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Hundreds of Little Absences

Mandy finds the jar of baby teeth in her mother’s sock drawer, the week after she turns eleven.

Daydreams about a frothy fairy with butter-blonde curls leaving coins under her pillow have long since evaporated; this is the first of many horse girl summers. The jar, white china with hand-painted blue flowers, is nestled between the tight-rolled pairs of black dress socks that Mandy was sent to borrow; at ten, she already wears the same size as her mother. Mandy takes it out without hesitation, knowing that it is for her, it is hers. The lid clicks against the jar’s hidden lip and Mandy opens it, holding it up to the light from the window.

It’s not a full set. She remembers losing a tooth while playing tag with the neighbor kids in their yard, and another that disappeared into the coat cranny of her second-grade classroom when, after recess, she bit down on her cold wet mitten to pull it off her hand.

All eight molars are there, though, pearly and opalescent and not quite real-looking, like dried bubbles of Elmer’s glue. She presses her thumbnail against one, half-expecting it to leave a mark. The edges where the root died away are sharp and thread-thin, protecting the stained crescent at the center even though there is nothing left to guard. When Mandy pinches it, the points bite into her fingertip. It seems to her as if that should have been the edge turned out against the world: ragged, ready to tear.

“Mandy?” her mother shouts, from downstairs. Her shoes clack up the staircase, but the carpet in the upstairs hall suffers the high heels in silence. She stops in the open doorway, looking at the jar in Mandy’s hand. “What are you doing? Your father and I are ready to go.”

Mandy slides the lid back on. The ceramic squeals unpleasantly, a betrayal of the delicate design. “These are mine.”

“What would you even do with them?” A question to answer the question that Mandy didn’t ask. She strips the jar from Mandy’s hand and settles it back into the drawer. “Come on now. We should have left for church five minutes ago.” Still, she finds the time for a skeptical up-and-down look at Mandy’s black slacks and blouse. “Are you sure you won’t wear that dress? It’s so pretty on you.”

Mandy squirms. “Do I have to wear pantyhose with it?” The slacks are uncomfortable enough as it is, tight in the thighs, not stretching like her jeans do. Hose are worse, with the control top biting into her belly and leaving red marks for hours after she’s free. They always leave her feet sour and sweaty, too, and she’s afraid the other girls in Sunday School will notice.

“Of course you need pantyhose.”

“Then I’ll wear pants.”

Her mother’s eyes narrow. “You look like a linebacker in that blouse.”

Even knowing this might have been coming, Mandy freezes. A deer in headlights doesn’t expect to be saved by its stillness; this is a hopeless gesture, not a sly one.

“Sit down,” her mother says briskly, and sets down her purse. “Unbutton your blouse and let’s see what we can do.”

Goose-bumps prickle Mandy’s arms as she perches on the edge of her parents’ bed. Her training bra pinches her under her armpits; she picks at the ugly little flower on the front of the band, where the two V’s of fabric meet and join.

“Hold still,” says her mother. “This will only hurt for a second. Like popping a pimple.”

Popping pimples hurts, too, of course, and sometimes, when her mother’s fingernails dig too deep, it leaves a scab that softens into a scar. Mandy watches her mother slide open a drawer in a different dresser and take out the scalpel case, holding the blade up to the light, taking one efficient swipe with an ethanol wipe. When she sets it to Mandy’s shoulder, parting the skin, Mandy doesn’t flinch. She feels the scalpel slide between muscle fibers of her deltoid; a solid section separates from the rest. There’s an acute tugging sensation before her mother tidily severs the insertion and the origin. The thin strip of muscle drops wetly onto a piece of toilet tissue that her mother has arranged on the dresser, and a pinkish stain spreads out from it with an uneven radius.

“Other side,” her mother says crisply, and Mandy obediently angles her other shoulder closer for the process to repeat.

When they’re done, and Mandy shrugs back into her blouse, the pain has retreated to an irritable gnawing, a strange kind of hunger that she can feel in her shoulder-blades and neck. Part of becoming a woman is pain, her mother has explained: recognizing it, understanding it, folding it up and putting it away, because there’s always work to do and laundry to hang up and meals to plan and buy and cook and none of those things will be patient with your pain. That’s your job.

