This year will monumentally suck. What kind of lunatic English teacher gives homework the first day of school? Seriously? Last ten minutes of class, Mrs. Steep goes, “You each have a different quote, and there’s no wrong way to do this. I want your answers to be the authentic you.” She even formed air quotes with her fingers around “authentic,” and we all made big eyes at each other, like, This bitch is crazy. I hate these “get to know you” assignments. Jesus, I’d rather have boring-ass reading passages with multiple-choice answers.
I read the instructions again: Analyze and relate this quote to three personal examples from your life: Know thyself, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories. –Sun Tzu.
Thunder rattles the bus, sets off screams and giggles from the little kids in the back. My friend Chyann elbows me. “Hey, you wanna come over later?”
No, your stepdad’s a friggin’ pervert, and I avoid those guys when I can. I pretend to consider the invite. “I dunno; let me see if—”
“—Your mom says you can?”
Sure, that’s it. I cram the homework into my bag. The bus lurches to a stop in front of my house, and I start up the aisle.
She calls, “Come over if you can!”
I nod, but that’s a lie, too.
Glittery purple rain boots jut out from our trailer skirt. The faded pink housecoat just above the pasty white legs identifies the owner of those boots as Mrs. McCain, the curtain-twitching hag who lives next door. She must be looking for her terrorist chihuahua, Prezzi, A.K.A. “You Little Shit.” He has a thing for the skunks that live under our trailer.
The second my feet hit the ground, the brown rat-dog rockets from a gap in the sheet metal, arcs ’round me—all tiny razor-teeth and high-pitched snarl—then it’s right back to his skunk hunt.
Mrs. McCain pulls herself upright; it’s a miracle our porch rail doesn’t break off in her hand. She lasers beady eyes at me, shrieks, “Don’t hurt Prezzi!”—furrows her eyebrows, which appear to have been applied with a thick black marker. “Where’d he—?”
I point; Nosey-Bitch squats to the ground, lifts the loose trailer skirting and glares into the cave-like space. “Dammit! You! Little! Shit! Get out of there!”
Our front door swings open, and my stomach goes squenchy. Ever since Mrs. McCain accused Mama of breaking into her trailer, it’s like the old woman is looking for a reason to call the cops on us. If she goes to jail again, what’ll happen to Aliza ’n me? My little sister wasn’t born last time Mama went to jail, and I was sent to a group home for six months.
It was awful.
Aliza steps onto the porch. She’s wearing a floppy straw hat, one of my t-shirts as a dress, teetering on Mama’s super-high heels, and carrying an Easter basket. She’s covered head-to-toe with shimmery eyeshadow, smears of red, and strokes of black. I don’t wear makeup, but Mama does, and she never lets Aliza play with it, which means . . . Oh, crap. If Aliza’s been in Mama’s room, it means she left her alone. Again.
My sister blinks, bends and scratches her foot, straightens, glances curiously at Nosey-Bitch, looks past her to me, and breaks out in a clown-mouth-sized lipstick grin.
The old lady bends at the waist, puts her hands on her knees and oozes fake friendliness: “Well, hey, there, little one! Are you playin’ dress-up?”
I rush up our shaky steps, brush past Nosey-Bitch. I gush, “Liza, you look so pretty! Let’s go inside!” I glare at the old woman, so obviously trying to get a good look inside our house.
She sing-songs, “Oh, sweet little Aliza. I’d like to visit with your mommy. Is she home?”
I snap, “Of course she is!”
Aliza practically sings, “No, she’s not!” then spins, her arms in the air, shows off her outfit. “I’m ready. Let’s go shoppin’!”
I step into the house. “Mama went to the store today, baby. Come inside, and I’ll—”
Aliza puts her hands on her hips: her nails are painted up to her wrists. She blasts, “Mama’s not here, and I hungry!”
I reach for my sister but she ducks, whirls. I press words past gritted teeth: “Come inside, and I’ll make you something to eat.”
She stamps her foot. “We don’t have nothin’ to eat!”
I lunge once more for Aliza’s hand but Mrs. McCain snatches it first, pulls her close. “When’s the last time you ate, sweetie?”
Aliza grunts—her equivalent of Step off!—yanks her hand free, zips into the house. I start to close the door but my neighbor blocks it. “Your sister is hungry, and your mother isn’t here. Do you need help, hon?”
