Jen Knox was born and Read more [...]
Short Story Category: 20 Minutes+
It’s my fourteenth day as a bagger, the first day I can’t keep my eyes off the rooster-shaped clock above the candy aisle. I’m still in the probationary period at Swifts, so I do what I can to focus, make a game of it. Each new bag can be optimally filled in less time than the last.
Four cardboard boxes containing crackers, pretzels, pasta, and rice fit safely in a single medium bag. The store’s bags are thin, and I need to position the boxes vertically so that the edges don’t cut a hole in the plastic before customer #34 gets to her trunk. Tortilla chips and salsa come down the belt next.
I move the bag to the cart and toss the frozen packages into a larger bag. My hands move so quickly that Rose, the cashier, barely has time to place a product on the belt before I’ve snatched it up and either categorized or bagged it according to its temperature and dimensions. The rooster’s eyes dart back and forth with the seconds; time seems stuck.
‘Would you like help out to your car?’ I ask. The customer, who wears a gray hoodie and yoga pants that appear stretched to capacity, has a resting bitch face if ever I’ve seen one; she nods her head no, but I catch a fleeting smile. It’s a tough break, but I get a glimpse of teeth, a slight upturn to the corner of her lips.
When I speak, most people soften. Maybe out of pity. I prefer to believe they smile because I sound charming now, that my voice is melodic like my sister’s, but I know better. To me, it sounds like my words are mere echoes, as though my voice is stuck inside a cave.
I watch the clock, slip a magazine into a bag with scented toilet paper. A newspaper is next; I wedge it between the two products, so it doesn’t crease. The top story today is the president’s air raids over Syria and denial of Russian collusion. I do not process either of these things. I never think too much about political news and world affairs. I just take for granted that we won’t blow up, or that if we do, it’ll happen before I notice.
What news stories do remind me of is my sister. Allie’s activism is what led her to find her own way, to run away from Mom. I imagine my sister standing tall—chest to chest with a middle-aged man wearing a red hat, asking him, What’s so great now? The longer she’s away, the more typecast and heroic she becomes in my mind. I’ve had dreams in which she wears a cape and is covered in angry tattoos.
The next customer thanks me, and I say, ‘You’re welcome’ in what I imagine must be a shout, because she widens her eyes before walking away. My hearing loss is due to a mass, an acoustic neuroma that formed in my inner ear. When the doctor showed it to me in high-definition, it was the size of a pea. I was by myself when I got the news, sitting in a room with walls the color of artichokes and a simple desk, wondering how a small thing could be so destructive.
The doctor scratched the back of his neck as I explained that due to extenuating circumstances (I really said extenuating circumstances), my mother couldn’t be there, but she wanted me to receive the news myself. The doctor, in turn, asked me to sign a form and then typed a note that explained my condition and options. He insisted on calling my mother before handing it to me to take to the billing office.
When she answered, he handed me the paper and narrated as I read, then waited for questions. Why do I have to wait for the permission of a woman who is too busy to be at her own daughter’s appointment? Confession: I wish I had a different mother. After reading through my diagnosis and recommendations, I said ‘thank you’ in my clearest voice.
‘You’re welcome, young lady.’ He spoke to me as one grown-up to another, no exaggerated lip movements, no sympathy, just pure professionalism. ‘Wait here.’ He gestured to a seating area. A pile of Foreign Affairs magazines sent a chill down my spine. My sister used to devour this magazine, as did my father. My sister and I found his old subscription more than five years ago and laughed at each other as we tried to sound out the words and names of world leaders with consonant and vowel combinations that confused our tongues.
Allie, older and always the autodidact, had been more persistent. She read the magazines late into the night, trying to make sense of the content, then the world. ‘There are such obvious patterns, Molly. Political scientists aren’t blindly devoted to parties. They look at patterns. I don’t understand why we repeat so many bad decisions,’ she would say.
My sister eventually got her own subscription, along with a few other magazines, and she read each issue online. Had Allie stayed in school, I’m sure she’d be majoring in government by now. She knows more about policy than most college-educated adults.
