By the time you reach Holtsburg, where your wrong family is waiting for you, you don’t speak at all.
“Oh,” says your wrong mother after the weeping and the embracing, when she realizes. She glances over your head at her husband, a ruddy-faced man wearing a Rolex. Her hand flits up to the slender crucifix around her neck. “They didn’t say anything about…”
“Don’t shoot the messenger,” says their adoption consultant with a rueful smile. She claps you on the shoulder like a school principal. “It’s a new development. Jasy speaks English fine. She’ll come out of her shell when she finds out she doesn’t have to share a room anymore.”
She pronounces your name wrong every time. Jazzy, a spangled honeybee.
Your wrong mother has prepared refreshments on the patio. The porch is splayed open and the bare lawn shimmers like the air above a steam iron. You pick at your oatmeal cookies and sink further into silence, consumed with the task of keeping your elbows off the immaculate tablecloth. You have a Pepto-pink knapsack tucked between your ankles and a teddy bear with fur like coconut confectionary. Your wrong family’s French bulldog snuffles at it hopefully.
You know it doesn’t matter how happy your wrong parents are now. Their glee is a swarm of locusts, effusive and ravenous—you shiver when you see the way they look at you—but it won’t keep you from being sent back into what the older kids call the orphan pipeline, or worse, if what happened at the facility in Miami happens here.
You should tell them. You should make them cover all the photographs.
• • •
Holtsburg’s primary exports consist of turducken and novelty soaps. Farm fowl squawk and waddle in the pens all day and the stench of lye curls sinuously through the streets all night. There are more Thanksgiving decorations than residents know what to do with and fewer grocery stores than anyone needs. It hosts the Midwest’s largest soap-carving contest in July, on the two days a year when no sports (well, none of the sports that matter) grace the television.
Holtsburg’s primary import is children.
They come from Miami and Los Angeles and New York, from Seoul and Guatemala City and Kyiv, from the wildfire wastes and the delta cities crumbling into the sea, a backwash of the doe-eyed dispossessed. Holtsburg is a drainage sink: by some quirk of geography, its airport is convenient to all the nation’s major pipelines for child processing, and the town is far enough from all borders to be what the government calls an ideal placement, permanent if necessary.
They are orphans because and so long as it is convenient for the law to say so. In the meantime, their parents fade away like water spilled onto desert sand.
• • •
When your wrong mother leads you upstairs by the hand, you’re amazed to see a hallway full of open doors. Sunlight bursts into the corridor, splitting the carpet like cell bars. You want to ask why they have so many bedrooms but you find that your voice still sticks. The older woman seems to guess, though, by your saucer-plate eyes.
“We’ll see,” she whispers with a wink. “We’re coming late to adoption, I know, but our neighbor Marjorie said for her it was like—betcha can’t have just one!”
You pick the room that is closest to the stairs in case you ever need to run.
The room is an antiseptic green, the shade of your mother’s hospital gown. The harsh smell from outside clings to the striped curtains and the mirror over the vanity. The window opens out onto the lawn; someone walking past the house raises a hand to your wrong parents. You watch the adoption consultant’s car peel out of the driveway.
You shove the sweaty bangs out of your eyes. You know you are not a typical choice for what the older kids—those unadoptable even with the discounts, the too-disabled or -old or -dark-skinned—called a starter child. Not only are you nearly twelve, but they made you leave without cutting your hair (a homemade bowl cut, badly grown out) or giving you clothes in the right size. Or returning the picture of your mothers, Mamá rosy and paint-smeared and with one finger curled tight in the belt of Arami, who is laughing herself, wielding the brush. Not what our adopters are looking for, the staff told you with thin lips.
I want to go home, you try to say now, but your voice isn’t working. Prodding at your neck with bitten-off nails, you struggle to force sound through your vocal cords.
“Betcha can’t,” your voice finally croons. “Betcha can’t.”
• • •
The sounds of your new residence haunt your mouth. When your wrong mother hangs up the phone with her friends, you want to ask for a glass of water but your lips form the words it’s five o’clock somewhere. When your wrong father slaps the sports page of the newspaper in cheerful disgust and shouts, Isn’t that just what I needed this morning, the words tumble out in jostling echoes: I need… need… need…
This is accretion, not speech, but your wrong parents do not notice. They are too overjoyed to discover both that you are not mute and that you can speak English as promised. They are also too busy setting up your welcome home party, which brings a stream of neighbors to the door with orphans of their own, tucked beneath arms and unloaded like Tupperware. The neighbors trade cheek-kisses and blessings and marvel at your demure manners while their own children, fair-haired and cheese-skinned, scratch dandruff in your direction.
