Leigh dropped her boutique bags as soon as she walked in the door. Grey sweatpants lay crumpled unflatteringly in the entryway, barring her path. Leigh puckered her mouth, collagen clumping up like grapes.
“Ashley!” she called. The empty house absorbed her yell. “Ashley Deborah Johnson, are these your pants?”
No answer. Leigh huffed and kicked off her heels. The high from that morning’s shopping spree was rapidly dissipating. She decided to wait to unpack her haul. This must be dealt with.
Leigh stalked through the halls. Ashley wasn’t in her room, the gym, the kitchen, the dining nook, the pool room, the rec room, the parlor, the library, or the first-floor den.
She found Ashley in the second den, the one that overlooked the hills. Ashley lay in a disagreeable lump, sprawled sideways and upside-down on the white sectional couch. Her hair, only a shade or two off Leigh’s own honey blonde, was dark with grease. Her face was a constellation of acne and apathy.
Leigh situated herself between the television and her stepdaughter, arms crossed. Ashley grunted, a most unladylike sound.
“And just what do you think you’re doing, leaving your dirty clothes in the entryway?”
“Who cares? We got maids, don’t we?” Ashley brought a chip up to her mouth, a show of coordination that made Leigh’s eyes cross.
“That doesn’t mean you get to be a pig. What if daddy or I had guests? That would have been humiliating!”
Ashley didn’t react. Her glazed stare didn’t waver, as if she was staring through Leigh. Leigh tried a different approach.
“Honey,” she said, bending over, “you’d be such a pretty girl if you just took care of yourself. Why don’t you hit the gym with me? Or we could have a spa weekend? Just the girls?”
Ashley said, “girls?” and started laughing so hard she sneezed chip remnants out her nose. A few specks of mucus-laden saliva landed on Leigh’s dress. She fled to sponge it off.
“I mean, she’s just a slob,” Leigh said in bed that night.
Maxwell grunted. He was reading a John Grisham book on his half of the bed. Leigh tried to arrange herself more decorously.
“She could do so much if she’d just try,” she prodded, “a word or two from her father might set her on that path.”
“Ah.” Maxwell scratched beneath his reading glasses. “This is between you girls. I don’t need to get in the way.”
Leigh swallowed a frustrated scream. “But she’s your daughter. All she does is lay there like a lump.”
“And? Her mom was the same way when she was her age. Grew up to be a real beauty, too. You’ll see. She’ll blossom into a lovely young woman in no time”
Leigh was nettled. “Well I took care of myself at that age. And look who’s married to you now.”
Max laughed indulgently and patted her on the head. Then he snuffed the reading lamp and rolled over on his side to sleep. Leigh swallowed her sleeping pill and donned her eye mask resentfully.
It’s not like she wasn’t aware of the dynamic at play here. There were only ten years between Leigh and her stepdaughter, thirty between Leigh and her husband. What hurt the most was that there was no one to complain to. Lena had never forgiven her for getting to Max first. Mom would just lecture on “never marry someone’s leftovers,” like she wasn’t on husband number four. Her physical trainer was sympathetic but professionally distant.
Marrying Max had been a trade-off, she knew that going in. Gone was her social life. In return she supposedly got every comfort known to man. Her honeymoon had lasted a year, for god’s sake! Max had seemed happy with the transaction, but lately his eye had begun looking past her, much like Ashley did.
Leigh began exercising compulsively, going on special diets. She dropped five pounds and could fit back into the dress she’d worn when she first saw Max. Max barely looked up from the computer at her impromptu fashion show.
Leigh pouted down the hall, considering a candy bar. As she passed her wardrobe room, she saw Ashley holding one of her dresses. Ashley, scrubbing her face all over Leigh’s white Christian Dior shift, leaving oil spots all over the fabric. Leigh let out a shriek and grabbed at the dress. Ashley held on to her end. They both heard the rip.
Leigh gasped and dropped the fabric. “Ashley! What do you think you’re doing, young lady?”
