Erin had been seventeen and still living at home when the first symptoms of her mother’s illness started. Her mom came into her room one day, stood just in the doorway for a moment, and lifted her shirt up over her head and dropped it on the floor at her feet.
Erin was in her bed, propped up against the headboard, facing the door, breastfeeding Ezekiel. She stared at the shirt on the floor before she looked up at her mom and said, “Do you have a problem?”
Her mom walked over to the bed and grabbed one of Erin’s hands from under the baby. “Feel this,” she said.
Erin jerked her hand out of her mom’s and sat up on the bed. “I’m not touching you.”
Ezekiel stretched and looked over at the noise. He grabbed Erin’s nipple between his fingers as he looked over at his grandma. He pinched and tugged on her nipple as he called to his grandma, a series of Gs because he couldn’t quite get her name out yet. Then he turned back to Erin with his mouth wide, slid his fingers from around her nipple to wrap under her breast, and latched back on. Erin balanced him with one arm and scooted to the edge of the bed.
“Give me your hand,” her mom said again. She held her own out to Erin. It was her vulnerability that was too much for Erin. The way she stood there, her eyes downcast and pleading, like it’d taken her everything to walk down the hall to Erin’s room, and now looking at Erin was more than she bargained for. More than she was capable of. She stood there in jeans—unflattering ones that were baggy around her legs and pulled up high over her belly button—and a red lace bra. The lace was worn with age and had holes stretched into the fabric at the base of her breasts. Erin stared at the pale, exposed skin there and put her hand into her mother’s.
Her mom brought Erin’s hand to her stomach, right above the waistband of her jeans, and dragged her fingers against it.
Her skin was firm and leathery, like the cover of an old notebook with parchment paper. It felt dead. Her mom let go of her hand, and Erin kept her fingers against her stomach. She ran them up the center of her torso, feeling the almost pebbly texture of her mom’s skin, and stopped just under the band of her bra.
Ezekiel liked her attention when he was eating. He was used to Erin looking down at him, running her fingers across his cheeks and arms. He reached up to her chin and pinched at the skin there. She pulled her face back from him, and he laughed around her nipple and stretched farther to grab at her chin again.
“And press harder,” her mom said.
She pressed more firmly and ran her hand back down her mom’s stomach. Her skin didn’t move softly like it should have. It was like the surface of a trampoline, pulled tight and unmoving until force pushed against it. Bumps and craters of something were just under the leather of her skin. They were hard, solid formations that you couldn’t see from just looking at her body.
“What is it?” Erin whispered. She couldn’t look away from her own fingers pressed against the skin. She pushed against the bumps, to see if they’d shift. Ezekiel was pulling at her lips with clumsy fingers, giggling around her nipple. She nudged his hand away with her chin, but he just laughed harder.
“I don’t know.” Her mom was trying not to cry. Erin could hear the wet breathlessness in her words. She couldn’t look up at her. She couldn’t let herself see the tears. She could feel Ezekiel’s teeth scraping against her nipple as he laughed and brought her chin back to his fingers in hopes that, distracted, he wouldn’t bite down.
“How long has it been like this?” Erin asked.
“It wasn’t this bad at first.”
“You didn’t say anything? Tell anyone?”
“I thought it’d go away.”
Ezekiel was sucking again with his palm against Erin’s cheek. He stretched his fingers out to poke at her eyelid.
Erin pressed harder into her mom’s skin. The lumps underneath were unyielding, rock solid. The skin itself was rough and dry. “People die that way,” she said.
Her mom took a step back from her, and Erin’s hand was there between them. She reached farther, to press her palm against her mom’s stomach, but her mom stepped back again and Erin’s hand fell back to wrap around the baby.
“I rebuke that,” her mom said. Her voice got loud and firm. “I rebuke that in Jesus’ name.”
Ezekiel pulled back from Erin and turned to his grandma. Another string of Gs. Then he focused in on her and he stopped babbling. The corner of his lips curled downward and he looked back to Erin. She pulled his face back to her breast and rubbed circles against his temple so he wouldn’t cry.
Erin’s mom turned away from her, picked up her shirt, and left the room. Ezekiel looked up at Erin, and she tucked his hair behind his ear. He brought his hand back down and tucked it between their stomachs. He ate quietly, looking up at her. She traced the curve of his ear.
For months after, Erin didn’t hear much about her mom’s skin. If she brought it up, her mom would tell her she’d been going to doctors and they’d been doing their job, and when she had answers, Erin would, too. She wasn’t entirely sure that her mom was being honest, though. It wasn’t that she was a liar, it was that she liked for things to go smoothly, or even more than that, she liked for things to look like they were going smoothly. It was a drastic need of hers. She’d lie without realizing she was lying and hide things from even herself so that she was telling the truth. It was hard to accuse someone of lying if they themselves didn’t even think that’s what they were doing.
