2: Cleaning up and clearing out.
Tabitha woke up early and full of energy, despite having skipped eating dinner last night. Her father was gone already, having left for work at five-thirty, and her mother was unlikely to rouse for at least another hour, giving Tabitha free range to re-explore the place.
Last night she’d slept in her underwear, having tossed yesterday’s clothes in the bathroom’s communal laundry hamper. She began her day by opening her dresser drawers and sorting everything she found into neat stacks. Several dozen articles of clothing were immediately discarded into a trash pile; socks with holes, shirts too discolored to wear, pants that were ripped along the inseam—who had bothered to wash and fold those?—trashy T-shirts that had their sleeves haphazardly removed, and similar pajama pants that had been cut into shorts.
Diligently trying on all of her remaining clothes, Tabitha was dismayed to find that less than a third of them fit—she didn’t even have a full week’s worth of clothing to wear. Luckily, her bras and underwear were the newest of the lot, and all correctly-sized, likely purchased to keep up with puberty. She dressed herself in a pair of sweatpants and an oversized shirt, carefully folded and then returned the clothing she would keep into their drawers.
The Moore family weren’t packrats like some of their neighbors, but they did seem to hoard things like bags. After a quick trip to the kitchen pantry, frowning at nearly everything she saw, she returned with two grocery bags to pack the clothes too small for her into.
They’ll tell me to hang onto them JUST IN CASE, because of all the little cousins who could grow into them, Tabitha grumbled to herself. As if any of them ever needed any more hand-me-downs. Need to convince them to take me to a thrift store so I can fix my wardrobe. Yesterday’s pair of jeans, several pairs of sweatpants, and what appear to be a single value pack of cotton shorts is NOT enough attire for a teenage girl. Now I remember why I used to wear the same clothes so many days in a row.
In the meantime, the scrunched up wads of grocery bags were already spilling out the pantry door, so she collected them and made her way around the trailer, emptying out three small waste-cans into the grocery bags and then fitting one inside each as a liner. Why were we collecting these bags at all, if we weren’t going to use them…?
She managed to fill another entire bag with garbage she found simply strewn about the trailer, before it dawned on Tabitha that she was cleaning house. She paused, grimacing. Keeping a living area free of trash and clutter was second-nature, something she now did without thinking. Because, it needs done. And, being surrounded with filth stresses me out. Might be a bit out of character to attempt doing ALL of the long-neglected household chores at once...
But, what else can I do? She scowled, collecting dirty dishes and piling them in the sink. I can’t live like this.
Even after making a few trips to the bathroom hamper for the errant bits of clothing she found strewn in the corners of the living room, the place still looked… well, dirty. She pulled down all the blankets covering the windows, releasing clouds of dust to hang in the air just as dawn light was beginning to stream through the windows. All of those blankets smelled and they needed washed, so she folded them and arranged them in a giant pile next to the hamper.
Okay. Carpet. Now that the room was properly lit up, it looked terrible, and after a cursory search, she discovered why the floor hadn’t been cleaned in ages. Their vacuum cleaner was outside, in the shed, caked in moldy dust and cobwebs—and it was old. A rather bulky independent canister-style motor and collecting bag, connected to the upright cleaner by an umbilical of electrical cord and ridged flexible hose.
Making three trips to carry the contraption and its attachments in and onto the kitchen tile, she then grabbed a bucket of water and one of the ripped socks she’d just thrown out and sat down to wipe the cleaner clean. The amount of time and effort she had to put into simple tasks like tidying up a room was beginning to seem absurd to her, but Tabitha grit her teeth and fantasized about soon having a carpet clean enough to sprawl out upon.
The entire vacuum cleaner was a filthy mess, and the bag had never been changed whenever the thing was stored, so the contents inside had begun to rot. After a thorough scrubbing that turned the water in her bucket an unsettling shade of brown, she reassembled the thing and was ready to begin cleaning. Unfortunately, it was as loud as a leaf-blower, and Tabitha had only pushed and pulled the thing over three square feet of carpet when her mother stormed out of their bedroom, furious.
