Chapter 8

The goat’s head shattered all over the kitchen. Clara Mae watched as his body stayed alive for a few seconds, nerves still firing impulses. In those seconds his legs bucked like pistons, up and back and out, in reverse-Rockette. Beautiful but horrific, comical but terrifying—she was embarrassed to let out a laugh as she watched from a distance. Then—as the goat kicked her husband to the floor and socked him in the face—she let out the appropriate gasp of concern. She couldn’t get close to help until the goat was drained, his movements slowing, legs splaying against linoleum and puddle of blood, bowels emptying, wide expanse of missing head still spurting red as the torso slapped to floor. Blood was everywhere—on the counters, the walls, the refrigerator, the potato bin; flecks of brain and part of an eyeball were broadcast across countertops, clumping through in a bowl of Martha White as if being battered.

It took Clara Mae a full three weeks to clean the kitchen close to what it had been—barely in enough time for Christmas. While getting the goat inside the house had seemed easy enough, getting it back out as an uncooperative corpse proved more difficult, and finally they had to take the door off its hinges to get it outside. They had fashioned some black lawn bags around it, lifted it into a trash can, and pulled it up to the curb with a piece of paper tacked to the front that said, “TAKE THE TRASH CAN TOO, PLEASE.” For weeks as Clara Mae cleaned, she found rotting guts or clumps of goat hair in oddest places—the butter dish, the coffeemaker, a box of cereal—no matter how much she scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed.

*

Aunt Helen showed up to Christmas dinner unannounced. Gerald hadn’t told his wife that he had been emailing Aunt Helen for six months, Gerald hadn’t told his wife that Helen had found his posting on an online Korean war hero memorial, Gerald hadn’t told his wife that she’d learned of him through a combination of old gossip and Ancestry.com. After the Goat Incident, Gerald didn’t tell his wife much. But when Helen showed up for Christmas dinner—her hair piled in a tight bun, still as dark as the few of Gerald’s hairs that remained, thinned, salted, but jet black—Clara knew right away she was blood.

She should have known something was off when Gerald sat at the kitchen table instead of the recliner in front of the TV in the den: college football, Judge Judy, or a war reenactment on the History Channel. It was not like him to be in the line of fire for assisting the cooks, or—god forbid—dishes. Yet he sat against the china cupboard, looking out the window. The guests had all arrived, so the family thought he looked melancholy, pensive. Clara Mae thought as she watched him from the stove. She felt bold and handed him green beans to string, and he obliged. Snap, snap. Clara Mae and Miss Evie exchanged questioning glances and a shrug: What’s got into him? Beats me.

And Clara Mae didn’t think anything of it when the car pulled into the drive, either. Probably Debbie bringing a pie. That woman has to bake 80 pies a season, the way she totes them around town. Gerald got flushed and craned his neck to see around the curtain.

Abruptly, he stood up.

“Gerald,” Clara Mae said to her husband, “Who is it?”

“It’s my sister,” Gerald said. “I found my sister.”

*

Jennie had slipped into her Grandmom’s room while all of the grownups were in the other room waiting for Christmas dinner—watching TV, chatting, snacking. She knew she shouldn’t have been in her Grandmom’s closet. But she did it every year. She was peeking.

She knew it was wrong to look for her Christmas presents. “Takes away from the fun of getting a present,” people would say. “Surprises are more fun.”

The unexpected had never been that good to Jennie.

She told herself that it was better for her to look; if she knew what she was getting, she could work herself up to be excited about that very thing. No disappointment for her, no disappointment for them. She would sometimes even drop hints about something she knew someone had already gotten her, even if she hadn’t really wanted it, just to make the gift-giver feel good. The surprise for her on Christmas morning wasn’t the gift, but the joy of the giver. Jennie thought she unwrapped faces on Christmas morning—bright, big eyes adorning cheek-to-cheek grins. When giving a gift, love could even be found in the faces of the unlikely.

But as she teetered on the edge of the bed peering into the top of Grandmom’s closet, she noticed there was something on top of the home shopping boxes. It was tossed in haphazardly, but not hidden—clearly not a gift. She felt compelled look at it—no longer interested in the presents, nor was she worried about getting caught.

The Doll’s head was smaller than it should be, and too wrinkled. Its face was contorted; it looked like it was crying out in pain. Even though The Doll’s eyes were shriveled to a squint, she could see something in its eyes. Something life-like, something that

Needed help.

And Jennie couldn’t walk away from someone in need, no sir, not her. She knew it was dumb; it didn’t make any sense, her thinking that The Doll had feelings or something. Anthropomorphism, a voice in her head reminded her from somewhere. Giving objects human characteristics. Like Disney movies with happy candlesticks, dancing clocks, evil mirrors. But she looked at The Doll and she felt tingly in the center of her chest, her heart glowing and warm, and she was overwhelmed with a fondness that compelled her. This inanimate romance was empty, vacuous—but despite knowing that, when she looked in The Doll’s eyes she just wanted to do for him, but not knowing what to do. This time he looked back at her—like a man looks at a woman—and an electricity of acceptance passed between them.

She knew she had to have him.

She slipped The Doll inside the waistband of her pants—which were thankfully a little baggy—covered it with the hem of her shirt and scampered past the adults. Up the stairs and then up again, to the third floor—the off-limits unfinished attic bedroom. She pulled The Doll free, and as it rubbed against her belly she felt the butterflies of illicit excitement. This was her secret. She felt an entitlement; it was about time she would doing something just for her—even while the back of her mind chided her about taking something that wasn’t hers.

For a moment she just held him, touching him—caressing the course surface of the skin. And though she knew he wasn’t, she could feel from the heat in her bosom that he was holding her as well. The two were intertwined in escape, unified by the ambitions the youthful: to break free, to go into the world, to be something.

To fix things.

When it was right—when she knew he would accept it—she leaned forward and placed a kiss on his lips, with the awkward enthusiasm of a first kiss. The Doll’s lips were still contorted in their usual way, the stale smell of old permeated her nose, and she felt suddenly that it was all wrong. It was wrong because he needed freedom, needed to be washed clean from the dust, needed to feel the cold November air against his skin. She knew only that would renew him, removing the sorrow from his withered features.

She knelt by the window, showing The Doll the world outside, the descending dusk, the rolling foothills on the horizon, the roads away.

See? There is an “away.” There is more than this.

But his sorrow persisted, and her desperation tinted with anger. Kneeling by the sill, she pressed his face against the glass, needing him to look. Then they could be together. If he just sees.

When his expression didn’t change, and she felt an absence of the warmth in her gut, she pushed him even harder against the glass. Work had been started on the attic but never completed, so what remained of the loose framing of the window started to give against the pressure of Jennie and The Doll. The window was flush against the floor with nothing below it—no eaves, no overhangs—and the most of Jennie’s weight was against the glass.

See? Why won’t you see?

She pushed harder and the window popped from its seal, and suddenly the glass was falling.

Oh, no, The Doll!

The Doll was out of her reach, then falling, falling, spiraling behind the glass to the ground. Jennie was teetering on her knees, half in and half out, fighting the fall, grasping in vain to find something to regain balance, but watching The Doll as he fell—now he was smiling. Good sense had left her, and all she had was instinct, the need for relief, and all she wanted in the whole world was to just let go and dive after him, two lovers in free-fall.

But before she could, a hand reached out for her.

“Jennie! Are you okay? I knew we needed to fix that window. Grandpa said he would fix it,” she looked at Jennie in shock, “You know you’re not supposed to be up here.” Jennie nodded, and her Grandmother just held her against her chest and rocked her for minutes, until Jennie’s ear went to sleep and she felt very uncomfortable, but she felt so warm and loved she just stayed in her Grandmom’s arms, happy to be on solid ground.

But she knew that after Christmas dinner she would sneak out back, lifting the doll from the shattered glass below, and—after nicking a finger or two—hide him under her shirt so he could join her in bed.

*

During Christmas dinner, Gerald doted on his newfound sister like nothing the family had ever seen from the usually sour old man. Ever so politely introducing her to each member of the family, punctuating each with a slight bow. “She lives at East Ridge, but it’s just for convenience,” he would explain, lest someone thing his sister was aging enough for an old folks—“retirement”—home. He offered Helen the first carving of the turkey, would she like some tea (she took hers half and half—half sweet, half unsweet), and won’t she sit here? (as she sat in the recliner he said he would not mind taking the stool). And when they’d chatted too long, could he freshen her ice? Aunt Helen seemed genuinely nice, but genuinely fooled. Collectively the family wanted to whisper to her that this was all just a trick, keep your distance, but they didn’t, partly because they were fascinated watching it happen—great stories for the ride home—and partly because they were used to biting their tongues around Gerald, this wasn’t much different.

But part of it, too, was that they seemed so happy. They recliner-juried a case between a three-time married (and three-time divorced) couple on an episode of Judge Mathis; declaring the ex-wife trash, they proclaimed the hot tubs rightfully his and threw their toothpicks at the screen when he ruled in her favor. When it was over Gerald turned to his usual war stories, which lead to his war jokes, which lead to the inevitable display of his Reader’s Digest collection and recitation of his favorite stories in “Humor in Uniform.” But Helen was right there, hanging on every word, reading her own funny selections, holding the books gently, and—without even needing to be told—making sure not to break the spine.