“There.” Her mother smiles. Her teeth are so white, behind the warm autumnal tone of her lipstick. Whiter than Mandy’s baby teeth, whiter than the enamel jar. “So pretty. Take a look.”

Mandy turns to the mirror. The same face, a little blotchier now than when she’d brushed her hair earlier that morning. The silhouette occupies less space now, though; narrower, more … shapely? That’s the word her mother likes to use. Aren’t all shapes shapely?

“Thank you,” Mandy says, the practiced response. In the mirror, she focuses on her mother’s shoulder; her face is whited out by the reflection of the morning sun that pours through the window. “Aren’t we going to be late for church?”

“Don’t be silly.” Her mother nudges her out of the way to wash her hands at the sink. “We have plenty of time. Most people don’t get seated before the worship starts anyway.”

Even when she doesn’t wear dressy shoes, the other girls find reasons to make fun of her feet. At eleven, she wears a size 9.5, and the massive white sneakers her mother has bought her only emphasize their proportion. From books, she knows the word enormity, understands that it is a synonym for evil and not immensity. But in her mind, it’s the right word to describe her feet. Enormity.

One of the girls calls her Bigfoot one day, after she steps on some toes during a game of floor hockey. The nickname has barbs, and it holds fast, especially once another kid points out Mandy’s hairy legs. Bigfoot. Yeti. The Abominable Snow-Mandy. The gym teacher makes a half-hearted effort to douse the excited frenzy, but that just converts the shouts into whispers that slide, polished sharp, into Mandy’s ears alone. When Mandy throws her hockey stick and shin guards into the corner and refuses to play anymore, the teacher tells her to change and go down to the office. The laughter doesn’t stop, when she stomps off; it changes shape, so that it fits through the doorway to follow her into the locker room.

In the office, she tells the secretary that she quit the hockey game because she didn’t feel good. A headache is a convincing lie; they’d take her temperature if she claimed a stomach bug. But the secretary believes her—the privilege of being a Good Kid—and sends her to the nurse’s office to lie down with a hot washcloth over her eyes. She “rests” through fifth period; too many of the same girls are in her math class. By the time the sixth period bell rings, she bravely asserts that she feels well enough for American History, and the secretary clucks over her as she writes out a hall pass.

When she gets home from school, she doesn’t curl up on the couch with homework and cartoons like she usually would. Instead she pads upstairs silently, even though no one else is home yet, to her parents’ bathroom. The shower stall is filled with familiar but foreign scents—her father’s shampoo, her mother’s face wash—bergamot and lavender and Rain Cleanness, things she usually experiences secondhand, at a remove of time and space.

Her mother’s safety razor, pale pink plastic, hangs neatly from a little hook on the shower wall. Mandy takes it and slides off the transparent cap. The blades don’t look sharp; but what would sharp look like, exactly? She strips off her jeans and sits on the toilet seat in her underwear. Another cursory examination of the sharp-not-sharp razor, and she bends over to slide it up the length of her shin.

The blood, shocking red, wells up before the pain does. She’s cut skin, not hair, a dangling strip still attached at the top margin, and blood drips onto the tiled floor. What if it stains the grout? She fumbles for the toilet tissue and wipes the tiles down before pasting another multi-ply handful over the wound in her leg. Through the tissue, she presses the torn flesh back into place. Tears drip from her chin, wetting the already-sodden paper, and pink liquid with red swirls runs down her ankle. She jumps from the toilet into the shower, a hot jolt of pain running up her calf as she lands. There, she slides to the floor, bleeding safely into the drain.

For the next three weeks, she wears sweatpants to gym class and avoids changing clothes in front of her mother. The wound heals, jagged white lines that grow smooth to the touch, until no one would know it was there unless they were looking for it. No one ever explains to her how to shave her legs, but over the summer a brightly-colored canister of shaving gel and a new pink plastic razor appear, unannounced, on the corner shelf her in her bathtub. She doesn’t touch either until she sees a commercial on TV, while her parents are watching a sitcom, with a smiling woman in a neck-deep tub of bubbles, delicately drawing the razor up one lithe, foam-covered leg. After that, she still nicks herself from time to time, but it’s a small sharp bright pain, and the cuts close up and become all but invisible once she towels off afterward.

