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"Yeah, well, what about yesterday, Daisy, when she left her toenail clippings all over the bathroom rug? Or on Monday, when she threw her shoes in the middle of the hallway again? I almost broke my neck tripping over them when I came in from work!"
I press myself flat against the crack of Baby Ella's door, watching Slade rant and rave in the kitchen. I always sneak into my baby sister's room when they start to argue, in case she wakes up and gets scared. Holding my breath, I wait for Slade to continue his tirade, but he just leans against the stove and, with his cigarette between his thumb and index finger, takes a long, restless drag. Mom is standing in front of the dishwasher, filling the top rack with dirty glasses. Her forehead is furrowed, her mouth pulled tight. I watch her closely whenever they argue. She has no clue about the Slade Plan or the reason I have concocted it in the first place. But, if everything goes the way I am hoping it will, we'll be leaving again for good this time.
Mom left Slade once before, right after the accident with my eye. She brought me home from the hospital, and just as I was getting ready to go into my room and go to sleep, I heard her tell Slade that she couldn't live with a man who had hurt her baby. I stopped dead in my tracks, hardly even daring to breathe. Slade wept and bawled as Mom hauled a suitcase out of the hall closet, getting down on his knees at one point, and hanging on to the bottom of her shirt like a little kid. He swore up and down that the whole thing had been an accident, and that he would spend the rest of his life making it up to me. But twenty minutes later, Mom had packed me and four suitcases into the back of her Toyota Corolla, and we were hightailing it out of Sommersville faster than Slade could blink. Looking back now, I think that was the single best day of my life. I remember how blue the sky looked out the rear window, the same kind of blue I saw or used to see when I opened my eyes at the bottom of the pool. It made me hopeful, that blue, as if nothing could touch us, as long as Mom kept driving toward Manchester, where her sister Kemi lived.
But it didn't last. A week after we arrived at Aunt Kemi's, Mom began to feel strange, rushing to the bathroom every hour or so to get sick. Two days later, sitting at the dinner table, pale and trembling, she told Aunt Kemi that she was pregnant. I was sitting there too, right next to her, but it was like I was invisible. She didn't even look at me. I remember Aunt Kemi glancing over quickly in my direction, probably to make sure I hadn't fallen off my chair or something, and then she looked away too. I knew right then, at that exact moment, that we were going to go back, but I sat there anyway, hoping something Aunt Kemi said to Mom would change her mind. It didn't. Two days later, we pulled back into our old driveway in Sommersville. I watched from my seat in the back as Slade helped Mom out of her seat and then kissed her on the lips.
"Oh, baby," he said. "I missed you so much." She buried her face into his neck and wept. I looked away, forcing myself not to cry. That night, I started eating. With a vengeance.
Now I look up as Slade's heavy black boots clomp across the kitchen floor. He waves the cigarette in front of him as he talks. "I'm telling you, Daisy, she's doing this stuff on purpose, just to drive me crazy."
"Slade, stop, okay?" Mom's using her begging voice, the one that makes my stomach turn. "You know that's not true. She's just a kid. Kids are messy, all right? That's just how it goes." I hate that she has to be the one to duke it out with him, when it's my fault that they're arguing in the first place. But since the accident, he barely even looks at me anymore, let alone argues with me. Especially when Mom's around.
"See, you're always saying stuff like that, Daisy, like she's six years old or something. She's thirteen! And she knows the rules." He taps the Job List on the front of the refrigerator with the backs of his knuckles. "They're all spelled out, right here, just like they've always been." He bends over, scanning his handwriting. "There isn't a single check mark after any of her chores this week. Not one!" He lowers his voice to a muted growl. "I'm telling you, Daisy, that girl is playing me for a fool. She's turned into an overweight, spiteful slob, and you know it."
"I told you not to talk like that!" Mom says. Her voice is different, slightly stronger now. "It's not Hershey's fault that she's put on a little weight. It happens to lots of girls her age. She's still growing."
"A little weight?" Slade sneers. "What're you, blind? That girl's put on at least fifty pounds in the last three years! That ain't a little weight."