Ashley put on an ugly scowl. She dropped her half.
“Do you know how much that cost?”
“Dunno. How much did daddy pay for it?”
Leigh’s cheeks reddened like she’d been slapped. “How dare you!”
She moved to grab the girl’s arm. Ashley dropped to the floor, flailing her limbs, screaming like a toddler. Leigh ran to get Max. Max shrugged her off.
“This is between you two girls,” he said, glasses perched on his bald pate.
Leigh marched furiously back to the wardrobe. Ashley was gone. Leigh found her in the kitchen, dipping Leigh’s box of diet bars in peanut butter and scarfing them down. Peanut butter stuck to her face in oily clumps like some kind of skin growth. Leigh retched a little but reached for the box. Ashley threw them and ran.
Leigh was stuck. Ashley just became more and more beastly with every passing day while her father took a very laissez-faire approach to parenting. Leigh had no leverage. What ultimatum could she issue? She knew how the divorce went for Max’s first wife, it was why Ashley lived with them and not her mother. Withhold sex? Max hadn’t touched her in weeks, confining affection to a few condescending head-pats. Punish Ashley? That was a joke. Anything Leigh took away, Ashley could get from her father in a single visit. The urge to scream at Max was rising every day. Screaming at Ashley got you nowhere, the girl had a set of lungs like bagpipes.
Ashley pigged out and let her hygiene go. She gained little bulges of fat and her face was always shiny with oils. Leigh became too disgusted to even look at her. It was like the girl was going ugly just to spite her!
The day before the company formal. Leigh put on a gold shift. It was nearly identical to one his wife had worn to the same occasion, nearly fifteen years ago, but four sizes smaller. She wanted everyone to know who made the right choice. She’d even left off the bra. Leigh was admiring her shape in the mirror when she heard it.
Ashley must come along. It didn’t matter how she pled with Max, nor Ashley’s preference for staying home with the television. Ashley was going to the dinner. And whose responsibility was it to make sure that went off? Not her father, surely.
Leigh tracked the sound through the house. She found Ashley laying in the hall outside her room, squalling like an infant. Her chubby limbs kicked and flailed, her pockmarked face flushed so her pimples disappeared. A dark mood washed over Leigh.
She crouched, putting pressure on Ashley’s arms. “Get up, young lady. Right goddamn now.”
Ashley shrieked and reared back, throwing Leigh off. The action hiked her shirt up off her stomach.
There was a split forming in the skin.
Leigh gaped at it. The split widened.
She hammered on the office door. “Honey! Come out now! There’s something wrong with Ashley!”
“In a minute.”
“No, not a minute, now! She needs to get to a hospital!”
Max opened the door an inch. He looked over at his daughter.
“Oh,” he said in a completely unhurried voice, “I’ll be out in a second.”
The door shut. Leigh pounded on it.
Ashley split right down the middle, screaming. Leigh ran to her and tried holding the rip closed with her hands.
“Oh sweetie, no, don’t move, you’ll make the hole bigger, oh honey, oh sweetheart.” she babbled endless platitudes as the rip traveled wider than her hands, opening a neat pink seam all the way to Ashley’s chin.
Her face split.
Leigh fell back to a sit, scooting away from the scene with her heels.
Ashley’s body opened and a woman stepped out. The woman was a dead ringer for Max’s first wife, but twenty, thirty, a thousand years younger. Her hair was a honey-gold and her skin flawless. Gold lamé dripped fluidlike from her body as she stood, solidifying into a form-fitting dress. She wore gold spike heels and there were diamond studs in her ears. She did not look down at Leigh as she toed the remnants of Ashley’s body away.
The slam of a door alerted Leigh. Max emerged from his office, buttoning cuff links.
“Ready to go, dear?” he asked.
The impossible beautiful woman that had split from Ashley’s body glided over to him and took his proffered arm.
“Wait,” Leigh croaked, “wait, wait, wait.”
They did not wait. The woman at Max’s arm tossed her hair and they left Leigh in the darkened hall.