I was six when I learned that life wasn’t the fairytale people made it out to be, but a minefield of hidden sinkholes. The more you carried, the higher the risk of falling in.
I slipped my naked Barbie into a toilet-paper gown and squiggled a bowtie with a Sharpie on a lighter named, “Prince Bic.” The family of bottle caps sat in rows on the groom’s side, the prescription vials on the bride’s, and President Obama served as pastor in the center—a newspaper cut-out I taped to the wall. There was a perfect spot where the smears in the floral wallpaper crossed like my own crucifix and stained glass window. My favorite book rested beneath—the bible for the ceremony.
After the newlyweds shared a kiss, they flew off in a carriage to a glass palace to live happily ever after. It was my favorite scene from my favorite book. Except my carriage was a broken heel and my palace was a tower of plastic vodka bottles. That was the beauty of pretend. If I submerged into the fiction deep enough, I could even blur the meaty slaps and heated groans vibrating at the bathroom door.
That is . . . until the doorknob jiggled, and it all shattered like a glass rose.
I snatched Bic and Barbie, scrambled to our mattress, and slid under the covers, flat on my stomach. It was my stop, drop, and roll. I peeked through a snag in the blanket as the rusty brass time bomb twisted around.
Ma staggered out first. Imagine drowned road kill. Her fried blonde hair had dampened, the ends knotted and dripping. Her hot-red lipstick had smudged on to her hollow cheeks like the remnants of a bad nosebleed. Her grey T-shirt—and only piece of clothing—was stained between the breasts, blackened by sweat. She leaned against the doorframe and flipped through some crumpled cash, a panty dangling from her pinky. This was Ma’s version of a yard sale. Bruised bony legs and a deflated ass for a couple bucks each. Everything used of course.
I knew the man stepped out when the musty stench of rotted onions pricked the inside of my nose. I blocked the snag with my palm and hunkered down. I figured that one of Ma’s visitors could be my dad, and if so, I’d rather not see. There was no avoiding the sounds though. I knew those by heart. The jingle of a belt buckle. A zip at the crotch. The mindless bickering that would end in a door slam.
“No tip?” Ma asked, trying a seductive tone through her cracked sandy voice.
“Look at you,” he said. “Someone should tip me.”
“I’m an asshole that can go somewhere else too.”
“You know I’m just playin’, baby.” She tried her schoolgirl voice this time. “I’ll see you next week?” The door slammed shut and his boots thudded down the hall. In truth, I hoped he would come back. We might not eat otherwise.
I poked my head out to Ma stampeding around the apartment—the usual after she got some cash. She went from hopping on one foot as she tugged on sweatpants, to shuffling through a mound of lingerie for keys, to swatting empty beer cans and bottles in search of a single cigarette. My stomach pricked.
“Oh hey, baby,” she said without looking over. She plucked a half-singed cigarette off the floor, her eyes glistening as if she’d found a cure for her despair. She blew over it twice for dust, and then pinched the butt between her lips.
“I’m hungry,” I said. I crawled out with Barbie and Bic, one in each hand.
“Well, Momma’s hungry too.” She dropped on all fours, her cheek squished against the hardwood as she plunged arm-deep under the fridge, under the armchair, behind the toilet bowl. “Where the hell is it?” Then I realized; she needed something else for that smoke. My fingers tightened around Prince Bic as I drifted him stealthily behind my back.
“Are you gonna get some breakfast?” I asked.
“Lila, can you just shut up for a sec? I’ll get something.”
She stomped into a pair of black fuzzy slippers and tugged the front door open. I thought I was in the clear. That she was going to leave and come back with some pancakes maybe. Then midway out the door, she stopped, like some revelation had poured out of the ceiling and over her head. Her eyes curled back around and drilled into mine.
“What do you have behind your back?” she asked. My chin sank. Her slippers strutted forward until they settled at my toes. “Hey, I’m talkin’ to you.”
“N–Nothing,” I stuttered. Her long pink fingernails clamped into my arm, so I winced. She bent over, her face so close to mine that I smelled the rotted onion seeping out of her breath.
