Daddy came home late on a summer night, stinking of wine and dead porch bugs.
They didn’t have a porch.
His collar was stained with lipstick Momma didn’t wear, and the tag stuck out of pants that weren’t wrinkled before he left.
He took one glance at his family-- his daughter, sitting peaceful and innocent on the floor with her unicorns and her books and her fairy tales miles from their tiny house, and his wife-- Momma, that is her name-- glaring with arms crossed and thin lips he don’t like kissing no more pursed. He read it all on her face. He said, “God, woman, I just went to the bar for a drink.”
Momma said, “You did not,” and she left it at that.
Little Kelly entered junior high with pigtails piled on her head and a frown stretched for days. Pretty as a picture, sour as a lime.
She had friends in the back of buildings where they made her into a chimney, blowing smoke and spitting ash like bile, and offered her love in the shape of tiny pink pills that made the world spin around her and laughter bubble out like tears.
Once a boy offered her real love, like grownups, and she said no for a little bit ‘cause that would be irresponsible. Then she went home silly, homework assignments turning stale in her backpack.
Momma waited at the kitchen table like she had years ago, same skinny arms crossed. Kelly drops her bag on the floor, sour again, and goes to make a peanut butter sandwich. “I did my homework, Momma.”
Momma said, “You did not,” and there was no hug for her that night, not from a momma as sour as she was, nor from the daddy who didn’t come home till dawn.
And he smelled like lipstick again.
Kelly went back and told the boy yes, cause if Momma weren’t giving her love then somebody else was.
Little Kelly became Big Kelly and needed money to do all the things that made her happiness something she could hold in her hand.
So small and pretty, like tiny pink babies filled with white dust.
Big Kelly whined for cash but Momma said no so she whined again and tired Daddy, drooling last night’s perfume onto his newspaper, handed her a twenty. Momma glared.
Big Kelly’s money was gone ‘fore lunch and she needed more real fast. She took a little from her classmate (friend, because friends borrow things and it’s okay when friends do that) who wasn’t happy about it but Kelly didn’t let that stand in the way. Then she knocked on doors till a neighbour grunted something about watching the chilluns. Big Kelly entered the house with her chimneys hidden in her blouse and gum cracking her mouth like a whip.
The chilluns didn’t talk much, blond and dirty with eyes like rats. But they liked the smell of her cigarettes and Big Kelly, despite her better judgement, found them entertaining. She decided she’d babysit more from then on.
When the neighbour came home she found that her eldest daughter smelled like smoke and she screamed and hollered on Big Kelly and threw her out.
Big Kelly said, “I didn’t give her anything except candy!”
“YOU. DID. NOT!” screamed the mother and the door slammed in her face.
Big Kelly dragged her feet when she came home that night, ‘cause nothing’s worse than getting in trouble and worrying your parents can smell the guilt on you.
Which they usually can.
Big Kelly wandered to the back door, pausing to alert the kitchen to her presence with a hesitant grunt. She heard shouts. She opened.
Momma and Daddy were goin’ at it, and the chairs had been upturned, the table flipped onto its side. Daddy had a nose bleeding as bad as anything, and Momma’s hair was all a-frizz round her head. Her skinny arms shook as she fought and Daddy stank of cheating as bad as anything.
Big Kelly turned to run for a little bit and hid in the bushes like a six-year-old, ‘cause at that moment she was six and Daddy had shouted at Momma for the first time, while that stubborn old lemon of a woman simply crossed her arms and glared, and didn’t bother to cover the ears of little Kelly nervous in the corner. At that moment she was six and Daddy didn’t bother to come to say goodnight anymore, ‘cause he found another real pretty lady to say goodnight to instead, the bastard, and Momma just sat in the kitchen
Daddy came storming out of the house later, shouting nasties over his shoulder, while Momma screamed back, “You did not!” her favourite defence when one of them was being naughty, because she knew they both hated it, having the truth shoved right into their faces. Momma slammed the door
Big Kelly slunk back in like a kicked dog and found Momma on the floor with her hands over her face and her little lemon of a mouth shrunk and drooping. Big Kelly went over to hug her nervously, ‘cause that was what good daughters do, even though Momma could be a little scary.
Right there on the floor, Big Kelly had a rev’lation.
She was gonna be here in ten years if she wasn’t a good girl like Momma always told her to be, and she wouldn’t have a job ‘cause she’d have her own little girl hiding in the corner when Daddy came home from a hard day of cheatin’ and she’d be too sad herself to comfort her (why wouldn’t I comfort my own daughter? Kelly thought furiously) because I’ll tell you why, it would bring up too many memories of her Momma and Daddy fighting in the kitchen. But you know what?
