“We’re here, mom.”
Lori’s left eye fluttered open. Her right eye shuddered, strained to overcome the rheum gluing her eyelashes together, and fell still.
Half the world in light. Half the world in darkness.
“Mom, can you hear me?”
Lori reached out with her good hand and clawed at the dark. Tried to strike the monsters that lived there. She’d never managed to hit one. But she knew they were there, always hiding, dancing and giggling beyond sight. She could almost hear them laughing at her, the little shits.
Lori slouched back in the car seat, exhausted by the effort. Trying to catch her breath, she gasped through what felt like a mouthful of dessicated, flavorless jam. She failed. There was never enough breath.
Some part of her brain was still struggling with the disconnect in her eyes, still waiting for input from a dead orb. It took a while before the world resolved from a blur into her daughter’s face.
When had her daughter shown up?
No. The problem was deeper than that. More essential.
When the fuck had she had a daughter?
“We’re there now, Mom.”
Now? There? Here?
Lori squeezed her left eye shut, as if by doing so she could wring clarity out of the patchwork of living and dead tissue that her brain had become since the stroke. It didn’t help much, but then again it never did. It only gave her some small sense of control. Enough to leave her pissed off, anyway. Being pissed off and crippled always felt a lot better than being confused and crippled.
She opened her eye again. A bit of clarity returned. She must’ve fallen asleep at the home. And they had moved her and now she had woken up somewhere strange. That explained how she got here. Christ, she needed to stop nodding off like that. It was like being teleported against her will.
She pushed on her chin with her shaking left hand to change her angle of view. The terrifying curtain of black that hid the right half of the world moved aside, now hiding God only knew what fresh horrors.
They’d arrived at some kind of condominium complex. The buildings spread out like rectangular mountains. Or they might as well have been, for they were as impossible to climb or navigate. Why was she at a condominium complex?
“We’re going to take you out of the car now, Mom. Okay?”
Lori reached out with her left hand to grasp her seat belt, hoping it might make moving her more difficult, but her feeble grip broke when that fag her daughter married reached in and wrapped his arms around around her waist. The memories were starting to come back now.
Charles (don’t-call-me-Charlie followed by a stupid mock-serious grin that was supposed to be funny but only ever came across as strained, pathetic and awkward) was a computer programmer. A great, big fat slob with a too-tight shirt that showed off his tits. No kind of man at all, no matter how much money he made. Unable to control her neck, Lori’s face fell forward into his cleavage as he lifted her. His breasts stunk like cheap cologne and bubble gum.
Lori wiggled against his gut to no avail.
“Ush oo oooaahh.”
“I love you too, Mom. But we’ve really got to get you out of there now, okay?”
Lori shook her head, furious. Had everyone gone deaf? Not love you. Fuck you. Fuck you both.
Sarah (that was her daughter’s name!) patted Lori’s head like she was some kind of retard. Ruffled her hair like she would a dog’s. Lori’s blood pounded hard enough she could feel it swirling around her skull. Could feel the same pressure she’d felt in the seconds before this tragedy had struck her.
She snarled at Sarah. Or tried to.
God she hated that fucking kid. She should have had the abortion… or no, wait… was that the other one? Did she even have another kid? She couldn’t recall. In either case, it would be better to be ignored in a state home than to be dragged around while having to listen to this whiny cunt and her faggot husband. And now they were… what were they doing again?
It was hard to focus through the heat of rage, but Lori was sure whatever they were doing was rotten. It had to be selfish. Mean-spirited. And….
That’s right! They were foisting her off onto her other daughter. She remembered now. She did have another daughter. That was the daughter she’d almost aborted. The worst daughter. They were giving her to the worst daughter!
It wasn’t fair.
“Charles and I will be real gentle, Mom. We promise.”
She hung in Charles’ arms like a puppet with half of its strings cut, until he dragged her over to a bench and set her down on a thick white sheet like a bundle of dirty laundry. She should have rolled right out of the fucking thing and made them drag her out of the gutter. She couldn’t, of course. Not with the right side of her body paralyzed and the left half barely functional.
They wouldn’t have dared do this before the stroke. Not with her temper. They would have been too afraid. Lori balled her left hand into a fist so hard it shook. Oh, they wouldn’t have dared lay a finger on her if she was still young and in full control of herself!
