Volume 32, Number 1

The Hungry Mother

Jean Lee

“What’s that?”

Nicole carefully places the Bella Café sticker over the tell-tale yellow arches. “My coffee,” she tells the approaching child. “Want some?” Please don’t want some. Your teeth look like rocks. Doesn’t your mother care?

The girl tucks a few greasy strands of hair behind her ear, revealing the rest of her lopsided face. No doctor could save that face. “Nah. I’m waiting for the water.” She points to the old water pump in the middle of the park.

Nicole looks past the water pump. Beyond the road and wall of tall shrubs is a trailer park full of people, poor and desperate people praying for easy answers. And Nicole’s bag is just full of easy answers, priced to catch and never release. All it takes is one yes to snag the rest, and that yes is due any minute.

“Don’t you have water at home?” Nicole can’t imagine allowing her daughter to play in this rundown park, let alone drink water from some forsaken pump. Carl and his skank, Sandra, probably would. I bet they don’t even follow my rules for brushing her hair.

The child plucks a centipede off Nicole’s bench. With all the bird-crap and graffiti littering the park’s picnic shelter, Nicole had been forced to pick a bench out among the tired, mushroom-eaten pines, and even this bench has quite a few cuts and words scrawled on it. “It’s not the same,” the child says, watching the bug travel from one muddy hand to another.

Nicole brings her Suzy Ray! Serenity Cloth to her face as though to dab a drop of coffee, but really she just needs to breathe the lavender oil and think, Stop touching that thing and take a bath. Where is your mother? “Would anyone across the street be able to help?” Not that there’s much to look at across any street in Old Sanctuary. Crawling vines of small red flowers cover almost every building surrounding the central park—post office, gas station, all of it. Only the trailer park sign looks new:


New life. What a joke.

Two people stand by the sign in casual conversation: an old man as grimy as the child, and a woman around Nicole’s age… clean, that’s all Nicole knows without seeing the woman’s face. The dress looks like an over-bleached 90s relic cut and sewn to hide lost fat. A woman like that’ll value her dollars, won’t bother with fancy doctors or big stores telling her what to do. Perfect.

The child releases the centipede on the bench. It crawls over the words MY PRETTY GIRL IN RED AND CURLS and stops next to Nicole’s left thigh.

Nicole sweeps herself up, dress spinning as she grabs her Suzy Ray! bag and laughs nervously. “Well you have fun with…” she almost points to the centipede, then spots CURLS. “Say, maybe your momma can put your hair in curls today. Won’t that be pretty?”

The child shakes her head. “It’s talking about you.” The child hobbles over to the broken swings and flops forward to lay stomach-side down on the seat, her legs and arms dangling like a spider from a thread.

Nicole brushes a few paint flakes off her maroon dress and glares at the child. Freak. Only in Old Sanctuary, I swear. The centipede almost circles Nicole’s drink before she snatches it away. Wet gravel squelches beneath her new wedges as she walks towards the woman. Old Sanctuary had never bothered with paved roads, let alone road signs. Who needed them in this dirt hole of a so-called town?

The woman turns away from the old man and locks eyes with Nicole. For a moment, Nicole is a freshman on the bus all over again, snickering at the pathetic group of Old Sancs boarding to attend school at New Sanctuary thirteen miles away, and none was more pathetic than the hunched creature in patched rags named Remembrance Priest. That was the creature Nicole pictured when she messaged that name and a hundred others about Suzy Ray! and its wonders. That was the creature Nicole pictured when agreeing to meet in this town forgotten among the fields of corn and cow shit.

“Oh, my, gosh,” Nicole says. Normally she must count to three between each word so she sounds as wondrously pleased as possible, but Remembrance’s total lack of hunchback makes the greeting almost genuine. “Look at you, Mem! Has it really been ten years?” And a part of Nicole wriggles at how ten years has affected Mem. Her skin is smoother, firmer. Her braid of thick hair looks strong enough for a rope swing. Was Mem always this tall? Did another Ray of Sunshine beat me here?

Mem waves like the homecoming queen she never was. “Hiii!” She says and embraces Nicole so tightly Nicole almost spills her drink. Mem’s lips press through Nicole’s dark curly hair and onto her Suzy Ray! sunshine studs. “Sooo good to see you, Nicole. You look sooo pretty.”

Ten years clearly hadn’t taken the sliding whine out of her voice.

Nicole bats her eyelashes once and waves her emerald-ringed hand—well, tsavorite, but it looks like an emerald, and as Nicole’s upline says, You gotta live rich to get rich. “Aw, thank you. I’ve been using this amazing line of body and health care. All-natural, cruelty-free. I swear, Mem, it’s changed my life.”

“That’s amaaazing.” Mem leads Nicole back to the park. “The world loves the artificial tooo much, don’t you think?”

