When the daughter found the doll at The Salvation Army, she knew right away that her mother would love it.
The mother had always loved her dolls, perhaps more even than the daughter. But now that the mother was endlessly dying, her mind more occluded each day by dementia, there was little the daughter could see to deny her. Plus, the daughter preferred to think well of herself.
The daughter saw the doll’s feet first, sticking out of the top of the bric-a-brac bin between the DVD rack and the kitchen appliances; there were tiny blue booties glued onto the legs. They looked slightly forlorn sticking out of the bin, like a child lost in a laundry hamper. When the daughter extracted the rest of the body she heard the sound of fabric, sucking. Head to toe it was roughly the size of an eggplant. The booties, hands and head were porcelain glued on to matted, sticky cloth. The doll’s torso was filled with an impacted stuffing that had more in common with rubber than cotton, and the porcelain parts of it were shockingly heavy. If you swung it at someone, it would’ve done damage.
It was a kind of gnome, she thought.
Beneath a sort of pointy hood, the doll’s head was shaped like a butternut squash while the face was pink-cheeked and cherubic. Its eyes were sly, almost amused, glancing back at the daughter, the pupils tight-cornered. The nose, which took up a large part of the face, was bulbous and pig-like, its nostrils black. The red and upturned mouth smiled at her. Below it hung a wispy beard. Its clothes were, near as she could tell, a sort of alpine walking costume, grime-streaked and faded with handling and age. The texture made her fingers itch.
Something hidden in the hat pressed jaggedly against her palms. She had thought that the hat was sewn onto the head, but she lifted it off to reveal pointy ears, with intricately sculpted whorls. And now that the brim of the hat was removed, she felt something strange on the back of the neck. She tipped the doll down in the cup of her hands so the seat of its navy blue trousers faced towards her.
Between its ears a strip of pink ran across the back of the gnome-doll’s neck. At first glance, she thought it was discoloration. A strip of pink paint where it should’ve been white. But no, it was more than that, subtly raised, separate from the neck itself, connecting the ears, a vestigial membrane. It had this wrinkly texture to it, like dried bubblegum slabbed over the porcelain.
Right away the words ‘flesh strip’ came up in her mind, a series of words she had never combined or thought to combine in her years on this earth. No person or doll had anatomy like that. It was, she reasoned, some mistake, a dud in the assembly line, but something about it felt special, auspicious. Like a baby that’s born with a caul on its face, but here the caul was on the neck, slab-like and thick as an old keloid scar.
She brought the gnome-doll to the counter. ‘Nasty little fellow, ain’t he?’
For years, the mother had been ill and the daughter had been her sole caretaker in the house where their family had clung on for decades in a small southern town at the edge of the Gulf.
The house was grey with purple trim and a burgundy, gingerbread-style sloping roof. At one point in time it had looked stately, moneyed. But the subsequent decades had rendered it ragged. The wooden siding was dirt-streaked and scabbing off paint. The hurricane shutters hung on by one hinge, the bracketed porch columns blotchy with salt-stains. Damaged in last year’s one-hundred-year-storm, the Witch’s Cap, at one time a grand, genteel feature that had made cars slow down as they passed on the road, was despondently sliding off its perch. Jasmine and wisteria choked the front garden, strangely lovely from the road but only the daughter knew what lay behind it: an infection of nightshade, thick over the ground, climbing up the porch columns and onto the shingles.
Though the mother had maintained the house as a symbol of the family’s pride, the daughter saw it as an asset, no more. She planned to be rid of it, as soon as she had the logistics in place and until then, frankly, it was hard to care how it looked to outsiders. And now that her mother made even less sense, sifting and chanting odd jumbles of words (‘Whimsy mimsy nimsy splat!’) or reciting old songs she’d known as a girl (‘Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary’), the daughter’s indifference to the house grew still more, nourished by a dull resentment. The mother’s obsession with odd children’s dolls was a symptom of this same decline – something the mother had done as a girl that had now, like the rhyming, gone strange and perverse. The daughter encouraged it more than she should.
