By Lauryn E. Nosek
Lavinia opened the door and got out of the car. She allowed her mother to take her arm and lead her to the house. Her father took her things out of the trunk. He opened the door with the third key on the ring and held the door open for the other two. No one said anything to the others. Lavinia’s small bag was placed beside the door as they encouraged her to look around the house and reacquaint herself with everything.
There were framed photos along the wall leading up the stairs to the second floor bedrooms. Lavinia pointed to a young girl in one of the photos. “Is that me?”
Her mother nodded and smiled broadly towards her husband. He nodded and smiled meekly back. They remained silent.
Lavinia walked closer to the photograph behind the glass, set in the gilded frame. The girl was sitting between her parents at a professional photographer‘s studio, smiling with her hair pulled away from her face. She didn’t even recognize her own picture. Did she really look like that only a few years ago? How much her face had changed during those pivitol years of adolescence. “I don’t remember,” she declared, never taking her eyes from the girl’s face. The smiles disappeared from her parents’ faces but they continued to encourage her. She gauged their reactions from what she could see reflected in the mounted photo.
“It’ll come back to you. It’ll just take some time, but it will all come back,” her father said. It was like an order for her mind. Her mother walked over and placed a hand on her shoulder. Lavinia shrank back from the woman’s touch. The mother’s face couldn’t hide the pain. She quietly excused herself and left the room with tears in her eyes.
Lavinia sighed when she realized it was her fault. “I’m… I’m sorry. I want to remember, but… I don’t know how to make it come back.” Lavinia continued to gaze at the girl.
“I’ll show you to your room,” her father said. He picked up her suitcase and headed up the stairs. He paused and turned back to Lavinia. “She’ll be fine. It’s just been hard on her. That’s all.” He forced a smile and she in turn forced one back. He brought her things the rest of the way up the stairs.
Lavinia followed, keeping her eyes on the young girl’s face until the last possible moment. Her father put the suitcase down beside the bed, neatly made with a flowery comforter and sheets set. “Maybe looking around a bit will help me remember,” she offered. She sat down on the edge of the bed. The room was a cluttered mess.
“Maybe,” he agreed, nodding his head. “I’d, um… I’d better go see how she‘s doing.” He left Lavinia alone in the strange room. She took off her coat and laid it out on the bed. She walked around the room, looked at the books on the shelves, the pictures tacked and taped up on the walls. The calendar next to the bed was seven years old but was open to what must be one of her favorite pictures, a rose garden in full bloom. She flopped down on the bed.
Lavinia heard someone coming up the stairs and sat up, hitting her head on the ceiling where it slanted down. She rubbed her head where the bump would form.
“Watch your head. It wasn’t much of a problem when you were younger,” her mother came in with a photo album and sat down beside Lavinia. She spread the album across both their laps. Lavinia made sure that there was still plenty of space between the two of them. “I thought, that maybe taking a look at some of these would help to jog your memory.” She opened the front cover of the album.
Turning the pages slowly, she pointed out some of the photos a mother held dearest. “There’s one of you helping me bake. I think… those… are cookies. It looks like cookie dough. And that would make those chocolate chips.” Lavinia just sat there staring at the unfamiliar pictures of herself as a young child. The pictures kept coming and still Lavinia couldn’t remember any of them. Not a single birthday, vacation, holiday, or family gathering. The woman sitting next to her didn’t seem to notice that she wasn’t making any connection with her daughter.
“Lucia,” her husband said gently from the doorway where he’d suddenly appeared. Both of them looked up. “Let her rest.” He crossed the room and picked up the photo album. Closing the book gingerly, he put his hand on his wife’s back and gave her a small nudge in the direction of the door. “It can’t be forced. The doctor said… ” he let his sentence trail off rather than become a lecture.
“You’re right,” Lucia said. She was staring off into space, unable to focus, or focusing on something that wasn’t there. “I’m going to bed, James. I… I can’t.” She shook her head in disbelief. She managed to make her way out of the room, grabbing at the doorway and walls to help her on her way.
James closed the door after his wife left the room. Perhaps he needed a quiet moment alone with his daughter.
“She will be okay, won’t she?” the tired girl asked from the bed. She may not have been able to remember her mother, but she understood that it couldn’t be easy on her. To have your own daughter not remember you had to be similar on some level to her own memory loss, to not knowing who she was.
“She’ll be fine. You should get some rest too,” he said staring down at the album cover in his arms and recalling better times. “There’s some clothes in the dresser and closet. The stuff on the right is freshly washed. Toothbrush is in the bathroom up here. Other than that, I don’t know where you put anything.” He had the album tucked under his arm as he headed out of the room.
“Wait,” Lavinia called out, getting up from the bed. “Can… would you leave that here? I’d like to look at it some more on my own. If you don’t mind, of course.”
“Well, sure.” Her father came back and put the photo album on the bed beside her. “I don’t think it’ll hurt for you to look through it.
He made a move closer to her, like he was going to give her a hug but stopped, maybe realizing that it was too soon for her. He ended up simply leaving the room without saying another word.
Lavinia closed the door to be more completely alone. She picked up the album and flipped through it slower this time. She tried to see herself in the pictures. Tried to guess at the kinds of things she had enjoyed. It only took her a few minutes to figure out that something wasn’t right. The photo album was only half filled. There were no pictures from her tenth birthday onward. The pictures just stopped. There were a bunch from her birthday, a few from her first day of school that year and then nothing. The last pages were empty. There were probably other albums with the rest of the pictures.
