A Sampling of "A Real Daughter"

Chapter 1: Sarah

    Every year since Sarah died, Claire had baked her daughter a birthday cake. Now, as she lifted a lemon-frosted cake from the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, the cold heft of the platter reassured her. She held the cake in front of her and admired the deep swirls in the frosting she’d sculpted with the back of a teaspoon the night before. The six candles ringing the top of the cake tipped slightly, but the all-important candle in the middle – the one to grow on – stood straight and tall.

    She walked carefully to her tiny living room, footsteps echoing off the bare floor and walls, and set the cake on the coffee table. Rays from the dying sun shone through the windows, etching the cake with light. She scooped up a glob of frosting and sucked it off her finger, then drew the curtains and unplugged the phone. One by one she lit the candles. While the wax dripped onto the yellow frosting, she willed Sarah to come.

    In her dreams, the child appeared uninvited, always gasping in her crib, her face contorted, the color of a bruise. In her dreams, Claire ran down the endless corridors, faster, faster until her own lungs were bursting. She was never on time. But on her birthdays, Sarah ran to her – as now – hurtling through the doorway: cheeks aglow, eyes crammed with light. Frisky, her half-grown kitten, bounded in behind her, its gray and black striped tail with a crook on its tip held high. Sarah wore the dress Claire had made for her, a smocked, yellow gingham that matched the cake’s frosting and the child’s hair. Sarah threw herself into her mother’s lap and flung her arms around her neck, her knobby knees punching into Claire’s abdomen. Claire buried her face in her daughter’s hair breathing in the smell of sunshine.

    “Mommy, Sarah said, spinning off her mother’s lap, twisting the skin on Claire’s thigh. “I can’t wait to open my presents.” She was hopping in place, holding her ankle. Claire was a little surprised to see Sarah’s bare feet were callused with wavy patterns carved into her heel, like rake lines in a tiny Japanese garden. She’d lost a tooth – the same one that had caused Claire to cry out with pain and pride when she’d nursed her daughter. But the bud of a splendid new tooth was in sight.

    Can I blow out my candles? Can I wish for anything? If I tell you my wish, will it still come true?”

    Sarah whirled away – arms outstretched, head tipped back – and spiraled to the floor.

    Then, she was gone. As the candles sputtered into the frosting, Claire peered around the living room, hoping to catch one more glimpse of her child. She thought she saw the striped flicker of the cat’s tail disappearing through a doorway; but for now, Sarah was nowhere to be seen.