The night of my tenth birthday I got a big surprise. My birthday came on Tuesday this year and when I got home from school my mother told me not to change, she was taking me to see my father.

My birthday is September 22nd, the autumn equinox. I always loved telling people about the equinox. Summer is over and a new year has started at school. There are one hundred days left in the year. The hot days are going out and the cold nights are coming in, and they pass with a nod on my birthday.

Not this year. I shake my head just a quick shake if anyone asks. No one knows me here, in a new school in a new town in a different county. My father’s birthday, July 4th, is eighty days before mine and that’s the last time I saw him. I wouldn’t know what to tell people. I don’t understand it either.

ME: Where?

HER: At the court.

She hated everything about this.

HER: It’s a long drive. Almost an hour. Eat a breakfast bar now and we’ll try to get something later.

My head swarmed with all the things I would tell him.

I have a new school for fifth grade. It’s smaller than my fourth grade. I like my homeroom teacher OK. Some kids from my school live on my street. I don’t know them yet, only their names. I think Mom tells everyone not to ask me anything because my father has already hurt me enough. Ha! No, it’s her. No one knows what they can say so they stay back. That’s OK, I don’t know what to say either. They have girl scouts here and someone asked me but Mom can’t get me after school so I said I couldn’t, I’m too busy.

Maybe when the court tells us how this is supposed to work? Mom says you won’t give up and go by her court order. That’s good. Don’t give up. I think you’re right. That would be the end of us, if I could never see you outside of this county. Try to get that part taken out, about this county. I couldn’t go where you live or see where you work. Are you back in the city? I could never go around New York with you like Ned did. I could never see your family if you couldn’t take me. If they still want to see me after I messed up their big wedding. So don’t give up. Don’t. I’m OK with waiting. Maybe it’s my fault we can’t talk or phone or text or email for a year. That started right after I told my court lawyer I wanted to live with you. I think they want to make us strangers so I’ll stop asking. We will never be strangers, they just don’t know it. They don’t know anything. They get everything wrong. I tried to tell my lawyer some things on the phone that time but she said to wait until I hear. Will I get my chance before it’s too late, do you think? You said to trust the process, so I am. Do you still think that?

Mom said I had an hour with him. I needed more to tell him. I thought of a funny story.

The first week something funny happened. I got locked out and I had to pee. I tried to get in my window. I hope no one saw. Then I tried to find a place out back where no one would see. We’re more out in the country here and we have a lot of woods so I thought it would be easy, like when we’re on a hike. But I took too long and peed myself and then I had to stay back there out of sight until it dried. I didn’t want kids saying this is the new girl Emily and she still pees herself in fifth grade. I went farther into the woods. My backpack was still on the back porch so I couldn’t even do homework. You remember Teddi from Shockley? Paul’s wife? Judge Bender I mean. She came home with Mom. I didn’t see they were back at first and they started yelling Emily, I don’t know for how long. It was almost six when I heard them. I checked if the pee was dry and I knocked on our door but they said it was unlocked now, why did I knock. They said I scared them and they almost called in a missing persons report. Mom was doing a presentation for Teddi and Paul and it was a big success but it went longer than anyone thought. It was almost six so I was in the woods for three and a half hours. I hope no one saw me or the kids will say this new girl Emily and she lives in the woods with the wolves.


My court is a brick building in a run-down part of Poughkeepsie. I felt nervous walking there. My birthday is late September and it gets dark early. I had never been to Poughkeepsie. This has to be the worst part.

My mother and I went through a metal detector like we were getting on a plane. Ha! A plane to a war-zone maybe, to bombed-out Syria. We had to put everything in a plastic tub for the guards to X-Ray. We had to take our shoes off and go through separately. I got through but Mom had to go through three times. Finally they let her hold her arms out straight and they scanned around her outline with a taser or buzzing club kind of thing.

We went up one floor in the elevator. The guard at the elevator door had guns and clubs and cuffs on his belt and a walkie-talkie strapped to his shoulder. It was always buzzing and popping and it was hard to talk to him. He held up both hands to stop us. He told my mother to sit right there and fill out a clip board.

