mother died because of her. When he got drunk Daddy talked
about how smart and beautiful Joanie was, how she’d won a scholarship
to the University of Utah right before she accidentally got
pregnant with Lu. “She could’ve had an abortion,” he sniveled.
“She wanted you, she wanted a sweet little baby to love.” He
was lying as usual, to himself and Lu both. How could Joanie
want something that ruined her life? After that she must have
quit caring about anything. Why else would she keep on boozing
until she got pneumonia and died? No way around it. If Lu hadn’t
been born her mother would still be alive.
remembers a photo of herself as a baby cradled in her mother's
arms. Or maybe she has it confused with another photo, glimpsed
along ago, of someone else. Was the blurred face really Joanie’s? Was the expression love or desperation? Lu can’t
be sure anymore since Norlene burned
all the photos. They were Lu’s inheritance, the proof her mother
not my mother!” She used to talk that way before she learned
to watch her tongue.
“Your mama's dead, dumbshit!”
Norlene screamed so loud her voice shredded. “Time
for the funeral!” Furiously she shook the old shoe box
of photos. No telling when she'd found them, but that day she
went straight to their hiding place in Lu's closet. “Time
for the fucking funeral!” She plucked Daddy's lighter
from the table and stormed outside. The door slammed against
the trailer's siding and left a dent. Daddy hollered, “What
the hell!” from the sofa where he was watching TV.
stumbled across the playground, its grass worn bald and littered
with dog poop, to the row of dumpsters behind the trailer court.
Norlene was dumping the photos into
a rusty barrel used for burning. Crowing with triumph, she
caught the cardboard box on fire and dropped it in. She shoved
Lu back, screaming, “Burn baby burn!” Lu charged again and
got shoved harder. A jolt exploded in her tail bone and up
her spine and rang the bell inside her head. Somehow she lurched
to her feet. Like climbing a wall.
Norlene was stoking the fire with a bent curtain rod
she’d picked up off the ground or fished out of the dumpster.
Strange how it was right there at hand, right
when it was needed. Lu stood with her mouth hanging
open, a stupid child. It was too late to save them. Smoke
hung around her stepmother in a grimy halo. Norlene
dropped the rod in the barrel and backed off. “Be my guest,
Lu.” Now her voice was hollow, empty of rage. Lu had to look.
Ashes were better than imagining what she could have saved.
barrel stank of smoldering paper and chemicals mingled with
the faded smells of old burning. Scraps of the photos lay at
the bottom, fused together, their pictures melted. It was like
amnesia — silvery blurs and burned-out spaces where your memory
used to be.
pain started. Nothing bad at first.
Just scrapes on her arm and hands, soreness where she bit herself
in the mouth when Norlene pushed her
down. But pretty soon pain bolted through her leg whenever
she took a step, and her head was throbbing so hard she had
to lie down.
huddled in bed with ice packs listening to them fight. Norlene spit out her contempt for his bitch of a first wife
and their retard of a daughter. Daddy kept saying, “Now hold
on a damn minute,” more scared than mad. Nothing they said
really mattered. Their fights always ended the same. Before
long she heard them panting, grunting and thumping on the livingroom
floor, Norlene howling dirty words and Daddy yelping her name over
and over. Afterward they smoked cigarettes and whispered,
like they'd suddenly worked it out Lu could hear.
almost gone to sleep when Daddy stroked her cheek and asked
if she was alright. “You feel hot,” he said. “You got a fever?”
His moist red-rimmed eyes peered sheepishly at Lu. “Your mama's
real sorry. She's been stressed out, what with her new job.”
