In the kitchen Mam pulled my hair into tight plaits. Her fingers were rough and the pulling made it feel like my head skin was going to split, but I didn’t make a fuss because that would have made her pull harder. When she finished she put a hand on my head and whispered, “Father, protect me. God, keep me safe.” Her hand was cold and we smelled the same: flowers on top and dirt underneath. After the prayer she wiped her palm on her hip, like she was wiping me away.
We left the house and walked down the street together. Her shoes made a clip-clop-clip-clop pony sound and her fingers dug dents in my wrist. We walked past a few boys on the corner playing with an old bike tire, but most people were at school. I was disappointed about that. I wanted them to see me and Mam, walking through the streets in our church clothes, almost holding hands. By the time we were close to town my church shoes were digging into my heels, but when I slowed down Mam yanked my arm to make me go faster. We got to the high street and walked past the greengrocer’s and the butcher’s and Woolworth’s. I asked Mam where we were going but she didn’t hear, or pretended she didn’t hear, and when we were almost at the end of the street she pulled me through a shop doorway so fast I didn’t have time to read the sign above it.
On the inside, the shop wasn’t a shop at all. It was a waiting room, the same as the waiting rooms at the doctor’s and the dentist’s. I had seen those waiting rooms in the videos they showed us at school. One of them was called “Going to the Doctor” and the other was called “Going to the Dentist.” Everything in this waiting room was a soft, washed-out color, and on the walls there were pictures of families with wide white smiles, so I thought perhaps it was a dentist’s, and perhaps Mam had brought me there to get my rotten tooth fixed. She pulled me up to a desk where a woman was talking on a telephone. When the woman saw us she put the phone down and smiled the same smile as the people on the walls, except her teeth were like wonky yellow paving stones crunched up against each other. I didn’t think people with teeth like that should be allowed to work at the dentist’s. I didn’t really think people with teeth like that should be allowed to leave their houses.
“This is my daughter,” said Mam. “Her name’s Christine. I need to have her adopted.”
“Um,” said the woman at the desk.
“Adopted,” said Mam.
“Er,” said the woman at the desk.
“I need to have Christine adopted,” said Mam.
“You’ve said that lots of times now,” I said.
“Shut up,” she said.
I traced a pattern on the carpet with the toe of my church shoe. My face was hot. Mam didn’t understand what adopted meant. Adopted was when you got to keep a kid that wasn’t yours, like Michelle’s mammy adopted her from cruel people in London and got to keep her even though she wasn’t her real kid. I was Mam’s kid to begin with. She got to keep me without having to make me adopted. I hated when Mam made mistakes like that. It made my face so hot. When I looked up I saw the woman at the desk licking her lips, and I thought she was going to explain about adopted to Mam, but she turned to me instead.
“Hello, pet,” she said. “Christine’s a pretty name. My name’s Ann. Would you like to sit down while I have a little chat with your mammy?
I can get you some orange squash if you like?” I sat in one of the scratchy blue chairs by the window and Ann brought me the squash in a plastic cup. It was so weak I thought it must actually be the water she had rinsed out of a plastic cup that used to have real squash in it. I used it to wet my finger and draw shapes on the chair arm. Mam didn’t look at me. She stood very straight, with one arm wrapped around her middle and one hand gripping the side of her coat. Her fingers were clawed and white.
Ann went back to the desk and was about to talk to Mam in a voice she didn’t want me to hear when a door opened down the corridor and we all heard somebody crying. They were muffled, snuffly cries, like someone was holding a handkerchief over their mouth, and after a while a woman came down the corridor holding a handkerchief over her mouth. I thought it was probably her who had been doing the crying. The handkerchief was white turned gray and too wet to let in any more tears, but the woman kept on pushing them out. When she got to the end of the corridor and saw Mam and me in the waiting room she stopped walking and wobbled on her feet. She folded the handkerchief in half and blew her nose, then folded it again and wiped under her eyes. She blinked lots of times in a row.
She was beautiful. Her face was blotchy from crying and her makeup had smudged around her eyes, but she was still beautiful. She had yellow hair and powder on her cheeks. I looked at her legs, which were wrapped in skin-colored stockings, making her as smooth as a doll. Mam’s legs were covered in nicks and scaly patches of dry skin, same as mine. Mam was ugly, same as me. This woman wasn’t ugly. She was like an angel.