“Don’t know what you thought y’were tryin’ to butter us up for, doin’ all of this, but whatever it is—you ain’t gettin’ it,” Mrs. Shannon Moore frowned, blinking at the dishes all over the countertop. The drying rack had long since been filled, and the rest were being set to dry on a towel Tabitha had spread out. “How am I s’posed to eat breakfast?”
“With clean dishes,” Tabitha answered with a deadpan expression, and she drained the sink water. She’d been doing dishes for forty-five minutes. As absurd a concept as it was, all of the dishes had been dirty. It was apparently custom for dishes to only be cleaned directly before use, oftentimes only rinsed, and then set down wherever afterwards, dirty and forgotten until they were needed again.
There wasn’t even a place for the bowls, plates, and cups in the kitchen cabinet, a fact that managed to stun Tabitha. The cabinets were jam-packed with everything else under the sun, it seemed—flashlights without batteries, forgotten tools, empty tins, metal brackets, cheap Christmas decorations, and a dozen old plastic margarine containers, each filled with a mysterious assortment of rusting nails and screws.
“I’m going for a walk,” Tabitha sighed, wiping her hands dry on her shirt. Last night’s charged enthusiasm for tackling all of her problems in this new life head-on... was rapidly draining away as she realized that she’d be forced to fight for every inch to complete even what should have been basic tasks.
“A walk?” her mother inspected one of the bowls. “Outside? And, where do you think you’re going?”
“I’m just going in circles,” Tabitha said, wishing there was a way to explain the truth of her circumstances. “...Around the neighborhood. I just need to walk for a while, get some fresh air. After what happened yesterday, I really can’t handle being cooped up, right now.”
She failed to put emotion into her voice like she’d intended, but her excuse seemed to hold up, and she was given permission to go outside. Which honestly surprised Tabitha, because it was still technically a school day—her mother would have had a fair argument to keep her from wandering about. If she even knows what day it is.
But, regardless, my plan’s holding out so far. Tabitha thought as put her worn little sneakers on and stepped out into the neighborhood. If I seem unusual, it’s because I was traumatized by what happened at the hospital. I have to keep all the windows uncovered all the time, too, because I’m selectively claustrophobic, now. I need sunlight, fresh air, and clean, open environments that don’t have clutter. Or, I’ll flip out.
Exhaling slowly, Tabitha started walking along the rows of trailers at a brisk pace. She couldn’t wait until her body was ready for running.
She returned from the hour-long jaunt outdoors equally exhilarated and disappointed with her young body. The extra weight sitting on her was something she hadn’t become accustomed to yet, a constant and obnoxious reminder of her unappealing image. On the other hand, joint pain didn’t seem to exist at all for her at thirteen, and though individual muscles began to ache, she didn’t actually feel tired. Youthful energy coursed and thrummed through her, ready for everything coming her way. Which was, of course, a miserable onslaught of problems throughout the trailer that required her immediate attention.
Their refrigerator, one of the few constants in Tabitha’s life, was still the exact same one she would own for years in the future, all the way until she’d moved into her second apartment. When she saw her parents had crammed the freezer tight, she even felt indignant at what they were doing to her appliance. The fan circulating air throughout the compartment was completely blocked, so TV dinner boxes were frozen to the back of the freezer, while some of the bagged veggies in the front were practically thawed out. They’d turned the freezer knob to ten for some reason as well, so after adjusting the contents properly within she set it back to where it should be, at seven.
Nothing within the fridge seemed remotely appetizing. An artery-clogging array of leftovers from various meals filled unlabeled tupperware, one of the shelves seemed dedicated exclusively to various styrofoam take-out boxes, and the rest of the interior was a smorgasbord of mystery jars, condiment bottles, and cans of beer.
Going to need to beg, lie, and cheat my way into convincing them to get us to a farmer’s market for some actual decent produce, some fresh fruits and vegetables, Tabitha made a face. Haven’t had a meal since 2045, and I’m famished. Withdrawing a half-empty carton of eggs dangerously nearing their expiration, she put a pot of water on the stove so that she could hard-boil all of them. These would need to be set aside and rationed out over her first week, for whenever she couldn’t stave off her hunger anymore and absolutely needed to eat something.
