portion of the artwork for Matt Getty's fiction

Keeping Susie Whole
Matt Getty

Susie was two when parts of her body started falling off. At first it was minor—fingertips, earlobes, the pinky toe on her left foot. Sheila and I would find them lying around the house, discarded, collected in small piles like forgotten toys, bits of cereal she’d spilled from the high chair.

“Susie,” I would coo as I mussed her thick head of strawberry blonde curls. “You’ve got to keep track of yourself, honey.” Then Sheila would kneel down, lick the end of a detached knuckle, eyelid, or fingernail, and reaffix it.

Susie giggled wildly each time we returned a piece, her face bursting into a pudgy mess of teeth and dimples as if this were all some game she’d made up, a challenge to see how well we knew this body that was then still as much ours as hers. But once, when I playfully put the tip of her nose on her elbow, acting as if I’d confused it for a mole, she screamed, lashed out with her chubby hand, and knocked my glasses off my face.

Sheila sat her at the foot of the stairs for a time-out and calmly explained the rules about hitting. Susie screamed for the full two minutes.

When we returned, her left arm was lying on the floor.

* * *

That’s when the body parts started getting bigger, more extreme. She was just a month shy of three, and suddenly it was entire feet, hands, eyeballs, legs. After one of her more intense tantrums—over my refusal to let her eat raw sugar-cookie dough—I found her wriggling violently on the living room rug, just a featureless head and torso, her legs, arms, eyes, ears, nose, lips, and teeth scattered about the Berber carpet, abandoned.

Reassembling her turned from a game into a battle. She flailed whatever limbs she had against all efforts to restore her, jettisoning fingers, fists, or feet, twice leaving me with a bloody nose.

Often, Sheila had to pin her shoulders as I struggled to snap her legs back into her hips. Other times she sat on Susie’s feet as I pieced her face back together, eyebrows furrowing angrily as soon as I pressed them down, lips curling into a frown as soon as I pinched them back over the edges of her mouth, tongue thrashing about as soon as I’d anchored it back into her throat, giving voice to screams that made the hairs on my forearms stand up.

“Mine!” she shouted. “My face. No! No want face. Leave me alone. My face!”

* * *

We managed the best we could. I was doing freelance design work for a handful of ad agencies back then, so I was home most times Sheila needed a hand. And Susie’s outbursts were balanced by long stretches of calm. Of all her friends, Susie was probably the least prone to tantrums, never succumbing to one outside the house. In fact, she displayed little of the behavior that had already sent most of our parent friends cowering into books by cheerful doctors known only by their first names.

Yet the strain of wrestling her back together every couple of weeks took its toll. By the time she was seven, she’d grown too big for Sheila to restrain. We switched places, and as I gripped Susie’s shoulders, ankles, or waist, shifting more and more of my weight onto her body, my growing sense of helplessness erupted in hoarse shouts about her own good and wheezing declarations of a father’s useless love.

Afterwards, I would watch Susie sleeping and wonder if the bruises I’d left on her arms had come purely from the pressure I needed to apply to keep her still or from some place darker, some piece of me that still wanted to smack her little mouth every time it snarled that it didn’t belong to me.

“We can’t get into guilt over this,” Sheila said, as I reached toward the purple blotches my fingers had stamped on Susie’s shoulder. “We can’t blame ourselves.”

I glanced around the half-dark bedroom. “Who else is there?” I asked.

* * *

When she was almost nine, things came to a head. After six hours of paste-up photo editing to put smiling baby faces on a dozen eggs for some corporate farm-association account, I came out of my office to find Susie all over the house. I’d forgotten about the bike ride I’d promised that morning. Fingers were dissected knuckle by knuckle, nail by nail, each in a different room. Her right leg alone was in twenty-three separate pieces. It took two hours just to collect her.

We fought tooth and nail—literally—to put her back together. Each time we got one fully assembled limb back in place, she would explode its digits in every direction. I kneeled on her shoulders catching fingers, toes, ears, and eyeballs as they sprayed up into the air. “Goddamn it, Susie,” I said through my teeth. “Goddamn it.”

