When Little Paula started her uncontrollable crying a week or so after she was born, I knew, even without the confirmation of a doctor, that she had colic. However, nothing I had read on the internet, no comments I saw from other new mothers, and not even medical journals I had read seemed to have a definitive cause for it or a perfect cure.
Some thought it was simply acclimation to the world outside the womb, which could make babies irritable for some time. Others thought they might be reacting to gas, having something called acid reflux. Some suggested allergies. I tried all the remedies described, especially laying her on her tummy, carrying her constantly, and making sure to hold her upright after she fed. I massaged her, gave her a pacifier, and even sang and hummed to her for hours.
Her crying even kept our cats, Moses and Becky, from coming upstairs. Maybe they thought she was another cat. They hadn’t been behaving like themselves since Mama died, anyway. They’d stay away for days sometimes. Trevor went looking for them when they didn’t return recently. If he had found them killed by some coyote or some other animal, he didn’t tell me. I didn’t want to look hard at him and see the truth. There was almost no other reason they wouldn’t have come home by now. Daddy certainly didn’t care or wonder. They were more Mama’s pets than his. Besides, Little Paula was taking up most of my time and concern. There was a great deal I didn’t think about, including my own appearance.
Last night, Gabby came into my bedroom and said she would give me some hours of relief and take Little Paula into her and Daddy’s room for a while.
“Get some sleep,” she said. “It doesn’t do the baby any good if you’re exhausted.”
“Are you sure?” I had some trepidation, but I really was exhausted and had just finished breastfeeding her.
“Your father told me to tell you that,” she said, which was a little surprising. Up until that moment, he rarely seemed to care about any difficulties I was having. He never came to look in on the baby and me and said almost nothing about her, about how beautiful and perfect she was. I thought maybe he didn’t like the thought of being a grandfather.
If he had known Mama’s true plan for us from the start, he either ignored it or, after some small attempts, just gave up caring. Most of the time, he returned home too tired to argue or wanting to save his energy for partying. However, we knew that from the first day Trevor and I were brought from the Wexler foster home to Mama and Big John Eden’s home and were adopted, Big John was opposed to us sleeping in the same bed. Trevor was nearly six, and I was little more than four, but he still didn’t think it was right. Mama told him he was being ridiculous. There really wasn’t much choice when it came to where we would be, anyway: Mama already had turned the other available guest room into a classroom for us. She was determined to homeschool us. She had been a grade-school teacher and was confident she could give us a better education than what we would get in the “inferior” public schools.
There was one other possible bedroom in the house, but when Mama was alive, that was kept locked most of the time, and we were told almost from the first moment we arrived that it was the Forbidden Room. More than ten years later, when Mama and Trevor caught me out behind the garage with our neighbor’s grandson, Lance, she had put me in the Forbidden Room and locked the door. That alone was terrifying. Big John was on a cross-country trip, though his being home wouldn’t have helped. He surely would have been quite angry, too, and wouldn’t have interfered. In fact, he might have beaten me with that thick belt he wore, something he always threatened to do.
Inside the Forbidden Room, Mama had told me to go to the unmade, stripped bed and wait. Neither I nor Trevor had ever seen her so enraged. Whatever she had given me to drink put me in such a daze that I didn’t realize where I was or what was happening to me. I spent two nights in a row like that. I had forgiven Mama for it and forgiven Trevor for what she made him do to me while I was in that room in my stupor.
As we grew older, and Mama still didn’t give us separate bedrooms, there was no longer any doubt that Big John understood what Mama’s intentions were. Neither of us ever heard him specifically say it, but it was like one of those blemishes or scars on someone’s face that you pretend not to see. There is blindness that provides comfort.
I quickly realized that what terrified Mama was that I could become pregnant from being with someone else, someone she would consider outside our family.
Mr. Longstreet, our neighbor, had his grandson Lance visiting from New York City because his parents were in a somewhat nasty divorce proceeding. He was very handsome, and I dreamed of him wanting me to be his girlfriend and returning often to see me. Of course, if I had been a little more experienced, I might not have been so surprised to learn that he did have a girlfriend back in New York and was after me for one thing only.