The summer after middle school, she wakes once to the muffled raised voices of her parents vibrating through her bedroom wall. They’re arguing again; arguing about her.

“Think about how mouthy she’s gotten with us lately.” Her mother speaks in clipped, short syllables, as if the words might get lost on their way to Mandy’s room, if they’re small enough. Even when she shouts, it’s a subdued sort of shout, a shout that knows its place. A shout that has been required to cleave to someone else’s. “Do you think that’s going to get better, with her going to high school in a month?”

“That doesn’t mean it’s not overkill!” Her father doesn’t even try to hide the argument. Maybe he thinks Mandy will sleep through it; maybe he’s not really thinking about her at all, even while he shouts about her. “Even your parents didn’t take the whole thing.”

“But kids were different back then. Do you remember what she said to me when I asked where she’d left her retainer? ‘How the hell would I know, Mom’, that’s what she said, to my face. If I’d used language like that with my mother—well, I’d have lost a lot more than half, I’ll tell you that.”

“The world is different, too. And I’m not sending her out into it like that.”

“If we don’t nip this in the bud now, she’s never going to—”

“No. That’s final.”

Over the weekend, Mandy huddles on the toilet lid, while her mother carefully trims off the front half of her tongue with the kitchen shears. She presses her back as hard as she can against the cold sweating tank behind her, not because that will save her but because she wants to make her mother reach. More blood wells up than Mandy can remember ever seeing before, but maybe that’s just because it’s happening in front of her, not behind her back or at her side, where she can look away: at the ceiling, where the wallpaper ends; out the window at the neighbors’ elm trees whose branches blur and sway in the breeze. She catches a glimpse of the pale, purplish section that her mother has trimmed away before it disappears into a hand-towel. It looks like more than half to her, but then, she has no idea how deep her tongue actually goes. The afternoon sunlight gushes in through the window and whites out her mother’s face until staring at it burns a hole in the middle of Mandy’s vision.

She makes herself eat dinner; she’s expected to always clean her plate and never go back for seconds, if she doesn’t want to lose her allotted TV time. The ketchup that she puts on her hash browns stings, and everything she eats taste like her parents’ multivitamins smell.

Afterwards, she has to raise her hand if she wants the teacher’s attention at school; at home she has to repeat her mother’s name, or her father’s, two or three times. Her voice is smaller, sliding at a tangent to the attention of her parents, her classmates. It’s still hers, recognizable when she reads aloud in class or, cringingly, listens to herself on an answering machine’s playback. It’s still itself. Just less so.

In tenth grade gym, during tennis week, “Bigfoot” makes a resurgence. Amanda—she’s left the nickname Mandy in middle school—wears a full size 10 now that her feet have mercifully stalled out their growth, and hers are easily the biggest sneakers in the class. In the locker room, she rolls her eyes at the jeers, snickers, says something snide about big feet versus small brains. It’s only when she gets home that she flings her backpack across the kitchen and bursts into nauseous, ugly sobs.

When the tears have dried on her blotchy face and she’s eaten the pint of ice cream from the freezer and hidden the empty container at the bottom of the trash bin, she marches upstairs. She knows which drawer her mother’s scalpel is in and she takes it out.

She carries it to her bathroom, where she sits on the side of the tub and runs hot water over her feet, lathering them up with the bar of Dove as best she can. The soap smells like nothing, like the absence of dirt and sweat and grime, and she shakes her wet feet off and rubs them on a clean towel.

The scalpel blade hovers for a moment. Then she presses it down, making the first cut. Pinky toe first. The pain is bright and sharp, and she bites her still-tender tongue. She didn’t expect it to hurt when she did it herself, but it does. It’s different, knowing it’s coming, controlling it. But it still hurts.

She forces herself to keep going; if she takes all the toes, at least the first joint, she’ll go down a size or too, easily. She tells herself that if it’s not enough, she’ll be able to keep going; that may even be true. The joint is the worst part; her mother has parted muscle from muscle and scooped out soft yellow fat, but never cut ligament or tendon. The connective tissue surrenders its grasp grudgingly, and in Amanda’s hand the scalpel becomes a saw, grinding away. Finally the joint drops without fanfare onto the bathroom tile, leaving behind white bloodless edges haloed by the red puddle on the floor.

