This is the second and concluding part of a two-part story. Read Part One here. Copyright is held by the author.
PEGGY HADN’T heard Kathryn’s side of the expulsion saga. There was only so much she could read into a text message. Peggy knocked on the door and shrugged her shoulders to loosen tense neck muscles. Her daughter, being Kathryn, would never be able to tell her, “Mom I need your advice.” She had texted, “Come get me. I need a ride home,” after it was too late to do anything about the situation.
Kathryn answered the door and Peggy’s arteries twisted in knots. “Are you ready?” Peg asked. “Are you packed?”
Kathryn stared, her fingers resting on the doorknob. Next, she lifted her toe, shuffled a foot on the carpet, and shifted her weight, leaning a shoulder on the doorjamb.
The roommate Pam sat on the purple beanbag. “Don’t forget your cell charger. It won’t work with my G-ten, so if you leave it, it’s trash.”
Kathryn didn’t budge from where she was standing, but turned her head toward her roommate, and rolled her eyes in the same huffy way that she had used in response to Peggy’s reminders about brushing her teeth or cleaning her room. Peggy wanted to put her hand on Kathryn’s shoulder, to rub her back, but she didn’t move. Neither did Kathryn. For a long moment they stood in the doorway like that. Peggy had driven a hundred miles to retrieve her daughter, would have driven a thousand more if she thought she could rescue her too — Kathryn, who as a child had hugged Peggy, arms clasped at the nape of Peggy’s neck like a locket.
“Kathryn,” she finally said, “tough week?” because the silence was making it hard to breathe.
“Wish you’d called sooner.”
“Really?” Kathryn squinted one eye, nostrils flaring. Peggy remembered her now, the adolescent angst fueled by grief. “Like you could have done something.”
Peggy stepped by Kathryn and reached for the suitcase, so she could feel the weight in her hand. “It’s not so farfetched.”
“Fine.” Kathryn sounded like Jack, the way Jack sometimes agreed with her just to end a conversation.
Peggy said, “Let’s get on the road.”
Kathryn snatched the phone charger from the outlet. “Okay, I’m ready.” She followed Peggy and the suitcase out the door.
Kathryn loved that photo of her father lounging with her on a beach blanket. There was a spot on his bicep where sand coated his skin like a cinnamon-covered doughnut. The way a curl jutted out by his left ear and the way Kathryn’s hair flipped, conjured the gentle sea breeze. Kathryn arrived home one day and noticed the picture missing from the mantle of the boarded up fireplace in the living room. Kathryn’s heart sank when she realized the picture had been smashed on the parquet inside the apartment door. She stared at the long thin cracks bursting from a centre point like the limbs of a squashed mega-mosquito. “How did this happen?”
Pam’s butt was planted deep into the purple chenille-covered beanbag chair — so deep that her arms and legs sprouted from the thing like thick, wormlike eyes emerging from a potato. Her glance darted from The Enquirer to Kathryn and then to the shattered photo in Kathryn’s hand before settling on the right corner of the ceiling. “What? Oh that. How am I supposed to know?”
In the heat of that moment, images of Kathryn’s late father ranting about taking shit from no one made Kathryn kick the side of the beanbag chair. She stormed into her room, slamming the door.
Kathryn wasn’t sure why she ever hung out with Pam in the first place. Kathryn thought they were best friends, but the more she considered their relationship, the more she saw her mistake. Pam lied all the time — about stupid things. Really, what was the point of saying she grabbed a diet coke and a salad when she really sat in her car, sucking down a chocolate shake, a double cheeseburger, and a side of onion rings? The back seat of Pam’s car was filled with more crumpled fast food wrappers than the dumpster behind Store Twenty-Four. Likewise, Kathryn’s roommate told everyone her knock-off Jimmy Choo’s were the real thing. Kathryn knew those glitter peep-toes were fakes even before she found the K-Mart receipts strewn on the kitchen counter.
