Lilly Frye was a CPA. She loved the way numbers could stack into neat, perfect columns. They always added up to one distinct sum she could enter under a thick double line at the bottom of a form. Numbers were absolute, never wishy washy. Lilly hated wishy washy.
The reliability of numbers comforted her, as did the order in her apartment. The books and CDsâ€“even soup cans in her cupboardâ€“were organized alphabetically for convenience.
A satisfied smile pulled at the corners of her lips as she ran her hand over the canisters that were arranged in order of descending height. Her heart tapped out a calm, regular rhythm inside her ribcage. She should enjoy the order while it lasted. Her mother would be here soon.
In the living room, Henry hunched tensely over the black and white squares of the Times crossword. It was a torturous ritual he dragged out over the course of the entire week. If he hadn’t filled each empty box with a blocky capital letter before the next Sunday puzzle came out, he was morose, the failure nagging at him darkly.
The fraying collar of his button-down looked sad and defeated, gapping at the nape of his neck. The new fuzz that had sprouted there since his last trim was dusted with gray. She would buy him a new shirt with a crisp collar for their anniversary. Ten years. It was such a nice, round number. Balanced. Maybe that would make a difference.
The doorbell rang. Lilly’s throat closed a little. She slipped a coaster under Henry’s sweaty glass on her way to the front door.
“Sweetheart!” her mother sighed, as if it had been years and not a week since they’d seen each other. She wore a silver turban clasped at the front with a dime-store ruby brooch, giving her the appearance of a fortune teller at the circus. Her mother had a philosophy. The older one became, she said, the more eccentrically one ought to dress. Her closet was a jumble of eccentricities. Indian Saris brocaded with gold thread, jodhpurs, feather boas. She could never quite pick a style and stick with it. Unless drama counted as a style.
“Nice, uh, hat mom,” Lilly said.
Margaret breezed by her daughter into the apartment, leaving a heavy cloud of patchouli in her wake. The spicy scent conjured tapestries and tie-died sarongs. The smell of a head shop. Margaret’s iridescent cape rustled as she whisked it off with one practiced motion, like a bullfighter or a magician. She held it out with a straight arm, waiting.
Henry, still burrowed in the crossword, hadn’t caught the act.
“Take her coat, Henry,” Lilly said. She felt a headache coming on.
“Wow, Margaret,” Henry said, looking up for the first time. “You outdid yourself tonight.”
The powder-blue silk dress dipped between her mother’s low breasts and hugged her slim body (“Not bad for 71,” she liked to say). Her lips were painted red, pretty much in the lines.
“It’s a big night,” her mother said, brightly. “One show only.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Lilly. The dull throb of the headache was creeping up from the soft fleshy area at the base of her skull.
Her mother’s gaze worked its way from Lilly’s cork-soled house slippers up her baggy jeans to the strands of hair slipping from her ponytail. Her mother’s pinched disgust turned nimbly to indignant questioning.
“Why aren’t you ready?”
“We’re ready,” Henry said.
“Ready for what?” Lilly was not in the mood for her mother’s drama.
“You didn’t tell her.” It was more a statement than a question. “Wimp.”
Henry backed away slightly. The harshness of the word hung in the air beside the patchouli.
“You were upset,” Henry said to her mother in a measured voice that usually accompanied panic. “I figured you were, you know, exaggerating.”
“Hello,” Lilly said. “I’m right here.”
“We’ll wait for you to change.” The rhinestones on her mother’s watch flashed as she checked the time. “Put on the Paris frock.”
The argument lasted fifteen minutes and ended with Lilly, humiliated, wearing the pink cocktail dress Margaret had brought her from last year’s cabaret tour of Europe.
It’s so cliché to hate your mother, thought Lilly, glancing wistfully into her walk-in closet that was stocked with sensible outfits in brown, gray and black. She’d had to tuck away the garish French embarrassment behind a beige pants suit so it didn’t scream out at her every time she opened the closet door. She’d already chosen the charity she would donate it to when Margaret died.
Hideous as it was, the dress drew attention to Lilly’s long legs and narrow waist. The frill along the neckline looked like iced edging on a birthday cake. In the dress she was nothing more than a confection. Light and airy and completely devoid of substance. She squinted in the mirror to blur her features. Smudged like that, she imagined she was more like the person Margaret had always wanted her to be. The sort of daughter who loved Barbies, wanted to wear party shoes to school and have tea parties with stuffed animals.
Lilly would never be the delicate flower her mother had named her for. In fact, Lilly had tried to change her name in high school to Patty, but she couldn’t make it stick.
She slipped on a pair of thick-soled snow clogs and scrutinized the ridiculously mismatched outfit. She smiled subversively, then sighed and slipped them off again. Her mother would only send her back to her room for the silver sandals that “went with.”
