Home > Sweet (Contours of the Heart #3)(12)

Sweet (Contours of the Heart #3)(12)
Author: Tammara Webber

Brent had managed to convince Dad that we’d both been asleep when Mom left. That we had no idea how she’d run off or with whom. She hadn’t left any clues for him to follow, either. Thundering through the trailer, he’d trashed their room and anything of hers she’d left behind—as if that black bag hadn’t been full of everything she cared about. As if she hadn’t walked out on everything she didn’t give two shits to take with her.

My first time through third grade began a couple of weeks after her escape. Needless to say, given that I had to repeat it the next year, that school year didn’t go well. They say the brain can block painful memories, leaving gaps and voids in place of them, but it didn’t work like that for me. I remembered everything.

My brother always tried to protect me, but I was a burden he never got clear of. I couldn’t ever tell him I’d overheard that last brief, whispered conversation between him and our mom. His plea. Her lie. I’ll let you know where I am.

I knew by his expression he didn’t believe her.

But I had.

• • • • • • • • • •

Everywhere there’s a group of people, there’s a pecking order, even in elementary school. Once you’re promoted to fourth grade, you’re no longer one of the little kids, and only the fifth graders can lord it over you then.

Unless forty of your classmates get promoted and you’re the only dipshit left behind.

Like my brother, I’d always been big for my age. But being held back a year told the world I was dimwitted, too, so I stood out like a mutant idiot next to my new, younger classmates. I stooped low when we walked single file down the hallway to the lunchroom or the library. I folded my body like crumpled paper, hoping to be overlooked when we sat in a circle to read out loud—the most fucked-up thing any teacher ever invented. Invisibility was the superpower I wanted most, but I’d never been more visible.

Guys learn to talk shit to each other as soon as we can speak. It’s what we do. Even with our friends—sometimes especially with our friends. But with friends, there are subjects that are off-limits. Like your mom running away from home with some random dude and leaving you behind like trash. Like your dad being thrown in jail overnight on the regular for being drunk and disorderly out in public. Like how dumb you must be to get held back in third grade.

Those are the subjects friends don’t touch, but other guys pick up and throw like stones, because that stupid nursery rhyme—words will never hurt me—that’s a goddamned lie. When it’s bad and it’s true, those words slip beneath your armor and slice deep. And if you fight back with the only weapon you’ve got—fists, in my case—you’re the bad guy. Because their weapons were “just words.”

I’d heard the word alcoholic before. My mom had said it to my dad plenty of times, when she wasn’t calling him other things. Brent explained that alcoholic was a different way to say somebody was a drunk—a nicer way, because it made it sound like they were sick instead of making bad choices.

“Is Daddy sick or making bad choices?” I asked. When I was sick, I threw up and I had a fever. I stayed in bed and drank 7UP.

“Both, I reckon,” Brent said. “But if you’re sick and you never try to get better, at some point it just looks like bad choice after bad choice, and nobody cares if you’re sick anymore.”

The word I’d never heard was whore. I might not have known what it meant, but I knew it wasn’t good because it was whispered and chuckled over and thrown like a spear when connected with Boyce’s mama.

“What’d you say?” I asked the one who’d said the word. A guy from my new class. The grin disappeared from his mouth like it’d been wiped off. His eyes bugged and he swallowed hard but didn’t answer.

“He said your mama’s a whore.” There were four of them, all smaller than me, standing stiff as statues with their hands balled into fists, looking ready to attack or run. It was like a pack of wolves thinking maybe they were gonna take down a grizzly.

“Shut up, Eddie!” the first guy said.

Eddie Standish stood farthest from me, so he was full of spit and gristle.

I grabbed the guy next to me by the shirtfront, swung him around, and used his body to tackle Standish. We went down in a heap, and the last thing I saw before the world went red was the fear on both their faces. I’d put that there. And I wasn’t sorry.

I was also about to be expelled. From elementary school. Staring at the scraped-up fists on my lap as if they belonged to someone else, I’d been silent when Principal Jaynes asked, What in heckfire were you thinking, young man? I didn’t mean to tell what they’d said about my mom, so I said nothing. I didn’t want anyone to know. Two of the guys were still in the nurse’s office, and two had talked to the principal before me. Now he was calling parents while I sat in the outer office, alone. Elbows on knees and head in my hands, I hid my face and imagined my dad showing up, his hands and clothes spotted with axle grease, his breath sour with whiskey and anger.

“I need to talk to Principal Jaynes.” The voice was soft, but I knew who it was before looking.

Through my fingers, I watched the smiling lady on the other side of the counter and the small girl with her back to me. Her long, dark hair was somehow tamed into one fat braid that hung straight down her spine.

“He’s a bit busy right now, Pearl. Can I help you with something, hon?”

Pearl placed her hands on the tall counter, which sat just under her chin. “I need to talk to him about the fight. About what those boys said. I was a witness.”

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