On most days when the daughter got home from her job, she would find the sick woman still lying in bed – even though there was a wheelchair for trips through the house and a stair-lift for traveling up or downstairs. She had weighed the possibilities of hiring somebody to tend to her mother while she was away but the in-home healthcare workers were ridiculously expensive. She had no insurance and even less savings. So on Tuesday through Sunday, when the daughter was working, shelving tinctures and ringing up loose marigold in the homeopathic health shop in the town she had only left twice in the course of her life, once to get an abortion when she was nineteen and once to see her favorite band in a dirty, hot city five counties away – she changed the mother’s diaper once in the morning before going out and once in the evening before starting drinking, which usually happened between six and seven. She left lunch, or what now passed for lunch, on the sideboard: cottage cheese, which would thicken and sour in the sunlight, or a deli-cheese sandwich with Heinz mustard on it. It was the least that she could do, never missing, to her recollection, one meal, even if the cottage cheese would only show a single gouge, the deli-cheese sandwiches nibbled and skewed like rats had been at them while she’d been asleep. It was no kind of life for either of them, but it would have to do for now.
Ideally not for very long. The mother was racked by some kind of lung ailment. The daughter lay-diagnosed it as single-pneumonia. Yet she hadn’t brought her to a doctor, figuring there was no point, given her mother’s considerable age and lack of even basic coverage. In the morning she woke up to furious coughing, her mother crying out in pain. Sometimes there were freckles of blood on her pillow and the delicately embroidered handkerchiefs she used to dab her reeking mouth.
When the daughter got home from The Salvation Army, the situation was no worse.
Already in the house’s foyer, reeking with mildew and trash from the kitchen, the daughter could hear the mother’s retching echoing down from her bedroom upstairs. It sounded like a choking dog, it sounded like a woman dying. She knew she couldn’t face it yet so she went to the kitchen and poured out a few slugs of Old Grandad in a juice glass, not to drink right away, she wasn’t like that, she just needed something to look forward to, just a little placeholder for what was to come before forcing herself down the steps in the heat to her little ashcan in the side of the yard. Yet even submerged in the shade of the house the daughter felt sweat trickling down her breastbone, creeping in rivulets over her ribs. The peafowl that wandered the street behind hers cried mournfully over the buzzing of insects. Her cigarette was hot and awful. She didn’t know quite what to do with the doll as she stood in the yard with the cigarette burning and put it near her in some grass, the plastic bag veiling its face.
Soon enough, she told herself, she’d be free of her mother’s capacious, slow ruin. She would own the house outright and then she could sell it. She could move somewhere else in the world with the profits and live out the rest of her life unencumbered. She could go to the taverns and honkey tonk bars but only for as long as she wanted to be there and when she got tired of the drunks hitting on her, she’d return to her new and empty house, though she more and more wished it would be an apartment. Even better a condo, sterile as a church.
She entered the house again still blowing smoke and lingered at the countertop just long enough to shoot the whiskey before making her way down the hall toward the stairs.
The same Category 4 hurricane that had knocked the Witch’s Cap askew had partially flooded the front of the house, but the daughter had never dry-vacuumed it right, opting instead just to sweep out the water and air-dry the front of the house through the door. The purple runner carpet, which wound up the stairs, was irreparably warped and putrid-smelling, and the floor in the parlor was starting to bow. The daughter found it interesting the improvements she chose to pay for over others. Last year, she had gone through the last of their savings to buy and install a stair-lift on a track so the mother could move comfortably through the house on days the daughter was at work – as much an admission of guilt as affection. The one that she had chosen was considerably expensive: pale grey leather skin, with an extra-plush cushion. It was far more, in fact, an admission of guilt.
Now she seated her mother’s new doll in the stair-lift. She sent it gliding up the stairs as she tracked alongside it, her eyes on the doll, as though it might get up to mischief. When they got to the landing she watched it a moment sitting slumped in the outsized surround of the chair.
