I got the call in the middle of the week, when I came wheezing home from my uphill late-afternoon run. I didn’t recognize the voice on my computer’s answer-phone at first, although I thought it sounded like my best friend, Denise. There was no video feed, only the recording, and the words were so improbable they only confused me more: “Sean’s gone. Come up here and get Neecy. Take her. I can’t stand to look at her.”
Her words rolled like scattered marbles in my head.
I had just talked to Denise a week before, when she called from Chicago to tell me her family might be coming to San Francisco to visit me that winter, when Neecy was out of school for Christmas vacation.
We giggled on the phone as if we were planning a sleepover, the way we used to when we were kids. Denise’s daughter, Neecy, is my godchild. I hadn’t seen her since she was two, which was a raging shame and hard for me to believe when I counted back the years in my mind, but it was true. I’d always made excuses, saying I had too much traveling and too many demands as a documentary film producer, where life is always projected two and three years into the future, leaving little space for here and now.
But that wasn’t the reason I hadn’t seen my godchild in four years. We both knew why.
I played the message again, listening for cadences and tones that would remind me of Denise, and it was like standing on the curb watching someone I knew get hit by a car. Something had stripped Denise’s voice bare. So that meant her husband, Sean, must really be gone, I realized. And Denise wanted to send her daughter away.
“I can’t stand to look at her,” the voice on the message was saying again.
I went to my kitchen sink, in the direct path of the biting breeze from my half-open window, and I was shaking. My mind had frozen shut, sealing my thoughts out of reach. I turned on the faucet and listened to the water pummel my aluminum basin, then I captured some of the lukewarm stream in my palms to splash my face. As the water dripped from my chin, I cupped my hands again and drank, and I could taste the traces of salty perspiration I’d rubbed from my skin, tasting myself. My anger and sadness were tugging on my stomach. I stood at that window and cursed as if what I was feeling had a shape and was standing in the room with me.
I think I’d started to believe I might have been wrong about the whole thing. That was another reason I’d kept some distance from Denise; I hadn’t wanted to be there to poke holes in what she was trying to do, to cast doubts with the slightest glance. That’s something only a mother or a lifelong friend can do, and I might as well have been both to Denise despite our identical ages. I’d thought maybe if I only left her alone, she could build everything she wanted inside that Victorian brownstone in Lincoln Park. The husband, the child, all of it. Her life could trot on happily ever after, just the way she’d planned.
But that’s a lie, too. I’d always known I was right. I had been dreading that call all along, since the beginning. And once it finally came, I wondered what the hell had taken so long. You know how Denise’s voice really sounded on my answering machine that day? As if she’d wrapped herself up in that recorder and died.
“Paige, promise me you’ll look out for Neecy, hear?” Mama used to tell me. I couldn’t have known then what a burden that would be, having to watch over someone. But I took my role seriously. Mama said Neecy needed me, so I was going to be her guardian. Just a tiny little bit, I couldn’t completely be a kid after that.
Mama never said exactly why my new best friend at Mae Jemison Elementary School needed guarding, but she didn’t have to. I had my own eyes. Even when Neecy didn’t say anything, I noticed the bruises on her forearms and calves, and even on Neecy’s mother’s neck once, which was the real shocker. I recognized the sweet, sharp smell on Neecy’s mother’s breath when I walked to Neecy’s house after school. Her mother smiled at me so sweetly, just like that white lady Mrs. Brady on reruns of The Brady Bunch my mother made me watch, because she used to watch it when she was my age and she thought it was more appropriate than the “trash” on the children’s channels when I was a kid. That smile wasn’t a real smile; it was a smile to hide behind.
I knew things Mama didn’t know, in fact. When Neecy and I were nine, we already had secrets that made us feel much older; and not in the way that most kids want to feel older, but in the uninvited way that only made us want to sit by ourselves in the playground watching the other children play, since we were no longer quite in touch with our spirit of running and jumping. The biggest secret, the worst, was about Neecy’s Uncle Lonnie, who was twenty-two, and what he had forced Neecy to do with him all summer during the times her parents weren’t home. Neecy finally had to see a doctor because the itching got so bad. She’d been bleeding from itching between her legs, she’d confided to me. This secret filled me with such horror that I later developed a dread of my own period because I associated the blood with Neecy’s itching. Even though the doctor asked Neecy all sorts of questions about how she could have such a condition, which had a name Neecy never uttered out loud, Neecy’s mother never asked at all.