She looks down at her maimed foot. Her breath comes hot and iron-scented, heavy in her mouth. Triumph pounds in her temples, and disgust spins the acid in her belly, leaving Amanda somewhere in the dizzy middle.

“You’re going to have to do the other one now.”

Amanda startles at her mother’s voice. The blood roaring in her ears must have drowned out the garage door’s buzz, the footfalls on the stairs. Her mother stands in the doorway, shadow falling away into the hall behind. “Amanda. You can’t leave it like that, sweetheart. Do you need me to do it?”

Amanda looks at her other foot. She still clutches the scalpel; her fingers are locked from their work against the connective tissue in the joint, she’s not sure she could let go yet if she tried. “I can do it,” she whispers. She sets the blade against the skin. She presses.

Her mother’s smile wicks away some of the sting of the knife. “Good girl.”

After that, there are other little modifications. A slice off either hip, so she can squeeze into the cute junior department clothes a little longer. A few more slices from her swim team-broadened shoulders and thighs—Amanda has started to look mannish, her mother says, and the way she says it makes it clear that this is one of the worst ways Amanda could look. At regionals, she loses badly in the 400-meter freestyle, but she does at least get asked to the winter formal. After swim season ends, the softening curves of her belly and arms are carefully and routinely pruned to a flat, firm precision.

The cuts never get easy. But they get easier.

One day she’s lying on the couch under the dull comforting weight of the heating pad, staring at the ceiling. She needs to pee, but peeing feels like being stabbed in the bladder. She’s hungry, but too nauseous to eat. “I could cut out my uterus,” she said, to no one; to her mother in the kitchen.

The tearing-plastic and rattling-spoon noises of weekday dinner preparation fall silent. “Your womb?” her mother asks, with crystalline calm that will shatter if grazed at the wrong angle. The word uterus is a borderline swear word. “Where did you get an idea like that? Did you read that on the Internet? What a horrible thing to say.”

They’ve had an internet line in their house for three months and it’s already been assigned as the root cause of every negative thought in Amanda’s head, every instance of back-talk and failure to meet expectations. As if Amanda doesn’t use the computer exclusively for emailing her church friends and researching school assignments and reading fan fiction, not even the sexy stuff, because she refuses to feel secure that she’s fully wiped the browser history. “It’s my idea. This hurts so much. All the time.” The words come out as a whine and Amanda hates herself for it, hates how every argument reduces her to the petulant child so that her mother can play the reasonable, unemotional adult. “How am I supposed to live like this for the rest of my life?”

“The same way the rest of us do. With Advil. For goodness’ sake, Amanda, it’s five days a month.” Her mother exhales noisily. A box top tears open, followed by the paper sack inside. “Grow up. If you want to have children someday, you’re going to have to have a period. That’s the way it is.”

Amanda grimaces. “Maybe I don’t want to have kids.”

A pan slams onto the counter. Amanda is already sedentary but she goes absolutely motionless now. When she was seven, she cheerfully repeated a word she’d heard at school; butt or fart or something else comically innocuous to her sixteen-year-old mouth. It’s the same silence now as then, a silence that has never really thawed in all the years in between.

“Go to your room,” her mother says finally, and it’s better than having her mouth washed out with soap, so she does.

And because she’s not seven years old anymore and she doesn’t care about why her mother’s mad and she’s learned how to wait, opportunity finally arrives. Her father is going to a baseball game and her mother is doing the week’s shopping and now, she’s sitting cross-legged on the bathroom floor with her biology textbook open in front of her. The page with the diagram she wants is near the back of the book and she has to set two bottles of shampoo at the corners of the page to keep it from flipping shut again. She has her own scalpel now, so that she doesn’t have to sneak the one out of her parents’ room. She doesn’t know if her mother knows she has it, or if she’d object if she did. Sometimes she just wants to amend herself without someone else’s judgment, or worse, her approval.

This time, she doesn’t feel the knife when it slides into her. Her pain is already immense, taking up her entire body; there’s no room for anything else. It feels like the knife is inside her, and it’s cutting its way out, every single month. She flashes to a calculus lesson: the years stacking up ahead of her, and her pain fills the area under the curve.

