Image: Dorothea Lange – Clausen Child and Mother c. 1930 via the MOMA
Meagan Masterman is a writer from Maine, living in Massachusetts. Her work can be found in Funhouse Magazine, Unbroken Journal, and Maudlin House. She co-edits Reality Hands. Find her online, where she usually is @meaganmasterman
Who you are, Alicia Callahan
I’ve got a damn fine jacket. It’s jean, but warm. Vintage, too. A good jacket is important. It’s so stupid cold up here you have to wear a jacket eight months a year. My boots are pretty good, too.
Everything else is shit. My boyfriend dumped me for the Army. You aren’t allowed to talk badly about boys in the Army, at least not here. I know everyone in this town and I can only stand a handful. The houses look like trash and no one has a pool. It’s the kind of town where people seriously debate unincorporating, giving up on being a town altogether because it saves on taxes.
But I have my sister, Cheyenne. She’s good. I’m still going to school because it sets the right example for her. Otherwise I’d just take the GED and leave. Cheyenne’s a brat. But that’s to be expected. She’s about to turn 13. At that age, the only kids who behave are homeschooled weirdos.
I don’t feel like going home. I never do. Right now it’s spring and I’m not used to walking around without my facing hurting. In winter, if I can’t stand it at home there’s only one thing for me to do: trudge through a mile of snow to the lunch counter and sip a cup of New England brand coffee for 80 minutes. I like spring better. There’s a dozen snowmobile trails I can wander. I can stay out of the house without spending money.
Home is a glorified trailer. That’s not a joke. It was a trailer but someone tacked on a little deck, slapped together a mudroom and a small bedroom. I don’t know who did it. Wasn’t my family. We rent.
When it gets dark I end up back at the house. It’s empty. Thank God. In the fridge there’s a half-gallon of milk. I check the expiration date because I’m no fool. It’s fine. The thing about hunger is it makes everything taste good, even skimmed milk.
Even though I frigging checked, the milk is bad. It’s sour in my mouth and there’s little filmy bits. I pour out the rest. The fridge must be on the fritz again. It came with the trailer and like everything else here, including my mother, it sucks.
Before I can slink into my room, my mother comes home. She’s got flushed cheeks, which means wine or a new man. Either way, it’s bad. When she says hello it’s a got a little drawl, so I know it’s wine. I hate that. When she starts with wine she’ll still finish with liquor. That gets her sick and ornery. It’s better when she just lies down.
She looks at the empty milk jug. She notices it before she notices me. “Did you drink all my milk?” She says.
“It went bad. The fridge is out again,” I say. I shape every syllable like a craftsman, ensuring a smooth and even tone. Nothing confrontational. I press my hand hard against the counter so I can’t make a fist. In school, they gave us a worksheet about healthy ways to express anger. All I remember is the picture. A black-and-white illustration of a boy punching a pillow so hard it belched up feathers.
“What did you do to my fridge?”
“Nothing! It goes out all the time.”
“You’re going to regret wasting that milk.”
My tongue dries. I seize up the muscles in my legs in case I have to run. But it’s just reflex. I’m not a little kid anymore. I’m stronger than her and I’m never drunk. She stands by the door, blocking me. “I’m out of card money. Nine days left until I get more,” she says.
“You told me we had $50 left!”
“What did you even spend it on? You can’t use EBT on stuff that’s not food!”
“Don’t raise your voice to me!” The only part of parenting my mother’s got down is the part where we have to respect her. There’s no use arguing, so I don’t. I try to make like the boy with the pillow and take my anger elsewhere. I try to remember she does work hard. She tends an always-empty bar, which is part of the problem. But it can’t be helped. She can’t work at the old folks home that pays $12 an hour because of the background check.
But Cheyenne’s birthday is in three days and now we’ve got no money to buy her a birthday meal. I go to my room and stand in the corner, where I can steal the neighbor’s wifi. When Cheyenne asks me what’s wrong I tell her some girl at school made me mad, but I’m not going to fight her. Like I said, examples.
The next day I head to the Dairy Joy. I see Steve LaFleur. He’s 22 and sits around the lunch counter like I do because he works nights. Another thing I hate about this town: It either gives you no work or work that makes your under eye circles so big it’s like you have a perpetual shiner.
He’s standing with a man. I can’t figure how old this guy is. He’s got lines around his eyes but there’s pimples on his cheeks. I go up to them and I hustle.
Soon we’ve got a deal. I’ll help this stranger clean out his grandmother’s house. His name is Ray and his grandmother is dead and it’s time to sell the house. Steve says that Ray is a “solid dude.” I have my doubts. Steve himself is semi-solid at best. But I need money.
