Maternal Instinct

Chapter 1

Lilah is quiet this morning, even more so than usual at this hour, and I steal glances at her frequently, trying to gauge what it is that she is thinking. Once, it only took a brief look in her direction for me to be able to know exactly how it was that my daughter felt, the general direction of her thoughts. But now I know nothing more than what she lets me see, and that is rarely more than a quick glimpse of surface emotions that may or may not be all of what she harbors inside.

Once Lilah trusted me, above anyone else in all the world. Once, Lilah would have told me anything and never feared what I might do with the information she offered. But things are different now, so different that sometimes I can barely grasp that each moment in my life that passes really is part of our present reality. Once, I trusted Lilah just as much as she trusted me. Once, I believed that my daughter was the most perfect creature I had ever encountered, that she could grow up to do and be anything she desired.

But now, I just don't know. Now, I have no idea of what my daughter is capable of on either end of the spectrum, and I'm not even sure that I want to find out.

Lilah's face is turned away from me, apparently staring out the window, but her eyes are blank, glazed over, no emotion showing in their dark blue surfaces. Her forehead is leaning lightly against the glass, as though she is tired, but her eyes are open, her features taut, her narrow shoulders drawn up stiffly. She seems determined not to meet my gaze, not to have to speak to me. I would think she was angry, if it weren't for the controlled lack of feeling in her eyes, and I know if I ask her, she will deny it. Lilah is twelve years old, but sometimes when I look at her, I think she looks as old and hard as a woman older than me, a woman in her forties.

"We'll stop for breakfast soon, Lilah, so you use the bathroom then while you have the chance," I tell her, and she doesn't speak, doesn't turn to shrug.

Seeing her lack of response, knowing it was due not to weariness or sadness but instead to the defiance that is so often present in her lately, I clinch my jaw, narrowing my eyes as I look straight ahead again, focusing my eyes on the road.

Sometimes it is so hard not to resent Lilah, not to spend every moment of the day barely holding back the anger I carry for where we are now, for what I am forced to do, how we are forced to live. Usually I can shove it away, focus instead on more appropriate, maternal feelings, feelings of love and concern for her, feelings of protectiveness and guilt. And I do feel all of those things. I do love my daughter, and always will. I do want to do right by her, no matter what.

But when it comes down to it, all of this is her fault. And now I am not just afraid for Lilah, sometimes…sometimes, I'm afraid of her. Of what she could do next.

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"You should really stop smoking, Mom."

I glance over at Lilah, taking another deep drag from the cigarette I hold between my fingers, and relish the sensation of the slow burn in the back of my throat, the smoke gathering in my mouth. I decide that ignoring her is the best response as I exhale smoke, turning my face away from her so she won't breathe it in. Apparently this isn't considerate enough behavior for Lilah, because she persists, her voice rising, strident.

"It's disgusting, Mom. Especially when we're eating."

"You finished your food ten minutes ago, Lilah, and it was Burger King, not a five star gourmet restaurant," I point out, an edge creeping into my voice in spite of myself as I raise the cigarette to my lips again. "And we're outside."

Twelve-year-olds when they get on their soapboxes. Doesn't she realize that caffeine and nicotine are the only stress relievers I have at my disposal anymore? Does she not realize that if I quit smoking, one of the only things left in my life that I enjoy, it would make it that much harder for the both of us?

But no, Lilah doesn't know, or else she doesn't care. Jutting out her pointed chin, her voice maintaining its determined, aggressive tone, she presses on.

"I don't care, I still smell it. It still stinks. It makes my clothes and hair totally reek, and yours too. And it makes your breath reek, and your fingers and teeth get totally disgusting. And-"

"Lilah," I grind out, my fingers tightening so much on the cigarette in my hand that I almost crush it, feeling my anger pressing hard against my chest and struggling to suppress it. "Lilah, drop it. Right now."

And for a few moments she does. For about the space of thirty seconds, just enough for me to take another slow, satisfying drag, Lilah simply sits there and glowers, her blonde eyebrows furrowed, her hands in her lap, fisted.

But then she makes another outburst, one that for me, is too much to continue to ignore.

"You should STOP it, Kristine! You're going to get cancer, or black lung, and I could too from breathing it in all the time! Don't you even care? And we can't even afford it! We don't have any money, we eat out and sleep in motels every day, and you're still buying those stupid cigarettes, even though we need it for other things! It's not that you can't quit, KRISTINE, it's that you're too selfish!"

The way she said my name, with such contempt, with such righteous anger in her voice…but most of all, the way she was yelling at me, the way she looked me in the eyes and called me selfish….

