“What are you doing?” Judah asks, glancing over his shoulder to where Delaney is washing dishes.
“Looking for bruises,” I say.
“Why?” He wheels his chair to where he has a good view of what I’m doing.
My hands pause briefly before I pull off Mo’s onesie; maybe I imagined the whole thing. Then I step back, giving Judah a view of his chest.
Dark, plum-colored bruises mark his ribcage and arms where I saw Vola pinch him. The rest of his body looks unscathed despite the beating I saw him take. Slaps, I think. Not hard enough to leave lasting marks. Wasn’t that typical of child abuse? Put marks where you can hide them—under clothes. Slap and punch just hard enough to hurt and not stain.
“What is that from?” Judah asks. He reaches out a hand and touches the marks with his fingertip.
“Bruises,” I say. “I think his mother … I think someone hits him.”
Judah draws his hand back like he’s been stung. “He’s a baby…”
“And you think people don’t hit babies…?” I wonder after Judah sometimes. How having a more loving mother than the rest of us seemed to increase his naiveté.
I glance at him sideways. His mouth is pinched like he’s tasted something terrible, and his eyes stay glued to Mo.
“Do you think Mo—”
“No. I don’t think it was his dad.”
“Then … you believe his mother…?”
I grit my teeth. He’s putting things together pretty fast. At this point he’ll have me pegged for first-degree murder by lunchtime.
“I just noticed these. The other day. I wanted to see if he had new ones.”
I gently put his clothes back on and lift him into my arms. The entire time I was examining him, he never made a sound, just stared up at me with those darkly unfocused eyes. I hold him close to my chest, wanting to hug away the first eight months of his life, but as soon as I do, he stiffens, pressing his little hands against my chest and pushing away.
I read an article once about orphans in China, who were left so long in their cribs without human contact that people actually flew there from other countries and volunteered their summers to hold them. Those babies were unused to touch. But Mo associates touch with pain, which is why he stiffens and pulls away when I hug him. It makes sense now. What I had thought was a disability was actually a consequence of abuse. I rub his back and feel the muscles there stiffen and retract.
I suddenly have the urge to tell Judah everything: how I heard Mo crying as I walked home from the Rag, what I saw through the bedroom window, how I walked into the house with not even the slightest falter in my step, and how I slammed Vola Fields’s head into the side of the dresser. I want to tell him that I’m glad she’s dead, and how I want to take Mo and run away from this place forever. I open my mouth, the entire confession ready to fall off the tip of my tongue, when Delaney walks in, drying her hands on a dishtowel and shaking her head.
“Poor little guy,” she says. “Everyone needs their mother.” She realizes, too late, what she’s said, and her face turns red. “I’m sorry, Margo … I—”
“Don’t worry about it,” I say. “She wasn’t much of a mother.”
I am shaking, just my hands. My mother is dead, and despite the fact that she was lousy at the job, she was it for me. I am alone now. I pull Mo close to me and smell his head. I don’t want him to be alone.
LYNDEE ANTHONY is a liar. I am standing behind her, chewing on a piece of my hair as she pays for her Virginia Slims at the Quickie Mart. Knick Knack is hitting on her in that pothead sort of way, where he laughs at everything she says and punctuates his sentences with ‘damn.’ He sees the SpongeBob fob on her keychain and asks if she has any kids.
Oh my God, Knick Knack, I want to say. Don’t you watch the damn news? I wait for her to break down; I even hold my breath as I imagine her tear ducts opening, releasing the full force of her pain. Instead she laughs and coyly shakes her head no. No? I am still in shock and trying to work out her angle when she leans over the counter to grab her change from his hand. Maybe she doesn’t want anyone to know she’s Nevaeh Anthony’s mother. Maybe she’s tired of the looks, and words, and the pity. Knick Knack holds her change just out of reach so that she has to jump for it. He’s watching her chest with the rapt attention of a man watching his dinner approach. She seems to be enjoying the play—doe-eyed Lyndee Anthony, who can make Bambi look like a stone cold killer. Playing and flirting like her little girl isn’t dead.
That’s the moment I decide she’s a liar. And if she can lie about not having a kid, a kid who’s goddamn dead, what else is she lying about? Maybe I’m being too hard on her. I entertain the thought that she’s pretending to be someone else to escape. When Knick Knack has his fill of her bouncy breasts, he hands her the change, and she giggles all the way out the door.
“That’s Nevaeh Anthony’s mother, you shit,” I tell him.
He plucks a box of healthy cigarettes off the shelf and scans them under the gun.
“I know,” he says.
I balk at him. “Well, she lied about having a kid,” I say, handing over my money.
“So the flirting and the questions?”
Knick Knack shrugs. “Why not?” He hands me the pack. “You want to know my professional opinion?” he asks, lowering his voice and leaning his elbows on the counter so that he’s close to my face.
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