Unlike most mothers, I gave birth to my daughter Setsuko not once, but twice. The first was a sunny day in the middle of summer, and she came without complication. It was an easy, joyful birth. The second was a stormy afternoon ten years later to the date. I was induced in the same private hospital, under the care of the same doctor—with the same laser-whitened smile, he had apparently delivered the babies for some of LA’s most famous actresses. That time, however, Setsuko was taken out of me by emergency Caesarean. She was breeched, and the umbilical cord was suffocating her slowly, knotted around her neck. Ever since, I have worried about the effect this may have had upon her reborn psyche.
In a few weeks, she will turn nine—the last day of her first life—and I am trying to prepare her for it. Before, she stood four feet, four inches tall and registered fifty-five on the scale. Now, she only reaches to four feet, three-and-a-quarter inches and weighs more than sixty pounds. This is not satisfactory. Every morning, I wake her early for a workout and take her measurements.
“Rise and shine, sleepyhead!” I say in my most sing-song motherly voice. She groans and burrows stubbornly under the covers, but I don’t take no for an answer. Children need their parents to be authority figures and to instruct them how to stay disciplined.
“Sixty-two pounds,” I sigh in disappointment, recording the number. “Let’s get you running.”
I set the treadmill at a challenging incline and work her up to a healthy sweat. “Faster, Coco!” I encourage over the thumping of her shoes.
“No!” she shouts and climbs off the machine. She retreats to a corner and hugs her legs to her chest. Her hair falls over her face. “I’m not fat.”
“Honey,” I reply, kneeling beside her, “I know that, but you don’t look the way you used to look. You were so pretty and popular. Don’t you want to have that again?”
She raises her mournful eyes to meet mine and nods.
“Then hop back up there!”
After the physical exercises, I put Setsuko through her mental paces.
“Do you remember what you wanted to be when you grew up before you were nine the first time?” I ask.
“Did I still want to be a professional ballerina?”
“Not anymore,” I frown. “If you get it right, I’ll let you have a treat.”
She scrunches her face in concentration, then brightens and pops her eyes wide open.
“A vet!” she cries. “I wanted to be a veterinarian.”
“Good!” I say. “Do you remember why?”
“Because of Miruku,” she says. I take out a packet of mochi from the cupboard and pass her a rice bonbon filled with red bean paste. She snatches it from my fingers. Our cat, Miruku, as if on cue, jumps up on Coco’s lap. “Miru!” she squeals and covers the furry forehead with kisses.
Tonight, I am going to go through with the Miruku incident, no more excuses. For what would be her final Christmas, we gifted Setsuko with a completely white kitten. She doted on the animal and rushed home from school to cuddle her and play catch-the-fabric-mouse. Mistakenly, we let Miruku wander outside. Our house is on coastal property in Malibu, so we thought she would merely chase gulls and dig up hermit crabs by the water. When she didn’t come home one night, we went scouring the beach. But living by the ocean also means that we’re next to the Pacific Coast Highway, and in the morning, a neighbor brought us Miruku’s slender body. The cat had been hit by a car. Setsuko cradled the kitten to her chest, the white coat matted and soiled, and cried. It broke my heart. I knelt down, enveloped them both in my arms, and cried, too. I promised my Coco I would get her another kitten. Of course, I never had the chance.
It’s regrettable that our restagings haven’t been totally consistent. For example, when Setsuko number one was seven, we went snowboarding at Big Bear. She was having so much fun, gliding effortlessly along the slopes, until she had a bad spill and fractured her wrist. I wanted to create this event anew somehow, but my husband, Wyatt, expressly forbid it. Still, I comfort myself by recalling that I had my second Setsuko wear a cast around her undamaged arm for six weeks anyway. To compensate for the missing memory, I frequently have her narrate the event from start to finish and test her on the details. My hope is that if she repeats the story long enough, the fiction will become her reality.
“Tell me about the day at Big Bear,” I say. We’re overdue for a full recitation.
“We drove out of the city and up a mountain road. It was afternoon when we got to the lodge. We strapped into our boots and boards, and a ski instructor showed us some moves on a bunny hill. I fell over a bunch of times but eventually figured out how to keep my balance.”
“Fine,” I say, “but I want specifics. Use your five senses. How cold was it? What color was the snow?”
