Jenny’s hair was beginning to fall out from the radiation treatments. Last night, at a restaurant over on the beach, their waitress had worn a rhinestone-studded baseball cap, and Jenny had admired it. Ellen wanted to buy one for her. In truth, ever since Jenny’s diagnosis, Ellen had been shopping as though her life depended on it, buying all sorts of gifts for her mother, tossing them into her lap, unwrapped.
At the mall, Ellen’s two-year-old, Sarah, was fidgety in her stroller, until she spotted the Easter Bunny — on a raised platform with green shag carpet and an arrangement of painted wooden tulips and eggs. The bunny sat in a white wicker queen’s chair. “Mommy, it’s the Easter Bunny!” Sarah shouted, waving her hands over her head.
“I see him. We’ll go see the bunny after we get Granny’s hat, okay?” Ellen said as they maneuvered around the long line of squealing toddlers, toward an accessory store she hoped would have the hat.
“Okay, Mommy,” Sarah said, craning her head to get another look.
Blocking their path around the long line of small children were a couple of teenage girls. One of the girls was smoking, and as Ellen passed, the girl glanced at her with what Ellen recognized as contempt, flinging her long hair back — the cigarette dangling from her full lips — and prancing over to the mirrored window of the jewelry store across the way to inspect herself. Her bangs were teased to a great height, sprayed so heavily into place they looked varnished, though the rest of her hair hung in a limp curtain over her shoulders.
It was odd how the teenager kept staring at Ellen even as she primped in the mirror — the girl’s eyes were large and black, her face unlined, uncomplicated. Ellen stared back without blinking until both mirror and girl were out of sight.
There was one rhinestone cap left at the store, in the window display. “Do you have any more of these?” Ellen asked, pointing.
“That’s the very last one,” the clerk said. She and Ellen traded smiles.
“I’ll take it,” Ellen said, not bothering to check the price tag.
On the way back, the teen girls were still near the Easter Bunny display, only now they had been joined by a couple of boys. The dark-eyed girl slouched back on the bench, sharing a cigarette with a pale blonde wearing too much makeup.
Ellen watched her giggling daughter run to the giant white bunny. She paid seven dollars to have Sarah’s picture taken with the rabbit, but in the first Polaroid, Sarah’s eyes were closed. “Sleeping Beauties, that’s what we call those,” the photographer told her. Ellen wanted to keep it anyway.
“I want to kiss him,” Sarah said.
“Okay, honey,” Ellen said, squeezing her small squirming body in a fierce hug. She tried to imagine Sarah in another ten years, all pouty lips and thrust-out chin. Cans of hair spray, and unspeakable things like peppermint flavored lip gloss.
The second picture turned out beautifully. Sarah held the bunny’s gloved hand, smiling, eyes open, rapt to the camera. The rabbit got up and strolled down the ramp of his platform, Sarah following, reaching out like a pilgrim to stroke the fluffy white fur.
“I want to tell him I love him,” she whispered to Ellen. “Pick me up.”
Ellen held Sarah up so she could whisper in the bunny’s ear. “I love you,” Sarah whispered into the tattered pink plush. She kissed the nose, patting the wire mesh covering the open mouth, inside which Ellen could see the blurred outline of someone’s face. Ellen turned away, remembering this morning, before she’d left for the mall.
“Give Granny a hug,” she’d told Sarah.
“I don’t want to,” Sarah had whined.
Ellen’s anger had seemed reasonable in one sense, though completely out of proportion to Sarah’s predictable toddler whimsy. How many times were left to bestow such affection. How many times would Ellen be able to bring her mother a daft, pathetic gift from the mall. Just then, the teenagers laughed their little ignorant heads off for the hundredth time in ten minutes, the air ringing with their simple, donkeylike braying, and Ellen stabbed at them reflexively with her gaze. How dare they be so happy. How dare they be so young.
“Why does that stupid bee keep staring at me?” said the dark-haired girl, glaring back at Ellen. The group around her laughed, nodding at their compatriot’s clever wit. Ellen stopped, Sarah heavy on her hip. Bee — for bitch?
“I was wondering the exact same thing,” Ellen said.
The blonde moved several steps toward Ellen then, folding her spindly arms over her chest, shaking her head. “Hey,” she said, squinting her eyes. “Don’t you get fresh with my friend.” She tossed her head back, her stiff bangs remaining frozen, like armor, despite the movement.
