“I’m not wearing those,” said Ellie. She remained where she was, lying flat on her back on her bed, her cell phone held above her face with a hand that floated, the phone seemingly weightless.
Nora said, “But these are the ones you asked for.”
Ellie blew out her breath in a whoosh. “I was kidding.”
How was Nora possibly supposed to know that? “I gave you the catalog a month ago and that’s what you stuck your Post-it note on.” Nora had thought the light pink pajamas with the ducklings had looked impossibly juvenile for her sixteen-year-old daughter, but she’d felt a warm glow as she’d clicked buy. It was proof that her little girl could still be just that—little. She’d even started a column: “Big Girls Still Like Footie PJs.”
“I picked the ugliest pair of pajamas in the whole catalog and you thought I was serious,” Ellie said. It wasn’t a question.
The hurt was shallow—like a sharp jab under the nail—but it stung, nonetheless. “Okay, I’ll wear them, then.” They were almost the same size, a fact that surprised Nora every time Ellie raided her closet.
The phone jerked in her daughter’s hand. Good. She’d gotten a reaction, at least.
“I could. Would you really mind that much?”
Ellie sat up, tucking the phone under her thigh. “Aunt Mariana is coming over.”
“I bet she won’t be wearing dumb baby pajamas.”
Nora’s twin, Mariana, still seemed cool to Ellie. Nora herself had lost the ability to be anything but pathetic to her daughter this year. No, that wasn’t quite true, she acknowledged to herself. Ellie also thought her mother was naive, overly enthusiastic about too many things, and possibly stupid.
Nora refolded the pajama top and put it on top of Ellie’s bureau. She used the cuff of her sleeve to rub off a water-glass ring. She’d have to take the Pledge to it later, when Ellie wasn’t in the room to complain about the lemon smell.
“Mom.” In Ellie’s voice was the apology Nora had gotten used to not receiving in words. “You gotta see that’s horrible. Right? You can see that?”
Nora stroked a flannel duck’s head. “I guess if I’d stopped to really think about it, I would have been concerned about your choice.” Instead, she’d been pleased that Ellie had taken a moment to choose anything at all. “I should have taken you to Macy’s. Or Target. They have cute pajamas.” Wanting to stop talking but unable to prevent her lips from moving, she said, “Want to go now? They’re open till at least nine. We could make it and be back for—”
“No, thanks.” The phone hovered above her daughter’s head again. Ellie had hit sixteen years old like it was her job, like she was going to get a bonus from her boss if she could be the biggest pain in the ass possible. She didn’t clean her room without threats of physical violence, and she had mastered the art of making Nora feel like something not even worth pulling off the bottom of a shoe.
“Have you played that game yet?”
In trying to find her daughter a Christmas present she wouldn’t hate, Nora had researched which multiplayer online games were most popular for Ellie’s demographic. She’d used her Twitter account for the research since it was a safe bet Ellie never looked at her feed. Nora’s followers, mostly longtime readers who were also parents and often single, had overwhelmed her with suggestions. Queendom seemed like a game Nora could get behind—with its feminist slant, women ruled the game’s domain, and Ulra, the Dragon Queen, was both the ultimate monster and the creature players wanted to become.
Ellie raised her head and met Nora’s eyes briefly. Then her head dropped back to the bedspread again. Her thumbs spun and danced over the phone’s keyboard.
“Fine,” said Nora. “I can see you’re busy.”
“It just seems like something girls would play.”
Nora switched on the night-light—a tiny dark-haired fairy peeping out from behind the moon—even though Ellie hadn’t slept with it on for at least three years. “You’re a girl. In case you hadn’t noticed.” What Nora wanted was for Ellie to scoot sideways, offering her—even tacitly—a place to sit. A moment to talk.
“You know what I mean.”
“It’s a storytelling game. You get to narrate the action. And you’re so good at writing—”
“No, I’m not. You always forget I’m not you.”
Nora played her trump card. “And almost half of the players are male.”
Ellie rolled to her side, newly interested. “Where did you read that?”
“Somewhere online, in all of my vast and far-reaching research into the game that you would like the most.”
“How long did you spend doing that?”
Not long enough. “Days.”
“Okay, at least two hours.”
“Oooh.” Ellie’s tone was sarcastic, but Nora could tell she’d scored a point.
One measly point, racked up against Ellie’s three million or so. It still felt good. “What are you going to wear tonight?”
“Isn’t the whole point to wear whatever we want? I mean, that’s what you wrote in that god-awful book.”
A person could die of paper cuts, given enough blood loss. Nora had run every essay in When Ellie Was Little by her daughter before it was published, giving the then twelve-year-old Ellie ultimate say over what could and couldn’t be published. She’d objected to one line that called her baby cheeks “pudgy,” but the rest had stood. They never talked about the book, just like they didn’t talk about Nora’s lifestyles column for the Sentinel.
“Then I’m just wearing what I’m wearing now.”
“Great.” It was so stupid for Nora to want to argue with her. Of course it was fine if Ellie came downstairs in an antique Sonic Youth T-shirt and jeans.
“Great!” Ellie flopped back to the bedspread. Sometimes Nora thought what Ellie was best at was that backward dive. Forget the fact that she was in calculus, the only junior in the class, forget that she placed first in honors English—what Ellie could make a full-time job of was falling backward with a sigh so heavy it seemed likely to pull down the ceiling with her someday.
She didn’t close Ellie’s door behind her, but she heard the soft thunk of the door shutting before she reached the stairs.
Nora hated closed doors.
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