Candace’s mother, Leigh, is losing weight but Candace is getting fatter, so the kids at school call her Kansas. Leigh has struggled all her life to be thin, but now it takes no effort. “I guess that’s the only good thing about this rotten disease,” she says, as Candace watches her prepare the nasty stuff she now calls food—seaweed and miso, tofu and bancha twig tea—stuff she hopes will cure her.
Leigh’s arms look like sticks in the armholes of the shift she wears around the house. Her wig is fake-looking, a Mary Tyler Moore flip. There’s no scalp at the part. Candace thinks the wig is a lie, that it’s all a lie.
Leigh finished her final round of chemo a month ago—all the doctor could give her—and she claims her new way of eating will cleanse her system. Candace knows her mother won’t be getting better though, that this awful food won’t do any good. She needs Leigh to face the truth because she’s afraid their time together will run out and, they won’t have the chance to say goodbye properly. Candace also needs to figure out what’s going to happen to her. She doesn’t want to live with her father, but what if her grandparents don’t want to take her?
At fifteen, Candace knows she could help her mother. During the rounds of chemo, she brought Leigh cold washcloths and ice chips, just the way, after her parents’ divorce two years ago, she was the one who made snacks and tried to keep Leigh’s spirits up when she was red-nosed and puffy-eyed in her big bed.
But Candace feels shut out by Leigh’s friend, Vena. She’s rail-thin and tall, and wears her hair buzzed, as if she’s had chemo herself. Vena has Leigh psyched up about nutrition and makes her eat all kinds of food that Candace thinks must taste like pee. Candace can’t believe Leigh chokes it down and comes back for more. Until Vena came on the scene, Leigh was pretty rational about her illness, but Vena has a weird effect on her. Now Leigh has been talking about a total cure. Candace wonders why Vena had to worm her way into their lives. She thinks it’s cruel to keep building up Leigh’s hopes. Candace isn’t sure what she hates most about Vena, her influence over Leigh or her judgment of Candace, as if Candace is the cancer, and if she’d just change, Leigh would get better.
Leigh’s periods used to match up with Candace’s, and she would buy tampons, bags of potato chips, and chocolate bars at the same time every month. Now Leigh never gets her period anymore. They took out everything: her ovaries, her uterus. She’d been tired and crabby for months and thought it was early menopause, but by the time they detected it, the cancer had spread.
After the surgery last year, when Candace came to visit her mother in the hospital, she found Leigh, crying. She assumed it was because of the cancer, but Leigh said, “Now, you’ll never have a brother or sister.” Candace was surprised she ever thought about having more kids. And with whom? “I feel all scooped out inside,” she said. “I’m just old and useless.” Candace lay down on the bed and put her head next to Leigh’s, not too close for fear of hurting her. She wanted to rub her arm, but the I.V. was taped on. They lay there for a while, breathing in syncopation until Leigh fell asleep.
Candace comes home from school hungry. Vena and Leigh are in the kitchen, brewing wheatgrass tea. Candace sees Vena’s pinched lips and hears a sigh as she opens the refrigerator, which is almost completely cleaned out. She asks what happened to the milk and the cheese. Leigh tells her Vena thought they should get rid of unhealthy foods. “But that was my food,” Candace says. When Vena offers her some fruit, she says,” I don’t want any fruit. I want my food.” Leigh says Vena is trying to help, but Candace doesn’t want her help.
Vena says, “You’re going to have to start thinking of your mother and her special nutritional needs,” poking a ringed finger at Candace’s waist. “You shouldn’t be eating that poison anyway.”
Before Candace’s parents split up, they had big dinners with meat and potatoes and salad and silverware. Her Dad liked it that way. After he moved out, Leigh and Candace fixed meals where they ate all the things you aren’t supposed to, dessert first, no main course. They popped popcorn and poured on butter and salt and sat in front of the TV with the carton of Rocky Road ice cream, alternating the salty with the sweet. Leigh would say, “I’m afraid you have the Morgan hips, sweetie,” patting first hers, then Candace’s. Then they’d sing an old Peter, Paul, and Mary song about red, green, ol’ rocky road. Candace wasn’t sure what the song meant, but they’d sing in the same goofy, off-key way and would dissolve into giggles.
Lately, Leigh’s been too tired after dinner to sit up. She goes into her room and reads books on wellness and falls asleep with the lights on and her wig tipped off her head. At first, Candace was afraid to see Leigh bald. But one day, Leigh walked into Candace’s room without the wig. Her head looked like a skin-covered balloon. After the initial shock though, Candace got used to it. Now it’s the wig she notices.
Candace tries to talk to Leigh. Once last week, Candace had just finished telling her about how Bethany Tucker had been totally harsh to her friend Fern at school when Leigh looked up and said, “I’m sorry, what was that?” But Candace couldn’t repeat it. It was gone, out of her mouth, floating in the air around them. When Candace asked her to proofread her English paper the other night, Leigh said she had to meditate first.
“Can you just tell me how to spell ‘conscientious’?”
