Mom always said Daddy was a good man. They got married in the forest, built themselves a home and decided to have a baby. Daddy did a lot of building. He had very strong hands. She said they were beautiful hands, with one big vein that stood out on the back of each one. They were hairy, though. She said Daddy had a lot of hair.
When he died I guess she didn’t know what to do. She loved him a lot, anybody could tell even if just from the way she remembered his details. Her memories painted my portrait of him more than any photograph ever did.
Claud was a different sort of man. The skin was thick on his neck and face, and he shaved it all twice a day to keep the prickles back. He had some white spots on his arms that he always said were from the sun, but I found them one day on the internet and learned they were a type of fungus: a mold, sort of, burrowed under the skin.
His arms were thick, usually crossed. His fingers were rough from dryness and daily use of a keyboard. His mind was sharp, he was good with numbers. An accountant. Loved golfing. I don’t think he ever loved Mom as much as he loved golfing. Then again, I don’t think he ever loved Mom much at all.
He loved me, though.
He told me so often, as he cupped his big hand over my entire shoulder, pressing his fingerpads into my arm. That hand would later cup an entire breast, and the first two fingers would reach all the way up inside me so I could feel them hit my pelvic bone. Then his cock did the same, from behind. It happened in my bedroom every night for years and years. It’s how I knew that sleep would be coming soon along.
Mom forgot a lot of things very often. This was no different. Sometimes I would tell her the truth and she’d be shocked, infuriated. Sometimes she’d try to throw Claud out of the house and he would lock her in the hall closet with a key. I would sit on the carpet by the door and cry when she was in there for a long time. I never tried to ask for the key.
But there were many other days when Mom didn’t remember any of it. She would keep saying, Honey, I don’t understand. Honey, what are you saying? On those days she would tell me that none of it was true. Sometimes when Claud was away she would make a bed for me on the couch and put a hot towel on my forehead. She would sit by my feet and we’d watch Jeapordy or Wheel of Fortune. She never wanted to talk about Claud. I think for her it was easier to just pretend he wasn’t there.
Then one day a man named Alan arrived at our home. Alan was a lawyer, and he said he had come to take me away. He said one of my teachers at school had contacted him on my behalf. He had a kind face. Mom was on her knees and crying and squeezing me tight in the entryway, her hands wrapped around and under my backpack. It held four of my school books and a change of clothes. Alan said they would have the rest of the clothes sent to me. It was best if Mom stayed away for a while, he said, so that I could orient myself.
Alan brought me to a hospital where the doctor’s name was Dr. Lambert. He had glasses and a prickly white beard. His hands were warm. He pressed on my belly, listened to my breathing and shined a light into my eyes and ears. Then he put a mask over my nose and told me I would be very sleepy for a minute. A fog came and left me as I blinked up at the ceiling lights, cold and white. In the hospital almost everything was white.
My room was white, too. With a white bed and a white blanket. There was a little white table and chair and a window very high that let white light in. The door was white as well, and made of metal. It locked from the outside.
Alan the lawyer asked me many questions. He visited me once a day, except for Sundays. On Sundays there was a church service in the brunch room of the hospital, then we would go out to play in the gardens. They were simple gardens with bright green grass and shrubs that were pruned to have a curve. Sometimes there were yellow daffodils.
On the other days we would have school, classes in math and reading, sometimes science. The teachers often changed, as did the students. Some would come and some would go. It was normal. Sometimes we helped the cooks make lunch, at least those of us who were able. Some of the residents were unable to help much, so they stayed mostly in the break room. It had a large window, a record player and some books and toys for children. There were a few round tables, all white. The chairs were white, too.
Mostly Alan came to ask me questions about Claud. Alan was kind, but he didn’t listen well. Many times he asked me what Claud looked like, so I had to repeat his description over and over again. It was not difficult for me to talk about what Claud did at night, or that Mom would often forget all about it. But it made me very sad to talk about Mom. I sometimes asked to see Mom, but Alan said it wasn’t a good idea. He would just nod and write, nod and write and ask more questions.
Dr. Lambert said the same thing when I asked him about my mother later on. I began to see Dr. Lambert more and more after my first two years in the hospital. Like Alan, he asked me questions about Claud – but he was more forceful, his voice was louder, his look was more direct. He would fix my gaze and say, Honey, is that what you remember? I always said yes, because it was the truth. I had no reason to lie.
I was seeing Dr. Lambert twice a week when he told me he wanted me to start taking a small pill every morning. He explained that it was to help me experience my surroundings better. I didn’t understand, as I felt that I experienced my surroundings perfectly well. But still I took it, every morning when the nurse brought it to my door with a paper cup of water. She made sure I took the pill, then she smiled and took back the paper cup. She told me not to worry, that lots of people take pills in the morning. “It’s normal,” she said.
At first the pills had no effect on me. I felt the same as I always had, neither happy nor sad. I went to my classes and daily activities. I contributed. I spoke with Dr. Lambert. Alan almost never came to visit me anymore.
Then I began to notice things, details I hadn’t seen before. The paint was chipped in many places on the hospital walls, and often it was scratched or scuffed. The tables in the break room were sometimes dirty, before the nurse cleaned them with a cloth and some Windex. I always volunteered to help her, because I liked the smell of Windex and the blue splatters on the white tables and scrubbing the dirt away.