“Liar,” she said. Her hand yanked forward so hard that Prince Bic tumbled out of my palm and on to the floor. When he slid to a stop at her feet, all I could think was, I’m doomed. I didn’t need to look up to feel Ma’s pulverizing glare. I crumbled just the same.
“I’m sorry!” I blurted out, my head still tucked into my body. “But that’s Prince Bic, and–and him and Barbie just got married”—I pointed to the wedding—“and so, they’re supposed to go on their honeymoon now!” I rambled so fast that I didn’t even notice Ma’s hand rise—WHACK! Her palm against my cheek sounded like a snapping branch. My head whipped to the side. I dropped Barbie so my hands could shield up for cover. My cheek burned like a nest of fire ants was gnawing away at it.
Ma swiped Bic off the floor and held him at my face as she scolded. “I’m dyin’ here, tryin’ to have a drag, and you’re hiding my lighter for some bullshit!?” I stood hunched, head down, tears cascading from my drenched eyes. She whipped around and stormed towards the wedding. “Get these stupid ideas out of that retarded little head of yours. You hear me?” Her slippers kicked the wedding guests across the floor. She picked up my book and flung it, the pages flapping through the air. I tried to hold it in, but tears leaked anyway.
I usually liked the quiet that came when Ma left. But that day, after the door slammed behind her, I huddled in bed with Barbie and we cried together. It was the last time we saw Prince Bic.
The deadbolt unclasped in the middle of the night. I scurried to our only lamp and flicked it on, hoping it was time to eat. Ma wobbled in like an infant learning to walk. She was empty-handed, her palms sliding against the wall, supporting her body as she lugged her feet across the room. Her knees dropped into the mattress. Her face followed, headfirst into the covers. I noticed a white bandage wrapped around her elbow. That was where the food went.
“Momma, did you bring anything?”
“Oh, hey baby.” She smiled with glossy half-sunken eyes. They looked like they were floating somewhere off in the distant universe.
“My tummy feels like it’s dying.”
Ma sighed and flopped over on to her back. Then, with her eyes still closed, she spoke with a voice lighter than she ever used before. So gentle that it felt genuine. “Sorry, baby…but sometimes, you gotta just let things die.” I just stood there for a few seconds afterwards, wondering, Did she mean me?
My stomach stung like it was digesting daggers. I searched her things, digging through her pockets, but there was nothing. No food. No money. I needed to eat. I had to. So I picked up Barbie, wedged my book into my armpit, and tiptoed over to the front door.
“Don’t you ever go outside without me,” Ma scolded once. “There’s bad people out there,” she said. There were bad people here, too, I decided.
I dragged a stool over, stepped up to unlock the deadbolt, and twisted the knob. It was my first time leaving without Ma, but I wasn’t scared. I was too hungry to be. I climbed down three flights of creaky stairs until my feet soaked from the cold, wet concrete. It had just stopped raining. I spotted a police car half a block away. Ma didn’t like them, but I knew they were supposed to help. So I ran, Barbie and book clutched tight, my head swiveling back and forth to make sure she wasn’t following. The officer saw me right away.
“Hey there,” he said. “What’re you doing out this late?” He scanned the area, probably searching for my parents. I pointed to my building, still panting.
“My Momma”–I paused for another deep breath–“She wants to let me die.”
Over the next month, I heard these words as I moved around: abuse as grounds, termination of parental rights, no next of kin, ward of the state. All in that order, which led me to Brimmer and May Orphanage for Girls, where I lived until right after my tenth birthday. By that time, I was considered by eight sets of parents, actually considered by three, and not even looked at by over a hundred. But at least I had three meals a day.
I sat on my bed at the orphanage, my nose stuck into the newly released sequel of my favorite book, whispering along as I read the last lines, “And the queen rested beside her king, as they held their beautiful newborn princess, gazing into each other’s eyes. This was what they were meant for. This was the greatest gift given—to cherish, to care, to love.” I eased the book shut and sighed out the butterflies. If I left Ma earlier, Barbie and Prince Bic would’ve had a baby by now, I thought.
Then, like stepping on broken glass at the beach, the door creaked open. Miss Rita, our afroed caretaker, wobbled her hot air balloon body down the aisle of bunks. She had the sacred clipboard in hand, which meant that every girl in the room would prop up and gaze with sparkling hopeful eyes, waiting for her to announce the lottery winners.