Norlene always had a new job. She worked dozens of
places, mostly bars, never longer than a month or so.
mama wants to apologize, but she's scared. She thinks you're
mad at her. I told her, Lu ain't
the type to hold a grudge.” He paused so Lu could say
everything was fine now, no hard feelings. When she
didn’t, he squeezed her arm reassuringly to show he didn't blame
her any. “Promise you'll accept her apology.”
would never forgive Norlene, but she wanted to be left alone.
and solemn, Daddy attended the apology like Norlene
was his daughter starring in the school play. She kept glancing
toward him while she stumbled through her lines. “God I'm sorry,
Lu, I don't know what come over me. Maybe we can go shopping
tomorrow. Would you like that?”
can't remember if they went shopping. Not that it mattered.
Norlene's promises were usually worse
when she kept them.
time she couldn't stop throwing up, she promised things would
be different. That happened after she burned the photographs,
at least a year after. They'd moved to the other trailer court
by then, a nicer one. They could afford better once Daddy started
working for Milo. It was supposed to be a big secret what Milo
did, but even Lu could figure out he fenced stuff and Daddy
her eleventh birthday Daddy gave her a fourteen-carat gold ring
with a real sapphire framed by chip diamonds. But Lu never
wore the ring. She knew it belonged to someone else. She imagined
wearing it to school or the mall and a girl rushing up and pointing. That's my ring, thief!
hated that Daddy worked for Milo. Besides the constant fear
of getting busted, he caused fights between Norlene
and Daddy. Norlene used to know Milo
and still went out with him sometimes. She said they couldn't
afford to piss off Milo, they owed him too much.
time Norlene couldn't stop throwing
up, they came home late from a party. Lu knew they were fighting
by the slammed door and Daddy's reeling voice and beer bottles
rattling in the fridge. She woke from a deep sleep knowing.
motherfucker Milo bought you enough goddamn beer.”
turned on the light, grabbed a book and tried to read. She
wished just once they wouldn’t keep her awake half the night.
Daddy was shouting so loud the whole neighborhood could hear
his filthy words. No one ever called the cops. Afterward they
looked sorry for Lu and then turned away quickly, scared of
bellowed, “Don't you walk away from me!” The floor creaked
and groaned as they wrestled. Then Norlene staggered into Lu’s room, careened off the bed and
rebounded into the bathroom. She had the door shut and latched
by the time Daddy got there . He pounded
and threatened to kick it down.
it, Daddy. Please stop it.”
gaze weaved toward her and away. “Go back to sleep.”
can't sleep with it so noisy,” she said. “And if you go and
kick down the door, what happens when we have to use the toilet?”
looked bewildered, like it hadn’t occurred to him why bathrooms
have doors, then he seemed to forget
why he was standing there. His eyes caught Lu and swam into
gradual focus. “Goddamn it, you're the spitting image of her.
Same eyes, same chin. Same long upper lip that loved to kiss.”
couldn't think of what to say.
door slammed behind him, the car door opened and shut, and the
motor turned over. As headlights peeled past her one small
window Lu imagined him speeding through the dead of night to
weep at Joanie’s grave. But she knew he was just going somewhere
Norlene was throwing up with a sawing cough and sickening
plops into the toilet. Lu imagined shoving her head in the
toilet bowl and holding it until the bubbles quit coming. Then
longer, to make double sure. The cops would think she
passed out and drowned.
“Norlene?” Lu knocked on the bathroom door. “Daddy's gone.”
was silence. Norlene snuffled and
blew her nose. The toilet flushed. She raised the latch and
pushed open the door, slumped against the frame to stay on her
feet. “Far as I'm concerned he can go to hell.” She leveled
a bleary smile at Lu. “You mind me bad-mouthing your daddy?”
smell of vomited beer wrenched Lu’s stomach. “You still feeling
Norlene shut her eyes and nodded her head a fraction.
could bring you a glass of water.”
that's sweet of you. But I don't need water. What I need,
nobody can give me.”
“A baby. Me and Duane's baby.
