Rag Doll by Sudha Balagopal

I watch Father’s new wife add Kalamata olives to the dough. Their residue leaves ochre-green patches, like wounds on skin. Sliced, the bread will look as if capillaries have burst inside the layers.

She lifts her hefty bangs, smiles. “I know you adore olives.”

Father’s grin reveals his slimy tongue. “You just get me.”

He didn’t notice that the blood vessels erupted in the white of my right eye the day Mother died; the shade’s now a red-brown. Father has wiped a wet sponge over memories of our family, of Mother, of her allergy to the oil-rich fruit. My gut churns when Father’s maroon-lipsticked wife adds honey in his tea, zest on his pie, buys him a batik-printed shirt―all things he used to dislike―and when he gushes, “I love you.”

He would instruct, “Libby, do your homework,” or “Libby, lights out,” or “Libby, not so much television.” After his wife came into our house, that’s changed to “Elizabeth, help in the kitchen,” or “Elizabeth, fold the laundry,” or “Elizabeth, get the mail.” The formality extends miles longer than those extra letters in my name.

The yeasty-warm kitchen suffocates. I say, “I have homework,” and leave for my room.

Mother hover-haunts this house. She moans in the rafters as I open my journal, as I write about Father’s patterned shirts and unfamiliar language, as I tell her he’s so unrecognizable, he may as well be dead, too. I listen to her agonized responses in the click-clack of our walls, in the groan of expanding wood.

Over Mother’s creaky sighs, I hear Father’s command spiral upstairs. “Elizabeth!”

I pull the comforter over my shoulders, dig my teeth into my lower lip until I taste the metal-salt of blood. I relive Mother’s last words, “Who is she?” before she charged out of their bedroom. Then, the flip-flop-toss from the top of the stairs to the bottom, where she was splayed like a rag doll.

Father opens the kitchen door, bellows my name, again.

I jump off my bed, snap my mouth shut, grind-grate-grind, until a tooth shard drops. In the hallway mirror, I can see the outline of my chipped canine.

Behind me, Mother’s frantic gestures.

She tells me to seal-stick words inside. She tells me to take careful-careful steps down the stairs.

She tells me to swallow the wounded olive bread.

SUDHA BALAGOPAL — Sudha’s recent short fiction appears in Monkeybicycle, Smokelong, Fractured Lit and Fictive Dream among other journals. Her novella-in-flash, Things I Can’t Tell Amma was recently published by Ad Hoc Fiction. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions, appears in Best Microfiction 2021 and is listed in the Wigleaf Top 50, 2021.

Art by ROB KANIUK — Rob is a union carpenter in the city of Philadelphia.