Annie ran away again the other night. It took me hours to find her in the park, going back and forth on the swings without a care in the world, like she had every right to be there. And she dyed her hair again, blonde this time. I didn’t want to make a fuss with all those people around, so I caught her on the backswing and dragged her home kicking and screaming like a lunatic. It was humiliating: I had to smile and shrug at all the people staring like it didn’t bother me.
As soon as we were home, I sent Annie to her room. She just sat there on the bed, crying and crying. The way she carried on, I didn’t have the heart to yell at her for running away. I guess that’s the real problem, this lack of discipline. I’ve never been good at tough but fair. I’m always going too far one way or the other.
Like a few months ago when she came at me with the kitchen knife. For a minute I really thought she was trying to hurt me, my own sweet angel. But afterward she just lay there in my arms so quiet, letting me stroke her hair and sing her a lullaby, like nothing had ever happened.
But then there was that other time when she started messing around with my doll collection. They’re such fragile things, my dolls, and Annie was playing so rough like she wanted to break them. I love those dolls: they remind me of when everything was easier, when I wasn’t stuck in this house all day long with Annie’s tantrums and Bill’s moping. I got upset, and I hit her. I was so ashamed, when she ran away that night I didn’t go after her right away. I just stayed there, crying and feeling like the worst mother in the world.
I tried to be gentler after that, more understanding. So instead of getting cross with Annie, I let her stay in her room and cooked her some dinner. I turned up the TV real loud so I wouldn’t hear the racket she was making in there. She makes such a mess sometimes, and it makes me so angry, the way she breaks her things like she doesn’t even care about them anymore. I bought her a puppy once, but she wouldn’t even touch it, like she was scared of it. The very day I decided to take it back to the pet store, it vanished. I found Annie in the backyard, holding a little trowel, sitting on a pile of dirt. I helped her wash up and never mentioned it again.
I made her favorite food, macaroni and cheese, hoping it might calm her down. But as soon as I opened the door she slammed into me, trying to get past. I almost dropped the food everywhere wrestling with her like that. She had this wild look in her eyes, like an animal. It scared me, being alone in there with her when she was like that. I put the food on her desk and gently pushed her toward the chair.
“I made it just the way you like,” I told her, smiling and trying not to look as afraid as I felt.
She stared at me like she didn’t understand a word I was saying.
“Will you eat some of it?”
“I don’t want to,” she said. Her voice sounded strange, different than I’d ever heard it before. I hope I didn’t shudder. I didn’t want to upset her.
“Please, Annie, I’m very worried about you.”
“That’s not my name.”
She likes to change her name sometimes. It worries me. One day she’s Beth, the next day Irene. It’s just like her hair, she changes it every time she runs away. I get so scared that one day I won’t be able to find her, and the police won’t be able to help because I won’t know what she looks like or what she’s calling herself.
“Sweetheart, I’d really like you to eat a little bit. Just a little, please, for mommy.”
And then she said, with the meanest look on her face, “You’re not my mommy.”
It hurt so much. It felt like a stab to my heart. Tears welled up in my eyes before I could stop them, so I turned away. I heard her scramble onto the bed, her fingernails scratching like little claws on the posts. When I looked back, she had her back pressed against the corner of the room, legs drawn up to her chest, rocking back and forth. Staring at me with those wild animal eyes.
“I love you, Annie,” I said with as much dignity as I could manage. “But sometimes I just don’t know how to deal with your behavior.”
She screamed. Just this one long, loud, echoing screech, like a siren. Her mouth was wide open, but her face was blank. I covered my ears, got out of the room and closed the door behind me.
I had to collect myself before I could go see Bill. He’s been so odd lately, I don’t want to worry him anymore.
I got a second plate of the macaroni and brought it to the bedroom. That’s where he spent all his time, lying in bed.
“Honey, I made dinner.”
He didn’t answer, didn’t even roll over to look. I picked up the plate from this morning, the food on it untouched, and put the new one down where he could reach it.
“Annie’s back. I found her in the park. She’s pitching a fit in her room already.”
He must’ve heard the screaming. I always tried to keep her quiet, told her that daddy needed rest, but she never listened. Sometimes I wondered if he could even hear her. He never got up to see what was wrong.
