While their mother finishes chemo, Ava and Lemon play Barbies. One blonde and one brunette, just like them; they are fresh out of the plastic, a present from the sympathetic nurses. The girls come with her three days a week, know the strange T-ed corridors and dinging elevators of the oncology wing even better than Mom.
Ava nodded solemnly that morning when her father had dropped them off on his way to the office, whispering conspiratorially to her as she stretched one sneakered foot out of the car door, Be on your best behavior, please. There was the promise of ice cream, of matching bicycles for her and sissy come summer. She thought the deep purple fingerprints of exhaustion beneath his eyes were pretty, like make-up, and she agreed to look after Lemon.
The girls throw away the tiny pink high heels and strip the dolls of their jean jackets and mini-skirts, instead wrapping the long, smooth legs and torsos with gauze. They cut off all of the synthetic hair. They convert the rolling metal IV stands into their own cancer ward, let the words malignancy and terminal snake into their games. They ignore the too-loud television hanging in the corner and instead sneak grape popsicles and ice chips, pretending not to hear the weakened voice asking, Sweet girls, are you having fun? Did you remember to say thank you? When they grow bored, they stick the dolls in the familiar leather purse on the floor and imagine the hospital as a prison, then a castle; their mother is the disgruntled warden, an evil queen. Vibrant imaginations—the generous doctor’s swift diagnosis.
Months later, when their mother finally succumbs, the girls sit quietly in matching plaid at the burial, Ava on one side of their father, Lemon on the other, and wonder what the gift will be.