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The Turn

Tara Isabella Burton's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Arc, PANK, Shimmer and more. She has also written for National Geographic Traveler, The Paris Review Daily, The Atlantic, and The BBC. She has recently completed a novel.
***Editor's Note:Adult Language, Mature Themes***
Miles is an empath. "Gets it from his father," says his mother. "Always all about him."
I tell her she can trust me.
My references are excellent. I speak French. I know the Vineyard. I spent two years looking after little Stuart Farnsworth, who could shatter china with his mind, and in all that time, the press never once caught on.
"It's gotten worse since the separation."
I tell her I know how to fix him.
Miles is ten. He plays Haydn. He wears bow ties. Sometimes he tries to claw his own face off. He rocks back and forth in the middle of the room, with his little arms around his littler knees, and shouts obscenities at the floor.
"Cocksucker. Bastard. Gold-digging whore."
I sit in the corner and think happy thoughts, and sometimes they distract him. I think of sheep, or dancing elephants, or what would happen if the ten-foot clock face at FAO Schwarz came to life, and when he starts to giggle I know that it's working.
I tell his mother to go out shopping. Too many thoughts will clutter up his head. She's visibly relieved.
"Whatever's best for Miles." She's already out the door.
She does not come home until ten. Miles and I teach each other games while we wait. I ask him to guess what I'm feeling.
"Now you're happy, Nanny. You're hungry. You want ice cream." He chirps through the gaps in his teeth. "Now you want to play hide-and-seek."
He knows I know he'll find me.
When his father comes, on alternate weekends, I stand right outside the nursery door and think of all the beautiful things I have seen that day on my way to work. I think about the squirrels tumbling over each other in Central Park, about the red and gold tulips that burst out of the sidewalk on Park Avenue, about the dancing elephants in the window at FAO Schwarz.
I don't think about the commute, the blisters on my feet, the men who grope me on the subway or the rent I can't afford. I think in clouds of pink and blue, and sometimes I think it works.
One day I cannot fix him.
His mother has returned early from her shopping; his father has arrived three hours late and lingered. They meet one another on the stair.
I do not hear their voices, but I hear his.
He sobs and screams and strikes me with a blow that would break my jaw, if his fists were any bigger than clementines.
"Asshole. Betrayer. Cunt."
I have to hold him down.
I have to think in pink and blue. I have to pretend I don't hate them.
At first, I think he does not notice. When I hobble in, with my blistering feet, when the cash in the envelope is forty dollars short and his mother has left early for her shopping and left Miles, shivering in piss-stained pajamas, to pick up on the mewing of the cat and start scratching the moldings for mice, when his father hasn't bothered to show up at all, I smile and think as hard as I can about dancing elephants. I think about how beautiful his mother is, and how fine is the shade of her lipstick, and how his father must be a very determined man, indeed, to have the success he has had, not to notice an envelope that's forty dollars short. I invent ways to love them.
It is only when his mother raps on the doorframe with those dinosaur nails of hers and scoops him up into her arms; it is only when he spits in her face that I know what I have done.
We play our game again.
"You're feeling weird, Nanny. You think you should feel bad, but you don't feel bad. You feel good, Nanny. You feel really good."
I tell him what a boy boy he is.
I tell myself it won't happen again, that I'll think pinker, bluer thoughts.
It happens again.
First it happens in the living room, when his mother's tapping her nails and waiting for the caterer to call. Miles crawls into her lap and bites her breast so badly that she bleeds.
Then it happens in the nursery, on a visiting Sunday, when he smashes a porcelain figurine of Little Bo Peep, and stabs his father in the thigh with the shard.
Then it happens in the elevator, when Miles pulls his mother's hair so violently that she falls against the lever, and catches her earring on the bellman's buttons on the way down.
She takes me for drinks at The Pierre. "I don't understand why he still insists on acting this way. Dr. Hankin says I'm making real progress. It's his father, you know--such negativity."
Two weeks before Christmas, Miles's father shows up with flowers.
Christmas Eve, he moves back in.
"You're angry, Nanny." Miles nestles in my breast. "You're angry and your feet hurt."
I tell him he'll be grown-up, soon. Grown-ups know thoughts don't just come in pink and blue.
They tell me not to go home just yet. They tell me to stay, just in case. They ask me to wait in the nursery while they open presents downstairs, until I'm needed.
His mother hands me an envelope. "I just want his memories to be of family, you understand?"
Downstairs, Miles unwraps his presents, one by one.
Upstairs, I do not think any thoughts at all. I only close my eyes. I only feel.
I only hate them.
This time, I hear everything.
I wait for Miles to come upstairs, his little footie pajamas wet with blood and urine, trailing ribbons, nuzzling his clementine fist in mine.
"Now you feel good, Nanny," he'll say. "You don't feel bad. Not even a little bit."
I will offer him ice cream, then take him in my arms.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, August 19th, 2014


This story is (very loosely) inspired by Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, another tale of a nanny to an upper-class family.

- Tara Isabella Burton

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