I didn’t feel particularly brave as I approached my father in the Chapel that night. I saw my role as reconnaissance: I was there to relay information, to tell Dad that Shawn had threatened Audrey, because Dad would know what to do.
Or perhaps I was calm because I was not there, not really. Maybe I was across an ocean, on another continent, reading Hume under a stone archway. Maybe I was racing through King’s College, the Discourse on Inequality tucked under my arm.
“Dad, I need to tell you something.”
I said that Shawn had made a joke about shooting Audrey, and that I thought it was because Audrey had confronted him about his behavior. Dad stared at me, and the skin where his lips had been tightened. He shouted for Mother and she appeared. Her mood was somber; I couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t look me in the eye.
“What exactly are you saying?” Dad said.
From that moment it was an interrogation. Every time I suggested that Shawn was violent or manipulative in any way, Dad shouted at me: “Where’s your proof? Do you have proof?”
“I have journals,” I said.
“Get them, I’m going to read them.”
“I don’t have them with me.” This was a lie; they were under my bed.
“What the hell am I supposed to think if you ain’t got proof?” Dad was still shouting. Mother sat on the sofa’s edge, her mouth open in a slant. She looked in agony.
“You don’t need proof,” I said quietly. “You’ve seen it. You’ve both seen it.”
Dad said I wouldn’t be happy until Shawn was rotting in prison, that I’d come back from Cambridge just to raise hell. I said I didn’t want Shawn in prison but that some type of intervention was needed. I turned to Mother, waiting for her to add her voice to mine, but she was silent. Her eyes were fixed on the floor as if Dad and I were not there.
There was a moment when I realized she would not speak, that she would sit there and say nothing, that I was alone. I tried to calm Dad but my voice trembled, cracked. Then I was wailing—sobs erupted from somewhere, some part of me I had not felt in years, that I had forgotten existed. I thought I might vomit.
I ran to the bathroom. I was shaking from my feet to my fingers.
I had to strangle the sobs quickly—Dad would never take me seriously if I couldn’t—so I stopped the bawling using the old methods: staring my face down in the mirror and scolding it for every tear. It was such a familiar process, that in doing it I shattered the illusion I’d been building so carefully for the past year. The fake past, the fake future, both gone.
I stared at the reflection. The mirror was mesmeric, with its triple panels trimmed with false oak. It was the same mirror I’d gazed into as a child, then as a girl, then as a youth, half woman, half girl. Behind me was the same toilet Shawn had put my head in, holding me there until I confessed I was a whore.
I had often locked myself in this bathroom after Shawn let me go. I would move the panels until they showed my face three times, then I would glare at each one, contemplating what Shawn had said and what he had made me say, until it all began to feel true instead of just something I had said to make the pain stop. And here I was still, and here was the mirror. The same face, repeated in the same three panels.
Except it wasn’t. This face was older, and floating above a soft cashmere sweater. But Dr. Kerry was right: it wasn’t the clothes that made this face, this woman, different. It was something behind her eyes, something in the set of her jaw—a hope or belief or conviction—that a life is not a thing unalterable. I don’t have a word for what it was I saw, but I suppose it was something like faith.
I had regained a fragile sense of calm, and I left the bathroom carrying that calmness delicately, as if it were a china plate balancing on my head. I walked slowly down the hall, taking small, even steps.
“I’m going to bed,” I said when I’d made it to the Chapel. “We’ll talk about this tomorrow.”
Dad was at his desk, holding a phone in his left hand. “We’ll talk about it now,” he said. “I told Shawn what you said. He is coming.”
I CONSIDERED MAKING A run for it. Could I get to my car before Shawn made it to the house? Where were the keys? I need my laptop, I thought, with my research. Leave it, the girl from the mirror said.
Dad told me to sit and I did. I don’t know how long I waited, paralyzed with indecision, but I was still wondering if there was time to escape when the French doors opened and Shawn walked in. Suddenly the vast room felt tiny. I looked at my hands. I couldn’t raise my eyes.
I heard footsteps. Shawn had crossed the room and was now sitting next to me on the sofa. He waited for me to look at him, and when I didn’t he reached out and took my hand. Gently, as if he were unfolding the petals of a rose, he peeled open my fingers and dropped something into them. I felt the cold of the blade before I saw it, and sensed the blood even before I glimpsed the red streak staining my palm.
The knife was small, only five or six inches long and very thin. The blade glowed crimson. I rubbed my thumb and index finger together, then brought them to my nose and inhaled. Metallic. It was definitely blood. Not mine—he’d merely handed me the knife—but whose?
“If you’re smart, Siddle Lister,” Shawn said, “you’ll use this on yourself. Because it will be better than what I’ll do to you if you don’t.”
“That’s uncalled for,” Mother said.