For a while, whatever was solidifying under her mom’s skin got pushed aside. It didn’t seem to be causing immediate problems, so it was forgotten. It was like that moment in Erin’s room became a bad dream, one neither of them acknowledged the other knew about.
Life goes on.
Ezekiel’s second birthday came around and the longer he spent at his grandma’s house, the more attached he got. Erin had to get out. The way Ezekiel looked to her mom, the way he waited for her at the window when her car pulled into the driveway, and the way he’d cry for her while Erin fed him drove her crazy. It infuriated her. She was still breastfeeding during the night, and it wasn’t only Erin but both she and her mom who had to get up to sit with him. If her mom wasn’t there, he’d twist and turn as he ate. His teeth would pull against her nipple and his face would be red and wet with tears. He’d pull back to cry and then latch back on desperately. He’d pull against her skin and stretch his body all the way out and tense up so it was hard to keep him in her lap. The whole time screaming, “Grandma,” in choked, broken cries.
Erin’s mom called him Zekey, and Erin hated it. “Ezekiel,” she’d say, “he’s not a damn dog.” But he’d started saying it, too. He’d wobble around with his hard, plastic Spiderman clutched in his fist and he’d babble about himself and what he wanted. “Zekey watch Spidey,” “Zekey play cars,” and if you took something from him, he’d screech in this high-pitched wail, “No, Zekey’s.” Her mom would smile and coo, “My baby,” and give him what he wanted no matter how aggressively he demanded it.
She moved in with her boyfriend. Carlos wasn’t Ezekiel’s dad, but she met him when she’d gone to night school to get her GED. He was older than her, and the first time he’d come to pick her up at her mom’s, he’d had a blunt rolled for them to share. “We’re celebrating,” he said. He leaned across the center console and bit her shoulder and stuck the blunt under the strap of her tank top. “I got out three years ago today.” Then they’d driven to John Prince Park and he’d held the car door open for her as she got out and ran his fingers gently through her hair as he bent her over the hood and fucked her right there in the middle of the afternoon.
His oldest daughter, Vanessa, turned fourteen a day after Ezekiel turned two, but none of his three girls lived with him. He only got to see the oldest. He had partial custody of her and drove an hour one-way to pick her up every other weekend. Her mom was the only one of the three that had brought his daughter to see him in prison. The other two just took a third each of his paycheck and acted like the kids were theirs alone.
Erin’s mom didn’t think much of Carlos, but Erin loved him. She thought it made sense for her to love someone like him, so she did. He was everything Erin thought she wanted to be. Someone who made a life for himself after everything had fallen apart. He’d started his own business after prison: a handyman service that, because he’d worked maintenance in an elderly community, had really picked up. It started with odd jobs here and there. Old ladies wanting little cement slabs off of their patios or couples wanting their living rooms painted. Soon it became bigger jobs and he was remodeling whole houses and word spread about his work, about good work being done at a good price, and now he even had snowbirds that flew him across the country to work on their full-time residences as well.
He’d been getting his GED on the side at night. “I’m a good person, I think,” he said. “I mean, I don’t know, I can’t speak for everyone, but I think I’m a good person. I could be better. I know that. Maybe doing some shit for myself can make me better. I don’t know. I hope. It’s turning out all right so far.” Erin liked that Carlos seemed so hesitant to hope. It meant he knew what failing and falling hard felt like.
With Carlos, Erin didn’t have to work. He usually scheduled himself jobs in the mornings, and he liked to come home to Erin by midafternoon so they had time at night to do anything they wanted. He was building a new life with her, and Erin let him, without even considering she was just trying to escape a life of her own.
She’d been living with him for three months when regular clients of his, a couple he’d become fairly close to, flew him out to California for a week and a half.
He called her every night when he was away. He was the type that liked to let her know how much he missed her. And he liked the couple he was working for. It went beyond just the opportunities they were providing for him.
“He wears a gold chain,” Carlos was saying. His voice was low and sleepy. Comfortable. “With a cross, you know? But it’s not like my family….We wear crosses because it’s what you do. You’re born with a rosary around your neck. No, he really means it. They both do. Church three times a week. And they love each other, you know. This morning it was on her cheek. She was cooking breakfast, still in her robe. And the imprint of his cross was on the bottom of her cheek.”
“You’re being funny, but I know you think about these things.”