It is the adults in Holtsburg, not the children, who frighten you. Their delight runs over you the way teeth scrape chicken to the bone.
“What a sweet little thing,” says old Mrs. Cutler, with the valise full of butterscotch candies and the Do You Follow Jesus This Closely? bumper sticker.
“I hope you appreciate what you’ve got here, young lady,” says Mr. Williams-call-me-Connor. “My parents wouldn’t have paid a cent to get me. Maybe to get rid of me. Ha!”
“Remarkable,” says Marjorie-from-next-door, two freckled arms spread on the backyard fence and her teeth a perfect row of white. You’ve already watched her shuffle seven children into and out of a cavernous sedan from your window. The tallest, darkest-skinned girl once looked up in your direction with an unreadable expression, flat-ironed hair pointing stiffly down her back.
Remarkable, your throat hums, taunting you. You wonder what could possibly be remarkable about you to a woman who has enough orphans for every day of the week. Unnerved, you squirm farther away under the pretense of playing with Macaron the bulldog, who pants sadly at the garden hose.
“Jazz isn’t much of a talker, but you know how it is,” you hear.
“Don’t I! She’ll grow out of it. Now we can’t get Kira to stop for breath between one sentence and the next.” Marjorie’s nails click restlessly onto the picket, forearm balanced on the edge like a ballerina’s shoe. “My goodness, Bethy. She practically glows.”
“It’s that Miami sun.”
“Maybe we’ll get our next one from the shelters down there. I think their English is usually better, don’t you? I used to say seven was plenty, but if that’s what we’re called to do, I’m not one to… Anyway, George keeps joking about it. That’s a good sign. Get this: he says we should name her Twice. Twice for—”
“Twice on Sundays!” They collapse into laughter. “Are you so sure you’ll get a girl?”
“God, they’re so much cheaper. Can’t get a boy without tattoos or birth defects for love or money, can you? We were so fortunate with Stephen… parents deported…”
You kick a rock hard enough that the bulldog gives you a woebegone look.
“You know how it is,” you tell him grimly.
It’s Marjorie who corrals the adults into posing for a group picture. She arranges them around you like a Nativity scene, haloed with rose-gold helium balloons. Their own adopted children are banished to the porch, and in the seconds it takes the timer to tick down, you can see them there, watching you, noiseless as a pile of discarded coats.
Your wrong mother puts a copy of the picture on the mantelpiece. You start to take the long way around the living room, chin squeezed low on your chest. The one time you dare peek inside, you see that your wrong parents have already covered the bookshelves with picture frames, stacked in piles of five or eight or ten, just waiting to be filled.
• • •
Two weeks after arriving, you’re at the Holtsburg Way Forward Center for something called a Hispanic Heritage Craftstravaganza, a jovial series of arts afternoons for all the children of (in a volunteer’s words) Latin persuasion. This Saturday, it’s Aztec masks made of hammered foil and dollar-store beads. Last Saturday was monarch butterflies with pipe cleaners.
You’re too old for glue sticks and false gems, and the snack table’s heaps of iced sugar cookies and cheese crackers make your stomach roil. There is a fever upon the adults around you. They laugh too loudly, fill too many plates, and slap palms wet with perspiration on the crown of your head. They touch your shoulders the way you used to touch the shoe of the bronze María before exams.
The first chance you get, you make a break for the hallway, squinching your new cream-colored patent leathers along the vinyl floor.
“Having fun, Jazzy?” a volunteer asks brightly. “Bathroom’s down the hall.” Without waiting for an answer, she pats your hair and flutters away.
“I kicked them once when they asked me that,” someone says.
It’s Marjorie’s oldest, Kira. This close you can tell that she isn’t much older than you, just taller. She’s dressed in a Peter Pan collar and bobbled skirt, an outfit for a much younger girl, and her hair is brittle and splitting at its ends. Even unsmiling, she is extremely, toe-curlingly pretty. You think of how they marked your file in Miami, unfamiliar English words like unfit and kinless; you think of Arami slumped outside the courtroom, all the fierce laughter hollowed out of her, and you avert your eyes.
“Oh, now that’s dangerous,” you say, a phrase you picked up from your wrong mother, who peers into every box of baked goods with a coy gasp of self-denial.
“Yeah, I realized it was a stupid idea, too. My parents sent me to a shrink for anger management sessions and I lost door privileges for, like, six months.” Her face is fragile and somber. “Look, I hope you’ll be okay. Mom said she likes you because you don’t talk too much. Unlike me. I don’t know why they’re so obsessed with you, no offense.”
