She is born with great swaths of acne across her cheeks, sprawling bacterial nations shaped like muttonchops. Slouched over, with my back up against the end of the hospital bed, I struggle to hold her even four feet off the ground. A pony-tailed Production Assistant is vying for my attention, desperately bobbing his head at me with bulging, bloodshot eyes. The eyes jump out of their sockets, stroll over in little top hats and bow ties and tap me on the shoulder. What’s worse? The dreams or the hallucinations or my breath? I taste disinfectant as well as the odors it should be masking. I think my teeth are rotting from the double-dose epidural. But there is a clear voice in my head, You have to be more nurturing…
Now the PA is waving both arms above his head, and mouthing "nurturing" at me. He motions for me to pull the baby in closer. As if I don't have enough on my plate. They're doing a crane shot. I squint back at him and make a confused face. He sighs and I take the direction. I heave Baby up a little higher on my chest. I need to win the audience over, not to mention the voting public, from the very second we go live.
Last week I watched our mailman lose his house and pension in one round of poker on Suicidal Kings, a show that follows problem gamblers to their ultimate demise. He had actually appeared on Meta Marathon before that, a competition for the most consecutive hours of TV watched without falling asleep, getting up, or looking away for more than fifteen seconds. Contestants are set up with a La-Z-Boy, a blanket, a catheter and a thirty-thousand dollar incentive. That show's more of a wallpaper -- something to keep on in the background when you're cooking or cleaning, or watching another of your shows but looking for a back-up.
Jean, my cousin and roommate, prefers Bedroom Eyes. Ten couples are selected to fill an hour of screen time -- six minutes each -- and compete head-to-head for ratings. Jean is obsessed with it. She texts in a sexy factor of ‘PLAYA’ to EYES002 every night.
“I just think Tina and Tom's message should reach more people,” she contends, aggressively gnawing on a cuticle.
"And what message would that be?"
"I love how they're so connected. They tell each other everything. It's a good example."But she also thinks the Dunsonston Towne Baptists set a good example because they "make some interesting points" (God hates Mondays) and that "they really get people thinking." Bedroom Eyes is all fine and well for watching together over dinner. Gene Queen, however, is the pope's nose of shows. I've made the Top Twelve and that puts me in the running for a Dream Home and fifty thousand in cool cash. Dad always said, "Be a doer, not a screwer." I am turning over a new stone.
The GQ set is an exact replica of a hospital maternity ward, cut so the camera sees three floors at once, four beds on each, one contestant per. I'm in good company--these girls are textbook. They're the silky fresh-faced vixens I could never be rinsed clean enough to become one of, but my presence among them proves I've changed.
Each of those on my "floor" is adjusting her gown and hair with her free hand. What I wouldn’t give for a free hand. Baby is shifty; she's like a rumbling dryer full of blankets. The best I can do is jut out my lower lip and blow puffs of air up at a few frizzy bangs that have fallen in my eyes. In doing so, I spit on my own forehead.
Re-emerging from a huddle around the catering tables, the PA sweeps across the set, giving each girl a pass or fail up-and-down.
He stops in front of me, and gazing somewhere above my right shoulder, places the deviant strands behind my ear with a latex-gloved hand. He moves on. It’s time.
Another man, taller, thinner, and better-looking than the PA, strides on to the stage in pointy-toed shoes, arms held up over his head. He has enormous collagen lips and glinting white horse teeth. He's gone overboard with the bronzer. A thick blue vein bisects his forehead. Through my painkiller haze, his features run together and I see his head as a coconut with a little flap of its shell missing where his perma-smile is. He jogs to the middle of the room and points with a nod of acknowledgment to a woman in the audience, and then to an empty seat. He makes prayer hands and rests his nostrils on his fingertips, waiting for the canned applause to die down. It does. The mood is austere.
“Welcome back to Gene Queen. I’m your host, Griff Mitchum!" Another pause, although this time a few of the more alert members of the studio audience pat their hands together.
Admission is always free for pilots, but mostly homeless people and bored teenage gangs come. Once in a while you'll see gainfully employed adults out with friends for an evening's entertainment. Tapings are a bit of a tourist trap, but while the novelty occasionally brings in out-of-towners, nostalgia keeps locals coming back for more.
I'm vaguely aware of a handful of the latter in the stands tonight. I recognize the snickering that followed me around on my pennysavers delivery route. I'd recognize it anywhere, that horrible medley of sound from those pig-nosed ginger twins, Nicky and Ricky Banks. The bitches.
