After my father left, I was shipped from house to house. I was told the people were relatives but I had never met them before. Aunt Tessa’s house was one of the worst. She had two boys. Brian was close to my age yet taller and fatter. He ignored me most of the time. His older brother, Cole, pestered me, called me names, and the look in his eyes frightened me. Sometimes he would get this empty gaze.
I saw him outside one day putting a small firecracker in a frog’s mouth and setting it off. He laughed maniacally when the frog blew up into a million slimy pieces. That’s when I squealed and he ran after me.
“You’d better watch out or I will do the same thing to you!”
I squeezed beneath the front porch where I knew he couldn’t follow. I hugged my knees to my chest. My nostrils burned and my eyes watered from the stench of dirt, weeds, and what lurked in the shadows. I stayed until the sun fell. Guided by the glow from the street lights, I found my way to the back door. Luckily Aunt Tessa forgot to lock it.
The aroma of fried chicken made my mouth water. There was a plate of it on the stove. I snatched a piece and ate it like a ravenous dog. I tossed the bones in the garbage and grabbed a second piece. My aunt may have been odd and self-centered, but she was a good cook. I washed my hands and face in the kitchen sink and quietly slunk down the hall.
My bedroom had once been a walk-in closet in my aunt’s room. Now it had a mattress and a small lamp on the floor and two piles of clothes, one dirty and the other clean. The floor creaked as I stepped into the master bedroom. My aunt was mumbling something and moving a lot. I tried not to look in her direction hoping if I didn’t see her she wouldn’t see me. The hinges on the closet door complained when I gingerly moved the door then closed it behind me. The light seeping through the crack was enough to strip and pull on a tee.
Closing my eyes tightly, I pulled the holey blanket over my thin frame and begged for sleep. The closet was chilly. The only way to keep it warm was to leave the door open. When Aunt Tessa was entertaining, the closet had to remain closed.
Her voice got louder and mixed with grunts, moans, and swears that I was told never to use. I stuck my fingers in my ears until I felt the floor vibrate with the thud of someone getting out of bed. I could see shadows of the man moving around the room. He was probably getting dressed.
“Just put it on the bureau,” she said.
“Same time next week?”
“Call before you come. And lock the back door when you leave. There’s no telling what might find its way in at night.”
* * *
A couple of months before my fourteenth birthday I returned to the house where my mother lived. Uncle Derrick dropped me off in the front yard tossing my backpack and a paper shopping bag on the lawn.
“Tell your mother not to call,” he shouted at me.
I watched as his car sped off. I grabbed my bags and went inside.
“Mom, I’m home.”
“I’m in the kitchen, Lorelei.”
In some ways she looked better than I remembered. She was in a power wheelchair that she could navigate by herself. She opened her arms and I gave her a brief hug.
“You’ve gotten so big.”
“It’s been three years.”
“You must be close to five feet tall.”
I nodded as I glanced around. Steam rattled the lid of the large pot on the stove. Using a potholder I lifted the lid. The aroma was inviting. Sweet carrots and parsnips combined with tiny pasta and a few other vegetables made my stomach growl.
“Please tell me you haven’t eaten. I made enough soup for a week.”
“Shall I dish us some?”
“Sure, go ahead.”
Mom told me where to find everything. I filled two soup bowls and pulled a half loaf of white bread out of the fridge.
“Uncle Derrick said you didn’t get along with his daughter.”
I was tempted to show her the burn marks Geraldine had left on my thigh. She and her boyfriend had held me down in the back yard and burned me with cigarette butts to see if I would cry. When I didn’t, Geraldine twisted the skin on my forearm. It left a purple mark.
“I did my best.”
“Sometimes we have to do better that what we think is our best.”
I took a sip of the broth and tried not to spit it out. It tasted soapy.
“Aunt Tessa told me you threatened your cousin.”
“I did not.”
“Every family member you stayed with told me bad things, Lorelei. That’s why you’re back. Lucky for you, I am feeling better. I have a job selling stuff on the internet. Between that and the disability checks, I have enough to live on. You’ll have to do chores. I called the local paper and they are looking for someone to deliver in the neighborhood. I told them you will start on Sunday morning.”