When she held up her hand he came back and read it over and told her she could sit back down right there until he brought me back. He pointed out a coffee machine and a snack machine. She got me a snack while I was gone, a tuna-fish sandwich, but I didn’t want it. She forgot I never want mayonnaise. She said there was no mayonnaise but there was.

The guard motioned me through a double door and down a hall. He showed me a spot in the hall where I should wait. Someone would come and explain the rules. I stood on that spot and looked around but I couldn’t see Dad.

Police were everywhere, with gear clipped all over them. It was hard to talk in there. Their walkie-talkies were strapped to one shoulder and buzzed and squawked all the time. Every message went to every guard. You listened to see if it was for you. If not, you ignored it. You tried to, I mean.


A woman guard came and read me the rules. After each one she asked me if I understood. I couldn’t just nod. I had to say Yes out loud.

GUARD (reading): Your parent will not be allowed to stand up. Neither of you may come around the table to hug or reach across the table to touch. Do you understand?

I said Yes, I understand.

GUARD: You understand about touching?

I said Yes, I understand. No, I didn’t understand. I don’t like saying I do if I don’t, but that’s what you do here in a court.

GUARD (reading): There is a large assortment of games on a shelf in the corner. You are to pick one and take it to the table. Do you understand?

I said Yes, I understand.

GUARD (reading): A woman with a white coat and a clipboard will sit with you and make notes but you should pretend she isn’t there. You are not to look at her, talk to her, or ask her questions. Do you understand?

I said Yes, I understand.

GUARD (reading): You have one hour. No exceptions. Watch the clock in the room and be ready two minutes before the hour ends. Do you understand?

I said Yes, I understand.

GUARD (reading): You are not to talk about anything outside of this room or outside of this one hour. You are not to talk about your home or school or other people who aren’t here. You are not to talk about times in the past or the future, such as last year or next year, or this week or next week, or your day today or tomorrow. Do you understand?

I said Yes, I understand.

GUARD (reading): If you violate any of these rules your visit can be terminated immediately and you might not be granted another. Do you understand?

I said Yes, I understand.

GUARD: You understand what can happen?

I said Yes, I understand.

GUARD (reading): These rules are only for your good. You are not to complain of these rules or indicate their unfairness in any way, including hand gestures and facial expressions. Do you understand?

I felt my stomach twist but I said Yes, I understand.

GUARD: You understand about complaining?

I said Yes, I understand.

She motioned to another guard. He came after a few minutes and took me to a door. He stopped me just outside it. I could see my father sitting at a table like we have at school. The woman in a white coat was sitting near the table with her clipboard. She looked at me and made some notes. The room was smaller than my bedroom at home. I saw the sagging shelf with raggedy games spilling off it. One wall had a big double mirror. The woman in white was sitting where she wouldn’t block it.

This other guard asked if I knew the rules and I said yes. Your father got the same rules, he said.

Then he motioned me inside and said “I’ll be right here the whole time.”

“So good to know,” I wanted to say.


You both know the rules, the guard said to Dad and me. Watch this clock. Be ready two minutes before your hour ends. No exceptions. Do you understand?

I said Yes, I understand. Dad only nodded. He was giving me a big smile, holding up both hands like Wow, look at this!

The woman in a white coat looked from me to him and back and wrote some things on her clipboard.

I looked at my father and pointed to myself and then to the shelf of games.

HIM (laughing): Yeah, pick us a game. We won’t need the sign language.

I laughed too.

There were a lot of battered games on a sagging shelf. Most had pieces missing so I picked a rusty Chinese Checkers because missing pieces might not matter so much. I carried the game to the table slowly, so nothing would fall out of the saggy cracked-open box.

I saw myself in the two-way mirror.

“Whoa,” I said. “Big mirror!”

I froze. I think I went all red. I shouldn’t have said that. I’m not supposed to see it.

