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as you wander through this troubled world

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“Emily,” Mildred calls, “for heaven’s sake, stop running. You’re going to slip on the leaves and hurt yourself.”

“But I’m not running,” Emily says in her most sensible voice. “I’m skipping.”

Emily.”

Emily takes a few more skips, perhaps to make some sort of a point, before slowing to a walk. She kicks at the fallen leaves--some still brilliant red and orange, but most faded to a plain brown--and delights in the satisfying crunch that follows. It’s a cloudless afternoon in early November, and the sun turns Emily’s curls the color of tiger’s eye stones. Still, the wind is persistent, and Mildred crosses her arms against a gust, shivering.

“We can’t stay long,” Mildred warns as they round the final corner, the park now visible in the distance. “I still have to make dinner.”

“You said that already,” Emily says. Every few steps, she leaps over a crack in the sidewalk. “Did you like skipping rope when you were my age?”

Mildred feels something twist in her chest. “I… never really had the opportunity,” she says honestly.

“Oh,” Emily says. “Kathleen and I skip rope almost every day at recess. She knows all sorts of rhymes from her older sisters. Down in the valley where the green grass grows,” Emily intones, “there sat Janey, sweet as a rose. Along came Johnny and kissed her on the cheek. How many kisses did she get this week?

Another leap. Emily stops where she stands, then places her hands on her hips, considering something. “I could teach you,” she offers. “I wasn’t very good at all until Kathleen taught me.”

Mildred smiles softly. “You know something?” she says. “I think I’d really like that.”

They’re at the park now, but Emily hangs back next to Mildred. “Does Gwendolyn know how to skip rope?” Emily asks.

Mildred laughs. “I actually don’t know,” she answers. “It hasn’t ever come up.”

Emily purses her lips. “I’ll bet she does,” she says decisively. “She seems like someone who does.” She sighs. “I wish she could’ve come with us today.”

“I know,” Mildred says sympathetically. “Me too. But she’s awfully busy with work, sweets.”

Their hair ruffles at another gust of wind. “Go on and play,” Mildred says. “The sun is going to start setting before too long.”

Emily makes a beeline for the jungle gym, half-skipping and half-running. “Sometimes, Kathleen and I pretend we’ve run away to join the circus,” she shouts over her shoulder.

“My goodness,” Mildred says mildly as she settles herself on a bench. “What’s your act?”

“Acrobats, of course,” Emily says, as if surely this was obvious. She scurries up the rungs of the jungle gym until she’s situated near the top.

“We pretend we’re called The Daring DuBois Twins,” she says. She hooks the backs of her knees securely around a bar and flips herself upside down, “even though we don’t look very alike. Kathleen says the best acrobats are French. Or Russian. But she wants to live in Paris when she grows up, so we’re French.”

“Naturally,” Mildred says dryly.

Emily hefts herself back up so she’s sitting perched atop the bar, swinging her legs back and forth. “Our father was an… an a-aristocrat,” she continues, “but he died from consumption, and it was very sad, and we had no money at all. We lost our house and all of our lovely things, so we decided to join the circus to help our mother.”

“The two of you are so creative,” Mildred says, with genuine admiration in her voice. “You’ve given this a lot of thought, haven’t you?”

Emily beams. “We’re going to write a book about it together,” she says.

She climbs a bit higher. “Watch me!” she commands. “Watch, Mildred, look at the trick I can do. We’ve been practicing this one.”

Mildred frowns slightly. “I wish you weren’t so high,” she says. “Can’t you show me your trick closer to the ground?”

“No, it won’t be any good like that,” Emily insists. “I can do it from up here, really I can. We’ve practiced and practiced and practiced.”

Mildred bites her bottom lip. “Oh,” she says, relenting, “alright. Show me your trick, and then it’s about time we start heading home.”

Emily grabs the bar and hangs, her feet dangling. She bends her elbows and pushes herself up, then completes a full flip around the bar. She repeats these steps, but then stops short of a third flip so she’s sitting on the bar again. She slowly raises herself until she’s standing, then throws her arms into the air.

“Ta-dah!”

Mildred feels the blood leave her face. “Emily,” she says, sharp in her urgency, “you are entirely too high to be standing up like that. Get down. Now.”

Emily looks startled by this sudden shift in tone. “Mildred,” she says nervously, starting her descent, “I’m okay, I promise, I know how--”

All it takes is Emily’s foot just barely slipping from the bar. She wobbles, then overcorrects. Her foot slips completely, followed in short order by her other foot. She reaches frantically for a rung, a futile effort to catch herself, but she is falling too fast. Before Mildred can even stand, Emily is in a crumpled heap on the ground.

Emily!” Mildred cries, her voice half-strangled by the tightness in her throat. She runs on unsteady legs to where Emily lies in the mulch, her pulse pounding in her ears.

Carefully, Mildred helps Emily sit up. Emily’s head spins dizzyingly, nauseatingly, for a moment. She vaguely registers that her entire left side, from the shoulder to just past her hip bone, aches from how hard she landed; then the excruciating pain in her wrist takes over. It buzzes like an angry swarm of hornets. She tries to bend it and gasps involuntarily at the sensation of shooting heat that follows.

