“Water Hemlock” by Marie Biondolillo

Water Hemlock by Aaron Carlson

It had been one of those long, bright afternoons that in western Washington seem endless, even in September. After she applied makeup in the front seat of her car (the late sunlight usefully cruel as it flared its final strength against the rear-view mirror), Wanda Braeger toddled over to the porch to text everybody, still clad in a bathrobe. She’d decided that morning to throw a cookout but, between her Sunday grooming routine and a slight hangover, hadn’t had time to let anyone else know. It was around 5:30 p.m. As she leaned over her phone, the white oak trees surrounding her clapboard farmhouse cast her face into shadow, making her appear younger than her fifty-four years.

Most of the people Wanda texted got a standard Wanda party message: I’m having a little thing at my place at 7:30, everybody’s coming, would luv to see u! But a few individuals—several men she worked with at the sticker factory, specifically—got a photo as well, of her tiny party dress and heels lined up on the bed, alongside a black bra and panty set.

Upstairs, in a bedroom strung with clotheslines dangling sheets of handmade paper, Wanda’s twenty-year-old daughter, Lou, had just DMed Cassandra, a girl who both was and was not her friend. Lou had met her six months ago at a craft fair, where Cassandra had been running a booth for her employer, Skagit County Beads. Lou’s eye was caught by the beads’ coruscating colors, which filled their Plexiglass trays with glassy bursts of red, blue, and gold.

“So, are you gonna buy something or what?” Cassandra said from behind the table, her warm tone at odds with her words. She had a small, smirking, china doll face and straight-ironed hair in a short bob.

“Or what,” Lou said. “I’m more of a paper maker.”

“Okay, interesting,” Cassandra said. “Next question: do you smoke?”

“Cigarettes? No. They make me cough.”

“Well, would it make you cough to accompany me while I smoke in the alley?”

“Who’s going to run your booth?”

Cassandra shrugged. “The mark-up on beads is wild,” she said.

But I don’t know if I want to go, Lou thought, as they left the craft fair’s hopeful signage behind.

But she did know. She liked Cassandra, who acted as if they already knew each other. 

After that, Cassandra messaged Lou every once in a while, asking her to go dancing in the city or accompany her to forest raves. Cassandra didn’t drink, so she loved to dance—it burned off energy that might have gone sour if she’d been forced to sit around in bars, drinking flat club soda.

Lou generally went wherever Cassandra invited her, even though she hated crowds and had a bad fake ID. Wanda expected Lou to explain all of her social plans, so Lou lied to her about the Cassandra nights, said she was going to crafting meet-ups or youth group game nights—anything Wanda would be bored by. Sometimes Lou and Cassandra talked about starting their own bead and handmade paper store, somewhere far away. Maybe Boise.

Lou loved being in a story about two close, adventurous friends, even if that wasn’t exactly what was happening. Occasionally, without warning, Cassandra would make her pay both their covers at a club. Or abandon her at a rave for some pretty girl who could be her twin, leaving Lou to beg random partygoers for a ride home.

As she listened to Wanda’s twenty-nine-year-old boyfriend Jimmy cough in the upstairs shower—he was nursing an all-day hangover—Lou messaged Cassandra again: Where should I meet you? She didn’t care where they went. She just wanted Cassandra’s reality to overwhelm her own, dissolve it into mist. Because there was the fact of what both her licenses said, that she was an adult, an active agent in the world who could say yes or no, and then there was the way things worked in this house, where her desires (for privacy, to move out, to go to college) were taken as seriously as when she was a six-year-old who would wear only red shoes to school. 

A few minutes went by as Lou stared at her phone, feeling sweaty and ridiculous. The sheets of handmade paper trembled, as if chilled by a draft. Then Cassandra wrote: I’ll pick you up at 6. At the end of the street again?

Perfect, Lou wrote.

It was 5:40, and Wyzer Road was not a short street—it took ten minutes to get to the corner. Lou hurriedly combed the tangles from her bleached-blond hair, then cajoled a pale, shaky Jimmy out of the bathroom. Stealing dibs and dabs from her mother’s products, she gave herself stronger brows, rosier cheeks, shinier waves. 

Skimming down the stairs, she came down on an ankle the wrong way and almost fell. Slowing down, Lou slunk past the beer can–cluttered living room, then through the front door. 

