Mama sips her morning tea from the kitchen counter, the strength diluted by her fading smile and tense, constricted muscles. Her skirt, drenched in a deep black and frayed from continuous wearings, skims the hardwood floors. It dances in a steady motion, at the morning breeze’s will rather than her own.

I beat my hands in a consistent rhythm, matching my mother’s dress and shutting my eyes until I’m soaked in a vast swarm of people.

Mama’s laugh echoes off the cliffs of the beach, and she’s dancing again. Spinning and twirling as the drums beat on and the swarm’s melody erupts into a harmonious climax. And they’re at the center of it all. Mama and Papa pulled tightly together, the passion infused in the cores of their eyes. Anna and I stand on the edge of the circle, clapping and shifting to the pace of a movement much bigger than us. Yet, when I turn to peek at the joy in Mama’s eyes, I feel Anna’s hand clutch my arm, and I’m abruptly snatched from the depths of the moment.

“Lizzy?” she calls, and her big blue eyes fill the void of the newfound silence.

“I’m fine,” I retort. I don’t intend to convey such a boiling frustration. Lately it just spills out of me in spasms and streaks, directed at the easiest prey. With Anna, I feel a force that consumes me. I’m standing on a tipping iceberg and the bitter grasp of death compels me to lash out. Mama stares straight at the cracked, uncleaned cup in front of her instead of coming to Anna’s defense as I secretly wish she would. Anna’s pained face adds to my dread, to the pulse of my drained body. I lay down on the dirt-ridden floor, the one that used to be so pretty with its black, well-maintained tiles, arms sprawled, and my sister comes to tap me.

“Why isn’t Mama eatin’?” she inquires, the gap between her two front teeth prominently exposed.

“She’s not hungry,” I dryly respond.

“But she wasn’t hungry yesterday,” she persists.

I pause and inhale. “Well, maybe she’s not feeling right.”

“Then we should call Grandma and Grandpa. They could help her. Give her some medicine or somethin’…”

“NO!” I shout, my stubborn resistance ricocheting off Anna’s droopy ginger pigtails and compiling in wrinkles underneath the rims of her eyes. “What’ll they do? Save her? Make our tummies full or her mug empty?”

Anna’s pursed lips and angular bones jut into my eleven-year-old conscience. Mama’s position on the opposite side of the counter with the tattered, discounted yellow curtains swaying behind her, stands in a stark contrast. I conclude that my baby sister certainly won’t feed herself.

“Alright,” I relent, assuming that something to chew on is better than an empty stomach, even when the tears make the food salty. Maybe if she eats, I reason, she’ll forget for a while. “How ‘bout I fetch you a nice blueberry Eggo?”

“Leggo my Eggo!” she eagerly replies, captivated by a fresh sense of delight.

I stroll over to the pristine refrigerator, wrapping my hands around the stainless steel of the handles. I freeze before the cold hits me: drawing me in — the vibrant letters, plastered to the fridge with magnets purchased from the local ninety-nine cent store. Falling to my knees, I reach out to trace the mariposa-wing orange “C” with my dirt-stained fingertips. I run them down in trickles, inching over the curve, reaching the sharp ends. And all at once I feel the crisp corners of his jaw. The way it felt that clear spring morning when Anna and I tackled him in bed, reminding him of his thirty-fourth birthday. How he hadn’t shaved, and his beard covered his chin in sporadic prickles, jostling when he creased his cheeks to smile. And the way Mama threw her head way back in a careless thrust, and spoke in a serious manner to remind us of our place and break from the bouts of teasing.

“Birthdays come and go,” she announced, firm and easy. “Remember the little things, and try not to grow big-headed like your daddy.”

Then came the “U,” yellow like the sunrise, and just as slow moving. Just when it made you suppose it had got the best of you, you were left dumbfounded by its unforeseeable comeback.

“U” was the uncontrollable undulations of Papa’s hair in the summertime. Like when we all went on down to the state fair in Georgia, and Anna was scared to go on Thunder Mountain. Me, being the bigger sister, I tried convincing her to come along. But, no sir, she stayed huddled right there with Mama, eating a big old stick of cotton candy as Daddy and I waited in line. And his huge brown curls tossed and turned on the drops, but he stayed laughing up a storm, me howling right with him.

When it was all over and we rolled up into the station he pulled my ear over to his mouth and whispered, “Now listen, I wanna tell ya something. You are brave. You are one piece of wonderful work, more like your daddy and your granddaddy than you’ll ever know. And don’t let any folks ever tell you otherwise.”

I savored his words, sweeter than any cotton candy I’d ever tasted. I kept that little secret tucked among my eyelashes as I shuddered and hesitantly dragged my fingertips towards the terrifying “R.”

“R” was the dreaded letter. It was the one that appeared suddenly and out of the blue: the relentless rage and mutated genes that exploded out of Daddy the Cotton Candy Machine. “R” was when Daddy never showed up at the Thanksgiving concert, or to pick us up at the bus stop after school that day. “R” was coming home by ourselves to Mommy’s sobs and Daddy’s massive bellows, screaming about things only he understood. For the hatred that seized him, and for the protectiveness that made Mama muster “Go stay in the closet until I call for you. Like hide-and-seek!” between broken cries that failed to sound like counting.

For the peeking out of a crack in the closet and the way I covered Anna’s eyes to be the brave one just like Papa told me. And for what happened next: for the image that would become stained in my memory, but not in Anna’s. For his blow, which came like an avalanche in slow motion, striking Mama in a thunderbolt tinged with pity. And for my tongue, bitten and swollen from when I ordered tears back to the deepest depths of my throat.

For the constant “sorry’s” and “forgive me’s” and Mama’s late-night phone calls. To the fake smiles, prepared meals, and empty wallets, drained without a penny to spare. To the day she agreed to stay — for us, not her. For when our dinners started to have conversations, and she stopped having to use scarves to cover the bruise. And all went back to normal. “R” as in “revered,” when Daddy was a strong man in a house of forgetful girls.

Santa came. Leaves fell. A thin layer of ice emerged on the roads. And Mama picked us up from school. “T” as in tangled tendencies, tangled tactics, and tangled terms. Mommy unlocking the front door. Put down the scarf. Scream. Run. Collapse.

Protect Anna. Go to Mama. Look away.

Papa was there, but he was distant. Far away. Dead with a bullet in his head. Gun down. Man down. Curls drenched in a coat of thick, drying blood. Ambulances can’t help the deceased.

The note said Daddy loved us very much, but that he couldn’t go on any longer feeling like a stranger in his own body. I wondered how much he could’ve loved us, leaving a black casket and sighing old ladies as our last image of him, and not roller coasters and birthdays. After all, he never did reach thirty-five.

Anna forgets. They say it’s ‘cause it’s too painful to remember. I can’t cover her eyes forever. But I want to shield Mama’s. She can’t un-see. But maybe she can stop staring and start living. Instead, she sips her tea. It is spring again. I open the fridge, and grab the Eggos.

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