It was worse the second time.
Ivory’s death had been an accident. This time, though, Special felt responsible. She felt it was her fault. She thought that she killed them. And to a little girl of ten, those were dangerous things to ponder, because when you start blaming yourself for things out of your control, things you have no business being accused of, then you begin to think that you’re the problem.
You’re the cause of all of the misery.
You’re the reason Shawn is mean to your mama.
You’re the why.
Special didn’t believe that. Not yet. But the thought had been planted into her mind. Its roots were trying to branch out. All it needed was another storm for it to grow into something nasty.
She scooped up the remains of the turtle, caterpillar, an alien, and threw them in her wastebasket. The pieces were all the same size and looked like they had been cut perfectly, just like last time. It was as if they were always meant to break apart that way. She didn’t bother telling her mama what had happened. She didn’t want to come across as crazy or something, even though she did feel like she was going a little crazy. Why had the paper mushies broken apart again in the night? What was she doing wrong?
Breakfast was skipped. Special was too eager to get working again since there were currently zero paper mushies to play with. Shawn was still around which meant that using the kitchen table was a no-go. Not unless she wanted to get yelled at and receive another scar on her chin. It still hurt when she opened her mouth.
The leftover newspapers were laid out on the carpet in her bedroom. There were enough supplies to make one more paper mushy. One of the pieces of Styrofoam was in the shape of a half-sphere. This gave her a wonderful idea.
She loved it when ladybugs crawled on her bedroom window screen in the summer. They brought much-needed color into her life.
Special went into the kitchen to get the mixing bowl for the flour and water. Shawn was in the living room watching TV, but he didn’t notice her. That was good. Her mama wasn’t nearby, so Special tip-toed back to her bedroom, hoping to keep this new paper mushy a secret.
It didn’t take long to make the ladybug. The job was sloppier than the others; the edges of the newspaper were wrinkled and the pipe-cleaner legs were uneven. Blame it on her rushed state of mind. She decided that she didn’t want to wait all day for it to dry. Every time she went to her play spot it was too close to dark. She wasn’t spending enough time with the paper mushies before she got sleepy, before they died in the night. What she needed to do was get her mama’s blowdryer from the bathroom to speed up the drying process. Ianchelle, being the hair expert that she was (best curls and cornrows in Wayne County, full stop), kept an ironclad grip on her hair-dressing supplies, specifically the blowdryer. Ianchelle’s hair wasn’t just a thing of beauty, it was an expression of pride. Her crochet pixie cut was perfectly curled and shaped. To criticize her hair was to criticize her very being. To try and steal one of the tools that made her hair extravagant, well, that was just plain foolish. But Special was desperate. She couldn’t wait around any longer.
The blowdryer was resting inside a plastic holder that was mounted on the vanity in the bathroom. Special walked flatfooted, looking behind her to see if anyone was watching. Mothers, like God, have a way of knowing your every move, sometimes before you do.
She pulled the blowdryer from the holder and went back to her room. How could it have been so easy? All of that worrying for nothing. That was when a high-pitched yell made the hairs stand up on her neck.
“Special! What are you doing with my blow dryer?”
Special didn’t turn around. “I’m sorry, mama,” she said to the door. “I was only going to borrow it for a second.”
“To dry a paper mushy.”
“Dry? I thought they were already dry?”
Special looked down at the floor. “I’m making another one. The others got broke again last night.”
Ianchelle snatched the blowdryer from Special’s hand, wrapping the cord around the handle. “And how did they get broke?”
“I don’t know. I was sleeping.”
“I’ll tell you how.” Ianchelle grabbed Special’s arm and lead her to the front door. There were muddy shoe prints on the floor going from the door to Special’s bedroom. “You were at the spot by the freeway last night were you? What have I told you about playing there when it gets late? Don’t you remember where you live? I could go to jail for leaving you all by yourself like that. You didn’t even ask if you could go.”
Special noticed the long sleeve shirt covering her mama’s arms, hiding her bruises.
“Mama, you’re hurting my arm.”
“You’re not listening to me.” Ianchelle directed Special’s arm toward the floor. “Going to your spot isn’t even the half of it. You didn’t even bother to take off your shoes when you got home! There’s mud everywhere!”
“I’m sorry about the shoes. I forgot.”
“What’s gotten into you, Special?”
Special was actually wondering what had gotten into her mama? She never yelled like this. Shawn had poisoned her with his lies and evil thoughts. He had infected her. He was the one talking right now, not her.
Special started to cry. “I’m sorry for making a mess. I forgot, I just forgot.”
Ianchelle let got of Special’s arm. “Clean up the floor and your shoes before you go to your room and think about what you did. You’re grounded for today. I’ll call on you when we’re ready for lunch.”
