Fair Game

Monday night, home from day camp, Nell sits on Lindsay, facing her. Her legs dangle over the tops of her mother's thighs and almost down to her knees; her feet kick against Lindsay's jeans. Lindsay surrounds as much of Nell's spidery frame as she can. At the pool, Nell weeps. Jordan and Jimmy and Tyler. On the table in front of them, the remains of their dinner. Lindsay shuts her eyes; dishes keep. She rests her cheek against the side of Nell's scruffy head; her child's pointed chin buried uncomfortably in her shoulder. She strokes and holds.

Tuesday morning, Nell works herself into a fit. They're in a hurry though they won't stop for Polly today--Polly, the beloved, envied best friend. Polly, who gets to go camping, Nell frets. Who has one big house instead of two little ones. A scooter for her birthday. When Nell cries about putting on her shoes, Lindsay snaps.

"That's bullshit, you went to Yosemite just three weeks ago with your dad."

Nell stomps into the bathroom to stare, dramatically, at the misery of her teary face in the mirror. "Nell, now!" Lindsay says from behind the door. Tonight they'll celebrate Lindsay's new contract, an end to late checks and credit card bills. New clothes for Nell! And getting Donald to fix the hole in the back fence.

Eight forty nine. Nell kisses the hamsters and the dogs. Lindsay sets the alarm and locks the door. It's an old house high on Dreadville hill, surrounded by oaks and ivy. A long awkward staircase leads down to a winding street too narrow for sidewalks.

Three quarters of the way down, Lindsay sees something fleshy on the bottom few steps. Unmoving white feet, naked legs. She bars Nell's way, "Nell. Get back on the porch. Now. Stay there," she says, not loudly. Nell runs up the stairs and disappears. Lindsay descends the last five steps. The girl's caked hair hides the side of her face. Short skirt up around her waist, no underwear, a dark brown crust... blood. Her midriff shirt exposes a deep, black, dry hole. Dead is dead--she doesn't need to touch her. She runs upstairs to Nell and carefully uncurls her, holding, waiting for her to brim and spill.

"Mama, do you think it hurt her to be thrown on the stairs like that?"

"No, honey. I think she was already dead."

"Did it hurt her to die, Mama?"

"I don't know. Maybe. But not for very long."

"How come, Mama?"

"I don't know. I don't know, Nell."

Then they go inside, disengage the alarm, and Lindsay calls the police. Fifteen years old, the police report says. Dumped on their steps because it's a dark street and one-way. Lindsay drags the garden hose down the steps. She files a request with the city for speed bumps and better street lights. You do what you do what you do. But how can you possibly manage.

Friday, Nell tells Lindsay, "God, Mom, get over it. We just live on a garbage dump street. Washing machines, litter, dead girls..." Her callousness frightens Lindsay. Yet isn't it what she needs?

Polly spends the night Saturday. "Can we make a shrine for the dead girl?" Nell asks. Polly, behind her, nods vigorously. In between holding Squeaky and Bluebell and snacks they create the shrine. A shoebox, collaged and painted and glued. Feathers and glue and glitter and magazine pictures of girls like princesses, models, fairies. The girls they want to be. It's beautiful.

When they bring it down the long stairway, somebody's already been there. A Mylar Pooh balloon, a vase of pink chrysanthemums: We miss you, Cheri. Rest in heaven. Mom. The girls place their shrine next to the flowers. "Come on, Polly," Nell shouts, running back up the stairs, scooping up a neglected yellow rubber duck. "Let's teach Duckie to float."

They eat popcorn and watch a Mary Kate and Ashley video, Lindsay in the middle, one girl on each side, the dogs snoozing at their feet. The girls are warm. Their pointy elbows dig into her sides as they reach for the popcorn bowl on her lap. By nine, they're in Nell's double bed asleep with their stuffies, Nell on her belly, head buried in the pillow, Polly curled on her side, throat and cheeks round and relaxed. So tiny for eight. So thin.

They took the girls' measurements a few months ago, Lindsay and Polly's mom Kira; they made baked potatoes with all the trimmings--the girls' favorite--and split a bottle of good wine. The girls did fashion shows, Nell designing the outfits, dressing Polly, then coming out of the bedroom to announce, "Let's give it up for the one, the only, Leopard Lady!"--Polly blushing and prancing in a cloak of false furs. "Turn around," Kira said, and Polly revolved, solemnly exposing her Little Mermaid underpants. They took their measurements: Nell, 23, 20, 24; Polly, 21, 19, 22. The women sang, She's a STICK... House! The girls scampered back to the bedroom and came out draped in sequins, bearing hamsters and pet mice.

Tonight in Lindsay's house, the mice and hamsters are quiet, the dogs sleep, the kids sleep. Lindsay kisses her daughter's hair, brushes a hand over Polly's forehead. A rocky adolescence is a human right, she knows. But they're only eight. They know so much already, they know so little.

They don't know about Polly's half sister, doing hard time in Idaho for transporting meth across state lines, who might show up on the doorstep one day. They don't know about the way girls, even best friends, grow apart when one grows breasts and the other lags behind. They don't know that Nell will have the first boyfriend, that Polly's mom and dad won't make it, they don't know about the convicted molester down the street. They don't know about the car accidents, the bulimia, the surges of love and heartbreak, the guys with beer and ugly penises.

Lindsay moves quietly toward the door, shuts it behind her, goes back to her work. She's not being fair, she knows. Most people get through it.

In Nell's bed, the girls have fallen asleep the same way they did as babies, a shudder and a sigh as their hands and arms relaxed. Polly's thrown one arm over Nell.

About the author:

Ericka Lutz's fiction appears in anthologies, journals, and online including recently at Scrivener Creative Review, Green Mountains Review, Cherry Bleeds, and The Big Ugly Review. She edits the Literary Mama fiction department. Visit her at: http://www.erickalutz.com.