Elle leans on the black metal railing in front of the train station in a lopsided blue hat, matching blue shirt, and bright red bow tie. There are two round white buttons at her waist. She places her gloved hand on top of a small boy’s head to mess his hair and he giggles.
Click. Click. Click.
A girl in a twirling pink princess dress runs at top speed and almost knocks her over. Elle saves the moment, catching her and doing a sort of silly dance. They turn to face the camera together, a whirl of happy motion.
Click. Click. Click.
All pacifier and big eyes, a terrified toddler hides in his stroller clutching a stuffed mouse to his face. Elle gets down on one knee and plays peek-a-boo behind her gloved hands until he warms to her. He gives her a high-five and smiles for the camera.
Click. Click. Click.
A group of teenagers in the crowd yell out they love her and Elle makes a heart shape with her hands and presses it towards them. She waves and waves as children pass by her, the joy contagious and beautiful. Smiling, she hops on one foot and then the other, until she spots Greg off to her right with a clipboard in his hand. He’s writing and she feels herself deflating.
Everyone knows when Greg comes to watch your shift it means one of two things; promotion or firing. Elle tries to ignore him, but her eyes keep returning to his dark handlebar mustache, blue pinstripe suit, and bright white cummerbund. His pen stays in motion.
She can’t help but think about her now ex-roommate Britney. Greg visited her a few weeks ago during her final performance of the day and afterward released her. He said she “didn’t have the right energy” and “looked off-brand.” In an instant, her dream of being promoted to a face character ended. It broke her.
Elle found her sobbing on the locker room floor. They took a bus to a small diner far from the tourists and Britney cried into her cheeseburger for a long time, her snot congealing with ketchup to form a stream of gross gunk down her face.
“How dare he do this to me! I’ve worked so hard!” Britney sobbed. “Greg’s a monster!”
“It’s not rocket science, Elle! I don’t know why he makes it out to be so difficult. I didn’t do anything different today than I’d been doing for two years. It makes no sense. I deserve to be a princess! He was never going to give me a fair shot.”
Elle had worked beside Britney a few times, and although she’d never say it to her face, she understood Greg’s decision. Britney felt she deserved better, begged for it all the time, and didn’t put much heart or enthusiasm into her current role. Elle felt a mix of sadness and relief watching Britney stuff her blow-dryer into the top of her packed wheelie bag and walk out the apartment door.
Click. Click. Click.
A large family approaches and Elle lays on the ground in front of them, as she’s been taught. It’s the only way to make the large group photos work. She knows her poses are correct, but Greg writes and writes on his clipboard and she can’t imagine what he could be writing.
“Fails to be perfect.”
“Not good enough.”
Elle gets the signal and follows her handler to the cast-room. She waves and does a little dance until she’s fully out of view. Although she can’t see him, she knows Greg followed. As she removes her giant head and gets a drink of water, he walks in smiling.
“Wonderful job Elle,” he says.
“You know why I’m here, right?”
Elle doesn’t want to make any guesses, so she shrugs and smiles. He smiles back.
“I know you have been waiting for this, so I wanted to tell you in person. You have done it, Elle. Congratulations. You are now friends with Snow White.”
He hands her a red hair bow and she rubs the satin with her fingers.
“You will begin your training next week,” Greg says.
Elle finishes up her shift, 30 minutes on and 30 minutes off until the park closes. It isn’t until she walks back to her apartment, the full moon bright in the sky above her, that it hits her. For as long as she can remember, her mother has dreamed of her playing Snow White at the Happiest Place on Earth. She’d told Elle it was her destiny because of her pale white skin, dark black hair, and red lips. There wasn’t any other plan for her and now she’s done it.
She should call her mom. She should celebrate. She should be happy. All the shoulds feel wrong.
She takes a hot shower, slips into soft pink pajamas, and runs her hand along her bookshelf until she finds the well-worn book of pastel drawings, the soft cloth binding frayed slightly on the edges. She flips to her favorite page marked with a red silk ribbon, a beautiful painting of a garden filled with bluebells and snowdrops. Written in her neatest handwriting along the bottom are the words, “Snow White’s Garden/My Garden.”
She remembers writing those words when she was 10-years-old, the year her mother gave her the book and told her she would become Snow White. Elle loved the idea. It made her feel special and loved. She practiced singing and talking until she could mimic Snow White as well as anyone. Her mother would beam with pride watching her.
When she was 18, they drove across five states to California for the auditions. On the drive, her mother opened up a bit about her own life, something she rarely did. She told Elle she’d been a model her entire childhood and teenage years, and how she’d been on the cover of hundreds of magazines and traveled all over the world.
“But my mother didn’t protect me, Elle,” she’d said. “And people hurt me. Lots of people hurt me. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”
Her mother stayed for several months after Elle got hired, and pressed hard for her to be Snow White. Elle understood she had to put in time as other characters, and she didn’t mind at all. She enjoys slipping on the costumes and transforming into the beloved characters of the park. The ritual of it, the tears of joy, and the infectious laughter make Elle feel whole.
The day her mother finally left for home, she’d squeezed Elle painfully tight to her and sobbed into her shoulder. They’d never spent time apart and Elle was a bit terrified of being on her own, but also excited. She felt it was time for her to make her own decisions and friends—something she’d not done her entire life.
“Promise me you’ll be okay,” her mother said, black mascara running down her cheeks.
“I’m okay mom,” Elle said. “I’ll be okay.”
