I WAS MAKING HAMBURGERS FOR DINNER. DEAN, MY STEPDAD, loves hamburgers, although I wasn’t making his favorite out of a deep devotion for the guy. Grease kept spraying up from the frying pan, burning my hands, like tiny electrical shocks. It was a small price to pay. Once I got him fed, I could retreat to my room, like always, where he’d leave me alone for the rest of the night.
When the meat was done, I put the patties and buns on two plates, then rushed around grabbing the chips, a Coke for me, and a beer for him.
“Dinner’s ready,” I called.
“Good. I’m starving,” Dean said as he got up off the couch. He took a seat at the old butcher-block table and scrutinized his dinner plate along with the condiments I’d set out earlier. I waited. There was always something.
“Shit, Rae,” he yelled. “Where’s the onions?”
Right. His beloved onions. “Sorry. Hold on. I’ll get them.”
“Damn right you will,” he muttered.
I sliced through the onion, pretending it was his head.
I looked up. He handled his hamburger so gently. Putting on ketchup, mustard, and pickles with such tender care, you’d have thought he was a mother dressing her newborn baby.
I sliced harder. Faster.
“Ow!” The knife fell to the counter with a rattle. “Sh—” I pinched my lips together, keeping the promise to myself to be nothing like my foulmouthed stepfather. I blasted the water in the sink and thrust my hand under the stream, wincing because it stung.
Dean said nothing.
The reddish-pinkish water swirled down the drain, and I imagined a sink full of blood. It’d overflow onto the floor. Creep across the linoleum to his oil-stained boots.
How much blood before he’d notice?
How much blood before he’d care?
No doubt in my mind. He’d let me bleed to death. Years ago, when I’d hoped he might be the dad I’d never had, his nonreaction probably would have bothered me. Not anymore. I’d learned to keep my expectations low. There’s less disappointment that way.
Because one thing I really didn’t need any more of? Disappointment.
My mother definitely didn’t marry Dean for his compassion. She married him for money, what little of it he had, anyway. It was more than we had, which was nothing, and that was all that’d mattered.
I turned off the water and grabbed a paper towel, wrapping it tight around my finger, afraid to look too closely at the cut.
Dean got up with his plate and marched to the counter, cussing under his breath. He picked up a handful of sliced onions and put them on top of his burger.
Blood seeped through the towel. I squeezed it tighter.
He went back to the table. Sat down. Took a bite of his burger.
“Now, that’s better,” he mumbled.
The whole scene reminded me of the time I’d heard two DJs on the radio talking about a survey some researchers had conducted on memories. The results showed there are three things people remember most from their childhood: family vacations, holiday traditions, and mealtimes.
I had to laugh. Yeah, I’d remember mealtimes at my house, and immediately wish I could forget them.
• • •
I spent the evening in my room, doing homework. Mom got home around ten, like always. She worked the swing shift as a checker at the Rite Aid. I heard her in the other room, exchanging words with Dean. Their voices got louder, and my name was mentioned a time or two.
I turned up the music on my laptop in response, doing my best to fight the world with Foo. The Foo Fighters, that is. I traced my finger along my ankle, imagining the tattoo I’d designed in my head with a circle of musical notes and lyrics from my favorite song, “Everlong.” If I make it to eighteen with my sanity intact, I figure I’ll owe it to the Foo Fighters. Well, and to my job at Full Bloom. Might need to incorporate a couple of flowers into that design.
I picked up my book, trying to read like a good junior should. The Crucible. Ms. Bloodsaw (yes, that’s really her name) said it was a perfect example of irony. If you denied you were a witch, they hanged you. If you admitted you were a witch, they set you free. But you had to live every day with the lies you told. What kind of life would that be? I’d thought about it a lot. Probably too much.
Mom poked her head into my room. “Rayanna, how come the dishes aren’t done?”
I held up my bandaged finger for her to see.
“Well, it’s not broken, is it? Get out there and wash ’em. ’Cause I sure as hell can’t do ’em. I’ve been on my feet—”
“For over eight hours. I know, Mom. But I cut it really bad.”
“You’ll live,” she said. “Though you may not if you don’t get off your ass and get those dishes done. You know how Dean likes things kept neat around here.”
Grandma used to say, “The road to happiness is paved with good deeds for others.” Clearly my mother had taken a detour. Would it kill her to do just one nice thing for me?
I got up off my bed. “Why don’t you make him—”
“Go. Wash.” She walked over and pointed her finger in my face. “The damn. Dishes.”
I don’t know why I even tried. She always took his side. Just what I needed—another reminder of how I should expect nothing from either one of them.
My mother had never been an easy person to live with. I tried my best to be empathetic toward her. Grandma told me once that Mom had a lot of bad things happen to her when she was younger, and it left her angry at the world. When I pressed Grandma for more information, wanting so desperately to understand my mother, she said it wasn’t her place to tell me. And then she told me I should try not to take it personally, which is pretty much impossible to do when it feels personal.
After Grandma died from cancer six years ago, I told myself not to worry, because there was no way my mother could get any angrier.
Turned out I was wrong.