The mother was lying half-tilted in bed, the covers splaying off her body. Her hair was thin and clung with static, balding raw across the top. Her cheeks were dry and bony pits. On either side of the headboard were cabinets, glass-fronted and key-locked and crowded with dolls. Victorian dolls with their frilly, dark dresses, Raggedy Ann dolls with vacant, cloth faces, and baby boy dolls in little tuxedos and gowns, their red lips pursed almost coquettishly. ‘Evening, Mama,’ said the daughter.
‘Mary, Mary, there you are.’
The daughter’s name wasn’t Mary, in fact, but Virginia, though she no longer bothered to correct her mother. Virginia approached her mother’s bed, adjusting her against the headboard. She put the doll down in her lap facing up. ‘A new lovie for you, mama.’
It took her a moment to notice the doll, but once she did her eyes stood out with unnatural light. ‘Oh, Mary, it’s precious! It’s darling!’ she said. She drew the doll up by its arms so that it dangled at her chest.
The doll gazed at Virginia, its eyes laughing at her.
A bitter surge of disappointment came up in the daughter’s throat. She had recognized something unspeakably grim that was different than leaving her mother alone without someone to help her all day in the house and different than not taking her to a doctor. She hadn’t bought the doll because her mother would love it, she hadn’t even bought it to lessen her guilt. No, Virginia had brought the doll home in the end because it repulsed and horrified her.
As though on cue, her mother groaned before breaking down into ragged, wet coughing.
The daughter was thin and carrot-haired. Her long, thin hair fell past her waist. Her face was pale and sharply made, a touch of something feral in it and her figure was trim in a hard, rangy way. Now she was into her forties, it filled her with pride, though she wore the same acid-wash denim cutoffs and scissored-out t-shirts for hair metal bands she had worn as a teen, not to make her look younger, she knew that was over, but because it was what she was comfortable wearing. And she always wore flip-flops or sandals of some sort, hating the feel of no air on her toes. Her laugh was sharp, like shattered glass, though her resting expression was one of alertness, an attunement to the fundamental silliness of living that some people mistook for airs.
Sometimes the daughter drank so much Old Grandad the world melted into a grim unreality. That was why she binge-watched her reality shows; the people onscreen were so alien to her, their lives so impossibly far from her own that she started to watch the shows pitying herself, but then by the end she would pity them more, in a venomous way that delighted her heart. ‘Cunt-face salad tosser!’ she’d yell at the screen. ‘Grundle-chafing shit-stick fucker!’
Then, when she’d had her fill, the night would begin to reveal itself to her. She’d find herself in curious places: blinking her eyes in the dark of her yard, drugged by the scent of honeysuckle. In the morning, she’d remember where she’d been in the evening and decide after all that she’d meant to end up there. But then, looking back on the slur of the night, she was ultimately never sure. She had night-sweats, otherworldly dreams. And in the morning throbbing headaches. One morning on the way to work she stopped to throw up in a public trash barrel, wiping her mouth on the hem of her blouse and going in to open up.
The night Virginia bought the doll, she found herself braced in her mother’s doorway, her palm sweating around the knob. The lights were blazing in the hall; a wide blade of light hovered over her mother. She stayed there in the door a moment, gazing at her mother’s face. Then she entered the room and pulled the door shut. It was instantly dark. After a while, her eyes could make out a pale mound. She sat by her mother. Took note of her breathing. The frequency of it, how roughly it came. She leaned in closer to her mother, her palm reaching out in the dark of the room to rest against her mother’s chest when her fingertips brushed something wrinkly and chilly. Her hand jerked back.
The back of the doll’s neck, the flesh strip across it.
Her mother slept with it, hands clasping its body, the hood pushed back across its shoulders. In her half-drunken state, they appeared almost tender, the small form pressed into the large one, and she thought of herself as she must’ve been once, in the days before her father died, when the three of them lived happily in the house, though Virginia could scarcely remember it now. Perhaps she’d had a frightening dream. Perhaps she had gone to her mother at midnight, her little whimpers in the dark and her mother held her just like that, her hair fallen across her shoulders.