Everyone watched Clara Mae, trying to read her expressions, trying to assess: Was she angry? Had she known about this? But Clara Mae hid behind boiling stockpots and six-layer cakes, ensuring everyone had napkins, full plates, the Cavenders seasoning. She hummed to herself as always, buzzing from living room to kitchen. The family balanced paper plates on their knees, tried not to the knock over the Solo cups on the floor, and through full mouths tried to assure her that they were okay, would she please sit down? But even when she sat she didn’t relax, scanning the room, did they need more Pink Party Salad? Because there’s a whole bowl in there. Here, she’ll go get you some.

After dinner Aunt Helen and Gerald moved to the sunroom out front. The front porch hadn’t been used since Johnny was a kid; rotting boxes covered a mildewed loveseat, the corner housed Gerald’s favorite naked lady oil lamp that had run dry in ’85. The rest of the family didn’t know how long they stayed out there; most headed home after dessert round two: pecan pie and coffee, relieved to have avoided the subject of Helen.

The kitchen was already spotless, but Clara Mae was still worrying over it: rewashing dishes by hand after the dishwasher had run, making sure Gerald’s leftovers were packaged like he liked them, mopping again, stacking and restacking dishes in the china cabinet. Clara Mae had really wanted that cabinet—clearly too big for the room, and she didn’t really have “fine china”—but when her neighbor passed she had the boys bring it in and proudly stacked her Tupperware bowls on its shelves. The cabinet covered all but the lip of the doorframe; they never used that door to the sunroom. Clara Mae stared at the door seal, straining to hear something—anything. Why weren’t these bowls in the right order? She nestled one into the other again loudly and hoped they knew she was still there.

Sudden laughter bellowed from behind the wall. Clara Mae felt a twisting, burning loneliness at the center of her chest; she didn’t recognize the sound of her husband’s laugh. Gerald’s misery had become her totem, carried with her while she picked over past-date pantry goods, watching over her while she rationed the money she knew he would just drink away. For twenty-six years she’d been married to the sorrow as much as the man. You never know someone well enough that you can’t one day wake up next to a stranger, she thought.

When her head could think of nothing else to do, she went to bed. She lay on top of the crocheted bedspread, still in her housecoat, eyes hot with tears. She was still awake hours later when Gerald tiptoed to bed, a touch of streetlight streaming in, illuminating his contented grin.

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Chapter 9

It was two weeks later when Clara caught Aunt Helen giving her husband a handjob.

Clara Mae showed up at East Ridge early; the twenty-something had taken her shift that afternoon at the Kountry Korner. She said she was going to make amends—that maybe she had been less than the perfect hostess—bringing Aunt Helen some of that praline candy she had liked so much, but probably deep down Clara Mae knew what she was after. That’s why she picked a time that she was usually at work. (But she would never have admitted it.)

The Center’s hallways were pretty empty; it was too early for lunch and too late for linen check. She eased the door handle down and crept a step inside; she did not want to wake her if she was napping. In fact, Helen’s roommate was asleep, snoring erratically, masking the click of the door and the light padding of Clara’s footsteps. The curtain between them hung more open than intended, enough so Clara Mae could just see hairy legs akimbo. Helen sat at the far edge of the single bed; her shirt was on but pulled up enough to see the frown of back fat caressing the elastic waist of her polyester pants. It undulated in time with her rocking, hypnotic. She was working hard at it; her quick motions punctuated by the low grunt of woman not used to physical labor.

Clara Mae tried to look away and noticed the roommate needed his catheter bag changed. She tried to shake the shock and just get out, but she couldn’t stop herself in time. Before she closed the door behind her she heard her husband’s groan of release and saw the thick, ropy strings of white against flapping, saggy forearm. Too bad she missed linen check, Clara Mae thought with a bitter chuckle.

And as she exited East Ridge, with the expanse of her day off before her—her marriage in shambles—she had but one thought:

Find The Doll.  

*

Jennie brought The Doll to school that day. She wore her big red puffy coat, even though it wasn’t that cold, because it had a secret inside pocket where she could keep The Doll. She liked it being close to her. It made her feel safe.

Perhaps that was what set the other girls off: one of the outcasts standing up straight, looking confident for a change. Whatever it was, they swarmed her early, as everyone gathered in the courtyard before the first bell.

“Nice coat,” Nicole said.

“Thanks,” Jennie replied. She could hear the group giggling to themselves.

“She looks like a big round tomato,” one of the girls said, barely attempting a whisper.

“Or a Christmas ornament!” Nicole said. Jennie’s face was burning, and she knew she should walk away, but she couldn’t bring herself to move. “I heard that someone saw a cockroach crawling out of her hair the other day in math class.”

“Oh, gross!” one said.

“Roach head!” another said.

Maybe it was The Doll making her brave, or maybe it just being at the end of her rope, but she felt bold. She walked up to Nicole and said, “Don’t put your bug problem off on me. I saw your mom at the pharmacy buying Nit-X. YOU have lice; that’s why you have bugs on the brain,” Jennie turned to the group. “Don’t get to close! She’s got bugs living in her hair.” Jennie got close to Nicole’s face. “I bet your head itches right now, doesn’t it?”

“No,” Nicole said.

“And all of those legs crawling around on your scalp, tickling the roots of your hair, that’s not bothering you right now?” Jennie said.

“No. I don’t have lice,” Nicole said.

“Oh, okay,” and as Jennie pretended to look away Nicole reached up to scratch her head—a reflex she just couldn’t help with all the talk of itching.

“I knew it!” Jennie exclaimed. “Proof! She has cooties!” This time the group laughed with her instead of at her.

Jennie knew to take small victories when she had them, so she turned to walk away. When she did, Nicole grabbed her shoulder and spun her around.

“Don’t just walk away from me!” Nicole sputtered, trying to assemble a clever comeback, but falling empty.

Then Jennie pushed her. She wasn’t even mad anymore; she felt some justice. But she was so tired of being handled—others putting hands on her to do what they wanted. It was just instinct. Nonetheless, she returned a good hard shove.

“Don’t touch me!” Jennie said, and with the push Nicole fell to the ground.

The crowd scattered quickly, and Nicole burst into tears. Jennie felt a moment of sadness for the girl—she hadn’t meant to hurt anyone—until she realized Nicole was faking: crying, moaning, feigning injury. A hand clutched her forearm, and she looked up to see Mrs. Morrison staring down in distain, a half-smoked cigarette hanging from her lip.

The realization dawned on her: it was a setup.

Mrs. Morrison was old pageant buddies with Nicole’s mom, and she had seen Nicole grow up through Christmas parties and piano recitals. Neither had much use for the poor, awkward girl in the puffy coat.

“Your father would be so disappointed in you, Jennie,” was all Mrs. Morrison said, before she turned to help scoop Nicole off of the walkway.

Looking back, Jennie could remember very little more than the feeling of boiling inside her: painful, like the worst indigestion, like an organ ruptured, like an explosion inside—like a gunshot. Suddenly she was so aware of her heartbeat; she could hear the whooshing of the blood as it rushed through her veins, pulsed in her ears. Why was it so loud? And she had a hand tucked inside the coat, clutching The Doll carefully, but with sweaty desperation. Mrs. Morrison had still not removed the cigarette from her lips as she knelt forward to help Nicole up, and Jennie couldn’t stop looking at it. Jennie swayed, hypnotized by the smoke, feeling a burning inside, watching the red tip of the embers swell as Mrs. Morrison inhaled slightly.

That was all it took—heart pounding, drumming against her ears, the ache inside her—it all passed through her in a sizzle. A snap, crackle, pop. Mrs. Morrison’s cigarette burst, the remaining paper popping open like a too-grilled sausage casing, fiery bits of tobacco retaining more heat than they should and freckling the faces of both the teacher and student. Nicole was really screaming now, frantically brushing the burning from her face. When Mrs. Morrison turned around the filter had peeled back from where the cigarette had been, and around it her face had a ring of ash—just like an exploding cigar cartoon. Jennie was dazed, staring blankly at the sidewalk where she saw—peculiar—a scattering of flies that had fallen dead mid-air. One big, fat green one was still twitching from nerve seizures, spiny hairs on spindly leg shivering as it lay in death throes.

“You!” Mrs. Morrison snapped her out of it, pointing at a stunned Jennie. “YOU did this! I don’t know how, but I know it!” The teacher tried to wipe off her face, streaking the grey even more.  “What do you have in that coat? Show me!”

“It’s a GUN, Mrs. Morrison! I bet it is a GUN! That little freak brought a GUN!” Nicole was squalling, and a large crowd of students had gathered.

But when Jennie opened her coat to reveal nothing but the weird doll, it riled Mrs. Morrison even more. As the other kids snickered, the teacher rushed over to Jennie and patted her down, but found nothing but a couple of bobby pins, a wad of chewed gum between foil, and a button.

Nothing.

Jennie looked up at Mrs. Morrison’s frustrated face, and she couldn’t help but grin.

“Wipe that smile off your face!” the teacher barked at Jennie as the bell rang, and the gawking crowd began to drift toward the double doors. “We’ll see who’s smiling now!”

Jennie was dragged down the locker-filled corridors and dropped into a lime green plastic chair in the main office. She watched adults come and go, hearing muffled voices behind glass talking about her as her face throbbed with humiliated heat. She could hear Mrs. Morrison trying to convince the principal that the girl in the puffy coat was up to something—she had something, she didn’t know what it was. “Cigarettes don’t just explode like that,” Mrs. Morrison said loudly.