Then her bellybutton (an outie) shot from her stomach and hit me in the eye. “That’s it!” I shouted, ripping off the arms we’d spent nearly an hour reattaching and throwing them on the floor. “I’m done. OK? I’m done!”

I walked out into the hallway, exhaled, and then leaned up against the wall rubbing my fist into my eye.

“What is it, Suze?” I heard Sheila shout inside the room. “What do you want to do? You want your body in a hundred pieces? Fine!”

With that, Sheila walked out to join me in the hallway. She closed the door, and we both listened as Susie cried, launching pieces of herself against the door again and again.

* * *

That would be the last time we fought to put Susie back together. The transition wrung from us all as many tears as when we’d stopped rocking her to sleep as an infant. I still cringe when I remember all those mornings I refused to fill her bowl with Cookie Crisp until she put her toes back onto her feet. But beginning that night and stretching out over the better part of a year, Susie learned to reassemble herself—fingers inching together to form hands, hands wrestling feet back into ankles, arms into shoulders.

By her tenth birthday she even complied happily with some basic ground-rules. She agreed to keep her detached eyes on a table, dresser top, or shelf so that they wouldn’t be squashed—a fear that still gave Sheila nightmares long after eyeballs stopped appearing underfoot. When I tripped over her shin on the third step from the basement, she promised to keep all unattended pieces of herself off the stairs, and she did.

Susie thrived with her new freedom and responsibility. After a few months, she even began experimenting with her ability, controlling more consciously when and how she would come apart and then reassembling herself so quickly that Sheila and I often didn’t know whether she’d spent the day whole or in pieces.

Then, when she was eleven, she showed me a new trick.

“Look, Daddy,” she chirped one Sunday afternoon while I sat in the living room drafting a storyboard for some new glow-in-the dark running shoe. “Look what I can do.”

I looked up. She was standing beside me, missing only her right arm from the elbow down. With her left hand she pointed to the coffee table where her right forearm and hand lay between a bowl of fruit and one of Sheila’s books of toddlers dressed as 1930s movie icons.

“I’m starting to figure something out,” Susie said, closing her eyes and wrinkling her chin in concentration.

The hand and forearm on the coffee table crawled over to the fruit bowl, clumsily pulled out a green apple, and then tossed it into the air in a wide arc.

Susie opened her eyes, caught the apple in her left hand, and then took a bite. “Neat, huh?” she said.

“Neato, kiddo,” I said, dropping my sketchbook onto my lap. “Neato.”

Over the next few months Sheila and I watched Susie turn her oddity into an art. She would stash her eyes in the bedroom to read graphic novels about teenage vampires while her hands washed dishes in the kitchen and her legs and torso danced to rap CDs in the basement. She would prop her head, one eyeball, and a hand on the dining-room table during dinner while one arm, a leg, her torso, and the other eye played video games in the living room, and her other leg practiced various soccer kicks with a handless arm in the garage.

“It’s amazing,” Sheila whispered to me one night as we lay in bed. “What Susie can do … Sometimes I look at her, and I’m honestly jealous. I’m lucky if I can even get a load of laundry done in a day. She can do the laundry, finish her homework, talk on the phone, and watch TV—all at the same time. I’m jealous of my eleven-year-old daughter. Isn’t that awful?”

“It’s no more awful than not being jealous of her would be,” I said.

* * *

In another year, however, it wouldn’t matter. Susie’s experiments with her body abruptly ended when she entered junior high school. In fact, her body parts stopped coming off altogether. Either through her physical maturing or the sheer force of her will, she remained assembled, fiercely rejecting any requests for her former tricks.

“Can’t you just leave an eye by the TV so you can give me updates on the game?” I asked her on one gray autumn afternoon as we were heading off to church.

“Ewww, Dad, that’s so gross!” she hissed, twisting her face into an exaggerated grimace.

Having long expected my daughter to outgrow any childhood fascination she shared with me, I took her refusals in stride. I smiled, shrugged, or sighed sarcastically, regularly teasing her to “give me a hand” or “lend me an ear” just to see the dramatic reaction.