So, I get in Ray’s truck. He does not talk. That would be fine, except that his silence means I hear the Christian pop station he’s got on. It’s just regular pop except they’ve replaced all the sex references with upbeat bullshit. For some reason, it makes me sad.
He drops me off and heads straight out to his shift. He’ll be back in five hours. Before leaving, he makes me promise to pay special attention to the kitchen because “kitchens sell houses.” I know he’s quoting HGTV. But I nod.
To pass the time I talk to myself and pretend I’m talking to other people. There’s nothing to eat. I put my mouth beneath the tap to drink water. But you won’t catch me complaining. I don’t mind doing what I must.
At least not at first. After five hours the place is reasonably clean. I’m doing okay until I bang my quadricep against a cabinet knob. My muscles scream. I crumple up on the checkered vinyl of the kitchen floor.
Of course, that’s when the door swings open. “What the fuck! I’m paying you to work. This place still looks like shit!” says Ray.
I’m too tired to talk back. He calls me names. I hope he doesn’t kick me. He doesn’t. But he yanks me up by my shirt. Tells me I’m not getting any money and have to walk home in the dark. Throws me out. Door slammed. At least he didn’t kick me. Steve LaFleur might feel bad enough about it to give me a couple bucks.
The stars are out. The light reflects off chunks of mica on the side of the road, kicked up by recent road construction. I pick some up and remember a magazine story. There’s a country (maybe Pakistan) where parents sell their kids as slaves to mica mines. Wish I didn’t think of things like that. Things like that make me cry.
And then I’m crying. I trudge a few feet into the woods, hopping over an old stone wall. I curl up beside it. Moments like this are shameful and I don’t let anyone see them. I try not to have them at all. But sometimes I do cry. I cry for the kids in Pakistan and I cry because no matter what I do Cheyenne’s got it crummy.
Finally, though I don’t want to, the tears come out for me. For all the days I’m tired and all the parties I don’t get invited to at school because I’m hardly there. For how hard it is to get a little money and how I can’t. And how there’s kids out there with tons of cash and when it comes to a sister’s birthday they don’t bother.
The ground is cold. My fingertips and joints ache. My muscles spasm. I press my hands against my stomach to shut up the hungry gurgling. It doesn’t work. There’s nothing to do but get up.
I get up.
I tumble into bed only to hit something angular and warm.
“What the fuck!” I shout, shoving it away.
“I’m sorry!” I repeat over and over as she comes awake.
“You never came home,” she mumbles.
“C’mon, stupid. I’m home now.”
“Were you at a party?”
“Yeah. I had a lot of fun.”
“You didn’t drink, did you?”
I feel her relax. Usually when Cheyenne sneaks into my bed I kick her out. She always has some made up excuse, like a ghost or a nightmare. It’s not good to let her get away with fibbing. But I can’t kick her out when it’s like this. “Shove over,” I say. She feigns scooting backwards but she’s a bed hog. I toss a blanket over the both of us.
The next day I think so hard about how to make her birthday nice that I fail another bio test. I’m not going to get money, but that doesn’t mean I’m down for the count. I go down to the river after school. I find someone’s abandoned Svedka and have some. I listen to a couple songs that make me feel badass. Then I head down to the superette.
Cheyenne likes the superette’s carrot cake. They make a little icing carrot on the top of every slice and she thinks it’s cute. I don’t get why she likes it, beyond the looks of it. All the baked goods at the superette taste like no one made them. They taste like an industrial park.
But I’m getting her that cake. I’ve accepted that I’m not going to bring her the works, but I can get her a stupid cake. 13 is the last age where something so small can trick her into thinking that things aren’t so bad. It was that way for me.
I creep into the store. The bakery section is empty. The only employee in sight is distracted behind the meat counter. I can hear his knife smacking against the cutting board.
The cake’s little carrots lay on the cream-colored frosting like synchronized swimmers. I smile at that thought. When I point it out to Cheyenne she’ll laugh. I make my move. My backpack conceals the cake no problem. All according to plan.
I return to the sliding doors, but I’m blocked by an employee. He looks dead at me. Something about him tugs a memory in my brain. I can’t place him. Unfortunately, his eyes say he’s placed me.
“Open your bag,” he says.
I panic. I bolt around him and blitz out the door. He chases me. I run around to the other side of the superette where there’s a snowmobile trail that can swallow me up.