“Oh, baby,” Mildred frets, cupping Emily’s cheek. It hurts, too, but it’s nothing compared to her wrist. “Your poor sweet face. You scraped it when you fell.” There’s a large abrasion that reaches from Emily’s temple down to her chin, and it’s beaded with blood.

Mildred takes Emily’s arm, the hurt one, to help her stand, and Emily screams so loudly that it startles a flock of blackbirds out of a nearby tree. They take to the sky like the dark whorls of a child’s scribbles. “It hurts,” Emily sobs, cradling her wrist.

Mildred, if it’s even possible, goes paler. “Your arm? Or the wrist?” she asks in a low, anxious voice. All Emily can do in response is cry.

Mildred didn’t initially notice, distracted by the more obvious injuries on Emily’s face. But now that she’s giving it a closer look she realizes that the wrist in question is twisted at an unnatural angle, and beginning to swell purple and blue. She inhales sharply. The colors around her, suddenly, seem to be in sharper focus. The entire world narrows until nothing exists but Emily, her tears and her pain.

Mildred makes quick work of removing her cardigan and fashioning it into a makeshift sling. “Sweetheart,” she says, gentle but commanding, all at once a nurse again, “I need to get your arm into this, alright? It’ll keep it from jostling during the walk home.”

Emily squeezes her eyes shut and nods. “Be careful,” she whispers bravely, her chin quivering.

Once Emily’s arm is securely in the sling, Mildred picks her up and cradles her to her chest. She kisses her forehead. The three blocks between the park and home feel like a trip across the Atlantic Ocean. Emily shivers violently in Mildred’s arms from a combination of cold and shock. Mildred ignores the goosebumps rising on her shoulders beneath her thin shirt.

“It hurts,” Emily whimpers. “Mama, it hurts. Make it stop; please make it stop.”

Mildred feels like all the wind has been knocked out of her. She very nearly stumbles. She holds Emily even tighter. “I’m trying, baby,” she says, breath hiccuping. “Mama’s trying.”

Finally home, she lies Emily across the backseat of the car before racing inside. She picks up the phone and frantically dials the number for Gwendolyn’s office, her hand shaking furiously.

“Hello, yes, this is Mildred Ratched,” Mildred says when the secretary has picked up. “Has Gwendolyn Briggs left yet? No? Go find her and tell her that she needs to go to New Rochelle Hospital immediately. Immediately. We’ll meet her there.”


Gwendolyn gallops into the hospital waiting room so soon after Mildred and Emily arrive that Mildred briefly frets about how fast Gwendolyn must’ve driven to get there. Her head swivels, searching for Emily and Mildred, and when she spies them she races over, tripping on her own feet in her urgency.

Emily is sitting in Mildred’s lap, her face buried in Mildred’s shoulder. “She fell off the jungle gym,” Mildred says before Gwendolyn even asks. “I’m fairly certain her wrist is broken.”

“Poor darling,” Gwendolyn coos, rubbing Emily’s back. “I’m so sorry, my love.”

Emily lifts her head. Her face is swollen and tearstained. Her scrape, though no longer bloody, stands out an angry, irritated red. Her mouth trembles and her eyes shine with fresh tears. “Mommy,” she says, reaching for Gwendolyn with her good arm. “It hurts so badly.”

Gwendolyn locks eyes with Mildred as Emily shifts onto her lap. They are wearing, Gwendolyn imagines, matching stunned expressions.

Mommy, Gwendolyn mouths over Emily’s head.

I know, Mildred mouths back. She grabs Gwendolyn’s hand and squeezes it.

It’s not too long before they’re called back so Emily can be x-rayed. The nurse, her eyes narrowed, looks ready to tell Mildred and Gwendolyn that only one of them can go with Emily. Mildred, though, levels her with her iciest glare, which settles the matter almost instantly. Mildred carries Emily, and Gwendolyn rests a hand against the small of Mildred’s back.

“You, young lady, must’ve had quite a nasty fall,” the doctor says in the exam room later, inspecting Emily’s x-rays. He peers at Emily from over the tops of his wire-rimmed glasses. “How did it happen?”

“I slipped off the jungle gym,” Emily says miserably, “while I was doing a trick.”

“Ah,” the doctor says, nodding sagely, “yes, I’ve seen quite a few jungle gym injuries in my day.”

Emily’s wrist is encased in a plaster cast that she’ll have to wear for the next six to eight weeks. She’s also given a hefty dose of codeine for the pain. She lies across Mildred’s and Gwendolyn’s laps in a half-asleep daze as the doctor gives them detailed instructions for her care. Emily is too loopy to pay any real attention to their conversation, but bits and pieces flutter past her like dandelion seeds on a warm wind.

“No school for the rest of this week…”

“...every six hours, but try to wean her off of it quickly.”

“Wrap it in plastic when she bathes…”

“How…?”

“When…?”

“What if…?”

“Emily.”

Emily blinks slowly into wakefulness. Mildred is cupping her face. She brushes her thumb across Emily’s temple. “We can go home now, darling. Come on, up we get.”