“Sure.” She thought of her mother’s skin, the medicine, the fix without the diagnosis. A medical mystery that meant there might be a God. It almost meant of course there was, but look what he was worth. Ezekiel made a noise and shifted.
Carlos heard him through the phone. “Vanessa’s mom says he’s too old to breastfeed. Says he’s gonna be a momma’s boy with no respect for men.”
“He’ll respect you.”
“You think so?” Erin didn’t know if she was imagining something hopeful in his tone.
“Why wouldn’t he?”
“I’m not his dad.”
“All the more reason he will.” Then she said, “I have faith.”
“Cute,” he said, “you’re being very cute tonight.”
Erin’s mom’s fingers started to blister, and her mouth started to get so dry that her tongue would look scaly, like snakeskin, and her lips would puff out and cause so much friction that she couldn’t even speak properly. It was one of those situations where bizarre symptoms keep popping up and the treatments for those symptoms start to bring out more bizarre symptoms, and it becomes a never-ending cycle because the real problem, the entire underlying issue, is so obscure that nobody can really figure it out.
Her mom would never get an actual diagnosis.
That does something to a person, you know. Having to face not only the idea that you’re losing someone you’ve always had, your single mother, of all people, but also that you have no idea how soon or far away that loss will be, and even more so, you have no idea how many more symptoms are going to keep turning that person into someone unrecognizable to you. Because, as bleak as it sounds, eventually you come to realize: 1. There isn’t ever going to be a cure and 2. There aren’t going to be good days anymore. There are just going to be bad days and days that could have been worse.
Her mom was fine, though. Emotionally fine. She didn’t think she had a problem and she always had an essential oil or a juiced celery remedy when the next symptoms popped up.
Ezekiel was almost four the first time his grandma’s lungs landed her in the hospital. Her left lung was half black mass in the x-rays, and her right was at forty-five percent capacity. She left the hospital with the remnants of an infection in her lungs and a PICC line to administer her own antibiotics in an IV. Erin left Ezekiel with Carlos to camp out on her mom’s couch for a week.
She woke up angry to the early alarm, set at five in the morning so her mom had time for the IV to drain before work. Erin refused to touch the PICC line, the box of little antibiotic balls in the fridge, or even the gauze tubes her mom could barely shimmy up her arm after her meds to cover up the line for work. She went to bed angry as her mom prepared different juices with different vegetables and exotic honey mixtures for the following days. “God provides everything we need,” she said as she held up a bunch of celery. Erin had watched her the first night as she made her juices. She was whispering to herself as she fed in the vegetables. Erin stepped closer, but she couldn’t hear her. She was about to reach out to her mom, to say something, but then she realized the muttering was prayer.
She missed her baby, her breasts were swollen with milk, and pumping just wasn’t the same. “It’s a perfect time to wean him,” Carlos kept saying. “He’s a little old, anyway.” But that made her angry, too, so she’d ignore it. She’d have Carlos send pictures of Ezekiel’s little body curled up on her pillow in their bed.
The antibiotics weren’t working. Erin was cooking dinner midway through her weeklong stay when her mom got out of the shower at night and couldn’t catch her breath. She leaned against the back of one of the chairs at the kitchen table, clutching the sides of her towels to the center of her chest. Her hair was still wet, which in itself was foreign to Erin; her mom usually didn’t leave her bathroom without blow-drying her hair and at least a layer of foundation.
“I don’t know what to do,” Erin said. Her mom pointed across the kitchen and then held her finger up at Erin. Her face was flushed but her fingers were white where she clutched her towel.
“I don’t understand.”
“Just check,” her mom said. But it was breathless, choked words, and it took Erin a moment.
“Check? Check what?”
She pointed again and Erin turned toward the counter.
“Check.” Her mom was still holding her finger out to her.
Erin grabbed the little finger clamp next to her. Her blood pressure. Check her blood pressure.
“This won’t help, you need to go to the hospital.” She held the device up but didn’t move to put it on her mom’s finger.
Her mom shook her head. “No, no, no, no, no.” Each no came out with a breath. She braced both her hands against the back of the chair, and her towel fell to the floor. “No, no, no, no, no.” She closed her eyes and it looked to Erin like she was trying to take deeper breaths but couldn’t steady herself.
Her body wasn’t thin or frail, but her skin looked like it was pulled taut around her stomach and thighs. There were creases and crevices like when too-tight fabric wrinkles at the seams before smoothing out at the center. Parts of her legs had long, dark scars that looked to be actual indents cratered into her body. Erin moved past her mom out of the kitchen.
“I’m calling an ambulance. I’ll get you clothes.”