“I know who you are, Alicia Callahan!” His shout stops me in my tracks. He’s glowering. And I notice he’s got wide, strong fingers. “Open your bag,” he says again.
My hands are shaking too much for the zipper. I take off my backpack and extend it to him, still closed.
He snatches it, looks down at the cake inside.
“It’s for my sister’s birthday.” I say. I choke up.
He takes the cake out. My running ruined it. The frosting is all messed up. The little carrots obliterated. “I know I stole it and I messed it up. I can’t pay for it right now, but I will!”
He keeps looking at the cake. “I know that if I asked you to pay it back, you would. Like I said, I know you. I used to date your cousin Christina a long time ago.” He slips the cake into the backpack. I remember now. His name is Dale. “I’ll say I couldn’t catch you,” he continues. “You take this cake home to Cheyenne, but then take care of yourself. Okay? You can’t be shoplifting, Alicia.”
“One thing leads to another. You know what I mean?”
I do. “Am I banned from the superette now?”
“No. Now go home.”
I begin my trek to the house, walking along the road, hopping into the ditch whenever a car gets close. Cheyenne won’t mind if the icing’s messed up. Maybe I’ll use a butter knife to make the outline of a carrot. I can do that.
The next day is Cheyenne’s birthday so there’s no way I’m going to school. I make sure she does. At her age, they’ll give her a cupcake at school and sing to her. I take out some old magazines and cut out block letters that read “Happy Birthday”.
There’s a knock on the door. It’s Dale. Oh God. He’s come to rat on me to my mom. But I relax, remembering that she’s not home. I can’t wait to see the look on his face when he finds out he’s foiled.
I open the door. It’s not just Dale. My cousin Christina is there, too. “I thought you broke up,” I say.
“We’re friends,” says Christina.
I don’t respond.
“Is your mom home?” asks Dale.
I scoff “No.”
“Good. Let us talk to you for a minute,” he says.
“Look, I’m sorry about the cake. I was wrong!”
“That’s fine, that’s fine. It’s not about that.”
I let them in. They sit on the couch and I sit in the armchair. My block letters and magazine scraps are all over the floor.
“I brought you another cake,” says Dale. He lays it out on the coffee table.
I want to crawl into a hole and die. He should just yell at me.
“You know that I’ve moved out, right?” says Christina. “I’ve got an apartment now. I hardly ever go home. Mom keeps complaining about living alone. She hates it. It makes her restless, having no one to fuss over. You and Cheyenne should go over sometimes. She’d be happy if you did.” Christina gives me a look that says something I don’t want to hear. “Also, I brought something for Cheyenne.” She sets down a greeting card envelope. “Don’t let her open it around your mother, okay?”
They think about saying a few more things, but don’t.
I hide the envelope in my room. I hide the good cake in my room too, under the bed, right next to the messed up cake. Cheyenne comes home from school wearing a paper crown. They gave her a little wind-up bird toy. She ate a cupcake, but she didn’t like it much because it was vanilla.
We have the party in my room. I set my phone in the corner that gets wifi and play Ed Sheeran. I hate it. But it’s not my birthday. I set out the good cake and hope she doesn’t peek and see the other cake lurking. I give her the envelope. $50 falls out.
I ask Cheyenne if she remembers our aunt. She was still little when our mom cut her out. Cheyenne recounts a memory — She’s sitting at a strange kitchen table. There’s a woman who’s like our mom, but softer. She ladles stew into white bowls. Cheyenne, at the time, didn’t want to eat it. Though she can’t remember why. She takes her time describing the stew. It was full of fat chunks of beef. Wide orange carrots, translucent onions, soft potatoes. And a buttery biscuit on the side. I tell Cheyenne we’re going to visit our aunt, soon. I bet she’ll cook again for us. Plus, I remember her having cable.
Cheyenne keeps eating birthday cake until I know she’s going to be sick. She always refuses to sleep in her own bed when she’s got a tummy ache. But it’s her birthday. I let her eat.
“Has it been a good birthday?”
She nods, still eating cake. “Yeah. Really good! But, like, they told us at school that we’re going to take a standardized test next month and it’s really important we do well and I don’t think I’m going to! I’m scared I’ll screw up.”
“You don’t need to be scared. You’ve got a whole month to study for it. Never be scared of something when you can do something about it. Plus, you’re not some dummy. You’re my smarty-pants Chey-Chey.”
The sun is going down. Soon it will be summer, and the sun will stay with us so long. There’ll be so much light. Everything will be teeming with life and we can pick blackberries in our backyard.
I lean back and close my eyes. I don’t picture anything at all. Because right now, we’re happy.