“I’m hungry,” Jennie said.
“You got any money?” Kathy asked.
Jennie didn’t. She’d spent the last of it on a burrito yesterday. She shook her head.
“Well, too bad. Should have saved some,” her mother said. “And you ain’t going to find anything in there.”
She’s not kidding. Jennie opened the fridge just to find empty, stained shelves staring back at her. Allowance was at least a day away, and she was panged with hunger. Jennie looked out the windows to her grandmother’s darkened house, and wished she was there, with shelves and shelves of cans—soups, green beans, Dinty Moore—and bulk jars of peanut butter. She was making herself more hungry thinking about it. The trailer was nice enough, but after staying with her Grandmom for a few weeks she got the taste for personal space—and, of course, the food.
Wonder if Sarah has any money?
Her sister was in their room—their shared room—lining up dominoes. She did this for hours a day, every day—Sarah in extreme concentration, domino-domino-domino, teetering in precarious headstands on top of tables and shelves and boxes. If you came near them she would snarl and bark like an animal protecting her young.
If they fell she would cry and cry for days.
“Hey, do you have any money?” Jennie asked, but Sarah didn’t look up. “I’ll pay you back.”
Still no acknowledgement. Domino-domino-domino.
“I’ll let you play with my Amanda doll,” Jennie begged. Nothing. “I’ll let you play with my CD player.”
Sarah looked up, then looked back down. “I don’t have any money.” Domino-domino-domino.
“Aren’t you hungry?” Jennie asked.
“Nope.” Sarah said.
“Well, I’m starved,” Jennie said.
“Wait,” Jennie said, mostly to herself. “Why aren’t you hungry? You’re always hungry.”
Domino-domino-then she stopped. She looked up at Jennie, and then looked back at the closet, DON’T-LOOK-IN-THERE.
Of course, Jennie was gonna look in there.
Right at the door seam was the telltale march of ants, one-by-one in a slim straight line, tiny bullets of crumb on their backs. Jennie followed their trail to a grubby backpack, shoved down beneath the piles of clothes on the closet floor. Inside she found half-eaten sleeves of crackers, a baggie of Goldfish, some fruit snacks, and a smashed Oatmeal Creme Pie. The pack had the smell of alcohol and rotting. A piece of fruit at the bottom of the bag had turned, and Jennie could see it was leaking dark onto the clothes it touched. (The clothes weren’t hers, so no matter.)
“You took this from Grandmom.” Jennie held the crumpled baggie of Goldfish—Sarah’s favorite.
“Yeah. So?” Sarah said.
“So, no wonder you aren’t hungry! I’m telling Mom.” Jennie moved to walk out of the door.
“No! Don’t! Please! You can have them. The Goldfish. Whatever. Just don’t tell!”
“Okay, but I’m taking the Oatmeal Creme Pie, too.”
Sarah’s face fell, but she knew she had no choice. She went back to the table, resigned.
Domino. Domino. Domino.
Jennie scurried off to the bathroom before her mom could see, shoving a few ‘fish in her mouth while she ran. The bathroom didn’t lock good, so she tested it before she settled in to eat. The Goldfish were stale, but tasted oh-so-good to the hungry girl. She tried to eat them slowly, savoring each bite, but they went fast.
She saved the smashed Oatmeal Creme Pie for last—her desert. It was already in sorry shape, but she was disappointed to find a tiny, pin-prick hole in the plastic wrapping had let some of the rotten juice inside. The white of the creme filling on one edge turned the color of caramel. It doesn’t look too bad, Jennie rationalized. I’ll just eat around it.
She was two bites in when there was a knock on the door. It was her mother.
“Jennie, git out the damn bathroom. I gotta take a dump.”
Forgetting her vow, Jennie shoved the rest of the snack cake in her mouth—sour spot and all—and swallowed. She quickly flushed the toilet, sending nothing but the now empty piece of square plastic wrap swirling down.
Jennie washed her hands and dusted herself off of potential crumbs. She even unbuttoned the top button of her pants just to rebutton them again for show in front of her mom.
She prided herself in her mastery of deception.
