It doesn’t take me long to find her, shoelace looped around her finger, kneeling in Stranger’s bed. She wraps the bunny’s ear tight, stands and soil spills from the plotted boundaries onto the concrete like dandruff, rustling the pines of a spiky juniper with the drawstring bag half slung over her shoulder. I’ve always thought juniper was such a pretty name for an ugly looking bush. She kicks the dirt back with the outer edge of her seafoam shoe. She pulls her ponytail. She jogs, smells like sweat and cheap citrus body wash.
Jill. A pretty name for a pretty girl. Short, a tongue full of a name. She smiles as she passes me, keeps her lips tucked and eyes quick. I smile back gentler. My mom said that when someone is hard, you milk them until they’re soft. This morning I put enough sugar in my cream of wheat it liquified, dripped off my spoon like baby glop so I fed it to my cat. I ate a banana. Part of the peel is in my cheek and I chew it for comfort, straighten my shirt just to wrinkle it as I lean down to scoop Stranger’s juniper dirt back in its place.
Most days, I meet Jill on my way to the store. Early enough that the sky is confused, late enough that Stranger’s car runs in the garage for too long. Jill lives across the street from me, at the dead end of a cul de sac, and we meet by the time her headband is soaked. Our feet hit the concrete from opposite sides of the narrow street.
In truth, I want to know if she runs because she wants to. In gym, most girls run because they want to, but those that don’t smell like Jill. Jill runs like she needs to. She breathes with her stomach and coughs and keeps her phone strapped to her arm. She stabilizes her ankles, tucks her elbows and baby hair in the right places. Jill looks like a girl I should know.
Mom doesn’t like Cat. Cat doesn’t like Mom. Cat sits with me at the window and thinks about the birds, her eyes small, green somedays and yellow on others. She’s quiet and coiled for most of the day. Or quiet and raging, licking at her paws until they’re galled, wet with the sticky kind of fluid that squirts up when a wound isn’t quite bad enough to bleed. Cat doesn’t eat very much. Cat is old and has lost a lot of things. She’s been pregnant.
All the babies died.
I go shopping when Mom’s check comes in the mail. She used to go but now she says I’m old enough to walk our town’s taste of Highway 47 without getting picked up. I don’t mind being held. I like to hold Cat when she’ll let me. I like holding Mom when she sleeps. I go to the Dollar Tree and McDonald’s, Wawa for brownies, CVS if Mom wants the lemonade that makes your tongue shrivel.
There’s a diner along this strip that Mom takes me to when she caves to human interaction. This happens at least once every two to three months. I order steak drowned in cheese gravy and garlic mash potatoes with skin. Mom orders fish, smoked mackerel, and ricotta with spinach and red onions. She gets pink drinks in umbrella glasses, gathers the salt on the rims with the lemon she takes from my water and rubs it on her acne scars in between bites. She lets me try it sometimes, the drinks. Just sips. I like it a lot.
Mom and I go to the diner on Saturday. She washes and shoves her thick feet into some wedges with cork heels, slips on a sundress that should be baggy, sunglasses, makeup on skin that shouldn’t be perfect anymore. Mom puts on lipstick as she waits for the light to turn. It’s creamy and the color of a new plum. The light turns green and a car behind her honks. She looks at me without eyes.
Here. She passes me the tube with the stick wound all the way up, tip curved and smooth.
My lips are dry so I lick them a bit and wipe away the extra spit. I put a little in the middle of my mouth and rub it around then look back at her. Two cars honk. Someone runs across the street with a scooter across their shoulders.
Good enough, she says, picking at her thumb. The car honks and honks. Mom rolls down the window and lets her hand out.
In the diner it’s cold but somehow my thighs get stuck to the booth leather. I wear black shorts and a top I could fill in. The waiter lingers longer than he should. Mom says he likes my hair before he’s done collecting the menus and he blushes. A waitress brings my water and Mom’s pink drink. She orders two today and slides one over to me. I get all the salt with my lemon but leave it on a napkin and drink it before our food comes. It goes down like peppermint, spicy yet cold, sweet and bitter. It makes me blink slow and the waitress takes our umbrellas in one hand, judgment in another, to the kitchen. Mom still has on her sunglasses but her head is shifted to watch her back, find the hole in her stockings and burn right through it.
The booth behind my mother has a curly blond head sticking up from it, a baby because the hair looks soft. He’s standing on his mother, a closeted brunette, his fingers curled over the seat and the other gripping a chicken tender. He’s mouthing his bottom lip. He’s got nice skin, tan. Big eyes. I want to eat him whole, make him my baby.
Mom cuts her mackerel into eighths, the flesh feathering beneath her fork. I hold my knife in a fist, cut my meat into shark teeth. We eat quietly. There’s nothing to talk about. The waitress comes back when I’ve got food mush in my cheeks and asks if everything is alright. Y’all need anything?
Two of those girls we had before and a shot. Mom tucks her thumb in her hand. You’re choice. And extra lemons.