Out on the porch, Wanda had just fielded another “no” response, this time from Todd O’Connor. She didn’t mind if her female coworkers declined to come over, but to get turned down by a man (even a narrow-shouldered vaper like Todd) really stung. Once, Wanda had been able to stop a room just by walking into it. She hadn’t been that woman in a while, but tonight she wanted to feel juicy and disastrous again.

Suddenly, the front door opened, and Lou eased herself out of it, looking primped up, fancy, like an adult stranger. 

“Where do you think you’re going?” Wanda said.

Lou jumped. “Out,” she said. “Only for a little bit.”

“Where?” Wanda said. “With who? We’re having a cookout tonight.”

“In the dark?” Lou said, moving down the porch steps. “Sorry, but I’ve got plans with my crafting club.”

Wanda flitted down the steps to the front walk, blocking Lou’s path. 

“Don’t talk to me like you’re some thirty-five-year-old woman,” she said.

This wasn’t an unusual comment from Wanda—she often told Lou not to act like a thirty-five-year-old woman, dishing out this accusation for such Lou crimes as: wearing a turtleneck, dyeing her hair, and turning her nose up at Hawaiian pizza. 

“I’m going to be late,” Lou said. 

“No, you won’t,” Wanda said. “Because your plans are canceled. What are people going to think if my own kid doesn’t go to my party?”

“They won’t think anything about it,” Lou said. “Because I’m not six.”

“No, wrong,” Wanda said, making a buzzing sound. “They’ll think that you don’t love me enough to spend a measly couple hours with me.”

Lou tried to brush past Wanda then, but Wanda, despite being five inches shorter, stood strong. She gave Lou a firm, impersonal shove, like she was shooing away a bad dog.

Lou didn’t move for a moment. Then she shoved her mother back.

Wanda must not have been expecting that, Lou thought, because it made her lose her footing. She slipped on a loose acorn and fell down on her rump, her robe falling open and exposing her huge, blue-veined breasts. Wanda’s mouth popped open, then crumpled. She began crying.

Before she could stop it, a horrible sense of pleasure seeped through Lou. 

“I just…wanted us…to spend one last summer night together,” Wanda sobbed. “Summer doesn’t last…forever, and…you won’t always…be here. You’re going…to leave.”

Lou sighed. “It’s September, Mom.”

“It’s not…autumn,” her mother cried. “Equinox isn’t until next week!”

Wanda wept as openly as a child. But Lou didn’t comfort her. If she did, she knew that Wanda would gain new energy, new will to fight the ticking of the clock. And if she were permitted to stay frozen in amber, that’s where Lou would be, too—Mommy’s little paperweight.

“You’re still part of me, aren’t you, baby?” Wanda said, mouth working like an infant’s. “My little buddy, my rock?”

Her piercing sobs drowned everything else out—the roar of I-5, visible in the distance, the caws of the crows in the white oak trees. Lou hesitated for a moment, glancing past Wanda at the place where Wyzer Road met Blodgett. Then she DMed Cassandra to let her know she wasn’t going to make it. She sat down next to Wanda in the wet grass.

Two hours later, the sun had set, and the guests had arrived. They included Alma and Rob, a couple who had just been hired at the sticker factory, as well as Hugo, the mustachioed mailman who came to all of Wanda’s parties. Along with Wanda, Lou, and Jimmy, their group numbered six total—far fewer people than had been invited. 

The only person who seemed happy to be there was Hugo. But Wanda expected that—he’d been trying to sleep with her since they were freshmen at Mount Vernon High. If she ever said yes, she knew he’d stop acting so nice, just like Jimmy had, just like all the others. None of them were like Lou: they didn’t really care about her. 

But she didn’t mind their attention.

In the darkness, Wanda’s gold lamé dress moved brightly around them like a spotlight, the lawn’s stray acorns clicking like castanets as she trod on them in her high sandals. She insisted that the guests sit down, pushing them into the plastic Adirondack chairs that faced the fire pit. Then she scurried into the house for blankets, calling to Lou over her shoulder that she should pass around the potato chips.

Everyone seemed cold and hungry, no matter how much of Jimmy’s bacterial home brew they drank. 

“Are you, uh, expecting anyone else soon?” Rob said when Wanda returned. “I thought more people from our department were coming.”

