The hallway fell dark, then flashed green, fluorescent tubes humming and crackling. The key that hung around her neck caught the fleeting light as Mary rounded the landing. She'd taken the steps in threes, hitting the banisters with her umbrella, singing the song they were learning in school, "The farmer on the corner said he'd shoot that cat on sight/Loaded up his shotgun full of nails and dynamite/And he hid in the garden till the cat came round/But 97 pieces of that man were all they found." She was out of breath when she slipped the key into the lock and opened her door.

The kitchen floor was a field of broken glass. The window gaped; the curtains were yanked cockeyed, rain blowing in onto everything. Had they been burglarized? The place looked ransacked. The stereo and the T.V. were gone. Potted plants were knocked over, dirt scattered around. The kitchen table had been dragged into the middle of the room.

"Mom?" Mary called, her voice cracked down the middle. "Mom?" But she could tell the apartment was empty. Empty and trashed. The fingers of her hand loosened and her schoolbooks fell to the floor. Mary drifted into the bedroom she shared with her mother, but she could already imagine what she would find. All the drawers of the dresser were hauled open, draped with stockings and abandoned jeans from her mother's heavier days, half the closet, a jumble of bare metal hangers. She was not only left behind, but left with the wreckage of her mother's final tantrum.

"Mom!" Mary shouted with disbelief crowding fury, fury smothering fear. She was twelve years old and all she'd had was her mother.

It took three hours to clean the apartment and to cry herself out. The tears blurred her vision, as if she were underwater, swimming to a new country, stopping every once and a while to gulp air. When she was sweeping up the glass she kept to the rhythm of "What am I going to do now? What am I going to do?" because she was a girl who coped. She checked the fridge and shelves for food, counting out the eggs and cans of soup and tuna.

"OK, Mary," she said aloud to herself. She'd grown used to her own consultation. "You can eat breakfast and lunch at school, but basically you've got 7, maybe 8 days of dinners. By then, you're going to need some money." She sat at the kitchen table, shoved back into its corner. The geranium that staked out the center looked a little bruised, but she'd stuck its roots back under the dirt, and it leaned only a little. She was drinking a cup of instant coffee, something her mother always did when she was trying to get clear. "Bullshit money," she said. This was also something her mother always said.

Mary knew it was her fault her mother had left. She tried to get good grades and be quiet when her mother told her to shut up, tried to stay out of her way, tried not to give her mother grief, but Mary had a temper that she sometimes could not contain. Her mother wasn't exactly the easiest person in the world to live with, especially on her "Ruby Tuesdays," when she could stay in bed all day weeping or recounting the men she'd loved and how they'd all fucked her over, or one of her "Manic Mondays," when her mother might invite complete strangers up to drink and dance so loud and late the super had to come and threaten to call the cops before her mother would signal the end of the party with a broken bottle or butcher knife. But anything was better than this, the weeks ahead without a single day named for anything.

It was because of last night, she was sure. Mary had been sitting at the kitchen table, studying state capitals. Bismarck, North Dakota, she wrote the name into the space traced on the map. Salem, Oregon. Phoenix, Arizona. It started as a joke. Her mother would make up a goofy name for the capital, would say the capital of Massachusetts was Flosston, because there were so many dentists there. Mary laughed, but kept working. After finishing this, she had three chapters to read in her history book and a synopsis of a Poe story to write, and it was already after 10:00.

"T-weaka, Kansas, crank capital of the nation, I should know! Sacred Toe, California," her mother said, "nothing like it to give you a holy kick in the ass."

"Uh-huh," Mary said, but she didn't look up. Her mother came up behind her and leaned over the worksheet.

"No, not Sacramento, Mare, Sacred Toe. Didn't I just tell you?" And she snatched the pencil out of Mary's hand.

"And wait, this one's Lookon, Nebraska, not Lincoln! Gaunt-faced president never really cared about slaves. Opportunist! This one's Fuck-up, New Jersey! And let's not forget Fuck you, Arkansas, and Get Fucked, Missouri," She crossed out what Mary had written. Her body was so close to Mary, she could smell her mother's armpits, could feel the coiled tension that ran the length of her torso.

