by Joe Pan
The moment the woman in the raincoat walked through the front door, Hannah knew she wasn’t her real mother.
Yes, this person looked like her mother, but something was missing—gone from the eyes was that familiar glint of mirth, that natural sense of wonder, of being happily surprised by everything. This woman’s eyes were as purple and sunken as dead clams. She wore no makeup and her hair was a straggly mess. Besides that, where were her bracelets, and Grandma’s gold watch? Even her wedding ring was missing.
Three days earlier, Hannah had woken to find the babysitter, Anne, cooking her a feta and broccoli omelet. Her parents had left in the night for reasons Hannah didn’t fully understand, but Anne promised they would return soon. In the meantime, she would look after Hannah and they would play Chutes and Ladders together and go to the park to feed ducks and watch tons of movies, which they did. Whenever Hannah asked where her parents were, Anne would say they would be home soon, and try to turn her attention to something else.
Hannah was busy with a coloring book when she heard the car pull up. The screen door sucked opened and there stood her father, and beside him, a stranger—a person who might have been an aunt, if her mother had a sister, which she didn’t. Her father greeted Anne with a nod and a thank you, but the woman stared straight forward, ignoring Hannah on the sofa and their skittish Pomeranian, Macho, who yipped and cowered beneath the kitchen table. But there was something in Macho’s reaction that helped justify the feeling Hannah was having. Glancing over, her father offered her a weak smile before guiding the stranger down the hall and into her parent’s bedroom, closing the door.
Hannah was more than a little frightened—whoever or whatever this creature was had fooled her father with its unconvincing mask, or worse, had somehow forced its way into her mother’s body. She didn’t know who to call or tell. Her grandparents? The police? Her mother’s phone, left behind in their midnight departure, lay on the kitchen table. She stood on her tippy-toes and pulled it over and locked herself in the bathroom and dialed 119, but nobody answered.
“Your mother needs rest,” her father explained over pizza that night, after Anne had left. Hannah wanted to wrap herself around his leg and warn him, but she sensed the intruder could read minds, even from behind the bedroom door. “She’s been through a lot. We’ll be quiet and thoughtful, okay? It’s going to take some time.”
“When is Richie coming home?” asked Hannah directly, worried for him as well.
Her father’s expression turned. Laying down his slice, he reached over and enveloped Hannah’s little hand in his on the table, sliding two fingers up the bridge of his nose and under his glasses. There would be no answer.
An hour later he was passed out on the couch, and Hannah, being a brave little girl, decided it was time to face the creature. She snuck down the carpeted hallway and stood before the bedroom door, watching the light by her toes for shadows. She took a deep breath and slowly turned the knob, grimacing at the click. Then pushed the door slightly and peered through the narrow slit.
The creature was in bed, propped against a mountain of pillows. The TV was on but there was no sound. When Hannah pushed the door open a bit further, the creature’s head turned and its black eyes fell upon her, causing Hannah’s breath to cinch in her lungs.
“Hey baby,” said the creature. “Come on in, it’s okay.”
Pushing through the terror, Hannah stepped into the room. Fleeing now would give away her thoughts, and she had her father’s safety to consider.
“I’m sorry things have been so hectic around here,” said the creature. Its face was red and puffy, its eyes dark and lost. “Mommy just needs to relax some. You’ll take care of Daddy, won’t you? While Mommy relaxes some?”
Hannah stepped closer to the bed, fully on guard. “Where’s all your bracelets? And your ring?” she asked. “Where’s the watch Grandma gave you?”
The creature looked at its hands, as if for the first time. “I don’t know. I guess your father has them.”
The fingernails were raw and chewed, she noticed. Her real mother’s nails were meticulously kept. “You’re not my mother, are you?” Hannah asked, stepping back.
The creature’s eyes hardened with consideration, then widened and softened. “Why would you say that?”
“I can tell,” said Hannah. “You aren’t, are you?”
“Maybe not,” whispered the creature. “Maybe I’m nobody’s mother.”
Hannah ran from the room.
That night she slept on the floor by her father, pulling off the sofa cushions and plugging in the seashell light nearby and placing Jiminy Wiggles the one-eyed Pig in the hallway to stand guard.
She hadn’t told her father what happened, and neither had the creature, apparently, for Hannah was asked to bring coffee to the creature in the woman-suit, along with a badly toasted bagel.
She found the creature in the same position as before. This time the TV’s sound was on, but low. The curtains remained drawn, the room brightened by a small lamp.
