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Three months later . . .
The bottom step was rotten. I needed to put fixing that on my priority list. One of the kids was going to run down them and end up with a twisted ankle—or worse, a broken leg—if I ignored it. Stepping over it, I walked the rest of the way up the steps to my mother’s trailer.
It had been a week since I’d stopped by and checked on things. Mom’s latest boyfriend had been drunk, and I’d ended up taking a swing at him when he’d called my seven-year-old sister, Daisy, a chickenshit for spilling her glass of orange juice. I’d busted his lip. Mom had screamed at me and told me to get out. I figured a week was enough time for her to get over it.
The screen door swung open, and a big gap-toothed smile greeted me.
“Preston’s here!” Brent, my eight-year-old brother, called out before wrapping his arms around my legs.
“Hey, bud, what’s up?” I asked, unable to return the hug. My arms were full of groceries for the week.
“He brought food,” Jimmy, my eleven-year-old brother, announced, and stepped outside and reached for one of the bags I was carrying.
“I got these. There’s more in the Jeep. Go get ’em, but watch that bottom step. It’s about to go. I gotta fix it.”
Jimmy nodded and hurried off toward the Jeep.
“Did you get me dose Fwooty Pebbles I wyke?” Daisy asked as I stepped into the living room. Daisy was developmentally delayed in her speech. I blamed my mother’s lack of caring.
“Yep, Daisy May, I got you two boxes,” I assured her, and walked across the worn, faded blue carpet to set the bags down on the kitchen counter. The place reeked of cigarette smoke and nasty.
“Momma?” I called out. I knew she was here. The old beat-up Chevelle she drove was in the yard. I wasn’t going to let her avoid me. The rent was due. I needed any other bills that may have come in the mail.
“She’s sweepin’,” Daisy said in a whisper.
I couldn’t keep the scowl off my face. She was always sleeping. If she wasn’t sleeping, she was off drinking.
“The dickhead left her yesterday. She’s been holed up pouting ever since,” Jimmy said as he put the other groceries down beside mine.
Good riddance. The man was a mooch. If it wasn’t for the kids, I’d never show up at this place. But my mom had full custody because in Alabama as long as you have a roof and you aren’t abusing your kids, then you get to keep them. It’s some fucked-up shit.
“You bought free gaddons of milk?” Daisy asked in awe as I pulled out all three gallons of milk from a paper bag.
“’Course I did. How are you gonna eat two boxes of Fruity Pebbles if you don’t have any milk?” I asked, bending down to look her in the eyes.
“Pweston, I don’t think I can dwink all free,” she said in another whisper. Dang, she was cute.
I ruffled her brown curls and stood up. “Well, I guess you’ll have to share with the boys, then.”
Daisy nodded seriously like she agreed that was a good idea.
“You bought pizza rolls! YES! Score,” Jimmy cheered as he pulled out the large box of his favorite food and ran to the freezer with it.
Seeing them get excited over food made everything else okay. I’d gone weeks with nothing but white bread and water when I was their age. Momma hadn’t cared if I ate or not. If it hadn’t been for my best friend, Marcus Hardy, sharing his lunch with me every day at school, I’d have probably died from malnutrition. I wasn’t about to let that happen to the kids.
“I thought I told you to get out. You caused enough trouble ’round here. You run off Randy. He’s gone. Can’t blame him after you broke his nose for nothin’.” Momma was awake.
I put the last of the cans of ravioli in the cabinet before I turned around to acknowledge her. She was wearing a stained robe that was once white. Now it was more of a tan color. Her hair was a matted, tangled mess, and the mascara she’d been wearing a few days ago was smeared under her eyes. This was the only parent I’d ever known. It was a miracle I’d survived to adulthood.
“Hello, Momma,” I replied, and grabbed a box of cheese crackers to put away.
“You bribing them with food. You little shit. They only love you ’cause you feed them that fancy stuff. I can feed my own kids. Don’t need you spoilin’ ’em,” she grumbled as she shuffled her bare feet over to the closest kitchen chair and sat down.
“I’m gonna pay rent before I leave, but I know you have some other bills. Where are they?”