Big Kelly was not gonna sit on the floor, and she was gonna hug her daughter like she was the softest stuffed animal in the world. And she wouldn’t say, “You did not,” one damn day in her life.
Big Kelly became just Kelly and she made friends with people who weren’t chimneys-- a little more boring, not to have love bottled up like that, but her new friends were easy and predictable and they liked her even if she didn’t like them as much. They talked about grades and college and the guys who were cute but who they would never talk to, and Kelly soaked it in with a good deal of reluctance but a great deal of determination.
Kelly graduated happy and Momma came, clapping her skinny hands and smiling, for once, not with a lemon mouth. She joined a school a few hours north of Momma and held her work-appropriate outfit up to the mirror, wrinkling her nose.
For the kids, and if not for the kids for yourself, ‘cause you did this even if Momma says You Did Not.
Kelly pushed the ugly away into a tiny black box in the corner of her mind.
Students came and most were nice except for a boy who had something of Kelly’s daddy in his black eyes. He shouted in class and whined and took snacks from other people, and Kelly pulls his parents aside at the end of the day. “Your son was very disruptive. He stole biscuits from another little girl.”
“He did not,” the mother says with the smugness of a mother who is In The Right about her angel of a child.
Kelly saw red.
“Have a talk with him, please,” she says and turns away to scrub the anger from her eyes and push it into her little black box.
Kelly got a boyfriend for a while.
“I made your favourite. Happy birthday,” she says, setting a plate of bangers and mash in front of him.
“You did not,” the boyfriend snaps, peering at it. “My favourite is pasta with red sauce and meatballs.”
Kelly saw red but it went into her black box and she smiled falsely and stood to clear away his plate.
Kelly started seeing red alllllll the time.
A bus splashed her with water. (goddamit you stupid driver, can’t you see there’s a person on the road, what I’m not worth your time as a human being, pay attention to me you ASSH--)
Her mother called. (I’m busy, you idiot, go be a terrible mother to someone else, I don’t have time for this, I don’t have time to deal with you, what you think my day is just free, what kind of loser do you take me for)
The little boy with her daddy’s eyes called her a big stinky and smiled a smile so twisted, he may as well have come home with lipstick covering him and slapped her momma across the face.
There was little difference to Kelly anymore.
She got married despite her evil black box. Her husband was perfectly nice and smiled when she described her family, seeming to think it all a joke.
She loved and hated him for it.
Kelly grew to thirty (god, so old) and thirty-five, and forty, and Momma stayed out in the countryside with her daddy a couple blocks away. Kelly said No to children and her husband said Okay because he was a teacher too and they had children crowding their lives already.
Kelly visited her momma ‘cause that was what good daughters did and ‘cause her husband said it would be a nice thing. And when she opened the front door her momma was crying and it rang sharply in Kelly’s ears, and her daddy’s voice was harsh and real mean and she saw them in the kitchen, fighting again like two-year-olds.
Kelly saw red.
Momma was on the floor and Daddy was above with his hands raised up and mad (he could be dancing) thought Kelly, but he wasn’t he definitely wasn’t, and she moved to throw him off of her and to yell, to use a voice she hadn’t thought she owned, “Now get out of here!!” and he glared and whirled around to go, and Kelly walked after him still yelling.
“You did not! You did not!” echoed, except she thought it was probably coming out of her mouth, not just in her head. Her hands she thought were clenched into fists, except-- maybe not?-- because she was touching someone, something, and it was human and the fabric stank with cheating and he was yelling real loud, and so was someone else behind her. She loses herself in her childhood chant, “You did NOT!! You did NOT!!” and then Daddy was gone.
She looks down.
What was Daddy doing on the ground there, all red? She touches her eyes. Maybe she blasted him with all the red in her eyes.
Momma ran over and started hollerin’, so Kelly had to turn to her to calm her down. Daddy’s just a little red right now, she wanted to say, like the lipstick he used to wear that wasn’t yours.
“You killed him,” someone says, and Kelly looked at a puddle. Was that herself, looking back at her?
“I just pushed him,” Kelly says.
“You did not,” the puddle responds with a sad shake of its head.
You did not.
“The end,” murmurs Kelly, and she puts an arm around Momma as sirens start to wail. But be careful, or they’ll run Daddy over again.