Even with all that she expected from me I was sure it was going to be an improvement over some of the other places I’d lived.
“Your room is just the way you left it. The lady from Social Services stopped by for a surprise visit the other day. She brought along some clothes that might fit. If she comes by again, we’re not telling her about the paper route. You’re supposed to concentrate on school work.”
I nodded again and choked down some more soup.
When we were done with dinner, I cleaned up the kitchen without being asked. Actually, my mother pushed her bowl forward and wheeled her chair down the hall to her bedroom. I assumed that meant it was time to begin my chores.
When I finished, I picked up my bags and went to my old room. The atmosphere of the room hit me as I opened the door. Musty. Old. Unused. There must have been an inch of dust on the bureau. The only thing that changed was the small suitcase on the bed. I popped the lock and opened it. The clothes were not brand new but they were clean. Most of the items fit. The sneakers were barely worn. I removed my old ones and tossed them in the back of the closet.
After sorting through what I brought and what was left for me, I put it in the bureau and packed up the few clothes from my previous stay. Some could be donated to another child. Some would have to be tossed. The smell of them all made my dinner want to reappear.
I grabbed a tee and went into the bathroom. I used a tiny pearl of my mother’s toothpaste and brushed my teeth with my finger. Maybe once I had the paper route I could buy a toothbrush. I stripped and donned the tee.
As I passed my mother’s room, I could hear the television. A man was talking about the best way to lose weight. I looked down at my boney body and wondered how to gain weight without eating too much. Certainly vegetable soup was not going to help.
In my room, I grabbed the pile of dirty clothes I had brought with me and those I had just removed. I went down to the mildew infested basement and opened the washer. There was a dead mouse in it. I plucked it out of the tub and threw it in the basket next to the machine. I placed my dirty rags in and started the water. I used as little soap as possible. I didn’t want my mother to think I was stealing.
I waited in the basement until the washer was done. I transferred everything to the dryer and headed back to my room. My mother’s television was now telling her how to make her wrinkles fade. I wondered if she had fallen asleep. I squelched the temptation to take a peek.
The bed in my room seemed small yet the mattress was firm. I pulled the sheet and blanket up to my neck turning to my side and pulling my legs up tightly. The house was eerily quiet except for the hum of the television. In my head, I took an inventory of my new clothes. I should have enough for a week which meant washing every Saturday. Undergarments were going to be an issue. Maybe when the lady from Social Services stopped by again I could ask where I could get some.
* * *
The following morning I woke up before my mother. I pulled on a pair of jeans and a shirt then went to the kitchen to start coffee. Once it was going, I made my way to the basement to retrieve my clothes. I brought them up to the kitchen and folded them on the table. By the time I was done, the coffee was ready.
I rapped lightly on my mother’s bedroom door.
“Mother, I made coffee.”
“Help me get dressed,” she said dryly.
I opened the door to find her sitting up. She told me where to find her things. She had a drawer full of underwear, another stocked with socks. Her closet was nearly full with sweaters, blouses and jeans. After dressing her, I brushed out her hair and we went to the kitchen where I made her a scrambled egg and one piece of toast. I had the same.
“Mom, I might need some underwear and bras.”
“Bras?” she repeated. “You’re twelve. You don’t need bras.”
“I’ll be fourteen in six weeks.” I lifted my shirt. “See. I have breasts now.”
“Oh my. I hope you don’t go showing those to boys.”
I shook my head. “Boys don’t like me. Most of them point and laugh.”
“You need a haircut and some makeup. Boys will like you then.”
I doubted her. And I knew what boys wanted to do to girls – the same thing that the men did to Aunt Tessa. It sounded painful. I wanted nothing to do with boys.
“So you’re almost fourteen. Two more years and you can get a decent job to help me pay the bills. Oh, a friend gave me a bike. I told him you were moving back home. You can use the bike to deliver the paper. You do know how to ride, right?”
“I’m sure I can learn.”
“There are no training wheels.”
I had seen others on bicycles before. It didn’t look too hard.
“I’ll try after I clean up the breakfast dishes. Do you need any clothes washed?”