So, yes, I understood why Neecy needed looking after. No one else was doing it.
What I didn’t understand, as a child, was how Neecy could say she hated her father for hitting her and her mother, but then she’d be so sad during the months when he left, always wondering when he would decide to come home. And how Neecy could be so much smarter than I was—the best reader, speller, and multiplier in the entire fourth grade—and still manage to get so many F’s because she just wouldn’t sit still and do her homework. And the thing that puzzled me most of all was why, as cute as Neecy was, she seemed to be ashamed to show her face to anyone unless she was going to bed with a boy, which was the only time she ever seemed to think she was beautiful. She had to go to the doctor to get abortion pills three times before she graduated from high school.
Maybe it was the secret-sharing, the telling, that kept our friendship so solid, so fervent. Besides, despite everything, there were times I thought Neecy was the only girl my age who had any sense, who enjoyed reciting poems and acting out scenes as much as I did. Neecy never did join the drama club like I did, claiming she was too shy, but we spent hours writing and performing plays of our own behind my closed bedroom door, exercises we treated with so much imagination and studiousness that no one would ever guess we were our only audience.
“I wish I had a house like yours,” Neecy used to say, trying on my clothes while she stood admiring herself in my closet mirror, my twin.
By fall, the clothes would be hers, because in the summer Mama always packed my clothes for Neecy in a bundle. For my other little girl, she’d say. And beforehand Neecy would constantly warn me, “Don’t you mess up that dress,” or “Be careful before you rip that!” because she already felt proprietary.
“Oh, my house isn’t so special,” I used to tell Neecy. But that was the biggest lie of all.
In the years afterward, as Neecy dragged a parade of crises to my doorstep, like a cat with writhing rodents in her teeth—men, money, jobs; everything was a problem for Neecy—I often asked myself what forces had separated us so young, dictating that I had grown up in my house and Neecy had grown up in the other. She’d lived right across the street from my family, but our lives may as well have been separated by the Red Sea.
Was it only an accident that my own father never hit me, never stayed away from home for even a night, and almost never came from work without hugging me and telling me I was his Smart Little Baby-Doll?
And that Mama never would have tolerated any other kind of man? Was it pure accident that I’d had no Uncle Lonnie to make me itch until I bled with a disease the doctor had said little girls shouldn’t have?
“Girl, you’re so lucky,” Neecy told me once when I was in college and she’d already been working for three years as a clerk at the U Save Drugstore. She’d sworn she wasn’t interested in college, but at that instant her tone had been so rueful, so envy-soaked, that we could have been children again, writing fantastic scripts for ourselves about encounters with TV stars and space aliens behind my closed bedroom door, both of us trying to forget what was waiting for Neecy at home. “In my next life, I’m coming back you for sure.”
If only Neecy had been my real-life sister, not just a pretend one, I always thought. If only things had been different for her from the time she was born.
I called Denise a half hour after I got her message. She sounded a little better, but not much. Whether it was because she’d gathered some composure or swallowed a shot or two of liquor, this time her voice was the one I’ve always known: hanging low, always threatening to melt into a defeated laugh. She kept her face screen black, refusing to let me see her. “It’s all a mess. This place looks like it was robbed,” she said. “He took everything. His suits. His music. His favorite books, you know, those Russian writers, Dostoyevsky and Nabokov, or whatever-the-fuck? Only reason I know he was ever here is because of the hairs in the bathroom sink. He shaved first. He stood in there looking at his sorry face in the mirror after he’d loaded it all up, and he . . . ” For the first time, her voice cracked. “He left . . . me. And her. He left.”
I couldn’t say anything against Sean. What did she expect? The poor man had tried, but from the time they met, it had all been as arranged as a royal Chinese marriage. How could anyone live in that house and breathe under the weight of Denise’s expectations? Since I couldn’t invent any condolences, I didn’t say anything.
“You need to take Neecy.” Denise filled the silence.
Hearing her say it so coldly, my words roiled beneath my tongue, constricting my throat. I could barely sound civil. “The first time you told me about doing this . . . I said to think about what it would mean. That it couldn’t be undone. Didn’t I, Neecy?”
“Don’t call me Neecy.” Her words were icy, bitter. “Don’t you know better?”
“What happens now? She’s your daughter, and she’s only six. Think of—”
“Just come get her. If not, I don’t . . . I don’t know what I’ll do.”
Then she hung up on me, leaving my melodramatic imagination to wonder what she’d meant by that remark, if she was just feeling desperate or if she was holding a butcher knife or a gun in her hand when she said it. Maybe that was why she’d blacked herself out, I thought.
