After work, I arrived home to a little girl I didn’t know, reading in my leather chair and wearing my slippers. She resembled my sister at that age—petite, vaguely ethnic, her black hair cut short, her denim dress at least one size too large. The little girl dropped her book when she saw me. Ran to me; high-fived my left hand, my right hand; then hugged me. She called me Dad. Then she returned to my chair and her book, as if this routine had long ago been established.
But how could I be her father? I had never seen her before. While I had been reckless during my younger years, I had always been faithful to my wife, and I had watched in awe when she gave birth to our two healthy sons, who were both, even then, already older than this mysterious child.
My wife was talking to her mother in the kitchen—she doesn’t like to be bothered when she’s on the phone—so I asked my eldest son, who was twelve, if he knew this girl, or if she was the daughter of one of my wife’s many friends. He was in his room, listening to electronic music, working on a pre-algebra problem set.
No, Dad, he said. I don’t know her. But she came over for dinner, acting like she knew us. It was weird.
He was thoughtful and honest, like my wife, though he sometimes became frightened by the many things he couldn’t control, as I did. I trusted him.
On the other hand, my younger son—who was ten—has always been a joker, like my wife, and more prone to exaggeration, like me. I asked him if this little girl was the punch line to one of his pranks.
Unlike my eldest, who seemed annoyed, my younger son seemed scared. He said, I swear I don’t know who she is, but she knew my name. She’s making me nervous, Dad.
It was now past eight. I had left for work before six that morning. I was tired and becoming worried, but I hugged my youngest son and told him I would get to the bottom of it.
My wife was talking to the little girl when I left my son’s room, asking her where she lived.
Here, she said. You’re so silly, Mommy.
Of course, we called the proper authorities. The County’s Department of Family Services had no record of her—the child said that her first name was Zara, the same as my grandmother’s, and that her last name was the same as ours. The National Administration for Children and Families found a birth certificate from a hospital in rural Kentucky. Neither of us had ever been to Kentucky, let alone the American South, but the certificate claimed we were this child’s parents. When the national office emailed a PDF of this document, we sent it to a few friends who worked in IT. They all claimed the certificate was authentic, that it hadn’t been doctored.
In order to save face, we introduced Zara as the child of a cousin who lived in my father’s home country. We told everyone that this cousin and her husband had died tragically in a car crash, and that we had agreed to raise Zara as our daughter. Sadly, my father had already passed, and I was the only one still in touch with his side of the family. Other than our sons, we didn’t need to convince anyone else to agree to our story. We enrolled Zara in the first grade at our youngest son’s school.
At first, the boys were moody, especially our youngest, who, on account of his larger room, had to share a bunk bed with his new sister.
When we explained the arrangement, he said, This is bullshit.
Go to your room, my wife said. That language is unacceptable.
Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit, my youngest yelled after he slammed the door.
Zara poured a glass of milk. She put a ginger cookie on a plate. She warmed it and the glass for twenty seconds in the microwave. Then she brought them to my youngest son. Soon we heard them laughing.
Later, she brought home seeds to plant sunflowers, my wife’s favorite. She encouraged my eldest to sign up for the city’s Pop Warner football team, which he claimed he’d always wanted to do. She encouraged me to start surfing again on the weekends, which I hadn’t told anyone I’d stopped doing. She seemed to know each of us better than we knew ourselves.
As the years have passed, it has become increasingly difficult to remember a time when I didn’t come home to Zara sitting in my chair. Just as soon after I married my wife, I couldn’t remember a time when I was living without her, or, how, soon after the birth of our first son, we couldn’t conceive of a life without him, we cannot imagine a family without Zara. Our disbelief has been replaced by devotion. In fact, we’re no longer convinced that we’ve never been to Kentucky.