“The snow was white like Miruku but almost blue. It was really cold, so cold my toes went numb, and I had to go eat French fries and warm up inside.”
“Continue,” I reply.
“I was nervous at first, but after lunch I wasn’t nervous. I wanted to try a hard trail like the older kids. I boarded a lift to a black diamond. I was doing okay, but then I hit an icy patch. I fell and landed on my wrist. I couldn’t stand back up it hurt so bad. Some nice men came and took me down the hill on a stretcher.”
“Well done, Setsuko,” I say. She flashes me a goofy smile, showing the gap between her two front teeth. It seems to me she always used to smile a lot more. I’ll have to correct her about that later. “I’m so proud of you, I’m going to let you have another mochi.”
She gently cups the dough and smells it in pleasure before taking a bite.
“You must be looking forward to your birthday,” I add. “You’ll be allowed to eat as much candy as you want.”
“I’m more excited for my tenth birthday,” she says under her breath, but it’s not lost on me. We’ve been restaging her parties for so many years that I will hardly know what to do when I have to organize one from scratch.
“Now go practice your instrument,” I say.
While Coco is distracted with scales on the violin, I grab Miruku, sneak out the back door, and set her in the middle of our driveway. I climb into Wyatt’s convertible and slide my key into the ignition. In the rearview mirror, I watch the cat sniffing at the ground. To psych myself up and calm my shaky nerves, I rev the engine a couple times. “It’s okay,” I say, “you’re doing this for your daughter.” The tires scream as I run over the animal with the sports car. I check my work. The pelvis and hind legs appear to be broken, but Miruku is alive, yowling in pain.
“Shit,” I mutter and get back in the convertible. I want to cry, but I need to stay strong. Sometimes you have to do bad things in order to manifest good things. During the second attempt, I’m fairly confident I feel the wheels crunch the skull against cement. I hide the body in a trash bag in the garage and wait for my husband to come home.
Before the rebirth, Wyatt demanded I go into therapy. It was one of his conditions, he said. Initially, he wanted me to join him in his bereavement group, but I declined. If our baby was returning to us, there was nothing to grieve. When I began describing plans for restagings, my counselor was curious as to why I couldn’t let Setsuko make new memories. Did she have kids? I asked. She didn’t. Well, I explained, one of the frightening things you learn when you become a parent is that you can’t protect your children from life. Anything can go wrong: they can slip on the bars of the jungle gym and get a concussion, they can die of SIDS in the night, they can be kidnapped. The only power you have is to give them the best chance possible. Could I control everything that happened to Setsuko? No, I couldn’t, but since she used to be such a delightful little girl, so exuberant and charming, I was determined to provide her with the memories that made her that way.
Besides, I said, it wasn’t that strange anymore for parents to seek a duplication. Several celebrity couples have done so, like they showed in that documentary. Why shouldn’t I?
That answer seemed to placate both her and my husband. What I didn’t say was that I also plain miss my daughter, and whenever I see a flash of the old Setsuko in her new incarnation, I feel a surge of love in my chest. Yes, I think, this is how it is supposed to be. Here she is, my Setsuko.
When Wyatt comes in, I can’t wait to tell him my news. “I did it!” I exclaim. “Everything’s ready. By tomorrow, the Miruku memory will be in place.” His features pinch together. The resemblance is uncannily similar to the face Setsuko makes when I scold her for not behaving like herself.
“When you refer to ‘the Miruku memory,’ what does that mean?” he asks.
“I’ll show you,” I say.
We go into the garage where I gingerly peel open the plastic lip of the trash bag. At the sight of the mangled feline, his face shifts from skepticism to numb disbelief. It’s not the response I had hoped for: like father, like daughter. Wyatt can occasionally become contrary. Alas, this is an instance where he’ll need some soothing.
“We agreed you had to check with me before restaging something that would hurt Setsuko,” he says.
“We already know she gets over it without that much trouble.”
“That’s not the point,” he replies.
Then he adds, “What else have you done to her that you’re keeping from me?”
“Nothing!” I protest, “And I’m telling you now about Miruku.”
“After it’s too late to stop you.”
“Don’t be angry,” I say, hurrying after him as he walks back into the house. “I apologize for not telling you beforehand, but I figured you’d be glad our daughter is almost our daughter again.”
