It was three weeks after Ainsleigh Harper’s eleventh birthday when her Gift manifested. A whole two months after her government mandated doctor’s visit. She had been in her kitchen, scooping the remainder of her tomato soup from her bowl and humming a happy tune to herself. Just a little something to take the edge off her appetite after school. She smiled, feeling content as the last spoonful of the hot, thick liquid warmed her up from the inside.
Her father was at work and they wouldn’t be having tea until he came home. Which could be for a while. He was still helping restore the public library that had continued to crumble for years after the Problem Year. Apparently the ground it had been built on wasn’t as stable as they had first thought, and after several minor earthquakes, the building was condemned for safety reasons. Her mother was outside in the garden, pegging washing on the line. She shook out Ainsleigh’s bedsheet and Ainsleigh caught a glimpse of the bloodstain that had been too stubborn to come out in the wash. Her cheeks flushed. Her neighbours would see! It didn’t matter how many times her mother said it was completely normal, that it was what happened when a girl started to become a woman, it was humiliating!
Frowning to herself, she brought her attention back to her snack. She lifted the bowl to her lips and tilted her head back, intent to drink every last morsel. When she returned the bowl to the table the clatter was so loud she jerked back, the chair legs scraping across the hardwood floor. The bowl had split into three large pieces like an orange peel. Something hot swelled on her fingertip and she saw the red blot of blood welling there. Ainsleigh blinked, confused. She had only placed the bowl down, how had the ceramic smashed?
Her heart then stuttered at the sound of her mother shuffling about outside. Her tall form passed the window as she headed towards the back door. Quickly, Ainsleigh bundled up the broken bowl in a towel, threw it in the bin and piled old potato peelings over it to conceal it. The spoon and her empty glass were still on the table. She grabbed them and dropped them into the sink and cringed back when the glass exploded. Panicking, she knocked on the tap to flush the bits down the drain but the knob came off in her hand. Water sprayed up into her face. She choked on it.
“Ainsleigh!” her mother shouted, surprise tightening her voice. Water was spraying into Ainsleigh’s eyes, but she heard the flat soles of her mother’s house slippers clapping across the floor. She was shoved out of the way and her mother opened the sink cabinet beneath and started fiddling. Ainsleigh was soaked, her short curls dripping water down her face and off her chin. The front of her school dress stuck to her chest.
Her mother did something and the water was knocked off. Wiping her bare forearm over her wet face, she got back to her feet and stared down at her daughter.
“What happened?” she asked, her eyes shifting to Ainsleigh’s hand.
It was then Ainsleigh noticed she was still holding the knob. She looked at it, bewildered. “I- I don’t know. I was going to wash up and it just-”
Her mother looked to the table, Ainsleigh followed her eyes and her stomach dropped. She scrabbled over to her chair to grab the broken piece of ceramic she had missed. She shoved the chair with her shoulder as she bent down and it screeched across the floor before clattering onto its side, the noise so loud Ainsleigh bounced back up to her feet and spun to her mother wide-eyed.
Mouth working silently, her mother clutched at her chest, the thin material of her dress crinkling under her tightening fingers.
“You…barely touched it.” She passed her daughter and straightened the chair. One of the legs was crooked from the impact. Her lips formed a thin line as she spun and grabbed the knob and piece of ceramic from Ainsleigh’s hands. After studying the ceramic for a moment, her breathing started to shake.
Her voice was soft with barely contained fear. Ainsleigh’s heart clattered against her ribs.
“Go to your room.”
“Momma?” she reached out, but her mother jerked away from her touch.
“I said go to your room!”
Tears sprang into Ainsleigh’s eyes as she ran across the hallway and slammed her bedroom door behind her, sending an array of fissures spider-webbing up the wall. The hinges snapped, nails clattering to the floor and Ainsleigh watched, as if in slow motion, as the door dislodged and dropped into the hallway.
Ainsleigh met her mother’s eyes through the spindles of the staircase. Her mother let out a strangled cry and grasped the kitchen doorframe for support as her knees buckled.
“Momma?” Ainsleigh was crying now, her breath hitching. “Momma, what’s happening?”
Her mother shook her head, fending off the words. “No. No. Not my daughter. Not my angel. No!”