When she had managed to stop crying she went to the desk and said to Ann, “It’s fallen through. They’re letting his mother keep
him. After all that. It’s not right. They can’t do this to people.”
Ann wrinkled her forehead and started to say, “Oh, I’m so—” but Mam interrupted. “You wanting to adopt a kid?” she asked. The beautiful woman nodded tightly while she took clean tissues from the box on Ann’s desk. Mam walked over very fast and pulled me up by the elbow so hard I spilled watery orange squash all over myself. She pushed me in front of her, toward the beautiful woman, and said, “This is Chrissie. She’s mine. But she’s being adopted. You can have her.”
Ann said “but” and “wait” and “no” and the beautiful woman said “but” and “I” and “oh.” Mam put her hand on my back and took it away again, like she was touching something very hot, or very sharp, or very horrible. Like she was putting her hand on someone made of broken glass. Then she walked out. The waiting room was quiet. I heard Mam in my ears, saying, “She’s mine.” She hadn’t ever said that about me before.
I looked down at my church dress, wet with squash and coming down at the hem. I wondered whether the beautiful woman would buy me a beautiful new dress when she took me to her house. Michelle was just a fat little baby when her mammy adopted her from the cruel people in London, but she still got bought dresses and toys and pretty soft-soled shoes. I hoped that was what the beautiful woman was planning for me.
“I’d like a new dress,” I told her, in case she was feeling too shy to offer. “We can get it on the way back to your house.”
Her tongue licked at her bottom lip in a lizardy way, and she turned and pressed herself up against the desk to speak to Ann. I heard “go after her” and “clearly not well” and “afraid I can’t help” and “wanted a baby” and “far too old, yes far too old.” By the time she turned back around I had sat back down. She walked toward me, stopped, flicked her eyes and licked her lips. She said, “I . . .” then did a silly little giggle and a sillier little wave, and rushed through the door in a cloud of powder and yellow hair.
Ann put on her coat and gathered up her bag and chattered in the gabbling way grown-ups chatter when they think they can keep you from crying by blocking your ears with noise. I wanted to tell her she didn’t need to do that because I never cried, but I had a funny bubbling feeling in the back of my nose and throat that made it hard to talk. I thought perhaps I was getting a cold. Ann tried to take my hand but I shoved it into my coat pocket so hard it went right through the lining. I hung behind her as we walked down the street, scuffing the toes of my church shoes on the pavement. It was raining, and people were walking with their bodies bent in half. Ann kept stopping and nagging me to keep up, but that just made me walk even slower. An old woman was hobbling beside me, and the fourth time Ann stopped and nagged she said, “You want to keep up with your mammy. Enough of this silly dawdling, eh?” I stuck my tongue out at her. “Well that’s not very nice, is it, young lady?” she said.
“I’m not very nice,” I said. “And I’m not a lady.”
“Humph. Well. No. Quite,” she said.
Once we were away from town I had to lead the way back to the streets, because Ann didn’t know where I lived. It was stupid that she was there at all, bobbing half a stupid step behind me with her stupid wonky teeth. We walked past the alleys and she looked at the blue house and I knew what she was thinking.
“I was there when he died, you know,” I said.
Her eyebrows went up into her stupid fringe. “There when he died?” she said.
“Well. I was there when they found him, which is almost as good,” I said. “I saw the man find him in the house and carry him down to his mammy. He was covered in blood. It was coming out of his mouth and ears and everywhere. His mammy was crying like this.” I howled and heaved like a dying fox to show her how Steven’s mammy had sounded. Her face went a bit gray.
“It must be very scary for you to think about what happened to that little boy,” she said in her stupid icing-sugar voice. “It’s a terrible thing to have happened to a kid. But you know you’re safe, don’t you? The police will catch whoever hurt him, and they won’t be able to hurt any more kids.”
The sherbet feeling started inside me. “They might,” I said.
“What?” she said.
“They might hurt more kids. The one who killed Steven. They might hurt more.”
“No they won’t,” she said. She tried to pat my shoulder but I jerked away, so she patted the space where I wasn’t. “No more kids are going to get hurt. I promise.”
People were always promising things, like promise was anything more than a stupid word.
“You can’t promise that,” I said. “You can’t stop it happening. No one can.”
She loosened the collar of her stupid coat around her stupid neck. Pinpricks of sweat had started bubbling out of the skin on her nose, even though it was cold. “Well,” she said. “I think the police will keep all the kids safe. So that’s the important thing. The important thing is that you’re safe.”