“Why were you smoking again, anyway?” the principal shot back. “This is a smoke-free campus. You know better than to smoke around the kids. I’m tired of talking to you about this. You’re lucky I don’t suspend you.”

There were more words behind the door, but Jennie couldn’t make them out. She just sat there, squirming, watching the office assistant lazily filing and eating a vending machine pie. Jennie awaited her sentence.

Then the door opened. Mrs. Morrison walked past her, sneering. “I’m watching you. This isn’t over.”

When it was her turn in the principal’s office, Jennie listened to the old man opine about “taking the high road” and “keeping our hands to ourselves” and couldn’t help but feel that he was going through the motions. Probably he repeated the same half-hearted speech to every truant and playground punk, reciting wise words about finding self respect that he’d long lost himself. And—not unlike the hoodlums—she nodded at the principal as he spoke, not listening, secretly smug, feeling like she’d gotten away with something—but not entirely sure what.

At the end of the speech she was ushered back to the office lobby.  The assistant—who had finished the pie—opened an old wooden drawer filled with handheld gaming systems, cell phones, and other confiscated items. It was intended for her to take The Doll and lay him on this bed of electronics and banned knick-knacks and just walk away, leave him there for the day, go and learn and eat and play. Maybe even get distracted and forget about him, as many of the owners had who had gone before. Release him from her fingers and just place him there, let the door close, let the dark close in around him. Her hero, her prince, the knight-in-shining armor come to her defense… It was the final injustice, to entomb him after he felled her foes.

Just do it, she told herself. Put him away. She could do this.

The assistant looked at her, sour-faced at the young girl wasting her time. “Just drop it, kid. It ain’t goin’ anywhere. You can pick it up after school.”

But her fingers were numb, unmoving, locked around The Doll’s cotton body; she could not release it.

“Drop it,” the assistant said a final time, snatching The Doll from her fingers and slamming the drawer as Jennie watched. She drifted through her day in a haze. As the other kids pointed and told ever expanding tales of what happened with Mrs. Morrison, Jennie’s thoughts were still with him. She felt the suffocation—the clawing helplessness—and even though she could see the classroom around her, everything felt so very dark. She was night-swimming in slow motion, paddling up, up, up toward the moonlight until (Doll in hand) she would finally breathe again.

Chapter 10

Clara Mae had heard about this kind of thing years ago when she was on the Grand Jury. Being on an Alabama Grand Jury was a lot of what you’d expect: drunken brawls, drunken driving, drunken property damage. But it also had a lot of the unexpected. The first day of Grand Jury they warn you—much as it’s a negative stereotype about the South, and much as you don’t want to know about it—you’re gonna hear some incest.

Most of the cases the Grand Jury heard were explained by a barrel-chested, heavily-accented DA who looked like Boss Hogg; he performed each case like a Matlock monologue. 65 cases in three days. Clara Mae felt like little more than a rubber-stamp; the DA’s thunderous voice, hypnotic storytelling, and down-home-honest accent leading to unanimous vote after unanimous vote, one after the other, a blur of cases until they were sent home at 4:45.

But one case wasn’t so cut-and-dry. The DA passed around pictures first thing, before he even started speaking. They were pictures of a man—a man in soiled tighty-whities, bound with clear mailing tape to a card-table chair. The tape was tight; matted dark body hair and white skin strained against its binding. A frosty glass jar—the kind that holds pasta sauce—sat on the table, half-filled with something: maybe white beans?

The DA went to the door and whispered angrily to his assistant. Clara Mae gathered that the day’s agenda hadn’t been at his choosing. Though he appeared rattled, he went through the case with his trademark grandiosity.

“This woman you’re about to hear about, she’s the worst kind. She tortured her poor husband, drugging him, tying him up, binding him, force-feeding him insects and maggots until he nearly choked to death.

“This man went into a coma because of it,” the DA pointed to the man in the chair. “But today’s case is a unique situation. This man has come out of his coma, and he does not want to see his wife prosecuted. Sometimes the abused is addicted to the abuser, and they don’t want to leave.

But we have a duty as citizens to make sure all criminals are properly prosecuted. Just remember that. Today we will hear from this man, Mister X, in the courtroom before we vote to indict.”

Then a withered old man was wheeled into the courtroom and to tell his story. His words escaped slowly, labored through breaths of weary wheeze. Yes, that was him in the picture. Yes, he had been tortured. And yes, he had been drugged—he thought she’d spiked his Miller High Life during dinner. The jar in the picture wasn’t filled with beans, but cocoons. Hundreds of them. Thousands of them. He wondered aloud to himself on the stand where she had gotten so many. Probably the internet? One by one, he recalled, she took a pair of her eyebrow tweezers counted them out upon his tongue: one fading to twenty, twenty to two hundred.

He remembered thinking that he was getting used to it—that the worst was behind him—when the eruption came. She was shoveling them in now, spoon funneling the piles down his throat. The sudden warmth coaxed the moths awake, the acid of the throat eroding their cocoons. “Butterflies in the stomach” is the saying, but as the awakening moths emerged the fluttering was nothing like nerves. Dozens of moths dizzily flapped their way up, brushing against throat and uvula, a wide geyser of sick erupting from his stomach. A blackness was spilling from him, drowning the awakened moths in mid-flight on their virgin voyage, and the dark shining bile poured from his mouth. The tunnel of projecting vomit reminded the old man of spraying ceiling texture—the way it covered the ground in a multitude of little piles, cocoons and larvae one on the other, all coated in sick. But even through the man’s misery his wife continued, spooning them faster as his consciousness waned. He took a sharp inhale to try to keep himself awake, but he sucked something into his airway—a moth?—and he tried to cough it free but couldn’t find the energy while everything faded to black.

He awoke to find his wife asleep in the vigil chair next to his hospital bed, and newfound feeling in his skin of, well, freedom. Even with plastic up his nose and down his gullet, he did not claw or choke. He just enjoyed the peace, the rhythm of her sleep-apnea snores, the light filtering through the blinds and scattering against the dust in the air, landing on his hospital blanket and warming half of one thigh.

He felt free again. Free from what had ensnared him. Free from what he called “sister-love.”

He—like Gerald—had met up with a long-lost sister after being separated at birth. He said it was like having the part of himself that was missing finally found, the emptiness that had been there for years finally filled. He couldn’t get enough of her: called her first thing when he woke up, saw her several times a day, called her last thing at night. He knew he was becoming obsessed (and so was she), but he couldn’t stop himself—and a part of him just didn’t want to. His wife had been patient with them, accommodating of the new family, but she could see the unhealthy attraction.

“Like a moth to a flame,” his wife had said. His wife was a part Creek Indian, and her father had been a medicine man to her tribe. She knew things.

“You see, when you grow up with a sibling, you get a bit of natural dislike for them when you see them every day. A little dose of repulsion. A steady drizzle of sibling rivalry. Just enough hate.” the old man explained to the Jury. “But when you’ve been separated your whole lives, you don’t have none of that. You just see the other, and (like a moth that sees a flame) you fly, head first, fast as you can into it. It blinds you, ‘til it burns you up.”

So what his wife had done, he told the Grand Jury, was not torture.

His wife had saved him.

Her father had passed it down to her, squirreled away in a ceremony log somewhere in the attic. It was an old, secret Creek tribe cleansing, a recipe to remedy Sibling-Love. It was scrawled on the page in his handwriting under the title: The Mothway. She’d heard rumor of this ritual, and knew it was dangerous, but never knew of it actually being done—much less to try it herself. She was no holy woman, not like her father. She had scoffed at his tradition and spirits and mumbo-jumbo. But when she’d had nowhere else to turn, she turned to his pages.

And no, the old man hadn’t wanted her to do it—like an addict, he thought he was fine, he could handle it, he could end it, he could walk away. But he couldn’t. She knew he couldn’t. He fought her.

“But she wouldn’t give up on me,” he said.

The old man was ushered out, and the door barely closed behind him before the DA was blustering about “hoodoo from the hills” and backwoods rednecks. And when the time to vote came, Clara Mae was sorry to remember, she had raised her hand along with the others on the jury, one more rubber stamp for the DA, one more unanimous vote to True Bill.

*

Clara Mae opened her closet and felt around on the top shelf above the boxes, but she couldn’t feel anything back there. Boxes flung to the ground and spilled open, but she didn’t notice; she was aware only of the discovered absence of The Doll.

Where was it?

She could have sworn that she had laid it here. Maybe she put it in the attic with the other of her mother’s dolls? But she knew she hadn’t.

Clara Mae pulled everything out of the closet: old purses, warped cardboard boxes of photos and albums, tangled costume jewelry in a zipper bag. She piled rows and rows of her clothes—still on their plastic hangers—on the bed, until her bed was nothing but a mountain of fabric and boxes.

But still no Doll!

Once the closet was cleared she stood in front of it, studying how foreign it was to her, free from the clutter, empty and alone. She could feel the scattered photos of years past staring behind her: their wedding, their babies, one of Gerald at the grill with hair. The photos buzzed with their stories of years past, yearning to be touched, flicked through, remembered. But in front of her the empty closet beckoned. Nothing but delicious void. She slipped inside, closing the door, letting the dark envelop her. In her fantasy, she had never existed.