Mama had been beside herself when Trevor revealed I was to rendezvous with Lance. Trevor didn’t like betraying me, but there was never a doubt in my mind that he wanted to please Mama more.
Mama wasn’t wrong about Trevor’s and my relationship. There was always something very special between us. From the first day we were brought together at the foster home, both of us having been given up by our mothers, we stayed close to each other and practically ignored the existence of the other children. The Wexlers’ daughter, a woman we called Nanny Too because she had been a nanny and now basically ran the foster home, was annoyed by this. She said we were so close that we shared a shadow.
We were ecstatic when Mama Eden decided she wanted us both. We weren’t just getting a mother; we were escaping. And together!
Since we had been so close when we lived at the foster home, we thought nothing of having the same bedroom and sharing so much in Mama Eden’s family house. She had met and married Big John after her parents were killed in an accident in their pickup truck on one of the winding Pocono mountain roads. She had resigned her teaching position as soon as she realized she was financially able to do so because of her inheritance. She had hated her job.
Mama tried hard to convince us that her family was built into our house, that their spirits roamed it and their concern for us would never weaken. I was always a little suspicious about there being family spirits in the house, but I wasn’t afraid. After all, considering what we had already suffered in our lives, how could two little children feel any more secure and comfortable than we were?
We trusted her with everything, but I didn’t want to be forced to have a baby, especially when I discovered what was in the Forbidden Room. I found that it was a room meant to be a bedroom and nursery, though not for my use originally. Her mother had become pregnant at a late age, and the intent had been to have a live-in nanny. There was a crib in the room, of course. Even before I looked into it the second day of my imprisonment, I felt the shock of what I would discover in that crib. It was as if I had always known what was there. Trevor admitted later that he had known.
No one was better at keeping a secret than Trevor.
Mama said the remains of the undeveloped baby, carefully bundled like a living infant, were the result of her mother’s miscarriage, something Mama had caused with a so-called herbal medication to ease her mother’s pain in her pregnancy. Her mother had miscarried in the bathroom in the Forbidden Room, and the room afterward had been turned into a shrine. Big John let it remain a shrine. I think he knew that she would have asked him to leave if he hadn’t.
So afterward, after my two days of punishment, when she had insisted I return to sleeping with Trevor, I resisted. I knew what she wanted and knew what she had told Trevor to do, but I didn’t want to get pregnant and maybe have as horrible a miscarriage as her mother had had. I had read that pregnancy for a girl my age was difficult. Undoubtedly, I was quite afraid of Mama’s rage, but I wanted to sleep in Big John’s den on the sofa bed, at least until he returned from his latest trip. I was hoping Mama would calm down by then.
Mama had broken her ankle falling from a ladder in a terrible rainstorm. She had intended to go onto the roof and fix a bad leak or at least plug it up temporarily. In a cast and on a crutch, she confronted me starting down the stairs with my bedding and tried to force me to return to Trevor’s and my bedroom. She poked me with her crutch, attempting to drive me back, and in the process, she fell backward on the stairs and injured her head so badly that she died in the operating room.
Big John had his friend Nick Damien’s sister Gabrielle come live with us. We didn’t know at the time that Big John had been having an affair with her. Mama certainly didn’t know. He had buried Mama’s unborn sister in our Cemetery for Unhappiness, a patch of land on our property that Mama had designated as a place to bury terrible thoughts and comments so they would never haunt Trevor or me again.
I was surprised when Trevor voiced how guilty and responsible he felt over Mama’s death. I had thought he would blame it all on me. But although Trevor didn’t expect my relationship with Lance to go as far as it almost had, he admitted he had done more than I had to bring the other boy into our lives. He was responsible for setting up our internet connections, which Lance and I used for secret messages, so I understood why Trevor felt he had disappointed Mama, too. Whenever I debate with myself about my pregnancy, about my willingness to go forward, I conclude now, and probably will until the day I die, that our having Little Paula was the only way to redeem myself when it came to what had happened to Mama. Trevor believed that from the very first moment.