“I’m sure the men will be along soon. I texted them about my dress,” Wanda said.

As a matter of fact, none of the men who’d gotten a photo had messaged Wanda back yet. To banish her worries on that front, she winked at Rob. He didn’t seem to notice, so she winked again. 

“It’s a hell of a dress,” Hugo said.

“But aren’t you cold?” Alma said. She had pulled her chair close to the fire and was chafing her hands.

“Not at all,” Wanda said. “Too much meat on these bones, know what I’m saying?”

She and Hugo laughed; no one else did. Wanda noticed Rob giving Alma a look that she couldn’t interpret.

“How’s the chicken coming?” Jimmy said. “I swear, I could eat the whole thing.”

“Have some more chips,” Lou said, passing him the full bag.

For the fifth time, Wanda trotted over to the grill, opened it, and stuck a fork in her famous beer can chicken. Its juices still ran bright pink. Below, in the coals, lay foil-wrapped potatoes. She speared one with the same fork, had a grim time extracting it.

It’s probably fine, Wanda thought. You don’t want to overcook potatoes. And didn’t cavemen get raised on raw chicken?

“It’s time to eat!” she trilled, freeing the chicken of its implanted beer can, setting it on a platter, and carrying it to the patio table.

The guests clustered around Wanda, both Jimmy and Hugo resting their chins on her shoulders. The citronella candles lit the chicken with a feeble light, which failed to mask the paleness of its skin.

Silence descended. Hugo and Jimmy straightened up. Finally, Lou spoke.

“Don’t you think it needs more time, Mom?” 

“It’s gonna be great; don’t be fussy,” Wanda said. But her thighs had broken out in goose pimples. 

Putting his arm unsteadily around Wanda, Jimmy plucked a chunk of breast meat off with his bare fingers and shoved it into his mouth. He chewed it, bloody juices trickling down his chin.

“Yum, smoky,” he said, reaching out to pull off another piece.

Hugo batted his hand away.

“Cut that out, man,” he said. “Wanda, I love you, but you know this chicken is raw. Let’s get it back on the grill.” 

Wanda frowned. “You scared of my home cooking?” she said.

“I’m scared of salmonella, darlin’,” Hugo said, booping her on the nose. 

Wanda noticed Rob giving Alma another unreadable look, which made her feel anxious. Was he wondering why Wanda let Hugo do stuff like that, with her boyfriend right there? Or was he antsy because most of the people from work hadn’t shown up yet? 

“What are we supposed to eat then, Hugo?” Wanda said, throwing out her arms.

Her right hand caught the water hemlock bouquet on the patio table. She’d picked it that afternoon, thinking it would make the cookout feel more festive. The vase tipped over, strewing tall, weedy flowers across the place settings. Water followed in the bouquet’s path, pooling on the plates, dousing several candles, and dripping down the lawn chairs.

“Goddamnit!” Wanda shouted.

Alma and Rob froze. Hugo scrambled for the paper towels, almost losing the cap that covered his bald spot. 

Lou, who was suddenly hovering on Wanda’s left side, piped up. “Hey, so—how about we order a pizza?”

“That’s not what I had planned,” Wanda said. “People came here for a cookout! And now, the chicken is ruined; my beautiful table is ruined—”

“I’m so sorry,” Hugo said, dabbing at the wet plates. “I can chip in for the pizza!”

“Better give up on those plates. They’re contaminated,” Lou told him. She left Wanda’s side and began dismantling the table, stacking the plates, glasses, and cutlery under it and throwing the placemats and napkins (handmade, her own work) into the garbage bin.

“Besides, we might need to get going soon,” Alma said. Wanda noticed that she and Rob had moved away from the patio and fire pit to a spot on the lawn a few feet from their car, which they’d parked behind the house. “The dogsitter said Riley wasn’t doing well—”

Jimmy opened his mouth as if he were about to say something, then abruptly shut it. He sat down in one of the lawn chairs, seemingly unaware of the water on its seat.

“Are you alright, bro?” Rob said. “How’s that chicken sitting?”

Jimmy swallowed and smiled, pinkish flesh still in his teeth. Wanda realized that he was drunker than she’d thought. 

“I’m not some old man,” Jimmy said, glaring at Hugo. “No tiny bite of chicken is going to take me down.”

