By Becca Borawski Jenkins
My friend Olivia's mother always left us food stamps to buy pickles and salt-and-vinegar chips at the corner store. My mother never gave me money, and the government didn't give us anything. Olivia's mother was only 26 even though we were already nine. Being near her made me think her beauty might rub off on me, even though Olivia and I were also happy she was rarely home.
Sometimes we bought cigarettes for her mother with the change from the food stamps. Olivia said we ought to, that her mother expected it even though she wasn't home to ask for them. At the corner store where the clerk knew Olivia, we bought 25-cent packs of candy, one at a time, until the coins we were given in change totaled something resembling cigarette money. Then, we'd run back to the apartment with our jar of pickles and throw the cigarettes on the kitchen counter. We'd build a blanket fort on the balcony and make faces at each other while we savored each pickle, the sourness plucking at the corners of our mouths.
Sometimes I'd pack my schoolbag with construction paper and markers. Olivia and I would imagine we were office managers. We'd cut the papers, draw designs. We rearranged the living room furniture and hung a placard from the front door knob with yarn. When I forgot to pack tape, Olivia disappeared into the bedroom and came back with a roll of her own. It worked better than any Scotch tape my mother bought at Shopko. It was textured and untearable. It stuck to everything.
"Where did you get this?" I asked. Olivia shrugged.
Olivia's mother couldn't bother us from wherever she was because their phone line had been shut off for months. At my house, my mother left messages for me on our machine.
"You're so rich," Olivia said. "You own a microwave and an answering machine."
But they weren't mine, really. My father brought them back from his business trips to the city. He'd brought back a VHS VCR, too, but I hadn't told Olivia yet.
A few months into the school year, Olivia's mother started staying home all the time. She lay on her bed in the living room, which was her bedroom, the dining room, and a playroom for us. She slept on the couch so Olivia and her sister could share the twin bed in the lone bedroom. She still sent us to the store for cigarettes. She lay bundled in her blankets smoking them one after the next. Her hair grew greasy and dark. She stared at us in silence until both her ash and her eyelids dropped.
One day, as Olivia gingerly snipped at a piece of construction paper with her plastic scissors and my marker squeaked no matter how lightly I pressed, Olivia's mother moaned and rolled over. The blanket fell away, and at first, I blushed because she was sleeping in only her underwear—a glimpse of her beauty?
But it wasn't beauty I saw. A clear bag nestled her side, filled halfway with a dark yellow liquid. As I watched, the bag filled more, its sides smoothing and bulging. The fluid flowing from a liquid-filled tube that exited her mother's abdomen—secured firmly by Olivia's textured and untearable tape.
Olivia looked down at our project. She opened and closed the little plastic scissors in the air.
Olivia's mother moaned again and rose from the couch. She stumbled toward the bathroom, tugging at the bag affixed to her side, her satiny underwear hanging off her hip bones.
After the bathroom door closed, I poked Olivia with my marker cap.
Olivia giggled, then frowned.
"Please, don't tell anyone," she whispered.
That spring, her father took us to the bowling alley for Olivia's birthday. He surprised her by waiting in front of the school, leaning on his green muscle car until the bell rang. When Olivia saw him, she grabbed my arm and we sprinted to the end of the block. He caught up to us, and once he told us about the bowling alley, she agreed to get in.
I might have tried to convince Olivia her birthday outing was cool if he hadn't been drunk. The inside of his car smelled like beer. At the bowling alley, he leaned on us and put his arms around our shoulders. I didn't like it, but I thought Olivia might so I didn't say a word. I pulled a roll of her mother's tummy tape from her bag and spun it around my finger while he taught her how to throw a hook.
Olivia's father drove us home. When he dropped me off, he exchanged words with my dad who stood waiting for me in the driveway. My mother gripped my shoulders and guided me away from their conversation. "He seems like a nice man?" she said, like she was testing the temperature of my waters with her toe.
My stomach was sour from being tossed left to right in the back seat of the muscle car with barely any windows and no seat belt and only cigarette-air to breathe. I didn't know why Olivia's dad didn't talk to Olivia's mother, but I guessed it must have been his fault.
The last time I went over Olivia's house, her mother hardly spoke. We ate our chips slowly, letting them soften in our mouth to dampen the crunch. She lay on the bed and stared at the ceiling, without even a blanket to cover her, her skin as yellow as the filters on her cigarettes. Her eyes closed and the urine bag filled as we watched in silence.
Becca Borawski Jenkins holds an MFA in Cinema-Television Production from USC and has short stories appearing in Menacing Hedge, concis, The Forge, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Syntax & Salt, Ghost Parachute, and Jellyfish Review. She recently received three Pushcart Prize nominations and is also an Associate Flash Fiction Editor at jmww. She and her husband spent the last year living off grid in a remote part of North Idaho, and now roam North America in their RV.