Later, when her granddaughter appeared at the door, clutching The Missing Doll, holding it—arms outstretched—as she sobbed, confessing, Clara Mae felt shame. Shame for the wallowing. Shame for caring about The Doll the same way her mother had cared about it for all of those years. Shame for the self-indulgence. As Clara Mae lifted The Doll from her granddaughter’s hands, it looked a little like The Doll itself was crying, the wailing seeming to project from its contorted mouth. And while she hugged the young girl, forgiving her—

So sorry, Grandmom—

in the other arm Clara Mae held The Doll tighter.

When her grandchild left, after the tear-stains had dried, Clara Mae returned to face the mess on her bed, making an excuse aloud—to no one in particular

(to The Doll)

—that she had just been cleaning her closet, that was all.

Chapter 11

Jennie knew how much her Grandmom has always liked putting things in jars. Pickles, pear preserves, pig’s feet. Pennies. Jars and jars and jars of pennies, squirreled away in closets or drawers or secret holes in the walls.

But when she found this jar—

(while she was looking for The Doll)

large, wide-mouth Mason jar, like the kind she would use for Bread & Butter—she found moths.

About a dozen.

What would Grandmom need with moths?

Jennie and her sister had been staying with her Grandmom more and more lately since her father passed. It didn’t surprise her. Her mom was lazy. She basically came and got her once a week, on Sundays, to take her to church for all to see—and then to make the two girls clean up the leavings of her Saturday night parties.

It was the best relationship she’d ever had with her mother.

Jennie would start in the kitchen: dishes, handwashed. Piles and piles of plastic cups, usually a hidden one filled with throw up. Jennie would wash; Sarah was supposed to rinse and dry, but was easily distracted, and most of the dishes Jennie did herself. Her mom would either be getting ready (“for Bible study” she would say)—spritzing with Jean Nate’ and applying too much eyeliner—or sitting on the couch reading a Woman’s World with a bootlegged VHS playing in the background or talking on the phone. Barely acknowledging them. If anything, she watched the girls in a removed way, as if watching a professional. Jennie behaved that way in turn: detailed, methodical cleaning. The more methodical she was, the better job she did; the better job, the less her mother said to her—and, therefore, the less she yelled.

After the dishes, the toilets. Jennie did these things immediately on each visit, as if she had been asked, as if she was complying with an order. Jennie suspected that her mother didn’t know how this began, but by now applauded herself for the discipline. For “running such a tight ship.” For Jennie, she liked the secret control of the exercise, bringing into order the chaos that was her mother.

She also, in spite of everything, liked to make her mom happy.

The visits were short enough (and the apartment messy enough) that from After-Church to dusk Jennie worked swiftly and steadily, always worrying as 5:00 neared that she wouldn’t make it, then finishing under the wire. They would barely have finished when her mother ushered them through the door and out to the car. The girls would sit at the kitchen table—foreheads still damp with the sweat of work—eating the beef stew that Grandmom kept simmering for them and feeling the victory of another visit ended with nothing more than an over-the-shoulder goodbye.

Jennie put the moth jar back on the shelf of her Grandmom’s closet and used a shirt sleeve to wipe it down of prints. Of course she moved The Doll, she thought. That’s where you stole it from.

She knew magic wasn’t real. She knew there was no Santa, no Easter Bunny. There are no monsters in your closet, no Gremlins under the bed. No Tooth Fairy. When a grown-up pulls a quarter out of your ear IT WAS IN THEIR HAND THE WHOLE TIME. She was no dummy. All of these things she knew.

But as much as she knew those things, she knew something else.

That Doll did something.

She needed to find out what it was.

She saw the look in her Grandmom’s eyes when she returned The Doll. She saw the relief. She saw the fear. She knew she needed to leave it alone, push it out of her head. Run and play, her Grandmom’s eyes said to her. Let this one go.

But when it was in her hands, she felt complete. Like closing a circuit. The final necessary piece. She couldn’t get it out of her head. And what had happened at the school, she knew they had done that to Mrs. Morrison, the two of them, together, synthesized in destructive electricity. How could it do anything but explode? And if it hadn’t been for that

DUMB BITCH

they would be together right now, so she got what was coming to her.

Or maybe deserved even more?

She knew, in a deep down in-the-stomach way that she should stop looking for him. What was she going to do, talk to a doll? Ask it what happened? Expect it to talk back?

Make out with it again?

Freak.

She never did find it, and though she knew it wasn’t there she kept returning to the closet looking for it, but only finding a jar filling more and more with moths.

*

When Jennie found the piece of paper in bathroom, it was stuck to a used tampon wrapper in the trash can. She had been finishing the toilets and was about to take out the trash when she saw the word peering out from the lip of the can: “NOTICE.”

She knew the meaning in that word. It meant PAY ATTENTION. It meant LOOK OUT. It meant TROUBLE.  She pulled the paper out gingerly, touching only the corners free of stains with her cleaning gloves, shaking the paper free of debris.

She scanned the page.

“Eviction,” “in arrears,” “must vacate,” “trespassing.”

And in that moment, Jennie clung to the little childhood she had left. She wadded the paper into a tight ball, pushing it back, back, back into the way back of the trash bag—and the way back of her mind. She didn’t tell. Didn’t say anything to her mother. Didn’t say anything to Sarah. Didn’t say anything to Grandmom. She just continued their routine as if she knew nothing: the anonymous maid, disinterested, uninvested.

If there was one thing Jennie had learned, it was the value of the calm before the storm.

A little more than a week later Jennie saw a moving van out back by the trailer. Grandmom had paid for the van, and was helping with the boxes, but Miss Evie was noticeably pouting. She was wearing her “angry shirt”: Tasmanian Devil in a swirl of tornado and—in all cap, block letters—the words, “ASK ME IF I CARE.”

Jennie had her own room at Grandmom’s. Her mother’s apartment was a two bedroom, and she always shared everything with Sarah: her room, her bathroom, her closet, her chest of drawers. Here she slept in her uncle’s old room amidst boxes of old comic books, posters of R-rated movies, and a real jukebox. It was a wonder to her; even lying on someone else’s bed, under someone else’s blankets, listening to someone else’s music, she felt more at home than she ever thought she could.

As she fell asleep she stared at the boxes piled high in the body of the van, her mind telling her again what she already knew: the trailer in back is a two bedroom.

*

The baby slept in a crib in her room, silent, its chubby infant body swaddled in soft blankets knitted by hands of generations past. His breath was slow, rhythmic, unfettered by congestion or worry, eyelids pale and still without a hint of flinch.

A deep sleep this time, she thought.

That’s where she had gone wrong before. Not a deep enough sleep. Not enough commitment to the deed.

The pillow felt light in her hands, the feathers inside fluffed just so; she thought it might have been the down of angels inside as she covered the child’s face and held. The fabric spasmed, limp to rigid and back, and she tried not to look at it she held (it was hard, she had to be strong), tried not to think of it as she held it even longer—

after all, he is a fighter—

until, finally, she felt nothing beneath.

Adults gathered. One feeding him breath. One crying. One—a magic one—sprinkling over him the droplets from a vial: THE WATER OF THE DROWNED. Nothing. No response. He went limp, his little body, once of olive complexion, blanched to albino-white. And then, after minutes, a cough. Eyes wide, bloodstained; his hair, once slick and black and thick like hers, now turned a shock of mud red. The adults cried out in victory, applauded themselves and their gods, embraced their loved one in relief. She watched them nurse the wounded child, whispering in hushed tones about—

THE HAINT—

the one that had touched the other side. Some said the word came from folks who couldn’t say “haunted,” but her mama used to say, “h’ain’t here and h’ain’t there.” Ain’t in the world, ain’t in heaven. “We see his body, but his soul—well, that’s somewhere in between.”

The commotion had quieted, only the slight tremor of a hand belying the catharsis of adrenaline just past. She tiptoed nearer to the cluster of grownups, the child—now feeding from her mother’s bosom—seemed unphased by earlier excitement. But as she (in part out of guilt, in part in fear) reached out to smooth his

NOW BRIGHT RED

hair, he spat the nipple from his lips, looked her with eyes petechial-red, and laughed, and laughed, and laughed.

*

“Jennie. Psst! Jennie.”

Her mother, lips pressed against the screen, was whispering loudly into her room through the crack in her window. Could it even be called a whisper?

“Jennie. Wake up. C’mon. Psssst!” Her mom raked her fake nail against the wire webbing of the screen. “Jennifer Lynn, wake up! I brought you a present.”

As Jennie’s lids opened—her waking mind still stained with violent dream-visions—she saw the board game “Hi-Ho-Cherry-O” pressed against the screen. She rolled her eyes, knowing the game was one of hers—one of the three “Hi-Ho-Cherry-Os” she received when she turned five. $5.95 and “educational,” it has been too easy for a mom to pick up for an anonymous classmate. Her mother was cheap, and she squirreled away these gifts in the basement for bribes or regifting. Jennie had never cared for the game in the first place—even at age five thinking it a bit beneath her. But her mom had seen her open her eyes, so we had little choice but to slide her window open and thank her.

She wants something.

“Just a little errand back home,” her mom said.

But if it was just a little errand, why was she squeezing out the window in the middle of the night?

As her mom’s car neared the neighborhood, she slowed and turned off the headlights. She stopped in front of a neighbor’s house—the one with the giant sheepdog—and turned off the engine.

“But Mom, this isn’t the apartment!”

“You’re just going to have to walk.” Jennie opened the passenger door, but didn’t move to exit. “Don’t be lazy; it’ll do ya some good to get in some walking.” Her mother swatted her on the behind. “Get whatever you can carry—only the important stuff. And for God’s sake, don’t leave there without my box.”