She got up from the bed and crept to the door of her parents’ bedroom. Gently easing the door open with her foot, she held the album open to the last occupied page. She was about to speak up when she saw the two adults asleep in bed, clearly in another place. Careful to close the door just right, Lavinia hurried back to her own room and shut the door. She put the album on the floor beside the bed and made herself a mental note to ask about it in the morning. Maybe by then she wouldn’t have to ask about it. She might remember on her own where the rest of the albums were.
Yawning, she crossed to the dresser and pulled open the drawers. She pulled out a nightgown from the top drawer and held it up against herself. Covered with frills and lacy ribbons, she could clearly see it would be too small. She balled it up and jammed it back in, mixing up all the neatly folded clothes and rendering what little knowledge her father had given her irrelevant. The next three sets of pajamas were similarly small and childish. Frustrated and tired, Lavinia crawled under the blankets in her clothes.
The smell of bacon woke her up the next morning. Lavinia pushed the blanket away from her and just lay there for a moment. It was an exercise she’d learned in the hospital. Upon waking she would focus and try to remember what her dreams had been about, what they’d involved, to see if she recognized something or someone, just to jog her memory. So far all she was able to remember from her dreams had been bits and flashes. A picture, a sound, an emotion. Pieces of her humanity.
Lavinia had no idea what was memory and what was just her imagination. This particular morning the pieces went by fast and had vanished before she could even try to comprehend them. An ice cream cone. An old car. A radio playing a snippet of a song. The sound of change falling to the ground. And cars going by on a road only upside down. She was once again a girl who couldn’t remember who she was.
A timer went off downstairs. Lavinia blinked and forced herself out of the stupor. She rolled to her left and hit the wall that the bed was up against. She was definitely awake. She rolled back the other way and swung her feet over the correct side of the bed. Lavinia stood up and sat back down as a sharp pain went through her foot. Using both hands to rub the offended limb, she peered over the edge of the bed. The photo album lay open on the floor, the metal teeth of the clasp open like a bear trap. She picked it up snapping its jaws closed and headed downstairs in the direction of the bacon… and eggs, judging from the new aroma mingling with the meat’s hearty scent.
Hissing and popping came from the microwave and stove. Her mother was leaning over the toaster oven in an apron with her hair still dripping from a morning shower. She was noisily scraping butter across burnt toast.
“Why don’t you sit down and I’ll get you a plate in a minute,” her mother said without looking up from the task at hand. “There’s some juice in the fridge and the dishes in the dishwasher are clean.”
Lucia put the buttered toast on a plate and put two more slices of bread in the toaster oven, pushing the button down with her finger as Lavinia put the photo album on the table and crossed the kitchen again to the fridge. Lavinia was a little unsure of herself as she moved about the room. Her mother, who had seemed a little distracted before, was now watching Lavinia’s every move. When she had a glass of juice and was seated at the table, a steaming pile of eggs with several strips of bacon along the side was placed before her.
“Eat up, Nia.”
Lavinia was looking at the photos again. “I, was wondering,” she began. She couldn’t bring herself to call this strange and slightly overbearing woman “Mom” yet. “When I was flipping through the pictures last night,” she began again. “I saw that there weren’t any pictures from… well, taken more recently. Where’s the album that has the pictures from my eighth grade graduation or my Sweet Sixteen? I didn’t want to go poking around last night when you were trying to sleep.”
She began eating, trying to eat casually, but waiting for an answer. She switched from spearing the eggs to nibbling a piece of the dry bacon but her mother never said anything. Maybe the woman hadn’t heard her. “Did… I did say that out loud didn’t I?” Lavinia said, trying not to sound too sarcastic. She wasn’t comfortable with these people yet. She knew that they were her parents; at least, they were the ones who’d been there when she woke up in the hospital.
“I heard you,” Lucia answered coldly. She was putting coffee grounds in the filter paper, filling the coffee pot with water. “I… ” she never finished. She didn’t know how to explain.
Lavinia moved from her bacon to a piece of toast. There was something missing. “Is there any… ”
“Peanut butter,” her mother said quickly with a smile and jumped instantly to the cupboard pulling out a plastic jar with a familiar blue lid.
“Actually,” Lavinia said quietly when the older woman pulled open a drawer and fished out a knife. “I was wondering if you had any cinnamon and sugar?”
The smile was gone. Her arms dropped to her sides with the knife still clenched in her fist. She relaxed a little and put the knife back, letting the drawer slam into place. “No, I’m afraid we don’t have any cinnamon and sugar.” Her mother went back to what she had been doing, trying to keep her hands busy.
The bathroom door creaked open and Lavinia’s father walked into the kitchen with his damp hair combed back and wearing a tidy dress shirt. His fingers were tangled in a dark silk tie.
“James, let me get that for you.” Lucia wiped her hands on her apron and adjusted the necktie so that it sat just right. She whispered something in his ear that made his eyebrows knit together and a scowl appear in his eyes. He clenched his jaw.
Lavinia sensed the change in the room and examined the two adults. She was focusing too hard on people and not enough on food and choked on a piece of bacon. She coughed until she could breathe properly again before she swallowed her entire glass of juice and blinked her eyes to clear away the tears of pain.
“I’m all right,” she insisted, barely getting the words out. “I’m okay.” She looked up but her parents were gone. Lavinia stood up, knocking the photo album off the table. She bent and picked it up, leaving it open to the last photo.
Voices. There were muffled voices coming from somewhere in the house. Lavinia followed the sounds to the bathroom door. She leaned against the washing machine and eavesdropped on her parents.
“What are we going to tell her?”
“Why not just tell her the truth?”
