The most disturbing thing about Abigail wasn’t her queer tendencies or her morbid past. It was her innocence. It was that she didn’t know that anything was wrong with her life.
The end of the year was near, the children grew antsy in their seats as old snow turned to spring blossoms, and final parent teacher conferences were approaching.
I moved Natalie and Jane to the other side of the classroom, but it didn’t seem to matter. They avoided Abigail now. Everyone did.
She was quieter than she used to be, though she still held half conversations with the wall during social time. And the way she dressed had changed- sometimes her clothes were too small, and sometimes they matched in ways that just seemed odd, though the pen in her pocket stayed constant. Her hair was different too. She began to wear it in braids and other more complicated styles. I couldn’t help but notice that the streak of brown in her blonde hair had grown.
“Abigail, honey, I don’t think those clothes fit you just right.” I said one day. She wore a yellow button up shirt, but it was so tight that the buttons looked as if they were about to pop off.
“See? I told you she wouldn’t like it. I wanted to wear the blue one.” She said, twitching her right ear.
“It looks fine honey, I just think you might want to wear one that is bigger.”
“But Bridget said this is her favorite shirt and I should wear it today because it makes me look pretty.”
My skin began to crawl. That was when I first realized that she still wore Bridget’s clothes, which had not changed since kindergarten. I would have to bring this up at the parent teacher conference along with many, many other things.
On Wednesdays, it was my turn to patrol the lunchroom while the students ate. Abigail sat alone on the corner of one of the long tables, her lunchbox zipped open in front of her and its innards strewn around the table. She had set the seat beside her as well, placing portions of food on the table in front of it.
She took a bite of a sandwich, and something multicolored fell out onto the floor. It was a gummy worm, half green and half orange.
“What’s that you’re eating, Abigail?” I asked, poking around the rest of her lunchbox, finding a few candy bars, a baggie of sugary cereal that my own parents wouldn’t let me eat, and a bottle of chocolate milk.
“Lunch, Miss Mary. We made our own recipe.”
“Your own? Do you pack your own lunch Abigail? What does your mother say about gummy worm sandwiches?”
“We pack it every day.” She said proudly, “And mommy doesn’t like it. But I don’t really listen to mommy anymore.”
“Abigail, you need to listen to your mother. I’ll buy you hot lunch today.”
“What about Bridget?”
“She can have extra of your special lunch.”
I clenched my teeth as I watched her eat. What type of parent lets their child eat junk every day? And dress in clothes that obviously didn’t fit? Especially since it was her only daughter still left alive. On parent teacher day, Abigail’s mother and I would be having a long talk.
Next Wednesday, I caught Abigail eating gummy worms again. Now I bought her lunch every day, and every day she packed lunch for Bridget.
Abigail’s mother had the 7:30 PM time slot on parent teacher day. It was my last conference, and I had scheduled it late so that I could spend some extra time with her.
I watched the analog clock in the corner. Right now it was 7:29, but parents often showed up late to meetings.
Five minutes passed. Then ten. Then thirty.
I shook with anger when I got up from my desk. The negligence of Abigail's mother was appalling. Opening up the directory I kept in my drawer, I ripped out Abigail’s contact information. Like it or not, her mother would be having the conference.
The drive was short, about five minutes, and I pulled into Abigail’s driveway. Her house was on top of a small hill, higher than any of the others around it, and a dead oak tree stood in one corner. The grass was high and uncut, while the flowers under the porch were wilting. I rang the doorbell twice and waited.
I heard Abigail thumping down the stairs, and a moment later the blinds flicked open to reveal her eyes.
“Miss Mary! Come in!” She said, opening the door wide.
“Hello Abigail. Is your mother home? She missed her parent teacher conference.”
“Oh yes Miss Mary. She said she didn’t feel like going out tonight.”
I clenched my teeth again, and struggled to keep my voice even.
“Did she now? Can you take me to her?”
“Of course!” She said, and whipped around, leading me to the kitchen.