You want to say that you’re sorry, that the last thing in the world you want is the approval of her champagne-colored mother with the candy teeth, but your voice is a closed door and, anyway, Kira doesn’t look angry or mean. Instead, she touches your arm the way Arami did when she saw the priest coming down your street, the gray-suited lawyer scudding in his wake. The lawyer like a shark corpse, the touch like a startled minnow.
“There you are, girls!” Marjorie trills from the doorway. Kira’s fingers fall away. “I hope she isn’t chattering your ear off, Jazz. Why aren’t the two of you enjoying the activities?”
“Maybe because I’m from Haiti and not Mexico?” Kira mutters.
Your gasp sticks like a draft of wet cement. Marjorie doesn’t yank her orphan, doesn’t do anything to hurry her along except place her mauve lacquered nails on the soft bend of Kira’s elbow, the meat.
“None of your sass,” Marjorie says. “Go find your siblings.” Kira jerks her arm away and scampers down the hallway. “That girl! Your parents are so fortunate. Beginner’s luck, I guess.” Marjorie laughs a little. “You’re their golden girl.”
No, you want to cry. My parents didn’t get lucky. My parents got a hospital and a hearing, and then I got put on a plane.
“Come on, Jazz,” says Marjorie, and there’s something pulsing and insistent in her tone, thumpingly redly like an eviscerated heart. “Everyone’s hunting for you in there.”
Except she won’t move out of the doorway far enough for you to get through without squeezing, and when you pass her, a cloud of lavender and verbena nearly chokes you; the room spins, and five thin acrylic teeth caress your arm.
You’re trying to say, Get out of my way. You’re trying to say, I am not an orphan, and if my mothers saw this, they would murder you dead, then resurrect you to murder you again.
What comes out is a strangled: “Let me just squeeze by you there?”
“Radiant child,” says Marjorie, floaty and ever so close to your ear.
The worst part is not how Kira’s words echo in your brain. It’s not how violently you shudder, or even how badly your foot aches after it kicks out, single-minded, and finds bone. It’s how Marjorie smiles when she tells your wrong parents that she forgives you, that she knows just the person who can help.
• • •
The Way Forward Center has a child psychiatrist on staff. She ushers your humiliated wrong parents out to the de facto waiting room with a professional nod, assuring them that in delicate adoption cases, assessing your ailment via private interview may be more revealing. A sign on the wall reads, In This Office, God Loves You For YOU!
There are picture frames set up on her desk, nice golden ones with heavy cardboard backing. You slam your eyes shut, pressing your face into the backs of your knees. The heavy corduroy of your skirt, too thick for July, clings and clumps to your thighs.
Before the psychiatrist can do more than introduce herself, you grab the notepad and pen out of her hand and scribble, I am not an orphan my mother is alive all the parents here won’t leave me alone help me please?? The doctor reads thoughtfully. The tiny lines of her face and forehead crease and flatten like the dance of a kaleidoscope. Then you hear the purr of a recorder begin; she reads them out loud, again, and more crisply.
“Jasy,” she says gently. “I want you to know it’s very natural for children in your situation to feel—well, to feel a certain need for attention.” She laces her fingers together, all silky sympathy. “But it’s not healthy to imagine that all the grown-ups around you are fixated on you. Once you start making friends your own age, you’ll understand.”
“Not in my personal experience,” you push through dry lips. That one’s courtesy of your wrong father’s running commentary on the news.
“And there’s nothing wrong with the word orphan, dear,” she says. Her voice sounds kind, but her fingers are twitching at the window sash, and she’s not looking at you. “If you couldn’t take care of your daughter, wouldn’t you want her to be loved and cherished elsewhere?”
None of them can ever meet your eyes. Not this doctor; not the priest with his sermons on deviancy; not the woman who showed up two hours late, peered down her nose at your ancient icebox and the upturned crates (the ones your mothers had scrimped to paint a glorious eggshell blue), and flashed a paper that read unsuitable living situation in ink already dried.
The doctor is tilting the slats of the blinds to and fro in the vanishing afternoon, her eyes thoughtful on your flesh and how the light hits it.
“Holtsburg is a wonderful place to be a child,” she says at last, swiveling to face you fully. She reaches for one of the picture frames and holds it out: you see the doctor and a husband, two smiling children, all four a matched set in freckles and starched blue linen. “We’re thinking of adopting one ourselves, and we—”
The covetousness in her expression is what does it. There is, all at once, a terrible rushing noise in your ears. Like the rumble of the great river. Like at the Center when they returned your letters marked undeliverable, when they told you they had found a permanent placement for a good girl.
