Her again. The thought makes me feel like a monster and sick at the same time. She’s the one woman I should be loyal to and love without second thought. But it’s a tough job. I find myself hating her more often than liking her.
“Max, now,” her throaty, smoky voice growls out.
I round the corner, tucking my hands in my pockets. “Yeah, Mom?”
She’s strung out on the couch with a lit cigarette perched on her lips while she dangles an empty bottle of Vodka. “Need more booze, son. Go grab me some. Get a carton of Camels while you’re there.”
“Mom.” I glance down kicking the tip of my worn shoe against the corner of the wall. “It’s a new town, and remember I’m only twelve?”
I regret the words the moment they leave my lips. I know better than to reason or even talk to my mom when she’s in this state. She always becomes enraged.
“You spoiled little shit.” She tosses the bottle to the ground and staggers toward me, the cigarette still coupled between her lips. “I’ve fucking given you everything, and you have the fucking balls to back mouth me?”
As soon as her nasty words leave her mouth, I feel the sting of her palm across my cheek. My hands shiver in the denim of my worn pockets. I know better.
“Get your fucking ass down to that store. I’ve blown Jeremy enough, and he knows to bag up my goods for you, and if you want to talk back, go for it, you piece of shit.”
“Yes, Mom.” I glance down to my tattered sneakers that are two sizes too small.
Another sting strikes my cheek then my shirt is ripped, and a searing pain pierces my skin. The smell of smoke and her cackle cause my spine to shiver. Tears threaten to spill over from the pain. But I learned a long time ago: crying only makes it worse.
“Now fucking get gone.” She shoves me back, ramming my back into the sharp corner of the wall. “You have twenty minutes before I call the cops.”
I keep my head facing down but can’t help the smirk on my face. That used to work when I was five. It put real fear in me. Now, I know it’s a lie and always has been. There’s no way she could call the cops. I wish like nothing else she would. And maybe, just maybe, they might save me.
I kick rocks on the dirt road with each step, keeping my shoulders slumped and avoiding rubbing the pain in my chest. My heart hurts worse than the new burn. It now makes over a dozen of them.
We’ve moved countless times. It always starts with a paper posted on our door. I soon learned it’s an eviction notice. I remember the day I asked my second-grade teacher what the word was. I knew it started with an “e” but couldn’t make out the rest of it.
I’ll never forget the smile that crossed her face and the unmistakable joy that overtook her features when she explained the concept. It wasn’t until a few months later that I connected all the dots. She was thrilled to get rid of me.
We’ve been in Boone now for two months. Mom has a sweet deal with the owner. He comes over when he feels like it, they shut the door, and lots of sounds come from it. Mom brags all the time about not having to pay rent. It’s by far the worst house we’ve ever lived in, with creaky floors and leaks everywhere. The carpet in my room is nice, though, and makes a soft bed.
“Watch out, kid.” A larger boy brushes by me, shoving my shoulder. “God, you stink.”
His friends laugh along with the cruel joke. I’d made it to town and hadn’t even realized. I keep my gaze focused on the tiny market on the corner, not paying them any attention. I’ve heard it all.
“I bet he’s the new boy. Heard his momma was nothing but a whore,” a voice chides from my back.
I keep walking with my head down. Nothing ever comes out of sticking up for myself. The burns on my chest speak for that.
“You deaf?” A hand shoves my shoulder.
Laughter fills the air. “Probably deaf and dumb.”
A rock sails through the air, nailing my shoulder. I don’t stop. They follow me all the way to the corner, taunting me and tossing rocks. Eventually, they give up when I don’t react. I know it won’t be the last I see of them. They’ll make my school year a living hell. It’s pathetic to think I never want summer to end because that’s all I have to look forward to.
The bell above the door rings. The aroma of food hits me, reminding me how hungry I am. Since Mom doesn’t have to pay rent, she dumps her monthly checks into booze and cigarettes. I clutch the fifty-dollar bill in my hand, wanting nothing more than to buy a hotdog, smother it in mustard, and fill an extra-large cup with cherry slushy.
The crisp bill in my hand is a brutal reminder of the pay from my dad. He pays my mom a hefty sum every month to keep me a secret. It’s always been like that.
“Did you all hear Jessie might be coming back to town? Heard his injury is pretty damn bad,” a random voice announces.
Endless chatter ensues about this Jessie guy. I run my hand along the row of chips, imagining their salty goodness before making my way to the counter. A neon yellow poster catches my attention.
Summer Football Camp
Hosted by Hometown Legend: Jessie James
I continue reading all the print, growing more and more excited as I do. Sports have always been my one escape, even when it’s just me in the backyard tossing a deflated ball against the side of the house after Mom has passed out.
My heart sinks when I read the cost. It will never be an option for me. Mom would never fork over a hundred dollars for her kid to spend a week doing what he loves.
I clear my throat. “Excuse me, sir. I’m here to pick up an order.”
I’ve learned it’s best to use code words rather than asking for a bottle and a pack.
“You Max?” The burly man with stained yellow teeth leans down on the counter.
He’s for sure my mom’s type. I’ve never understood why she goes for these types of men with big bellies and dirt under their nails when she’s the most gorgeous woman I’ve ever seen. At least she was before she decided to drown herself in booze.
“Yes, sir.” I nod, holding out a trembling hand.
“Should’ve known. You look just like your momma.” He bends down, pulling up a brown paper bag.
“Thank you, sir.” I nod and eye the piece of paper one more time.
“Go ahead and take one.” He pushes one my direction.
“No, thank you.”
Embarrassment and shame, a well-known friend, creeps up my spine. I turn before tears really do escape this time. I notice a booth in the corner filled with farmers drinking coffee and talking. One of the men stands up from the booth and extends his hand my direction.
“Hey there, son. I’m Papa.”
His warm and friendly greeting shocks me. I’m taken aback. No one is ever nice to me. They stay far away from me, staring at me like a freak of nature. In a natural response, I take a step back.
“I’m Jack. Most people around these parts know me as Papa. What’s your name?” He jerks his chin, keeping his hand outstretched.
With a trembling hand, I shake his.
“You must live out on the Conrad place north of town with your momma?”
I nod and shake his hand. The moment the connection is made, I know he’s a different kind. There’s something about the thick flannel work shirt he’s wearing, his kind smiles, and the wrinkles that shadow his eyes.
“Yes, sir.” I nod again.
“Well, son, I’ve paid for a spot at that football camp. Just got news today the young man can’t attend. It’s all yours if you’d like.”
My jaw slackens. I’m shocked by the grace of kindness shown to me. It was one small action. One I had no idea would change my life forever.
“Thank you, sir.” I smile for the first time in my life.
I’d have to walk to town and back, which to the school is more than a good mile. But I’ll do it.
“If you ever need anything, you come find me out at Jones’ farm or ask for me in town, son. And I mean it.”
“Thank you,” I repeat myself again.
It ended up that I met this man the town hails as a hero, Jessie. He was kind and caring but never showed anyone favoritism. It was the tiny spark that ignited the fire inside me.