My nose wrinkled- whatever Abigail’s mother had cooked for dinner smelled disgusting. We turned the corner and I saw her seated at the kitchen table. Her back was towards me and I felt my anger surge.
“I have every right to report you to children services. If you continue treating your daughter like this then I’ll have no choice.” I scolded, sitting in the chair next to her and turning to face her.
The smell wasn’t dinner. The smell was Abigail’s dead mother.
What was left of the skin on her face was taut, and much of her hair had fallen out, littering the floor around her. In front of her was a moldy cup and an empty bottle of prescription sleeping pills. I froze and Abigail embraced her mother, knocking one of her hands off of the table to fall motionless at her side.
I stood, backing away slowly. There was a video recorder plugged in on the counter and its flashing red light blinked at me.
“Abigail, honey, how long has your mother been like this?” I asked, carefully choosing my words.
“Like what, Miss Mary?”
“Here, at this table.”
No! Dead! How long has she been dead! My thoughts screamed.
“Oh I don’t know. Mommy still gets up every once and a while, but she stays in the kitchen a lot more than she used to. And she’s been sitting in my seat during dinner.” She pouted, crossing her arms across her chest. A fly buzzed around her mother’s head, but she didn’t notice. She was busy holding her mother's shriveled hand.
“Abigail, how about you give me a few minutes alone with your mother. Go watch the TV in the other room.”
“Ok Miss Mary.” She left and I waited until I saw the blue green glow of the television before flipping open the video recorder. In the corner, the last recorded date flashed and I counted back the days. Thirty seven.
My God, I thought, and pressed play.
The screen flickered to life, and Abigail’s mother’s face materialized. Her eyes were puffy, and tear tracks from her mascara streaked down her face. I recognized Bridget’s old locket in her hand.
“I can’t do it anymore.” She said into the camera, “It’s too much. I’d be able to take it without my dad’s death, or the… things that are happening. I think I’m going crazy. But Abigail- something’s happening to Abigail. Something’s wrong, and I can’t live to see it happen.
“Abigail!” She called, and Abigail came into the picture. Her mother held two cups.
“Abigail, I made you some juice. Would you drink it with me?”
“But mommy, Bridget wants a glass too!”
“Of course she does,” And I saw fear cross her face, “Here, drink up.”
“Are you OK, mommy?”
“Yes, everything is fine. Drink all of it, I put some vitamins in there.”
“Bridget says this is hers.”
“Just drink it.”
And at that moment, Abigail’s voice changed, and the recorder’s lighting changed. Maybe it was the lighting, but Abigail’s hair looked darker than before.
I saw her drink it and heard the empty cup hit the table.
“Where’s mine?” She asked.
“You just drank it.” Murmured her mother. Her own medicine was starting to take effect.
“No, Bridget drank that one. She said it was the sweetest drink she’s ever had. I want one too.”
But her mother was already asleep. Abigail failed to notice, and for the next fifteen minutes upheld conversation with her mother. Then the recorder's lighting dimmed, her voice changed, and she looked straight into the camera.
"Mommy is with me now."
She smiled as the recording expired.
This explained the mismatched clothes and the lunches.
“Abigail,” I said, calling her back from the other room, “What happened to you the night your mother brought you juice. Did you get sick off of it?”
“No Miss Mary, she never gave me any juice.”
“What have you been eating Abigail? Who has been doing your laundry?”
“Bridget does everything now. Mother helps sometimes. And they braid my hair.”
I shivered. The styles she used were too complicated for her to do alone.
“Come, Abigail. You’re staying with me tonight.”
“Is that OK mommy?” Said Abigail, cocking her ear, “Alright, if you say so, I’ll be home before dinner tomorrow.”
Maybe the pills had expired. Maybe her mother forgot to spike her glass. The possibilities ran through my mind as we left behind her house, with the dead oak, the dead flowers, and the dead mother. But in my heart I could feel what had transpired.
And though it terrified me, I knew what I had to do next.
I had to adopt Abigail.