“The O’Connells will be here in two hours,” she said. “After their visit last week, they want to meet with”—I could hear the drum roll in my head—“Shannon, Emily, Immogen, and . . . Lila.” With each name called, the winners sprung up as the rest of the girls slumped back into misery. Shannon performed an electrified running-in-place. Emily wiggled her hips in a dance. Immogen gave a subtle grin, although we all knew the mischievous plans scuttling through her mind. I stayed seated, my book in my lap, Barbie beside me.
I didn’t know this until I lived it, but when prospective parents came to an orphanage, the whole place transformed into a mudslinging Miss Universe pageant with claws. The difference was that we didn’t compete for status or a crown. We competed for a life.
“Miss Rita,” I called, raising my hand. “I’m going to pass this time.”
She and everyone else gawked like I’d been stripped of all sanity. “Are you sure?” she asked. “They were a sweet couple.”
“Well, it’s up to you, of course.” Miss Rita scratched her pen over my name on the clipboard. When she left the room, Shannon, Emily, and Immogen shoved through the other girls and charged over. They cornered me. A pretty pack of pit bulls.
“What do you know?” Immogen interrogated.
“Did you see bruises on the wife or something?” Emily snipped.
“Maybe she googled them,” added Shannon. “Did you google them?”
“No,” I said. “It’s nothing. I just didn’t really like them.”
“What’s not to like?” asked Emily. “They drove a Benz.”
“I don’t care about that stuff,” I said. I looked down at Barbie to avoid eye contact. The girls had made fun of the toilet paper gown, so she wore a schoolgirl uniform now, one I made out of paper and colored with crayons. The only problem was that her right leg was missing.
“Forget it,” said Immogen. “Let’s go. We all know she’s stupid. Her druggy mom didn’t let her go to school, remember?” The girls nodded in agreement like it all made sense now.
I felt a twinge in my chest. It hurt when I thought about Ma.
I waited thirty minutes before I crept into the bathroom and found Immogen where I knew she’d be—in front of the mirror. She was one of the few girls already proficient in makeup. That was her thing, like others prepared a song or sewed bows on to their favorite dresses.
“Want me to do yours?” she taunted when she noticed me in the reflection.
“Not after what you did to Beth,” I said.
“Come on,” she laughed. “She’s only been here a couple weeks. It wouldn’t be fair if she got picked already.” She powdered her forehead. “So are you going to use the bathroom, or just stare at me?”
“Actually, I came to tell you something–”
“–Tell me what,” she cut in, her hand stuck in midair with a brush.
“I–I overheard Shannon and Emily talking. And what they said about you, it sounded horrible.”
“What? What’d they say?”
“I heard them say they were gonna make something up about you . . . so that the O’Connells would choose between them instead.”
“Like what?” She marched over with her forehead still splotchy. I gestured for her to come closer and then whispered it into her ear. “Those bitches! I’m gonna kill them!” She tossed her brush into the sink and stomped towards the door, but I stepped in front of her.
“That’s probably not a good idea.”
“If you do something to them, it’s really gonna look like, well, you know.” She stopped, realizing I was right. “Why don’t you just do what they were gonna do?”
“You mean. . . . ”
“Whoever says it first wins, right? Anyway, I thought you should know, and . . .” I hesitated, my eyes drooping to the tile.
“And I thought maybe . . . I could have it back.”
“Ha! I can’t believe you actually care about that thing.” Her hand burrowed into her makeup bag and pulled out Barbie’s missing leg. She tossed it to me.
“Thanks,” I said. I knew it was only a piece of plastic, but it felt great to have it back.
“Hey, Lila,” she called as I headed for the door. “Why’d you really drop out?”
“I know what you girls do. I’d rather wait than go against you three.”
“Maybe you’re smarter than I thought,” she chuckled.
“Maybe I am.”
The door swung closed behind me and I headed back down the hall. Shannon happened to be walking the other direction towards me. She gave me a smirk, and then as she passed, she leaned in and whispered, “Thanks again for letting me know.” I nodded and smirked back.
