomach. I did feel dumb. Here I’d been inventing a kinship with Angela, when I didn’t know anything for sure about her except where the bus picked her up every morning. Yet somehow she understood this one terrible thing about me, and as I replayed what she had said, it was not her voice in my head but my mother’s.
Inside my house, I could finally wear a t-shirt and not feel chilled. While I ate dinner standing up in the kitchen, my gaze wandered over the water-stained walls, the food on my plate, the cabinets my mother had painted white but were now smudged with fingerprints—everything my mother had worked so hard for. I thought of Angela’s dull stare, her yellow bruise. I told myself I should feel lucky, but I didn’t.
I washed my dishes, then went upstairs, where I searched her closet for letters, mementos, photographs—anything my mother might have saved from my father. I peered under her shoes—the high heels she never had any reason to wear—and ran my hand along the soft fabrics of summer dresses I’d only seen in photographs. I went through the pockets of her old coats and stood on a chair to search the top shelf. I found only Aunt Evelyn’s old crystals, in the same inlaid-wooden box they’d always been in.
I removed two of the heaviest crystals and held them up to the lamp next to my mother’s wrought-iron bed. I felt their cool, solid mass in my palms. Each one so carefully wrapped and cherished, while I could not find even a scrap of paper from my father.
As I held them, I saw my mother’s bathrobe on the back of the door. Her silly, terrycloth bathrobe that she believed was so fine. From where I sat, I couldn’t see the burn marks like spilled coffee on one sleeve. Like our house, I remember thinking—better from a distance.
Believing I would be relieved to get rid of it, I slipped the robe from its hook. For years the memory of this movement—my arm reaching up, gathering the cloth to my chest—would fill me with regret.
It was dark when I took the bathrobe and a flashlight into the woods. I did not feel afraid as I made my way along a path used mostly by deer. At the back of the cemetery, well away from the embellished stones of the de Groot family, a few thin graves lay flat to the ground, names of the deceased worn to indecipherable curves. I knelt down next to them, almost relieved. We were all quiet and unknowable here. A satisfying viciousness throbbed in my chest.
With just my fingers, I dug a shallow hole next to those stones. The vigorous digging tired me, and when I lifted the bathrobe, it felt bulky in my arms; the fabric, a little damp still from my mother’s afternoon bath, had a solid, human weight to it that suddenly alarmed me. I laid it in the hole and patted clumps of damp earth around it.
Back at the house, I saw my mother had returned from work. I stood outside the kitchen window, watching her heat leftovers in the microwave. She still had on her scrubs, and I could tell she was looking at her reflection in the window, not at me outside, because she raised a hand to her hair and smiled.
This is still the image I see whenever I hear my mother’s voice. Just one word on the phone, and I’m stumbling out of the woods again, the grass brushing my ankles. In my memory, the night is impossibly dark, and the kitchen is the only room that is lit. Framed in the window, my mother’s smile fades, she remains very still. All around her is the house, like a vast and unsteerable ship. I take a clumsy step deeper into shadow, sure she has realized I’m spying and knows what I’ve done. But then I hear the little ding, and she opens the microwave door and removes a plate heaped with the chicken and pasta that two nights before I complained was too bland. In the sliver of light from inside, I can see my hands. They are covered in earth, and I wipe them back and forth on my jeans before I go inside.
Art by Kerri Augenstein
Sara Schaff is the author of SAY SOMETHING NICE ABOUT ME (Augury Books 2016), a CLMP Firecracker Award Finalist in fiction and a 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Award Finalist for short fiction. Her writing has appeared in Yale Review Online, The Belladonna, Michigan Quarterly Review, Joyland, LitHub, Chicago Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She is represented by Maria Massie of MMQLit.
A graduate of Brown University and the MFA program at the University of Michigan, Sara has taught at Oberlin College, the University of Michigan, and St. Lawrence University, as well as in China, Colombia, and Northern Ireland, where she also studied storytelling. Sara lives in the North Country of New York State with her husband, the poet Benjamin Landry, and their daughter.