But it was harder for Sheila. As it was, Susie’s growth had seemed to spawn a subtle mistrust between the two of them. I finally had to take a full-time job with a big corporate ad firm for the retirement benefits, so I was around less and less. The more time they spent alone and the more Susie’s body held together, Sheila and Susie oddly seemed to shift apart, realigning like magnets, the very forces that once bonded them now pushing them apart.

“I don’t get you, Susan,” Sheila snapped after begging Susie for the better part of an hour just to let an eyelash fall to the floor. “You have this wonderful gift, and you want to be like everybody else. It’s an insult to the rest of us really. You have this … this talent, and you just throw it away.”

We didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back, the whole thing was probably hardest on Susie. There were a few revealing moments—like when a great uncle who hadn’t seen her since she was three jokingly played “got your nose” and Susie locked herself in the bathroom for an hour—but for the most part the tension was subtle and unspoken.

By the time she was seventeen Susie had grown into a shapely young woman whose beauty made us all slightly uncomfortable. Her green eyes, wavy auburn hair, and sleek, graceless limbs commanded a room as surely as if she were strapped with explosives. If we ran into her outside the bathroom, when she was dressed only in a towel, her underwear, or a robe that revealed long, freckled slices of her legs with each step, even Sheila looked away and stammered nervously. Backs pressed up against the walls, we tiptoed around our daughter as if her body now carried a force so powerful it could blow up the entire house.

By the time she was filling out college applications, Susie’s strange childhood talent seemed all but forgotten. Sheila and I recalled it only on the quiet nights when Susie was out late with friends, leaving us alone with a shoebox crammed with old photographs of the daughter disappearing from our lives. “Remember when Susie used to pull on our pant legs and say, ‘loo loo,’ when she wanted to be picked up?” we would reminisce. “Remember when she called clouds ‘puffies’?” “Remember when she could burst into a dozen pieces at will?”

Looking back now, though, I can see that it was something Susie thought about even more than we did. In her junior year in college, when she was studying abroad in Madrid and we finally replaced her childhood bed with one of those full-sized memory-foam numbers, I found something under her old box spring I could never bring myself to show Sheila. Dozens of old fashion magazines lay scattered beneath the empty bed frame. The pages inside had been torn out, the models on them painstakingly sliced into hundreds and hundreds of pieces.

* * *

Of course, life went on with all the traditional milestones. Sheila gave a toast at Susie’s graduation party that made them both cry as they gently touched pink cosmo glasses nearly as big as their heads. We visited her in her office in the city at her first job as a staff associate for some nonprofit working on South American child trafficking, took her out for an overpriced lunch she insisted on buying. I needled a half-dozen boyfriends in over-decorated chain restaurants, and when Susie was twenty-four I walked her down the aisle and gave her away to an earnest young software developer named Doug, who at least pretended to be nervous around me.

“Don’t worry,” I had told him as we sat at the bar nursing imported light beers after the rehearsal dinner, his small brown eyes darting from his lap to the TV, to the homemade smiley-face tattoo on the bartender’s left index finger. “I should be the least of your concerns. Susie’s quite a girl—quite a woman. I mean, I’m sure you know her as well as anyone, but Susie’s not like other people. She’s special. She hides it well, but I can’t help but think that if someone gets close enough to her, they’re going to see it.”

“She’s an amazing girl,” he said, aiming his chiseled chin at me as if it were proof of his steadfastness. “I already know that. And I’m going to take good care of her. I know that, too.”

He didn’t have a clue.

* * *

We got the call halfway through their second year of marriage.

“I don’t know what happened,” Doug said, his voice crushed into a panicky whisper. “We had an argument. She just … She … She exploded. I started to dial 911, but I hung up. I don’t know what to say.”

“When you say, ‘she exploded,’” I asked him, “you’re speaking literally, right?”

He didn’t need to say “yes.” His silence gave me my answer.

“Don’t bother with an ambulance,” I told him. “We’ll be right over.”

Apparently, a fight over a phone bill had mushroomed into their relationship’s first knock-down-drag-out emotional war. Susie had called him cheap. He’d called her a child. She backed against the granite counter separating their kitchen from their dining room, stopped breathing for a few seconds, and then shattered.

