“Mama’s not gonna let you leave,” he was saying in that intolerable drawl of his, wife beater tank top scrunched at his waist and stained at the pits. “She’s so set on the store, gotta have her daughter take the wheel ‘fore she dies so she ain’t no failure.”
He’d been droning on about it all day while I studied in my room, cutting into the threads of math uncoiling in my head. The numbers jumbled on the page into a maze of ink and I struggled to blink away the haze.
“Coward-ass girl, what, you scared of the truth? Tail between your legs thinking ‘bout how Mama loves you too much to set you free, scared to admit you think she’s being a selfish bitch-”
He cackled, whip-like wheezes cracking in the air. “Girl’s got some bite after all?”
“You heard me- shut the hell up. I’m trying to study.”
“What, still wanna read nonsense you’ll never use?” He slid down the wall and folded his body like crinkled paper. “Gotta give up and get real sometime, sugar. You know you’re gonna rot your life away-”
“I’m not rotting. I'm getting out of here, and there’s nothing she- or you- can do about it.” I tried to glare hard enough to make that dirty white tank top combust. Not even a flicker of smoke came from it, but I could hope it would work one day.
“Oh, that’s rude as hell,” he drawled, “look at you with that lovely lil face saying you don’t give a damn about Mama. After all she did for you? Could’a dumped you in the creek as a babe and you ain’t even grateful? Such a peach you are-”
“What, you think I want to hurt her? You think it’s easy for me, packing up behind her back? You think I get a kick out of it?”
“You’re a selfish prick.” His grin stretched past his ears. “Some sorta bullshit daughter you are, dropping her without thinking ‘bout how it’s gonna ruin her. Who’s looking after Mama when she’s bitter and her back ain’t no good anymore? Only girl ain’t giving her grandbabies for that, are you?”
“So now I’m a baby factory to you?” My hands clenched at my shirt hem, knuckles tugging at the cotton.
“It ain’t like Mama had more girls.”
“My brothers’ll have kids, won’t they? And they’re sticking around. Mama’ll be fine.”
“Ain’t nurturers for shit, would rather go off and leave Mama for dead-”
“Auntie’s got her, then. She’ll be fine.” I turned again and put my back to him, tried to focus on my math again. The numbers wouldn’t come. They smeared on the page like I hadn’t slept, ink illegible, so I put away my books for a break. Wife beater boy followed me when I went down the old hickory stairs to the kitchen, the heat-warped steps groaning under my feet. He didn’t creak on the stairs like I did, never had, but I knew he stomped like he wanted to break through the steps.
Mama wasn’t at the table- probably sleeping on the lounge chairs or sunning herself on the porch like she did most Saturdays, making up for the work week with naps and lemonade. The labor of the shop wore her thin, her hair grayer than brown now, frizzled out of her bun when she came home at night with her feet swollen in her shoes and her shoulders slumping with fatigue.
The Cheerios were open on the counter, crumbs trailing onto the floor where the ants could get them- typical. I snagged a bowl and tipped the box over into it. One or two crumbs and a beetle plinked out. My brothers must have hit the box earlier and left it out hoping Mama would clean it up, and the bugs must’ve figured there was something in there. Awfully polite of them.
“And now you’re dissing your own brothers. Peachy.”
“Do you have to insult me all the time?” I set the box down.
“Nah, you deserve it.” His footsteps clomped around the left of me, and I saw him lean on the counter out of the corner of my eye, elbow up against the granite like he owned it. “Abandoning Mama, dissing your own blood, you’re a right precious bitch.”
“I don’t want to rot away here like the rest of them.”
“Who’re you talking to?” The screen door rattling hadn’t registered, but Mama’s voice made it clear where she’d been all day. I froze, turned back to glance at wife beater boy, then at Mama framed in the door in her checkered dress and apron. Her arms were folded on her chest, silhouette crooked to the right in the doorway.
“Myself- what, I can’t have a chat with myself now and then?” I forced a grin, hoped it came off as playful instead of mildly deranged.
“I worry about you.” She frowned, brow creased.
I shook my head, then turned and gestured at the Cheerios box. “The boys left the cereal out. Bugs got in again. We still have the spray?”
“Under the sink, but it’s not bug season. I don’t even know where they’d have got in after your brother patched the cupboards.”
I waved my arm at the box again. “Well, I poured a beetle in the bowl. Probably still in there- look for yourself, it’s a big green thing. It’d be cute if it weren’t in the food.”
Her slippers shuffled across the hardwood towards me, and then Mama was leaned over the counter, apron dangling. “I still don’t see a bug. Are you sure you saw it right?”
A frown creased my face, and I leaned over to check again. Clear as day, there was still a beetle in the bowl scrabbling at the crumbs, wings tucked under its shell. For Mama’s sake, I shrugged. “I dunno, maybe my eyes were playing tricks again. Might’ve been a fleck of mold or something in there.”
