Molly Felder “Custody” flash fiction

Southern Legitimacy Statement: The family’s all tore up: PawPaw and Mimi because Pepe was such a teeniny dog and just flattened under the wheel of that teenager’s Camaro—never stood a chance!—and me because I’m on the outs with Aunt Jean.
I was only joking about her potato salad.
“Aunt Jean and her potato salad” was truly all I said.
I may have also laughed.
And now she won’t say boo to me, as if I meant that she went around offering it to people, whether they wanted it or not!
So you can see that if you accept my story, it will be cause for celebration. PawPaw and Mimi would smile again, and Aunt Jean would congratulate me, although I’ll have to take her out for some broasted chicken, Texas toast, and hand-packed ice cream first.

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Your ex would have your ass if she knew you had Carmen in the same room as a dead body: your motheresque Lydia in bed, covers not even disturbed. There but gone.

You grew up in this house, fed and clothed and loved in the way baby monkeys in experiments have extracted love from a carpet-covered wire frame.

When Lydia’s son called, you, somehow still the farmed-out neighbor boy, fought the impulse to leave your daughter with someone, anyone, so you could howl and spit at the empty heavens. In the end you brought her. Even though your hand wasn’t over Carmen’s heart, you could feel it beating, young and strong, and you didn’t want to be alone.

You don’t weep at the sight of the body, but at the way Carmen dives for the box of naked Barbies Lydia kept for her under the bed—always kinder to her than to you—roots out a couple, and starts a conversation between them. This undoes the knot of your grief. Carmen is startled.

“Daddy,” she says, holding out a doll. You take it, sob into its synthetic hair.

“Is her dead?” she asks.

You nod. She’s seen dead goldfish and frogs, but not people.

“Where did her go, Daddy?”

Yes—the thing that made Lydia Lydia. Where’s that?

Your daughter listens as you explain heaven like a beginning learner of a foreign language, halting, then confident, embellishing a picture that now seems right in front of your face. The naked Barbies become visual aids, beloved family members reunited and clothed.

Carmen is rapt.

The lie makes you tired; you finally stop, and she looks so happy, so comforted, that you know you’ve done the right thing. You want to call your ex and say, “I almost believe.”