The grimy old man follows them. Nicole measures her steps and thinks eyes on the prize instead of glaring at the creeper. “I know, right? Anything in the store is just sulfate-this and chloro-that. Purity. Our bodies can’t truly thrive without it, and the only place to find it is among the flora and fauna that have thrived in our country for thousands of years.” (That’s Nicole’s favorite line from the training video.)

Mem’s eyes widen as she nods along. “Exaaactly. Mother Nature has eeeverything we need. We just need to give back, you know?”

Nicole sips from her cup with the sticker-side facing Mem. “Is that why you stayed in Old Sanctuary, to give back? You were always so helpful in high school.” No memory comes to mind for Nicole to cite as evidence, but Suzy Ray! dictates a Ray of Sunshine can’t catch another potential Ray without a Positivity Net.

Mem blushes. “Oooh no. I stayed for my Tace.” A few more steps and Mem’s next to the girl dangling on the swing. She kisses a fingertip and rests it on her daughter’s head. “Doctors always want her to have piiills and suuurgeries. But those aren’t for us, are they, sweetheart? We’re children of Mother Nature.”

Nicole smiles at the spider-child. Jackpot. “You know, Tace, I have a little girl, too.” She taps her phone’s screen to show off her perfect little dancer, yellow costume sparkling in summer sun, at New Sanctuary’s summer recital. The eyes and face were a little blurry because of the distance that judge told Nicole she better keep—I knew that skank, Sandra, couldn’t do a ballet bun. Not that that’s what Carl married her for…

“She hates that dress,” Tace says.

“Tace, you hush.” Mem taps her daughter’s head and gives a little wave to that grimy old man as he sits next to the water pump. “Don’t mind her, your girl is pretty juuust like her momma. We cannot liiive without our children, can we?”

Nicole vigorously shakes her head. “We can’t! But how can we support our children when society says we have to work out of the house and away from them? We’re supposed to be okay letting some germ-ridden school teach them or a skank of a daycare worker play mom.” Nicole follows Mem’s lead to sit on the bench from before, MY PRETTY GIRL IN RED AND CURLS bridging the space between them.

Mem reads it. She takes Nicole’s free hand and holds it upon the words between them, an earnest expression on her face. “You can’t let the world tell you how to raise yooour daughter.”

“Didja see, Momma?” Tace hobbles over, pointing to the bench.

“We saw!” Nicole holds up her drink and with the motherly motion of “hello and shoo” to the child, the girl shrugs and hobbles over to sit across from the creeper by the water pump. “I suppose vandalism is still a problem like when we were in school,” Nicole says quietly to Mem.

“Was it?” Mem’s face wrinkles with thought as her eyes crawl over the vines rooted all around the town square. “Vandalism… nooo, no. Those were just cries for help, Nicole.” Her hand presses Nicole’s down hard into the scrawls in the wood. “Old Sanctuary just couldn’t heal itself. It neeeds people to thrive like any town, but it needs Mother Nature, too. Tooo many towns, like New Sanctuary, they forget Mother Nature.”

“I—ow!” Nicole winces at the feel of a prick on her hand. Mem recoils full of apologies, but Nicole cannot quite hear them. Her mind’s as fuzzy as it was in court when she pulls back: a big sliver’s embedded in the heel of her hand. A thin line of blood drops from her wrist onto the MY. Damn blood always makes me woozy. Carl said, he said I had to handle the blood, but she was bleeding so much, hitting that table. Who wouldn’t pass out at that blood? And he brings that up in court like that was fair, my issue with blood. Damn him. Damn… no, eyes on the prize. Ray of Sunshine be serene! Bring love and change to every scene!

“Gosh, you’re so paaale, Nicole. Can I get you something?”

Nicole yanks a catalog and Serenity Cloth out of her bag. The catalog smacks across PRETTY GIRL while Nicole breathes deep from her Cloth before pulling out the splinter with the cloth. If I’d only had Suzy Ray! that afternoon to comfort me when my girl got hurt… “No no, I’m fine.” Nicole folds the splinter within the cloth and presses it against the wound. “I just needed my Serenity Cloth from Suzy Ray!’s Peaceful Potents.”

“Gooodness, what’s this Suzy Ray!?” Mem picks up the catalog and opens to the first page.

You almost got her, Nicole! Don’t let a splinter come between you and Super Nova status! “It’s that all-natural line of products I mentioned before.” Nicole points to her Suzy Ray! bag with her drink straw and smiles extra-wide. “Suzy Ray! Living is, well, it’s not just body care. It’s really a way of life.” Nicole leans back and closes her eyes as usual, emphasizing her one-ness with the sunlight. “Suzy Ray! can heal your hair or skin, your gut, your muscles, your spine. Their specialized formulas that no other doctor’s been able to match bring vital nutrients to your marrow. They even,” Nicole opens her eyes slowly and looks upon the water pump and those sitting by it, “can bring function back to muscles that haven’t worked before.”

