The spaghetti was a little too soft—and by that I mean it was like mashed potatoes. Nobody commented on it, though. The table was basically silent except for the occasional input from Ms. Whatever-her-name-is. Still, I wanted them gone. I'd never wished for a meal to be over as much as I wanted this one to end. Even the disastrous dates I'd been on paled in comparison.
"Can you pass the bread?"
I pretended he wasn't talking to me. The bowl was right next to him; he could get it himself. His gaze remained fixed on me, though, so I finally glanced up—and noticed the bowl was in my face. He wanted me to pass it along. I turned as red as the bowl and said, "Oh. Yeah. Sorry. I didn't think…I didn't notice…Yeah."
The mother assured me that everything was "all right." I could've killed myself, but I couldn't find the words to excuse myself and bolt, so I stayed rooted to my seat and struggled to control my nerves. My eyes were glued to my plate, though it was out of focus. I shoveled the paste masquerading as spaghetti around. The fork was cutting off my circulation, and I was sure I'd have a nice imprint left on my finger. Yet I gripped the fork all the tighter. He was still staring at me.
I sat stiffly for an eternity. My hand ached, having cramped long ago. I couldn't pry the fork away; it was stuck fast, somehow fusing with my skin. My neck was sore from being bent at an unnatural angle. I was thirsty, but I couldn't reach my cup, though it was right in front of me. The move would've attracted attention. I just wanted to be invisible—I'd given up on Death paying a visit.
"Who wants dessert?"
Everyone declined the offer, claiming to be too full, and I whisked my plate to the sink without wasting a second—well, that's what I wanted to do, but I had to delay long enough to collect everyone's plate and politely tell Mr. Neighbor I didn't need his help. He didn't listen, though; and my moment of escape was marred.
"You rinse. I'll load," he said, setting the cups down beside the sink.
I ignored him and massaged my dented finger. The fork had only come off after I dipped my hand in running water. Thankfully the neighbors had stacked their plates for me or it would have been very awkward collecting the dirty chinaware, to say the least. I still couldn't fully stretch my hand.
Movement caught my eye, and I turned my head to see Mr. Annoying Neighbor sitting beside me on the concrete counter. My mother would've thrown a fit. The thought of her berating him brought a smile to my lips, though I knew she would never do such a thing. It was good to dream sometimes.
"So you're not going to talk to me?" He tilted his head sideways. "You know you can't blame me for…"
I turned the faucet on, hoping to drown out his response. I wasn't interested in what he had to say. But I could still hear him, so I added over his words, "I appreciate the offer, but there's no dishwasher."
"…Right. Then what do you call that thing?" he said, pointing behind me to the stainless steel machine snuggled between the glass-paneled cabinets in the island.
Though there was a dishwasher in the kitchen, it was hardly ever used. Mom said dishwashers were a waste of water and time, since the dishes never came out completely clean and the leftover gunk had to be scrubbed off. I knew better than to use the dishwasher, but I wasn't particularly happy about hand washing the dishes. Especially not now.
"An oven, obviously."
His eyebrows rose. "Remind me not to eat anything you cook."
"Gladly," I said, and I wondered if he would've been so patronizing if he knew how much I wanted to stab him through the eye with the dirty knife in my hand.
"What am I saying?" He gesticulated, acting as though I hadn't spoken. "Your future perfect husband will take care of the cooking."
My grip slipped and the tip of the blade's serrated edge bit into my ring finger. A cup shattered on the floor, knocked over by my elbow. I sucked on my lip to keep from hissing again as I pressed my thumb against the flow of blood and held my hand under cold water. Serves you right.
"Let me see."
A blurry blob stood beside me. He gently took my hand and inspected it. I wanted to tell him not to touch me, but his mother rushed into the room before I could find my voice. I pulled my hand out of his grasp.
"What happened!" she asked. "I heard the noise."
"A glass fell and she cut herself." He shot me an I-dare-you-to-deny-that look. "It's not too deep at least."
His mother was instantly beside me. She made her own inspection of my finger and said, "You poor dear. Don't worry—I'll fix you right as rain." Then she told her son to bring a medical kit from their house and busied herself with sweeping the broken bits of glass while we waited.