I bite my lip and stare into the stage lights until the outlines of their heads and shoulders dissolve and my visual field is just a shimmering kaleidoscope. You can think a lifetime has passed, that it won't matter if your old enemies witness you in a compromised position, but it's always a different story in the flesh. And then, how can you not care? All those eyes staring you down? I am swimming in my own soup.*
My route began as a sanctuary. It was meditative, good times until my classmates caught on and took to stalking me.
My walk always started out with them picking up the flyers I'd already dropped off, scattering them over lawns and driveways. For a finale, they'd chase me with baseball bats, howling. "Bushpig!" they screamed. Nicky liked to call me a "Smurf" and Ricky repeated "Cheesebomb," as he swung the bat in my general direction. I never understood what the names meant exactly, but I had my ideas.
We were paid only two cents per delivery and subscribers really did call in to report missing papers, so besides the humiliation, I'd get in trouble with the boss. This pissed me off, and I was eventually compelled to request a route change. It made no difference.
I gave Pock Hill Pennysavers ten solid years despite contemptible conditions. But man, if Mr. Tony could see me now. When I told him I had to quit to do the show, he started clapping like a sarcastic seal.
"Welllllll don't forget where you came from!" he whined after me, as I walked out of the distribution office, for the very last time carrying my forty-pound load of newsprint with its bright color photos of fake eyelashes, diapers, and cured hams.*
“For those of you just tuning in, only moments ago each one of these girls performed the most sacred act of creation. Over the next thirteen weeks, as these mothers weather early childhood, the well-adjusted-ness of each child will be judged based on three criteria: discipline, personal style, and work-life balance. The question is: which mom is the most natural nurturer, the most ambitious, the most fashion-savvy?”
A group of high school kids in jean jackets and tire-rubber pants explode with laughter.
"But most of all, who has the will to win?!!”
We all shout out “Woooo! Yeeeaaah!” as best we can, and shake our weak fists in the air.
“So girls, are you ready?!” We nod and flash our teeth. Some are still woo-ing. “Let the games begin!”Griff introduces a short montage featuring each contestant, starting with the flaxen-haired Candy Lux. The big screen hanging above the set shows Candy and her husband at home, painting the nursery. Then Candy and her husband sitting on the bed, folding baby clothes from a laundry hamper. Then Candy opening a kitchen cupboard filled with baby food.
Her voice over the images: “Why should I be the next Gene Queen? Well, I’ve wanted a baby practically since I was one, first of all.” Cut to a talking-head shot of Candy and her husband “One thing the world doesn’t know about me? Ummm, I used to be a cheerleader?” She giggles and turns to look at her smirking husband.
I think of Jean watching from home, biting the nails of one hand and grabbing handfuls of vintage potato chips with the other, hanging on Candy's every word. I bet she's just eating it up.Griff rests a hand on Candy’s shoulder. “Yes, I'll bet those acrobatics prepared you for just about any curveball life could throw atcha! All right, well let’s have a look at the fruits of your labor, shall we? Jimmy, get this little mug up there.”
The baby opens its mouth and speaks. "My name is Mug. I'm almost one years old and I--"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hold up there, kiddo. Enjoy your youth while you've still got it! Ha ha ha. Geez, kids today!" Griff winks at Candy. Noticing she's frozen in shock, he gives her a sharp clap on the back. "Ah, parenthood," He says, like a champ. "Come on now Candy, pull your finger out of that wall socket! You know we don't name the little tykes till Stage Two. You'll set him straight then."
Stage Two doesn’t officially start until we leave the hospital set in a few minutes. Then the babies will have their first birthdays. Each of us moms will receive a laminated ID certificate with her child’s name and photograph, and we will show them to the cameras and smile, thus concluding the studio portion of the day's shoot.
After that, projected growth rates are uncertain. We do know that they'll be accelerated, the first born since the Ambient Nutrition pilot project was launched a few years ago. The technology was developed during the last--and what will probably be the last ever-- economic boom, as part of the holistic health craze spurred on by all that surplus dough. It was originally intended to be used for the Universal Vitamin Supplement program, a luxury we thought we could afford.
