Mama sings along with Aretha on the car radio—R-E-S-P-E-C-T—while my little brother, J.T., and I sit in the backseat, a pile of suitcases and J.T.’s fish tank stacked between us. We drive past the Piggly Wiggly, the laundromat, an abandoned playground where invisible ghosts push empty swings into the breeze.
At the stoplight, the man in the truck next to us strokes his long beard. It lies across his chest like a pelt. I touch my lips and wonder what it must feel like to brush them against something so coarse and bristly. Our daddy had always been clean-shaven and smelled of pine needles and oranges and the gritty powdered soap he’d used to clean the dirt and grease from between his fingers. Now he’s just dust.
The man sticks his tongue out at me, then winks as though we’re now forever bonded by this moment. My eyes travel back down to the Seventeen magazine spread across my lap— “Five Flirty Ways to Get His Attention”. The man revs his engine. I hold my breath until the light hanging above us no longer matches my cheeks.
Mama parks the car at the end of Les’ driveway because his work truck and trailer have hogged the space closest to the house. She checks her lipstick in the rearview mirror and smooths the skirt of her new baby blue dress—the one she bought last minute off the clearance rack at Macy’s because she said it reminded her what it felt like to live among the living. Never mind it also happened to be Daddy’s favorite color.
“C’mon, kiddos, let’s not keep Les waiting.”
Les stands barefoot on the front stoop, his shirt half-unbuttoned. He takes a drag from the cigarette hanging from his lower lip before smudging it against the metal railing. His arms open wide as Mama takes her time sashaying up the short walkway. Les kisses her long and hard on the mouth. She leans in and whispers something in his ear, making him laugh.
Mama motions us to join them, but J.T. slouches farther down into the seat. He pulls tight on his hoodie’s ratty strings until his face becomes nothing but a black, black hole. Les places his hands upon Mama’s shoulders, his fingers working their way under one bra strap, then the other. He leads Mama into the house and closes the door. My stomach begins to churn. I stay put, too.
Streetlights flicker on one by one as the sun dips low behind the rooftops. Somewhere down the block a dog howls. I dig around in my backpack and find a lone granola bar near the bottom. I unwrap it and break off half for J.T., but he won’t budge.
I stuff the rest back into my bag and take out the small square photograph I ripped from the scrapbook Mama kept buried deep in her nightstand drawer along with Daddy’s watch and dog tags. Its rough edges caressed so many times they’ve begun to curl. Mama once told me the photograph was taken the night before she found out I was just a little pea nestled inside her. Both of them are laughing, sitting around a bonfire with friends. He’s twenty and she’s eighteen, only four years older than I’ll be by the end of summer. Mama said he’d come riding in on a white horse when she had needed saving the most. Their faces glow as if they’re on fire and everyone else in the circle is trying to blow them out.
Mama stands at the kitchen window, her head bent over the sink. Every once in a while she gazes out at the car and a part of me can feel her sitting beside us—the three of us driving away to Tucson or Cleveland or Disneyland, anywhere but here.
Les walks up behind her and kisses the nape of her neck. She flinches at his touch but soon smiles the way one does when they’ve forgotten their cue and are doing everything they can do to recover.
KRISTIN TENOR — Kristin is a writer and editor who finds inspiration in life’s quiet details and believes in their power to illuminate the extraordinary. Her flash fiction has appeared in various literary journals including X-R-A-Y, Bending Genres, Milk Candy Review, Emerge Literary Journal, among others. She and her husband call Wisconsin home. You can find her on Twitter @KristinTenor and read more of Kristin’s work at www.kristintenor.com.
Art by ELISA WANG — Elisa is a Chinese-Canadian student and writer interested in historical fiction, short stories, and poetry. She also dabbles in the visual arts from time to time.