You can no longer help yourself: your gaze rakes over the family photograph, cramming the sight into your famished eyes, pinpointing every cheekbone, every twist of the mouth, every widow’s peak that links all four people in the photograph together, anchors them, makes them one. Like Miami—except something is different this time. The startled doctor’s face starts to twitch like a glitchy television program: her lips, her nose, the corners of her eyes. She lets out a gurgled cry.
Your fury terrifies you. It is as envious and alone as the moon.
Yet, like so many things, it leaves you before you are ready for the loss. You collapse in the chair and drop the photograph from your shaking hands. When the doctor’s face stops contorting, when she snatches up the frame from the floor, when she sees every member of her family missing a face, she shrieks again and reaches for the intercom faster than you’ve ever seen another human move.
• • •
Your wrong parents call the rehoming network from the car.
Your wrong mother insists on a stop at the mall, where she trundles into Macy’s red-eyed and haggard, her filmy scarf tugged up around her head like it’ll keep her from being spotted. She comes out with a new rolling suitcase, a gentle blush pink and surely more expensive than anything you have ever owned.
“We don’t want people to think we treated her badly,” she tells her husband in a whisper. You’re pretending to be asleep in the back, because it’s easier than coping with what just happened. “It just—wasn’t the right fit. Maybe younger, next time.”
• • •
You’re trundling up the driveway, a long pale tongue of gravel in the burgeoning dusk, when you see the headlights glinting off their eyes. At first, you think it’s coyotes. But then, by the glow of the votive candles and lawn lights gripped in worshipful palms, you glimpse chandelier earrings and the rims of tortoiseshell glasses and you know, with a dull, sinking feeling, that these are human monsters.
“It’s nice of the neighbors to check in on us,” your wrong mother says after a long pause. “Why don’t you go around the back, Brett.”
When the bell above the back door jangles, you have the wild urge to tear it down and smash it before it can give your location away. Your wrong mother locks it behind you.
“I’m calling a shuttle. Screw the rehoming network and let Miami deal with her. Let’s get her in the clouds first…”
Macaron wedges himself beneath the banquette until only his whuffling nose peeks out.
The evening sighs rapturously around you. Then: the soft slavering noise of expensive shoe leather sliding along manicured lawn. The click of the lock, soft as a kiss, accompanied by the stench of lavender and verbena.
“I think I can solve this problem for you,” says Marjorie, bright and unmoving like the buckles on a straitjacket. The spare key dangles from her fingers. “We’re here to help.”
“Margie, please,” says your wrong mother. She’s crying, one hand on the kitchen Bible and the other on her smartphone, where she’s buying you a one-way ticket.
“You want her?” hollers your wrong father, eyes bloodshot. “Jesus, Margie, you can have her. With our blessing. Bethy, give her the suitcase.”
You scramble backwards into the living room yawning open behind you. You have seen the mad glitter in Marjorie’s eyes before, in the eyes of the caimans floating in the murky river currents, streaks of toothed appetite. Marjorie reaches for the bag.
“No,” someone says very quietly. You are amazed to realize that it is you.
“No?” Marjorie looks at you with avarice and astonishment. “Is that how you speak to your mother, sweetheart?”
The roaring is back. The lunar stillness. This time the anger rises straight from your heels, pressed hard into the well-scoured floor in those absurd patent leathers, which, you note absently, have given you a blister.
You do not remember why you were afraid of your anger anymore. It clarifies you.
“You never even asked me,” you say, and you reach for the picture on the mantel, the group photo from the party.
You think of your right mothers as you stare at it; you think of the shimmering dawn on the river you lived three blocks away from your whole life, a life where nobody ever called you golden but loved you all the same.
Marjorie’s chin twists and judders and sheds flakes that glisten under the bulbs. There comes a sound like the wind moving over a hundred fields of maize, which you know will crackle if you listen to it closely enough, an opera of bones snapping out of place. A man caterwauls, Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ, Tommy, what the hell is happening to your face?
“Ask…ed…you…w…hat?” Marjorie asks, clutching her face as she sways and falls to one knee, then to two. Behind her, your wrong parents follow suit, bodies crumpling like curtains torn from their rod.
“My name,” you tell the things that now lie stretched across the floor. “You never even asked me how to pronounce my name.”
• • •
The town will never forget what they find when the morning dawns clammy and still over Holtsburg. At first glance, they look like HOA-forbidden lawn ornaments, the straggling heaps of well-to-do citizens strewn along the driveway of the old Robertson house, candle batteries sputtered out at their feet. But their skin is as faceless and serene as a mannequin’s, and as gold as an Oscar statuette’s, and their hands are as empty and grasping as the last hour of a summer evening, the bereft hour, when all longings are shadows and all children are fled.