The Painted Bones
By Kelly Simmons
Illustration by Louise Boyd
Prologue. Entrance. Façade.
Is there anything more beautiful than a house the week before it’s sold? That’s what Lily Watson sighed to her husband, Roger, before she fell asleep. They’d been discussing another house he’d just listed, the Durham’s on Black Rock Road — a modern redwood, all shaded angles, not her taste at all — but she was, in fact, thinking about her own, a dwelling she referred to as a “bungalow” but which was, she knew damn well, a big-ass ordinary Cape Cod. Lily and Roger’s house, perfectly situated on a wooded acre in the charming walking town of Wayne, Pennsylvania, would go back on the market the following year, when their daughter Jamie left for Georgetown. This way, she reasoned, there would be no empty nest, because there would be no nest.
She was trying to outsmart herself. She knew real estate was a business; she was trained to stay detached. But sometimes you couldn’t help yourself: you didn’t want to say goodbye. After all, you spend years attending to the house like a lover, finding it a wardrobe, shoring up its confidence. You buy things with ugly names, things you’ll hide in the shed: grout, latex, mulch. Horrible and twisted, the instruments of beauty, the pruning arms and shovels, steel and iron you don’t want to admit you need, like eyelash curlers and curling irons. But by listing day, loveliness is magically attained, on display, ready for another, its glossy green shutters as welcoming as a wink, its apricot door (so unusual! Such a bold choice! You can always say, we’re the house with the orange door!) like a dot of lip gloss. Another family arrives, comes to live in your painted bones, to be all that you thought you were.
And you walk away, right? Believing your careful ministrations, your granite this and grasscloth that, your focus on scale, color, line, has allowed it all to happen. One family buys into another family’s wallpapered dream, and so on and so on. The economy ran on this dreamy logic, why shouldn’t Lily? That was Lily Watson’s firmest belief: that if you paid enough attention, everything would turn out perfectly for all parties. That you could construct a façade strong enough to be both magnet and shield with materials obtained from the Martha Stewart collection at Home Depot. All it took was complete focus.
Focus like earning top grades, choosing a thoughtful, handsome husband, and then fussing over every cottage-with-good-bones and ranch-with-a-nice-fenced-in-yard that Roger and she bought and prepared to flip, all, while watching over her only daughter Jamie like a hawk, making sure she had the right clothes, the right neighborhood, the right school district to make her life as ideal as the changing seasonal floral display on her slate steps (which was currently ornamental cabbages and pumpkins spilling out of antique wooden bushels she’d purchased on eBay for a song).
As Jamie is no longer speaking to Lily, she is currently considering switching strategies. But not this Wednesday. No, not quite yet.
Of course it really began in the bedroom.
There are some mothers who might not have known their daughter was having sex with a boy they despised until that boy snuck up to their house in the middle of the night. After all, does anything except sex propel one at 2 am? Lily being Lily, she knew months before, when she’d found condoms while cleaning under Jamie’s bed. She realized afterward, though — after chasing Tyler off and telling him to get his goddamn white trash truck out of her driveway and that if he was going to defile her daughter he could damn well do it somewhere else and not in her house on Jamie’s Tempur-pedic bed! — that she had known much, much earlier.
Roger was oblivious, but she had known the spring before, when Lily came downstairs to make everyone a nice hot breakfast wearing new jeans that were pre-ruined, with a small hole in the knee, threadbare at one hip. The salesgirl at the store had encouraged Lily, telling her she “totally rocked” the look, and that not everyone could wear them. “They don’t even ship a size above 27,” she’d confided. Jamie came down and stood at the refrigerator, drinking orange juice out of the carton and surveyed her mother’s pants with barely contained horror.
“Really, Mom? Really?” Jamie said.
“What?” Lily replied. But she knew damn well what. Someone’s mother, regardless of how fit and how young she was at forty-two, regardless of how current her shaggy hairstyle was, wasn’t allowed to show her knee, let alone her cleavage, or god forbid the crack of her ass. When a girl became sexual, she recognized it in another immediately, certain as pheromones. The tables had turned; the roles had made their shift. Jamie was the slutty beast in the house now, not Lily. When she tried to explain this later, to Roger, he simply nodded his head distractedly. “Maybe it’s like the college photos of my bong, Lily,” he sighed. “It’s time for you to hide your thongs.”
