They’re buying a lot of poisoned foods: Land O’ Lakes butter, Paul Newman’s salad dressing, Sprite, Burgers ‘n’ Buns, and way-too-orange carrots and Cheetos. I know it’s all poisoned coz only safe foods are safe. I try not to stare, unlike my mom, I know she’s trying to figure out what they are. If they’re secret agents of the coal, trying to tempt and trick us. They might be innocent victims hypnotized by the forces of black coal about to be poisoned accidentally, but their pastel pink outfits match too exactly so my guess is they are forces of evil.
I tug again at her sleeve, so long her hand is buried in it’s protective sheathing. It was $15 at the Salvation Army, just bought today soon after we discovered the black coal was active. We tried to find a black raincoat for me, but in my size they were all yellows and greens covered in bunnies and turtles. She said after the dye I’d be safe even without a raincoat.
The dye is in our cart, buried under six packs of Canada Dry and the red Pringle’s cardboard canister with the vacuum seal, and I wish it wasn’t. I could slip it in the waist of my jeans, even though stealing only fuels the judgment of the coal.
I hear the swoosh swoosh of my mother’s nails scratching up the inside of her vinyl raincoat sleeves. Her barefoot heels bounce inside her black rubber boots. I’m still in civilian clothes. My t-shirt is dirty white as are my Keds, even my socks. My jeans are dark blue, not black. The Laundromat is next.
I’ll lay naked in the back seat staring up at the stained white cheesecloth-like interior of our Toyota while she dyes my clothes in the washer.
The pink sportswear spy couple are next on line. She keeps grinning down at me, catching me staring at their Cheetos. It’s poison, all poison, I chant silently to myself, louder than my rumbling stomach. Then she, like a true demon, reaches for a Hershey’s bar from the rack above the conveyer belt, opens and bites into it. Hershey’s can be safe sometimes but now I know it’s a trick because the chocolate smell sinks into me.
I look up at my mom to see if she’s noticed but her eyes are switching to the walls, judging their distances, measuring the inches of movement, she doesn’t trust me to that job completely. I tug lightly again at the frayed sleeve.
The woman catches my eye and smiles hugely, her lipstick lines extending in matching pink way beyond her actual lips, her eyes narrowing to Chinese slits with wrinkles like cat whiskers racing from the outer edges.
I hold on to my mother’s sleeve; the woman leans over so her face is near mine. I smell the sugary chocolate on her breath and look up into the dark patch of nose hairs with snot things caught inside. “Would you like a piece of chocolate?” she asks. My mother shakes herself as if trying to pull her body from a trap. The woman looks up towards my mother, her smile disappearing as she speaks, and my mother scowls.
“He’s standing so quiet and good…I thought he might like…” My mother’s head sways like a caged horse’s, long swoops back and forth: no. Her eyes are focused on the brown and white checkered floor.
“Sorry…” the woman starts, her face contorting into a grimace. She steps back. “I just thought…” The hand clamping my wrist makes me jump; I look down to see my mother’s knuckles squeezing tight around my arm. She says nothing to me or to the lady in pink still holding out a Hershey bar now turning to whisper to her chubby pink husband. She jerks my arm as we walk quickly down the isle trying to find the way out. I can hear her panting, and my heart’s booming. All lines are filled, there are no clear checkouts to escape out through. Her nails are digging into the skin inside my wrist as she pulls me with her until I crash into her. She’s stopped dead still and is staring at the wall directly in front of us, stacked with cigarettes, logs, and charcoal, framing the way out.
It had moved.
“I tried to tell you,” I whisper, but I know she can’t hear. I look down the row to the entrance turnstile and an empty isle with a closed chain gate across it. Silently I jerk my arm a few times ’til she follows, still gripping tightly on my wrist. She walks sideways, staring at the wall, her mouth hanging open in an “O.”
When we get to the gate I lift it as high as I can.
“Drop under,” I mumble. She stands frozen, staring at the wall. I shake my arm hard. “Go under.” She only stares. A man with a name tag puts down the apples he’s stacking and starts crossing the floor towards us. I drop the chain and push her stomach as hard as I can. She turns down to me, anger flashing across her face, tightening my stomach.
“Duck under,” I order and I lift the chain rope up again. I keep my face hard, I bite my lip under so she won’t see it shake. I watch as she bends her head, leans down, and crouches under the chain, still gripping my arm, pulling me under with her, as if we’re in a sudden game of limbo.
“Excuse me, miss,” I hear from behind us. “Miss?” My mom walks out, oblivious, almost running through the front door; I gallop to keep up. The heat from the parking lot blasts up at us, making the air visible lines that waver into shapes. “Miss…” I hear from right behind us, before I see a thin white hand reach out for her. It barely touches her black padded shoulder when she spins around, her teeth bared, her eyes too wide.