When I got back to the bedroom, I went straight to the girl whose thing was hair.
“Hey Charlotte, can I borrow your curling iron?” I asked.
“I thought you weren’t meeting with this family,” she said.
“It’s not for today. I just want to try it out for next time.”
“Oh, okay.” She handed it to me, so I took it to my bunk.
I looked around and when no one was watching, I stripped one of my pillowcases off and wrapped it around the curling iron. Then I snuck with it to the pantry in the back of the cafeteria—the place for veggies and things like that.
Immogen, Shannon, and Emily stamped into the bedroom minutes apart, a half hour before the O’Connells arrived. They glared back and forth at one another, sitting pretty on their beds, waiting for their moments to strike. Miss Rita poked her head through the door exactly on time.
“Alright, girls,” she hollered. “The O’Connells are here. Please make your way to the–” Before Miss Rita could finish, the three girls bolted off their mattresses and sprinted to the door. They nearly knocked her over as they squeezed passed, snarling and pushing.
“I’m going first!” shouted Immogen.
“No, I am!” Shannon and Emily followed, one after the other.
“Girls! Calm down!” Miss Rita bellowed.
When the door clicked shut, I made my move. I tore off my pajamas, slipped into a dress, and then slid my hand under the mattress for a peeled onion—one I stole from the pantry. I held it up to my eyes as I paced to the door. The rest was like a masterful symphony. I gathered the perfect amount of tears and sniffles, tossed the onion into the trash, and then listened to the mayhem through a crack in the door.
“Those two have been touching my private parts!” screamed Immogen.
“She’s a liar!” shouted Emily. “They’ve been touching mine!”
“No! That’s not true!” yelled Shannon. “They always touch mine!”
I peeked down the hall to the three wild girls, tugging and jerking at Mr. and Mrs. O’Connell, who both paled like they were surrounded by banshees. Miss Rita’s eyes bulged so far out of her sockets that I thought they might fall out.
“Girls!” she roared. “To my office! Now!”
The girls shriveled the way we all did when Miss Rita’s tigress emerged. She apologized over and over to the O’Connells as the girls dragged their feet to the office. They nudged and pinched one another until they disappeared through the door. When I poked my head out, Mrs. O’Connell recognized me right away.
“Lila?” she called. She still seemed startled, but she gestured for me to come out, so I did. I crept around the corner and sauntered down the hall, keeping my eyes anchored to the floor. Still sniffling, still teary-eyed.
“I thought you didn’t want to meet,” said Miss Rita when I reached them.
“The girls threatened me,” I said, sniffling some more. “They told me that they’d do it again if I tried to meet with the same family as them.”
Mrs. O’Connell squatted beside me and took my hand in hers. “Do what, dear? You don’t have to be afraid. We’re here now.”
I pulled my dress up to show them the curling iron burn on my thigh.
I became a princess after that day, and my fantasy included mansions, picnics at the park, trips to Hawaii, birthday parties, hugs, kisses, grandparents, puppies—the works. Even Barbie had it good. Mom and Dad bought her a real school uniform our first week together. Plaid skirt, cute white button-up, stockings and a book bag. It wasn’t until I was sixteen when I witnessed it.
I was tucked under the duvet in my bedroom, giggling through the third novel in my favorite series when I flinched from the crash of a broken glass. I put the book down and propped up. It sounded like it had come from downstairs, so I slipped out of bed and tiptoed forward. Muffled voices came from behind the door. I turned the knob, pulled, and then it blared in. My parents were shouting, screaming even.
“You’re such an arrogant shit!” Mom screamed. “Think you’re some kind of king because of your money.”
“You get what you ask for, baby,” shouted Dad. “Don’t think I don’t know why you married me. With the life I’ve given you, you should treat me like a king. Small-town girl lives like a queen now, and all she does is bitch.”
“You make me sick. I can’t believe I thought adopting a child would fix this marriage.”
“Well, it’s too late now, isn’t it?”
I shut the door.
The next morning, I brushed up with lightning speed, threw on my clothes, and darted down the stairs. I saw through the window that Dad’s Benz was already gone, but Mom’s hairdryer still whirred from her bathroom. I didn’t want to see either of them.