– ◊ –
"Now be careful, kids."
I was reluctant to see her go and surprised she would leave me alone with Mr. Anonymous Neighbor after The Incident. I eyed the blue bandage around my finger. It was dotted with large-eyed purple bunnies. I thought they were adorable from the moment I saw them. Mr. Anonymous said the bunnies were childish and laughed when I chose the bandage anyway. His mother had scolded him.
A pity her son wasn't more like her. He didn't resemble her in character or in appearance, except the eyes, and even then hers were a paler color, I thought, though perhaps that had something to do with her overall lighter skin tone. He probably takes after his father. I puzzled as I realized the man had not been here tonight and frowned as my brain tried to reason an explanation. Maybe he had to work. Maybe he hadn't wanted to come. Maybe he didn't live with them.
By the time I pulled myself from my thoughts, Mr. Anti-Bunny had washed all the forks and dishes. I was slightly awed. He had actually cleaned up without complaint? I fingered my bandage. His back was to me, so I took the opportunity to stick out my tongue. Jerk.
"What!" Mr. Anti-Bunny turned to shoot me an incredulous look, wiping a lock of hair off his forehead. "I wasn't even saying anything!"
"No duh, genius," I said with forced nonchalance. "I wasn't talking to you."
He stared at me blankly, cocking his head to the side and tapping the fingers on his left hand against the counter. It wasn't long before his lips twisted into a familiar smirk. "But you were thinking about me."
"…I was not!" But I'd taken too long to say it, and we both knew it.
"Then why are you blushing?"
"Don't you think you've caused enough trouble? Can't you shut up for once?"
I was surprised when he actually listened…until I realized why.
"Sarina!" Mom stood just inside the kitchen, slightly flushed and giving me a reprimanding look. "That's no way to speak to one of our guests. Haven't I taught you better than that?"
The temperature in my body rose, and I stared at the suddenly interesting floor, muttering an apology.
"I'm terribly sorry," Mom was saying as she placed her purse on a stool in front of the island. "I don't know what's wrong with her; she's usually not this way. I think she's going through a rebellious stage. You know, she never…"
I was disgusted at the way my mother talked about me, disgusted and mortified. I excused myself without offering a word, which means I just turned around and walked out. But that was a mistake, since I hadn't gotten out of the kitchen when—
Cringing inwardly, I stopped and faced her, making sure I kept my head tilted to avoid seeing Mr. Anti-Bunny. "Yes, Mom?"
"Come here, honey." The look in her eyes told me I'd better prepare myself for when our guests left. Of course she'd never show her anger in front of company: that was unacceptable, a sign of no self-control.
"Don't make plans for tomorrow, okay."
Uh-oh. I could practically see the wheels in her head turning: she was planning something. And though I didn't know what it was, I knew I would hate it.
"Okay," I squeaked, then worked up my courage. "Why?"
"We're going to show our neighbors around town."
And there it was. I knew I wouldn't like it.
"But…" Think, think, think, I mentally chanted. Think faster! I had to get out of this. There was no way I could stand being stuck with him again. "But…I have to work tomorrow."
"I know, honey." She gave me a small smile, the kind that accompanies the let-me-explain-it-nice-and-slowly look. "That's why we're going earlier."
Drats. Why had I told her at what time I'd be working?
– ◊ –
I refrained from groaning and looked toward the door to my room. My mom stood there frowning, clearly upset about something. She sighed in annoyance before saying, "Reading again? Do you want to go blind?"
"Sarina," she warned.
"I'm sorry." I sighed, earmarking the book I was reading and setting it down. "You wanted something?"
She walked into the room, coming to a stop at my dresser, and pursed her lips as she fingered the music box my grandmother had given me several years ago. "What do you think of him?" she asked, hardly taking her gaze off the trinket to look at me. She didn't have to tell me whom. I'd seen the eager gleam in her eyes. She wanted me to tell her I was in love…or well on my way there.
"He's arrogant, cocky, nosy, and a child molester."
"Sarina!" Her face contorted in disbelief as she gave me her full attention. "How could you say such a thing? That boy is one the nicest, most well-mannered young men I have ever seen. Why, how preposterous! Really, Sarina, what's gotten into you?"