She wasn’t sure she would be, and the first night alone with Britney in the apartment she’d spent a long time crying in the shower. She wondered how she’d manage to feed herself, work until late at night, and do her own laundry. It felt overwhelming, but Elle surprised herself. She found a rhythm, made friends, and discovered she was more than capable of caring for herself.
Now, with Britney gone, Elle realizes how much she loves being alone with her own thoughts. She’s taken up reading, painting, and baking. On her days off she meets friends at the park, goes for a run, or has friends over to play games. Her life has become full and her own.
Her mother calls her at 5 a.m. every morning, and Elle waits up for her call. It’s always the same questions, rapid-fire and breathy from her anxious mom.
“Are you okay?”
“Are you Snow White yet?”
“Who can I talk to?”
Elle brews herself a cup of mint tea and snuggles under a blanket. She looks around the room at her place and feels a swelling of pride. It’s been two years since her mother left, and Elle loves her life. She thinks about how wonderful it feels to see children light up at the sight of her and how often their joy brings her to tears. Snow White may have been her original dream, her mother’s dream for her, but it doesn’t fit her. It’s not what she wants.
Elle takes a sip of tea and picks up her cellphone. It’s her life, she thinks, and smiles.
“Sorry to call so early, Greg, but I’ve been thinking about the offer and I’d like to decline. I love my current role and I wonder if I might keep it.”
“Are you sure, Elle? You’d make a fantastic Snow White.”
“Yeah. I’m sure.”
“Okay, then. See you tomorrow.”
She sips her tea, watches the sunrise through her front window, and happily waits for her mother’s call.
Author’s note: As you may have guessed, I spent the week in Disneyland celebrating my nephew’s 3rd birthday. It was a wonderful whirlwind of a trip! There was very little time for writing and thinking, but I did manage this short story written late at night with sore feet and a full heart. I hope you enjoyed it.
Elowen waits for her daughter to return home from school, aware of the absurdity of her life. She deserves none of it, and the fear it will disappear any moment feels terrifyingly close at all times.
She stares toward her bedroom as if she can see the mirror tucked away in the back of the closet wrapped in layers of thick wool or the book hidden under the floorboards. Her reality and the truth run parallel to each other, but she knows they will intersect. It’s simply a matter of time
Her patient husband, Gabriel, broke through her barriers four years ago when he delivered a crate of canvases to the apartment she hasn’t left in ten years. When she told him her truth, leaking it out bit by bit until it laid before him in a pile, he didn’t run. He stepped into her world, he accepted her, and he made her believe she deserved love.
The early years with her daughter were her favorite because she didn’t leave her side. She was a delightful, sweet-smelling flower of a baby with plump rosy skin and bright curious eyes. She filled the apartment with a kind of frenzied happiness neither she nor Gabriel could have imagined.
As she grew, her curiosity and energy felt too big for the space and Gabriel would take her to the park, the zoo, the library and to see Elowen’s artwork in galleries all over New York. Elowen would pace the floor each time they left, certain they would not return. When they did, she’d scoop her daughter into her arms and kiss her face.
“Tell me everything!” she would say.
Viola became an excellent reporter and storyteller. She’d bring her mother little gifts of snow globes, picked flowers, or pretty rocks. Elowen would put them on the bookshelf and they’d sit as reminders of an outside world she wasn’t a part of and dread the day it might be the same for her daughter.
Finally, the time came for Viola to attend kindergarten. She stood in a yellow-spotted dress, her hair in two long braids tied with yellow ribbons, and her pudgy hands on her hips. She stared at her mother with a mix of curiosity and fear.
“Why do I have to go and you don’t?”
“Because you can.”
“It’s not fair.”
“I know but I need you to go learn things and teach me.”
Viola did. She would come home and curl up in her mother’s lap. Elowen would run her fingers through her daughter’s soft brown hair, and she’d tell her all about her day. Elowen would help her with homework, art projects, and studying for tests. She’d run lines with her for her many theatrical endeavors, and Elowen would do her stage makeup, tell her to break a leg, and then cry when she left. At home Viola had one life, but in the world she had another. Elowen wished she could be in both.
The front door opens and Viola comes in with her backpack bulging full of homework. Elowen knows not to run to her anymore, so she sits at the table with a plate of fresh-baked cookies waiting for her daughter to tell her about her day. She looks at her soft freckled skin and the changes of her body, impossible to ignore, and tries not to cry.
The truth casts a shadow across the kitchen and Elowen can feel it pressing around her, growing larger and more terrible each moment. Viola dunks her cookie in a glass of milk, and Elowen prays she will forgive her.
Viola didn’t tell her parents about the party. She feels bad, but they gave her no choice. Since her 13th birthday last week, her mother’s anxiety has become overbearing. She texts Viola constantly, refuses to let her attend the botany class trip, and keeps sniffing her.
“Your mother does not sniff you,” Elle said.
Her best friend since the first grade, Elle knows about her mother. When they were ten, they found ‘agoraphobic’ in a book at the library, a word Viola overheard a parent calling her mother when she didn’t come to the class play. Her mother said the label didn’t fit and to ignore hurtful people. Viola tries, but her mother always made it difficult.
“She does sniff me!” Viola says. “I swear!”
“Oh, Viola. Really! It’s too much.”
“I know, but it’s true!”