I hadn’t seen Alan in three or four months, so one day I asked Dr. Lambert if he was too busy with his cases to come see me anymore. Dr. Lambert said I could
talk to Alan any time I wanted, and to just ask him myself. “Ask away,” he said. He folded his hands and leaned forward, smiling. I suddenly felt very ill, so I asked to go to my room. “Of course,” said Dr. Lambert. “I’ll see you tomorrow, honey.”
I had been in the hospital for two years or more. I had not seen Mom since I arrived, though Claud had visited a time or two. I shuddered to think of them alone together but I knew Claud wouldn’t hurt her like he hurt me. He had told me many times he only wanted me that way, not her. He said it was different with me. Sometimes he put his fingers in my mouth and I tasted myself on them. Sometimes he left the lights on during. Sometimes he turned them off.
Dr. Lambert’s questions came to be more direct. He began saying things like, “I want you to be more specific. I want you to be certain. Tell me more. Describe that again. Tell me more.” He began to repeat himself. He was displeased with my answers. He’d lean in and gaze into my eyes. “You know the truth,” he’d say. “You know.”
One day he told me: “Claud does not exist. Claud never existed. You invented him. I’m sorry if this comes as a shock but deep down I believe you must know this.” Dr. Lambert’s eyes were clear. My stomach ached. “You know this, honey. You do.”
I asked for my mother. He said she couldn’t come. “Claud is real,” I told him. Dr. Lambert disagreed.
In his office I sat in a special chair. A soft plastic clip was placed on each of my pointer fingers, which tightened and vibrated when Dr. Lambert pressed a small control button. He pressed the button every time I said it: “Claud is real.” Buzz. “He exists.” Buzz. It was uncomfortable, but it didn’t hurt. I read the nameplate on the desk: Dr. Alan Lambert. He asked me again and again and again: Who is Claud? Is he real?
“Yes,” I would say. “Claud is my stepfather. He is real.” Buzz. Buzz.
As the months wore on my memories were crumbling, falling from my mind in chips and blocks. I remembered the taste of Claud’s thick fingers in my mouth, pressing down on my tongue, as I remembered biting my own thumb so hard it drew thick bubbles of blood. I remembered being crouched by the closet with Mom locked inside and I remembered being inside the closet without her. I sometimes remembered her screaming and banging, but I wasn’t sure from which side of the door.
Dr. Lambert’s tone had changed. “This memory is falsified,” he would say. “This memory is untrue. This is a projection. This did not happen in physical life.”
All the white was still there on the walls, but now the scratches stood out to me. I knew the patients were disabled, mentally. I knew that I was one of them. I didn’t know what I remembered and what I didn’t, and I was always very tired. I missed my mother very much.
Who is Claud? Is he real?
“Claud is my stepfather.” Buzz. “I… made him up.” A pause.
“Good,” Dr. Lambert said. “Very good, honey. Very good. You’re progressing.”
Claud does not exist. Claud never existed. Claud’s not real. I made Claud up.
That’s good, honey. Great, honey. Good, good, good.
The day finally came when Dr. Adam leaned to me and said the words: “Looks like you have a visitor.” I turned around and there she was, like a ghost or a dream, in a dress and a robelike shawl, hands to her mouth, nervous. She looked at me through downturned eyes, wet with tears.
“Honey,” she breathed, and she opened her arms.
Mom brought me back home in her red station wagon. It had been several years but my bedroom still looked exactly the same. For days we didn’t speak to each other; there was too much and too little to be said. We settled into the house in silence.
It lasted weeks, perhaps, but time had lost meaning anyway.
The little house Daddy had built was chipped with wear and tear, but Mom had kept up good care of it on her own over the years. We spent entire seasons cleaning up the surrounding land and putting up fencing for goats, soft white lady goats for shearing and making wool yarn. Mom taught me to knit hats, then socks the next year, then gloves after that. We planted a vegetable garden and collected mushrooms in the refuse under the dry pine needles of the forest bed, saving them to cook later on.
In the kitchen one night the unspoken monster ripped itself out of me, sudden and ugly. “Was he real, Mom? Did Claud exist?” I felt weak, body heavy and collapsing, mouth wrenched and set in a silent sob from someplace deep down in my gut. She rushed over, embraced me, sat us down together backed up against the kitchen cabinets, humming to me as I cried into her lap, tears pooling on the linolelum. In low tones she told me, “Honey, whatever you remember is real. It’s all real, honey.” She held me that way for a long while, silently, pushing locks of hair back from my face.
Then, as if in a breath, she was gone. She was 47 and it was a Tuesday morning. She refused to wake up for much longer than usual. At first I was awed by her; she had achieved this brilliant, perfect stillness like what the soul longs for in life. I sat on her bed with my hand on her forehead until shadows stole over the room in late evening, as night darkened and bluish light filtered down through the open blinds.
While holding her there in the dark a desperate force suddenly tore through me, like a seizing orgasm of loss and rage, and I clutched tighter the limp head in my arms. How was I supposed to do this? The thought of relocating my mother’s body terrified and overwhelmed me. A wild panic set in, my skin burned hot and I intensely feared my own being. Then suddenly, with a heavy presence, a thick- limbed, light white man occupied the bed beside me. With a large hand he reached out and cupped my kneecap, pressing his fingerpads lightly into my thigh. The other large hand tipped up my chin between thumb and forefinger and Claud murmured into my mouth, “Don’t you worry, honey. I’ll take care of everything now.”