But no, she remembered, it wasn’t like that. Not before her father died and even less so after that. Yes, her mother had always been awful to her, albeit much more subtly when her father was alive – a cruel whispered word as they passed in the hall, a home-cooked dinner on her birthday she was guaranteed to hate.
The next day when Virginia woke, a sick pressure clutched at the back of her skull. Her teeth were furred, her mouth bone-dry. She went to the tap and drank glasses of water before making her mother’s breakfast.
The daughter made oatmeal, all her mother could manage to keep down these days.
She had started to go up the stairs with the bowl when something nameless called her back. She thought for a moment she needed a drink, just a splash in the juice-glass to level her out, but then she was grappling under the sink for the housecleaning products she so little used. She lifted out the jug of Drano, placed it on the kitchen counter.
Balancing the oatmeal tray, the daughter ducked sullenly into the room. ‘Slept well again, Mama?’ The mother just hummed. ‘I made you oatmeal, Mama, here. Let’s get you sitting up,’ she said.
Though these days her mother rarely got out of bed, she never got the sleep she needed. The covers were pushed all the way to the floor. Her mother lay twisted in that week’s soiled nightdress. She was moaning with wakefulness, breath sharp and shallow.
Reaching beneath her mother’s arms, Virginia pulled her torso close while pushing the bed’s pillows back with her palms until they were flush with the carven headboard. It was an intimate and swift maneuver that necessitated burying her face briefly in her mother’s neck as she positioned the pillows. A cathedral of stench stretched above and around her. Virginia adjusted her mother to sit before she changed her diaper, flinching. She excused herself to wash her hands before coming back to the bedside again to make sure her mother was decent in bed, that the hair squeezing out from the sides of her diaper was hidden underneath her gown. Last, she placed the oatmeal on its tray across her mother’s lap but her mother just stared at her, dull and resistant. Virginia knew she was tired of oatmeal for breakfast, just like she was tired of those Heinz mustard sandwiches and lukewarm cottage cheese for lunch, but Virginia had her strategies. ‘That’s oatmeal, Mama. Growing food!’
Her mother had said the same thing to Virginia when she had refused to eat things as a girl. Steamed broccoli? That’s growing food! Fatback collard greens? That’s growing food! As in, food that was healthy, but made you grow bigger. And the daughter would always choke it down. On past mornings of resistance with her mother and the oatmeal, these words had seemed to trigger something hiding in her mother’s mind, the tendons in her spotted arms flexing as she bent her spoon – the irony never once lost on Virginia that her mother was, in point of fact, no longer growing but fading away, yet what else was she going to call it? Existing food? Dying food? But now it made her mother humph.
‘Not hungry?’ said Virginia in a voice of concern. ‘Not hungry for your growing food?’
Her mother weakly jerked her head. And Virginia realized though she might’ve been hungry, she didn’t want her growing food because it would mean putting down her new doll. ‘Here,’ said Virginia and reached for the doll, but her mother’s hold on it was shockingly strong.
‘No,’ said her mother. ‘No, I said!’
The gnome doll’s legs stretched as the daughter pulled harder. Partly, her mother came up along with it, her arms straining and her torso lifting away from the mountain of pillows, but then she let go and fell back in the bed. ‘You have to eat, Mama,’ Virginia explained. ‘But your lovie can stay with you. See? There we go.’
She nestled the gnome doll face first in her arms and began to spoon her mother the oatmeal, that little something extra in it. But even as Virginia did this, alert to how her mother chewed and more alert to how she swallowed, she could feel in some weird, fearful part of herself that something about the doll had changed. The back of its neck appeared transformed – the wrinkly flesh strip connecting its ears. A tiny space had opened up, interrupting the strip, just above the doll’s shoulders. It was as though the flesh strip was being absorbed by the white porcelain part of it, little by little, and the break in the strip was surprisingly smooth, like a part of the doll just exposed to the air.
Had it always appeared this way? Perhaps she hadn’t noticed.
But no, she was sure that the strip had been whole when she’d purchased the doll the day before, continuous across the neck. That didn’t stop her either way from spooning the oatmeal until it was gone.