Her father used to balance her mother out, but lately, he’s become just as bad as she is. Elle says it’s because she has boobs now, which Viola finds disgusting and possibly true. She’s caught both her parents staring at her, and they make these annoying sad faces. Viola’s had enough.
“I swear they think I’m going to sprout into a teenage monster any second!”
The entire walk to the party Viola can’t believe she snuck out. She’s never broken a rule before and she feels bad about it, but not attending this party wasn’t an option. Beverley, the coolest girl in school, invited her. It’s a cast party for an off-Broadway play her older brother stars in. There will be all kinds of opportunities for Viola to meet agents, and maybe get discovered. This could be her big social and professional break.
The party’s on the rooftop of the Baldwin Terrace Hotel. Viola walks past doormen in royal blue suits and through a lobby with the largest flower arrangements she’s ever seen. She takes a gold elevator to the roof and a bald man with bulging arm muscles finds her name on a guest list and lets her in. The roof’s filled with people of all ages dressed in fancy suits and skimpy dresses, and she immediately feels self-conscious in the green dress her mother made her for Christmas and her brown Mary Jane wedges.
It takes several minutes to locate Beverly, but Viola finds her standing in a group of guys near the bar. She’s wearing a black silky dress that shows a lot of skin, fishnet stockings, and red pointed high heels. The boys are looking down Beverly’s dress, and nobody looks at Viola when she approaches.
“Hi,” Viola says. “Pretty awesome party.”
Beverly smiles but gives her a pained look. She must have said the wrong thing, a breach of party etiquette, and the boys in the circle walk away. For a few minutes, the girls stand side-by-side watching a jazz band dressed in matching burgundy suits play a soft depressing song. Viola doesn’t know what to say, and before she figures it out, a guy slips his arm around Beverly’s waist. He’s dressed all in black with round glasses, puffy black hair, and a neatly trimmed beard.
“You got a battery in that little purse of yours?”
He wiggles his vape pen in front of her and makes a pouty face. She giggles wildly and it makes Viola want to punch her, or him, or both.
“No, but I bet Jon does.”
They walk away and Viola doesn’t follow. A waiter hands her a tall glass of champagne and it smells terrible. She wishes it was soda. She watches people for a long time, tracking Beverly as she and the guy move around the party. He kisses her neck, touches her thigh, and eventually leads her away from the party toward the elevator, his hand slipping from her waist to her butt.
Viola’s seen enough to know this isn’t her kind of party, and she’s not ready for any of this. She weaves past couples making out on grey sofas and around tight groups leaned close together laughing or sucking on colorful vape pens. She gets a whiff of fake strawberries.
Behind the bar, there’s a brick wall with a narrow passage on the right side. Viola scoots through it and finds it opens onto a large garden with tiny white lights strung across on black wires. The sounds of the party are muted here, and Viola decides to walk through the garden to see if there’s another exit on the other side.
A grey paved stone path weaves between large square garden boxes of light wood, each filled with vegetables, fruit trees, or flowers. Viola takes a few steps into the garden and stops at a bush filled with blooming pink camellias, her favorite. She runs her fingers over the soft petals, around and around, and then plunges her finger into the center. The flower jerks to the side, as if hurt, and Viola jumps back, the glass of champagne falling from her hand and shattering against the wooden side of the planter box.
She hears a deep, guttural scream as if someone has been hurt. She scans the building, looking for the source of the sound and sees nothing. She remembers a movie where a shooter was hidden on the roof of a building and she ducks down onto the ground beside a carrot patch until she can be sure she’s safe.
After a few quiet minutes, she assures herself it must have been the wind. The dirt beside her smells so good, and for the first time in her life, she feels the urge to put her hands into the soil. She digs her fingers into the dirt and impulsively pulls up a fat carrot. It dangles in front of her.
“Hi,” it says.
There’s no mouth, but she’s certain the carrot spoke. Shocked, she throws it on the ground and stands up.
“Hello?” she calls.
All around her she hears the sounds of voices, some muffled, but others high and sweet. The voices call greetings or sing songs. She can’t see anyone, and her heart begins to beat wildly. She looks down and finds her hands are covered in a green powder. She tries to brush it off, but it appears to be seeping into her skin.
The voice sounds deep and close by, but there’s nobody around. The green powder has turned her hands and arms the color of kale, a deep rich green color. Her body vibrates; alive, tingly, and bursting with energy. She runs in place, the feeling of power surging from her head to her toes.
“What in the hell?”
This voice sounds different, angry, and fearful. Viola spins around and finds a waiter, a teenager with pimply skin and messy blonde hair, staring at her with wide eyes. He gasps and starts running. She quickly follows him through the garden and hears a chorus of voices calling to her, singing to her, begging her to stay. The plants lean toward her, aching to touch her. The waiter runs through a metal door and it slams shut behind him.
She runs in place again but notices her reflection on the metal door. It’s distorted, but there’s no mistaking the newly deep green color of her face and the tangled mess of thorny vines in her hair. The voices from the garden call to her, she can feel them growing and moving, but she doesn’t want to. She wants to go home.
Throwing open the unlocked stairwell door, she sprints down the forty flights of stairs, through the crowded lobby, and onto the street. Nobody seems to notice her, as she runs all the way to her apartment building, leaping the stairs to the fourteenth floor. She pounds on the apartment door until her father answers. His eyes go wide, but he says nothing. Her mother screams and falls to the floor. Viola stumbles past them and collapses on her bed.
