Quinn wrapped her arms around Tara’s small body and held her breath. Even from inside the small closet, she could hear glass shattering as their mother threw dishes around their kitchen. Nancy Parker screamed obscenity after obscenity, and Tara trembled in Quinn’s arms.
“Is Mom going to . . . ?” Her eleven-year-old sister let the question hang in the air. She didn’t have to finish it. Quinn knew exactly what she meant.
“I don’t know,” Quinn said softly.
Their mother’s next words carried all the way up the stairs: “I’m going to kill you both!”
Tara broke into heavy sobs, her tears soaking Quinn’s shirt. Quinn clutched her phone in her hand, her finger prepared to press the emergency services button on the screen. Enough was enough, she decided. She loved her mother, but Nancy obviously needed help. Tears pricked at Quinn’s own eyes, and she blinked them away. She needed to stay calm and cool, if not for Tara’s sake, then to keep their mother away from them.
“She doesn’t know where we are,” she told her little sister. She didn’t say “yet,” but both the girls knew it was only a matter of time. Quinn exhaled softly and strained to listen. Downstairs, her mother was oddly silent. Quinn shifted, meaning to extract Tara from her arms, but her little sister only clung tighter. “Let go,” she whispered.
“I don’t want you to go down there,” Tara pleaded.
Quinn bit down on her lip. She didn’t really want to go downstairs, either, but Nancy was surrounded by broken glass, and in one of her moods. She didn’t have to try very hard to imagine her mother laying in a pool of her own blood, her wrists slit courtesy of a handy shard of champagne flute. She could wait it out. Nancy’s moods sometimes changed so quickly, they reminded Quinn of the Connecticut weather she had known her whole life.
She nodded to herself, relaxing. She hugged Tara and smoothed the younger girl’s hair. “It’ll be over soon,” she promised, but didn’t really know, and she knew Tara knew that. Still, she had nothing else to say. If she said “I’ll protect you,” it would only frighten Tara more.
“Why is she so quiet?” Tara whispered.
Quinn again thought of all the things their mother could do to herself. There were knives in the kitchen, and there was a bottle of bleach in the downstairs bathroom. Quiet and unattended, Nancy was more of a threat to herself than to them. She had read somewhere that something like fifty percent of bipolar people tried to kill themselves. Quinn had defended herself and Tara from their mother more times than she could count. Something felt different that morning, though, and Quinn worried that someone might get hurt.
She slowly began to unwrap Tara’s arms from her body.
“What are you doing?” Tara tensed.
“Going to check on her.”
“No,” her little sister begged. “She’ll stab you.”
“Stay here.” She pressed her phone into Tara’s hand. “If anything goes wrong, I’ll scream. Call 911 right away, give them our address, and stay in the closet.”
Tara whimpered. “Okay,” she said, and loosened her grip.
“Okay,” Quinn repeated. She slowly opened the closet door. The house sat in silence. She could not even hear the tick of the grandfather clock in the hall downstairs. She crawled out of the closet, pushed through a pile of shoes, and stood. As her eyes adjusted to the light, she stitched together a plan. She would go down the stairs, but not all the way. She just needed to get a glimpse of Nancy, and see what her mother was doing. For all she knew, Nancy had curled up on the couch and, in a state of exhaustion from her episode, fallen asleep.
Quinn wedged the closet door shut, shoved the shoes over, and took a deep breath. Then, she left Tara’s bedroom.
The stairs creaked under her feet, and she winced with each step. If Nancy was awake, she already knew Quinn was coming. She held her breath as she neared the landing. The stairs were embedded between two sections of wall. One side of the wall was cut out, so that as she got closer to the first floor, she could see into the living room. No one occupied the couch and, aside from a few framed photos and throw pillows strewn around, the room looked normal. Her heart thudding in her chest, Quinn descended the last four or so steps, glad her feet were bare, preventing any sound from her footfalls.
She stood in the living room and gazed into the kitchen. She could only see the kitchen table. Overturned chairs and shattered glass littered the floor. Where the living room rug met the cool linoleum, Quinn saw a few small splatters of blood. The red stood out on the white tile. She padded toward the kitchen, ears alert for any sound indicating an attack from her mother.
