JUST YOU WAIT
Malu’s daughter Lotte and Lotte’s friend Charelle were playing their favorite game: Mutant Vampires. They pressed their arms against their ribcages underneath their tight, glittering t-shirts so only their hands stuck out of the lacy sleeves, and stumbled through the kitchen groaning blood, blood, blood. They were both eleven years old.
“Blood, blood, I need blood!” Lotte banged against the fridge and tore open the door. “Frozen blood! No! There’s no frozen blood!” She banged the door shut, bugged out her eyes and spun in place, so blood-deprived she was hallucinating. Malu sat at the kitchen table and tried to focus on her laptop screen. She worked at a call center for the Belastingdienst, helping people with their taxes. She had taken the job when Lotte was six months old; now she was a manager who trained the new agents. She also worked as a freelance writer when she could get assignments. Lately, she had started looking at other options. Maybe she could go to the university and study literature, as she’d wanted to before she got pregnant in her last year of secondary school.
Charelle collapsed on the floor, twitching and moaning and arching her back. Lotte wrapped her arms around the bag of groceries still standing on the kitchen table. “Blood, blood, blood,” she groaned.
“Damn it,” Malu said, hitting the table with her palm. Lotte let go of the bag. Charelle got up and tugged her t-shirt into shape.
“There’s butter in there,” Malu said, pointing at the bag. “Milk. Yogurt. I told you to put away the groceries.”
“We were just playing, Mom,” Lotte said.
“Funny game,” Malu said. “Blood. Blood.”
Lotte stared at the floor. She was growing again; her pants were too short. The stick-on butterfly tattoos were starting to peel off her knuckles. “Your hands are rotting,” Malu said. “Is it part of the game?” She had been a girl, too, once. Not a Lotte, chubby and blond and pretending to be too old for Barbies while hiding them in a box underneath her bed. Malu had been a Charelle: straight long hair always falling into her face, shoulders she could drop in a way that grown-ups found irritating, long legs in carefully torn jeans. The stubborn set of her jaw.
“Just keep it down, okay?” Malu said. “I’m trying to finish an article.”
“Mom wrote a book about torture,” Lotte said. “She wouldn’t let me read it.”
“I only edited a book chapter,” Malu said.
“Cool,” Charelle said. She let a strand of hair glide through her fingers. “Real writers don’t have kids, though.”
“You know what, darling?” Malu said. “I think it’s time you and Lotte play at your place for a change. I’m sure your mother has time to entertain you.”
Charelle glanced sideways at Lotte, like a girl who had misbehaved and knew it. She lived in a big house next to the park; she had a trampoline, a cat, and a stylish black bike, and her parents were chaotically cheerful academics. Still, the girls usually played here. Tomorrow would be Saturday, so Charelle would sleep over.
“We’ll go to my room,” Lotte said. “Okay, Mom?”
“All right.” Malu put away the groceries and stepped on the small balcony, one of many identical balconies in her apartment building. There was no shade at this hour, and the stone was hot. She started stacking the empty flowerpots that were taking up all the space. Her mother had given them to her for her birthday, saying that the balcony would be perfect as an herb garden; the seeds were still in a drawer somewhere.
Real writers don’t have kids. Malu wrote whenever she could, early in the morning or late at night, or next to the TV while dinner heated in the oven. Stupid text for fashion catalogues or tourism websites or a restaurant’s homepage. She wanted to show the world that she could be both, a working mother and a writer. She would not become a welfare mom who collected a check each month so she could stay home with the baby and transform her place into a giant playpen. Or the kind of student mommy who brought the children to grandma before biking through the city, lunching at a café with her friends, and attending classes on Proust.
Living in a small flat with a baby, with occasional help only from her parents (who were not rich either, and who had hoped for something better for her), and the official resources available to any single working mother: it had felt romantic at first. She was living a story. The more boring her job, the darker the stairs up to her echoing hallway, the weirder the neighbors sitting and smoking next to the building entrance all day, the better for her. She would use it all in her writing. But after more than ten years, she understood that her life, apart from raising Lotte, had consisted mainly of staying on top of her job and short relationships that usually ended with the man telling her he felt overwhelmed by the idea of fatherhood. (“I see a theme here,” Malu once told her best friend from school, the only one she was still in touch with.)
Lotte’s father had been almost two years younger than Malu. She had been his first girlfriend. His awkwardness in bed and his blushing attempts at being a gentleman (he insisted on washing her afterwards, apologizing for she didn’t know what) had made her feel more experienced than she was; a real woman. Maybe he really had been in awe of her, but she lost any control over him once she was pregnant. There was already a mother in his life, and she swooped in to rescue her young. She sent her boy to live with an aunt in Amsterdam, and soon she and her husband followed. Lawyers negotiated financial details and visiting rights. Lotte visited her father once a month; she always brought back expensive presents: a new watch, clothes, a pair of suede boots. Whenever Malu refused to buy her something, she said, “Fine, I’ll ask Daddy.”
When Malu was done stacking the flowerpots, she swept the balcony, took a pizza from the freezer, and started to chop a head of lettuce. After dinner, she turned in early; she felt a headache coming on and asked the girls to be quiet.
Malu woke up. She was hearing giggles through the open window, intimate and rough. It was still dark outside. She checked her watch: three a.m.
