I wrote this story one afternoon, as an exercise in writing at a workshop with my wonderful writing group. I hope you enjoy it. ~cindy
“Dammit! I can’t find my coat.” Libby rummaged through the pile of clothes in the tiny hall closet of Ruben’s trailer. “Has anyone seen my coat?” she yelled at nobody in particular. “I’m gonna be late for work and I need my coat! It’s chilly out and I’m not about to catch a cold because if I don’t work, nobody eats!”
Libby’s eyes smarted from trying to hold back the tears. Her voice caught in her throat as she considered her situation. Living in Ruben’s trailer home was difficult, especially since there were now four of them in it.
“Leave me alone, Jesse!” Lily’s voice whined from the bunk-type bedroom that really wasn’t anything more than a walk-in closet between the main bedroom and the bathroom. “Stop kicking me.”
“I’m not kicking! I was just stretching!” Jesse’s voice answered.
“Well, don’t stretch your feet where I am,” Lily retorted.
“I can’t help it! This bed’s just good enough for one person. I was fine in it before you moved in!”
“What do you mean by that?” Lily demanded.
“I had this whole bed to myself. There’s just enough room for me and dad. We didn’t need you and your mum here.”
“Fine. You can have your bed to yourself, you selfish little brat! I’m sleeping on the couch from now on.”
“Good! I don’t like sharing my bed with you.”
The bedroom door slammed shut and a disheveled Lily stomped out, dragging a blanket behind her. She plunked herself down in the middle of the couch, pushing aside some newspapers and clothes that had been discarded there. She sat there staring at the small TV screen sitting on a chest. The top of the chest overflowed with stuff. There was nothing better to describe the mishmash of odds and ends and garbage that ensconced the old television set like a poorly thought-out multicolored floral arrangement. She leaned her head on the back of the couch and closed her eyes, wishing the whole trailer and its musty-smelling mess would just disappear and she and her mum were back in their well-organized, clean, sweet-smelling house. Unfortunately, that wasn’t going to happen, with their little house buried under the hill that had come down on them just two days ago. Two days! Who could have known that a horrid storm would hit so bad that the rains would actually wash the hill down? They had lived in that house ever since Lily could remember. Now it was gone, along with all the memories of her grandparents and all the mementos of her childhood. No more lavender-scented bathrooms or lemon-scented kitchen. No more cedar drawers and closets that permeated their clothes with the sweet, woody scent of cedar. No more camping out on the living-room floor in the summers or watching the stars at night from the porch. Her eyes still shut, Lily pulled the blanket over her head and dabbed at the corners of her eyes, then opened them to stare at the hazy fluorescent light straggling through the threadbare sheet.
Libby straightened up and kicked the clothes on the floor back into the closet. She grabbed a scarf instead and wrapped it around her neck. It wasn’t hers, but it would have to do. It smelled sweaty and rank, just like the whole trailer, and she wrinkled her nose in distaste as she jerked it away from her. Holding it in her hand, she looked around, found a can of air freshener, and sprayed the scarf, waving it in the air both to catch the mist and to let it evaporate quickly so the artificial vanilla scent would not be so pungent.
“I’m off to work now, Lily. You should be getting ready for school.”
The voice from the blanket was angry. “There’s no school today.”
“Because. It’s Parents’ Interview day. You’re supposed to get my report card.”
“I’ll have to go after work. I don’t get off until four.”
“Whatever,” the blanket mumbled.
“Please try to be nice to Jesse and Ruben.”
“We’d be out on the streets if not for Ruben.”
“He’s just using you, mum. You know he’ll never get a job.”
“Hush. You mustn’t let Jesse hear you. Or Ruben.” She didn’t even know where Ruben could be at this time of the morning. Maybe out cadging for coffee and breakfast.
“I don’t care who hears me, mum! I’m not putting up with it. I’m not going to be a charity case. You’re not going to be a charity case! I can’t live here. I don’t know how or where you met Ruben, but he’s not good for you. He’s not good for us.”
“It’s only temporary.”
The blanket became more animated. “We need to move out of here. I’ll go crazy. You’ll go crazy. We’ll all go crazy and we’ll end up killing each other like some sick horror movie where everyone dies. Then who’ll take care of the baby?”