“I never said I wasn’t,” I said. I wanted to tell her that since I had killed Steven I had felt safer than ever before, because I was the one people needed to watch out for, and being the one people needed to watch out for was the safest way to be. I decided she wasn’t the right person to tell. She was too stupid.
When we got to the house she started coming up the path behind me. I turned round and stood still, blocking the door.
“I’m just going to pop in and have a word with your mammy, Christine,” she said.
“No you’re not,” I said.
“There’s nothing for you to worry about,” she said. She tried to get past me. “I just want to have a very quick chat with your mammy. Just to make sure everything’s okay with both of you.”
“Everything is okay with both of us,” I said. “But you can’t speak to her. She’s busy. She’s working.”
“In the house?”
“What work is it your mammy does?”
An upstairs window was cracked open, and the sound of Mam crying came through it. Ann looked up at the window, then down at me, then up at the window again.
“She’s a painter,” I said. Mam cried out a big, loud wail. Ann raised her eyebrows. “Sometimes her paintings don’t go how she wants them to go,” I said.
I thought Ann would leave me alone then, but she barged forward and pressed her stupid finger against the doorbell. She had to press it three times before Mam came to the door, wearing a dressing gown that showed too much of her legs. I didn’t want to hear any more of Ann’s stupid talking or Mam’s stupid crying, so I pushed past them both, up the stairs, along the landing, into my room. It still stank of pee and perfume. I pulled the sheets off the bed and stuffed them in the wardrobe. The mattress underneath was just as stained and rotten, but I stretched the blanket over it and pretended it was clean. After a few minutes I heard the front door close, heard Mam come back up the stairs and go back into her bedroom. She didn’t start crying again. We both sat in our rooms, listening to each other listening to each other.
When I realized Mam wasn’t going to come and see me, not even to shout, I went to the window and watched the fists of rain beating down outside. It had only just gone dinnertime, but I couldn’t knock for anyone because they were all at school. Mam’s perfume bottle was still in my room, sitting on the windowsill, and I took out the stopper, opened the window, and poured it into the rain. When the bottle was empty I dropped it. I wanted it to shatter into a million glittering pieces that would cut up Mam’s feet next time she went out barefoot, but it hit the path with a dull crack and bounced into the grass.
Hunger had started to sluice through me, but the kitchen cupboards had nothing inside except sugar and moths. I opened and closed them, thinking about the milk bottles clustered in the crate at school. It was cold that day, and it was Friday, and that meant the milk would have been fresh and the school dinner would have been fish and chips. That was my favorite. I kicked the metal base of the cooker hard, and a packet of Angel Delight slipped out from behind it. The powder made a thick paste on my tongue. Upstairs, Mam started crying again: a mewing, kittenish kind of cry. I tried not to listen, but it stuffed itself into my head, snaked around inside me like ivy growing round the bars of a gate. When I went back up the stairs I kept my eyes down, staring at the hair and ash and caked‑in dirt on the floor, but outside Mam’s room I looked up without meaning to. The door was open. It hadn’t been open when I had gone to the kitchen, which meant Mam had heard me go down the stairs, scuttled to the door, opened it, scuttled back. She was sitting on her bed with her back against the headboard, moaning. I looked for the tears to go with the noise but there weren’t any. Her cheeks were dry. She was forcing out the sound in a long ribbon, and every few seconds she flicked her eyes to the side to make sure I was watching.
“What you crying for?” I asked. “Is it because I came back?”
She didn’t answer. I pulled the door shut, because it seemed like
I was making things worse, not better. There was a shriek, then the sound of something hard and heavy thrown against the wall.
“You don’t understand,” she shrieked. “You don’t even care. You don’t even care, Chrissie.”
She stopped crying quite quickly after that, probably because I couldn’t see her and she realized I wasn’t coming in to tell her I did care. If she wasn’t going to get me to do anything by crying, she wasn’t going to get much from crying at all, except sore eyes and a scratchy throat. I squeezed the muscles in my belly, bent over, and sicked Angel Delight onto the floor. It dripped through the cracks between the boards. Mam could clear it up. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, stepped over the cream-colored puddle, and went into my bedroom. Shut the door behind me. Jumped onto the bed, front first. Told myself the next morning I would hurt someone, anyone, as many-one as I liked. Took a lump of pillow in my mouth and roared.
From The First Day Of Spring: A Novel by Nancy Tucker, published by Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Nancy Tucker.