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Authors: Karen Joy Fowler

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What I Didn't See

BOOK: What I Didn't See
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Small Beer Press

Copyright ©2010 by Karen Joy Fowler

First published in 2010, 2010

NOTICE: This work is copyrighted. It is licensed only for use by the original purchaser. Making copies of this work or distributing it to any unauthorized person by any means, including without limit email, floppy disk, file transfer, paper print out, or any other method constitutes a violation of International copyright law and subjects the violator to severe fines or imprisonment.


For my dad, who generally makes an appearance

The Pelican Bar

Booth's Ghost

The Last Worders

The Dark


Familiar Birds

Private Grave 9

The Marianas Islands

Halfway People

Standing Room Only

What I Didn't See

King Rat


Publication History

* * * *
What I Didn't See
and Other Stories
Karen Joy Fowler
Small Beer Press
Easthampton, MA

This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are either fictitious or used fictitiously.

Copyright 2010 by Karen Joy Fowler. All rights reserved.

Small Beer Press

150 Pleasant Street #306

Easthampton, MA 01027 [email protected]

Distributed to the trade by Consortium.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Fowler, Karen Joy.

What I didn't see : and other stories / Karen Joy Fowler.—1st ed.

p. cm.

ISBN 978-1-931520-68-3 (alk. paper)

I. Title.

ps3556.o844W47 2010



First edition 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Text set in Centaur.

Paper edition printed on 60-lb. 30% recycled paper by Thomson-Shore in Dexter, Michigan.

Cover art ? 2010 by Erica Harris.

Author photo ? Beth Gwinn.

For my dad, who generally makes an appearance

[Back to Table of Contents]

The Pelican Bar

For her birthday, Norah got a Pink CD from the twins, a book about vampires from her grown-up sister,
High School Musical 2
from her grandma (which Norah might have liked if she'd been turning ten instead of fifteen), an iPod shuffle plus an Ecko Red T-shirt and two-hundred-dollar darkwash Seven Jeans—the most expensive clothes Norah had ever owned—from her mother and father.

Not a week earlier, her mother had said it was a shame birthdays came whether you deserved them or not. She'd said she was dog-tired of Norah's disrespect, her ingratitude, her filthy language—as if fucking was just another word for
—fucking this and fucking that, fucking hot and fucking unfair and you have to be fucking kidding me.

And then there were a handful of nights when Norah didn't come home and turned off her phone so they all thought she was in the city in the apartment of some man she'd probably met on the internet and probably dead.

And then there were the horrible things she'd written about both her mother and father on Facebook.

And now they had to buy her presents?

I don't see that happening, Norah's mother had said.

So it was all a big surprise, and there was even a party. Her parents didn't approve of Norah's friends (and mostly didn't know who they were), so the party was just family. Norah's big sister brought the new baby, who yawned and hiccoughed and whose scalp was scaly with cradle cap. There was barbecued chicken and ears of corn cooked in milk, an ice-cream cake with pralines and roses, and everyone, even Norah, was really careful and nice except for Norah's grandma, who had a fight in the kitchen with Norah's mother that stopped the minute Norah entered. Her grandmother gave Norah a kiss, wished her a happy birthday, and left before the food was served.

The party went late, and Norah's mother said they'd clean up in the morning. Everyone left or went to bed. Norah made a show of brushing her teeth, but she didn't undress, because Enoch and Kayla had said they'd come by, which they did, just before midnight. Enoch climbed through Norah's bedroom window, and then he tiptoed downstairs to the front door to let Kayla in, because she was already too trashed for the window. “Your birthday's not over yet!” Enoch said, and he'd brought Norah some special birthday shrooms called hawk's eyes. Half an hour later, the whole bedroom took a little skip sideways and broke open like an egg. Blue light poured over everything, and Norah's Care Bear, Milo, had a luminous blue aura, as if he were Yoda or something. Milo told Norah to tell Enoch she loved him, which made Enoch laugh.

They took more of the hawk's eyes, so Norah was still tripping the next morning when a man and a woman came into her bedroom, pulled her from her bed, and forced her onto her feet while her mother and father watched. The woman had a hooked nose and slightly protuberant eyeballs. Norah looked into her face just in time to see the fast retraction of a nictitating membrane. “Look at her eyes,” she said, only the words came out of the woman's mouth instead of Norah's. “Look at her eyes,” the woman said. “She's high as a kite."

Norah's mother collected clothes from the floor and the chair in the bedroom. “Put these on,” she told Norah, but Norah couldn't find the sleeves, so the men left the room while her mother dressed her. Then the man and woman took her down the stairs and out the front door to a car so clean and black that clouds rolled across the hood. Norah's father put a suitcase in the trunk, and when he slammed it shut, the noise Norah heard was the last note in a Sunday school choir: the
part of
sung in many voices.

The music was calming. Her parents had been threatening to ship her off to boarding school for so long she'd stopped hearing it. Even now she thought that they were maybe all just trying to scare her, would drive her around for a bit and then bring her back, lesson learned, and this helped for a minute or two. Then she thought her mother wouldn't be crying in quite the way she was crying if it was all for show. Norah tried to grab her mother's arm, but missed. “Please,” she started, “don't make me,” but before she got the words out the man had leaned in to take them. “Don't make me hurt you,” he said in a tiny whisper that echoed in her skull. He handcuffed Norah to the seat belt because she was struggling. His mouth looked like something drawn onto his face with a charcoal pen.

"This is only because we love you,” Norah's father said. “You were on a really dangerous path."

"This is the most difficult thing we've ever done,” said Norah's mother. “Please be a good girl, and then you can come right home."

