Stephanie always knew there was something strange about her family, even from a young age. Her siblings always seemed to be doing something that was generally frowned upon. Her parents didn’t seem to like Stephanie, or really any of their children, and insisted they call the both of them by their first names, Don and Meg. Meg seemed to be the strangest of all. She could be very cutting yet somehow sweet, like a half-eaten sour candy. Other times she was angry, almost on the brink of violence. Stephanie had asked her father about it once, why Meg was the way she was, and Don had replied that she hadn’t had a very good childhood.

“That’s why you’ve never met your grandparents,” he said, looking away. “They aren’t very nice people.”

Stephanie blinked. “But none of us seem to be very nice, either.”

“Yeah, well, they’re worse,” Don said, patting her on the head absentmindedly.

Stephanie always assumed she was just like the rest of her family. Sometimes she did something they didn’t understand, but she thought it was just because she was young. She’d eventually grow into the same behavioral patterns. That changed when she was eleven years old. She helped an old woman looking to pick up her grandson from kindergarten cross the street because the crossing guard wasn’t there. Safely delivered on the opposite sidewalk, the old woman gave her a small butterscotch candy wrapped in gold foil and called her a “nice little girl.” Stephanie, feeling decent and proud and likeable, told her parents about it as they put her to bed later that evening, and both Don and Meg stopped to give her the same strange look.

“Why did you help her? Tell me again.” Don, perched on the edge of Stephanie’s bed, put a hand under his chin and studied her silently. Stephanie, feeling self-conscious, stated a second time that the crossing guard was not there and she wanted to make sure the old lady was safe. She thought she saw a faint smirk tugging at the corners of her mother’s lips, but she couldn’t be sure. Meg almost never smiled.

“What have you been teaching her?” Her father turned around and stared her mother down.

Meg blinked at her husband. “Oh, I haven’t taught her anything, Don.”

“What are you guys talking about?” Stephanie sounded small and childlike even to herself. Don turned back around to face her. This time he looked angry.

“Manners! Who’s been teaching you manners?”

Stephanie thought of her teacher’s classroom rules—“courtesy is the number one policy!”—and decided it was best not to mention it at this exact moment. “No one.”

“Right.” Don rolled his eyes. “So you just expect me to believe you were being naturally nice?”

Stephanie shrank back against her pillow. “I…I guess.”

Don stared at her, his eyes wide with disbelief. Meg looked fairly incredulous herself, but she managed to pull herself together and say, “See, Don, no one’s teaching her anything you wouldn’t.”

“Well.” Don slapped his hands against his thighs and stood up to leave. “You sure are special, Stephanie.”

“In a good way?” Stephanie asked, brightening. This time her mother did smile, and then laughed loudly.

“No, dear. He means you’re mentally disabled.”

She patted Stephanie on the head and left with Don, switching the light off behind them.

When she was thirteen, Stephanie had to go to the orthodontist to get braces. Her teeth were growing in strange angles and her dentist wanted it taken care of. He told her it would “save her a lot of trouble” in the future.

“Like adult braces. Do you really want to wear adult braces?” he asked, bent over her mouth with a tiny mirror and a metal toothpick in his hands. Stephanie wondered if she was supposed to answer. “Do you?”

“I guess not—“

“Don’t talk, sweetie, it makes it hard to work.”

Stephanie was pulled out of the last three classes of her school day a week later, and her mother drove her two towns over to the orthodontist. He was rather stiff and unkind, more than once jamming the wire track of the braces into her gums. He didn’t apologize for it, either. Stephanie came out into the waiting room crying, her mouth full of strange cold metal and her gums aching.

“What’s wrong with you?” Meg asked. She had one leg crossed over the other and she was reading an Architectural Digest, the only available magazine in the office. “You’re drooling all over. Wipe your mouth.”

“Mom, the doctor h-hurt me,” Stephanie hiccupped.

“Oh, calm down, I’m sure he didn’t mean to.”

Somehow, this didn’t sound right from her. Meg attributed evil intentions to everything everyone did, ever, once accusing her youngest son, Daniel, of only buying her a Mother’s Day gift so he could hold it against her later if she “forgot” his birthday a second time. (This was mostly true.)

“But he didn’t apologize,” Stephanie said, rubbing her eyes.

Meg rolled her eyes, and seemed quite angry when she spoke again. “Fun fact, metal mouth: no one particularly cares if they hurt your feelings.”

Stephanie didn’t know how to respond. This was certainly true at home, but other people always seemed slightly more polite. She sniffled and wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. Meg wrinkled her nose.

They left a moment later, after Meg had presented her insurance card to the receptionist and asked her a few questions about billing procedures. Stephanie thought she also heard her ask when the office closed for the day but she wasn’t sure.

Three days later an article appeared in the local newspaper, sporting the headline “Brace Yourself: Orthodontist Missing from Practice.” Meg, who was watching while Daniel and his twin sister Loraine laughed at the funny way Stephanie winced in pain when she chewed, gave Don a bland little grin and left the room.