“Momma, I’m scared!” She took a step towards the broken door but her mother threw up her hands.
“Stay there! Stay back! Don’t move!”
Ainsleigh was shaking now, her eyes drifting back to the cracks in the wall. Paint and chunks of plaster began to flake off and dust the carpet.
“Just wait there, okay? Your father will be home any minute. You just stay there.”
Her teeth began to chatter, her wet dress chilling her to her bones. She stood there as still as she could, hands scrunched into tiny fists by her sides and her eyes trained on her terrified mother. Her mother… her strong, determined mother… terrified. Terrified of her.
The minutes ticked by and Ainsleigh was shaking so violently she could no longer control it. Her little body was juddering so much her bones were sore from it. Her mouth opened, ready to ask her mother if it would be okay if she changed, but the words died on her lips.
Her mother had moved from the kitchen doorframe and was now sitting on one of the unbroken dining chairs, hand back to clutching her chest. She was no longer looking at Ainsleigh but the mental image of her moving and seeing her mother’s head spin towards her like a barn owl and pin her with her death glare had her had her heart stuttering. She could stay still. She could wait.
There was a clock by Ainsleigh’s bed but she couldn’t see the face from the spot she was glued to. She could hear it, though. In the deadly silence of the house, the ticking bouncing from wall to wall. A pressure built below her belly and she squeezed her eyes shut. She shouldn’t have downed that glass of juice. She pressed her thighs together but her shivering was jiggling her bladder and making her need the toilet even more.
“I-” Her voice squeaked out. She cleared her throat. “I need to pee.”
“You can wait,” her mother replied, peering at her through her now drying hair. The dark waves frizzed around her face, giving her a bedraggled look. She was now worrying her lower lip between her fingers, house slippers tapping nervously against the floor.
Ainsleigh began to hop from foot to foot, pins and needles attacking her toes as the minutes continued to tick by. How long was her father going to be? Sometimes he ended up being stuck on the site until Ainsleigh’s bedtime.
Feeling her bladder overflowing, tears ran down her cheeks as a warm stream trickled down her leg and soaked her frilly sock. Shaking her head, she willed herself to stop crying, but a lurching sob had her mother shooting her a look.
“I’m sorry, Momma,” she cried. “I’m sorry.”
A noise from the front door had her mother jumping to her feet. The door opened and in came her father, face sunken from a day of hard work. He kicked off his heavy boots and turned to place his tool box down, pausing at the sight of Ainsleigh’s bedroom door on the floor.
“Simon!” Ainsleigh’s mother cried.
Her father spun to her. “What happened?”
“She’s one of them, Simon,” she cried, rushing over to him and grabbing at his dusty shirt-front. “We thought we were cleared but she’s one of them.”
Ainsleigh met her father’s eyes as he blinked, lips slightly parted in shock. Then his brows furrowed at the state of his daughter and he rushed over, clutching her shoulders. Ainsleigh burst into tears -huge, raking sobs that hurt her ribs.
“Leigh, are you alright?” he asked. He must have smelled the urine because he bounced to his feet and turned on her mother. “What have you done? Look at the state of her!”
“She was destroying everything! Look what she’s done to the chair!”
“I don’t care about the bloody chair!” he bellowed. Ainsleigh cringed away. Her father never raised his voice, especially at her mother. Her mother was always the one ‘acting out,’ as her father would say, when she was ‘having one of her days.’
Her father dropped back to his knees and smoothed her drying curls out of her face. “I’m going to draw you a warm bath, alright? You can get yourself cleaned up. Then we’re going to talk about what’s happening with you, yeah?”
Ainsleigh nodded, rubbing her knuckles under her snotty nose. “I didn’t mean to, Dad. It just happened.”
“I know, honey, I know.” He clutched the back of her neck and pressed a heavy kiss against her temple. “We’ll sort this out.”
He took her hand and led her upstairs to the bathroom. Ainsleigh braved a peek at her mother through over the banister and a chill ran down her spine at the woman she found in the kitchen doorway. She read the fear in her eyes, the tightness of her lips, the whitening of her knuckles. That day Julienne lost a daughter, and Ainsleigh lost a mother.