By Emily Huso
I wish I didn’t have to do this, I really do, the girl says. She drops the hairbrush on the lawn and presses the doll’s plastic forehead to her lips. Lola is the doll’s name, but she’s just called Horrid Thing when she’s bad. Like yesterday. The Horrid Thing wouldn’t stay sat up at the table and so had to be put in timeout. In the dryer, the doll tumbled, head over heels, while the girl looked on through the glass window, a doleful expression on her face. Someday you’ll thank me for this, she muttered, her nose scrunched hopefully at the smell of molten plastic, as if the heat could melt away the badness cast deep in the doll’s mold. Some dolls are just bad at their core, and the girl fears that’s how it is with Lola. She’s been in timeout on so many occasions her features are nothing but a smear, a face only a mother could love, once-glossy curls spun into a wild rat’s nest. Lola resists having her hair brushed, and today the girl has had enough. Perhaps this is why she lifts the doll by its frizzy hair, winds up, and lobs it over the fence. The doll sails through the rain-scented air against a backdrop of dark clouds, and the girl savors the splash as the body plunges into the neighbor’s swimming pool.
What in the world, Mom would say, the whites of her eyes aflash. She’d fix her with a piercing stare, arms crossed, acrylic claws tapping. I’ll give you to the count of ten. Of course, Mom’s been gone for ages now, and the girl has a feeling she’s getting too old to play with dolls. She’s stopped letting Lola sleep with her. Instead she tucks her into a shoebox under the bed with the dried-up roly-poly collection, promises she’ll be right there if Lola has bad dreams again.
Now the girl pictures Lola shivering in the Jungle, also known as Miss Marilou’s backyard. The Jungle—with its glowing yellow eyes, furtive shuffle of wings, distant howls carrying through the overgrowth like prayers—and Lola in her tattered dress splattered with mud, cast out and alone, wondering why no one loves her anymore. It had been bad of her to throw Lola away like that, the girl realizes. It was that same impulse that had compelled her to spit in the tea, flush the toilet while Mom or Dad was in the shower, draw weiners on the walls. Bad, bad.
Thunder rumbles. She climbs the tree and drops from a branch to straddle the fence. Easy. Then all at once she feels the world tilt, and she plummets into Miss Marilou’s backyard. Mushroom clouds bloom behind her eyes, dark and slick as oil. She blinks. Everything looks the same whether her eyes are open or closed, and her limbs won’t move when she tells them to. A sweet fragrance fills her nose. She decides she must be dead.
That’s how death works. You decide you’re dead and then you are. Today marks one week since Mom rolled her oversize suitcases out the door, and just this morning Dad had explained she wasn’t coming back, the words trailing from his mouth thick and cottony like the caterpillar’s smoke in Alice in Wonderland. While she waited for them to dissipate, the girl worried the Velcro on Lola’s dress and wished away the sick feeling twisting her stomach, pressing against the back of her eyes. Let’s just pretend she’s dead, Dad suggested, and the girl has since imagined her mother in all manner of life-threatening situations—kidnapped by greasy mustached thugs, swept away in a flood, poisoned. In every fantasy, the mother begs for her life, and her last thought is of the daughter she can’t bear to leave behind.
Earlier that day, Marilou finished re-watching the Revelation series. When it was over, she let the tape go static on the screen, a dizzying display of black-and-white dots. She traced the tissue-thin pages of her Bible. With the world so heavy with sin, was it any wonder the scales had tipped toward apocalypse? Wars and rumors of wars. False prophets. Pestilences, earthquakes. Hadn’t there been an earthquake just last night? The house’s groan was what had woken her, the rattle of china in the cupboards. Marilou just lay there in the dark, gripping the sheets to her chin, waiting for the tremors to subside. She can’t remember the last time she slept through a full night. Now the ceiling fan ticks overhead, so fast it looks like it’s ready to spin off its orbit. And what’s that smell? Brimstone? Fire, she thinks, recalling the pot of lentils she left to simmer before she started the tapes. She jumps. Hellish smoke fills the kitchen. The lentils are scorched. Could have burned the whole house down. She chucks the pot outside and wrenches open the windows, fanning the air with a pamphlet. At last, wheezing, she collapses in the sticky green La-Z-Boy. The cockatoo flaps from its perch on the curtain rod and lands on her head. She feels full of conviction: These are the days of tribulation, the beginning of the End. She isn’t sure whether she should shout the news from the rooftop or try one last time to atone for her sins.
