Rachel twisted and fidgeted during dinner. She itched with questions. She managed to make it halfway through the meal before blurting them out.
"What time is my mom coming over tomorrow? Who else is coming with her? What are we gonna do? Will she come here for Christmas?"
"Eat," Nan snapped.
Papa grunted and stabbed his fork into the pile of spaghetti.
"Clue the kid in, Nancy," he muttered. "We're all breaking bread tomorrow. Might as well."
Nan frowned. The corner of her mouth quivered. She snatched a napkin from the cat-shaped ceramic holder at the center of the table. She dabbed at her mouth, and when she took the napkin away, her dark purple lipstick had smudged, turning up in a backwards c-shape that swept from her upper lip to the space below her nostril.
"She's coming at four-thirty," Nan answered in a clipped tone. "Helene, her boyfriend, and her two children are coming."
Rachel squeaked and hopped up and down in her chair. The wheeled-chair slipped backwards, whooshing over the linoleum. She grabbed onto the edge of the seat and shoved it back underneath her rear.
Nan sighed and rolled her eyes.
"She has two kids? I have brothers or sisters?"
Nan stiffened, her eyes darting over to Papa. But Papa didn't meet her eyes. He shoveled food into his mouth, his eyebrows crushing together over the bridge of his nose.
"Yes," Nan replied, clearing her throat. "She has two other children, two girls."
Rachel clapped her hands together. "I have sisters!"
"Eat your food. Enough talking."
With a smile stretching her face, Rachel piled the spaghetti onto her spoon. She couldn't wait until tomorrow. She'd spend more time with her mom and meet her sisters! Yesterday, she didn't even know she had sisters, and tomorrow she'd get to meet them. Although, there was one person missing from the family portrait starting to come together.
"What about my dad?" Rachel asked.
Nan dropped her fork. Her head snapped up. Her face reddened and her nostrils flared.
Sensing she'd gone too far, but still desperately wanting her question answered, Rachel pushed on. "You said Helene's boyfriend is coming. Is that my dad?"
At this, Nan appeared to relax. "No." She shot another dangerous look over at Papa. "Your father is gone."
"Where did he go?"
A bang sounded as Papa's fist struck the hard wood.
Rachel gasped and covered her ears.
"Enough of it!" he bellowed. "Your grandmother says eat; then eat!"
Shaking, Rachel lifted her spoon and slurped her cold pasta and meat sauce from the metal. She decided to keep her mouth shut for the rest of the night. If she got her grandparents too upset, they might change their minds about Helene and her family coming over.
That night, Rachel twisted and trembled under her pilling comforter. She gripped the edges of the blanket and internally rehearsed for the day ahead. She played out scene after scene, watching herself charm Helene and her family, saying all the right things, laughing and smiling at all the right moments. She'd do everything right to make them love her, and none of the would care about the burns on her face. She'd be so impressive. She'd tell them all about her good grades and how wonderful she was at singing, and if she did all of that, maybe none of them would even notice she had burns. She planned it out. She wrote self-dialogue. She'd make them love her. They had to love her.
In the morning, Rachel woke to a terrible case of jitters. Her muscles were both tight and fluid. Each movement jerky, erratic. This feeling of not being fully in control of her body continued throughout a day, a day that passed with unprecedented slowness.
She tapped her feet through her morning work. Her mind wouldn't stay put on any topic other than her mother. She kept yanking her focus back to the spelling words in front of her. She couldn't think of any sentences to use them in. All that she could think of was the evening coming. Her mother's freckles. Her wiry black hair. The chewed little nubs at the end of her fingers.
Finally, the day reached the midway point. Rachel picked at her Italian Hoagie and fries. She couldn't stand how many more hours she still had to wait. Yasiris talked to her about a new song she liked, while Rachel nodded and pretended to listen. At the opposite end of the table, a girl with black hair chewed her thumbnail and Rachel wondered if Helene was chewing her nails right now.
The day dragged and dragged, every minute stretched out until it trailed with weak threads, like a clump of silly putty extended until it thinned. After lunch, her class read The Giver. Then it was time for Science. She tried to keep focused on the lesson. Something about photons. She couldn't focus on such silly stuff. Who cared about photons when her mom was coming?
Finally, with every second creeping by, rubber-necking as it passed, the day was over. The bell rang at two-thirty and Rachel sprang to her feet. She gathered her coat and bag at breakneck speed and sprinted down the concrete steps to the ground floor.
Nan was much quieter than usual during the car ride home. When Rachel tried to ask more questions about her mom, Nan said she had a headache and popped a Spice Girls cassette into the tape deck. Rachel sang along to Wannabe, giddy with excitement and popping nerves. Her mom and sisters were coming!
By three they were home. Nan set to work slamming pans around in the kitchen and muttering. Papa sat in the living room with a newspaper across his lap and a John Wayne movie playing at an ear-deafening volume on the TV. His mouth was tight, his bushy gray eyebrows crushing down low over beady blue eyes.
Rachel went to her room. She decided to clean up, so that her bedroom would make a good first impression for her new sisters. She put away her hairbrush and a handful of stray hair scrunchies. She made her bed and arranged her Samantha doll atop the pillows. Rachel smoothed out the pleats of the American Girl doll's school dress. Then she fussed with the pretty gold locket pinned to her collar. She tried not to check the time. She'd been checking the time all day and all that it had served to do was slow the minutes. Keeping busy was the secret now. She'd find something else to do.
She checked and rechecked the buckets beneath her bed and in her closet. Nan still hadn't removed them, and Rachel felt reasonably sure that Nan knew they were there. She wondered why Nan allowed her to keep them.
At four-thirty it happened, a knock at the door. It was like a little song.
YOU ARE READING
***Long-listed for the Watty's 2018***Rachel lives in constant fear that she will burst into flames. She can feel the heat building in her gut. She keeps buckets of water under the bed. She keeps them to fend off the flames that her body may create...