“A home health aide comes once a week. Sometimes she does the laundry. Don’t expect her to do yours though. She’s only here for a little while. Now that you’re here, she can take care of me rather than clean the bathroom.”
“I’ll start cleaning when we’re done. When will I be back at school?”
“I talked to the principal at the middle school. The bus will pick you up on Hover Street at six forty five Monday morning.”
I ate all of my egg and toast. It quieted my stomach.
Mother went to work on the computer after she ate. I washed the dishes then went to the garage to check out the bike. I tried to ride for nearly an hour. I was scrapped and bruised but I figured out how to keep it upright for a few minutes at a time and to put my foot out to prevent from tumbling over.
I spent the remainder of the day cleaning and ridding the house of garbage and odors. Beneath the kitchen sink I found various cleaning fluids, rags, sponges, and a bucket. I worked through lunchtime. Mother sat at the computer then entire afternoon. From other rooms I could hear the clicking of the keyboard, her talking and occasionally laughing. I thought she was happier then I remembered. Perhaps the sickness had made her sad before.
We ate more of the soup for dinner. This time I added some salt and it tasted a bit better. Mother slipped a few dollars across the table when she was done.
“There is a shop two blocks over. Go get a loaf of bread, a half gallon of milk, one stick of butter, six eggs, and two ice cream sandwiches. I feel like splurging.”
“May I take the bike?”
“Sure, it will give you some practice. Hurry back. I want you to help me bathe tonight. You can do the dishes while I soak in the tub.”
The ride to the corner store wasn’t too far. I managed to make it there without falling. I gathered the items my mother had requested and the grey haired man behind the counter punched the cost into an old fashioned register.
“You must be Margaret’s daughter. You look just like she used to before you were born.”
I wasn’t sure how to process that sentence. Did he mean she got sick because of me?
“Yes, I am.”
“That’ll be $10.48.”
“Oh, I have a five and four ones.” I dug in my pocket for the change I had and laid it on the counter.
His gnarled fingers counter the dimes, nickels, and pennies. “You’re fifty three cents short.”
“Take back one of the ice cream sandwiches, I don’t need it.”
“Keep it, kid. Looks like you need a little something sweet.”
I smiled keeping my lips together. When he returned the facial expression, I could see he was missing a tooth and the others were yellow from smoking.
“Thank you, Sir.”
“Any time you need anything, Princess, come see me. If I’m not here, tell them Jay said you could have whatever you want.”
I stuffed everything into the backpack and slung it over my shoulder.
“I’m sure she will send me back here often.”
He said something as the screen closed behind me. I didn’t stop to listen.
Mother was in the bathroom when I returned. She called out to make sure it was me entering the house. I put all the cold stuff away first then went to help her. She had started the water in the tub and was sitting in the chair waiting for me.
“How do you do this when no one else is here?”
“I don’t. The aide usually puts me in the tub, does her thing, than takes me out. Between that, I only wash my face and hands.”
Mother could support her body with her hands on the edge of the sink. Averting my eyes, I pulled off her bottoms and tried hard to breathe through my mouth. Her scent reminded me of the day my father picked me up from school. I had to hold down the bile threatening to come out.
Mother was thin and not that heavy. It wasn’t too difficult to get her in the bathtub; I had a feeling lifting her out might be worse. I made sure the soap and washcloth were within reach then excused myself.
“Holler if you need anything,” I said backing out of the tiled room.
Dinner tasted worse when I hurled into the kitchen sink. I rinsed my mouth out with water then bleached the area. I washed, dried, and put away the dishes. I wiped down every inch of counter space, the table, and the front of every appliance with a mixture of water and cleaning fluid. Even after all that, the scent of my mother lingered in my nostrils.
The water had darkened a little. I told myself it was from the soap. Mother was slippery and it took me longer to get her out then it did to get her in. I pulled on clean underwear, sweatpants, and a sweatshirt. In her bedroom, I brushed and tied back her hair and helped her into bed. After handing her the remote, I disappeared into my room.
That night my dreams were about the first few weeks after she got sick. It was a restless night. I wondered if I could have done anything differently. I rose in the morning feeling as though I had not even been to bed.