Your mom and dad like to take you to Safeway after you get a haircut. You hate haircuts because of the way the woman’s hand lays coldly on the back of your neck as she snips off bits of your hair. Your mom always butters you up, saying, You can play hooky and pick out any treat you want afterwards. As you hop out of the car and cross the street, your mom says, Grab my hand. You do, but you can’t bear to hold it for long and drop it to your side once you hit the storefront. Your dad walks so close to you that you feel the static of his arm hair brisk your shoulder.
You immediately know you want Cheetos; you just can’t resist the taste of the dust that coats your fingers as you eat them. You run ahead of mom and dad, skipping towards the snack aisle to find the colorful aluminum bags on the bottom shelf, glimmering in the fluorescent lights. So many flavors. Original. Puffs. Flamin’ Hot. Limón. You always go for Hot Cheetos even though dad says it stains your fingers red. You actually like them like that, it’s proof of the memory. You kneel down and grab a couple, shaking each one to see which bag has less air.
You walk over to mom from behind and wrap your arms around her waist, latching your fingers together with the Cheeto bag hanging, the corner crinkled in your fist. You hate hugs, but you know your mom can’t resist. You notice she doesn’t have her usual mom smell; she smells like orange trees and flower fields. But you give her a tight squeeze anyway. She turns around as you unlatch your arms and you realize it’s not your mom at all. She’s wearing a beige shirt and is the same height, but she’s stocking shelves and her name tag says ‘Sheryl.’ Oh, hi sweetie, she says, Did you lose someone?
You don’t know how you could be so wrong and you can hear your heartbeat thumping in your ears. Your mouth opens, but you can’t speak and drop the bag by accident.
The woman bends over and picks it up, kind of laughing, You okay, hun? Her brow begins to furrow a bit as she hands you the bag.
Thanks, uh—sorry. You can’t help yourself but to say sorry. You hurry out of the aisle towards the back of the grocery store and look around to find mom and dad with the shopping basket by the eggs. Your teeth clench like they always do when you think about eggs. You can’t help but look at the woman for another second.
She doesn’t look back at you, just continues reaching into her cart stocked with trays, busy unloading family-sized bags of Tostitos into the bottom shelves. Her brown hair is pinned half-up in a rectangular clip, some of it falling out in wisps with her bangs as she bends over. She has freckles like you, but she has more. You think maybe you’ll have more too someday. You want to hug her, for her to know and to hug you. You know how it would feel for her to hug you: it would feel like being wrapped in a big, fuzzy blanket fresh out of the dryer. You know she would understand Cheeto dust and red-stained fingers. All of your worries would somehow be gone in her arms and you could stay there forever.
You want to run away. You are only seven years old, but you want to run away almost every day. Your mom hugs you and tells you you’re her big girl. You get stars on your homework and she tells you you’re smart for your age. Your dad tells you if you tell anyone he’ll hurt you. You think he is already hurting you, but you can’t be sure because he’s your dad. You don’t feel very smart.
Mom says, Honey, dad’s making his special eggs on Sunday since I’m taking on more shifts at the hospital this weekend. Your dad doesn’t look at you; he places a carton of eggs in the basket. There’s bacon, too. Your chest feels tight.
You sit in the car, bag of Cheetos half-eaten, rolled and scrunched down.
Your dad, Sweetie can you pass me my sunglasses back there?
You reach for them next to you, take them out of the case so he doesn’t have to.
Your dad, Jesus you got red stuff all over them, Marcy can you take care of this?
Your mom laughs, Relax, it’s fine honey, here. She cleans them off with her t-shirt.
You lick the tips of your fingers, getting every last crumb of delicious red dust off and into your mouth. Your hands rest in the pockets of your jacket, fingertips burning.
Your earliest memory: wanting to play with your stuffed animal before bed, your dad asking you to Come here for a minute. You sit on his lap as he strokes your hair. You feel a lump under your seat.