Ellen bent to strap Sarah into her stroller. “I understand your type,” she said to the dark girl, her eyes drifting over the entire group. “I used to be a snot-nosed adolescent, just like you.”
“Still need to wipe your nose, if you ask me,” said the dark-haired girl, thrust forward on one thin leg, her shoulder flung back. She looked to her friends, as if for confirmation, and the two boys gave each other sloppy high-fives.
The entire group of teenagers was laughing now, holding their sides, tilting their heads and letting their mouths hang open, their glistening, foamy tongues quivering with hilarity. In a flash, Ellen’s heart hammered so briskly she could feel her pulse inside her mouth, her tongue; her teeth were being jarred out of their gums. Ellen wanted to crush them under her shoes like bugs. “Fuck you,” she said. She noticed, too late, the horror of the other grown-ups as they clapped their hands over the ears of their small children, the parents staring at Ellen, their eyes wide.
“And just what kind of example are you trying to set?” one woman asked. Ellen walked at great speed away from the mob, pushing the balky stroller as fast as she could. Sarah sat in the umbrella stroller, clutching the Easter Polaroids in her tiny hand, her small frame curved into a limp macaroni shape, her perfect, smooth elbows bouncing off her knees as the wheels vibrated over the rough brick floor of the mall. Ellen walked so fast she began panting, her calves starting to cramp as she rounded the nearest curve, heading for the door she had entered, long ago, in another lifetime.
She saw a bank of pay phones. She stopped, looking around and behind her. Fishing in her purse, she found a quarter, then flipped through the telephone directory, looking for the mall’s security office.
“I thought you should know there’s a group of disruptive teenagers hanging out in front of the Easter Bunny,” she said to the voice on the line. “They’re standing around smoking and making rude comments to the customers.”
“Can you describe them?” the voice asked.
She visualized the girls, their long hair, their cheap-looking teased bangs. “They had ugly hair,” Ellen said.
“Could I have a little more detail?” the voice asked. “What were they wearing?”
Ellen could not see anything but the scornful face of the dark-haired girl, the pinched, sour face of the blonde. “I don’t know,” she answered.
“Well, how many of them were there?” the exasperated voice asked.
“Four,” Ellen said. “Two girls and two boys. In front of the Easter Bunny. Smoking and laughing and being nasty to people.”
“We’ll send someone over there right away, ma’am,” the voice said. “Would you like to come in and file a formal complaint?”
Ellen visualized herself in handcuffs, being led away. “No, thank you, that’s not necessary,” she said, hanging the phone up with a bang.
As she tried to push the stroller away from the phone, she saw Sarah was tangled up somehow, her fingers twined through the cord holding the phone book. “Let go,” she told Sarah, light-headed with the panic jigging through her in ragged bolts.
“But I want to call somebody,” Sarah whined, clutching at the metal cord with both hands. “I want to call the Easter Bunny.”
“We don’t have time for that right now,” Ellen said. “We have to take Granny her hat.” She imagined the teenagers telling their side of the story to the security guards. Ellen uncurled Sarah’s fingers and flew toward the exit, toward the safety of the parking lot. No one, apparently, was after her.
Her hands trembled, her arms weak from adrenaline as she unlocked the car door and strapped Sarah into her car seat. Heaving the stroller into the trunk, she got in and power-locked the doors, hearing the dull thunk inside, pressing the button three more times for good measure. As they exited to the main road, she looked back at Sarah in the rear-view mirror, saw her little round face composed and serene, her eyes open but vacant-looking. “Wasn’t that fun?” Ellen said, smiling. “Getting to see the Easter Bunny?”
“No,” Sarah said, her eyes droopy, her head turning to nest against the padded wing of the carseat. Lulled by the car’s rhythmic movement, the child’s lids fluttered closed. Her cheeks were smooth, rosy with health, her lips parted, her pearly teeth visible. One wispy curl of hair clung to her damp forehead.
Ellen’s face was benumbed; she drove home from the mall to deliver her gift to her mother, tears coming to rest in the corners of her mouth — her cheeks twitching from exhaustion as she forced her lips to stay drawn back, her teeth bared in a ghastly smile, a grimace of love. She would deceive no one with such a face, most certainly not her dying mother — but of course she couldn’t allow herself to quit trying.