“The jewelry box with the ballerina? That plays Somewhere Over the Rainbow?”

“It’s on my dresser. Come back without it and I’ll blister your backside, do you hear me?”

“Yes, m’am.”

“And be fast, too. No dilly-dalling. It’s 12:35 right now. Be back by 1:00 or you get the switch.”

“Yes m’am.”

She crossed through the neighbor’s yard without incident (the dog must’ve been asleep inside) and made it to the building that had once been her home. She crested the stairs to the second floor, only to find a padlock on the door. She wasn’t entirely surprised; her mother hadn’t given her the key. It was giant lock with all sorts of buttons, roughly the size of her head, encasing the entirety of the knob. Above it was another familiar sheet of paper with EVICTION in big print.

So this was why she was needed!

Jennie gave a passing thought to trying the buttons (they looked fun), but she knew what was intended of her. She’d done it a hundred times: when no one was home to let them in (like they said they would be), when her mom had locked the keys in again, or when her mom got drunk and mad at Dad and threw the keys into the woods (that happened more than once). It wasn’t without peril; as she hooked a toe into the lip of a slender brick overhang, there was a moment—before her other foot hit the balcony, before her hands wrapped around the rusted iron railings—where she was falling instead of jumping, the cement from the floors below taunting her balance. But she refocused (an amateur error to look down), squatted on the edge of the balcony to gain some momentum, and catapulted herself up and over, a gymnast on a vault, her movement quick and crisp. Once she was over, getting in was the easy part: the sliding door never worked right, no matter how many times they called the landlord. By wedging a slim stick into the door track she could jack the door up enough to jimmy the lock with a few swift motions.

The computer was gone already, pawned or repoed, as was the TV. Most of her stuff was already at her Grandmom’s, plus she knew she had better come back with the right stuff for her mom or

YOUR ASS IS GRASS,

as they say. Jennie rummaged under the sink, past the cleaners for the boxes: Ziplocs, aluminum foil, Saran Wrap. Bags. She unscrolled a kitchen trash bag, small, scented of lilacs and stretchy plastic.

12:41

Her mom’s room was trashed, messier even than usual, ashes ground into carpet and comforter and sheets.  Jennie tiptoed, dodging the pair of men’s boxer as some of the carpet fibers sogged around her soles. Probably beer,  Jennie thought, as she pushed aside another empty bottle with her foot. She grabbed most of the clothes from the floor and the hamper, but not the hangers—weren’t too many there to begin with, and the ones she would need were the ones she usually wore—the ones that were dirty. She pushed a smelly pair of shoes to the very bottom, so the heels wouldn’t soil the rest of the contents.

12:48

She added the newest Woman’s World from the bathroom, in case Mom hadn’t read it, and some tampons. No towels (Grandmom would have those), no shampoo, mustn’t forget the makeup. She waffled on the hair dryer (it was old) but decided not to risk it. And, of course, the jewelry box. Don’t forget the jewelry box.

12:52

In her room, she didn’t add much: a couple of Nancy Drew’s that her dad used to read to her, a handful of stuffed animals for Sarah to keep her quiet. And she knew she

HAD TO GO

but went back to the hallway and topped her pile with one last thing: a framed picture of her mom and dad, pressing cake into each others’ faces at their long-ago wedding.

12:55

The time was nearing; she could feel it breathing down her neck as she slung the trash bag over her shoulder by the ties. She knew she didn’t have enough time, there was no way now, she had let too much go by. She tried to exit from the front, but with the super-lock it wouldn’t budge, so the back exit was the only way. She had never gone the other way, and certainly not carrying so much stuff, but there was no time for questioning.

No time for fear.

12:56

She heaved the bag to the stairwell, grateful for the clothing in the bag acting as a sort of padding for the other fragile contents. Next it was her turn, and she felt a little off but pounced just the same, knowing time was pressing, her mom was already gonna be pissed.

She felt the concrete gravel rake through her knees, but she didn’t look down. Jennie could feel the sore and the wet and she knew it must be bad, but she didn’t look down, she dared not look down. She needed to run: down the stair, across the grass, through the yard, and she had a brief moment of panic when she thought the car was gone

SHE HAD BEEN TRICKED

but it was just her eyes that had tricked, the car was still there, dark against dark. She opened the door and offered the bag up to the inside of the car without entering, worried about the dirty, bloody knees bloodying the inside of Mom’s car (you know how she is funny about that), and out of breath she could see the car clock

1:08

Jennie braced herself for fury at her deadline missed; she waited for the looming ‘blistering,’ but instead she heard, “Get in, dammit. Where’s my box?”

Jennie removed the jewelry box from the bag. It had brass keyhole and marble inlay, with a brass winder on the bottom to make the music play. She used to love opening it; as a child she could watch the ballerina spin to its repetitive tune for hours and hours.

Her mom snatched the box from her hand. She had the key at the ready, poised in her fingers—at the ready to slip into the keyhole, ready to spring wide the hinge. And just before she twisted, she looked at her daughter and stopped. “For Christssakes, get in the car. You’re making the light stay on.”

Jennie slid onto the seat, careful with her knees—but her mom didn’t notice. “I’m gonna have a smoke in the backseat for we go. You sit there and look forward. Turn around and I’ll beat you into tomorrow, you hear?”

Jennie nodded and did as she was told, looking forward through the windshield out at so much nothing. Behind her she could hear the box open. In the rearview mirror she could see the tiny dancer unfurl, awaking into twirl. She could see the shadows there: scraping, tapping, fumbling with the lighter as her head sang along to the tinny, mechanical notes.

Where troubles melt like lemon drops

She could hear the flick of the lighter, the hungry slurping of air, then the low, guttural moan of satisfaction.

Away above the chimney tops—

The smell of burning rubber and chemical brought water to her eyes but she dared not complain—

That’s where you’ll find me.

That night her mother took her to a 24-hour diner. Jennie had All-You-Can-Eat Pancakes while her mom chain-smoked, rambling about vacations, Mickey Mouse and “Being A Family Again.” Her words were too fast and her pupils too wide, but Jennie (knowing that none of it was real) was grateful for the time nonetheless.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ch. 12

 

Clara Mae hadn’t been looking forward to coming home to an empty house. The girls had moved to the trailer in the back, and this was the first night she would be home without them. She worked at the store as late as she could: restocking, a little cleanup, even taking care of the launderette—only excusing herself after the twenty-something made it clear she’d overstayed her welcome.

She hadn’t come home to an empty house, in fact. Gerald and Aunt Helen were there. On her couch.

He’d checked Aunt Helen out on leave, “Isn’t that a blessing?” Gerald looked up at her, overjoyed, like he’d brought home a lost puppy, Gosh, can we keep her? And who was she to say no?

Clara had still not confronted her husband, thinking she would get around to it (her insides boiling) but never managing more than a cold shoulder. Not saying it made it a little less real—not that she could get the words out, anyway. Just what should she say? Please pass the salt, and oh-by-the-way, would you mind not letting your sister touch your willie?

Talking didn’t come easy between them, either. The distance there was carefully cultivated over the years; the coldness familiar. Secure. Aunt Helen may have the warmth, but Clara—she still owned frigid. So Clara didn’t answer her husband, or offer any approval of the newfound guest. She turned wordlessly to the kitchen, her silence only broken by the clink of ice cubes in her Diet Coke.

Clara could see them well from her angle, but they couldn’t see her at all. Like adolescents discovering the other for the first time, the two snuggled with biological exuberance under the throw. The blanket (their passing nod to modesty) bobbed and stretched against the fondle of frenzied hands beneath. Their skin flickered to greens then yellows, a reflection from Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C.; Helen was watching the screen but he was looking at her, nibbling a neck, suckling an earlobe. The blanket rose and fell gently, its rhythm slow. Just a nudging caress. She leaned her head back, eyes closing, lips parting into an unvocalized moan.

Clara’s neckline flushed splotchy; she fought the involuntary rush of pulse to her areas, but her nipples swelled erect against her protest. She angered herself with her own arousal, but she couldn’t look away. She needed to watch. From her distance she joined them, touching herself in the love of the alone, slow and soft along with the rhythm of his hand; it was barely a touch, the lightest of a glide right at the apex, until by the dish soap she climaxed. When she opened the faucet (to wash off the stink of shame) the two on the couch broke apart like once copulated beetles.

     (Like a moth to a flame.)

Neither of them looked at Clara Mae as she walked past them on the way to her room, their breath still heaving, their armpits damp. And neither of them looked at her on the way back, jar and doll in hand.

(Just couldn’t stop.)

The moths hacked quickly into grey fluff, their dry bodies scattering to dust by the blade of the food processor. She could still hear the two on the couch, abuzz with post-coital murmurs. The doll was propped up against the hinge of the flour jar

so He could watch her work.

She was meticulous in the kitchen: reading off precise measurements from carefully-penned script on legal pad pages, knife-backs scraping against cup edge or spoon—never a pinch or an eyeball. Like a chemist

or a mad scientist

she put on her reading glasses and added pecans—

everybody has too many pecans lying around this time of year—

chopping them as she added, watching the evenness of the cuts, studying them piece-by-piece as they shattered. The Doll coaxed her onward, Oats would help the texture, and of course she agreed. Folding in the oleo and egg. It needed something else. The moths, they were important, but she knew for this to work that she must have something more. She needed a piece of him, something he worked for, something with a bit of his soul.

The honey butter.

