On your fifteenth birthday at the bowling alley, your mother’s cheek turns to stone. You glimpse it for only a moment between blowing out the candles, and the sudden death of the flame. You aren’t sure what you see behind her brown eyes—was it just a twitch?—but you know somehow that the world is suddenly a less-safe pace.
During the drive home, she chews her lip. You turn on music with thumping bass and repetitive hi-hat and wait for her to ask how the party was. You aren’t sure if you will tell her about sneaking to the cramped space behind the lanes, where pins gather in empty lakes.
The skies have turned gray and when it starts to spit, she absently flicks the wipers. By an accident of the moment, it happens to line up with the music. Thump/wipe, thump/wipe. As you watch, her pinky calcified, and the steering wheel groans.
“Mom?” You’re unsure what you’re seeing.
“Hmm?” Her eyes don’t flicker away from the two-lane road that runs past a Red Robin and a shuttered Best Buy and endless strip malls and car dealerships. You pass a sad man flipping a sign announcing ‘Great sales!’ and you wonder if, like your English teacher says, this is a heavy-handed metaphor.
“I loved my party,” you say. “Thank you.”
“That’s great, dear.” Your mother has never called you dear in your life. It’s a word she reserves for checkout clerks who don’t understand their cash registers. “We were happy to do it.”
“We? Are you dating again?”
She shakes her head and for a second, looks at you. You think she sees you, how hard you tried to look just right for this party. Sees how your eye shadow looks just like hers. “Hanna, I’m just distracted.” She smiles and you see a flash of black rock where her molar should be. Maybe it’s basalt. You’re not a geologist.
When she asks you to tell her more—since she was running errands for most of it—you are relieved for a reason you aren’t able to articulate. You tell her about the crappy-in-a-good-way pizza and about the grumpy old guy working the shoe counter who wouldn’t look any of the girls in the eye and called all the boys ‘Old Sport,’ and you hint around the edges of a boy who might exist and who might be named Braden. You imagine sidling up to a corner and peeking around it to check if your mother sees what you’re not saying.
You think she gets it, because she reaches and touches your knee and says, “Tell me about this Braden.” You do, happy to finally get advice that isn’t from your friend Chloe. Your mother mouths words that seem good but at the end of the day, you realize there was nothing solid in what she said, just muttered platitudes followed by, “Let’s get a goddamned Slurpee.”
The next morning, you wake to the smell of bacon and drift downstairs in your post-ironic onesie. Your mother is in the kitchen in a ratty pink robe. Her foot is stone and when she gets cream for her coffee, the domino linoleum buckles under her.
She serves you without comment, dropping the ceramic plate on the table so that it wobbles on its edge and threatens to spill. You catch it and raise an eyebrow. Your face is still crusted with the makeup you forgot to rinse off the night before, because you’re still bad at this. She just grunts: Maybe an apology? You aren’t sure, but you accept it.
“Do you mind driving me to the store?” you ask. “I wanted to pick up a couple tops.”
She looks out the back window into the overgrown terrace, the stone having reached up her calf. While she’s turned, you snag a penny off the kitchen floor and throw it. You wait for her to swat like a bug got her, but instead, it bounces with a muted ding.
Your mother swivels, eyes half-lidded. You repeat yourself and add, “You know, to match the new hair.” She squints, like she is searching for a lighthouse through darkness and fog, except you’re shining your light into her eyes, bright as you can. Can’t she see you waving? You sort of realize that for all her not seeing you, you aren’t exactly throwing her a life raft, or at least a bone because you’re too much of a teenager to see past your own shadow.
She grimaces. “I’m really busy. Can you take yourself?” and she clomps out of the kitchen. When she returns, she tosses her heavy keychain and you dodge and shriek because what the hell, Mom.
“I don’t have a license,” you say, cheeks flushed.
“I don’t give a fuck,” she says and then shakes her head like waking from a dream. “What I mean is, I trust you?” and she hands you her credit card with a thin smile that you know conveys apology but doesn’t quite get right.
You call Chloe, who has a license, and drive very slowly to pick her up. When you arrive, she gets in the driver’s seat and you say, “I’m kind of worried about my mother.”
Chloe says she has no idea how to respond to that. “Like, at all.”
When you return with three tops and an unplanned-on pair of skin-tight black jeans that you’re not sure you can get away with but want to try anyway, your mother is in her office, the door slightly ajar. You hear low murmurs and the smoothie you picked up feels extra cold because the sounds tickle your organs in ways that you associate with lying awake at night and wondering at your place in the universe. You didn’t believe in magic before now, even with your mother’s deterioration—evolution?—but your belly curves and twists and you now believe.
You walk in and offer her the smoothie, which she looks at like she’s never seen a cup before. She sets it on her desk after a cursory sip.
“You must be Hanna.” The woman talking to your mother nods from a plush leather seat. “I’ve heard so much about you.” The woman’s smile is pleasant and her business suit is expensive-looking, with sharp lapels. When she leans forward to offer her hand, her shirt falls open and you see a chasm of fire where her chest should be. The heat threatens to singe your eyebrows.
“Careful Di,” your mother says and the woman takes back her hand, frowning slightly. Your mother smiles at you and says, “Hanna, I have business to attend to.”
