Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: GET COLD FEET (10/12/17)
TITLE: No Longer
By Jan Ackerson
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Looking back, I understand now that there were only a few who giggled, those who weren’t sure what was happening or why the girl with all the freckles was turning an alarming shade of red. But one of the gigglers was Paul Baird, a big six-year-old with a mean streak. He never missed an opportunity, for the rest of our kindergarten year, to whisper P-P-Paige behind my back.
It was a small town and a small school. Paul Baird and I were in the same classes for most of our school years, and he added to his arsenal of cruelty as we got older. Say my name, he’d say. C’mon, you can do it. P-P-Paul. Say it.
I won’t say that Paul and his taunting were the entire cause of my teenage angst. Like all teens, I internalized the world around me: the breakup of my parents’ marriage, a disaster in Manhattan playing forever on the television screens, the blemishes on my forehead. These calamities were all equally unfair, and I draped my unhappiness in black and vanquished my stutter by mostly refusing to speak.
And one night, after my mother was asleep, I stole $722 from her. She had hidden it, with a spectacular lack of imagination, in a coffee can. I didn’t even buy anything with it—I was such an outcast that I didn’t even have a clique of druggie friends. I just…kept it, counting it from time to time, finding that the having of it gave me power over her.
She never mentioned the money. We were distant, wary of each other, and I flew away as soon as I could.
That was a long time ago. I’m pretty sure Paul Baird wouldn’t know me now; I’m no longer silent, no longer shrouded in black, no longer stammering. It’s taken years, but I’ve reclaimed my life.
So I’ve been working my way up to confessing my theft to my mother. It won’t be easy; she too has reinvented herself. Once a chain smoker with a bottle always close at hand, she emptied both hands to grasp hard faith in a hard and vengeful God. I used to be afraid of her open hand, her sharp rebukes. Now I’m afraid of her stony heart.
I have the money with me--$722 and interest, even though the coffee can would have paid her none. I leave my car at a county park near her house and walk the trails there for a while, rehearsing my speech and my best responses to any of the possible ways she could react. After I’ve walked for an hour, I head toward her house, my heart pounding, then double back after two blocks and buy an ice cream from the concessionaire.
I don’t want to do this.
It takes me two more tries, and I use up two more delaying tactics. It’s suddenly very important to me that I re-lace my sneakers, and I do so, scrupulously checking that they line up to the millimeter. Then I decide to collect some of the acorns I saw while walking the park trails. Surely there’s a craft project requiring acorns. I know I’ve seen one somewhere.
My jacket pockets clacking, I stride to her house and knock on the door.
She’s surprised to see me; I rarely visit. There’s an awkward cheek kiss and she says, “Won’t you come in?” as if I’m a mostly unwelcome insurance agent come to give new quotes.
I perch on the edge of the couch and place my purse with its burden of guilt on the floor. “So, m-m-mom,” I say, and then stop, swallowing hard. I haven’t stammered in years, and she’s looking sharply at me.
“Mom. I t-took this. I’m s-s…” I can’t get past the word, so I reach into my purse and hand her the roll of bills.
“Jesus,” she says, but it seems to me that she’s not cursing. It sounds almost like a prayer, and she closes her eyes and says it again. “Jesus.”
We’re still for a bit, while I watch the silent movement of her lips, the twitching of her eyes beneath their lids. Then she opens them, and reaches out tenderly to tuck my hair behind my ear.
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