The Warehouse of Dead Daughters

by Nick Mamatas

When my girl Lily was born, I didn't feel that surge of mama bear protectiveness I'd been told to expect. No primal howl deep in my gut, no silent oath to do anything, anything, to protect my daughter from the world and its myriad dangers. When a nurse put her on my chest, grayish and howling, I was unable to hug her because my arms were outstretched and restrained across a plank, I had a simpler thought: What a beautiful genius! Maybe if I hadn't delivered Lily via Caesarian section, my reaction to first seeing her would have been more typical.

And Lily was a beautiful genius growing up, though puberty did its usual number on her for a while. As an adult, she's extremely pretty, but maybe she isn't so bright after all. Throw her in some fishnets and Spanx, get her a tube of blood-red lipstick and a tiny pocketbook to carry it in, and Lily would be a passable femme fatale. She even owns a little one-shot Derringer, an antique from a pawnshop that would probably blow up if anyone ever pulled the trigger.

Ever wonder why girls don't go on shooting sprees? Even Brenda Spencer, the grand "I don't like Mondays" school shooter, only killed two people—both adults. There's a complex of reasons: girls are less likely to be morbid loners, less likely to have access to guns to either practice with or use, and their boyfriends are more likely to be beating the shit out of them at any given moment.

Really, nobody ever wonders why girls don't go on shooting sprees. We just assume that it's boy stuff. Good, please do keep on assuming that.

It is not as though there aren't plenty of reasons for a girl to go on a shooting spree.

When Lily was young we went, with her fourth grade class, on a tour of a movie studio. I was a good PTA parent, always volunteering to chaperone trips, bringing in gluten-free cupcakes and nutless treats, and dressing like a California golden bear during Spirit Week. I've always loved movies, and was actually excited to go, just like Lily was. It wasn't just a matter of parental duty.

The studio was in Burbank, an hour from Lily's school on a big yellow bus. Movie studios aren't quite what you see from movies—no golf carts, no cowboys sauntering down the street chatting up vampire queens, no costume design people frantically pushing racks of togas from one Quonset hut to another. It was a series of warehouses; the large ones held enormous sound stages, the smaller ones we weren't allowed to see. Movie studios are industrial parks. If the producers went bankrupt, the place could have been repurposed as a small military base, or a huge automobile factory.

The docent was a kid in a blue blazer, whose job was reciting canned shtick about the magic of Hollywood. What a director does, what a DP does, what the gaffer does (schlep lights, it turns out), and so on. My Lily—a beautiful genius—raised her hand and asked the docent, "What is it that you do for the movies?"

"Well…this," he said. One corner of Lily's mouth edged upward. The docent, flustered, hustled us along to the trailers where real-life movie stars stayed between shots, and Lily disappeared.

There are district, county, and state procedures in place for when a student goes missing on a school trip. Contacting the parents is, amazingly, not the first step of the procedure. The first step is literally "Attempt to locate child via visual observation." I turned my head in all directions, glanced under the trailers in the hope of seeing Lily's sparkly pink light-up sneakers that help her run faster, and let Lily's class follow the docent a few steps while I lagged behind to take a closer look.

There's no reason to build suspense here—I admitted already that Lily entered puberty, and exited it. She was not carried off by a child molester, nor did she sneak onto a soundstage to be crushed by a falling light or torn to pieces by an animatronic dinosaur.

I was nervous, but not upset. I abandoned the kids to the docent, the teacher, and the other parent chaperone. Three adults for seventeen children should be enough, I reasoned, even if four adults were apparently too few to keep eighteen children in line. The studio lot was a large one, but also largely empty. How much filmmaking is done on a server farm somewhere these days? I even had a flash of memory—some movie about parents looking for their child, but finding a little person in a yellow rain slicker instead. Was it a comedy or a crime drama, that film?

I didn't find Lily; she found me. I'd run down the long main drag between buildings and right past her. She had hidden in a corner, then fell in step behind me, and when I'd turned my first corner and was momentarily out of sight of everyone but her, she caught up to me and poked me in the small of the back.

"Come with me," she said. "I found something."

She led me to one of the small warehouses. We were together; it hardly mattered that we had separated ourselves from the docent, or from Lily's class. There were some apple boxes set up by a row of small square windows, but I didn't need them to peer inside. Costumes, sewing machines, a few large wardrobes and such, presumably for the sort of costumes one cannot hang on a rack. Giant headdresses, angel wings?

