Home > All the Little Lights(5)

All the Little Lights(5)
Author: Jamie McGuire

I looked down at the plate, half-submerged in the murky water. “You’re not just one of seventy-two.”

“We’ll be okay, Princess. I promise.”

I rinsed the suds off the plate in my hand, looking at the clock, realizing why Dad had been so preoccupied with the time. Mama would be home soon, and he would have to tell her. Dad always saved me from Mama, and as much as I tried to do the same for him, there was no way to soften her wrath this time.

We were just getting used to hearing Mama’s laughter again, to sitting down at dinner and discussing our days instead of what bills were due.

I placed the clean plate on the counter. “I believe you. You’ll find something.”

His big hand fell softly on my shoulder. “Of course I will. Finish the dishes and wipe down the counters, and then take out the trash for me, would ya?”

I nodded, leaning in to him when he kissed my cheek.

“Your hair’s getting longer. That’s good.”

I pulled at some of the tawny strands closest to my face with my wet fingertips. “Maybe a little.”

“Are you going to finally grow it out some?” he asked, hope in his voice.

“I know. You like it long.”

“Guilty,” he said, poking my side. “But you wear it the way you like. It’s your hair.”

The hands on the clock made me work faster, wondering why Dad wanted Mama to come home to a clean house and dinner on the table. Why make sure she’s in a good mood just to break bad news?

Until the past few months, Mama had been worrying about Dad’s job. Once a haven for retirees, our small town had been deteriorating around us—too many people and not enough jobs. The large oil refinery in the next city over had merged, and most of the offices had already been relocated to Texas.

“Are we going to move?” I asked, putting away the last of the pans. The thought lit a spark of hope in my chest.

Dad chuckled. “It takes money to move. This old house has been in Mama’s family since 1917. She might never forgive me if we sold it.”

“It’s okay if we have to sell it. It’s too big for us, anyway.”



“Don’t mention selling the house to your mama, okay? You’ll just upset her more.”

I nodded, wiping the countertops. We finished picking up the house in silence. Dad looked lost in his own thoughts, probably going over in his head how he would break the news. I left him alone, seeing that he was nervous. That made me worry, because he’d become a pro at calming her explosive outbursts, her nonsensical rants. He let it slip once that he’d been perfecting his strategies since high school.

When I was little, before bed at least once a week, Dad told me the story of how he fell in love with her. He asked her out the first week of ninth grade and defended her against the bullying she endured over her family’s smelter. The by-products had seeped into the soil and then the groundwater, and every time someone’s mom fell ill, every time someone was diagnosed with cancer, it was the Van Meters’ fault. Dad said that my grandfather was a cruel man, but he was the worst to Mama, so much that it was a relief when he died. He warned me to never speak of it in front of her and to be patient with what he called outbursts. I tried my best to ignore her outbursts and vicious remarks to Dad. The abuse she suffered was always in her eyes, even twenty years after Grandfather’s death.

The gravel in the driveway crunched under the tires of Mama’s Lexus, snapping me to the present. The driver’s-side door was open, and she was bent over, retrieving something from the floorboards. I watched her search feverishly, holding trash bags in each of my hands.

I put the bags in the dumpster by the garage and closed the lid, wiping my hands on my denim shorts.

“How was your last day of ninth grade?” Mama asked, swinging her purse around her shoulder. “No more being the low man on the totem pole.” Her smile pushed up her rosy, full cheeks, but she barely navigated the gravel in her high heels, carefully walking toward the front gate. She was holding a small bag from the pharmacy that had already been opened.

“I’m glad it’s over,” I said.

“Aw, it wasn’t that bad, was it?”

She gripped her keys in her hand, kissed my cheek, and then stopped short of the porch. A runner in her pantyhose climbed from her knee to under her skirt, and one dark spiral of hair had fallen from her high bun to hang in her face.

“How . . . how was your day?” I asked.

Mama had worked in the drive-through of First Bank since she was nineteen. Her commute was only about twenty minutes, and she enjoyed using that time to wind down, but the best thing Mama had ever called the other two women she worked with was condescending skags. The small drive-through building was detached from the main bank, and working day in and day out in that tiny space made whatever problems the women had seem much bigger.

The longer she worked there, the more pills she needed. The open bag in her hand was a sure sign she’d already had a bad day, even if it was just because she remembered her life wasn’t panning out the way she’d planned. Mama had a habit of focusing on the negative. She tried to be different. Books like Finding Contentment and Processing Anger the Healthy Way made up most of our library shelves. Mama meditated and took long baths listening to soothing music, but it didn’t take much for her anger to surface. Her rage was always simmering, building, waiting for something or someone to create an escape.

She jutted out her bottom lip and blew the loose curl away. “Your dad is home.”

“I know.”

She didn’t take her eyes from the door. “Why?”

“He’s cooking.”

“Oh God. Oh no.” She rushed up the stairs and yanked open the screen door, letting it slam behind her.

At first I couldn’t hear them, but it didn’t take long for Mama’s panicked cries to filter through the walls. I stood in the front yard, listening to the yelling get louder as Dad tried to reassure his wife, but she wasn’t having it. She lived in the world of what-ifs, and Dad insisted on the right now.

I closed my eyes and held my breath, hoping at any moment the silhouettes in the window would collide and Dad would hold Mama while she cried until she wasn’t scared anymore.

I looked up at our house, the lattice covered in dead vines, the railing wrapping around the porch in need of a new coat of paint. The window screens were choked with dust, and the boards in the porch needed replacing. The outside only looked more ominous as the sun moved across the sky. Our home was the biggest on the block—one of the largest in town—and created its own shadow. It had been Mama’s house and her mother’s before her, but it never felt like home. There were too many rooms and too much space to fill with echoes and angry whispers my parents didn’t want me to hear.

Moments like this, I missed the hushed rage. Now it was spilling out into the street.

Mama was still pacing, and Dad was still standing next to the table, pleading with her to listen. They yelled while the shadows from the shade trees moved across the yard until the sun was hovering just above the horizon. The crickets began to chirp, signaling sunset wasn’t far away. My stomach growled as I picked at the grass—I’d resorted to sitting on our uneven sidewalk, still warm from the summer sun. The sky was splotched in pinks and purples, and the sprinklers hissed and sprayed our yard, but the war didn’t seem like it would end anytime soon.

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