When the roses got sick was the first time Maggie realized she could fix things. Mommy was very angry at the ugly, gray spots on the stems. She called them something like lee-shuns and said it had to do with fungus. Maggie didn’t know about that, but she was upset when the buds drooped over and refused to open. For an hour, she squatted by the flower bed with the limp buds in her hand, telling the spots to go away. Mommy just smiled at her and tugged her ponytail and then went inside to make arrangements to have the bushes pulled out. “Better wake up!” Maggie whispered to the rosebuds. She tried prying them open with her fingers, but the delicate petals tore so easily she had to stop. Then she tried picking at the gray spots with her fingernails, squinting hard against the brilliant sunlight and leaning in closer and closer and closer for a better look.
And that’s when she saw the threads.
Well, that’s what they looked like anyway: bright, shiny lengths of thread, twisted around and around and over and under each other to make a sheer, white cloth like the kind Mommy used to strain things in the kitchen. Maggie touched it very gently, ‘cause it looked so thin and delicate. But it wasn’t; it was strong and bouncy just like a trampoline, and it wrapped the whole length of the flower from stem to bud. She ran her hand over the fabric, and it tingled and sprang against her palm. Maggie laughed with delight — until she felt the tangle.
It was a small thing, really, just a tiny black spot in the weave where it looked like a splinter had pulled out a kink. Very carefully and with gentle fingers, she picked it out, tugging and pulling at the cloth, until the thread lay flat and shone just as brightly as all the others.
Simple, once she figured it out.
And when the men came the next day to dig up the flower beds, the gray spots were all gone, and the buds had blossomed, large and pink.
“Really, you should have seen them yesterday,” Mommy said. Her cheeks were red even though it wasn’t at all hot out.
“I fixed them, Mommy.”
Mommy laughed and swung Maggie up into her arms. One of the men ruffled Maggie’s bangs.
“Trying to put us out of business, are you?”
She buried her face in Mommy’s long, black hair that smelled just like the rose bushes. Maggie wasn’t sure, but she thought they didn’t believe her. She smiled anyway.
Maggie looked to try and fix everything then. Like when Chester the orange cat came home with a torn ear. He squirmed like crazy and yowled in pain, so it took some time and doing, but she finally figured out how to pluck his threads back into place to make the ear all better without even a scar. And then, just for fun, Maggie kept the trees in the backyard from turning red all the way ‘til Christmas. Mommy had the men in about that, too. Maggie watched them from the big window in the kitchen as they looked up at the leaves and scratched their heads. Her giggles steamed the glass.
* * *
Mrs. Sweeney had a spring cold and couldn’t baby-sit, so Mommy made Maggie promise to be good and took her along on her appointment. Maggie didn’t mind. She liked the doctor’s office, ‘cause Mommy said doctors fixed things, and Maggie thought she might like to be one someday. And the office had lots of big, scratchy chairs to climb on and a big, blue fish tank, and the lady at the desk had candy.
“Why don’t you go play with John?” The lady pointed to the thin boy who sat in one of the big chairs. Maggie had noticed him because he wasn’t climbing.
He was older, maybe even eight, and he had dark circles under his eyes and pale, pale skin.
“Are you sick?” he asked when she introduced herself.
Maggie shook her head. “No. I’m going to be a doctor.”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“My blood’s sick. See?” And he showed her a large bruise on his arm.
“Do you want me to fix it?”
“You can’t fix it.”
“Can, too,” she said and stamped her foot, even though Daddy said that was rude.
Maggie took the boy’s hand — at least he didn’t squirm like Chester — and she squinted really, really hard. But his threads, when she found them, weren’t at all like what she’d seen before. All of them were dark and kinked up and tangled, and Maggie didn’t even know where to start to try and fix the mess. Well, maybe if she tried untangling some of them first. She bit her bottom lip and reached her fingers in to pull a thread from the snarl.
“Maggie?” Mommy was standing by the door.
