By Deborah Adelman
At eleven and thirteen, the girls were already beautiful, their sea-green eyes framed by long black lashes, just like their father’s. Susan watched them eat their breakfast of bread, butter, and fruit preserves. The silence in the room was broken only by the clock marking each minute and their sips of orange juice. Their father was quiet too, his gaze moving between Susan and his daughters.
Last night in bed, his hand tangled in the hair at the nape of her neck, his leg entwined between her own as they settled into sleep, Susan had felt the peaceful calm of possibility. But this morning the four of them seemed like strangers, though still in the intimacy of pajamas, eating Saturday breakfast together. From time to time, their father would look up and catch Susan’s gaze, but she couldn’t read his expression. Help, perhaps. I don’t know what to say to them, either. Or was he asking her to please make room in her life for this abrupt change in circumstances that from now on would render their every meal together into one like this?
Rina, the youngest, stood to clear her plate. She tripped and lost her balance. The plate flew from her hand, leaving a mound of butter and red stickiness on the carpet. Rina looked at Susan, stricken. “Sorry.” She melted into tears.
“It’s okay. I hate that carpet,” Susan said, “even more than I hate the wallpaper. Your dad and I have big remodeling plans! It doesn’t matter.” But Rina, staring at the mess she had made, sobbed, her shoulders shaking.
“We were eating breakfast when they got us,” offered Oriana, the older of the two, as if to explain her sister’s overblown reaction.
She would never dare ask, but Susan couldn’t help but wonder how that scene had played out. Did their mother and her second husband emerge, hands raised in surrender, surrounded by armed FBI agents, like in a bad action movie? Did the girls raise their hands too? Had the girls’ mother resisted? Was anybody hurt?
Susan had chosen not to have children, but now, suddenly here they were, midway grown, and if she wanted to continue with their father, she would have to continue with them, too. She would cook their meals, braid their hair, bandage their wounds, advise them on their changing bodies,and warn them about spending too much time with wild boys. Wild like their father had been. Their mother, too. Susan would have to teach them not to become like their mother.
“Your mother,” Susan began, but she hesitated, unsure what she wanted to say, or ask.
“My mother is never getting out,” Oriana said, her face expressionless, her voice devoid of intonation. She didn’t sound like a little girl. “Two security guards dead, a police officer too. And all the years of hiding with us. And lying about our names. She’ll get life without parole.” She recited each point against her mother as though she were checking off a list. “It’s Dad’s turn to raise us now.”
Their father stood, then walked over to Oriana. He put a hand on each of her shoulders, his face close to hers, forcing eye contact between the two of them.
“I never stopped looking for you girls. It was your mother’s choice to go underground,” he said. Oriana held his gaze, unflinching. “It will be my great privilege to raise you. I am lucky to have you back,” he said. Rina had stopped crying but had slumped to the floor.
Susan watched the scene unfold, distant, as though she were behind a sheet of glass. The girls, beautiful, complicated, injured beings, needed someone, but she didn’t know yet if that could be her.