Mona reflected on how different her house looked in the dark. The familiar presence of her mom’s hutch and their dusty ceiling fan were transformed into a giant, a bird of prey, all by the absence of light. Maybe also a guilty conscience. The geometric kitchen vinyl crackled under her feet, even though she tried to avoid the bubbles where the glue had come loose. If her mom woke up right now from what was probably her latest bender, things would be bad. Mona didn’t even know what she could say. Hey, mom, how’s it going? I know it’s been weeks since I’ve been home, but I just came back to get some stuff from my room. How’s the cat? Yeah, that would go down nice and smooth. Speaking of Yucky, she hadn’t seen him around yet. Maybe he was off on one of his grand adventures. She hoped he never came back. Can cats suffer from secondhand smoke? Mona really hoped not. Her mom probably singlehandedly funded several government programs with how much sin tax she paid.
Mona skirted around the kitchen table. If this was a normal house, a normal family, there would have perhaps been MISSING CHILD flyers scattered across its surface. A list of local phone numbers, too, maybe lying next to an old family album with a school photo removed for the police to photo-copy. The universe decided to give her only a crumpled pleather purse and an empty wine bottle with the cap lying beside it. Real classy, mom. Not even a bottle with a cork. Then again, the daughter of a normal family wouldn’t have run away as often as Mona had. She didn’t even know why she chose tonight to come by. It was stupid, she’d just had a weird feeling she couldn’t wait any longer. It had to be tonight.
The rest of the way was simple; down the hall, into her room, stock up on Fruit of the Loom and tampons, get the sock fund, Exeunt Mona. Easy peasy as-can-beezy. Her footsteps became swallowed by the carpet as she navigated around the overstuffed La-Z-Boy in the next room, and it was then that she noticed something: a bright, burning cherry. Mona froze. The cherry bobbed for a moment, grew brighter momentarily, then dimmed once more. Even in darkness, she knew that connected to this ember was an American Legend cigarette. The person that held the cigarette spoke.
“Nice of you to drop by.”
Mona’s neck hair prickled. This voice was ruined birthday parties and broken pinky-promises. It was pouring peroxide on your own scrapes, and it was missed soccer practice. It was everything but the voice of a mother. At 17, Mona was finally old enough to see R-Rated movies, and yet this voice scared her more than The Exorcist ever had. Her mother flicked on a lamp.
“I was gonna call-” Mona’s attempt to explain herself was stopped by her mom’s raised hand. Silence thickened the air between them. Suddenly she was nine again, pink marker in hand and evidence of her crime on the wall. Her mother’s purple lips closed around the butt of her Legend once more, and when she released, the smoke that curled from her mouth reminded Mona of a spirit escaping its corpse.
“Are you back, or just visiting?” The question took her off guard. Where was the icy scorn? The guilt trip? The cutting remarks?
“I need some stuff from my room. Then I’ll go.” Mona had heard stories about others who’d run away: When they visited home, their parents looked older and smaller. But not Peggy. No, she seemed as strong and mean as ever, blue sleeves rolled up over thick arms. Despite her lined face, hollowed by years of substance abuse, Mona’s mother was what some dead author would call a “handsome woman.” She wasn’t beautiful, no one would call her that. But she was attractive in a hard, unrepentant way.
“You’re welcome to it,” her mother said, and again Mona wondered at her uncaring tone. Why did it feel like Peggy was expecting her? But already, this reception was better than Mona expected, so she hurried to her room, feeling somewhat lighter than before. Perhaps it was a relief. The door to her room was ajar, and when she pushed it open and flicked on the light, Mona froze. Her room was completely empty. Not one of her posters remained. The bed was gone; she could see the impressions in the carpet where it had been. Push-pin holes dotted the walls. Mona stood very still, blood thrumming in her ears. Then she flew to the closet and ripped it open. Gone. Her clothes, shoes, the boxes filled with old diaries and yearbooks every god damn inch of her life besides what was on her back and in her head, it was all gone. Worst of all, the sock roll that held the rest of her savings was gone from behind the baseboard. Her body flashed hot and then cold. Finally, a sick feeling of dread settled in her stomach.
Her return to the living room was slow, feet dragging on the carpet. One look at her mom’s face, and Mona knew. Less than a month since her latest departure and Peggy had already scrubbed her from this house completely. In a pained voice, Mona rasped, “Why?”