Viola wishes she could be anywhere but here. She’s sitting across from her parents at the kitchen table, all of them staring at the crumbly mess of a half-eaten croissant. Her dad has his arm around her mother and she’s nervously picking at the skin around her left thumb.
“Viola,” her dad says. “You know things are weird right now.”
She does. Something happened to Viola at the party. She remembers bits and pieces, flashes of impossible things, strange voices, and waking to find her sheets covered in dead leaves. Her parents have tip-toed around her, and they stop their whispered conversations when she enters the room. Her father, an engineer with several big projects in the works, took time off and hasn’t left her mother’s side.
Viola wishes she’d get punished for sneaking out, but her parents haven’t mentioned the night at all. Her mother barely leaves her bed, and she won’t look at Viola. She cries easily and hasn’t touched her paints or canvases since the party. It’s a week later, and it occurs to Viola maybe it’s not about her at all. Maybe her mother is sick.
Her father’s arm around her mother looks protective and the silence in the room feels big. Viola wraps her legs around her chair and rocks it back and forth making a small thumping sound. She doesn’t want to face grown-up things. She has a sudden urge to run into her room and grab her favorite stuffed rabbit, Bun-Bun. Her thumb aches to be sucked, a habit she stopped long ago but never stopped longing for.
“It’s okay,” her father says.
Viola’s not sure if she’s supposed to speak, and looks at her mother. She expects to see tears in her green eyes or for her to look away, but she meets Viola’s gaze without blinking. There’s a fat drop of blood where her mother picked the skin off her thumb and her father covers it with his large tanned hand.
“This isn’t easy for us to tell you,” he says.
“She’s not ready,” her mother says.
Her father squeezes her mother’s hand in his. There’s a conversation in the looks they exchange, and he kisses her forehead. They return their attention to Viola and her stomach drops. Her mother reaches under the table and pulls out a package wrapped in brown paper and tied with a faded yellow ribbon. She sets it in front of her.
“Open it,” she says.
Viola hesitates for a moment, unsure if she wants to see what’s inside the wrapping. Her parents give her encouraging nods, and she pulls one side of the velvety soft ribbon. The bow unties and falls from the package. She rubs it on her face for a moment. It smells flowery, sweet, and familiar. Her parents watch in silence as she pulls the wrapping off and reveals a thin brown book.
She turns it over and gasps at the cover. It’s a comic book with her face on it. Not the face she’s had her entire life, but the green face she’d glimpsed for a moment in the silver reflection of the door. With a shiver, she remembers the plants calling to her and the thorns in her hair.
“The Family Tree,” it says in curling white letters. It’s her mother’s artwork and her mother’s name on the bottom. She flips it open and begins to read.
“Once upon a time, there was a farm.”
The first pages show overflowing and colorful flower beds, neat rows of vegetables, a leaning red barn, and a small yellow house with peeling paint and a wraparound porch. There are three black-and-white cows, dozens of chickens, and two sheep.
“A family of three lived on the farm.”
The mother and her two young daughters have matching soft brown hair, green eyes, and an abundance of freckles. They look like Viola. In the pictures, they pull weeds, milk the cows, and drink glasses of tea on the porch. Written in beautiful cursive letters down their legs are their names; Oleander the mother, Jessamine the oldest, and Elowen the youngest.
“One day something strange happened.”
The girls and their mother pull weeds in a large field. They wear matching blue overalls and wide tan sun hats with angelic smiles and round pink cheeks. As they work, a green fog descends from the mountainside and swallows the small family. When the fog lifts, the mother stands transformed with her hands on her hips. The two young girls cry with surprise at her green skin and wild hair of thorny vines. Her legs, arms, and neck have stretched and she looks tall, thin, and wispy.
“What happened to you?” Jessamine says.
“I don’t like it,” Elowen says.
The mother says nothing, and the girls begin to cry. The mother turns and runs. She runs for a long time, frame after frame, the vines trailing behind her. The girls go into the house and hide in the closet holding each other. They sleep on the floor.
The sun rises in the sky and the mother opens the door. She has turned back to normal and the girls rush into her arms. The mother looks surprised.
“What’s this all about?” the mother says.
“You were a monster,” Elowen says.
The mother didn’t remember anything from the night before, but her daughters told her the story. She laughed and called it a bad dream. The girls wanted to believe her.
“But it wasn’t a dream.”
The three are picking apples and the mother changes again. She doesn’t run this time but turns to her girls who cower and hug one another.
“What’s wrong?” the mother says.
“You are a monster!” both girls say.
The mother goes into the house and stands in front of an old-fashioned upright mirror of tarnished silver. Her green reflection substantiates the story her girls told her. As she stares, frame after frame, we see a man appear behind her. He’s wearing a long black jacket and black shoes. He appears to be stretched tall like a fun-house mirror.
“Who’s there?” the mother says.
She spins around and the man isn’t there, but in the next frame he’s back in the mirror behind her. He’s closer now and we can see he has long black hair, shiny and wet looking. His eyes are green, the color of fresh leaves when the sun hits them.
“Who are you?”
“What do you want?”
The man puts his hand around her neck, but she lashes out at him with vines from her body and runs from the room. The girls are waiting outside and she smiles at them.
The mother doesn’t tell the girls about the man. She does tell them not to be scared and they listen.
In the next picture, the girls are working in the garden beside their green mother, who moves faster and can lift things she couldn’t before. The garden and flowers grow tall, and the girls hold giant carrots in their hands with wide proud smiles.