I press the door against the ancient one’s foot. “My mother is here. She’s asleep.”
Mrs. McCain narrows her eyes. “How do you know that? You just got home.”
“H-her job—it’s at night—s-so—she sleeps during the day.”
“Who’s watching that baby while you’re gone, makin’ sure she’s safe and fed and taken care of?”
I THUD the door in Nosey-Bitch’s face, turn the lock, bite my lip. Go away-go away-go away.
The porch whines in protest, rocks our trailer as Mrs. McCain navigates the wobbly steps. I slide to the window, watch as she starts toward her house—dead stops—catches me spying. I gasp-lurch from view, wait a few beats then peek again to see Mrs. McCain ascend her trailer steps, “You Little Shit” on her heels.
Aliza emerges from the hall closet—her usual hidey-hole when she’s freaked out. She’s ditched the hat and heels but found the can of Spaghettios I hid so she’d have something to eat. My sister squeals, giggles, holds the can high. “Look, Kylie! I gots ’ettios!”
I drop my backpack onto the chair, notice Mama’s purse on the sofa.
“Did ya hear me, Ky-Ky? I gots ’ettios!”
Sickening dread whispers, Where’s Mama?—but I put on my happy voice for Aliza. “You can eat after you take a bath!”
Aliza hugs the can of O-shaped pasta against her chest. “Eat first!”
I pivot-nudge her toward the bathroom. “You’ll be able to eat more when your face is clean. When did Mama leave, ’Liza?”
Aliza holds the can overhead, rocks as she walks. “Um-m-m. . . after I eated cin’mon toast, but before I eated peanuh-buttah-jelly.” She cuts me a side-eye, curls her mouth into a little knot, lowers the can and hugs it against her chest, sighs, “I love you, ’ettios. . .Ky-Ky should let me eat you now. . .”
I tickle ’Liza’s ribs; she drops the can, squeals and skitters into the bathroom. My mind races with terrifying Mama-possibilities. “Take your clothes off, baby, and”—I cross to my mother’s bedroom—“I’ll be right there.”
I nudge the door open; it catches on god-knows-what on the floor. I take a deep breath, flip on the light, and tiptoe into Mama’s chaos. I look beside her bed, under it, inside the closet—just to be sure she’s not passed out—or worse. There’s a Mama-size lump under the dirty clothes and tangled blankets. I step to the bed, hold my breath, press down on the mound, and feel a whole-body sigh of relief when its softness gives way.
I move to the nightstand. Prescription bottles overflow from a wicker basket. I scan a few labels, notice the names: they’re not Matilda Briscoe or Matilda Smith—the other name she uses—so whose are they? I open the top drawer, snort at a spring-cleaning issue of Good Housekeeping magazine. I read the name on the address label: Florence McCain. I toss the magazine aside, reveal a dozen or so medicine bottles beneath it, all with Mrs. McCain’s name on them.
Aliza sneaks up behind me—“Um, Kylie-e-e, I’m gonna tell Mama you were in here!” I slam the drawer, turn to my sister. “You were, too.”
Her eyes grow huge: instant tears. “Don’t tell, ’kay?”
I hate it when she cries. It kills me. “I won’t.” I crouch like a runner on the starting line. “Betcha can’t beat me to the bathtub!”
Aliza giggles. “I can, too!” She skitters out the door.
I follow her, close the door behind me. Mrs. McCain’s voice echoes in my head: Who’s watching that baby while you’re gone, makin’ sure she’s safe and fed and taken care of?
I whisper, “Nobody.”
I settle into my chair beside the front door. Thunder vibrates the window just above my head. I rise to my knees, check the seal on a duct tape-repair I made over a jagged crack. Seems to be holding up. . .maybe I should try duct-taping a piece of sheet metal over the gap in the trailer skirt so that Mrs. McCain won’t have her rat-dog’s skunk-hunting as an excuse to spy on us. I angle my face against the glass, watch for another flash of lightning, scan the skies for the moon. Not that I really expect to find it in the daytime, but if I can, it’ll calm my nerves just a little. Always does, and—I don’t know why—it always has. Just one of my weirdo habits.
I pull my spiral notebook from my backpack. Hmm, now what would be a perfect title for the wacko Mrs. Steep’s assignment? I’ve got it: “WTF?” I shake my head, knowing full well that I can’t leave the title so plain. I stretch, shade the letters to make them pop off the page. Much better. I drop to the next line, write: I authentically despise your assignment, and I know exactly what you’re up to.