Trevor, who had his driver’s license by the time I had gone into my eighth month, woke up one morning, turned to me, and said, “Let’s go show Mama what we’ve done.”
We drove to the cemetery and stood by her grave so she would know that what she had always wanted was going to be. We were going to create a new family. I understood Trevor had made special promises to Mama, promises I had never known about.
The morning after Gabby had relieved me of caring for Little Paula, I awoke, surprised I had slept so late. Trevor had gone downstairs for breakfast and was already gone. He was attending the public school, which I was unable to do because I had become pregnant. Big John wasn’t going to continue homeschooling, so Gabby had enrolled him. After he started, Trevor sent a chilling wave through me one day when he said, “Big John forbade me ever to mention you, and so no one knows you exist.” Before I could ask, he added, “You know why.”
It’s a strange feeling to have, the feeling that so few people knew you were alive on this same earth. It empties you in ways you never experience otherwise. Sometimes I’d look in the mirror and wonder, Am I still here? During the days when Big John was on a trip and Gabby was at work at the insurance company, I’d hear no living voice other than my own in the house. I was talking to myself the way I remembered Mama often did. I even spoke to the imaginary ancestors, too, although I really wasn’t sure that the creaks and moans in the house were their responses.
Whenever Trevor came home in the afternoon, I would vehemently insist that he sit and tell me about his day, every detail. Of course, I was most interested in how he saw the other students and how they saw him. He said they were suspicious.
“Of what?” I asked, thinking someone had found out about me.
“Of my doing well, being normal, because I was homeschooled all my life. It’s going to take time to make friends,” he concluded. “And Big John has already made it clear that I can’t invite anyone here, not even to play basketball or go with me into our woods. He said I can’t go to anyone’s house, either, because they would then expect to be invited to mine.”
“It’s all because of me,” I concluded, feeling bad for him.
“Because of both of us,” he said, but he didn’t sound despondent or unhappy about it. He looked happy, even proud. I was already three months pregnant.
While he was in school and Gabby and Daddy were working, I had to clean the house and use my free time to move ahead in the textbooks Mama had for us both in the homeschool classroom. I still dreamed of joining Trevor at the public school someday, somehow. However, Big John often threatened to throw out all the books, the computer, the microscope, and the desks so he could make it a guest room.
“We have friends we’re going to want to stay over someday,” he said. He seemed to growl more than talk these days. It was as if Mama had laid a punishment on him in the form of us, of me especially, and he was resentful of our very existence. I never spoke back, but my look probably spoke pages.
Perhaps she knew you were having an affair, I thought, looking at him. Maybe, if you want to call us a punishment, we are. She used us for her revenge.
Trevor and I enjoyed the days when Big John was off on a trucking job. Gabby was kind enough to us, but it was easy to see that she was almost as terrified as we were of disobeying any of Big John’s rules when he was gone. She was so attentive to my needs and complaints during my pregnancy during the early months that I could never have imagined her cooperating with Big John when it came to getting Little Paula out of our lives.
That morning, Trevor was already gone before I rose, and hadn’t even said goodbye. In fact, there was no one in the house. The moment I woke, the silence was like a clap of thunder. I sat up quickly and listened, and then, thinking Gabby was with Little Paula, I went to the bedroom she shared with Big John.
Knocking softly, I called, “Gabby?”
Greeted by silence, I opened the door and saw there was no one there. Now in more of a panic, I went to the top of the stairs, listened, and called, “Gabby?”
I hurried down the stairs to the kitchen. No one. To the living room. No one. It was spring. Gabby might have taken Little Paula out to see if fresh air would help soothe her, I thought, really hoped. But there was no one on the porch and no one at the side or rear of the house. I ran everywhere in my bare feet and nightgown, screaming for someone, and then I retreated into the house and sat stunned at the kitchen table.
I wept and put my head down on my crossed arms. What was happening? Shuddering and feeling a little chilled, I went upstairs, washed my feet, changed into a blouse and jeans, and went down again, this time waiting by the living-room window. I couldn’t eat; I didn’t even want to have water, but I did. Hours and hours went by. I dozed off, and then, finally, I heard Gabby’s car pull into the driveway. I leaped up and hurried to the rear door.