This time, at the press of the blade, flesh recoils from flesh. The widening chasm reveals the raw curl of her skin’s wrong side and the pale gleam of fat. She stops when she gets to a layer of glistening fascia, beneath which dark organs twitch and shudder. The diagram in the book is so different: everything neatly color-coded, pink and purple and red and blue. Everything inside her looks the same, and how will she ever take out only what she needs, let alone put the rest of the puzzle back together after?

This time, struggling to breathe in the airless silence, she hears the footsteps on the stairs with hideous clarity.

Her mother never knocks. She grabs for the book, knocks it closed. Her pants are around her ankles and she yanks them up, has to force them closed—the pain of the incision takes up too much space now. In unseeing panic, she kicks the scalpel out of sight, behind the toilet, under the bathroom scale.

The door opens. Her mother looks in, looks her over, her pale face, the sweat pasting her bangs to her forehead. “There’s blood on the floor,” she notes clinically.

There is. Amanda swipes it away with a square of toilet tissue. “I forgot to get a new pad out before I sat down.”

Amanda lies with fluency, and if her mother suspects, she still treats this statement as if it’s offered in the language of truth. “You look terrible. Take an Advil, go lie down on the couch. I’ll set the table tonight.”

“Okay. Thank you.” Her own gratitude leaves her nauseous. When her mother is gone, she cleans and hides the scalpel again, and drags herself to her room. No one wakes her for dinner, and that’s a mercy in itself.

It won’t be until her first year of college that the pain becomes too much to bear. She’s in real danger of failing her freshman composition class when her roommate navigates her onto a bus to the student clinic. After a thousand questions about her cycle length and the specific quality of her menses and her bowel movements, she leaves the clinic with an appointment reminder card to go to the city hospital in a week so that they can cut her open.

The doctors put her out before they set the knife against her, and her first question, when she wakes up, is to ask what they did with it, all the pulp they scraped off her organs and scooped out of her. The nurse assures her that it’s all gone, but the anesthesia’s heavy hand is still on Amanda’s head and she sobs in the recovery room bed. “That was mine,” she babbles, fumbling at the IV in her hand, “that was mine.”

They calm her down, although she doesn’t remember how. Since the surgery is minimally invasive, she only misses a day of classes before they send her back to her dorm. When she strips down for the shower, she examines the two tiny incisions: they look like paper cuts held together with a shock of coarse black thread. When they heal, they look like two distant stars, and eventually, they fade to nothing at all.

She doesn’t tell her parents about the surgery until they call about the insurance statements. Her mother is angry, upset that she wasn’t there; but she’s been angry with Amanda about plenty of things and this small hurt ebbs into the larger ones sooner or later.

When she’s home for spring break in her sophomore year, her father enlists her assistance. It’s his and her mother’s twenty-fifth wedding anniversary in June, and he’s planning a surprise party. Her task is to sort through old family photographs and paste them onto a trifold Styrofoam board under the words “25 WONDERFUL YEARS”, which Amanda has marked in Crayola calligraphy. There’s one large picture already glued down, a paper photocopy of her parents’ wedding portrait; the lines of white glue underneath have dried transparent but visible, tugging the paper taut and pulling it into tiny crow’s feet wrinkles where each dollop ends.

There are a few neatly-assembled albums, bound in brown plastic fake leather that’s peeling at the corners; Amanda’s baby pictures, mostly. The rest of the pictures are tossed into a couple of clear storage bins heedless of year or occasion. An hour into the project and Amanda already regrets her quick assent. Her mother is in hardly any of the photos, and half the time when she is present, it’s as a shadowed figure in the background, a blouse sleeve at the margin.

Amanda slides a faded Polaroid out of its sleeve in the oldest album, a photograph of herself in her mother’s arms. The ill-timed flash has whited out half of her mother’s face, but baby Amanda is rosy pink, soft round cheeks and brown-blonde curls captured with as much clarity as a camera could contrive in 1982. Amanda smears a glue stick on the back of it and affixes it at the top left, just beneath the word YEARS. She arranges the rest of the photos with careful whitespace, adds in a few landscapes of vacation sunsets and autumn foliage for their color.