Aliza calls, “I finished, Kylie.”
I scan the quote again. Know thy enemy. . .? WTF does this teacher think I am, a warrior? I return to the title, darken the lines on the F to make my opinion of this lame-ass assignment extra-super-clear.
Aliza whines, “I said I’m finished.”
I remain focused on my work-of-art title. “Put your plate in the trash, then.”
A Spaghettio-stained paper plate plops onto my homework. “I can’t throw it away, Kylie. I’m busy watchin’ Curious George.”
I fling the plate like a Frisbee toward the kitchen then glance at the TV screen. As usual, it’s just wavy static punctuated with blobs of color. “Yeah? Point to Curious George. I don’t see a silly little monkey.” I return to my work: You want to know about me, but there’s nothing to tell.
Aliza announces, “I found ’im, see?”
I roll my pencil between my palms, quietly read the quote aloud: Know thyself, know thy enemy. Thing is, I don’t really have enemies, except for when I fight with Mama, and it’s always ’cause she went off ’n left Aliza by herself. Just like today.
I decide to be too dumb to get the meaning of the quote; instead, I’ll write an “All About Me,” tell some lies, like that Mama’s still a nurse assistant—this teacher doesn’t need to know she was fired from the hospital—and my dad is. . . who knows? Mama won’t talk about it. Hmm. . . I’ll make him a doctor. Perfectly respectable parents.
“Ky-lie, I found ’im.”
I don’t look up. “Mm-hmm. Awesome.”
“Ky! I’m pointin’ to ’im. I found ’im, see? See?”
I groan—but only in my head.
Aliza stomps to me, leans against my chair and traces my three-letter title with spaghetti- sauce fingers. “What’s that say?”
“It says, ‘Aliza, leave Kylie alone.’”
“No, it doesn’t!” Her voice rises, full of hurt. “Does it really say that?” She grasps my chin with her gross little hands, turns my face to hers. “Does it really?”
I cringe, partly ’cause Yuck, but mostly ’cause I was being mean. “No, silly.”
Aliza points at her pink pajama shirt—“Se-e-e? I didn’t get ’ettios on my jammies!” She looks to the window, gasps, “It’s raining!” and scrambles over me, crams herself into the narrow space between me and the armrest.
I get a whiff of her hair: squeaky-clean. I love the way it smells after a bath. I watch as she traces raindrops on the glass. Screw this homework; it’s a stupid assignment anyway. I cram the page into my backpack, shove it to the floor. “Wanna have raindrop races?”
Aliza giggles, nods enthusiastically, starts the race without me.
“Wait, now! We’ve gotta pick our players.” I choose a line of water next to hers, slide my fingertip to the top of the window. As usual, she imitates me. I slide her a side-glance. “Ready? G-”
A motorcycle roars onto the skinny strip of dead grass between our house and Mrs. McCain’s. What is Mama doing on the back of that bike? Who’s that man? I breathe, “Oh, shit.”
The driver’s airbrushed helmet looks like a screaming skull, its open mouth the blacked-out facemask. He lowers the kickstand, looks toward Mrs. McCain’s kitchen window. Mama launches herself off the bike, staggers—the man lunges for her but misses. She scrambles toward the porch but trips halfway up the steps; he moves easily past her onto the deck, stoops and jerks her to her feet.
I sink beneath the windowsill and take Aliza with me; she cries out, “Mama!”
Our trailer splintery-squeaks when we walk around inside it, but a person on the porch makes the whole place cry out like somebody’s peeling off the siding. Mama’s panicked voice and the man’s low talking punctuate our house’s odd song. I strain my ears but can’t hear over my heartbeat and the horror-movie-soundtrack of our trailer. I inch upward, peek out. Mama holds up two fingers, mouths what looks like “Fifteen and three.” My insides cringe, and I glide downward again.
Aliza whines, “I wanna see.”
I clamp my hand over her mouth.
The doorknob rattles. THUMP-THUMP-THUMP! Mama yells, “Kylie Jean! Open the door!” BAM! BAM! BAM!
I. Can’t. Move.
BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM!
The framed Serenity Prayer that Mama’s sponsor gave her falls off the kitchen wall, shatters.
