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by Jeffrey L. Helton

Before the school bus can screech still, I'm out in the blush of sunlight. From the windows, other kids are squealing at me, but all I hear is the crunch of gravel under dirty Sketchers. Once the bus zips away, I dash down the road, passing an old double-wide. Two bulldogs in the yard growl as they eye me, so I slow just a little, begging them in my head to stare somewhere—anywhere—else.

I walk beyond the hedge of honeysuckle, though my mouth aches. Last year, Sam would sit with me in the shadow of that hedge after school, and we'd drain the sweetness from each suckle. We would stay out way too late, and Mamaw would worry.

Sometimes I'd twirl a honey between my fingertips, fixated on its milky curves, crowned gold, and the shadows swallowing the honey.

Sam moved away when his dad died, but right now I don't notice the loneliness. I cut through his yard, empty save for a few Budweiser cans, mangled and red in the light. I scramble over the fence, hands raw with splinters, and jog through the soft lawn to Mamaw's trailer.

Inside I'm almost breathless. The curtains are drawn, and the TV is off, like always. Mamaw is in the kitchen, peering into the fridge. Its light kisses her face harsh like magic.

“Hey Sugar.” Most of her teeth are gone, so the words clump out like lumpy mashed potatoes.

“Hey.” I sling my backpack down, knocking my third grade picture off the table. I pass by other family pictures, some of aunts, uncles, cousins—but mainly me. Frames line the walls, a delicate hedge among chipped paint. Mamaw stops me.

 “Lord, look at them shoes. Let Mamaw give ‘em a washin’.”

With a groan, I obey before heading to the backroom. My Gameboy games litter the computer desk, and I brush them to the floor. When I press the computer’s power button, the screen hums on, almost alive.

Waiting for dial-up kills me, but I tiptoe my way to Google, where I shut off the safe search like Sam showed me. I type words that’d make other kids giggle, but not me, not right now. I only sweat. Because of the slow Internet, I only enjoy a page of thumbnails, like some floral catalogue. I stare at the blossoms of girls who seem so distant, so much older than me. My insides buzz.

There’s a picture of a girl with red hair who glances backwards into the camera, at me, eyes glowing like honey. I am compelled. My finger trembles on the mouse.

The door opens. Terror swells, and I can’t move fast enough, so I don’t move at all. Mamaw smiles then hands me cereal. Blue eyes pass over the blank loading page, and I try to speak, but my mouth feels thick and sticky. With relief, I inhale as she turns away.

“Thanks, Mamaw.” I manage. When she glances back, the coolness in her eyes dies.

“God Almighty. What—what’s that there?”

My heart pounds. On the screen, there’s a mass of color, but I can’t focus. I can’t let myself find those long contours. I feel Mamaw’s gaze smoldering at my shoulders. I wonder if there really is a Hell, then I realize there is and that it’s inside me. Fire blooms, eating at my guts. I have to put the fire somewhere else. I flip the bowl and cereal rains onto the keyboard.

“Mamaw, look what you made me do,” I scream, jabbing at the power button. My sin purrs black, and Mamaw’s face wrinkles in confusion. Just like I’d hoped. For a while, she just stares, her skin cracked like the walls around us, and I wonder if her guts burn, too. She lifts a hand. She wants to say something but changes her mind. Mamaw shuffles away for a washrag.

Before she’s back, I leap to the carpet. Somewhere in the background, hot water sloshes in the sink and Mamaw hums a sad song, but all I hear is the crunch of game cartridges under dirty feet. I slip out of the window and into the sticky sunlight.

I run for shade.

 

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