Need to dig out the hamper and see if I have any more useable clothes in there. Maybe sneak away a cup of detergent, and wash my clothes in the tub. There were just too many things to do at once, and Tabitha was feeling overwhelmed. Out of habit, her hand kept creeping back to her left wrist where she’d worn her bracelet-PC for years—she would kill for web access. It was dismaying to realize she was trapped all the way back in the dial-up era of internet. Sighing, she pulled her legs up in stretches while waiting for her water to boil.
I’ll need a word processor over the summer if I want to get a head start on my novels. The library’s over a half-hour walk from here, from what I remember. Decent for some extra exercise. I’ll need a library card, and a… what, a flash drive, to keep the work on? Did they have flash drives back in ninety-eight? A CD? Maybe a floppy diskette?
She’d leafed through some of the miscellaneous worksheets and papers scattered around her room, and didn’t think she’d have a problem breezing through middle-school finals without seriously reviewing them. High school calculus or physics would have been a different story, but she was eminently confident in passing coursework intended for children. Also need to keep using ‘big words’ around my parents, even when diminutive ones would suffice. ESPECIALLY when diminutive ones would suffice. That way, they’ll imagine my new vocabulary is some emerging teenage phase… and hopefully never stop to question how or why I know certain words that I likely shouldn’t.
“What the—” Her mother did a double-take as she stepped away from the living room TV for a moment to refill her sweet tea—a murky concoction Tabitha had long since concluded was more sugar than tea and water. “What, you’re cooking, now? Tabby, you’ve never cooked a day in your life. You’re liable to burn down the whole trailer park.”
Tabitha simply crossed her arms, looking unamused, and Mrs. Moore’s expression faltered.
Having just arrived home from work, Mr. Alan Moore was first stepping inside the door when he was immediately waylaid by his wife.
“What in the—”
“Honey,” Mrs. Moore said in a furtive whisper, “Somethin’s wrong with Tabitha. She went on this—this rampage today, and she’s speaking all strange. She’s not actin’ her normal self at all.”
“Rampage, what… ?” He stepped past her into the trailer, marvelling in disbelief at the incredible transformation their home had gone through. “Ho—ly hells. I come home to the right house? Tabby did all this?”
“She’s gone weird, weird in the head, Honey,” Mrs. Moore insisted, gesturing towards the kitchen. “She went and pulled out everything in all the cabinets, and moved everything around. Everything. When I told her she wasn’t allowed to throw out any of those newspapers, she sat down with them and was... shuffling them around, looking all serious. I ask her what on God’s green earth she thinks she’s doing, and she says shes organizing them by date.
“She’s not acting right, Alan. She’s telling me she’s claustrophobic now, that we have to keep all the curtains open. So that we’re living in a goddamn fishbowl, and all the neighbors can gawk in and see whatever they please? I don’t think so! She went out and about for hours, and wouldn’t tell me where she went, says she was going in circles. She even tried to take half of all our canned goods outside, said they were expired. I tell her canned goods keep well on for years and years after their date, and she looks at me like I’m speaking Swahili! It’s canned food, for cryin’ out loud! She’s always been such a good girl, I don’t know what’s gotten into her!”
Mr. Moore frowned. If a cleaning spree hadn’t been strange enough, the thought of Tabitha opposing her mother was downright abnormal. His wife wasn’t one to be crossed, and yet, right now she seemed... downright spooked.
“I’ll... talk to her,” he assured her, still looking around the pristine trailer in dazed astonishment. It was his home, and yet he was wondering where it was okay to put his shoes, now. The well-trodden gray of the living room carpet was now a light blue that seemed positively vibrant by comparison, and with all of the windows open and the curtains tied back, this cozy space he thought he was familiar with seemed to have opened up into something else entirely.
“Sweetie?” He paused, rapping his knuckle on Tabitha’s door. Yet another strange thing—Tabby had never been in the habit of closing her door. Hell, yesterday she’d of had to shove aside a big ol’ pile of stuff to even close the dang thing in the first place. “Can I come in?”
“Please do,” her voice called out.