“Jesse’s not a baby anymore.”
“No. I mean, my baby. I’m going to have a baby.”
Libby froze, then groped for the edge of the kitchen counter to put the aerosol can down. She shook the scarf and stared at it as if it were an alien that had appeared in her hand out of nowhere, wondering what to do with it before she finally wrapped it around her neck again. “How can you have a baby? You’re only fourteen! God help me, you’re only fourteen!” She wanted to rush to the couch and pull the blanket away from Lily and shake some sense into her. Instead, she took a deep breath, opened the front door and took a step out. “We’ll discuss this later. I don’t have time now.” She swung the door shut behind her, catching it just before it slammed, and stood on the front step for a second before she ran down to catch the bus, which was pulling up at the corner, four houses down.
Libby’s day went by in a blur. She couldn’t remember what she did if you asked her, and the fear that Anne Marie might fire her at any moment had crossed her mind once or twice. Thankfully, the bookstore remained quiet throughout the day with only a handful of strangers wandering in, none of the usual customers who spent a good deal of time chatting with her. Also, Anne Marie had left just after ten on some other business and wouldn’t be back until half past three.
Her mind flooded with all sorts of ideas. Who was the boy? Was it from her school? How could she become pregnant at fourteen? She’s still a child! How could the boy not have used a condom! I’ll have to take her out of school. How will I explain this to her teachers? Was it Ruben? Damn if he wasn’t teasing her the other night. The rat! But she couldn’t get pregnant so fast. How many months is she on? We can’t live in Ruben’s hovel. There must be years of filth and garbage just lying around everywhere. You can’t even get a clean glass when you want to. I don’t think he’s ever cleaned a thing in his whole life. I don’t think he’s ever worked in his whole life! Oh God, what did I get into? I only went to Ruben because I couldn’t think of anyone else. I don’t want to be a burden on anyone! Never! Not even when Lily was born. I’ve never been a burden on anyone. Not even my folks, God bless their souls. I just wish they lived long enough for Lily to get to know the better. They were well-meaning after all. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions! I wasn’t going to owe them anything. I certainly won’t be indebted to any of my siblings either. Not my brother, not my sister. What will we do? What can we do?
By the time Anne Marie strode into the bookstore with her aggressive, business woman’s walk, Libby had finished shelving the books that had been pulled out of place by lazy browsers. She had also displayed the three boxes of new books that arrived early in the day.
“Isn’t it Parents’ Interview day?” Anne Marie asked as she crossed the width of the bookstore, twisted her slim body around the corner of a book stand, came to a stop at the cashier’s hub and rested her hands lightly on the waist-high polished wood counter.
Libby looked up at her over the computer monitor, where she reviewed the day’s sales.
“I—I’m not off till four,” she stammered.
“Oh, pouf! You need to get to Lily’s school by four and you’ll never make it if you leave here at four.”
“No buts.” Anne Marie reached over Libby’s head, plucked Libby’s scarf from the coat rack behind the register, and draped it over the computer monitor. “There’s nothing I can’t finish myself by closing time. Now scoot!” She sat on the counter as she tapped Libby’s shoulder and patted her back until Libby jumped out of the chair.
“Okay, okay,” Libby smiled. “I’m going!” She felt so fortunate to have Anne Marie as a boss. The bookstore owner could be in her late forties or early fifties, and she was as motherly as they come. Not something anyone would expect from the way she dressed, all business-like and polished. Libby wondered what Anne Marie was like away from work as she grabbed the scarf and wound it around her neck.
“I don’t understand why you didn’t come to me when you lost your house.” It was not so much an accusation as a question.
Libby looked up at Anne Marie, her eyes wide in surprise, not knowing what to say.
“I’ve got a nice big house with no one but myself and my cat living in it with four humongous bedrooms. I think you and Lily would be more comfortable there than…” Anne Marie puckered her lips before continuing, “with that ex-boyfriend of yours.”
“How did I know? Oh, Libby. It’s such a small town and when something as devastating as a landslide happens and only one house is lost, everyone knows whose house that is!”
Libby bit her lower lip and lowered her eyes, muttering something to herself.
“Besides, old Mrs. Fordham lives right across from Ruben’s trailer, so she knows everything that happens out there. I bumped into her while I was out.” Anne Marie flashed a sheepish grin.