The man with the charcoal mouth and the woman with the nictitating eyelids drove Norah to an airport. They showed the woman at the ticket counter Norah's passport, and then they all got on a plane together, the woman in the window seat, the man, the aisle, and Norah in the middle. Sometime during the flight, Norah came down, and the man beside her had an ordinary face and the woman had ordinary eyes, but Norah was still on a plane with nothing beneath her but ocean.

While this was happening, Norah's mother drove to the mall. She had cried all morning, and now she was returning the iPod shuffle to the Apple store and the expensive clothes to Nordstrom's. She had all her receipts, and everything still had the tags, plus she was sobbing intermittently, but uncontrollably, so there was no problem getting her money back.

* * * *

Norah's new home was an old motel. She arrived after dark, the sky above pinned with stars and the road so quiet she could hear a bubbling chorus of frogs and crickets. The man held her arm and walked just fast enough to make Norah stumble. He let her fall onto one knee. The ground was asphalt covered with a grit that stuck in her skin and couldn't be brushed off. She was having trouble believing she was here. She was having trouble remembering the plane. It was a bad trip, a bad dream, as if she'd gone to bed in her bedroom as usual and awakened here. Her drugged-up visions of eyelids and mouths were forgotten; she was left with only a nagging suspicion she couldn't track back. But she didn't feel like a person being punished for bad behavior. She felt like an abductee.

An elderly woman in a flowered caftan met them at a chain-link gate. She unlocked it, and the man pushed Norah through without a word. “My suitcase,” Norah said to the man, but he was already gone.

"Now I am your mother,” the woman told Norah. She was very old, face like a crumpled leaf. “But not like your other mother. Two things different. One: I don't love you. Two: when I tell you what to do, you do it. You call me Mama Strong.” Mama Strong stooped a little so she and Norah were eye to eye. Her pupils were tiny black beads. “You sleep now. We talk tomorrow."

They climbed an outside stairway, and Norah had just a glimpse of the moon-streaked ocean on the other side of the chainlink. Mama Strong took Norah to Room 217. Inside, ten girls were already in bed, the floor nearly covered with mattresses, only narrow channels of brown rug between. The light in the ceiling was on, but the girls' eyes were shut. A second old woman sat on a stool in the corner. She was sucking loudly on a red lollipop. “I don't have my toothbrush,” Norah said.

"I didn't say brush your teeth,” said Mama Strong. She gave Norah a yellow T-shirt, gray sweatpants, and plastic flip-flops, took her to the bathroom and waited for Norah to use the toilet, wash her face with tap water, and change. Then she took the clothes Norah had arrived in and went away.

The old woman pointed with her lollipop to an empty mattress, thin wool blanket folded at the foot. Norah lay down, covered herself with the blanket. The room was stuffy, warm, and smelled of the bodies in it. The mattress closest to Norah's belonged to a skinny black girl with a scabbed nose and a bad cough. Norah knew she was awake because of the coughing. “I'm Norah,” she whispered, but the old woman in the corner hissed and clapped her hands. It took Norah a long time to realize that no one was ever going to turn off the light.

Three times during the night she heard someone screaming. Other times she thought she heard the ocean, but she was never sure; it could have been a furnace or a fan.

In the morning, the skinny girl told Mama Strong that Norah had talked to her. The girl earned five points for this, which was enough to be given her hairbrush.

"I said no talking,” Mama Strong told Norah.

"No, you didn't,” said Norah.

"Who is telling the truth? You or me?” asked Mama Strong.

Norah, who hadn't eaten since the airplane or brushed her teeth in twenty-four hours, had a foul taste in her mouth like rotting eggs. Even so, she could smell the onions on Mama Strong's breath. “Me,” said Norah.

She lost ten points for the talking and thirty for the talking back. This put her, on her first day, at minus forty. At plus ten she would have earned her toothbrush; at plus twenty, her hairbrush.

Mama Strong said that no talking was allowed anywhere—points deducted for talking—except at group sessions, where talking was required—points deducted for no talking. Breakfast was cold hard toast with canned peaches—points deducted for not eating—after which Norah had her first group session.

Mama Strong was her group leader. Norah's group was the girls from Room 217. They were, Norah was told, her new family. Her family name was Power. Other families in the hotel were named Dignity, Consideration, Serenity, and Respect. These were, Mama Strong said, not so good as family names. Power was the best.

There were boys in the west wings of the motel, but they wouldn't ever be in the yard at the same time as the girls. Everyone ate together, but there was no talking while eating, so they wouldn't be getting to know each other; anyway, they were all very bad boys. There was no reason to think about them at all, Mama Strong said.

She passed each of the Power girls a piece of paper and a pencil. She told them to write down five things about themselves that were true.

Norah thought about Enoch and Kayla, whether they knew where she had gone, what they might try to do about it. What she would do if it were them. She wrote:
I am a good friend. I am fun to be with.
Initially that was a single entry. Later when time ran out, she came back and made it two. She thought about her parents.
I am a picky eater
, she wrote on their behalf. She couldn't afford to be angry with them, not until she was home again. A mistake had been made. When her parents realized the kind of place this was, they would come and get her.

I am honest. I am stubborn
, she wrote, because her mother had always said so. How many times had Norah heard how her mother spent eighteen hours in labor and finally had a C-section just because Fetal Norah wouldn't tuck her chin to clear the pubic bone. “If I'd known her then like I know her now,” Norah's mother used to say, “I'd have gone straight to the C-section and spared myself the labor. ‘This child is never going to tuck her chin,' I'd have said."

BOOK: What I Didn't See
3.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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