“But Mommy — ”
“Maggie, we have to go.” Mommy’s voice was angry and that was strange, so Maggie knew she shouldn’t argue.
“Sorry,” she said to the boy.
In the parking lot, Mommy fumbled with the straps on the car seat, and Maggie had to help her snap them shut.
“That boy was sick, Mommy. Do you think he’ll be there again the next time we go?”
“I don’t know,” Mommy said. Mommy’s face was white, and Maggie guessed she was worried about the boy, too.
* * *
Maggie couldn’t stop thinking about the boy. She wondered what it meant that his threads were all dark, and she wondered if there was something she could do to make them bright again. The tangle had looked pretty bad, like it needed a long time to get undone. Maybe, Maggie thought, if she could sit and untangle it piece by piece, maybe then the threads would glow again like they did in Chester and the flowers and the trees. She lay in her bed at night, turning the problem over and over in her mind.
Until the day Chester brought home the bunny. Then she forgot all about the boy.
The noise was what got her attention first, and she followed it into the backyard. Chester was crouched by the garden’s edge, big, yellow teeth wrapped around the neck of a very small, brown bunny that kicked and screamed like she’d never heard anything scream before.
Getting him to let it go was the hardest part; Chester didn’t want to give up his catch. But finally she cornered him under the potting bench, where he huddled, swishing his long, puffed-up tail. He had to drop the bunny to hiss, so Maggie stamped her foot at him, and Chester ran for the house. The bunny tried to move but fell back onto the grass with a squeak. Very gently, Maggie picked the poor, limp thing up and laid it in her lap. She cooed in its ear and smoothed its ruffled fur. The bunny was so soft, softer than Chester or anything else she’d ever touched. Maggie nearly cried when she saw the blood staining its neck and paws.
Laying her hand on its back, Maggie squinted to find the threads. But they were hard to see, and when she did find them, they were even more wrong than the boy’s. These threads weren’t just dark and tangled, they were all frayed and coming apart, with big holes chewed out of the cloth like the sweater she’d left in the closet over the summer. And before she could even put her fingers on it, a strand pulled away from the whole and began to unwind all on its own, like it was being pulled apart at both ends. It swirled and twisted and frayed right there before her eyes, until all that was left was one very thin line. Then that snapped, too, and the ends slowly melted away into nothing. The bunny squealed and kicked, and its small claws scrabbled against her bare leg.
“Sssh, it’ll be okay,” she said, though she wasn’t at all sure. With a last reassuring stroke of its soft fur, Maggie placed her fingers on the weave. The first thread she touched snapped right away. So Maggie tried again, and then again. But no matter what she did, the strands kept breaking, slipping out from between her fingers to pop apart and disappear. And the rabbit squealed as each thread broke, its foot thumping her leg with every snap. She even tried holding the threads, willing the pieces to stay together as she pinched them between her thumb and finger. But it did no good. Maggie pulled her hand away, and it all began to unravel, threads snapping and twisting off into nothing, and in her lap the bunny kicked and screamed, its small feet battering the air. The worn and withered last strands frayed apart and then broke, one by one by one, until they were all gone, and Maggie was left staring only at dull, brown fur. The bunny kicked a final time and lay still, its eyes growing glassy and black.
Maggie began to cry.
“Maggie? Maggie, what happened?” Mommy squatted down beside her.
“Chester got him, Mommy, but I couldn’t fix it. I tried, but I couldn’t fix it.”
“It’s all right, honey,” she said, holding Maggie while she sobbed.
“But I couldn’t fix it.”
Mommy stroked Maggie’s hair and sighed a long, shuddering sigh. “Things die, Magpie. You can’t change that. It’s how life is. Some things just can’t be fixed.”
Mommy didn’t understand. But she did help Maggie dig a hole in the backyard so she could bury the bunny proper, and she even cried when Maggie whispered a small prayer over the grave. Maggie was grateful for that.