As I sat in the doctor’s office the day of my diagnosis, I thought about what it might be like inside my sister’s head; I had once coveted her rage and drive, her desire to change the world. For my part, there was mostly fear from reading about the threat of war with North Korea, or worse, complacency. Allie always found such things enraging, a reason to fight. She treated the news as fuel. Meanwhile, I figured most news was a good reason to never leave my room, or to get an occupation in which I could at least hold a gun to protect myself when the violence came full circle.
Worrying over such topics was an endless battle in my mind then. Now, with the volume of the world lowered, I can think more clearly. I plan to join the police force, a plan I’ve had for years, though I bet I’ll spend more time at the precinct than anywhere outside if I can’t stall this hearing loss.
A half hour passed, and Mom didn’t arrive to pick me up from my appointment. An hour passed and she was called again; it had been enough time that I could have taken the bus home. I was almost out the door, ready to do just that, when she torpedoed in.
‘Holy God, it’s a tumor,’ she hollered, loud enough that I could hear every intonation. She was still in her uniform, a white button-up with a brown stain on the left boob and a pair of tight black pants. I think everyone in the office could hear her every intonation. The acoustic neuroma itself likely heard her every intonation. She cried as though I’d just been given a terminal prognosis.
The doctor, who nodded at me in solidarity, met Mom’s eyes as she sat near the window and assured her I’d be fine. Mom sobbed, near-yelling, ‘It won’t be fine. These visits here are going to put me into bankruptcy. I have a plan for my family. I want my children to go to college.’ She was trying to get a discount. I’d seen this before. If only she was as good an actor as my brother, Joey, it might work.
The doctor returned to me then, with a look of sympathy that I knew had more to do with Mom than the tumor. ‘It’ll continue to grow as long as it remains in her body, but it will grow slowly, so you have some time. It is in no way cancerous, and reception can discuss financing options.’ I imagined my own calm when dealing with anxious and emotionally unstable people at the precinct. Yes, Ma’am, I realize your husband cheated on you, but we are here to discuss the repercussions of your actions. No person should cheat, but no person should throw rocks at another person’s BMW either.
‘Will she hear in that ear again?’ Mom asked. Her eyelashes were bare and her cheeks black from the tear-smeared mascara. I listened to the doctor repeat his assurance.
‘I can hear you,’ I said.
‘We may be able to salvage what’s left of her hearing in that ear, which still seems pretty good, right?’ I nodded, shrugged. It wasn’t. My hearing was off-balance; it confused my brain and slowed my response. The doctor looked to Mom. ‘But the sooner we operate, the better. As I said, these tumors often grow.’
‘Mom, you need to wash your face,’ I said. I walked to Reception and asked about the payment plan. Only a hearing aid was covered. Surgery was considered elective for some reason, so I began calculating in my head, figuring that if I was able to funnel 70% of my paycheck from Swifts into a health care account, I’d have it paid off in a year.
It is my twenty-seventh day of work. My shift is only three hours long, and I will have to run to get there on time after the last school bell chimes. I sit in the seat closest to the door, waiting. A check for four hundred and thirty dollars is tucked into my front pocket. I feel for it between note-taking in English class, last period.
Mr. Makioka paces in his brown polyester pants, as a sign language interpreter—there for Graham, who sits in the front row next to me—explains his theory behind Gatsby’s obsession with wealth and why this is so pertinent in today’s day and age. I don’t really need the interpreter since I can hear well with my good ear positioned toward the front of the class, but I am enjoying the dual lesson. Learning sign language will probably help me get accepted into the Academy. Maybe my curse will be a blessing.
Mr. Makioka is a short man with wild hair who loves Shakespeare and tells us that old-school methods work. I still hear his voice, but barely distinguish his trademark inflections. He teaches English at all grades, says the world’s citizens are writing more than ever but making less sense. ‘We’re all about speed, not substance,’ he says almost every class; an interpreter in a purple sweater signs this message, and I laugh—without realizing it—aloud. Her hands look dry, and I think about offering her the lotion in my bag but worry that it might come across as pushy. Offering a stranger lotion is something Mom would do.