“I can’t be there for this one.”
“The important episodes of our Coco’s life are unfolding and you’re missing them.”
“It’s not like I haven’t seen it before.”
Hearing our voices, Setsuko skips out of her room. “Daddy!” she cries and leaps into his arms. “Hi angel,” Wyatt says, nuzzles his nose against her scalp, and holds her tight. I can tell he’s sad that he’s aware of what’s in store for her soon but she is not. The scene is exquisitely tender. How I yearn to participate once more in such spontaneous loving moments. We’ve waited so long to be a family.
That evening, after Wyatt has departed and it’s just Setsuko and me doing dishes, I compose my best worried expression then say, “You know, I’m a bit concerned. It’s well past dinner, and I haven’t seen a glimpse of Miruku.”
“I’ll find her!” Setsuko replies and peers under couches and beds. When about twenty minutes have lapsed, she becomes panicked. Her face is exactly as stricken as it was years ago. As anticipated, we gear up with windbreakers and flashlights and search the beach.
“Miruku! Miruku!” my Setsuko calls into the dark. She can’t stop sobbing. She loved the cat the second time as much as the first.
“Darling, let’s give it a rest,” I say. “I’m sure she’ll be home by morning.”
Wyatt set up his production company shortly before we got engaged. His dream was to direct ethereal art house films, but he got sidelined into producing low-budget horror movies to avoid bankruptcy. We met while he was still in graduate school. I was waiting tables and auditioning like mad. His casting notice said he was in need of a Japanese actress, so I sent in my headshot. He seemed let down when he called me in and discovered I couldn’t speak the language, but I landed the role regardless. Over the years, he’s tried to teach it to me, but I found the grammar too different from English. He has also suggested that we book a trip to Japan and trace my lineage, but I wasn’t interested in the scheme. My real family is my adopted parents in Orange County. They christened me Karen. Wyatt was the one who thought it was cute to refer to me as Kyoko. Fortunately, when Setsuko came along, she showed a more avid interest in picking up words and phrases. The downside is that the two of them often laugh and chatter together in a tongue I will never know.
At some point, Wyatt shifted his focus entirely on the horror films. I think that since he used to study Kabuki theatre in Tokyo, it wasn’t too difficult for him to channel his vision from one genre into the other. Right around Setsuko’s rebirth, he became obsessed with the yurei, vengeful ghosts who are trapped in the physical world on account of their violent deaths. They appear in white funeral attire with a tangled mane of hair. Almost always they are young girls. Wyatt is currently shooting what he’s said might be his opus. Reeling over the recent abduction and murder of their daughter in Los Angeles, an American couple travels to a rural village in Japan to try to move on and save their faltering marriage. It is there, in their rented house, that they encounter the yurei of Yumi, who had been strangled by a visiting stranger when she was nine years old. She bombards their minds with images of her death. Only after releasing her into the spirit world can they make peace with the loss of their own daughter. I wouldn’t feel so weird about the whole thing if Wyatt hadn’t begged me, this once, for Setsuko to play the part of the ghostly child. He so rarely invokes his veto that I felt obligated to comply. I can’t risk him becoming frustrated and halting my restagings altogether; I know what he’s like, as a director, when he doesn’t get his way. And little girls are always dressing up and pretend to be other people—how much harm could it do?
Lying by myself in bed until the early hours of the morning, I find I am bursting with too much anticipation over the upcoming Miruku scene to sleep. I can’t wait even a few more hours to break the news. I dig the bloody cat out of the trash bag in the garage, ring our doorbell, and shake Setsuko awake.
“The neighbors found our Miruku,” I say, presenting the carcass. “She must have been hit by a car.”
As before, Setsuko takes the cat from me, cradles it to her chest, and sobs. I put my arms around her. “Oh, precious one,” I whisper, “I promise I’ll get you another kitten.” I feel my tears falling on her hair. It is perfect.
“It doesn’t matter,” Setsuko replies, surprising me. That’s not like last time at all. “No kitten will ever be the same as Miruku.”