She pulled the Mason jar out of the refrigerator, warming the outside with her palm. She jimmied the seal and whiffed its fatty sweetness. She smelled the purity of the love of his grandchildren. She smelled the friction of their marital arguments. And—faintly—she smelled a little booze.

This, she thought, would work just fine.

The dough was soft, pouring out wide on the surface of the cookie sheet, sprawling beyond the diameter she’d intended, expansive circles more like pancakes than cookies. Her oatmeal cookies were Gerald’s favorite, light and crisp and sweet, with the too-browned, butter-flavored edges he preferred. When the kids were younger she would make them every Friday.

She hadn’t made them in years now.

He would always eat too many: all of them really, or at least whatever the kids didn’t eat. At least a half dozen, as many as eight, every Friday, for fifteen years.

4,680 cookies.

She did the math in her head without any effort. She wasn’t sure if she was born with a head for numbers, or if she just acquired it over the years of dealing with cash, but she was a whiz. Could count out any register in under two minutes—one minute, forty-three seconds, to be exact.

4,680 cookies.

That, she thought, is a lot of cookies.

So much measuring and remeasuring, always preheating and sifting, carefully folding one texture into the other, a swift but gentle turn of the spatula revealing a light, even mix. Never anything less than perfection. The cookies took an hour from start to finish, not including cooling. The end result was sugar and flour woven together in buttery doilies of pastry, artfully crafted with painstaking precision.

She could picture them before her, the rows and rows of cookies, all waiting for him, waiting to be mindlessly scarfed down in the light of the moon and cracked refrigerator, delicate crumbs falling past open robe, encrusting drunken testicles.

4,680 cookies.

280,800 minutes of her life making those damn cookies.

And as she slid the cookies into the oven she could hear them in the other room, cooing, nuzzling, giggling softly to each other. Clara Mae’s jaw clenched as she removed her potholders. Her hand instinctively went to The Doll, clutching it around the waist like a stress ball. As she clutched his midsection, hers seized up in turn—a fireball of acid climbing her throat, searing her vocal cords. Was it a heart attack? She remembered reading something in a magazine: heartburn, for a woman, was a heart attack symptom. Indigestion had never felt like this, her heart beat rapid, and she couldn’t catch her breath as she watched the timer tick by painful second by painful second. As the romantic mumblings in the other room gathered volume, Clara Mae visualized flinging cookies at them, one by one, buttery edges slicing into flesh like throwing stars.

But she knew she couldn’t.

First, of course, they would have to cool.

At least thirty minutes.

That was 23,400 total minutes of cooling his cookies. 23,400 minutes of waiting for them to crisp on wire racks, 23,400 minutes of watching them through her periphery as she washed dishes, 23,400 minutes of guarding from stray snacking hands, gestating them to maturity in the womb of her kitchen, only to see them thoughtlessly broken and consumed before they saw the light of day.

“Surprise, surprise, surprise!” her husband exclaimed for the forty-third time today in that awful hick tone, and the two twittered like ninnies. The laughter raked over her like nails against a chalkboard. She clutched the Doll harder between her fingers and palm, worried the old seams would burst but not able to let go. Her eyes focused on the DVD player, and the years her husband spent on the couch flashed through her. The years of memorizing Jim Nabors while Clara worked on her feet ten hours plus. The poorly-imitated dim country mannerisms. Repeating of lines over and over again—as if autistic. Or an idiot savant. A Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. friggin’ genius.

All of the years of putting up with that. All the years just to be brushed to the side for HER.

Then, the pain came. She’d thought her heart had just exploded right there inside her, all over her organs, and OH GOD SHE COULD FEEL IT. She swooned, feeling that she was about to lose consciousness. It must be the last little bit of blood still circulating though brain, the remaining bits of pumping oxygen causing the last few synapses, all making her still awake and aware of her dying hurt. The blast of nerves was sharp and clear, hot inside her organs, waxy and acrid (like the burn of a chemical) but her skin pricked dots of icy shock, cold like the secret mist of an unexpected scattered shower on a sunny day. A flash of yellow then chaotic blue sparks, like half-broken fireworks, from the living room. Screams. Clara Mae thought had been shot, but she could find no entry, no opening, no blood.

In truth, it had not been Clara Mae’s guts that had exploded; it was the guts of the DVD player, ignited inside the slender black box so that they puffed out, like plastic chipmunk cheeks. The DVD tray was stuck in EJECT, extended but limp—a flailing, melting tongue. The disc smoked furiously from the end table where it had landed, its surface fire-crackled, broken into a charred kaleidoscope of metallics.

Surprise, surprise, surprise!

The two prodded the electronic remnants with a remote while Aunt Helen squealed.

“What was that?”

Clara Mae clutched her belly again, the pain gone, but in its place the phantom aftershock.  She kept looking for the wound, but she seemed, well, fine.

The Doll was splayed on the floor beneath her. She looked at him, and he looked at her, and she could have sworn he winked.

Her good mitts lifted the smoldering player and dumped it in the outside garbage, all while Clara Mae (instinctively) kept an eye on the cookies.

She needn’t have worried. Her husband and Aunt Helen were long gone.

Clara Mae stood and waited and waited over his cookies cooling (as she’d done so many years ago) even though he had gone. As she watched the microwave digits reverse she felt embarrassed, ashamed of what she had done. And she knew that she had done it. Didn’t really know how, but knew it all the same.

After the timer had buzzed and the moth-cookies were in the jar, she put them in the top of her closet. All bark and no bite. She was too afraid of change, too afraid of action. Even if the moths held the cure for her marriage—for the sister-love—could it unravel the years of stagnant unhappiness, scrub out the frustration that over the years had soured into the fabric of their relationship? She picked up the Doll, cradling it to her bosom with the unconditional love of an enabling mother. Tomorrow she would try to give it back to The Home—get rid of the bad ju-ju. Don’t need that in my house.  But tonight she held it lovingly, even with pride, and she thought of the burst of flame with a little smirk of we-did-this, picturing the incestuous adulterers scurrying off and out and away, afraid.

Chapter 13

Raw Gums was a baby born of a baby.

The village hadn’t thought her old enough to get her menses, much less old enough to welcome the swell of womb beneath her dress. She didn’t speak much, quiet and obedient, meek. She was usually half-hidden in her wigwam behind her mother’s skirt or washtub or diligently snapping bean after bean. Her long hair was unbraided and heavy, drawn past her brow like a shade. The neighbors didn’t try to see into her eyes. They were content to gather and glance and whisper.

The night of his birth they gathered. They waited with ugly disinterest, Such a tiny child. Such a big belly. Even the more robust of their women had been taken in childbirth, and this one: faint of soul, timid, weak-hipped. They assembled the accoutrement of celebration under the cover of the women’s work area. They worked together in solemn silence as the rains pattered the bark roof, each quietly thinking they may instead need the accoutrement of mourning.

     The infant came into this world with a stillness, a silence. No cries, no movements. He slipped from between the Child-Mother’s legs in a cascade of fluids, blood and mucus. The infant was coated in a film of thick grey goop, and around them the blood was abundant. The fluids combined against his newborn skin, casting an unnatural red on the child, a glow in the ooze that even in the dim light of fading day looked squint-bright.

     When her baby didn’t cry, the child reached for him, her own consciousness slipping as too much of her leaked to the forest floor.

“Awaken,” she plead through the clenched teeth, her tiny body quaking with violent shivers beneath the layers and layers of blankets the elders had piled on. She held his tiny cheeks—“Awaken”—swatting his behind and praying. And when his eyes opened and looked at her, silent and expectant, no cries, no cries at all, but alive, oh yes, alive! She looked at the elders, what to do now? And they gestured to hold him to her bosom, so she moved aside the wrap of birthing dress to press his lips against tiny teat. But when he opened his mouth, a river of blood poured out, dark and red and clotted. He coughed, and the girl instinctively used her index finger to hook though and clear his mouth. When she did, he screamed a scream of so much pain, opening his mouth so wide it appeared almost unhinged. Through the blood she could see tissue, raw and dangling, as if her finger had been arrow-sharp.

“Raw gums,” she said. “It’s raw gums.”

*

Miss Gertrude woke Clara from her nap, dragging an IV through the hallways of The Home, making the trademark clicking sound with her tongue. Click, clack, click. Rumor had it that they were actual words in the Morse code she’d learned in the war. Dot-dash-dot. Dash-dash-dot. Click, clack, click. Clack, clack, click. The flick of her tongue was loud, echoing through the quiet of the hallway, and though she had no reason to worry, the first thought Clara had on waking was, I hope she is okay.

When she’d arrived, Mama was sleeping—gone down for an early nap. The familiarity of low snores and the warmth of the sun streaming through the window over her shoulders enticed Clara to lean over and close her eyes. Just for a minute.

Mama was still sleeping when Miss Gertrude walked past. At first Clara wasn’t sure that she’d seen correctly, and she blinked to adjust her eyes. Snaking behind Miss Gertrude, dark and thick like a snail-trail was… something. That something was painted along the floor by the dragging hem of her too-long robe.

Clara didn’t want to get involved. She listened for the footsteps of the nurse escorting her, or somebody—anybody—to walk by, but she heard no one. She got up, her bones stiff, and she was slow to move. Clara savored the guilt as she lingered at the door frame, looking at the streak of something she didn’t want to deal with—feces?—against the floor, hesitating while repeating in her head, please, please, anyone!

But the hallway was empty, save Miss Gertrude.

