by Marietta Miles
as published by Flash Fiction Offensive, September 2013
Mona sets her dripping feet on the pink bath rug. She tucks her hair, no creams or sprays, neatly behind her ears and finishes drying off. Just past the steamy window traffic hums. She listens half heartedly, barely humming along. In her bedroom she slips on a pressed blue oxford, chinos, and smart pair of navy sneakers. Carefully, she pins a small silver angel, found at the dime store, to her collar. Mona prefers gold but knows silver is more appropriate, less showy. Tilting her head, she moves the angel so the praying hands face heaven. Mona smiles timidly to the mirror, frowns, and then smiles with less emotion.
“One day at a time, doing fine,” she says to no one, over and over.
Mona hears Mr. Coffee cough out the last of the boiling water. Crossing the one-bedroom flat, she whisks into the kitchen as the light of morning changes from blue to pink. Mona bends down, unlocks the dog kennel, and clears the water and food dishes. She locks the kennel. After putting the metal dishes in the sink to rinse, she pours coffee into her fading blue mug. Written across the cup, as if in crayon, is the word “Mom.” Mona stares out the kitchen window. A cheerful yellow school bus lumbers past.
Across the street a child laughs, pushing Mona from her quiet moment. She cleans her cup and draws the white curtains closed. Walking around her grey Formica table, she pushes her chair closer, covers the kennel with a worn blanket, and turns out the overhead light. With her handbag and keys Mona turns and scans her flat, making sure everything is neat, everything is in its place.
“Good to see you, Mona,” a familiar delivery man calls and smiles shyly. Mona lifts her hand and returns the hello.
“Hello, dear,” says the old lady from the basement flat next door as she reaches for Mona’s hand, patting it with boney fingers.
“Good to see you, Mrs. Treemore,” Mona whispers.
She makes her way toward the busy corner, feeling the stares of her neighbors on her. Some close their eyes or bow their heads. Others consider how she must be holding up. Mona is resilient. Mona is strong.
Mona stops at the corner market. Inside, old men sit in the window laughing, fussing and drinking coffee. Sleepy mothers, having dropped their children at school across the way, pick up milk, bread. The bell on the door rings. Mona walks in and sets toward the coffee. The store is chock full of neighbors. Watching Mona, they fall silent. She takes her place at the end of the line after getting her cup. There are several women in front of her; they shift on their feet, hemming and hawing. A raggedy lady, second to the register, breaks the line and motions Mona to take her place.
“Oh, no ... I couldn’t,” says Mona, taken aback by the gesture, as she dips her chin and covers her mouth.
The other women urge her forward. Finally, Mona gives in and walks to the front of the line. Flushing, she digs in her purse for change.
“No, Mrs. Smith,” the owner says, refusing the money Mona offers, passing back her coffee. He uses her married title, for everyone believes she is a widow. She never bothers to correct them. Thankfully for Mona, small towns are quite fond of widows.
Standing before the pretty white door as she prepares to leave, Mona stares at the aging, color flyer taped to the glass. A beautiful little girl, smiling in front of a Christmas Tree, stares back. Her little girl Emma, reported missing now for three months. “FIND EMMA” it reads. Mona catches her breath. Quickly, an old man opens the door.
“Thank you, sir, thank you so much.” Mona stares at the ground. Shaking and unsettled, she skitters across the street, gathers her wits enough to wave hello to the crossing guard, and enters the little school.
It is the end of the day and eager first graders file out of the library, jumping on the bright blue alphabet rug or falling past the cardboard cut-out of George Washington. Once the children leave, Mona closes her book and helps the librarian shelve new arrivals. Later, after coffee with the younger teachers, Mona cuts flashcards for the kindergarten class. She uses the big table cutter; Mona daydreams to the sound of paper slicing.
Principal Sparks, ordinarily smug and snippy, stops Mona near the clinic and inquires after her well being. She asks if there is anything she can do for her. Mona barely draws breath to answer and the woman is hugging her close. The press of her round cheek feels soft and comforting to Mona. Mrs. Sparks fills her with warmth. Mona feels safe. She thinks back to her own ugly upbringing, wonders if this is how a mother’s love should feel.
“We are so glad you are out and about. I can’t imagine how hard it is, coming here….” Principal Sparks pauses.
“It is what Emma would want,” Mona says.
Mona closes the door behind her. It is finally evening. She slides her shoes off and kicks them out of the way. After dropping her handbag to the floor she runs to the kitchen, furiously opening the junk drawer. From the back she pulls a nearly empty pack of Pall Malls and matches. Not bothering to turn on the lights, moving in the dimness, she sits in the kitchen chair. She lights the cigarette, dragging almost to the filter, and slumps onto her elbows. Mona finishes the cigarette and methodically starts another. She leans toward the dog kennel and unhooks the locks, pulling the door wide.
“Be good tomorrow,” says Mona. A shadow on the bottom of the cage pulls itself to the opening, remaining just inside. “Maybe you can sleep in your bed.”
“Yes, Momma,” whispers Emma.