Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

Substitutes

When Claudia’s six-year-old daughter Jane disappeared, Claudia was making love to a man who was not her husband. All her life she’d made mistakes and here was one more, worse than the others. This was in the house of Jane’s friend Magda. Magda and Jane were downstairs playing an aggressive doll game they’d invented; Claudia and Magda’s father were in the guest bedroom. He’d steered Claudia away from the master bedroom, the way he might any old house guest on a tour of the upstairs: No, no, total disaster zone in there.

Tension had been building between Claudia and Magda’s father over the years at play date pickups and school picnics, and now was the time. Tomorrow Claudia and Jane were moving across the state; her husband had gone there already for work. Claudia would do this thing quickly, while Magda’s mother was at the grocery store, then she and Jane would finish packing the car and leave the next morning and she would not have to see this man or his wife ever again. It was done quickly—quicker than Claudia had expected, what seemed like only a few turns of the ceiling fan, pushing the hot air down. Afterward, Magda’s father feigned sleep. Claudia could see he’d lost all interest—good thing she was leaving!—and she slipped out of bed, tidied up and dressed, and went downstairs.

Magda was alone in the living room, flipping through The Economist, brow furrowed as if grappling with some new political instability in Eastern Europe. She was also six. A doll sat next to Magda on the couch, head ninety degrees askew, arm missing. Nestled on the doll was a health drink that was a green so healthy it almost looked unhealthy.

Magda, where is Jane? Claudia asked.

Without looking up, Magda said she didn’t know. She was a pale, ragged child who recoiled from candy as if physically repulsed. It wasn’t the girl’s fault; her mother had taught her that. Probably at this very second Magda’s mother was buying cod oil or soy crackers to shove down her daughter’s throat. Probably the father had played a part in this too, Claudia considered, but she was done with him, with this whole family.

Magda, honey, what do you mean you don’t know? Claudia asked. Is Jane playing one of her hiding games? Magda shrugged.

Claudia looked in every room in the house, in closets, under beds. Claudia peeked into the guest bedroom; Magda’s father was passed out, clutching the sheet like it was a great comfort. Jane was nowhere. Claudia was getting nervous. She ran back to the living room.

Magda, where is Jane?

Magda sipped the health drink, which bubbled like it was full of living organisms trying to breathe. Dunno, said Magda. I think Jane went outside. Maybe she ran away from you. Magda turned a page of the magazine.

Something in Claudia snapped, and she jumped across the room and slapped Magda—another urge that had been building for years, though this consummation was far more satisfying. The health drink spilled across the doll and magazine and couch. Magda looked too shocked to cry for her father. Her face shook, then she began to sniffle, the preamble to the deep sob. Sniffle away, Claudia thought. Sniff your heart out. But then Claudia’s satisfaction scared her; poor Magda was only a kid, a child who’d never learned childhood. And where was Jane? Claudia ran outside. Jane was not in sight.

Claudia wandered the empty streets, calling her daughter’s name. A few neighbors peered through their windows. No one came outside. It was too gray and hot; Claudia had never made friends with these women and thus could not count on their allegiance now. She searched for what seemed like hours. She checked the pool, the park, the gas station where older kids got into trouble. She returned home, in case Jane had gone there, then left and searched more. She wondered what she would tell her husband. She passed desperation and grew tired. It was almost night. She thought she would kill herself. She would drive to the bridge, throw herself off. Was that how it worked? What if you could swim? You’d tell yourself not to swim but did the body take over? Claudia was a fine swimmer, too skilled to drown. She didn’t have the courage for any other sort of offing; she couldn’t imagine anything sharp or tight.

Finally, a few blocks from home, Claudia saw her daughter, leaning against a tree like a teenager up to no good. Jane was wearing different clothes: jeans and a jacket, like she’d come from the cold. Claudia ran to her, heart soaring, but up close she could see it wasn’t her Jane, though this girl looked remarkably like Jane. She was a different version: She had shorter arms, a squarer face, and lacked Jane’s twinkle. All the rest was the same: the perfect, runny nose, the location of her freckles, the tiny birthmark on the left ear where an earring would one day go. The girl squinted up in confusion, as if Claudia also looked like someone she knew.

