This story deals with subjects that some readers may find upsetting.
I’m willing the old lady to take her seat already so the driver can go. Come on, come on, old girl, just pick a seat, any seat.
“Please take mine,” I say and stand. She smiles a paper-thin smile and eases herself onto the damp fabric. I hold onto a pole as the bus shudders onwards and we’re off again. I take out my phone and replay the message. “Miss Hart, Tabitha is unwell again. Please come and pick her up as soon as possible.”
The way Tabby’s teacher lingers on the word “again” sends a painful throb to my stomach.
The bus finally wheezes to a halt outside the school and as soon as my feet touch the asphalt I’m already running. Running over the playground, through the green gates and into the tiled hallway where my footsteps echo in big, fat marshmallow beats.
As I get close to the office, I slow my tempo. Two men in enforcement uniforms stand either side of the doorway. They turn to me as I try to pass them, their bodies like barriers of hard flesh.
“I’m here to pick up my daughter,” I say. I see her through the office window. She’s perched on the end of an armchair, cradling her face in her hands as a woman, also dressed in enforcement uniform tries to speak to her through the curtain of her hazelnut hair.
“She’s there,” I say, pointing through the window, “let me in.”
“You’re Miss Hart?” asks the taller of the officers.
“We need you to remain calm,” he says, as he unclips a pair of handcuffs from his belt.
The men sit across the table, smug in their crisp uniforms. The room is small, and it makes them feel big. There are no windows, only a blank metal door and a TV screen that lights a hard, pink aura behind the two men. I feel the heat of my temper branding a sweat-stain on the polished table top.
The man on the right is like wood; solid, knotted and unmoving while the one of the left is softer, his skin pallid and dented like clay. He is the first to speak.
“We have a few questions we’d like to ask you, Miss Hart.”
“Where is my daughter?” I ask. The Wood-man rests his arms on the table and leans towards me. His smile blooms like a fist uncurling.
“She’s not very well, you know” he says.
I almost growl. “I’m aware of that. So why am I here with you, instead of where I need to be?”
The Clay-man lifts something from the side of his chair and places it on the table. It’s an A4 booklet with a black-leather cover. At the centre of the cover is an indent. A logo. A hollow pink circle matching the one on the TV screen.
“I’m going to ask you some questions now, and I want you to answer them as honestly as you can, Miss Hart,” he says.
“At least tell me daughter’s alright?” I beg, “Does she know why I’m not there?”
“We’ll start with something simple, can you tell me how old your daughter is?”
I take a deep breath and try to calm myself. I look down at my hand and begin the task of spinning the ‘Mom’ ring Tabby bought me around my finger. A ring that had once been silver but was now the tarnished white of dug-up porcelain.
“She’s twelve,” I say.
“Can you tell me the date of her birth?”
“July nineteenth, twenty-twenty.”
“That’s great, Miss Hart and can you tell me the name and profession of her father?”
I try to answer coherently but my throat dries and my saliva thickens to a syrup.
“No.” Is all I manage.
The Wood-man lets out a little noise. Something between a huff and a laugh. I can’t tell which it is but it lands on my skin like thorny pinecones. “No father, then? Miraculous conception I suppose?” he says. I ignore him and look to the Clay-man who is turning a page of the booklet.
“Tell me about Tabitha as a baby,” he says. I feel the heavy sensation of my brows creasing.
“As a baby? What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Please answer the question.”
I shrug. “She was a baby. She ate, shit and slept like all other babies.”
“Did you cope well? As a single parent? Did you bond easily?”
“Of course. I had to work but every moment I wasn’t in work I’d be there with her.”
The Clay-man nods and there’s a smile of sorts playing around his lips.
“They grow so quickly, don’t they?” he says.
“Do you have children?” I ask. He doesn’t answer. He just scribbles a note in the booklet with his shiny black pen.
“Tell me something you remember from those early days. A happy memory, something you miss, perhaps.”
“I don’t understand why you’re asking this?”
“Answer the question.” The Wood-man barks.
“I don’t know. Her smell. I suppose I miss her smell. And the way I could hold her for hours and she wouldn’t move, wouldn’t fuss to get down.”