“That’s just like you, James. You don’t think about how much the truth could upset her.”
“Well, she’s old enough to handle this sort of thing, even if she isn’t able to fully understand. Besides, she’s bound to remember something soon anyhow.”
“You know what the doctors and the police said at the time, James.”
“Yes, Luce. They said that even if we got her back, she may not remember us. She may not remember them. They could have brainwashed her. She may not remember a thing. She could already have… repressed it all, depending on what happened. There was no telling what may happen.”
“Would you lower your voice. She’ll hear you.”
“I want her to hear me. Don’t you understand, she isn’t our daughter… anymore. She’s… she’s become someone else.”
“I know… she might just need a push in the right direction. Maybe if we told her that she was kidnapped it will help her to remember.”
Lavinia’s knees dropped out from under her. There was a loud thud from the machine as she bounced off the side. There was one quick step before the bathroom door opened. Her parents frowned down at her. Their faces were a mix of disappointment and suspicion.
She didn’t stick around to see what they would say to her. As soon as she regained her footing, Lavinia ran out of the kitchen and up the stairs. She didn’t know which way to go. She heard them coming and turned the corner. She opened the first door she came across and found a flight of stairs. Not having any other options, she went up. Wrong choice. It was the attic. She should have just gone outside. The furthest corner of the room would have to do.
Crouching beside a card table and an old television, she kept an eye on the stairway, waiting for them to follow her. She’d unconsciously grabbed the photo album on her way out of the room. She looked at the picture of her last birthday at home and took it out of the protective plastic sleeve. She understood why her parents were confused. She felt stupid for believing their lie. She should have been able to see through it. But she just couldn’t understand why she didn’t remember anything, no matter how hard she tried. What had happened to her? She was the only one who knew and she couldn’t tell them anything about what had happened. The only things she knew about the past were what she was told.
Think she urged herself. Remember. She hit herself lightly on the forehead with the album. The photo fell to the dusty floor. Lavinia leaned her head against the drywall. Her parents hadn’t followed her up the stairs. A car door shut outside and an engine started up. When she stood up, hitting her head on yet another slanted ceiling, she looked out the window to find one of the two cars missing from the driveway, the one they’d arrived in the evening before.
Relief at avoiding confrontation just a little longer overwhelmed her. She sat back down and closed her eyes. The rough night came back to her and she drifted off to sleep.
“Come on,” a girl only a little bit younger than herself was saying.
“Where are we going?” Lavinia asked, confused.
“Come on,” the girl repeated.
Lavinia followed the strange girl outside of whatever building they’d been in. The next thing she saw was a gorgeous pond. The sky and the trees reflected perfectly off the water’s surface. There was a rusted out boat that the girl climbed into the front of and pretended to steer.
“Come on, Gwen. Climb in.”
Lavinia did as the girl said and climbed into the back. The exposed wood gave a little as her weight shifted, but she instinctively knew that it would hold her.
“Where are we? What is this place?” Lavinia couldn’t help asking questions. There was an odd familiarity about the place. It was as if she had been there before.
“We’re sailing across the ocean, searching for uncharted territory to explore,” the girl replied. “Wind’s picking up. Adjust the sail.”
A branch, caught in the wind, tapped Lavinia on the shoulder.
Her eyes opened.
“Lavinia,” her mother was shaking her shoulder.
She was back in the attic. The photo album was spread open in her lap. She clutched it tight, her knuckles turning white. Her mother wrenched it gently from her grasp, closed it and put it away in a musty, waterproof box. Lavinia slid her foot to block the photo on the floor from view.
The woman was cold as she descended the stairs. About halfway down she turned back to the young girl crouched in the corner. “Your father has gone into work for a quick meeting. I suggest that you clean your room or go for a walk until he returns. We’ll discuss this… situation, later.”
Lavinia sat for a moment, absorbing and digesting the statement. She heard the television come on two floors below and the voice of an annoying talk show host drifted up the two flights of stairs. She dug the album out of the box her mother had put it in and brought it back to the sanctuary of her bedroom, laying it safely under the bed. She examined the books on the shelves around the room. Picking one up, she flopped down on the bed to read.
Hours later she hadn’t gotten very far. Her mind kept going back to the dream and the unknown girl calling her Gwen. She gave up on the book. For all she knew, she’d already read it ten times. She felt chilly and searched through the closet until she found a sweatshirt that looked warm and climbed into it. Lavinia ran into a problem. The sleeves didn’t reach down her arms the way they should and the mobility of her arms was severely restricted. She was stuck. It was a little too small. She ran from the room to her mother for help. Her hands were beginning to tingle from the restricted blood flow.
As she rushed down the stairs, the television that had been blaring earlier was now turned down to a lower volume and the channel had been changed to the midday news. Lavinia had to turn her whole body to see the living room. Her neck was as restricted as her arms and only part of her head made it out to the rest of the world.
“Help!” she called out pitifully. She had wanted to call out “Mom” but still couldn’t bring herself to actually say it. Lucia’s low-heeled shoes clomped up the basement stairs after a loud thud.
Lavinia had only to wait for help to arrive. As the shoes made their way across the tiled floor of the kitchen and through the small dining room, a headline from the news caught Lavinia’s attention and she turned to catch the tail end of the story.