Are you lost? Claudia asked. Are you Jane, she thought. She wiped the girl’s sweaty forehead. The girl nodded. Claudia felt an instinct and she scooped up the girl. It’s okay, honey, Claudia said. The girl fit perfectly in Claudia’s arms. Claudia thought she weighed exactly as much as Jane. She almost had to be Jane. The world couldn’t hold two Janes who were so similar to one another. Claudia carried this almost-Jane home. She found herself thinking of a chemistry test she’d cheated on in her freshman year of college: She’d known it was wrong, that awful punishment would come her way (though it hadn’t). But it had been too late to do anything else, just as it was now. The girl fell asleep in Claudia’s arms, which Jane could never do. Jane could barely fall asleep in bed. Jane would make Claudia read to her for hours, the same story, over and over, until Claudia wanted to butcher Wilbur the pig herself. Back home, Claudia gave the girl some water in a Dixie cup and laid her in Jane’s sleeping bag. Claudia was exhausted, but she sat by the front window in case Jane came home or the police came to arrest her. Twice she went outside and stood in the hot night, waiting. She heard screams next door, but they were canned—only a horror movie. Eventually Claudia fell asleep on the couch they were leaving behind.

• • • •

In daylight, the girl looked even more like Jane. She rubbed her eyes, as if she’d been sleeping for years and did not know where she was. She moved her limbs stiffly, like they were thawing. She examined the room, or what was left of it: toothpaste over nail-holes in the wall, the outfit Jane had set aside for the trip—as ridiculous as all of Jane’s self-selected outfits.

This doesn’t look like my bedroom, the girl said.

Claudia rubbed her own eyes, like the girl who was almost her daughter might become her actual daughter, if only she could get this sleep crud away.

We’re moving today, Claudia said. You can decorate your new bedroom however you like. She tried to think—tried to chart a course that would make sense, that would restore everyone to their proper role, that would allow everything to churn forward without consequence. Finally Claudia said, Remember how we’re moving? How Dad is already there?

The girl scrunched her face, thinking, like this was a thing she might remember.

Where are we moving again?

Across the state, said Claudia. It will be sunnier there—though Claudia had no reason to believe this was a concern of the child, nor that it would be true. It was Claudia’s concern. Her husband had promised her sun. She was dubious. He had the habit of making promises on behalf of other authorities: the weather, airlines, parking garages.

Do you want to help me finish loading the car?

The grogginess left the girl. Sure thing! she said, which shot a thrill into Claudia: Sure thing was Jane’s line. Sure thing! Jane was always saying. Sure thing!

Thanks, said Claudia. Then she added—Jane.

The girl considered, then nodded.

• • • •

The girl fell asleep before they made it to the turnpike. She wore the outfit Jane had selected for moving day: pink shorts, an orange esprit shirt. Claudia had dumped the girl’s old clothes into the trash can before they left. Claudia thought about guilt but she couldn’t quite feel it, couldn’t get in its groove; it was like God when she was a kid. She felt she had done the right thing, or at least the best thing given the choices available. Still, she drove even more recklessly than she usually did, speeding past blurs of cows and trees. Claudia pictured the two of them hurtling away from where they’d been, away from the scene of the crime. She had the funny idea she should have burned the girl’s old clothes in the backyard, something like that. The girl’s little mouth hung open and Claudia had the urge to peer in. This girl was so close to Jane, so Janeish. It seemed impossible that both could inhabit the same world at once. One of Claudia’s college boyfriends, a sculptor, had always been talking about transformation; at the time, it had seemed pretentious babble. When a thing transforms, a piece remains elsewhere, in a place we cannot find. Was that what he’d said? Transformation, Claudia decided. Yes, transformation had occurred. She and the girl tunneled through mountains—between the two cities, this state was nothing, just farms and mountains—then they were home.

The new house was a sprawling ranch house in a neighborhood that felt more polished, better manicured than their old neighborhood. The house had a porch in front and a pool in back, neither of which their old house had, so that was something. Claudia’s husband was waiting for them on the porch. He’d been here for a week, and he swept them both into his arms like nothing was amiss.

My girls! he said. My long lost loves!

He was not usually in this good a mood. Claudia had thought he might be a new man here, slightly different in the right ways, and she thought he was aware of this possibility too, though they hadn’t discussed it. Not that he was a bad man, only dour, too focused on the wrong things: steel derivatives, football, world affairs. Claudia was an artist, or was trying to be, and had always thought she’d marry an artist, but in her twenties all the artists had ponytails and smoked incessantly and had no money, which was not as alluring as it had once seemed, so she’d married this man and had to live with it.

Is it sunnier here or what? he asked.

It was sunnier here, though it had only been a few minutes. Plus it was summer. Winter was the issue. Claudia was not expecting sun from winter anywhere in this state. But her husband looked tanner, and thus thinner. She smiled and kissed him with a little tongue.

Is this place bigger or what? he asked. In their old house he was always using or what like this: Did you remember to buy pretzels or what? Can I watch the fourth quarter or what?

It doesn’t seem bigger than my old house, the girl said.

Claudia’s husband frowned at the girl and patted her head. Do I have a surprise for you! he said. He led them down the crisp, white hallway, stepping around picture frames leaning against the unmarked walls. His new positivity was throwing Claudia for a loop. It seemed to be weirding out the girl and she hadn’t even experienced his usual nature.