"This one is full of costumes," Lily said. Then she grabbed my hand and pulled me along, impatient. "C'mon!"

The next little cinderblock warehouse was full of editing equipment—obsolete stuff for splicing actual film from the looks of it. Old negatives draped like seaweed on racks over bins, near editing tables with monitors and large horizontal film reels. "Steenbeck flatbeds," Lily said. She knew the word, or at least a brand name. An amazing girl, she was.

"One more," she said, and we were off again, back across the studio's broad main "street," then past another small warehouse we didn't stop at, then across another path and finally she brought me to another warehouse in the corner of the lot. "Look in this one," she said, and I did, and it was empty.

"This is where daughters go," Lily said. "The daughters from movies. The little girls who go missing, or die of cancer, or who are only in the movie for a few minutes in a dream because a bad guy killed them. That's in movies where the dad kills all the bad guys."

"In that case, Lily darling, this warehouse should be full to the rafters, not entirely empty," I said. That, in retrospect, was entirely the wrong thing to say. I should have just grabbed her by the hand and pulled her all the way back to her class, so she could see how normal children behaved. But instead I decided to argue with her, playfully, like we were both adults just idly musing on some morbid subject.

"It is full," my beautiful genius said. She ran a palm over her bangs and nodded seriously, peering at the warehouse as if she could see through the wall. "There are so many daughters in there they had to be shrunk down to the size of a single molecule. It's full of tiny molecules in there, full of tiny daughters." Had a casting agent walked by right then, Lily would have been signed immediately to play any number of wise-beyond-her-years little movie girls in films where her character would never ever die. Me too, probably. I was the school MILF, after all. Lily looked like a little me.

"Well then, don't inhale too deeply, Lily," I said, and took her hand and brought her back to the trip. We caught up with the class just as they were being led into the commissary for lunch. The rest of the field trip progressed as normal; we hadn't been missed. Lily never mentioned the warehouse of dead daughters again. I, on the other hand, couldn't stop thinking about it. All those vibrating molecules in empty space, every one an invisible daughter.

Television and film became all but impossible to watch. So many dead girls, piled up like cordwood, all to serve as fuel for the angst of the male protagonists. The news was no better, but you knew that already—sociologists even have a name for the media saturation that accompanies certain crimes: missing white woman syndrome. Were all those girls simply missing, or were they already dead? We just pointed to the wrong collection of molecules and referred to their deaths as absences.

I had to abandon popular fiction as a segment of my leisure reading, and then a fair amount of literary fiction as well. Dead girls, dead girls, dead girls. For a brief, stupid moment I even tried reading comic books. I should have known better. Lily liked them fine, for a while. We were close I thought, though whenever I looked at Lily I couldn't help but think about the empty spaces between and within the molecules that comprised her body.

I was a good mother. Lily's dad was nervous, then distant, then out of the picture entirely except for prompt support payments, weekly Skype chats, and gift certificates for every Christmas and birthday. We did Scouts, baton, judo, talked about sex in a supportive way; when Lily got her first boyfriend he was a sensitive kid with a shaggy haircut and a soft smile. A wuss, actually. He wouldn't have been my choice, but Lily knew where my choices had gotten us. She grew bored with him, found another in the same mold, and then another.

It's odd, the moments we remember, the things we decide are important. Lily's college major (accounting), where we lived (West Covina), my name (Jennifer, like every baby girl born in 1973, it seems) even what happened that brought me to this point.

That I'll tell you, since that's why we're here. Lily wasn't kidnapped, she wasn't raped. One of the wussy boyfriends—this one named Aiden—took a measure of revenge by posting a few nudes online. Or at least he caused a few nudes of Lily to be posed online. And even they weren't so bad, as far as these things can go. Nothing I wanted to see, but nothing shocking. But it got around. Suddenly Lily had dozens of Facebook friends requests, and offers to go on "dates" from the frat boys and chess nerds and every other straight boy at USC, it seemed. The girls were nearly as bad, siding with her ex, calling her stupid for letting him have the pictures, a slut for ever taking off her top in the same room with a cellphone. As if such a thing could be avoided these days.

Here's how weird that little fuck Aiden was: he walked everywhere. In Los Angeles. Another person who played a broad type like in a movie; he wore Army surplus and walked everywhere, his nose buried in old paperbacks from the public library. One time I was driving and roared right past him. I pulled onto the shoulder, stopped the car, and flipped my hazard lights on. Aiden walked up and then right past the car, without looking up from his ratty little book, passing by my door. I rolled down the window, put out my arm, made a gun with my thumb and forefinger, and pulled the imaginary trigger.

