My mother wants to be a mother when she grows up. I’m ten when she tells me this and five years later she gets a bump and bumps me out. I go to my daddy who doesn’t know he’s my daddy. I knock on his door and tell him who I am and ask if I can stay and he says, “Christ, which one are you?” and I say, “Christ, which what am I?” and he says, “You can’t stay but want some X?” and I say, “Fat chance.” He says, “Your mother’s fat.”
My mother’s always been fat, he just doesn’t know she’s getting fatter. I am too. My belly’s getting all swollen even though I’ve never done it. At first I think this must be out of empathy but then I realize I have no empathy inside me and before I can think anything else my belly gets more swollen and a baby comes.
I call my baby Little Bean because I swallowed a magic bean and that’s how he got in there. I wonder if the Virgin Mary ate a magic bean too, or if God just did her like everyone says. God couldn’t have done me. God doesn’t even know I exist, though Jenna from sixth period said he asked about me once. Of course I don’t believe Jenna from sixth period. I didn’t even get my sixth period. I had five little periods and then a baby.
My mother who’s a new mother calls me up and, “You have to see the baby” is all she has to say to me. “She really is the cutest thing, really. I’m doing it all right this time, really. Come home, Little Bean,” she says. “I never took your room apart.”
It’s only then that I remember my own mother swallowed a magic bean before me.
“Mom,” I say, “who was my daddy?”
“Cut the crap, Little Bean,” she says. “You know who your daddy is. He told me you went to see him and you told him he was your daddy and asked to stay and boy did he have things to say about that. Now come on, Bean, enough about your daddy. Why’d you ask something you already knew?”
“I don’t know a Goddamn thing,” I say. “Who in God’s name gave me my bean?”
“Now what’s a thing like that supposed to mean?” she asks. She thinks things have to mean something but I know things are just things. I don’t dare correct her because parents are supposed to be smarter than their children and once they realize they aren’t they lose everything they thought they had.
“I don’t know the most important things,” I say. “But I don’t think I’d like to know them. The most important things to know are the most important things not to know.”
“Now you really aren’t making any sense,” she says. “Just come and see the baby, hhhmm?”
My bean is on the floor, looking up at me and smiling. I agree to come over and see my mother’s baby. I agree while I stare at my bean.
I don’t have the staying kinds of neighbors so it’s hard to find someone to watch Little Bean. The whole place smells like smoke and I sometimes worry that their smoking breath will seep into his skin and become all that he is. The only kinds of people who come to a place like this are cheap men who make greasy business deals and the used up girls who keep them happy. No one here’s fit to watch something so soft and new.
I look down at Little Bean and adjust the towel he’s wrapped in. He sleeps in the drawer of the nightstand that came with the room. When I got here I opened the drawer to see if there was anything important in it and all I found was a dusty bible with lots of little words written inside. The book was too heavy so I threw it out the window and gave the drawer something important to hold. I leave Little Bean sleeping in the drawer on the carpet and lock the door tight.
I haven’t been home since my mother got knocked up. I chose the closest motel because I knew she’d call when the thing came. I know what motherhood is to her. It’s something to show off, something to do right. It takes me two hours to walk there and I pray to something that Little Bean is alright. Everyone knows you aren’t supposed to leave babies alone.
I don’t know if I’m supposed to knock or walk in so I stop when I get there. The door tells me to go straight in but I can’t remember how to use the doorknob. The door stares me down and tells me the house missed me and at first it sounds sincere. I hold my fist up to knock and it starts to wince. It tells me it’s been hurt by a lot of different hands lately. I touch the doorknob and try for the life of me to remember the secret code. There’s a secret code for everything these days. I remember a time when doors used to want you to come in, but this door is different. I tell it I don’t buy a word it says and it says it hopes I freeze. “Fuck you,” I shout, and my mother comes to the door.
“Sara?” she asks, looking down at me. “Did you curse?”
I stare at her and see it right away: the glow. She got rid of all the lamps that used to be here because she lights up the whole house with her glow.
“It’s still there,” I say.
“I thought the glow was supposed to go away after the baby came.” “Glow?” she asks, like she’s never heard such a thing in her life. “Do I really have a glow? I feel fat. I look just awful, I know I do. But really, Sara, really. You have to see the baby. The baby’s the one with a glow.”
“Wait,” I say, grabbing her arm. “Just tell me: is the glow supposed to stay? Is it supposed to stay right after you have the thing? Or does it get birthed away with the placenta and the baby? Is it just birthed away and gone forever?”
“My God,” she says. “What are you talking about? Honestly Sara, how should I know a thing like that?”
“Never mind,” I say. “Show me the baby.”
She leads me to her bedroom even though I’ve been there before. I hid under her blankets when I learned to be scared of myself and she was always there to scare me some more. She’d tell me all the things I was and we’d watch the stars in her skylight. She’d tell me I was brave and smart and that I’d find my way like everyone else. She said the things that made my heart race. I’d look at the stars and ask them why I had to be this and they’d tell me I’d only get to know if I fell asleep. Even the stars lied and bribed.