“Still,” Alma said, zipping up her coat. “You might want to take some ipecac, get that chicken out.”

“You got ipecac, Wanda?” Hugo said, as he helped Lou clear the table.

“In the downstairs bathroom,” Wanda said, rolling her eyes and rubbing Jimmy’s back. “But he’ll be fine. Y’all are being paranoid.”

“Why don’t you call Domino’s, Mom?” Lou said. “I’ll show him where the ipecac is.”

“Of course I’ll call Domino’s,” Wanda said, going for her phone. “I’ll spring for a Hawaiian pizza! Anything to save this party.”

Lou rinsed her hands off with the hose and made Hugo rinse his hands too. Then she took Jimmy’s arm and steered him toward the house. She’d volunteered to help him because she didn’t want anyone else to see the inside of the house. When her grandparents had been alive, it had smelled of Lysol, furniture polish, and iron pills. Now, you smelled the full kitchen sink as soon as you walked in the door, as well as mildew, moldy pizza boxes, and beer cans with cigarette butts floating in them.

The bathroom was tucked under the staircase, off the living room. A dusting of curly black hairs blanketed the sink, tub, toilet, and floor, some hairs even sticking to the walls. In the cloudy-mirrored medicine cabinet, Lou found the ipecac. She handed it to Jimmy.

“Is this really necessary?” he said, weaving a little.

“Please,” Lou said. “That chicken was still clucking.”

Jimmy puked into the toilet for a long time, Lou’s hand hovering uncertainly above his back. Every time she thought that he might be done, he seemed to notice another pube in the toilet and puked some more. Lou smoothed his sweaty hair from his forehead and wondered what Cassandra was doing. She hadn’t messaged Lou back.

“I know you care about her, but you can’t trust Wanda on food safety stuff,” Lou said to Jimmy. She lowered her voice. “I mean it. You know, she gave me water hemlock salad once. I ended up in the hospital.”

“What’s water hemlock, and why would you eat it?” Jimmy said. His face, hanging over the toilet bowl, had the sheen of rotten baloney. 

“It’s a weed with white flowers, looks like Queen Anne’s lace,” Lou said. “We had some on the table tonight. A couple years ago, Wanda read that you could make salad from Queen Anne’s lace roots and got inspired. We were both in the ER for hours.”

“Jesus,” Jimmy said. 

“Yeah, that’s why I got rid of those wet plates,” Lou said. 

“Well, I guess she’s no cook. At least you got her looks.”

“I don’t look that much like her,” Lou said.

“Yes, you do,” Jimmy said. “You’re both a whole lotta woman. But you’re slimmer, softer. Like a baby Wanda.”

He paused, licked his lower lip. Under the fluorescent light, Lou noticed pitted acne scars beneath his beard.

“You’ve got vomit on your chin,” Lou said.

She handed him a tissue and left the bathroom, exiting the house through the front door. Once outside, she avoided the porch, choosing instead to lean against the side of the house, near where the bamboo grew closely together in a thicket. Her breath was raggedy, visible when she exhaled. Had Jimmy been hitting on her?

“Lou?” someone said. 

It was Cassandra, who must have parked down the street and walked up to the house. Her short, damp brown hair was parted down the middle, and her cheeks glowed.

“What are you doing here?” Lou said, crossing the yard to meet her.

“Trying to talk to you,” Cassandra said. “Why’d you blow me off?”

“My mother needs me tonight,” Lou said, taking Cassandra’s hand and pulling her closer to the house, towards the safety of the bamboo thicket. “I’m sorry, okay? But we had a fight, and I hurt her feelings.”

“Dramatic,” Cassandra said, letting Lou lead her. “What happened?” 

The shadows of the bamboo leaves shivered across Cassandra’s face. Even in the moonlight, she looked like she was planning something.

“I don’t want to get into it right now,” Lou said. “You should go. I’ll message you later.”

“Why should I go?” Cassandra said, playfully pushing Lou against the side of the house. “What are you afraid of?”

“I don’t want you to meet my mom,” Lou said. “She’s cringy.”

Cassandra brought her mouth close to Lou’s ear. “So what?” she whispered. “She sounds hilarious.”

Lou moved her head away. “No,” she said. “Come on, I thought we were friends.”