Then came the corn flea beetle infestation that devastated food crops across the continent. The air was so thick with them even satellite cable couldn't get through. We sat for three days staring at the salt and pepper on our screens, and out at the black, buzzing sky. They polished off the crop and went to work on the soil, right down to the red rock bone of the earth, and when they were finished, the swarm lifted, and let the wind carry them westward to the next county.Our platter's been licked clean and now we effectively live in the desert. Jean and I are lucky enough to have stockpiled some chips, pop and KD, but we'll run out eventually. There is a silver lining. Without Ambient Nutrition and the whole accelerated growth thing, GQ couldn't exist. Just the first season would have taken years to tape. A lifetime, in fact.
I'm a little concerned about the zits. Did I get bum stock? If the sperm bank stiffed me I swear on Montezuma's Revenge I'll make them swallow every last drop in the reserve. Ha ha, just kidding. But acne does run in the family. Jean's got it bad. I count myself lucky to have escaped that curse. Though I'm not really one to talk.
Jean came to live with us after my aunt and uncle contracted a rare environmental disease; both died within a week of each other. But it didn't work out. While I was doing my time on the Pennysavers route, she fell into pyramid scam after pyramid scam, after abortion after promiscuity after drug binge after indecent exposure, and so on and on. Although I'm sure Mom and Dad loved her very much -- or at least, they seemed to like her -- they had to ask her to leave.
"I think this is what's best for everyone involved," Dad said, looking out over the top of his glasses, pulling at one of his cheeks with all four fingers and thumb. We were all seated by the empty fireplace, listening to the vacuum created by shelves upon shelves of hardcover books, sucking up all the sound. I hoped there was another end, maybe higher up in the dim library, where noise could escape and bounce around the vaulted ceilings.
"Oh, it's no problem at all. I totally understand," Jean told them, picking at a hole in her jeans. Either she really did totally understand or she hadn't the slightest idea what was happening. She curled up on the chaise, tucked her feet under her, and nodded to demonstrate her deep comprehension of every word. She smiled pleasantly.
"I'll go with you," I blurted out.From that day forth we banded together in the struggle to make ends meet. I knew no one would ever hire her, because of her skin, and it was kind of painful to have to explain that to her, "but not as painful as it would be to see you getting rejected day after day, don't you think, right?"
"I guess so," she said, and stuck her pointer finger up in the air. "But don't worry about me. I can just sit here for hours and be entertained by my own thoughts."
So I work. Jean miraculously chilled out post-exodus, and has since proven to have talents other than infommercial shopping and getting knocked up. Turns out my cousin's got business acumen. Over the years, her "just sitting there" has led to a number of ingenious money-making schemes, none of which have entailed any face time on her part, the most recent (and successful) of these being my audition for GQ.
There was, and remains, the minor issue of me being single. Patrich and Steev, the producers, were suspicious during my interview. The sperm bank story failed to satisfy."The problem is, Patrich and Steev are suspicious," said Patrich. "We need to see this kid's father. Steev?"
"Right. Don't you have anyone? A brother or uncle that could come on as a supportive family member? Like a...a father figure, a role model, you know."
"There's my cousin Jean, I guess. She's--"
"No. Absolutely not. What's the angle? There's no angle. And Steev, I know you're thinking some sort of lesbian love triangle angle, but don't. It's waaaaay overplayed. Plus, two moms? An unfair advantage. Does this 'Jean' live with you, at home?"
"Hold on. Hold on. Hold the phone. I think I've got a feasible angle on this. Check it out. Repentant single mom bit off more than she could chew. Got served. Then? If you win? Big controversy. Hear me out. On one side, your average Betty Underdog single mom is cheering you on. Triumph over adversity! Yes! On the other, depriving your child of a male mentor? Moooo-ral Quand-ary!"
"We just need you to be remorseful. Can you be super-remorseful?
"I can do that."
"If you can just cry a little bit every day."
I did my best to make our little dive look normal for the home shoots. I did loads of laundry, scrubbed down the floors, and patched holes in the drywall. I emptied ashtrays, and I told Jean to take a long walk. I swept up her dandruff, her hardened cuticle gnawings, and the short, curly brown hairs that she obsessively yanks from her own skull. I literally swept her under the rug of our one-bedroom basement apartment until it was completely void of any evidence of a deviant lifestyle -- or anything else a camera crew might pick up.
All through my introduction, I’m trying to figure out how tight to hold Baby, and there just doesn’t seem to be any middle ground between suffocation and, well, letting gravity take its course. I remind myself I'm here for one reason: to become the next Gene Queen. No force of nature is gonna stop me! I turn sideways so Baby is face front to the audience. The camera rolls in for an extreme close-up. She projectile pukes on the lens. Griff chuckles loudly.
