Author: Sara Bautista
Genre: Young Adult
The plus side of looking like a total freak was finding the note that led to the truth about my mother. I’d decided that the solution to my boy problems—namely, there were no boys—was to make myself stand out. And now I stood alone, dripping wet, clutching the box for #52 Black as Night and hoping the frightening reflection in the mirror was an illusion. Closer inspection revealed the unfortunate reality: that scary thing in the mirror was me. And I was late for work.
I quickly rummaged through my closet for something to conceal the ghastly mess, but came up empty-handed. In a last ditch effort, I raced to the attic, taking the narrow steps two at a time. I pushed by the skeletons of old lamps and ghostly sheet-covered furniture until I found a Tupperware crate stuffed with clothes I no longer wore. I dug through until I found a kelly green scarf. It would have to do.
On my way out of the dusty space, another box caught my eye. “Suzanne” was scratched across the side in my father’s writing. I paused, glancing at the hole of light from downstairs. Mrs. Liu was going to kill me if I wasn’t there by five, but I couldn’t resist pulling apart the box’s worn cardboard flaps.
I picked up the top item—a photo album—and opened it at random. My mother looked up from the page, holding what must have been a baby me. My throat caught at her warm, open smile and easygoing stance. I traced her face with my finger before shutting the album with a kiss. As I slid the box back into its spot, a small, folded piece of paper fluttered to the ground. The graceful cursive read “To Jocelyn with Love.”
I carefully unfolded it. In contrast to the sparse writing on the outside of the note, sketches covered the inside. Flowers and vines laced with six-legged creatures lined the edges and twisted to encircle the small square of writing in the middle. I picked out the words in the weak light.
My dear Josie, pocket full of posies,
I miss you more with each day that passes. The good news is that I should be back soon. I can’t wait to give your sweet little self a big hug and a kiss. In the meantime, I’ve been catching bugs for you. See? Here’s a beetle and a cricket. I hope you’ve been finding lots of worms, and that you’re taking good care of Daddy.
Love you more than you’ll ever know,
I wanted to devour the remaining contents of the box, ferreting out more lost memories of my mother, but it would have to wait until later.
I had barely settled in behind the hostess’ podium in the dim lobby when the entrance bells jangled. I tugged at the hem of my kimono uniform—as if that would make it longer—and clamped my teeth together in what I hoped would pass for a smile.
A whoosh of cold greeted me, along with a tall, snow-dusted figure. Cliff Crawford. Joy. A little harassment from Neighbor Boy was just what I needed.
“Whoa, Jocelyn, is that you? Did you spend Christmas rescuing baby seals from an oil spill or something?” He laughed and circled around me, inspecting the damage from all sides. “Looks like you missed a piece back here. Actually, a few pieces…”
“Shouldn’t you be flunking out of community college somewhere?”
“It’s called a leave of absence, there, Bettie Page. I realized I haven’t found my calling yet, you know? Decided to move back in with the folks, maybe get a job at the Photo Hut. Pretty sweet deal, eh?”
“Yeah, every kid’s dream.”
A family filed in behind Cliff, crowding the entrance. Mrs. Liu, the restaurant owner, pushed in after them, making her first appearance of the evening.
“What’s going on here?” she squawked in my direction. “This is bottleneck! You want to talk to cute boys, you work at carwash!”
In the same breath, she turned to the embarrassed customers, and in a saccharine voice cooed, “Welcome to Emperor Wok. Four for dinner, please?” It wasn’t until she passed the hostess podium for the menus that she actually saw me. I worried that she might start convulsing right there, but she managed to keep walking. My scarf was clearly not doing its job.
“So where can a cute boy get some take-out around here?” Cliff asked, grinning.
I rolled my eyes and gestured toward the cashier.
Soon Mrs. Liu was back, ranting about the gravity of my hair-don’t. It registered as a Category Four catastrophe in her book, but she didn’t stop there. It was the bony hips (“men want ladies to make babies!”) and skinny arms (“you weak!”). I tuned her out when she started going off about my eyebrows—the center of a woman’s power—which were too light and thin for her liking, but I snapped right back to attention when she licked her finger and starting rubbing the purplish-black smudges tracing my hairline.
I was shielding myself with the podium when Cliff passed by on his way out.
‘You look odd,’ he mouthed.
Yes, yes I did, and I could count on Cliff to point that out. Ever since the summer after seventh grade when he pushed me into the Harrisons’ pool, fully clothed—thus revealing to the whole neighborhood that I still didn’t wear a bra—he had found endless ways to embarrass me. And now he was back. Fortunately, I was halfway through my senior year, and I would be enrolled at RISD and strolling the streets of Providence before I knew it.
That night, as I ran the water for another shower—I had to get a head start on those 28 washes—I pulled out my mother’s note. I held the thin paper to my nose, hoping to find just a touch of the elusive fragrance that lay somewhere on the edge of my memory. It smelled of nothing but dust and faint mildew. Still, I savored it.
I opened the note again, and this time, in the bright light of the bathroom, I noticed a date hidden among the sketched foliage. I stared at it. The steam from the shower swirled near the ceiling and slid down the walls. It was suffocating, as if the very vines had burst forth from the page and were closing around my neck.
My mother couldn’t have written a note on that date. By then, I would be two; by then, she would be dead.