Her mother, the officer said, was dead.
The seven-year-old with dark braids tucked her chin against the sharp edge of her collarbone and cowered in the shadows of the darkened hallway behind Aunt Louise. She watched the man’s mouth moving, his pale skin lit by the strobing lights of the patrol car that had pulled her from sleep. The sounds of the room faded, as if they’d all been plunged underwater. But grownups were liars anyway, so it didn’t matter what they said: Aunt Louise, and her new man with the crooked foot, and the policeman from town who hovered on the front porch at three a.m. to deliver the news. Droplets of rain gathered on the brim of his plastic-covered hat and his hooked nose, pooled, then fell, dashing themselves to shards on the shine of his black shoes. Years later, when Michelle remembered that moment, she would remember those raindrops, like rolling crystals, tumbling in slow motion, accelerating to a roaring shatter, in a scene otherwise muffled of all sound.
Then Aunt Louise ripped the silence with a long ululating cry of despair, hands thrown in the air—dance of the dying loon—and sank to the ground, right on the empty threshold where the officer had stood. She pulled at her hair, thumped her head against the sill and calmed only a little when her new man pulled her back into the house to the slumped, broken couch cushions and the hissing blue static of the cracked TV. He held her tight against his chest. Louise, through her grief, managed to light a cigarette. Then the wailing began again, and Michelle shrank back into the chilly darkness.
They were all liars.
She crept back to the bedroom where she had been sleeping. She closed the door without sound, turning the knob with careful precision, then slipped back under the covers of the double bed where her cousins huddled together like a pile of freshly whelped pups. Their breathing and the softness of their hot toddler bodies enveloped her. Someone—she could tell by the smell and a vague dampness in the mattress—needed a diaper change, but she did not move to fix it.
She had never left the bed.
This night had never happened.
She turned over on her side, curled in tight against her knees, and waited for morning and her mother’s return.