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Little Broken Things
Author: Nicole Baart

For Eve



Broken things are loveliest

—Sara Teasdale



THE LITTLE GIRL’S HAIR is fine as cornsilk. It pours through the scissors like water and spills to the floor, a waterfall of white.

“Beautiful,” I breathe, squeezing her narrow shoulders with hands that tremble. My voice wavers, too, and I swallow hard. Not now. “You look like Tinker Bell.”

“I don’t want to look like Tinker Bell.” One small hand reaches up and up, searching for the fountain of curls that cascaded down her back only moments before. Now ringlets frame her ears, perfect curlicues that tickle the nape of her neck and flirt with the greening Hello Kitty earrings she’s been wearing day and night for at least a month.

The earrings will have to go. And the telltale glimmer of her almost silvery-blond hair.

“Look what I have,” I say, trying to distract her. Circling her tiny waist with my hands, I spin her on the kitchen stool so that we’re nearly nose-to-nose. I press a quick, awkward kiss to her damp forehead, sweaty from the game of hide-and-seek I used to set the stage for all that is to come. Children are not my specialty, but somewhere along the way I learned that they’re just like adults in one regard: they purr when petted just so. It feels wrong to use kindness as a tool, but I’m doing what I have to. “It’s a surprise.”

“What?” A thin eyebrow quirks knowingly, skeptically. The girl is only six, but she’s an old soul. A single word can flip the tables. Make me feel as if we’ve switched places and I’m the child, the kindergartener before me a grown woman. So much wiser than I was at six and sixteen and twenty-six.

“You have to pick.” The boxes are on the counter and I grab them quickly, one for each hand, and hold them behind my back. “Chocolate mousse or ginger twist?”

The girl’s nose crinkles, confused. “We already had ice cream,” she says. “Cookie dough.”

Of course she’s bewildered. There isn’t often ice cream in the freezer. Or bread in the pantry, or milk in the fridge for that matter. And now: Chocolate? Ginger? After ice cream and hide-and-seek and undivided attention? It’s as magical and mystifying as the haircut, the flaxen curls that tumbled in lacy patterns across the dirty linoleum floor. We’ve slipped into a fairy tale, but she has yet to realize that we’re stumbling down a thorny path, lost in a dark and wicked wood.

“Chocolate mousse?” I press, because fear is creeping in. I’m going numb and will soon be paralyzed, incapable of doing what I have to do. The list of my weaknesses is long and varied, but none so great as my tendency for inertia. At the moments I most need to go, I find myself crippled and terrified. Trapped. That isn’t an option now.

“Ginger twist,” the girl says. To be contrary.

“Good choice,” I force myself to say. “I always wanted to be a redhead.”

Another nose wrinkle, but I can’t explain. She wouldn’t understand anyway. I just yank the tab on the box and fish around for the clear plastic gloves that wait inside. There is also a disposable cape and I sweep it around her with what I hope is a flourish. I’m starting to quiver, my entire body seizing as if I’m on the verge of hypothermia. Never mind it’s August and there is a thin bead of sweat slipping down my spine. “You’ll look just like Annie.”

“I thought I looked like Tinker Bell.” There is a hitch in her voice now, a dark shadow on the horizon that forecasts tears.

No. If she cries it’s over. I won’t be able to follow through. “We’re going to play a game.” I sound insistent, maybe even desperate.

“I don’t want to play a game.”

“It’ll be fun, I promise.” I squeeze the dye into the little black bowl and add the developer. The odor of ammonia rises in the kitchen, the tang of chemicals and cat urine reminiscent of things I’ve worked hard to forget. It’s a trigger I wasn’t expecting, so overwhelming I have to grip the edge of the counter, squeeze my eyes shut against the mushroom cloud of emotions that turns my heart toxic. “You love games.”

“I said, I don’t want to play a game.” The girl slides off the stool with a grunt, but I whip around and catch her under the arms before she can get too far.

“Sit still, damn it!” Shouting at her won’t help matters at all, but I’ve never been very good at keeping my temper. I thrust her back onto the stool. Feel guilty that I don’t feel guilty about it. “I told you to sit still.”

“No, you didn’t.” But it’s nothing more than a whisper.

Vaseline would stop her delicate hairline from flushing with the hint of an angry rash, but there isn’t time for that. Or for waiting the full twenty minutes for the color to develop. And when I push her small head down beneath the stream of cold water gushing from the rusty faucet in the kitchen sink, I only allow myself a teaspoon of remorse. We don’t have a choice. I can’t let myself forget that. Not even for a second.

“There you go,” I say, after it’s all over. I towel her cherry-colored curls with more force than necessary, ignoring the dye that bleeds onto the white towel and ruins it. “I don’t even recognize you.”

Of course, I do. There is nothing that can be done for her eyes, stone-colored and distinctive simply because they are every color and no color at all. They’re eyes that require a second glance: creamy smooth as a latte when she’s calm, dark as a thunderstorm when she’s upset. Grayish now, and sad, but as I watch, her eyes seem to change. It’s the hair color. It has to be. Her gaze is suddenly unfamiliar beneath the fringe of red. A bright, suspicious green that is so shocking it turns the kitchen cold.

“I love you,” I say abruptly, surprising myself. It’s not something I say. Not often. And certainly not with the depth of emotion behind it that I feel in this moment.

I reach out tentatively and take a single coil of her bright hair between my thumb and forefinger. It’s the only way I dare to touch her. I long to pull her into my arms and never let go, to press her against me and run. “You’re my brave girl,” I tell her.

It’s the closest I come to saying goodbye.



Day 1


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