Lilly teetered into the living room. Henry and her mother stopped whispering.
“Well look at that,” Henry said. He opened his eyes extra-wide to take in the spectacle. A dumb smile parted his pillowy lips.
She imagined him as a cartoon hound dog, tongue hanging out, slobbering over a big bone. What was it with men?
Her mother smiled smugly. Lilly gritted her teeth.
The floor of the rooftop restaurant rotated. Lilly did a quick calculation in her head to determine the approximate speed of each revolution. Before the floor had completed three full rotations, the bright day had dimmed to taupe and then to black. Lights prickled on one by one across the snow-covered skyline. Having left the crossword at home, Henry buried himself in the leather-bound menu.
“To drink, mesdames et monsieur?” the waiter asked. The fake French accent probably scored high with the hairsprayed woman in sequins to their right and her barrel-chested husband.
“Champagne!” Margaret said.
Henry put his hand on Lilly’s shoulder. “It’s okay.”
“Since when is it okay for a 10-year member of AA to drink?”
“Let it go.” His voice was a half-whisper.
Letting it go was not something Lilly did well. She threw her napkin down and stood. “I will not sit here, mother, and watch you throw away everything you’veâ€“”
“Shut it,” her mother said. “Sit.”
Like a trained dog wearing a pink tutu, Lilly sat and watched the waiter pop the cork and pour them each a glass.
“A toast,” her mother said.
Henry raised his glass to meet Margaret’s. He avoided Lilly’s eye.
“To my family. To my last night on earth.” Margaret smiled.
“What are you talking about?” Lilly asked, annoyed. “Henry, what’s she talking about?”
“Lilly,” he started. “I had no idea she was serious.”
“There’s a lump,” Margaret said. She looked calm, relaxed. She took a sip from the fluted glass. “God, I missed champagne,” she said, finishing off the glass. She held it out for Henry to refill.
Lilly’s head buzzed with facts, figures, statistics. It buzzed with that word lump.
She wasn’t sure what to do. She reached out and felt for her mother’s hand. Her skin was softer and warmer than Lilly’s. It felt vaguely familiar, like a dream you only half-remember.
“Breast cancer?” Lilly said, thinking of the summer before third grade when she’d found clumps of her mother’s long chestnut-colored hair in the shower, on the sofa, in the tuna casserole. When all her hair was gone, her mother had worn a paisley kerchief to cover her head. Lilly remembered falling asleep to the sound of her mother retching in the flowered bathroom.
“I’m not going through that again,” her mother said. “I had to then. I don’t have to now.”
“Let’s get a second opinion,” Lilly said. “I’ll call Sloane-Kettering in the morning.”
Lilly’s mother turned to her, serious. “I brought my will. I brought my jewelry,” she said. “I’m ready.”
“But mom, you’re onlyâ€“”
“Life has been good. I’m within five on the list,” she said. “That was the agreement I made with myself, and I don’t go back on my word. I don’t want to go back.”
The List. Her mother had started the list after Lilly’s father had the heart attack and died. A freak occurrence, the doctor had said. He was so young. So healthy. But there it was. “Life is fragile,” her mother had said. “You have to grab it by the balls.” Lilly had been twelve. She didn’t know what that meant.
The next day her mother stuck a piece of paper to the refrigerator with a smiley-face magnet. At the top of the page she wrote “The List.” Every time she heard about some fantastic idea, trip, class or act of bravery, she would put it on the list. As a result, her mother had done amazing things most people only read about in magazines. She’d trekked in Nepal, lived on a Mashantuxet Pequot reservation (way before it became the land of cheesy casinos), and took a class on how to strip for a man. Slowly but surely she’d been crossing them off.
“We’ll make a new list,” Lilly said. She opened her bag and took out a pen.
“If I had a grandchild it might be different,” her mother said. “But I don’t have to agonize over that choice. In a way it’s a blessing.”
Lilly set her jaw. Henry jumped in. “Margaret, I don’t think it’s fair toâ€“”
“I’m not trying to lay a guilt trip on you,” she said to Lilly. “It’s just a simple statement of fact. You of all people should appreciate that, sweetheart.”
Lilly did appreciate facts. She appreciated that the sun was 93 million miles from the earth, that the Empire State Building was 1,250 feet tall, that the human brain weighed three pounds, that E=mc2. She did not appreciate the fact that her mother had decided to kill herself because Lilly was unable to conceive a child.
The slow, steady rotation of the dining room was barely noticeable, but Lilly felt queasy, as if she were trying to read in a moving car.
She turned to Henry and glared. “You and my mother planned this behind my back?”
“Okay, it was a bad call,” he said, defensive. “What do you want me to say?”
