For today, something completely different. With Ugly and the Beast out to an agent, I’m looking at one of my projects that stuttered to a halt while I wrote Ugly last year. This is a portion of chapter two of Lie, Lay, Lain, where one of my two main characters is introduced. It’s a bit of an oddity for me, because I don’t usually “introduce” characters. Typically, they just show up in the story and pitch in. So I’m curious if it works and holds readers’ attentions.
Olivia was born with a third thumb, which was removed before she entered kindergarten. The scar remained, sickle-shaped, a ghost tucked into the webbing between the forefinger and thumb on her right hand. When she drew her thumb alongside her fingers, the scar disappeared into a fold of skin. For most of her childhood, Olivia had believed the extra thumb was a sign from God that something was wrong with her. If you asked her about it now, if you said, “Do you think it means something that you were born with an extra thumb?” she would laugh and say, “That’s silly. It’s just an oddity. Like people who have extra canine teeth.”
If you asked, that’s what she would say, but after a few hours, her mind would creep back to the days when her brain was a five-year old turtle in a not fully hardened shell. She would remember not that she had once believed something was wrong with her, but that something was wrong with her.
Her mother, Barb, occasionally forgot and called her Mitten, her baby nickname. Standing at the kitchen sink, hurrying through the dishes to get to church on time, Barb sometimes said, “Mitten, did you get your dad’s coffee cup?”
When it happened, Olivia grabbed the mug off the table and forced herself to set it on the kitchen counter, instead of slamming it down. In that instant of restraint, Barb often realized what she had done, and instead of letting it go, which was what Olivia wished for, Barb apologized. In the course of the apology, she invariably used the nickname again.
The name itself didn’t bother Olivia, but the lie surrounding it did. When you have a baby with an extra thumb, it’s not the easiest thing to talk about, but it is easy to cover up. You simply slip a mitten on the offending hand, and when people ask, you say, “She’s a thumb-sucker. The doctor recommended the mitten.” Olivia’s mother told the lie often enough that she seemed to have convinced herself. The first time she accidentally used the nickname in front of one of Olivia’s high school friends, Barb told the lie without a moment’s hesitation: “When she was a baby, she used to suck her thumb, so we made her wear a mitten over it.”
Over them! Olivia wanted to shout. Instead she said nothing, but she worried that her mother was going to hell. Not in a hurtling ball of fire, like a murderer or a rapist, but in a slow, steady slide, like other liars. Her mother lied all the time, and never about anything important. Olivia knew it should not be a big deal, but in her heart, she couldn’t forgive her mother. She wasn’t sure she even believed in forgiveness.
That was why what happened with the paramedic was so painful.