When the bell rings, I run as fast as I can to work, barely making it on time. I am sure I will see Allie. I am sure of this every day, that she will just show up as though she were never gone, but all I see is the rooster-shaped clock, the slowness of time, the over-salted, over-fatted Midwestern groceries of choice. I almost clap when I see Swiss chard and shallots. I smile at everyone and choose to take a vow of silence this day to see how people react. They do not.
It is my forty-fourth day of work, and I have surgery scheduled a month out. I made the appointment myself. My mother won’t have to spend a dime, which makes her more supportive. ‘You have to understand, Molly May. I have big plans for us. I’ve been saving.’ I do not watch the clock this day. I’ll remember this later, how I didn’t watch the clock.
I own a cheap hearing aid that whistles at times, and today I remove it. It is on this, my forty-fourth day of work, that I get the news. Rose, the team lead on shift, pulls me aside and moves her hands through her short bob. A recently retired janitor named Bud had called Mom, said he’d found my sister sitting on a bench, rocking back and forth. She’d been beaten and was bleeding out, so he rushed her to the hospital because he didn’t want to call the police. The hospital called the police twenty minutes later, and they called Mom. She called Rose on her way and asked that I be let off work early; she didn’t ask to speak to me.
‘I’m going to break protocol and drive you,’ Rose says. She takes a deep breath. ‘Don’t tell anyone.’
The news is too much to digest; it sounds like fiction, like one of my daydreams gone awry. As we ride, Rose tells me more. ‘That man who found her had just shopped our store for oatmeal and a gallon of milk, I guess. Not sure why your Mom told me that, but it sure is coincidental, eh? I guess he’s being questioned since he didn’t call the police.’ Rose’s voice is pitchy, but I can hear her clearly in the car. I focus on her chapped lips moving, but I don’t fully take in this information. Mom would offer her Chapstick. Allie would offer her water.
Rose leans in toward me at a stoplight. I like to see faces up close—the wrinkles that distance hides. I like the moles and indentations, the realness of people. ‘Go on now,’ she says, and I realize that we’re not at a light at all. We’re here. There are hospital lights everywhere.
‘Thank you,’ I say. Maybe I yell. I nudge a few times to get her door open, and when I try to close it, she tells me that I need to really slam it.
My family is a cluster of chaos in the waiting room, a bundle of odd shapes. The hospital smells of lemon and bleach. ‘Funny thing. I don’t usually eat breakfast,’ a man says to my mother. He’s wearing house shoes—half-slipper, half-sandal—and baggy jeans with a button-up shirt. Mom doesn’t appear to be listening. She looks up at me, and her eyes are feral. I’ve never seen her so afraid. As though catching my thoughts, she quickly regroups, standing to introduce me to Bud.
‘He found your vigilante sister. The idiot.’ She turns to Bud. ‘Her, not you.’
I shake his hand, sit with my good ear facing him and the other one facing Mom. Rattle, my mother, and my two brothers are all in this sterile waiting room, and we all look confused and desperate for the story. We take up the entire corner, a fourth of the room.
My sister is eighteen and has no insurance, but they can’t refuse to treat her because she was bleeding rather heavily and could’ve died. Bud says he believes she was stabbed and beaten, maybe more. I have yet to see her, and I imagine a dozen different versions. I imagine the sister I knew who ran away from home, who left notes for me when she could. Only me. I imagine a slightly premature version of my sister with a small wound on her arm. Then I imagine a gaping wound. I imagine her fighting off dozens, as though in her own movie. I imagine an older version, too old, looking like Mom, with her forearm sliced to pieces, her arm nearly severed. A dog’s teeth tearing at her skin, my shero lifting her fist toward the sky.
‘What did the police say?’ I ask, somewhat accusatorily.
‘Fuck the police. Can’t trust them,’ Bud says. Mom mouths crazy from her seat, and I ask Bud another question.