“Oh, don’t blame him,” Margaret said. “I’m the one you’re mad at.”
There was something comforting about being angry at her mother. It was a constant in her life. What would she do if her mother really did die? Being mad at Henry wasn’t nearly as fulfilling. She knew. She’d been mad at him for two years–every time he took out that syringe and shot her left buttock full of hormones, every time she lay flat on her back, legs spread, feet in the stirrups trying to get knocked up by Dr. Max and his technology. She was mad at Henry every time Dr. Max called and said, “back to the drawing board.”
Her mother had been planning her death for years. Not really planning. More like fantasizing. “Don’t be morbid,” Lilly would say when her mother described her worldly exit to Lilly’s high-school girlfriends. The story always involved a jeweled goblet and a cape. Oh God, that explained tonight’s over-the-top outfit. “Go out in style,” was something of a motto for Margaret. An impossible thought crossed Lilly’s mind: Her mother might really do this.
Lilly watched her mother flirt with Henry. Her laugh was girlish and she brushed his sleeve with her hand. They smiled faraway smiles, reminiscing about holidays and vacations and Thanksgiving the year Lilly burnt the bird. They’d ganged up on her then, too. When her mother said, “This year we give thanks for take-out,” Henry had laughed softly, sharing the joke at her expense until he realized Lilly was glaring at him.
When they got back to their building, it seemed taller than Lilly remembered. The modern exterior looked sterile and cold. She pressed the elevator button and shivered.
“If you’d let me give you my mink, you’d be warm as a beaver,” her mother said. She was fond of mixing metaphors.
Inside the metal elevator, Lilly stared up at the numbers as they increased sensibly by ones. “I won’t help you kill yourself,” she said. Instead of acknowledging the statement, her mother busied herself with the task of poofing up the silver turban that now looked like sagging Jiffy Pop foil.
“It’s time for the loot,” her mother announced when they were sitting on the hard kitchen chairs.
Lilly didn’t want her mother’s loot. She didn’t want anything but to wake up and discover this was all a bad dream. Her mother reached into a velvet pouch and produced a gold locket that dangled from a delicate chain.
“You always loved this,” her mother said. Her eyes fixed on the necklace but seemed far away. “I want you to have it.”
A rush of delight caught Lilly off-guard. The flicker of gold at her mother’s neck, the smooth roughness of the curlicues etched into the gold, the sharp button jutting out from its curves. The button opened the oval’s secret hollow. Coiled inside was an impossibly blonde curl of her baby hair. “Close to my heart,” her mother used to say, patting the locket against her body.
Lilly reached out to touch the necklace. It was cool and smooth. The etching was like a coded message her fingers couldn’t decipher. She was a child again, enclosed in her mother’s soft arms and powdery clean smell. All of a sudden, she wanted this locket, this loot, more than anything. She tightened her fist around it and squeezed her eyes tight.
“I love you mom,” Lilly said, feeling rusty and out of practice with the words.
“I know,” her mother said.
“Don’t do it, okay?”
“I know it doesn’t add up,” her mother said. “Not in a two plus two way. But it’s right.”
“Maybe they’re wrong about the lump,” Lilly said. It sounded idiotic.
“Let’s forget the lump,” Margaret said.
“Aren’t you scared?” Lilly asked.
“Terrified,” Margaret said.
“Don’t try to understand me,” Margaret said. “That’s never worked for us.”
Lilly stared at the silver sandals she still wore on her feet. Why hadn’t she taken them off? They were killing her.
Her mother stared at them too. Her brows twisted with concern. “You know you can’t wear those without a pedicure,” she said. “Go to Gladys on 79th. Tell her you’re my daughter. She’ll do a nice job.”
Suddenly the whole thing struck Lilly as absurd. She started to giggle. Softly at first, then louder, then uncontrollably. Her mother was laughing now, too. Soon Lilly was wiping tears from her eyes. Her stomach hurt from the hysterical convulsions. Her mother was gasping for breath, doubled over.
Henry rushed in. “What’s wrong? What–? Oh,” he said, not knowing where to put his gaze. “Sorry. Okay.” He smiled shyly and backed into the living room.
When they’d laughed themselves out, Lilly and her mother sat quietly. Lilly felt a pleasant warmth all through her.
“It’s time,” her mother said. “I told Henry what to do.”
Lilly caught a glimpse of herself in the glass of the kitchen window. For a second the pink frock looked like a tutu her mother had made her for a ballet recital. Had she been nine or ten? Her class had been preparing all year for the performance. Lilly’s swan was never as graceful as the other girls’. Her leaps weren’t as high. But she’d worked hard. She wanted to be perfect for her mother. As she pranced onstage with the other girls, Lilly scanned the crowd. Her mother looked beautiful, a proud smile exposing her white teeth. As the other ballerinas relevéd and pirouetted, Lilly knew she couldn’t go through with it. She plopped down center stage, unable to move. It wasn’t stage fright. It was another kind of fright. Being that ballerina would have made her mother too happy. Lilly hadn’t been able to do that simple thing for her. Sitting onstage, she’d felt ashamed, she’d felt cruel, she’d felt powerful.
