She doesn’t look like the Devil’s spawn lying there.
Her eyelashes are so long they tangle on the ends. At rest, they flutter on her cheeks like wings fanned out, angelic. Ironic. Her blonde hair mats, sweaty from sleep. Her bangs lie crooked, scraggly from a self-inflicted haircut. A pink ring circles her mouth, a permanent kool-aid moustache, an oddity I can’t figure. More proof she’s otherworldly. I’ve given up trying to get it off.
I lean down to kiss her. For the first time today I don’t feel like strangling her. I can feel tears well. I get up to leave. I haven’t said one kind word to her. We have days like this more often than not now, she and I. I tell myself I’ll treat her better the next day, that maybe it’ll make a difference.
I back out of her room, holding my breath…terrified I might wake her. She just started sleeping through the night a month ago, even though she’s three-years old. When she learned to walk she’d climb out of her crib and run, anywhere, everywhere. By the time she turned two she’d unlock the front door, go outside in the middle of the night. I barricade the door now to keep her in.
I don’t know what she might do if she got loose.
I go to bed, lulling myself to sleep with my usual fantasy – getting sent to prison.
Like a lot of mothers, I didn’t get how tough it’d be…parenting…especially this gig. She’s shot out of bed every morning at dawn as if from a cannon, her room an explosion of discarded clothes and toys. She changes her clothes four or five times a day, each outfit more bizarre than the last. How she loves each one, complete with tiara, knit beanie with earflaps and pom-pom, or some other kind of weird make shift hat-like contraption. No color or pattern combination is off limits – clash is an aspiration.
After a troubled sleep, I hoist myself up, dreading the day. Some nights sleep eludes me. Others, I’m out like the dead. Best not to dwell on that too much. This morning she blows into the kitchen in red, white, and blue plaid leggings with a pink and white polka dot top, inside out and backwards. Her black patent leather Mary Jane’s are on the wrong feet. Her head is sans chapeaux but she has made a tremendous effort with three ponytails, not one where it should be.
Even though he is used to these daily Dali-esque fashion shows her brother still gives a shout out to Einstein’s insanity definition, and says for at least the fourth time this week, “That doesn’t match.” He gets up to feed his parakeet before it’s time to catch the school bus.
He saved up birthday and Christmas money to buy what I think is an odd pet for a kid. We already have a dog, which she has pretty much commandeered. I guess he wanted something of his own. He bought the bird, the cage, the feeder…the whole shebang. It took him weeks to choose the right colored parakeet, finally settling on the greenish variety.
What can a kid do with a parakeet? He can’t pet or walk it, but he loves the thing and spends hours in admiration. He never has to be reminded to take care of it. He never has to be reminded to do anything.
Patient and magnanimous, he says, “Do you want to help me feed Gideon?”
“No,” she growls, her voice rough, like her vocal chords were dragged over a cheese grater. She climbs up on the kitchen chair, her patent leather clad feet pointing in the wrong direction, kicks the dog under the table.
She accepts no invitations and offers no explanations.
I hug him on his way out the door, this sweetest of boys, and wonder why he keeps trying.
“The bus!” she barks as it goes by the kitchen window.
She’s been talking for almost two years and I keep thinking she’s putting us on – with that voice. It’s frightening coming from the mouth of such a little girl. All the more disconcerting because she looks so precious. Shirley Temple opens her mouth and Herman Munster roars. It’s a cliché, really. I keep hoping she’ll use a different voice – a sweet, melodious one that matches her face. A mother at the playground suggested I take her to the doctor.
I’m thinking a priest.
Breakfast is the usual battle of the wills requiring negotiation skills worthy of a Secretary of State. She eats a few bites of toast, grudgingly, darts out of the kitchen, multiple ponytails wagging. The morning passes with two tantrums, one broken picture frame, and a lost, then found, super hero action figure stolen from her brother.
I’m considering peanut butter for lunch when I hear bell sounds ringing faint, from a distance. She bolts out of her room, decapitated Barbie in one hand, plastic sword in the other. I wonder briefly if they’ve come for her.
It’s the ice cream truck. Great. Ice cream before lunch. Resigned, I head for my purse to fish out a dollar. She’s already gone. I go to the window where I can watch her.
She’s on her second outfit, striped shorts, flowered turtleneck with black lace tights and mismatched tennis shoes; one Dora the Explorer and one Converse. Two of the three ponytails have long since cried uncle, the last one barely hanging on.
The little boy who lives in the building next door sidles up beside her, pushes in front of her. My heart pounds and burns in my chest. I feel myself go stiff, girded for the worst that still hasn’t come. My feet feel crazy glued to the kitchen tile.
I can feel her stillness. Her presence on the sidewalk swells, takes up all the space. The boy lurches away from the truck, like a misbehaving dog yanked by a leash. She doesn’t stir. I see her lips moving, her rosy moustache jerking, changing shape. Something passes between her and the boy.
She pirouettes on mismatched toes at the truck window, rising to her full height to peek over the ledge.
She gets her ice cream.
I remember I’d given her no money.