Rain pattered against the windows. The door to the back porch stood ajar. Ignoring it for the moment, Quinn turned to the rest of the kitchen. Shards of ceramic plates and glass cups glittered in the gray gloom. The set of knives her father bought years before he died was strewn across the floor. She counted them. One was missing. She closed her eyes for a moment and clasped a hand to her chest. She needed to find Nancy.
She left the kitchen and checked the back porch. Only drying laundry on the line greeted her. A railing wrapped around the porch, which stood twenty feet above their yard. She did not see her mother’s broken body below, so Quinn turned around and went back into the house. She surveyed the kitchen for a moment, thinking. Then her eyes went to the basement door, and she swallowed a knot of fear.
Quinn returned to the mess on the floor, carefully avoiding the glass, and picked up a small paring knife. She did not want to hurt her mother, but she couldn’t be sure that Nancy didn’t want to hurt her. She tiptoed to the basement door, put her hand on the knob, and slowly opened it.
Darkness swam up at her. The basement smelled of fresh laundry with a hint of stale cardboard. She said a silent prayer, then descended.
She dared not turn the light on, so she took the stairs slowly, feeling for each step with the toes of one foot. All it would take was one slip, and she would tumble into the void. She gripped the railing with one hand and continued until she arrived at the bottom.
Pale gray light shone in from the small rectangular window. Her mother stood motionless next to the washer and dryer, the knife clutched in her hand, her back to Quinn. The blade pressed into Nancy’s palm, and blood dripped onto the floor.
“Mom?” Quinn called softly. “What are you—?”
Nancy turned, a sneer breaking out across her face. She lunged toward Quinn, the knife raised.
Quinn blocked with her elbow, using her free arm to push her mother away. Nancy stumbled back but recovered quickly, and darted at her again. Quinn moved to the side. The knife slashed the air by her face. She held her hands up. “Mommy,” she said. “It’s me. It’s Quinn.”
“You,” Nancy snarled, and came at her again.
Quinn backed into a rickety old shelf. Several canned goods fell to the floor. Her feet tripped over them and she went down, instinctively blocking her face with her arms even as her tailbone smacked into the concrete. “Stop,” she screamed, but the knife sliced into the flesh of her forearm, and she felt warm blood dribbling down.
She looked up in wide-eyed terror at Nancy, who stared back at her, the knife poised. Her mother staggered back and fell to her knees, sobbing. “I’m sorry,” she wailed.
Quinn could only see the cut and the blood oozing out of it. Tears filled her eyes but did not fall. The world around her spun, went gray, tilted, and for a moment she almost fainted. She barely noticed. Only the crisp red made any sense, pulling her in until everything was the same hue. A moan escaped from her lips, and slowly it turned into a growl of frustration, until she was screaming. She threw words she never thought she would call her mother at full blast. Nancy flinched with each one, but did not move. Tears streamed down Quinn’s face, and she dropped the paring knife she had brought with her, her hands shaking.
Soon her whole body shook, and her screams died down, her throat aching. A wintery chill overtook her. The little hairs on her arms stood straight up. She tried to see through the icy fog that enveloped her. There was something she was supposed to do. She groped through her terror, but the fog thickened.
“Police! Come out of the basement, hands up,” a rough female voice shouted from the top of the stairs.
Quinn continued shaking. Goosebumps popped out along her skin, and her eyes darted to the blood pouring out of the tender flesh of her arm.
“I’m coming down. Weapons down, arms up,” the police officer called. A flashlight beam hit the wall opposite the stairs. Distantly, Quinn heard Nancy scrambling back into a corner, but the room began to gray again.
A female cop with brown hair pulled back into a ponytail emerged from the stairs, her male partner at her heels. Both pointed weapons and flashlights around the room.
“Stay right where you are,” the male cop told Nancy.
Quinn’s eyes focused on the female cop, who knelt in front of her.