To this day, Lilly squirmed with guilt when she remembered the performance and how she wouldn’t see her mother’s proud white teeth again for a long time. All Lilly had to do now to make her mother proud was to help her die. Why couldn’t she do it?
The goblet was just like the one in her mother’s elaborate exit fantasies. Plastic rubies and emeralds studded the gold chalice. A sticker on the bottom read “Henry VIII Goblet” next to a bar code.
“eBay. $39.95,” her mother said.
Henry lined up two vials and a syringe on a leaded crystal tray. The tray had been a wedding gift Margaret registered them for, even though they thought it was gaudy.
“What’s in these?” Lilly asked, holding the vials of clear liquid up to the light.
“She wouldn’t tell me,” Henry said. “She swears it’s untraceable in the blood.”
Untraceable in the blood. Lilly envisioned an EMT team. Electric paddles she’d seen on television programs. People yelling “Clear!” Accusing looks that said, “How could you?” An autopsy.
Henry reached for the dusty bottle of wine he’d uncorked. It was a Barolo they’d been saving. She thought of the dank underground cellar in the Italian countryside where the chatty wine-maker had poured them two short glasses. They had been married only three days and swore they would save this bottle for a special occasion. Henry poured the wine into the eBay goblet. His hand trembled and wine spilled on the table. Lilly fought the impulse to wipe it up and instead put her hand over his to steady it. So what if the wine left a stain on the Mahogany table? Her mother was about to die.
“She’s going to do this whether we help or not,” he said. “The only thing is–” He turned away from Lilly and made soft muffled sounds. It took a minute for Lilly to realize he was crying. Lilly put her arms around him from behind and lay her head on his sturdy back. She held tight so he could feel the solidity of her love. Then she was afraid to let go.
“It’s okay,” she said. It calmed her to hear the words.
“I don’t want to kill Margaret,” he said.
“You don’t have to,” Lilly said, prying the bottle gently from him. “I’ll do it.” As soon as she said it, she felt better. She could do this for her mother. Save her from the disease. Save her from the cure. Let her go in her skimpy blue gown, looking gorgeous.
Lilly mixed the vials and poured them into the syringe. She went to the medicine cabinet and got a bottle of Henry’s sleeping pills. She estimated Margaret’s body weight to get the dosage and then doubled it just to be sure. She emptied the pills into her mother’s Barolo and stirred it with a long iced-tea spoon.
“That’s not in the instructions,” Henry said.
“I don’t want her to feel any pain.”
Lilly looked at the syringe. Her hand went to the place where Henry would give her the hormone injection next week. “I want to adopt,” she said.
“Me too,” he said and kissed her on the forehead. Lilly didn’t feel mad at him anymore. Relief, even joy, rushed through her. Then she remembered what she had to do.
Lilly picked up the gaudy tray. “You don’t have to be part of this,” she told him. He held the door and followed her into the living room.
Her mother sprawled languidly on the sofa like a 1930s starlet.
Henry handed Margaret the goblet and filled two regular glasses to the brim for her executioners.
“Are you one hundred percent sure?” Lilly asked.
“You’re helping me,” her mother said, smiling.
“You’re my mother.” Tears filled her eyes but didn’t spill over her lashes.
Margaret looked at Henry. “I told you she’d come around.” She embraced Lilly in a tight hug.
They all raised their glasses and gulped down the wine. Henry poured three more glasses.
Margaret extended her arm to Lilly. Lilly reached for the syringe.
“Wait!” her mother said, remembering. She rushed to the front hall, flung the iridescent cape around her shoulders and glided back to them, regally. She extended her arm again. “Now I’m ready.”
Lilly rubbed the alcohol pad on the papery skin covering her mother’s bicep. She wasn’t sure if she needed to sterilize in this case, but decided it couldn’t hurt.
She tapped the vial to release the air bubbles and punctured Margaret’s flesh with the needle. She took a deep breath and held it as she pressed the plunger down, emptying the poison into her mother’s arm.
“Thank you,” her mother said.
Margaret was getting glassy-eyed. She yawned. It might have been the sleeping pills.
“I just know it’s a bad one,” Margaret said dreamily.
“I have no doubt about it.”
Lilly’s heart raced. “What exactly did the doctor say, mom?”
“No more doctors,” Margaret said, closing her eyes. “Goodnight my perfect girl. You’re an angel.”