At the party, she watches for her mother’s reaction to the photo board. But her gaze only ever seems to sweep past it, and her expression is as sparse and colorless as in the dated mother-daughter photo. She carries a flute of champagne around, but never seems to drink from it, until the jeweled bubbles dissipate altogether and she abandons it on an end table.

When Amanda goes back to college on Sunday, after church, she sits down at her computer and opens the file where she keeps the photos from her digital camera. There are hundreds—hockey games and cafeteria meals and Frisbee on the quad. By the time she scrolls through the lot, her eyes have a dry, peeled feeling and a headache has wriggled into the muscles of her forehead. In the entire collection of photos, her face appears in twelve.

She has the scalpel on her lap, her fist closed around its small, familiar weight. She doesn’t even know what to take away, this time; how to make herself small enough to fit into those hundreds of little absences.

She graduates. She moves out. She gets married. The arguments with her mother grow thin, threadbare, stretched out from phone call to phone call, but they never fade away altogether.

She has children, too: one daughter, then another. When her eldest arrives, her firstborn, Amanda clutches her too hard in her effort to hold back the shuddering exhaustion. “Not yet,” she says, when it’s time to take the baby to meet her grandparents, when it’s time to eat and sleep and rest. “Not yet.” But time operates outside Amanda’s control, and sometimes she must loosen her grasp, sometimes she must let go. Not forever.

She’s so soft, this tiny creature, beneath the waxy feathers of vernix on her back and shoulders; her hair is cloud-light, tickling Amanda’s nose. Amanda can’t imagine ever setting a knife to that flesh, taking away from what she is.

That thought sends an electric jolt through her; the baby startles up out of her half-asleep lull and begins tonguing her lips, testing her own hunger. Amanda stares down into her small face, remembering how she’d told her own mother that she never wanted children. Did something change naturally—a resistance eroded, over long years, an evolution too slow to see? Or is this, too, something cut away from her that she never knew until it was long, long gone?

Her daughter’s eyes are a muddled brown-blue, a color that the sky has never dared to wear. They hold neither answers nor explanations.

In time, each circle closes in upon itself. Amanda’s mother dies quietly, an unobtrusive heart attack in her sleep.

It’s left to Amanda to wade through the relics of her mother’s life. Her father is too old, too frail, too stubborn; he would too quickly founder in the sea of sweaters for Goodwill, used makeup to be discarded, unopened jigsaw puzzles, dog-eared magazines with zucchini recipes and housekeeping tips.

She finds the box in the bottom of a closet drawer—wood, not cardboard, stained a deep cherry-wood red, and light when she lifts it. Inside, she recognizes the enamel jar first, and its tell-tale jingle. The rest isn’t familiar: a couple of small Manila envelopes, brittle and brown with time’s fingerprints; and several small packets of tarnished aluminum foil.

She tests the envelopes first. The heavier one contains a wizened, horn-hard brown thing: an umbilical cord, hers. The other is a feathery, flattened curl of fair hair. It fans out, in her palm, and comes apart when she lets it slide to the floor.

The aluminum foil breaks at her handling, but she already knows what’s inside. Mummified lumps of flesh, desiccated, too light for their size, smelling like someone else’s death. There are ten, a dozen—more than Amanda remembers. But she knows they’re hers, all of them.

She takes one, a large chunk of muscle, that doesn’t soften in the heat of her hand. The scalpel is in her purse and she sits on the low edge of her parents’ bed as she digs it out and turns it against herself. How many years has it been, carrying this thing around, dreading to use it but unwilling to discard it? The blade is still sharp and the skin of her shoulder separates along old, invisible fault lines.

The lump of old meat stretches painfully when she slides it into the waiting space. There’s room enough for her body to accept this small offering—but the skin won’t close behind it. Amanda tries again, on the other side, tries her too-narrow hips, her stick-thin thighs. The sharp point of her chin and even the nub of her tongue. The long-forgotten toes. Nothing stays. Nothing fits. Not anymore.