Check. It. Out!

He’d turned Jane’s bedroom into a galaxy: The walls and ceiling were plastered with rocket ships, stars, planets, UFOs, whatever else crept through space. In the dark, Claudia could see, they’d glow. It gave her hope—he was trying, truly he was. But this new version of Jane wouldn’t enter.

You love space, her father said.

What are you talking about, she said. Space is terrifying.

• • • •

That night, new Jane slept on the new couch amid towers of unpacked boxes. Claudia’s husband had promised he’d strip all the decals from her room tomorrow. In bed, in the dark, he asked Claudia if Jane seemed different to her. A little . . . off?

Claudia weighed her answer. How could she explain? She couldn’t. She told him, no, it was only the move. Jane had to leave all her friends; there would be an adjustment period.

I guess, Claudia’s husband said. I guess you’re right.

Though in truth Magda had been Jane’s only real friend and Claudia was glad to be rid of her. Slapping Magda had felt amazing, which made Claudia ashamed. Before Magda, Claudia had never considered you wouldn’t like your child’s friends before they became teenagers. Weren’t all little kids the same: cute, messy, careless with household pets and objects?

Claudia’s husband kissed her ribs because he thought it did something for her, but it didn’t, never had. She couldn’t remember ever pretending, not even early in their relationship; he was just bad at noticing. They made love. Our first time in the new house, he said, like if he didn’t say it she would fail to realize this and its weight would go unnoticed. He thought saying the fact was what made it special rather than the fact itself and how they carried it out. They carried it out the same as always.

Yes, everything would be the same here, except for what was different.

• • • •

Before they moved, they’d signed Jane up for a day camp so she could make new friends in their new town, and so she would not drive Mommy insane. Now Claudia was worried: Camp seemed a place where the secret would come out, where things would go horribly wrong. Camp was out of Claudia’s control. But Monday morning came and what else was there to do but take new Jane there? What was the alternative? Take her out of school? Keep her home for the rest of her life? Become one of those insane homeschooling mothers? Claudia tried to picture a housebound Jane at eighteen, ignorant of evolution and how to kiss a boy.

The head counselor, one of those frazzle-haired artsy types Claudia had once consorted with, was very kind, if disorganized, and soon she’d coaxed Jane into beading. Beading, the gateway art! Next would come hemp bracelet making. Many years down the road: clay-making orgies. In the meantime, one small problem—the camp had misplaced Jane’s medical records. Could Claudia send them over? Oh, was that important? Very. So Claudia faxed over old Jane’s records, hoping her new Jane was physiologically the same, and did not have severe allergies to peanut butter or bees.

• • • •

They’d been there a week and new Jane was adjusting well. She wore all old Jane’s clothes; they seemed to fit new Jane better than old Jane, like they’d been bought for her in the first place. The head counselor noted that Jane was not making many friends, though she said it like it was an achievement. Maybe it was. Old Jane had never had many friends back home either. Neither had Claudia, which had made it difficult to object to the move: no job, no friends. Once, she’d considered Magda’s father her friend—they’d shared banal spousal frustrations over coffee—but now he was someone she tried not to remember. How could she have slept with someone who had slept with someone and created Magda? For a moment, when they’d lain on that tiny guest bed, Magda’s father had felt novel. But now, Claudia knew he’d been the same as her husband, in the way that every man had been mostly the same. And remembering sex with Magda’s father brought back that whole day. Slapping Magda. Jane disappearing. Jane gone. A different Jane. Claudia taking different Jane home. Transformation, Claudia told herself. But she did not like thinking of that day, and she tried not to.

If nothing else, it was sunnier here. In the mornings Claudia painted rolling landscapes that were technically perfect but fell short of art. She’d pursued a life of art beyond what her talent called for, and she knew it. In the afternoons, before Claudia picked up Jane from camp, she swam in their new pool, smooth strokes and lunges. Sometimes she thought about her old Jane, but she pushed the memory underwater and swam right over. Claudia was a beautiful swimmer; again, she thought how she could never kill herself in water. She pictured herself from above, sun gleaming off her arms and legs as they cut through the water. Her swimming was more like art than her art. She should have been a swimmer. Well, another notch in her belt of mistakes.

One night Claudia’s husband came home elated. He’d made a power play at work with steel derivatives. Sold? Bought? Claudia wasn’t sure. Both had happened, she supposed—it was just a question of which end he’d been on this time. He and Jane took turns stealing potato off each other’s plates, pretending to spy something ominous or exciting behind the other, pointing dramatically: a spider! a monster! Magda! (This Jane seemed to remember Magda.) Claudia reclined in her chair, feeling warm. Her husband drank his wine. Claudia laid her hand over her new daughter’s. Jane squeezed back. Then Jane made a particular motion against Claudia’s hand, drawing a star, which Claudia recognized because old Jane had done the same thing. Claudia felt high. This Jane was daughter enough. They didn’t need any friends—what was the point of family but that you’d need no friends? With a buzzing energy, she plowed into dishwashing.