“Please, if you have any information,” a girl only a year or two younger than herself, was crying in front of a bouquet of media microphones. “All we want is for Gwen to come home.” An older couple with tears in their eyes stood a step behind the girl who was now addressing the press. Each had a hand one of her shoulders and was nodding in silent, grief-filled agreement. The woman had one arm in a sling. The man was on crutches, though considering he was largely hidden by the podium it was difficult to see the full extent of his injuries. Upon closer examination, the girl had a bandage on her forehead and Lavinia was sure that she’d seen the girl before. She looked remarkably like the girl in her dream but it was probably because she saw her on the television at the hospital earlier.
“We want whoever took her to know. . .” The television went blank. Lavinia’s mother was there with the remote control in one hand and a cardboard box containing a frozen pizza in the other.
The instant she saw Lavinia, Lucia’s face took on a wild and amusedly confused look that said, “how did you manage to get stuck like that,” to which Lavinia quickly replied, “It’s too small.” To emphasize the point she flapped her arms the little bit that she could.
“That’ll happen in seven years,” she remarked, setting the pizza and the remote control down. It only took a few seconds of twisting and tugging for the sweatshirt to relinquish its prisoner. Lavinia moved her arms around in a windmill, glad to have her mobility back. “Come and help me make up this pizza. You must be getting hungry.”
For the first time, Lavinia really noticed the older woman’s face. Lines of worry had engraved themselves into the flesh of her forehead. Behind her eyes were years of pain and uncertainty. Her eyes shone with the yearning to have some bit of recognition from the daughter who’d been stolen from her.
Lavinia headed wordlessly towards the kitchen. She would have to put in a little effort. Luckily, the incident with the sweatshirt had broken some of the tension between mother and daughter.
“I guess when we found out that you were coming home,” Lucia started talking as she turned the dial on the oven to preheat it and took out a flat baking sheet. “We should have anticipated that you would have grown a bit in seven years and gotten more clothes. How did you miss the new stuff in the bag beside the desk though?” She spread a sheet of aluminum foil on the tray and placed on it the frozen pizza from the box. Lavinia, having figured out where the dishes and cups were housed during breakfast, set the table and poured soda into glasses filled to the rim with ice cubes.
“Well, last night he said the dresser and closet. He didn’t say anything about a bag on the floor.“ She wasn’t ready to call either of them anything yet but was less ashamed if not less self-conscious about it.
“Whataya say we go shopping after lunch to get you some more clothes that fit.”
Lavinia smiled as she put the soda back into the refrigerator. “If we don’t, these clothes…” she trailed off, pretending to sniff the sleeve. The face made Lucia laugh. It was the first time Lavinia had seen her mother that relaxed. When they’d been with her in the hospital, her mother was so… stiff and had constant streams of tears pouring from her eyes. She couldn’t be the same person before her who was taking the pizza from the oven.
Between bites of pizza, the two made small talk until Lavinia could no longer avoid the topic they had wordlessly agreed not to discuss.
“I know you said we’d talk about it later,” Lavinia began cautiously. Her mother’s jaw slowed its motion as she swallowed, anticipating what would come next. She put down the bit of crust and dusted her fingers off by rubbing them together. She picked up a napkin and dabbed at the grease on the tips of her manicured nails. Lavinia moved on when her mother finally looked up and confronted her, eye to eye. “Could you tell me what you meant earlier… I mean… the whole… kidnapping thing.” Nervousness set in and she laughed adding, “I didn’t manage to eavesdrop on the whole conversation and was wondering if you would fill in some of the gaps.”
Lucia smiled; a forced grin was really what it was. “You were in the fourth grade and since you’d just turned ten, you wanted to show us you could walk home from school on your own. I had a doctor’s appointment that afternoon and pushed your father into letting you do it, to save me the trip. We gave you a key and dropped you off at school. I came home and you weren’t here.” Tears had once again won out and spilled over onto Lucia’s cheeks, dragging her mascara along for the ride. “I got back into the car and drove up and down the street for an hour before I called your father and the police.” The napkin was twisted in her hands, a wrinkled mess. Even the birds outside had ceased chirping as they listened intently to the confession. “We did it all you know. Those fliers in the mail, the evening news. There were search parties and… those dogs. All they found was one of your shoes. Soon the leads had all been looked into and the police stopped calling with updates. Then, about a week ago, one of the detectives called. He said that he wanted us to meet him at the station in the city, that they may have found something and needed to see us in person. We couldn’t leave fast enough. We got in the car and started driving. On the highway we saw you wandering in the break down lane and pulled over.”
Lavinia sat listening to the narrative, afraid to move a muscle in the event that it would shatter the woman’s concentration. Lucia was staring out the French doors, or was she seeing something on the glass? It was giving Lavinia the creeps, the intensity of her mother’s stare. She wasn’t even blinking.
“When we realized that it was you, we couldn’t believe it. A miracle. I’m not even sure the detective really called. I’m convinced it was a sign from God. He knew you were going to be there and led us to you. We took you to the hospital, for your injuries. But then, you remember that,” she said, coming out of her meditative state.
Lavinia nodded. “Thanks,” she replied tentatively, biting into a piece of now cold pizza. But, apparently, Lucia was through.
“I blamed myself. I knew you were too young and I let you do it anyhow. Because it would’ve been too much of a hassle to pick you up early and bring you with me. It’s why I wouldn’t let go when they all told me to. But we proved them wrong, didn’t we Nia.”
Lavinia did her best to suppress the slight sense of uneasiness as she cleared the plates. “Yup, we sure showed them.”
Draining the ice from the bottom of the glass, her mother got up and, acting as though she hadn’t said anything, suggested, “Why don’t you go put your shoes on and meet me at the car so we can go shopping.”
Relieved, Lavinia hurried off to find the shoes.