The old foil balls up in her fist like a soiled tissue—she can’t actually cry, of course, her tear ducts were her last college-age casualty—and she sits on the bed until her fingers uncurl. She leaves the drawer out, the box open, and packs up her purse. The packing can wait, it can’t all be finished in one day anyway. Her father is downstairs with two old family friends. She kisses him on the cheek, tells him she’ll see him tomorrow. He nods, still dazed, bewildered. He’s lost her mother all at once, not piece by piece over the years like Amanda has.

The girls run to meet her when she pulls into the garage at home. They’ve clung to her, the last few days, especially at the funeral, frightened to be towered over by all her parents’ slow-moving and medicine-smelling friends.

Her elder daughter lingers longer, after the younger has been distracted by her Barbie dolls’ latest escapades. “Come here,” Amanda says. Her hands are trembling; she stills them against her sides. “Sit at the table. I want to talk to you.”

Her daughter sits. Amanda does not; reaches into her purse and takes out the case. She sets it between them and opens it to show the scalpel. Her daughter has so many vulnerable pieces sticking out every which way, all sharp edges waiting to be trod down and scraped off by the world around her, and it’s going to hurt, it’s going to hurt so much. Yet Amanda’s never cut her, not yet. Never taken a scrap of what she is.

“This was mine when I was your age.” Her voice finds a steadiness that her hands cannot. “I want to—is it all right if I use it? On you?”

Her daughter looks at Amanda’s face, not at the scalpel. “Will it hurt?” she whispers.

“Yes. Until I’m done. And a little while after that, too. But not as badly.”

“But you think I should anyway.”


The girl’s lips thin and her mouth sets. She has a pretty smile, and her father’s strong, square jaw. No one has ever made it smaller, less obtrusive; no one has shaved it to a dainty point. Her eyes shine; her tears unshed, but no less real. She excels at taking standardized tests, and she knows the answer she is expected to give. “Okay.” Her eyes, bluer now than when she was born, slide past her mother’s.

Amanda has her strip down to her tank top. She yelps, puppy-shrill, when the blade first finds its mark, and her shoulders stay tense even as the skin peels back its grasp on the tissues beneath. There is a perfect notch between two muscles that accepts the gnarled knuckle of dried-out flesh, and when it settles into place, it wicks up the hot fresh blood that slides over and around it. When Amanda matches the cut edges back together, the wound disappears, seamless and smooth.

A laugh of relief, of satisfaction, grinds away to nothing beneath Amanda’s concentration. There’s more to do. This time, she doesn’t ask.

Not all the pieces work. The other piece of shoulder-muscle, yes, and the slip of tongue; even the teeth slip up into the gums in the space between her daughter’s lingering baby teeth and her adult incisors, sharp little fangs, ready to bite, ready to tear. The sallow fat, the ruined toes, the other bits of muscle don’t find their home, though Amanda tries and tries. Maybe this isn’t the right time for them? It must be the right person.

When Amanda is done, her daughter rubs her own shoulder, touches her lip where it curves around the strange new fit of her mouth. Her wet eyes narrow and brows lower, her shoulders shift and roll downward, shoulder blades seeking one another in the center of her back. Those vulnerable pieces are still there, but hidden, somewhat, guarded by new knots of muscle and strong, knobbly bone, even as she takes up more space. It’s not safe to be that vulnerable. She has to put that away, she’s getting too old not too. Amanda can help her do that. That’s her job as a mother. To do the things her daughter can’t do for herself. Or won’t.

“It still hurts,” her daughter says. Her hand falls to her side. “Just different now.”

“I know. Some things have to hurt.” Amanda lays one hand, gingerly, on the broad flat plane of her back. There is a tectonic shifting of muscles, but she feels no seam, no give. This was the right thing to do. This was the only thing to do, because to do the opposite, to carve away at this child, would be unthinkable. She stands up taller, straighter. She’s nothing like her mother. “This is yours now,” she promises. “This is yours.”

About the Author

Aimee Ogden is a former science teacher and software tester; now she writes stories about sad astronauts, angry princesses, and dead gods. Her novellas Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters and Local Star debuted earlier this year from and Interstellar Flight Press respectively, and her short fiction also appears in magazines such as Clarkesworld, Analog, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She co-edits Translunar Travelers Lounge, a magazine of fun and optimistic speculative fiction.