She kissed my cheek and fixed a plate with salmon croquettes, a spoon of green beans, and corn.

“Are you okay?”

I nodded.

James ate his meal, spooning honey onto a dinner rol when my mother said there would be no dessert. He drank a big glass of Coke.

“Don’t eat too much,” my mother said. “You’l have to eat again in a little while.”

“I’m always happy to eat your food, Gwen. I’m always happy to sit at your table.”

I don’t know how I decided that my missing teeth were the problem, but I devised a plan to slide a folded piece of paper behind my top teeth to camouflage the pink space in the center of my smile. I was inspired by James, actual y, who once told me how he put cardboard in his shoes when he was little to make up for the holes in the soles. The paper was soggy and the blue lines ran with my saliva.

Mother caught me in the middle of this process. She walked into my room and lay across my twin bed with its purple checked spread. She liked to do this, just lie across my bed while I played with my toys or colored in my notebooks, watching me like I was a television show. She always smel ed good, like flowery perfume, and sometimes like my father’s cigarettes.

“What are you doing, Petunia?”

“Don’t cal me Petunia,” I said, partial y because I didn’t like the name and partial y because I wanted to see if I could talk with the paper in my mouth. “Petunia is the name of a pig.”

“Petunia is a flower,” my mother said. “A pretty one.”

“It’s Porky Pig’s girlfriend.”

“That’s meant to be a joke, a pretty name for a pig, you see?”

“A joke is supposed to be funny.”

“It is funny. You are just in a bad mood. What’re you doing with the paper?”

“I’m trying to put my teeth back,” I said, while trying to rearrange the sodden wad.

“How come?”

This seemed obvious as I took in my own reflection along with my mother’s in the narrow mirror attached to the top of my chest of drawers. Of course James wanted to keep me a secret. Who would love a girl with a gaping pink hole in the middle of her mouth? None of the other children in my kindergarten reading circle looked like I did. Surely my mother could understand this. She spent half an hour each night squinting at her skin before a magnifying mirror, applying swipes of heavy creams from Mary Kay. When I asked her what she was doing, she said, “I am improving my appearance. Wives can afford to let themselves go. Concubines must be vigilant.”

Recal ing it now, I know that she must have been drinking. Although I can’t remember the moment so wel , I know that just outside the frame was her glass of Asti Spumante, golden and busy with bubbles.

“I am improving my appearance.” I hoped she would smile.

“Your appearance is perfect, Dana. You’re five; you have beautiful skin, shiny eyes, and pretty hair.”

“But no teeth,” I said.

“You’re a little girl. You don’t need teeth.”

“Yes, I do,” I said quietly. “Yes, I do.”

“Why? To eat corn on the cob? Your teeth wil grow back. There is lots of corn in your future, I promise.”

“I want to be like that other girl,” I said final y.

Mother had been lying across my bed, like a goddess on a chaise lounge, but when I said that she snapped up. “What other girl?”

“James’s other girl.”

“You can say her name,” Mother said.

I shook my head. “Can’t.”

“Yes, you can. Just say it. Her name is Chaurisse.”

“Stop it,” I said, afraid that just saying my sister’s name would unleash some terrible magic the way that saying “Bloody Mary” while staring into a pan of water would turn the liquid red and thick.

Mother rose from the bed and got down on her knees so we were the same height. As she pressed her hands down on my shoulders, traces of cigarette smoke lingered in her tumbly hair. I reached out for it.

“Her name is Chaurisse,” my mother said again. “She’s a little girl, just like you are.”

“Please stop saying it,” I begged her. “Stop it before something happens.”

My mother hugged me to her chest. “What did your daddy say to you the other day? Tel me what he said.”

“Nothing,” I whispered.

“Dana, you can’t lie to me, okay? I tel you everything and you tel me everything. That’s the only way we can pul this off, baby. We have to keep the information moving between us.” She shook me a little bit. Not enough to scare me, just enough to get my attention.

“He said I was a secret.”

My mother pul ed me into a close hug, crisscrossing her arms across my back and letting her hair hang around

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