The baby waves his chicken tender over her shoulder. My mother gives him a toothed smile and the baby smacks in her ear. Neither of them do anything about it.
Mom is in the bathroom when the waitress puts the umbrellas on her side, the cap of something clear in the middle, a little plate of lemons on my right.
Is that all? she asks me. I nod.
I’m down to one-fourth of a steak, enough gravy for a boat, and a scoop of potatoes without skin on the side. My water tastes weird so I slide down another umbrella drink. It’s easy, feels good as it settles.
The baby is staring at me. I make a face because that’s what babies want. He just looks at me, drool flushing from his mouth, bubbling where his bottom lip is buried. He wiggles his jaw and I wiggle mine and smile and cross my eyes. It makes me dizzy, something in my stomach tosses over. When my vision flattens out, Mom is gliding into the booth with a new layer of lipstick and I have mashed potatoes on my chin. She slides me the cap of water-not-water. I dip my tongue into it. It burns so I slide it back.
We stop by Wawa on the way home. I stay in the car, a sweaty styrofoam box in my hands, bent with my head on the dashboard. The car is off and the day is hot. I feel like I’m underwater. I take in a breath and it startles into my lungs reluctantly. There’s steak in my throat. There’s steak in my throat. There’s carcass and two girls and potatoes in my throat. Somebody knocks on the passenger side window and I can’t see who because my eyes are sweating and it burns. They knock a couple more times. One, two, three for me to open the door and breathe in something bitter. My face is in something soft and sticky. Now, my face is in between my knees, my seat belt cutting my neck. I hear the store bells ring, Mom talking. I’m pushed back in my seat. She tosses me a pretzel and water bottle.
You take it so well.
My mom gives me fifteen to go to Dollar Tree in the morning. She wants spearmint and nicotine gum, lemon ice tea, honey buns, and a new magazine. She counts out six rusty quarters and three dimes. That’s the money for me. On the road, I pass a bunny pancake. A car runs over it again to miss me.
Dollar Tree is cold. It smells like fruit floor cleaner and dry spit. In the frozen aisle, all the freezers are empty. I put my mouth to the glass to make a print and feel the bacteria hum between me and my Vaseline. The man in the freezer passes a pint of cookies ’n cream to his co-worker. He sees me. I let my jaw dangle, pretend there’s a cone in my hand and lick the air. My tongue brushes the glass. The man smiles at me. He takes the pint from his co-worker, sucks the spoon. I like his nose so I smile back.
Mom says you shouldn’t touch things in public for longer than a minute so I move on. From the empty frozens, there’s sodas, vitamin water, and Mom’s lemon tea. It’s two for two-fifty. I grab three and keep them at my side like a baby or a football. Eventually, I’m standing between plastic mops and dusty towels. I squish them. They’re damp. I keep walking past rainbow toothpaste and jelly sticks of deodorant.
Do you want the 2-in-1 this time or the dry scalp stuff? Jill is at the end of this aisle. She’s in gym shorts. Her sneakers are untied. Her hair is dry and plaited unevenly. She has her phone between her cheek and shoulder, one of the store’s chipped green baskets in the crook of her elbow, wallet on her wrist. Jill bends over instead of squatting. Babe, they’re literally the same price. Just pick one. She has acne on her thighs and bulky calves. A woman with a cart full of Wonder Bread and Sunny D turns down the aisle and bumps into Jill without apologizing. I smile at her.
I’m gonna hang up on you. Jill stands straight. She hangs up the phone. She stares at the 2-in-1 shampoo. Jill looks like a clam. She bites her upper lip.
I like the dandruff one.
She doesn’t look at me. Why’s that?
Feels good. Like Pop Rocks, firecrackers.
Really? Jill bites her lip. She bends over again. The one with tea tree?
I bend over, too, sink my stomach to the floor. Does Babe have an itchy head?
Jill’s cheeks wrinkle. Yeah, Babe has an itchy head.
I pick up the tea tree shampoo and plunk it in her basket beside a bottle of lemon-scented soap and birth control. Thanks, man. Her phone buzzes. She picks it up. Fossilizes. Her smile is an afterthought.
I get the gum and a new magazine at checkout, hand the cashier thirteen dollars and fifty-three cents, pocket the change to count it in the parking lot.
I sit on an empty curb stump and spread the coins on the pavement, the cash stacked in my hands. The sun heats up the smell of gasoline and bubbles on my back. The kind of sun today is only hot if you let it be. I’m letting it but a shadow approaches me, trailed by lazy flip flops and corn toes. The man in the freezer, now not in the freezer, smiles. He hands me a sweaty pint of birthday cake and sits beside me.
I like your nose.