I allow Setsuko to sleep through her workout the next day until we need to leave for our tedious commute into Hollywood. I usually run errands or have lunch while they’re filming, but today, for whatever reason—an ominous hunch—I stay. Emerging from the makeup department with ratted locks and powdered skin, Setsuko really looks like a corpse. Gaffers and grips buzz about checking the proper gels are on the proper lights. The actors show up drinking lattes. Slowly, the scene of the hour comes together: The couple, fresh off the plane and unpacking their things, make love while Yumi watches from the bedroom doorway. The actress is predictably young and rather attractive, shining hair cascading past the waistline of her silk robe embroidered with cherry blossoms.
“Quiet on set,” the assistant director says. “Action.”
Giggling, the wife runs into the frame with the husband in close pursuit. She grabs a pillow and hits him with it on the shoulder. He tugs the robe’s sash, slides a hand underneath it, then slides another hand into that gorgeous hair. They tongue kiss with great enthusiasm until she leads him to bed where they tumble in a heap of passion. In a minute, Setsuko emerges into the doorway.
“Koroshiteyaru,” she utters softly. There are tracks in her cake foundation.
“Cut!” Wyatt yells. “Not bad for a first take. I’d like it to be slightly less playful and more hesitant. Remember, you’ve recently buried your daughter and are desperate to reconnect. Setsuko, you’re a natural. Do it like that again. Okay, angel?”
“Yes, daddy,” my spectral girl says, eager to please.
The set is restored to its original state. The husband, on touching his wife in subsequent takes, is timid, almost fearful. They act it out over and over to get the full coverage: the wide shots, medium shots, close-ups, over-the-shoulder shots. When Wyatt calls a break for lunch at noon, the crew bustles with activity, but I swear I see him approach the wife and tuck stray hair behind an ear with a caress trailing to her chin. He’s a director, she’s his leading lady, I remind myself. This kind of passing flirtation happens all the time.
When they wrap, Wyatt remains at the studio to review the dailies. I drive Setsuko home in endless rush-hour traffic. She refuses to break the monotony and won’t return my gaze or even speak to me. She’s still upset about the cat.
“Coco, what does ‘Koroshiteyaru’ mean?” I ask in curiosity.
“I will kill you both,” she replies at last.
I wonder how many memories I have left to give my daughter, so I comb through the file I’ve kept of school exercises, drawings, and her diary—the lock of which I picked after we had to say goodbye for a while. In nostalgia, I review the entries of Coco learning how to ride a bike, cooking marshmallows over a fire on our Yosemite camping trip, receiving her first kiss at a pool party. The kiss I restaged with a boy actor matching Setsuko’s adorable confession of her crush, only to discover afterward that second Setsuko had already been kissed behind the soda machines in kindergarten. I suppose there’s bound to be some mismatches. It makes me wish I had devised a test of some kind to determine whether or not Setsuko is who she’s supposed to be. I tell myself that perfection is impossible, but if I try to get things as close as I can for her, she’ll have the best chance of returning to me. I’m sure that on her birthday, I’ll receive a sign—she’ll tell me a secret only the old Setsuko will know, whisper “I’m back, Mommy,” in my ear, even a long-forgotten gesture of hers would be enough.
Finally, the anticipated day arrives, and I’ve made sure everything is in order. I’ve re-wrapped her toys gifted a decade past. There’s a bubblemaker on our deck and a pony will be on the beach. Tables are laden with steamed dumplings and mochi. I tell Setsuko she’s not to go out of my sight.
One by one, the guests show up and change their bathing suits. Boys and girls laugh and scream and splash each other in the ocean, but my Coco ignores them. She seems transfixed by the machine wearily cranking out iridescent globes that hover indefinitely over Pacific tides. After considerable wrangling, I get the group quieted and gathered in the living room. “How nice,” my daughter deadpans after unwrapping an outmoded doll. “Thanks, Jenny.” The kids clap and Jenny shrugs. The next present is a metallic robot dog. Setsuko places it on the carpet and presses the ‘on’ switch. Lights flare up behind the dog’s red eyes and demonically glow. Its four limbs wheeze a hydraulic, grinding sound as it walks forward and pauses every ten seconds to issue forth a series of identical, soulless barks. Wyatt steps outside to talk on his cell. When it’s time to sing happy birthday, I try get him to join in, but he waves me away with a flick of his wrist. I bring out a chocolate cake from the kitchen, and the rest of us bellow out the tune to my daughter.