The blow-up that Lavinia expected when her father came home from work that afternoon never happened. If anything, he seemed relieved that it had all been discussed without him. At dinner he explained. “You understand why we didn’t tell you… ” he said at the dining room table. “We never expected your memory to be gone for this long. It’s like the doctors said, it’ll come back in time. I guess part of me doesn’t want you to remember. I’d rather have you start over with us than have you remember something painful.”
“James,” Lucia interjected. He stopped his speech and put a forkful of food in his mouth to prevent any other words from slipping out. His wife turned off her evil-eye stare and pivoted her head to face her daughter. “He didn’t mean that. We want your memory to come back because it is the best way to put this whole thing in the past where it belongs.” She faced her husband again adding, “Besides, I want the bastards who did this to rot in prison on their way to Hell.”
Now it was his turn to glare but instead he just sighed and briefly closed his eyes. His clean knife punctuated his words as he said to Lavinia, “We’re just happy to have you home, Nia. That’s the important thing.” His eyes never left his wife’s face.
Lavinia was embarrassed and scared simultaneously. When they’d fought earlier they’d at least had the decency to leave the room. With the two adults locked in a staring contest, Lavinia found it hard to look away. Putting the saltshaker back she knocked over her glass of water.
A flurry of napkins mopped up the mess. Though the argument was over, a curtain of tension hung between the couple. Wife cleared the dishes while Husband retreated to the living room and the evening news. Lavinia got up, picked up a dishrag and waited by the sink.
Lucia glanced at her daughter standing there with the cloth in her waiting hands. The woman’s eyebrows raised as she rinsed a dish. Holding the dripping plate over the sink, with the other hand Lucia pulled up on the handle of the dishwasher. The door swung down like a drawbridge and a rack rolled out on little wheels. Imitating Vanna White, she demonstrated wordlessly how to place a dish in the rack. Lavinia gently lobbed the dishrag at the counter and nodded. “I feel stupid,” she said smiling and blushing.
“You probably just forgot,” Lucia added making herself sound foolish. Of course Lavinia had forgotten. But still, she remembered seeing the dishwasher earlier that day. She hadn’t thought about drying the dishes. It seemed like she’d done it out of… habit.
She walked to the bathroom. Closing the door, she leaned against the towel rack. She strained to catch hold of a memory. Only flashes came. The clinking noise the plates made as they were put into a sink full of water. A girl complaining, “But it’s Gwen’s turn to wash.” Her own voice, “No, I did it yesterday. It’s my day to dry.” Fighting over the cheerfully drab dishcloth. An older woman’s frustrated voice, “Anna you wash, Gwendolyn you dry. And if you keep fighting over this… you’ll both wash. Every day.” The sink filled with soapsuds.
A knock came from the other side of the door. “Nia, are you all right in there?”
Lavinia jumped and flushed the toilet. She heard her mother’s footsteps walking away. After turning on the faucet for a moment she opened the door and left. She didn’t look up as she made a beeline for her bedroom. She didn’t want to think anymore, she didn’t want to remember. She just wanted to be doing something. She looked around the room, discovering the hiding places of her lost youth and the treasures they held. There was an old diary on a board under her bed. Clippings from magazines in a drawer. Things from when she’d been a Girl Scout and the years she’d taken ballet lessons. Looking around she began to hum to herself in an absentminded manner.
Behind a cardboard box in her closet she found an old sewing kit with some pillowcases, the printed flowers half embroidered with a needle and thread still attached. Cardboard cards with the colorful thread wrapped round them overflowed the case. Lavinia took the unfinished pillowcase out of the plastic container and ran her finger over the loose stitches. Her finger was stuck by the protruding needle, but not enough to draw blood. There was a small pair of stainless steel scissors, the style that fold up on themselves.
Lavinia picked up a few of the cards of embroidery floss. She gathered up the loose ends from the cards and unwound the thread until it stretched out before her, the same length as her arm. She unfolded the clumsy scissors and cut the threads. She found safety pins in one of the tiny compartments near the spools of finer threads and the buttons. Folding the embroidery floss in half and tying a loop knot, she threaded the loop onto a safety pin.
Sitting cross-legged on the bedroom floor, Lavinia began tying knots in the thread. Her hands flew and a pattern began to form from the tiny knots. She continued to hum as she worked. When her neck began to ache she moved up onto the bed. With on foot propped up on the other knee, she worked fastidiously.
A polite knock on the door wasn’t quite enough to break Lavinia’s trance. Her father came into the room and watched her at work for a minute or so before commenting. “What’s that you’re making?”
Without looking up from her work she replied, “A friendship bracelet. Like the one I bought on vacation last summer.” Her humming never ceased and words soon made their way into the tune.
“What vacation? And what is that you’re humming?” He sat on the edge of the bed directly in her line of vision. In doing so, he gained Lavinia’s full attention and awareness. She sat up and hit her head on the ceiling, again. Rubbing the fresh bump on her forehead, she stared at him for a moment, but it wasn’t who she expected to see. She remembered going on vacation with her mother, father, and sister. She remembered going into the little shop and seeing a complex friendship bracelet. There were two. She and Anna had each gotten one. She remembered them, but he wasn’t anywhere in the picture.
Her father was staring at her waiting for her to answer him. He got tired of waiting and said, “The last summer vacation we went on was when you were a toddler. Where did you hear that music? What… have you started to remember…” He appeared frustrated. It didn’t make sense. He pleaded for answers from her with a hurt look on his face. She didn’t know what to tell him.
“The music, it’s from a band we went to see in New York.” She then arrived at the first logical conclusion. “The people who… who took me. It must have been with them.”