“Give me fifteen minutes, please.” But when Candace came back later, Leigh was asleep, slumped over in her chair. She picked Leigh up under the arms and walked her over to the bed. Candace could almost carry her, she was so light. After that, Candace went downstairs and fixed herself a sandwich, which she swore she wouldn’t do, but decided it was too hard to diet with all this going on. What was the point of starving yourself when you could die tomorrow, or in five years? Leigh is only thirty-nine. Her parents are in their sixties and can’t figure out why this has happened to their daughter.
Mrs. Fenton calls Candace into her office at school. There must be some guidance counselor rulebook about what to do with girls who have divorced moms with cancer. Mrs. Fenton gets Candace out of biology class, despite the fact that Candace tells her she has a test coming up and is clueless in that class.
“Candace, how are things going?”
“Fine.” She is thinking about the Milky Way she will get out of her locker on her way back to class.
“You know you can come talk to me anytime you want.” She folds her hands with the diamond eternity rings and looks at Candace, who keeps her eye on the poster behind the desk. It’s a stupid meadow scene with horses and trees. Candace fantasizes about a place she’d rather be—a beach on Cape Cod with her mother before she got sick.
As Candace is swallowing the last bite of her candy bar in front of her locker, Fern walks up. “What did Fenton want?” Fern asks.
“A reason for living. That woman should get a job.”
Then they go to lunch, which is the time of day when Candace most relies on Fern’s friendship. She hates the lunchroom scene. You can’t make the mistake of sitting with kids who are cooler than you. “Oh, that seat’s saved,” they always say and then laugh. Last week, Jessica Faber walked by their table with her friends. “I think meat is disgusting. It’s just fat and flesh. I’d never put that into my body.” There was Candace with her plate full of meatloaf and gravy.
“At least we don’t barf up what we eat,” said Fern. “Talk about disgusting.” Fern knows about eating disorders because her sister uses diuretics to purge. She and her friends suck on water bottles all day so they won’t eat.
Candace has been having nightmares. In one, a tornado is coming and she has to save Leigh. But her blanket is nailed to the mattress, and Candace can’t get her out. The winds whip debris at her head and arms as Leigh begs her to hurry. Then she wakes up and forgets the worst of it until the next dream.
Candace is upset about her biology test, which she failed after missing that class thanks to Mrs. Fenton. She really wants to talk to Leigh. As she opens the door, the shades are drawn, and her mom isn’t in the living room, but Vena is. She considers sneaking in the back way, but Vena has already seen her.
“Hello to you too, Candy.” She’s sitting in Candace’s chair, reading a health magazine, her feet in Birkenstocks and thick socks.
Candace starts up the stairs. “Don’t wake your mother,” Vena says. “She’s napping. It’s been a hard day.”
“What’d you do to her?”
She closes the magazine and places it on her lap. “Can we talk a minute?” Vena pats the ottoman in front of her but Candace remains standing. Vena asks if she can speak frankly and Candace thinks Uh oh and asks if Leigh is all right.
“Your mother is being really brave about all of this, Candy, and she doesn’t always ask for what she wants.”
“My name is Candace.”
“Don’t you think it’s important to spend as much time as you can with her? She’s not as strong as she makes out to be.”
Candace wants to say she could spend more time with Leigh if Vena weren’t in the way. Instead she says, “I know.”
“It’s not really my business.”
Fucking A, Candace thinks.
“But don’t you think this is a time to show how mature you are?”
Candace wants to pull her hair, to slap Vena. She doesn’t know anything.
“I understand what it’s like to be in high school and to have lots of activities after school and dates on weekends.” Candace rolls her eyes. “Now, I don’t mean to be critical,” she continues. “But it doesn’t it make sense to think about someone else for a change? Leigh needs as much positive force around her as possible. No offense, but you have a real downer attitude.”
Candace looks at Vena as if she has sprouted antennae. “I don’t have an attitude.” Except against you, she thinks. “What are you trying to prove with all this bogus food and happy thoughts shit? What makes you such an authority on cancer?” She turns, fighting back tears, and walks toward the stairs.
“Don’t go up there. I told you your mother is sleeping.”
“You know what? You don’t live here, so I don’t think you can tell me where I can go in my own damn house.”
“Ssh! You’ll wake her. Come back here.”
“No!” She bangs her fist on the banister. “Why are you hanging around here? My mother doesn’t need you. You’re really getting on her nerves. She said so.” Candace feels a vicious pleasure in telling this lie.
“Candace!” It’s Leigh, standing at the top of the stairs, clutching her robe, her face tired and gray.
“Mom, I’m sorry.”
“Go upstairs.” Her lips are pinched tight, as if holding back what she really wants to say.
Candace runs past Leigh, her feet drumming on the stairs, making the floor shake. In her room, she drags out the bag from the closet—her own stash of Twinkies, Pringles, Ho Hos, peanut butter crackers—as she listens to the rise and fall of voices downstairs. Ripping the cellophane off of a pack of Hostess cupcakes, she stuffs one in her mouth. In three bites, it’s gone, and the familiar rush comes over her. Then she polishes off the other one—cake, cream, and frosting mixed together—smearing onto her face and hands. She has to force herself to breathe evenly so she won’t choke. Slow down, slow down, she tells herself.