“Are you with me?” the woman asked. To her partner, she said, “Get the EMTs.”
Quinn felt herself nod.
The police officer, whose badge read Trisha Barton, pressed white gauze to the cut on Quinn’s arm.
“Tara,” Quinn croaked. “Closet.”
“She’s the one who called,” Officer Barton said. “She’s upstairs with another officer. She’s fine.” Trisha smiled, but Quinn did not return it.
Instead, she watched as the other police officer put handcuffs on her mother and marched her up the stairs. “Where is he taking her?” she asked.
Officer Barton’s eyes hardened. “We’ll need a statement from you,” she said. “Your sister says your mother has become increasingly violent.”
“She’s sick,” Quinn said. “I need to—”
Two paramedics came down the stairs. One carried a medical kit and the other a gurney. They erupted into action, applying more gauze and pressure.
“She’s going to need stitches,” one of the paramedics said.
“I need a statement,” Officer Barton insisted.
“My mother,” Quinn reminded them. “I need to make sure my mother is okay.”
The paramedics and police officer shook their heads in unison.
“We’re going to take you to the hospital,” the other paramedic said. “Can you walk?”
“Absolutely not,” Officer Barton thundered. “We need to lock her up.” Her voice sounded choked. Red splotches decorated her otherwise unblemished face, and her eyebrows furrowed. “Child services have been called. This cannot be delayed.” Her voice was crisp but laced with urgency and distaste.
“Are you blind?” the first paramedic asked.
“Excuse me,” interrupted a new voice. Quinn, the paramedics, and Officer Barton turned to see a tall man wearing thick black glasses and a pink dress shirt. He extended a hand to the police officer. “I’m Christopher Ramsey. I’m with the Department of Children and Families.” Before anyone else could speak, he continued, looking directly at Quinn. “Let’s get Ms. Parker to the emergency room, and then we can sort the rest of this out.” He smiled, his brown eyes warm.
Quinn nodded, and allowed the two paramedics to help her up. They led her up the stairs slowly, Officer Barton clomping up behind them, muttering under her breath.
In the kitchen, Tara sat in a chair that someone had righted. When she saw Quinn, her eyes grew large and wide, and she stood. “What happened?” she asked, tears threatening.
Quinn hesitated, unsure of what she should tell her little sister.
Christopher spoke first. “Everyone is okay,” he told Tara in a soft, soothing voice. “We’re just going to go visit the hospital really quickly, and get your sister bandaged up. Would you like to ride in the ambulance?”
Tara eyed him suspiciously, one eyebrow raised. She put one of her hands on her hip. “I’m not a little kid,” she said.
“It’s okay,” Quinn said, and held out her hand. “Come on, Monkey.”
Her little sister brightened at the old nickname, and ran over to Quinn. She wrapped her arms around Quinn’s waist and squeezed.
Quinn smiled and put her uninjured arm around Tara’s shoulders. Whatever happened next, at least her little sister was safe.
* * *
Quinn watched in fascination as the plastic surgeon made tiny, precise stitches in her arm. The red of her blood and brown of the iodine they used to sanitize the area had mixed until she could no longer tell them apart. The surgeon, whose name was Oscar Torres, had insisted on doing her stitches.
“It’s either me or the interns tonight,” he said, laughing.
She watched as he made the final stitch, then tied a tiny knot that she couldn’t see. His thick fingers moved as nimbly as a ballet dancer’s legs.
“All done,” Dr. Torres said, rolling back on his stool. He stripped off his gloves with a an elastic snap.
Christopher Ramsey thanked the doctor, then led Quinn and Tara into a private room. “Here, have a seat,” he said, pointing to the comfortable chairs.
Quinn sat, cradling her arm and wondering whether this was the room doctors used to let people know their family members died. “Where’s my mother?” she asked.
“Right to business,” Christopher said. He sat opposite the girls and pulled a folder from his briefcase. “Your mother is currently at the Waterbury police station.” He scanned through the paperwork.
“What? Why?” Quinn slammed a fist down on the table. Next to her, Tara jumped. “Sorry, Monkey.” She put an arm around Tara’s shoulders.