The Clay-man nods. “Thank you. That’s good. Now can you tell me a bit about Tabitha when she was a toddler?”
I curl my tongue under my top-teeth the way Tabby does when she’s angry.
“Her first word was Oreo because that was our cat’s name. She loved playing with sand and water. We went to the beach often but she was scared of boats.” I push myself back into the cold plastic chair. The legs growl along the floor.
Clay-man makes another note. “Excellent. Now, moving along a bit, how did you cope when Tabitha started school?”
“Fine. She loves school.”
The Wood-man shakes his balding head. “That wasn’t the question. He asked how you coped.”
“I coped fine. It was upsetting to leave her there on the first day. Of course any parent will tell you that.”
“She did well in school, yes?”
“Yes, she’s very bright.”
Wood-man leans forward. “She continues to do well, despite the circumstances?”
“What circumstances?” I say and lean forward too.
“Despite her having only one parent, of course.”
“Why would that make any difference?” I feel my jaw slacken in amazement.
“Clearly it didn’t.” Wood-man folds his arms and leans back again, his eyes wide on mine.
“Miss Hart, has Tabitha ever been seriously ill?” asks Clay-man.
“Why? Is something wrong with her now?” I straighten in my seat but he shakes his head.
“Please answer the question.” I nod and try to calm myself. I shift around in the chair in hopes of dislodging the burn in the pit of my stomach.
“She had a water infection of some sort when she was seven. The doctors told me they didn’t know exactly what it was but it was damaging her kidneys. She was dehydrated and they kept her in the hospital for a week on anti-biotics. That’s the most serious thing I can think of.”
“Was she in pain?” asks Clay-man.
“Sure, I guess, although she was sleepy and out of it most of the time. What kind of question is that?”
“How did you feel when she was in pain, Miss Hart?”
A laugh breaks out of me. “Are you serious?”
“Please answer the question,” says Wood-man.
“How do you think I felt?”
“Worried, anxious, helpless?” offers Clay-man.
“Of course, all of the above and moreover. If you have kids yourself surely you’d know it’s anyone’s worst fear!” I yell, almost embarrassed as spittle from my mouth lands on Clay-man’s hands. Almost.
“Let’s move on to something a little gentler. How about good times, Miss Hart. Can you tell me if there’s anything in your memories with Tabitha that stands out?”
His monotone disarms me. It sends a cold, frothy wave through my body. “There are many.” I shrug.
“You can tell us anything in particular. Just one will suffice.” He says, not looking at me and instead poising his pen above the notepad. I try to narrow my thoughts. The holiday in Savannah and the Ghost-Tour which kept Tabby sleepless for a week. The first time we watched The Lion King together and how she cried when Simba got hurt. The Christmas we were both ill but we laughed and spent three-days sharing a blanket and Krispy-Crèmes on the couch.
“I don’t know. Maybe her tenth birthday, she was miserable and I challenged her to an ice-cream eating contest. We both ended up being sick but we laughed so much. We still talk about that now and again.” I say and I feel the edges of my lips curling into a smile. Clay-man nods as he writes quickly into the notepad.
“Thank you, Miss Hart. You’ve been very helpful. I just want to ask you to look at the screen while we take you through a quick series of photographs before we ask you our final question for today and we can close our case here, ok?” Clay-man turns the notepad to the last page as Wood-man points to the screen behind him. Confused, I nod absently as the TV screen flicks into life. The first photograph shows Tabby in her school uniform, taken with my phone a few days ago. The image cements me in place, fills my body from the feet-up like sand pouring into a glass. Each second I stare at it the weight intensifies.
“How did you get that?” I hear my voice whisper but now the next image. Tabby a few years ago at a friend’s party. Then the next, Tabby at school proudly holding her poetry trophy. Then Tabby, younger again, on Christmas day cuddling her Care-Bear. Tabby in Kindergarten, Tabby on the Merry-Go-Round, Tabby in diapers. Flash, flash, flash the photographs tick over like drum beats, until Tabby is baby and then Tabby isn’t. She’s a sonogram image, a mosaic of beautiful white shards on black paper. The image lingers on screen so bright I see it’s echoes dance in my peripheral.