But Lily hadn’t wanted to believe her daughter would sleep with a boy who wasn’t from a good Main Line family — who hadn’t learned table manners, ballroom dancing, and how to button up his khakis high enough to cover his boxers. It was abundantly clear, from his low-hanging pants to his gleaming gold crucifix, that the only Mayflower Tyler Tronnes could be descended from was a Mayflower Moving & Storage Truck. So Lily ignored him, imagining he would go away.
Lily’s friends claimed Lily had chosen to live in Wayne because she wanted her daughter to date boys with trust funds; but this was not true. Lily thought slightly smaller; she just wanted Jamie to date boys with monogrammed hankies. On movie dates, she wanted her to nestle her head up against a Polo logo. Was that so wrong? When Lily had driven through her neighborhood for the first time, she could practically hear the lacrosse sticks clattering on the front porches. She only wanted what was there in front of her! Did any mother, who, upon issuing an invitation to a casual dinner, expect a trucker hat and unlaced Vans? No. Any mother in Lily’s neighborhood knew casual meant ‘blue blazer.’
Before the doorbell chimed, Lily woke to a low growl from her poodle. Ever alert, the dog might have been named “Tripwire,” but instead was the ironically dubbed Walker, since he didn’t particularly like to walk, run, or move.
“Sssh,” Lily whispered. Without her reading glasses, she couldn’t see the clock, but guessed from her grogginess that it was the middle of the night. Roger had been working overtime on four contiguous spec houses on the old Carrington estate in St. David’s, and she was not going to wake him unless she needed to. He slept heavily, soundly she believed, because he always needed sleep, was always catching up.
Walker settled briefly, then the doorbell rang and he barked once, sharply. Lily’s first thought was how weak the bell sounded, especially compared to the rumble of her dog’s throat, and wondered if the chiming mechanism needed to be fixed. Roger snored lightly through his half-open mouth, still handsome, Lily noted, even when he looked ridiculous, and when she nudged him and whispered his name, he didn’t wake to help her, but simply rolled over onto his stomach to halt his snoring. Better conditioned, better trained than the dog.
She sighed, put on her blue chenille robe and walked tentatively to the dormered window. If a visitor stood at the edge of the cupola sheltering the front door, she could glimpse them from this angle. How many times had she waved to the UPS man? Instead, she saw rain funneling down one side of the enclosure’s slate roof, and the small verdigris weather vane atop it spinning in the wind. Nothing else. No feet, no legs. Like a ghost was ringing her doorbell. When it rang again, it seemed louder.
Descending the stairs, her first thought was police. Arrest. There was no squad car on the street, yet she envisioned a police-busted party at Brooke’s house, where Jamie was allegedly spending the night, and a massive lock-up of Tyler and his friends. The way they looked, they should be arrested for littering. For disturbing the visual peace. Even Jamie was guilty of that. Her childhood hair — that delicious, tawny color halfway between blonde and redhead — was now dimestore-dyed a muddy, animal brown, to match her kohl-lined eyes. When it was cold these October nights, and Jamie stretched her sweatshirt sleeves down to her fingertips, Lily thought she resembled a raccoon.
Her friends had warned Lily: They all want to dye their hair. They all want to wear too much makeup. Let them. It’s artistic. They want to swirl colors together, to paint, to blend. But unfortunately this meant they also wanted to spin things in a blender: pineapple and coconut and orange juice and rum and vodka. Smoothie culture.
The police had been to Lily’s door twice in the last year, bringing news of a) public drunkenness; and b) a car accident involving a girl who carried Jamie’s fake I.D. Roger and she got all the way to Bryn Mawr hospital before realizing the brunette with the broken leg was not Jamie, but Ashley, a girl she knew from ice skating. They went to bed that night grateful, thanking God, that their daughter was a generous, thoughtful forger.
As Lily approached, she kicked herself for choosing a solid wood door with a transom window above. Unless there was a giant outside, the damn transom was no help. If they’d gone with a traditional divided light half door, which Roger had argued was too cottage-y for a home of 3200 square feet, and not particularly safe, she’d know exactly who she was about to deal with, if not what.
