Make Me Disappear, page 1
Make Me Disappear
By Jennifer Wilson
The brave dies perhaps two thousand deaths if he's intelligent. He simply doesn't mention them.
The pocketknife had been a gift on her fourteenth birthday. Mabel had longed for one ever since her foster brother John—an eagle scout with a sash full of badges—had received his own. She had been fascinated with the various tools that he could pull from it, from a corkscrew to a tiny screwdriver to diverse blades, and had watched with envy each time he brought it forth from his pocket, slicing through tape-encased packages with practiced ease and carving rough animals from raw blocks of wood.
Her current foster mother, Karen (her own mother had abandoned her many long years before to a meth and petty theft habit), had rolled her eyes at the gift, saying that there was no reason for a girl to have a pocketknife at all, but John had wanted her to have it and his will had prevailed.
“She’ll probably cut her own nose off, for god’s sake,” Karen said.
“I’ll teach her to use it properly, Mom,” John answered, patting Mabel on the shoulder.
And he had, showing her how to open and close it so that it didn’t snap on her fingers, and instructing her to always point the blades away from herself. She had imagined that she would use her knife in the same way John used his, but in the end the only things she seemed capable of carving were sticks into sharpened points and her initials in the bark of the ancient live oak tree in the back yard. Still, she carried the knife with her everywhere, the weight of it in her pocket giving her a sense of security and protection—from what she did not know, exactly.
“I’ll be going away to college in a few weeks,” John said to her as they sat on the back porch in the late afternoon sunshine of a warm summer day. “I just want you to know that if you ever need me, just call, okay? I’ll only be two hours away.”
“Okay,” Mabel said, leaning into him for a hug. “I’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too, little sis.”
When the day had come for him to leave, Karen had sobbed loudly and dramatically, and her foster father, Gary, was withdrawn and silent. The remaining week of summer passed slowly, and she spent it in solitude, vaguely dreading the coming school year. She was an average student, feeling unmotivated to do more than the bare minimum, and most subjects simply didn’t hold her interest. Friends were hard to come by, as she didn’t seem to fit in to any particular group at school, so the anticipation of seeing friendly faces again was, by and large, nonexistent.
She was not a particularly unhappy girl, however, though prone to bouts of ennui and melancholy. Being content in her aloneness and unused to any surfeit of attention, she spent much of her time outside, exploring the middle-class suburb of Tulsa she inhabited and communing with nature. She enjoyed reading and visited the library frequently, finding friends in the books she read and comfort in the knowledge that she was not so very unique as it seemed sometimes.
It was a sunny October Friday, the day John died. A texting teen swerved across the line on the road as he was coming home from college for a visit and the impact killed him instantly. Mabel would always remember the day; how the leaves were just beginning to change on the pear trees that lined the sidewalk, the sky clear and blue as she walked home from school.
She heard Karen’s wailing before she reached the path that led to the front door, a high-pitched keening that raised the hair on the back of her neck and begged her to run in the other direction rather than discover the reason for such a noise. Against her instincts, she turned the knob on the front door with a trembling hand and was met by Gary, his face ashen and grim as he told her the news.
The tears didn’t come then.
Nor did they come later, when she viewed John’s body in the casket at the funeral. It didn’t look like him anyway, stiffly posed and oddly-hued. Karen sat slumped in the pew of the church, heavily tranquilized so as to not make the scene any worse than it was. Gary, broken and silent, shook hands with family and friends. John was popular and well-liked, and the procession took a long, wearying time.
Home was no refuge. The people kept coming, bringing pie and cake and casseroles that no one wanted to eat—more food than could possibly be consumed by anyone with an appetite. It fell to Mabel to open the door and greet the mourners, as Karen had taken to her bed and Gary was usually in a drunken stupor by three in the afternoon. She did her best to make conversation, but the forced words fell from her mouth woodenly. She didn’t know what to say anyway.
The weeks passed. Karen did not get out of bed and refused to eat. Gary called the paramedics and they came, ambulance wailing, and took her away, strapped to a stretcher. Mabel didn’t cry then either. Instead, she cleaned the house obsessively, vacuuming and dusting, washing dishes and clearing away the take-out boxes that littered the living room.
One night, a month after her world fell apart, with Gary passed out on the couch and Karen in the hospital again, being tube-fed the will to live, Mabel sat on the back porch where she and John had talked so often about their plans for their individual futures. Pulling her pocketknife from her pants, she carefully opened the blade and viewed it with a detached thoughtfulness. She slid it gently over her arm, watching as it scraped the fine hairs neatly off her skin, tracing it over the blue veins that stood out in stark contrast to the pale ivory of her complexion.
The emptiness welled up within her chest, threatening to choke her, and she lifted her face to the sky, full of stars twinkling with indifference. Her grief seemed to fill the universe, spiraling out from her soul and sweeping across the expanse. She felt she might be suffocating from the pressure building within her, longing for a release she did not know how to give.
Again and again she caressed her arm with the knife, each time pressing incrementally harder, rocking slightly as she sat on the concrete stoop, desperate to feel something besides darkness and relentless waves of nothing. Her mind was a mass of confusion.
