Lily swelled and shrank with slow breaths, on the brink of sleep. Her dark curls were frazzled from play and her dress was disheveled, wrinkled with undone ribbons and chocolate-frosting handprints smeared down the front. Two hours ago she had been prancing around the yard with a dozen other kids in her wake, blowing out birthday candles, squealing and bounding off furniture. Now she was curled on her mother’s lap like a cat. The other children had gone and the house was a holy wreck.
Four years old today. Soon, Val thought, Lily would be too big to fall asleep in her arms. There had been a twinge of jealously in her during the party — as ridiculous as that was. But Lily had been so happy with the other kids, so fiercely in control. She was pulling away already.
Val stroked her daughter’s hair, running chipped enamel fingernails gently through the tangles. It was just the two of them. Mitch had walked out when Lillian was three weeks old, a bundle in her arms. He left them caught on the edge of the sunken porch, with rain spattering the yard beyond. She remembered the smell of beer, his dirty T-shirt, how the rusty gate door creaked in the wind. Did she know it would be the last time she saw him? Maybe, deep down, she knew it was forever. Tears had come. She was clinging onto Lily’s plump baby-hand as he sped away in the truck to Lord knew where. “Good riddance,” she cried into the thunder. Men had never, never been good to her.
Val dismissed the memory and flipped off the TV. “Bedtime, Missy,” she said. “You awake?”
Lily’s lip curled.
“Faker,” Val said, testing Lily with a poke to her ribs. The girl’s eyes stayed shut tight but her mouth broke apart, helpless and smiling. “Promise you’ll never grow up,” said Val. She tapped Lily’s turned-up nose like a button. “Come on and promise!” she teased.
The girl shifted limply and moaned. Two sleepy words came out. “OK, promise.”
That was when the trouble had started.
At first there was nothing to notice. Lily was still herself — curious, ruddy-cheeked, affectionate, a bit wild. Then there were little signs. Trouble with her counting and ABCs. Clothes she should have outgrown. They stopped into the shoe store for summer jelly sandals and found Lily’s feet were the same size as in the fall. Val frowned, flirted with the salesman, and bought the next size anyway. Lily tromped out of the store, awkward in her glittery fuchsia clown shoes. She had always been small next to the other kids — her doll-like features, her slight arms and legs. But a month shy of preschool graduation she was looking downright puny.
“It’s not elomenopee, Lily.” Val said once again, scrubbing plates in the overflowing bubbly sink. The kitchen was a jumble of vintage appliances, refrigerator artwork, and tarnished pots that shone from the high ceiling rack. A prolific spider plant over the sink window dusted Val’s big hairdo. “Say L-M-N-O-P,” she repeated in her dowdy housedress. But Lily tried and failed and stomped the grimy tile floor.
Val supposed her girl had trouble paying attention, maybe a learning disorder. She must be due for a growth spurt soon it stood to reason. Even the doctor said not to worry; kids can shoot up overnight.
Lily got Velcro shoes for kindergarten because she couldn’t manage laces. After a month, the teacher pulled Val aside. “She’s way behind,” he said. Mr. Wright was very young with an attractive, feminine sort of face. He looked far across the classroom where Lily was playing blocks, all alone.
“We use flashcards every night,” Val said. “She seems to get it for a while, but it… slips away.” She wished this teacher were the sort of man she could influence. She wanted him to admire her as a mother, but he didn’t look at her the way most men did.
His face softened. “She’s a good kid, I mean it.” He hesitated. “Maybe a special class would—”
“No,” Val said. Lillian was special, but not like that.
At dinner Lily picked her food. “Kindergarten is stupid,” she said. She squished corn kernels against her plate until tiny yellow hearts popped out. Val set her teeth and looked to the ceiling for courage. She told her daughter she had to go to school, end of discussion. “It’s part of growing up,” she said.
At her next checkup, the doctor didn’t know what to say. Lillian hadn’t grown an inch or gained a pound for over a year. “Nothing?” Val asked. She’d been wringing her hands and fussing with her purse strap for the whole examination.
“Nothing,” repeated the doctor. He poked his head at the plateau-shaped chart, peering over wiry glasses. “I don’t understand,” he said.
“Me neither,” said Val. She shook her head and her loopy earrings jangled. “And she eats like a cow.”
When Lily was seven and repeating kindergarten for the second time, Val gave in. Lily went back to preschool with the kids her own size.
The birthday parties stopped when Lily turned nine. Val had tried to invite four- and five-year-olds, kids from Lily’s eternal preschool class, but Lily wouldn’t have that anymore.
Val remembered Lily’s fourth birthday, how she’d begged for a real party with other kids. Her friends from preschool and her little cousins and Elsie from next door all came. Everything was so normal then. They had zoomed around the backyard in paper hats, high on ice cream and sheet cake.
“You can invite anyone you want,” Val said.
Lily’s arms were folded and her lips were full of pout. “I want Elsie,” she murmured. “From before.”
Val hugged her close and said there was no way to bring back Elsie the four-year-old. “It doesn’t work that way, Munchkin.”
So the two of them went to the zoo that year and laughed at the flamingos standing on one leg. Lily seemed carefree with her blue snow cone. It dribbled on her shirt. It dyed her tongue and teeth.
