All mothers watch their children through magic telescopes. That’s what Mom said, and I believed her. How else would she know when I didn’t want to match socks, or rub her feet, or sort the bills on the dining room table and stack them in neat piles according to date?
Mom had good days and bad days. On her good days, Dad took care of me and baby Lucy while Mom shut herself in the bedroom with a beer and a paperback mystery. She used the magic telescope to keep an eye on us.
“Your father can’t be trusted to know what’s good for six-year-old girls,” she reminded me.
I knew the rules. Although there would always be new ones and some old ones could change, the most important rules were in place. There was what I should do: rub Mom’s feet, polish the living room furniture without being asked, tell Mom if Dad lets me watch television shows on another channel besides PBS, thank her for being my mother. What I shouldn’t do: make noise, make faces, talk unless asked to, watch television shows on any other channel besides PBS even if Dad says it’s okay. What I should think about: something nice to do for Mom, how to make dying for my sins worth Jesus’ while. What I should not think about: eating a piece of Mom’s special chocolate, what’s inside my vagina.
On Mom’s bad days, she couldn’t leave me and Dad alone. She stormed out of the bedroom and told me to stop bothering my father. “Can’t you see he’s trying to take care of the baby? Why are you hanging all over him, a big girl like you?”
“Why don’t you run across the street and say hello to Jennifer?” Dad would tell me while keeping his eyes on baby Lucy’s pink-cheeked face. Jennifer was a tall blond nurse who wore a pink uniform with white Reebok sneakers. I thought she was as pretty as a Barbie doll, and twice as nice. She let me try on her lip-gloss, the exact same shade of pink as her uniform. She did my hair in French braids. She took me to Friendly’s for ice cream.
Every time I went to Jennifer’s, I left a trail of shouts behind me. “Don’t make me look bad,” Mom screamed at Dad. “It’s obvious Bridget prefers you to me.”
“Who in the hell but the baby is here to see?”
From the front steps I would hear Mom slam the bedroom door, then Dad’s voice prodding me down the driveway. “Go ahead now, there’s a good girl.” I would look back to see him at the door, bouncing Lucy in his arms. “I’ll come get you in a while.”
When Dad arrived later with Lucy in the stroller, he never seemed to be in a rush to get home. Jennifer would make Dad a cup of tea and open a box of Fig Newtons, then lead us into the big white living room with a plant in each window. We would stay an hour or two longer, Dad and Jennifer sitting on the big blue couch with its many colored cushions, talking about the new babies Jennifer cared for at the hospital, while I held Lucy in my lap in front of the television and watched whatever channel I wanted.
But one Thursday evening in second grade, I came home early from Jennifer’s. Mom sat at the kitchen table smoking. Donahue, her favorite show, was on the small television on the counter. A cube steak thawed beside it.
“How come you’re home before your father went to fetch you?”
“Jennifer had to go to work.”
“She must have been fixing herself up by the time you got there.”
“Yes.” I kept my eyes on the checkerboard linoleum, started counting the stray Cheerios beneath the table, and held my breath for Mom’s next question. The chocolate pudding cup I had eaten at Jennifer’s slithered in my belly. I prayed Mom wouldn’t ask what stage of getting ready Jennifer had been in. Mom hated the nakedness that came with showering and dressing. She had made me wash myself since I was four years old.
“So what did you do?” The snake in my stomach tensed, tightened and coiled.
Mom could see everything through her magic telescope. There was no use lying to her. I could, however, choose my words carefully, maybe change how Mom felt about what she had seen. “I sang her ‘Love Me Do,’ like I do for Dad, outside the bathroom door.”
Dad was a bartender in one of Boston’s five-star hotels, and I liked nothing more than to accompany him in the ritual of donning his tuxedo on Friday and Saturday evenings. I especially loved to help him fix the bowtie on his penguin suit. Mom made sure the bathroom door was firmly closed between me and Dad when I sang to him as he showered. It was only after he had his pants and undershirt on that I was allowed to watch him shave, comb gel through the tangled brown curls that were just the same as mine, brush his teeth, button his shirt and polish his shiny black shoes.
Mom blew smoke toward the yellow light suspended from the ceiling. “Run along, then.”