“A picky eater, are we?” He introduces the rest of the girls and we go to a commercial at last.We have to stay by our beds for a few minutes to receive our ID certificates. I almost laugh aloud when I see her name, printed on the wallet-size card in large block letters: BEST, Baby.
"Sorry Ms. Best," an assistant Production assistant says, "You nodded off during name collection and we accidentally passed you over, so we had to use the placeholder name from the template. Can't change it now." The pony-tailed PA gets on his megaphone and start barking instructions at us all.
"Please proceed directly to the gates of the studio compound and beyond: cross Virtual Way to the Sawdust Mountain playgrounds for location shoot! Rest stops will not be permitted. We're on a tight schedule!"I really have to pee and the drugs are wearing off, but I can’t risk being disqualified. Fifteen new mothers groan in unison. We fall in line and inch towards the gates like a giant slug. Husbands and boyfriends who've been waiting in the front rows run over and glom on, lending shoulders, wrapping arms around waists, peering under their babies’ hoods.
She’s writhing in my arms, putting on weight with every step, although I haven’t fed her a drop. When I pull back her hood she shoots me a dirty look. Her eyebrows are growing in thick and dark, time-lapse-fast. I am about to cover her right back up when out comes her first word. Slow and self-assured, Baby moves her lips and growls, “Cocktail.”An odd choice for a first word, I guess. Wouldn't have been mine. I probably won't tell anyone. But what if they ask? It's such an advanced, sophisticated word, maybe it would serve me --us-- -to report it, make a segment of it. She's a genius! A child progeny! No. It's too declasse.
As the commercials start rolling on a playback monitor some of the other babies start crying. There's a hushed panic as the mothers begin checking diapers, scooping out breasts and lifting tiny mouths towards them. Not a word from Baby though. I lift her hood once again, only to find a puffy, red-faced, twitching child. There's no doubt it's because she wants to scratch her cheeks, neck and upper lip, which have been overtaken by a thicket of black hair. I touch it to see if it's real. It is soft and prickly like a horsehair brush. She snaps her teeth together at me, threatening to bite, and I jerk my arm away.
We cross the main thoroughfare flanked by crew and director in golf carts, and she starts up again, whispering at me.
"Cocktail cocktail cocktail..." This just doesn't seem right. I pull her hood back as far as it will go and press her face into my chest to muffle the sound.
"Shhhh!" I hiss into the swaddling..
All is right in the world as we stand by, proud custodians of the next generation. But I am snapped back to reality by a chorus of laughter behind me.
"Uh-oh! I guess we know who's up for elimination tonight!"
Candy is doubled over in hysterics, bits of her teased and sprayed 'do falling out of place. All the others' jaws are on the floor and they're staring off in the direction of Candy's outstretched arm and pointing finger. It is aimed squarely at Baby. And where is she? She's high up on a dune in the middle of the lot, buck naked, brandishing a forty of malt liquor and screaming "Fuckin' paparazzi!!" with one hand on her hip, pissing in a perfect arc like a fountain statuette.
I scan the lot for the other children. They dart around among the dunes, cautious, curious, some precisely reflecting the horrified expressions of their mothers. The likenesses are already obvious in most cases but I wonder just how sure everyone is that she's mine. Maybe it's not too late to pull the old switcheroo? Baby soon finds my face and shakes her head at me disapprovingly. Before I can blink she has scampered off the lot and is dodging cars across the nearby twelve-lane expressway. Now all eyes, human and electronic, are on me. I brace myself with the knowledge that in TV land, antics bring immunity. The cameras will follow she who delivers the ratings wherever she may roam.
I've run about half a mile, I think. The adrenaline is in full force, blood rushing into my brain, pummeling my eardrums like speeding trains. It's at least another ten minutes into the chase before things begin to get quiet. I turn my head just enough to see over my shoulder, and to my shock, there are no cameras tracking my every move. No crew.
I kick at the dirt in angry frustration. I shake my fists at the sky and collapse, sobbing, sending up a cloud of dust that chokes me on its way back down. There is still no camera there to witness the drama of it. I put my life on the line for this! Where is the karma?! I roll around feeling sorry for myself until I come to rest on one side, and find myself eye-to-eye with a vicious piece of roadkill, crushed limbs and tail, hosting an ant feeding frenzy in its peepers. I'm not gonna end up like you, little muskrat. No way.
