Mary stood at the kitchen sink, rinsing her coffee cup, when she heard someone yelling outside. Never one to shy away from her neighbors’ antics, she pulled open the kitchen door a crack, expecting to hear the latest episode of the Lutrell’s marital woes. Instead, she heard her young neighbor calling, “Taylor, come back here!”
Mary had only seen Lexi Jones a handful of times, and, as she watched the young woman standing on her back stoop clad in jeans and a t-shirt, Mary was struck by how young Lexi looked. Just a baby herself, Mary thought.
A flash of color in the corner of her own yard caught her eye and she watched Taylor squeeze her way through the broken chain link of her back fence. Mary could see the girl was crying. Turning her attention back to Lexi, Mary watched the young woman heave a visible sigh and go back in the house.
Pushing the kitchen door all the way open, Mary stuck her head out and called to the little girl, “Are you running away?”
Taylor whipped her head around and dragged an arm across her eyes. “No.”
“Just getting some fresh air?” Mary teased.
Taylor wasn’t in the mood to be teased, but answered, “I’m just getting away from Aunt Lexi. She won’t stop fussing at me.”
“I see,” Mary’s sympathetic tone took Taylor off guard. She added, “Come sit with me. I was thinking about having a snack.”
Taylor joined Mary in the kitchen and made herself at home. She sat down at the table, pulled her legs up in her chair, and rested her chin on her knees. Mary pulled out a box of crackers and began slicing cheese. Without looking at the little girl, she asked, “Did you get in trouble?”
“Not really. I didn’t do anything. Aunt Lexi says I have a bad attitude.”
The little girl thought for a moment before saying, “Maybe.”
“My mom is coming to visit us.” Taylor spit the words out like poison. “Aunt Lexi doesn’t want to see her either, but she says we have to because Siddie is excited she’s coming.”
“Why don’t you want to see her?” Mary set the snack on the table, and eased her old body into a chair.
Taylor shrugged and reached for a cracker.
Mary tried a different angle. “Why doesn’t your aunt want to see her?”
Taylor chewed silently for a moment before answering, “Aunt Lexi doesn’t like Mom very much. When they see each other, they usually get into a fight.”
“Aunt Lexi’s mad at Mom for leaving me and Siddie,” Taylor elaborated. “She doesn’t think Mom’s a very good mom.”
“What do you think?”
Taylor looked Mary directly in the eye for the first time, “I think she’s a terrible mom. What kind of mom leaves her two little kids for some stupid man?”
Mary wasn’t surprised at the emotion the girl expressed, but she hadn’t expected such a forthright answer. As she was thinking of a thoughtful response, Taylor said, “Siddie doesn’t see it yet. She still thinks Mom is good. She draws her cards and pictures and always hopes she’ll call or visit.” Taylor paused before adding, “I used to be like that . . . when I was little.”
Mary had always been so amused when a young child used the phrase “when I was little,” but, in this case, it broke her heart in two. She asked, “What changed that?”
“A long time ago,” Mary said softly, “someone left me.”
Taylor looked surprised. “Your mom or dad?”
“No, not my parents.” Mary shook her head. “My first husband.”
“I was very young. Just seventeen. People got married much younger back then,” Mary explained. “I married a man a little bit older than me. I thought I was in love with him. We had been married for one week and he just disappeared.”
“Where did he go?”
“I don’t really know,” Mary answered. “He never came back. A judge dissolved our marriage, but I thought his leaving was going to kill me. I had never been so sad in my life.”
“I don’t remember when my mom left,” Taylor offered. “She used to leave us with Grandma a lot. One time, she just didn’t come back.” Echoing Mary’s words, she said, “I had never been so sad in my life.”
“There’s nothing much more painful than being left by someone who’s supposed to love you.”
“Yeah,” Taylor agreed. “Especially your own mother.” After a moment’s thought, she asked, “Did you stop being sad about your husband leaving?”
“Well,” Mary pursed her lips, “I moved on with my life. I went back home to my parents and my brothers and sisters who loved me, and, eventually, I met another man who I married and raised a family with.” With a kind smile, she added, “But it still makes me sad when I think about it very much.”
“I try not to think about my mom,” Taylor said, tears filling her eyes, “because, when I do, it makes me sad . . . and then I get mad.”
“Mad that she left?”
“Yeah,” Taylor flicked a tear off her cheek. “And mad that she won’t go away all together. And that Sid still wants to see her. I get mad at Sid, and then I get in trouble for saying mean things to her.”
“I’m sure you don’t want to say mean things, though.”
“I really don’t!” Taylor exclaimed. “I just say stuff I don’t mean, and then I’m in trouble and I get so mad I can’t stand it.”
“I’m sure your Aunt Lexi would understand that if you tried to tell her,” Mary suggested.
“Probably,” Taylor agreed. “Aunt Lexi is almost always nice. It’s just hard for me to talk about Mom to her.”
“Why is that?”
Taylor shrugged. “I don’t know. It feels bad to say bad things about your mom, even if they are true.”
“You want to be loyal to her.”
“Yeah,” Taylor nodded, “which makes me mad at myself for feeling that way, because she isn’t loyal to us.”
Mary was impressed by the girl’s ability to articulate her feelings. “Well, I just want you to know . . . I’m your friend. Anytime you need to come get things off your chest so you don’t end up saying something you regret to your sister, I’m happy to listen.” She winked at the girl. “And to feed you cheese and crackers.”
Taylor grinned, and Mary’s heart leapt. She never in a million years though she would ever be a little girl’s confidant again. It made her feel alive.
Rachel Holbrook writes from her home in Knoxville, TN. She is the author of the syndicated serial, Little River, Volumes 1 & 2. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in Burningword Literary Journal, *82 Review, Ink in Thirds, Akitsu Quarterly, The Avalon Literary Review, The Society of Classical Poets, and various other literary journals. She recently won an Honorable Mention for her short story “A Slow Burn” at the Sigma Tau Delta International English Honor Society’s annual convention. She also received the Springs of Helicon Award for Poetry, awarded by Tennessee Wesleyan University. When she’s not writing, she enjoys going on literal and literary adventures with her husband and six children.