Three years later, after Dad had left for his Saturday evening shift, Mom told me and Lucy that we wouldn’t wake on Sunday morning to find him, as we usually did, sleeping on the couch in the den downstairs. He had left us to be with Jennifer. He would not be coming home. And he couldn’t see me and Lucy, because Mom had taken Dad to court and come back with something called a restraining order.
“Your Dad is abusive. He exposed you to bad things. The judge made this no-visitation rule to protect you.”
Lucy wrapped her arms around my waist, buried her face in my stomach, and began to sob noiselessly.
“But, Dad isn’t bad,” I said. “What did he do?”
“Someday you’ll understand, Bridget, and you’ll thank me. You both will.”
Every night that week, I looked out my bedroom window at Dad’s blue station wagon parked in Jennifer’s driveway across the street, waiting to catch a glimpse of him. On one such night, Mom came and sat on my bed.
“Remember how you sang the Beatles for Jennifer when she got ready for work?”
It took a moment to understand. “You mean when I was seven?”
“You saw her in a bath towel, right?”
“I think so. Or maybe it was her bathrobe.”
“I didn’t tell you then, because you were too young. That’s called sexual abuse.”
I knew what sex was. I was ten years old and read everything I could get my hands on. Sex was the mysterious thrill I had gawked at in movies like Dirty Dancing at a friend’s sleepover party. Sex was the sin I wasn’t supposed to commit until I was married.
I shook my head. “I don’t think…”
“Now is the time to cry it out, Bridget,” Mom cut me off. “Don’t keep it inside.” Don’t. The weight of Mom’s warning pressed heavy on my chest.
Every night after that, Mom came into my bedroom to tell me what had happened, because she said I was too traumatized to remember. But I remembered, because I hung on to every memory of Dad. Still, Mom’s words burrowed into me and blossomed. Soon, I was crying every night as if on cue.
Mom said I needed therapy. That meant visiting Pam, our retired neighbor who had been an addiction counselor at Boston City Hospital. On Saturday mornings, I sat with Pam and Mom at the kitchen table as they drank coffee and talked about Dad, “The alcoholic womanizer who got off on Bridget being abused.” I watched Lucy play Connect Four by herself on the floor and ate stacks of butter cookies from a tin. Before we left, Pam always asked me how I felt about my father.“Bad?” I would glance at Mom. “Sad, mad.” Mom and Pam never seemed to think it was strange that my list of feelings rhymed. My cheeks would tingle as I watched Pam fill out a form and hand it to Mom. Then Mom put the form in the thick manila envelope she carried in her purse.
I felt guilty. I couldn’t completely believe Mom, and yet the lie about Jennifer felt almost real. I tried to be like the Virgin Mary. When Gabriel came to her and said she was going to bear God’s child, she kept all her questions in her heart. She didn’t let doubts rise to her head, or even worse, burst from her mouth. The only trouble was, on top of all my other sins of thought and deed, I had sinned against both Mom and Jennifer, and Mary had never sinned at all. Her heart was clean and big, a spacious room where doubts wouldn’t grow beneath the pressure of being guarded under lock and key. Whereas my heart was a teeming jail cell. I was sure Saint Anne had never needed to use her magic telescope to keep track of her daughter.
One Saturday morning after therapy, Mom announced that Pam was going to take care of Lucy for a few hours while we went home. “Your father is there waiting for us,” she explained. “He’s coming to get his things. It’s a good time for you to tell him how Jennifer sexually abused you.”
When we came around the corner and our house came into sight, Dad was tossing big black trash bags into the station wagon at the end of the driveway. I wondered why he would go through all that trouble to pack the car when he was only moving across the street.
“Go ahead,” Mom prodded. She lit a cigarette and glared at Dad over my head.
Dad stood in front of me. Mom was beside me. I looked about for an escape. At the edge of our yard, a neighbor pretended not to watch us while his dog peed on a snowbank.
“Tell him.” Mom’s voice was a pointy icicle poking at the soft spot at the base of my throat. The fear of being pierced pushed the words up.
“Jennifer sexually abused me,” I whispered. The tingle that had begun in my cheeks at Pam’s house began to burn.
“I don’t believe you.” A bright December sun lit Dad’s face, making his eyes strangely pale. They had never seemed so high up and distant from me. He shook his head.