"Mom," Mary said.

"Don't you Mom me, Miss Thing!" She reached down and snatched the worksheet. "Why don't we just call this country what it is! FUCK YOU S. A." She scrawled 4-inch block letters across the outline of the country. That's when Mary snapped. She shoved her chair back from the table so hard it hit her mother's hip and sent her reeling into the cabinet. Then Mary was up, grabbing at it, but her mother held tight, and the paper tore with a loud rip; each of them held one half of the torn sheet. Her mother looked at the scrap she still held, as if surprised by its very matter.

"Oh great! Now look what you did!" Mary shouted at her mother. "That's my homework!"

"You already know too goddamned much for your own good," her mother muttered, crushing the scrap in her hand and tossing it in the direction of the garbage can. It landed in the standing water filling the sink.

"And what do you know, Mom? Nothing! What, would you rather I was like you? Maybe I should just drop out of school -- why wait for high school? Why not get a jump on the whole dropout thing -- and hit the road. I hear The Dumbasses are touring, maybe they'd take me along. I could sleep with all fifteen of them in a single night so that ---"

"Dumas. Their band was called Dumas, and there were only four -- "

"…my kid won't know which dumbass her father is either." Mary shook her half of the worksheet in her mother's face, who had sunk down into a chair, deflated, her face drooping low.

"Not that again, you ingrate. You got born. Consider yourself lucky. You know what your odds were of ever seeing this world?" Her voice was flat.

"Lucky. Right. I would have been luckier if you'd kept your pants on, and I could have been born an apple. Or a horse." She flicked it again, and the torn map struck her mother's cheek causing her eyelids to flutter violently.

"You're even crazier than I am, Mary Malone," her mother said so softly Mary almost didn't hear; she was halfway down the hall, anyway.

Without the alarm clock -- her mother had taken that too -- Mary woke up pretty near 7:00 and got ready for school, putting on her uniform, her vest, her knee socks, her black laced shoes. She went to Litchfield Middle School, where they'd just made the change over to uniforms, "individuality can flourish best when students are less concerned with outward appearance." Mary didn't know about that, but she did feel relieved of having to decide what to wear every morning. She thought looking like everyone else might help her achieve a kind of invisibility.

She wasn't pretty or ugly, skinny or fat, tall or short. She had long brown hair she wore in a ponytail mostly. Her most distinguishing feature was a long, thin scar that started at her hairline and cut her left eyebrow in two. It gave her face the look of one initiated into some tribe. She had asked how she'd gotten it, but never got a straight answer from her mother. She wasn't sure if it was a dream or her imagination or some faint memory, but she thought it involved a windshield. There had been velocity, her body seemed to store the sensation, a clear expanse fracturing into particles of light and stinging sharpness. No blood, just shards of light refracted through glass or 7 years of bad luck.

"Mary?" Mr. Brooks said again.

"Yes?" She asked.

"The capital of Kansas?" He wasn't even looking at her; he was too intent on fixing the back row with his stern gaze.

"T-weaka," she mumbled. The other kids were seated around her like cars stuck in a traffic jam.

"Good. James, capital of Louisiana?"

Twenty-five more minutes of this, then Math, then Mesopotamia and Hammurabi's Code, then lunch. She was hungry again. She thought she might be hungry from now on.

Mary had to tell someone, so on the way home she told her friend, Julie. Julie's father was an alcoholic who twice had spent the night in jail so Mary knew she wouldn't judge.

"Where do you think she is?" Julie asked.

"I really don't know. But I'm just going to think of her as dead." Mary was kicking a rock along the pavement. It got stuck in a crack, so she had to drop back to kick it out.

"You are? Why would you do that?" Julie couldn't help it; she had a voice like a feminine mouse, high and squeaky. Everything she said sounded like it came from a cartoon, no matter how serious. Her diminutive size and curly blonde hair only added to the overall effect. But Mary knew she had iron at the core.