On the next page, it’s night and the mother wraps the mirror in a thick wool blanket and places it in the back of the barn. She stands in the moonlight with her hands on her hips, her body half green and half pink, mid-transformation.
“Time moved on.”
The mother holds hands with her girls and watches the sunset, the words “wild green mother” are written across her green naked back.
Frame after frame, the girls get older and older.
The bright yellow kitchen is filled with balloons and streamers of pink and purple. A strawberry cake with 13 written in pink frosting sits on the table with glowing orange candles. Jessamine blows them out, her face less and her body more round.
“Then another strange thing happened on the farm.”
We see the older sister working in the garden, one frame she’s smiling with freckled pink skin, and the next she’s transformed. Her body stretched, green and covered in vines. Her mother holds her hand and they smile together. The younger sister watches, curling up in a ball in one frame and moving to the barn to snuggle beside a sleeping sheep in the next.
“Hello? Hello? Is someone there?”
The little sister hears a voice from the far corner of the barn and follows it. She finds the mirror and unwraps it. The man stands behind her smiling. The girl’s eyes are wide. She turns around and the man isn’t there. She turns back and he’s closer now.
“Who are you?”
“A friend of your mother. Come closer.”
The girl does. He’s behind her, reaching out and touching the mirror, the palm of his large hand presses into the glass. The girl steps forward and presses her small hand into the glass.
He grabs her hand.
“Ouch!” she says.
“Why? You are hurting me.”
“I don’t mean to hurt you, but I’m trapped in here. If you free me your mother will be happy and I will be too. You only have to pull. It won’t hurt anymore. I promise.”
The girl does, and the man tumbles from the mirror in a tangle of long arms and legs. In the next frame, he straightens and brushes the dirt from his jacket and pants.
“Thank you,” he says.
He hits the small girl in her head with his fist and she falls to the ground. He kicks hay over her body.
The mother and older daughter are working in the garden smiling, both green and strong. The man stalks them in the shadows of the trees until he reaches them and pounces. There are several pages of the fight, the mother/daughter duo using their vines and long bodies to fight off his attacks, but he has black whips and he strikes them over and over.
He’s able to wrap up the mother and pull her to the ground. The daughter tries to help, and he knocks her in the head with his fist. He drags the two green figures by the vines of their hair across the field and back to the mirror. He’s smiling. The younger sister wakes as he pulls them through the mirror and disappears.
“No!” she screams.
She bangs on the mirror, tears filling her big eyes, but there’s no sign of the man, her mother, or her sister.
On the last page, we see a grown Elowen standing at the window of an apartment building with the New York skyline in front of her. The mirror sits in the corner reflecting the image back to her.
Viola closes the comic book and finds her father smiling at her with tears in his eyes. He grabs her hand and squeezes it. She looks at one of her mother’s paintings on the wall behind him. It’s of a yellow farmhouse kitchen with a wooden bowl of fresh-picked carrots sitting next to a sink of chipped white porcelain. There’s a lot Viola didn’t understand until this moment.
“Where’s mom?” she says.
“In the bedroom,” he says. “She’s waiting for you.”
Viola stands and finds herself a bit wobbly. She wants to ask her mother a lot of questions, but first, she wants to hug her. The years of feeling embarrassed and angry at her mother melt into shame and sadness. She runs down the hallway.
Her mother stands looking out the window, her hands folded behind her back. Viola begins to cry, rushing to her and hugging her tight before she turns around.
“I’m sorry mom,” she says into her back.
“No,” her mom says.
She turns Viola around and puts her hands on her daughter’s shoulders.
“I should have told you years ago. I didn’t know how and I thought maybe it wouldn’t happen to you…but it did and I didn’t prepare you. I can’t tell you how sorry I am. You deserved better.”
They sit on the bed, Viola laying across her mother’s lap. She strokes her hair.
“I stayed on the farm for as long as I could, but eventually someone found me. I lived with an aunt I’d never met and slept with the mirror beside me. I looked into it all the time, waiting for my mother and sister to return, but they didn’t.”
“How awful,” Viola says.
“It was, but it got worse. As I got older I feared the transformation I saw my mother and sister experience would happen to me. I began to wonder if it did, would the man from the mirror come and get me. I started to worry more about him, and forget about them. I wrapped the mirror up and hid it away.”
She takes a deep breath.
“Then I hid away.”
Viola doesn’t know what to say. She looks around the room and spots a bulky item in the corner she’s never seen before.
“Is that it?” she asks.
They walk together and stand in front of the mirror wrapped in wool blankets and layers of shiny silver tape. Neither of them speak for a long time, Elowen lost in memory and Viola thinking of the grandmother and aunt she didn’t know existed until today.
“Would you like to see it?” Elowen asks.
“I’m scared,” Viola says.
“What if the man has returned because I changed? What if he tries to get me?”
“We fight,” her father says from the doorway.
“As a family,” her mother says.
“Could they still be alive?” Viola asks.
“I’ve never stopped believing,” Elowen says. “I let fear stop me from looking, but not anymore. I’m ready.”
“We’re ready,” Viola and Gabriel say at the same time.
The family works together to cut off the tape and remove the dusty layers of blankets. The tarnished silver of the mirror looks as it did in the comic book, and the family holds hands, Viola in the center of her parents, and looks into the mirror.