“What the hell are you doing, Karen?” Dad began to yell at Mom. I ran inside the house and into the broom closet. I began to pray. First, I prayed that Mom wouldn’t hear my prayer. Then, I prayed that Dad would find a way for me and Lucy to live with him. I prayed Dad still wanted me.
“He wants to be with that woman more than us,” Mom explained when she found me in the closet. “That’s why he won’t believe you. He’s leaving with Jennifer to drive across the country. He said he would call when he got to California.”
Now I understood why he had packed the bags in the station wagon. But I didn’t understand why he hadn’t said goodbye. Why he hadn’t asked me and Lucy to come with him.
“You’ll understand when you’re older,” I told Lucy, “why it’s better to look down your throat in the sheet fort. Now open up and say ah.”
My five-year-old sister obeyed, opening her chapped lips wide.
“Not that much.” I aimed the miniature flashlight that I had found in Dad’s tackle box toward the back of her throat. “Perfect. Hold it right there.”
I was looking for a miracle. For the past two years, since Dad had headed out west and Mom didn’t let us take his calls, Lucy had suffered from chronic tonsillitis. Mom was convinced that a faith healer named Father McBride would cure her.
Lucy pushed the flashlight away. “Did my tonsils shrink?”
“A little,” I lied and switched off the flashlight. “Let’s watch Fraulein Maria.”
The day after Dad left for California, I had made a fort from a calico, king-sized sheet that Dad used on the couch in the den where he slept during the last year he lived with us. Mom called the den “your father’s room” and refused to enter. When the days were damp, I could still smell Dad’s Old Spice after shave when I pressed the cotton to my face.
A part of Dad was in the sheet, which protected me and Lucy from Mom’s magic telescope. I had tested my theory thoroughly before I let Lucy enter the fort: I had stuck up one middle finger, and then the other, then waved the two middle fingers in the air. I had wondered if Saint Joseph and Mary had sex. I had reached down my underwear and touched my vagina. I had thought about how I hated it when Mom picked her nose in the line at the grocery store where everyone could see, and how I was ashamed to point her out at the school Christmas pageant when a classmate asked, “Which one is your mom?”
“Hurry up. I want to watch the movie.” Lucy’s voice was raspy, and even in the dim light I could see the dark smudges under her light green eyes, as if one of her kindergarten classmates had smeared her with grey finger paint.
I pressed play on the VCR. From the cave-like opening of our fort, we could see the TV. Lucy and I stretched side by side on our stomachs with our knees bent and my feet skimming the droopy middle of the sheet. We each had a pillow to cushion our bent elbows. Our hands rested beneath our chins. When we could escape chores, when I had finished my homework, we slipped downstairs to the den and started where we left off. For the past two years, we’d watched The Sound of Music on a continual loop.
Lucy poked me in the ribs. “Tell me now.”
“Shhh. Tell you what?”
“Why you can only look at my throat when we’re here.”
“Quiet. It’s almost time for ‘Sixteen Going on Seventeen.’ There’s no reason. I was kidding.”
“Were not.” Lucy settled in closer “Tell me.”
“Remember doubting Thomas who wanted to stick his finger in Jesus’ side?”
“Checking your tonsils means I doubt Father McBride can heal you. Then God will take longer to shrink your tonsils because I don’t have faith. And Mom will get mad. But she can’t see me check your tonsils here.”
Lucy sat up and gripped my wrist, her fingers popsicle-sticky. “Why not?”
“She can’t see inside the fort with her magic telescope. I tested it out. This is our sanctuary.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, like church, when sinners are protected by the priest. Remember Dad told us about the hunchback Quasimodo who saves Esmeralda by running into the cathedral and yelling ‘sanctuary?’ I’ve been reading Dad’s book down here after you fall asleep.”
“I don’t fall asleep.” Lucy shook her head and pulled at the hangnail on her right thumb.
“Don’t pick at it. You’ll make it worse.”
“All you do is read.” Lucy curled her body into mine.
“All you do is fart. Get back on your own side.” I pinched her butt and she shrieked and slapped at me. She pretended to be mad, all the while waiting for me to pinch her again.
Lucy had always craved my attention; she wrapped it about her slight frame like the frayed, yellowing blanket that always hung from her wiry hand and tangled around her ankles. Sometimes Lucy doused the soiled rectangle of pilling felt with Mom’s Jean Naté After Bath Splash. She sprinkled it on her unwashed socks and underwear, too.