Pow pow.

Here's something you learn from living in Los Angeles and its environs: everyone is wearing a wig. All you need to do is pull hard enough, and the wig will come off, eventually. Aiden had helped Lily learn that lesson. She dabbled with having a girlfriend, stayed out late, made noises about living with roommates so she could come and go as she pleased, and generally toughened up a bit. She wasn't so quick to trust; she was the one who was going to be yanking off the wigs in future relationships.

And sadly, even in her relationship with me. There's the third act twist—the rifle on Chekhov's mantelpiece. Before and after Lily's father, I dated many a would-be screenwriter, which is to say that I dated men within one hundred miles of the Hollywood sign, and they all talked about the importance of the set-up leading to the climax. I'm sure none of them ever read Chekhov, and most of them knew little about climaxes, if you catch my drift. But the end must be embedded in the beginning, they told me, and they were right.

Being a mother is the hardest job in the world, even when your daughter is a beautiful genius. And here's another cliché for you: Lily was discovered by an agent who liked her looks. She got headshots, fixed her snaggletooth thanks to a subsidy from her suddenly no-longer-estranged father, and within months had a few Girl #5 roles listed on her IMDB.com profile. That was all she needed. It felt like ten minutes later she had her own TV show—a reality show called Waitress Superstars, though Lily got a food service job specifically for the production.

Fan websites appeared like slugs after a rain, though the term "fan" has to be applied loosely. "Who Is the Fattest WS Girl?" featuring an amateur paparazzo's cellphone shot of my girl looking slightly puffy was reblogged three thousand times. And there were Twitter accounts, and a parody Twitter account, and plenty of Photoshopped images of her face on a porn star's body, or a disembodied penis in her mouth. This time though, she cared less—except that she did buy that little gun. At nine grand a week and her own development deal for a solo show, who could blame her?

Lily also attracted a stalker. I was never a mama bear, as I said, but I worried before she did.

She nearly dropped the couch we were hauling up the steps to her new apartment to check her phone. "That guy again," she said. "Remember I told you about him?"

I did, but said, "No."

"Some guy who has a script and said he was a producer. He texts me a lot these days, always looking to hook me up with my connections."

"Your connections should hook you up with furniture movers," I said.

"Heh, I asked," she said. "Everyone at the show told me just to buy all new furniture and have it delivered. That's what they all did."

"Just the sort of thing a college graduate who works for tips could afford, I'm sure."

"Mom." Lily frowned. As if there were things I didn't get, didn't understand. Her text tone chimed twice more before we got the couch settled in the living room. I got a text of my own an hour later, and it was the TV people asking for a digital signature on their likeness release. They'd been taping the whole afternoon for the show. My thumbprint sufficed, and I complied, but the scene never made the show. Was I not a MILF after all?

The stalker never signed a release, never showed up in the background of any of the episodes. This despite the roses, the slow drives past Lily's apartment, the amazingly coincidental meetings right outside industry parties where he was just on his way to meet his friends. But he managed to get to Lily anyhow. I was contacted by a jittery intern who knocked on my door at 6 o'clock one morning.

"Your daughter, do you know where she is?" The intern was an Asian kid, flush and out of breath, and wearing an obnoxious Google Glass.

"Why didn't you just call me? Why don't you call her?" I reached for my phone, which I had in the pocket of my robe, but the intern shook his head.

"We tried that!" he said.

"How do you lose someone you have under constant surveillance?" I asked.

"That's why we thought she might be here," the intern explained. Now he looked a little sheepish. "Since you're not on the show, if we don't know where Lily is, then we thought she had to be here. Did she say anything about quitting, or moving away, or anything like that? Anything at all unusual?"

I don't know why my brain alighted on to the stalker, except that it made sense. A sort of Movie of the Week sense. The guy and his texts were the only thing about Lily not already portrayed on Waitress Superstars.

"No, she didn't," I said. "I'll call you if she contacts me. Do you—"

And he interrupted me. "We'll contact you. Okay, good-bye, uhm, Lily's mother."

"It's Jennifer."

He ran off my stoop without another word.

I walked back to my bedroom and pulled the curtain aside. The kid slipped back into a production van and drove off. My phone buzzed twice in quick succession.

Another request for a release from the show.

And an email, from Aiden.