There’s a crib in my mother’s bedroom and somehow I’m surprised when I see it. The crib is white and looks severely new. I ask and she says yes, it’s new. I look down into it and there’s a baby. My mother tells me her name is Joanne, my grandmother’s name. She’s been saving it.
“Mom,” I ask, “who’s the baby’s daddy?”
“Sara, please,” she says, picking the thing up. “Just enjoy being around a baby.”
I don’t say anything. She starts to hand it to me and I say no.
“I don’t want to,” I tell her.
“Come on, Bean,” she says. I don’t know which one of us she’s talking to.
“I can’t,” I say. “I don’t enjoy being around babies much.”
She’s gentle and mean as she pushes me down into the rocking chair. She shoves the baby into my tired arms and sits on her bed, watching us. This baby is fatter than my baby. This baby is better. This baby could win a medal for being a better baby than my baby. She has little rolls on her arms and legs and she looks like she’s going to live a long time. She drools glittery drool and crinkles her nose when she hears my mother’s voice.
“See?” my mother says. “I see you falling in love with her right now. Babies do that to you.”
Babies do a lot to you. They whisper true, mean things in your ear and then they smile. They look at you like they might die at any given second and then they ruin you. The thing about babies is they never quit. They never quit ruining you and they never quit smiling. I look down at this baby and decide she’s not so different from Little Bean. She’s better, sure, but not so different. I’m not so different either. I tried to ruin my own mother and smiled the day I won.
Of course she asked for it. She asked for it just like I asked for it with my own bean. There’s no such thing as a good child just like there’s no such thing as a good mother. We claim to try and help each other but at the end of the day it’s just a lot of broken hearts and iron burns. At the end of the day all the rights they throw at you stop seeming so right and you start to see the blue sky out the window and you start to think there might be something else.
At the end of the day my arms always stung. She made sure my clothes were ironed and when that wasn’t enough for me she’d get my little arms. She was never enough for me. My skin was always too white and she knew how I craved those bubbles. I asked for them on my arms because I knew I wasn’t brave or smart and that I’d never make it like everyone else. That’s why I asked for the bubbles that burned so nice.
“I’ll never love this baby,” I say. “I’ll never love this pudgy thing.”
“Honestly,” she says, getting up from her bed. “Honestly, Sara, I don’t know why you have to be difficult. Why can’t you try and be happy?”
“Don’t you even wonder?” I ask.
“Wonder what?” she asks.
“Wonder something,” I say. Boy, can I think of things for her to wonder. Wonder where I’ve been all this time, wonder why she doesn’t love me, wonder why she loves that pudgy thing, wonder if she left the iron on, wonder when she’ll stop loving that pudgy thing.
“If you’re going to be like that you can just go,” she says. “I won’t have you hanging around here if you’re going to be like that.”
“Is my room really still here?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says. “I wouldn’t have said it was if it wasn’t.”
“You say plenty of things are that aren’t,” I tell her. “You said the cat was safe when it wasn’t.”
She rolls her eyes and doesn’t even bother to ask. I bet she remembers. She wouldn’t admit it in one million years but I know she remembers that cat. She remembers saying that warm sweet things can live a long time, even in a place like this. She remembers saying they can be left alone, that cats take care of themselves when you leave them alone.
“How long was it?” I ask. “How long were we gone that time?”
She sighs and walks to the laundry room, her favorite room in the house. I swear that one room’s bigger than the rest of this grubby place. She gets a new washing machine and drier at least once a year, sometimes sooner if they really wear her out. She has clean white tubs with all the stuff you need to do laundry. This gets these kinds of stains out, that gets your whites more white, these ones are safe to use on this kind of fabric, and all those make your sheets smell like being young. The baskets used to be boats, but now they’re just baskets. The ironing board is and always has been a tree. The iron used to live on the high shelf so it could only burn me on the days when I needed those bubbles, the days when she was alone with herself too long and needed proof that she was as bad as her little bean.
“How long was it?” I ask again.
She hums and pulls little clothes out from the drier. They’re small enough to fit on her fingers and I tell her she can make finger puppets when she gets sick of the baby. She hums louder and I say it again. She turns away from me and folds the clothes. She smells each one before placing it in the basket.
“Why’d you never dress me in pink?” I ask. “You never dressed me in pink, did you?”
“It didn’t suit you,” she says.
I nod and she tells me to please go look at my room. She tells me to please think of staying with her and the baby, who she calls Baby Joanne.
“I know she’s a baby,” I say. “Jesus.”
“I never said you didn’t.”
“Then why’d you call her Baby Joanne? God, Mom, I get that she’s a baby.”
“See?” she says. “Do you see? This is what you do. This is the exact thing you always do.”
The clothes begin to shrink and she starts folding more quickly. She knows they’ll shrink into nothing if she isn’t quick. I tell her she’d better be quicker than that if she wants to keep the thing. She knows she was never good at being quick.
“I won’t stand here and be attacked,” she says. “I can call her Baby Joanne if I want to. People love it, I’ll have you know. People say it’s the cutest thing they’ve ever heard.”
“People?” I ask. “God, what people? What people do you even mean?”