Later, in bed, her husband explained his steel derivatives deal, but it was like a mad lib of meaningless phrases: risk exposure, contractual defaulting, market volatility. This was what happened when he got drunk: He got jazzed about steel. His family had grown up nearby, but farther out, in the hills; his father had worked in a steel mill—his father had broken his back and his marriage in a steel mill—and so Claudia’s husband by virtue of his job was able to feel that he was carrying on a family legacy but also improving their lot in life. Claudia was jealous of those people, like her husband, who could say—and they were always happy to—that they were the first in their family to go to college. All well and good for him. But what if your family had always gone to college, what if your family had practically built the college? What then? Sure, you had perks, privileges, Claudia didn’t dispute that. But how did you express yourself, throw yourself off the previous path they’d laid out for you? You became an artist, she supposed.

That night, Claudia dreamed of the glorious new life of old Jane. Jane was happier than she’d ever been. She lived with her new family on a spaceship; they drifted along in close quarters where her new, tenderer mother and father never let her out of sight. Out the window, all the dark matter passed thrillingly close to Jane. Best of all, dream Jane understood that what her mother had done was for the best. Claudia had given Jane this spaceship life. Do not open the door, Claudia wanted to tell Jane, though surely her new parents had explained all the rules of space; after all, they were better parents than she was. They would never lose her. But Claudia told Jane anyway: Stay inside. Space is such a bad place to get lost.

• • • •

The next morning, Claudia found a girl in Jane’s bed who was not Jane. Not the original, not the newer one. She was, to be sure, extremely close—to both Janes—but she had no freckles, and the birthmark was on the right ear, not the left, and her hair was silky, unlike the other Janes’ curls. The girl groaned. Four more minutes, she said, which unnerved Claudia further—who asked for four more minutes? It was unnatural, like those snoozes set to nine minutes—a digital programming, not a human one.

Claudia rushed to the kitchen and gulped down another cup of coffee. She splashed cold water on her face. It had been four minutes. She waited another ten. She hoped it would be a different daughter under the covers, one of the old ones. It wasn’t.

Did you bring me breakfast in bed? this different Jane asked.

You’re going to be late for camp, Claudia said dumbly. You can eat in the car.

What kind of mother are you?

Claudia thought about this on the way to camp, while the new Jane fiddled with the radio. She thought about it all day: painting, not eating, swimming, driving to pick up Jane. She’d almost landed on an answer when Jane came bounding into the front seat after camp, and Claudia saw it was yet another Jane. The birthmark was back on the left ear. She had a little pot belly, and thin, wispy eyebrows, almost translucent.

• • • •

So they changed, quicker and quicker. Underwater in the pool. When Claudia went out to the mailbox. During pre-dinner handwashing. Whenever Claudia wasn’t looking, whenever Jane was out of sight, there was a chance that Jane would vanish and a new Jane would appear, a little more removed from the original. But each Jane was so almost like the one before, an echo distorted by the shape of walls. The frequency of their changing made Claudia hyper aware of all the moments she left her children alone. This was how she thought of them, sometimes: children, plural, like she’d birthed a motley crew of daughters who shared certain features and whose lives were so busy and rich only one could be present at any given moment. They were always floating in and out on the way to camp or recital or swim practice. It ought to have felt festive. Claudia imagined extra stretch marks on her belly, her body ruined, like she’d spawned an entire litter. But she knew she had only one daughter, one Jane, endlessly morphing into another who was almost the same.

There were things the Janes knew and things they didn’t. They were like those computer upgrades that came with certain data pre-installed, fixing one bug but inevitably creating another (though Claudia tried not to think of them as upgrades; each Jane had her pros and cons, and Claudia tried to love each for who she was). One Jane knew where the can opener was, the next where to find Disney in HD. They all knew daddy was a little crazy about the Steelers. None could recall past vacations. They all did the first Jane’s little trick of drawing a star on Claudia’s hand. Some were precocious readers, others great subtractors. They all had runny noses, the birthmark on one earlobe or the other. Most had freckles. No one was lukewarm about space; they were astrophobes or they were going to walk on the moon. One Jane liked her sandwiches cut diagonal, the next horizontal, the next crustless. One hated chocolate (she didn’t stay long). They all hated the jumper their grandmother had made, though Claudia could not imagine any child liking this jumper. They all said sure thing! like her first Jane, and duh, which her first Jane had never said, but Claudia suspected the word was being spread around camp, like a virus.