In the living room her mother had left the DVD player running, a bootleg of a forgettable movie playing bare breasts and explosions. She watched with a touch of shame and embarrassment—not that her mother would care about the content. But Grandmom would’ve. When she stayed with her Grandmom she had so much structure, so many rules: go-here, do-this, don’t-be-thus-and-such. But within the rules, she had found the freedom of childhood.
The bootleg was a bad one, probably made by one of her mom’s friends, and the camera was handheld and wobbly. She felt seasick as she watched, her once-satisfied stomach now churning. Jennie burped. It smelled thick and meaty, like rancid baloney. She was woozy.
“What the hell is this?” Jennie heard her mom yell, and she wanted to run. Out the door and gone away, never to return. But her limbs were frozen at her sides. Her heart was thudding in her chest like she was in a mad sprint, but her body just wouldn’t move.
“Jennifer Lynn. What the hell is THIS?” Her mom asked a second time.
“What is what?” Jennie yelled back.
“Get your ass in here NOW.” Her mom was pissed.
The trailer was small and not well ventilated; no one ever turned on a fan or opened a window. It often smelled. She hated it when her mom pooped; after she was done she immediately opened the bathroom door wide as possible, permeating the air with the fragrance of her bowels. It wasn’t the smell of Number Two specifically that bothered Jennie, it was the nuances of the smells changed with what her mother ate: fermented, or garlickly, tinged with sweet, or the gassy sulphuric that hung in the air for hours. The worst times were when it smelled of food—like soup, or roast—and her hungry belly lusted for it even while her head knew what it was.
The first wave of nausea hit as she passed through the stench in the hallway; she thought it must have been nerves. Mom sounds mad. But in the back of her mind she thought of the snack pie, and knew she shouldn’tve eaten it.
Jennie realized first thing as she passed through the doorframe to the bathroom that her mother hadn’t flushed.
“Stop fucking around, missie, and tell me what the hell this is in my toilet.” Kathy was standing, pants still around her ankles, pointing at the bowl.
Jennie wasn’t sure how to answer. “Um, poop?”
“Don’t you sass me! Look, goddamn it.”
Jennie timidly moved toward the bowl, but it must not have been fast enough—her mother snatched the back of her head and pushed it forward. The turds inside were tight dry little lumps, grey pellets in blood-flecked water. Was she hurt? For a moment her fear was replaced with compassion, concern. Jennie looked up at her mom. “Are you bleeding?”
“It’s a hemorrhoid, you little fuck. Are you blind? I’m talking about this.” Jennie’s mom took her head and guided it roughly back to face the bowl. This time Jennie could see the unflushed Oatmeal Creme Pie wrapper floating in the commode.
“You tried to flush the evidence. Thought I wouldn’t know, you thieving little shit.” And with that her mother took her head and fully dunked it in the shit-toilet. A turd skidded past her cheek, and she focused on keeping her lips tight. OH-GOD-I-NEED-TO-BREATHE. She struggled to get up as her mother’s meaty hands held her down, seconds after painful seconds.
Just as she began to see bursts of color behind her lids, starbursts against black, and as her mother’s voice seemed farther and farther away, Jennie’s head was pulled up out of the water. She gasped for breath, drinking in the delicious oxygen with no mind for the excrement that streaked face. Just as her lungs filled with precious air once again, Jennie vomited. It was violent, projectile vomit—barely digested goldfish and Creme Pie coated in a clear viscous film that smelled of sour. The sick coated her mother’s legs, the crotch of her panties, the sag of the inside legs of the polyester pants still hanging around her ankles. Her mother looked at the vomit and then at her daughter looking up at her, ill and in need of care, eyes dotted with bloodshot from tiny injured vessels—eyes that looked so much like her father’s.
She looked at her daughter and slapped her.
“You were such a mistake. If I hadn’t got pregnant with you at such a young age, I wouldn’t be so fucking poor right now. I would’ve gone to school and done something with my life. But no, I’m stuck here raising a fucking thief.”
As Jennie cowered in her sick, her mother flushed and left the bathroom. Through her tears Jennie cautiously started the shower. She got in and sat on the shower floor against the wall, letting the warmth of the water pelt her face and neck and chest. She was still woozy and her stomach hurt even more; now she was shaky and wondered if she was bad sick.
The bathroom door opened again, and with a slap Jennie saw the shadow of something hitting the outside of the shower curtain and falling to the floor. “Wash my fucking clothes for Christsakes. And clean up this mess. It’s the least you can do.”
