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A psychological thriller of secrets, dark motives, and an adoption buried in the past
At the center of Elizabeth Brundage's new novel lies an adoption under stressed and tragic circumstances. Willa, brought up in elegant prosperity, is now a student at the prestigious Pioneer School. But her biological father, a failing writer and former drug addict, can't live with himself without seeing her again.
In this idyllic Berkshires landscape, Willa's adoptive parents have fled a mysterious past; a feminist sculptor initiates a reckless affair; teenagers live in a world to which adults turn a blind eye; and the headmaster's wife is busy keeping her husband's disastrous history and current indiscretions well hidden. The culmination of these forces is the collision of two very different fathers—biological and adoptive—and a villain whose ends and means slowly unfold with the help, witting and unwitting, of all around him. Somebody Else's Daughter delivers an electric, suspenseful tale of richly conflicted characters and the disturbed landscape of the American psyche.
Elizabeth Brundage is the author of The Doctor's Wife and holds an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she received a James A. Michener Fellowship. Before attending Iowa, she was a screenwriting fellow at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Her short fiction has been published in the Greensboro Review, Witness magazine, and New Letters. She lives with her family in upstate New York.
We left San Francisco that morning even though your mother was sick. It was a pretty day, the sun shimmering like a gypsy girl's tambourine. I thought it would be good for her to get out into the sunshine because it had been a long few weeks of rain and her skin had gone gray as oatmeal and she had this dull look flaming up in her eyes. You were sleeping in your little rocking seat and I had your things all packed. We didn't have much. It was time to go, but Cat wanted me to wash her hair first, said she couldn't go out looking like that. Holding her head in my hands I could feel her bright with fever. From behind, she looked like a healthy schoolgirl, just her sweet body and that long yellow hair. Then she'd turn around and you'd get pins in your heart. I wrapped her head in a towel and said, you take your meds today, Kitty Cat, and she nodded with her long face, the kind of woman you see in the museum up on the old canvases, a woman washing clothes or out in the fields, a strong body with large capable hands and this wisdom in her eyes because she knows more than you. She hated the idea that she was sick, and even with you so small she was still shooting drugs. Dope kept her comfortable. It had always been her favorite thing to do and that's the truth. You could see it just after she'd put the needle in, like an angel her face would go hazy and beautiful like so much fog. She dreamed of horses, she said. She told me she'd come into the world wanting to ride, wanting to be near the big dark creatures. Horses understood her, people made her nervous. This was your mother; this was the woman I loved.
We made you one night in a broken house, your mother riding my hips and howling with pleasure, and then six weeks later she's throwing up and wanting strange foods from the Iranian down on Willard Avenue. Months passed and her belly went round and tight. At the clinic they said she had a weak heart and HIV. Maybe her baby wouldn't get it. They didn't know. They gave her some pills and told her to come back every three weeks. She quit dope that afternoon, and took the pills and started going to church. She told me she had begged Jesus for a miracle. She believed in miracles, she said; she believed in Jesus. She liked to light the candles and sit in the darkness and think and then she'd get down on her knees and press her palms together. I'd watch her sometimes in the trembling blue light, among the other whispering strangers.
This one day we were walking through the park, leaning and kissing, that smell at the nape of her neck, the nape, like vanilla, like I don't know what, heaven, and then she's down on all fours in labor and this crowd comes around and she's white as fucking God and the next thing I know we're in a taxi with this Pakistani barking orders and I'm just wondering how we're going to pay for it. At the hospital they gave Cat a c-section on account of the HIV. They let me stand there and hold her hand and when I saw you for the first time I started to cry, I couldn't help it. You were bundled in a little blanket and you had on a little hat and you were the most amazing thing I had ever seen. I handed you to your mother and she was trembling and a little frightened and it made me want to crawl up next to her and hide my face in her heart. The nurse explained that there was a chance you'd be all right; they wouldn't know for a few months, we'd just have to be patient. I promised Cat that everything would be okay, I'd make sure of it, but she shook her head. “I'm sick,” she said.
We brought you home and the very next day they sent someone over from Child Services and it was that same woman who suggested we give you up. She brought two cases of formula and some diapers. She looked around our apartment, her eyes grim. Cat served the woman tea in one of her mother's old china teacups, it had little rosebuds on it, and your mother had saved it for a long time, keeping it carefully wrapped in newspaper so it wouldn't get broken, but the woman wouldn't even touch it. She kept on us, trying to convince us to let you go, to give you a better life, but we put her off.
I tried to find work. I could get work here and there. For a little while things were good between us, and Cat was all right and I sometimes forgot that her blood was tainted. She would do things, buy peaches, and there they'd be, fat and round on the counter, or she'd make a meal and set the table, like we were a real family. I don't know; I couldn't deal with it. It was a time in my life when I didn't know any better; I didn't know who I was. Sometimes I wouldn't come home for a few days and it would be just her and you and she'd know when I walked in stinking of dope, the whole thing, the cigarettes, sometimes women, and she'd just hold me because there was nothing else to do. I know it sounds pathetic to you, who we were, but it's the truth and I can't change it. There's a vivid transition when you come in from being high, and the walls have this mustard tint like old tapestries, and your body feels drained, beat up from the inside, and everything feels like a déjà vu, like you've made this big circle and instead of moving on you're right back where you started.
But this is not a story about drugs. And it's not a story about me and Cat, because Cat is on her way out of this story. Cat is going to die; I think we both know that. You can smell death on your woman, like grease—not the kind you eat—the murky black oil that drips out of your car and makes a puddle on the ground. The black oil that stains your fingertips. She started to have that smell all the time. She went back to dope like a repentant lover, unraveling the tinfoil like some priceless gift, the apartment smelling of burning wax, of scorched pewter. She had crawled back into its warm lap on her hands and knees. One afternoon I came home from work and found her sprawled on the bed like a dead woman, with you on the other side of the room, screaming, your tiny hands brittle with rage. She'd put you in the laundry basket atop a soft pile of clothes. There were notes from the neighbors shoved under the door, threatening to call the police. I found the lawyer's card on the table. Under his name in fancy script it said Private Adoptions. I woke her up and held her in my arms and she wept. “I just wanted to do something right,” she confessed. “For once.”
from Somebody Else's Daughter