He don't really love me. He wants
a piece of me like everybody else, but he don't love me like
the mother of his children.”
can't you have a baby?”
tubes is scarred, infection.” She turned, bent double and threw
up again, casually as burping, then plucked a Kleenex from the
box. “I wasn't much older than you. Too
dumb to go see a doctor.” She was still wiping her mouth
when another spasm wrung more beer from her stomach. Lu's stomach
quivered in unwilling sympathy. “I ain't
been much of a mother to you.” She coughed, and vomit sprayed
the underside of the toilet seat and lid.
mess to clean, Lu thought.
was scared to come in the bathroom and just as scared to leave.
You couldn’t tell what would piss Norlene
off. So she stood and listened to promises, in between the
spells of vomiting, to love her like a daughter from now on.
The flushed eyes begged forgiveness while the drawling, crafty
voice dared her to feel pity. The scarred tubes became one
more reason for punishing Lu.
that was something she wouldn’t understand until later, after
first appeared to her in April. Somehow she caught the flu
despite a spell of warm weather, and Norlene
beat on her for throwing up in bed. Lu moaned into the sour
pillow, knowing if she made too much noise Norlene
would be back. Fever burned in the bruises on her arms and
back. She wondered if she was dying. She almost hoped she
was. The window shades were down, the room a darkened blur
without her glasses. She became aware of light just beyond
the horizon of her vision, a circle of illumination she could
almost see. When she moved her head the circle also moved.
Slowly it shrank and brightened, packing the darkness into a
denser and blacker ball at its center. The ringing in her ears
took shape as music. A strange feeling rippled out through
her arms and legs like a stone dropped into the deep liquid
core of herself. Warm and cold and intense, like nothing she’d ever
felt before, it swept away her pain.
Talion illuminated the foot of her bed, smiling down
at her. His silver eyes flashed and burned like sunlight.
His face was masked by the brilliance of his eyes, but she knew
he was beautiful. He’d been there a long time, waiting for
this moment when Lu was ready. Ready for
what? What was he? An angel?
give me that name, he told her. I am Talion.
His alien words welled from her mind like her own thoughts.
Was she hallucinating?
depends what you mean, Talion
said. I don’t exist in a body like yours, but I am real
do you want?
smiled. What you want.
was an echo. Only an echo in the bleak caverns
of her mind. But she made a wish anyway. I want
cannot help being a monster, he said. Does she
truly deserve to die?
smelled the vomit, now cold on her pillow. Every cell in her
body seemed to contract as the smoldering pain returned. Yes,
she said. Kill Norlene. If you
even exist. She was sorry for taunting him but felt he
understood. He shared her every thought.
am unable, he said gently.
figure loomed behind Talion. Her hands were lifted in a vampire pose, fingers
curled and rigid like claws. Shadows
rippled around her head, and the black holes of her eyes drank
his light. Her silence held the power to do what he could not.
a long time before you ask the services of this one, he said. They come with a high price.
looked at Black Claw, ready to pay her price whatever it was,
but the yawning vortex of those eyes made her dizzy and sick.
She flopped onto her stomach and threw up again. When she lifted
her head Talion and Black Claw were
was too weak to get up and change the sheets, so they stank
all day of vomit. At last Daddy came home and argued Norlene into changing them. “You want to make the kid sicker?
What happens if she needs a doctor? What's a doctor gonna
say about them marks on her? They could stick Lu in some foster
home. Stick us in jail and throw away the key.”
ahead!” Norlene howled. “Go ahead.
Anything but this shitty, shitty hopeless
barely survived ninth grade. She had nightmares about school.
In them she stood at the brink of two corridors, scuffed linoleum
floors and banks of gray metal lockers stretching off forever
in mirror images of each other. The odors of dust and floor
wax and sweaty gym socks drifted back to her. If she chose
the right corridor she would make it through the day without
being hassled. In these dreams she agonized over her choice,
knowing it didn’t matter, that she was doomed to make the wrong
one every time. She was marked in a way everyone but her could
see. A clique of tough girls ganged her in the hall, sometimes
shoving so hard she dropped her books. They hounded her to
and from the trailer park, pelting gravel and hooting, "Lu!