She put on her robe, walked down the hallway and into the kitchen. The door to the balcony was closed, but Malu could see the girls through the glass. They were sitting opposite each other on a blue-striped picnic blanket, both wearing pajama pants and white tank tops, bending their spines to look at some small thing they were both touching. Malu had never seen her daughter so grown-up, and Charelle so innocent. She came closer, crushing breadcrumbs under her naked feet, and took a sip of cold coffee from an almost empty cup on the counter. Charelle handed something to Lotte: a cylinder, irregular, almost a cone. It was glowing at the end. Lotte pinched the thing between thumb and fingers and lifted it to her lips.
Malu stood still. This was the ugliest, largest joint she had ever seen, and her daughter was smoking it. After a few moments, she opened the door. A black candle stood on a turned-over flowerpot, and an ashtray and a white saucer with dark crumbs sat between the girls with their smooth arms, faces glowing in the candlelight, and their small breasts pressing against white cotton. Malu knew she should punish this. She should tear the joint out of Lotte’s hand and drag her inside for a good and righteous talking-to. Do you have any idea what this is doing to your brain?
The candle flickered, the moon was almost full, and the girls were sitting in their blue striped nest like birds. The joint looked as if it contained seedpods or walnuts. It was held together by a piece of thread, or no, what was it? A wire? And it smelled different. Not like weed at all.
“What is this?”
Charelle leaned back on her arms and let her hair fall back just so, her face a mockery of sultry seduction.
“We’re getting high.” She pulled up her knees and giggled.
Lotte carefully put down the joint in the ashtray, turning it to remove the ash. The butterfly tattoos were still visible.
“We took some herbs from the kitchen, Mom.”
“We didn’t inhale,” Charelle said.
Malu picked up the saucer and sniffed. Oregano, basil, and thyme. She sniffed again. “Mind if I join you?”
“Sure!” Charelle said. Malu felt clumsy sitting down, like a giraffe among antelopes, but she didn’t want to go back to her bed and put foam plugs into her ears. She had earned her membership in the up-all-night club a long time ago.
“I’m curious,” Malu said. “Give me that.” Lotte hesitated, and then handed her the oregano joint and a lighter. Malu lit up and tried to inhale. She didn’t manage much. The smoke tasted like ciabatta bread at first, but quickly became bitter. She exhaled, lightheaded. “Whoa. Not bad.”
Charelle laughed, showing her sharp teeth. Lotte scrutinized her knuckles and the peeling tattoos. “These are pretty gross,” she said.
Malu noticed her cigarette papers next to the saucer. “Let me show you how to do this properly.” Lotte looked away. Malu knew she was going too far, but she couldn’t resist. She took two sheets of paper out of the flat package, licked one, and glued them together. On the paper, she mixed the herbs with her fingertips, pushed them down and wrapped the paper around them. She rolled it into shape, and licked the rim. “Voilà.”
She handed the joint to Lotte, who didn’t move to take it. Charelle did, her fingertips hard and cold. She admired it from all sides. “It’s beautiful. How did you do it?”
“Fast. The faster you do it, the better.”
Charelle rotated the joint and regarded it from each side, her eyes large, the tip of her nose moving a little when she said, “It’s perfect.”
“Thank you.” Malu took back the joint. “It is.”
“See,” Charelle said to Lotte, “I told you your mom knows how to get high.”
“Shut up,” Lotte said. “She doesn’t.”
Malu tucked her hair behind her ear. Charelle was facing her, inviting her to exchange a knowing smile that would exclude Lotte. A knowing smile—as if this girl knew anything.
“Is this why you’re here?” Malu asked. “Because you want to get high?”
“What? No,” said Lotte, and Charelle hung her head like a sad puppy.
Malu wanted to shoot them a sharp reply, but her personal time slowed a fraction, and she had to smile at what she saw. Charelle was too young to be a bad girl, no matter how hard she tried. And Lotte was the type who lifted snails from the bike trail because she couldn’t stand to see them split and mashed.
“There are more herbs in the kitchen,” she said. “Only herbs. Understood?”
“Understood,” the girls murmured.
“Stay away from the seeds, they’re for the balcony. And now I’ll go back to sleep. That’s my bedroom window right there. So keep it down.”
“Sorry we woke you up,” Lotte said.
Malu got up, still dizzy, and steadied herself against the wall. A breeze lifted the hem of her robe, and she wanted to open it and spread it like wings. “You know what?” she said. “I am going to write a book. About torture and vampires and getting high and everything. Just you wait.”
In the kitchen, Malu put the coffee cup in the sink and turned around to look through the glass door again. Lotte had wrapped herself in a green fleece blanket, holding it closed from inside. Charelle carefully stubbed out the joint and again lifted and admired it. Malu envied them their friendship, and their being out there together. It felt wrong that she should sleep alone. But maybe she could change this, too. It was time.
Stefani Nellen’s short fiction has been published in AGNI, Glimmer Train, Third Coast, the Bellevue Literary Review, Web Conjunctions, Cosmos, and Apex Magazine, among others, and anthologized in Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web and Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton, 2015). Her stories have won the Glimmer Train Fiction Open and the Montana Prize in Fiction (judged by Alexandra Kleeman) and been runner-up for the Wabash Prize in Fiction (judged by Adam Johnson) and a finalist in the Iowa Review Awards. Originally from Germany, Nellen now lives in the Netherlands with her family.
Image credit: Ani Francisconi on Unsplash