She peeked through the eyepiece. The person standing next to her array of tumbled French pumpkins did not have on a navy blue uniform, but enormous navy track pants with blue and white checked boxers peeking from underneath. He held more clothes under one arm, as if he planned to spend the night. She felt relief, annoyance, and then, suddenly, radiant heated Italian tile floors aside, cold fear. Why was he here alone?
If Tyler was shivering, if his teeth were chattering against the onset of fall weather, Lily wasn’t aware as she opened the door. He made no sound. Then rain, which had flattened his stubborn curls, turning his eyelashes into twin stars that Jamie had wished upon — and even Lily could see the beauty of — even the rain poured down quietly around him, sluicing off the portico, creating a vaporous cushion around whatever was about to happen, whatever either of them was about to say.
The porch light shone on the bundle he carried. They weren’t his clothes, but Jamie’s: Pencil leg, zippered at the calf, jeans. Bunched up. Smaller. Stained.
Lily opened her mouth to speak, to cry out, but that thick cylinder of silence traveling with Tyler momentarily stopped her.
Everything about him said please don’t say anything. Please, please, don’t tell.
Lily opened the door slowly.
“Mrs. Watson,” he said, his voice catching on the tangle of consonants, “I’m sorry but—”
The jeans glistened, wet in his hands. From the rain? From the Schuylkill River where Jamie rowed?
“Oh my god, what’s happened? What the hell have you done?”
When he didn’t answer, she crept back, hand outstretched for the phone on the captain’s table in the foyer. He stepped forward as if she’d invited him in.
“Where’s my daughter?!” Lily screamed.
He opened his arms as an answer. Inside the nest of jeans, Lily expected a clue, a weapon. Not a child. Not a tiny, blue-lipped baby girl, naked and slick with mucus and blood. Their eyes met briefly above her. Tyler’s grown even larger with fright, Lily’s widened in surprise. She grabbed the swaddled baby and ran into the kitchen. She laid a dishtowel on the granite counter, cursing its coldness, wishing she’d chosen wood or slate, and started the water in the sink. She instructed Tyler to wipe the baby down with a warm dishcloth while she grabbed the bulb syringe in the powder room medicine chest.
When she came back, he was doing exactly as she’d told him, tenderly, gently. He had always done what she’d told him to do, but it was usually “Don’t leave your condoms on my goddamn floor!” or “Have her home by 1 am or I’ll call the police.”
“I don’t suppose there’s any possibility this is a child you had with another girl.”
Lily nodded grimly. How on earth had she missed this? She hadn’t seen much of Jamie lately, but she saw her for dinner at least a couple nights a week. Yes, she was usually in a baggy sweatshirt and spandex pants, her standard crew outfit and one that could certainly stretch, but still. And yes, Jamie did tend to bulk up during training, her arms and leg muscles reforming from their summer sloth, but she didn’t seem that much bigger to Lily. Jamie’s face was full, yes, but it had always been full, she had been all cheeks and cheekbones since the day she was born.
And morning sickness, what about morning sickness? Lily was often gone in the morning, off to stage another one of Roger’s listed houses, or to help make decorating decisions on the spec houses, but not every morning. Hadn’t Jamie gulped orange juice and toast nearly every single morning Lily could recall?
“Please tell me Jamie is in a hospital. Or on her way,” Lily said as she pressed the syringe into the tiny nostrils, clearing the mucus. She counted down the nearby hospitals, trauma centers, doc-in-the-boxes, clinics. Where would her daughter go?
Tyler licked his lips, priming them for the truth or a lie.
“No, but, um, Brooke is with her,” he answered finally.
“Oh, that’s encouraging,” Lily gritted her teeth. The blonde leading the stupid. “Call 911 and get a goddamned ambulance to Brooke’s house.”
“No, she’s fine, she’s not at the house, and she—”
“Tyler,” Lily said firmly, “call 911 and tell them where she is! Even if you won’t tell me, tell them.”