At fifteen, Stephanie decided she wanted a best friend. She’d never had one. There were a few people she was friendly with at school, and they all ate lunch together and partnered up in gym class or science lab, but she didn’t really think of them as friends. She certainly liked all of them well enough, it’s just…they were more like status symbols. Her teachers saw them together and assumed she was one of them. Good, smart, and studious. She got through school relatively undisturbed this way.

But . . . sometimes it was a little lonely. Other girls her age were watching bad TV shows or playing in sports teams together, and all Stephanie had was her rude, unfortunate family to fall back on. Sitting in English class one day, she decided she’d had enough. Stephanie looked through her classmates, settled on a nice-looking girl named Anna, and decided she would be her new best friend.

They hung out together a few times, always at Anna’s house, which was fun until it became boring. Stephanie thought it might be a good idea to shake things up and go to her house for a change. (In retrospect she wasn’t quite sure why. Her parents never took well to sudden company.) They made it there half an hour after they got out of school, and hung out in Stephanie’s room until dinner, doing homework and talking and laughing. Meg called them down to eat, and maybe five minutes later Anna was running out through the front door, crying and telling Stephanie never to speak to her again. Stephanie, who had tried to chase her up until a certain point, stood in the doorway and watched her go. Her stomach felt messy and bubbly, like she was going to be sick.

“God. What a baby.” Meg stood behind her with Don and Loraine. Daniel was still in the kitchen, laughing his ass off, otherwise he would have been there with them. “A well-rounded human being would be able to handle a few choice criticisms.”

“You said you were fluent in her ‘native language’ and then mooed at her,” Stephanie said.

Meg laughed. “Didn’t you say English was her second language?”

“She’s from Portugal,” Stephanie said angrily. “She speaks Portuguese!”

“Well, if she doesn’t want people to be confused, she really ought to lose all that weight,” Don said. This time Loraine laughed and gave him a high five.

“You people are terrible!” Stephanie turned to face them, her face red with rage. “What is wrong with all of you? You can’t treat someone that way.”

“So you don’t think she’s hideously obese?” Meg asked.

Stephanie felt even worse than she had a moment ago. “Weight shouldn’t matter. Anna’s—”

“Let me guess: she’s got a great personality.” Meg rolled her eyes and started to sashay towards the kitchen. “Stephanie, inner beauty is for ugly people who can’t handle the truth.” Don murmured something unintelligible in agreement and followed his wife. Loraine followed him, leaving Stephanie at the door. She’d never felt quite so out of place before.

When Stephanie was seventeen, the missing orthodontist finally reappeared. His body washed up on the edge of a small lake in a nearby nature reservation. The newspapers ran another article, this one on the front page, the headline screaming “Authorities Not Shore What Happened: Body of Missing Orthodontist Found On Beach.” Stephanie, who was up early one morning, trying to avoid having to eat breakfast with her family, looked closely at the photo provided within the article. Wasn’t that the doctor who had made her cry? She was rereading the article, a feeling of dread slowly and steadily building in her stomach, when Meg walked in, her bathrobe swishing around behind her.

“Is there coffee?” she asked, stopping at the counter and pawing through the drainer, looking for a cup. “I did not sleep well.”

“Yeah, there’s still some left,” Stephanie said, waving her hand aimlessly. Meg pulled a clean mug from the bottom of the drainer and reached for the coffee pot. “Meg, do you remember the orthodontist who put my braces on?”

Meg blew on her coffee. “Vaguely. Why?”

“Do you remember anything in the news about him going missing?” Stephanie put the paper down on the table and tapped at the article with her index finger. “Because apparently the cops just found his corpse in a nearby lake.”

“Oh. Interesting.” Meg was quiet for a moment. “That shouldn’t have happened for at least two more years.”

Stephanie turned to look at her mother slowly. “What did you say?”

“I said he should have stayed at the bottom of that lake for at least two more years. What are you, deaf?”

“What do you mean? Did you—” Stephanie couldn’t even wrap her head around this. “Did you kill him?”

“Oh, silly girl. Of course not.” Meg took a large swig of coffee, the steam curling from her lips like smoke from a dragon’s mouth. “The cinder blocks tied to his feet are really what killed him. Tough to swim with those on, am I right?”

“Mom.” The word felt foreign in Stephanie’s mouth, and the look Meg gave her made her regret saying it at all. “You—you killed someone? Why?”

Meg walked over and bent down, looking Stephanie in the eye. In an act of terrible, strange tenderness, she put a hand on Stephanie’s cheek and smiled. Stephanie flinched at her touch and Meg’s smile grew wider.

“Because he made my daughter cry.” Then she stood back up and turned to the window, taking another sip of her coffee.

Claire Muirhead is a senior majoring in Animation at the School of Visual Arts. She is currently working on her thesis. When she’s not working, she can usually be found annoying her cat.