‘How bad was it?’ I watch his lips. He gives a funny look as he answers. The room is full of what appears to be dead silence. Even Myron and Joey, my younger brothers, sit unmoving and in apparent shock. Joey’s large brown eyes remind me of cow eyes, the poor animals that are kept in the agricultural department of the college near work. I think they test antidepressants on those cows, because they look equal parts spacy and content, and at times enraged. All these things commingle in my brother’s eyes.
‘Who did it?’ Rattle asks, but we’ve already established that Bud doesn’t know. It’s a question I will ask myself endlessly, but right now I just want to see her.
‘I’ve seen worse, that’s for sure. Problem is, I think whoever it was got her good.’ He makes a stabbing motion. ‘Lots of bleeding. She’s a little beat up, too. She looked like a drunkard when I ran into her. I didn’t even see her there, not till I got near the bench. Scared the living shit out of me, wavering like that. I’ve been watching too much of that Walking Dead show; you know it?’
Rattle stands. ‘Thanks for bringing her in, man,’ he says, patting the guy on the back before making his way to the vending machine. He contemplates the selections with his hand on his chin. There’s not much to pick from, and I know he’ll get the Reese’s Cups, because he always does. Rattle doesn’t really know my sister. He started dating Mom just after Allie ran away, but he seems especially intrigued by her now. Maybe because he wants to run away himself at this point. My eyes settle on the snake tattoo that adorns his arm. He presses a few buttons and I watch the orange package fall.
Myron and Joey stare at each other, a contest. Myron blinks, Joey says something, and Myron punches him. They are sitting across from me, numbly trying to be my usually annoying brothers. Mom, who is next to me, is talking to Bud, who says, ‘Well, I write crime novels, so I have a stomach for blood.’
I look down at my Converse, unsure what to think, what to expect. I walk over to a pile of reading materials and see only fashion magazines, gossipy news about celebrities I don’t care about. There is a golf game on the television in the corner. I imagine the rooster’s eyes darting back and forth at work.
‘My sister is home,’ I say, aloud, not realizing a doctor is approaching. He taps me on the shoulder makes a sweeping motion, and I realize he must think I’m completely deaf.
‘We need to keep her overnight. She lost a lot of blood, but she’s healing like a champ.’
‘Like a champ,’ Mom repeats. ‘Good Lord!’ I look to Mom, waiting to see if she wants to go in first. She doesn’t budge. ‘One deaf, one dumb. What did I do to deserve this, God?’ she asks. She says it quietly, but her voice echoes in my skull.
She’s your daughter; your daughter is home, I imagine saying, as loud as possible. Everyone in the room would stare at me, and I’d repeat. Even with the feeling of blood at the surface of my cheeks and my muscles going rigid, I’d repeat. Mom’s eyes would narrow. I would look to my brothers, who would repeat. She’s your daughter. Your daughter is home! I imagine Mom is jarred from her self-importance and, for once, feels the pang of motherhood.
This doesn’t really happen, of course. In real life, Mom points her finger at me, says, ‘Watch it, little girl.’ In the real world, the cold unlikable world, my brothers and I are ushered back to see my sister, and Mom continues to bitch as though she’s some sort of martyr and we were the source of her torture.
As I walk into Allie’s room, holding my brothers’ hands, my own anger parts like a curtain. My tears are violent, fat and unrelenting; my sister, reduced to this battered body on a hospital bed, appears small for the first time in my life.
She looks as though she’s asleep, but I know she isn’t. Her eyelids, fringed with those thick lashes, flutter. I sit on a chair that is positioned right next to her. Myron tries to wiggle Allie’s toe, but Joey slaps his hand away. Joey stares at Myron with just enough threat that my larger, more aggressive brother backs away, and goes to sit near the window. Today is a day of reversed roles.
Joey follows, sitting by the window. Myron looks down at his shoes. Joey watches me. He’s been learning sign language and he says something from across the room, but I don’t catch it because my eyes are fixed on a piece of his hair that is sticking straight up and to the right, like a finger pointing. I stand up and go smooth it down, as I know Allie would.
My sister’s eyes flutter again. I want to wiggle her toes myself, jar her from the thoughts I imagine she’s thinking. Her face shows no injury, but her head is propped up on a circular pillow as though she was hit on the back of her head.