“You’re such a strange girl sometimes, love. You need to look more carefully.”
“Yeah, I know.” I’d gone home crying about a beehive in my locker in middle school. It’d been humming and buzzing in the right corner when I opened the door like it was waiting for me, the allergy-prone mite who never left home without an EpiPen. I’d slammed the door closed soon as I saw it and took off without my things. A couple loose bees were one thing, but a whole hive only reminded me of the times I’d been stung by the lake and swollen up like a sponge in water. It wasn’t worth reaching in there before booking it home and crying to Mama for help. The school checked my locker out the day after on Mama’s insistence- no beehive and no signs of one having been there, just my backpack and the rusty metal. Beside me, wife beater boy crept up and twirled his finger by his ears with his tongue out, gesturing cuckoo at me; I turned away from him. I didn’t need the reminder.
“You have plans for the summer yet?” Mama asked, stepping away from the counter and over to the fridge.
“Sort of. I need to clean my room out a bit and that’s gonna take a while. Why?”
“I was thinking you’re about the right age now to start running the till with me and making an income of your own.” I could hear the smile in her voice as she hunted for the eggs. “You’re getting so big, Sarah, look at you. Almost eighteen and ready to get your life going.”
I tugged at my collar. “Yeah, I guess. But I don’t know if I’ll have the time for the till. My room’s right awful.”
“It’s not that bad. Your brothers, sure- they haven’t stepped on the floor through their shirts in years.” She chuckled, pulling out of the fridge with the egg carton and closing the door. “But you keep it clean enough that it won’t take more than a few days.”
“Real smart excuse of yours,” wife beater boy drawled, “pretending you’ve gotta clean when you’re packing up behind her back. Foolproof, ain’t it?”
“Yeah, but I need to dust and mop and all too,” I said, trying to ignore him. “And I should probably sort out some of my old clothes. Think half my closet doesn’t fit now.” “Still not a summer’s work, sweetpea. You’ll have plenty of time to work the till.”
I tried not to look at her. She’d know soon as I started packing boxes, and I didn’t have another excuse ready. I might as well get it over with. “What if I don’t want to?” “What do you mean? You’ve been waiting since first grade.” I heard her set the carton on the counter and turn towards me again. I could smell sulfur from across the kitchen. “Don’t tell me you’re planning to run off with that kid in history class you keep talking about-”
“Mama!” I covered my face, suddenly flushed. “God, he’s just a friend!”
“Well, what is it then?”
“You’re gonna break her heart,” wife beater boy hissed in my ear. “Gonna lose your last name. You wanna go down as the girl who killed her Mama with heartbreak?”
I spoke over him. “I’m going to college.”
Mama was silent. I couldn’t even hear her breathe. Oh god, what if the shock did kill her and it was my fault?
“I’ve been applying and I got in upstate.” The words rushed out now, driven by the growing jitters in my stomach. “It’s a good school. Good teachers, safe city, all that. I have a dorm reserved and I’m moving out in August. I’ve got financial aid and I saved up. I’ll be fine. It’s good.”
I could practically hear the flies in the room swarming her until she spoke.
“You never even mentioned college.” I heard her footsteps walking back around the counter, floorboards creaking towards me until her callused fingers landed on my hands and she pulled them off my face. I couldn’t look her in the eyes, tracing the uneven hem of her dress instead. She had to hate me for going behind her back like this. “I thought you wanted to take over the store- you’re so ambitious and I know you’d make it something special.”
“You come home and have to spend the night on the couch because you ache too much to take the stairs up, and you skip dinner behind my back to feed me because you’re barely making enough to buy groceries- don’t think I didn’t see it- and at night when I come down I see you on the couch with a beer trying not to cry over the bills ‘till you wipe your eyes and make me a snack. Mama, I don’t want that to be me.” Wife beater boy whispered how much she hated me for not wanting her life, and part of me thought he was right. My eyes burned.
“When I was your age,” Mama finally said, “ I thought my life’s purpose was loving your Papa. We’d been dating for… five, six years by then? And Lord have mercy, that man ruined me. The store wasn’t my dream, but it paid the bills when he didn’t. I thought the store was your dream, love. You used to get so excited about it as a little girl. You’d play pretend you were at the register-”
“I’m not a little girl anymore.”
“I know- oh, I’d keep you little if I could, but I can’t.” She pulled me closer, nestling my face into the crook of her neck.
“If college is your dream,” she told me, “that’s all I can ask.”
After dinner that night, she offered to help me pack over the summer. I’d hardly expected it, still sore from the talk earlier and thinking she hurt just as bad knowing I’d hid it, but she bought me some boxes that week and we went through my things. She teased me over some of it and wife beater boy mocked me over the rest, not to mention my brothers’ ribbing when they popped in to help, but we got most of it packed in short order. And when I went to college in the fall, I found a can of bug spray and a green beetle in the littlest box.