She reached for the pack of cigarettes sitting in the ashtray in the middle of her small brown Formica table. “The bills are on top of the fridge. I hid ’em from Randy. They made him pissy.”
Great. The electricity bill and water bill pissed the man off. My mother sure knew how to pick them.
“Oh, Pweston, can I have one of dese now?” Daisy asked, holding up an orange.
“Of course you can. Come here and I’ll peel it,” I replied, holding out my hand for her to give it to me.
“Stop babying her. You come in here and baby her, then leave, and I’m left to deal with her spoiled ass. She needs to grow up and do shit herself.” Momma’s bitter words weren’t anything new. However, watching Daisy flinch and her eyes fill up with tears I knew she wouldn’t shed for fear of getting slapped caused my blood to boil.
I bent down and kissed the top of her head before taking the orange from her and peeling it. Confronting Momma would only make her worse. When I left, it would be up to Jimmy to make sure Daisy was safe. Leaving them here wasn’t easy, but I didn’t have the kind of money it would take to go to court over it. And the lifestyle I’d chosen in order to make sure they were okay and taken care of wasn’t one that the courts would look favorably on. There wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell I’d ever get them. The best I could do was come here once a week and feed them and make sure their bills were paid. I couldn’t be around Momma more than that.
“When’s Daisy’s next doctor’s appointment?” I asked, wanting to change the subject and find out when I needed to come pick her up and take her.
“I think it’s last week. Why don’t you call the doc yourself and find out, if you’re so damn worried about it. She ain’t sick. She’s just lazy.”
I finished peeling the orange and grabbed a paper towel, then handed it to Daisy.
“Tank you, Pweston.”
I knelt down to her level. “You’re welcome. Eat that up. It’s good for you. I bet Jimmy will go out on the porch with you if you want.”
Daisy frowned and leaned forward. “Jimmy won’t go outside ’cause Becky Ann lives next doowah. He tinks she’s pwetty.”
Grinning, I glanced back at Jimmy, whose cheeks were bright red.
“Dammit, Daisy, why you have to go and tell him that?”
“Watch the language with your sister,” I warned, and stood up. “Ain’t no reason to be embarrassed ’cause you think some girl is good-looking.”
“Don’t listen to him. He’s in a different one’s panties ever’ night. Just like his daddy was.” Momma loved to make me look bad in front of the kids.
Jimmy grinned. “I know. I’m gonna be just like Preston when I grow up.”
I slapped him on the back of the head. “Keep it in your pants, boy.”
Jimmy laughed and headed for the door. “Come on, Daisy May. I’ll go outside with you for a while.”
I didn’t look back at Momma as I finished putting away the food, then retrieved the bills from the top of the fridge. Brent sat silently on the bar stool, watching me. I would have to spend a little time with him before I left. He was the middle one, the one who didn’t push for my attention. I’d sent the other two outside knowing he liked to have me to himself.
“So, what’s new?” I asked, leaning on the bar across from him.
He smiled and shrugged. “Nothing much. I wanna play football this year, but Momma says it costs too much and I’d be bad at it ’cause I’m scrawny.”
God, she was a bitch.
“Is that so? Well, I disagree. I think you’d make an awesome corner or wide receiver. Why don’t you get me the info on this and I’ll check into it?”
Brent’s eyes lit up. “For real? ’Cause Greg and Joe are playing, and they live in the trailers back there.” He pointed toward the back of the trailer park. “Their daddy said I could ride with them and stuff. I just needed someone to fill out the paper and pay for it.”
“Go on ahead and pay for it. Let him get hurt, and see whose fault it’ll be,” Momma said through the cigarette hanging out of her mouth.
“I’m sure they have coaches and adults overseeing this so that it is rare someone gets really hurt at this age,” I said, shooting a warning glare back at her.
“You’re making me raise the sorriest bunch of brats in town. When they all need bailed outta jail in a few years, that shit is all on you.” She stood up and walked back to her room. Once the door slammed behind her, I looked back at Brent.
“Ignore that. You hear me? You’re smart, and you’re gonna make something of yourself. I believe in you.”
Brent nodded. “I know. Thank you for football.”
I reached out and patted his ...