Accomplice or Hostage
In the girl’s copy of Snow White, there is an illustration that shows the old hag peeling off her own face. Of course, the face was merely a mask, under which the queen had concealed her true face.
The girl first glimpses her mother’s second face when they are eating snow cones in the car, the windows rolled down, the girl’s skin gritty and sticky. Two other girls, their hair in braids, walk past and the girl’s mother calls out, “Hey there. Want to get in the car and be my little girls?” She cackles. Her eyes are wild, her lips cherry red.
The girls walking by look at the girl in the car as though they’re trying to decide whether she’s her mother’s accomplice or hostage. They pick up their pace.
For as long as the girl can remember, her mother has warned about men who drive around town looking to lure girls into their vehicles. They use lost puppies and Happy Meals as bait. In hotels, these men look out of peep holes, their hands clammy on doorknobs.
The girl’s mother has cautioned that the girl must always be vigilant. She must always be ready to run.
In the snow-cone stand parking lot, the girl says, “What if those girls had gotten into the car?”
Her mother says, “Then you would have had two sisters.” She laughs again. “Want another snow cone?”
The girl watches her mother carefully during the drive home, observes details she’s never noticed before. Like when her mother turns to look over her right shoulder before switching lanes, the skin on her neck creases like the plump, wrinkled segments of a caterpillar.
The girl peers through the cracked bathroom door as her mother pinches and poses before the mirror, like rearranging furniture. Her mother talks to herself, repeats phrases over and over, such as, “That’s right. I did” and “What do you mean what do I mean?”
The girl tiptoes into her mother’s bedroom when she is napping away some mysterious pain she says she doesn’t have the words to describe. The girl opens drawers, fingers a strange, black lace garment. The girl’s mother shifts in her sleep, and the girl ducks to the floor, her chest a hot, heavy, buzzing thing like the lawnmower the neighbor boy pushes across their yard every Saturday.
It has always been just the two of them, the girl’s mother says. The girl knows this can’t be true, but her mother won’t speak of a time before, as though they were born in the same instant, of the same lightning bolt strike, in the same primordial soup.
In the stories the girl’s mother tells, girls’ lives shift like the colored flecks in a kaleidoscope. They are hunted and abandoned, stolen and traded. Almost always their real mothers are dead, but what happened to those mothers happened before the story begins.
When the girl’s mother tells her the story of Hansel and Gretel, she goes on and on about the gingerbread house, as though she’s selling real estate. The doorknobs are gum drops. The electrical circuits are strands of licorice. The plumbing is made up of rainbow-colored candy straws.
“And the witch?” the girl says one evening. “Tell me about the witch.”
Her mother looks at her curiously. “What do you mean?”
“Tell me who she really is,” the girl says. “Where did she come from? What was her childhood like?”
Her mother thinks for a moment and then says, “That story is too terrible for little girls’ ears.”
“It can’t be any more terrible than the stories of Gretel and Riding Hood and Belle and Snow White,” the girl says.
Her mother laughs, says, “Those girls have it easy.” She turns out the light.
When they see the small child crying on the beach, the girl’s mother says to the girl, “Go ask her if she’s lost.”
The girl says, “Why don’t you do it?”
“Because I’m an adult. She’s less likely to be scared of you.”
“What if she is lost? What can I do about it?” the girl says.
“Bring her to me,” the girl’s mother says.
The girl doesn’t ask what her mother plans to do with the girl, but she imagines awful things — the girl locked inside a bird cage, tied to a spit and roasted over open flames.
The girl walks slowly across the wet sand. She says to the child, “Have you lost your mother?”
The child nods.
“What does she look like?” the girl says.
The child seems confused by this. She says, “Like my mommy.”
The girl turns toward her mother, who is watching them, her hand shielding her eyes. Her yellow terrycloth dress is worn and wet, and the girl can make out the curve of her mother’s breasts, the darkening around her nipples.
When the girl turns back, the child is pointing in the direction of the girl’s mother.
“I see her,” the child says.
The girl thinks that the child is pointing at her own mother. She says, “That’s not your mother.”
But the child ignores her. She takes off running.
The beach is crowded, frantic — people throwing Frisbees and flying kites and charging into waves. The light is thick, hazy. The girl worries that the child is mistaken, like a toddler wrapping herself around the wrong pair of smooth, bare legs at a party. The child will notice too late that she has run in the wrong direction.
Michelle Ross’s debut story collection, There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, won the 2016 Moon City Press Fiction Award and is forthcoming in February 2017. She serves as fiction editor for Atticus Review. Her work can be read online at michellenross.com.
(Next LADY MONSTER story: Three Monsters by Rebecca Fishow)
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Art by Franz Jüttner