Danny Chambers said that I was dirty and that I was poor, so I pushed him down on the ground. He said mean things about Mama too, things that I didn’t understand. Grownup things. I knew they were extra-bad from the way his friends were all laughing, so I got on top of him and hit him in the nose until his blood came out. He didn’t say anything about me or about Mama after that. He just looked up at me with the scared in his eyes until his friends pulled me off of him and he tripped all over his feet trying to run away.
It was the blood that got me sent to the counselor’s office, but it wasn’t my fault this time. Danny made me do it, with his stupid donkey laugh and his big dumb white teeth. I’d cut my finger on those teeth. Little beads of red came up over the skin when I squeezed. But Miss Elburn doesn’t care about my blood. She only cares about his. I can see her in her office through the glass with her stern face on, trying to call Mama like she had the time I was late for school, and the time before that, and the time before that. I told her that our phone didn’t work anymore but she never believes me, even though I always tell the truth. I know she’s getting ready to yell at me again, so I don’t stay long enough to let her. You don’t have to stay. That’s the part they never tell kids. They don’t even lock the doors.
I run past the parking lot down the little two-lane road and I don’t look back until all the buildings are gone and all I can see are the wildflowers growing up from the drainage ditches and the broken wooden fences that run along the road in crooked little lines. My sandals slap against my heels, so I kick them off as I go. I only wore them for school and I won’t be going back to that place anymore anyway. The pavement is hot, but I’m moving too fast for it to burn my feet.
My house is my favorite place in the whole world because the whole yard is grown over with wildflowers and stalks of thistle that are taller than I am. They’ve grown up all over the little dirt path that used to lead to the steps, but I know my way around them. The little thorns and sticker bushes never even grab at my dress. It’s my good yellow dress that I’m wearing–the best one I have–and when I look down at it, I see that it really is dirty. There are smudges all over it and the hem is torn. I still don’t feel bad about hitting Danny Chambers though, because Danny Chambers always deserves it.
But my house is my favorite because I can lie on my back in the front room at night and see the stars through the hole in the roof. There’s grass that’s grown up between the floorboards and wide, soft leaves that make it like lying on cool sheets, and sometimes I fall asleep right there and sleep all the way until the morning. But mostly, my house is my favorite place because that’s where my mama is. The front door sticks and scrapes a little when I open it, so I know that she knows I’m home early. I hear a thump and I can tell that she’s moving around behind her bedroom door.
Miss Elburn made the police come to my house once. I don’t know it was Miss Elburn who made them for sure, but I still know it. That was the day that Billy Durley told me to eat a grasshopper on a dare and I ate a whole handful because grasshoppers are yummy and I eat them all the time. I crunched them all up right in his face and when he cried they sent me to Miss Elburn’s office and she asked me a bunch of questions about why I didn’t bring a lunch and when was the last time I had a bath and does my house have electricity. I didn’t answer, because Miss Elburn was asking like she already knew the answers, and it wasn’t like any of it was Miss Elburn’s business anyway.
When I got home that day, there was a police car at the end of the gravel driveway, but its lights weren’t even on. A man and a woman with guns and blue uniforms were standing on the dirt path. Mama was on the porch, all frowny with her arms crossed. Mama was sick. This was before she got real sick, but it was still weird to see her out of her bed and in her robe with her hair going every which way. I hid in the tall grass by where the fence fell over and listened to them talk about endangerment and neglect and a whole bunch of other things I didn’t understand. Mama understood though, because Mama got real quiet then and didn’t talk anymore until they went away. Even from the grass, I could see that her face was turning red, and when she went back to the house she started to cough so much that I didn’t think she’d ever stop.
Mama was sick all the time back then, but she’s better now. She almost never came out of her room again after the police came, though. I used to have to bring her water from the faucet in a big cup until the faucet stopped making water and then I had to bring it in a bucket all the way from the creek. I had to be careful every time and make sure I stepped over the big circle of little leafs and crushed seeds that she’d made around her bed. I knew breaking the circle was bad, but Mama never told me why. When she could talk, she told me I was her good girl. I asked her if the police were coming to take me away and her face got dark and she told me she’d never let that happen. Not ever.
