“Bite Down” and “Outside” by Emma L Briant

Categories: ISSUE 04: Eleanor

Bite Down

My mouth leaked soap juices which ran down my chin. It felt big, like at the dentist’s when they pull you open to stick things in. Mother flapped the tea towel about, came in close. ‘What kind of language is that for a lady?’ Sweat was on her face. Her curls stuck to it. Wet like her eyes. She shot up and walked away, flung open the kitchen door. Her voice was quieter now. ‘It’s that Mrs. Samuels I bet. Just ‘cause she couldn’t afford help after her Jerry was killed.’

‘Where’d you learn that word?’ I heard her shout. I could feel my teeth sinking into the soap. I thought of the dents they’d make. I sat on the wooden chair, hoping Mother came back from the kitchen soon. Trying not to swallow. The smell made the taste come and I tried to hold my breath. A little stuff went down my throat and I coughed up a bit. That let a little more soap juice down. My face screwed up. I bit harder and I looked at the kitchen door. I wanted to cry. I didn’t even know the word. I only asked what it meant. I tried to stay quiet and sniffed a little soapy snot back up my nose.

It stung.

Wet tears were on my cheeks when she came back with the cloth and glass of water. She nodded once. I took the soap out, slowly, my eyes checking her face. My jaw was slack and filling with drool. ‘Rinse,’ she said, ‘now spit.’ The water went bubbly in the glass. She wiped my mouth, her hand shaking. ‘Better?’ I nodded. ‘We’ll hear no mention of that word again, young lady,’ she said. ‘Now, out in the garden.’ I wanted more water but I went to the garden. I went to the side tap where the hosepipe is. Where the dog bowl used to be. Where she can’t see me drink from the tap like I’m not meant to.

I turned on the tap and drank ‘til it wasn’t nasty. Then I sat on the grass by the confused hydrangea bush, ripped off a clump of its petals, somewhere between pink and blue. I remembered how they all laughed about her at school then. Even Hannah, and she always shared her sherbets when her Dad gave her money on a Sunday. ‘Muuh-mmy’s a les-bian,’ Josie said. I said ‘No she’s not’ but they all laughed, even Hannah, and, I knew they knew I didn’t know what it meant. I said ‘She’s a lady’ and that made them laugh even worse. I wondered how I’d argue back tomorrow. How I’d deal with them. Shut them up.

‘Dinner’s ready,’ Mother called. When I went through her face was thin, she’d been crying. I sat up at the table in front of mince and potatoes. ‘Wash your hands,’ she said.

I got up and went to the sink. I picked up the soap. All the little teeth marks were gone. It had reduced. Sliced a little smaller, and now not a mark. It looked like a lie. As I slid it between my hands it smelled the same, making the juices run in my mouth again. But where were my teeth marks? The same bar. I looked at it. I felt like I did when she took me to the dentist that time, when she’d said we were going shopping but we didn’t. I can know things.

I dropped the soap in the bin under the sink. It made a noise, but she didn’t say anything.

I looked at Mother as I sat back behind the mince and potatoes. ‘Is Samantha coming to help you tonight?’ I asked.

We ate for a minute.

‘No,’ she replied, ‘we’ll manage just fine without her.’

She carried on eating.

‘I’ve got a new tooth coming through,’ I said, poking it with my tongue.

‘Big girl.’ She said, and smiled. And carried on eating.

The tap was dripping.

‘She’s not done anything wrong has she, Mother?’

‘No. Samantha didn’t do anything wrong.’

As she cleared away the plates I said ‘I’ll wash,’ and she hugged me, tighter than usual.

Mum went through to the lounge and I began filling the sink. I checked for her again as I reached down into the bin, but she wasn’t coming back. I pulled a few potato peelings off the soap and stuck it in my pocket. That’s for tomorrow, I thought. That’ll shut them up.

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‘No, darling.’

I remember Mum. I’m small this time. She wets a tissue and wipes my face, it smells stale. It’s thin and fluffy from her bag, and there’s the hint of a sweet softening polo-mint that must be hiding right down at the bottom.

‘Stop fidgeting.’

I think of the fusty bits that get under my nails when she tells me to fetch her car key, deep in her cavernous bag. But I let her wipe my face. She wants to. To be useful.

To make it alright for me to go outside on my own.

So now I hold her hand, and it’s still soft. So thin though. I let it go again. ‘Just be with her now,’ the doctor said. But I want those old memories. I want new ones. And the old ones. Any but the ones she’s making me now.

As she lies there in her nightie in the ward, I’m turning over my memories; a disintegrating tissue really. I’m trying to keep the bits from falling apart. ‘Cause I still need them. If I see her now I’ll cry again. Getting so thin. Those memories.

Because this is Mum. Purple dots where the tubes go in, and purple where they did. And I don’t know how to touch her. It’s the crisp white beds. And I know they don’t take care of her. Not like she needs. I feel bad.

She’s staring silently, breathing heavily. Wetly. The ward is so empty, her sound fills it out.

I pick up her bag and rummage. I want to hide inside.

‘You’ve got no polos, Mum… Do you want a polo, Mum?’ Of course she doesn’t. ‘What do you want?’ She must need something I can give.

Her eyes move to meet mine but don’t tell me anything. And I’m glad. I feel I’ve nothing for her. What would I do if she needed me?

And sitting here’s no good.

‘I’ll be right back, Mum.’

I get my handbag and make myself useful… Down the corridor at the little shop, the kiosk with the magazines and teddybears. Someone’s buying ‘It’s a girl.’ When I come back Mum’s taking a shaky sip of water from a plastic beaker, like the ones they used to give us in school at lunch time. The tubes move in her hands when she holds it. I don’t want her to hurt, so I try to take the beaker, help her sip, but she doesn’t like that.

‘No, darling’, comes weakly.

‘Ok, Mum, ok…’

I take the beaker from her when she’s done and I wipe a few spots of water off her chin with a clean tissue.

She lies back on her cushions, exhausted.

‘I got you polos, Mum,’ I tell her. I drop them, and the tissue, into her bag.

I sit now too, on the tall-backed vinyl chair, and listen as the air escapes it in a long, stale ‘fffffff.’

A moment later she reaches out. ‘What is it Mum, did you want one?’ I say. I raise my hand, ready and urgent.

But she guides it back down onto the arm of my chair. She puts her hand on top of mine there.

‘Stop fidgeting.’

She smiles a little, weakly. I guess she just wants me to be with her, so we sit together like that.

I watch her. I look at the sky outside the windows. Feel her hand resting on mine. And I think, that I don’t ever want to go outside on my own.

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The story “Outside” was previously published in the eBook anthology, “Mercury Silver,” by P’kaboo Publishers.

Story by Emma L. Briant
Foreground photo by Ira Joel Haber
Background photo by Lisa Guidarinilatest Running | Nike