Anger rose within me. How could she just take his side and blame me? Me, her own daughter! She hadn't even known him for ten hours. Gritting my teeth, I forced back the tirade of emotions swelling within me.
"Tomorrow, you'll see. Why, you two are just about perfect for each other. Did you know he…"
I tuned her out, much like I'd done Ms. My-son-is-the-worst-excuse-for-a-human-being. I really didn't care at this point. Why did that thing have to move into my neighborhood? Like there weren't enough neighborhoods in town! Why'd he have to come to my town? Why even come to my state?
I sulked. I brewed. I ranted. I threw an internal hissy fit. And all the while, my mom talked on and on about it. Yes, I had degraded him to an 'it'; he wasn't worthy of personification. He wasn't worthy of much, at all.
It was some time before I realized my mother had stopped talking. I glanced in the direction I had last seen her, but she wasn't there anymore. Roaming my now clean room with my eyes, I found she had fallen asleep on my bed, having talked herself to the point of exhaustion. And now that she was asleep, I was safe from talk of guys and marriage. I could observe her without feeling the slightest bit of annoyance: her mouth was shut.
She lay on her side, facing me. Her wavy hair gently caressed her face, hiding her perfectly smooth cheeks behind the auburn locks. The tip of her slightly pointed nose peeked out from atop the pillow her head was resting on. Her lips were parted just enough that I could glimpse the tops of her front teeth. The face that I had come to know so well, the face that defied age naturally, was the face of my mother. People said I looked like her, but I never saw the resemblance.
Rising quietly from my reading nook—which was basically a cushioned bench under the east-facing window—I walked to my closet and pulled a fluffy fleece blanket off the top shelf. I draped it over my mother and kissed her on the forehead, whispering, "I love you." Then I crept back to my bench, curled up with the book I'd discarded earlier, and switched on the tiny reading light affixed to the back cover. Grabbing the remote beside me, I pressed a button and left the rest of the room in darkness.
"Finally over," I murmured to myself, shoving away all thoughts of the day's events before starting to read.
At least, I thought I'd locked them away. But ten minutes into the book, I found the words on the pages blurring and my train of thought drifting.
"Do you haf any mawkus?" The little girl looked up at me from her belly-down position on the floor, kicking her legs above her. She'd been doodling with a pencil, occasionally humming along with the radio, while I finished picking up the mess in my room.
I jerked the bedcovers into place as I pondered the word. "Mawkus?"
"You know. Mawkus." She waved her hand with her pointer finger and thumb pressed together. "O' cwayons."
"Oh! Markers?…Yes, I do."
"Can I bawo dem?"
"Sure, sweetie." If I could just remember where I put them. I tended to keep the Magic Markers stored away, and I wasn't about to give a child my permanent markers when she was lying on my sand-colored carpet, catchall folder underneath her drawing or not. "Just let me find them for you. You can use the crayons for now."
"Okay!" She sat up expectantly while I handed her the box of crayons, taking care to shield her paper from me. She watched me retreat to the closet before going back to her drawing. "Dayn-cue."
"You're welcome. What are you drawing?"
"Ith a sequet."
"A secret? Do I at least get a hint?"
Even though I couldn't see it in the darkness, I looked toward the wall behind my desk, where I'd taped Kayla's drawing after she'd presented it to me. She had pointed to the largest shape, a cross between a triangle and a rectangle, and said it was a cow. I'd told her the blue cow with the green stripes was the prettiest one I'd ever seen, and she'd beamed in her childish way. The purple oval with the bar through the middle was a "bud," and the red crisscross-starburst was a lion. The other shapes, apparently, were merely decoration. I'd asked her what the animals were saying, and she launched into a story about the cow, bird, and lion dancing and singing.
Kayla sure was cute. She'd been shy at first, but she'd quickly warmed up to me and made the rest of the night bearable. I'd switched into child mode and done everything she'd wanted me to do, from 'drawing' to playing follow the leader to telling her stories (which I had to make up on the spot or improvise, in the case of classic fairy tales). And we'd done it all from within my room. I hadn't had to see Mr. Anonymous Anti-Bunny Neighbor again tonight.
Oh yes. I loved that girl.