Miss Gertrude had been walking fast, and she had made her way pretty far gone by the time Clara found her. Dark matted her house dress to her bottom, slid down her legs, clotted in her slippers. Hands smeared streaks against the wheeled silver pole. She held outstretched stained fingers to the empty hallway, a gesture for help, her mouth in a frenzy of clicking and clicking and clicking.

Clara slipped back into the room before she could be seen, pushed the nurse button and waited.

The nurses were efficient. Clara’d hardly blinked and Miss Gertrude’s clothes were bagged as BIOHAZARD, and the floor outside mopped clean again with WET FLOOR signs in their place. The curtain divider between Mama and her neighbor was drawn, but Clara could see the nurses, several of them, all at the foot of Miss Gertrude’s bed. Clara could see the bend of splayed knees breaking through the thick fabric plane, and she strained to hear, but found she couldn’t anything but the click, clack, click of her mouth. Clack, clack, click.

Through all of the commotion, Mama didn’t wake, didn’t move. Those blankets look thick, Clara Mae thought as the nurses scurried and clattered on the other side of the curtain. She moved them aside one by one until she realized the new ‘thickness’ was actually coming from—Mama. As she unscrolled the final yellowed blanket revealing a belly–distended, bloated and round like a pregnant woman. Her mother’s usual sagging abdomen was now swollen and taut. Suddenly Clara was aware of a nurse apologizing beside her. Should have told you. Didn’t want to upset you. Came up too fast.

Probably benign, anyway.

Clara Mae instinctively leaned forward, wrapping her arms around the womb filled with tumor, embracing the belly that had once held her inside. As she wept the tears of exhaustion, Mama stayed still in slumber, maintaining the healthy, rhythmic breathing. But not Miss Gertrude. Miss Gertrude was struggling. Miss Gertrude did not want to be in bed. Miss Gertrude wanted up.

The nurses—who knew better than to fight ol’Gertie—tried to subdue her anyway. She wanted to get up, so she got up—her garments now clean, her loins diapered. No mind for the probes and monitors and IV needles. Just got up. You need to wait for the doctor, they insisted. She either didn’t hear or ignored them. Click, clack, click. Clack, clack, click. Miss Gertrude crossed the Great Curtain Divide, and she didn’t look back. She walked over to Mama as she did so many times a day and leaned her ear over to capture the wind of her snore. Miss Gertrude placed both hands over Clara Mae’s head, holding her firm against the belly where she lay.

Then, Miss Gertrude spoke the second set of words they’d ever heard her utter.

“I lost my baby,” Miss Gertrude looked at her now-clean crotch. Was that blood before? “But Mama still has her baby.”

“Do you mean this baby?” Clara Mae said, removing The Doll from the guts of her handbag.

But Miss Gertude just laughed and laughed, an eerie lonely laugh, awkward and long, until finally wiping laugh-tears from her eyes.

“Raw Gums was a baby born of a baby,” Miss Gertrude began.

*

The day that Raw Gums came into the world was the last day their tribe saw rain.

He was the quietest baby you ever saw after that first cry. He never ate, only suckled a cloth rubbed with aloe leaf to heal his gums. As the world outside dried up, the Grandmother tended him inside. The Child-Mother (alive but unwell) spent her days in the cot next to him, waking only to eat and evacuate. The Grandmother always told visitors that the baby was quiet because HE KNEW. The quiet, she’d say, was out of respect for the mother.

     But after the company would leave, the Grandmother secretly worried. Not only was the baby quiet, but he would not take food. The daughter’s glands had dried in her illness, so after darkness the Grandmother ushered in others with milk, and when he inevitably wouldn’t take to the breast, the women would express milk themselves, releasing into a clean turtle shell. There she soaked the baby’s aloe cloth, all along praying he would get some nourishment as he suckled.

     But as the days passed, the gardens and fields got drier, and the baby got bigger. Almost…fatter. The Child-Mother recovered, cared for him, tried to make up for lost time. Once thinness had set in amongst the rest of the village—their crops now withered and fruitless—Raw Gums was twice the size of the average baby his age. The family wrapped him in giant swaddling, hiding his body, ashamed from the accusation in other’s eyes. Where might they have food hid that they had not shared?

     The Bad Things came shortly after the crops fell.

The tribe needed water, coveting the springs behind another neighboring village. Their neighbors were good people, and they gave of the water, even while sparse, even to the detriment of themselves and their children. The condition of this water was simply: peace.

     This continued for weeks and months, tense but uneventful, and water was rationed—for drinking only, this much for an adult, little less for children. It was tight, but enough for sustenance of all. In spite of this, the talk started. Could the other tribe really be trusted? What if the spring starts to dry out? The Fear had settled in among them, and the desperation blinded right thinking.

     Then the body of Elder Red Buck was found.

     There was no clear cause of death—no bruises, no blood. It looked as if he just collapsed where he stood while drinking a rare cup of water after morning work, melting to the floor, vacating his bowels. His passing was recent, but the smell of death and excrement was already knock-you-down-strong. Even so, Raw Gums was sat at his feet, lapping up precious water from the fallen cup peacefully, like a doe at a stream. As Raw Gums was returned to the worried Child-Mother, she wondered when the infant had learned to crawl.

     Then the whispers began. It was them, the villagers said. They poisoned the water. Suspicion crept into their eyes, bloodshot from dehydration, but they had to fill their bowls again. They had no water. They had no choice.

     When the body of the Chief was found, it was in a similar fashion: no outside injury or trauma, just newly limp, lips falling away from the cup of water he had been drinking. But this cup—this cup of water was from a box hidden beneath the hut floor. There were several jars still hoarded there, the box hastily opened in secret but not yet closed.

     Inside the box, next to the jars, sat Raw Gums—skin dewy with water, belly button topped off with moisture, his mouth wet, the corners bloody.

     The Child-Mother stayed inside that night, adding reed-fence to her baby’s bed and listening to the night hollers. The villagers were thirsty and mad, their children’s spindly limbs telling the story of their desperation, their pain. They had spread the Chief’s stolen water amongst the people, risking the poison they thought may be inside. But when spread amongst the village it was quarter cups, most given to the frailest of cot-ridden children—not enough to satiate. As the Child-Mother listened to the pained shoutings of betrayal, she opened her reed sack and (hidden beneath the dried gatherings) removed her own secret stash of water stolen from the neighbor spring. She turned her back on her child and drank, soothing her own stomach pains while he writhed.

Outside, through the wood and mud-plaster of the walls, voices. The Child-Mother could hear the Medicine Man saying to her mother, “They think it is the neighbors to blame for this evil. But it is not of them. The evil has come from this place. The evil lives in these walls. The children within, they are the children of vengeance. Raw Gums, he is bringing to bear the fruits that the evil have sown. Those who have stolen from the weak, from the sick, from the young, they are being met with justice. We find this baby near the deaths, always. He is overseeing this justice.

And—understand this—he is not done.”

The Grandmother would not hear of it. There were odd things about the child yes—the fact that he never really ate anything, that he was known to go missing, and the bugs—YES, the flies!—that encircled his bed, the dead, dead, dead bugs, dead from no obvious cause, just suddenly freezing in mid-air and falling, falling to the bed or the ground in an eerie ring. The Grandmother swept up the bugs, looking at the newness of his sleeping face, and thought the Elders were so wrong about her kin.

But that night, The Grandmother left the hut. The Child-Mother could hear her outside vomiting sick upon sick, water falling from her bowels in surprising amounts given how shriveled up she felt inside. Her daughter listened in anguish, her own thirst quenched. She could feel the guilt of hydration from the stolen water flow cold through her guts and into her blood. Outside her mother lay alone in leaves and sick; the life had drained from her so quickly. The Child-Mother took a blatter-jug of the stolen water to her mother’s side, holding her mother’s head and pouring the life-saving liquid in. Her mother gulped it down, her body weak, eyes blank. She left her mother there, sleeping in the leaves, with the remaining containers of water slightly open nearby, as she carried Raw Gums off into the forest midnight.

In the woods that night the Child-Mother ended the life of her baby, maternal hands wrapped around face and nose until eyes glowed petecial-red. Then, baby’s body tucked in the crook of her arms, she ate of the poisons of the forest by the handful, until finally her breath filled with vomit.

Legend has it that when her body was found, the Child-Mother’s skin was found in the mouth of Raw Gums—cleaned from her palms during the act of smothering.

The neighboring tribe found the bodies, mother and child, and looked on the tribe with fresh disgust. From that day forward, they refused use of the spring, and the dysentery spread like wildfire. The tribe begged for water, but the neighbors refused, holding up the dried and prepared head of the infant Raw Gums and proclaiming their people less than human. Raw Gums’ head was kept as a marker at the spring, tiny shrunken head fastened to the top of a wooden post, taunting them, judging in the face of beckoning death.

The entire tribe died within seven days.

“Except your mother,” Miss Gertrude finished, her hand resting on Mama’s swollen belly.

“She knew she was the last. She made her wearied way to ask for water, and they handed her this”—Miss Gertrude pulled The Doll from Clara Mae’s hands—“this doll, with the head of her kin sown to the neck, the shrunken baby head the only thing left of her tribe, the only thing left of her family, the doll of Raw Gums. Then, with no water, they sent her away to her death.”

Mama was indeed of the brink when she was found by missionaries. They took her in, proclaimed her a dark-skinned Dutch child they adopted, Baptized her. As she grew, she let go of her braids and topknot, she let go of her language, she let go of her memories of family. But she never let go of The Doll.

