Splotches of paint on the walls. Blobs of food on the floor. Streaks of mud adorning the edges of tiny footsteps.
She was proving to be a big pain in the neck.
I trudged towards her with a one hand holding a wet rag, while the other was busy wiping my sweaty forward.
She looked at me with those big, innocent eyes of hers, mesmerizing for a moment as I stared at them, trapped in her trance. She blinked and I shook my head. I could not afford to be tricked by her cute eyes. This was not the time for affection. She needed to understand that dirtying the house was not acceptable and my job was to reprimand her.
I took a deep breath and set my jaw.
“Maya, put that jar of paint down and come back here.”
She giggled, clutched the jar even tighter and ran into another room.
I sighed and touched my forehead. I felt sick and she was the reason. I felt guilty as soon as the thought crossed my mind. I brushed it aside and chased after her, my head reeling.
“Maya!” I called out angrily.
I received a shriek of laughter in response.
“I’m hiding, mommy! Come find me!”
My tired face broke into a small grin and I shook my head in defeat. She had me wrapped around her finger.
I tapped my chin. “Hmm. Where could little Maya be hiding?”
I could hear her muffled giggles as I went from room to room, avoiding the one in which I knew she was hiding.
Once my head started hurting a little too much and her voice started getting louder and more impatient, I finally entered the room and started hunting for her.
“Where are you?” I said in a sing-song voice that came out as a hoarse whimper due to the fatigue lacing my words.
“I’m not in here!” came a soft voice from inside the closet.
Faking thoughtfulness, I took a few steps closer to it. “Oh…are you sure?”
I chuckled and pulled open the closet door.
“There you…oh, Maya!”
Her tiny figure was hunched over the paint jar and the paint itself was spattered all over the closet walls and the clothes inside it. Even the old tuxedo that had been bought for but never worn by – I sighed deeply. She looked at me with her big eyes and I felt anger battling with love inside of me. Anger won.
“Maya!” I yelled. “How many times have I told you not to make messes inside the house and especially not inside mommy and da-… mommy’s room? You never listen!”
I threw the wet rag aside and yanked the paint jar from her hands. Her lower lip trembled and I clenched my teeth. I would not let her go this time, no matter how endearing she made herself. I needed to make sure she grew up obediently.
I pulled her out of the closet and guided her out of the room with a firm grip on her left shoulder, steering her into the bathroom.
I lectured her on cleanliness the entire time I gave her a bath and the time I spent drying her with her favorite fluffy yellow towel was filled with childish sobs, tears and tantrums. I led her out of the bathroom and dressed her in her school uniform before combing her hair into two perfect braids.
“There,” I said, managing a small smile as I checked her face to make sure it was clean.
The tear stains were still visible on her cheeks although she had finished crying long ago and was now giving me her best attempt at a death glare. I reached forward to wipe her cheeks but she recoiled from my hand and hopped off the bed, using her little chubby legs to stomp away from me.
I eyed the walls dirty with paint and food stains everywhere and sighed. I swore that girl sometimes drove me crazy. I walked out of the room and into the kitchen, searching the cabinets for her lunchbox, deciding to clean up the mess after dropping her at the bus stand.
She was sitting on the sofa watching TV when I approached her and I smacked my forehead immediately, upon noticing the colorful marks on her skirt from the crayons that had scribbled on it instead of the coloring book on her lap.
“Maya!” I cried. “I just finished telling you not to mess anything! Did nothing enter your head?”
She looked at me with her lips puckered. “Don’t yell at me, mommy!”
I threw my hands up with frustration before handing her lunchbox to her and trying to help her stand up. She pushed me away and I saw red.
“How can I not yell at you? You never listen to me!”
She walked to the front door and kicked it. “I hate you, mommy.”
I paused in the process of opening the door.
“What did you say?” I asked as she slipped out the door and onto the sidewalk.
I could see the bus approaching from a distance.
“I said I hate you!”
My face fell – not that it was smiling before – and I grimaced.
“Fine. I hate you too.”
I gasped at the words that came out of my mouth. She turned back to look at me with horror but before I could fix what I had broken, the bus driver honked, she frowned at me and climbed up the steps, disappearing inside the bus.
I slammed the door shut, not bothering to wave at her through the window like I always did. Even if I did wave at her, she wouldn’t wave back; she would probably not even look at me.
I pressed a hand to my throbbing forehead and slumped against the door as I stared at the mess I would have to clean up now.
Tying my hair into a ponytail, I brought a mop out from the closet, not worrying too much about Maya. I would apologize to her once she came back from school. I’d feed her chocolate cupcakes and watch a movie with her. That would surely make everything better.
My mopping turned determined and fierce as I impatiently cleaned the floor, eager to make her cupcakes.
An hour later, I set to work mixing batter and making frosting. I was just finishing a taste test when my phone rang. I picked it up with a spoon in my mouth.
“Mhmm?” I said.
“Ma’am,” said a voice I faintly recognized as belonging to the school counselor. “I’m very sorry to say that there’s been an accident involving the bus your daughter went to school in.”
My blood turned cold and the spoon fell from my mouth, landing on the floor with a loud clunk.
“Is Maya okay?” I asked, my voice no louder than a whisper.
“Ma’am…I don’t know how to put this but she’s been injured pretty badly. We’d like you to come to St. Mary’s Hospital as fast as you can. The doctors say she might not have a lot time left.”
My heart fell out of my body as I grabbed my car keys and ran out the door. I arrived at the hospital within minutes and dashed up the stairs to the floor the counselor had told me.
I was met by him and two doctors.
All three had sympathetic looks on their faces. My footsteps faltered and my hand clutched at my chest.
“I’m so sorry, ma’am -”
“No,” I insisted. “She’s okay.”
One of the doctors shook his head. “Ma’am, I understand how -”
“No, you don’t!” I screamed. “I didn’t hug her before school today! I didn’t right the wrong between us! I assumed she’d come back and we’d talk about. I didn’t tell her I loved her and I didn’t kiss her forehead! I didn’t even wave to her from the window!”
I rushed forward and tried entering the room she was lying in, imagining my baby cold and lifeless on a white cot. The doctors stopped me before I could open the door.
“I’m sorry,” they said together.
I couldn’t even find it in me to cry or shout. My breath came in ragged hitches and my body trembled as I pressed my nose against the glass of the tiny window through which I saw her fragile body. A nurse was leaning over it, removing some syringes and I felt every last emotion drain out of my body upon seeing Maya lying with her eyes closed, her soft hair spread across the pillow her head was resting on. She was gone.
And the last thing she said was that she hated me.
And the last thing she heard was that I hated her.
I sat there on the floor, ignoring the voices of the people around me, one hand touching the wall underneath the window.
“I love you,” I whispered. “I forgive you for everything you ever did. You’re a good girl. You’re such a good little girl, Maya.”
The tears started to come out now and I let them stream down my face.
“I love you.”
But it was too late.