by Robin Zlotnick
Robin Zlotnick is a writer, editor, and fledgling potter. She has fiction published in places like Five on the Fifth and Corvus Review and humor published in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The Belladonna, Slackjaw, and elsewhere. You can check out her work at robinzlotnick.com.
Before, when Lily was too small to do it on her own but big enough to sit still, Mona often perched on her daughter’s twin bed and brushed her wet hair. Lily would flop down on the floor between her mother’s legs, next to a glass bowl in which Mona collected—one by one—the knots she yanked out of Lily’s scalp. After, Mona counted the knots, and that’s how many kisses she would plant on Lily’s belly. They always made the little girl giggle, even if her face was still wet with tears from the hurt. Mona never allowed herself to fan the tiny flames that piqued in her chest with each breaking hair.
Now, Lily’s hair, what’s left of it, is matted and greasy and dirty. Mona sees the lost girl in those pale bald patches on her head. She tried to brush her hair once, but the wail that erupted from Lily’s muzzled mouth was nothing like she’d ever heard. Deep, inhuman, from someplace else. Not a sound she ever wanted to hear again. So she gave up.
Mona was crushed when she found out she was pregnant. Lily’s father (not a father, a... seed-spiller and that’s all) had packed up and driven west weeks before for medical school. Their bond buckled quickly under the prospect of 2,000 miles of land between them. They agreed never to see or speak to each other again. A baby wasn’t going to change that. Mona walked in the park one day and saw a turtle-necked Burberry blond holding hands with a toddler whose righteous giggle shot through the air, infecting her brain. At that moment she, rather stupidly, decided against abortion. The second Lily escaped into the world, Mona knew she had made a mistake. She thought the world had ended.
But she did not give up. Mona was strong, dammit, and strong women kept going. So she packed away her real self, to be opened later. She smiled, accepted gifts, sponge-painted bright yellow ducks on a nursery wall. She asked Lily about her day at school, hung up her drawings, fed her proper meals. When Lily was sad, she stroked her cheek. When Lily was proud, she clapped. When Lily got hurt, she bandaged her up. Mona was never confused about how she really felt, but she was a very convincing actress.
Then the world actually ended. One morning, Lily was playing in the garden when a hand reached up and pulled her left leg under. Lily screamed, and like the good mother she was, Mona dropped what she was doing and ran to her daughter. When she yanked her up, Lily’s pinky toe was gone. White bone glimmered through blood and dirt. Mona rushed her inside, cleaned the wound, called 911. But she got an automated message: “From the ground...unknown disease…stay inside.” She stared into her daughter’s big brown eyes as a robot told her the apocalypse had come.
Now, when Mona looks into Lily’s eyes, which have turned milky gray and dart around like flies, all she sees is her own weakness. She tried to leave once but failed. She grabbed the fireplace poker, a fanny pack full of knives, and the leash that once belonged to Mr. Muffins. Lily had begged and begged for Mr. Muffins (“Mom, puhleeeeeassuhhhh!”) and now she was picking his fur out of her teeth. She hooked the leash to Lily’s muzzle and set out. Mona got to the end of the driveway and saw empty road in both directions. She imagined snipers whizzing bullets into Lily’s head, couldn’t bear the thought of sympathetic strangers bringing their hands to their hearts when they realized a grieving mother was in their midst. She turned around.
Now, Mona swings on the porch imagining lopping Lily’s head off, watching it roll down the front steps into the garden. She’d be free to go. But each time she practices swinging that ax, bile bubbles in her throat. For all that’s wrong with Lily Monster, Mona thinks she must be the really sick one.
It’s funny. Before, when her daughter was particularly devilish, Mona privately referred to her as Lily Monster. When, for example, Lily, covered in snot, threw herself on the floor because she’d been asked to put on shoes, Mona closed her eyes and slowly counted to ten. In those ten seconds, Mona carefully extracted her real self from deep inside. She pictured herself screaming wildly in that little girl’s face, shoving her to the ground, tying her to a chair. She mocked Lily Monster’s cries until the girl’s eyes leaked so much moisture her whole body shriveled into silence. When she got to ten, Mona neatly tucked herself away, opened her eyes. She responded appropriately, and they went to the mall, or wherever.
Now, when Lily Monster screams, which she does several times a day, her mother doesn’t hesitate. Mona’s eyes burst open, wide and wild. She anchors herself to the wicked world, heavy and full. Her head shakes, each strand of her choppy hair vibrating to its tip. Her body balloons with breath, with all the air she can gather. And she roars right back in Lily Monster’s blank face. Rageful and ecstatic. Thunderous, feral, clear. Twice. Maybe three times. Then she throws her daughter rabbit scraps.