On days before doctor’s appointments, Mom took us to Caldor and let us pick something from the sale section to wear to the doctor’s office. Then the outfit disappeared into the pile of dirty clothes on the floor in the laundry room. I knew we would take a trip to Caldor soon. When I shone the flashlight down Lucy’s throat, I saw the yellow coating on her tonsils. The half- healed blisters from her last bout of strep were blooming. In a day or two, her ears would ache and her forehead would throb. A day more and she would be shivering with fever and vomiting. It happened like that every time Lucy got sick. Then Mom would call to make an emergency appointment.
“But didn’t God see you look down my throat?” Lucy whispered. “Even if Mom can’t see through the sheet, God still can. Can’t he?”
I pretended not to hear her.
Doctor Matthews’ receptionist beamed at us when we walked through the door. “What pretty little ladies you have, Mrs. Duggan.”
“I do what I can, with this one too chubby and this one so thin,” Mom sighed. “Poor Lucy can barely swallow, so it seems Bridget’s decided to eat for the two of them.”
I looked at the floor. Lucy was wearing two different shoes.
“Oh, it’s not that bad. A little baby fat now means less wrinkles when you’re our age. Isn’t that so, Bridget?” The receptionist flashed me a smile. “And how’s work treating you, Mrs. Duggan?”
“It’s always busy at the bank. I’m the drive-through teller now, and the line never ends.”
“It’s hard being a single mom,” the receptionist shook her head. “Believe me, I know. I barely handle it. I’d go crazy if my little one was sick all the time.”
Mom patted Lucy on the head. Lucy squirmed and I adjusted her blanket so that it wouldn’t fall from her shoulders. She leaned her head against my hip.
“At least you have your big girl helping you.”
“Bridget’s my smarty.” Mom forgot herself and smiled. She usually was careful not to. She hated how dark her cigarette-stained teeth appeared against her pale face. “All A’s. Already reading Victor Hugo. Though not in French, yet.”
Like Mom, hefty, white-haired Doctor Matthews almost never smiled. Sometimes it seemed he tried, but the smile got stuck midway, as if his brittle lips lacked the muscles to turn upwards at the ends. For a year, Doctor Matthews had been saying that Lucy’s tonsils should be removed. Penicillin didn’t help her. But Mom said our visits to church would, if we truly believed. I feared that my doubts, which came up unexpected and shameful like burps when I ate too quickly, were slowing Lucy’s miracle.
After he examined Lucy and wrote another prescription for penicillin, Mom asked Doctor Matthews to take a look at me because I was getting too fat.
“Sexual abuse,” Mom said. “Her father won’t believe his own child. She eats the pain.”
I kept my eyes down. Ashamed to be dressed only in a sheet. Ashamed of the freckled skin that bulged over the strap when he took my blood pressure. Afraid the knot in my stomach might fray and let me split open.
“Is she still seeing a therapist?” Doctor Matthews asked as he tapped my back and listened to me breathe.
“Of course.” Mom pulled the manila envelope with the forms Pam had signed from her purse and handed it to Doctor Matthews. Then she pushed me out the door.
“That doctor’s a fool.” Mom sucked a menthol cigarette as she pulled out of the parking lot. “Wants a damn tonsillectomy. Let some strangers hack into my child. She’s too weak to go under.” Mom swerved to miss a squirrel darting across the street. Lucy dozed in the backseat.
“Do you know what they do in a tonsillectomy, Bridget?”
Mom and I had this conversation each time we took Lucy to see Doctor Matthews.
“They cut out the tonsils and put them on a plate.” Mom nearly spat the words. In the bright midday light, I saw little flecks of saliva rocket from her mouth and hit the windshield.
I thought of the martyr whose feast day Lucy was born on. Could Lucy really die from the operation? Or would she die of hunger first if the miracle didn’t happen soon? Lucy could only eat yogurt and popsicles when her throat was this inflamed, and Doctor Matthews said she had lost four pounds in the three weeks since he had last examined her.