The pained look on her father’s face dissipated a little, but there was still a line of tension in his jaw, like he was clenching his teeth. He had to leave the room to escape from her prying eyes. She knew it was because he didn’t want her to see how much she’d hurt him.
But it was too late. She unpinned the bracelet, pricking the skin on her thumb again, deeply this time. A drop of blood squeezed through the tiny hole and soaked into the half-finished bracelet. She threw the pile of thread across the room.
Alone, Lavinia collapsed against the pillows on the bed. She sighed deeply and blinked back tears of frustration. It was a wasted effort as the salty streams broke new ground on her feverish cheeks. Counting to ten didn’t work either; the sobs came anyway. The only thing that helped was rolling on her stomach and punching the pillow. She was too afraid to let out a muffled scream. Her energy quickly fizzled and the pain returned to her head, radiating from where she’d bumped it, several times now.
A cold clammy hand reached up to feel her forehead. Exhausted, she gave up. She couldn’t think or try to remember anymore. It was only making things worse. She may not remember her parents but she didn’t want to hurt them with these absurd recollections.
Lavinia decided to begin afresh. She wouldn’t mention anything else that came back to her from now on. Nothing. She’d learn how to be their little girl again. She was determined.
The pain in her head grew worse and worse, blocking out all other thoughts. The light of the lamp was like a flood light pointing directly into her eyes. She closed them and rubbed the lids with her palms. Finally, she slept with her arm thrown over her eyes, blocking out the world.
Lavinia dreamt. She saw the same girl in this dream as before, the one called Anna. “Hurry up, Gwen. We’re always waiting for you,” the girl said. She slammed the door to a bedroom, her room. Her favorite posters were on the walls, her clothes hung in the closet. A duffel bag lay open on the bed. She shoved the sweater she was holding on top of the pile that was already packed. She grabbed the closest book off the shelf and her mp3 player and hoped it was charged. “Gwendolyn, get down here. Everyone’s ready,” a female voice shrieked. “I’m coming!!” she shouted back. As she went down the stairs she let the duffel bag drop heavily on each and every step.
“Drop the attitude, Gwen. You’ve done it to yourself. You alone control how long you take to get ready. Betsy, are you sure you locked the house?” a man said as he picked up the bag and hurled it into the empty space in the trunk of the car. The lecture didn’t cease as they piled into the car and clicked their seat belts into place. It was the same lecture she’d heard a thousand times before. She mouthed the words she knew he was saying as she plugged her ears with her headphones and turned up the volume on the mp3 player; just loud enough so she couldn’t make out what he was saying, but quiet enough to know he was still talking and when a response was required.
She stared out of the window as the car moved from main streets to the small highway. Lost in the hypnotic rhythm of the music and gazing at the guardrail, she faintly heard the squeal of the tires and felt the jerk of the seat belt as it held her fast to her seat. Rolling, rolling, the guardrail and the road were upside-down and visible through a veil of trees. Broken glass from the window cut at her face before falling to the ceiling like ice chips. Anna was moaning to her left and bled heavily from her head where the window had left a deep gash. Her mother was passed out in the front seat, cut up, bleeding and with her arm bent at an awkward angle. Her father was lost in a cloud of deployed airbag.
Unbuckling the seat belt, she fell to the ceiling, or was it the ground? She was dizzy and disoriented, but managed to force the door open and crawled out onto a muddy patch next to a tree. She mumbled something about getting help before stumbling up the incline back towards the road. There hadn’t been very many cars on the highway that early in the morning. She tried to call out to anybody going by but couldn’t even remember where she was.
Just ahead of her, a car pulled off to the side and barely managed to come to a full stop before a woman leapt from the passenger side door. “Lavinia!” the woman cried, rushing to her side. “I knew we’d find you. Oh my God, you’re hurt. James, we have to take her to the hospital, quick! Come on Nia, get in the car.” She was too disoriented to resist. The back door of the car opened and the woman tried to ease her onto the seat. Suddenly, she came alive. The trance she’d been under was gone. “You’re not my mother!” she shouted. She threw her arms up and tried to hit and kick the woman but was forced into the car all the same. She screamed and struggled in vain. No one came to her aid.
A hand shook her awake. Gwen screamed and backed away from the woman who’d abducted her. “Lavinia, what’s wrong? Is it a nightmare? Did you see the people who took you? Who are they? I promise you, we’ll find them.”
Gwen shook her head and backed away on the bed but came up against the wall. The low ceiling brushed the hair on the top of her head. “You took me. You… kidnapped me,” she muttered repeatedly.
The look on the woman’s face was some combination of confusion, shock, and fear, the look a mother would have if her child had smacked her across the face. But Gwen didn’t care about this woman any longer. “Lavinia, what are you talking about? We didn’t…”
“My name is Gwen. Gwendolyn… not Lavinia. I’m not your daughter!” She made a leap off the bed past her kidnapper and landed on her knees. Ignoring the sudden, sharp pain in her legs, she crawled to the stairs and scrambled down.
“Nia? What… Where are you going? You are our daughter. Come back here. Nia!”
It took only a moment to get herself down the stairs, but Gwen was already outside and sprinting down the street. Where had everyone gone? It was the middle of the day. There was a blue sedan moving down the street when she turned.
Gwen ran up to the driver’s window and pounded on the glass. The man driving stopped and rolled the window down. He put his arm up and leaned out to see what the terrified teenager wanted. She gasped for breath and grabbed the man’s arm, wrinkling his suit. She couldn’t get the words out now that she had someone’s attention.