After that, Maggie didn’t want to fix things anymore, afraid the threads would snap again if she tried. And she avoided Chester, too, and wouldn’t let him out even when he mewled and scratched at the screen door.
She thought about the bunny all the time. What had she done wrong? She’d never not been able to fix something before, and she wondered if she’d made a mistake. Maggie remembered the way the bunny had screamed as it died, and she cried again, thinking she’d made it happen.
Maggie didn’t want anything to do with anything, so she stayed in her room, playing with boring dolls and moping around with what Daddy called her ‘sad face’ on.
But the funny thing was, Daddy never said anything about the moping. And neither did Mommy. They moped too, and the day Daddy picked her up from Mrs. Sweeney’s house instead of Mommy, Maggie knew something wasn’t right.
“Where’s Mommy?” she asked as Daddy strapped her into the car seat.
“She’s not feeling well, sweetie.”
Daddy didn’t say anything as he drove, but he kept looking at her in the mirror and tapping his fingers on the wheel even though there wasn’t any music playing on the radio.
When they got home, Aunt Jo was there.
“I’m going to be staying here for a while, Maggie.”
Mommy came out with a big bag in her hand and squatted down next to her in the hallway.
“I need you to be a big girl for me. I have to go away for a little bit.”
Maggie’s stomach felt cold all of a sudden. “Why?”
“I’m sick, Magpie, and I’m going to go where the doctor can make me better.”
“I can make you better, Mommy.”
But Mommy wasn’t listening. “So will you be a big girl and help Daddy and Aunt Jo while I’m gone?”
“But — ”
“We have to go,” Daddy said and picked up the bag.
“Big kiss, Magpie. I’ll be home soon, I promise.”
Maggie began to cry, so Mommy gave her a hug and handed her to Aunt Jo.
Maggie’s eyes were so full of tears, she didn’t even see Mommy leave.
* * *
Mommy was in the hospital. When Daddy and Aunt Jo broughther to visit, Maggie stopped at the room’s wide, swinging door and wouldn’t go in. Mommy’s room was big and very bright with lots of hanging things and machines that glowed red and green and made lots of funny sounds. And it smelled awful — like the bathroom after Mommy washed it. Maggie clutched Daddy’s hand hard and chewed on her thumbnail, although she knew Mommy didn’t like it when she did that.
“Hi, Magpie.” Mommy sat in the middle of the room in a big bed that bent up.
“It’s okay, Maggie,” she said, waving her hand. “Come here.”
Mommy was very pale, and her long, black hair was cut short and had strands of white in it. She had a tube taped to her arm.
Maggie ran to her, but the bed was too tall, and Daddy had to lift her up and into Mommy’s hug.
She smelled funny, too, like alcohol, not at all like the regular way she smelled.
“How are you, Magpie? I got all the pictures you made me. Did you get my letters?”
Maggie nodded, thinking about the letters that were taped up to the wall in her room, and how they didn’t make her miss Mommy any less.
“She’s tired, I think,” Daddy said and tugged on her ponytail that wasn’t as good as the ones Mommy made.
“Why don’t you lie down here, Magpie. The bed’s big enough for both of us.”
Maggie snuggled down into her side, breathing in Mommy’s new smell and deciding it wasn‘t so bad after all. Mommy talked low with Daddy and Aunt Jo while her cold fingers caressed Maggie’s arm. Maggie closed her eyes.
Did she dare look at the threads? Her stomach tied in knots when she thought about it, but maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe Mommy’s threads would be bright and shiny with just a few dark patches that she could pick out easily. And then Mommy could come home, and everything would be the same as it’d been before.
Maggie opened her eyes and put her hand on Mommy’s arm. Not the one with the tube on it, which still frightened her, but the other one, and she squinted really, really hard. But when she saw Mommy’s threads, Maggie’s heart gave a big thump and her stomach flipped over. Just like the bunny, Mommy was all dark and tangled with small holes opened up all over. There wasn’t a bright patch in sight.