I was crying like a six-year-old myself while my cab sped toward the airport. I saw the driver’s wondering eyes gaze at me occasionally in his rearview mirror, and I couldn’t tell if he was sympathetic or just annoyed. I booked myself on an eight-forty flight with a seat in first class on one of the S-grade planes that could get me there in forty minutes. Airbuses, I call them. At least in first class I’d have time for a glass or two of wine. I convinced the woman at the ticket counter to give me the coach price because, for the first time in all my years of flying, I lied and said I was going to a funeral. My sister’s, I told her, tears still smarting on my face.
If you could even call that a lie.
Three more months, just ninety days, and it never would have happened. If Denise had waited only a few months, if she’d thought it through the way I begged her when she first laid out the details of her plan, the procedure would not have been legal. The Supreme Court’s decision came down before little Neecy was even born, after only a couple hundred volunteers paid the astronomical fee to take part in the copycat babies program. To this day, I still have no idea where Denise got the money. She never told me, and I got tired of asking.
But she got it somehow, somewhere, along with two hundred thirty others. There were a few outright nutcases, of course, lobbying to try to use DNA samples to bring back Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King; I never thought that would prove anything except that those men were only human and could be as unremarkable as the rest of us. But mostly the applicants were just families with something left undone, I suppose. Even though I never agreed with Denise’s reasons, at least I had some idea of what she hoped to accomplish. The others, I wasn’t sure. Was it pure vanity? Novelty? Nostalgia? I still don’t understand.
In the end, I’m not sure how many copycat babies were born. I read somewhere that some of the mothers honored the Supreme Court’s ban and were persuaded to abort. Of course, they might have been coerced or paid off by one of the extremist groups terrified of a crop of so-called “soulless” children. But none of that would have swayed Denise, anyway. For all I know, little Neecy might have been the very last one born.
It was three months too late, but I was moved by the understated eloquence of the high court’s decision when it was announced on the News & Justice satellite: Granted, what some might call a “soul” is merely an individual’s biological imprint, every bit as accidental as it is unique. In the course of accident, we are all born once, and we die but once. And no matter how ambiguous the relationship between science and chance, humankind cannot assign itself to the task of re-creating souls.
I’m not even sure I believe in souls, not really. But I wished I’d had those words for Denise when it still mattered.
She actually had the whole thing charted out. We were having lunch at a Loop pizzeria the day Denise told me what she wanted to do. She spread out a group of elaborate charts; one was marked HOME, one FATHER, one SCHOOL, all in her too-neat artist’s script. The whole time she showed me, her hands were shaking as if they were trying to fly away from her. I’d never seen anyone shake like that until then, watching Denise’s fingers bounce like rubber with so much excitement and fervor. The shaking scared me more than her plans and charts.
“Neecy, please wait,” I told her.
“If I wait, I might change my mind,” Denise said, as if this were a logical argument for going forward rather than just the opposite. She still hadn’t learned that doubt was a signal to stop and think, not to plow ahead with her eyes covered, bracing for a crash.
But that was just Denise. That’s just the way she is. Maybe that’s who she is.
Denise’s living room was so pristine when I arrived, it was hard to believe it had witnessed a trauma. I noticed the empty shelves on the music rack and the spaces where two picture frames had been removed from their hooks on the wall; but the wooden floors gleamed, the walls were scrubbed white, and I could smell fresh lilac that might be artificial or real, couldn’t tell which. Denise’s house reminded me of the sitting room of the bed and breakfast I stayed in overnight during my last trip to London, simultaneously welcoming and wholly artificial. A perfect movie set, hurriedly dusted and freshened as soon as visitors were gone.
Denise looked like a vagrant in her own home. As soon as I got there, I knew why she hadn’t wanted me to see her on the phone; she was half dressed in a torn T-shirt, her hair wasn’t combed, and the skin beneath her eyes looked so discolored that I had to wonder, for a moment, if Sean might have been hitting her. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d been in an abusive relationship. But then I stared into the deep mud of my friend’s irises before she shuffled away from me, and I knew better. No, she wasn’t being beaten; she wouldn’t have tolerated that with Neecy in the house. Instead, my friend was probably having a nervous breakdown.
“Did he say why he left?” I asked gently, stalling. I didn’t see little Neecy anywhere, and I didn’t want to ask about her yet. I wished I didn’t have to see her at all.