“I…don’t know what to say.” Damn nosy old Mrs. Fordham! She should find something better to do than stick her nose in everyone’s business. She does nothing but watch the street all day, and if she doesn’t see enough, she’ll even sit in her yard just so she can get a better view to both ends of the block.
“Libby, you’ve been working for me for twelve years now. Don’t tell me you’re still uncomfortable with me! I mean, I know I’m much older than you, but we’ve really known each other practically all our lives. We practically grew up together in this bookstore!”
“I’m sorry, I just…it’s just…I don’t want to be a bother to anyone.” Libby twisted the ends of her scarf and avoided looking into Anne Marie’s big doe-like eyes.
“Believe me, you won’t be a bother to me! Not you or Lily, dear. And I’m not taking no for an answer. I’ll come by your place tonight and pick you up. We can have dinner out, then settle you both in. I’m sure you’ll be glad to be out of Ruben’s trailer. It’s the least I can do, really. I’d never have this bookstore without your dad, bless his kind soul. And I’d never have managed without you here, running the place like it was yours.”
“Thank you. But I have to run. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be rude.”
“Of course! You must run. The bus will be at the corner any minute now. I’ll see you tonight, dear!”
Libby’s head was exploding with ideas by the time she reached Lily’s school. She walked through the familiar doors, passed the rows of class pictures lining the corridors, and found Lily’s homeroom. A handful of parents were sitting in the room, sipping coffee and nibbling on cookies as they chatted with each other while waiting for their turn with Lily’s teacher. Mr. MacDougall was young and pleasant looking, with tousled reddish-brown hair and ruddy cheeks and lips. It was easy to imagine him as a grown-up version of one of the cherubs found in Renaissance paintings and floating around the Virgin Mary’s feet or head in classic church statues. When there were about 10 parents in the room, he called their attention and invited them to sit down, introducing himself as he did. He then explained how, this being the final grade, we would find summaries and the final average ratings that showed how well our children were doing. He distributed a sheet of paper that reminded parents of what the children would need for 9th grade and instructions for transfers, just in case anyone had to move. He looked straight at Libby at just that moment when he was talking about transfers.
Libby sat in her chair staring at him, thinking about transfers, when she realized that the room had fallen silent and everyone was staring at her.
“…and you are Mrs…” Mr. MacDougall prompted her.
She quickly understood that the parents were introducing themselves and corrected him. “Ms. That’s Ms. Cormier. Thank you. I’m Lily’s mother. Lily Cormier. I’m sorry, I just have so much going on now.” As soon as she introduced herself, the other parents murmured in sympathetic tones.
“Ah, yes, it’s so nice to meet you. We’re truly sorry for your tragedy. If there’s any way we can help, any way at all…”
“Oh, thank you, but we’re fine, really,” Libby said, her voice weak and unconvincing. The other parents nodded to her and to each other. She looked around, expecting the others to introduce themselves, but no one else spoke up. She had missed all the introductions!
“I normally speak with each child’s parents separately, but since there are a sizeable group here, I decided to give out the reports to you then sit at my desk if you want to discuss something or have some questions about your children’s grades. You also have my email in case you want another meeting or need to discuss things further.” He passed out the reports to the parents as he spoke and for a short while after, there was silence and only the rustling of paper when the report cards were turned over.
Libby scanned Lily’s report card in her hands, noticing only that the grades were all in the 80s and 90s. A small smile crossed her lips and she rose to leave. “Thank you, Mr. MacDougall. It was nice to meet you all,” she said to the middle of the room, avoiding the gazes that followed her, then rushed out of the classroom, out into the corridors, out of the main entrance, out into the schoolyard, where she finally slowed down to catch her breath. She checked her watch and rushed to the bus stop a few yards away from the end of the walk from the main entrance. It was only quarter to five. She would make it home by five.
Libby walked into the trailer where Ruben slouched in the couch, his legs stretched out in front of him so his socked feet rested on the old army trunk that doubled as a coffee table. The small TV set blared out voices of Duck Dynasty’s Robertson family as they imitated different bird calls. Jesse sat next to him like a miniature version. They were both wearing threadbare flannel pajamas designed to look like green jungle camouflage that made them blend perfectly with the trailer’s jungle-like confusion. Father and son took turns mimicking the bird calls then breaking out in guffaws, twisting and contorting their bodies spasmodically, then shushing each other as they waited for the next bird call or sound to mimic.
