Words were tricky things, Tandie realized. They were slippery, like eels. They were wily, like the coyote. One word could mean many different things. It could be confusing, if you weren’t careful. (Cautious. Mindful.)
Grown-ups used the wrong words all the time. She was always correcting them, but only in her head.
Tandie was six, and smart for her age. (Not that she got to spend much time with other children.) Instinctively, she knew that if she went to school, she’d feel very much out of place in a first grade classroom. She would probably have more in common with the teacher than her peers.
She wasn’t home-schooled; Tandie was self-taught. The TV had been her babysitter for as long as she could remember, and her favorite channels were PBS and Discovery. Books were few and far between in the squalid little home she shared with Mommy and Stosh, but she had her very own thesaurus that she treasured (Loved. Adored.) more than anything else. It had been in the house when they’d first moved in. Tandie had found the thick, dusty book in a corner of the walk-in closet that served as her bedroom. (It was waiting for me to find it! It was meant to be mine!) She knew synonyms for just about every word. (She called them “cinnamons” even though she knew better. She was, after all, six years old.)
Stosh was Tandie’s stepfather. (At least that’s what Mommy called him; Tandie didn’t think they were really married.) He’d come along when Tandie was still in pull-ups, and she couldn’t remember life without him. Stosh was a huge offender when it came to misusing words. He’s a Word Criminal, Tandie thought. The Word Police should arrest him.
What bugged (Annoyed. Irritated.) Tandie most of all was not Stosh’s poor grammar or the way he often mispronounced words. It was the way he used one word when he really meant a whole ‘nother thing. Not even close to a “cinnamon.”
For instance, “let” and “make.”
“Tonight, we’re gonna let you watch,” Stosh told her.
Afterwards, Tandie was infuriated. (Angry! Enraged!) What Stosh SHOULD have said was: “Tonight, we’re gonna MAKE you watch.”
By far, Tandie preferred the blindfold. She was sickened by the sight of Stosh’s fat, hairy body. She was repulsed by Mommy’s slack, white skin, and her saggy boobies that looked like moo cow udders. (I never want those!) Usually, when Mommy and Stosh had “friends” over for the Bad Parties, they made her wear the blindfold, so she wouldn’t see their faces. That was good. The faces, when she was allowed to see, were never handsome or pretty.
“Ain’t very much to her, is there?” a man with hardly any teeth and a filthy Iron Maiden t-shirt had said, looking Tandie over as she shivered in her underpants.
Tandie had felt embarrassed. (Ashamed. Humiliated.) She knew she was ugly. Mommy said so all the time. (“I wanted to name you Ugly, but the hospital people wouldn’t put it on the birth certificate.”) She was also scrawny; her ribs poked out of her sides like the bars of a xylophone. Her diet consisted mostly of Bread And. Bread and butter. Bread and mustard. Bread and ketchup. Mommy was not big on cooking, and Tandie was rarely allowed to share any of the greasy takeout grub Stosh brought home from the diner where he worked. Which was just fine with her. Stosh always smelled like French fries and Tandie certainly didn’t want to eat anything that smelled like Stosh. She would rather have Bread And.
She hated that there were pictures. She wasn’t allowed to go on the computer, but she knew there was a thing called The Internet. She had seen Mommy and Stosh looking at dirty pictures on the computer screen plenty of times. One day, she was horrified to see herself in some of them!
Is that really me? Did I really do those things? Can everybody see me? In that moment, Tandie wanted to die.
“What’s wrong? Don’t like the way you look in pictures?” Stosh had laughed at her shocked expression.
Sometimes, although very rarely, other kids came to the Bad Parties. Mostly little boys. (And some big boys, but not quite teenagers yet.) Tandie was not allowed to talk with the other children. She just Did Things with them… whatever the grown-ups told them to do.
There was “magic juice” that Stosh gave her to drink before she did the Bad Stuff. It was sweet and fruity and made her relax, almost (Nearly. Not quite.) enough to not care what was going on.
But what really got Tandie through these ordeals were her “cinnamons.” She would think of a random word and mentally list all its sisters and cousins.
HAPPY! Joyful! Merry! Cheerful! Mirthful! Jolly! Exuberant! On and on she’d go, until it was over and she was finally permitted to go to sleep on her dingy mattress in the closet. She rarely dreamed.
In the mornings after the Bad Parties, Tandie would hurt Down There. She was sick Down There, she was pretty sure. It was red and puffy and sometimes It leaked stuff. She hated It.
One night, during one of the Bad Parties, the police raided the house. Tandie was so “out of it” from the Magic Juice, she couldn’t understand what was going on.
WEIRD! Strange. Unusual. Extraordinary. Curious…
SMART! Clever. Intelligent. Sharp. Bright. Resourceful…
“Little girl, can you tell me your name?”
Tandie looked into the kind, dark face of a female police officer. The face blurred and her voice sounded a million miles away. Tandie passed out.
When she awoke, she was in the hospital. The doctors, the police, and a whole bunch (Multitude. Bevy.) of strangers kept asking her the same questions over and over.
“Can you tell me your full name?”
“How old are you?”
“Have you ever been to school?”
“Can you tell me the names of the people who hurt you?”
“Where does it hurt the most, Sweetie?”
Tandie could give them no answers. Because despite all the wonderful adjectives, nouns, and verbs that filled her head, Tandie had never spoken a word in her entire life.
Holly Gaskin grew up on Long Island and currently lives upstate in Watertown, NY. She has enjoyed a long career in radio broadcasting, and can currently be heard as “Cricket” on Froggy 97 (WFRY). Holly is the author of four books, including A Little Company (suspense) and Tricked (YA thriller). She is one cat short of crazy.