"Mother Love" by Nolcha Fox
Originally published in DeadLights (2017)
The morning of my sixth birthday was the last time I trusted my mother.
That sunny morning, I hopscotched across the warm hardwood floor to her bedroom, wearing a frilly pink shirt with my new jeans.
She tied my curly hair back with a pink ribbon. Then, as she swept her own hair up in a pink ribbon, she said, “You look like a birthday present!” Her dress floated around her like pink cotton candy.
“You look like a fairy queen,” I said.
She smiled, the first real smile in a long time. I wanted to capture that smile in a little bird cage before it flew away.
After a breakfast of cinnamon swirl French toast with a candle on top, she took me to the pier for the first time since Daddy left.
I squinted into the sunlight as I walked with my mother, the taste of salt on my tongue, her dress swishing around me. She looked so delicate. I squeezed her hand hard to keep the cool ocean breeze from blowing her away, and to erase the wide doe-eyed sadness that shadowed her face.
She had that same look the night after the big fight with Daddy. Their yelling woke me up. I buried my head under the blanket, crossing my fingers that this one wouldn’t last long, and that’s when the yelling stopped. I heard a thump and a thud.
I jumped out of bed and ran to the living room clutching my teddy bear, to find my mother on the floor with a dribble of blood on the side of her mouth. Daddy stood over her with his big hands in fists, his face red, his breathing loud and quick.
I ran between them and threw my teddy bear at Daddy. “Go away!” I yelled at him. “Go away! We don’t need you anymore!”
Daddy’s big hand swooped towards me, and I cringed and took a step back. But he only picked up the teddy bear. Then I watched as he walked out the door, out into the moonlight.
My mother squeezed my hand back, bringing my attention to the pier. “C’mon, Pumpkin,” she said. “Let’s go get a soda.”
While we waited in a line for the drinks, three boys ran up to a woman in front of us. The boys jumped up and down, shot water pistols at each other, and tugged on the woman’s purse.
“Hi, Audrey,” my mother said to the woman.
One of the boys turned around. I recognized him. “Mommy, that’s Tommy. He’s in my class.”
Tommy recognized me, too. He shot water at me, and ran away laughing. I shrieked at the sting of cold water on my face and chased after him. Tommy was chubby and slow, and I was skinny and fast. I tackled him to the ground, both of us giggling. I grabbed the water pistol, just in time to defend myself against his two brothers, who came running up to us, water spraying everywhere.
“That’s Joe and Sam,” Tommy said, then shielded his face with his hands as they squirted him with their water pistols.
Finally, out of ammunition, we ran back to our mothers, wet and laughing.
“Do you want to ride the merry-go-round?” My mother asked, ignoring my sopped clothes.
I jumped up and down and clapped my hands. “Yah, yah, yah!”
The boys jumped up and down with me. “Can we ride the merry-go-round, too? Can we please? Pretty please?” Audrey nodded her head. Her wide-brimmed hat shadowed her face, and I couldn’t see her expression.
We all walked to the merry-go-round. That is, our mothers walked. The boys and I ran around our mothers and around each other.
Our mothers talked quietly as they walked. They wiped the tears from their cheeks when they saw us looking at them. I ran over to my mother and gave her hug. She squeezed my shoulders, but I could tell she wasn’t paying attention to me.
The boys didn’t seem to notice their mother’s tears. They ran back to the drinking fountain for more water for their guns.
Our mothers gave us money for the merry-go-round, then sat on a bench together and whispered and dabbed their eyes with Kleenex. They looked so faded, somehow, among the bright flags and colorful T-shirts for sale in the stalls.
Tommy grabbed my hand, and I forgot the tears. I forgot the pull of the rubber band against my scalp. My heart was full of cool breeze and warm sunlight and joy, like a bubble about to burst.
We raised our hands high above our heads as the majestic horses bobbed up and down to the music of the merry-go-round, and then, breathless with laughter, we jumped off the horses and ran back to our mothers.
“Can we have a quarter for the shark exhibit? Please? Pretty please?” Audrey dug through her purse and pulled out three quarters. The boys grabbed the money and ran inside the exhibit.
I grabbed my mother’s hand and said, “Please?”
My mother looked at Audrey. I didn’t know what she saw. Audrey was wearing big dark glasses, and her mouth was a thin straight line that told me nothing.