Nicole is certain Mem looks at her girl, too. Who wouldn’t? “You mean—”

“It’s happened six times in two years.” Nicole turns quickly now—time must feel rushed, urgent—setting the bag between her and Mem so she can let Mem peek. “There was this mother who did go to all the doctors about her son’s paralysis, and they couldn’t do anything. One month on Liquid Sunshine, and—” Nicole’s fingers walk the air between them.


“Another, this heart surgeon in LA, he got Liquid Sunshine for his fiancée to help her after a mini-stroke debilitated one side of her body.”


“One month later, they were dancing at their wedding.”

“How wooonderful.”

Nicole holds up the sample bottle of the precious Liquid Sunshine. It’s a crystal-like glass of golden liquid, complete with glass stopper. Nicole’s used it for perfume a couple of times, but no prospect is going to notice a few drops missing. “Maybe you know someone in the mobile park that would like to try the Liquid Sunshine? Or…”

Both women look at Tace. The girl’s waving her hand beneath the dry spout while the old man pumps. “Is it ready yet, Momma?”

“Almost,” Mem calls. She stands, clutching the catalog to her chest. “This has been such an illuuuuminating conversation, Nicole. Are other Suzy Ray! gals like you able to stop by, too, in case ooother people want their Liquid Sunshine?”

That’s not what a prospect is supposed to say. “I suppose,” Nicole says. The world’s a bit fuzzy again, and her legs seem to be falling asleep. “But you could always call me.”

Mem studies the catalog’s backside. “Sooo many creams and candles and lotions—oh, I bet they got specialists for every little thing they sell, don’t they?” She leans close to Nicole’s face, so close Nicole can’t see anything else. “I can’t thank you enough, Nicole, for sending me that message. I knew she’d like you.”

“You have, a nice, girl.” Nicole takes a deep breath of Mem, and realizes Mem already smells a lot like Liquid Sunshine. She is light-headed. She struggles to see shapes clearly. The bottom half of her body is numb.

Mem pulls back, confused for a moment. “Tace? Ha! Oooh, Nicole, no no. Not her.” She plucks the Suzy Ray! bag off the bench before Nicole’s spasming hand can reach it. “I mean Mother Nature.”

Nicole watches Mem, confused. Her head flops to the side as the muscles in her neck begin to wither. Her fingers spasm and the drink spills into mud, dark mud, oily mud, bloody mud…her eyes focus long enough to see her smeared blood on the bench across four letters:


“Momma! Is it ready now?!”

“Should be any second now, sweetheart!” Mem calls. “Keep pumping!”

Nicole still has a little muscle left in her face. Her lips purse, and a little air forms a “wh—wh—.”

“Whyyy?” Mem is huge. She stands a dozen feet tall over Nicole as her torso thins and legs multiply. Mem blocks the sun, and suddenly Nicole thirsts for sun. “Because living pure is hard work! I must gather, Nicole. I must always be gathering more and more. Mother Nature neeever gives for free.”

Nicole lies across the bench, her lower half cold, more bare than the rest. Her head feels larger, open, and she wants nothing more than to close it and hide herself from giant Mem. She remains still when Mem lifts her, and she sees with new, indefinable eyes that the greasy Tace child is bathing beneath the water pump. She laughs gleefully as the old man pumps on, and on.

Mem carries Nicole across the street to the dilapidated building marked SCHOOL, A.D. 1853. “This was a liquidation store when we were kids, buuut the school spirit was still in the brickwork.” She holds Nicole up to a vine, and Nicole’s legs thread their way through it. Her bottom half no longer feels cold, but one with the vine crawling up the structure. Sunshine washes over her, and she feels weirdly sated. “All I had to do was dig it out aaand, you know, sell it to the town. Took a while, but pretty soon I had my daffodils in a row…one way or another.” Mem took a few steps back and wiped her hands clean. “There. Now you’re reeeal pretty. I’m just here to build a better world, Nicole, ooone soul at a time.”

Nicole barely hears her. She only hears Screams. Pleas. Songs. Rhymes. Laughter. Chants. Moans.

A car pulls into the park. Tace sprints to Mem, soaking wet, a smile fully shining on both sides of her bright and beautiful face. “She’s here, Momma, she’s here! And she brought a dancing dress for me, too!”

“What peeerfect timing!” Mem waves to the woman getting out of the car. “Mind the mud, now.”

“Yes, Momma.”

Nicole sees Tace run back to the car. A girl gets out, one with hair brushed all wrong, inappropriate shoes, cheap clothes that should never grace her skin. That’s MY girl!

The driver gets out: a chubby woman with poor skin and pathetic hair, makeup a mess.


Mem points at the Suzy Day! Bag and the woman picks it up, searching it while she walks towards Nicole’s car. Mem turns and looks at Nicole’s new face. “Did I mention Sandra is my cousin?”

Nicole watches the little ones skip off into the mobile park. MY GIRL!

Mem smiles. “See you around, Nicole dear.” She hustles away, waving Sandra goodbye in Nicole’s car, telling the girls, “Don’t run tooo fast, now!”

Nicole reaches as far as her leaves will allow.

But it will never be far enough.