Sins like the single sip of champagne mixed with doubt she allows herself every new year at midnight. Like the less than charitable thoughts she entertains about her neighbors—that woman who’s always sneaking around, looking through the fence with her nose turned up—or about her adult daughter, who never comes to see her anymore. Like the guilty relief she felt when her sick husband finally passed after years of lingering and transforming into someone she no longer recognized. Then there was the time she put out a block of mouse poison and a stray cat got into it. Marilou watched the whole thing from between the blinds, debating what to do while tears rolled down her cheeks. She couldn’t afford to take it to the vet. She should have at least put it out of its misery, but in the end she just hadn’t had the stomach. For hours the poor thing howled and writhed on the porch. When it was finally over Marilou buried it beneath one of her guava trees, and ever since, the tree has produced pithy fruit that tastes somehow both rotten and stale. She might as well chop it down, but then she remembers there’s hardly any point. The world is sure to end very soon, maybe even tonight. She’s considering the green-gray shade of the sky when she sees the neighbor kid’s unkempt mop appear above the fence then topple head-first into the gardenias.
The girl blinks up at Marilou’s thick glasses, the fresh bird doo trailing down her lumpy T-shirt. The woman’s salt-and-pepper hair glows in the milky twilight straining through the overgrowth. Not quite a halo, the girl decides. She feels a bump growing where she hit her head. So she’s not dead after all.
This is disappointing.
The Jungle grows close with trees planted so thick there’s barely room to walk. An eyesore, Mom always called it, the edge in her voice sharp enough to level the grove in one smooth slash. Some nights, when the girl lies awake in bed, she can hear eerie cries rising from the Jungle. She imagines some heavy-clawed beast slouching through the weeds, or Miss Marilou, hunched on all fours, rutting in the mud.
Can you move? Marilou says now.
Upon inspection the arms and legs work. The head bobs. Marilou nods back, her gaze drifting from the girl’s scraped limbs to the crushed gardenias to the darkening sky.
That’s all right, she says, the way adults say things when they’re thinking about something else. Let’s get you cleaned up. Her hands are knuckled, scaly. Witch hands, the girl will tell her mother. If she ever comes back. The thought stops the girl in her tracks. She entertains a possibility: What if her mother returned right now? The girl pictures the heaps of clothes strewn across her bedroom, her unmade bed, the seven bowls of soggy cereal on the table. Then there was the matter of her mother’s dress, which the girl had discovered still damp in the dryer. Those first few nights, she slept with the dress twisted in her arms, breathing in the familiar scent of her mother’s lotion. When Dad was out getting groceries, the girl stood in front of the mirror in her parents’ bedroom and slipped the dress over her head. She ran her fingers through her hair and swung her head, the way Mom did when she’d just delivered an especially biting insult. The girl strutted toward the mirror, turned on her heels, and peered over her shoulder at her reflection: The extra fabric pooled around her ankles and the neckline plunged down her flat chest. Ridiculous. She’d torn the dress off, seized a pair of scissors, and cut the dress into shreds. With dread, the girl imagines her mother now, coming upon the heap of fabric, a pointed toe sifting through the pieces.
From within the foliage the swimming pool appears and there is Lola, floating facedown in the water next to a nasty pond skater and a swirling clump of dead leaves. The girl darts to the pool and tries to fish the doll out. Now look what you’ve done, you Horrid Thing. She uses a twig to swish the doll closer and finally plucks her from the water. Always getting into trouble.
Hurry, Marilou says, her eyes rolling toward the clouds. Fat raindrops patter into the pool as she tugs the girl inside.