Maggie took a deep breath. Maybe, she thought, she could untangle it and then try fixing the holes. There was time now; they’d just arrived. Slowly, so as not to attract attention, Maggie reached for the nearest knot and pulled.
Snap! The thread gave way between her fingers, and one of the machines made a horrible, whining sound.
A nurse came running in, and Aunt Jo jumped up.
“Stay. I’ll take her home,” Aunt Jo said to Daddy and gathered Maggie from the bed.
Maggie screamed, “No!”
“Love you, Magpie.” Mommy’s words were muffled because her teeth were shut, and her eyebrows pinched together as if she were squinting.
“I want to stay!”
Aunt Jo carried her out to the car anyway.
* * *
“Mommy’s coming home, sweetie.”
Aunt Jo looked tired. And so did Daddy. They were moving the furniture out of the den to make room for Mommy’s new bed. Easier, they said, than going all the way upstairs. It would be the same as the one in the hospital, all metal and buttons and springs.
The machines came, too. Green and red and noisy, they looked like monsters crouched around the room, watching Maggie with mean, blinking eyes. Chester hid in the closet and wouldn’t come out at all except to eat.
Maggie wasn’t as excited as she thought she’d be. After all, things weren’t going back to the way they’d been before. Mommy slept in the metal bed, and Daddy slept on the couch nearby. The nurse that came home with Mommy slept in Daddy’s office on the rollaway. Aunt Jo slept in Mommy and Daddy’s big bedroom, and that didn’t seem right at all.
Daddy didn’t even go to work anymore. He stayed at home all day, and he and Mommy just talked and talked and then stopped talking whenever Maggie came in. They only did that when they didn’t want her to hear. Maggie hid in the closet with Chester so she could listen, even though she knew it wasn’t polite.
“I don’t want it to happen there,” Mommy said.
“What do you want, then?” Daddy’s voice sounded funny, as if he were crying, but Maggie had never heard Daddy cry before, so she wasn’t sure.
“I want to stay here. I want to be here.”
“What about Maggie?”
“We have to talk to her.”
Daddy cleared his throat. “I’ll do it,” he said.
“No, let me.”
“You shouldn’t have — ”
“I want to.”
Maggie heard the bed sheets rustle, and then Mommy and Daddy were quiet.
* * *
Maggie lay in the cold, metal bed, her head on Mommy’s stomach. The machines bleeped in time to the ticking of the bedside clock. Maggie tried not to listen. Mommy hadn’t spoken at all since she’d come in, and Maggie would have thought she was asleep except that Mommy’s fingers smoothed her hair every few minutes.
“Mommy, what happened to the bunny? After it died?”
Mommy didn’t say anything for a long time, and Maggie thought she shouldn’t have asked.
“It went to heaven, Magpie,” she said finally.
“Everything goes to heaven?”
“Yes. Everything that dies goes to heaven.”
“What happened to it in heaven?”
“It became an angel.”
Maggie looked up and rested her chin on Mommy’s tummy. “Really?”
Mommy smiled, and the lines around her eyes lifted a little. Just a little.
“Yes. A beautiful angel that’s happy and not sick or hurting anymore.”
Maggie thought about that. And about the boy she had met in the waiting room. And about Mommy.
She put her head back down and squinted to see the threads again. The holes were bigger. More threads were broken. One of the machines bleeped.
* * *
“Love you, Magpie,” Mommy whispered before Daddy came to carry Maggie up to bed. Mommy whispered a lot more these days.
“Love you, Mommy.”
Mommy’s eyes were tired, and her hand shook when she brushed the hair from Maggie’s forehead. She didn’t make the best ponytails anymore.
Maggie lay in her bed in the dark, looking at the glowing stars that Mommy had stuck up on the ceiling last year. They stopped glowing after a while, and Maggie turned over.
She should try again; she knew she should. She hadn’t really tried before. But then she remembered the awful machines with the mean green and red eyes. She shuddered, thinking about them looking at her, hearing them whine.