Author’s note: I’m not sure where this story came from, except I’ve been fascinated for a long time with the idea of generational pain. My grandmother died of Covid at the start of the pandemic. She was a terribly unhappy woman, and the week she died, I was struck with the idea I needed to write her story. I hatched a plan to interview her when she was well, but I didn’t get the chance.
As weird as it sounds, I’ve felt an internal sadness all my life I don’t think belongs to me. I see it in my mother, my aunts, and my daughter. I’ve healed some of it by facing forward and talking it out in therapy, but it still lingers like a long-ago curse or a green fog from the mountainside.
I struggled with writing this story. It took far longer than any of the other short stories I’ve written, and I don’t think it’s quite right. I might revisit this story of Oleander, Jessamine, Elowen, and Viola in another format as my skills increase, and perhaps then I can find out why these characters feel so important to me.
Digging through the bag of fabric paint, she knows exactly what she’s looking for. The body of the unicorn gets turquoise blue in swirling dabs, while the mane, tail and tiny hooves are carefully added with small, precise strokes of bright pink. Next, the horn and three music notes are added in dark purple.
Smiling, she dips a slim brush into a glob of sparkly gold and begins adding dots around the large black lettering of her band name, “Punk Rock Unicorn.”
“This looks so good,” she says.
She doesn’t ask what I think.
She doesn’t worry if her bandmates will like it.
She loves it.
“Can you paint my nails?” she asks. “Some blue and some pink. Oh, and with gold tips!”
I say yes, but I struggle to make it happen. The main color doesn’t reach the edge of every nail, and the gold tips are uneven.
“Sorry,” I say.
“They are perfect,” she says while wiggling her fingers in front of her face. “Thank you!”
It’s time to leave for her band’s show, the culmination of a week of Girls Rock Camp. She is wearing her favorite leggings, a faded swirling galaxy of pink and purple with visible holes in the knees. Her hair isn’t brushed and it’s matted in the back where she slept on it wet.
“Are you sure you don’t want to wear a sparkly skirt and brush your hair? Maybe add some color?”
“I look fine mom,” she says. “I’m comfortable.”
I want to fight her.
I want her to care more about how she looks.
I want her to look more put together.
But there she is, my Punk Rock Unicorn, smiling at me without any hesitation at all, while I changed my outfit several times and still wasn’t happy with my own reflection in the mirror.
This is all I’ve ever wanted for my girl, to be unapologetically herself, to not shrink for anyone, and to rock everything she does without fear or doubt.
Her confident smile is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
At the show, I watch her and all the girls playing instruments and singing with a reckless joy I don’t know I’ve ever felt in my life.
They are brave, free and strong.
They are working together, not in competition, lifting and rising as one.
I’m so happy for them…until I’m not.
Something inside starts churning up, this voice of perfectionism and criticism.
Why is my girl singing so quietly? She isn’t smiling and doesn’t look as confident as some of the others. Why did she act shy when she was given a compliment? I’m sure it’s my fault, something I’m doing wrong. I’m ruining this perfect girl.
After the show, she runs to me and hugs me hard. She has bright blue eye makeup and sparkly lip gloss her coach put on her backstage. Her arms feel strong and solid.
“Did you have fun?” I ask her.
“Yes!” she says.
“How come you looked so shy up there? Why weren’t you smiling more?”
The words come tumbling out before I can stop them. I recognize this voice, the very same one sabotaging my writing and stopping me from doing anything I might fail it.
I don’t want it to be her voice.
I search her face, looking for any trace of damage my words may have caused.
“What do you mean?” she says.
Her face is as radiant as ever.
“I’m very proud of you,” I say. “You really rocked it up there! It looked so fun. I bet you are proud.”
“Thanks,” she says. “I am!”
She melts into me, the warmth of her body like a blanket soothing my critical voices and giving me another chance.
Always another chance.
I remember her plan to have her bandmates and coaches sign her shirt.
“People are starting to leave,” I say. “Did you still want to get signatures?”
“Yes,” she says and runs off to borrow a pen.
I watch her go and make it happen for herself.
Her confidence isn’t loud or boastful, but calm and careful.
She gently taps friends and coaches, asking them to sign her shirt, standing still as they do.
I see many are holding the tiny pink unicorn erasers she spent an hour digging out of the bins in her room, the ones she so thoughtfully brought for them all.
My heart nearly bursts.
This girl is everything.
After the show, we head to dinner and she gives the waitress one of the teeny unicorn erasers, a light pink one with a purple mane and tail.
“Did you see her smile?” she says. “I think she liked it.”
“Yes,” I say. “You make everyone smile, just by being you.”
She sits with her back against me, both of us watching the sea in silence. Our breath and hearts remembering the synchronization, falling into pace again.
The black rocks bob up and down in the murky grey waves, like seals playing, like we just were; hand in hand darting from the cold foam, testing our footing on crumbling rocks and watching the sand create light circles around our feet as we step together.
The deep, grey clouds mute the color of everything, making even the stark whitecaps of the waves seem wiped away of color.
I put my hand on top of hers, and breathe in the scent of salt caught in the gilded strands.
She’s talking about life, her philosophical nature equally captivated by the waves as my own; motivations, dreams, memories, fears and ambitions.
Our voices match in pace, harmonized.
The clouds gradually shift, the wind gently pushing away the platinum grey, allowing tiny patches of bright blue to appear. With the blue comes white, brown, green and gold. It’s as if nothing is truly a color without the sun’s rays to warm it to life.
