Two weeks later:
Things are returning to normal here in this mansion in Buenos Aires, and Susana is glad of it. The sun is shining, everything is bright, and it is just as it was before.
For the past two weeks, her mama and papa have been busy. She has spent most of that time with her nanny. Susana's nanny is a nice young woman of Italian descent, and her name is Mònica. She can speak French, Italian, and Greek as well as Spanish, and she has been teaching Susana these languages ever since she came to her post. Susana likes her nanny just fine, but she is worried about her mama.
Mama has been up in the bedroom she shares with Susana's papa. She has been sick. Anytime Susana has asked her papa how mama is, he has assured her that mama is sick but getting better. Even so, there is evidence to the contrary. In her room, after bedtime, Susana can occasionally hear weeping and anguished cries from their bedroom. She can tell that the language the cries are in English. Susana speaks English very well; her papa only speaks to her in English, French or Italian. He usually chooses English, simply because that is the language she is the most fluent in, other than her native tongue. Even so, she cannot understand all the words her mama cries out after bedtime.
Some of them, she thinks, are bad words. Mama doesn't ever say bad words. She has also been talking with a funny accent that Susana cannot place. Occasionally, before Mama got sick, she would occasionally listen to country music in English. The accent Mama talks with sounds sort of like that. It is hard to tell.
But he has been busy for the past several days. Susana misses him, but she knows he has to tend to Mama. Mama is sick. A few days ago, Susana crept into her parents' bedroom while her papa was out. He was getting medicine, he said. Mama needed lots of medicine. There, she saw herself how sick her mama was.
Mama had been lying on the bed. She had worn silk pajamas, and she had been limp and tangled in the sheets. At first Susana had thought she was sleeping until she had seen that Mama's eyes were open. They had been sightless and blank, like in a scary movie. Her mama had been lying on the bed like a life-size doll that wasn't being played with. Susana hadn't ever seen someone sleep with her eyes open before. It was scary.
Susana had tried to wake her mother up, but all her shaking and all her consistent calls for her mother had been to no avail. Mama was asleep with her eyes open. Her breath had smelled sour, like chemicals. There had been a mark on her arm. The only other time Susana had seen a mark like that was when she went to the doctor's and had to get a shot. Papa must've given her a shot. That was too bad. Shots hurt.
There had been books lying around the bedroom too. Papa liked to read books. He had taught Susana how to read when she was very little. She liked to read too, but she had never seen Papa read these books before. They were all in English. She could read English fairly well, but these books were impenetrable. There were many words in the titles of these books that she did not recognize. There was a book on something called MKULTRA. There were several written about cults. There was something called an interrogation manual written by someone in China. These words are ones she does not know. There were psychological articles written by doctors. Those had so many words she did not know that she had to put them down.
There was also a large binder sitting on the table near Mama's bed. The front of the binder had a clear plastic pocket so that you could put a card in it telling people whatever you had in the binder and what it was about. The word CLARICE was written across the card. Susana hadn't known what that word meant, either. Her papa had written that book. She could recognize his handwriting. She didn't recognize what was written in there. She only read one sample before giving it up. Clarice's therapy is moving along. Confronting her with her father's death has broken through an old barrier. She is coming to confront the fact that her quest to save the lambs is fruitless. Soon, I believe, she will be finally free.
No matter how I try, I cannot figure out a way to swap Clarice for Mischa. The equations simply do not hold up. Eventually, despite all my attempts, I may have to conclude that it cannot be done.
Yet there is another idea that occurs to me…
Then her mama had begun to stir, and Susana had fled. She was not supposed to sneak up to see her mama. That was supposed to wait until Mama got better. Her papa would have been mad at her. That, in the young world of Susana Alvarez, was the most horrible thing that could ever be imagined.
But now things are good again. Mama had come down for dinner last night, looking slightly pale and wan but acting more like herself. That made Susana happy. Tonight, her mama and papa are going to the opera to celebrate Mama getting better. Susana will stay home with her nanny. That'll be OK; it will be fun. Mònica has said they won't do any more foreign-language drills. Instead, they will make popcorn and watch a movie. The popcorn will have to wait until Mama and Papa leave. Papa does not approve of popcorn.
Susana can hear her mother in their bedroom, humming a tune under her breath. She walks up to the bedroom door and knocks. They will be leaving soon, and she wants to see her mama.
A moment's hesitation before her mama's voice answers. "Who is it?"
"Susana," the little girl answers.
Another moment's pause. "Come in."
To open the door takes only a moment. Once Susana is in the room, she sees why her mother hesitated. Mama is wearing a black bra and half-slip, black stockings, and high-heeled shoes. She is sitting at her makeup table staring into a lighted mirror. In one hand is a brush. She is putting on her makeup. The pleasant afterscent of perfume fills the air.
"I'm sorry, Mama," Susana says thoughtfully. "I didn't know you weren't dressed."
Her mother's painted lips curve up in a pleasant smile. "That's OK, honey," she says easily, in English. Susana tilts her head without thinking about it and observes her.
"Are you feeling better?" Susana asks, her eyes on her mother's reflection in the mirror.
Again, her mother smiles at her. "Oh, baby, I'm just fine," she assures her. "Better than fine."
"Good." Susana thinks her mother looks very glamorous. Papa ought to be happy. Papa likes when Mama dresses up.
For a moment, Susana wonders if she should say anything. Mama did what she did when she was sick. She may not remember. All the same, Susana is a curious thing. The question she wishes to ask is one she somehow knows better than to ask her father.
"Now that you're better, are we going to see Aunt Ardelia? You said she was sick and we had to go see her, but that was when you were sick too."
Her mother's hand shakes. For a moment Susana is alarmed, thinking her mother may gouge out her eye with the mascara brush. Her mother swallows nervously and looks at her.
"No," she says quickly. "Aunt Ardelia…Aunt Ardelia got better. It's okay, baby. Just leave it." For a moment a strange look flickers over her face, and Susana finds herself thinking of when she crept into her mother's sickroom before.
Who is Aunt Ardelia, and why does Mama react like that when Susana mentions her name? Ardelia is also Susana's middle name. Up until now, she has never met anyone else with the name in first or second position. Have Mama and Aunt Ardelia had an argument in the past? Maybe that is it.
A pleasant smile comes over her mother's face again, covering the troubled look like a mask. All is as it was before. She pats Susana's head calmly.
"Susana, would you be a sweetheart and get me my bracelet?" she asks brightly, changing the subject. "It's over there on my bureau."
Susana nods and looks. There are two, lying next to each other on a piece of black velvet. "The diamond one or the emerald one?" she asks, her voice high and questioning.
"The diamond one. Thank you, honey." Susana hands her the bracelet and she puts it on with a dexterous flip of the wrist. Mama stands up and grabs her dress. It is black and form-fitting, stopping just below the knee. Susana thinks her mother looks very pretty. When she is a big girl she will dress up like that, too.
Her papa knocks and is admitted, now that Mama is dressed. He looks tall and handsome in white tie, and Susana's heart swells to see him. There is no one in the world like her papa.
"Maria," he says to her mother, "please, we've got to get going. Ramon is ready with the limousine."
"Just a moment," her mother smiles, and then pulls her papa away for a moment or two. Hushed words are traded and Susana cannot make them out. Her papa nods and then beckons to her. She goes to him with some trepidation. Is something wrong?
He bends his knees to get on her level. His eyes meet hers; the same shade of maroon. She has always been proud of that. But now she is frightened, as if she has done something bad.
"Susana," he says calmly. "Aunt Ardelia and your mother have had…a falling out. A fight. Seeing Aunt Ardelia is…not something your mother is ready for. Please don't ask about her again."
A reproof from her father is enough to make tears rise to her eyes. She didn't mean anything bad. She bites her lip nervously.
"I'm sorry, Papa," she says. "I…I didn't know."
"Of course you didn't. Papa isn't mad, and neither is mama. But you mustn't mention these things. It upsets mama. You don't want her to get sick again, do you?"
Susana shakes her head and tries valiantly to fight the lump in her throat.
"There's a good girl. No, no, you needn't cry. We're not angry."
With that, Mama and Papa are off shortly to the opera, and Susana settles in with her nanny. To make popcorn is relatively easy. Mònica drizzles real melted butter and salt over the fluffy substance. The movie is a Spanish translation of The Secret Garden. The Alvarez family has a large-screen television and it is almost as big as the movies. In some ways, it is better; it is in their own home.
The story of Mary Lennox is entertaining enough, and Susana is absorbed by the story of a young girl sent to live with her uncle in a desolate old Scottish manor. Scotland is a great distance away. Mònica has showed her where it is on the map.
Halfway through the movie, the telephone rings. At first, Susana ignores it; Mònica gets up in a rustle of clothing. Perhaps it is Mama and Papa. She can hear her nanny's hushed voice behind her.
"Eehhh…este…perdone, no hablo inglès…¿habla usted español?"
Another moment's pause. Then Mònica calls for her quietly. Susana pauses the movie and comes as asked, looking up expectantly.
"Susana," her nanny says, "this person on the phone only speaks English. Can you talk to her?"
Now Susana understands. Mònica can speak four languages, but English is not one of them. Her papa was more interested in a nanny who could teach her French, Italian, and Greek; he had taught her English himself. Agreeably, Susana picks up the receiver and puts it to her ear.
"Hello?" she says. "This is Susana."
"Hello?" The voice seems puzzled to be talking to a little girl. "I'm sorry, can you speak English?" The woman on the other end is tense and rushed. Susana recognizes the accent as American almost instantly. Her small brow furrows. Why would an American be calling? She knows no one in the United States.
"Yes," Susana says, a bit miffed. "Can I help you?"
"Honey, I'm sorry…my name is Ardelia Mapp. I'm an agent with the FBI. From America. Is there an adult I can speak to there?"
Susana thinks for a moment. She knows what the FBI is. Papa likes to visit their web site. She has been with him at the computer when he's done it. But why would they call here?
"There's my nanny," Susana acknowledges, "but she can't speak English. Can you speak French?"
"No," Mrs. Mapp says.
"How about Italian?"
"OK, honey, I get the idea. No, I can only speak English."
"Then you have to talk to me, because I can speak English and Mònica can't," Susana says, and nods her head to underscore her logic.
"Is your mommy or daddy there?" Ardelia presses.
Susana shakes her head before realizing that Ardelia Mapp cannot see that. "No," she says. "They're at the opera, Mrs. Mapp."
A tense, frustrated exhalation follows. "Okay," she says. "I'm looking for my friend. Someone called me here from this number two weeks ago." Her throat clicks as if choking back a sob. "I'm looking for my friend. Her name is Clarice Starling. Have you ever heard that name before? Is your mommy named Clarice Starling, honey?"
Susana thinks. So this is Aunt Ardelia. The woman whose name is her middle name. Maybe she wants to make up with Mama. All the same, this is a weird way of going about it. Mama's name is not Clarice; it is Maria. No, it seems something is up.
"No," Susana says calmly. "My mama's name is Maria."
The woman on the other end of the line lets out a sigh. "Is there anyone else there who might have called me?"
"I don't think so," Susana says. "We have a maid named Flora, but she goes home at night."
Ardelia Mapp seems tense. "There's no one else there?" she persists. "I don't mean to be rude, honey, but I'm looking for my friend. I'm worried about her."
"I'm sorry about your friend," Susana says sympathetically, "but there's no one named Clarice Starling here. Maybe the phone company gave you the wrong number."
A frustrated sigh comes from the receiver. "All right," Ardelia says in a tone that suggests she knows she will get no further. "Can you tell your mommy and daddy I called? And can you write the number down for them so they can call me? I'd really appreciate it."
"Okay," Susana says, and obligingly writes the number down on a nearby notepad. She will not lie; she will tell her papa that Mrs. Mapp called. Papa will know what to do.
Papa always knows what to do.
"Thanks, honey," Ardelia says in a tone of resignation. "Good-bye."
"Bye," Susana says, and pockets the phone number. To rejoin Mònica on the couch and restart the movie takes only a moment or two.
The movie finishes quickly, and the popcorn is fresh and good. After the movie comes bath and then bedtime.
Susana obeys the letter of the law if not the spirit; she sits in her bed and waits. Papa will come check on her. He always does. After that, perhaps, Mama and Papa will dance on the terrace. They try to do so after she goes to sleep, but from her rom she can sometimes hear the ghostly music and the tap-tap-tap of her mother's high heels.
Finally, the door opens, and a male figure steps into the room. Susana sits up and looks at him, her maroon eyes shining. He looks at her with an amused look. She looks like her mother, and she knows this pleases him. She has his eyes, though, and she knows that pleases him too. For her part, she beams back at him, her own eyes alight with excitement.
"Papa," she says. "I have something to tell you."
Her papa seems surprised that she is still awake. "Susana, it's late. You should be in bed."
"But the lady called," Susana whispers in protest. "Ardelia. The one who had a fight with Mama."
Her papa freezes then. In the darkness, his maroon eyes gleam. For a moment, Susana finds herself thinking of the wolf from Peter and the Wolf. But this is her papa. The wolf is bad; her papa is good. Better than anything.
"I see," he says. "And what did she want?"
"She asked for some lady named Clarice Starling," Susana says eagerly. "And she gave me her phone number." She takes the piece of paper from her nightstand and gives it to him. It vanishes into the pocket of his pants.
"Very good, Susana," her papa says approvingly, and she is joyful under his praise. For a moment he thinks before speaking. "I do have a surprise for you," he says. "Tomorrow we will be going to our beach house. In Mar del Plata. An extended vacation, for a month or so. And we'll have Mònica come along as well." The family owns a mansion on the beach as well as this home here in Buenos Aires. Susana is thrilled. She loves the beach. It is right on the South Atlantic.
"That's great!" she says excitedly. "Will you take me swimming, papa?"
Her papa chuckles. "Yes, I will take you swimming," he says indulgently. He turns to leave, his wing tips silent on the carpeted floor. For a moment he pauses, and turns back to his daughter.
"Susana," he says slyly, "tell me…what exactly did you tell Ardelia when she called?"
Susana brightens. "I just told her the truth," she says perkily.
"And what was that?"
"I told her there was no one named Clarice Starling here."
Her papa smiles. "Very good. I'm proud of you."
Susana beams as her father pulls up the sheets over her and tucks her in before leaving the room. Mama is better again. They will go to the beach tomorrow and she will swim. Her mama will be there with her, as will Mònica and her papa. They will go swimming and she can play on her own stretch of private beach. Everything is good again just as it was. Above all, her papa is proud of her, and that is the best, the most wonderful thing a little girl like Susana can hope for.
After all, she is daddy's girl.