“Poor Lou,” Cassandra said. “Her mother’s the biggest bitch in the world, and no one can save her from her. Not even…her gorgeous best friend!”

Cassandra’s mouth tasted cool, like wintergreen gum. Lou didn’t kiss her back at first. Part of her couldn’t help but think Cassandra was making fun of her, while another, stupider part simply enjoyed the smoothness of Cassandra’s lotion-soft face, the feel of her fine, slippery hair.

She hadn’t kissed a girl since middle school, when she and her friend Kara used to practice making out. That had been pleasant, but this was better, if only because she had Cassandra’s full attention for once.

Dating someone as mean and self-contained as Cassandra was unimaginable, but it sounded like more fun than going through the Dairy Queen drive-through with John Honcoop and parking by the river. Since high school had ended, he was like an empty bandstand. Lou had been going out with him mostly because no one else had asked.

John had recently started working in the sticker factory’s shipping department, and Lou could imagine them getting married, taking their kids to the state fair every year and posing them on tractors. There wasn’t anything wrong with that life, but Lou didn’t want it, if only because she knew Wanda would accompany them, would straddle the tractors herself and put the kids in her lap. Holding them too tightly, grinning too big, way too excited for photographic proof that she was loved.

Lou closed her eyes and leaned forward, ready to find something out.

“Louisa Carmen Braeger!” Wanda yelled as she lurched into the bamboo thicket. “I’ve been searching for you. What’s going on here?”

Cassandra, stifling a giggle, moved aside from Lou, exposing her to Wanda’s full gaze. Bile rose in Lou’s throat, almost gagging her.

“Please go away,” Lou said. “I’ll be out there in a sec.”

“Go away?” Wanda said. “I don’t even know who this girl is. Is she from the crafting club?”

“What crafting club?” Cassandra said.

Wanda ran her hands through her hair. “Now I get it. You’ve been lying to me. The one person I thought I could trust.”

“Stop it,” Lou said. “We’ll talk about this in a minute, okay?”

Wanda stepped forward, took Cassandra’s hand. “Just so you know, I’m not a bigot. I don’t know what she’s told you, but I’m very accepting.”

Cassandra looked perilously close to laughing. “Um, thanks?” she said.

Lou swallowed down her nausea. “This is a private moment, Mom. Okay?”

“Fine,” Wanda said. “But I’ll come find you if you’re not back to the party in five minutes.”

She left the bamboo thicket. Cassandra punched Lou’s shoulder.

“Great news,” she said. “I’ve been assured your mother’s very accepting.”

“Ha ha,” Lou said, wrapping her arms around her sides. “But seriously, what is there to accept? Do you like me?”

Cassandra put on a goony voice. “Would you like me to like you?”

“I don’t know,” Lou said. “I’ve never dated a girl before. Right now, all I can think about is my mom catching us.”

“Yikes,” Cassandra said.

“Oh come on,” Lou said. “Why’d you have to do this tonight? Why didn’t you kiss me when we were out, instead of fifty feet away from my fucking mother?”

“Good question,” Cassandra said. “I don’t have an answer, though. Maybe it didn’t occur to me until now? But it was funny, you went from horny to scared in about a tenth of a second.”

“Wow,” Lou said. “Am I supposed to be sorry that my mom doesn’t turn me on?”

Cassandra clicked her tongue. “It shouldn’t matter what she thinks,” she said. “Call me when you grow up.”

After Cassandra left, Lou looked at the sky, tried and failed to find Cassiopeia. Then she spit on the grass and went back to the party. As soon as she appeared, all talking stopped. 

Wanda had been explaining what she’d seen to the others, whose reactions ranged from bored (Rob) to sympathetic (Alma) to nonplussed (Hugo) to angry (Jimmy). At least the incident seemed to have convinced Alma and Rob to stay—everyone had reassembled on the Adirondack chairs around the fire. 

When Lou showed up, Wanda put her finger to her lips and made a big show of standing up to greet Lou, calling her “my baby, my sweet child, the very best part of me.” 

Jimmy almost spoke then, but Wanda gave him a quelling look. She knew he was angry on her behalf, but he could be so tactless. 

Oddly stiff and low-voiced, Lou wouldn’t sit down. She asked Wanda if she wanted to go talk inside. 