The camp authorities didn’t notice, and Claudia realized she’d been silly to worry about camp. The place was anarchy. Counselors could barely keep track of the kids who weren’t changing. And at the end of the day, splattered with mud and paint and Popsicle juice, the kids did all look a little alike. As usual, Claudia’s husband didn’t notice. He knew love’s broad strokes but none of its particulars, none of its fine grains, whereas Claudia noticed everything, but from what felt like a considerable distance she could never quite figure out how to cross. Had it always been like this? Jane had always seemed distant, but Claudia knew that in truth she’d been the distant one, not her daughter. She wanted to discuss with her husband, but she wanted him to bring it up. Did she have to feed him every bit of info? It was like her haircuts. Did you notice? Yes, now that you mention it! I knew you were even lovelier than usual, I just wasn’t sure why.

Besides, what could she say? I slept with Magda’s father. I couldn’t help myself. And in exchange I lost our child. But I found another. It made sense then. I don’t know why.

Claudia tried to tell him, one breezeless night in late July. It was almost midnight. In the pool, they floated on rafts. Inside, their sleeping daughter was surely morphing into another version of herself. Claudia asked, Did you notice our daughter is not our daughter anymore?

She’s been acting a little strange. But you said this was normal.

Claudia put her face to water and blew bubbles. What would happen, she wondered, if she opened her mouth and swallowed? Would the protective instinct take over, dominate the fatal urge? She raised her head, water dripping off her lips. Her husband laughed. He paddled over and hooked his toe under her suit strap, towing her to him like she was shipwrecked on driftwood. His tan was nothing in the moonlight and he looked bloated, like he’d been too long on the bottom. Don’t fret, he said.

Such an odd word, fret, thought Claudia. Too cute for its meaning.

He said, We won’t let her grow up too fast, I promise. He splashed playfully. How about we go to the park on Saturday?

So they went to the park. They brought a thin blanket, an Eiffel Tower puzzle, a bottle of white wine, two cartons of overripe berries, and one Jane, who became another behind a thick oak, another immersed in the cool gushing water of the fountain, another, another.

• • • •

How many Janes had there been? It was too painful for Claudia to calculate, so many of her daughters leaving her. Sometimes they’d stay for a few days, sometimes a few minutes. Claudia had the notion they were testing out life in her household, a sort of parental speed dating for kids. Whenever they checked out and moved on right away—for instance, one new Jane Claudia picked up at camp announced she had to go to the bathroom the second they were home—Claudia felt it was an indictment of her mothering. She redoubled her efforts: She was patient. She didn’t yell. She cooked, she cleaned, she showered Janes with love and toys. She made snack after snack. She sang to herself: You’re a heartbreaker, snack maker. She had the idea that one day her original Jane would return, would see what a better mother she had become. They’d both be new and improved.

There was one particular Jane who Claudia loved more than the others, from the moment she popped out of the covers in the morning. Although this Jane was the same age as all the others, she was wearing rouge and already had her ears pierced, but was also warm and cuddly, as if to compensate for her teenage effects. Claudia and Jane had a girls’ day: They skipped camp, got their nails done, ate Mediterranean. When they went shopping after lunch, Claudia insisted on going into the dressing room with Jane. Jane rolled her eyes, but in the dressing room, she complimented her mother’s figure. All day, Claudia did not let Jane drink water, so she wouldn’t have to use the bathroom. At home, they made supper; Jane wielded the knife expertly.

Claudia didn’t want it to end. After dinner, she brewed coffee. It was like Body Snatchers, she thought: Fall asleep and it would all be over. Did Jane want to stay up late and watch PG-13 movies? Did Jane want Claudia to make more popcorn? Claudia would make popcorn all night if Jane wanted. But eventually Jane grew tired. Claudia read to her in bed. How tender Wilbur the pig and Charlotte the spider were now! What pals, what synergy! Jane fell asleep. Claudia closed the book. She tingled with energy. It would be like one of those weekends in college: drinking wine, binge painting, and before you knew it Monday morning had come and you weren’t even tired. (It was one of these weekends that had led Claudia to cheat on that freshman chemistry test.) If only she had her easel and paints. But Claudia couldn’t leave Jane, and her husband was on the computer, at the other end of their big new house. Jane slept so peacefully Claudia couldn’t bear to wake her. Claudia sat by the bed, stroking Jane’s hair, keeping watch. Please, she whispered. This Jane was almost as wondrous as her very first Jane. Her Jane. What had her Jane been like? It was an exercise in futility trying to remember the specificity of old Jane when another Jane, nearly identical, slept here now. Claudia wondered if she’d be able to pick her original Jane out of a line-up. Of course, she’d recognize her as a Jane. But as the one she’d birthed, taught to walk and talk, taken to the space museum when she was three? Claudia felt ashamed—that she’d lost this Jane, that she’d stopped looking, that she’d instead taken the other Jane who’d materialized. Claudia dreamt of her little astronaut floating in another galaxy; in Claudia’s dreams, she knew exactly what Jane looked like.