“No,” her mom said again. “No, no. Please.” She was crouching more fully over the back of the chair. Her breasts hung low below her, but her stomach and its thick, abnormal skin still held tight up against her body.
Erin ran down the hallway and, in her room, pulled her mom’s dresser drawers open to search for clothes.
“Then I’m taking you,” she called as she grabbed a shirt and some sleep shorts. “I’m taking you and we’re leaving now.” She couldn’t hear her, but she imagined her mom still in the kitchen, bent over the chair, muttering no to herself. “No isn’t an option, Mom.”
She ran back down the hallway and carefully came up behind her mom. She tucked the clothes between her knees and grabbed her mom’s hands. She set her mom’s hands on her shoulders and stretched the neck of the shirt over her head.
“No hospital,” her mom was saying. She was trying to say something else, but Erin couldn’t make it out.
She eased one of her mom’s hands from her shoulder and into the sleeve of the T-shirt and caught her mom’s eye. She started crying, and Erin froze. “No,” she was still saying, but each no, each sob, was taking more breath from her than it was worth.
“Shhhh,” Erin shook her head. “It’s okay. You’re okay.” She pulled her mom to her. Her shirt was half across her body, her forehead fell against Erin’s shoulder. Erin tightened her arms around her. One of her mom’s breasts was bare, sagging, and tucked between them, pressed against Erin’s own painfully milk-swollen chest. “You’ll be okay when we get there. They’ll help you.” She felt the tension in her mom’s back give and pulled back from her. “We have to go now.” She helped her other arm through the shirt.
Her mom was watching her; her body was almost lethargic now but there was an awareness in her eyes. Her face was red, and her hair was still wet from the shower but now also stuck to her forehead with sweat. There was something there on her face that Erin couldn’t look at, but just knowing it was there had her own eyes blurry with tears. “No,” Erin said. “No, you’ll be okay. You have to. We’re going now.”
She grabbed the shorts from her knees and held them open. “Can you step into them?” She asked. “Can you? I’ll help. We have to go.”
Erin crouched down in front of her, and her mom braced herself against Erin’s shoulders as best she could, but Erin had to hold the weight of her body up and lift each of her legs behind her knees so she could step in.
A few months later, Erin was waiting for Carlos at the airport, sitting in her car in the cell phone waiting zone, watching, through the windows, the purple of the sky shift darker as the sun disappeared behind the buildings. She could see the planes coming in, getting closer and bigger, taking up the sky before disappearing off behind the buildings.
Carlos had called her before boarding his plane to come home. This was his second trip out with the couple, and he kept bringing up the woman. It wasn’t what Erin would have expected. His tone was always close to careful when he brought her up. Protective. “She prayed with me before they left the airport.” She could hear the way his cheeks rose just a little bit, the way they always did right before the crack of a smile on his lips. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I guess I just feel more calm. That’s all.” He didn’t want Erin to disagree with him; she could hear it over the phone. But she hadn’t wanted to, either. She’d only hummed at him and told him she’d see him soon.
Now Ezekiel was restless and whining at her side. She’d let him climb into the front seat with her. He kept pulling his feet up under himself on the chair and then sprawled out so the lower half of his body hung off the edge. He was pulling at her shirtsleeve and choking out half-real sobs as he wiggled next to her.
She pulled him onto her lap, but he kept twisting to see behind him and turning back around to rub his forehead against her shoulder. He was tired.
He shifted closer to her so that the side of his cheek was pressed up against her chest. She pulled up the hem of her shirt and eased him across her lap. She pulled down the cup of her bra and brought his lips to her nipple. He was hiccupping and shaking his head. His lips ran back and forth across her skin as he sobbed.
“Ezekiel, please.” He twisted in her lap, but she held the back of his head and kept his face pressed against her chest. She closed her eyes and counted her breaths. In, out. One. In, out. Two. The higher she counted, the harder it got to keep her breath steady. She felt shaky, like she couldn’t get her chest to rise or fall. Her body wouldn’t cooperate. Ezekiel wouldn’t stop fighting her.
She pressed down on the top of her breast, and milk dripped from her nipple. With a turn of his head, Ezekiel’s lips caught the taste, but he only paused for a second and didn’t latch on. She tucked her knees up around his body and wrapped her arms around him like a cocoon. He fought her, but she kept him caught up tight against her. She kept her eyes closed and watched the back of her lids get darker and darker as the light disappeared from the sky in front of her.
stevie clemmons is an undergraduate student writer at Florida International University. She has won student literary awards for fiction (first prize) and nonfiction (second prize). She has stories forthcoming in Bridge, The Bluffton University Literary Journal and JuxtaProse.