Aliza shoves my hand away, gasps, “Mama’s God-thingie! It just—”
I point at Aliza’s hidey-hole, order, “Get in there!” but my sister doesn’t move. I deposit her in the closet, close the door, growl, “Don’t open it!”
BAM! BAM! BAM! “Ky-liza!” Mama combines our names sometimes when she’s too messed up to talk, but she’s not slurring. “Unlock the door! Now! Kylie Jean!”—BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM!
I cross my arms over my chest, turn toward my mother’s panicked pleading. Do what she says—Open it—Just do it—I inch forward—BAM! BAM! BAM!— CRACK!—BOOM! A boot blasts through the lower half of the door. Thick orange letters on the sole read Steel Tough.
What’s left of our crappy door collapses to the floor with a shriek and a whiny sigh, kicks up the cloud of yuck that’s accumulated since Mama sold our vacuum. Eyes flashing, my mother steps forward, throws out a bitter “Kylie Jean! S’bout time you—”
Steel Tough jerks Mama back, strides in and pushes me aside like I’m nothin’. Up close, the airbrushed skull on his helmet is even more grotesque. He looks right—toward the kitchen, left—at the TV’s garbled snowy picture. Aliza emerges from the closet, gapes at us.
The man has something in his hand—Oh, shit! He’s got a gun!—He starts for Aliza.
I dart forward. “I’ll get her!”
The man flips up the facemask. “Freeze or I’ll blow your goddamn head off!”
Terrified, I back away. He points at the TV, orders Aliza: “Turn that off!”
When she doesn’t move, he steps to the right, puts his boot through the TV screen. Her mouth forms a ghoulish grimace, a sign that my sister is about to release a piercing scream that could send dogs into howling fits.
Mama bumps into me, nearly falls; I steady her; she ducks behind me, digs her fingers into my shoulders.
Aliza lets go her ear-splitting shriek. Steel Tough slides the gun into the small of his back, barks, “Shut it!” but she dials it up. He raises his hand, swipes at her head, but she drops to the floor face-down with her butt in the air, falls silent.
Steel Tough pivots to Mama and me, pulls off his helmet and tosses it onto the chair where Aliza and I were having raindrop races just seconds before the world went batshit-crazy. His head is bald except for fuzzy yellowish hair that sticks up this way and that. His face is pale and doughy, made extra lumpy by a jagged scar from just under his right eye to his lipless mouth. The man leans in close like he’s gonna kiss me on the cheek—I screw up my face, lock down my body and mostly unplug my brain but still jump at Steel Tough’s voice near my ear: “Matilda.”
She pulls me tight against her body like I’m a human shield, talks fast: “I—I don’t have it, Jerry—I—I told you, I don’t.”
I lower my head, suck in my lower lip, bite down hard as dread spreads, an eclipse across the sun. Mama’s in big trouble. Again. Oh, Jesus.
He mocks, “‘I told you I don’t have it’”—blasts, “BULLSHIT!”—downshifts to ugly directness: “Pay up. T.K. wants his money.”
Mama squeaks, “I already told you—I just need a little more—”
Aliza lifts her head, ramps up the screech again. The man turns, snaps, “Dry it up!” and takes a menacing step toward her, stoops and roars, “Shut your goddamn mouth!” She muffles her sobs, face pressed hard against our filthy floor.
Mama’s hands quake on my arms; I try to slip from them, but she tightens her grip.
Jerry grunts, “Move!” but I don’t react and he knocks me down but I bounce to my knees, burn them on the carpet as I speed to Aliza and square myself protectively in front of her. Jerry snatches the front of Mama’s shirt, pulls her close to his face. “I want the money or the shit! Now!”
Mama blubbers, “I—I’m sorry, Jerry! I—I don’t have it! I was robbed!” He shoves her against the high counter that divides the kitchen from our living room.
Jerry snort-laughs. “Yeah? Who robbed you? The street knows you belong to us. You used it!”
Mama hobbles to the narrow space between the kitchen sink and the bar, retrieves what’s left of her framed Serenity Prayer and holds it over her head like a sign. “No! I-I’m not usin’! I-I don’t do that no more, see? I go to NA and I got a sponsor and—”
“Je-e-e-sus Christ but there’s two types of folks I can’t stand: a thief and a liar, and you’re both.” Jerry runs his hand over his crazy-looking hair then presses his right fist into his left palm so that his biceps squirm. “I told you when I tracked you down at Nick’s, Matilda: I always get mine.”