There was no way I could have made myself remain calm. I couldn't remember that she was a child still, that she was tired and frustrated, that she probably was genuinely afraid for my health and her own. All I could focus on was my seething fury at her nerve, at her daring to say what she had said.

I stood up abruptly, still holding my cigarette in one hand, roughly seizing Lilah's arm in the other, and gripped it tightly as I pulled her close to me. I didn't raise my voice, but it was harsh, full of venom as I replied.

"Don't you ever speak to me like that, Lilah Owens, and don't you ever talk to ME about being selfish. This is all for you! You think I'm doing any of this because I want to, because I like it?! You think I like driving for hours every single day, eating crappy food and sleeping in shitty motels, never able to have one moment to myself?! You think I don't wish every day that we never had to leave, that we were still back home, Tony and all? Do you think I don't wish he wasn't gone, that we still had his income to keep up getting by day to day?! Do you think ANY of this is about me and what I wanted?! This is all because of YOU, Lilah- everything we're doing now is for YOU!"

I regret it as soon as the words leave my mouth, as soon as I see Lilah's face pale, her eyes growing dark and shadowed, showing a depth of pain and shame that I haven't seen from her with certainty in some time. I loosen my hand on her shoulder, aware of the hard knob of her bones beneath, and try to take her hand, my voice softening as I speak again.

"Lilah…I'm sorry, baby. I didn't mean that. I shouldn't have…"

But she yanks herself away from my grasp, backing away and staring up at me with such bitterness that I swallow hard, my heart rising to my throat. She is almost as tall as I am now, but she is still childlike in form, all gawky limbs and flat chest, nowhere near reaching physical maturity. But as Lilah turns away from me silently, striding into the building's interior, there is such an adult quality to her retreating back that I find myself suddenly near tears.

Both of us know very well that I had in fact meant every word of what I had said to her.

I stare down at the still smoldering cigarette in my hand, then stub it out with abrupt, jerky motions, before standing to follow her. I was no longer enjoying it.

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The room is too dark, too quiet, only the dim glow of the cheap alarm clock on the nightstand and the few rays of brightness emanating from the outside lights through our partly broken blinds giving me any sort of view of our motel room's dreary interior. It's just enough to emphasize the shadows flickering across the scarred walls and rough textured ceiling, to partly illuminate, partly obscure the sleeping features of my daughter.

It's too quiet too. The only sounds I hear in the near total stillness around me is the faint whir of the air conditioning, the soft breaths of Lilah nearby, and the rapid beating of my own heart. I am uneasy in it, but I don't move, and I'm careful even to breathe as softly as possible. I don't want to wake Lilah until absolutely necessary.

For one thing, she has a hard time falling and staying asleep now, and what sleep she gets is fitful, light, and often plagued with nightmares. She tosses and turns, kicks and talks out loud, and sometimes she cries…sometimes she screams, apologies mingled with pleas for mercy. When she wakes she is listless, groggy, and often irritable, withdrawn or distant. I can't reach her, not physically, definitely not emotionally. Her eyes are hollow, bruise-like in appearance, and she looks to me as if she is already as old as she could ever hope to be.

Even now in sleep Lilah's face is strained, the features pulled tautly, and her eyes move beneath her fragile lids. Her long pale hair half conceals one cheek and part of her eyes, strewn about her head and trailing off her pillow. A lock touches my arm in our bed, but I don't move it aside. Even while sleeping, Lilah's long, sinewy body is rigid, unable to relax.

I look at her and remember with a weariness more than longing or sadness how I used to watch her sleep as a chubby, perfectly formed infant, marveling at her existence, the simple yet wondrous miracle of her breath. I used to rock her in my arms and know the very instant she dropped to sleep as her heartbeat slowed to match mine. I used to run my fingers through her silky hair, to lovingly finger the soft smoothness of her cheek, and look at her small, pointed little face and think her the most precious child in all the world. My imp, I called her. My little imp, with the pixie face and a devil's twinkling eyes.

I still love her. That's why I'm here with her now. That's why I'm doing this, living like this. But it's hard to feel that love so intensely my heart swells, that I can't resist reaching out to touch her. To tell her.

It's hard now to tell myself that Lilah has not changed, that she is still just a child. That she is still a little girl…my little girl.

I love my daughter. I always have, and I always will. But sometimes now, after what has happened, I almost hate her too.

I tell myself to reach out for her as I lie awake, watching her sleep at my side. I tell myself to pull her back against my chest, to breathe in the scent of her hair, to fill myself with the weight of her form against me. I tell myself to cuddle her close, and maybe she will know without words that she is still mine, that maybe she will know we have not changed. That maybe I will too.

But I can't do it. I can't make myself move my arms. So I watch her, and I wait for sleep or morning, whichever is first to come.