Theodora Ziolkowski

Lily Exits

Half Cousin Esther shouted for Lily to get down here. I need you to watch your brother!
Lily had been having a dream, only to be torn from it so abruptly, all she could conjure was the taste it left in her mouth. Something wet and sticky. Like a candy apple, maybe. What with that sugary shell and the crunch. She whirled her tongue around. Yuck!
Lily, I need you to
Lily shoved off her quilt and reached for her housecoat. Pulled on her reindeer mukluks with the floppy ears and snouts.
Ever since Lily’s mommy passed away, Daddy needed help not feeling lonely. Apparently, loneliness was an emotion that Half Cousin Esther was well versed in. But then everything Lily hated started when Esther arrived to help him.
Lily hated, for instance, when her half cousin bossed her around. Like she was Mommy and Daddy rolled into one. When in fact her cousin was a lanky reed, with brittle red hair that smelled piney. Also, the fact that Esther was around Daddy’s age—and only half a cousin, for that matter—made Lily doubtful. Who’s to say that she shared blood with this cousin?
There you are, Esther huffed. She was wearing a somber outfit, which struck Lily as odd. Her half cousin hadn’t worn that black turtleneck with black skirt and black stockings, those pointy black shoes, since the day that Mommy died and, in her place, Lily’s half cousin stood.
He’ll be back any day now, was what Esther told Lily whenever Lily asked about Daddy. Because whereas Lily had actually seen Mommy before Mommy was put in the ground, Lily had no clue where Daddy was. Like, one day he was here and the next, he was gone.
Mommy, on the other hand, had been sick for so long. She did not, in a phrase, leave on her own terms.
Your breakfast is getting cold.
I’m not hungry. Lily stared at the small brown pie. This was another thing about Esther that Lily despised: how every meal she made was served in puff pastry.
Half Cousin Esther wheeled on her heel. Took a fistful of Baby Brother’s cheek, then pushed a spoonful of pie to his lips. I won’t be gone long.
You’re going away, too? Lily shoved her hands into her pockets, curled her fingers into fists. Just the other day, Lily had watched Half Cousin Esther scissor Daddy’s wallet, her face wrenched into a scary mask. The day before that, she’d baked Daddy’s favorite dish. This consisted of rhubarb she’d hacked from the bush in the driveway and baked into pastry. Later, when Lily couldn’t sleep, she’d found Half Cousin Esther eating that pie with her fingers.
Half Cousin Esther crouched to give Lily a hug. This surprised Lily, as well. For Lily had gotten used to the days of her half cousin staring blankly out the window or into the mirror, while Lily went around doing the jobs Mommy and Daddy had once done without her.
Now Esther stood stiffly, gave a honking nose-blow into her sleeve, and seized the handle of the same rolling bag she’d carried the day that she came.
Lily chewed the inside of her cheek. You’ll be back, won’t you?
But Half Cousin Esther was already jingling her keys. Take good care of your brother! The door slapped behind her.
And so Lily picked at the pie, then hurled it at the wall. Other than Baby Brother and his toys and fat diaper, the only other things on the rug were pie tins smeared with meats and fruits. Baby Brother was playing Wolf and Fox, beating the two rubber animals together, which was dumb. Sure, the fox could run fast. But the wolf had bigger jaws.
Recalling the last time she overheard her half cousin and Daddy fighting, Lily peeled off a mukluk, held it up by the antlers. Esther had been asking Daddy if he wanted to take a shower. She had been saying, Come on, she’s gone. I’m here now. But then when Lily peered over the bannister to get a better look, she saw that Esther was leaning close to Daddy and wearing only a towel.
The emptiness of the house weighed on Lily as she curled herself into a ball. Her eyes growing heavy as she watched Baby Brother mash the animals together until they blurred into one.

There was a bedtime story Mommy used to tell about a brother and sister who get lost in the woods. In the end, the siblings find their way home. But not before they nearly eat their way through the house of a stranger, then are imprisoned by her after.
Only when the sister pushes their keeper into an oven do she and her brother exit the woods.

When Lily woke, it was from the clap of the back door.
Baby Brother? She charged out of the house. Shouting for her brother as she leapt from the porch to the yard.
All around her was thick brown mud, plus scars from the tires of Half Cousin Esther’s terrible pink gumdrop of a car.
First, Lily saw Baby Brother’s rubber wolf. Then she noticed that the garage door hung open like a mouth.
There were more flies inside it than there were out, and in addition to the smells of fertilizer and scrap wood, there was also something else.
Baby Brother? Lily whispered. Daddy? She covered her mouth with her sleeve. It took her a beat before she noticed the lumpy blue tarp and registered that it was moving.
Even cased in the Crisco and flour, Daddy almost looked handsome. He almost looked happy. The upward curve of his mouth made it seem as if he didn’t mind that sugar powdered his head and his shoulders, that his skin was grayish and bloated, or that Baby Brother was all rosy fat head and tummy as he straddled Daddy. Pushing his rubber fox into Daddy’s floppy mouth.

Theodora Ziolkowski is the author of the novella On the Rocks, winner of a 2018 Next Generation Indie Book Award, and Mother Tongues. Her writing has appeared in many journals and magazines, including Glimmer Train, The Writer’s Chronicle, and Short Fiction (England). Theodora has served as Poetry Editor for Gulf Coast and Fiction Editor for Big Fiction. She teaches creative writing as an Assistant Professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.