“Now make a wish,” I tell her. The candles paint her face an ominous crimson. She closes her eyes tight then pops them wide open and blows out the flames.
“The pony has arrived out back,” I say. “You can line up for a ride!” There is cheering and clapping and clamoring to get out of the house. Only Setsuko lingers.
“Mommy,” she says, sidling up to me. “Do you want to know what I wished for?”
“What, baby?” I ask.
Perhaps this is the big moment. I feel the surging inside my chest.
“I thought that since this was the last of my old birthdays that I’m free to be whatever I want.” She takes a deep breath. “I decided to tell you I don’t want to be a veterinarian when I grow up. I want to be an actress!”
“Don’t be silly,” I reply. “That’s not something you ever would have wanted.”
“I changed my mind,” she pouts.
“No,” I say. “That’s final. Why don’t you join your friends?”
“I hate you!” she shouts and storms the steps to where the pony and its trainer are pacing the same track of sand, a different child in the saddle every other pass. When she nears the group, they howl in laughter as the pony kinks up its tail and poops. Like something out a nightmare, I watch Setsuko dart forward, pick up the shit, and hurl it at the other nine-year-olds. They howl in disgust and scatter toward the water while Coco grins as if possessed.
“Setsuko!” I scold, hurrying to the beach and grabbing her by the arms. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Leave me alone!” She tries to wriggle from my hold, but I won’t let go.
“I hope you’re aware of how much trouble you’re in, young lady,” I say. She stops struggling. Either cake or manure streaks one of her cheeks.
“You promised I wouldn’t have to do everything you say anymore,” she whines. “You said you didn’t know what was supposed to happen next.”
“I still expect you to behave like my daughter,” I say. “Don’t you want to save poor kitties like Miruku?”
“You killed Miruku!”
“It was an accident. Miruku was hit by a car.”
“You’re lying. I know that you did it.”
“Please, Coco,” I say, sinking to my knees. “Show me that you’re here, my darling. Give me some indication that the little girl I see before me is the Setsuko I love.”
“Do you want to know what he did to me?” she asks.
“What do you mean?”
“It was worse than you can imagine. I bit and scratched, but he was too strong.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“When he got bored, he put his hairy hands on my throat and squeezed until I died.”
“Be quiet! You’re grounded.”
“But I was glad that I was dead, since it meant I would never have to see my awful mom who didn’t care about me ever again!”
In shock, I release her and she flees, and I lay my forehead on the sand, trying to regain my composure while my whole body shakes. It was the one memory meant to be lost forever. What if this is my proof that she has returned and is punishing me for not being a more careful mother? No, it can’t be. Setsuko has never met her abductor in this incarnation. The man who stole my daughter from her ninth birthday party and discarded her in a dumpster on the corner of Melrose and La Brea is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. As few facts as possible were explained to her about what happened that day. I’m not sure how she put this much of the story together. I must have erred, allowed too many changes from her former childhood. Wyatt’s project also couldn’t have helped matters. It’s given her some morbid ideas. I brush myself off and bitterly prepare to confront him about it.
Ever the director, he hasn’t yet gotten off the phone. I motion for him to finish the conversation. He knows when he can and can’t ignore me. He cuts short his call.
“Setsuko’s out of the film,” I say. “She’s becoming unmanageable.”
“I need at least another week to capture the ending.”
“She just threw her death in my face.”
“I swear I haven’t said a word about it.”
“She has to settle into her identity, and she’s too vulnerable to suggestion. I can’t allow more acting in her regimen.”
“Unfortunately, I’m unable to replace her at this stage. I’d have to reshoot too much of the script. It’s not in the budget.”
“So rewrite the remainder of the script.”
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you anyway, Kyoko. The actress playing the wife has to take a leave of absence, but that put us in a tough spot. I was hoping I could ask you to fill in. Then you could also keep an eye on Setsuko until we’ve wrapped.”
“You’re unwilling to recast our daughter, but you can swap one wife for another without a problem?”
“We got the wife’s coverage for her remaining scenes with the yurei, but we need Setsuko’s close-ups and reversals. Since you’re the same height and build, it should work if we only see you from behind.”
“Recast Setsuko, and I’ll do it. She’s in heavy makeup. No one will notice.”
“Kyoko, no. This isn’t up to you.”