Shapes appear far out in the sea, hidden before in the dreariness of grey; black triangular rocks topped with white splashes, golden strips of land carved smooth like rising waves, royal green hills and shiny black birds suspended like kites on a string.
Our tummies growl and I know the moment must end, but I stretch it, savoring the vast warmth as if I may never feel it again.
My baby will be 10 this summer and, as cliché as it is, all those moms who stopped me in Target when my kids were little are right, it does go by so fast.
Chubby pink babies with soft folds you must lift to wash are suddenly explaining why they feel empathy for the mean girl at school with shocking insight and depth.
I feel confused; like I’m Alice shaking my head as the Mad Hatter explains the nature of time, only I’m watching my little baby perform mock episodes of both “Elmo’s World” and “Dance Moms” and wondering where her wit and timing comes from.
She has a feisty resistance to people who don’t listen to her and a sweet devotion to those who do. I see so much of myself in her, but also recognize a strength and determination which is entirely hers alone.
I trace the freckles on her arms as we talk a few more minutes. The sound of the waves, crashing and retracting, the soundtrack to our love.
I know she can’t understand the intensity of my emotions, my devotion. She doesn’t understand why I get irate so quickly when she whines; undone thinking she will have the same negative soundtrack locked in a loop inside her head. I want to shake the pain away from her, make her see only light, only good.
I vow again, silently, like every mother does, to try and be more patient and to do my best to build her up so she can handle the weight of everything to come.
I whisper I love you into her head, and it doesn’t feel like enough. Adore, admire, cherish, treasure; each word like a piece of the puzzle. She can’t know the weight of it, I decide.
She eases off my lap, so I can cook us grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. She begins to sing and my heart is as full as the moon, pulling the waves back and forth, pulling us closer together again.
We get off the elevator, round the corner and I see it.
No. No. No.
I want to turn around, but the kids are skipping ahead.
“Come on mom.”
Before me is the rooftop pool of the young and the hip. It is rectangular shaped with a giant mirror angled down at the end so you can watch yourself swim.
But nobody is swimming.
Oh, no. Not this bunch.
A few are in the pool, but they are only waist deep. The rest sit on couches or are standing in groups. Every girl is model thin and wearing a tiny bikini. Hair and makeup are perfect. I glance around thinking surely we stumbled onto a photo shoot.
The boys are model ready too, gathered in various clusters with cut abs and perfect tans, all acting as if this is a completely normal thing to be doing.
This is not fucking normal.
I don’t know what this is.
Every hand is either holding a colorful cocktail or a tall glass of beer.
“This pool is so cool!” my kids yell and quickly take off their shoes and dive in.
All eyes are on us.
I hear a few snickers and endure a malicious stare from a girl drinking something pink from a sparkling glass. She is probably around 23 and I get it. Kids are so annoying when you are young. I smile back.
“Are you kidding?” I hear one of the pretty male peacocks in the shallow end of the pool say to his friends. He follows it up by something I can’t hear. They laugh.
A mother with kids at a hotel pool is apparently the funniest thing they have ever seen.
“What are you looking at freaks,” I want to yell. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
But I don’t.
I look around and find one empty spot left around the pool. It is a big brown couch with several large pillows. I grab a few towels and a glass of the free water. I climb into the oversize couch and find if I scoot all the way to the back with my book, I can almost disappear.
The kids are busy swimming laps back and forth. Their giggles and laughter fills the empty space.
I see my girl kick past a highly groomed beer drinker, splashing his back with a little water.
“What the fuck?” he says and shields his fluffy blond hair from any potential drips.
His friends laugh.
I don’t laugh.
I fucking don’t laugh one bit.
I sit with my black bathing suit cover over my black bathing suit dress and want to throw-up. Or maybe I want to eat. Or maybe I want a cocktail.
The insecurity and anger wrestle inside as I try and just not be here.
I never looked like these people. Never. Not when I was a teen. Not when I was 20. Never.
I hate them.
Then I’m mad for hating them.
I am judging them for youth and beauty, something they can’t help. These are someone’s children. They are just enjoying their vacation by the pool and don’t want to be reminded little human’s share the planet with them.
But they don’t have to be douchbags.
“Mom! Mom! Mom!”
My girl is calling my name. I nod her direction and all the lovely little pretties look my way.
“Mom!” she says again. “Come swim with us! You said you would swim with us. Come on mom!”
I sit there and think about all the things I want for my girl.
I never want her to see or feel what I am feeling right now.
I never want her to worry what all these assholes think about her body or mine.
I never want her to let anybody stop her from doing things she enjoys.
I love swimming and this was one of the things I was most looking forward to on this trip.
I smile at her and climb out of the big couch. I take off the bathing suit cover, put on my goggles and walk right into the pool.
The next hour or so I play a game where I am a water monster. The kids swim from one end of the pool to the other and I try and catch them. If I do, they stand on my legs and jump off while I lift them and push so they fly as far as they can.
We laugh and taunt each other.
We swim until my arms ache and the sun is starting to set.
Eventually, we get out and dry off. We sit on the big couch together and talk about where we might go for dinner when daddy gets out his business meeting.
An older man with a very dark tan walks by wearing a g-string leopard print Speedo. You can see his…everything.
Both kids look at me and we burst into silent giggles.
You might be shocked to hear I don’t like Elf on the Shelf.
I know it is weeks past Christmas, but stay with me. It is relevant.