When Claudia woke, the room was painfully bright. A new Jane—chubbier, ears unpierced, eyes green not blue—stood over her, poking curiously at the scar on her arm, as if recalling when her mother had gotten it, defending her from that angry swan, so many Janes ago.

• • • •

It was August.

Claudia painted. She tried painting the Janes before they could disappear on her, but they all said the same thing: That looks nothing like me. They were probably right; landscapes were her specialty. She was not so good with people. She swam, she showered. She shopped for groceries. She tidied up. She turned on the TV. She turned it off. She looked at her paintings and wished she hadn’t. She went to pick up Jane from camp. She made dinner. She did this again and again and again. She had ceased to be astonished that no one else noticed. In fact, she liked it. She felt she was sharing a secret with all her daughters—though she was not sure they were fully in on it. Did they know about each other? What happened to them before they came? Where did they go when they left? She tried to ascertain:

Where were you before I picked you up from camp?

Free swim.

Before that?

Lunch.

No, honey, before camp. Where were you before camp?

Uh, with you in the car. Duh.

Was there another place? Before you knew me, honey? Before I was your mother?

I think you are getting at something I’m too young to know about.

Claudia remembered her initial thought that last hot jumbled day in their old neighborhood: The world could not hold two Janes who were so similar to one another. A piece remains elsewhere, in a place we cannot find. In her dreams, Claudia had seen Jane in space. Maybe they were all up there in that black void, tumbling by in their sealed ships. Even the ones scared of space; their good mothers soothed them. They’d see each other passing by, unbound by gravity, looking like reflections, sharing the sense that they’d shared a bed and clothes down on Earth, in that big house with that bad mother.

• • • •

When the girl came out of the camp gates amid a sea of campers, Claudia had seen so many vaguely familiar children that at first she didn’t realize she’d seen this exact child before. But she had. It was Magda. Claudia felt a warmth for Magda she’d never felt before—if Magda was here then so was Jane, her old Jane. Jane was back! Magda was almost never without Jane, not in the sliver of her life that Claudia had witnessed. But where? Only Magda walked to the car, only Magda slipped into the passenger seat wearing the clothes Jane had been wearing that morning. Magda chomped on a celery stick, and without a word she handed Claudia a permission slip. Claudia’s muscles stiffened. She had Jane’s earlobe birthmark. She had Jane’s freckles. Claudia closed her eyes and opened them. She tried again. Praying for any other child on earth. Magda rubbed the celery around her lips like gloss. She had a slight mark on her cheek; was this where Claudia had slapped her? Magda rubbed the mark and glared at her.

At home, Claudia locked herself in the bathroom. She sat on the toilet, lid down, for a long time. She thought about something she’d heard on television: With a tweak here or there, whites would be blacks, Palestinians Jews, all of us apes. We were all 99.9 per cent the same. They’d said this like it was a comfort. Claudia stood at the mirror, looking very carefully at herself. She moved her eyebrows, trying to catch an instant when the reflection didn’t catch up, but of course she couldn’t. She washed her hands with lots of soap. She dried her hands and listened. The house was quiet. She heard a low murmur; had she left the TV on? Had she been watching before she picked up . . . Magda? The name gave Claudia shivers. But she could not think of Magda as Jane. She’d never call her that. Magda was Magda. Claudia paused at the door, giving Magda a few more seconds to clear out. Magda was at the kitchen table, making origami out of the sports section. A rhinoceros or triceratops, something horned.

Geez Louise, Mom. Thought you fell in.

• • • •

Magda refused dessert. Magda refused to go to bed. Magda refused everything. Suit yourself, Claudia said when she finally turned in for the night. The next morning, Magda came to breakfast wearing the jumper that Jane’s grandmother had made. She wanted orange juice, but Claudia had purchased apple for the last Jane. Magda sighed, like Claudia’s husband did when she forgot pretzels. Magda swore off camp, declaring it an idiot’s game. She wouldn’t go. Claudia understood: Magda wouldn’t go anywhere. Magda was here to stay.

Claudia’s husband didn’t notice. Major things were happening with derivatives; whatever he’d done before, bought or sold, the opposite had occurred and he was in a foul mood, complaining at every meal. Magda nodded along seriously at appropriate intervals, like she knew all about low profit margins.

Magda refused Frosted Flakes. Magda refused to respond to Magda, and Claudia refused to call her Jane. They settled on hey. Claudia wondered if the girl thought of herself as her old friend Jane, or if she remembered the child she’d been across the state as her old friend Magda.

