“Never really did, no. Justice is a faulty thing at the best of times, and it doesn’t actually fix anything.”
“Would you say that if you’d gotten justice as a child?”
That not-quite-smile, bitter and gone too fast. “And what would I have needed justice for?”
“My life’s work, and you think I won’t recognize a broken child when she sits in front of me?”
She inclines her head to concede the point, then bites her lip and winces. “Not entirely accurate. Let’s call me a shadow child, overlooked rather than broken. I’m the teddy bear gathering dust bunnies under the bed, not the one-legged soldier.”
He smiles slightly and sips his rapidly cooling coffee. She’s back to dancing. However disconcerting Eddison might find it, Victor’s on familiar ground. “In what way?”
Sometimes you can look at a wedding and realize with a certain sense of resignation that any children produced in that marriage will inevitably be fucked up and fucked over. It’s a fact, not a sense of foreboding so much as a grim acceptance that these two people should not—but definitely will—reproduce.
Like my parents.
My mother was twenty-two when she married my father; he was her third marriage. The first was when she was seventeen and married the brother of her mother’s then-current husband. He died in less than a year from a heart attack during sex. He left her pretty well off, so a few months later, she married a man only fifteen years older than her, and when they divorced a year later, she came off even a little better. Then came my dad, and if he hadn’t knocked her up, I doubt the wedding would have happened. He was good-looking, but he wasn’t wealthy and he didn’t have prospects and he was only two years older, which to my mother was an insurmountable series of obstacles.
For that we can thank her mother, who had nine husbands before early menopause made her decide she was too dried up to remarry. And every single one of them died, each faster than the one before. No foul play about it, either. Just . . . died. Most of them were ancient, of course, and all of them left her with a tidy sum of money, but my mother was raised with certain expectations and her third husband met none of them.
I will say this for them, though: they gave it a try. For the first couple of years we lived near his family and there were cousins and aunts and uncles and I can almost remember playing with other children. Then we moved, and the ties were cut from one end or the other, and it was just me and my parents and their various affairs. They were always either visiting their latest lovers or holing up in their bedrooms, so I became a pretty self-sufficient kid. I learned how to use the microwave, I memorized the bus schedule so I could get to the grocery store, I staked out the days of the week when either of my parents were likely to have cash in their wallets so I could actually buy things at the market.
And you’d think that would look strange, right? But whenever anyone at the store asked—a concerned woman, a cashier—I’d say my mom was out in the car with the baby, keeping the air running. Even in winter they believed that, and they’d smile and tell me what a wonderful daughter and sister I was.
So not only was I self-sufficient, I came to have a pretty low opinion of most people’s intelligence.
I was six when they decided to give marriage counseling a go. Not a try, a go. Someone at my dad’s office told him insurance would cover counseling, and counseling looked better with a judge and helped speed up a divorce. One of the things the counselor told them to do was take a family trip, just the three of us, somewhere fun and special. A theme park maybe.
We got to the park around ten, and for the first couple of hours things went okay. Then the carousel. I fucking hate carousels. My dad stood at the exit to wait for me to come off, my mom stood at the entrance to help me get on, and they just stood there on opposite sides of the thing and watched me go round and round in circles. I was too small to reach for the iron rings and the horse I was on was so wide it made my hips hurt, but round and round and round I went, and I watched my father walk away with a petite Latina. Another time around and I saw my mother leave with a tall, laughing ginger in a Utilikilt.
A nice older kid helped me down off the horse after he lifted his little sister down, and held my hand as we walked to the exit. I wanted to stay with that family, to be the little sister of someone who went on rides with you and held your hand while walking, someone who smiled down and asked if you had fun. But we got outside the carousel and I thanked him, waving at a woman paying attention to nothing but her cell phone so the boy thought I’d found my mom, and I watched him and his sister walk back to parents who were delighted to see them.
I spent the rest of the day wandering around the park, trying not to get noticed by security, but sunset came and the park closed and I still hadn’t found either of my parents. Security noticed and hauled me off to the Hall of Shame. Well, they called it the Lost Parents Place. They cycled a list of calls over the PA system, asking parents missing their children to come claim them. There were others there, too, other kids who’d been forgotten or just wandered away or had been hiding.
Then I heard one of the adults mention child services. Specifically she mentioned calling child services for anyone who wasn’t claimed before ten o’clock. My next-door neighbors were a foster home and the thought of living with people like them was horrific. Fortunately, one of the younger kids pissed himself and sent up such a squall that all the adults started fussing over him, trying to calm him, and I managed to sneak out the door and back into the park.
It took some searching, but I finally found the main gate and got out without being seen, attaching myself to the rear of a school group that had gotten stuck for a while on one of the rides, and out into the parking lot. From there it took over an hour for me to walk through all the parking lots to a gas station that was still brightly lit for all the folks heading home. I still had most of the snack money my dad had shoved in my pocket before the carousel so I called their cell phones, and then I called the house phone, and then because I couldn’t think of anything else to do, I called my next-door neighbor.
It was almost ten o’clock at night, but he hopped in the car and drove two hours to come pick me up, and another two hours home, and there were no lights on at all in my house.
“Was this the neighbor who was a foster father?” Victor asks when she pauses to lick her chapped lips. He reaches for the empty bottle of water and holds it up toward the one-way mirror, not putting it down until one of the techs says Eddison is on his way.
“But he got you safely home, so why was the thought of living with him so horrific?”
“When we pulled up in front of his house, he told me I needed to thank him for the ride by licking his lollipop.”
The plastic bottle shrieks a protest as it crumples in his fist. “Christ.”
“When he pulled my head toward his lap, I stuck a finger down my throat, and made myself throw up all over him. Made sure to hit the horn, too, so his wife would come out.” She opens another sugar packet and tips half of it into her mouth. “He got arrested for molestation a month or so later, and she moved away.”