Kathryn should have known Pam couldn’t be trusted when they were back in high school. The girl lied about helping with the Big Buddy program just to get out of class. She’d sign up to help one of the special needs kids, but she never showed up. To cover for her, Kathryn had to include Pam’s little buddy CeeCee in her group. CeeCee looked like Mrs. Potato Head with a tongue too large for her mouth and crusty dried-up-rubber-cement-like snot wadded at the corner of one nostril. The image made Kathryn’s stomach queasy, so she pushed it aside.
CeeCee wanted to believe Mumma when she said, “The members of the Big Buddy program are like anyone else.” However, when it came down to it, CeeCee was scared of Big Buddies. She imagined being packed in a crowd of towering people, having to search for air between tangles of elbows. She imagined these big buddies as giants who would spoon-feed her mush like a baby or call her Mrs. Potato head and other nasty names that made her cry.
On the Big Buddies’ field trip, at first, Mumma rode the roller coaster with CeeCee, Kathryn, and the others. By the end of the day, CeeCee left with Kathryn while her mother sat on a park bench, drinking lemonade. As the distance between Mumma and CeeCee grew, the peach fuzz on CeeCee’s arms and the back of her neck stood, making her skin itch. This prickly feeling made her wriggle her shoulders and rub her arms. This prickly feeling plagued her again and again. Anyone who watched CeeCee counting out dollars and cents to buy nail polish at the CVS or considering where to put the soap in the washing machine would see her wriggle and rub.
At the amusement park with the Big Buddies, CeeCee scratched at the back of her neck and looked to Mumma for strength. The sun rays made Mumma’s hair glimmer. The corners of her eyes crinkled as she smiled and waved CeeCee on.
Mumma said, “Go on. Have fun.”
Mumma’s confidence soothed CeeCee’s prickly skin, so she nodded and marched off with Kathryn and the others.
Kathryn’s stomach flipped and churned all morning, even before she buckled into the roller coaster seat. The gastric somersaults triggered by invasive thoughts of tubes sticking into her father’s hand and chest, leaving swells the colour of black mold in his skin. The night before, when she visited him at the hospital, he asked the usual questions, “How’s school going?”, “What did you have for lunch today?” and “You listening to your mother?” However, there was something about the way his eyes wandered to the window in the middle of his grilling that made her uneasy. It was as if he were watching himself drift away.
As she loaded onto the roller coaster, the sound of those carefree little buddies laughing surrounded Kathryn. Crystal notes mingled with gurgles and sounds, varied series of twitters and warbles, and rapid sequences of squeaky notes punctuated by loud spasmodic jeers. A jumble of ignorant bliss, like the students with Down syndrome were chanting, “par-ty-hats” with a very even cadence.
It was times like this she felt a strange sense of envy for people like CeeCee, believing those people were genetically-programmed to be happy no matter what. After all, if you’re a kid forever, you never have to deal with adult-sized problems. She wished she could curl up on her father’s lap.
Now as CeeCee puts the paper towel in the trash, she thinks about how after work today, she will call her mother from the group home. “Mumma, you’ll never guess who I saw,” she’ll say. She wriggles and rubs to stifle prickles while she concentrates on Ms. Desoto’s instructions on how to clean the bakery cases.
CeeCee sprays more Windex on the side of the glass case and rips off another sheet of paper towel. The smeared cleaner blurs her view of Kathryn’s face. The streetlights from outside reflect off her hair making it look as if she wears a strange glowing crown.
“I work here now,” CeeCee says. “I get to help clean and sweep.”
Kathryn nods and glances through her bangs at CeeCee. “That’s good.” She returns her focus back out the window, wanting to keep the conversation short. A car pulls into a parking spot right in front of the bakery window. Headlights blind Kathryn for a second and then turn off.
“That’s not my Mumma,” CeeCee says. “Do you ‘member my Mumma? She can’t drive me to and from work ‘cause she’s in the hospital. She’s sick. She keeps getting sick and she can’t drive.”