Jennie did as she was told promptly, turning off the shower and picking up the soiled clothes from the floor. She knew better than to waste time. Through her clouded mind she still thought to wash the big chunks out of the clothes in the bathtub; she knelt on the bath mat and shivered steadily as she rinsed. She wretched an empty wretch, where stomach contracted to stomach but found itself empty. Jennie started a load in the washing machine before she headed to her room for some clean clothes.
“No way, missie. Are you done? Nothing for you until you’re done,” her Mom said from the living room.
Jennie’s teeth were chattering, her nude body shuttering with chills as she grabbed the mop. She was shocked at how much of her strength had gone as she cleaned. She sipped some water directly from the sink spigot, but she threw it back up just as quickly.
“You better be cleaning that up, too!” her mother called out.
When the bathroom was spotless and the clothes were in the wash, Jennie took her shameful walk back to her room. She held her parts in the best way she could, covering in vain for warmth and modesty, all the while still shivering. Her embarrassment was faded by the fatigue of sickness; she hated for her sister to see her this way, but modesty had given way to an instinct of survival. She just needed some thick, warm clothes—sweaters, winter pjs, a big fluffy robe.
Do you even have a fluffy robe? She didn’t know. Her thoughts were crossed with thirst of desperation, hallucinations of need.
When Jennie entered the doorframe, Sarah looked up. It was in that moment that Jennie realized how bad she looked. But before she could offer weak reassurance—through illness and ailment and abuse, still feigning the strength of a big sister—she felt her mother’s hand on her shoulder.
“What did I say? You don’t get nothing until you’re done. I don’t have my clean clothes, do I?” Her mom made a ‘tsk’ with her tongue. “Anyways, I don’t need you in here getting your sister sick. Last thing I need is you two kids puking all over the carpet. You’re gonna stay in the bathroom until you’re better.”
“But, I’m f-f-freezing! I need some blankets. I need my bed,” Jennie begged.
“Right, so you can puke all over them, too? No ma’m,” her mother said, “Bathtub for you. I don’t want you messing nothing else up. And no more hot water, we don’t want to run it out before we finish the wash, do we?”
“No ma’m, we don’t.” Jennie shook her head as much as she could muster. She knew it wasn’t a question; it was an order. No warm water, no blankets—or else. She was too tired to argue.
As Jennie stepped into the tub that hadn’t yet dried; her fevered mind drifted. Her Granddad had recently taken her crawdad fishing, showing her how to lift rock after rock after rock seeking the elusive crustaceans. Jennie could never catch them, but delighted in seeing them scurry away. She remembered being surprised at the secret underbelly to those rocks, smooth and clean on the upside, but the underside teaming with activity—the dark secret lurking beneath the clear stream. She thought it was like her mother, her exterior never revealing what was creeping beneath.
The time that had passed cooled the porcelain with evaporation. As Jennie lowered her bare skin against its surface, her teeth clacked audibly. She was aware that her skin was actually hot with fever as it touched against the cold tub, but it prickled with goosebumps nonetheless. With arms crisscrossed across her chest, she rubbed her palms over biceps furiously, delighting in the brief warmth of the friction—until, overwhelmed from the exertion, her consciousness faded away from her.
She came and went in that way for some fragments of time. Minutes? Hours? Days? When she awoke her mouth was dry and her hair and skin wet from fevered sweat. She leaned over to take water from the drip of the tub spigot—too tired to get out of the tub, too tired to turn the turn the faucet knobs. Again, her consciousness came and went, and she awoke with seizing stomach again that she could not control—could not control the vomit, could not control the liquid of her bowels. When both came in tandem, she was too weak to move, too weak to clean herself, and her own smell made the vomit come again—the fresh sick choking her throat and burning in her nose.
Just before she went away again, into sleep or faint or death, she could hear a voice
in her house, in the living room, chatting and talking and laughing. She was so close—feet away—and Jennie tried to call out to her,
tried to pull herself up and out, tried to bang on walls and pipes, anything to make noise, get noticed, get the help she knew she desperately needed. But instead she heard the niceties of departure, the chatter of a friendly extended goodbye, then the close of a door—while behind the wall, Jennie slipped away.