• • • •

It had been four days. It was the afternoon, gray and drizzly, and they’d been stuck in the house, which was shrinking by the hour. Magda was wearing the jumper. She was going to wear that jumper for the rest of her life. She was going to be here for the rest of her life.

Hey, Claudia said, Let’s go for a drive.

Where, Magda asked suspiciously.

The health food store.

Cool beans, said Magda.

They got in the car and Claudia drove across the state. She wondered what she’d find. Had the girls switched places? Was Jane living in Magda’s place, being raised by her philandering father and awful, healthy mother? Did they have her drinking celery shakes? Claudia and Magda passed sitting cows, standing cows, signs for firewood and berries. Perhaps Magda’s mother was holding Jane hostage, keeping her to punish Claudia. She probably liked Jane better. Who wouldn’t! They drove through mountains, one long dark tunnel then another.

This is not the way to a health food store, observed Magda, as if she knew the route to every health food store on Earth. Probably she did.

They reached the outskirts of their old neighborhood at that moment after the sun’s setting when romance has ended. Claudia drove past the gas station at the corner, and Magda’s head perked up, like a dog recalling the way to the old park.

Claudia parked the car around the corner from Magda’s house.

Magda looked out the window. She asked, Didn’t my friend live around here?

Claudia considered but didn’t answer.

Was that the friend you hated?

Had Claudia said this? What kind of mother told her six-year-old she hated her friend? Or had Magda inferred this from how Claudia had once treated her? Whose memory was Magda accessing?

No, Claudia said. I liked her very much. She was my favorite of all your friends.

But didn’t you slap her once?

Stay in the car, said Claudia.

The front door of Magda’s house was open. Magda’s father was lying on the couch in his underpants, eyes dull. He barely seemed to register her presence. He didn’t even sit up.

Well, well, he said. How is the other side of the state? Any sunnier?

No, she said. Is Jane here?

Though Claudia knew right away that Jane wasn’t.

Why would Jane be here? he asked. He did not look that different from when she’d last seen him, except his belly was bigger now. You moved, remember? You don’t live here no more.

Well, where’s Magda?

Her mother has her. She found out.

She found out?

Yes. About us. And she took Magda and they left.

Now Claudia saw the evidence of their leaving: the wall bare where photographs had been; scattered junk food wrappers that Magda’s mother would never have allowed.

How did she find out? Claudia asked.

Magda told her!

Magda! Claudia felt her throat strum. She asked, Where are they now?

Fuck knows. Her aunt’s place. Hotel. He put his hand into his underpants and scratched. Your husband know?

No.

Magda’s father snorted. Well, get ready. She’ll probably tell him. He sat up on the couch and Claudia saw it was still stained. So, anyway, Magda’s father said, do you want to come in?

He was ugly, dumb and ugly, like an earlier version of man, and Claudia couldn’t fathom what she’d been thinking that day. How had that affair felt right?

Do you want to see Magda? she asked.

He looked behind him, like his daughter might be hiding there in the kitchen.

I have Magda, said Claudia. I can give her to you.

Are you teasing?

She’s in the car. Please, can I return her to you? She’s yours. Yes, I’ll bring her.

You bitch, he said. You get my daughter taken away, then you rub it in my face.

No, said Claudia. You don’t understand. She belongs with you. He jumped up and strode toward her. She thought he might hit her but he just slammed the door.

• • • •

You shouldn’t leave kids in cars, Magda told Claudia in the car. Bad things could happen.

Claudia restrained herself from giving Magda another slap. Okay, she said. Get out. Here. This is your house. This is where you live.

What are you talking about? asked Magda. We live across the state.

Magda, said Claudia. Get. Out.

I’m not Magda.

Magda. Whoever. Whoever the hell you are. Get out.

You’re going to make your own daughter get out of the car? she asked.

Claudia rubbed her temples. Seeing Magda’s father in that state made her understand more fully the binding line between action and consequence. They’d both been punished, out of proportion to their crime and by some mechanism she couldn’t fathom. She started the engine.
Are we going home? asked Magda. Where are going?

The mall, said Claudia, without knowing why, and Magda recoiled in terror.

That place is gross, said Magda, and Claudia decided they would go to the mall.

Claudia’s satisfaction horrified her; she recoiled at herself.

Won’t Dad wonder where we are? Magda asked when they parked.

He won’t notice, Claudia thought. Unless I come home without you. And once this thought struck through her brain, she realized what she’d come here to do: She would leave Magda in the mall and drive home and it would all be over.