“Lavinia,” Lucia cried, no longer trying to comprehend the situation. She approached the car with her eyes on the girl. “This is absurd. Get back in the house.” A smile spread across her face when she saw the man in the car. “Nia, let Detective Johnson pull into the driveway. You’re blocking the street.”
Gwen’s words came back to her all at once. She held on to his arm tighter and was so desperate she pulled it out of the window up to his shoulder. “You’ve got to help me. She’s not my mother. They kidnapped me. The… the people on the evening news; they’re my family. Not these people. I’m not their daughter. Help me, please.”
The detective looked at Lucia smiling down at him, nodded and returned the smile before reaching over and giving Gwen’s hand a squeeze. Gwen looked into his eyes as they turned back to her and knew she was safe. This man would be able to handle Lucia’s irrational and erratic behavior. She let go of his arm and stood back from the car. As she walked into the driveway she made sure she kept the car and Detective Johnson between her and Lucia.
The detective stepped out of the car and shook hands with Lucia. “I was looking forward to seeing you at our headquarters in the city,” he started, fishing for Lucia’s explanation of the circumstances.
“I just knew you would come here to check up on Lavinia. As you can see she’s coming along. When we first picked her up she couldn’t remember a thing.” Lucia spoke with the detective as she took his arm and led him into the house.
Gwen stared after them as Lucia opened the door. Detective Johnson gave her a little nod and beckoned Gwen to follow them inside. It took all that was in her to go back in that house, but she trusted the detective. He was the only one she had to rely on.
Inside Lucia was already making jokes about doughnuts and brewing a fresh pot of coffee for the detective who was seated at the kitchen table, fingering a thick folder he’d carried in with him. Gwen sat beside the detective, and as far away from Lucia as possible. By now Gwen knew only that Lucia was delusional if not completely crazy and she feared what the unstable woman might do. The detective looked strong and Gwen knew that he could overpower Lucia, if it came to that.
“I know we should have brought her to your headquarters when we picked her up, but she was hurt so we took her straight to the hospital. After that I didn’t see the point of turning around again and driving all the way back to the city. Besides, the doctors said she had amnesia and when we realized that meant she couldn’t tell us anything about the people who took her… It just seemed pointless. But she’s started remembering things now, about the people who took her that is. I meant to give you a call, later this evening,” Lucia poured coffee into three mugs and handed one to each of them. The detective gulped his down in a few seconds.
“Do you mind if I use the restroom before we get started?“ he asked getting up, his hand slipping down to the cell phone clipped to his black leather belt.
“Of course. It’s right through the hall over there.” Lucia pointed then went back to quietly sipping from her own steaming mug. She made a displeased face and reached for the sugar bowl. “Lavinia, what’s the matter? Is your coffee bitter too? Add a little sugar and drink your coffee before it gets cold.”
Gwen was lost in the absence of the detective. She took the mug and blew on it before setting it down again, untouched. The smell made her want to vomit. She focused on the folder beside her on the table. She looked closely at the handwritten name on the cover. Sherman, Lavinia Helen. A red stamped CLOSED slanted across the name.
“Nia, don’t look at things that don’t belong to you,” Lucia snapped at Gwen. “And for Pete’s sake, drink your coffee. It’s hazelnut, your favorite flavor. I’m sorry if it’s a little on the strong side but cream and sugar should fix that.”
Gwen heard the creaking of the bathroom door. “I don’t drink coffee. I can’t stand coffee.”
“Now Nia, don’t be silly. Even when you were little you drank coffee. When you were young you used to sneak sips from our mugs when we weren’t looking. We gave you your own little cup for Christmas when you were five. We’d given up trying to get you to stop and settled for giving you decaf. I can’t believe you don’t remember.”
Detective Johnson had sat back down. “Mrs. Sherman, who do you think this girl is?”
Lucia looked at the detective with an expression that screamed “Where have you been?”
“This is Lavinia. She’s been found after seven years.” There was no doubt left in their minds. Lucia truly believed that Gwen was Lavinia.
The detective opened the folder and took out the pile of papers. “Mrs. Sherman,” Johnson began slowly. “My call, last week… we found something about Lavinia. It’s why we wanted you and your husband to come down to the station. By the way, where is your husband?”
Lucia had put her mug down and was running her finger around the rim. “James went to the store to pick up some milk. He should be back any minute. Wait, I don’t understand. Lavinia is doing fine. She’s right here. Do you want to interview her about the people who took her? Nia tell Detective Johnson about what you’ve remembered so far. If you want me to leave the room, I will, though I don’t think it’s necessary. I’ll try my best to keep from commenting until you’re done.”
Gwen looked desperately at the detective. She hoped it would start going better real soon. She wanted to get home. Now that she remembered who she was and where she belonged, Gwen wanted to get back. She wanted to apologize for everything from having acted like a brat to letting herself get kidnapped so easily and actively trying to become someone else. She knew most of her guilt was unreasonable and tried to redirect it towards the woman sitting on the other side of the table.
“Well, actually… I think that there’s been a mistake. You see, we wanted you two to come down to the station because… we received a report about some, remains, found by a hiker about two weeks ago. The only way we were able to identify the remains was by going through the open case data bases for the surrounding area from the past decade.”
