“Mum! Mum! Help me colour.”
Hunched over the kitchen table, Penny didn’t bother to look up from her paper. Crayons spilled across the surface in a rainbow riot of orange, red, and pink.
“Honey, I’m busy.”
Penny peeked through a curtain of blonde curls as her mum continued to empty the dishwasher. You’re always busy. Ceramic plates grated against one another in a stacked wobbly tower.
Her mother knocked over her wine glass. It shattered into a thousand glittering shards. Merlot splashed everywhere. “Shit.”
“Mum, don’t swear.” Six going on sixteen, Penny rolled her eyes as her mum bent down to gather the pieces. Blood beaded on her mother’s thumb before she noisily sucked on it. Penny wrinkled her nose. “Muuuuum, are you done yet?”
Her mum grunted as she stood and walked over.
Penny showed her a dozen carefully sketched dresses. “I’m drawing dresses. Look, this one is a tight dress. This one is a princess dress. This one is a wedding dress.”
“What’s this on the dresses?” Her mum pointed to red crayon scribbled across most of the dresses.
“It’s blood, silly.” Penny giggled. “It’s Halloween.”
“Ugh,” she scrunched up her face in horror. Penny couldn’t tell if she was pretending or not. “Hey, do you want to see a real wedding dress?”
Penny’s eyes lit up. “Yes!” She squealed. Her mum never let her play with her nice things.
“It’s in the attic. Hold on.” Her mum stumbled, but only once, on the way out to the garage.
Penny shivered. The attic was a creepy crawl space above the garage full of rusted nails, spiders, and mice. Last summer, she watched a tiny garter snake slither across the lawn and up and under the plastic siding of the exterior garage wall. She froze watching it. How high can snakes climb?
In the frigid garage, her mum yanked on the ladder cord. The wooden trap door groaned in protest as it swung down. At the top of the ladder, a light flicked on. Penny heard bumping, thumping, muttering, and a string of curses.
“Why do we have so many bloody Christmas lights?”
Something long, black, and shiny slithered over the edge and Penny shrieked. She heard a thump and her mum swear again.
“Just hang on a minute!”
The black snake was just an extension cord. Oops. Penny giggled.
Her mum’s feet emerged first, followed by her bottom, and then her hand holding the slim plastic handle of a white cardboard box. Grimacing, she carried the box down the ladder and inside the house.
“No touching anything until you wash your hands,” her mum frowned at the marker stain hodgepodge across Penny’s palms.
Penny skipped to the bathroom and sang happy birthday out loud as she washed her hands twice. She held her breath and her hands up for inspection. Her mum nodded, and the two of them stood over the box. Penny’s eyes widened in anticipation. With a dramatic pause, her mum removed the lid.
“Ooooh…” Penny ran her hands back and forth over the frothy white chiffon that spilled out of the box. “It’s so soft.”
“Be careful,” her mum snapped.
The skirt was a massive white cloud of tulle and chiffon. “This was made just for me,” her mum looked sad. “Just look at all of the ruffles. I hated the satin bodice though. I needed two people to help me lace up the back.”
“Can I try it on?” Penny looked up through her eyelashes at her mum.
“No, you’ll wreck it.” Her mum sucked on her bleeding thumb and stormed off to the bathroom.
She’s so mean. She never lets me do anything.
Penny looked at the bodice; it stood up stiffly on its own—a ghost gown without a live body inhabiting it. She looked at the light outlining the bathroom door. She could hear her mum muttering and slamming drawers. Penny stepped into the dress. It was too big to spin, but she didn’t care. Penny grinned and clutched the top with both hands to keep it up.
“Penny!” Penny jumped. “I told you no!” Her mum hooked her hands under Penny’s armpits and lifted her clear of the dress and spanked her bottom hard, twice.
Penny twisted out of her mother’s arms and leapt up. “I hate you! I hate you! I wish you were dead!”
Penny’s mum slapped her across the face.
For one moment, they stared at each other and said nothing. Tears still streaked Penny’s cheeks. Her mum’s face contorted. Penny thought she was going to cry. Instead, she bent over the dress and ripped open the ribbons in the back. She yanked the dress up her legs, but it didn’t come past her thighs. She ripped the back open even more. The dress got stuck on her behind. Her mum’s face flushed red as she gathered up the skirt and lifted the chiffon monstrosity over her head. She put her arms straight up and wiggled in.
Penny watched her mom’s slender fingers emerge first. Blood dripped down her thumb to her hand as her wrists, forearms, and elbows slithered up. Then nothing. No more body parts emerged. Her mum was stuck. It was almost funny, but Penny didn’t laugh. Her cheek still stung. She stared at her mother’s blood staining the top of the dress.
Her mum bent over and shook. The corseted cage didn’t budge. She twisted. Nothing. Quiet little gasps emerged from the headless torso. The stain continued to bleed down the fabric fading to delicate pink spider webs.
“Mum, look what you did.” Penny frowned.
“I can’t get it off! Penny! Help me! For fuck’s sake!” Her mum started convulsing on the floor. Penny imagined chiffon filling her mum’s mouth and throat until she couldn’t talk, until she couldn’t breathe.
She watched her mum drown in tulle. Pale, flabby legs, perfectly still, poked out from the red and white dress.
“Serves you right,” Penny said. “You didn’t even wash your hands first.”
About The Author
T.L. Tomljanovic is a freelance writer based in British Columbia, Canada.
Her work has been published in children’s non-fiction book series, university alumni magazines, and trades publications.
She lives with her partner, two children, and their 170lb dog.