I watch from the window as the tall, dark-haired woman walks to her car. She’s dressed smartly for the summer in a cool white dress and matching shoes. Her coral colored toes peek playfully from the crisp, white heels. Coral nail polish is mama’s favorite too. I have a sneaking suspicion that there exists a secret witch’s coven dedicated to destroying children’s lives, all of them standing in neat little rows with coral painted feet. I stick my tongue out and make faces at the woman behind her back. Ms. Cathy’s neat little brown bun, like the last of my hope, disappears into the green ford explorer. The wheels crunching over the gravel sounds like rain beating across our thin roof. This time she stayed less than ten minutes. She spoke in that annoying tone that adults do when they think you are pulling one over on them. Most of the women that came out would simply say ‘mind your mother now and be a good girl’. They have never witnessed mama’s wrath or that look in her eye. The look that could melt all the glaciers in Antarctica.
“Katherine-Anne- Thomas you get out here right now.”
I sulk at Mama’s tone, she always sounds like she is screaming at me to come inside. No matter how far I stand from her. I take my time, dragging my fingers along the familiar dips and bumps on the wall. I pause at the entrance to the living room and then drop down to my knees and peer around the TV stand. Her blonde mane is perfectly groomed, each strand of hair curls to frame her heart-shaped face. Her bangs had been feathered just right to hover over magazine quality blue eyes. The rich seductive curve of her lips is outlined in a fiery red and she is clothed in a silky string top the same color over black slacks. If it is one thing mama is good at, it is finding stylish clothes on a budget. She once found a pair of real leather boots miss-marked at twenty-nine dollars. Not only did she get the boots at a reduced price but also a complementary matching purse and wallet. Mama always wins.
I cringe at the giggles and coos of my half-brother as he stands to point in his bouncy chair from the kitchen doorway. I hadn’t noticed him since he is on the left and mama is on the couch to the right. “Shi-Shi” Logan squeals in full force. His sing-song voice bounds from wall to wall sealing my fate with the happy jingle, tingle of the bells on either side of him.
“Katherine, now.” More than her usual yelling spree, it was the calm, collected voice she sometimes uses that scares me the most. And today is one of those days. I gulp and rise up on shaky knees. My teeth, no matter how hard I press them down, will not stop chattering. I round the corner I stare up at the fierce, flush face of my mother. I bring my gaze to the floor a millisecond too late and her hand clamps over my cheeks.
“Don’t you look at me that way, you know exactly what you did,” she spits, tightening her grip.
I haven’t done anything, it was more than likely our neighbors that called, but there is no
convincing her of that. Besides, apologizing only ignited her anger further. I wisely remained
silent and locked my gaze on the pearly glow of her coral nail polish. Each toe was dug firm into
the ground, straining to break free of their wooden captor. I became mesmerized by the gleam,
the unending sea of peachy-red and I tried to imagine what the color would feel like wrapped
around my arms. Maybe it would comfort and warm me, sprinkle cinnamon and peach kisses
across my face like grandma. Grandma’s kisses were always the best, proud and solidly planted
on my forehead. But grandma was dead, long dead from cancer that had spread throughout her
chest and stomach. There was no sense in wishing for her now. Logan’s preoccupied giggles
peppered through seconds before I felt the repeated pounding of numbing blows. He must have
lost interest and began playing with his toys.
My body lay as still as a statue until I heard her slowly pad toward the baby. Cracking my eyes a tiny slit, I watched as she bent down and picked Logan up from his bouncy swing. His eyes scanned the room and then looked down at me. He made an uncertain gurgle, patting mama’s face and pointing to me. Laughing she nuzzled him to her face and walked into the kitchen. I heard him say shi-shi as mama gently lowered him into his high chair.
“Now, now” I heard mama coo, “sissy is taking a nap and it’s time for your lunch. How about sweet peas for my sweetie?”
I counted the grooves in the wood. I looked as far away as my eyes could without opening further. This was a way for me to gauge time, once I was able to count them ten times it was okay to get up and go to my room. On the tenth pass, I heard the key enter the front door and quickly stood up, dusting my arms and legs. Mechanically, I walked to the front door and smiled as my stepfather came in. He had dark rings under his chocolate colored eyes and his normal neat crop of black hair was tousled and unkempt. He smelled of sweat and metal, no doubt from his long night shift. I knew it was almost time for his nap before he had to turn around and go to school. My stepdad is a good guy; he never touches me or beats me in any way. That makes him pretty decent in my book. I know that he knows about mom’s beatings but he cleverly avoids the topic. Mom once confronted him and asked him to use the belt on me, but he said it wasn’t his place and she snatched the belt away tearing it across my legs and back.