Mama tosses the broken picture frame aside, puts one hand on her hip, runs a finger from her neckline to the space between her breasts, then goes lower. “Yeah, but, ya know, there’s more than one way to make ya a square deal you’ll be happy with.” As if she’s not obvious enough, she points below her belly button.
He scoffs, “And how is that supposed to be worth two grand? I still have to pay T.K., so it’d—”
She sing-songs, “It’s not just me-e-e,” and wiggles a finger my way, nods, crookedly smiles and bumps her eyebrows up ’n down. “Two for one: can’t turn down a square deal like that.”
Jerry glances at me, at her, at me again. “That little thing?” His eyes slide to my chest, ooze down my body as cold panic seizes me, ruptures my soul-marrow.
Mama’s businesslike: “She’s done it lots of times, Jer. You get both of us: two for the price of one. Hell of a square deal.”
Aliza hooks a hand onto my side, pulls herself onto my lap and attaches herself to my front. She smooshes her face against my neck, whines softly but nuzzles forcefully as if melting into me.
Jerry strides toward us, cocks his head, looks me over. He moves closer, presses the cold silver tips of his boots against my folded legs.
This can’t be happening again. Mama promised—after last time was so bad—Mama promised. I close my eyes, press my cheek against Aliza’s head and rock her, but my mind spews body-memory: a sweaty thick body so heavy on mine, his scent, and it seemed like it lasted forever—but that’s ’cause it happened more than once with him.
Mama must’ve owed him a lot.
Jerry wrestles Aliza from me; she shrieks, claws my arms. He tosses her onto our sofa, barks, “Stay!” then stands between Mama and me, crosses his arms over his chest. “Enough of this shit! Which of you’s goin’ first?”
Her eyes glacial, Mama says indifferently, “Her first.”
The tiny bit of hope that Mama loves me shatters, vaporizes, destroyed at last by the lie of “Never again.”
She doesn’t care.
She doesn’t love me.
My mother is pain.
I feel myself numbing out, the way I do when I can’t stay in my body; can’t be present for what is happening. I bite down hard on my lip: Gotta stay here. Aliza.
Mama asks Jerry, “S-so after we do this thing, you’ll tell T.K. we’re square?”
“Yeah. But this is a one-time deal, and it’d better be worth it.” Jerry reaches for his belt buckle, loosens it.
Thunder cracks, and it’s like the bottom drops out of the sky. Mama steps toward the window above the kitchen sink, sighs, “Jeez, it’s rainin’ crazy-heavy.” Red and blue lights zip by our house; Mama sucks in her breath, throws Jerry a worried look. Zipper half-open, he rushes to join her.
I get to my feet, shakily tiptoe backward, crunching TV parts.
Mama turns, looks hard at me. “Where do you think you’re going, Kylie Jean?”
Jerry grumbles, “Full payment of the debt depends on how cooperative she is.”
“Oh, she won’t be a problem. Ain’t that right, Kylie Jean.” She punctuates her non-question with a cold stare.
I nearly bite through my bottom lip, avert my eyes from Mama’s icy lasers to the police cruiser on the street in front of our trailer, shakily point: “Cops are here.”
Jerry and Mama duck beneath the window; I dash to Aliza, scoop her off the sofa, race for our bedroom; slam our door and lock it, lurch to our window, shove it upward.
BAM-BAM-BAM!. Jerry orders, “Open up, little girl.”
Mama bleats, “Unlock the goddamned door, Kylie Jean!”
Jerry growls, “Move it, Matilda”—CRASH!—the door bursts off its hinges.
I push out the screen and drop my sister into the rainy night—start after her—I’m jerked back—my head smashes against the glass—but I lock my right arm against the window frame, heave my upper body into the rain, shriek, “Help! Help me!”
Mama yells, “Stop it, Kylie Jean!”
Jerry pulls me backward as I claw at the outer wall. A short piece of siding breaks off in my hand; I lob it at Jerry but miss, slap my palm flat against the outside wall again, gouge my fingers into the rotten wood, find a long nail and wrench it free, twist myself inward—and jab the nail into Jerry’s hand.
He gasps, “Oh, Christ!”
I tumble into the night.