But what if she could fix this? What if there were a way? What if she could somehow patch the holes, maybe make the pieces stretch then tie them together like the two ends of a string? The idea made Maggie sit up. She hadn’t thought of that before. Maybe it would work.
Maggie slipped from the bed. She didn’t put her slippers on because they made that shush-hush sound on the floors, and she didn’t want anyone to hear her, especially not Aunt Jo who left her door open at night.
In bare feet, Maggie tiptoed across the room and into the hallway. It was dark, but she could see just fine, right into where Aunt Jo was sleeping, curled up on her side and facing the other way. Maggie slipped past and padded down the stairs, careful to avoid the ones that creaked. She was extra silent passing the office door, too, ‘cause that’s where the nurse slept, and Maggie knew she heard everything. But she made it past without waking her up, and, silently, Maggie slipped into the den.
The green and red lights from the machines glowed and pulsed and made the room look like Christmas, although it wasn’t at all. Shaking, one slow foot sliding after the other, Maggie moved across the room to the bed. The curved handle hung down, and she put her foot up on it. The metal was cold, and she shivered as her toes slid across it. Slowly, so as not to make a sound, Maggie pushed off from the floor and lifted her other knee up and onto the bed, pulling the rest of her body after. Then she slid across the soft comforter on her shins ‘til she knelt at Mommy’s side. A machine bleeped and Maggie jumped, but Mommy was asleep, her mouth open, white skin turned green from the glow of the machines.
She laid her hands lightly on Mommy’s arm. Maggie felt sick in her stomach as she squinted down at the threads, pulled and frayed and more tangled up than the yarn basket after Chester’d had a game in it. Big, ragged holes nearly touched each other all the way across, and as she watched, two threads stretched and snapped apart. Mommy’s eyes fluttered, and she let out a low moan. Maggie knew there wasn’t much time left. With shaking hands, she reached out, fingers like tweezers to stretch the threads and tie them together so that they couldn’t break.
But no matter how hard she pulled, the threads wouldn’t stretch. They popped apart, every one she tried, ‘til the hole seemed even bigger than when she’d started.
Maggie took a deep breath and tried again, but again the threads refused to stretch, snapping even quicker now than they had before. Mommy coughed, and then she breathed funny, and then she coughed again. Blood spotted the pillowcase. Maggie took her hands off the threads.
Some things just can’t be fixed.
Mommy had said that, when Maggie had cried over the bunny. It had been in pain, and she had kept trying. But in the end, it hadn’t worked, and the bunny had died, bleeding and kicking in her lap. Maggie cried again, remembering. Some things just can’t be fixed.
No, some things couldn’t be fixed. And sometimes trying made it worse.
Maggie slipped her hand into her mother’s. It was cold, and the skin felt thin and dry like tracing paper. She gripped the fingers tight. Behind her, Daddy snorted and rolled over, light from the street lamp shining through the blinds, making a ladder on his face. He looked tired.
Mommy stirred and coughed again, and the machines bleeped once. But Maggie wasn’t afraid of the bleeps and the green lights anymore.
Love you, Mommy. Maggie squeezed her fragile fingers.
And then she looked again, all the way inside, into the tangled, fraying skein of threads. A few more snapped as she watched them, and Mommy’s fingers twitched in hers. Maggie reached out with her other hand, so very, very softly, and with a whisper of a touch, she scissored her fingers and severed the ragged weave in two, watching it slowly, so very slowly, fade away.
Mommy breathed once and then sighed, her chest slowly falling into the mattress, her face relaxed and calm. She looked like Mommy again. The big, boxy machine let out a low whine, but Maggie didn’t care. She just laid her head in the crook of her mother’s arm and slept.
And slept and slept. And then she dreamed, of the roses in bloom in the yard again, and of an angel with hair the color of the night sky and feathered wings that fluttered and tickled and felt so very, very soft.
As soft as bunny fur.