‘Allie, I’m glad you’re home,’ I say.
Joey and Myron amble up to my side when I begin to speak. Myron makes a shushing gesture, finger to lips. I must be loud. My sister’s eyes flutter a third time; her breath is steady, uninterrupted.
When I turn around at the nurse’s call—those ten minutes felt like seconds—Mom rushes into the room. I am rushed out. I can see her speaking to my sister as the nurse asks me to sit with Rattle. I look back to see if Allie is responding and don’t notice even the slightest movement, but her face becomes more still. My mother places the back of her thin hand against Allie’s forehead as though taking her temperature, a rare and tender moment. Joey grabs my hand and we walk the length of the hall.
When we sit back down, his lips almost touch my good ear as he says, ‘I wish I didn’t hear some days.’ I nod. ‘She hasn’t even been gone that long, and I feel like I don’t really remember her,’ he adds. I reach for his shoulder, hugging him tight. Neither of us cry anymore; there are no more tears.
It’s not just my bad hearing those first few days; it’s actual silence. Allie barely speaks, and when she does, her words are flat and distant. She had been beaten, left silent. But I knew the silence was temporary.
I smooth her silky brown hair as she sleeps. We share a bedroom again, but it’s like living with a ghost. She tells me about her efforts to register more voters, and shares pieces about her life outside these walls, but our conversations are stilted–every story seems to stop short of its conclusion. I know a lot from letters we traded while she was gone. I know she was part of a resistance movement; she worked all kinds of jobs, just like Mom. She wrote all this in letters, which I read back to her some nights, hoping her words will bring a touch more color to her cheeks.
Her resistance movement had almost landed her in jail, one of the letters said, and I ask her to tell me that story in detail.
‘A little at a time, Molly May,’ she says.
‘Who did this to you?’
‘I told you I’d come back for you.’ She smiles at me in a way that makes me think she has this all under control, as though it was all planned; a ploy to gain Mom’s sympathy and come back home. But whenever I am at work, bagging food or retrieving carts from the parking lot, I can’t stop asking the same questions: Who did this, and how can we make the person pay?
It’s Saturday, my sixtieth day as a bagger. I look for my name tag as my brothers play video games on an iPad, passing it back and forth like potheads. Allie watches a daytime talk show with Rattle as I get ready for work. ‘He’s not half bad for a felon,’ she observes after being home a few days.
Mom is out. She’s always out since Allie came back. Mom can’t stand to see her first-born in pain and, truthfully, neither can I. During a commercial, I ask again. This time, Rattle is in the room. ‘Who did this to you, Allie?’
Rattle shakes his head, as though disappointed by my timing. Or redundancy. He and Mom have been asking her daily since she’s been home as well, but not during TV time. My sister’s heavy-lidded eyes open wide as she looks up at me. The stitches on the back of her head are healing, and her arm, still sewn together, will soon be free of stitches. Mom has found a program for victims of crime and is trying to get her medical bills covered, but Allie’s silence has made it difficult to file.
‘It’s not like we’re vigilantes. We’re not going to go after him. I just want to know. I mean, was it a random attack or personal?’
Rattle joins in. ‘Was it one of those extremist assholes?’
My sister goes alert. ‘Extremist how?’
‘Extremist however. Extremist means over the top. Super-rich, super-crazy, super-idealistic.’ I nod along with Rattle’s definition.
‘I’m going to kill that bastard,’ Myron says, after running downstairs with the grace of a buffalo.
‘Hey!’ Rattle yells. I reposition my new hearing aid as it rings.
‘Future extremist,’ Joey whispers to me, pointing to our older brother, then bugging his eyes out. We four kids are rarely all in the same room. One of us wounded, one slight and sarcastic, one destined for jail (I shouldn’t say that about my brother, I know). Me.
I’m sure I look as crazy as the rest with my head perpetually tilted toward the earth. We’re the kind of family you’d post pics of after a trip to the general store; hardly the well-dressed, refined bunch that Mom has depicted on her dream board.
