Cortez Johnson

The last whispers of night cling to the crisp morning air still cold from our last rain as I awake in my too-small bed before my alarm sounds. I roll out of bed ignoring the aches that surge through my bones. I waddle to the bathroom, uncap the bottle of aspirin and palm three. I estimate that there’s about ten left in the bottle. I'll have to run to the pharmacy. Squatting over the toilet, I lean over and turn on the shower. I watch as the steam clouds the dainty mirror that hangs over the stained porcelain sink.

I stand at a comfortable five-foot seven. The showerhead juts out of the wall a mere 3 inches above my head. For most, this would be a continual annoyance, but I am accustomed to worse things. I wash quickly, only rinsing my blonde hair before tying it in a tight bun. I am eager to get to work. I brush my teeth, humming some tune I probably picked up from the radio, ignoring the spider squatting in the corner. I throw on a simple grey tunic dress, a pair of three-inch heels, and grab my favorite red cardigan. I wonder if I should make a quick breakfast, then remembering I am down to my last few ingredients, decide against the indulgence.

I love my job. No, it’s not where I saw myself winding up. Frankly, when I got married, I thought that was it: no more jobs. I flourished in the role of the housewife. I cooked, I cleaned, and I bore two beautiful children, Rebecca and Anthony. I did everything right, except for the keeping the husband part. When I found out he cheated, I was hurt. How could I not be, but honestly I wasn’t all that surprised. Jack, my ex-husband, was a business tycoon, so I think some part of me expected it. When I’d catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror or in the reflection of my phone, I saw the deepened laugh lines that bracketed my lips, the beginning of crow’s feet clawing at my eyes, and the lightest hints of discoloring where gray would soon stain my auburn hair. Needless to say, when Jack abruptly announced that he was ending our marriage of 12 years to be with a recent college graduate named Stacey, I didn’t cry.

In fact I barely reacted at all until he went on to say that he would be leaving for the weekend and that he’d be back for the kids. I asked him what he meant by that and he told me that he’d be a damn fool to let me raise those kids, and that he and Stacey would be suing for custody. I am grateful now that Jack at least invited me to one of our favorite restaurants to break the news, because when I heard that he would be going after our kids, I let loose a most terrible wail that shook the air as my heart sunk deep in my chest, an unswallowable lump formed thick in my throat, and I buckled under the excruciating pain of a woman who has just lost everything. Afterwards he shouted at me for embarrassing him so publicly; he’d probably never return to that restaurant, not after the scene I caused. On the grand scale of things, it was a small blemish on his reputation, but it felt good to hurt him.

When all was said and done, I was kicked out of our home of twelve years, with limited visitation rights, and a humble alimony settlement that was just enough to keep me off the streets. Without a laptop to call my own, I drove myself to the library closest to my small damp apartment to begin what I imagined would be the perilous task of seeking employment after spending the last decade sweeping floors and changing diapers. What I wasn’t expecting was that the very same library was hiring. After a pleasant interview with the head librarian --which by its simplicity I can only imagine was to check my competence-- and a brief onboarding process, I began working at the Polk County Library. I’ve been here for 6 months.

The old oak shelves stand 12 feet high. When I climb the ladder to return a book to the top shelf, I like to imagine I'm climbing one foot every year of that miserable marriage. I like to believe that I'm actually overcoming the pain of what that man did to me, that I'm getting stronger, and that one day I'll be strong enough to fight for my kids, that's what I'd like to believe. But the silence and the shelves and the coffee are not the reasons I love this job. No, the real reason that I stay is the children's section. There, for a couple of hours every day, I have the privilege of caring for little ones again. It is my duty to watch nearby as the children, compelled by intense curiosity, ravage the pages of books of various sizes, shapes and colors. Their little voices coo and cackle in the air. I stand sentinel over my charges as they stare wide-eyed at images that capture the known universe. My shift is brief; it fills a seventy-five minute gap between the two part-time licensed caregivers that check the children in and out again. Between the three of us, we spend about ten hours a day running the care center. Sometimes, I ponder why the library doesn’t just hire a full-time employee, but then again the administration would be obligated to provide benefits, and I wouldn’t get to spend this time with the children.

Every once in awhile, I am blessed with visions of my little Tony, his disheveled hair framing tender pink flesh, peering into the pages of Curious George. Through the various little girls, I get to see my Becca twisting red-tinted hair between her fingers as she speeds through another Judy B. Jones, always proud to solve the mystery before the protagonist. I have come to love this humble life for this gift of delusion-induced memory. It gives me the strength to keep fighting. It might take another two years but eventually I'll save up enough money to hire a competent lawyer and petition for increased visitation. By that point, my darling son will have started schools and will chase after illusionary dragons and dangerous criminals. My beautiful daughter will be at the precipice of teenage life, already showing signs of the woman she will become. I pray she'll grow to be stronger than her mother.

Today, I am walking over to the brightly lit corner room, a fresh cup of coffee warming the palm of my hand and a turkey-mayonnaise finger-sandwich tucked into my cardigan pocket, when I see familiar strawberry blonde hair braided in tight twists adorned with My Little Pony barrettes peeking above the ridge of the windowsill.