Its dark eyes followed Hannah as she placed the coffee saucer and the plated bagel on the nightstand.
“I’m not hungry,” it said, “but thank you.”
“I want to play a game,” said Hannah, who’d been plotting all morning. “I’m going to tell you something about you, and you’re going to tell me something about me, something that only you know.”
A small smile lit upon the grim corners of the creature’s lips. “Sure. Fire away.”
“Your favorite color is purple,” said Hannah. This was true, and she knew it—much of her mother’s wardrobe was purple.
“Yes,” said the creature. “And yours is blue.”
But anyone could have guessed that, Hannah thought, and reset her stance on the carpet—sure she’d have to run. “You were born in Connecticut.”
The creature sadly nodded, looking down. After a moment she said, “And you were born in a little hospital in Maine, while we were on vacation. You came earlier than expected. They put you in a little glass house, all by yourself. You looked like a bunch of plums all smooshed together.”
Hannah didn’t understand the plums bit, but it was true she was born in Maine. She was born pretty mushed, as her father like to say, calling her a miracle whenever he told the story to friends.
“Your favorite food is tiny oranges,” said Hannah.
“It’s not,” remarked the creature from some faraway place.
Hannah was ecstatic, having caught the creature in a lie. “It is, it is!” she exclaimed. “Your favorite food is tiny oranges!”
The creature’s dead-eyes didn’t waver. “No, it’s not. It’s just what your father likes to get me. And I eat them, because I love him. It was our first date—we were on the beach, and I was hungry, and there was a fruit stand in the parking lot selling clementines. We were so young. We thought it would all be so easy. He was in love, and I was a stupid teenager. We think all these decisions don’t mean anything, that you can just change your mind later. But you can’t. Not always. It’s all so…solid. A lot of times it feels so fluid, but most of it is very, very solid.”
“I know you’re not my mother,” said Hannah. “My mother loves my father.”
This didn’t seem to affect the creature, who spoke as if from a trance. The color of her skin was dreadful in the lamplight. “You’re right,” the creature confirmed. “Your momma’s gone.” Tears were appearing at the corner of its eyes. “I wish she were here. She would know what to do.”
Hannah was very upset by this news and charged from the room yelling for her father.
She found him at the kitchen table, crying in his hands. Hannah had never seen her father cry before and stopped short of entering the room. It scared her and she began whining nervously. Her father regained himself and hurried to her side, cradling her in his arms and making soothing noises as he rocked from side to side. He told her everything was going to be okay, and that Anne was coming over soon to fix her lasagna and pickles, her favorite. Anne was going to stay with them again for a week or so, cooking and cleaning, while he took care of her mother, who was very sick and needed his attention.
“It’s going to be okay,” he promised, but his hands held a slight tremor, and his voice wasn’t at all reassuring.
It continued to rain for three days straight, stripping the fall colors from the sycamores and rushing them down the street and blocking the storm drain. Hannah read books by the window and colored a lot and played with Macho when she was bored and helped Anne snap the ends off green beans and pull tassels from corn. Her father reappeared for meals but mostly kept to the bedroom. Hannah was sure he was now completely under the creature’s control and there was nothing she could do about it. Anne didn’t seem to find anything unusual. All the other adults Hannah knew were only available by phone, which had mysteriously disappeared from the table.
That night Hannah heard the creature yelling in the back room, with her father shouting and begging for it to calm down. Anne turned the TV volume louder, pretending not to hear, and that’s when Hannah realized she was brainwashed, too.
On the fourth morning her father left to pick up medicine for the creature, and while Anne was vacuuming in the living room, Hannah snuck back and slowly opened her parents’ door.
The creature was asleep—she could hear it snoring. But the snores were full of mucus and wildly inhuman, a rough dragging of air. And Hannah couldn’t be sure, because of the covers, but it seemed the creature now had more than two legs—three or four at least. Its breasts were wobbly looking under the thin blue gown and its stomach was chubby but also flattish, the skin all loose.
The room stank of sweat and cigarettes, and Hannah pinched her nose and breathed through her mouth. There were lots of medicine packages on the nightstand, some ripped open, or with their bubbles popped, and tiny orange bottles with the lids screwed on improperly. That’s where she spotted the pack of cigarettes, another clue, since neither of her parents smoked. She only meant to move the glass of water over a little bit to get a better look at the creature but accidentally knocked it over. The creature shot up, as if from a nightmare, and caught her in its sight. For a moment the creature looked positively terrified.