In the flat lands I can see she's already miles ahead of me, just a speck on the horizon. Despite my renewed sense of determination, I am tired and drugged and constitutionally weak to begin with. The last thing I see is the top of her bowling-ball head, bobbing and swaying on long, muscular strides. Then everything goes black.
I get by for a while on bad press. The footage of Baby taking her famous piss receives hits in the millions, which earns me featured spots on a couple of entertainment talk shows but I've moved on. You have to move on. I have to face the fact that Baby was going nowhere fast, and taking me with her. We were riding a dead channel. Still, it's hard to ignore the stuff they say about me. Everyone says never to listen to the critics, but everyone's a critic.*
I go to see Mr. Tony, thinking maybe I can come back to work.
"I'm so terribly sorry," he whines, "but as I'm sure you're aware, workplace demands are changing. These days our public face is our reputation, so it is very important that our Customer Service Representatives maintain a bubbly and outgoing personality, and I'm afraid you're not quite the right fit anymore. You should try NightFunLine."
I apply in earnest to be the infomercial spokeswoman for LifeGem, a new company whose radical invention transforms the ashes of your loved one into a beautiful, high-quality diamond. Another fail. When I'm rejected by the Director of List-checking at L'Wayne, I figure maybe it's time to aim lower.
One day I return home after several long hours of job searching. Jean is sprawled on the couch in a bathrobe with the tv blaring. I walk up behind her.
"Just channel surfing," she says with her breath held in, passing the joint she's just lit.
I hear a kind of growling in my ears. At first I assume it's from the high but then paranoia gets the better of me. I spill a drink all over my lap and have to keep one eye closed just to focus. Then my ears tune in to her wheezy drawl. Her head, that big round balloon, disembodied and larger-than-life, appears on our TV screen. The head is plastered over itself repeatedly at varying angles in a grotesque collage, and shouting.
"Inventory blowout! No down-payment for one year on all box springs and mattresses! Zero percent financing! Now at Beddy-Byes!"
There is relief. It's OK, she is OK. Then the guilt; a sinkhole all of my good feelings about myself spiral downward into, and the bad ones crawl up from, the drain. You milquetoast, you namby-pamby, you Smurf! You let her run away, and you gave up chase after how long? Ten minutes? Afraid to put your foot down with a little tiny Baby?!Baby makes increasingly frequent appearances in furniture, shampoo, soft drink, and long-distance commercials. She's clean-shaven now, but has sensitive skin and the razor burn to prove it. I can see through her caked-on foundation. Nevertheless, this kind of success for a mere accessory to a reality contestant is astounding. I can't help but wonder if I'm going to get a piece of the pie. I begin to spend more time at home and less looking for work, unable to stop watching, waiting for her next appearance. There is a tinge of anxiety at the thought of my dwindling savings. We're down to our our last hundred dollars.
At four o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon, in a spacious downtown studio with a live audience of three hundred women in sweater sets, an announcer with a voice like a roller-coaster belts out over a megaphone,
"She's the Most Powerful Woman In The World...And You Can't Resist Her Because--"
"She! Smells! Like! Money!!!" The audience sing-shouts in unison. They are referring, of course, to Biancka Hoss, and this is the opening for her acclaimed talk show, Hoss In The House. She makes her entrance in a smart linen pantsuit and plum six-inch stilettos, her long dark hair sweeping around her shoulders. Her gorgeous mouth has been painted to match her heels, and a few tasteful pieces of gold jewelery--a watch, pearl drop earrings, a locket--anchor the look in cold, hard cash. She works the stage, in turn clasping her hands together, clutching her heart and laughing, walking sideways and bending at the waist in a series of lopsided bows.
"Just look at those wild earrings!" Jean takes the show pretty seriously, especially the financial advice segment. Legions of fans look to her for leadership on morality issues, so each show is less about the guests themselves than how she reacts to them. She could have a mother's warmth and compassion. Or she could be like a plane that drops you into the middle of the ocean.
"Today gonna be great show." Biancka beams at the audience. "Today we gonna get all previous contestant from Gene Queen TV show to come on my show and talk about other show! We gonna talk about issues and how everybody doin' in life now. We all winners and losers sometime, we just got to live for our life no matter what! Think about it. Now welcome first to parents!"
Synyster comes on first and takes the seat closest to Biancka's. Melba follows, then Candy, Serafina, Deloris, and Babz come trundling out of the wings, a parade pushing oversized black prams. The memories flood back. But it's the kids I'm going white-knuckled over. Once all the mothers have been introduced and seated, Paxil, Poppy, Dave, and all the others pop their heads up, then dive and roll out of their prams. They strip themselves of their bonnets and take their respective stools. They're in their late teens.
