I met the first one when I was seven. A classmate stole my pencil box, wouldn’t give it back; when the teacher’s back was turned, She yanked it from his desk. When he grabbed for it again, She smacked him with the box. The teacher came over. It was my word against his, and She hid beneath my desk, and when the teacher said, “You should never hit someone, never,” She tried to protest, but I pushed Her down. She got me sent to the principal’s office. When I got home, I took Her out of my backpack and locked Her in my toy chest; as She cried, I told Her that we’d both be safer this way. It was for the best.

I met the second when I was eight. She persuaded me to run for student council, and we spent long afternoons drawing posters, making pins, and preparing for my speech. When I lost, we cried in a bathroom stall, and on the way out, I saw a handful of my pins in the trash can. That afternoon, I locked Her in the toy chest too.

As I grew older, I met more and more of them. One gave the wrong answer in class, another tried arguing with an adult, another convinced me that I could dance. The toy chest became too cramped, and I transferred them to my closet. The more cramped my closet became, the more praise I received from others, the more perfect I was. I was a good daughter, student, friend. Captor. I wrangled them into the closet as soon as they humiliated or hurt me or got me into trouble: one that yearned to kiss and to touch, one that was enraged by my parents, another that delighted in being wild, dirty and sweaty.

Without them, I felt lighter, safer, more worthy of my place here. But I felt emptier too. I had fewer things to say, fewer interests to pursue, fewer things to feel. By the time I graduated from college, I felt nothing. I felt the space where they used to be, and each breath seemed to howl inside my empty chest.

I kept them in the attic, and when I got home from work, I could hear them upstairs. The house whined beneath their weight. Sometimes they were quiet, other times they bashed against the walls and shrieked, and all I could do was reinforce the locks and wait.

On a Friday night, I came home from work with two bottles, one for comfort, one for death. I slammed the door shut, and the house groaned, and the ceiling ruptured. In one thundering cough, there they all were, peering at me through clouds of dust. Most were little girls, others acne-scarred adolescents.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I’m not enough.”

They clambered through the debris and crouched around me. “No,” one agreed. “But now you might be.” She took my hand, pointed at the rupture. “It was for the best.”

Talk story

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