“Where…where?” it muttered, feeling around the bed. Then it stopped to glare at Hannah. “What’s happening?”
“I was cleaning up,” said Hannah, “and accidentally dropped a glass.”
“Oh,” said the creature, feeling for its bearings. “It’s okay. Everything’s okay.”
“Where’s Richie?” asked Hannah.
These were magic words—for the same spell they worked on her father, they worked on the creature. Its mouth slacked open, yet no words came. It seemed not to understand what had been said.
“Where’s my brother?” demanded the little girl.
Within moments the creature’s breathing turned funny, escaping in short little hiccups. It faced forward and clutched its chest, then bellowed so loudly that it startled Hannah, who matched its cry. The vacuum cleaner shut off in the living room and footsteps charged down the hallway. Anne rushed to the creature’s side as it wrapped itself in covers and pulled pillows into its face.
“Hannah, leave!” shouted Anne. “Honey, go read, go do something!”
Instead of seeking out the comfort of bed or burying her face in the couch, she ducked into her mother’s old office, slamming the door behind her.
The room was small and blue and washed in failing light. A brand new crib rested in the corner where her mother’s drawing table once stood. There was a desk Hannah knew was full of tiny clothes and the ceiling pricked with little stars stuck that glowed green in the half light. Hannah knelt down and crawled under the crib and waited there until the moaning stopped. She heard Anne close the door and begin calling out her name, searching the house. But Hannah wouldn’t come out.
It wasn’t long before Anne came to check the room—hesitant, it seemed, to make much noise. Hannah expected her to get down on her knees but Anne just squatted by the door and smiled weakly.
“Why don’t we go out for lunch,” said Anne. “Picnic in the park. We’ll take Macho to play with all the other dogs.”
The morning was chilly but cleared up nicely by the afternoon and the playful dogs were indeed a wonderful sight—they jumped on each other and nipped at tails and wagged with happiness. It was so wonderful that Hannah didn’t want to go home, and forced Anne to drag her and then carry her back to the car, with Macho in tow.
They found her father in the kitchen, dropping onions and chilis into a crockpot for morita chicken stew. It was the first time he’d cooked since the night they’d left for the hospital. He thanked Anne for her help and handed her an envelope and said he might need her again, if that was okay, and she said she’d be glad to help, anything to take her mind off her dissertation.
After Anne left, Hannah’s father pulled her close, going down to one knee to look her in the eye.
“Mommy’s told me what you two talked about,” he said. “I’m not angry. I bet you have lots of questions.”
“She’s not Mommy,” explained Hannah.
Her father cinched his lips but nodded. “She’s up. I know she’d like to see you. I made her some tea. Would you mind bringing it back to her?”
Hannah considered this. It was clear her father didn’t believe her, or at least wasn’t going to help, so she nodded and reluctantly took the mug of tea down the hallway.
The creature was sitting up in bed, looking out the window. It was the first time the curtains were drawn back. She smiled as Hannah stepped forward, holding the mug out with both hands.
It took the mug and sipped carefully, then said, “I’m here to answer any questions you might have.”
Hannah peeked back at the door. Was this a trick?
“He’s in heaven,” said the creature.
“There is no heaven. Mommy told me.”
The creature scrunched its face. Then nodded. “I’m sorry, yes. Yes, it’s true, there is no heaven.”
“What did you do with Mommy?”
“She’s still inside me,” said the creature. “She talks to me. She says she loves you very much.”
“Are you going to eat me?”
“I don’t think so. I hope not.”
“Please don’t hurt Daddy!”
The creature balled its fists and inhaled deeply. “I’m trying not to.”
“When is Mommy coming back?”
The creature looked very tired again. It picked at its nails. “Do you think you could learn to love me, even if I wasn’t your mother? Even if she never returned.”
Hannah shook her head no.
“I don’t know you,” said Hannah.
“That makes two of us,” said the creature. “But I think you can help bring her back.”
The creature peered back out the window. “Why don’t you start by telling me what you know about her. All the little things you remember. Tell me what she likes, what she means to you. Can you do that?”
“Will it work?” asked Hannah.
“Wouldn’t hurt to try,” said the creature.
Hannah found all of this very curious, but if it meant having her mother return, she would try. “She likes zebras, and carnival rides, and small dogs. And old pencil sharpeners with the gears, like the one in her office. It was on her desk, before she moved everything out to the garage. She used pencils for work. She was an architecture.”
“Yes, that’s right,” marveled the creature. “She was an architecture. Tell me more.”