Answering with a grunt rather than spoken words, Denise flung her arm toward the polished rosewood dining room table. There, I saw a single piece of paper laid in the center, a typewritten note. As sterile as everything else. In the shining wood, I could also see my own reflection standing over it.
“Haven’t you read it?” I asked her.
“Neecy’s in the back,” Denise said, as if in response.
“Shhh. Just a second. Let’s at least read what the man said.” My heart had just somersaulted, and then I knew how much I didn’t want to be there at all. I didn’t want to think about that child. I picked a random point midway through the note and began reading aloud in the tone I might have used for a eulogy: “. . . You squeeze so hard, it chokes me. You’re looking for more than a father for her, more than a home. It isn’t natural, between you and her—”
“Stop it,” Denise hissed. She sank down to the sofa, tunneling beneath a blanket and pulling it up to her chin.
I sighed. I could have written that note myself. Poor Sean. I walked to the sofa and sat beside my friend. My hand felt leaden as I rested it on the blanket where I believed Denise’s shoulder must be. “So you two fought about it. You never told me that,” I said.
“There’s a lot I didn’t tell you,” Denise said, and I felt her shivering beneath the blanket. “He didn’t understand. Never. I thought he’d come around. I thought—”
“You could change him?”
“Shut up,” Denise said, sounding more weary than angry.
Yes, I felt weary, too. I’d had this conversation with Denise, or similar ones, countless times before. Denise had met Sean through a video personal on the Internet where all she said was, “I want a good husband and father. Let’s make a home.” Sean was a nice enough guy, but I had known their marriage was based more on practical considerations than commitment. They both wanted a family. They both had pieces missing and were tired of failing. Neither of them had learned, after two divorces, that people can’t be applied to wounds like gauze.
And, of course, then there was little Neecy. What was the poor guy supposed to do?
“She’s in her room. I already packed her things. Please take her, Paige. Take her.” Denise was whimpering by now.
I brushed a dead-looking clump of hair from Denise’s face. Denise’s eyes, those unseeing eyes, would be impossible to reach. But I tried anyway, in hopes of saving all of us. “This is crazy. Take her where? What am I going to do with a kid?”
Okay, Mama. I will.
“You promised. At the church. At the christening. You’re her godmother. If anything happened to me, you said you would.”
I thought of the beautiful baby girl, a goddess dressed in white, her soft black curls crowned with lace—gurgling, happy, and agreeable despite the tedium of the long ceremony. Holding her child, Denise had been glowing in a way she had not at her wedding, as if she’d just discovered her entire reason for living.
Tears found my eyes for the first time since I’d arrived. “Denise, what’s this going to mean to her?”
“I don’t know. I don’t . . . care,” Denise said, her voice shattered until she sounded like a mute struggling to form words. “Look at me. I can’t stand to be near her. I vomit every time I look at her. It’s all ruined. Everything. Oh, God—” She nearly sobbed, but there was only silence from her open mouth. “I can’t. Not again. No more. Take her, Paige.”
I saw a movement in my peripheral vision, and I glanced toward the hallway in time to see a shadow disappear from the wall. My God, I realized, the kid must have been standing where she could hear every hurtful word. I knew I had to get Neecy out of the house, at least for now. Denise was right. She was not fit, at this moment, to be a mother. Anything was better than leaving Neecy here, even getting her to a hotel. Maybe just for a day or two.
I couldn’t take care of both of them now. I had to choose the child.
“Neecy?” The bedroom door was open only a crack, and I pressed my palm against it to nudge it open. “Sweetheart, are you in here?”
What struck me first was the books. Shelves filled with the colorful spines of children’s books reached the ceiling of the crowded room, so high that even an adult would need a stepladder. Every other space was occupied by so many toys—costumed dolls, clowns, stuffed animals—that I thought of the time my parents took me to F.A.O. Schwarz when I was a kid, the way every square foot was filled with a different kind of magic.
The bed was piled high with dresses. There must have been dozens of them, many of them formal, old-fashioned tea dresses. They were the kind of dresses mothers hated to wear when they were young, and yet love to adorn their little girls with; made of stiff, uncomfortable fabrics and bright, precious colors. Somewhere beneath that heaping pile of clothes, I saw a suitcase yawning open, struggling uselessly to swallow them all.
The closet. I heard a sound from the closet, a child’s wet sniffle.
Neecy, why are you in the closet? Did your daddy beat you again?