For her tenth birthday they saw the circus. Val showered Lily with too many presents and kept up giving her gifts all the time. A fairy castle, a plastic easel, a karaoke machine. Lily loved animals, so there were giant stuffed ponies and panthers. A veterinarian’s kit. A talking toucan with a pull-string sprouting from its stuffed butt. Her room was filled to bursting with dollhouses and dinosaurs and dress-up clothes, but that didn’t stop Val from buying more. Neither did bad credit.
They always made ends meet. Val picked up overtime hours at the grocery store. It was trouble keeping cashiers on staff, so Val filled in. For a while she waited tables too, but was fired for dropping so many plates.
The house started to come apart. It had been quaint when they moved in — dipping floors and cracked ceilings — but it was getting beyond that now. The porch rotted and dropped into the ground. The paint peeled. Weeds sprouted in the gutters. Val thought about touching up the trim with fresh paint and washing the window grime. She could prune the wild bushes and vines that snaked around the front door. “Come fall, when the weather is nice,” she told herself. But she never got around to it.
They drove to the best aquarium in the state for Lily’s eleventh. Lily stabbed her fingers at the sweeping tanks, spotting clownfish and eels and giant crabs. Val lifted her close to the cool blue glass and they watched the purple octopus gathering its tentacles. “There’s nothing wrong with you,” Val whispered in her daughter’s ear. “You’re perfect.”
At sixteen — when Val knew she should’ve been staving off the boys and telling her for the love of God please get off the phone and be careful with the car — even then, Lily was still her munchkin, riding in the grocery cart and licking popsicle off her stub fingers. They had masterful tickle-fights. They sipped imaginary tea from plastic cups.
The doctors got to be very interested in Lily’s cells. “They don’t age,” they said. Val wouldn’t let them near her girl with a ten-foot pole at first, but they insisted Lillian’s cells could save the world. And they offered to pay. With six maxed-out cards and a ramshackle house, Val relented.
Every few months technicians in lab coats took new samples. Sometimes they swabbed her cheek. Lily cried and squirmed when they drew blood. “Have a lollipop,” they said.
They cloned her cells, like Henrietta Lacks. Val supposed they wanted youth in a bottle, a cure for cancer. In her mind, she saw a million petri dishes with her little girl’s spit and blood swirled in them, pressed under hot lights and electron microscopes. The money helped out and she was able to shift down to part time. Whenever they went into the lab, Val would ask if they had found out anything about Lily’s cells. “Still testing,” they always said.
Journalists liked Lily’s story even better. There were articles about the Wonder Girl, the Forever Four-Year-Old, the Miracle Munchkin. When they started to get talk show invites, Val bought a new wardrobe for both of them and basked in the attention. “What’s the hardest part?” asked a tabloid reporter. Val blinked back tears from her mascara-thick eyes and said, “The birthdays.”
Eventually, when the book royalties and movie rights and medical patents stacked up, Val retired. She had been twenty-eight when she gave birth. When Lillian turned twenty-eight herself, Val was fifty-six with a thirty-pound princess tromping through the house. The girl’s bedroom was swollen with decades of toys so the door wouldn’t quite shut. Stuffed animals and dolls leaked into the hall. Blocks tumbled down the stairs and choo-choo trains spilled into the living room.
People started to assume Val was the proud grandma. Sometimes they recognized them, from the TV specials or articles. “It’s the girl who doesn’t grow up,” they would say. Val would blush and tell them, “Yes, Lily would love to meet you.”
Lily still wanted to be spun in circles and chased through the house when Val turned sixty. “I’m getting too old for that,” Val told her one day.
“Why?” Lily asked. She let herself tumble onto the carpet. “Why are you getting old?” Behind the makeup, there were a lot of creases on her mother’s pretty face.
“That’s what happens to people, you know that.”
She looked down at her hands. “Not me,” she whispered.
Val sat on the carpet and put an arm around her girl. She told her she didn’t know why. “But I sure do like you.” She bopped her on the nose like a button. “Someday, Mommy’s going to have to go away,” she said. “But that won’t happen for a long time.”
Lily’s face pinched. She looked too worried to be four.
Val tousled Lily’s hair. “Don’t worry about it, Munchkin,” she said with a reassuring smile. Someday — not yet, but soon — she would have to find a new mother for her girl.
How had so many years passed by so fast? It was hard to keep track when Lily never aged a day. But then, there had been quite a lot of birthdays.
Val blinked to keep from crying. She had found a nice young couple through an agency. They couldn’t have children of their own. “You understand she’ll be four forever?” Val asked.
“We understand,” they said. They’d seen the Lillian movie and had read the books too.
Val was seventy-seven years old with a platinum-white wig. Lily was four. The couple took her for the weekend and Val cried into her pillow both nights through.
It was easier the next time, and the next time. More weekends without Lily in a falling-down empty house. Eventually, they were taking her for full weeks and Val had her weekends. Val thought of all the birthdays. Birthdays at the zoo, at the circus, at the aquarium. How many fourth birthdays had she had? Forty? No, more.
“I like the Prescotts’ puppy,” Lily told Val the last time she saw her mother. Her ruddy face was bright. Her eyes were wide with innocent expression.
Val took her daughter’s hand. “Promise you’ll grow up,” she said.
Lily smiled sweetly. Two words came out. “OK, promise.”