There's something worse about a child's coffin.
Part of it's the size, of course – barely suitcases, most of them. just wide enough for a hysterical mother to reach her arms around. Solid enough that it's not liable to move (or, heaven forbid, tip over) while she curses God and kicks over the flower arrangements.
But you expect that. What you don't see coming is the choice of color: walking into the showroom where they're slathered with sports cars and college mascots and superheroes, where it smells like paint and air conditioning and each coffin sits on its own museum worthy pedestal. The world's most morbid modern art. It's a stinging last reminder that your child will never have a new favorite color. Or maybe it's one more chance for them to carry the cross of your expectations. In some of the displays, porcelain dolls are laid carefully to rest. Their glass eyes spit your reflection back at you.
It's no surprise that Marcus chooses the coffin. I can't. Some patient employee leads me out of the room while I sob. She smooths her pantsuit neatly and babysits me while my husband presses sky blue Xanax between my lips until the room fades to nothing more than a dull velvet backdrop.
I wear gray to Emily's funeral. So does she. Another thing I didn't choose. Someone's washed the dirt and blood from her fingernails, painted them the color of Easter grass. Where one has been torn free, they've glued a tiny acrylic replacement, as perfect and polished as the rest of them. Her cheeks blush with artificial color. Behind her close-lipped smile, you'd have no idea she's missing one of her front teeth.
I remember the first time she held my hand, her purple fingers tiny and perfect, snugged around my thumb. Her mouth, open and sucking air greedily between cries.
And the last time, on our front porch, when her palms were slick with blood and so desperate to hang on - to me, to life, to anything. My name lodged in her bruised throat, choking her.
Help me help me help me Mommy please
The days after she's buried are a blur. Police officers ask me questions. I answer. They listen and scribble in notepads and speculate. Sometimes I agree with them. Other times I shake my head and knot my fingers to keep the secrets in.
It gets easier, after a while. I lose count of my lies: I'll be okay, and, I appreciate your concern.
Or, I don't know who killed her.
I never say, She whispers to me from the mirrors.
Most definitely not: My husband gave me her missing fingernail in a ring box and told me how she begged.
Instead, I pour the officers more coffee, and I cup my silence between sweaty palms until they're gone. Emily winks at me from the silverware. She's still beautiful. Her eyes are so blue.
Together, we wait.
Meanwhile Marcus thinks he's won. He crushes pills into food I pretend to eat, presses his body against mine in the sweaty confines of our sheets. His breath is ragged and his fingers dig into my belly, carving furrows, making room for our hate.
He doesn't notice when my hair lightens and loses its curl, that my ear piercings close smoothly overnight, leaving not even a scar to remember them.
Or that if I use my tongue, I can wiggle my left front tooth.
But then, how could he? We'd have to kiss for him to tell.
The birthmark on my hip fades to barely a shadow, and my pinky nail falls off in the shower, skitters slyly away down the drain.
And one night I finally feel Emily's heartbeat coughing softly back into existence. It keeps rhythm with mine, fluttering in my chest like a sparrow in your fist. The sensation is cramped and vulgar, straining a space never meant to be shared. But I treasure it. Once, I kept my daughter safe and warm, carried her inside of me until she grew strong. I can do it one more time. For her, I have plenty of room.
More than that goddamn coffin.
The next morning I'm not at all surprised to find her funeral nail polish in the medicine cabinet. Unmistakably pearl green, the color of a little girl's dreams. A shade I would never buy. When Marcus comes downstairs, I'm painting my fingers all the way to the first knuckle. My fingerprints are gone, cocooned in shimmering seafoam.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Waiting,” I say. Blood drools over my bottom lip when I smile.
I spit my tooth into my hand.
“But I'm done with that now.”
He takes a step backward. Stumbles. Because I want him to. Because, I say so. One of his slippers flies off when he sits down. The light bulbs over the stove explode. Glass sprays the room, opens my face in half a dozen places.
It doesn't matter. Not really.
I work my fingers into one of the cuts at my hairline. The skin tears away in long wet strips. That beautiful second heartbeat pounds along with mine
now now now now Mommy now
and together we peel our face back, strip away the last of the pretense. He's not the only monster here anymore.
“Grace, please -”
He puts his hands up but we slap them down and he shrieks. Emily's joy bubbles up our throat. When we grab his face he thrashes and our hands leave his cheeks streaked like war paint. He's so desperate. Up close he smells like aftershave and sweat and fear so thick it's like swallowing pennies.
And oh, he's made such a terrible mistake.
Beneath our thumbs his eyes burst. His feet drum the floor wildly, an ageless, rhythm-less dance of the dying. I'm certain the police will arrive soon, but it won't matter anymore.
Over his screams, I realize the girlish giggling I hear isn't Emily's.
It's all mine.