Her mother gestured to the opposite loveseat with a fresh, unlit cigarette. “Take a seat, I’ve got some shit to say. It’s not gonna be nice, but it’s not gonna be what you’re expecting.” When Mona just stood there, Peggy sighed. “Give me the benefit of the doubt, munchkin.” Still, Mona stood. Finally, Peggy grunted and reached into her pocket. She threw something onto the coffee table, and it landed with a clunk—Mona’s sock money. Three hundred dollars from stocking produce at the Winn Dixie and watching the neighbor kids. A teenage fortune. Finally, Mona sat. Peggy had been observing her all this time, tapping the cigarette against her leg. Now she grunted again and stuck it into her mouth, fumbling with a lighter until there was a thick smell of burning tobacco in the air.
Her mom had never been one for long speeches, but now she spoke more than Mona had seen in the course of a week. “Here’s the thing. For a while, since before you came along, I’ve worked nights at Prissy’s. Not the classiest of diners, I know, but it’s okay. Well, I don’t have to tell you, you’ve eaten enough of their banana cream pies. Heh. And then, there’s also my, uh, gentleman callers, who…” She trailed off. It sounded like she’d rehearsed this speech, but now she seemed at a loss. Finally, she cleared her throat. “Look, I know you think I’m a shitty mom. I know. To you, I screw around, work a sleeper shift at a dive, and abuse substances like they’re going out of style. But it’s not true. Well, the last thing is true. Addiction’s a bitch.” She took a long drag, and Mona fidgeted, wondering where this was going. Her ride was going to be back any minute now.
Finally, her mom looked ready to continue. “I don’t really know how to say this. I’m not good at it… you know,” she said, gesturing aimlessly like Mona actually knew what she was talking about. “You know. Talking. Explaining myself. I know I’ve been a shitty mom, but I’m not a shitty person. God, I wish I had more time to talk to you before… well, I’ll get to that. Point is, Prissy’s isn’t what you think it is, those guys aren’t who you think they are.” The next drag she took was longer, and Mona now noticed how much her mother’s hand was shaking. “Mona, I’m not who you think I am.”
“Mom, what are you talking about? Where is this coming from? I don’t care who those men are anymore. Prissy’s ain’t bad. Just tell me why you scrapped all my shit.”
Peggy looked like she was about to answer. Then, there was a sound of breaking glass in the other room. Mona froze. “What the hell was that?” For a moment, she thought that Yucky had knocked a glass off a table or something. Then she saw the look on her mom’s face.
“We have even less time than I thought. Mona, I want you to know I’m sorry. I was never a fair mom to you. But right now I need you to listen to me, you have to go. I added some money to your sock, take it and go out the back as quietly as you can.” Her voice was hushed, guarded.
“Do I need to call 911? Why are you acting so weird? You’re freaking me out.” There was a thump, then what sounded like footsteps. Mona tensed, nerves thrumming. Yucky was heavy, but not heavy enough to make that kind of noise. Frantically she reached for her phone in her pocket, but Peggy shook her head firmly.
“No! No police. Around these parts, they hate our kind. You’re savvy, thank god you got that from me at least, so use that. Get far away from here. Three states away, at least. And stay away.” As Peggy spoke, she reached under her chair and pulled out a heavy-looking pistol. Mona recoiled.
“Jesus, mom!” Before Mona could say anything more, a dark figure loomed in the doorway, just beyond the reach of the dingy lamplight, and Mona’s neck erupted in chills. They wore a hood over their head, but Mona could tell from their build that they were probably a woman or a man with a slight frame. The intruder’s image burned a negative into her panicked mind displayed on her eyelids when she blinked. Time was becoming syrup-thick in her panic.
“Mona, damn you, go!” Her mom sprang up and fired off three quick shots. That got Mona moving with a jolt. As she sprinted out the door, sock in hand, her mother called her name again. Mona turned.
“I love you, Mona.” Eyes brimming with tears, Peggy smiled.
Abigail Manis Alpha Chi student representative and soon-to-be LU graduate Abigail Manis has had research published in Aletheia and placed first in the 2020 LU SRC. When not furiously scanning JSTOR or writing her novel, Abby can be found setting off her kitchen smoke alarm and plotting to kidnap her roommate’s cat.