I don’t like the elf for lots of reasons, enough to fill an entire book and then some. I’ll spare you the long rant. Basically, I find an elf moving around the house at night creepy and I hate the pressure it puts on kids to be “good” and on parents to remember to move the damn thing.
I know. Geez mom. Way to make it all about you.
According to my 8-year-old daughter, we are the ONLY family in the world to not have a spying elf and it isn’t fair. We had no less than 20 conversations revolving around the injustice of it all.
“Mom, you just don’t understand.”
Nope. I don’t.
“I will make it clothes.”
“It will be fun.”
“It is a good lesson to kids on being good.”
She finally realized there was no budging on the issue and made her own. Only this little one isn’t an elf. She is a fairy, she is named Peppermint and she moves around the house the entire year.
THE ENTIRE YEAR.
Bam. Got you mom. Now you have to move the fairy around the house every day or I will lose faith in magic and shit like that.
At first, I played along and moved dear Peppermint all over the house. It was actually fun to pose her in the bowl of oranges on the counter, or hide her in the Christmas tree or have her hanging with baby Jesus in the nativity.
But I got busy.
Don’t get me wrong. I am a fun mom. I swear I am. I play dolls and games and tell stories.
But come on.
I have to remember to move the fairy every night.
Every. Single. Night.
It is too much.
Yesterday at breakfast, my girl tells me Peppermint hasn’t moved since a few days after Christmas.
“Mom,” she says. “Do you think Peppermint will ever move?”
I think I see tears in her eyes. Real tears, folks.
“I don’t know love,” I say and silently promise myself to move the damn fairy every day for the rest of my life. “I think she was just really tired from the holidays. I’m sure she will move soon.”
“I hope so,” she says.
The second she is out the door, I take Peppermint out of the doll house bed and put her on the mantle holding a few candy canes.
She comes home and notices right away.
“She moved!” she says.
“Can’t wait to see what she will do tomorrow.”
We leave the house an hour later for her keyboard lesson. My boy decides to stay home to work on his homework.
When we come back, Peppermint has moved again.
This time she is sitting with a doll playing a game my girl created the day before.
“Wow!” she says. “I can’t believe it.”
My boy comes over all smiles and snuggles up close to me.
“I will move Peppermint mom,” he whispers in my ear. “Just look how happy she is.”
“What is she thinking by wearing her hair like that? Gross.”
“I know. Did you see her shoes? Seriously. How horrible! With toes like that she should cover them up. Ugh.”
So it goes.
For over an hour.
I usually move when these two mothers sit next to me, but today the karate studio was full. I could have gone to my car, but my daughter likes to be able to see me.
I tried hard to read my book or focus on watching the class, but they are literally inches away from me and they are loud. They flip the pages of a fashion magazine and make fun of every person they see. They gossip and laugh it up.
I seriously forget sometimes that people are like this.
When our daughters come out of karate together the moms continue as my girl puts her shoes on. I try to talk over their voices so she won’t notice them, but it’s impossible.
“Can you believe the gall of that woman to wear eyeliner like that? Who does she think she is!” one wails so loudly my daughter can’t help but look at the picture. I look too.
For a second I think, “She’s right. That looks ridiculous.”
Then I snap back to reality and swoop my girl out of there.
At the car my daughter says, “Why were those moms saying that stuff?”
Using a Waldorf teaching method I say back, “I wonder about that too.”
She doesn’t say anything else.
When I get home it’s dinnertime, teeth-brushing, reading and cuddles. I lose myself in the routine, but in the back of my mind a question keeps repeating itself.
I was feeling anger and disgust at those mothers. My sitting there and judging in anger these women…is that equal to them sitting there judging the models and celebrities in the magazine?
Once the kids are asleep, I put that question to my husband.
He said these women are obviously jealous and that by breaking down and scrutinizing the tiny flaws they find, it makes them feel better about themselves.
“Maybe,” I say. “But I was getting angry at these women and making all kinds of internal judgments about how mean and catty they are. Aren’t I just as bad?”
He didn’t really answer that.
I don’t know either.
These women, like many, were making fun of celebrities. It seems to be a favorite pastime of them, and I am sure they are not alone.
I was very angry with them.
But maybe that is misplaced.
They are trying to find comfort in breaking down these images that society says are “perfect.” Maybe I should be angry with that.
There is a million ways in which women, and our girls, are targeted and told we are not good enough. Maybe these moms are using this as a way of coping. This is the way they fight back. They poke fun at the very things that they are supposed to covet.
But they are also teaching their daughters that a woman’s body is something to scrutinize and poke fun at. That clothes, shoes, makeup, jewelry…all of that has some connection to how a person should be judged.
Ugh. I hate all that.
I want my daughter to grow up feeling confident. She should not NEED to put others down to feel good about herself. Her worth should be so grounded that nothing can shake it.
I have no idea how to do that.
I purposely don’t put myself down in front of her. I commend her for actions and try not to say she is “so beautiful” all the time. I never call her princess and try to read her stories about strong women. We talk about virtues and what makes someone a good friend.
I don’t know if it’s enough.
As she gets older I know that it will be harder and harder. I cannot wrap her up and protect her. She will hate her body at some point and that makes me angry and sad.
But I will fight.
I will continue to talk to her and, even more importantly, listen. I will praise her strength and confidence and continue to teach her how to be kind to those around her.
I will fight this battle forever because she is worth it.
And if I’m ever stuck next to those moms in karate again, I’ll just go sit in my car.