Mom spied my thoughts and said, “Saint Lucy died for Christ only after many tortures. If only our Lucy had some of your strength. We should have named her for the saint of fire, instead of you. But your father insisted. Always did anything to please his witch of a mother. She hated her name and he hated her, and yet he passed Bridget on to his first-born anyway.”
I pressed my cheek against the cool window, closed my eyes and squeezed them tight. I tried to forget all the thoughts that were in my head. But squeezing my face so hard only seemed to make the knot in my stomach tighten. It was an unbearable ache but I knew a quick fix.
“Can we stop for a steak and cheese and frappe on the way home?” I asked.
Lucy and I were allowed to take our subs downstairs to the den. There, in the center of the wood-paneled room and shelves stacked with Dad’s books, waited our sheet fort. The television was positioned a few feet from its entrance. We sat in our sanctuary and watched The Sound of Music. I ate, while Lucy broke pieces from her meatball sandwich. Her tongue rolled them from side to side in her mouth, letting them disintegrate so that she could swallow. When she pushed her plate away and snuggled up to me, I didn’t shove her away like I sometimes did. Together, we mouthed the lines we knew by heart.
“I’m Gretel, and I have a sore finger.” On the screen, Fraulein Maria bent down and kissed the youngest child’s bandaged pinky.
“What a baby,” Lucy tried to roll her eyes, but instead made a big circle with her head. Then she stuck her thumb, scabbed where she had torn the hangnail off, under my nose. “Gretel gets so much attention for nothing.”
“I warned you about picking at it. Don’t think I’m going to kiss that nasty thing.”
Lucy grinned. “You’re meaner than the Baroness who wants to marry Captain Von Trapp.”
When The Sound of Music ended, I read aloud beneath the glow of the flashlight. It only took two paragraphs of The Hunchback of Notre Dame for Lucy to begin to snore. I shone the light on her swelling chest, a delicate cage where her lungs struggled for the small amounts of air that arrived from her blocked windpipe. I kept on reading in a whisper, “You would have imagined her at one moment a maniac, at another a queen.”
I read the line over and over, and thought of Mom at the doctor’s office. She hadn’t seemed a queen to Doctor Matthews and the receptionist, but she hadn’t seemed a maniac either. Mom had seemed just what she wanted to seem: a mother. In her concern for Lucy’s tonsils, for my trauma, there was no sign of the crazed woman suddenly screaming incoherently about how mean her father had been or how our father had left her. In the doctor’s office, she did not seem like a woman who would slam the kitchen cabinets until Lucy and I got down on our knees on the linoleum and begged her to stop. When we pleaded, entreating her with “I love you,” she would stop shrieking about fathers and yell at us for crying on the floor.
“What am I, a monster? Stop making me feel like a monster!”
“No, Mom, you’re the best mother ever!” Lucy and I were a chorus.
The slamming, yelling and begging would continue until Lucy choked on her sobs and began coughing uncontrollably. When Mom’s screams lit my nerves on fire, the blood raced from my heart and the water emptied from my mouth; all the liquid in my body rushed to put the flames out, and yet I never completely withered. That is how someone might die when burning at the stake outside a cathedral in medieval Paris, I learned that night as I read The Hunchback.
“Are the backseat doors locked, Lucy? Bridget, reach back there and make sure. And double check your door, too.”
Mom always hated the drive we took through Boston’s poorest neighborhoods to attend the Mass given by Father McBride on Wednesday nights in Roxbury. But tonight, two days after the appointment with Doctor Matthews, Mom seemed particularly tense. I had overheard her talking with Pam on the phone before we left the house, and sensed that the doctor had given Mom some sort of deadline to schedule Lucy for surgery. As we scurried from the parking lot into the church, I heard Mom mumbling, “This time. Let it be this time.”
Inside, the streetlights shone through the stained-glass windows, so that the pastel frescoes – Jesus multiplying the loaves and the fishes, Saint Michael the archangel dressed in blue and gold, his spear poised to pierce the snake – were on the verge of slipping into shadows. Tall white candles flickered over creaky wooden pews filled with sick parishioners. I counted the crutches – wooden ones, metal walkers, a leopard-print cane – displayed around the altar, to see if there were more than last week. They had belonged to people who’d been healed.
Lucy was fast asleep by the time it was her turn to be blessed by Father McBride. Her head tipped backwards, a loud snore rising from her open mouth.