It looks like a relaxed and enthusiastic bunch, no one particularly better (or worse) adjusted than any other. That is, until Baby comes out at last, her head bigger than ever. It looks like Balloonitis, or Gigantism maybe? Her abdomen is grossly distended. I feel a knot forming in the pit of my stomach.
She looks directly at the camera as she crosses the set, and I feel like she's looking right at me. Does she know I'm watching? She says nothing. She walks calmly over to Biancka's sofa chair, kneels at her feet, and then lays her enormous head in Biancka's lap.
"Nice Shweetie," Biancka coos, and lovingly strokes Baby's head. "Isn't she so nice?"
I watch in disbelief as Biancka begins to casually interview her guests, but I don't hear a word of it. I'm completely transfixed, flummoxed by this mysterious relationship between my daughter and the talk show host. Of course, there's really no mystery -- Biancka's a network giant. The commercials, the cameos...there's no mystery here at all. It all makes sense.
"Ah-K, ah-K, now remember everyone? The bad mommy that run away and leave a litta baby? Well you know her baby face from many TVs and now you see she sitting right here having a ball. But guess what? She also got news of her life! Big news! So please, listen everybody, this is something else as well! Go ahead, nicey."Baby gets up and looks around the room. In a booming, vainglorious voice, she yells at the crowd, her right hand at her stomach, as if she had indigestion.
"Hey you Fucktards! Catch me, starring in Gene Queen, Season Two! Check the first ep on Monday night at nine, right here! Ha ha ha ha ha ha cultureless motherfuckers! You SICK FUCKS! WATCH ME!"
"Such pizazz!" remarks Biancka, shaking her head back and forth, with nothing but total adoration.
"Holy cow, she's preggers!" Jean says. "The apple doesn't fall far from the nest, I suppose."
Things have gone too far. I have to get in touch, get her away from that evil woman. But how I will track her down? And once I track her down, how will I approach her? What will I say? I will tell her to stay in school. I'll tell her that there's nothing wrong with her and that I love her and that I was just so young and immature back then, and I've really grown. As I'm thinking and planning and plotting, I fall into a dream of Biancka's show. Only in my dream, it's a game show. It's called Pain Match Point, and the opener goes something like this: There are those who take hard knocks and fall down, and then there are those who make use of life's challenges as opportunities to build character and overcome them. This show sets the bar for character, and Baby and I have made the final round.Our ultimate challenge is to be the first to make it out of a dark, humid dungeon. There is some secret key--a loose brick or hieroglyphic instructions, but the room is pitch-black and we don't even know how big it is--we haven't found the walls yet. Baby is slumped at my feet, looking at me with disdain. Despite her attitude, the privacy of this dark and sound-proof oubliette gives me the nerve to finally speak to her. I tell her everything I've wanted to say--not just since her appearance on Hoss, but ever since the day she left. How truly, deeply sorry I am. How little I know that means. How much I wish I could have a do-over. A take two. How I'm going to make this right, I swear.
This only seems to make her scowl more intensely. And it soon becomes clear that this game show is not for anyone's entertainment--it is Biancka's sick fantasy to see us rot and die in here. The cell is hot, and I'm getting short of breath. Bugs start to crawl up my legs. I beg Baby to help me.
She stands up slowly before me, her head coming straight up on her long neck, like a cobra. She surpasses her full height, and keeps going until we're eye to eye.
"I'm your mother," she whispers, as I whimper and plead. She stamps her feet and the ground shakes. She grows taller and taller, staring down at me and chanting.
"I'm your mother! I'M your mother!" Her head expands until she has filled the cell, and I am pushed into a corner, suffocating in folds of her acned skin. The ceiling begins to crack from the pressure. It's going to burst. You think I don't care. I care. Do I ever. Her life does not belong to me. I am nothing but a crumpled molt, a shed skin.
I wake up with ringing in my ears. I whip off the soaked sheet Jean must have laid over me. The lights are out, except for the TV. A documentary about infomercials. I walk into Jean's room and sit at her bedside. She's asleep on her front, one side her face smooshed into the pillow, drool rolling down her cheek, her eyelashes fluttering with each exhale.
"We're going to have to start working again," I say to her. I say it softly, not waking her, just a rehearsal. I try to imagine how this will go. "Both of us."
Illustration by Sherwin Tija