Shawn had been eerily silent during the earful from Ianchelle. Maybe it was because yelling was what he was used to. When it was calm, when everything was as it should be, that’s when he became irritated. That’s when things felt off. And maybe, just maybe, he liked it when Special got in trouble. After all, it was supposedly her fault for Ianchelle’s financial woes.
Special cleaned the floor with a Swiffer. She had to get on her hands and knees and use a sponge to get the really muddy parts. She scrubbed the bottom of her shoes in the bathroom sink. How could she have been so careless to forget to take off her shoes? Today needed to be over with, and fast.
Once the cleaning was done, she went back to her room. The ladybug was nowhere near dry. Playing didn’t seem like an option at the moment. All of her books had been read numerous times. The words you’re grounded tend to suck the joy out of everything.
Boredom set in quickly.
She decided to re-organize her bedroom. Toys were put away. Clothes and other things that had become land mines were picked up. Dusting proved to be more disgusting than she had imagined. She remembered hearing something about dust being people’s dead skin. She hoped that was a lie like the Easter Bunny (she still believed in Santa Claus, but a giant bunny hopping around with chocolate eggs was where she drew the line).
Lunch came. Forks scraped on plates. Water guzzled in throats. The buzzing of the refrigerator sounded like an alarm.
Special finished tidying up her room and lay in bed staring at the ceiling. She thought about things—heavy things that no girl her age should have to think about. She wished she had a way to make money and help out. Money would solve so many of their problems. They could get rid of Shawn. The could fix up the house. They could buy all of the newspapers from the stand at the gas station, enough to make fifty paper mushies. Even one finished paper mushy would have put her mind at ease.
A soft knock on the door wasn’t enough to interrupt Special’s deep thinking. The door creaked open. Footsteps approached. The mattress sank low around her legs as someone sat next to her. A gentle hand brushed aside her hair.
“What are you doing, baby?” Ianchelle said. “You tired?”
“Thinking,” Special said.
Ianchelle put her arm around Special, pulling her close. “I’m sorry I got angry earlier. I’ve been stressed lately, but it’s no excuse.”
“It’s ok, mama. I’m sorry about the shoes. I made a giant mess and it won’t happen again.”
“I get worried when you go to that place by yourself. It’s not safe to be alone in this neighborhood at night. There are bad people in the world. They don’t care you’re my baby. They don’t care about anyone.”
“Like Shawn?” Special put her head in Ianchelle’s lap, letting her pigtails fall over the side.
“I know he hurts you,” Special said. “I know he doesn’t like me.”
“He won’t be here for much longer.”
“I know you get worried about me, but I get worried about you too. I get worried about you a lot. Why do you let him stay? Why do you like him sometimes?”
“Oh …” Ianchelle kissed Special’s cheek and began to cry. “How did this happen to us? How did it get so bad?”
Special let Ianchelle cry for a bit before she said: “I love you, mama. Things will get better.”
“I love you too, Special.”
An idea came to Special, something she should have thought about sooner. Tender moments with her mama always brought out the best ideas.
“What if Mr. Potmis went with me while I was at my play spot?” Special said. “Would you let me go then?”
“Oh, I don’t know about that.” Ianchelle sat up. “We don’t know him that well.”
“Yes, we do. He used to help around in the yard. He also helped me with math homework last year. He’s a good friend.”
“I just don’t know. He’s had a hard life. He doesn’t even have a home. Why do you want to play over by the freeway so bad? It’s all dirty and nasty underneath that walkway. You should be taking a bath every time you come back from there.”
Special stood up on her bed, jumping up and down. “Because … That’s where the paper mushies come alive!” She picked up a pillow and hit Ianchelle in the back with it. “Go talk to Mr. Potmis. Come on! Come on, mama!”
Special swung the pillow again. This time, Ianchelle blocked it with her right arm and used her left to pick Special up and flip her upside down. Her pigtails hung like branches from a tree. Ianchelle spun her around, laughing and laughing.
“I’ll talk to Mr. Potmis,” Ianchelle said. “But don’t think that this means a yes right now. And also don’t think that I’ve forgotten about your punishment. You’re still grounded for the rest of the day.”
“Thank you, mama!”
“For grounding you?”
“No, grounding sucks.”
“For agreeing to talk to Mr. Potmis.”
Ianchelle looked around the room and smiled. “I love what you’ve done to your room. How about we try and keep it that way?”
Special fell back onto her bed and breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe Mr. Potmis was the one who could help her. He was, after all, the wisest man in the neighborhood (and quite the ostentatious fellow too, might I add).