I’m rooted, unmoving - just like she wants me.
I see the boy who’d run scared sitting on the sidewalk a few feet away, crying. My feet leave the ground, suddenly unrestricted. I swoop outside and scoop her up with one arm. She dangles there, under my armpit, looking like a bag lady dwarf, waving to the sniffling little boy. She squirms to the ground, her permanent pink moustache twists her face into a smug grin, like the Joker bidding a temporary adieu to Batman, confident they’ll meet again over a burning Gotham.
In the house, I open the fridge in search of jelly. The dog is on the bottom shelf. No idea how long he’s been there. Not long enough to suffocate, but long enough to have eaten or ruined most of the food. I try to pull him out. He digs his paws in, doesn’t want to come. I have to drag him. She strides in, gleeful. Poor dog takes one look and yelps, scrambles so fast in place, on the slippery linoleum. He clack-clack-clacks for about ten seconds before he gathers traction and high-tails it out. He’s afraid of her, of what might be next.
Take a number, pal.
“Did you put the dog in the refrigerator?” Some idiot sounding a lot like me asks her.
“Yes.” she barks, nodding and clapping her hands.
She is elated that I’ve discovered a deed long since forgotten. Smiling so proud like she’s donated an organ, or something heroic. If only she didn’t go about these insidious tasks so cheerfully. She ran right back to, and not away from, the scene of the crime. Her mashed freckled nose, eyes big and blue as globes, and that one blonde ponytail still hanging on for dear life makes me want to kiss her. I don’t.
I make a sandwich instead.
Out of the corner of my eye I see she has the dog’s mouth clamped shut with one hand and is beating him over the head with the other, using the headless Barbie he chewed up as her weapon of choice. He takes it as if he likes it.
Having her has bent, but not broken, me. I don’t know how long this will last, or what might be next? Locusts…plague…boils?
I manage to get her to eat a sandwich for lunch. As is her way, she falls asleep mid bite, at the table, never any wind down time. I carry her to bed knowing this reprieve will be short lived. I jump in the shower, and out, throw on clean clothes and run a brush through my hair. When I come out of the bathroom she’s up changing into her third outfit, pink sweat pants tucked into white vinyl boots with fringe, an orange and yellow ruffled dress, and her sparkly tiara.
She’s got her second wind.
Satisfied that all is momentarily well, I start throwing away whatever can’t be salvaged in the fridge. I’m on my knees cleaning.
It’s too quiet.
My skin feels electric. It hasn’t been quiet in three years.
Relief washes over me like a gusher. She’s on the couch silent, perhaps content. I look closer. She’s sitting as close to the edge as she can without falling off, straight up from her spine, with her small, smooth hands folded in her lap. She’s a mess, her tiara crooked, halfway fallen off. Her head’s cocked sideways like she’s listening, waiting for a signal. She sees me looking at her and a grin stretches out her face. I see nothing amiss. I go back to my fridge.
I check in on her again. She’s in exactly the same pose. I’m panicked. She looks like a doll, fake. She sees me. There’s that exquisite, terrible smile. Then I see it. The window by the couch is open. On the far wall, across from the couch, is the birdcage. Her brother’s beloved Gideon. He’s perched, taut. The birdcage door is open too. That’s what she’s been waiting for - the bird to figure out that he’s free.
Everything moves at a glacier’s pace and at warp speed. I look back and forth, between the cage and the window. I can’t move. My son’s soulful, tear-filled eyes flash in my head. She points at the immobilized bird. I dive toward the cage. Gideon takes flight and with a few flaps of his lime green wings he soars toward the open window. He veers unexpectedly, crashes into the wall, and drops.
She is euphoric, ecstatic, clapping, jumping up and down.
“Fly, fly!” she cheers in that voice, not noticing or caring that he’s dead.
Before I can think, I jerk her up and stomp to her room. I plop her, too rough, on her bed and leave to gather my wits. I know I have to walk away.
It’s starting in earnest.
I stand outside her room, gulping air. I can hear her singing. The words sound like rocks tumbled over metal. I look in and see her chubby fingers and hands making climbing motions. She’s singing Itsy Bitsy Spider.
It’s a lost cause. All that’s left is the crying.
I go in, sit on her bed and she climbs on my lap. My eye burns where her finger pokes it trying to give me an Eskimo kiss. We sit, quiet. I wonder if we can make it to the pet store and get a replacement bird before her brother gets home.
I run a hand through her nest of hair. The little nubs are just starting to break the skin near her hairline. I can feel the spiked ends. Her short, pointed tail digs into my leg where she’s sitting on it. I don’t know how much longer I can hide it all. It’s been easy so far, since everything with her is a fashion statement; the horns help keep her crooked crown on. Her crazy pattern combinations serve as a distraction, a clever ruse. I keep watch on her teeth. Her incisors gleam sharp, jagged.
I reach down to scratch my wrist. It itches, burns, feels uneven under my fingertips. I hold my arm out so I can see it better. I hear her breathing, heavy, a low and steady growl. She pats the hot, blistering skin.