“Everybody has a cross,” Mom said, carrying Lucy in her arms. She looked like a statue of the pietà when she knelt at the altar and bowed her head before the priest. That is, if Jesus had been a five-year-old girl. I tried to swallow my sacrilege, but it stuck in the back of my throat. My head felt hot, and I hoped Mom was too preoccupied to notice me.
I tried to focus on Father McBride. He had bright blue eyes, and kindness shone from his round, freckled face. Mom whispered many words in a rush, and he replied with a few. The priest was painfully shy, and always quick to get down to the business of praying. The soft incantations he murmured over Lucy were weighted with a heavy accent, like that of the Red Sox announcer on the sports radio Dad used to listen to in the car.
Father McBride began to pray, “Saint Blaise, Christians down the centuries have asked your intercession for their throat ailments, and you have proven your closeness to Jesus by the long list of miracles attributed to your name…”
He’s done Saint Blaise so many times, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking. Why doesn’t he try something different? Why not pray to Lucy’s saint?
Father McBride crossed the long white candles over Lucy’s throat. They were supposed to form a crucifix, but tonight looked like two long knives. I felt dizzy, and my armpits were moist. For the first time, I could smell my perspiration. It reminded me of Mom’s sweaters.
When the knives became scalpels cutting into Lucy’s skin, I looked away from my sister and to the altar. There, on the gold Eucharist plate, were two crimson tonsils, beating like miniature hearts. I shut my eyes, counted to ten, then slowly opened them. The two gelatinous blobs were still there, but now they were eyes. Pale green eyes like Lucy’s, staring at me.
Lucy’s eyes blinked on the gold plate. I began to sway, unsteady on my feet.
“Bridget, go sit down,” Mom hissed. She had freed a hand from under Lucy and placed it on my forehead. “You’re as pale as a ghost and burning up.”
I glanced again at the gold plate. It was empty. I looked to Lucy’s throat, once again crossed by two white candles.
“Lucy gets a miracle for her birthday,” Mom said. She had decided that if the operation were performed on the day Lucy turned six, she would be stronger and more likely to survive than when she was only four or five.
Mom had ordered pink and purple balloons to greet Lucy when she was wheeled back from the surgery into her hospital room. She tied them to the bars on the side of the bed, to the armchairs in each corner of the room, and to the heart monitor. The nurse untied them from the monitor and Mom frowned at her. “I’m a single mother, you know.”
“Well now, that’s just fine,” the thick-hipped nurse said as she walked out of the room. “Just ring if you need me.” Her accent was soft and round in my ears.
“Those Jamaicans are all lazy,” Mom muttered.
“How do you know she’s Jamaican?” I asked. “Because of how she talks?”
“Because she’s brown and lazy,” Mom said. “Now hush.”
Lucy was wheeled in asleep. Her dull brown hair was pulled back from her face and in the light that streamed through the window, I could see the peach fuzz on her sunken cheeks.
Mom sat in a chair, and I stood by the bed to wait for Lucy to wake. I pictured her tonsils, like two engorged fruit snacks on a plate.
The nurse returned. “I’m just going to check her vitals.” Mom nodded, then lowered her head and rested her chin on her chest.
I had packed Lucy’s hospital bag for her, and stuffed the calico sheet beneath her felt blanket and the new pajamas, socks and underwear Mom had let me pick out at Caldor.
I glanced at Mom, her chin still on her chest. I pulled the sheet from the bag and whispered to the nurse, “Can I cover my sister with this?”
“Don’t see why not. Is it her favorite?”
“It’s both of our favorites.”
Mom stirred in the chair. “Bridget, what is that?”
“Nothing.” I gripped a corner of the sheet between my fingers.
She glared daggers, but that’s all she could do with the nurse watching her.
It was then that I saw my silent words float across the room. And I let my thoughts write themselves in wild cursive, like vines growing rapidly to reach Mom’s face and wrap around her mind. Don’t you know what I’m doing? Can’t you see what I’m thinking? There is no miracle. Lucy could have been healed so long ago.
I lifted a finger from the sheet, and then another. Then I let go of the fabric altogether. I put my hands to my stomach and shouted in my head. You can’t hear me. You’ve never known what I’m thinking, never seen what I do.
by Eileen O'Connor
Honorable Mention, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize