by Joshua Mohr

Appears in Other Voices #45

Every morning their daughter slithers out of her room so the parents can count her cuts. She wears a red bikini that the parents had bought her three months earlier, for a family vacation to Bermuda. She stands with her legs together and arms outstretched, crucifixion-style.

The mother stands inches from the daughter. The mother scours the skin for the slightest, the tiniest incisions. She’d first noticed that her daughter had faint scratches on her forearms, scratches so thin they reminded the mother of highway lines on old maps. She asked her daughter what the scratches were from and the daughter said, “Playing with the cat,” and the mother believed her, there was no reason not to, do you understand that?

The father stands farther away than the mother. He holds a pad of paper, ready to document any new blemishes. That’s what he calls the cuts: blemishes. His wife has said, “They aren’t pimples,” and he’s said, “I know that,” and she’s said, “It’s better to tell ourselves the truth,” and he’s said, “I know what they are, O.K.?” and she’s said, “So call them cuts,” and he’s said, “Cuts, cuts, cuts, O.K.?” but when his wife isn’t around, he calls them blemishes.

This morning is their daughter’s fourteenth birthday.

They are in the kitchen, where the table is covered with presents. There is a cake on the counter. It is Saturday morning.

The parents had discussed skipping her examination this morning. The mother thought, why not give the daughter the day off? This had been going on for months now, she reasoned. There was a therapist. They’d taken the daughter’s bedroom and bathroom doors off their hinges, so there could be no more private mutilation. The mother had quit her job so she’d be home when the daughter needed to be picked up from junior high. They were doing everything they could and yet the daughter kept cutting.

The father’s stance was birthday or no birthday, he wanted to know his daughter wasn’t hurting herself, which provoked the mother to say, “Don’t you think I want that, too?” and he said, “That wasn’t what I meant,” and she said, “What did you mean?” and he said, “Forget it.”

In the end, they figured better safe than sorry, they better make sure there were no new cuts. But both parents, silently, wanted the other to demand a day off, to scream until the other had no choice but to cave in, not for their daughter’s birthday, not even for their daughter, but so they could have one day to forget about all this.

“Palms up,” says the mother, and the daughter does as she’s told, arms still outstretched, wrists nailed to an invisible cross.

“Inch and a half on the inner left bicep,” the father says to the mother, reading from his pad of documented wounds. “Three-quarters of an inch in the armpit.”

“Nothing new here,” the mother says. After the daughter had first blamed her cuts on the cat, the daughter started wearing sweatshirts around the house. Initially, the mother didn’t think anything about it, didn’t sense any connection between the cat scratches and the sweatshirts, and you wouldn’t have noticed anything that subtle either so just drop it. The mother wants you to know that people give people they love the benefit of the doubt, and don’t you forget it!

The father says, “Under the left breast, an inch and a quarter.”

The mother’s eyes move down her daughter’s body and then the mother’s hand pushes the bottom of the red bikini up a little bit, so she can make sure there isn’t another gash hiding under there. Like the mother, the daughter has big boobs. She’s already used the room beneath one of them to cut, scabs running in the grooves between the planks of her ribs.

The father keeps reading off new coordinates for the mother to check. Both parents’ jobs are awful, either snooping the daughter’s body for new wounds or recording this evidence in the notepad, but when the therapist had recommended they do this, the father told the mother that he couldn’t bring himself to check his daughter’s body. He’d said, “I don’t think I can do it,” and the mother said, “You will not make me the bad guy in this!”

Now the father starts to read off the next wound, the crescent moon above her bellybutton, but the mother says, “Wait. One cut or two, under the left breast?” and the father says, “One,” and the mother says, “There’s two here,” and the daughter says, “That’s been there.”

The mother looks at the two cuts more closely, parallel lines, no longer than her pinkie, the width of wire from a coat hanger.

The father flips back a page in his notepad, making sure he hadn’t missed anything. Then another page. Then one more, finally saying, “That cut’s new.”

The daughter says, “No, it’s not.”

The mother says, “Don’t lie to us.”

For her birthday, the parents had decided to go all out. They got her a new cell phone, an iPOD, a laptop. They were supposed to be watching their budget, since the mother had quit her job to be home more, but it felt good to lavish their daughter in meaningless gifts.

After the mother had noticed the cat scratches and then seen the daughter wear sweatshirts for weeks in the springtime, the mother stormed in her daughter’s room and said, “I need you to do something for me,” and the daughter said “What?” and the mother said, “Roll up your sleeves,” and the daughter said, “No,” and the mother said, “Why not?” The mother had already prepared herself for the worst and she wasn’t leaving the room without examining first her daughter’s arms, and then her torso, and finally her thighs, because the mother had read on-line that cutters used their thighs a lot. The mother called to the father, who came in the daughter’s room. He said, “What?” and the mother said, “I think she’s cutting herself,” and the daughter said, “I am not,” and the father said, “She’s what?” and the mother said, “Then show me your forearms.”

Besides the presents, the parents also thought they’d take their daughter out for dinner, to a Moroccan restaurant that had a belly dancer. When she was younger, the daughter used to dance with her. Both parents remember watching their daughter hold hands with the woman, as the dancer balanced a sword on her nose and twirled in circles, spinning their daughter around with her. The food was bad, but that wasn’t the point.

The father, blindsided by this scene in his daughter’s room, had said, “Will someone tell me what’s going on?” and the mother, frustrated with him, like she was frustrated with herself, for not putting two and two together with the cat scratches and the sweatshirts said, “She is cutting herself,” and the father said, “Are you?” and the daughter said, “I am not.”

The mother grabbed her daughter’s wrist.

The daughter pulled away.

The mother said to the father, “Help me,” and together, they found out what the daughter had up her sleeves.

And the birthday cake, that had been the mother’s idea. It was stupid, she knew. The daughter didn’t even like cake. But it was a birthday and people ate cakes on birthdays and the mother wanted this to be a normal day. She wanted there to be a day where, even if they were lying to themselves, even if they were doing more harm than good by pretending nothing was wrong, she wanted one day away from all the cuts. She wanted a day away because this didn’t solve anything, this interrogation of the daughter’s body and the jotting down of new gashes. There were no consequences. There was just her husband’s notepad of wounds that they gave to the therapist, who didn’t seem do to anything except bill for $115 an hour, and nothing was getting better. The mother thought things were getting worse, and she had no idea how to help or how to make her daughter’s pain go away and she wants you to know that she tried everything she could think of.

And now this, the mother thinks, the girl’s fourteenth birthday, and here they are, doing the one thing in the galaxy she didn’t want to do, arguing about a new cut, and her daughter hadn’t answered her so the mother says again, “Don’t lie to us.”

“I promise,” the daughter says, letting her arms fall. She has goose bumps on her legs, accenting the scars that spell HATE above her knee.

The mother steps back from her daughter and asks, “How could we miss that?”

“I don’t know,” the daughter says, starting to cry.

The birthday cake is really a cheesecake. The daughter’s favorite. The mother has bought strawberries and blackberries that she’ll cut into slices and scatter across the top of it.

“Let’s all calm down,” the father says, and the mother says, “Don’t you dare,” and he says, “What?” and she says, “Help me,” and he says, “Help you what?” and the daughter says, “Shut up!” and puts her hands over her ears.

The mother and the father want you to know that this is the last thing they want on her birthday. They want to know if you think you’d do a better job.

“We have to do this,” the mother says, unclear of whom exactly she’s talking to. “We have to know,” but right that second, all she wants to know is what her daughter has used to do it this time. They don’t even have silverware anymore. They eat with plastic forks and spoons, no knives. They drink from plastic cups because the daughter has already shattered a wine glass and used its shards to etch a pattern on the back of her arm. No razors. The parents keep their wine in plastic carafes. For meals, not even ceramic dishes, only paper plates, as the daughter has broken a plate and run a splinter up the nape of her neck.

The parents have done everything they can to protect their daughter. Are you listening?

“I just told you,” the daughter says, “this cut is old.”

“Can we all sit down and talk?” the father says. He sets the notepad down on the kitchen table, next to the presents.

“Why don’t you believe me?” the daughter says, bawling now.

And yes, her tears make both the mother and the father wonder if they have inadvertently missed this cut. It isn’t that big. The lighting in the kitchen is dim. You count enough cuts, and eventually you’re going to make a mistake.

Even you might make a mistake.

“O.K.,” the father says, “I’ll notate the cut today, and we’ll know for future reference.” He picks up the notepad and documents the cut. Then he looks at his wife, and she’s crying, too.

It’s a little after nine in the morning.

“Go get dressed,” the mother says, and the daughter walks out of the room. If she still had a bedroom door, she would slam it. Instead her parents stand in the kitchen while she slips out of the bikini and puts on clothes. Then they all eat breakfast without saying a word, the birthday presents shoved into the middle of the kitchen table, to make room for their plastic forks and paper plates.