The journey across the parking lot is dark and cold. Emily feels like she’s in the fun house they visited, once, at the beach. With every step she takes, the ground comes up to meet her, but then rushes further away when she tries to put her foot back down. The rows of cars slide in and out of focus.

“I’m going--” Emily tries to warn, but doesn’t have time before she turns to the side and throws up. She just manages to miss Gwendolyn’s shoes.

“I’m sorry,” she says wretchedly. She coughs and gags, but nothing else comes up.

“Oh, honey,” Gwendolyn says. “You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s not your fault.”

“Between the shock and the pain medicine,” Mildred says, “it’s no wonder your poor tummy is jumbled.”

At home, Mildred and Gwendolyn tuck Emily into bed, careful to elevate her broken wrist on a stack of pillows. They fold a hot water bottle beneath the blankets for the bruises Emily sustained in her fall. While Gwendolyn prepares a gentle dinner, Mildred tenderly cleans the scrape on Emily’s face with a washcloth, hot water, and iodine.

“Does that sting?” Mildred whispers as she dabs.

“Just a little,” Emily says through a yawn. “So sleepy.”

“Food first,” Mildred says in a no-nonsense way that comforts Emily. “That codeine is too hard on an empty stomach, sweet thing.”

Gwendolyn returns to the bedroom carrying a tray. She sets it across Emily’s lap, and she and Mildred carefully help her sit up. Emily inspects it warily.

“Some broth and dry toast,” Gwendolyn says. “You can manage that, can’t you?”

Emily nods, dubious.

“Good girl,” Gwendolyn praises as Emily takes a nibble of toast and a small sip of broth.

Emily finishes half the broth and one slice of toast before she pushes the tray away. She falls back against her pillows and gazes drowsily at Mildred and Gwendolyn. “I called you Mama,” she says, “and Mommy, didn’t I?” She yawns. “I didn’t mean to, but it felt nice to say it. And it made my wrist hurt a little less, I think.”

Mildred and Gwendolyn exchange a glance. “Honey,” Gwendolyn says, “you’re always welcome to call us that.”

“As long as you’re comfortable with it,” Mildred jumps in. She brushes a lock of hair back from Emily’s eyes. “I’m so glad it made you feel better when you were hurting.”

Emily’s eyes are closed and her breaths are beginning to even out and slow. “I’ve never called… anyone Mama… or Mommy before,” she murmurs. “Never… had anyone else to say it to.”

She blinks open a single eye, then reaches up to pat Mildred’s cheek. “Mama,” she says. She repeats the action with Gwendolyn. “And Mommy.”

Mildred exhales a shuddery breath and presses a kiss to Emily’s palm. “Sleep,” she says. A few tears drop onto Emily’s blankets. Next to Mildred, Gwendolyn sniffles and blows her nose.

Out in the hallway, Mildred all but collapses into Gwendolyn’s waiting arms. She buries her face in Gwendolyn’s neck and sobs. Gwendolyn, who has been anticipating this, doesn’t even blink. She rubs soothing circles on Mildred’s back and lets her fall to pieces. She’ll help put them back together when the time comes.

“I’ve got you,” Gwendolyn whispers. “Let it all out. I’m here.”

Mildred calms herself down after a few minutes, but she doesn’t pull out of Gwendolyn’s arms. She regulates her breathing to the steady rise and fall of Gwendolyn’s chest. Gwendolyn’s smell, the rhythm of her hands against Mildred’s back, these are the only things in the world that exist. They are an island in the middle of a calm, peaceful sea.

Mildred, finally, picks her head up and looks at Gwendolyn with red, watery eyes. “She was in such pain,” she says. “Gwendolyn, it was… it was awful; I shouldn’t have let her climb up so high, I shouldn’t--”

“Shhhh,” Gwendolyn says. “It was an accident. No one’s fault.”

Mildred sniffles. She makes a face that indicates she doesn’t believe Gwendolyn, though uncharacteristically lets the matter rest. Suddenly, her mouth curls into a small but genuine smile. She kisses Gwendolyn, giggling when she hears her surprised noises of delight.

“We’re Mama,” Mildred says once she’s pulled back. “And Mommy.”

“Mama,” Gwendolyn repeats. She pushes Mildred’s hair behind her ears. “And Mommy.”

Mildred drapes her arms over Gwendolyn’s shoulders and presses their foreheads together. “I don’t know about you,” she says, “but I could really, really use a drink.”

Gwendolyn lights a fire in the hearth while Mildred fixes their drinks and arranges a plate of sandwiches. They settle on the sofa with the bourbon sours, their legs tangled together under a whole pile of blankets. Gwendolyn picks up her glass for a sip, but freezes halfway to her mouth.

Mildred quirks an eyebrow upward. “What?” she asks.

“We should toast,” Gwendolyn says.

Mildred smiles curiously. “What are we toasting?”

Gwendolyn thinks for a moment, then raises her glass. “To Emily. To… parenthood,” she says, “and to us.”

Mildred, beaming through her tears, clinks her glass against Gwendolyn’s. “To us.”