Lily leaned down to breathe into the tiny mouth, and suddenly it squeaked. More mew than cry. Color came into her face and the air moved in and out of her nostrils, creating the slightest breeze on Lily’s face. The two of them stood above her for a moment, watching as her eyes opened. It was like a moment in one of those spectacular nature specials, when the trees and flowers bloomed in time lapse. Blue, they were. Startling and enormous. Like Tyler’s. Lily stepped away, not ready for the baby to be alive. Not ready to look at her, to know her. Not prepared for this, suddenly, at all.
Tyler wrapped the dishtowel around the baby and cradled her head with his palm. Lily bundled Jamie’s jeans in a garbage bag and put them at the bottom of the trash.
“Do you maybe have . . . a diaper?” He asked.
Roger’s younger brother, on his second marriage, had two small children in quick succession, and because of this Lily kept a bib, a few diapers size 2 and 4 and a box of wipes tucked away in the hall closet. In the pantry she also had a sippy cup, a tiny spoon, a bottle, and one small can of concentrated formula. For them. For her nephews. For known children, not for babies who fell from the sky.
“Where is Jamie?” she repeated.
“I can’t tell you, I, I— promised.”
“Tell me now, or I’ll, I’ll call the police, I’ll—”
“Mrs. Watson,” he said softly, “I don’t think you want to do that.”
Lily let out the breath she had been holding. Of course, he was right. This boy, who was flunking English and Spanish and Math because he had, according to Jamie, “learning differences,” had just dug deeply enough into his reservoir of psychology, deduction, cause and effect . . . to call Lily’s bluff. A half-dead baby? A surprise pregnancy? The middle of the night? No, she didn’t want this on any police blotter.
They stood together in Lily’s carefully constructed kitchen, with its pale toasted ash and its swirling umber granite, every surface enveloping another, and all the machinery and gear — the stainless steel appliances, the grinding mixer, the angry food processor, hidden by cabinetry — and discussed the cold results of a fresh experiment. They were compiling the data. They were lab partners now.
Lily breathed deeply again, changing course.
“But if you took the baby away for help, surely Jamie realizes that someone will—”
“She doesn’t know I brought her here.”
“Well, obviously, but — if you took the baby to the ER, the first thing someone would ask is where—”
“Mrs. Watson, she doesn’t think I took her to, um, the hospital.”
She blinked twice, hard. “Oh, Safe Cradle, right? You were taking it to Safe Cradle, like they told you in school.”
Tyler said nothing, his eyes on the baby.
“But then you couldn’t.”
“Right,” he said softly.
“Because she was turning blue.”
The baby yawned, then turned rosy, blinking, as if she’d just noticed where she was. Lily put one hand over her mouth, in wonder. With the other hand she gripped the edge of the countertop by the sink, momentarily warmed by the steaming dishwasher to her left, aware suddenly, sickeningly, of the garbage disposal near her elbow.
The baby’s arms and legs were impossibly thin; her hands struck Lily as something out of a sci-fi film. Jamie had been a plump baby, over eight pounds. Not this one. Only her facial features, miniature and perfect, not scrunched from pushing like a larger baby’s would have been, looked wholly real. A few moments ago, she seemed fetal. Now she looked . . . actual. Was she premature, perhaps? Or just small? Undernourished? But that hair. All that pale hair. It reminded Lily of an older baby, not a newborn, all that fluff, and cowlicks pressing it outward. This baby, with all that hair, was not premature. Pangs of guilt found Lily, lancing her for the way she allowed her daughter to eat, the fast food, the candy. How she’d stopped monitoring her vegetable and fruit intake a couple years ago in exasperation, in the spirit of picking her battles.
Tyler ran his finger along the baby’s knuckles. “I couldn’t do it,” he said. “I couldn’t.”
Lily swallowed hard and willed herself to stay calm. She had to do what she had to do. “Of course not,” she said slowly. “Of course you couldn’t.”
“Don’t tell her,” he sniffed. “You can’t tell Jamie. She’ll hate me, she’ll ha—”
His eyes brimmed with tears, and they only grew clearer and brighter. As if they’d been washed, showing their true, original color. He looked right at Lily, completely unashamed. It was as if, she realized later, she was seeing him for the first time.
“All right,” she said, blinking, “I won’t.”
Lily walked into the hallway and retrieved the diaper, the bottle, and the can of formula, then came back to the kitchen.