"Why? She might as well be, right? She's as gone as dead. Not to mention she left me to live or die, without even a note or anything, and what kind of mother would do that? I swear, that's it for me. I'm never going through this again. If she ever comes back, I'm just going to slam the door in her face and say, 'rot in hell, you're already dead." She gave the rock a solid kick and it skittered off the sidewalk, smacking a hubcap.

"Wow, Mary. That's pretty, I don't know, harsh. I mean, she might not be the best mother in the world, but she tried," She stopped to face her friend.

"Tried? Julie, my mother left me, I didn't leave her." Mary looked away, ashamed by how whiny she sounded.

"You've got a point. But what are you going to do? What if somebody finds out? They're going to send you to foster care." Those two words.

"Don't tell me. I know. Nobody can find out. You're the only one who knows and you've got to swear you won't say a word."

"Of course I won't."

"Good. But listen, I've got the perfect plan to make a lot of money." The plan she described was something she'd thought of before her mother had left. It had seemed to her like the ultimate solution to their constant money troubles. There were risks involved, certainly, but the payoff was worth it, it would have set them up for life. I mean how else was a kid going to get her hands on that kind of money?

"You're going to let yourself get hit by a bus for the insurance? That's totally insane!" Julie grabbed Mary by the shoulder.

"No, no, it's pure genius. Do you realize how much money they pay out for something like that? A little girl mowed down by a bus?"

"But, come on, Mary, you could get seriously messed up. I know a kid, he was hit by a truck on his bike, and he's paralyzed now! Permanently. He has like this motorized wheelchair and…"

"I probably shouldn't have told you," Mary said. They were getting close to where Julie turned off to go home. Mrs. Wilkes was so over-protective she was almost paranoid and wouldn't let Julie or her brother do anything after school. "I just thought, I don't know, what's a little pain? It's all pain, right, after a certain point. Things are so cracked anyway, right? Besides, I'd have a cast and get out of gym class." She'd stopped there on the corner. The whole telephone wire over their heads was strung with little black birds. She tipped her head back to look at them, all huddled together, chirping, adjusting their wings. What was it like to be a flock? She wondered. Julie pulled up alongside her to watch for a couple of minutes too.

"Cheep, cheep, fucking cheep," Julie said finally; her high-pitched voice made a broken baby bird of the swear. "Listen, I better go. See you tomorrow."

"Yeah, okay, bye," Mary said and stared at the wire of birds, their brittle twitches and bobs, though they'd ceased to interest her, until the sound of her friend's footsteps dwindled into nothing.

That night, a few hours after Mary had fallen asleep, there was a pounding on the front door. She'd been dreaming of lying in the backseat of a car, hurtling through the night, with two people in front arguing, the tangled sparring of their voices, male and female, becoming the experience of miles, of years, of shifting species of clashes and collisions, ancient and immediate, gladiatorial, feral, homicidal, internal.

"I know you're in there, Theresa!" Someone hissed like a knife at the door.

Mary woke rigid, her heart shaking the springs of her mattress.

"Open…the goddamn…door," the man at the door said, each word squeezed from his chest. Then he began to hammer on the wood so hard Mary expected at any moment it would splinter.

Wrapping her arms around her thumping ribs, she climbed out of bed and crept over to the door. The sound was everywhere around her and in her. She tried to keep her voice steady when she said, "Theresa's not here." Like that, the hammering stopped.

"Oh yeah, where is she then?" The man at the door didn't believe her, but he asked.

"She's in Lincoln, Nebraska with her sister." Mary said.

"Bullshit Lincoln. You see her, you tell that bitch Lobo was here. You tell her 'time's up.' Got that, kid?" The man was standing on one side of the door in the flickering hallway. She was standing on the other side in her nightgown, separated by a distance of a couple of feet from this man who knew her mother. She pictured his hand like a rough paw reaching through the door, the thick wrist, the dark hairs, the blunt fingers encircling her neck.

"Time's up," she echoed with a dry cough.

"Just tell her." And then he left, taking with him his story about her mother, his sense of time elapsed.