“Yep,” my father laughed.

The woman who wasn’t there wrote something on her clipboard. We weren’t supposed to mention the big mirror. We were supposed to pretend it wasn’t there. We were supposed to know that without asking. We couldn’t ask the woman in the white coat. She wasn’t there either.

Suddenly I got the feeling this was an execution. They brought me here to witness an execution. I was my father’s last wish.


My father asked how I was doing.

I thought about what to say. I turned to the woman in white. I hope she didn’t see. I’m not supposed to look.

He must mean this moment, not this week or this new year at school.

Good, I said.

I couldn’t say any of the things I thought of in the car.

My father was being upbeat and cheerful that way I hated, like that recital night at gymnastics, when he stood by the window the whole time and kept sticking two thumbs up for everything I did, like he hadn’t seen me do the same move every week all winter. At intermission I came over and took him aside and asked could he please stop with the thumbs.

Now I miss those days and nights. It hurts to remember.

He said he had a gift for me. The guards would bring it in later. They had to check it first.

The woman who wasn’t there jumped a little and wrote something on her clipboard.

I froze. I didn’t move a muscle or make a peep. He wasn’t supposed to say there were guards around. He wasn’t supposed to say they were checking my gift. Did that count as complaining?

Check for what, I wondered. Bombs? Secret messages in code? I didn’t ask. Are these people crazy? Never argue with a crazy person.


I felt sick. They were making us pretend. I didn’t want him to see me this way, pretending, and I didn’t want to see him this way. I wanted to tell them “No, I don’t understand. I would be lying if I said Yes. Keep your lie, it’s your lie, not mine. Leave me out of it. Pretend my father is some kind of danger to me? Are you crazy? You’re the danger.”

Then I would turn to him. “I don’t want to do this, Dad, do you? Let’s walk out the door and never come back.”

But what did he tell me before, when he could tell me things? I remember. Trust the process.

Would he still say that? If he could say?

I nodded to him about my gift and waited.

I studied his face and the way he was sitting. What had they done to the guy who took care of me for seven years, all those days and nights? Who took me to the doctor? Who took me to play dates and birthday parties? Who came when I went to the nurse? Who came when I called him in the night, when I had a nightmare?

You know how the roadrunner runs right off a cliff but doesn’t notice at first? Doesn’t look down? That’s how I felt now, if someone could make my father lie to me, over and over. I looked down and there was nothing under me.

I don’t want to remember him this way, if anyway there’s nothing else for us now. I know he’s not this dangerous criminal and juvenile delinquent. They have everything wrong and that’s how they like it. They don’t know anything and they know it. They just want us to say they’re right, that’s why we’re here. I hate this. I want out.

But I looked up at Dad. He’s here, isn’t he? He’s smiling. He’s going along with this. OK, then, me too. Trust the process.


A guard came in with a gun and a club rattling on his belt and a walkie-talkie squawking on his shoulder. He had my birthday present in one hand and slid it down the table to me. Someone had already opened the present and the card. I was supposed to pretend I didn’t notice. I could notice the present, but not the wrapping.

I wanted to make a bomb joke. I didn’t. This courthouse is a bomb disposal center. Bomb disposal doesn’t protect the bomb, they protect everyone else from the bomb. I’m the bomb. Dad and I.

The card had a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt.

      Every day do one thing you are afraid you cannot do.

I smiled up at Dad.

Check, I thought. In one night I’ve done enough of that for a month. Enough for a lifetime.

The other gift was a mosaic with one word made of stones inside a circle of colored stones:


People had put fresh flowers all around the circle. It looked like a funeral, or the anniversary of a funeral.

I looked up and tried to smile. Maybe this is what took so long. The guards wondered if this was some secret message.

He said he got it near where he used to live in the city.

I looked sideways at the woman who wasn’t there. We weren’t supposed to speak of other places. Or the past.

It’s on a hill in Central Park, he said, across from where a famous singer-songwriter lived. He wrote for guitar. I could learn some of his songs. He was killed across the street from this hill. Every year people put flowers on this spot.

