“Hi, sweetheart,” she says. “Did you come for a slumber party?” Her face is so hopeful that I want to say yes.

I step farther into the room, shaking the pages. “It’s from a doctor in Maui.” I look for the name again even though I know it. “Dr. Melissa Francis. Did you meet her?”

If I hadn’t been watching her so closely I might not have noticed it, but she freezes. “I met a lot of doctors in Maui, Madeline.” Her voice is tight.

“Mom, I’m sorry—”

She holds up a hand telling me to stop. “What is it, Madeline?”

I take another step. “This letter. She, Dr. Francis, thinks I’m not sick.”

She stares at me as if I haven’t spoken. She doesn’t speak for so long that I begin to question if I had spoken after all.

“What are you talking about?”

“She says she doesn’t think I have SCID. She doesn’t think I’ve ever had it.”

She lowers herself to the edge of the bed. “Oh, no. Is this why you came to see me?”

Her voice is soft, pitying. “She got your hopes up, didn’t she?”

She gestures for me to come and sit beside her. She takes the letter from my hands and wraps her arms around me. “I’m sorry, but it’s not true,” she says.

I sag into her arms. She’s right. I had gotten my hopes up. Her arms feel so good around me. I feel warm and protected and safe.

She strokes my hair. “I’m sorry you had to see this. It’s so irresponsible.”

“It’s OK,” I say against her shoulder. “I knew it was a mistake. I didn’t get my hopes up.”

She pulls away to look into my eyes. “Of course it’s a mistake.”

Her eyes fill with tears and she pulls me back into her arms. “SCID is so rare and so complicated, honey. Not everyone understands it. There are just so many versions and every person reacts a little differently.”

She pulls away again and meets my eyes to make sure I’m listening and understanding. Her speech slows down and her tone turns sympathetic—her doctor’s voice. “You saw that for yourself, didn’t you? You were fine for a little while and then you were almost dead in an emergency room. Immune systems are complicated.”

She frowns down at the pages in her hand. “And this Dr. Francis doesn’t know your full medical history. She’s just seeing a tiny fraction of it. She hasn’t been with you this whole time.”

Her frown deepens. This mistake is upsetting her more than it did me.

“Mom, it’s OK,” I say. “I didn’t really believe it anyway.”

I don’t think she hears me. “I had to protect you,” she says.

“I know, Mom.” I don’t really want to talk about this anymore. I move back into her arms.

“I had to protect you,” she says into my hair.

And it’s that last “I had to protect you” that makes a part of me go quiet.

There’s an uncertainty to her voice that I don’t expect and can’t account for.

I try to pull away, to see her face, but she holds on tight.

“Mom,” I say, pulling harder.

She lets me go, caresses my face with her free hand.

I frown at her. “Can I have those?” I ask, meaning the papers in her hand.

She looks down and seems confused about how they got there. “You don’t need these,” she says, but gives them back to me anyway.

“Want to have a slumber party?” she asks again, patting the bed. “I’ll feel better if you stay with me.”

But I’m not sure I will.

MADELINE’S DICTIONARY

sus•pi•cion (səˈspiSHən) n. pl. -s 1. The truth you don’t believe, can’t believe, won’t believe: Her suspicion of her mother keeps her awake all night. | She had a burgeoning suspicion that the world was laughing at her. [2015, Whittier]

Identity

Carla’s barely in the door before I’m on her with the letter. She reads it and her eyes widen with each sentence.

She grips my forearm. “Where did you get this?”

“Keep reading,” I say. The charts and measurements will mean more to her than they did to me.

I watch her face and try to understand what is happening in my world. I’d expected her to dismiss the letter out of hand just as Mom did, but her reaction is … different.

“Have you shown this to your mother?”

I nod, mute.

“What did she say?”

“That it was a mistake.” I’m whispering, hiding from the sound of my own voice.

She searches my face for a long time. “We need to find out,” she says.

“Find out what?”

“If it’s true or not.”

“How could it be true? That would mean—”

“Shh, shh. We don’t know anything yet.”

We don’t know anything? Of course we do. We know that I’m sick. That I’m not allowed to leave my house on pain of death. I’ve always known this. It is who I am.

“What’s going on?” I demand. “What are you hiding from me?”

“No, no. I’m not hiding anything.”

“What does this mean?”

She sighs, and it is long and deep and weary. “I swear I don’t know anything. But sometimes I suspect.”

“Suspect what?”

“Sometimes I think maybe your mama’s not quite right. Maybe she never recovered from what happened to your papa and brother.”

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