“We’re happy you’re back,” Di says before you’ve left the room.
“I’m not anything,” your mother says. She shoots you a real Mom-look, which you understand means, “leave” and you do, hoping that everything will return to normal soon. The last thing you hear before the door shuts behind you is Di’s low laugh. It reminds you of the crack of thunder. Halfway down the hall, you realize your mother’s legs were entirely made of granite.
Over the next few weeks, the stone ebbs but mostly flows, and every morning, she’s just a little harder, her pauses longer, her meals smaller and more untouched. When she sits, chairs groan. When she drives you around, the car slants.
Strange people come by at all hours, when you’re waiting for your mother to help with your homework, to fix lunch, to watch HGTV with you. You don’t see them for very long, but you are often confused, sometimes repulsed, and always resentful. They leave scorch marks on the ceiling and black slime on the banister, despite your scrubbing. They have horns and claws, and tentacles that float and dance in the air.
As they wait, some of them make small talk about the weather or about the modern changes to their sleepy old towns or about how your mother is key to something something something; you can’t be expected to listen to details. They have papers with bullet points and they carry thick tomes written in an arcane language you intuitively understand. And they’re here for your mother.
She always eventually appears and says, “We are waiting,” her words measured and heavy in the air. They follow her into her office, murmurs and smells going with them.
Days pass. Everything south of her breasts is rock, her nose quartz, and her lips slate. Sometimes the streaks of limestone running down her arm retreat, and she sits beside you and strokes your hair, and listens when you tell her about the weather or anything you can grasp.
One night she comes upon you eating grilled cheese in the dark. “How’s Braden?” she asks. She’s wearing a black dress and eye shadow. From the knees down, she is dense, but otherwise, she is more your mother then than she’s been in weeks.
“He’s ok,” you say, though the truth is otherwise. Later, after she takes you for late night donuts at McFee’s and the two of you sing along with Dolly Parton, you ask her the question you don’t care about, instead of the one you need to. You don’t know what else to say. You’re not the narrator of the story, but stuck inside of it. Instead of, Mom, how can I get you to stay, it’s, “Mom, should I break up with Braden? It feels like I should.”
She nods. “If you’re ready to. It’s why I ended things with your father. I was ready for something new. I was always ready.”
“Always?” you ask.
“I don’t know how to be anything but what I am.” She taps her chin with her nail and you realize that almost all of the stone has faded. Her skin glows in the streetlight. “Do you understand?”
“Kind of,” you say though you don’t because you are too young for this, although you can dimly see, as through a dirty window, her struggle. You think, ask how you can help. But you don’t know how to be vulnerable, or how to ask her to be. “I think so.”
She sighs and gathers herself. Is it your imagination, but is the rock receding from everything except her eyes? When she pulls over and shuts off the engine and turns and takes your cheek in her hand, you feel your chest loosening.
“Hanna’lionth,” she says and you sit flagpole straight because she never calls you by your full name that you hate so much. She refuses to explain the origin of it. “I was not a good…person…for a very long time. And I’ve been a good person for a very short time. A good mother for even shorter. It was something I needed to be because when you’re as old as I am—”
“Mom, you’re like, forty or something,” you say, though you actually aren’t sure at all, as ageless as she looks and wise as she sounds.
“—when you’re as old as I am, you don’t think about life the same way. And it’s so hard to change and I think of you and–” She stops speaking and breathes, like she’s sucking the world into her lungs, but her chest has become dark marble that she can’t seem to lift.
“Mom, I love you too,” you say and you lean forward and throw your arms around her and pull her into you, cursing the seatbelt that holds you back. “Mom, nothing has to change.”
She smiles, but it is just a tug at the corner of her mouth as her eyes cloud over. She tilts her head like she’s listening to a faraway orchestra and her mouth shuts with a clatter of gravel. You’re aware of cars speeding by, streaks of light and sound. You feel gusting wind through a cracked window. It’s your sophomore year of high school and you would rather be excited about the future, instead of dreading what’s next.
Suddenly, she unbuckles her own seatbelt and pulls you close and you catch an aroma of earth and hardness that’s terrifying, but just beneath, you smell the warm skin and coconut that has always been your mother.
You lean back, wipe your eyes and nose. You wait for her to speak, but she doesn’t, so you reach for her hand. You jump at the hard, unyielding surface of obsidian. When that hand opens, it doesn’t seem attached to your mother anymore. You wait for her to stroke you like she did when you were a child.
“We’re going home,” your mother says in a deep voice that seems to come from within the moon or beneath the ocean. She brushes you away, turns the engine back on and drives. She doesn’t respond to any of your questions, and lets you out without a word.
You watch her through the passenger seat window for what seems like forever, but must have only been a few seconds. She sits in the car with the engine running and you somehow know that when she comes inside, she’ll regard you without emotion, as if you’re nothing but an obligation, a contract to be fulfilled. You somehow know that she will wait until you leave for college and once you are out of the house, she will simply disappear within herself and into her new (or maybe old), unwholesome work and you will somehow know that her heart will contain nothing anymore but a deep void, and you know that you will never get your mother back again.