The screened-in porch is full of birds: cockatiels and parakeets, parrots and songbirds, their papery wings beating against the skylight. A dove escapes when Marilou opens the door, but she doesn’t seem to notice. Bird seed crunches beneath their shoes. In the house, cardboard boxes are stacked high against the walls, so that the hallways feel narrow and maze-like. Marilou shuffles into the pantry, which is stuffed with canned goods, sacks of rice and dried beans, water jugs, toilet paper, flashlights, batteries, matches. She ascends a stepladder and selects a first-aid kit from the top shelf. Back in the living room, she moves a pile of magazines from the sofa and sits the girl down next to her. She tsk-tsks over the scrape on the girl’s elbow, dabs it with something that stings.
All the while she’s scolding the girl for climbing the fence. Good way to break an arm. Didn’t her parents teach her better?
Well, yes, Mom had told her a million times not to climb the fence, but Dad? He doesn’t care. When she knocked on his door to ask if she could go outside to play, he hadn’t answered. Her heart racing, she’d turned the knob and peered in. Dad lay on the bed, dead asleep, a thin crust of drool on his chin. She had daubed it away before shutting the door.
At the Second Coming, the dead in Christ will rise, Miss Marilou is saying, her voice low. Wrinkles sag over her eyes so that the girl can’t tell if she means it.
The righteous will be caught up in the clouds…. Miss Marilou says, tearing the band-aid wrapper into shreds.
This strange girl wants to know more about what happens to the dead, a question so like one Marilou’s own daughter once asked not long after her father died. At first, when her husband became ill, Marilou had prayed for healing. She cooked special meals and planted an herb garden and rubbed oil into his hair. She’d married young, as people did back then, and the child had arrived six months later—a small scandal and yet another sin she’d have to answer for on Judgment Day. As her husband’s condition worsened, she privately reveled in the realization that she no longer had to consult him about everything. For the first time since her marriage, she felt aware of a self who lived and breathed independent of her husband, a self who was not her husband’s wife. This new sense of freedom possessed her. As his eyes sunk and his skin stretched over his skull, she had her nails painted for the first time, glossy and red as wet lips. On the way home, she stopped at the pet store and picked out a flock of birds. She let them fly loose in the screened-in porch, enjoying their eclectic chorus, their feather-dust smell, how it overpowered the stench of decay drifting from the bedroom. Toward the end, she prayed that God would be merciful, that her husband’s death would be swift and painless.
The dead aren’t really dead, just sleeping, Marilou explains, just as she had explained it to her daughter, in the sing-song voice she affects whenever she addresses anyone under the age of 13. They’ll be called up from the grave at the trumpet’s sound, shaken from their stony slumber when He returns “like a thief in the night.”
Everyone will have new healthy bodies, she adds, thinking of her husband, who had been faithful to the last. He was sure to be among the saved, but would she be there to see it? On a night like tonight, with the warm yawn of hell on her neck, Marilou isn’t sure. She isn’t sure at all.
The girl looks as tired as Marilou feels. She curls around the filthy doll, her head resting in Marilou’s lap. Marilou half expects her to purr.
What happens to the bad ones? the girl asks, her voice muffled. I wish I didn’t have to go, I really do, her mother had said, going. Something had driven her away, and the girl thinks it must have been her, her ratty hair, her unbrushed teeth, the stories she’s always telling. She imagines her mother at the house now, picking the front lock, maneuvering through the messy living room, tiptoeing past her sleeping husband. She avoids the floorboard that always creaks. She shuts the door behind her. She steals into the girl’s bedroom, calls her name in a low voice. She lifts the comforter, looks under the bed skirts, pokes her head into the closet. She turns one last time around the bedroom, lifts her shoulders in a peremptory shrug, and exits through the window, all in a matter of seconds, blink and you could have missed it.
It’s as if she were never there. The girl feels the urge to tell a new story now, one that would make her mother weep if she could hear it.
All at once the heavens open, rain drums on the roof, and somewhere inside the house, the girl hears a dripping. She imagines the house is completely submerged, the drip the start of a leak that signals the end of everything.
Emily Huso is a Filipino-American writer from Northern California. She earned her MFA from the University of Washington and currently serves as an assistant professor of English at Southern Adventist University. Her work has received support from AWP’s Writer to Writer Mentorship Program and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and appears in Multicultural Echoes, The Roadrunner Review, and Reflex Fiction. She tweets about her novel-in-progress @emilyhuso. Visit her website here.