Lily sat at the kitchen table, which doubled as the dining table, reading a novel, one leg tucked under her. She pulled her light brown mane to one side and looked up as Libby entered, rolling her eyes up and heaving an exaggerated sigh as the bird calls bounced off the thin walls.
“Pack your things,” Libby said in a sotto voice, making sure only Lily could hear; not that the Ruben and Jesse would be able to overhear them with the cacophony they were creating along with the din of the TV.
“What?” Lily mouthed, her eyebrows echoing the question with creases.
“Just what I said,” Libby muttered, keeping her back to the living room to mask their talking. “Pack your things. We’re leaving.”
“Why?” Lily needed a reason for everything, even if Libby knew she was dying to leave Ruben’s trailer.
“Anne Marie’s picking us up. We’re staying with her.”
Libby caught a hint of a sparkle in Lily’s eyes, as the girl slapped her book shut and sprang out of the chair as if it had ejected her. Libby stared at Lily, widened her eyes, raised her eyebrows, and rolled them toward pair in the living room along with the slightest tilt of her head. Lily picked up on that right away. She was good at picking up signals and she and her mother had developed several ways of communicating with each other without having to say a word. Libby drew her daughter close to her and, arm- in-arm, whispering like conspirators, they strolled to the bedrooms as if they had nothing better to do.
“When did this happen?” Lily asked as she gathered together her sweater, a scarf, and a couple more books, which were all she had, really, besides the backpack she had managed to grab. It contained her journal, some pens, her purse, and her favorite stuffed teddy bear—the only memento left of her childhood—that she still kept with her wherever she went.
“This afternoon, before I went to your school. She insisted. Wouldn’t even let me think about it. By the way, your homeroom teacher Mr. MacDougall is really kinda cute!”
“Mu-u-u-ummmm! He’s my teacher!”
“I’ll bet every girl in your class has a crush on him,” Libby elbowed her daughter in the side.
Lily stuck the tip of her tongue out and crinkled her face. It had flushed a dark shade of pink for just a moment.
“Aha! Methinks my Lily has a crush on him too!” Libby reached out to tickle Lily’s side and the girl twisted away with a hop and bumped her head on the edge of the bunk bed.
“Owww!” Lily cried out, raising her hand to the back of her head. “See what you made me do!” She lunged toward Libby as if to grab her and Libby sidestepped out of the door with a skip and a wiggle of her fingers.
“Ta-ta! I have to pack!”
“Ha! Like that’ll take you two seconds!” Lily stuffed the books into her backpack, donned the sweater, and draped the scarf around her neck. She scanned the room, checking to see if she’d left anything by mistake, but she knew she really didn’t have anything else. Sure that nothing had been left behind, she picked up the backpack and followed Libby to the other bedroom.
Libby stood in the middle of the room, looking around just as Lily had done. Satisfied that she hadn’t left anything, she grabbed her tote bag and turned her heel on the room, feeling as though a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. She pulled her shoulders back, flashed a brave smile at Lily, and led the way back to the kitchen, Lily following like a scarf floating behind her in the wind. They picked their way down the length of the house to the front door, behind the pair still laughing at something silly on the TV. It looked like Just for Laughs gags was on.
Lily looked at her mother, eyebrows raised in a question. Libby looked back at Lily and her eyes rolled toward the front door. Together, the two walked to the front door and out of it, still whispering to each other as if sharing secrets. They decided to sit on the stoop, their bags at their feet, waiting for Anne Marie to show up. It took only a few minutes before Anne Marie’s sleek Prius slowed down at the curb. Just as the two picked up their backs and stood up, the door behind them opened and Ruben came through.
“Hey, where’re you going?” he said, his voice still loud as if he were talking over the TV.
“We’re leaving,” Libby said. “It’s too crowded here for all of us. I’ve made other arrangements. Thanks for letting us crash for a while.” She shrugged and took the two steps down.
Ruben seemed surprised. “What about dinner?” he asked.