I don't know if you remember me, but I used to date your daughter, and now she is dating my old roommate Tom.

I got a strange message from Tom last night, saying that he has something big planned for Lily and it was going to be great. Do you know—

And then he named a location. It didn't ring a bell until I was on the 5, heading into Burbank. Then I relaxed. This all had to be for the show. I was meeting Lily and Tommy—was that the stalker's name?—at the movie studio I'd visited on a field trip with Lily's class too many years ago.

I pulled up to the gate and didn't even get halfway through the explanation of who I was and where I wanted to go before the security guard rolled his eyes, turned his back, and pressed the button to lift the gate and let me in. I was giddy, not nervous. Would I finally make the cut and be on an episode of Waitress Superstars?

I'd just walked in to what used to be the warehouse of dead daughters—now the soundstage looked like something out of public access television, with a three sides of a living room faked up, an old couch, a sad, sagging palm tree in a huge pot, and some umbrella lights right off to either side lighting the scene. Lily was sitting on the middle of the couch, dressed in a tight pencil skirt, bustier, and toreador jacket, none of which I'd ever seen her wear before. The little clutch purse completed the look.

Public access, or a porn shoot.

"Mom," Lily started. There were small video cameras on tripods arrayed around the lit scene. I assumed they were recording.

"The show…is looking for you?"

"The show, yeah," Lily said.

A door somewhere on the other end of the warehouse opened and shut. A man, a kid really, walked around the edge of the set in nothing but a white suit jacket with a black kerchief in the breast pocket, a towel around his waist, and a pair of flip-flops. He looked at me and smiled, then turned to Lily and winked. Lily reached into her purse, pulled out a pair of sunglasses, and put them on. They were huge and round; I could see myself, and the soft blob reflection of the lights, in them. She let the purse fall to the floor with a thud.

Had Lily ripped off her own wig, or was this her way of ripping off mine? For myself, I just wanted my fingers in the boy's mop of hair.

"Is this your stalker?" I asked.

"My what?" Lily said.

"I got an email from Aiden, and…"

"Aiden has your email address?"

"You girls ask each other lots of questions," the man said, and then he let the towel fall to the floor.

"I can't believe Aiden," Lily said.

The guy shrugged. "It was his idea last time." He started touching himself.

I wanted to ask what was going on, but only to make Lily answer me. It was obvious: her first break had come after Aiden leaked her photos to the Internet. She was thinking a reality TV-star sex tape would get her a second, bigger break. Stalker Tommy was to be her sex partner for this escapade, and Aiden didn't like it and decided to throw a mother-shaped spanner in the works.

And probably, somehow, Waitress Superstar was recording us. All they'd need to do is pixelate Tommy's crotch. And was this Lily's idea, Tommy's, or the show's?

I lunged for Lily's purse, and hoped I was right. The Derringer!

I pointed it at Tommy, who shrugged. "Easy, lady! None of this is worth getting hurt over! We're just going to say a few dumb things and have sex, just like everyone else in the world. Except we've got some cameras rollin'."

"And cameras recording those cameras?" I said. "Is that right?" He put his palms up and shrugged again. I noticed he was starting to wilt.

"Mom," Lily said. "What are you doing? Just go, you're ruining everything!"

Which is Chekhov's rifle?

"You've only got one bullet in that thing," Tommy said. "And that caliber, it'll just sting."

The Derringer?

"Mom!"

The warehouse of dead daughters?

The door through which I had come opened again. It was the intern with the Google Glass. "Hey, is everything all right in here? You can't stop now, you all signed releases."

The fact that I'm not a mama bear type, that I wasn't ready to do anything to protect my precious daughter after all?

I turned the gun on Lily, and took a good long look at her 1940s film noir get-up. So beautiful, and in her own way so smart. She would get whatever she wanted, no matter what she had to do. Then I noticed she was wearing a wig identical to her own hair, but slightly fuller, slicker, better.

The gun, on the other hand—in my hand—felt so real.

Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including The Last Weekend and I Am Providence (both Skyhorse, 2016). His short stories have appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, Asimov's Science Fiction, Lazy Fascist Review, The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk, and many other venues. Much of his short fiction in the Lovecraftian mode was recently collected in The Nickronomicon (Innsmouth Free Press, 2015). His most recent anthology is Hanzai Japan: Fantastical, Futuristic Stories of Crime from and about Japan, co-edited with Masumi Washington (Haikasoru, 2015).