A strange pattern of weeks set in, drifting and soft-focused, there in the house.
Fall breezes stirred up the cinders of summer. Outside, you could comfortably debut a sweater but for Virginia and her mother in the house it was the same.
The daughter would wake up intensely hungover on the thin parlor couch where she often passed out. She’d cure herself with water, whiskey. The mother’s breakfast then her own – a chocolate-covered protein bar, then as a reward her first cigarette of the day. On Halloween, some neighbor brats had hurled eggs and TP, then rocks at the house. One of them smashed through a beveled front window, littering the foyer with wood scraps and glass. Virginia had let the eggs dry in black streaks, the TP disintegrate down through the branches. A storm would clear it all away. Likewise, she did nothing about the window. The hole in it lessened the trash-mildew stink with fresh, uncanny autumn breezes that blew through the foyer, the parlor, the kitchen, rustling Virginia’s hair.
At work, she went into the back of the store where the stockpiles of loose herbs were kept and filched a bit of Aconite, popularly known as monkshood. If you steamed it with ginger, it wasn’t so deadly. Sometimes downright therapeutic. It had even been used, Virginia knew, to treat respiratory ailments not unlike her mother’s. But Virginia didn’t want to treat her. In rendering the Monkshood, she cut certain corners, ensuring it would still be toxic, just not toxic enough to be instantly fatal. She put the tincture in a jam jar in the highest cabinet. The liquid was a murky brown, something like tobacco spit. Also not unlike brown sugar.
She could’ve kept using the Drano, of course, there certainly would’ve been enough. But something about it seemed unbefitting, unequal to her mother’s spite. Yes, the aconite tincture befitted her mother – befitted a lady, as she had once been. Not some store-bought household chemical, vulgar and blue, but something that a dowager would swallow in a mystery with her whole family looking to get at her fortune. It was something, she imagined, that her mother would be proud to finally die from at so late an age, a poison concocted from such bitterness it almost began to feel like love.
With the tincture, she never exceeded a teaspoonful, and never less than three of sugar. To feed her mother in the morning, she had taken to riding the stair-lift herself with the breakfast tray balanced on her lap, girlishly kicking her legs on ascent, the bannister passing her, muscled and snakelike. A new hope had started to bloom in her heart, a new life awaiting her after her mother – her sterile condo in the suburbs, its cabinets packed with gleaming bottles. She would pad through the high, sun-filled rooms in a t-shirt, peck at fancy, small yogurt cups, chain-smoke her Luckies. Lit from within, her smoke clouds would uncurl, a miracle made just for her. The dream felt more within her reach with every breakfast, every bowl.
Every morning her mother more twisted in bed, the hacking coming worse and worse. She was never without the gnome-doll now. It was her pretty thing, her pet, and her other dolls sat sullenly in their cases like ill-favored children or envious lovers.
Virginia tried not to see that the flesh strip was changing, the break widening every time she went in. Soon the almost two inches of space began to reveal a pristine shade of white, the same shade that the face of the doll must’ve been when whoever first owned it had purchased it new.
A bureau with a wide mirror stood opposite her mother’s bed and every time Virginia fed her, she’d watch herself doing it there in the glass: spooning the growing food into the mouth, smoothing back the mother’s hair. It grew easy to convince herself that it wasn’t her performing these actions at all, but someone just like her, who lived in the mirror, emerged to do the daughter’s bidding. There were other times though when she saw not herself but the tight-cornered, chuckling eyes of the gnome. Its wispy beard was growing matted. The tip of its nose showed a greenish black scuffing. Feeding and changing and cleaning her mother, she tried to avoid ever touching the doll. The one time she made contact with its little plump belly, the skin and perhaps underneath it was warm. Horrified, she flinched and dropped it. It made a dull thud when it fell on the floor. The doll lay facedown on the carpet, the flesh-strip all but non-existent, the white of the neck like a grotesque return to innocence that never was.
‘Poor sweetheart!’ her mother said, bullying forward. Virginia had to hold her back. In her moribund state she was jarringly strong.
‘Butterfingers,’ she croaked at Virginia, fell back.
