schwabLess than a year had passed since my mother died from a burst valve in a heart no one knew was faulty. That’s raw when you’re ten. And then Buttercup died.

Buttercup was an albino guinea pig with eyes like maraschino cherries. She wasn’t mine.

Samantha owned Buttercup, loved her. She gave the rodent a funeral, lined a shoebox with plaid and paisley fabric scraps filched from her grandma’s craft room and had her truck-driver daddy dig a deep hole out back beside the swing set. She sobbed as dirt covered the cardboard and filled the hole to the grassline.

For my mother’s funeral, I sat in my Easter dress in the front pew of Mt. Carmel church, my five siblings and stunned father beside me. August heat left a sweat mark on my stomach where the pastel sash pulled tight. I looked at the harsh red altar carpet, at the supplicating statue arms of Mary as she held them out to candle-lighters, at the stained glass windows with their bright and bubbled saints—anywhere but at the powder blue casket that held my mother, her body quiet and still as a wet leaf on a windless day.

Friday nights I went to Samantha’s house. Hers or someone else’s. Spending weekends at home gave me the hushed, anxious feeling of being inside an automatic carwash, everyone shuffling and subdued, the passing hours lurching us forward until Monday flashed a signal to move.

That Sunday afternoon, Samantha played Disney’s Beauty and the Beast soundtrack on repeat, singing along from her green bean bag chair. I sat on her bed and paged through an old magazine, Tiger Beat or Teen, wondering if home wasn’t so crappy after all. Then Samantha’s deep alto turned into a pinched sniffle. I looked at her. Tears thick as dish soap rolled over her freckles and into the scaly corners of her chapped mouth. “I miss Buttercup!” she shuddered.

Maybe it was the song’s mention of “beast” that did it. Maybe it was Angela Lansbury’s gentle crooning that dropped a stone into Samantha’s deep well of grief. She waited for me to respond. I didn’t. Her quiet sobs changed to full-throated wails. Her mother—her breathing, talking, warm-fleshed mother—came running. She knelt on the floor and held Samantha, petting her daughter’s tangled hair.

And then I felt something harden inside my chest. Tears weighted my eyes but did not spill. I blinked and stared at the carpet. My hands became fists, wrinkling the glossy, shadowless faces of the New Kids on the Block.

“Honey?” I heard. It was a frightened Honey, meant for me. Samantha snortled on. I didn’t look up. “Honey?” her mother tried again, louder. In my peripheral vision, I saw the petting and rocking stop. A hand reached out to me. I jerked backward, my sharp-angled body moving quicker than a threatened crayfish.

Samantha quieted, hearing alarm in her mother’s voice. The raised hand hovered near my elbow. If she touched me I would shatter. Explode. Bite. Half-orphans are half-feral. I clenched my body so tight to its frame that I vibrated.

“I’ll drive you home,” she said, withdrawing her hand. She kept space between us as she left the room.

I made my legs unfold, told them to stand and walk. I dropped the magazine near my feet. A ragged tear now separated Jordan Knight’s head from his body and bandmates. Samantha yelped at the damage. Ignoring her, I grabbed my overnight bag and went outside to the idling truck. The ride home was silent, but I mumbled “thank you” as I pulled the door handle and jumped down to my driveway.

Bluish lights from the television scattered ghost images on the walkway. Rock music leaked through the seams of a drafty upstairs window. I unzipped my sweatshirt to feel the chilly wind pluck at my collarbone and fought the urge to hug myself.

I opened the front door and went inside, turning on the porch light as I passed the switch. I dropped my bag, hung my sweatshirt on a hook in the hall. I cooked Spaghettios for dinner.

Rebecca Schwab writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Her work has appeared in Fringe and The Future Fire, and is forthcoming in Slipstream. She serves as acquisitions editor for Leapfrog Press and Crossborder: A Journal of Fiction (Leapfrog Press and Guernica Editions, Canada), teaches creative writing at SUNY Fredonia, and contributes regularly to The Observer. 

Photography by Jordan Wrigley