Stranger’s shrub catches her by the leg of her tracksuit pant, reaches and snags the baggy fabric as she runs. She can get it out by herself but she stands for a moment to complain, pushing a flat heel into her forehead, baring the straight column of her throat. Her cheeks are ruddy, face slumped. The hair below her ears curves into her jaw. It’s cloudy this morning so it’s the color of bleu cheese—her hair, skin, eyes that tumble then recover. Jill takes this time to wriggle her phone from her pocket. She wipes the screen on her Hershey Park memorabilia, snaps a picture of the plant trap, and laughs to herself.
Jill has quite a nasty laugh. Mom says that good laughter comes from the gut. Her hair is down today, gelled to her face by morning dew, sticky on my bedroom window and Stranger’s juniper pines. Mom says that you shouldn’t walk after rain but she likes the smell of it. I don’t like the taste of tree must and raccoon so I hold my breath.
Jill puts her phone away. She stretches, her sleeves slipping down razor worn forearms, stubble like ticks or barbed wire. I put my hand beneath my armpit and it’s smooth, run it along my mustache and it’s smooth. Now, my lip smells like garlic.
Cat shit on the floor this morning. Mom stepped in it. Mom held Cat her by the neck, gripped the saggy skin meant for a mother’s mouth and ripped her off the couch. My stomach shattered as Cat screamed something low and feral, like the time a gopher got caught in Stranger’s lawn mower. The whole block heard; a patch of his grass was dead for weeks, stripped with ammonia. It took four boys to get out the blood.
Cat won’t come out from under the bed and Mom won’t stop bleaching her sole, bent naked over the bathtub with her breasts tied up in a towel. She needs to take her medicine.
Mom, you need to take your medicine.
Her skin catches grey. What do you want for dinner?
I’m thinking Chinese.
That’s what she calls him. Babe. Babe. Babe.
Babe, I’m tired, she says into the earbud cord. Yeah, but I’m almost home. No, just stay there I’ll be fine.
Jill is sitting down on the curb beside Stranger’s shrub. It’s not really a curb, just a slight bump from where the concrete lifts from the road. She’s all red and the hand not keeping the cord to her lips is knotted at her stomach, like she’s trying to crack her knuckles with her thumb. Her sweatshirt sleeves are bunched up by her elbows.
I look both ways. The neighbor of my neighbor has his lights on and the neighbor of my other neighbor has his sprinklers on. I cross the street.
Babe, just stop. Jill’s face is covered in anger. Yeah, I took it! Do you think I’m stupid?
She sees my shoes and flattens her palms onto her knees. When you get home, okay? Yeah, okay. Yes? She looks up at me and tucks her phone in her pocket, doesn’t move to stand or look like she could.
Are you sick?
I don’t think that’s any of your business, man.
My mom has medicine. What kind of sick are you?
Jill loosens her jaw. Her hand comes to her stomach. I don’t know.
Mom’s check comes in the mail and she gives some of it to me and the car keys on a late Friday afternoon. I can’t drive so I put them back in her coat pocket on my way out the door. I go to the Dollar Tree and put my face to the ice cream freezer. It’s stocked and the man not in the freezer laughs at me from behind a box in the aisle over. We sit in the parking lot and I tell him about how Cat shit in Mom’s slipper and how she threatened to skin her to make a new one and how she told me to take some of the check and buy her a new pair of dust bunnies.
How much did she give you?
That’s nice. He’s tall so his knees come way up to his nose. He wraps his arms around them. Do you want a ride?
Mom says to never let a man give you a ride unless he pays you afterward. He gives me ice cream every time I visit. It’s between us, butter pecan, melted, stuck in my throat. The man not in the freezer has the spoon. You don’t have to say yes.
No, I want you to.
Do you know where I live?
He lets his legs down. There’s a bump in his jeans. He pulls out his phone. Yeah, but give me your number just in case.
I don’t have a number, I say and rub my wrist. I look at his. He’s got bumpy veins. Mom has bracelets with her numbers on them. She keeps them in a jar half full in the kitchen.
Okay, he says. I’ll come by at, like, 3 on Friday?
Mom is on the couch. She’s watching the jewelry channel, the one that comes right after the news. She’s lying on her elbow, eyes kind of open, mouth kind of open, chest taking moments to rise. Cat is on the coffee table, licking in Mom’s cup. What do you want from me? I stand in front of her. I try to touch her cheek. She moves away. I take her hand and it pulses in my fist. What do you want from me? What do you want?
I fit myself back inside of her.
Jill doesn’t run for two days. The next time I see her is today on my front porch. Her hair is tied back, her clothes too big. She’s stiff and shivering. She didn’t have to knock because I was just about to leave, already set with lipstick and a corduroy coat on my arm, my ankles aching in my mother’s wedges. When I told her I was going out tonight, Mom said to make myself look old enough. I think I did it right.
Hey, Jill says. Behind her, a car pulls into the driveway with no bumper. It’s late in the afternoon so I can’t see through the windshield. Something in my gut trembles as they pull out quick, tires wailing down the street by the time Jill turns around to see what I’m looking at. Oh, do you have somewhere to be?
Oh. Jill folds her arms. Can you help me?
What kind of sick are you?