Since Daddy left, I could tell by the corners of her mouth when my mother was happy or sad. Now, the corners were turned down, and there was a tiny little quiver on one side. I thought maybe I should stay with my mother instead, but she gave me a quarter and a little shove towards the exhibit.
At the door of the exhibit, I turned around to wave at my mother, but she wasn’t looking at me. She was talking to Audrey. I looked at the quarter in my hand. I looked at my mother. She seemed so far away from me now, almost the size of a doll.
The exhibit was cool and dark, and smelled like old clothes. I stumbled as Tommy pushed me through the hall to his brothers. Joe said, “What’s wrong with you? You look like you swallowed a bug!”
I stuck my tongue out at him. Then I said, “Is something wrong with your mother? She doesn’t look very happy.”
Joe shrugged his shoulders. “I dunno.”
Tommy and Sam shrugged their shoulders, too. “I dunno, I dunno,” they echoed.
Joe added, “She’s been that way ever since we moved away from Daddy.”
“Do you miss your daddy?” I asked.
“Naw…” the boys said.
Joe snorted. “How could we miss somebody we hardly ever saw?”
Tommy and Joe grabbed my hands, and pulled me through the dark narrow passage. We oohed and aahed at the stuffed shark that was longer than my mother’s car.
“I’d sure like to meet a shark like that!” Tommy said. He pulled out his water pistol and pointed it at the shark. “Take that, you stupid old shark!” He pretended to shoot it.
Joe and Sam giggled, and shoved Tommy past the shark. Even though I laughed, too, the skin on my arms prickled at the thought of meeting a shark like that.
We ran out of the exhibit, pretending that the shark was chasing us. The boys whirled around and shot water at the shark, yelling to scare if off. I yelled as loud as the boys because I was a little scared. I was glad I was running back to my mother.
Our mothers waited for us on the bench. They stopped whispering as we ran up to them.
Audrey stood up. “It’s time to go.” Her voice was as thin as her mouth, and her knuckles were white around the straps of her purse.
The boys ran circles around their mother as she walked towards the parked cars.
My mother and I walked behind them. “Are we going home now?” I asked.
“No, Pumpkin, we’re just making sure they get to their car OK.”
“Why? Did they forget where their car is?”
“Because I said so.” She gave me a don’t-ask-questions look.
I put my hand over my mouth, and she nodded.
Our mothers gave each other a quick hug. Then Audrey slid open the van door. The boys scrambled on top of each other to get the best seat. They giggled and called each other names. Audrey slammed the door shut. The sound echoed in my ears like the slam of our front door when Daddy left.
Audrey backed the van out of the parking space. Tommy waved at me through the window, and pointed his water pistol at me. I stuck my tongue out at him, because I knew he couldn’t get me wet.
Audrey stopped the van for just a second. Then, she turned the van towards the ocean. She drove the van very fast. My mother froze.
I ran after the van. “You’re going the wrong way!” I screamed. But the van went faster and faster, and I couldn’t keep up.
I couldn’t see Tommy anymore. “Tommy!” I yelled as loud as I could. But he didn’t answer.
Suddenly, the world slowed down, and there was no noise except for the crunch of wood and metal as the van broke through the fence at the end of the pier. The van arched up gracefully, like a seagull taking flight. But then it dropped, oh so slowly, into the ocean.
The world took a deep breath, and then the air was filled with screams. Some men jumped off the pier into the ocean.
I ran to the broken fence. I could see the rear window of the van sinking into the water. I could see Tommy. I could see his wide eyes. His mouth was moving, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. His hands were pressed against the window, palms white.
And then the van was gone, sucked into the ocean.
My mother yanked me away from the fence.
I looked up at her as she shoved me towards the car. Her mouth was a thin line. I couldn’t read her face. I screamed and ducked under her arms.
I ran away from my mother. I ran as fast as I could. Nobody was going to get me. Not my mother, and not a stupid, old shark.
Nolcha Fox’s short stories have been published in Deadlights, The Wire’s Dream Magazine, We Are A Website, and Cadaverous Magazine. Her short story series, "Shadows in the Light," is available on Channillo.com. Nolcha also regularly adds to her short story anthology "Taking Up Space" on FicFun.com. You can find Nolcha Fox’s Facebook page here.