“If you tell me where Jamie is right now, I won’t tell her what you did. We’ll just stick to the original plan. You can bring the baby to Safe Cradle now. She’s fine.”
He blinked, then nodded.
“Do you need a ride? You can borrow my car.”
He was momentarily stunned, and she knew why. Had she ever offered anything to him in the last year? Had Lily Watson held out anything for him to take since the very beginning, those first awkward meals when he’d picked up the piece of buttermilk fried chicken too quickly, before he realized the napkins were made of linen, and everyone else at the table was cutting into theirs?
He shook his head. “My truck’s around the corner.”
“Well? Is she at Brooke’s? Where?”
“She’s out back,” he said, wiping his nose on his sleeve.
“Out back? In the — in the woods?”
“In the playhouse.”
Lily’s heart dropped. Her baby had had a baby in the same spot where she used to play house, play mommy and daddy and baby with her little friends? She thought of the wooden oven and refrigerator that once stood in the corner, the miniature ironing board, washing machine. She knew she should be relieved by the proximity, but first she was dumbstruck by the irony.
“Okay,” she said, gathering herself. “Okay.”
“You won’t tell her? You can like, find her by accident or something?”
“No,” she said, reaching for her coat. “No, I won’t tell her. But you will.”
He shook his head.
“Yes, you will.”
They walked to the front door and at the last minute Lily grabbed a pale turquoise throw off the linen chair in the living room and tucked it around the dishtowel, winding the bottom beneath his arms. She felt the tiny feet beneath the bundle of cloth. Baby feet. Was there anything in the world more miraculous than baby feet?
“Why? Why do you think I’d do that to my own girlfriend?”
“You’ve already done the right thing once today,” Lily replied. “I have a feeling you’ll do it again.”
In the playhouse. And the dog house.
Lily unhooked the red leash hanging on the coat tree and whistled for Walker. She would take him for a quick walk — straight back to the playhouse. She snapped the leash on his collar and carried him out the front door.
Like the other homes on Maple Lane, the Watsons’ property was all back yard, no front. Their house sat proudly close to the street, its emerald shutters and apricot door and ivy-and-mum-filled window boxes combining to form a friendly, jack-o’-lantern face. But out back, the property beyond the patio stretched into a tangle of trees then sloped sharply, down to a small stream that separated them from a stand of woods and the next group of houses. Until the trees were completely spent, opened wide to a winter moon, it was pitch black in Lily’s backyard. Dark and wet.
As they strode across the lawn, curving toward the back yard, Lily turned and looked back at Tyler making his way to the corner. She’d often shooed him away, but had she ever truly watched him go? He looked different from behind; gently hunched over, cradling his cargo, torso trying to stretch into sanctuary. Lily’s whole body tingled as if she was ovulating, lactating. That familiar longing, the body wanting what even the heart doesn’t know it lacked.
She froze suddenly, remembering his words, and the baby’s blue face. She doesn’t think I’m taking her to a hospital. What did her daughter think? How tightly had they wrapped that baby in those pants, covering her tiny face?
Walker yanked on his leash, his nose leading him down the hill, toward the odd buried smells: pinecones, earthworms, mulch, frogs. And a layer below that, something sour. Was it life? Was it death? Or was it fear?
As she walked, she mentally scanned the shelves in her medicine chest, wondering what her daughter might need. Percocet from Roger’s bad back. Advil, Benadryl, and yes, Plan B. She’d bought it when she discovered that first condom, advised by friends she should keep it in the cupboard. It’s the new syrup of Ipecac! Fat lot of good it had done her now. Add it to the birth control pills Jamie probably couldn’t remember to take and the condoms no one remembered to carry and they had themselves a full-circle pharmacy fail.
She paused outside the playhouse door, aware of the shapes behind the smeared glass. She breathed deeply, gathering herself. There was so much to be done. There was another baby, her baby, who needed to be wrapped and carried out. There were lies that needed to be untangled. There was a floor that would surely need to be repainted. She would strip it all, down to the studs, if necessary, to remove everything that had been done.
She stepped forward and opened the door with the tiny autumn wreath, watching the scenes unfold in her mind.
I will save her. I will soothe her. And then . . . I will ground her.