Doug told us that he’d previously seen evidence of Susie’s “condition”—his words, not mine. When her left hand dropped into the basket during an apple-picking trip in upstate New York a year earlier, Susie told him all about her childhood, apparently leaving out the preteen years of experimentation. According to Doug, they agreed that she would continue her efforts of restraint “as she always had.” They limited her “episodes”—again, his word—to the occasional loss of a clump of hair after a violent sneeze or the partial detachment of a tear-heavy eyelid during a jewelry store commercial. Doug tenderly helped her put herself back together after these occasional incidents, but he was unprepared for something of this magnitude.

“I had no choice but to call you,” he said, a note of apology or embarrassment tugging at his voice. “I’ve never … We’ve never … It’s never been like this.”

In fact, it went far beyond anything Sheila and I had ever seen. The pent-up forces Susie had struggled against for so long had ruptured her into thousands of pieces. Arteries, muscle fiber, and connective tissue clung to the faux painted walls of their kitchen in a bloodless mess. Her skeleton’s 206 bones littered the ceramic tiled floors along with seven layers of unblemished skin. Her pristine, still-beating heart thumped dully on their antique farmhouse dining-room table.

“I need you to go to the bookstore and get us an anatomy textbook,” I said to Doug. “You might as well call off work tomorrow. We’re going to be up all night.”

It turned out he needed to call off for the rest of the week. Sheila, Doug, and I crawled around the house and pored over that anatomy book for two days, threading what seemed like miles of veins from Susie’s heart to her toes. It took about fourteen hours to snap her skeleton back together, another eight to reassemble her musculature. Refusing sleep, Sheila worked nonstop on her digestive tract the first three nights before finally collapsing on the last morning. Doug and I integrated it and Susie’s other organs on the fifth day, and finally woke Sheila up to watch as we finished dressing Susie in her skin and waited for her eyes to open.

They did so almost immediately, darting around like little green marbles rattling around in a glass—but Susie would never be quite the same.

Perhaps we’d made some subtle anatomical errors in reassembling her. Perhaps the force of the explosion had left a permanent damage we couldn’t correct. Perhaps the struggle of keeping herself whole all these years was just finally too much for her. Whatever the case, Susie began losing pieces of herself more often again. And even as Doug struggled valiantly to help hold her together, it soon became clear that Susie was fighting a losing battle.

Visiting only once every two or three months at holiday parties, Sheila and I saw her decline more starkly than Doug did. At Christmas she couldn’t keep her hair from standing out in every direction. By Easter she was cross-eyed as well. July 4th, a low-exploding bottle rocket startled her and made a thick blue vein in her neck—which I have to admit looked somewhat out of place—start throbbing so violently it seemed ready to burst. On Labor Day she was a jittery mess, every part of her body moving just slightly, almost imperceptibly, in its own direction so that she seemed somehow blurred.

Sheila blamed Doug. “Look at the kind of work he does,” she whispered to me as we sat on their back lawn eating new-potato salad under the blazing September sun. “Trouble-shooting computer programs. In his world everything has to stay together, or it doesn’t work. He’s not letting her stay apart; that’s what the problem is.”

“It’s not our business,” I told her.

Sheila looked at me as if I’d slapped her, her dark eyebrows arching so drastically they looked ready to snap. “Not our business?” she said. “She’s our goddamned daughter!” With that, she stormed off toward the house.

By the time I caught up with her in the kitchen, she’d already gotten into it with Doug.

“… This is a gift, she has,” I heard Sheila saying as I came in. “She needs to work with it, not fight it.”

“A gift! A gift?” Doug slumped into a birch Queen Anne chair at the kitchen table, dropped his face into his hands, and then looked up, his tight helmet of wavy brown hair mussed for the first time I’d ever seen. “Look, I don’t mean any disrespect, but we’re just coming at this from different angles. Maybe if you had done your job as parents … Maybe if you would have dealt with this situation when she was young, when there was still time to stop it—”

“Stop it?” Sheila raised both hands, palms toward Doug, her silver bangle bracelets ringing against one another as they slipped down toward her elbows. “Do you have any idea how wonderful it is to see your daughter spread out in every room of your house, living her life at five times the pace of the rest of the world?”