The detective paused and looked down at his cell phone, vibrating quietly on his belt. He flipped it open, pushed a few buttons and snapped it shut. Lucia still hadn’t grasped what he was trying to tell her. He went on. “Mrs. Sherman, I didn’t want to tell you over the phone that we’d found your daughter’s remains but since you didn’t show up at the station for our appointment, I was sent out to tell you. I’m sorry that it took so long to find her, but whoever took her… kept her alive for at least a year. The body was too… far gone, to be able to tell much but we don‘t believe that she was tortured. There were things done… to the body, but they appear to all have been done post-mortem. She didn’t suffer… At least, not as much as…”
He was beginning to fumble for words and kept looking out the window to the street in front of the house. He took the papers and held them out to Lucia. “It’s all here in the Medical Examiner’s report, if you wish to see it.” Of all the identification calls he’d had to do, this one took the cake. He’d seen people in shock but never anything like this.
Lucia took the papers from him and began to look them over. Her expression never changed.
“I’m not sure you want to look at those pictures, Mrs. Sherman,” Johnson warned when she arrived at the small stack of crime scene photos near the bottom of the pile. He couldn’t believe that he’d left them in the folder. One hand reached out in an attempt to retrieve them but she brushed his hand away.
Lucia plowed through the photos with determination. Gwen saw the look on the woman’s face as she examined the pictures. She felt sorry for this pitiful woman but wouldn’t let herself forget what her own mother must have been going through the last few days. She sat at the table waiting. She didn’t know what for anymore; she just wanted to go home.
Lucia finished with the papers and put them down on the table with a sense of finality. “Those aren’t pictures of my daughter,” she stated defiantly, as she stood up and walked around the table. She put her hands on Gwen’s shoulders. “This is my daughter. This is my Lavinia. Those are some other girl. My daughter is not a corpse. Her hands are right here,” she moved her hands down Gwen’s arms and held them up for the detective to see, like she was manipulating the arms of a large doll. “They’re right where they belong.”
Gwen’s eyes pleaded for Johnson to stop what was happening but he seemed too shocked to do anything. Gwen felt abandoned by the detective. She closed her eyes and thought about her family, savoring each memory of them that she had worked so hard to get back. It would all be over soon. She’d be home soon. A tear escaped from one of Gwen’s clenched eyes. Then Lucia put an arm abound Gwen’s shoulders and pulled her close. “My daughter is not dead,” she said again firmly. “She’s right here.”
Johnson leaned on his elbows and pulled the papers back into a pile. He found the one he was looking for and handed it to Lucia.
“Mrs. Sherman,” he said quietly, calmly, composed. “I understand that this is difficult to accept, but we used your daughter’s old dental records.” He had to make her see what she had done. But he had to be gentle with it. The slightest thing could send the woman further over the edge. He had his eyes on the girl’s, trying to reassure her. She wouldn’t look at him so he turned to the grieving mother. “These match the teeth from the remains we found two weeks ago. The girl we found is Lavinia.”
“No,” Lucia said, constricting Gwen as a python would a mouse. “This is Lavinia.”
Gwen heard a few car doors slam outside and footsteps rushing towards the house. “Ma’am,” Johnson began. “This is not your daughter. I’m afraid I must ask you to let the girl go. The house is surrounded. Please, let her go. No one wants to hurt you. We’ll work something out, but first you have to let her go.”
Gwen saw her parents standing in the front yard next to one of the recently arrived police vehicle and she fought the urge to call out to her mother. Lucia didn’t let go of Gwen but turned to look her in the eyes.
“Nia,” the woman pleaded. “What are you doing? You’re my daughter. You’re Lavinia.”
More cops had shown up and were holding her parents back. Detective Johnson pulled a walkie-talkie from the concealment of his suit coat and ordered the others to back off for a few more minutes.
Gwen looked the woman in the eyes. A wave of pity washed over her. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. She wasn’t sure that she could do it. The woman’s hopes and dreams, everything she lived for and fought for over the last seven years rested in Lavinia. Gwen felt that she was the only one who Lucia would listen to. “I’m not your daughter.” Tears streamed silently down Lucia’s cheeks but her heart continued to hope even if her mind was wrestling to reestablish the truth she’d built up in the last few days. “My name is Gwendolyn West. I’m sorry about Lavinia, but please… let me go.”
Lucia broke down sobbing and clutched at Gwen. She kept saying her daughter’s name, over and over between sobs. Gwendolyn put her arms around the woman and just let her cry.
~ ~ ~
The police officers led Mrs. Sherman out to the waiting cruisers. She was subdued and most of her tears had dried up. All that remained was the blank and indifferent look on her face as one of the officers forced her head down to enter the back seat of the car.
Gwen stood encircled by her parents and younger sister, all shedding tears of relief. She’d tried to get the police to leave Lucia and James alone but Detective Johnson explained that there was nothing they could do.
“You can always say something at the trial or try talking to the D.A. It couldn’t hurt.” He smiled and went on to talk to her parents. Gwen found it hard to deal with knowing she’d been the one to break the string that had held the poor woman’s hopes. She had plenty of obstacles ahead of her though, now that she was back where she belonged.
Her family piled into a car and drove off. Down the street a news van had pulled over off to the side, reporting the good news live across the state, maybe even to the country.
Another car pulled onto the street and into the driveway. The police had handcuffs on him before James Sherman had stepped out of the car. Two gallons of milk and a box of cereal were left behind in a paper bag on the back seat. The police led him to a different cruiser while reading him his rights.
Detective Johnson sat shotgun as they pulled away from the unusually active house. He turned to his detainee and asked, “Why’d you do it? You had to know she wasn’t your kid.”
Sherman looked the detective straight in the eye and replied, “I just couldn’t do that to my wife. She’s been through too much.”
As they turned the corner onto the main road, the driver turned on the lights but left the sirens off and headed to the station.