He had been remarkably tolerant of how I had chosen to raise Setsuko, Wyatt continued. Perhaps too tolerant. But how do you explain to your little girl what happened to the child who came before her? My way might actually be the kindest, he had thought, by gradually introducing her to facts and memories until she was old enough to understand. Especially since her older sister was her duplicate—or vice versa. Nevertheless, he couldn’t let me sabotage the film that might be his finest achievement. Since our second Setsuko was nine, I had to begin letting go and accepting our daughter for who she is.
“That’s pretty hypocritical coming from you,” I say. “My name isn’t Kyoko. It’s Karen. I’ve never been the woman you’ve wanted me to be.”
“Okay, Karen,” Wyatt replies, “that pet name has never bothered you before, but tell me something. What happens now you’ve run out of Setsuko’s memories? There’s nothing left to do.”
“A pet name isn’t usually a common first name from another country,” I say, “but to answer your question, Setsuko clearly needs more training. More recitations, plus fresh restagings of crucial memories we didn’t get quite right before she’s able to come back.”
“She never gets to be a regular kid, is that it—until you decide that she’s ready to be loved?”
“If that’s what it takes, then yes.”
Wyatt turns away from me toward the beach so I can’t see the face he makes, whether it’s one that I have recognized in my daughter, one that I know how to tend to and positively influence.
“I’ll tell you what,” he says, “Give me one shoot, you as the wife and Setsuko as the ghost daughter, and I’ll figure out the rest.”
“We’re all yours,” I say.
Setsuko gloats throughout our morning drive to the studio the next week. She thinks the fact that we’re following the routine of exercising then filming means she has defied me and won.
“On my birthday, I told Daddy I wanted to be in movies, too, and he said he would sign me up for an acting class,” she says.
“I guess that was before we came to a parental decision,” I reply, pulling into the parking lot.
“What decision?” She sounds doubtful, much more docile.
“The decision that after this film is complete, you’re done,” I say. “No more acting.”
I drag my tantruming daughter inside and unload her on the makeup people. Sitting motionless in the company of relative strangers should subdue her anger. I slip into the robe with cherry blossoms and review the sides. The current scene is near the end. The ghost Yumi has become more violent and increasingly corporeal from feeding on the couple’s fear. While the husband is away scheduling an exorcism with a local witch doctor, Yumi attempts to strangle the wife in her sleep. Upon emerging as her deceased likeness, Setsuko is dismayed to see me in costume.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
“Your mother will be my wife today,” Wyatt replies.
We rehearse the confrontation to ensure it’s correct, then we’re ready. I recline on the tatami mattress and assume the appearance of absolute repose. “Action!” I hear the patter of Setsuko’s slippered feet on the bamboo floor. Her delicate fingers circle around my neck. When she cries in Japanese that she wants me to die, I feign terror and watch her attempt at pantomime strangulation. “Hayaku Shinde!”
“Cut,” Wyatt yells. “Not bad, but I’m not quite buying it. Setsuko, I’d like more energy from you. Picture how your character must feel being trapped in the past. She wants to take revenge on any living thing that gets to experience a future she will never have.”
We repeat the struggle for hours, but Wyatt isn’t satisfied. There’s a fatigue in Setsuko’s performance that only increases with every take. She is no longer invested in her role.
“Maybe we should call it a day,” Wyatt says. “Setsuko, I’m beginning to think it’s a good thing your mother decided that you’re not to pursue acting, since you can’t seem to understand the simplest note.”
The familiar pinched expression flashes over her pallid features but is immediately repressed. My little ghost is upset. Setsuko walks to her first blocking point. “No,” she insists. “I can do it.”
“Quiet on set.” The assistant director looks tentatively at Wyatt, who is breathing through his hands. “Roll camera.”
I listen for Coco’s light footsteps, but she is silent. After an indeterminate interval, I sense a hovering warmth. I know she is staring down at my reposed face, waiting to make her move. I wonder if something has gone amiss since nothing happens. It’s then I feel her hands upon me.
“Hayaku Shinde!” she screams at a shattering volume. She brings the full weight of her body to bear upon my windpipe. I pop my eyes open and do not recognize my own daughter. She truly seems the malignant spirit of a wounded, forgotten child. I attempt to pry her grip off my throat, but she is steadfast. She’s stronger than she looks.