“Do you have any idea how embarrassing it is to be eating dinner with one of your clients and see your wife’s nose fall into her soup?”

They went on like that for a few minutes, Doug slouching further against the high curved back of his chair, Sheila waving her arms, jangling those bracelets some more. I said nothing.

Then they both suddenly got quiet as they looked up in the doorway behind me. I turned and saw Susie standing there missing only her right ear.

“I’ve decided to start experimenting again,” she said. She walked toward Doug, her once clean, balanced features a bundle of ticks and grimaces. “I’m sorry if that’s embarrassing for some people, but this is what I am.”

Reaching behind the microwave, she grabbed something and held it out toward Doug. It was her right ear. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I heard everything.”

Three weeks later, in the middle of a thunderstorm, Sheila and I heard someone kicking at our front door. When I opened it, I saw Susie’s leg on our front porch. It stood there drenched, wearing only a red canvas high-top. Just beyond, in the carport I could see Susie’s face streaked with tears, framed by the rain-soaked window of her blue hatchback.

“It’s going to be OK,” Sheila told her once we got her inside and dried off her leg. “Doug was never going to understand who you really were. I’m just glad you finally do.”

* * *

Over the next several months, as she finalized her divorce, Susie stayed with us. She joined me once again for toaster strudels and strawberry milk each morning, played squash with Sheila each weekend, and struggled daily to regain the powers she’d developed as a child.

But it was never quite the same. When she sent her legs and waist for a jog on the treadmill in the basement while her upper body helped Sheila prepare a vodka-sauce rotini, a loud crash drew us downstairs to find her legs on the floor kicking at each other over the beige shards of shattered ceramic lamp. When she struggled to detach her right eye so that it could watch a soap opera while she checked celebrity-gossip websites, her chin fell off her face five times before she got so frustrated she blew apart into thousands of pieces again.

It took us seven days to get her back together this time. And once again the result was somewhat less than perfect. We’d double-checked every step with that anatomy textbook, but still just a few days afterwards any sudden movements would make Susie’s reassembled muscles cramp so violently you could see them balling up under her skin like little fists shaking at Sheila and me.

In the space of the next month, two more explosions and reassemblies left Susie unable to get out of bed for long stretches. Every move she made sent some muscle, bone, or vein poking up through her skin, which was itself always shifting from side to side, stretching, and then bunching up and wrinkling as if pinched by invisible fingers.

Still, Sheila pressed her to pursue the experiments she’d mastered as a child, and Susie did her best to comply, though she shared her fears with me whenever I checked in on her in the evenings.

“I’m afraid of how far this might go,” she whispered to me after Sheila left the room to see how Susie’s hands were progressing on a typing test in the other room. “Sometimes when I can’t get the right part of me to come off, I just picture every little piece of me, and that’s when it happens. That’s when I blow all over the place.”

“Don’t worry, Suze,” I told her, sliding onto the edge of her bed. “Mom and I are here to put you back together.”

“I know, but sometimes I think even smaller.” The corners of her mouth shot up and down in opposite directions, and we heard the computer keyboard clatter to the floor downstairs. “I mean, the human body is infinitely divisible. Sometimes I picture cells, sometimes atoms.”

“And even atoms can be split,” I said without thinking, my fingers tracing the stitches in the comforter Sheila and I had argued over while Susie was in college.

“I know, Dad. It never ends.”

* * *

Gradually, though we all hid behind smiles and small talk, the strain of having our twenty-seven-year-old daughter back in our care was beginning to show. As Susie’s attempts at dissecting herself continued to fail, I found it difficult to muster the attention I’d showered on her girlhood efforts to dazzle me. Instead I buried myself in pre-retirement hobbies—calligraphy, papercraft, digital photo painting. Sheila grew increasingly frustrated, her disappointment folding a permanent crease in her forehead and shoving her encouragement toward cruelty.

“Susan, I’m not giving you your eye back until you read me the license plate on the neighbor’s car,” I heard her shout from the porch as I walked back through the living room to avoid passing Susie’s bedroom.

“Mom!” Susie shouted. “Do you have salt on your fingers? Something is burning the crap out of my eye! I can’t see a thing!”

