Matilda wore her leather jacket to the hospital. She would’ve driven her motorcycle if her contractions hadn’t hurt so bad. Instead, she sat in the passenger seat of her husband’s gray minivan, gritting her teeth and clenching her eyes shut as she refused to cry out in pain. Five hours later, Acelynn was swaddled in Matilda’s arms, Alistair in her husband’s.
During trips to the beach, Matilda would don her bright red bikini, the one she’d bought at a thrift store in Vegas, and a wide-brimmed straw hat. The tattoos across Matilda’s stomach had been stretched out and distorted. Winding vines now sagged. Acelynn would toddle after her father as he walked along the ocean, and Alistair would hover by his mother as she tanned on a fraying beach towel. Alistair would press his sandy palms to Matilda’s stomach and trace the distorted tattoos with chubby fingers.
Acelynn’s first dance recital was on the eve of her seventh birthday. Matilda coordinated with the other moms to take all the little girls back to her house after the recital for a sleepover. The trunk of the gray minivan was stuffed with duffel bags filled with ballet shoes and baby pink tutus. The excited chatter of the little girls was enough to justify Matilda stooping so low as to drive the minivan.
Acelynn and Alistair had their own cakes this year, which was a thrilling occasion as they didn’t have to compromise. Matilda stayed up all night baking and decorating their respective cakes. Flour fluttered through the kitchen air, matting in the hair of Matilda’s arms and tainting the inked swirls across her skin with a pasty, powdery white.
Alistair’s cake was in the shape of a race car, slathered in navy-blue and neon-green frosting, and dusted with black sprinkles. Acelynn’s was three-tiered and coated in magenta frosting, a color so poignant it stained the little girls’ teeth pink for a solid hour. A ballerina figurine danced a silent pirouette on the tippity top of the cake.
After butchering Acelynn’s dainty ballerina cake, Matilda bent down and kissed her daughter on the brow, whispering, “Happy birthday, my Ace.” Acelynn blushed bright red and pushed her mom away by the shoulder. The little girls tittered as they flitted off to the playroom upstairs, the volume of their giggling heightening in tandem with Acelynn’s flushed cheeks.
“I go by Lynn now,” Acelynn stated matter-of-factly over the family’s dinner of meatloaf. She clenched her fork in her tiny fist, the tines hovering in midair.
Matilda bunched up her lips and appraised her little girl. She nodded.
The first boy Lynn brought home, Matilda chased out of the house with a paring knife. “He actually liked me,” Lynn whined as she followed her mother back into the kitchen.
“You’re fifteen,” Matilda quipped, wiping the sides of her knife on her black apron. She was cutting strawberries to make a pie for her karate instructor. His wife broke her wrist.
Lynn fisted her hands in her long hair, her face contorted and blotchy, her makeup running. “You smother me!” she screamed as she stomped her way upstairs.
“You smother yourself!” Matilda hollered back.
Alistair stuck his head into the kitchen. His eyes gleamed at the bags of flour and sugar strewn across the counter. “Is that for us?” he asked hesitantly.
Matilda pulled another apron out of the cupboard and motioned to a fresh carton of strawberries. “You can make one for us.”
Alistair’s first tattoo was of a dragon. It circled his left ankle, the head and tail of the beast curled together around the bone. The tattoo was an 18th birthday present. A month beforehand, Matilda wore her leather jacket and drove Alistair to her favorite tattoo parlor downtown. She parked her motorcycle out back, stowing the black and crimson helmets in the storage compartment attached to the back. Alistair’s gaze flitted about as he took in the shabby lobby.
“Tillie!” the muscled man behind the counter cheered when he heard the thunk of Matilda’s boots against the aged wooden floor.
“Reaper.” Matilda nodded. Alistair stiffened beside her.
“What’re you gettin’?” Reaper asked, reaching behind the counter to grab a binder.
“Not for me this time.” Matilda smiled and pointed at her son with her thumb. “You skilled at dragons?”
“I believe so.” Reaper chuckled heartily. He held out a beefy hand and beckoned Alistair forward. Alistair swallowed hard, glanced back at his mom, then held Reaper’s gaze and explained the design he wanted.
When they returned on Alistair’s birthday, he didn’t hesitate. But Matilda held his hand.
Lynn was the first to marry. She became Mrs. Thomas Hawthorne on a frigid fall afternoon. Lynn asked Matilda to wear a long-sleeved dress to the wedding. “Sleeves that aren’t see-through,” Lynn enumerated.
She wore her leather jacket over a bright red dress.
Alistair and his girlfriend, Vanessa, had a little girl the following June. Alice. As Lynn held the soft baby in the hospital, she smiled grimly at Vanessa. “She’s perfect,” Lynn cooed.
