Tuesday, 3:35 P.M.
Mother wears a yellow apron embroidered with red butterflies. She stains it with tomato sauce and it looks like blood and they won’t be able to tell the difference later, at first. Mother stands at the kitchen counter layering noodles, tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese in a baking dish when someone bangs on the back door. She is angry at her daughter Lily for riding off on her bike without an explanation, so with abrupt boldness, she swings the door open and says, “Yes sir? I’m not interested in buying anything.”
“I ain’t sellin‘ anythin‘.”
It’s the first time Lily White really hates Mother but she won’t have time to regret it.
It’s been a hot, syrupy July. Lily is twelve-years-old and Cheryl invited her to a coed pool party. James is going to be there. She dresses for it anyway: a blue cotton dress, white leather sandals, milky hair in a heavy ponytail. “I haven’t changed my mind, young lady,” Mother says. They stand in the bright kitchen. Mother plunges her strong hands into the sink of sudsy dishwater. Mother wears baby powder on her arms and legs in the summer and Lily can smell it. “Don’t look at me like that,” Mother says. “It’s too much sun for your skin.”
“I hate you. I wish you were dead,” Lily says. “You ruin everything.” Mother slumps over the sink.
Lily mopes at the shady picnic table out back near the clothesline, thinking about how she isn’t going to Cheryl’s party. A few minutes later, Mother opens the metal door and it slams against the house. Her stem-like figure sways back and forth from carrying an oversized basket of laundry. Mother whips the wet clothes straight before hanging them on the line and she says, “You’ll get over it.” Mother’s eyes look like she has been chopping onions. Lily shoots up from the picnic table, removes her ironed dress, balls it up, and throws the thing into a dusty spot on the lawn. She storms back inside, wearing only cotton underpants and white leather sandals. She rummages through her bureau drawers, panting, tossing neatly folded clothing onto the bedroom floor. I hate her. She pulls on an old T-shirt, a pair of cut-off jean shorts, dirt-stamped sneakers, prescription sunglasses and goes into the kitchen for a green Popsicle. She stuffs sunscreen, a light jacket, a paper tablet and pen into a bag, and returns outside to the scent of grassy earth and freshly turned soil. The scorching air presses against her face. She rides her bike down the dirt driveway, bag in bike basket, glaring back at Mother. “Where are you going, Lily?”
“Lily! Your sunscreen!”
She will find something to do that will piss off Mother, and make her regret not letting her go to Cheryl’s.
Lily knows the stranger’s black station wagon. But she doesn’t know him. She knows the gulping sound of his motor coming up behind her, like pots of boiling water. She knows it’s the stranger’s car parked outside her house at night by its shape, and she knows it isn’t someone who’s lost or delivering the newspaper.
She bikes to the river to cool off, to kill time, to make Mother worry. She finds a spot in the shade to dip her feet. A couple of boys jump off the rope swing. They yell with exhilaration but later they’ll say, “The Rabbit Girl?” and “We didn’t see anything.” The sparkling river is surrounded by tall pines. Her toes dig at the river’s edge and the soft dirt clouds up like little atomic bombs. She hears the familiar motor. The stranger passes by in the black station wagon. She feels the hammering in her chest. He rolls down the tinted window just enough for Lily to see his eyes slice into slits like hot burning coals.
Who is that?
The man with Elvis-black hair driving the 1980s station wagon—pulled over to the side of the road underneath the crimson tree. Lily squints to make out the details of his face: Who is that? The sun’s rays shoot through the red trees, mirroring onto his face like blood. The boys continue to yell and play.
Mother doesn’t come searching for her as she usually does. Not this time. And there’s only so many places to go in such a small town.
She bikes down the rutty, secluded roads beneath the crimson trees shuttering in the wind. Lily White on her bike: a mane of white angora hair down her back, malleable limbs working hard to pedal uphill, inky sunglasses protecting her pink eyes, a stark contrast against her translucent skin. She’s entangled with the crimson leaves and the sky and the beauty of summer, like her spirit wants to skid up to be with that untouchable world. She thinks maybe that’s how it feels to die. Everyone fears it, but she’s sure it feels like relief. She imagines Mother calling. She can almost hear the shrill voice, begging her to come home. She swears Mother is calling, screaming: What will happen to Lily? Where’s my daughter?
She grips the handle bars and notices the paleness of her arms. At school the kids say: “Lily the albino! Rabbit Girl—Lily is the Rabbit Girl!” They shout it in the hallways reeking of dirty mop water and Cheetos. But she’s only thinking about Mother and the last time she saw her standing by the clothesline. “Where are you going, Lily? Where are you going? Lily!”
Who is that?
She has the paper tablet underneath a rock in her bike basket. She took it out to do drawings by the river. Mother has not come looking. Lily wonders about Mother and decides to get back in time for dinner. Her house is about four miles away. The country roads have very few houses but many pin oaks, pines and cornfields. And a rare breed of red trees she doesn’t know the name of.
She imagines the station wagon creeping by and coming to a stop. But it isn’t there. Just the sun’s rays cutting through the crimson trees. Just the powder blue sky that is easy to breathe. And then she hears the slurping motor coming up behind her and the black station wagon passes by her. She bikes faster with a punching pulse. At the stop sign up ahead, he peeps out the partially rolled-down window, and drives away. “Hey!” she says. She stops riding and screams, “What do you want?”
The station wagon reappears before she begins biking again. It faces her, about one hundred feet up the road. She sees it—like a vicious Doberman out of nowhere. He presses the gas pedal and the guzzler spats and growls. The black station wagon, the color of a starless sky, slinks closer. He rolls down the window and says, “Hello, Lily.”
She doesn’t recognize his face but she wants to. Who are you? The stranger: late forties, Elvis-black hair, murky features, a worn-in pocket T-shirt, dirty at the neck, fuzzy arms. She watches how the sincerity in his face drains away. Chills sprout over her body on this hot July day; sweat trickles down her spine. She cannot bike away; she cannot say hello; she cannot move out of the sun. All she knows is he knows her name and somehow she has forgotten it.
But she grips the bike handles until her fingers go numb, and the rustling paper tablet acts up under the rock from snippets of a light breeze. The stranger’s creaky door opens like a casket and everything around her spins and shakes. Her hair is a radiating halo; her eyes widen behind the inky sunglasses. The stranger’s hands smell like Mother’s baby powder. Oh Mother... The crimson trees flutter in the wind like bleeding butterflies, and somehow she feels the redness drip down her back like streams of blood.
* "Rabbit Girl" was previously published in Folio, American University, Spring 2012.