“It’ll all be over soon, Mom. Then you’ll get to spend every day with Gina. I bet you’ll really like that, huh?”
Gina? Her other daughter? A flash of insight.
They carried her toward the stinking condos, each holding one end of the sheet. They nearly dropped her on the stairs half a dozen times so that she swung from side to side like a ship at sea. It made her want to vomit, but she couldn’t risk it, not after she’d almost choked on her own sickness at the hospital. That a was a memory somehow stronger and more fundamental than her whole childhood. How she’d lain there forcing stinking air through her nostrils until the nurse had come hours later and cleaned out her mouth with a wet cloth. She fought back the nausea with all of what little control she still had over her body, willing the vomit not to come.
When they finally entered the apartment at the top landing, Charles and Sarah unceremoniously dropped her into yet another in a never-ending series of stale hospital beds. The plastic sheets crinkled against the left half of her body. It felt like laying down on an open candy wrapper. Itchy and sticky at the same time.
“Ow oo uuu ing isss ooo ee! I uuur uuuiiinnn uer!”
How could you do this to me! I’m your fucking mother!
She reached out with her hand again, this time shaping it like a claw, hoping she might be able to snag an earring or something awful like that, but Sarah took her hand before she could grab anything interesting and squeezed it. Three times. I love you. Oh Christ, what a silly cunt she’d given birth to. What an oblivious, sanctimonious cunt!
“We brought this bed in special for you, Mom. Do you like it?”
“Yes, it is good, isn’t it, Mom? It’s got all kinds of motors in it to move you around just how you like! And we got you this tv to watch. And Gina is going to be home soon, and she’s going to take care of you. You two will get to be together again! Won’t you like that?”
Gina. The worst daughter. The worst goddamn daughter. The one who’d stolen… something. Whatever it was, it had been goddamn important.
Sarah kept babbling.
“O oo och!”
Hope you choke!
“That’s okay mom, we’ll miss you too. But I promise we’ll come back to visit. We’re going to leave you with the nurse now. Her name is Rosa, remember? Rosa. Just ask her if you need anything. She’s real nice, I promise. I bet you two will get to be real good friends. Charles and I have to leave so we can get back in time to pick up the kids from school.”
Lori turned her head when they had gone. When the fury faded and she was able to shift her body in just the right way that her head would have to flop over to the other side. The nurse was a spick. They’d left her all alone with a spick. Probably wouldn’t do anything but watch those awful goddamn soap operas all day.
The nurse turned to Lori, smiling. Her teeth went up and up and up and still Lori couldn’t see her gums. The woman set down her phone and turned on the television to some terrible Spanish soap opera. Everyone talking all crazy fast so that Lori could barely fall back to sleep.
She was seventeen again. And, oh, how she danced! How she flitted, and turned, every part of her body inscribing circles and curves. She spun, a series of complex orbits as the solar system of her body screamed sex in a red dress.
Some masochistic part of her broken brain said she must be dreaming because she was always seventeen in her dreams. Seventeen, energetic, and beautiful. She could have been a movie star if she’d been born someplace other than the gutter. Her beauty had brought her far from there, though. She was dancing in the country club with all the snobby kids from the other side of the tracks. Grinding up against their eager little pricks through the fronts of their khaki slacks, drunk on booze she’d got from the bar after lying about her age. She hadn’t paid for the drink, of course. She never paid for anything in her dreams. Especially not her mistakes.
She flashed a grin at the pathetic men flowering the walls, all the men who wanted her but were too afraid to come up and do something. Not at all like the rough-fingered boys from her side of the tracks, who took what she gave whenever she would give it. No, these were the boys too scared of mommy and daddy to do anything. But oh, how they changed when she got them alone.
They always changed.
And the things they changed into always gave her whatever she wanted.
Lori had her eyes on an older fellow with no ring on his finger and a gold watch on his wrist. Big-nosed and balding but a good frame. He looked like a Kike. Lori flashed a smile at him. He looked from side to side to see if she was smiling at someone else. Then, a small secret smile over the top of his drink as his eyes sucked in the sight of her.
She shuddered with the thrill of it.
The way she’d get him alone. The way he’d give her what she wanted. Maybe she’d even get pregnant by this one, like she’d been planning. Maybe this one would be her meal ticket.
Kikes always had money.