Kathryn looks at CeeCee, finding eyes mapped with red rivers and tired under-eye skin, emerging like frost heaves in the road. She sees that CeeCee does in fact look like a weary, scared adult. After all, CeeCee doesn’t look the same as she had back as a little buddy — the bouncy, always happy, child. Kathryn really hadn’t gotten to know her, even though they spent time together.
“How long will your mother be in the hospital?” Kathryn asks.
Kathryn feels the sadness seep through the air from CeeCee. The delicious smells of fresh roasted coffee, chocolate buttercream, and cinnamon powdered doughnuts are blotted out by a whiff of Windex. The bakery’s soothing stock music-loop fades, suddenly overpowered by the racket of clattering pots, pans, and baking sheets in the kitchen and the sound of torrential rain arriving on the rooftop like a flock of mangy pigeons.
“I’ve missed you, buddy,” CeeCee says. “I have.”
Kathryn closes her eyes to squelch a tear. She can hear the force of CeeCee’s inhaling and exhaling through her teeth, hear the rustle of tissue paper as the cashier lines a bakery box. She is getting ready to say I don’t want you to miss me, when CeeCee says, “Mumma’s really sick.”
Kathryn opens her eyes. The little girl with her father sets a half-eaten cupcake on one of the café tables. She is hopping on her toes from floor tile to floor tile, chanting, “Don’t step on a crack or you’ll break your mother’s back,” and an uneasiness creeps up Kathryn’s spine.
“Sorry to hear that,” Kathryn says, turning to the round, hopeful face of CeeCee. “I always liked your mother.”
CeeCee makes a snorting noise. “You can still like her. I do.”
“Of course. I mean I like your mother. Did and do still.” Kathryn wonders how much longer she’ll have to carry on this conversation. And yet, she says, “You probably don’t know this, but I know what it’s like to have a really sick parent.”
CeeCee’s eyes light up. She fills her lungs. But as she parts her lips, looking on the verge of cheering for joy, CeeCee’s face and shoulders wilt. She wrinkles her forehead and rubs a thumb quickly against her ear. “Your mumma’s sick too?”
“My dad. He died from cancer.” As soon as the words come out, Kathryn wants the conversation to end; it is time to wrap it up and get out of there.
“About college? Why you not there?”
“I’m not in college.”
“What you say?”
Kathryn shakes her head. “I’m not – I’m not in college anymore.”
Kathryn senses that CeeCee is about to ask something else. If she does, Kathryn will say she needs to go, make an excuse to leave. She stares in the direction of the man with the baby and his daughter, watching CeeCee from the corner of her eye.
The little girl, she notices, has a crumpled napkin in her hand. With her shirt untucked, she is standing by the trash can, repeatedly pushing the spring-loaded door and letting it swing shut — each slam sounding final only to clatter over and over and over again. Kathryn watches the little girl, the silly garbage can game.
“Mumma!” CeeCee called from the hallway.
Marion set the clothes iron on end, staring at the mirrored closet door. “What?”
She was asking if they could have the same kind of graduation cake as last year — the strawberry with chocolate frosting, but Marion didn’t answer. Marion saw her reflection. Tiny blue dots peppered her neck and chest. Her fingers found the tattoos fresh from the radiology centre as a landslide brought her down. She pictured a clump of buttercups looking disproportionately large in CeeCee’s stubby fingers as she angled the petals toward a headstone. CeeCee was alone and waiting for her mother’s answer to the question, do you like butter? Autumn leaves the colour of scorching flames piled up around her. Blizzards buried her daughter in frigid drifts. Spring melted the icy blanket, only to draw robins, intent on plucking strands of CeeCee’s hair to feather their nests. An orphaned CeeCee screamed at the birds, “Quit it!” When hundred-degree heat burned CeeCee’s skin to blisters, Marion leaned against the mirror’s surface to cool her face.