“Cut!” Wyatt yells louder. “Cut! Setsuko, stop!”
Several pairs of arms reach in and pull my daughter from me. She lashes out at the PAs until Wyatt relieves them of their burden. Setsuko wails into his collarbone. “Hush, angel,” he murmurs. “It’s over.” He carries her backstage. After I’m done with my coughing fit, I find them in a dressing room. Wyatt is saying pacifying things in Japanese.
“Why don’t you change,” he suggests. “Take Coco and go home.”
“We should talk about how we’re going to punish her.”
“I’ll leave that to you,” he replies.
Then he adds, “In my opinion, she’s had enough punishment.”
I wait for a word of sympathy from Wyatt, some indication I’m not on my own and he still considers us a team. He only passes our daughter from his arms to mine, then quickly makes his exit.
I sneak into Setsuko’s bedroom that night and watch her sleep. I speculate about whether or not dreaming different dreams would be enough to change a child’s personality. In this state, she looks most like my baby, but I know it is a lie. I have failed. The child before me is not Setsuko. Rather, she is a perversion of my daughter, neither alive nor dead.
Close to midnight, I get a call from Wyatt. He wants a divorce. I beg him to reconsider. What happened on set was traumatic, I say, but we can figure everything out. I can go to therapy again. Wyatt and I can go to couples’ therapy. We can put Setsuko in therapy. We can all go into therapy.
“I’m sorry, Karen,” he replies, “but it’s too late for therapy. We should have ended this years ago.” Coco’s meltdown during the film, the cat. It’s been too much.
“If she can show me that her memories have taken hold,” I say, “we can have our family back good as new.”
“Maybe you were scrutinizing Setsuko so closely for a sign that you missed it.”
Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Wyatt is in love. The wife is pregnant. She said she couldn’t work with him, that it was too painful, unless something changed. He was agonized over what to do, but now he’s certain. And if I was honest with myself, did I really want our family back? Though he will, of course, share custody of Setsuko, moving on will be better for all of us.
Wyatt’s things disappear from the house. School starts. The master bedroom becomes littered with the pictures and papers from my first Setsuko. I keep her journal next to my pillow. I should be more attentive to second Setsuko, but I don’t have the heart. Coco is out of control. Her teachers complain that she bullies the other children. I visit the principal’s office. The principal shows me drawings my daughter has done in art class. Each depicts a Japanese girl getting killed in a most macabre fashion: blown apart, poisoned, drowned, set on fire, disemboweled, hung from the rafters of a barn while the farm animals look on in fear. Across the bottom of one of the pages is scrawled the words, “I want to die, die, die, die, die!”
I pick Setsuko up after my meeting with the principal, but I don’t want to head home. I know we should talk about the drawings. Instead, I ask her what she’d like to do. I’ll take her anywhere she wants. We drive to Santa Monica Pier. The chintzy restaurants and malodorous hot dog stands and mobile vendors selling ice cream are clotted with families. Surfers and waves practice their ability to crash. Garbage roiling in the water tosses against the sand. Teens blast pop songs from portable stereos and rub each other with suntan lotion. It occurs to me they are the age Setsuko should be, while she is stuck at nine. I think of Wyatt’s growing child, becoming more of a distinct person by the day. Will he love it more than he loves our little girl? I let Coco go wild. Whenever she asks for something to eat, I hand over the money. She plays arcade games and boards every mini ride, some of them several times, before she tires.
At dusk, we ride the Ferris wheel. The white metal cars turn round and round as we watch the sunset over northern hills. The screams and laughter, the sigh of the tide are just echoes up high. Setsuko bounces from one side of the enclosure to the other while eating an ice cream cone. She leaves drips of it in her passing, a trail of hardening sugar. I feel something aching, something surging inside of me then subsiding again. I want to cry, but I need to stay strong. Or maybe that’s no longer true.
“Mommy,” Setsuko says with a happy smile, “I think I’m going to remember this day forever!”
“That’s nice, baby,” I reply. Unexpectedly, the Ferris wheel stops and we are suspended at the apex of its circle, swinging back and forth in air. I take my daughter’s sticky sweet hands in mine.
“Tell me the story,” I say.
You Will Never Be Forgotten can be pre-ordered here.