I plop onto our sagging couch, replaying the scene from this afternoon in my mind one more time.
“Robin,” my mother said as she pressed a bill into my hand, “take your sister to the mall. This should cover the bus ride and lunch at the food court.”
A million questions popped into my head, but I was speechless at this unprecedented gift. I forced myself to close my gaping mouth.
“I’ll be out late, kiddo. Take care of supper.”
Placated by her familiar words, I nodded. When she says she’ll be out late, that can mean she’ll arrive home shortly after the bars close, or sneak in just in time for breakfast. When I was younger, she used to claim that she’d gotten up before us and already gone out to run some errands. Once I pointed out that she was wearing exactly the same clothes as she had when she left the previous night and that her hair was messy and makeup faded, she stopped pretending. “Don’t bother making up stories to try to fool Robin,” she’d tell her gentleman friend of the month. “She may only be ten years old, but she has a built-in lie detector.”
Which is why I’m replaying that scene from this afternoon. My built-in lie detector is telling me that something’s not right. I examine my new mood ring to see if its colors reveal anything, but it still looks exactly like it did when I put it on at the novelty store. Determined to bury my anxiety, I pick up the book I’ve been reading and attempt to lose myself in its fictional world. Three chapters later, Annie’s voice jolts me back to our small, dingy apartment.
“I’m hungry.” She stares at me, looking as forlorn as a starving orphan, sucking on a lock of her long, dark hair.
With a sigh, I perform an inventory of our food choices. In the refrigerator, there’s a dried-up onion, half a head of wilted lettuce, and something that once may have been part of a tomato. I toss that in the garbage. I sniff at the carton of milk and decide it’s marginally drinkable. I’m pleased when I peer into a package of bologna and find two slices remaining.
Examining the loaf of bread, I flip though slices until I find four near the middle that don’t exhibit spots of green. I discard some of the loaf, deeming it too moldy to salvage, and scavenge through a kitchen drawer, discovering a single packet of catsup. Triumphant, I prepare two sandwiches with the ingredients I’ve located and hand one over to my little sister. She knows better than to complain, but I can see the disappointment in her eyes.
“Mom will probably buy some food in the morning. Don’t worry,” I tell her as I begin fretting again about what set off my internal alarms. I’m able to distract her for the rest of the evening by playing boundless rounds of Go Fish and Old Maid before sending her to bed. She whines, still asking for Mommy, but nods off once I crawl into my own bed and promise I’ll stay close by. Hours later, after the movies in my head play through all the times Mom has stayed out longer than expected, I finally fall asleep.
I arise early the next morning, frustrated but not surprised that my mother’s room looks untouched. Since she started dating “Uncle” Roger, she’s often not returned home until late morning on weekends. During the week, she’ll sometimes just call when she gets to work around 8:30. Today’s Saturday, so I figure she’ll show up in time for lunch. Hopefully, with some groceries.
Sniffing at the milk again, I have my doubts about pouring it on cereal. I sample a sip and spit it into the sink, quickly rinsing my mouth with tap water. We’ll have to eat the last of the corn flakes dry. Fortunately, Annie accepts this development silently.
I’m running out of options for begging food from our neighbors. Mrs. Nelson flat-out refused to give me anything else last time I hit her up. “Young lady,” she said, “go tell your mother that it’s her responsibility to feed her children, not mine.”
Old Mrs. Thornsby is my only possibility, but I’ll bet she’s almost as poor as we are. I feel bad about asking her for food, even though she usually manages to give me something.
Noon passes without any contact from our mother. Annie has been whiny all morning, clinging to me and asking me repeatedly about Mom. With a hollow pit in my stomach, I put on my best act of pretending everything is fine.
I perform surgery on two more slices of bread, relieving them of green mold, and toast them, slathering them with margarine. Lunch is served. We eat in silence, other than my sister’s sniffling between bites. My stomach feels like I’ve swallowed a rock, but I force myself to eat my toast.
By mid-afternoon, I’m pacing to the window every few minutes, scanning the street below for any sign of my mother. I’ve sent Annie up to the Barolo’s apartment to play with her friend, unwilling to leave the apartment myself in case our mother calls. I cautioned Annie not to say anything about Mom’s tardiness, echoing the message she’s hammered into us ever since the divorce.
When my sister returns for dinner and discovers me still alone in our apartment, she falls apart. “Why isn’t she back? I’m hungry! I don’t like it when she doesn’t come home.” Annie collapses in a heap in the middle of the kitchen floor, sobbing loudly. “I want Mommy!” I feel tears beginning to burn my eyes as I try to be the “big sister” who takes care of her. I snatch a dish towel and sink down beside her, trying to dry her tears and wipe her dripping nose as my own face grows wet from the tears I can no longer hold back. We grasp each other in a tight hug, rocking and weeping.
This is Winger’s 6th novel. She has also co-written three outdoor recreation guidebooks with her husband, Charlie Winger. They have lived in Montrose since 2005. Diane’s website is WingerBookstore.com