ME: Who was he?

HIM (laughing): That’s for you to find out.

I laughed too. For a second we were the same as always, throwing quiz questions back and forth.

I wanted to ask him for more clues. Had I heard any of his songs? But I was afraid of making her mad, the woman in white who wasn’t there.

He knew what I was thinking.

HIM: This hill is named after one of his songs.

ME: How do I find out?

HIM: Google map of Central Park. On the west. At 72nd. Once you know the name of that song you’re off to the races.

ME: I can find out. I know how.

HIM: You have a place for this on your wall?

I looked around nervously. We weren’t supposed to talk about any place outside this room, or my new house or new school or where my mother had taken me.

HIM (laughing): Tell me his name next time.

Next time? We weren’t supposed to mention a next time or any time outside this hour. What next time? I hadn’t seen him for eighty days, the time between his birthday and mine. This didn’t really count either. This was all empty and phony. This was worse than nothing.

I think they were pressuring us. I think they wanted me to hate this so I would quit asking to see him. They wanted him to see how badly I hated it so he would give up and take my mother’s court order. They were torturing me in front of him.

Sure! This was Prisoner’s Dilemma, the game his father taught him and he taught me. I would show him I remembered. We would beat the guards at this. We wouldn’t be pressured. We wouldn’t take my mother’s court order. That would be the end of us, we knew without saying. I would be brave and sturdy for him, and not make him give in to spare me.

We would go free. We would walk. We would laugh and he would be so proud.


So my father and I made conversation about the Chinese Checkers and who was winning. I couldn’t believe what we were talking about. I thought the hour would never end.

We watched the clock and packed away the game with five minutes left.

Dad stayed seated as the guard led me out. He gave me a nod and a big smile.

I smiled back. I hope he didn’t see my eyes, how wet they were.


My mother didn’t say anything until we got outside. Then she asked how I felt. She wanted to tell me how to feel. I wouldn’t say anything. I wouldn’t look at her. She could talk to the air if she liked. She could talk to the air forever, till the end of time.

I could feel her getting angry. This was such a big imposition on her! Everyone was making trouble for her again, as always! My poor sainted martyr of a mother! She was always cleaning up after someone! Some man, usually, and now me!

My father and I said “thank you” and “I’m sorry” to people all the time. She never did. She had herself to thank for anything good, and someone else to thank for anything bad. Please God I’ll never get like that.

I learned not to answer her, to just let her have her way. That’s what everyone did. She would have her way anyhow, sooner or later. She could outstink anyone.

My father couldn’t protect himself, how could he protect me? There was nobody for me, but I could keep safe and keep away. No one can hurt a ghost.


My mother tried to hold me when we got home, in the kitchen. I didn’t shake her off, I just froze stiff until she stopped. I hate how she wants to hold me every time she talks about the court. She uses the court for a baseball bat. She uses her bat on me then comes to soothe the bruises. No thanks.

I was crying when I got into bed that night, my tenth birthday. I heard my mother coming down the hall. I got quiet and closed my eyes like I was sleeping. I let my mouth fall open a little. I heard her come to my door and lean in. I made breathing sounds and listened for her to leave. My eyes shot open when I heard her creep back down the hall.

Everything is turning into lying. Everything, even my breathing.

I got up to find my flashlight and pen and the Children’s Bill of Rights they gave me at the court. I stabbed my notes all over it until I saw the start of the sun coming up.

I have one for them: the right not to put your future life in the hands of county officials.

Who are they protecting at that court? Not children. Not me.

At first light I quit thinking things should make sense. I saw myself from the ceiling, the way I looked to my mother from the door, with my mouth falling open. I was back in control. Nothing could hurt me again.

It was forever since I felt so peaceful. Back to Dad and I starting our wedding trip, driving down through Shenandoah in early May, watching little Belly dive through deep grass in a cove of giant oaks, and feeling the world take a deep breath and stretch.