Ch. 2 Why can't I just apologize?

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Mama’s hair was tied back in a kerchief, like a sheaf of golden wheat; flour already dusted her chin. She tsked at the bruise blooming across Lacey’s face. She didn’t even look at the tiny cluster of eggs that remained in the basket. But Lacey knew she had seen them.

Mama examined the cut on Lacey’s cheekbone. She boosted Lacey onto an end of the rolling table to get a better look. “Oof, when did you get so heavy?”

Lacey did her best not to wince as Mama dabbed at the cut; wincing only made her face hurt more.

In the middle of the kitchen was the hearth and ovens; a pillar of white clay bricks which had been the center of Lacey’s world for as long as she could remember. Lacey tried to focus on the patterns in the masonry to distract herself from the pain. She knew every smudge, every chip, and every crack like she knew the lines on her palm, or the little birthmark on her knee.

The smell of bread was already wafting from the cast iron doors of the ovens. The first batch would be done soon. One of the kneading machines was pounding away at another batch of dough, driven by the heat-energy harnessed from fire, which would have otherwise escaped in the chimney. The other machines were quiet, waiting on ingredients. Ingredients Lacey had been sent out for.

Mama wasn’t shouting, but the crestfallen droop of her eyes was harder to take. Today was not the day to fail in her mission. Today’s baking was important to Mama. Lacey took a breath and opened her mouth to apologize.

Mama felt along Lacey’s arms for other injuries. “Where else does it hurt, my Little Lacey?”

Lacey hated that nickname. “I’m not a baby, and I am not little!”

Mama drew back. Her brown eyes turned liquid.

A long silence gnawed on Lacey’s guilt and she bit her lip. “Mama…the eggs…I…”

Mama reached out to Lacey again, smoothing her hair. “Hush, never mind. I could feed this town on flour and water if I needed to—eggs are a luxury.”

“The cake?”

“Well, without eggs I can’t make your cake. But no cake on your birthday sounds like a fitting punishment for fighting.”

Lacey never thought of it as her cake. Mama had declared this day to be Lacey’s birthday—exactly one year after Lacey first came home from the Wish Wood, and three months after her baby sister Ella was born. But it was also the day Papa had walked out the door and never returned. And, every year, as Mama and Ella sang Lacey’s birthday song, Mama’s eyes lingered on the front door. The cake was for Papa.

Devan had ruined everything.

“I hate Devan!” Lacey said.

“Hating Devan will not make anything better.”

Lacey touched her ear. “Why does he have to pick on me?”

“Maybe because you are so beautiful. Perhaps he likes you. Boys are funny that way.” Mama kissed her forehead and picked a twig out of Lacey’s dark hair.

“Mama, don’t.” The constant caresses irked Lacey, like a cat petted the wrong way, and Mama’s words were just stupid. “Is that the way you met Papa? When he hit you with a stick?”

The twig snapped between Mama’s fingers. She tossed it into the hearth, and it ignited instantly. “Did you stop to think maybe Devan just needs a friend? Maybe if you apologize, you two can start fresh.”

Lacey punched the table and her knuckles crunched. She shoved herself off her perch, snatched the water bucket, and stormed toward the door.

“Don’t walk away from me, Lacey!”

Lacey whirled around. “What do I have to apologize for?”

Mama held out her hands as if they held some obvious answer. “Lacey, you bit him.”

“He deserved it!” 

“Two-year-olds bite. Animals bite. You are thirteen today, and you are not an animal!” Mama’s voice rose sharply.

Lacey pressed her lips together over her fangs, and turned away.

“Lacey…”

The noise of the kneading machine was the only sound. Fine. If Mama wanted an apology, Lacey would give her one.

“I’m-sorry-you-think-I-need-to-apologize!” Lacey said, and slammed the door behind her as hard as she could.

***

Mama didn’t come after her. No surprise. Lacey yanked the hand-pump up and down until the water started to flow—and kept pumping until the bucket spilled over. She glared at the trees of the Wish Wood. They were harmless, ordinary trees in the sunlight.

They had also been harmless and ordinary the day Papa left.

Mama and Papa had been shouting. Baby Ella screamed in her crib. Lacey was sitting outside covering her ears when Papa came bursting out. He did not see her. He was so angry, angrier than ever before. Mama came to the door pleading for him not to go. But he just walked away, and kept walking.

He was leaving! People always said he would one day. Explorers don’t stay in one spot. Lacey ran after him, while Mama withered in the doorway.

“Papa!”

He stopped and took a breath. Then he smiled down at her, as fondly as ever.

Lacey reached out for his hand. “Sh-should we save you some birthday cake?”

His much bigger hand squeezed hers, and he crouched down to her level. “Don’t worry, Little Lacey. I have something I need to do. I will be back for your party.”

Mama held onto that promise, long after Lacey had given up.

Lacey tipped the bucket to spill a little off the top. She splashed a handful onto her cheeks. Her hair hung in black tangles around her face. Mama’s hair was fair, and Ella's was the same. But Papa had been dark like Lacey. Even though he wasn’t her real father, it had felt important to her. Now that he was gone, she was like a puzzle piece in the wrong box.

Everyone, even Mama, said he’d just gone back to the Explorer’s Trail. “Once an explorer, always an explorer.” But she knew Papa’s leaving was her fault. Somehow. She was his monster-child. Not his real child. Or even one he had wished for. It was Mama who had gone to the well.

She turned toward the trees. Papa had not walked toward the road that day. He had walked toward the Wish Wood, and it was because of her.

“I’m sorry, Papa,” she whispered.

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