“Uh… yeah,” he said uneasily, opening the door. Her room was even more changed than the rest of the trailer—it was as if she’d just moved in. Her panelboard walls, which had been littered with taped drawings and posters, were bare. The dresser was clear of everything, and she’d even cleaned the mirror, removing all of those Sunday School stickers she’d decorated the edges with. Her bed was made, sheets pulled taut with military precision.
“I’d like to have a discussion with you about our living arrangements,” Tabitha said, cooly appraising him. “But, it doesn’t have to be right now. You’ve just gotten off work, so you can relax and have dinner, first. After that, we can speak at your convenience.”
“That’s very... considerate of you, Honey,” He managed. There was a strange stillness to her mannerisms that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. She wasn’t fidgeting, or slumping, or even breaking eye-contact with him.
“You cleaned the whole house,” he grunted.
“Yes, thank you for noticing.”
“Any reason in particular... why? There something you want?”
“A clean home,” Tabitha answered curtly. It didn’t look like she had anything else to say.
“Okay, then,” Mr. Moore sighed. “Were you being smart with your mother?”
“We had a rather... animated discussion, on the semantic difference between a best by date and an expiry date.” Tabitha explained, choosing her words carefully. “Though I’m unable to concede my... apparently unique and challenging views on that matter, I’ve already taken the liberty to apologize to her for any offense I may have inadvertently caused.”
“Sweetie—why are you talking like that?”
She paused, seeming to ponder for a moment, before answering. “Because I’ve had the time today, to consider the things I want to express. Thank you, for allowing me to stay home from school today. It’s been very useful.”
“Okay,” he shook his head helplessly. “Fine. Get ready for dinner, then, I guess.”
Plodding back out to the living room and removing his wallet and keys, he noticed that on the once-cluttered ledge where he normally left them—now cleared, a small tray had been placed for them.
“Well, what did she say?” Mrs. Moore asked impatiently. “What does she want?”
“I don’t know,” Mr. Moore replied, thoughtfully picking up the tray, a decorative metal stamped with the engraving of an amish carriage pulling towards a covered bridge. She really DID go through all the cabinets. “Hell, she explained, and I still don’t know what she said.”
He placed his wallet and keys in the tray and carefully placed it back on the ledge.
“That’s what I’m been talking about!” Mrs. Moore exclaimed, looking uncomfortable. “You can’t understand a word comin’ out of her mouth, anymore! What did they say at the hospital? Did getting knocked upside her head make her—I don’t know, autistic, or something?”
“I dunno,” he said, frowning. They’d given him a packet of papers to take home with them, and he’d set them down on the armrest of his chair yesterday. He didn’t know where on Earth they were, now. “But, she did clean.”
His wife shot him a dirty look, glancing around her as though she only found it unsettling and unnatural.
“What?” Mr. Moore shrugged. “You were the one home with her all day. She said she wanted to talk to me about something after dinner.”
“Thought you hated green beans,” Her father grunted, forks clinking against plates as they all ate together.
“I do,” Tabitha lied, looking down at her plate. They actually weren’t bad, for frozen food. She’d drained, rinsed, and then steamed them just like she had when she was back in college. The flavor was weak, but they were the healthiest option she had to work with at the moment.
Her parents were eating yesterday’s baked beans with today’s jumbo hot dogs, the kind that ran eighty-nine cents for a large pack. The mere memory of that meat—bland, tasting like bologna, processed to the point of having no texture, and swollen with preservatives, was enough to make her stomach turn. No one had commented yet on why the parents and daughter were eating separate meals, so hopefully they were already prepared to let some of her new eccentricities slide.
“And, you’re eating them because…?” Mrs. Moore asked, already sounding annoyed.
“I want to be healthy.”
“You’re plenty healthy, Honey,” Mr. Moore said, wiping his mouth with a napkin. “You’re fine just the way you are. Did one of those Taylor girls say something to you?”
“Oh?” Tabitha looked up at him in surprise. “You didn’t know? Everyone calls me tubby Tabby. They always have. I’ve been made fun of for being fat and smelling bad my whole life.”