“You’re not trying …”

That mistrust they’d shared during Susie’s teen years had aged with them, calloused now with patience but also with bitterness. Though less frequent, their fights over Susie’s lack of progress grew fiercer until Susie laid down the ultimatum.

“Leave it alone or I’m done with it,” I heard her shout one evening from her room. Who knows what they were doing. Seven of Susie’s toes rolled around the living-room rug while her right shin and her elbow bounced up and down on the sofa.

“What do you mean you’re done with it?” Sheila snapped back. “I just love when you talk about this like it’s something you’re doing for me.”

I looked up from the photo painting on my laptop, a shot of Sheila holding Susie the day after she was born, the bold sweeping line between their pressed-together cheeks giving me fits.

“Well, sometimes that’s how I feel,” Susie answered.

“Stop the whining. I’m not going to listen to it.”

“What if I’m not what you think I am, Mom?” Susie shouted, her toes, shin, and elbow suddenly lifeless on the sofa. “What if this isn’t about becoming the best me I can be? What if this is about becoming something else?”

“The last thing we need now is more questions, Susie. Let’s stick with what we know.” Sheila stomped through the upstairs hallway. I stared at the fake wood grain in our paneled walls, listening, hoping I wouldn’t need to get involved.

* * *

Over the next few months, Susie and Sheila’s relationship reverted to the cycle of shouting and silence it had charted during Susie’s early teen years. Sheila nagged Susie to practice disassembling and reassembling herself, and Susie refused—only now the arguments took a visible toll on Susie. Her eyes rolled uncontrollably in her head, her face seemed to form twenty different expressions all at once, and her limbs flailed about on the mattress as she struggled to hold herself together against her mother’s wishes.

I should have known Susie was building to something, had a plan, but all I could see was my daughter suffering. I winced to look at her rattling in that bed, shivering, twitching, losing a battle with a body even she could no longer call her own.

One night just before Christmas, Sheila was up there arguing with her, and I finally felt I needed to do something, save her somehow. What did I know? I was downstairs looking at my faded reflection in the blank screen of the laptop I’d stopped bothering to turn on days ago. Sheila was demanding that Susie accept who she was by detaching her arms to help with the holiday cookies downstairs. Susie was insisting that her arms were never hers to tell what to do in the first place.

“Do you know what my arms are made of?” she asked, struggling to keep her voice calm. “How many separate pieces are there in just one arm? How many pieces are in those pieces? Where do the pieces end?”

“Please, Susan,” Sheila said. “I’m trying to help you. You can’t keep yourself locked up like this. Look at what it’s doing to you. Think of all the time you wasted when you were younger and you wouldn’t listen to me. You’ve got to trust me. Remember what happened after you held it back before? Remember how it got worse? What if it gets even worse now? It could be … it could be irreparable.”

Something about that word slapped me in the face. Irreparable. I’d already seen it in Susie’s decline during the last few months, her trapped in that bed, resisting her mother’s advice. I couldn’t just stay out of it anymore. I trotted up the steps toward Susie’s room, passing school portraits that captured as much of her as I’d ever understood—a gap-toothed smile in first grade, tattered pigtails in third, the sad smiling eyes of a twelve-year-old, the strained head tilt of a sophomore who has no clue how beautiful she is.

When I got to the room, Sheila was still pleading with Susie, her narrow shoulders jumping up and down with each word. But Susie just lay there with her eyes closed, trembling slightly as if in deep concentration. I looked at her, the culmination of those pieces captured throughout her childhood, a collection of gestures, features, moments, the sum of her parts.

“Susie, can’t you just give it a try?” I said.

Susie looked up and Sheila spun, both surprised, looking at me with the same wide eyes, the arches in their thick eyebrows nearly identical.

“I just can’t stand to see you hurting yourself just to prove a point to your mother,” I continued.

“That’s not what this is about,” Susie said, closing her eyes. Any resemblance to Sheila vanished as Susie’s face once again roiled with twitches. “I’m not holding myself together just to spite Mom, and I’m not hurting myself.” She pressed her head back into the pillow, her neck straining as her arms shot up, fingers zigging and zagging, desperately trying to leap from her hands.