Big John and Gabby got out of the car, but there was no sign of Little Paula.
“Where’s my baby?” I screamed.
“Gone to where she’ll have a real home. And now,” Big John said, “you can be a teenage girl again, finish school, and either get a job or get married. You want to grow up fast, grow up fast. You should thank us.”
He walked right past me, nearly bowling me over. I looked at Gabby. She tried to smile but lowered her head and followed him in. I collapsed on the step, embraced myself, and didn’t move until Trevor returned from school. The realization was spinning around in my head and hadn’t stopped. Little Paula was gone forever.
“What are you doing sitting out here?” Trevor asked when he came home from school and got out of what had been Mama’s car.
“They gave away Little Paula,” I said, and finally released my tears.
“Gave away? What does that mean?”
“I don’t know,” I said, and continued to cry.
He walked past me and into the house.
When I entered a moment later, Gabby was sitting in the kitchenette having a cup of coffee. Big John was having a beer. Trevor was standing off to the side by the doorway, his head down, looking ashamed.
“Where’s my baby?” I asked as firmly as I could.
“I told you,” Big John said. “You’d best do what I say now. I’m not gonna take to no whinin’ and cryin’. We heard enough of that to last a year these past days.”
Gabby looked up at me. “It’s best, honey. You go up and rest. I’ll find out what you do about… about the breastfeeding.”
“Breastfeeding? Who am I breastfeeding?”
“No one, but there are things to do,” she said.
“Go on,” Big John said. “Do as you’re told.”
I looked at Trevor, who looked like he wanted to swallow his lips, and then I walked past him and up the stairs. Normally, anyone my age would surely not want to get pregnant and have a baby. They might even be grateful for what Big John and Gabby had done. I hadn’t really thought hard and deep about what it would mean, but after Little Paula was born, I didn’t regret her. Suddenly and completely, she had become my world. I was sure that only someone who’d had a part of her body lopped off would understand the dark emptiness that was rushing over me.
And what about our promise to Mama? I didn’t like being forced to keep it, but it had been done.
Trevor came into the bedroom. I was in a tight fetal position, sobbing softly.
“There’s nothing we can do about it now,” Trevor said. “They’re the adults. They make all the decisions for us in this house.”
“They’re not adults. They’re monsters,” I said. “Mama must be spinning in her grave.”
He nodded and sat on the bed. Then he reached for my hand and gave me his determined glare.
“Someday,” he said, “somehow, we’ll get her back, back where she belongs.”
I stopped sobbing and looked at him. “Promise?”
“It’s a promise we’re making to Mama.”
“Yes,” I said, and sat up. Excitement was rushing over me. “You’re right. That’s what we’ll do.”
“For now,” he said in his sly, Trevor kind of way, “let’s let them think they’ve gotten away with it. Let them think we’re settled; we’ve accepted what they think must be. It’s late in the school year, but maybe you will go to school for a while, while we plan.”
“I couldn’t now. All I would think about is Little Paula.”
He shrugged his famous shrug. “Maybe you’ll find another boyfriend.” He smiled.
“Did you find another girlfriend already?”
“No. But sometimes,” he said with a surprisingly melancholy tone, “sometimes, when I look at how happy and excited most of the other kids in my class are, I wish Mama had let us go to public school from the start and we were…”
“Normal,” he said. “Like have friends and go to parties and sporting events, everything we didn’t have.”
“Did you know they were going to do this? You did, didn’t you?”
“I had a suspicion.”
“Why didn’t you warn me? I wouldn’t have let her leave my side.”
“They’d only find another way. What could I do? I’d have to quit school and guard the door.”
“Patience,” he said. “Once they’ve failed at doing it once, they’ll never do it again. We have special protection. You’ll see, Faith.”
I should have been surprised to hear him say such a thing. I should have been a little angry, in fact. Little Paula was gone. Even if she was gone for only a short time, it was still painful.
And how could he mourn about our lost youth? That was selfish.
But I wasn’t surprised or angry.
I was suddenly even sadder, so sad that I was no longer sure if my tears were for Little Paula or for myself.