by Melissa Paulsen
Four song sparrows distract her as they dart in and out of our junipers in the backyard. Her thin frame pauses by the sink full of last night’s dishes while I line four frozen sausage links on a plate. Next to the microwave, the slices of nine-grain bread emerge from the toaster in all their charred glory. I only know it’s nine-grain because there’s a picture of a leaping orca on the plastic bag; it’s the same bread I’ve grown up with. The cold jar of raspberry jelly feels nice in my sweaty hands as I smother the two pieces of bread. I hum along to the microwave and glance around the kitchen. My heart races when I realize she has wandered outside. Again.
Sunlight illuminates her auburn hair and wide emerald eyes. Her pale neck swivels back and forth as she watches two petite sparrows soar from the junipers to our ancient red maple, Margaret. I grasp her cold hands, and she narrows her eyes at me until they soften with recognition. My shoulders reach her chest now, but I can’t tell if I grew or if she shrank over the past three years.
I pull her into an embrace. Her chest shakes, and I wipe the tears from her eyes. “It’s going to be okay.” I rely on the words she once used to calm me. “I’m here.” I fiddle with the purple bracelet my best friend, Jasmine, made for my birthday last year. The beads clack against each other. “Let’s go inside and eat some breakfast, okay?”
She nods, and I make sure to flip the lock on the sliding glass door behind me. I gag as I open the microwave. Steam emerges to reveal shriveled sausages—I was supposed to stop them at the one-minute mark. She doesn’t complain, though, just nibbles at her toast and the one salvageable sausage while I scarf my toast down like I’m in an eating contest.
“I’m sorry about last night,” she says. Her eyes flicker between me and the birds outside. “I didn’t mean to burn our dinner.”
I swallow the last piece of burnt toast and feel a lump in my throat. Last night she had wandered away from the frying pan filled with garlic cloves and chicken.
I chase the crumbs down with expired orange juice. “Accidents happen.”
She doesn’t seem convinced and instead reaches up to play with her messy bun.
I attempt a weak smile and say again, “Accidents happen. Cooking is difficult. You taught me that, remember?” The wooden chair scrapes against the tile as I collect our dishes. She used to yell at me for scratching the tile, but now she just stares at the marks on the floor like they’re a secret code she’s supposed to decipher.
“Besides,” I call over my shoulder, “we got to order pizza last night.” The warm water feels good as it streams from the rusty faucet. The dishes clank in the sink. A plate slips out of my soapy hands and breaks in half. The jagged edge cuts my thumb as I retrieve the plate from the sink. My thumb throbs as it bleeds, turning the water pink like when an artist mixes paints.
She flinches. “What was that? Are you okay?”
“A dish broke, but I’m fine.”
“The first aid kit should be…I think it’s….” She rifles through the cracked plastic three-bin organizer. Loose scrap paper flutters to the floor, and a pen drops. She hurries out of the kitchen and returns a moment later. “I can’t find it.” Her face contorts, and her eyes water. She stomps. “Why can’t—”
“I’m fine,” I say. “I found a Band-Aid in the junk drawer, see?” I stick out my thumb. It’s an old Scooby-Doo Band-Aid. Scooby’s face covers my thumb like a finger puppet.
She breathes a sigh of relief. “What were we talking about again?”
“The pizza we ordered last night.”
“We had pizza last night?”
“Yes, we did.” I watch her stand by the TV and flip through the channels.
“We did what?” she asks, fixated on an advertisement for Tums where a dude fights an army of life-sized burritos.
I take a deep breath, inhaling through my nose and exhaling out my mouth. “Why don’t we watch Savannah and Hoda for a bit on The Today Show?”
“I don’t want to watch that.”
“Well, what do you want to watch?”
She shrugs and sets the remote on the coffee table. She thumbs through the glossy pages of a People magazine. I don’t know any of the celebrities. While she’s distracted, I type thirteen on the remote; she’ll want to watch The Today Show.
“I told you, I don’t want to watch this.” The doorbell rings and startles her. She drops the magazine, and the pages bend at weird angles on the carpet. “Who’s here?”
“I’ll go see,” I say, even though I’m ninety-nine percent sure I know. I take a running start and slide in my striped socks down the hallway’s wood floor. Resting my forehead against the door, I check the peephole before swinging it open. The cool autumn breeze rushes inside.
“Good morning, Z.” I step aside as Aunt Jordynn shrugs off her puffy coat to hang by the door. Her tan arms are warm and strong as she stoops to give me a hug. She smells like peppermint.
“How is she this morning?” Jordynn whispers. Her eyes are the color of syrup, and I’ve always thought they were the prettiest eyes I’ve ever seen.
I sigh. “The usual.”
Jordynn nods and pulls a notepad from her purse. It’s hot pink (my favorite color) and spiral-bound on the top. She scribbles a few notes in cursive and asks, “How are you doing?”
Tears prickle in my eyes, and I don’t want them there, so I swipe them away. “It’s hard. Really hard. I miss the old days when she took care of me. Is that selfish?”
“No, Z, not at all.”
“I miss her memory.”
“Me too,” Jordynn says. “But you’re doing a phenomenal job. Especially for all that’s being asked of you.”
“Z, where did you go?” she calls from the living room.
“I’m right here,” I say. Jordynn follows me into the living room. A handful of my childhood picture books lies scattered across the ivory carpet. Jordynn and I watch her in silence. She picks up each book to examine its cover before returning it to the dusty shelf. She clutches The Very Hungry Caterpillar in her hand: my favorite. “We forgot to organize these last night,” she says. She pats her hair bun again.
My gaze lingers on her wrinkled Airforce t-shirt: the one she has worn for three days straight. “The books weren’t on the ground last night,” I say out of the side of my mouth to Jordynn.
Jordynn nods and walks around the leather recliner, running a plump finger along the armrest. “Hey Sarah,” she says, “it’s me, Jordynn.”
“I know who you are.”
Jordynn takes her grumpiness in stride like she does every morning. “I’ve come to check in and see how you’re doing today.”
I glance at my phone. 8:05. I’m going to be late. Shoot, I’ve never been late for anything in my life.
I tuck the phone back into my jean pocket. “I’m going to leave you with Jordynn for a bit,” I say as she puts The Very Hungry Caterpillar upside down on the shelf. “But I’ll see you this evening, okay, Mom?”
I hug her, but her eyes stay glued to the TV as Savannah and Hoda read today’s headlines. Rushing back into the kitchen, I grab my lunchbox from the fridge. I toss it into my backpack that we bought at TJ Maxx last month during one of her good days. It’s a pretty lavender color, and it came with a pack of scented pencils. The root beer one is my favorite.
“Thanks again, Jordynn,” I say, yanking on my bright red Nikes. My navy-blue track jacket swishes as I pull my arms through. For good luck, I pat the logo of the eagle with “Washington Middle School” etched beneath its outspread wings in red letters. Today, my team and I are qualifying for State. Coach Emerson told me I had a good chance of being eligible since I’m the fastest girl on our eighth-grade team. The overgrown grass tickles my ankles as I dash across the yard toward the school bus flashing its red lights.
Melissa Paulsen is an undergraduate majoring in Creative Writing at the University of Montana. Born in Reno, Nevada, Melissa has spent the past ten years living in the gorgeous Flathead Valley. Some of her hobbies include reading, writing, golfing, cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers, and playing Nintendo games because she has the heart of a nerd. Melissa aspires to write YA novels and children’s books in the future; she believes that her writing helps her explore her relationships with her family, closest friends, and her fellow writers and readers. She hopes her work encourages others to write and reminds them that they are not alone.