I was sick once, too. I had a fever of a hundred and six degrees and Mama told me later that I almost died! Mama made me all better, though. She pulled up things from our garden and peeled off bark from the trees in the forest behind our house. She crushed them up in a little bowl and poured hot water on them and made me drink it up. It tasted like garlic and honey and smelled like dead leaves after a rain, and even though I made a yucky face, she made me drink it all. The next day it was like I’d never even had a fever! I wanted to make Mama all better by crushing up leafs too, but she told me it wasn’t the same kind of sick. I knew by how she said it that she really meant that it was a worse sick. A real bad sick. Mama talked a lot back then, and she told me I could help her when the time was right. I like to help. I’m good at helping.
After the faucet stopped making water the lights stopped working, too. The food in the refrigerator got smelly so I left it closed and didn’t open it again. But that was okay because the reeds and thistle in the yard were tall by then and the grasshoppers were everywhere! There were breaks in the fences where I could find blueberries and corn, and down the block Mrs. Gantner’s garden sometimes had tomatoes. The mail kept coming though, every day except the days I didn’t go to school. I tried staying home from school to try to make the mail stop, but it kept coming anyway.
I used to try to read the letters to Mama when they came, but mostly I just sat on the floor of her room and listened to her breathing. It was low and crackly, like something was loose inside her chest, and sometimes it would stop and I would hold my own breath until she started up again. I’d sit inside the circle with my back against the bed and read the letters to her while she was sleeping. I always left off the ones from Child Protective Services. Those I only read quiet to myself. Sometimes there was knocking at the door and I’d make fists and squeeze my eyes shut and wish for it to go away.
When Mama stopped breathing for good though, I wasn’t scared. She’d already told me exactly what to do. She told me around the time her coughs started getting real bad and she made me say it all back to her every day so I wouldn’t forget. That was a long time ago, but I still remember all of it. Make a fire in the fireplace. Boil the water in the pot. Take the pouch from Mama’s nightstand and empty it in the jar. Pour the water on top. Don’t drop it. Don’t spill. It was easy, and the seeds in Mama’s room had grown up all over the bed and down through the floor and into the ground, so I didn’t have to worry anymore about breaking the circle. I put the jar by her mouth and made her drink it all up. Even though she made a yucky face, I made her drink it all.
After a while Mama’s chest got all still and I couldn’t hear anything crackling inside anymore, so I took the big seed with all the spiky prickers on it and closed it up inside her mouth just like she said. When she told me that part, I asked her if it was going to hurt and she told me no. She must have been right because she didn’t yell out or cry or anything, even when I pushed up on her chin and heard the seed go crunch.
I went to school just like normal the next day, and a bunch of days after that. Back when she could still talk, Mama said that it was important that I go to school, even if I didn’t feel like it. She wouldn’t tell me why. Even when I told her that I hated school and didn’t want to go, she wouldn’t tell me. But I already knew why, because I’d read all the letters, even the ones that I hadn’t read out loud to Mama.
Every day when I got home I’d lay next to her on her bed full of leafs. I told her about how Miss Bodington was teaching us fractions and how I caught Danny Chambers looking at me all weird and moony when he thought I couldn’t see. Mama would listen and I’d hug onto her tight, even when her body got skinny, even when her ribs got all covered in moss and I could see all the way through them. She never said anything but I knew she heard me because she was smiling. I could see all her teeth.
At night I lay in the front room and looked up at the stars. I listened to the grasshoppers singing in the yard and the soft shifting sound that mama made behind her bedroom door. I listened to the wind rustling through the thistle and the tall grass and I was happy, because I was home.
Now the police are back. Miss Elburn must have been talking to them the whole time I was outside her office because they got here really quick. I hear their car door slam and their shoes crunch on gravel and dry leaves. I hear their voices all muffled, saying things about our home, saying things about Mama. Sad things. Even a few mean things. Mama hears them too, because a loud thump comes from behind her door and I hear rushing noises from under the floorboards that sound like a nest of snakes.
The voices are getting closer, and I can hear them yelling and making swears because they don’t know the way past the sticker bushes and thorns. I hear a sound like the wind through the grass, only there is no wind and the sound is so loud that it’s almost like howling. There’s a big thump, the sound of something heavy being dragged. The swears are screams now, but they don’t scare me at all. I still get up and go to Mama’s room though, and I close the door behind me.
Mama is sitting up in her bed. The whole room is green now, with vines all the way down the walls and across the floor and falling over the bed like great big ropes. Mama’s looking at me and she’s green too, but the greenest green is inside her eyes. Outside, a gun makes a loud bang. I hear a crunch, all wet like breaking celery, and then no one’s screaming anymore. The whole world gets quiet and it’s just me and Mama again. She looks down at me and I can see her heart all spiky like a sticker seed in her chest, and it’s beating. It’s beating just for me.