You’re not human at all. The thoughts came unbidden. Everyone can tell, you’re a fake. Fake! Where are your tears, Mabel? You’re heartless, that’s what you are. John loved you but you have no heart. Fake!
She shook her head violently, trying to suppress the voice.
She pressed harder.
Suddenly and silently, the blade carved a tidy line along her forearm, a thin ribbon of crimson springing up from the skin. Mabel made a small noise of surprise and stared at the wound, breathing hard. The ribbon became a trickle that ran down her arm and onto the stoop in thick, heavy drips. The puddle glistened darkly in the moonlight.
Swiftly—before reason could protest—she slid the knife over and over in parallel tracks along her skin, panting and stifling the urge to cry out until the pain rose up and eclipsed the deep nothingness for a brief, delirious moment. Dropping the pocketknife with a clatter, she clasped her arm to her body, feeling the blood soak warm into her shirt, feeling the throb of the injury, gasping with shock and horror and untold relief.
She couldn’t stay with Karen and Gary any longer. Her social worker told her they were simply too unstable following the death of their son. The state was concerned with the well-being of Mabel Banner, and thought she’d be better off elsewhere.
Mabel didn’t want to go. It wasn’t that she was terribly attached to Gary or Karen—they were fourth in a string of fosters since she had entered the system—but their house had been home to John, and for that reason alone she wanted to stay. She knew, however, that this mattered little to the state, and so she didn’t bother to argue. She sat on the bed in John’s room, surrounded by his medals and award
“I hope you’re happy wherever you are,” she said into the empty air. “I’ll always miss you.”
Her new mother’s name was Gail Thomas, a heavy-set and intimidating woman, and she insisted that Mabel call her Mom. The house was shabby and ill-kept, but she had been a foster mother for decades, and was well-trusted by the state. Mabel was one of four children in the house, and the eldest. Gail smiled ingratiatingly to the social worker and spoke in an unctuous voice. Mabel was uneasy, but no one asked her opinion, and so she kept it to herself.
The other children were nine, seven, and four. All girls, by the names of Latisha, Vanessa, and Tabitha. They were sweet and friendly and innocent, and Mabel liked them for that. None of the little girls seemed to feel uncomfortable around Gail, and indeed, she appeared to treat them well in spite of the sparse furnishings and shared beds.
Dinner was macaroni and cheese from the ubiquitous blue boxes, and Gail let Mabel fix it by herself.
“I’m sure you like to be helpful, at your age,” she said, and it was not a question or a request, Mabel thought, but a thinly-veiled command. Still, it wasn’t that she minded doing it. Gail sat on the front porch in a sagging overstuffed couch and smoked while Mabel drained the pasta and added the butter and milk and powdered cheese. The little girls waited expectantly with bowls at the ready. When it was done and they had eaten, she put the dishes in the sink and rinsed them. Gail came in then, and suggested that she load the dishwasher. Mabel obliged, and the other girls helped her, so it didn’t take long. Later that night, she sat on the porch by herself and contemplated her surroundings.
The small clapboard house was one of many rentals that lined the street, most of them in the same state of mild disrepair as it was, with lawns full of crabgrass, weeds and broken toys. Mabel thought back to Karen and Gary’s well-kept ranch home, to the upscale middle school she had attended, and a pang struck her heart. Gail came out and sat down heavily next to her.
“I expect a lot, but I hope you won’t make a fuss about it,” she said. “You seem to be a good girl so far, and I don’t want any trouble.”
This seemed an unnecessary thing to say, and it was said none too gently. Mabel felt the full impact of the words and could only agree that she wouldn’t be any trouble. When had she ever been any trouble? She kept her head down and worked as hard as she could. She was a good girl, her greatest flaw being a deep and abiding cynicism that resided in her heart. She looked at Gail, at her rough hands and stained blouse, and was not comforted. There was something about the woman that was singularly unnerving.
The little girls fought briefly over who Mabel would sleep with, but Gail swiftly put an end to it by matching her up with the youngest, Tabitha. That night, as the smaller girls drifted off to sleep, Mabel lay awake for a long time. She could hear Gail in the living room, watching reality TV and talking on the phone. Snatches of the conversation drifted into the room.
I’m telling you, Marcus, this is the one, she was saying. We’ll test it out, go slowly, and then build the business from there.
Something unintelligible. Then
I know, I know. But I have a good feeling about this. She’s a pretty one. Looks older than she is, but it shouldn’t be a problem.
Mabel rolled over and shut her eyes. She didn’t know what Gail was talking about, but it didn’t concern her. If there was one thing she had never been called before, it was pretty.
Friday night. Mabel came home from school and flung her backpack to the floor. It had been a month since she had arrived at Gail’s house, and she felt things were going better than she had expected. She enjoyed the younger girls like she hadn’t realized she could, and had already begun to think of them as sisters, especially Latisha, the nine year old. Latisha looked up to her and together they often talked well into the night, sharing their hopes and dreams. They did each other’s hair and nails, and although Mabel had never given much thought to her appearance, she had to admit that it was fun to play with the ragged bag of makeup that Latisha had acquired over the years.