But Magda was right: The mall was both gross and terrifying, a warped perversion of Claudia’s past. She’d taken Jane to this mall years ago, when Jane was a child in her stroller. There’d been so much snow that winter—even after they plowed the roads it just sat there, giant mounds growing black and filthy. She’d walked through the mall every afternoon, pushing Jane in her stroller. It had been such a pleasant place, clean and bright, sunlit, sleepy. The teenagers had been in school, she realized now, that had been the key; it was all babies and the elderly, who would peer into the strollers and make fussy noises. Now the mall felt dangerous. Grimy. Teenagers strutted everywhere, darting in and out of stores from which they were shoplifting, poking and groping each other, screaming lewdness, chains hanging from their necks and jean pockets and probably their nipples, beneath their black t-shirts. Probably that was the rage now. The rage was always something. They’d built an arcade—or had it always been there? Maybe, but it had been empty on Tuesday mornings. Now it was packed, though dark, and strobe lights flashed from within, accompanied by beeps and the sound of explosions. She imagined it as an opium den or brothel. Claudia felt she was catching a glimpse of the future.

Please, Mom, Magda said. Can we go home now? She reached for Claudia’s hand and Claudia let her take it, though she kept it limp. Magda began to whimper. Claudia realized she couldn’t leave her here. No, she wouldn’t do that. What she would do was make do—she would make Magda hers. She would teach her to be better, to eat candy, to smile.

Then, at the other end of the atrium, by the fountain, Claudia saw her. Jane. Her Jane.

Claudia hadn’t forgotten. She could pick her Jane out of any line-up in the world. She’d know her girl anywhere! That perfect curly hair, that runny nose, glistening even from this distance. Those cutesy flashing sneakers. I bought you those! Claudia thought. Jane was with a man and a woman, who Claudia understood were her mother and father now. Her new mother and father were both morbidly obese, the sort of people you usually found in the middle of the state, on the farms. But they were holding Jane by the hand and she was swinging between them, hopping, her legs lifting, gliding off the ground in a way that made the man and woman seem athletic. Of course! Why had Claudia and her husband never thought of this? They’d swung Jane, yes, they’d lifted her, twirled her, tossed her, made her a plane. But not this! Never like this, the three of them working in concert, making Jane such a glorious little kangaroo. As Jane’s new family approached, Claudia felt a deep shame; Jane was happy, but Jane would not understand what Claudia had done the way she had understood in the dream. No one would. Claudia knew that now. Even Claudia no longer understood what she’d done. She’d abandoned Jane and if Jane looked into her eyes, she would know it. Claudia couldn’t bear to face her daughter. She backed away. But Jane’s new family kept coming, swinging forward, swinging forward, fifty feet away.

Mom, where are you going? said Magda. Mom, don’t leave me.

Claudia broke free of Magda’s grasp and ran into the candy store. But there was nowhere to hide, only a few rows of glass dispensers, full of jelly beans and gummies and chocolates. Claudia stuffed herself between the last row of dispensers and the wall. She slid down to a crouch.

Ma’am? said the woman at the register. Claudia ignored her; she crunched herself into a ball. Ma’am? Claudia closed her eyes. She breathed very carefully, trying to understand each distinct molecule entering and leaving her body. The store smelled of sugar, the fake, chemical kind, and Claudia felt sick. She’d walked by this place with Jane in the stroller, smiling at the gluttons in the store, at her own willpower: She didn’t need candy, she was losing this pregnancy weight, she would be skinny again, she would be perfect.

Claudia heard a woman say, Candy time, Janey!

Don’t call her Janey! thought Claudia. Then she heard Jane’s voice, sweet and rich, say, The red ones, Mommy, please, the red ones.

Yes, Claudia wanted to say, yes, of course. You always loved the red ones.

Claudia opened her eyes. Jane stood there, looking at her between the dispensers. Jane looked directly at Claudia, and what Claudia saw in Jane’s eyes was not pain but nothing. Jane did not recognize her. Jane looked at Claudia like she’d never seen her before in her life.

Claudia reached out, between the candy jars, to her daughter.

Jane took a quick step back, knocking into the dispenser behind her, the candies rattling.

Jane, said Claudia. Jane, sweetie. It’s me.

Then the fat mother was there, taking Jane’s hand, jerking her away.

This woman knows my daughter’s name, the fat mother told the lady at the register.

I’m deeply sorry, said the lady at the register. Security is on the way.

Claudia stood up behind the dispenser, but she was not going to come out. She would stay right here, pressed against the wall. Security couldn’t make her leave. Let them try. She looked out into the mall, but Magda was already gone, swept up in the thrum of whistling teenagers. Jane’s mother led Jane from the store to the atrium where the fat man was waiting, arms open, for his little girl. The teenagers parted around this little family. Claudia heard Jane ask, Mommy, what’s wrong with that lady? Claudia leaned in for the answer.

Ben Hoffman

Ben Hoffman

Ben Hoffman’s fiction has won the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award and been named among the Notable/Distinguished Stories of the Year in the Pushcart Prize, Best American Non-Required Reading, and Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy anthologies. He lives in Oakland, California and is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.