At dinner, Leigh is still angry. There is lots of silent chewing and swallowing. Candace talks more than usual to lighten the mood. But the harder she tries, the worse it gets. Leigh keeps hassling Candace about her diet, telling her she looks tired. “It’s all those toxins you put in your body.”
“Mom, it’s protein,” she says, sawing at her minute steak.
“About six times what you need and filled with hormones.”
“Gross. I’m trying to eat.”
“Okay, but it’s terrible for you.” She takes a bite of rice and mung beans and starts chewing fifty times like Vena told her. It’s disgusting to watch her eat like that, and it makes Candace want to gulp down her own food. Candace asks a question and has to wait while Leigh chews and chews. Finally, she blows up. “Mom, stop! You’re making me sick! Can’t you just eat like a normal person?”
Leigh looks up, shocked.
“This doesn’t make any difference. Can’t you see that?”
Leigh seems to shrink right in front of her. Candace wants to stuff her words back into her mouth. Leigh stops chewing and tries to swallow. Then she starts to cry. Holding her napkin to her mouth, she stands up.
“Mom, I’m sorry.”
Leigh drops her napkin in the trash, turns to leave and bumps into the table. “Mom, please don’t go.” Leigh stops to rub her leg before heading out of the room.
Candace sits for a moment, stabbing her meat with a fork. After she dumps her plate in the sink, she goes upstairs and calls Fern. She tries to explain why Vena is so terrible for Leigh with her ideas about a cure. But Fern says maybe Leigh wants to hear what Vena has to tell her, even if it is a lie.
“Don’t you think your mother knows better than anyone what’s happening? So what if she needs a little lie to help her deal with this?”
“I can’t believe you’re saying this. I thought you’d be on my side.”
“Candace, I am.”
“Whatever.” She hangs up and falls back onto her bed, breathing heavily. She closes her eyes and falls asleep. In her dream, she sees Leigh, in Candace’s arms, fully proportioned but tiny as a baby with a miniature wig. Through dry, chalky lips, she’s muttering something that sounds like static. Candace is pleading with her to speak clearly but wakes up before she can understand.
Suddenly hungry, she feels her way down the dark staircase and sees a light in the kitchen. She’s surprised to find Leigh sitting at the kitchen table. Candace backs away, but Leigh spots her. “Candace. Come here, please.”
Candace asks, “Are you all right?”
“Fine. Just thinking.”
“Mom, I’m sorry I was rude. I didn’t want to hurt you. I don’t want to make things worse for you.”
“You don’t.” She winces as she changes her position.
“Well, sometimes I do.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Vena says I’m not being positive enough.”
“Oh, Sweetie.” She gives a sad smile. “Vena’s a bit overzealous at times, I know, but she helps me. Can you understand that?”
“Yeah, but she’s just kind of annoying.”
“I know. But listen. I’m still here. Just ignore her. Can you do that?”
“I’ll try.” Tears sting Candace’s eyes.
Leigh places her papery, dry fingers over Candace’s hand. “You know what?” Leigh says, scraping the chair as she stands. “I’m hungry. Do we have anything to eat?”
She opens the freezer door and rummages around. “Yes. Here it is.” She pulls a carton of ice cream from the back. “Rocky Road. Oh God, I used to love that, remember?”
“But you haven’t eaten anything like that for so long. Can’t I get you some tea?”
“That stuff is disgusting. Come on. Just a spoonful. What could that hurt?” Leigh opens her cracked lips to a scoop of ice cream. It smears over her lips. “You know, Vena would kill me.” Her face brightens. “Kill me,” she laughs. “Oh no! I’m so worried.”
“Mo-om,” Candace says but lets herself laugh.
Leigh’s eyes are slits as she wheezes. She dips her spoon in again. “I might as well go out with—” A cough starts deep down and rips through her chest.
Candace leans forward, pats her on the back.
After a moment, Leigh regains her breath. “I’m fine.” She takes a smaller bite, doesn’t cough and passes the carton over to Candace who digs out a spoonful. “Candace, sweetie. I know you want to be as optimistic as possible, and I really appreciate it, but I think we need to make some plans for you. For later on.”
Candace swallows. “Oh, Mom, I know.” Suddenly, she doesn’t want any more ice cream. But still, she takes one more bite and passes the carton back to her mother.
Jan English Leary is the author of two books: a novel, Thicker Than Blood, and a collection of short stories, Skating on the Vertical, both published by Fomite Press. Her short fiction has appeared in journals such as Pleiades, The Literary Review, The Minnesota Review, Carve Magazine, and others. She received an MFA from Vermont College in Creative Writing. She taught fiction-writing to high-school students at Francis W. Parker School in Chicago and to adults at Northwestern University in the Continuing Studies Program. Now retired from teaching, she is a reader for the Pen-City Writing Program, a three-year certificate from U. of Texas in Austin, which works with inmates in a maximum security prison for men.
Image: Flickr / Larry