I knelt beside the bed and looked into his eyes. He stared back at me, not saying a word. He’d been like ever since the first time Annie ran away. They’d been alone together. Then she had run off, and he’d stopped talking. He lay down in bed and never got up again. Lost his job, lost so much weight. He hardly even looked like the man I’d married.
I kissed him on the forehead and left. As I closed the door behind me, I thought I saw him start to get up, but I guess I must have imagined it.
Annie kept on with that awful screaming for hours. I stayed in the living room, sitting on our big three-person couch alone. I turned up the TV as loud as I could, played music, turned on the blender, tried everything I could to drown out the awful screaming. It was like nails being driven into my ears, like spiders crawling up my neck, like ice water splashing on my legs.
Finally it stopped. I thought maybe she’d finally tuckered herself out, but then the scratching started. That was almost worse. It started out quick, rhythmic, but it got slower as time went on. Sometimes Annie would make a noise, like she was crying again. I started to worry that she might be hurting herself, but I couldn’t get that awful thing she had said to me or that wild look in her eyes out of my head. I just stayed in the living room and tried to sleep.
I don’t know how it got to be like this. I’ve thought about taking her to a doctor, but they always give her these strange looks. It’s gotten to where I don’t dare to go to the same doctor twice: I’m afraid they might be thinking of taking her away from me, of doing something awful to her.
I’ve thought about calling in a priest. I know that must sound crazy, but the way she gets sometimes, like she doesn’t even know me, it scares me so much. She’ll call out to people who aren’t there, shout names I don’t know like they’re real people. And there was that business with the kitchen knife. It wasn’t the first time she’s tried to hurt me. She smuggles rocks into the house and tries to hit me with them when my back is turned. When she gets really wild she’ll bite and claw at me. Some days I start to wonder if she’s really my little girl, or something else, wearing her face, haunting me.
After a long time the scratching stopped and everything got quiet. I sighed with relief. The house is so much nicer when it’s quiet.
I looked at the clock and could hardly believe how late it was. She must have finally fallen asleep. When I looked over at her door, I saw the light still on through the cracks. Quiet as I could, I tiptoed over. I would just peek in, turn off the light. Maybe give her a little kiss good night.
I opened the door just a crack, but that was all it took. She slammed through, knocked me to the floor, and scrambled away.
“Annie stop!” I shouted. She was going right to our bedroom, making so much noise I was sure it would wake Bill up.
She shoved through our door and I ran after. But inside she was just standing there, staring at the bed.
“Sweetheart, daddy’s sleeping,” I hissed.
She started screaming again, even louder than before. She pointed at Bill and screamed and screamed. I shushed her, tried to tell her he was sleeping.
But she wouldn’t stop. She screamed and screamed. The sound pierced through me, tore apart every nerve in my body. I covered my ears and scratched at my face and soon I was screaming too, just as loud as she was. I took her up in my arms and we screamed together. I hugged her as tight as I could, squeezed her to me, wishing I could do something, anything to make it stop. I held her so close I could feel her heartbeat, how soft and quiet it was, growing quieter and quieter.
She stopped screaming, there in my arms, and soon I stopped too. I sank to my knees, holding my little girl in my arms, stroking her hair.
I don’t know how long we stayed like that. It was so dark in the bedroom.
I looked down at Annie, but it wasn’t Annie at all. I was holding one of my dolls.
I must have fallen asleep, holding her there, and she snuck away and put a doll in my arms instead. It was a funny doll, one I didn’t remember having. It had such lovely blonde hair.
I felt so silly, holding that doll like that for who knows how long. I got up and carried it to the closet where I keep the other dolls and laid it there. There were so many dolls, and they were all so big, I was starting to run out of room. But I couldn’t throw them out. They were so pretty, such lovely little dolls. They all looked different, but every single one reminded me of Annie.
I checked around the house, but she was gone. She must have been very upset, to run away twice in just two days. I got my coat on and got ready to go look for her again.
Before I left, I went back to the bedroom to check on Bill. Somehow all the noise hadn’t bothered him at all. I touched his forehead, but he didn’t seem any different. My fingers stuck a little bit, and there was some funny green stuff left on them afterward. I wiped it off on the bed and said goodbye.
It was such a lovely day outside. I took a deep breath of the fresh air. I love our house, but every once in a while I notice the worst smell in there.
Somewhere off in the distance, I heard the sound of children laughing. It was so nice to hear after all that awful noise last night. Maybe Annie thought so too. I followed the laughter.