“James,” Mama says, her cheeks glowing like the color of her toes. His deep laugh rumbles through his chest as mama hugs him tight.
I slowly inch toward the hallway as they talk about each other’s day. I am almost to my sanctuary when Mama calls from the kitchen. She must have finished lunch because when I return to the living room my stepdad is flicking through channels on the TV and eating a sandwich. My stomach grumbles in protest as I step into the kitchen. I look down at the off-white tile and marveled again at the perfection of Mama’s handy work. The toes seem to be getting brighter as the day passed, shining like the surface of the sun in the afternoon light. I silently wonder if I hack them into tiny pieces what I would find. I began to seriously believe it was her natural toenail color. Grabbing a patch of my hair she twists until I am down on one knee whimpering. I hate giving in, hate it so much I bite down on my tongue and fight not to scream. I stare blankly at Mama’s blouse, careful to not cry or show anger.
“You listen well you little brat. I want you to do the dishes” she yanks harder until I am sure my whole left side of hair would rip off. “Logan’s father and I are going to sleep, understand?” I nod my head, gritting my teeth through the white-hot pokers in my skull.
“Your brother is also laying down, so I expect not so much as a clang from this kitchen. Are we clear?” She gives my hair one final tug and throws me back into the stove. I drop to a fetal position on the floor and stare forward. She slowly walks toward me, each reddish-pink nail on her pristine feet slowly coming into focus. I can feel her staring down at me, watching every micro-expression on my face. I stare again, blankly, giving nothing away. Finally, there is a shift in the air and then she is gone. Just to be safe, I slowly count to ten before getting up. I pace back and forth, imagining that each step creates a tiny groove in the tile. That would get her, if I just dent the floor enough she would trip and maybe put a chip in her flawless toes. I pause as something occurs to me, why haven’t I thought of it before? The color, the c-o-l- o-r. I drew it out in my mind, each syllable burning worse than the last. I have to rid her of the nail color. It’s probably filtered into her bloodstream, polluting her mind with its filthy lies about me. A bad, bad girl− it would say. Looks too much like her deadbeat dad, it would snicker in its low, raspy taunt. No, not the sweet warmth of cinnamon and peach, it has tricked me all along. It has to be fooling Mama too. Tears wet my face for the first time in two years as I rinse each pan, bowl, and plate, placing them into the dishwasher. It is our newest appliance, one that has eaten up most of my Stepdad’s savings. I lean over to place the final two bowls in the washer when one slips from my grasp. I stare in horror as it shatters into a thousand porcelain pieces, dusting the floor like newly fallen snow. I freeze, my hands clamping over my mouth. I draw a shaky breath, my eyes glued to the doorway.
The mountainous roar that follows confirms my worst fear. There is a flurry of movement, all yellow, red and black. Cool, clammy hands wrap around my neck and squeeze. “You-did- that-on- purpose, you little bitch.” I try in vain to speak to her. I try to tell Mama that it was the nails, the vile color she painted on them from the little glass tube was controlling her mind. Instead, the only thing I manage is a puff of air and a squeak as I slowly lose feeling in my legs. I claw at her vice-like grip sinking to the floor. My eyes lock with her tempests of blue. But somehow they look purple now, with ribbons of red snaking through. The coral has won, they have tinged her eyes. I must look like a stranger in our home and she is trying to protect all of us. Maybe I am in my room, playing with the Barbie she gave me for my fifth birthday. It is probably just a dream and I will wake any moment to my other life. My real life. My lungs are about to burst, I can feel the coral sinking into them through my windpipe from Mama’s fingertips. My vision fades as I hear a soft voice calling to me in the distance. I smile at the calm, beautiful woman that reaches out to me. There she is, my real mother. I can see her in our backyard, looking at me with a profound sense of love. Tears spill down my cheeks as I call to her. From the distance, I hear my stepfather yell. A smile forms on my lips, my vision darkening but still present enough to make out what is in front of me.
I have finally done it; put a chip in the perfect peachy color. Just beneath Mama’s feet a rich, vivid red spills onto the floor. I grin as I feel the warmth of the color wrapping my body and drawing me close. It weeps softly, rocking me to sleep.