Lu! Lu! Moo when you spoken to. " She couldn't figure
out what they meant, why their wounds cut so deep. But the
girls were confident of their power. Whispers of "Lu! Lu! Moo! Moo!" haunted her from
Algebra to Home Ec, English to Social
Studies. A goober plunged down the stairwell and slimed her
seemed surprised or upset at how Lu was treated. Teachers
glanced away like she was garbage — a McDonald's sack smeared
with catsup, a wad of used bubble-gum. She wasn't their responsibility.
The other kids performed shuffling sidesteps around her, jabbering
and laughing among themselves as she stooped to pick up her
books. Someone might trample her homework on purpose or kick
a notebook out of reach, but otherwise they ignored her.
missed two weeks of classes with the flu. She could have gone
back sooner, but every day of absence was a reprieve. Summer
vacation was almost there. She thought about blowing off the
last month of school. Her grades were high enough, she would
probably pass anyway, and Daddy and Norlene
wouldn’t care if she got C’s and D’s. But good grades proved
she wasn’t the piece of trash everyone thought she was.
first day back, she walked the several blocks to school without
meeting the usual gang of tormentors. Maybe they got bored
waiting for her, Lu thought, and found someone else to pick
on. But they welcomed her back at lunchtime. A girl sashayed
past the table where Lu sat alone and stretching out a casual
hand, plucked half her tuna sandwich
into her applesauce. The girl plopped down at the next table
where her pals were giggling at the prank. Lu grabbed her tray
and went over to them. As the girl twisted around to smirk,
her dark eyes glittering with humor, Lu glimpsed a blue rose
tattooed on the plump brown neck. Without a hitch she thrust
her tray over the girl’s shoulder and dumped her lunch on top
of the girl’s. The clatter of knives and spoons and plastic
dishes silenced everyone nearby. Those further away became
aware of the dead spot in the commotion and fell silent, too.
Everyone in the lunchroom stared in shock as Lu walked out.
was called into the principal’s office and punished with detention
after school, which she liked. It was a peaceful place to read
and the only place she felt safe. She walked around in a state
of dread, waiting for retaliation. But none came. She wasn’t
hassled anymore. Her former tormentors treated her the way
everyone else did — like a insignificant and disgusting detail,
a snotty Kleenex on the floor — and she realized they’d done
her a twisted kind of honor by at least noticing her existence.
she had a guardian now.
met Talion nearly every day as she
walked to and from school. He waited for her in the milkweed
behind the Hispanic grocery or among the swing sets, patio furniture,
petunias and marigolds and sacks of mulch outside the discount
superstore. His body looked lean and muscular beneath the silken
fabric of his shirt and pants. She yearned to touch his bright
skin. I love you, she told him. Why won’t you come
can I be closer than your heart? he answered.
so often something happened that scared Norlene
into trying to change her ways. She clubbed Daddy with a lamp
once. Blood poured down his face in sheets, so much blood she
thought she’d killed him. Another time the neighbors got sick
of the screaming and called the cops, who threatened to arrest
her and Daddy both. Her most recent wake-up call was a hangover
that kept her vomiting and running a fever for three days running.
“I can’t go on like this,” Norlene told Daddy. “It’s gonna
be the death of me.” From now on, she promised, things would
be different. No more running around. No more partying. She
began limiting herself to three or four beers every night, snuggling
with Daddy as they watched American Idol or Survival.
Daddy was stupefied with bliss. Every time it happened, he
acted like the Fairy Godmother had touched his world with her
never lasted more than a week or two. Norlene
began chaining Marlboros. Her hand shook, scattering ashes
everywhere except the ashtray choked with smoking butts. She
banged pots in the sink and slammed cabinet doors. Every other
day she hurled some breakable object to the floor then screamed
at Lu to sweep it up. She kept her frustration bottled up while
Daddy was home, but once he was gone Lu couldn’t tiptoe through
the livingroom without drawing wild monkey shrieks from her stepmother.
