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snakeskin (hollow shapes)

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She dreams, sometimes, about the way her traitorous feet slipped from under her, of looking up at Lawrence’s silhouette as she fell all that way down. There was a moment, or a series of moments, where she thought he might reach out to her, or run down to her, and when he did not, she thought of the girls at home: she thought, perhaps this will be the making of all of us.

Later, after she actually landed and suffered the break, when they took her to the hospital, when she was in court, in her cell: she wondered why she could have been so foolish, so full of expectations. So muddled up with hope. She tried to shake that thought off fast, before it could sink in, because rehab was an ordeal worse than labor, or actually breaking her spine in the first place. Paula was almost sure it was torture, that the therapists were wringing every secret, every weakness out of her.

An anonymous nurse delivered the first letter after the sentencing, before another surgery, and Paula hated that she had to ask for it be opened; why they cuffed her to the bed was beyond her, because she was going nowhere, and then to prison, with utmost haste.

It was from Artemis, and indeed every letter would Paula received in prison, every week, was from her youngest child. For a little while she felt more like a diary than a mother.

Six years later, when she gets out and catches a bus back to the old apartment—it takes too long, the driver is new and doesn’t know how to work the ramp, Paula pretends she is not horrified and ashamed—Artemis meets her, alone. Paula can’t say she didn’t expect this, but Lawrence’s absence resonates and she thinks: so this is how it’s going to be.

*

Since coming home from prison, Paula has at last, in context, started to notice her own reductions in skin and bone. With Artemis skulking around the apartment like a scorned ancestor or a ghost that died wrong, it’s not hard to make comparisons. Paula’s gone soft and useless where her daughter has become sinewy with muscle, and it’s occasionally like looking at a dutiful, blonde variation of her younger self. Maybe Paula is a terrible mother, but her palms itch at all the potential running under her daughter’s skin.

Early on, certain understandings occur: Paula does not ask about Jade, Artemis does not ask about her father, and no one says anything about the wheelchair. Paula also says nothing about Artemis creeping out the window at night; that’s for free. She has every right to judge.

*

It’s strange, talking directly to Artemis instead of rereading letters and scripting responses; sometimes Paula slips out of English and initiates whole conversations in Vietnamese, just to give herself time to think. Artemis doesn’t mumble so much in Paula’s mother-tongue, but she does sound younger. She sounds younger in any language but for English, actually, and far less angry. It’s almost, occasionally, like a second chance. Paula is still getting used to those.

Even with the letters Artemis wrote every week, there are still discernable gaps between the life Paula left and the one she came back to, which makes its own sense: Lawrence had six years with Artemis. (This length of days also explains why Artemis’ French is so good; for a long time, entire years, it was the only common language in the apartment, and when the girls were little Lawrence spent hours coaching them, shaking those American vowels out of them.) Paula loved him when he reached out to their children, loved him so hard that she wanted to fight with him and draw blood, to leave some kind of mark. It’s not that she doesn’t still love him—it’s not that she doesn’t remember all the nights he kept her alive—but Paula’s criminal career has been excised from her flesh and she is making every attempt to adjust to her new skin.

Artemis, it’s clear, has her own agenda. She’s not stupid—Lawrence would never have stood for it, and come to that, neither would Paula—but she is a bit of a fool, is Paula’s daughter. Hunting in Batman’s city is a good way to get your heart torn out, or your back broken.

It is also a very good way to get killed. Well. She and Lawrence always wanted the best for, or at the very least from, their children.

*

Paula likes to think she is open-ended (she is not, and has never been, open-minded). She has never made plans for what is to come; she only leaps along into what life throws at her. In this respect, she’s never been surprised at what she can live with.

She still feels like she traded poorly, given up her bones for a stone.

“How are your studies?” She asks when Artemis storms in from school. Artemis’ uniform skirt has rucked up high on her thighs, caught in the hanging weight of her bag. Paula does not think she has seen her daughter look so unsettled since she was nine years old.

“Fine,” Artemis says. Clearly, it is not; Paula briefly considers chasing down this avenue, playing tiger with the remnants of her daughter’s day, but backs down. She can read that muddled flush well enough: the shame of not fitting in, of failing to blend.

“Fix your skirt,” Paula says, because it doesn’t help with the image Artemis is clearly bad at maintaining. “Do your homework. We’ll eat later.” Artemis blinks hard, twice, and jerks the hem back down and walks fast to her room. She’s angry, maybe, or hurt. Paula’s not sure, but Artemis is fifteen, and it doesn’t really matter.

She wheels herself to her own room, heaves herself out of the chair; checks for sores. Finds one under her wasted thigh, and the thought of what comes next—draining it, packing it, the next thirty years of cleaning and packing pressure sores, of maintaining a body that is good for shit—makes Paula bury her face in her hands. This is it, her sentence.

She thought, once, that she was proud enough to survive anything. That time has receded, and soon might not even touch her any more. Today is not that day; she has to swallow hard at the setback.

“Artemis,” she calls, in Vietnamese because she hates the way she sounds like an invalid in English, “I need your help.” In the next room she can hear the thud of a textbook, the scramble of her daughter rising and running.

She will take care of her. She will.

*

When Paula was young and hungry, she thought in terms of owing and being owed. She still thinks that way: she didn’t get rehabilitated when she was in prison. She just sat still long enough that Artemis, who has never hidden her desperation well, finally found a way to make her pay attention.

Paula has few illusions about the kind of mother she was when Artemis was small. She’s trying to make up for it now, but there are days when it feels like one of Lawrence’s long cons and someone’s lying in wait at the end of it. There are just too many reasons why she and Jade do not speak and why Paula almost prefers Artemis’ letters to her actual presence; years of divided loyalty and the looming shadow of love, or something like it, have taken their toll.

*

When Paula thinks about it now—

The fall was all that mattered.