“Thank you, Miss Hart. Now for our final question if you don’t mind.” The Clay-man’s voice rouses me and I feel my bones shaking under my damp skin. I manage a nod and an “Okay.”
Wood-man is tapping his hand on the table in unison with a beat. A humming beep coming from somewhere and everywhere. It’s pitch rising an octave with every pulse.
“I assume you love your daughter, Miss Hart, am I right?” he says. I nod, too distracted by the vibration of the beep, it’s baritone filling my hollow chest like thunder. Clay-man takes my hand. His fingers drowning mine. He squeezes and I look at him in shock.
“Then why, Miss Hart, did you murder her?”
A bright pink light above my head. The aftershocks of a low-hum still ringing in my ears. I try to lift my head but there’s something heavy holding me down. I twist hands but they’re held down too. I hear a voice to my left. Familiar, but not quite.
“Help,” I say, my mouth wet and salty. The voice moves closer and the pallid complexion of the Clay-man slides into view.
“Please remain still, Miss Hart,” he says and there’s something there in his tone that’s off. Something different. I turn my head away from him and begin to knead the leather straps under my fingers. Then a white light fills my vision. It’s Clay-Man with a torch. “She’s responding well,” he says into the room.
I feel the rumble and bump of wheels underneath me and the ceiling above rolls by, one cream Styrofoam tile after another. Then the room is pink again and I feel leather straps loosen and I’m being hoisted into a chair. My body is limp and cold. My vision milky.
“It might take some time for you to feel normal again, Miss Hart, recovery can be anything between six hours to three weeks.” The voice of the Wood-man. They’re both sitting there in front of me again but this time the room is bigger and they seem smaller.
“What’s going on?” I croak.
Clay-man smiles. It’s a warm smile. “I’m pleased to tell you your rehabilitation has been successful.” For the first time, I realise Clay-Man has an English accent.
“Have you always been British?” I ask. He laughs.
“Yes, but you would have heard an American accent in the departure room.”
“Where’s Tabby?” I say.
The Wood-man smiles now. But it isn’t warm.
Clay-Man speaks up. “I know things seem a little foggy now and you might not remember much of the past few days but that will all return soon. What’s important for us now is to close this case so you can get on with your recovery.”
“Where’ my daughter? Where am I?” I ask again, my voice almost a whisper.
“Miss Hart, I have to ask you if you remember the illegal procedure you undertook a few weeks ago?”
“What are you talking about?”
“That’s fine, not to worry, memories will re-surface soon.”
“I don’t understand. Please tell me what’s going on.” I feel the shake of my body puncture the tone of my voice.
“Three weeks ago you sought an illegal termination at a clinic out of state. Upon your arrival back in Georgia you were arrested, sentenced and sent to our facility here for rehabilitation.”
“I sought what?”
“A termination.” His lips move easily over the word, blown as gently as a kiss.
“No I didn’t.”
“Under state-law we no longer imprison those who seek child-destruction, we now aim to offer rehabilitation and guidance to limit repeat-offences. The procedure has a very high success rate and has saved the lives of thousands already.” The Clay-Man’s smile is gentle but the words he delivers sound foreign, as though they have a clinical flavour.
“What procedure? What does it mean?” I try to shout but only a dampened husk of a sound comes out.
“Tabitha isn’t real, Miss Hart. She is a fabricated simulation formulated by our facility using the limited knowledge we have of your pregnancy. We know the baby you terminated was female and that Tabitha was a name you associated with affection. The name of your Late-Aunt.”
“I’m afraid so. You will feel a little better once your recovery is underway, but I’m afraid grief is your punishment.”
“Bullshit! I scream. “Where’s my daughter?”
“The memories you’ve made at this facility will not disappear. The sense of loss you will suffer is the most effective part of rehabilitation, Miss Hart.”
I try to stand but my legs are butter. I try to focus on the hollow pink circle logo behind the two-men. Now I understand its meaning.
The Clay-Man turns to the Wood-man.
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