But Norlene never beat Lu during her
attempts to change. In her own pathetic way she was trying.
the end she always snapped. She picked up some loser at a bar,
cleared out the checking account and ran off for a week or ten
days — just long enough to raise Lu’s hopes she was gone forever
— then she called up, alone and broke, and begged Daddy to take
her back. “Have Milo come get you,” he sneered, but he drove
out to Moab or Evanston or Grand Junction and brought her home.
He stayed mad, reminding her over and over how deeply she’d
hurt him, squeezing every bit of advantage
from the situation. When Norlene
couldn’t handle it anymore she put on one of her suicides.
last was Memorial Day weekend, only a month ago. Norlene
got stinking drunk and gulped a bottle of Valium. Staggering
out of the bathroom, she collapsed onto the couch and stared
upward with bloodshot eyes that reminded Lu of egg yolks threaded
with veins, the jellied beginning of twin chickens. Her platinum
hair was smudged at its dark roots. “I took some pills.” she
croaked. “Call your daddy.”
put down her book. “Where’s the phone?”
there on my dresser.”
had a feeling and took off her glasses.
Norlene was surrounded by Them. Black Claw floated against the ceiling. Outside, with
nothing to hold her, her wrath would have carried her higher
and higher until the endless blue sky swallowed her up. She
gazed at Norlene with the empty smile
of a Sphinx. Two shadowy nameless figures knelt at Norlene’s
feet, almost erased by the incandescence of Talion,
whose hand rested on her forehead as though taking her temperature.
Lu almost missed Delatar. He embraced
Norlene so intimately they seemed
melded together. He had one ear pressed against her heaving
chest, listening for a heartbeat. His eyes mimicked the raw
egg yolks of hers. His face shriveled to ashes beneath a tanning-bed
bronze, and saliva frothed from his nostrils and slack mouth.
he doing? Lu asked.
you how the monster dies. Talion
smiled as though nothing could be simpler.
should save her.
there on the dresser, Delatar
said in Norlene’s voice.
passed, Lu wasn’t sure how much.
it killing? If someone takes an overdose on purpose and is
going to die anyway? Black Claw’s whisper was like
paper burning, gone so quick you couldn’t be sure you’d heard
anything. Bring a pillow from her bed.
Lu went to fetch the pillow. The cell phone lay on the dresser,
plugged into its charger. She hesitated only a moment walking
past it. She set the pillow on the coffee table like an offering.
a wet towel, Black Claw said.
took a hand towel from the bathroom closet and soaked it in
the sink. It was white with sickly pink roses. She wrung it
enough so it wouldn’t drip as she carried it to the livingroom. She looked fearfully at Black Claw, awaiting
know what to do, Talion said. If this is truly your wish.
the silver depths of his eyes, she tumbled into swirling light
and sweet darkness she hoped would never end. I love you,
she told him. Released, she thumped to her knees by the couch.
She spread the towel over Delatar’s face and listened as his breathing become the last drops of a strawberry milkshake sucked through
a straw. She remembered the pillow and Black Claw’s purpose.
She positioned it over the towel and pressed with both hands.
Her heart was galloping, carrying her to a place she’d never
so hard, said Talion.
Let nature take its course.
she heard Daddy’s car. She stuffed the pillow under Norlene’s head and began wiping her clammy face with the towel.
That was how Daddy found them. Later, waiting at the hospital
while Norlene had her stomach pumped,
he gave Lu’s arm an awkward pat. “I know you love your momma,”
he said. “Deep down. ” .
not my momma.
is he your father. Talion
glistened like silk in the bleached glare of the waiting room
felt a strange hope. Who is?
dead now, Talion said.
Like your mother.
with me forever, she begged him.
you have to be alone, he said.
flower of ice unfolded its ruthless petals in Lu’s chest. She
knew it would be there whenever Talion