Her face, if you could call it that, was mere inches from mine. One eyeball hung from its socket, dangling loosely by wire thin sinew. The left side of her mouth was still intact, lips twisted upward while the other half had been ripped clean off, bare teeth and jaw forming a grotesque smile. Two holes stood where nasal cavities once connected to the flesh and bone of a cute button nose. This shell of my daughter cocked its head sideways and let out a long moan…
I woke from the nightmare and let out a yelp as the face of my eleven year old danced in front of me, fully intact and smiling.
“Good morning, Mummy,” Lily sang, “Time to get up!” She had crawled onto the bed and laid next to me, already dressed and ready for school.
I crinkled my nose and blinked several times, trying to gain focus. “Why are you in such a good mood?” I mumbled, wondering if I was still dreaming. Getting her up in the morning was usually a three-round boxing match.
“Today is the field trip, duh! Don’t forget to pack me a lunch.” She scootched off the bed and pulled back my covers, urging me to get moving. I swung my legs over the side, slid my feet into some slippers and dragged myself into the kitchen, ready to take on the day.
Lily must’ve let the dogs out because there they stood, greeting me from the other side of the sliding glass door tails wagging, tongues lolling, waiting for their morning feeding. I slid the glass open and was almost knocked over when Snooki came bounding in, all fifty pounds of her, shoving herself through the opening before I could get it all the way. The smaller one, Roxy, followed skittishly in her stead, looking up at me for permission to enter. “Come on, silly,” I said, calling her in. I filled their bowls and pulled my long blond hair into a ponytail to keep it out of the way while I made breakfast.
“Eggs and toast okay?” I asked, switching on the stove and grabbing the eggs out of the fridge.
“Sure,” Lily smiled, and shot off down the hall and back into her room. When she came out, she had her backpack slung over one shoulder and my cell phone in hand, intently playing the Angry Birds app that she was so addicted to.
“Eat,” I said, placing her plate of food and glass of chocolate milk at the table. “I’ll be out as soon as I’m ready.” I glanced at the microwave and saw that I had just under twenty minutes to get ready for work. I padded down the hallway and quickly threw on my black polo shirt, the emblem for Ocala National Bank richly embroidered on its left side, and tucked it into a pair of boot cut jeans.
I had my toothbrush hanging out of my mouth and deodorant in my hand when Lily bellowed “MOM! We’re going to be late!” from the front of the house. I finished in the bathroom, threw on my black flats and hauled ass out to the living room where Lily stood, one eyebrow up, and a brown paper bag held high.
“I made my own lunch, thank you very much,” she stated, smugly. “I also put my dishes in the dishwasher and put Snooki and Roxy in their crate. I’ve got your keys, your phone and your purse. Let’s get this show on the road.” With that, she twisted on her heel and walked out the front door, leaving it open in her wake. I could do nothing but giggle and follow her, wondering sometimes exactly who took care of who.
# # #
The sweet smell of gardenias hit me as we walked to the SUV. Summer was just around the corner and the two bushes I had planted years prior were now in full bloom. Lily had gotten in the backseat and was closing the door when I noticed our neighbor across the street and waved.
“Hey, Mr. Church!” I shouted. I often wondered if the poor man ever slept. He was always outside, whether working on one of his beloved classic cars or tending to the yard. More often than not, he simply sat on the small front porch reading a paper or watching people as they went about their day. Today though, there was something odd about the way he responded to my greeting and it gave me the willies. His head jerked up and he stood, wiping what looked like grime-covered hands onto the chest of his t-shirt. For a second he just stared at me, then I could swear I heard a long moan escape just before he licked his lips.
I hurried into the driver’s seat and turned the motor on, backing out of the driveway. “Seatbelt on?” I asked Lily before turning onto the main road.
“Yes, mom,” she said and I knew from her tone that she was rolling her eyes.
The morning seemed quieter than usual, the air warm and thick with humidity. I turned up the radio just in time for my favorite morning show. I’d been listening to Doc & Johnny for as long as I could remember, they always seemed to put a smile on my face. Today was no exception. They were taking calls from several people who had spotted a naked man roaming the downtown area. One caller said that he looked like he was drunk, weaving slowly up and down Main Street. Another caller, a bagel vendor who was setting up a display outside his shop said that he was creepy looking. “At first, I called out to him to see if he needed help, but it was like he didn’t even notice me… just made this weird gurgling sound and kept walking toward the Square. I went inside and called the police. I wasn’t going anywhere near that kind of crazy.” Several more sightings were claimed, but by the time the cops showed up he was long gone.
I giggled to myself. It’s too bad I hadn’t spotted him, I could’ve used a morning pick me up. Hearing about it, though, was almost as good. I turned into Lily’s school and pulled up to the curb, wrapping my arm around the passenger headrest as I turned to face her.
“Got your backpack?” I asked. She adjusted the strap and scooted the rest of the way across the backseat, stopping with her palm on the handle.
“Bye,” she leaned up and gave me a kiss. “Have a good day at work, I love you. See you later.”
“Kay,” I said as she got the rest of the way out of the car and shut the door. “Love you!” I shouted out the window as I drove forward in the drop-off line.
It always got eerily quiet when I dropped her off at school. Even though she hadn’t really said much on the drive, I could still feel her in the back seat. When she was gone it just felt empty. That’s the way it had always been, though. Just the two of us, even though I can honestly say her father was the love of my life. I met him the summer I graduated High School. It was a fairytale romance and for those few beautiful months we were completely inseparable. Then, the summer ended and so did the magic. He had signed up for the Army. I was about to start college. When I found out a month later that I was pregnant with Lily, I didn’t try to find him. The only thing I had was a locket he’d given me right before he left. It was a simple locket, small and silver. One side held a picture of him and the other used to display my radiant smile. But I had long ago replaced it with a cute portrait of Lily.
I glanced at the clock. 7:47. I had thirteen minutes to get to work. Fortunately, the bank was not too far from the elementary school so when I pulled in, I was still a good six minutes early. I got the evil eye from our head teller, Fran, when I clocked in. In her book if you weren’t at least fifteen minutes early then you might as well be late. Just knowing that I wouldn’t have to spend the day listening to her drone on about her daughter, Beth was enough to make me smile. And that smile kept going as I exited the side entrance and entered into the separate drive through station. The buildings were close enough that we could still see one another through the glass windows but far enough that most communication was done via video chat.
I tapped my code on the digital pad and swung the heavy door open. Once the outer door was shut and locked again, I walked through a tiny hallway and re-entered the same code on a second keypad. This led me directly into the interior of the drive through. I flipped a switch and set my stuff under the main counter. While the lights flickered on, I entered my code yet again onto the main safe, took out my drawer and quickly counted everything before sliding it into its home for the day. At exactly 8:00, I opened the window for business. Take that, Fran.