While varnishing wood and mending curtains, Mom is waiting to die. I’m in college, trying not to think about it. It’s morning. She texts me two pictures. Her upper lip inflated, her bottom lip sucked up into nothing. Tender under my right nostril, where the gum joins the skin. Everywhere else is swollen and hard, like a tennis ball in my mouth. I ask her what happened. I’m not sure. It could be a tooth abscess. I tell her to go to the nearby clinic. I remind her that two summers ago she woke with a balloon for a face. As we had climbed into the car, she had an eye aneurysm. She drove half-blind, her vision swirling with dark brown like the moldy cups of coffee I leave out for days. I don’t know about the clinic. I’m going to treat it with Listerine. It kills 99% of germs.
When I was sixteen, Mom fled north for two months, so I took the forty-minute walk home from school beneath September heat. My armpits itched from sweat. Humidity hung to my arms and I waited for them to fall from their sockets. I walked along the main road off the beltway, between the fast cars and the kudzu. The air smelled like skin and then death, a clam lost beneath a car seat. A deer lay dead in the brush, its hide peeking through the green. Dragged from the road, over the sidewalk, far enough into the bush as not to scare passersby. I considered stepping off the sidewalk to examine the body, look at its eyes. Smells from childhood overwhelmed me: molded peanut butter sandwiches left in cushions, the long-buried hamster unearthed by the dog. I walked home. I learned when to begin holding my breath, until one day I broke into a cough and realized the deer had vanished.
A few weeks after Mom woke with a tennis ball in her mouth, she stops texting me back. My texts begin to send in a bubble of green. I go to bed nervous and in the morning I wake with the belief that she is dead. I text my sister and expect reassurance; she tells me to call the police. Pacing, on the phone, firefighters flying through her house, her purse left in the living room but no car in the driveway. My father and sister worry she’s been murdered. I think this is a medical thing. I rub my foot raw as my father lists off all the places her body could be, the barn, the basement, the attic. Two police officers learn my name and the hospitals turn up clean. I imagine her body in the barn with the mice she’s at war with. I imagine her body in the bushes where a coyote hid, stalking a one-year-old me, until my mother saw and chased him away. My phone buzzes. A message from my mother. She’s at a French cafe, doing the Monday crossword, credit card loose in a pant pocket.