MY MOTHER CARRIED BRIGHT COLORED candies with her everywhere. Usually Skittles or M&M’s. It didn’t strike me as odd until years after she was gone. She would stop at a red light and reach into the Ziploc bag in her pocket. She created her own complicated meaning system for each color—red meant turn back, green meant good things coming, orange meant yes to whatever question she’d been asking. Unless she wasn’t asking a question, in which case something terrible was about to happen. To mitigate this danger, she always made sure to have a question in mind before reaching for one.
“Your dad doesn’t get it,” she said once, after he threatened to throw out her stash. He insisted that it made things worse, that her dependence was growing. “Sometimes I just need something sweet. It helps my head, when I’m vanishing.”
That’s what she called it, the way she flickered in and out of being. I didn’t understand, but I believed her. When she was healthy, she crackled like a bonfire. Her black hair gleamed in dimly lit rooms. She built a birch wood bookcase that lived in our house long after she did. She tucked me into bed at night and cocooned the crisp sheet around my arms and said I love you in the warm, careless way that healthy people say it.
When she was vanishing, her eyes became empty fireplaces. Her skin turned to cellophane wrap, veins showing through like blue licorice. She said I love you like you’d say hold on to a gunshot victim. When I was twelve, she vanished halfway through my piano recital. I played Fur Elise and hit every note and even remembered the dynamics. When I faced the lined-up chairs to bow, I saw my dad applauding and an empty chair next to him. We drove home with her floral-patterned dress and leather boots neatly stacked on the passenger seat. After that, I never doubted the curative power of thin candy shells. I didn’t mind that her breath smelled perpetually like milk chocolate or artificial fruit flavors.
The day of my senior prom, she drove me to the school with a three-pound bag of Skittles stuffed in the cupholder. The sour sugar ones. I sat in a cloud of pink taffeta and itchy white tulle. “You look like Glinda,” Mom said, fishing for another candy. We both glanced at it. Purple: sorrow. “Don’t be nervous, okay? You’ll have a great time.”
“I’m not nervous,” I lied.
“Want to bring some of these with you?”
“Nah. It’s okay.”
She stopped the beat-up station wagon a block from the school without me asking. Planted a grape-flavored kiss on my cheek. Before we left, she’d done my makeup—eyeliner and mascara and even lipstick. She’d propped up my chin with one hand and colored me in with the other. Her face was inches away but too close to see. Smudged lashes, swimming irises.
“Have fun, Honey,” she said. “Call when you’re done.”
I hauled my enormous skirt out of the car. “Thanks, Mom. Love you.”
My friends were already inside, Molly in sky blue, Amber in bubble-gum pink. They looked like bedazzled cupcakes. I wanted to hug them, but Mom had left me feeling murky, a marshland without defined boundaries. I worried my body would pass through them.
The rest of the night comes back in impressions: gold glitter, red punch in clear plastic cups, shrinking against the gym wall during slow songs, enduring the clumsy grinding of boys who stumbled over the fluffy, protective layers of my dress. I spent fifteen minutes searching for my friends, then gave up and sat in a dark grid of lockers for two hours, picking sequins off my skirt. No one came looking. I held one hand out in front of me, examining the fleshy parts of my palm, willing it to turn invisible.
At 10:48, I called my mom. Her cell rang twice. Three times. I felt sure that she was gone for good, a mist on a country road.
Then she picked up. “Done already?”
“Yeah. I’m pretty wiped from dancing.”
“Okay, Sweetie. On my way.”
Eight minutes later, she was idling outside the school doors. Eight minutes for a half hour drive. Had she even gone home? Had she been waiting around the corner, swallowing green sugar bombs for my protection? Her mascara looked perfect. Her eyes didn’t look like anything in particular.
“Want one?” she asked, car slicing through darkness.
She jiggled the bag of Skittles at me anyway. I grabbed one: orange.
“Were you asking a question?” she pressed. “You needed to be asking a question.”
“Of course,” I said, and sucked on the sour candy until it turned sweet.
Halfway home, she pulled into a gas station on County Road M. Brassy orange light, snack aisles splayed out like rib bones on a chest X-ray. My mom unbuckled.
“Be right back.”
She wandered inside, keys abandoned in the ignition, and I pretended to be a stranger watching her. She looked as real as anybody else. Narrow hips, shampoo-commercial hair, denim jacket. A middle-aged man glanced up as she walked by. She grabbed a bottle of water and a bag of Skittles—even today I can recognize them from twenty yards away. Then she wandered into a blind spot, the corner behind the Icee machines, and she didn’t reappear. Not for two minutes. Three. I clutched the fabric of my dress. I told myself she was waiting in line for stale coffee. I searched the crumpled bag in the cupholder—only two left, a green and a purple. I chose one and took it like medicine, letting it dissolve in the hollow beneath my tongue.
Lindy Biller is a writer who hails from Metro Detroit and now lives in Wisconsin. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming at SmokeLong Quarterly and Apparition Lit. In her day job, she works for a small game design studio, crafting stories and concepts for online learning games.