She was there, inside a closet stripped of everything except a few wire hangers swinging lazily from the rack above her head. I couldn’t help it; my face fell slack when I saw her. I felt as if my veins had been drained of blood, flushed with ice water instead.
Over the years, I’d talked to little Neecy on the telephone at least once a month, whenever I called Denise. I was her godmother, after all.
Neecy was old enough now that she usually answered the phone, and she chatted obligingly about school and her piano, acting and computer lessons, before saying, Want to talk to Mommy? And the child always sounded so prim, so full of private-school self-assuredness, free of any traces of Denise’s hushed, halting—the word, really, was fearful—way of speaking. It wasn’t so strange on the phone, with the image so blurry on the face screen. Not at all.
But being here, seeing her in person, was something else.
Neecy’s hair was parted into two neat, shiny pigtails that coiled around the back of her neck, her nose had a tiny bulb at the end, and her molasses-brown eyes were set apart just like I remembered them. If the girl had been grinning instead of crying right now, she would look exactly as she’d looked in the photograph someone had taken of us at my sixth birthday party, the one where Mama hired a clown to do magic tricks and pull cards out of thin air, and we’d both believed the magic was real.
Denise was in the closet. She was six years old again, reborn.
I’d known what to expect the whole time, but I couldn’t have been prepared for how it would feel to see her again. I hadn’t known how the years would melt from my mind like vapors, how it would fill my stomach with stones to end up staring at my childhood’s biggest heartache eye-to-eye.
Somehow, I found a voice in my dry, burning throat. “Hey, sweetie. It’s Aunt Paige. From California.”
“What’s wrong with my mommy?” A brave whisper.
“She’s just very upset right now, Neecy.” Saying the name, my veins thrilled again.
“Where’d Daddy go?”
I knelt so that I could literally stare her in the eye, and I was reminded of how, twenty-five years ago, Neecy’s eyelids always puffed when she cried, narrowing her eyes into slits. China-girl, I used to tease her to try to make her laugh. Here was my China-girl.
I clasped the child’s tiny, damp hands; the mere act of touching her caused the skin on my arms to harden into gooseflesh. “I’m not sure where your daddy is, sweetie. He’ll come back.”
Hey, Neecy, don’t cry. He’ll come back.
Staring into Neecy’s anguish, for the first time, I understood everything.
I understood what a glistening opportunity had stirred Denise’s soul when she’d realized her salvation had arrived courtesy of science: a legal procedure to extract a nucleus from a single cell, implant it into an egg, and enable her to give new birth to any living person who consented—even to herself. She could take an inventory of everything that had gone wrong, systematically fix it all, and see what would blossom this time. See what might have been.
And now, gazing into Neecy’s eyes—the same eyes, except younger, not worn to sludge like the Neecy quivering under a blanket in the living room—I understood why Denise was possibly insane by now. She’d probably been insane longer than I wanted to admit.
“Listen,” I said. “Your mom told me to take you to get some pizza. And then she wants us to go to my hotel for a couple of days, until she feels better.”
“Will she be okay?” Neecy asked. Her teary eyes were sharp and focused.
Yes, I realized, it was these tears ripping Denise’s psyche to shreds. This was what Denise could not bear to look at, what was making her physically ill. She was not ready to watch her child, herself, taken apart hurt by hurt. Again.
Neecy was dressed in a lemon-colored party dress as if it were her birthday, or Easter Sunday. Did Denise dress her like this every day? Did she wake Neecy up in the mornings and smile on herself while she reclaimed that piece, too? Of course. Oh, yes, she did. Suddenly, I swooned. I felt myself sway with a near-religious euphoria, my spirit filling up with something I couldn’t name. I only kept my balance by clinging to the puffed shoulders of the child’s taffeta dress, as if I’d made a clumsy attempt to hug her.
“Neecy? It’s all right this time,” I heard myself tell her in a breathless whisper. “I promise I’ll watch out for you. Just like I said. It’s all right now, Neecy. Okay? I promise.”
I clasped my best friend’s hand, rubbing her small knuckles back and forth beneath my chin like a salve. With my hand squeezing her thumb, I could feel the lively, pulsing throbbing of Neecy’s other heart.
2000 by Tananarive Due.
Originally published in DARK MATTER,
edited by Sheree R. Thomas.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
Art © 2014 Elizabeth Leggett.
Publisher’s note: The original illustration for this story depicted a Caucasian girl, whereas the author intended the characters to be African-American. The image has since been revised to better reflect the author’s intentions. We have apologized to the author and deeply appreciate her bringing the matter to our attention.