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Homebound
Author: Kata Cuic

Know Your Place

 

 

“It’s probly ugly, Stuffins,” the agitated voice mumbles from the backseat. “Stinky and ugly and…ugly.”

I stifle the sigh of frustration crouched in my throat. “No, baby. It’s absolutely beautiful.”

That’s not a total lie. The mountains of southern West Virginia are gorgeous. I haven’t laid eyes on the town of Martins Landing in over five years, but the last time I saw it in my rearview mirror, it was the posterchild for poverty-stricken Appalachia.

I’m not about to admit that to my petulant four-year-old though. She’s not speaking to me as it is.

“Stuffins, you’re my only friend,” she whispers as she strokes the matted fur of her favorite teddy bear.

“Aren’t you at least excited to see Grammaw and Pappy? We’ll have so much fun living with them in their house! You’ll get hugs and kisses in person instead of on the phone! It’ll be great! You’ll see!”

I’m rewarded for my lies with a glare in the rearview mirror. She’s not buying what I’m selling, no matter how much I paste on a smile and cheer up my tone.

It is remarkable how sensitive a preschooler is to bullshit. They have some built-in radar that tells them exactly when adults aren’t being fully truthful with them. She hasn’t figured out the Santa Claus ruse yet, but…time to come clean on this matter, I suppose. There’s no turning back now anyway.

“Sweetie, I know you’re upset about leaving Chicago and all your friends, but Mommy got a new job. My old job wasn’t a good fit, your old school was too expensive, our old apartment wasn’t safe, and our old life just wasn’t working anymore. It’s time to try something new.”

No response.

“You were born in Chicago, but I was born in Martins Landing. We’re going back to my hometown to be with Grammaw and Pappy, okay? I know it’s going to be a difficult adjustment to our routine, but I want you to grow up with family nearby. Is that so bad?”

The only sound is the air whooshing against the windows of our beat-up old Chevy Impala.

I try again. “Just imagine…Instead of waiting for the mailman to deliver your Christmas presents from Grammaw and Pappy, you’ll be able to open them up on Christmas morning! For your birthday, it won’t just be you, me, Auntie Liz and the cake. We’ll have our whole family there. Grammaw makes the best Thanksgiving dinners. No more Chinese take-out because Mommy didn’t have time to cook. Pappy used to hide all kinds of Easter eggs all over the backyard. You’ve never even been to an egg hunt before! We’ll have chickens, a few goats, some cows, and all the kittens you could ever want. There’s a big field you can run through until you almost feel like you’re flying. I’ll teach you how to fish in the creek that runs at the edge of the property. It’ll be so great. Just give it a chance.”

I don’t mention the treehouse even though it would make a stellar selling point.

“I don’t wanna go!” she screams in the back seat, kicking her feet in a terrifying display of the temper I have no one but myself to blame for.

“Anne Shirley Wheeler,” I grit out, “know your place.”

The tantrum blessedly stops. It’s not often I break out her middle name, far less common for me to slip back into my old Appalachian dialect. On the rare occasions both happen? She knows I mean business.

A conference between my daughter and her stuffed animal flies under my radar as I merge onto I-64 East.

When traffic eases up, I check the rearview mirror again only to find my mini-me’s chin puckered beneath her pout, the verdict apparently reached.

“We still don’t like it.”

“Me neither, kiddo,” I mumble under my breath. “Me neither.”

Of all the ways I imagined returning home, it wasn’t with my tail tucked between my legs. Certainly, never with the most precious cargo I could have imagined along for the ride.

“Mommy?”

“Yes, baby?”

“I’m bored. Tell me a story,” she demands, suddenly forgetting she wasn’t speaking to me minutes ago.

I’m terrified I don’t have any fairy tales left in me.

 

 

Eleven Years Ago

“Let’s play pretend, Jesse.”

He gives me the look. It’s the same one he’s been giving me since kindergarten. The one that says he can’t believe those words just came out of my mouth. “Aren’t we a little old for pretend? I’m fourteen. Men don’t play pretend.”

I want to laugh, but I know better. That’ll only hurt his feelings. Jesse always tries to act tough, but inside he’s proud and sensitive. “Fine. No pretend.”

I drag my toes through the cool creek water. The weather’s been hot and humid as all get out. My cotton sundress sticks to my back uncomfortably. The fishing pole in my hands keeps slipping, thanks to my sweaty palms.

“Can I ask ya somethin’?”

He shrugs, never turning his attention away from his own pole. “Sure.”

“Have ya…Well, have ya had your first kiss yet?”

He snorts. “Now how do ya go from talkin’ about wantin’ to play pretend to talkin’ about kissin’? I swear, your mind’s jumpier than a coon dog on the hunt.”

“Nuh-uh!”

“Yuh-huh.” He laughs. “You’re like a jackrabbit in there. Hoppin’ around from place to place, never stoppin’ long enough to know what’s good for ya.”

“Well, my daddy says that’s why jackrabbits are so hard to catch.”

“And your point is?”

“Ya just can’t keep up with me, Jesse Yates.”

“If anyone can keep up with ya, Lenore Wheeler, it’s me.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I spy the smug grin on his dirty, sweaty face. He’s got me right where he wants me, and he knows it. Darn it all.

“Anyways, I heard Bobbi Sue tellin’ Ruby Mae that Billy Joe kissed her under the big oak tree in town yesterday after school.”

“Ya know…” He scratches his chin. “For someone who claims to not like them girls much, ya sure talk about ‘em an awful lot.”

“Well, I couldn’t help but overhear ‘em! It was in the locker room after gym class. All the girls started talkin’ about who done kissed ‘em already.”

“And your point is?” He gives me the look again.

“My point is they all done been kissed already! Bobbi Sue said all the boys in our class been kissin’ girls since last year.” I throw my pole down beside me with a huff. The fish ain’t biting anyway. “So, I was just wonderin’…Who’d ya kiss already?”

He sighs. “Nora…”

“All right, fine! Don’t tell me. Must be nice ‘n all. I’m probably the only person in our class never been kissed. No one likes me. No one ever has.”

“Well, that’s just ‘cause you’re such a load to handle. Ya gotta know your place.”

I’ve been hearing that same line since before I can remember.

As silence descends between us, I listen to the woods. Bullfrogs croak from somewhere in the distance. The creek gurgles around the rocks on the bed. An occasional mosquito buzzes by my ear. I always think it’s funny how the old folks in town say they like to stroll through the woods for some quiet time. The woods are never quiet.

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