What Mary didn't know was her mother had indeed written a note when she left. She'd tucked it into a collection of Grimm's fairytales, at page 136, by the illustration of the witch holding the wicker birdcage. "Jorinda and Joringel" had been Mary's favorite story when she was 7, when she still liked to be scared. She loved how Joringel was able to free all the caged girls with a red flower, how something so delicate could have power over evil. That whole year she insisted that she be called Jorinda and for Halloween it was as a nightingale she dressed, insisting Theresa dress up as the witch. Her mother always had a flair for the dramatic. Her nose could not have been larger or more hooked, her hair more snarled, but still she was so striking, she could enchant anyone; men at the doors they knocked on looked at her and quickly looked away.

The two of them had walked around the neighborhood long after the other children had gone home, after there was no more candy, and all the porches were dark. They walked and walked, with Mary stumbling and once tearing her wing, out into the middle of the woods behind their neighborhood, and in the cold darkness they heard the call of an owl her mother seemed to have conjured from Mary's fear and exhaustion and belief in a witch's thirst. Her mother had sung back, "My little bird, with the necklace red, sings sorrow, sorrow, sorrow," which was Jorinda's song, not the witch's at all. Even so, it brought the night to a close like a tale.

The Book of Grimm had been a gift from her grandmother the year before she drowned at Lake Umbagog, which gave it further danger and dread and mystery. Umbagog might be the Abanakis' idea of shallow water, but it proved deep enough to drown a sober woman who'd rowed out to the middle of the lake alone. After that, every lake was filled with tears like in a song for Mary. Every river loosened its braid, unwinding its silvered hair. But that was the stuff of childhood. She hadn't opened, hadn't even thought of the book, in years.

There it was, lying on top of the toaster oven, the letter between the pages a slice of yellow Mary would never see. Perhaps the words were equally dead, read or unread, for being words not actions: The remorse. The indulgent investigation into why, with all lavish offshoots into then and when and next and unfortunately and can you believe it and then and who. A mother's 3 wishes. All her sacrifices. Praise. Yes, praise. A bleached future. A promise to return. When, she promised, when she managed to clear some things up.

They were so fast, buses, so big. A car would be safer, Mary decided, before lying down behind the back wheel of the blue Toyota parked outside the Daylight Café. This way, she figured, the car would roll over her slowly, break her leg and nothing more. She could take that, she told herself, though the waiting was terrible. She felt it from the moment she lay down. Like the faithful, she was impatient for her earthly rupture.

The trick was to remain unseen before the driver came out, to stay tucked in until the very last moment, so she drew herself farther underneath, the oily parts inches from her face and hair. Was this really what she wanted? she wondered, to be so confined? Above her, the wall of iron and steel, below her, the road was scattered with sharp gravel that dug into her back. She shifted as she could in the cramped space, brushing her shoulder against the rough underbody, singeing her cheek on the still hot tailpipe. In flinching, she knocked her head against the tire. Of course it's hot, idiot, she told herself. Whoever drove here, they must have just arrived. With this realization, time weighed the more heavily upon her. Then, glad to have something else as her focus on, she pressed one, then another finger, to the hot metal as long as she could stand, each fingertip coming away reddened and smooth, pulsing with her heartbeat.

After countless passersby, finally the driver appeared within Mary's sphere of vision. She wore high heels that clicked and gritted on the pavement. Her ankles were thick. On one, she wore a gold anklet with a dangling open heart charm. When she got into the car, Mary felt the chassis settle lower, and the door slammed closed like a big metal compact. Mary did not hesitate. She extended her left leg, pressing it between the pavement and the back wheel's lower curve. It was a good leg, Mary thought. It had always done whatever she'd told it to, walk, run, climb, stand, whatever. This wouldn't hurt that bad, she told herself, not that bad. She tried to pull the rest of her body well clear of the other wheels. After the first switch of the ignition, the car started up with a warm contralto hum. Mary closed her eyes and breathed in and out slowly; the space around her had contracted so suddenly, immured her on all sides in chemical air, asphalt, two-ton metal lid. There is a way out, she thought, just before the driver compressed the clutch and shifted into reverse; it's not away from harm, but straight through it.