Alistair beamed at Vanessa, stroking the back of her hand with his thumb. “My girls,” he murmured.
Thomas was in the hall outside the hospital room hunched over his cellphone. His fingers stuttered across the screen as he searched up the scores of the football games he was presently missing to go with Lynn to the hospital, to go see a baby, to stand in a hallway.
Years of strife paid off when Lynn bore twins of her own. Tamara and Thomas Junior. Lynn proudly toted her babes around in her gray minivan, Tamara and Thomas Jr. nestled into matching car seats.
Matilda dedicated two rooms in her home to her grandchildren. The first had three cribs and a table for changing diapers. Baby blankets embroidered with dainty skulls and blooming roses were tucked into the closet for when the infants grew into toddlers. The second room had baskets of toys and plush rugs. The whole first floor had not a sharp edge to be found, foam plastered to fireplace ridges and jutting furniture.
Two of the cribs were never used.
Lynn and Thomas moved two towns over after Thomas found a higher-paying job. It also meant that Lynn stayed home with her now-elementary-aged twins and, soon thereafter, infant Eloise. Eloise had Matilda’s eyes.
It was an icy November morning, just before dawn, when Matilda’s motorcycle slipped off the road. Forty-eight stitches, but it still wasn’t enough to stop the internal bleeding.
Alistair didn’t leave his bedroom for a week, not until Alice rapped hesitant knuckles on his door and cooed a soft, “Dad?” Alice and her fiancé hurried home as soon as they heard. He was in the kitchen brewing tea and making a list for the grocery store.
Lynn didn’t hear the news until Alistair called her three days after Matilda’s passing. “You should come home,” Alistair whispered, his voice tremulous.
“Eloise has soccer practice this afternoon,” Lynn replied. Her eyes were unfocused. “We’ll pack our bags when she gets back.” Lynn hung up the phone and stared at the wall until Eloise’s car pulled up in the driveway.
Matilda was buried in her leather jacket.
Thomas filed for divorce on the eve of Lynn’s forty-eighth birthday. Eloise graduated high school three months later. After Eloise paid for her first semester of college, Thomas filed for bankruptcy. Tamara was living in Italy and Thomas Jr. had just moved in with his girlfriend of six years.
Lynn stepped into her closet, a closet now half-empty, and began piling clothes into a dilapidated suitcase. She shoved the bulging suitcase into the back of her gray minivan and drove four hours nonstop to Alistair’s house. She stepped onto the porch, her suitcase clattering behind her. She rammed her fist into the door, shoving aside the summer wreath hanging below an opaque window.
Alistair greeted his sister with the barrel of a handgun.
“Damnnit, it’s two in the morning!” Alistair shouted as he clicked on the safety and ushered Lynn into the house. He said nothing about the suitcase. “Go get the strawberries out of the fridge.” Alistair locked the handgun back in its safe and lumbered into the kitchen toting a half-full bag of flour. “Cupboard isn’t big enough for it,” he explained.
Alistair reached into a drawer and pulled out two aprons, one of which he fastened above his hips. He approached his sister solemnly and tied it around her waist. “Mom taught me how to make this.”
“A part of me always hated her,” Lynn murmured. She fiddled with the hem of the black apron.
“Do you understand her now?” Alistair asked softly.
Lynn sighed and stared at the carton of strawberries. The plastic packaging was beginning to sweat. “She was so reckless. She never really grew up.”
Alistair motioned to the barstools around the kitchen island. Lynn perched on the edge of one while Alistair sunk into another. “You’ve grown up.”
Lynn bit her lip and hot tears thundered against her apron. “I don’t have anything left,” she whimpered.
“You’re still mom’s Ace,” Alistair reassured her, resting a hand atop his sister’s. Lynn chuckled morosely. “My Ace, too.”
“That’s not enough.” Lynn’s hands flailed in the air. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
“It’s what you make it.” Alistair hopped off his barstool. “Help me measure out the flour, or you can cut up the strawberries if you’d prefer.”
Lynn reached for the knife.
The tattoo parlor downtown had long since gone out of business, so Alistair and Acelynn had to make do with a new shop across town. The design was simple and straightforward. Streamlined, if you will. A dainty motorcycle behind her left ankle bone.
Acelynn didn’t hesitate. But Alistair held her hand.
Attalea Rose is a freshman at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where she is majoring in Accounting and double-minoring in Creative Writing and Spanish. She is native to the Pacific Northwest, from the Midwest, and is currently residing in the South. In her downtime between business classes and homework, she can be found drafting short stories, listening to alternative rock and movie soundtracks, or reading.