I gaped at Mother, then at Shawn. I must have seemed like an idiot to them, but I couldn’t grasp what was happening well enough to respond to it. I half-wondered if I should return to the bathroom and climb through the mirror, then send out the other girl, the one who was sixteen. She could handle this, I thought. She would not be afraid, like I was. She would not be hurt, like I was. She was a thing of stone, with no fleshy tenderness. I did not yet understand that it was this fact of being tender—of having lived some years of a life that allowed tenderness—that would, finally, save me.
I stared at the blade. Dad began a lecture, pausing often so Mother could ratify his remarks. I heard voices, among them my own, chanting harmonies in an ancient hall. I heard laughter, the slosh of wine being poured from a bottle, the tinkle of butter knives tapping porcelain. I heard little of my father’s speech, but I remember exactly, as if it were happening now, being transported over an ocean and back through three sunsets, to the night I had sung with my friends in the chamber choir. I must have fallen asleep, I thought. Too much wine. Too much Christmas turkey.
Having decided I was dreaming, I did what one does in dreams: I tried to understand and use the rules of this queer reality. I reasoned with the strange shadows impersonating my family, and when reasoning failed, I lied. The impostors had bent reality. Now it was my turn. I told Shawn I hadn’t said anything to Dad. I said things like “I don’t know how Dad got that idea” and “Dad must have misheard me,” hoping that if I rejected their percipience, they would simply dissipate. An hour later, when the four of us were still seated on the sofas, I finally came to terms with their physical persistence. They were here, and so was I.
The blood on my hands had dried. The knife lay on the carpet, forgotten by everyone except me. I tried not to stare at it. Whose was the blood? I studied my brother. He had not cut himself.
Dad had begun a new lecture, and this time I was present enough to hear it. He explained that little girls need to be instructed in how to behave appropriately around men, so as not to be too inviting. He’d noticed indecent habits in my sister’s daughters, the oldest of whom was six. Shawn was calm. He had been worn down by the sheer duration of Dad’s droning. More than that, he felt protected, justified, so that when the lecture finally ended he said to me, “I don’t know what you said to Dad tonight, but I can tell just by looking at you that I’ve hurt you. And I’m sorry.”
We hugged. We laughed like we always did after a fight. I smiled at him like I’d always done, like she would have. But she wasn’t there, and the smile was a fake.
I WENT TO MY ROOM and shut the door, quietly sliding the bolt, and called Drew. I was nearly incoherent with panic but eventually he understood. He said I should leave, right now, and he’d meet me halfway. I can’t, I said. At this moment things are calm. If I try to run off in the middle of the night, I don’t know what will happen.
I went to bed but not to sleep. I waited until six in the morning, then I found Mother in the kitchen. I’d borrowed the car I was driving from Drew, so I told Mother something had come up unexpectedly, that Drew needed his car in Salt Lake. I said I’d be back in a day or two.
A few minutes later I was driving down the hill. The highway was in sight when I saw something and stopped. It was the trailer where Shawn lived with Emily and Peter. A few feet from the trailer, near the door, the snow was stained with blood. Something had died there.
From Mother I would later learn it was Diego, a German shepherd Shawn had purchased a few years before. The dog had been a pet, much beloved by Peter. After Dad had called, Shawn had stepped outside and slashed the dog to death, while his young son, only feet away, listened to the dog scream. Mother said the execution had nothing to do with me, that it had to be done because Diego was killing Luke’s chickens. It was a coincidence, she said.
I wanted to believe her but didn’t. Diego had been killing Luke’s chickens for more than a year. Besides, Diego was a purebred. Shawn had paid five hundred dollars for him. He could have been sold.
But the real reason I didn’t believe her was the knife. I’d seen my father and brothers put down dozens of dogs over the years—strays mostly, that wouldn’t stay out of the chicken coop. I’d never seen anyone use a knife on a dog. We shot them, in the head or the heart, so it was quick. But Shawn chose a knife, and a knife whose blade was barely bigger than his thumb. It was the knife you’d choose to experience a slaughter, to feel the blood running down your hand the moment the heart stopped beating. It wasn’t the knife of a farmer, or even of a butcher. It was a knife of rage.
I DON’T KNOW WHAT happened in the days that followed. Even now, as I scrutinize the components of the confrontation—the threat, the denial, the lecture, the apology—it is difficult to relate them. When I considered it weeks later, it seemed I had made a thousand mistakes, driven a thousand knives into the heart of my own family. Only later did it occur to me that whatever damage was done that night might not have been done solely by me. And it was more than a year before I understood what should have been immediately apparent: that my mother had not confronted my father, and my father had not confronted Shawn. Dad had never promised to help me and Audrey. Mother had lied.
Now, when I reflect on my mother’s words, remembering the way they appeared as if by magic on the screen, one detail stands above the rest: that Mother described my father as bipolar. It was the exact disorder that I myself suspected. It was my word, not hers. Then I wonder if perhaps my mother, who had always reflected so perfectly the will of my father, had that night merely been reflecting mine.
No, I tell myself. They were her words. But hers or not, those words, which had so comforted and healed me, were hollow. I don’t believe they were faithless, but sincerity failed to give them substance, and they were swept away by other, stronger currents.