There is a girl walking down the street. She looks ordinary; blonde hair, green eyes, skinny. She's about nine years old. Her name is Molly. She lives with her mama. Take a closer look and see how tired her face is. How deep her frowns are. She is ticking off items on her fingers as she walks. She mumbles to herself.
"Milk, bread, butter and coffee," she says. "Clean the floors. Do the dishes. Take care of mama."
This is an unusual day. A social worker is coming to see her mama, to see how they are doing. Molly knows that her mama isn't doing well at all. Also, He might be there. She always thinks of him as He. He is perhaps her father. No one knows. They have the green eyes in common, but little else. He brings the bottles and the sweet-smelling tobacco. Molly hates him.
She opens the street-door, walks in. The elevator smells of old urine. She breathes through her mouth. Six floors up, her mama is waiting for her. Six floors up, the prison doors will slam shut behind her. She doesn't push the ground floor button. She doesn't run. There's no place she can run to.
He is there. Molly sees his boots in the hall. When she peeps into the living room, she sees him lying on the couch, snoring, sleeping one off. His fly is open. His hairy belly is bare where he has unbuttoned his shirt. He has spread beer cans all over the room. When she walks past him her socks get sticky from beer stains on the floor.
"Mama," she says loudly.
There is no answer. Molly has learnt not to expect any answers from her mama. She opens the bedroom door. Mama lies on the bed in her nightgown. The ashtray is full. Molly takes it.
"Put it back."
Molly does what she is told. She is very good at figuring out what people want, but mama isn't like most people. Mama seldom thinks in terms of wanting and not wanting, she just reacts. Molly leaves the room quietly, because mama isn't going anywhere and Molly must clean the flat before the social worker comes.
Tidbit, her cat, is awake in the kitchen. He circles around her legs and purrs. She adds cat-food to her shopping list, then lifts him up and cuddles him. Tidbit doesn't want to be held, though; he is hungry. He struggles in her arms until she puts him down.
Molly goes to the shop. She cleans and washes the dishes. She tidies up and takes out the garbage. Tidbit has eaten his food and lies amiably on the kitchen table, waiting for her to scratch his stomach.
Now it's only the hard part left. Molly goes into the living room again. She looks hard at Him. Then she pushes the Button. Everyone has at least one Button. His Button involves money and a dealer. When she pushes it, he leaves in a hurry. The first time she tried it was when He beat mama and wouldn't stop. It still works. He wakes with a start, goes straight out in the hall, pulls on His boots and walks out the door.
Mama is even harder to do, because Molly still loves her. It is a love mixed with disgust and fine threads of hate, but the one Button strong enough to get mama out of bed makes Molly feel queasy. Still, if they place Molly in a foster home, no one is going to take care of mama. So Molly closes her eyes and pushes the Button that makes mama think she's on fire.
Thereis a yell. Mama comes running out from the bedroom and throws herself in the bathtub. Molly has filled it with warm water and shampoo. She takes the pressure off of the Button and washes mama's hair. She hands mama a toothbrush with peppermint toothpaste on. They have Fisherman's Friend at home, too. Tidbit walks into the bathroom, but backs out with an offended look when he realises how much water is in there.
No one has done the laundry for a long time and Molly has to search a long time before she finds a dress that's half-way clean. With an apron to conceal the big tomato smear on the front, it looks pretty good. Mama doesn't notice. She is falling asleep again.
The doorbell rings and the social worker enters. He says their apartment looks very nice. Then he asks some questions. Molly makes mama answer them in a relaxed, friendly way. The social worker talks about how he had considered sending Molly to a foster home, but how he changed his mind when he saw how clean and pleasant their home was.
He asks Molly some questions too. By now he has been there so long that she can see one of his Buttons. It is about wandering around alone in these housing areas. It isn't a very strong Button, she realises as she pushes it. She will have to create one if she wants to make him leave really quick.
She creates an image of Shere Khan in his head, magnifies it, then turns it inside out. There is her new Button. And as if on cue, Tidbit jumps into his lap. He screams, then rises and says goodbye. Their social allowance will be disbursed on Monday. Someone will be back next month to see how things are going. Keep the cat away from me, he says, then goes away.
Molly leads mama back to her bed. She hears the sound of a key turning in the lock. The door opens; His boots are kicked off and He goes straight to the bedroom too. Molly takes Tidbit in her arms and climbs out on the fire escape.
The night is dark. Stars are bright only in tales. Molly buries her face in Tidbit's warm fur and cries. To her, crying is natural as rain. She does it all the time, from strain and weariness and fear. The strain comes from taking care of mama. The fear is another matter. What frightens her most of all is herself. She could create a Button that made Him jump out of the window. She could kill Him and she feels rather sure that she will, one day.
The worst thing of all, however, is the Button she installed in herself. The Button that makes her believe she isn't alone. The one that makes her think Tidbit exists. In the harsh light from the street lamps she sees clearly that her arms are empty.