Cheryl opened her mouth slightly, but no words came out. Her mind spun in a confused collage of images, memories, and bright emotions before settling on angry words.
* * * * *
“What is wrong with you?” Gracie demanded in a deep, guttural voice. “You’re getting dirt all over the house. You’re definitely your father’s daughter, dumber than a a box of rocks!”
Cheryl stood there wincing each time her mother’s voice pointedly emphasized a word in her rant. She pressed the bouquet of picked flowers clenched in her little fist against her stomach as if trying to absorb the abhorred mess that set her mother off. Petals crumbled against her body. Stems broke between her tiny fingers. Her mind took her to a happier place, the moment she had received the flowers as a gift from one of the neighbor ladies. The woman had been out gardening in her front yard. Cheryl, gripping the shoulder straps of her backpack, watched the neighbor with her head tilted in a downward position as she walked along the sidewalk. The woman was bent over a flower bed around her mailbox, pulling weeds to tidy the unruliness. Her face was hidden under a wide brimmed hat that was protecting her from the sun. Cheryl wasn’t sure if her footsteps were too loud and alerted the neighbor, or if the woman had seen her out of the corner of her eye, as her Mom often did when she tried to quietly sneak to the bathroom from her bedroom. Her heart paused a second and then sped up. The woman had turned to face her.
“Well, hello there,” the neighbor said in a friendly voice. “It must be after school time already.” Cheryl slowed her steps, but she did not speak. The woman’s wide falter a moment and then quickly widened showing of straight, white teeth.
“Did you have a good day in school?” she asked. Cheryl nodded. She wasn’t quite sure how to respond to the amiable woman, so she did what she would have done had her teacher addressed her: she stopped, listened, and nodded when it appeared appropriate.
“That’s nice,” the woman continued. “It’s such a beautiful day. Do you have a lot of homework or will you get to play outside today?” Her head tilted when she asked this, and her eyes narrowed slightly when Cheryl simply shrugged. Then, she started to stand up. “Well, why don’t you come here and take some of these flowers with you? That way you can feel like you’re outside even when you’re stuck doing your homework.” She led the way to the patch landscaped near her door. Cheryl started to followed and stopped as she neared the porch. The woman stopped by the patch and knelt down, turning to face Cheryl.
“Well, come on over,” she said. Cheryl slowly moved toward her and gave a small smile. She liked the way the woman said the word “well” when she spoke. She said it a lot, and for some reason it calmed Cheryl’s heart when she did.
The woman appeared to respond to Cheryl’s smile and held out a hand to beckon her closer. When Cheryl reached her side, she turned back to the plants and started speaking.
“You can pick as many as you want. Well, as long as you’re careful of these here. They’re roses, so they have thorns all over the stems.” She ran a finger around the shape the stalks without ever touching them. “These here are one of my favorites,” she said, moving her hand to point to some wide pink flowers. “Do you know what they are?” When Cheryl shook her head no, the woman continued. “Well, they’re day lilies. Here, why don’t you pick a few.” She motioned to Cheryl to mimic her as she snapped the stem of one of the lilies. Cheryl hesitated and reached out her hand. She softly pinched the stem between her fingers, and nothing happened.
“Go on,” the woman said. Cheryl closed her eyes and winced as she pinched harder and twisted. The flower came loose in her hand. She opened her eyes, her heart beating fast once more. With her head tilted down, she rolled her eyes so that she could look at the woman. Confusion swamped her for a moment when she saw the woman smiling at her, not frowning in preparation for telling her she was doing it wrong and must be too stupid to get it right. Her lips turned up slightly though she kept her head down. She did, however, become more confident as the woman prompted her to pick more flowers and was able to do so without closing her eyes as she pinched and pulled. The woman bid her a good day once she had a fist full of colorful flowers in full bloom. She picked up her pace as she walked past the three houses separating her yard from the woman’s, her feet landing just a bit softer, her head raised just a tad bit higher.
The exploding pain that radiated from her cheek registered seconds before the sound of the smack. Cheryl raised her hands to her face. The flowers silently fell to the floor about her feet. Tears forming in her eyes, Cheryl kept her head down and her shoulders bunched up as if she could hide from the towering beast before her.
“I asked you a question,” thundered the voice of her mother. “You tell me where you got those now or you’ll wish you had never stepped foot into this house!”
“The lady down the street,” Cheryl said in a voice barely above a whisper.
“What did I tell you about talking to strangers?” she demanded. “You just go up to some woman you don’t know and take flowers from her? Then, you bring that shit into my house? Look at the dirt all over the floor!” Cheryl kept her head down. She had not noticed any dirt before she had dropped her handful. What she did notice was her mother’s feet, stomping them into the floor and she pushed into Cheryl and latched onto her arm. She felt the stinging pinch of the fingers as they dragged her down the hall, her only thought that it made her check feel a lot less painful.
* * * * *
Cheryl stood from where she was perched on her chair as her mother pulled her walker close and hefted herself off the love seat.
“You know the flowers?” she asked, her tone betraying her muddled state.
“Sure,” she said. “Donna’s been teaching me about them.” Her head turned to Cheryl. “Did you see her? She’s behind the front desk when you first come in.” Cheryl remembered the bright smile rather than any specific facial features. “She sometimes sits outside with me when she’s done working for the day. Since I don’t ever see anybody else.” Those last few words were the mother she had expected to see today. The bitterness was more slight than she had expected, but the meaning was still there. Cheryl’s mind became more alert. She needed her mother’s bite to put her back onto ground she was comfortable with.
The walker sounded off as it scraped against the flooring. Cheryl started following, purposely forcing her head high as she looked at the path ahead. Her mother led her to a different hallway than she had come in. Her eyes focused on the french doors at the end. They were all glass and provided a clear view of the sun drenched landscaping. Cheryl’s foot faltered and she quickly righted herself. This wasn’t right. It was too bright, too welcoming. She stared at her mother’s back, hunched over her walker as she made steady progress to the light.
To be continued….