Your dad starts teaching you how to make scrambled eggs like him, but you don’t like the way he does it. He says to make sure to turn the heat off before they’re done all the way, so that you don’t overcook them. Most people overcook them, he says, wiping the eggs onto a plate. You don’t like how the white part is still runny and jiggles like snot when you poke it with your fork. You run to grab the ketchup out of the fridge.
Your dad says, You’re gonna ruin them, and grabs it out of your hands.
Your mom, Frank, just let her do what she wants.
You see how your friend Jenny’s mom makes eggs Thursday morning before school. She pours in a bit of cream and tosses in a bunch of freshly-chopped herbs from her garden. You love going to Jenny’s house and playing in the garden. Jenny knows the names of all the vegetables and herbs, names you’ve never even heard of before like ‘tarragon.’ She even has a blue polka-dot watering can that she lets you use to give the plants a shower. You love making a puddle on the warm cement and patting it with your foot until the cold water turns warm. When Jenny asks to come to your house you know it would be bad, so you just say, Actually I can’t play anymore today.
You wake up early on Saturday morning and think that maybe you’ll try to make eggs like Jenny’s mom. After the night before, you think if you taste your dad’s cooking you’ll vomit. You only have dried oregano, but you think it’ll do. You grab the eggs, a tablespoon, the half-and-half your mom puts in her morning coffee. Before you can grab the pan, your dad says, What do you think you’re doing? and You’re too young to cook by yourself. You freeze—you don’t know. You don’t know what you were thinking. You say, Sorry, and let the spoon sink into the egg mixture.
You long for Sheryl so much, it makes you feel sick. You think back to the day you met her and imagine all of the things you two could do together. You would introduce her to all of your favorite stuffed animals and draw portraits of each other with your eyes closed. She would never make you get a haircut. You and she would run away and grow your hair long and dye it pretty colors and finger-paint maps of the world. She would take you to Safeway after hours and unlock the door with her master key. Flick on all the lights and push you around in the shopping cart, run up and down the aisles, knocking over a tower or two of Bush’s Baked Beans or Mini Powdered Donuts. You and she would laugh as she jokes, Someone will get that, and winks back at you. She would know everything about the changing of the seasons, and she would never let anyone hurt you. She would give the best hugs.
You know your mom has one of those clips that Sheryl was wearing, the plastic rectangular ones that have that pinchy metal piece on one side to clip your hair in. You know she has one, she must. You think you remember her wearing it in her hair on some mornings after her night shifts at the hospital. She puts her hair half-up and drinks her coffee. You remember because you like to sit at the table with her, drawing and listening to the whoosh-crinkle as she flips through the newspaper.
You rifle through mom’s drawers in search of it. Sift through bottles of nail polish, loose hair bands, bobby pins, combs, round brushes, and rollers until you see it in the far corner of the drawer. You almost can’t believe it. You reach your hand back and grab it with your fingers. Its skin looks like a turtle shell, and it’s smooth, it shines. You look in the mirror, the lines in your forehead scrunch as you reach your arms above your head and try to work the clip into your hair. Your fingers wrestle for a bit and you finally hear a click. You turn your body a bit and look back at the mirror at the clip resting in your hair.
Your mom, What are you doing, silly?
Other things: feeling ashamed and strange and excited when the doctor takes your pants off at routine checkups. Pantsing your friend Sam during recess while you were playing real-life Pokémon. Having to be sent to the principal’s office after he cries and your mom asks, Where did this come from? Feeling hot and confused and stupid.
You have dreams that scare you. You wake up sweaty most nights, bangs stuck to your forehead. You hug your stuffed tiger, Tiger, and sometimes bury your head into hers. She’s missing an eye and her once white paws are now tinted beige. You want to jump in bed with mom but the hallway is long and dark, and you’re scared of the dark. You don’t like how all the doors are cracked open, you make sure to shut yours. You start to resent your mom for being gone. Sometimes you whisper into Tiger’s ears, I wish you were my mom.