The pain in her heart that remained from John’s death had begun to ebb, settling into a dull ache instead of the sharp stab that it had been. Although she kept the pocketknife close in her pants pocket always, she rarely took it out anymore, and she had not cut herself in many weeks.
As she flung her backpack to the ground and began to untie her shoes, Gail interrupted her.
“Leave the shoes on, Mabel,” she said in her commanding tone. “I’ve got somewhere to take you tonight. I’ve got a special job for you to do for me. You don’t mind, do you?”
Mabel sighed and straightened.
“What is it?” she asked.
“You don’t need to know the details right now,” Gail snapped. “I’ll tell you when we get there.”
A neighbor came by to babysit the little girls. Mabel was allowed to eat leftover spaghetti before they departed, although Gail stood over her impatiently until she finished.
“Brush your hair,” she ordered, and Mabel brushed it. “Here’s a dress; put it on,” she said, and Mabel put it on.
Surely the woman can’t expect me to do a real job she thought fleetingly. There are laws, after all, aren’t there?
The questions remained unasked. The truth was, inside of her heart, she was deeply afraid of Gail, and she knew questions would only aggravate her.
They climbed into Gail’s decaying Ford and she revved the sluggish engine into life. Soon they were headed south through the neighborhood, the houses becoming more and more dilapidated as they went. They turned onto a main street lined with pawn shops and massage parlors, and Gail stopped in front of a small corner grocery store. They got out. Once inside, they were met by a small fidgety man with greasy, slicked back hair.
“Marcus,” Gail said, and Mabel’s unease ratcheted up another notch. “Here she is. What do you think?”
“Very good,” he said curtly, and motioned with his head to a door behind the counter. Gail took Mabel’s arm in a vice-like grip and led her through it. As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she saw that the room was lined with curtains, and behind each curtain was a mattress. Dread overtook her, the small hairs on the back of her neck standing at attention, and she struggled to get free of the hand.
“Oh no, dearie,” Gail said, laughing a short, barking laugh. “This is where you get to pay your way, see? This is how you’re going to help Mom out. You’re going to be a good girl and do as I say, and everything will be all right. I hate to tell you what might happen if you disobey.”
Mabel’s breath came hard and fast, and she stared at the woman in terror.
“You can’t,” she said faintly. “They’ll find out, the state…the state will find out. You can’t—”
“Don’t tell me I can’t,” Gail said, giving her a shake that rattled her teeth. “I devoted my life to you brats and you think the state gives a shit about you, or me? I’m paid a pittance to put up with you, and I’m telling you that here is where I’ll get my payback, see? And just because I thought you might protest, I brought something to convince you.”
With that, she drew out a syringe and swiftly jabbed it into Mabel’s arm. The liquid burned as it entered her body, and she cried out in dismay.
“No, please,” she begged as the room began to spin slowly. “Please, don’t make me. Don’t make me do this.” She tried to run but only tripped and fell onto one of the mattresses; her arms and legs were leaden and she was helpless to make them obey her will. Gail smiled an ugly smile and sighed.
“There now,” she said. “It will all be over soon, and it won’t be so bad after that. We’ll go home and you can rest all day tomorrow. You’ll see. It’ll be just a job after a while.”
With that, she was gone, and Mabel was alone, if only for a moment.
Soon she had all the company she never wanted.
Mabel worked. She obeyed, and tried not to complain.
“You love those sisters of yours, don’t you?” she asked, the day after that first hideous night, when she was still leaking blood and her eyes were red-rimmed and swollen. She nodded, the drugs having worn off enough to allow her to move freely once again. “I know you do. Especially that Latisha; she’s a pretty one, isn’t she? It would be a shame if you couldn’t do your job. It would be a real shame if she had to take your place, wouldn’t it?”
Mabel had stared at Gail, dry mouthed. She felt the full weight of her words, and she went numb.
“You can’t—” she whispered.
“There you go, with your you-can’ts again,” Gail spat. “Don’t tell me what I can’t do, you hear me? You will do as you are told, and those sisters of yours will be fine, you understand? Remember, nobody cares about you, and nobody ever will. You’re completely expendable to the state; it’ll be your word against mine and you know they’ll listen to me before a brat like yourself.”
She nodded again.
Her days were a blur after that. She went to school during the week and on Friday nights, she worked. Saturdays, she slept. Gail forced her to take the pills she said would keep her from getting pregnant, and she obeyed. The dirty room with the unmade mattresses and the pervasive smell of sweat and bodily fluids became as familiar to her as her own room, and when Latisha and the other girls wondered where she went on Friday nights, she simply told them she was working at a grocery store for Mom.
At Christmas she got an unexpected break. Gail told her she didn’t have to work the Friday before Christmas. She sat in the den and played with Tabitha and Vanessa and their dolls. Latisha came in and giggled, twirling her thick black hair as she sat on the battered coffee table.
“Guess what?” she said excitedly. “Mom told me I get to work the grocery store tonight. She said you had worked hard enough lately, and so I could take your place. Isn’t that great?”
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