The monsters! So close now! She struck out at them, her arm taking an eternity to rise to her defense. (Was it dark or had her other eye gone dead as well? Please let it only be dark! Please, oh God!) What a time to be slow, when the monsters were almost upon her. When she could feel their putrid corpse-breath tickling her nostrils. What a time to be forever blind!
A hand caught hers, the flesh cool and firm even through the mangled network of Lori’s senses. She screamed, a broken exhalation without even the dignity of certitude.
A question of a scream. An interrogative of terror.
“Calm down, mom. The nurse isn’t here anymore, and I’m not going to take your shit like she does,” said the monster from the dark.
It couldn’t be. Surely not. She had never given birth to a monster. Had she?
“Oooooo?” she asked the dark.
“Jesus Christ, Lori, cut the bullshit.”
Lori wrung her eye again. Squeezed it tight. Clarity danced just beyond reach. Gina. She was at Gina’s house. She’d been dropped off by… Sarah, whoever that was.
“So, Sarah told me you’re crippled now. A bit retarded too. Is it true?”
There was a faint bit of moonglow from the other sides of the shades, gray-light, but after a few moments of adjustment it was enough to see by.
A young, pale face that looked disconcertingly like the vision of herself she’d been dreaming of only moments ago bent close and peered at her. A finger poked her right below the eye. Poked her!
Jab jab jab.
Lori tried to turn her face aside, shying away from the finger. She saw the hand rise and fall three more times but felt nothing.
“Fuck me, it’s true!” Gina laughed, “You couldn’t stop me even if you wanted to, could you?”
A dozen quick jabs followed on the left side of her body.
“Ooop! Oooop iii!” Stop! Stop it!
“Do you have any idea how long I’ve been waiting for this? I used to dream of this when I was a kid! I used to have wet dreams about this!”
The jabs subsided into a cackling so nakedly wicked it hurt Lori’s ear to register the sound.
“Hey, you really can’t feel anything over here can you? I mean, I’m really digging into you. Haha, you’re half a corpse already!”
Gina scratched at her from the dark side, the right side, from the unknown half-world of her dead eye, and the only way that Lori could tell was because of the way it rocked her left half of her body.
“Be good? Really mom? That’s rich from you. I guess this is kind of juvenile, though. Ugh, fine. I’ll stop. So, how have you been?”
Lori lay on her pressed plastic sheets, sticky and sweating and panting so hard she could not make the effort to speak. Old woman sweat. It smelled like unwashed potatoes and soap.
“When’s the last time we saw each other? Eight, ten years ago? I would have been… hold on, I’m thinking here,” Gina put a bemused finger to her chin, “I was sixteen and pregnant. You gave me four-hundred dollars and a bus-ticket and told me you didn’t feel like cleaning up the mess I’d made by… how did you put it? How could I forget? The mess I’d made by stealing your boyfriend?”
Gina laughed and slapped her leg, silhouetted in front of the moonlit shades of the window at the end of the bed. There wasn’t anything funny about it. The forced donkey bray of laughter died and then Gina was standing over the end of the bed.
“Don’t feel bad. It’s a family trait, I think. Sarah hadn’t spoken to me in three years. Last thing before that was a birthday card. She said she just sort of… forgot. I don’t blame her. I don’t like to see her either. She’s very wrapped up in her delusions of what a normal life is supposed to be, but I think her husband is a friend of Dorothy if you catch my meaning. One of her kids is addicted to heroin too, but you didn’t hear that from me. Who am I to judge, though? I don’t like thinking about the bad stuff either. So, how are ya, mom?”
Gina pinched Lori’s left toe three times.
“Uuuuuh leeeeep,” Lori murmured.
“Why would you want to go to sleep? We have so much catching up to do! Don’t you want to know how I’ve been?” Gina squeezed Lori’s toe three times more.
“I already know how you’ve been. I’ve snooped in my little ways over the years. I used to drive by your house, you know. In the middle of the night, to count the cars and see who was there. I must admit it made me happy when you broke up with that rapist fuck, even though it took you eight months. I think I kept driving by until I graduated community college. One time, after he was gone, I almost knocked on the door. I stood there on your porch for ten minutes while you slept. I just couldn’t find the will to press the doorbell. I was afraid you’d say you hated me. I was more afraid you’d say sorry. It felt like all I had during that time was my hate for you. What do you think you would have done, if I rang?”