* * *

She must have passed out from the pain, because Mary woke at the hospital, where the ambulance had taken her, when neither fate nor her absent mother had intervened to save her. Both her left fibula and tibia had fractured, the tibia seriously enough that the surgeons had to insert pins to align the shards. What had she been doing lying there in the road, everyone asked her again and again. But she had no answer. The driver might have felt something when she drove over the girl's leg, but likely believing it to be a bottle or branch, had just driven on. Nobody had witnessed the event. It was the waitress from the Daylight, who'd come out for a cigarette who found the girl lying unconscious in the gutter, her head against the curb.

They had her leg supported in traction in the cast she'd imagined. What Mary hadn't calculated in her plan were all the questions and the forms she had to fill out as to name, place of residence, legal guardian, and all the rest, as if her life could be defined now by filling in gaps with words. She left many of them empty, which spelled out, both to the consulting staff and irrevocably for her, bureaucratic snarls, intervention, protective care. What's more, there would be no big insurance payments to collect. She hadn't thought to write down the Toyota's license plate number, never believing that something like this could happen without a single soul noticing. And now there was no way to prove that this injury, like any of those before it, had been caused by anything but her own rashness and bad luck.

The room's walls were painted a dusty mauve that in trying to be soothing tended instead to feel manipulative, as if asking patients to forgive their circumstances, to put their trust in providence and the healing power of professionals. The bed next to hers was filled by a girl who hadn't stirred the entire time Mary had been there; she just lay there, in what seemed to be a perfect sleep, her blond hair a flat cap over her head visible above the white sheet, a plastic mask over her nose and mouth exhaling oxygen into her in a long sigh. Nobody had come to see the girl, to try to rouse her from her slumber, but nobody had come to Mary's bedside, either. Who would come? Maybe Julie or some other kids from school, but how could they know she was there if she refused to name names?

"So how's our patient today?' The doctor's booming cheer preceded him into the room. He was 6 foot 4, with hair cut in a long shag too young for his years, and a uniform that hung loosely from his broad shoulders, like a ghost's sheet. Mary glanced briefly at the girl lying beside her, but no, he meant her.

"Okay," she murmured.

He'd come around to the foot of her bed and tickled the toes that emerged from the cast.

"No pain?" He furrowed his brow, looking up at her.

"No," she said.

"Any break in the, um, amnesia?" He tried to sound friendly. Mary didn't answer.

"You know, young lady, you've got us all pretty worried. Nobody's reported a lost child… but you don't look like a stray, your fur's too clean!" He chuckled. Mary just stared, willing her face closed.

"We've got you down as Jane Doe, you know that?" And here his tone suggested something else, a pillow concealing the thinnest needle. "In case you're wondering, that means, 'identity unknown.' Identity unknown. Now, you and I both know you are someone, and if you're in some sort of trouble, it's best to just tell us who you are and what's wrong." He sat down on the side of her bed. His weight drew her towards him.

"Nothing's wrong," she said at last.

"You know, if we have no next of kin, when you're discharged, you'll be a ward of the state." Ward of the state of New Hampshire, capital, Conquered. He was trying to frighten her, but she was no longer afraid. Blame or confess, it would be the same. Her future had already begun.

Just then the girl in the bed beside her moaned "no, nooo," and fell completely still again. The doctor looked from Mary to the girl, then back.

"I have no next of kin," she said and closed her eyes until he finally left her alone.

* * *

I'm just a kid, Mary thought. There's no way I could think of everything. And she counted the years until her majority, a term of vague deliverance. My mother doesn't even know I'm here. Where the hell is she, anyway? She knew her mother wasn't on any map she could have marked with stars, and this gave her first a stab, then a woozy relief that might be the painkillers entering her veins through the I.V. She could barely feel her leg at all, only the dull pressure of suspension. Coma-girl in the bed beside her was inside herself somewhere too. Mary lay there under the taut cotton blankets, the surge of voices from the corridor, nurses coming in at intervals to ask her if there was anything she needed, in a halfway state, between sleep and waking, between now and what would follow, between the broken charm and her eventual release.