You have dreams where you feel weird down there, and you like it. You wake up feeling worried and pat the covers looking for Tiger. She often ends up in the crack between your bed and the wall, you quickly pick her up and hug her close. But Tiger doesn’t smell like orange trees and flower fields, she smells like you.
Your dad is rarely gone, but one Sunday afternoon, he is. Mom’s working, dad’s running a few errands. He asks you if you want to come, and you say, No it’s okay, though your chest starts thumping harder and your cheeks feel tingly. You think he’s going to make you come in the car, but he just goes, Okay, and, mom’s shift ends in an hour anyways. You bite your fist, trying your best to smile as he leaves. He shuts the door behind him and you run up the stairs, toppling over onto your hands, you’re going so fast. You scramble through your closet and grab your zip-up Disney sweatshirt, your Velcro sneakers. You dump out your water bottle piggy bank onto the bed and count out enough money for a bag of Cheetos. You run down the stairs, skipping two steps with every jump and head for your bike in the side yard. You buckle your helmet and swing your leg around your bubblegum pink bike. You take a deep breath and start to peddle.
As you weave your way through the house-lined streets, your eyes begin to water. The wind pulls the tears from your eyes and you sniffle. Your wheels are spinning rainbows and your fingers are numb from gripping the handles so tight. Your lip quivers and you hope no one notices you. When you stop at a light, you can feel your knees shaking. You notice a woman in the car next to you looking at you funny, she looks like she might say something, so you look forward. You think maybe you should go back home, and you take a big breath to steady yourself.
You peddle into the Safeway parking lot, past the families unloading grocery bags into their cars, past toddlers sitting in the benches of their shopping carts. One of the toddlers points at you as you drop your bike along the side of the grocery store. The doors look like the entrance to a giant’s castle, glassy and the tallest you’ve ever seen. They magically open for you, and you walk in. There’s a woman standing next to her son. She’s reading the ingredients on the back of a box of crackers, he’s tugging at her side saying, mom please.
You find Sheryl, eventually, placing cartons of raspberries on the shelves. She looks just as you remember. Hair, freckles, clip. You can hear her silver bracelets jingle as she stacks each box. The mist from the vegetable sprinklers sprays a bit on your cheeks. You start to regret coming all the way here. Something inside of you tells you to keep going, though. And you listen to it. You take a deep breath and Sorr—um, excuse me?
She looks at you with those brown eyes and friendly eye wrinkles, Hi sweetie, can I help you find something?
Her eyes meet yours and you know she doesn’t remember you. You can’t muster up the right words because they’re swarming inside of your head and you might cry. You hesitate and look around, close your eyes and go for it. You wrap your arms around her waist. She tenses for a second but softens and bends down, so you can rest the left side of your head in the curvature of her shoulder. You breathe in her smell and feel the pressure of her firm hands on your back, patting twice then rubbing in small circles. You fit perfectly, and she lets you.
I know, she breathes into a soft smile, Do you want some raspberries? She motions you to sit down with her. I like to put them on my fingers, like little hats, Sheryl models for you, wiggling five raspberry fingers at you. Go on, take a few, it’ll be our secret, she winks.
The berries are sweet and sour and the juiciest you’ve ever tasted. You chew and purse your lips and look at Sheryl, looking back at you. Sitting on the floor by the boxed raspberries, fingertips cold and wet and burning.
Parker Ewing is a budding writer and poet from Southern California. She has a BA in English and Creative Writing from Villanova University and has studied creative writing in Copenhagen, St. Petersburg, and Belfast. She now lives in Brooklyn, where she works in media and is a freelance food writer.
Jan Price is not interested in drawing, painting, or soft sculpture unless they depict people. She sells her paintings at art shows; her art/greeting cards, through gift shops; and her art often appears in poetry journals. Jan also includes her art in self-created poetry books which she leaves on seats in parks, cinemas, train stations, cafes, libraries, and book-exchange venues. One of her latest projects includes photographing and painting people through water running down glass. Jan also studies Thought Switching to help people with depression.