I don't register that the mug has slipped from grasp, its contents splashing over the tiled floor with a blunt crack. I am running, racing toward the inconceivable. My heart hammers against my ribcage, I am breathing shallow, rapid breaths. I feel the muscles contract as the cavity grows tighter, but I feel no pain. I try to remind myself that the image before me is not real, cannot be real. But somehow it is. There she is, in a little red rocking chair, wearing overalls and a rainbow striped shirt. My angel, my only daughter, in the flesh, one half of my soul returned to me. I'm amazed I don’t scream and shatter the glass right then. I hesitate, unsure of what to do. I know what I want to do, but I pause when I think about what might be best for her. I am her mother, after all. If I run in and embrace her, life would be better for a spell, but when her father comes to retrieve her, he would pull her away again, and I would be powerless to do anything. In fact, I thought now, he might use it as an excuse to file a complaint to the court about my violating the court's ruling. The thought of being separated from my children, permanently, is enough to accelerate my calming heart. It is a truly terrible thought, and that alone makes it seem all the more likely.

So I stand here frozen in indecision, peering through the glass window, watching as half of my reason for life whizzes through the final chapter of yet another mystery novelette. She's gotten faster. Part of me is proud, but flashes bitter when I realize that chances are she’s inherited that genius from the man that ruined my life. Another sliver of my soul weeps silently for the days when Becca would sit at the kitchen counter and ask about every new word she had gleaned from the pages of some random book. Slowly, I am beginning to resign myself to the fact that today I will not go and greet my daughter. I strain against shrieking frayed nerves that pulsate through me directing me toward the door. It takes everything, but I manage to maintain this position.

It isn’t long before I feel the sting of tears swelling in my eyes. Oh God, how she’s grown! Her hair is just a few shades darker, the freckles that spotted her button nose more pronounced, her lips just a bit fuller. I stand frozen for what must have been thirty minutes, one hand pressed against the glass, the other still clutching my bosom, unbothered by the mascara that has begun to bleed across my swollen face. Then, as if by providence, my little girl, finished with her book, closes it and looks up at me. I catch my breath. I am afraid she won’t recognize me. I am afraid that it means she’s started to forget me. I am afraid that it means that the child before me is no longer my child. But when she sees me, she smiles, and that little grin acts as the permission I didn’t realize I was waiting for.

In a flash I am through the door, and crouched before her, words spilling from deep within. Rebecca my sweet child. Oh how I’ve missed you. Oh Mommy loves you! Oh, always remember that Mommy loves you. You can always see me here. Don’t tell your Daddy though or else he probably won’t let you. I’ll hide when he comes to get you. How have you been? You’re so beautiful, you know. I think you may have gotten taller, eh? Oh I’ve missed you so much! Where’s Anthony? Is he still at daycare? He’s still too young to come here isn’t he? Where’s your brother, sweetie? My little girl stares at me stiff and confused. My brow furrows and I wonder if I’ve scared her. “I’m sorry, honey, I didn’t mean to scare you. Mommy was just so excited to see you.” “You’re not my mommy”. It almost breaks me. Almost. But I know that these are her father’s acerbic words. I bite down the pain. “Did daddy tell you to say that, sweetie?” I force a mother’s smile. “That’s okay. You listen to your father. Things are a little complicated right now, but I still love you and your brother very much, okay.”

Becca looks at me for a moment her mouth pouting, and her eyebrows stitched together. “Ma’am, I don’t have a brother. Could you please let go of me? I’m scared and my mom told me not to talk to strangers.” Reflexively my grasp clenches around her skeleton arms, and I instantly regret it. Becca hollers out and the yelp rises above the ambient noise of all the other children escaping into the silent exterior halls of the library. I turn from her to see all the other children staring at me, not necessarily fearful, but cautious. I take a moment to wipe my eyes and sweep loose strands of hair behind my left ear with one hand before returning it to Becca’s wrist. I feign another smile. “It’s alright everyone. We’re okay.” I look at some of the regulars. Billy, Amanda… this is my daughter, the one I’ve told you all so much about. She’s just a little confused because she hasn’t seen me for a few months!” Most of the children’s blank masks melt to their regular playful faces Billy even shouts out in a high-pitched squeal “Rebecca!” I smile, “Right! Isn’t she pretty today?” But when I turn back around, Rebecca is gone.

In my grasp stands a girl, tears and snot running down a horrified face. Her hair is more brown than red, my daughter’s characteristic splash of freckles speckle this whole girl’s face. Rebecca's supple round face and button nose have been distorted by a sharp chin and a broad nose. I let go of the girl, matching her horrified grimace. I catch a glimpse of us reflected in a little funhouse mirror tucked in the corner of the room. The misshapen features notwithstanding, the woman who meets my gaze is not me. A woman crouches over this little brunette girl. Her hips are wide-set, and her hair wire-thin and matted. My blood turns to ice as I watch the reflection’s blue eyes grow wide in terror. I can do nothing as a tear trickles down her wrinkled face just as I feel a cool drop slip down my own. When the scream rebounds against the walls of the room, sending the children into an absolute frenzy, I am no longer sure from whose mouth it came: hers or mine.

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