“Bye, Mom!” I shouted as I leapt out of the front door.
“Bye, sweetheart!” she shouted back.
I’d walked nearly all the way to school when I stopped for a frantic toss through my book bag. She wasn’t there. I was so flustered that I’d forgotten Barbie—one of the only times in my life. I decided to go back. I’d gotten to school early anyway and I could probably avoid Mom if I was quiet enough.
I stepped on to the front porch and peeked through the window to the first floor. No one was there. Mom was probably still in her room, which hopefully meant she wouldn’t hear me. I creaked the door open. No response, so I continued up the stairs, hunched like a burglar. When I reached the top, Mom giggled from her room. Perfect. She was on the phone.
I slipped into my bedroom and grabbed Barbie off the bed. Then another giggle, but this time, I froze. It was a man’s giggle, which meant Mom wasn’t on the phone. I checked out the window to the driveway. Dad’s Benz was still gone.
The giggling turned to laughter, then to kissing, until it all melded into sounds I knew too well. I eased the door shut and slumped into the carpet against the foot of my bed, just watching the doorknob. Tears welled, but I wouldn’t let them spill. Not this time. I rubbed my eyes and when I placed my hand down, it landed on something solid. It was my book. I picked it up and peeled it open. I flipped through some of the pages as I waited for the sounds to settle back into laughter, then chatter, then silence. Mom’s car hummed out of the driveway.
I stood up with the opened book in hand, tightened my grip, and then ripped along the spine as hard as I could. I threw the torn halves in the trash.
During the following weeks, I couldn’t help but investigate. I left early for school, without actually leaving, hiding in the bushes instead to see what car that man drove, listening to his laughs and conversations with Mom as they both left the house, learning what he did for work. Then I realized that maybe when Dad left in the mornings he was driving to some woman’s house too. With each day that passed, a pain grew in my chest like someone’s hand was gripped around my heart, occasionally clenching, free to crush it at any time. I couldn’t take it anymore. I wanted to get rid of it.
I waited in the kitchen for Dad to get home.
“Hey Dad?” I said as soon as he stepped in.
“Oh hey, Lila, what’s up?”
“I need to tell you something.”
He put his suitcase down and walked up to me, looking concerned. “Are you alright? What is it?”
I swallowed a heavy gulp and then I leaned closer. “I–I think. . . . ”
“Go ahead, Lila. You can talk to me.”
“I think I need to see a doctor.”
“What? Why? What’s wrong?”
“My chest hurts, and it won’t stop.”
Two months later, a couple days after my seventeenth birthday, I laid in a hospital bed while Dr. Goldberg studied my file through his thick glasses. My head and eyebrows had been shaved cleanly off.
“Can you explain it once more?” I asked.
He took a deep breath and tugged at his shirt collar. “It’s called bronchogenic carcinoma,” he said. He kept his eyes in the file as he spoke. “Lung cancer. Stage four, which means the cancer has already spread to the rest of the body. The timeline can range anywhere from weeks to days. It’s hard to say.”
“And this makes sense because my birth mother smoked around me so much?”
“Is there anything else?”
“That’s it,” he said, closing the file. “You sure this is what you want?”
“Positive. It’s exactly what I want.”
“Alright, well, he should be here soon. Should I just let him in?”
“Please. And doctor, don’t feel too bad. Things happen. It’s life.”
He gave a frail nod, stepped out, and then closed the door behind him. While I waited, I admired Barbie and brushed her thick blonde hair with my hand. She was different now. Sunglasses, a scarf, a trench coat and a handbag—the things I requested for my birthday this year. Barbie finally looked how I always wished she would.
Someone knocked and the door creaked open.
“Can I come in?” asked an older raspy voice.
“Please,” I answered.
A thin man with a peppery beard stepped in. “May I?” he asked, pointing to the chair beside me.
“Of course.” I put my hand out when he sat down. “Lila,” I said.
“Jake Martin,” he replied, shaking it. “So, my story is your wish, huh?”
“Yes, sir,” I chuckled. “It is the most read series of all time. It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I used to recreate your scenes with my Barbie,” I showed her to him.
“I’m flattered,” he laughed. “So, why don’t you tell me a little about yourself since you probably already know a little about me?”
