“Today I’m five.” She tells the doctor with gusto. She scratches her knee and then stuffs a thumb in her mouth. She knows Mama doesn’t like her to suck her thumb, but the doctor doesn’t say anything.
“Happy birthday Darla. Are you having a party?”
She shakes her head, pigtails flying from side to side, speaking around the thumb she won’t remove until she leaves the room. “Mama doesn’t like parties. But she’s making my favorite dinner. Hotdogs and mashed potatoes with lots of gravy.”
The doctor watches her swinging legs above the crappy grey carpet he’s been meaning to replace for years. She looks at the shelves behind his head and chews her thumb.
“Tell me what you did today, Darla.”
“I woke up really early. It was still dark. But Mama said it was breakfast time so I put on my slippers and we ate Cheerios right out of the box. When Pop came home, Mama went to her room. I watched Spongebob and Pop showered.” She tucks her feet under her and sits on her knees. “Pop gets really dirty at work. I don’t want to work there. Then he got clean and took me here.”
The doctor looks into her brown eyes, shining in their innocence. “Was anybody else at home when you were eating breakfast?”
She thinks about his question. She remembers Mama right beside her, reminding her not to tell Pop that they ate the cereal from the box. He wouldn’t like that. She starts to shake her head, but then remembers, “Nattie. Nattie was there. She was sleeping on the couch. She told me to stop talking so loud, but Mama told her to shut her pie-hole. I laughed and Nattie just growled. She stayed on the couch until Pop got home. Then she went home.”
The doctor and Darla talk for a while. She chews her thumb and doesn’t look him in the eye. She answers his questions, slowly losing patience. She’d much rather be at home drawing pictures with Mama or helping her bake cookies.
“Darla, I’m going to go talk to your father for a few minutes. There’s toys in that chest you can play with if you’d like.”
She nods her head. This is routine by now. She will play with the Barbies, the race cars, the panda that squeaks when you push his belly. She might look through the book about the Pokey Little Puppy because she likes the pictures, but she won’t touch the one about Miss Spider. Spiders are too scary.
The doctor leaves the small office and shakes her father’s hand. Mark’s hands are calloused from nights picking and packing in the warehouse; his skin tanned from days spent hammering homes together. He is tired, but almost trembling with concern for his daughter.
“Tell me about Darla’s morning.” The doctor and Mark take seats in the waiting room. There are no other patients this early; there is still privacy here.
“She was awake when I got home from the warehouse. Natalie, the babysitter, was still sleeping on the couch. I could tell Darla had been eating cereal from the box again, but I didn’t say anything. She watched cartoons while I showered. I made her some toaster waffles and apple slices for breakfast, and then we came here.” Mark’s eyebrow arches. “What did she say?”
“She said her mother woke her up and let her eat the cereal from the box. She said her mother went into her room when you came home.”
Tears spring from Mark’s eyes. He cannot control them. Today he is too tired to try. He collapses into his hands, barely aware the doctor is patting his back in an attempt to comfort him through his sobs. Minutes tick by on the clock as Darla’s cars race across the small office and her father calms his breaths until his sobs are done. The doctor sits patiently through it all.
“She’s been coming here three times a week for two months. Why isn’t she getting better?”
The doctor pushes his wire-rimmed glasses back up the bridge of his nose. “Darla’s is a complicated case, Mark. I told you there is no miracle cure. But I do believe therapy will help her accept what has happened.”
“Accept it?” Mark stands suddenly, throwing the doctor off. His face is bright red, his voice harsh. “She doesn’t have to accept it. It never should have even happened! What sixteen-year-old girl could function properly after seeing her mother murdered? I don’t want her to accept it. I just want her to deal with it like a normal person. Not pretending she’s four years old and that her mother is still alive. Why can’t she just be normal?”
Again, he breaks into tears. The doctor’s words are no consolation. He mutters a few more empty words, and then returns to the office.
Inside, Darla is jumping on the couch she had been sitting on. She stops when she sees he has returned and sits down again, crossing her long legs over each other and stuffing her thumb back in her mouth.
“Darla, you know you aren’t supposed to jump on my couch.”
She stares at him darkly, challenging him. “But Mama started it.”