“Mumma,” CeeCee called again. “You in there?”
The odd sensation of floating in the sky overcame Marion, even though she was still cheek-to-mirror. “What is it, love?”
The bottom edge of the paneled door whooshed like an ocean wave against the carpet. The tide brought CeeCee closer. She touched her mother’s shoulder and splatted down next to her. “Don’t cry, Mumma. We can have Funfetti instead of strawberry cake this year. I don’t mind.”
Tears clogged Marion’s vocal chords. “Strawberry’s fine.”
CeeCee wrapped her arms around her mother and squished tight. Something about the soft fleshiness of CeeCee’s arms and torso reminded Marion of her own mother. CeeCee rubbed her mother’s back and hummed, Mmm, mmm, mmm. Pulling away, she asked, “I’m so scared when you’re sad.”
“I’m scared too.”
“Scared and sad? What are you scared of, Mumma?”
“Well, change, I guess. Soon you’ll need to get by without me.”
“Huh? What you said like that.”
“You’ll have to be brave.”
“How come you say, you’re scared and I have to be brave?”
At last year’s graduation ceremony, when they had called CeeCee’s name, she had waved a quick hello to Kathryn from Big Buddies Club. At the first shrieking whistle from the adoring crowd, CeeCee had stuck her fingers in her ears and headed straight toward the principal.
Marion said, “You already are brave — because you don’t let fear hold you back. You’re growing up.”
“I’m getting older, Mumma.”
“Yes, aren’t we all?”
“What’s wrong with your mother?” Kathryn twirls a section of hair and puts it in her mouth for a second.
The traffic is lighter outside as if the commuters have begun to lock themselves into tomb-like houses for a break from the busy life. The street lamps illuminate the angry raindrops piercing the night sky. The branches of the old rhododendron bushes outside the bakery window cast shadows as they give in to the force of the wind, the broad leaves curling against the cold as if turning inward could protect them from harsh realities or nature gone awry. The man with the kids exits the bakery. Kathryn sees how wind frees the spokes from his umbrella, ripping it inside out. It’s difficult for him to keep his balance with the baby strapped to his belly. The little girl reaches her arms up to her father, begging to be carried, and trying in hopeless attempt to stay dry under his broken umbrella.
“My Mumma said she’s gonna try everything to get better. Now she’s getting chemo, it rhymes with Nemo. Medicine is ‘upposed to make you feel better. But she’s so sick, buddy. Throw up and so sick, poor Mumma.”
“So, you ever get to work in the kitchen, baking?” Kathryn pictures her own father lying in a hospital bed. She knows that as chemotherapy kills cancer cells it could take along with it, hair follicles, cells in the mouth. She knows that chemo could make a patient pale, dizzy, bruise easily. But surely a tough man like her father, a former college linebacker wouldn’t succumb to the weakness, shortness of breath, and vomiting. How could all that strength get depleted?
CeeCee says, “Not yet. Someday, I hope. Mr. Soto says only the hardest workers get to make cookies.”
“How often do you get to eat the cookies, though?” Kathryn says to redirect CeeCee.
“I just eat ‘em when they say it’s okay,” CeeCee says.
While CeeCee speaks those very words, something in the sound of her voice makes Kathryn’s heart radiate warmth. She likes the rhythm of CeeCee’s phrase. She smiles — can’t help herself — and stares out the window. Her chest tightens at the way the wind gusts, causing the rain to spit sideways through the shadows, and yet this same shower, in spots illuminated by streetlights, glows — tiny pearl-like fireflies dancing in the sky.
“I didn’t know about your dad died from cancer,” CeeCee says, thoughtfully.
Kathryn looks at CeeCee, who doesn’t meet her eyes, but just gazes out at the downpour. “Well, my father was an unusual case. Let’s hope your mother’s stronger.” Kathryn says grimly.
“Oh,” CeeCee says. “Sorry.”