“Didn’t they send you my letter?”
He laughed again. “I guess I know a little bit about you too.”
“I think this is all I left out”—I pointed to my bald head— “I’ve got bronchogenic carcinoma. Stage four lung cancer. My birth mother smoked around me when I was little. That’s just life I guess. Not everyone gets your fairytale endings,” I chuckled.
Martin smiled and then scooted his chair closer. “I’m going to be honest, Lila. I wasn’t totally comfortable with this at first, but I’ve decided to trust you with it. After the foundation told me your story, I have to say, the things you’ve been through and endured, it’s more valuable than any piece of fiction could ever be. So, I don’t plan on finishing the series for at least another ten years, but I do have most of it mapped out and I’m honored to share it with you as your wish.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Let’s get to it then.”
I snuggled deep into the mattress with Barbie in my arms, closed my eyes, and listened.
At the end of the two hours, when Jake Martin said the words, “The end,” I let my tears flow one last time. I knew now that stories like these weren’t real, but it was still one of the most beautiful endings. Truly a masterful creation. I thanked Mr. Martin, he gave me a hug, and then we said our goodbyes.
When he left, it was Barbie’s turn. I tidied up her coat and accessories. I thanked her with a small peck on the cheek. One more snuggle. One more tear. And then I broke her down. Head. Arms. Legs. Torso. Each piece fell to the bottom of the trashcan beside me, and like that, she was gone. I wiped my face as I waited for Dr. Goldberg to return.
“Get what you wanted?” he asked, stepping in.
“Yup.” I tugged the blanket off and swung out of bed on to my feet. The doctor’s face wilted like someone had died.
“How much will you get for it?” he asked.
“Hopefully enough for me to be on my own.” I reached behind the pillow and pulled out an audio-recorder.
Dr. Goldberg shook his head. He held the diagnosis file up. “I’ll process the death in a week. If anything, this didn’t come from me.”
“Of course not. And you haven’t been fucking my mom either.”
His eyes settled on the audio-recorder in my hand. “You’re really going to do this, huh?”
I smirked. “It’s just a story.”
“Yeah, but your life isn’t.”
“That’s exactly right, doctor.”
On a fall afternoon, ten years later, I sat in a coffee shop with a trench coat draped over the back of my chair and a scarf wrapped around my neck. My sunglasses rested on the table. My handbag sat in the chair beside me. I noticed a girl walking by, holding the newly released final novel to Jake Martin’s series.
“Is it better than the version that leaked?” I asked, pointing to the book. She stopped and held it out.
“No,” she chuckled. “But still good.”
“What’s good about it?”
“It’s much darker, but in a way, it makes it feel more real compared to his others. I think there’s something to appreciate about that.”
“That’s how fiction works, I guess.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s never real, but somehow, we always find a way to fall for it.” The girl nodded in thought. “Anyway, I’d better let you get back to it.”
“Beth,” she said, holding out her hand.
“Trina,” I said, shaking it. “I hope you enjoy the ending.” She smiled and then left.
I loved those types of days: my peaceful moments alone. Settled and relaxed without anything to do, without needing to move forward or back. Nothing and no one to affect. I lifted my latte to take a sip.
“Lila?” said a woman’s voice.
I put the coffee back down before looking up. It was an older blonde woman in a barista uniform—green apron and visor. Her hair was sleek and tied into a tight ponytail. A sweet white smile stretched into her wrinkled cheeks as her eyes honed into mine, glossing over, but with such a different gloss than the one I’d known.
“I–I can’t believe it’s you,” she said. “It’s me. Momma.”
“Excuse me?” I tilted my head.
“I’m sober now,” she urged. “It’s not like before. I’ve been working. See?” She looked down at her clothes.
“I’m really sorry, ma’am, but . . . my name’s Trina.”
“No, Lila, you don’t understand. I’m different now.” Tears trickled down her face as she pleaded. I sighed and put on my sunglasses. Then I stood up, swung the trench coat over my shoulders, and slung the bag on my forearm. I leaned towards her, so close that I could feel her shivering breaths against my neck.
“Sorry baby,” I whispered. “But sometimes, you gotta just let things die.”