The social worker lifted his eyes from the papers in the folder. “Because she assaulted you,” he said calmly, “and because there are several reports of violent outbursts from various people.”
Quinn frowned. “Who?”
Tara tapped her good arm. Quinn turned to her. “I told,” she whispered.
Quinn bit down on her lip. With every second, the situation spun further out of her control. She couldn’t exactly blame Tara, but she wished she had been able to stop her sister from incriminating their mother any more.
“Neighbors, some of your mother’s coworkers, and yes, Tara.” He smiled kindly. “I know you love your mother, Quinn, but she’s dangerous.”
“She needs help,” Quinn said. “She’s bipolar. She can’t go to jail.”
Christopher nodded. “I agree. Do you know what your other options are, Quinn?”
She wanted to tell him that he didn’t have to keep using her name, but she pressed her lips together instead, and gave her head a shake. She felt off balance, as though she had fluid in her ears and a fever.
“We can go down to the police station and press charges. Not only will your mother get an assault charge, Quinn, but she’ll also get endangerment of a minor.” He straightened his glasses. “If we don’t press charges, you could file a restraining order, but that won’t help much, other than to keep you girls safe. The only alternative is to have your mother involuntarily hospitalized.”
Quinn frowned. Her little sister squeezed her hand. “Against her will? Is that even legal?”
Christopher took a deep breath. “Your mother would have to stay for fifteen days. She would be medicated, fed, and cared for. She would be safe, and so would you.”
“And what about after that?” Quinn asked. “I can’t just abandon her. She’s sick.”
“In the meantime, we would file a restraining order. We have to move quickly, though, Quinn. Right now, her assaulting you is the best chance we have. The mental health system doesn’t give us much room.” Christopher pushed his glasses up on his nose again.
Quinn’s head thudded. She rubbed her temples. “I don’t know. Where would she go? What would she do?”
“We can get her moved to a more long-term facility that can take care of her,” the social worker said. “I need your cooperation, though, Quinn. We need to keep you and Tara safe.”
At the mention of her little sister, Quinn’s shoulders sagged. “Do I have a choice?” she asked herself, more than anyone else. She thought of all the times Nancy had raged at her and Tara, threatening to kill them or herself. She looked at the tiny stitches on her arm, then at Tara’s unmarred arms.
“I know this isn’t easy,” Christopher said.
She wanted to tell him that he had no idea, that her mother had been completely normal. Nancy had made them breakfast, and then something snapped. It was as if something possessed her, and the episodes were getting more and more frequent, and longer. Quinn looked down at her stitched arm.
“It will be much worse next time,” Christopher said gently.
She swallowed and blinked away tears, then sucked in a ragged breath.
“You’re in control now,” he told her. “You just turned eighteen, right?”
“In February,” she said.
“You don’t have to deal with this alone anymore.” He tapped the papers in the folder. “Let me help you.”
She nodded, afraid to speak. Tara slid out of her seat and climbed into her lap. “You’re getting heavy, Monkey,” she told her, but did not push her off. She took another deep breath and hugged her sister with her good arm. “Okay, what’s next?” she asked Christopher.
* * *
Tara’s head rested on her shoulder. They sat in the back seat of a plush taxi cab that Christopher had called and paid for. He knew a judge who could speed things up for them. She was pretty sure that as she and Tara headed home from the emergency room, Nancy was on her way to the behavioral health section of the hospital. She closed her eyes, trying to imagine two weeks of peace. In two weeks, she would be packing to move into her dormitory at Southern Connecticut State University, putting all of this further behind her.
She jolted in her seat, heart thudding. If she went away to college, there would be no one to take care of Tara. They did not have any family. A hand flew to her mouth and her eyebrows wrinkled. Tara would have to go to a foster home.
She stared out the window as the taxi driver got onto the highway, her shoulders tensing once more. With her mother gone, and her father dead, Tara was all she had, and vice versa. No matter what happened, she could not allow them to lose each other.
Bad things always happen to Quinn in threes.
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