‘It was random. A random act of violence,’ Allie says. She stands and stretches as though we are talking about the weather, then pats Myron on his head and ambles up to our room. I am not deterred. For the first time in my life, I am on a mission. My sister is a stranger in our home, too timid to be the sister I know.
Late in the afternoon, after a five-hour shift and fifty-two customers with an average of four optimally packed grocery bags, I hand Allie a short letter that tells her how glad I am that she’s at home with me. I figure conversation could pick back up, that I can cut through the trauma. ‘Tell me about your marches again. Tell me about the people you hung out with. Tell me about your boyfriend. I remember you mentioning him.’
I watch her read my letter. ‘Molly May, you are becoming something else,’ she says, smiling wider than I’ve seen since she’s been back. ‘I need some time. Can you read to me? I love your voice now. It’s transcendent.’
‘Read whatever you want. Something enlightening.’
‘Fine. But I’m going to ask again.’ I go online and read the news brief. It’s all bad news, so I click on Science News and read about the promise of other planets. The way she smiles when I speak makes me think that there just might be some music in me after all. Over the next few weeks, my reading to her becomes our routine. She starts requesting things, emailing me articles. She wants me to read things I barely understand the new healthcare bill the House passed, which we worry could come to fruition, one that makes basic care optional for states whose citizens have pre-existing conditions. I read the entire thing, understanding that I would be excluded from getting insurance due to my diagnosis. She asks me to read her old letters and looks completely transported when I do.
By the time Rattle arrives home with a pizza from Take ‘n Bake on a Friday night, I’ve reached for a trivia book that I think was our father’s. I read about trees, aquatic animals, the migration patterns of butterflies, and how to make stained glass. We learn about the world like small children, in awe. I catch Rattle listening in, looking at my sister as though she is an abstract piece of art. She might as well be, I think, but then, as though hearing my thought, she speaks. ‘Dad used to study everything,’ she says. She looks to Rattle. ‘Get enough for us?’
‘So long as Myron doesn’t get to it first.’ It’s a mean joke on Rattle’s part, but we both laugh. ‘Come on, kids.’ Rattle turns toward the kitchen and sets out a few paper plates.
‘I wish I could remember him,’ I tell Allie as we head to the kitchen.
‘You will. Everything comes back, good and bad.’ Allie throws a soft toy at my brothers, who are playing video games in the living room. ‘You all are going to get hand cramps.’ She tells them to move, firmly, maternally. A glimpse of her old self.
‘We don’t have stop times,’ Myron says, not even looking up from his game. Joey stands, bleary-eyed, and staggers off to his room without finishing his level. ‘Hey! I was going to beat you,’ Myron whines; then he glances at the pizza.
My hand is cramped from holding the hardcover trivia book open too long. I realize that it’s still in my hand, that I’ve absently wandered into the kitchen without closing it. I tear off a piece of my paper plate for a bookmark and close it gently. I trace the cover, feeling its coolness. ‘It’s like you’re back from war,’ I whisper to Allie as she picks pineapples off her pizza.
‘I need to get myself right, Molly May.’ The scar on her arm is raised like an angry rose. It looks like someone was trying to carve a message. She traces its length.
‘You need to talk about what happened. It’ll help.’
My sister twists her hair up into a bun and wraps a silky orange scarf around it. She stares at me after releasing this information. We communicate like this, just staring, everyone else oblivious, until I nod. ‘Give me some space about it, okay?’
‘I got pizza,’ Rattle says, pretending not to hear. ‘Where is your mother?’ he asks me.
Allie sighs audibly. After rolling her pizza slice up and taking a few bites, my sister pushes herself up and walks off, toward our bedroom.
Rattle takes her seat, nearer me. He smells of beer, but not the sour smell of having had too much. He’s looking at me as though I’m a piece of art now, a thing to study. It’s not a threatening look. It’s one that portrays worry and something else, maybe confusion. I stare back, equally confused. ‘What gives? You’re freaking me out.’
Tapping his teeth with his nail a few times, he says, ‘I think it’s time for me to head out.’