Three squeezes again. Too hard this time. It hurt. Lori’s toenail felt like it might break from the pressure. Gina’s face went blank and she ran away, suddenly, and there was a terrifying commotion all through the back of the house and finally, an eternity later, Gina stood back at the end of the bed in a nurses uniform. It was impossible for Lori to say how much time had passed.
“Did you know I became a nurse? Aced all their tests. Fourth in my class. I won all kinds of awards and scholarships. You have no idea how useful you were in all of those personal essays. You know those college liberals, mom, just like you said. They always love a sob story.
“Sarah’s a college liberal now too, mom. Bet you hate that. She ate that fucking sob story like it was applesauce. Sarah heard my daughter died. His daughter. Your granddaughter. She killed herself. Last spring. You know, I always tried to smile in front of that kid. Always tried to pretend I wasn’t anything like you, even to myself, while she was alive. Went to all kinds of seminars and things trying to fight the part of you that lived in me. But your shadow fell over her anyway, and my little flower withered away.”
Something gleamed in Gina’s hand. A pair of toenail clippers gleaming in one hand. They opened and shut like the mouth of a dinosaur.
No, not toenail clippers. Pruning shears. Little plastic pruning shears. The kind for trimming rosebushes and snapping small branches.
“I kept track of you. Your five divorces. Your domestic violence arrests. The ones where you did it and the ones where it was done to you. I think of you every time I take a shower and see the cigarette burns. I told Sarah all the things I was supposed to tell her to make her put you in my care. It was easy. How I was so lonely. How I wished things hadn’t ended between us like they had. How this was our chance to make it right.
“Every time I lied, all I could think about was my daughter. I think… I think I could forgive you for it all… and this could all be a nightmare and I’ll wake up tomorrow and I won’t have actually been serious about any of this -if you can do just one thing. If you just don’t fail me one more time. If you show the smallest possible bit of love, I’ll forgive you.
“What was my daughter’s name, mom? Say her name and I’ll love you more than I hate you. Cry for her with me and we’ll wash away the past with our tears. Can you do that? Just say her name?”
“Lees? On hurr me,” Lori wept.
Please? Don’t hurt me.
In the gray light, Gina’s face became grayer. Gray as stone. Gray as thunder clouds. Corpse-gray. Lori watched her daughter sit there for what must have been an hour. Watched her until she was no longer certain she was sane or if this wasn’t a dream, and until Gina herself might have just been a trick of the light.
“Sarah said you needed your toenails clipped,” Gina whispered, clumsily cutting the toenails of Lori’s good foot. “I guess I’m the real good daughter because I’m the one who will do the disgusting jobs that Sarah doesn’t want to do up in her palace. I’ll do the jobs that Sarah doesn’t even want to know about.”
The toenail clippings flew off at random angles. The shears made rough and jagged cuts and Lori could feel her toenails becoming sharp. Like talons. One of the toenail clippings landed on Lori’s chin and it seemed to bite her like the perpetual kiss of a spider.
“Remember when you caught him?” Gina whispered, lovingly. “And he ran out of the house? I remember there was a moment there where you were horrified and couldn’t say anything. I remember I thought you loved me and that you would hold me and tell me it was going to be okay. That it wasn’t my fault a forty-year old man would do something like that to a sixteen year old girl. That I’d only smiled at him and that didn’t justify what he’d done. Then that moment was gone and you couldn’t stop yelling at me and hitting me with my hairbrush. Remember that? Remember when you called me a whore? And told me you’d known I was trying to steal him away? That I was a whore? And a slut?”
With one ear, Lori heard five quick snips on the toes of the foot she could not feel. A sound like five thick carrots being broken in half. She felt half of her heart drop into half of her stomach.
“Huh, you really can’t feel a thing on this side, can you? Not a thing.”
Half of Lori’s face felt cold and clammy. Half a nose smelled copper and iron. One hand gripped a sheet in a feeble kitten grip.
“Why am I just like you, mom? That’s what I hate you for the most, you know. Why did I have to be your daughter?”
Gina, sobbing, held one hand over Lori’s chest and opened it. Five little things… five toes fell onto Lori’s chest. Little wrinkled old lady toes, silver and blue and red. Five of them.
“Oh mom, we’re going to have so much fun together.”
“OooooooOooooo,” screamed Lori, like a tea kettle.