“Everyone,” she says, folding a microscopic dress. “Every single person I’ve talked to has said it’s the cutest thing they’ve ever head, that she’s the cutest baby they’ve ever seen.”
“Which way is my room?” I ask. “Is it where it used to be?”
“God, Sara,” she says, folding the last speck. “It’s where it always was.”
Nothing is where it always was. The walls in the hallway got narrower, for one thing, and for another the bulb in the bathroom was taken out and replaced by her glow. The glow doesn’t reach me so I have to pee in the dark. I know Little Bean must’ve peed more than his diaper could handle, and I think of going back. Suppose he started crying and someone knocked that door down? Would they know how he liked to have his back rubbed or how he liked to have his world ruined? Would they know the things he whispered to me all those nights, the things he didn’t dare tell anyone else?
I try to get to my room but it’s pushed way back down the hall, even further than it’d been on the days she liked me the least. Today’s different from those days because it’s hiding itself from me more than she is. This time she might really want me to find it. The door has something to say about that, though. Just when I think I have it it backs away a little more. The doorknob tells me to come back when I want to be there and I tell it I do want to be there.
“Please,” I say. “I want to be here more than I ever have.”
“I know a lie when I see one,” it says.
I tell it lies aren’t something you can see and I remind it that it’s a door, and a senile door at that. I tell it my room wants me.
“You can’t keep me from my room,” I say. “It’s my room.”
“Oh, I can do a lot of things,” it says.
“You’re just a door,” I say. “You’re just an old wooden door and I’m a person, I’m a real person and I can do anything I want.”
“You can do anything you don’t want,” it says, and I feel it locking.
I find my mother watching the clothes spin round and round. I tell her the house doesn’t want me anymore, that I’ve overstayed my welcome. I watch her words spin round and round and I feel myself leaving.
“Why do you feel this way? Are you well? Why are you talking this way?”
“I left my bean,” I tell her. “I left my bean alone all this time.”
“You did what?”
I tell her beans can’t be left alone just like cats can’t be left alone. I tell her I was left alone and that it’s her fault the bean came. I tell her it’s all her fault, always was her fault. I think of a sweaty bed and bright lights as I say all this and can’t stop thinking of that until I leave the house and find the neon motel sign. I can still hear her words spinning round and round and I can still see the iron falling toward me. My shoulder tells me I should’ve controlled myself and not said all that to her. It tells me it isn’t fair it has to suffer when my mouth did all the talking. It reminds me irons don’t have to be hot to hurt.
I find the door I locked so tight and it makes a nice little click and lets me in. My bean is wet like I thought he’d be but not dead. I pick him up and say I’m glad he isn’t dead. I tell him I never want him to be dead even though God told me I should want that. I tell him I’ll stop listening to my mother and God and the iron and that instead I’ll just listen to him. Little Bean doesn’t forgive me. He whispers the meanest things I’ve ever heard in my ear and smiles a huge baby smile. I tell him he can be as mean as he wants but I won’t stop being his mother. He tells me I’ll change my mind.
“You sure are a nasty thing,” I tell him.
He looks up at me and the sweaty bed and bright lights come back. A voice says it’ll be alright and calls me Sweetie, something I’ve never been called before. It says things I’ve never heard before and then it leaves. It leaves me cold and scared and makes me crave those nice warm bubbles. My hand finds the phone and remembers the secret code.
“Hello?” she says, “Sara?”
“Hi, Mom,” I say. “The baby was real cute.”
“She is, isn’t she?” she says.
“I never went inside my room,” I tell her. “I’m sorry I never went inside my room.”
“Don’t be sorry,” she says. “I miss you, Bean. I just miss you a whole lot.”
“Was I glowing?” I ask. “Do I still have a glow?”
“I didn’t catch that,” she tells me. “Baby Joanne is crying. Baby Joanne’s been crying so much lately and I’ve been so tired. I’ve been pacing which the doctor says means I’m on edge. He says it means I’m just not all that happy.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Well I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know why they say what they say.”
“No,” I say. “Why aren’t you happy anymore?”
“You’re missing the whole point,” she says. “I’m not saying I’m not happy, I’m saying that’s what they’re all saying.”
“So you are happy?” I ask.
“Of course,” she says. “I always got everything I wanted so of course I’m happy.”
I nod even though she can’t see it. I tell her I need to go. She says she should go too, and reminds me that baby Joanne is still crying. I nod and think of that pudgy thing with her face all red. I end the call and can’t think of anything else.
“What do you think, Little Bean?” I ask, “What do you think?”
“Of what?” he asks. “Of anything in particular?”
“No,” I say. “Just what in God’s name do you think?”
“I don’t think,” he says. “I know.”
I ask him what he knows and he whispers all of it into my ear. He tells me all of it, all the things I thought I needed and all the things I never asked for. He asks how I feel as I place him in his drawer home.
“I don’t know anything,” I tell him. “I still don’t know anything at all.”
Robin Sarkin grew up in Rockport, Massachusetts. She is an MFA fiction candidate at the University of Virginia and received the university’s 2017 Balch Prize for best short story. This is her first publication.
“Locked” appears in our issue, Physics (Summer 2017)