So there was the old bitch again, thought Virginia.
She leaned down to retrieve the doll. She knew that it was not alive. And yet she suspected, absurdly perhaps, that her mother’s lifeline was now tied to the doll’s, to the pink strip of flesh that stretched over its neck. As though maybe the flesh strip was only recording the mother’s life force as it dwindled in her, like a ledger, or some sympathetic accounting. A lifeline, like one that you’d find on your palm, but here on the back of a thrift store doll’s neck – and a lifeline that was always changing the closer and closer it got to its end. She could’ve upped the monkshood dose. Could’ve fixed her a bowl brimming full with the stuff. But somehow even still she knew that the increase might have no effect on her mother, that only once the strip receded, the back of the doll’s neck a uniform white, only then would her mother give up her last breath. The symptoms of the deadly plant were vomiting, fever and cardiac horrors, but she’d seen none of these in her mother, not yet.
So maybe her mother was already dead. Yes, maybe her mother was already dead, but the daughter was so used to having her there, caring for her each day in the same exact way, she hadn’t noticed she’d succeeded.
But no, the mother was alive. The mother needed to be changed, the mother needed to be fed. And still the same question would nag at Virginia: when the flesh strip receded completely, what then?
When the mother could no longer care for herself, but before her condition had gone to the dogs, Virginia used to take her along grocery shopping.
It wasn’t because they lacked quality time. She was sick of her mother as it was. But making the groceries so tuckered her out, it allowed Virginia peace and quiet. All she had to do was suffer through the ordeal of her mother’s wheelchair stalling out in the aisles, her inane particularities regarding her diet and after an hour or so they’d be home, the mother snoring in her wheelchair. One time, they were making their way through the store when a woman in church clothes whose face Virginia recognized because it was flabby and slightly sunburned got trapped behind her mother’s chair and insisted on making small talk with her. For her part, Virginia kept bagging up leeks and throwing them viciously into the basket built onto her mother’s chair. This was still in the days when she actually cooked. That night, she intended to make a frittata. ‘Well, bless you,’ the flabby-faced woman was saying. ‘It’s not everyone’s life that the good lord makes easy.’
‘You’re sweet,’ said the mother, ‘but I get by fine.’
‘Me, I’m just a Christian woman who goes through life with both eyes open…’ the flabby-faced woman was babbling on, but Virginia had already blocked out her voice. And she would’ve continued to block out her voice had she not heard something that made her look up. ‘…your sister, she’s the one that’s sweet, taking you out to make groceries like this.’
Sudden pain shot through Virginia. It wasn’t the pain of vanity but something new, a loneliness, and it plunged through the cave of her, spreading its wings. If she had only had a sister, a brother, a father who lived on this earth, anyone to take her side growing up all alone under scourge of her mother and help her in the years that followed, she wouldn’t have been standing here, a tangle-haired and curd-faced drunk, mistaken for someone two decades her senior, stuffing a bag with pricey onions. Virginia held her head up higher. She locked the woman in a stare while snapping out the plastic bag, feeling suddenly capable, powerful even, when her mother’s wheelchair powered over her toe. Another more bodily pain shot through her.
‘Sorry, sweet sister,’ said her mother.
On the last day of the mother’s life the daughter fixed a special breakfast.
Fall had shriveled into winter, the garden a tangle of weeds and stripped branches. The vines had dropped seedpods then withered to jerky. Virginia hadn’t paid the light bill and the heat in the house had been shut off for days. She wandered the rooms huddled under a blanket with the cold coming in through the hole in the window, the kind that got into your bones. Today the sun brightened the filth of the kitchen as she sat on the floor against any good sense, cooking on a butane stove.
She could’ve fixed her mother oatmeal but felt that the woman deserved something better. So Virginia made her sausage, beans, and eggs sunny-side-up with the yolks soft and runny. After putting the eggs on the plate with the rest, she punctured the yolks so the meal slid together. Spooned a quarter-teaspoon of the Aconite mixture and stirred the beans to mask the color.