“What?!” her mother threw her fork down into her plate with a loud clink. “Who said that?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Tabitha said, taking another bite of her green beans. “It’s common knowledge, and they’re right, anyways. No one’s quite as honest and cruel as other children.”
“You’re not fat,” her father insisted.
“Who called you fat?” Mrs. Moore demanded. “I want their names, right now.”
“I am fat,” Tabitha said, an edge appearing in her voice. “And that’s not something that scolding children or forcing apologies is going to change.”
“You’re not fat, Tabitha, don’t you dare call yourself that,” Mrs. Moore insisted, sending a pointed look towards her husband. “Well? Tell her, Alan.”
“How much more weight would you have let me put on?” Tabitha interrupted with a glare she turned towards each of them in turn. Something dark was growing in her eyes, and Mr. Moore found his response was caught in his throat. “How far would I have gone before you addressed the issue? Are you fine with me being unhealthy? Are you fine with tubby Tabby?”
“Tabitha Anne Moore. Who taught you to talk like that?!” The table was gripped with a long, tense silence.
“...I’m sorry,” Tabitha finally said, pushing aside her unfinished plate and leaving the dinner table. “I’ve lost my composure—please, excuse me.”
“Alan,” Mrs. Moore hissed in a low voice as Tabitha retreated to her room. “Did you know about any of this?!”
“Tabitha?” Mr. Moore knocked on the door again. “You okay in there? You didn’t finish your greens… and your mother said you didn’t have anything else to eat, today.”
“Hunger is just the sensation of my fat reserves beginning to deplete,” her strange words called out through the door. “I have sufficient energy to finish my exercises tonight.”
“Sweetie…” He shook his head in exasperation. Exercises, now, too? Looks like she’s finally getting into that difficult teenager age. “Can I come in?”
Please do? What happened to ‘yeah,’ or ‘okay?’ He slowly opened the door, to discover she was in the midst of stretches, legs spread out in a V on the floor and attempting to reach as far forward towards them with her hands held flat.
“Honey, we don’t think you’re fat,” he said.
“Do you know exactly how much I weigh, or how tall I am?” she retorted. “Because the BMI I calculated indicates that I’m very overweight, well on my way towards obese, by medical standards.”
“I know you’re trying to comfort me, and I appreciate that,” she cut him off, “but, what I need now is encouragement, not comfort. I’m sorry for my outburst earlier, at dinner. I understand that all of this must seem very... emotional, and perhaps overly theatric to you, but I assure you, I am very, very serious about this.”
“Okay, okay,” he held up his hands. “Just… well, you know how it seems.” Wait, does she? She actually does seem very… aware. Not to say she was stupid before, or anything, but this…
“I’m thirteen years old, so I can’t be considered a child, anymore,” Tabitha shrugged. “I’m a young woman, now. That’s what I wanted to discuss with you.”
“Well, go on.”
“I want you to teach me how to balance a budget,” she began, sitting up and relaxing her legs. “How to plan and prepare meals, and how to manage my time and money.”
“I recognize that we don’t have much financial leeway, but I’d like for all of us to agree on a fair monthly allowance for me. In exchange, I’ll pull my weight by cooking for us every night, and regularly keeping the house clean.
“As you’re both parent and provider, if you don’t feel that is acceptable, I’m prepared to negotiate on your terms. I think that learning responsibility is an important aspect of my personal development, and that hard work should be rewarded with equal compensation. Do you agree?”
“Well, I… you want allowance money, huh?”
“Money’s tight, Sweetie.”
“I understand that.”
“I’ll talk about it with your mother.”
“Thank you. When do you think I can expect your decision?”
“We’ll see, Sweetie,” he shrugged, raising his hands. “You’ve been acting… different, and your mother’s in a mood.”
“...I understand. Thank you, again. I’m going to finish up, now, and then get some rest. Goodnight, Daddy.”
“Sweetie?” He paused for a moment as he turned to leave, slowly reevaluating his daughter. “Don’t you try and grow up too fast, now, alright?” He didn’t know what else to say to her.
“...Of course, Daddy,” Tabitha promised, but she was wearing a bitter smile that had no place on his thirteen-year old girl. “I won’t.”