“Oh, come on, Susie!” I said, and I could feel my voice rising for the first time in years, feel that tension at the back of my throat. I glanced at Sheila and realized the three of us hadn’t been in a room together in months, maybe years if you didn’t count the times we were reassembling Susie. I thought back to those days when it was always just the three of us, when it was always Sheila and me fighting to keep Susie together. I thought of those bruises shaped like my fingers, wondered if we ever knew what we were doing.

“How the hell can you say that?” I said, and now the frustration was tearing at my voice. Sheila was looking at me stunned, reaching out her hand as if to calm me, Susie panting, her teeth rattling, eyes jittering from side to side, and me finally just shouting, “Look at what’s happening to you!”

I stepped forward and laid my hand on Susie’s knee, immediately ashamed of my outburst. But it didn’t matter. Susie already had what she’d wanted, the three of us together, all of those old emotions spilling out, my hand on her, Sheila’s hand now on my back.

“I know what’s happening to me,” Susie said. Her body went calm for just a moment, maybe a split second, maybe not. It could have all just been wishful thinking, but I swear I saw a smile align her features for just that moment, pull her eyes together, still her mouth and nose, bring it all back into focus so clear and so suddenly familiar that it ripped the breath out of my mouth.

Then it was gone. She was grimacing, grinding her teeth, her whole body shaking so fast the movement was hard to see, like a tuning fork or the wings of a humming bird.

I pulled back my hand, reached my other for Sheila behind me. There was no sound. There was only Susie shuddering in bed, my hand pulling away from hers, my other hand now clutching Sheila’s, and then light enveloped everything.

I didn’t see it as much as I felt it at first. Everything was just white and warm, around me and through me. Nearly a minute passed before I realized my eyes were closed. When I opened them, Susie’s body was gone. Everything blazed white with light. The wrinkled blankets on the empty bed, Sheila’s wide-eyed stare, the bureau against the wall … It all burned against my eyes, beautiful and blank, shadowless, visible only in degrees of whiteness.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the light that filled the room began to dissipate as it expanded. Sheila patted about the bed and then stood upright and turned to me, letting her mouth hang open in a lopsided circle, holding her hands up, looking at the light shimmer off her palms. “What is it?” she asked.

“It’s Susie,” I answered, staggering around in a circle and catching the light against my own hands as the bare white walls finally became visible. “It’s all Susie … all of it. All of her.”

* * *

We said nothing for a long time. Maybe hours passed, maybe days. I know that at some point when Susie finally faded, when she moved on to chase darkness from places we would never see, Sheila and I left the room, went downstairs, and held each other without crying until night fell and that room was dark as well. I know that when sunlight filled the house the next morning, we couldn’t know whether Susie was a part of it, but we smiled all the same. I know at some point we talked to the police, filled out missing-person forms, lied long enough to make them accept what we could not, even held a funeral we both knew to be a farce but needed all the same. I know that since then I’ve read dozens of books on atomic physics, quantum mechanics, and string theory, and sometimes I feel like I can just begin to get my head around my daughter. I know that Sheila and I eventually got to a point where we could say her name to each other without our voices breaking, look at old family videos without squeezing each other’s hands until they ached. I know that now, just within the last year maybe, I can hear those clichés—“falling apart,” “cracking up,” “going to pieces”—without feeling Susie’s absence, feeling her knocked out of me like a punch in the gut.

But most times it feels like we’re just still in that room. Most times I can only see us standing there waiting for the light to fade, holding out our hands to catch pieces of our daughter, looking for her in the edges of the shadows we cast against the walls.

Matt Getty’s Comments

My daughters, Sophia and Maddy, are the heart and soul of this story. I came up with the idea before they were born, but I couldn’t begin to write it until I experienced the maddening joy of raising toddlers.

As they grew into young girls, I revisited the story again and again, finding new twists in the narrative with each new phase of childhood they experienced. I don’t yet know what it’s like to have adult children, but as I’ve seen my girls grow, I’ve caught glimpses of what the future may hold. Finishing this story meant looking forward, considering their futures, contemplating my place in it, and working out the delicate dance of holding on and letting go that—for me—is parenthood.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 35 | Winter 2012