“There’s nothing to talk about, honey,” Wanda said. “I accept you completely, you’re a part of me forever. I’m just sad you felt the need to lie to me about your darling little girlfriend.”

Lou’s eyes darted around, as if she were afraid that Cassandra might somehow overhear them. “She’s not my girlfriend, Mom.”

Wanda addressed her friends again, as if Lou hadn’t spoken. “She’s really pretty,” she told them. “Fragile, a doll, not like this great big giraffe.”

“Stop talking about her,” Lou said. “I told you, she’s not my girlfriend yet.”

“Sure she’s not,” Wanda said. “She’s what, your crafting club colleague? Whatever, keep your secrets. But I should have predicted this. After all, I’m attracted to Angelina Jolie myself.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Lou said.

Wanda waved her off. Now that she knew Lou’s secret, they’d become close again, and Lou would stop whining about moving out. Wanda didn’t want to be left alone with Jimmy. The sober weekday version of him had always disliked her. Lately, she suspected that Good Times Jimmy was souring on her, too.

Impelled to press on a bruise in spite of herself, Wanda moved to sit in Jimmy’s lap, but he pushed her away. 

“My stomach still hurts,” he said. “Sorry.” 

Hugo patted his own lap, but Wanda found a different seat. She wasn’t the girl she’d been in high school, but she was still above helping Hugo Visser pop a boner.

“Please don’t be embarrassed,” Alma whispered loudly to Lou. “We think it’s great.”

Next to her, Rob nodded, his mouth tight.

But Lou still seemed wildly uncomfortable, paining Wanda. Why couldn’t she relax, accept how much she was loved? 

“How about we get you a beer, you big grown-up?” Wanda said. “You look like you could use one.”

Lou sat down and took a bottle of home brew from her mother, and then another, trying to calm down her stomach, blot out the sadness of everyone’s knowing glances. When the Hawaiian pizza came, half an hour later, she couldn’t bring herself to eat any of it, donating her slices to Hugo.

Did she want Cassandra? Lou wondered. It should have been a yes or no question. But she couldn’t answer it. Wanda knowing about the kiss made everything else moot. Lou felt only the shame of having been caught.

The mockery and condescension were bad, but that was not the worst thing. The worst thing was knowing how Wanda would run Lou and Cassandra through her filter, highlighting this and downplaying that, so at the end, Lou’s moment would be a caricature, drawn for the entertainment of Wanda’s audience. Nothing was sacred or profane where her mother was concerned. Lou’s body, mind, feelings, actions were just extensions of Wanda’s, differing degrees of similar to Wanda and not as similar to Wanda, Wanda-derived or Wanda single-origin. 

A voice in Lou’s mind was curious about whether liking Cassandra meant that she might like other women, whether her boredom with John went beyond John’s limitations, but another voice said that it didn’t matter. 

Because Wanda was right about one thing: Lou was a part of her. She knew Wanda so well that in a certain sense, she was Wanda. The Lou who had kissed Cassandra was not as real a person as she might have wished. At some point, the Wanda-infused Lou would probably smother that other self. She’d say, who do you think you are, acting like you’re going to be able to date Cassandra and leave Mount Vernon and run your own craft store? You’ll never run a store, and you’ll never leave this town, because you’re not capable of saying “no” to your mommy.

These thoughts ran through Lou’s head, acknowledged and yet not acknowledged, just as she knew and yet didn’t know that she was watching Jimmy across the fire. Slowly, as Lou drank beer after beer, the guests peeled away, despite Wanda’s protests: Alma and Rob needed to relieve their dog sitter, and Hugo was driving to Vancouver the next day and wanted to get an early start. 

After they were gone, and she was sure that none of her textees were coming (maybe her photo hadn’t been delivered), Wanda kicked off her sandals and minced up to bed, telling Jimmy and Lou to come upstairs soon. 

Five minutes after Wanda left, Jimmy was out of his chair and leaning over Lou, kissing her with sloppy desperation. Lou endured it, her eye on Wanda’s window. Did she appreciate the checked strength in Jimmy’s arms, the rasp of his beard against her cheek? She couldn’t tell. Everything in her was tensed in anticipation. She was going to scream soon, but not yet.


Marie Biondolillo is a Portland-based writer from northwest Washington. Her work has been published by Split Lip, Jellyfish Review, The Forge, Entropy, and others.