He shrugs. ‘Wherever. I need to stay gone this time.’ He and Mom no longer fight, mostly because she’s never home. She leaves him to deal with us, our baggage, and I can tell he doesn’t think he can.
‘Please don’t,’ I find myself saying, before I can think about what I really mean. How can he leave me with this new information? Rattle has been stability for me; he’s been the guy on the couch whom we sometimes bail out of jail. In our household, he’s the voice of reason.
He scratches his chin and, without a hint of a smile, says, ‘I wish I could stick around, MM.’
I ask him to repeat, and he does. I ask him to verify that he said what I thought he said. He does. I stare at the stubble on his chin, vaguely remembering that my father, too, often had stubble on his chin.
‘I don’t think I have the patience to deal with your mother, or to be the caretaker of four kids.’
‘Hey! Allie’s grown, and I take care of myself.’
‘OK, so you girls take care of yourselves, but these guys.’ He points at my brothers, who smile at the attention but don’t hear because they’re in a heated discussion about their scores.
‘You’re going to leave us here to deal with Mom?’ I ask.
‘This is your bloodline, kid. Besides, you’re old enough to head out on your own soon. You have your sister now.’
‘What about the boys?’
‘I don’t think I’m a role model, Molly May. And she can’t love me, not like I need her.’
I stare, waiting for him to reveal more. ‘Fine. Whatever. Will you—will you still take me to my surgery?’ It feels wrong to ask, and I don’t push the issue.
It’s my hundredth day as a bagger, and I am on track to be promoted to cashier. I’m finally sixteen, and I’ve figured out that the extra dollar and twenty cents each hour, saved, will add up to about forty a week, which is enough to pay off my surgery a month early, so I sign up for the plan. This satisfies Mom because I can still contribute to the household and she can keep her finances in check. Since Allie’s attack, Mom’s been working more than ever.
My surgery is scheduled during the time I’d usually have lunch break, and I call home to make sure I still have a ride. Rattle says he’s on his way and that my sister insists on coming.
‘She feels up to it?’
‘Yeah. She seems good. Just got out of an appointment with some quack. Look, I’m leaving town tomorrow. Just stuck around for you,’ he says.
‘I appreciate it,’ I say. I’d rather Mom leave.
Rose ‘overhears’ that my surgery is today, and when I hang up the breakroom phone, after verifying my appointment, she says, ‘I’m so happy for you, honey.’
‘It won’t change much, but it will mitigate further damage.’ I repeat the doctor’s words, and my formality makes Rose smile warmly. Rose motions up, a sign that I didn’t hear the call for backup assistance. She holds up four fingers.
I don’t watch the rooster-shaped clock as I bag the groceries on register four. I don’t look because I know it’s moving too rapidly to be accurate. After hanging my lanyard in the breakroom, a few minutes before Rattle will arrive, I feel my phone buzz and look down to find a text from Mom: ‘I’m praying for you. Be there after work with the boys.’ It’s unexpected, and makes me smile, but I know there’s a chance she won’t show. I imagine that hospital waiting room, my family loud and the staff trying not to listen.
I clock out by entering my ID in the computer by the coats. When I get up and turn around, my coworkers are staring at me, beaming. They hold what looks like a solid cake but is really two dozen cupcakes topped with thick icing. The bakery manager, Pete, has one end and Rose has the other end.
Rose looks unsteady with the oversized cake, her smile tight, so I quickly clear space on the breakroom table. The cake is pink, strawberry-raspberry, with a beige icing ear in the middle that’s detailed with black gelled sugar and surrounded by a few silly plastic decals: a brown dog barking, an old-school radio blaring, and a person with a shower cap on and her mouth open wide, as though she is hitting a high note.
I haven’t laughed, really laughed, in a long time, but this cake is ridiculous. It cuts into my nerves. When I take a bite of the tip of my ear in cupcake form, the sweetness is too much. Rose hugs me just as my sister appears in the doorway. She stands tall, and her voice is low.
‘Come on, Molly,’ Allie says as I grab a few cupcakes for my brothers. ‘Let’s fix ourselves up so we can save the world.’
‘10-4,’ I say, ready.
For more short stories, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.