real lj idol | week 34, prompt 3 | 848 words
Previous topic: Sticks and Stones. (Note: this is set in the same universe as this story, which you might want to read first).
I punched Dickie Schroeder at school today.
He said that Daddy was gone because he just got sick of our family and left us. Ma had to come and get me before lunch, and now I'm suspended for a week. Stupid Dickie didn't even get in trouble.
I asked Ma if the things Dickie said were true. She was mad at first, and said that Dickie couldn't talk, since his mother disappeared the same week as Daddy. Then she got sad and wouldn't look at me, and she said we couldn't tell Jimmy about any of this, that it would be too upsetting.
She said Jimmy, but I think she meant it was too upsetting for her. Jimmy wasn't even born by the time Daddy was gone, so why would he care? He didn't know Daddy, he can't miss him.
I miss him, I think. I mostly only remember him from pictures, but I know he had brown eyes and dark, curly hair, and that he loved Ma and me. I think I remember that he was nice. I wish we had more pictures so I could remember better, but we don't. Hardly anybody takes pictures now, anyway. Ma says you need special paper and stuff to make them, and probably only the big cities have that anymore.
I've never been to one of the big cities. I wonder what they're like?
Ma used to talk about them sometimes, when she'd tell us stories about Before. The buildings were tall, she said, so tall you can't imagine. I used to think she was making that part up. "What did they need all those tall buildings for?" I asked her once. "What's happened to them now?"
Her forehead wrinkled. "They're still there, I expect," she said—real slow, like she was thinking about what words to use. "People still live in some of them. The cities aren't empty, they just aren't as busy as they used to be."
"Do you see people when you go there?" Ma takes the train to the city a couple of times a year for new vaccines and medical supplies. Jimmy and I stay with Uncle Harold when she goes, even though I always beg and beg to tag along. Maybe when you're older, she says, and isn't that what grownups always say when they really mean probably never?
"Here and there," she said, which isn't really an answer. All I know about cities is that they're big (bigger, Ma says), and you can buy oranges there. One time, Ma brought one back for each of us.
I also know that going to the city makes Ma sad. She won't tell me why.
The next few days, I walk Jimmy to school and wait until he's inside and can't see me anymore. Then I go home. Ma has me working in the vegetable patch during school, which she says is fair. I don't see how, since it looked like she wanted to punch Dickie Schroeder herself that day. But I guess that's just how grownups are.
I go back at the end of the school day to pick Jimmy up, sneaking around through the woods behind the school so he can't see how I get there. So far, I don't think he suspects anything, which is good. Kids are mean to Jimmy sometimes, even when there's nothing to be mean about. There's no telling what they might do if they knew I wasn't there to stick up for him.
On Thursday, Ma meets us in front of the Blairs' house on the way back, so we can walk the rest of the way home together. Jimmy skips circles around us as we go, like he usually does, and Ma just shakes her head.
"What did you learn in school today?" she asks.
Jimmy looks up and sees that she's talking to him. "Loyal-ty and Lies," he says, struggling with the words a little bit. "About why we had the Remaking and stuff. And not making up stories about Before." He stops skipping for moment and looks at Ma. "Bobby Polliers told me Charlie had to go home this week, because he got into a fight about Daddy. What happened to Daddy, anyway?"
Ma frowns for a moment. I bet she's thinking about us trying so hard to hide this from Jimmy, and he still found out anyway because some stupid kid blabbed the news at school. Then she looks over at me, but I’m waiting to hear the answer too. I've been waiting practically since it happened, but nobody ever tells me anything real.
Ma's eyes go back and forth, first watching Jimmy and me, and then the houses we pass along the way. Finally, she just says "I don't know," the words almost whispered and so soft I can hardly hear them.
I can't decide if she means it, or if she just doesn't want to tell us. I cross the street and let her and Jimmy keep walking, and I kick rocks down the sidewalk all the rest of the way home.
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