Chapter 14

Clara Mae pulled up to the Kountry Korner that morning, and as soon as she saw Bob’s car, she knew the day was gonna be a pisser.

It was early morning, a bit before dawn. Clara Mae checked the car clock—6:20. She should have been there twenty minutes earlier and she knew it. She braced herself.

If Bob was here already it meant he wasn’t sleeping again. The nights were long and by the light of day Bob was irritable at best. At worst he was paranoid, disheveled, emotionless. On those days he wouldn’t make eye contact with you, he would only look near your face, eyes locked on an earring or the part of your hair. And mad, whoo-mad! Convinced the world was after him.

The cowbell jangled as Clara opened the door, and it sounded louder than usual. Bob was inside, standing at the till, arms crossed and face soured.

“It is 6:30, Clara. The Kountry Korner opens at 6:00,” he frowned, tapping his watch. “What if a customer came?”

“Did a customer come?” Clara asked.

“That’s not the point,” Bob said.

“Nobody ever comes before 6:30,” Clara Mae mumbled. “And right now it is 6:20.”

“Watch your mouth,” Bob said. “Count yourself lucky that all I’m gonna do is dock today’s pay.”

Anger simmered in Clara, but she’d learned to keep her mouth shut over the years—learned to take it. Couldn’t risk the paycheck. She frowned and nodded.

The register was open, and Bob went back to pawing through it. “Dammit, I lost count.” Bob started counting again out loud, fast and awkward. “One eighty. I swear I’m being stole from. This register supposed to have at least three hundy.”

“That what the log say?” Clara Mae asked.

“That ain’t the fucking point,” he spat back. “The fucking register is always supposed to have over three hundy after close. I ain’t need to check no fucking log.”

Clara Mae knew before she asked that he hadn’t checked the log. She also knew the twenties the register was short were stacked in Bob’s wallet now. He’d never admit it—and he’d make her life hell from the guilt that ate him. So she best play along. “Who you think done it?”

“I might just think you done it, what do you think about that? Waltzing in here, twenty minutes late. You’re already stealing my damn time. Why not money?”

Not the first time accused, Clara Mae knew the line he awaited. “I didn’t do it, Bob, but go ahead and take it out of my check if that’ll make you happy.”

“What’d make me happy is to have my fucking employees do their job and not treat me like a chump. But okay, I’ll take out of your check. Let that be your incentive to make sure it don’t happen again, k?” He started toward the door, but turned back once more. “And drain the coolers, will ya? Scrub ‘em out while you’re at it. It’s a mess back there.”

As predicted. A pisser. The refrigeration units were a mess, old and broken. They were leaking in too many places to count, and she didn’t change the pans. They don’t pay me enough.

When they pay me at all.

Of course because she didn’t change the pans, no one did, and they were soured, filled with scum and mold. Clara flipped off her boss’s back as he headed to his car, middle fingers straining tall against arthritis. When she caught her reflection in the window—in between the sign trumpeting FREE POCKET TOOLKIT WITH TANK OF GAS and today’s price of Kool’s—she was struck with how her fingers looked small. Her reflection made her look old, weak, pitiful—not the imposing figure filled with rage in her mind’s eye.

Deflated and aching, Clara Mae went for the Aspercreme in her purse, and her hands glanced over The Doll. She had intended to give him back. She really had. And yet here he was—nestled in the same spot as before. Cedar chest, she appeased herself. I’ll just put him in storage later. It’s just a collectible, a memento, a memory.

She rubbed her knuckles and the in-betweens of her fingers. Clara preferred the warmth of BenGay, but it left the store smelling strong—like menthol and candy cigarettes—so she only used the odorless cream at work.

Clara Mae slipped back to clean the coolers early, before morning rush; she’d keep an ear out for the door. Windex, squeegee, paper towels. She dutifully complied with the order, pouring off the rancid water down toilets, scrubbing and scrubbing and angrily scrubbing, all the while knowing it was unpaid labor.

As she emptied the last tray, she lost her balance, sloshing water against her pelvis. Jesus! Of course it dried dark, like she’d wet her pants, crotch-stain clotted with chunks of mold that she just couldn’t get with a paper towel. What a crap day.

After the morning rush, when she was sure no one was coming, she had her early lunch. She knew how close Bob kept the inventory, so she didn’t risk it—went for her standard: mayonnaise sandwich. As she slipped a single slice out of one baggie, she thought, He can’t count the slices! Still, she was careful—only one slice per bag, carefully flagged with an extra price sticker. She got the mayo from the packets at next to the hot dog heater; she wanted to pluck one of the shriveled sausages from its cradle on the weiner ferris wheel—they would go on for the day untouched, getting more and more dry—but if Bob came back, today he might be crazy enough to count.

Clara Mae thought of him taking her paycheck, and she took a second pack of mayo.

Mama used to make mayonnaise sandwiches for Clara when she was growing up. She knew now that it was to save money, but at the time she pretended it was elegant, even fussy—like the type of thing a person in England would eat over tea. The other thing Bob couldn’t track was the Slushies, so she finished off her lunch with a half cherry-half cola mix, throwing the cup away in the outdoor trash can when she was done, just in case.

When he came in, she didn’t know anyone was even approaching the store; the cable had gone out, leaving the black and white tv snowy, and Clara had crawled under the counter to jiggle the cord. As she bent over she noticed the smell of her pants, sour and moldy from the drain water. When she’d heard the cowbells above the door jangle, she thought little of it. It took her a little while to get back upright, her joints fighting the move to stand, and her thoughts were with her aches and not the stranger she looked in the face. “Smokes?” Clara Mae asked, since he was just standing there. “Camels two-fer-one?”

He just looked back and her and didn’t answer. He was wearing a knit cap and sunglasses, but he looked young. Shaky. “Ain’t you too old to be getting a period?” The kid pointed at Clara’s stained pants and shriveled his nose. “Nasty.”

Maybe it was Clara’s humiliation, her flush of embarrassment, her stunned silence that gave him the confidence. He pulled a gun from his pocket. “Empty the register, lady. Now.”

She started to oblige. But looking back at the smooth of his skin, the smirk in his smile—cocky, entitled, smug—she hesitated, her gut welling with anger. Life was there for the taking for this young man, but the taking was all he could see. His smirk was familiar, not unlike Kathy’s, lips pursed, eyebrow raised, half-laughing but out of mockery—and absent joy. And—also like Kathy—the entitlement of expectation, hand outstretched, demanding—threatening—until it had what it desired. Then on to the next patsy. It was never enough for this type; they were never satisfied, never learned the beauty of making do with what you have.

As her fingers flicked over the top of the remaining twenties—and Clara knew there wasn’t much there over a hundred—she thought of Dan. He’d done as he should, handing over the money, no confrontation, no risk. What did he get for it? He lost his life. All for a few bucks. They seemed to replicate—a steady stream of the vapid, the lost, the greedy—there to torment, humiliate, and take, and take, and take.

“NO!” Clara Mae was surprised to hear the words as she slammed the drawer to the register. She felt The Doll between her fingers and her palm and she wasn’t sure how he’d gotten there. The kid looked back at her, and this time he was the one flushed with embarrassment. “No,” Clara repeated. “I ain’t gonna. Be ashamed. What would your Mama say? Your Granny? I ain’t gonna let you do it. Nope.”

“I’m gonna shoot you,” the kid said, but he inflected the end like it was a question. I’m gonna shoot you?

“No,” Clara Mae said again. “You ain’t. You’re gonna give me the gun.” She held out her hand to the would-be thief.

But instead of handing it over, he cocked the gun. “But I will.” But again it came out with a timid upward inflection, But I will? He pointed the barrel at her in a shaky stalemate.

“Oh, will you?” Clara’s eyes were locked with his until she broke the gaze, looking off to the side. The kid thought she was soliciting pity, backing down, go-ahead-and-shoot-poor-ol’-me.

And for that reason, he never saw it coming.

Clara lowered her head, focusing the heat in her belly, the motherly vengeance, vibrations of justice. She could feel it welling there at the tip of her gaze, the spark, the friction of atoms against atoms against atoms on the brink of the frenzy of spontaneous chaos. It was so quiet in that moment that all they could hear was the frustrated buzz of a fly against the pane of window, buzzing and buzzing as she gripped The Doll tighter—now she knew his name: Raw Gums—tighter and even tighter, until big fat fly fell quiet, quiet and dead on the windowsill, dead as a doornail, and the fuse on the firecracker next to her ignited with a tiny sizzle. It was Dan’s firecracker, fitting.

It was Clara’s turn to look smug, in the second before the bottle rocket spat across the room and into the kid, exploding in a fabric-searing pop. “Shit! Shit!” the kid squealed, dropping his gun on Clara’s counter. “What the fuck was that?”

The second rocket wasn’t far behind as the kid high-tailed it out of the store. A track of smoke was left in its wake as the firecracker careened into the sag of the back of his pants where it nestled, fuming briefly before erupting, fragments of ashen boxers spitting out onto the linoleum. He needed a blistered behind—and he got one, Clara thought as she called the Sheriff, watching the flash of raw, pink butt cheek dash into the distance as she dialed.

At that moment, Clara Mae would have sworn Raw Gums joined her laughing.

Chapter 15

“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.

Domino-domino-domino.

“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

GRANDMOM

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,

GRANDMOM

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.