Her mother’s bedroom lay in darkness. She set the breakfast on the sideboard, crossed the room and drew the curtains. Sunlight slashed into the room. It spread across her mother’s body, the gnome-doll pressed against her chest.
Virginia went to her bedside to shake her awake, but she’d only been shaking her mother a moment when Virginia realized there was no need to feed her. Her pillow was nearly soaked through with wet blood, chunks of something in the mix. Her eyes were open. Vacant, staring.
A mosquito feasted at her hairline.
To be sure, Virginia put her palm against her mother’s mouth and waited. She felt her hand prickling for warmth but none came. To be doubly sure, she got down on her knees, head level with her mother’s mattress and put her ear against the lips.
She folded herself into bed with her mother, her head against her mother’s chest. And nothing, not even the smell could’ve stopped her from nuzzling in her mother’s neck with her mother’s chin pressing down onto her head, like some foolish memory of safety and warmth that, guided by instinct, she’d come there in search of. What she felt most of all that loneliness, done spreading its wings and now ruffling to perch. The taste of fancy yogurt cups came up curdled in her throat. Yes, this part, she had always known, was never going to be easy. She said her mother’s name: ‘Shereen.’ And when her mother’s eyes stayed closed, she said it again. ‘Shereen. Shereen. ShereenShereenShereenShereenShere – ’
The daughter hadn’t heard that name in what now seemed like many years. It was a name her mother hated for as long as she’d been able to remember it was hers – a ‘lowborn trashy fool girl name’ that she’d sought to erase with the name of her daughter. ‘Virginia’s power’s in her name,’ she had once heard her mother explain to her father one night in their room when they thought she was sleeping in the years before her father died. ‘She’ll do something good in a world that hates goodness.’
But her mother was wrong, she was part of that world. She hated goodness and it hated her, too.
Shifting slightly in the bed, the daughter’s elbow brushed the doll. It blazed in the sheets with mammalian warmth, the cloth of its torso stretched tight as a drum. She saw the flesh-strip had returned, completely traversing the back of the neck. But it no longer horrified her. Now it just looked like a hideous child.
She unfolded herself from her mother’s embrace and gathered up her mother’s meal.
‘Mary, Mary, there you are.’ The daughter paused in the door with the tray in her arms. She mustn’t, mustn’t turn around. ‘Mary, Mary, so contrary, where are you going with my food?’ Her mother was sitting bolt upright in bed. She held the gnome-doll to her chest and she grinned at the daughter, blood caught in her teeth. ‘I need my growing food!’ she cried.
At once, the daughter dropped the tray, the meal exploding at her feet.
Shereen was laughing and then she was coughing, more blood slipping down the front of her gown, and then for the first time in almost five years she was getting up out of her bed by herself, whipping back the covers with terrible spryness. Shereen planted her pale, veiny feet on the floor and started to come at the daughter, still laughing. Or it wasn’t a laugh, not all the way, but a strange, barking mixture of laughter and coughing, the laughter of a choking dog, the laughter of an undead woman, and as Shereen went by her bureau, her back reflected in the glass, the daughter could see on the back of her neck a strip of flesh that matched the doll’s. The strip was puffy, slightly slick. It covered the back of her neck, ear to ear.
The daughter slowly backed away as Shereen’s feet walked over the mess of her breakfast, the plate shards cutting up her feet and the sausage and beans mushing up through her toes, but neither the cuts nor the mess slowed her down. To the contrary, even, Shereen moved faster as the daughter backed faster away down the hall, feeling behind for the place where the hallway ended and the track of the stair-lift began. But she already saw that this wasn’t the end. For the daughter, there would never be.
No end to the coughing. No end to the babble. No end to the oatmeal: four spoonfuls of sugar, and one of the mixture she kept in the cupboards. Again, she’d have to kill her mother until the strip of flesh receded. Or else she’d have to kill the doll. But even if she managed to kill a thing that was not alive, there was no guarantee that her life would be different, that the promise of all she had hoped for herself wouldn’t slip, inch by inch, into nothing at all.
Image © Sherrie Thai