Mary Maddox

[An excerpt from a novel in progress, Water Dolls. Reprinted
by permission from TheScreamOnline.com. — dmm]



u’s 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.

She 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 had existed.   

“You're 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. 

Lu 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.

The 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. 

The 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. 

She 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.

She'd 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.

“Your 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.”          

Lu would never forgive Norlene, but she wanted to be left alone. 

Flushed 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?”

Lu can't remember if they went shopping.  Not that it mattered.  Norlene's promises were usually worse when she kept them. 

The 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 was helping. 

For 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!

She 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. 

The 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.

“That motherfucker Milo bought you enough goddamn beer.” 

Lu 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 getting involved. 

Daddy 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.

“Stop it, Daddy.  Please stop it.”

His gaze weaved toward her and away.  “Go back to sleep.”

“I 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?”

He 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.”

She couldn't think of what to say. 

The 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 to party. 

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.”

There 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?”

The smell of vomited beer wrenched Lu’s stomach.  “You still feeling bad?”

Norlene shut her eyes and nodded her head a fraction. 

“I could bring you a glass of water.”

“Why, that's sweet of you.  But I don't need water.  What I need, nobody can give me.”

“What's that?”

“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.” 

“Why can't you have a baby?”

“My 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.

Another mess to clean, Lu thought.

She 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.

But that was something she wouldn’t understand until later, after Talion came.

* * * 

He 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?  

You give me that name, he told her.  I am Talion.  His alien words welled from her mind like her own thoughts.  Was she hallucinating?

It depends what you mean, Talion said.  I don’t exist in a body like yours, but I am real enough .

What do you want?

He smiled.  What you want.   

He was an echo.  Only an echo in the bleak caverns of her mind.   But she made a wish anyway.  I want Norlene dead.

She cannot help being a monster, he said.  Does she truly deserve to die?

Lu 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.

I am unable, he said gently.

A 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.

Think a long time before you ask the services of this one, he said.  They come with a high price.

Lu 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 gone.

She 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.”

“Go ahead!” Norlene howled.  “Go ahead.  Anything but this shitty, shitty hopeless life.”

* * *

Lu 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 hair.

Nobody 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.

She 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.   

Her 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. 

She 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. 

But she had a guardian now.

She 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 closer?

How can I be closer than your heart? he answered.

* * *

Every 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 magic wand.

It 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.

In 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.

The 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.”

Lu put down her book.  “Where’s the phone?”

“In there on my dresser.”

She 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.

What’s he doing? Lu asked.

Showing you how the monster diesTalion smiled as though nothing could be simpler.

I should save her.

In there on the dresser, Delatar said in Norlene’s voice.  

Time passed, Lu wasn’t sure how much.

Is 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.

Obediently 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.

Bring a wet towel, Black Claw said.

Lu 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 orders.

You know what to do, Talion said.  If this is truly your wish.

Braving 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 been.

Not so hard, said TalionLet nature take its course.

Then 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. ” .  

She’s not my momma.

Nor is he your fatherTalion glistened like silk in the bleached glare of the waiting room

Lu felt a strange hope.  Who is?

He’s dead now, Talion said.  Like your mother.

Stay with me forever, she begged him.

Sometimes you have to be alone, he said.

A flower of ice unfolded its ruthless petals in Lu’s chest.  She knew it would be there whenever Talion wasn’t.


* * *