“I need you to open your coat…or come back inside the store…” He clears his throat, looking around, but not at her.
“You think I fuckin’ stole? At a time like this? You think I fuckin’ stole!” Her hand clenches tighter with each word, around my wrist, like a tourniquet.
“You will be very, very sorry…” she starts, and without releasing my arm, unbuttons her raincoat.
I turn away and watch some kids in the back of a station wagon stick their tongues out at me.
“Okay, okay, okay ma’am. Thank you, thank you…”
“Wanna check my cunt?”
I turn to see my mother holding her coat open, her naked body sheened with sweat and exposed. She drops my wrist and turns her pockets inside-out. A small lump of coal falls with a dead thud to the ground. Her neck stretches out like a turkey’s over a chopping block towards his red face.
“Ma’am?” He looks into her protruding grin with a mixture of fear and sadness that frightens me more than when he wanted to arrest her.
“Are you okay?” he asks softly. A man driving past in a pickup whistles, and I follow his stare to the bristly blond clump of hair between my mother’s legs. She takes a deep breath to respond, her face a dark scarlet. I turn silently towards her and reach up to grab the ends of her raincoat below where she holds it clamped open with her fists. I tug gently but firmly and her hands follow mine, pulling the coat closed like a curtain.
“C’mon” I whisper, feeling a strength I treasure and dread.
“Is she all right?” he asks from behind me, talking to me for the first time.
“Just tired,” I say into my mother’s black vinyl raincoat that I hold sealed shut over that dark yellow curly patch. I hear him take a breath to say something, but he only releases a sigh. I look up into my mother’s face, afraid she’s preparing to say or do something, but all I can see is the top of her chin, because she’s looking straight up into the sky, watching, waiting.
“She’ll be okay,” I say to the man behind me.
“You sure?” he asks, but I can hear him take another step back. It’s always easy to convince people it’s okay because if it isn’t they’d have to get involved, and they always would rather not.
“Yeah,” I nod yes, looking up at her, and squeeze her coat closed tighter.
“Okay…uh…thank ya…” he says, walking away fast.
“Sarah?” I tug on her coat lightly. “Sarah?”
“The sky has black fire coming,” she says, her neck strained up.
A pretty woman in tan shorts pulls her cart up next to the car in front of us. A little boy is in the baby’s seat. She starts to unload brown grocery bags into her truck. She glances at us.
“Hot,” she says, and smiles.
“Ice cream,” the little boy says.
“Soon as we get home, Billy,” she tells him.
“Fire’s gonna come down from the sky,” my mother says, staring up.
“Pardon?” she says, lifting Billy out of the cart seat. I can see the colorful tops of food labels sticking out the top of the bags. It’s poison I tell myself.
“You’re gonna burn you traitor!” my mother says, and I look up fast to see if she’s talking to me, but she’s turned toward the woman. The woman blinks at my mother a few times, shakes her head, and turns away. I watch her strapping Billy into a baby seat. My mother stares back up at the sky.
“Mom…let’s go…” My throat is dry and I can hardly swallow. I watch the woman give Billy a bottle. He sucks on it with his eyes half closed. Poison, I think.
“Mom…” I turn back to her. The sun is blasting down on the black tar, and I see the sweat running down her neck. My scalp feels wet. “Sarah?” I let go of the raincoat she’s now gripping closed, and I tap her hand. She doesn’t move.
The woman in the car starts the engine. She doesn’t look at us. I watch them drive away. I try not to picture the baby bottle filled with milk, filled with poison.
“There’s another store down the road.” I poke at her hand beaded with sweat. She doesn’t answer for a minutes. I stand waiting, squinting at her face in the sun. Suddenly she looks down, and around us. “Where are our supplies?”
I look around too like they’re missing. “I don’t know,” I tell her.
“It’s all black!” she almost screams, pointing to the tar, parking lot ground.
“It ate everything,” I say, and nod at the ground. And suddenly she drops down, grabs up the coal piece that had fallen from her pocket, and runs. I start running to catch her, past our car, out of the lot, onto the sidewalk. She runs down the broken concrete sidewalk to a little thatch of bushes behind a deserted nightclub. I see her crawl inside it. I catch up, panting, and follow her into the bushes. She’s curled up, the jacket over her head. She’s rocking.
I know I lied about the supplies and them getting eaten but I was hoping she would forget; times like these she forgets things easily. If she remembered what happened in the store she might say it was my fault the walls moved, my fault we have nothing to eat or drink, my fault we have no dye and I’m still in a white t-shirt and blue jeans. She might start thinking I’m the traitor. She might decide I’m the evil. I need to be very careful. I hope my lying doesn’t raise the punishing wrath of the coal, but I had just witnessed its destructive abilities. It had burned our house to the ground, maybe killed my stepfather, and maybe burnt up my best friend…
Excerpted from Terminator’s novel-in-progress.