Cool pavement kissed the soles of Mazie Reynolds’ bare feet. Beads of shining dew, caught in that nether-moment between breaking dawn and the sizzle of a spring heat wave, clung to clipped blades of grass. The world smelled clean and fresh. Smelled of open air and endless horizons. Smelled of freedom.
The rusty bolt that secured the red flag to the mailbox whined when she forced it up. She shot a glance over her shoulder. The house remained still, her morning reprieve uninterrupted. The eerie quiet lulled her into a sense of normal.
Whatever that was.
She pulled a small stack of mail from the box, the envelopes like sandpaper against her fingertips. Bill, bill, flyer, pizza menu. The last bulky and colourful piece announced that Cullen may have already won two million bucks. She snorted. As if.
She glanced at the van sitting in the driveway before turning her gaze on the mountains in the distance, all lilac and orange in the rising sunlight. How easy would it be to just drive away? Never look back? Do something different. Something new. Something better?
The hair on the nape of her neck stood on end at the crack of wooden heels on concrete. She tensed her shoulders and set her jaw. She hadn’t heard the door open. And why was he wearing those old cowboy boots on a work day?
“Surprise!” Soft, pale, freckled arms encircled her waist and squeezed.
Mazie laughed. “Well, good morning, Miss Simpson. You are definitely not who I was expecting.” Mazie reached her arm around the girl’s shoulder, gave her a small hug, and planted a light kiss on her frizzy, copper hair. “What are you wearing?”
Polly, the neighbour’s daughter, stepped back and stomped the sidewalk with wooden clogs painted bright yellow. “Grandma sent them from Holland. They’re klomps.” She twirled. Her short skirt flew in the air and flashed a bit of pasty, plump ass cheek and white cotton underpants. “Can I go show Ariel?”
“She’s still in bed. How about later?”
“Morning, Mazie. That’s a lovely scarf.”
Mazie donned a wide smile and turned slowly. That smug half-grin sat there on her neighbour’s round face, all prepped for another day of sticking her stupid nose in everyone else’s lives. “Hello, Rachel.” Mazie touched the thin material around her neck and pulled the scarf higher before drawing her sweater tighter across her chest.
Rachel jerked her head at her daughter. “Polly, honey, get back inside and eat your breakfast.”
Polly slipped off the klomps, picked them up, and skipped across the dewy grass, her wet footprints darkening the wooden front stoop before disappearing into the house next door.
“She’s growing up so damn fast.” Rachel plopped her balled-up fists on the sides of her ever-expanding muffin-top.
“Too fast. Just last year all boys had cooties.” Mazie sighed. “Now those cootie-carriers are all cute. And Ariel asked if she could wear makeup.”
Rachel nodded. “Well, today’s twelve is our generation’s fifteen.”
“I suppose. Kind of scared for my future grandkids.”
Rachel raised an eyebrow. “Getting a little warm for scarves and long sleeves. You must be boiling all bundled up like that.”
Mind your damn business, Rachel.
“I’m fine. I like to be warm.”
“And you’re looking a little thin. You dieting again?”
Damn this woman and her incessant need to pry. Always peering over the fence, eyeballing Mazie’s family from her deck, standing on her tiptoes and craning her stubby neck, listening to Cullen’s phone conversations. Though, that was his fault. He shouldn’t drink and take private calls in the backyard. He was so much louder when he drank.
“I’m always dieting.” Mazie slipped her index finger under the flap of one envelope and tore it open, her focus anywhere but on Rachel’s questioning gaze.
The paper sliced into her finger. She winced, squeezed the tip with her thumb and watched a droplet of crimson ooze from the tiny scratch.
“Any plans for summer vacation this year?”
Mazie nodded. “Maybe a trip to the mountains. Or east to visit Mom. Cullen will go fishing, of course.”
“Without you and Ariel? You used to go all the time.”
“He likes his solitude.” And so did she.
The screen door squeaked on its hinges. “Mazie?” The air stilled after Cullen’s voice boomed across the front yard. “Oh. Hello, Rachel.” He said her name as if it were poison he had to spit from his mouth before it killed him.
Rachel’s nosy eyebrow shot up. She crossed her arms. “Cullen.”
“Mazie. Baby, come back in. Your coffee’s getting cold.” His voice lost its boom, took on an average volume, like what she imagined a normal husband would sound like.
She looked at her feet. “I’ll be right there.” She turned and headed toward the house.
“Well, have a nice day,” Rachel called as Mazie retreated. “Come for coffee sometime.”
Mazie waved over her shoulder, stepped inside the door, and bolted it against the outside world.
In the kitchen, Cullen leaned against the counter, his arms crossed in front of his chest, chin down, eyes dark and brows pinched. “Why do you talk to that stupid bitch?”
Anger spewing from his mouth was nothing new. But when his voice became a low growl, her skin crawled.
She dropped the envelopes onto the counter, turned on the tap and squirted dish soap under the stream of hot water. “I don’t. She talked to me. She always does, you know how nosy she is.” Mazie’s voice was casual, almost sing-song. But even she could hear the underlying strain, like a too-taut piano wire about to snap.
The scratch of Cullen’s work boots against the gleaming floor neared. She tensed, her hands immersed in soapy dishwater.
He rested his chin on her shoulder. The stench of his cigarette breath soured the air. Her scarf tightened around her neck.
“Just keep to yourself.” His voice was gruff in her ear.
She nodded, willed the tears he so loathed — or feared — not to pool at the corners of her eyes. She held her breath against the pressure on her throat.
He let go of the scarf. Mazie grasped the sink’s edge and struggled quietly for air.
“Morning, pumpkin. Shouldn’t you be getting ready for school?”
The familiar shuffling of Ariel’s slippers on the linoleum neared. “Mom, are you okay?” Her thin arms circled Mazie’s waist.
“Of course she is.” Cullen put one hand on Ariel’s shoulder and pulled her away.
Mazie grit her teeth. “I’m fine, bug. Do as your father says and get ready for school. I’ll make you pancakes.” She didn’t turn around. Didn’t want Ariel to see that the tears had won again, and were dripping down her cheeks.
“All right.” The whisper of slippers against linoleum disappeared at the living room carpet.
In Mazie’s peripheral vision, Cullen scanned the grocery list on the fridge, ran one permanently grimy finger down the clean paper. “Are you going today?”
“You need more woman shit already? Didn’t you just buy tampons?”
She swallowed. “That was last month.”
“Fucking stupid bullshit. Maybe we ought to just get you fixed. Would save me a lot of cash.” He yanked bills from his wallet, counted out five twenties, and slapped them on the counter. “Where’s my lunch?” He yanked the fridge door open and leaned into it, shoved the food around. Glass containers crashed against each other as if they would crack open and spill their contents onto the shelf and the floor below. It would be his fault if they did. But she’d get the blame.
She sucked in a deep breath. “It’s packed in your pail. On the sideboard.” Like every other day.
He nodded, didn’t even look at her. “I’ll be late tonight. Going for a few beers.” He turned his back and slammed the door. The aura of sweat and grime that never came out of his plaid work shirts no matter how many times she laundered them, no matter how much soap and softener and deodorizer she poured into the machine, fouled the air.
The truck rumbled to life. He gunned the engine and roared out of the alley.
How did she get here? A prisoner in her own home. She should have taken Ariel and run years ago. She dropped her chin to her chest and wept at the sink.
“No.” She stood straight. “Stop it, you stupid, weak woman.” She pounded her fists against the counter’s edge, spraying soapy water onto her clothes. “Damn it.” She snatched a dish towel and dabbed at her shirt. “Can’t you do anything right?”
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