Pushing my glasses along the bridge of my nose, I glance at my reflection in Baby Ella's bureau mirror as they continue to argue. I don't know if it's as much as fifty pounds, but there's no doubt that I've gotten bigger. My cheeks are fuller, I have another chin, and the tops of my arms look and feel as wide as tree trunks. I stand up a little straighter, smoothing my T-shirt down and sucking in my stomach. The rolls don't go anywhere. I'm glad the mirror stops at my stomach. I don't even want to look at my thighs or butt. It's a funny thing, though, the extra weight. Being bigger makes me feel as if I have a kind of armor around me that no one can break through. And so while losing the weight would be nice in a way, it would also terrify me. Stripping that armor off would make me feel defenseless. And with Slade West in the house, I can't afford to feel that way even a little bit.
Behind me, Baby Ella stirs in her sleep as Slade's voice continues to rise. The Winnie-the-Pooh night-light, plugged into the wall over her dresser, casts a yellow halo over her face. She's only two years old, but she's one of the cutest kids I've ever seen. I always feel guilty when I remember how, just after Mom went into labor, I began to wish that she wouldn't bring the baby back home with her. I guess I just saw her as something else that would come between Mom and me. Now, strange as it might sound, I can hardly remember not having her around. I stare at her over the bars of her crib. Her arms and legs are flung wide, as if she's getting ready to make a snow angel, and her mouth is slack from sleep. A chunk of her blond wispy hair is matted to her cheek. Every time Slade's voice drifts into the room, her little nose twitches, as if she can hear him. Which she probably can. Slade's got a voice that could wake the dead.
"And I can't say anything," he continues, blowing smoke out of his nose. "Oh, no! God forbid, mean, evil Slade say anything to the poor, tormented teenager of the house."
"Stop it," Mom says between gritted teeth. "Just knock it off." There is a rustle of movement beneath me as Augustus Gloop squeezes his way into the room. His tail is pointed straight in the air and his little ears are pricked forward.
"Gusty," I whisper, snapping my fingers lightly. "C'mere, boy." My cat rubs himself in and around my ankles and then sits directly on top of my sandaled foot. I know it sounds weird, but I think he likes the smell of my bare feet. He sits on them every chance he gets.
"You know I'm right, Daisy." Slade's voice is getting louder and louder. "You know I am. You just don't want to admit it because that girl's got you wrapped around her pinky finger." He shakes his little finger under Mom's nose to illustrate his point. "Ever since the accident, she's been playing me like a fiddle. She thinks she can get away with whatever she wants, and I've had it."
"Oh, Slade, you're getting paranoid. Hershey is not playing anyone like a fidd "
"You can't see it!" Slade hollers, stooping over briefly to light a fresh cigarette. "You can't see it because you're not the one whose skin she's always trying to get under. You're not the one she hates, okay?" Mom slams the dishwasher shut. Slade starts pacing back and forth across the kitchen, rolling up the short sleeves of his black T-shirt until the tops of his shoulders are exposed. His mustache twitches under his nose. When he starts in again, his voice is much softer. "You know, all I'm askin', Daisy, is that you try to look at things through my eyes. Just a little bit." He pauses, inhaling deeply on his cigarette. "Because if you did, just once, you might see things a little differently."
"Okay, Slade." Mom leans heavily against one of the blue kitchen counters. She pulls a handful of her long brown hair over one of her shoulders and starts twirling the ends of it through her fingers. Even from where I'm standing, I can see the dark circles under her eyes. "Okay, honey. I'll try."
"I'm going out," Slade says, stubbing his cigarette out. There is a rustling sound as he shoves one arm and then the other into his nylon Windbreaker. "And I'm telling you right now, Daisy, if that girl doesn't have at least half of her chores checked off on that list before I get back, there's gonna be trouble. Keepin' the place clean isn't a lot to ask in your own home."
The door opens, slams shut.
I glance at the Big Bird clock on Baby Ella's wall. Seven thirty. Perfect. I'll have just enough time to sneak out of here, update Phoebe on things, and get back before Slade returns. Going out for him always means heading down to Petey's on the corner and griping to the guys for a few hours over some beers. I'll be back before he even realizes I've been missing.
Sliding out of Baby Ella's window always takes some maneuvering, now that I'm so big, but it's not a far drop since the ground under the left side of the house is sloped. Augustus Gloop gazes up at me with his wide hazel eyes as I tap the windowsill with my fingers. He knows the routine. After leaping up soundlessly, he surveys the ground below for a moment and then jumps. A few seconds later, he turns and looks back up at me, blinking once.
"I know, I know," I mutter, squeezing through the narrow space. "I'm coming, hotshot."
Copyright © 2008 by Cecilia Galante