“I wouldn’t tell you to make it at four if it was just a maybe!”
“I’m sorry, honey. I was held up at the hospital.”
“But you said it would be ready by then.”
The mother is in scrubs, her scraggly brown hair ponytailed. The girl is squeezed into a crop top and high waisted athletic shorts to hide her muffin top.
It’s not completely hidden.
“I’m doing the best I can,” the mother says. “Just wait. It’ll be ready in thirty minutes.”
“But by then it’s practically dinner!” the girl says. “I can’t eat two things at once! Did you want me to starve at lunch?”
“Honey, you could have made your own sandwich.”
“I was busy,” the girl huffs. “And you make it better,” she mumbles. She looks down at the little round thing at her center. “Maybe this is a sign,” she says. “I’m too freaking fat for a sandwich.”
“Sweetie, watch your tone. You’re not fat. You’re normal.”
“I don’t want to be normal!”
“There’s nothing wrong with normal.” The mother’s voice is a measured disguise.
“Yes there is!” the girl screeches. “No one in this dumb town wants to date me! I’m ugly.”
“You’re only in the eighth grade. You don’t need a boyfriend.” A slight pounding starts in the mother’s head.
“Everyone at school has a boyfriend and you’re only saying that because you’re my mother!” Her face is all scrunched and red and she feels something prickling at the back of her eyes.
“You’re disrespecting me. That’s enough. Just calm down.”
“Don’t tell me to calm down!” The girl throws a nearby sugar packet on the ground. “I’m leaving. I don’t want to be here. You’re the worst mother. You don’t even care about me right now.”
She slams the door on the way out, paint flakes falling and getting carried by the wind into the driveway.
The sky is all pillowy and gray and unhappy.
The girl bikes down the highway alone and in anger. She watches the trees pass by and is sick of suburban Indiana and her small ranch house.
She arrives at the mall and is almost about to enter Claire’s when she remembers that all the other eighth-graders have outgrown Claire’s. She looks towards Brandy Melville and shudders at the thought of the blonde, pretty workers looking at her un-blonde, average self.
She catches sight of another girl from another school in a cute, small button-down and goes in. She looks like a high schooler. She has hazel eyes and light brown hair and a light dusting of freckles. Her limbs are like a ballerina’s, long and lean and graceful.
The girl goes into the store.
R&B plays. Everyone looks bored inside the white brick walls.
The girl pulls down the same top the high schooler was wearing after jumping a little to reach the hanger. It’s blue with little printed white daisies.
She brings it into the fitting room and tries it on. The fabric stretches and the white daisies aren’t so little anymore. While it curved in gracefully on the high schooler, it sits stocky on the girl.
She takes it off in a blind rush and puts her old crop top back on. She feels like a phony.
She wanders around the mall for a while and goes back to her bike.
On the driveway she stops still. Those are her friends. Linda, Annie, Xian Ai. They’re eating frozen yogurt.
A little bit of Annie’s spills on the ground and they laugh.
They had said they were too busy studying.
They turn the corner and don’t notice the girl they’d left behind.
The girl rushes back to her bike in a world gone vertigo.
She pedals back to her home with her heart racing.
Her bike catches on a pebble and she tips over.
The bicycle falls heavy and jagged on her left leg.
The gravel scrapes her knee and leaves black, dirty smudges on her hands.
She’s bleeding on her right knee.
The pain is piercing.
Her breath is staggered and she sits there on the ground for a while.
She pulls herself up. Her leg aches. She doesn’t want to pedal anymore.
She limps home.
It’s twenty minutes longer than typical when she makes it to her house’s front steps. She opens the screen door. She hears the news playing from her mother’s bedroom.
The mascara on her face is smudged like a racoon, but she doesn’t know that.
She clips her bike in and opens the door.
She’s greeted by her mother’s rose diffuser and the dusk sky filtering in through the window. It casts blue undertones on the honeydew walls and silvery hues on the old shaggy carpet.
Her mother looks at her through similarly red rimmed eyes. She’s in a loose tee from the girl’s fourth grade sports day.
The news anchor on the TV keeps talking. Someone across the world was rescued from a ditch. He would have suffocated otherwise.
The girl clambers into her mother’s bed the way she used to after a nightmare, plodding down the halls in nervous, tiny steps.
The blood has dried by then. A scab’s beginning to form on her knee.
The girl’s eyes are fixed and trembling and sad.
Her mother’s eyes are steady and warm and pained.
Her mother sighs. The bed creaks under the shifting of weight. She makes room.
She always makes room.
The girl pulls the comforter over her head, submerging herself in silence. It’s too warm underneath.
The mother watches.
The comforters come back down.
The mother places a tentative hand on her daughter’s head. Her thumb sways back and forth like a metronome on the girl’s tangled hair.
Small streams glide down the girl’s cheeks.
“Ma,” says the girl.
She places her head on her mother’s blouse, the way she did at five years old with a stuffy nose and a sleepy tantrum.
She feels her mother’s breathing rise and fall in the cavity of her chest, like the rocking of an ocean.