Artist unknown, courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art
“How was school today, Michelle?” Her mom was dishing up her casserole of the day as she spoke.
“That’s too much!”
“You need to eat enough or you’ll lose more weight.” Her face scrunched up as she extended the plate across the table.
“You can’t make me eat more than I want!” She took it but had no intention of stuffing herself. She didn’t even like her mom’s cooking. Mushy dishes of overcooked pasta with some kind of cheese on top.
“You used to love my tuna-noodle surprise!” Her little brother Tommy giggled and said, “Sa-prise!”
“Whatever!” She poked at the heap with her fork and began picking out the peas and putting them into her mouth one by one.
“Young lady, don’t be rude to your mother!” Bill glared at her. She studiously avoided his gaze and kept her face a mask. He was a jerk. She didn’t know what her mom saw in him. She wanted to yell at him to leave her the fuck alone, but that would make him look at her with his creepy smile.
“Bill, remember what I said.” Her mom looked at him, darting her eyes away from the table. Trying to play peacemaker, probably. Why was this guy over here all the time anyway? She knew he was staying over nights but they always acted as if he’d stopped by for breakfast early in the morning. In the same clothes, riiight!
She pushed the food around, nibbled at the pieces of tuna she could separate out from the goop and noodles. When her mom and Bill got into a heated discussion about how he had no right to discipline her kids, she slipped out of her chair and using her paper napkin, in one quick motion swept the food into the garbage.
Sitting on her bed doing homework she felt at peace for the first time since she got home. The girls she knew said they hated homework, but she loved getting lost in the books, in the math problems, the history lessons, the American and English literature and the science. She also loved the A’s. Her good grades were something that belonged to her and not to anyone else.
She heard Tommy having his bath down the hall, Mom playing with him with bath toys while trying to clean behind his ears. Michelle gave him his bath sometimes. It was okay. If Bill ever volunteered to help him, she’d quickly volunteer and do it before he could get into the small bathroom. She thought maybe he was probably a perv.
They were reading Huckleberry Finn in English right now, and she loved the adventures he had on the river. Where were his people who should have watched after him? He could just take off and no one even looked for him. She thought this might be nice. She knew that there were a lot of bad people out there, though, and runaways who went to New York often ended up turning tricks for some skeevy pimp just to have a meal and somewhere to sleep.
The house was quiet now and she yawned. A quick trip to the bathroom to wash her face and brush her teeth and she got into bed. She turned out the light and lay there trying to let go of her worries about the family. Even though her parents had divorced last year, her dad had always been there. She could call him, and every other weekend she’d stayed at his apartment and they’d done fun stuff like going to museums or shopping or to the movies. Now he was gone, dead and buried just a few weeks ago, and she wondered what was her life going to be like.
There was a creak in the hall and she sat up, listening intently. She saw the dark form of Bill in her doorway and get larger as he came in.
“I just came in to say goodnight, and tell you I’m sorry I told you off at the table.” He sat on the bed. “I want your mom to be okay, and her life is hard right now.”
She shrank to the other side of the bed, not wanting to say anything and wishing he’d just go.
Then she felt him touch her hair and heard him whisper, “Your curls are so…lush.”
For the Daily Post