8 Kicking Leaves

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When we arrived to the new two-story house with its rusted gutters, darkened bay windows, and broken, green tiles hanging from the roof, Mom pointed at the old oak tree in the front yard and said, "See, Moriah? We've gotten ourselves a house with a yard and a tree. We're fancy like the Huxtables."

Mom doesn't look so fancy now, standing under the tree's gnarled branches in a ripped shirt, stomping in dead leaves.

The Wiz is printed in loopy letters across the front of the t-shirt. Mercy played Dorothy in the eighth-grade production.

She died six months later.

Two Sheriffs sigh in front of Mom. One, as round as a blueberry with rolls of fat bubbling underneath his khaki shirt, taps his foot. The other is taller and fills his uniform out in a way that says, I'm the leader here. Wide-brimmed hats hide their features, but the smirks on their faces are hard to miss.

"My daughter is missing!" Mom screams at Sheriff Blueberry. "And you're not doing anything about it!"

Blueberry steps back from Mom, his hands splayed in front of him. "Ma'am, we can't help you if you keep hollerin'."

"What kind of backwards town is this?" Mom shrieks. "Why aren't you listening to me?"

The taller Sheriff isn't as soft-spoken. He rolls back on his heels, his fingers curved around his belt loops. "Don't you go screamin' at us, now hear. I'll lock you up so fast, you won't know what hit you."

Mom juts out her chin. "I'm not scared of you inbreeds."

This is getting out of hand.

I can imagine the headlines of the local newspaper: New Black Family Moves Into Town, Instantly Goes Crazy.

I need to get Mom away from them. She doesn't do well with cops and we don't have any bail money.

"Momma? What's going on here?" I touch her arm after jogging over to them. Loose strands of hair have wrenched free from her ponytail and flutter in the breeze.

Tall Sheriff turns to me, his chapped lips parting slightly. Fine lines decorate the corners of his mouth and though his brow is shaded by the hat, his nose is far too dainty for that ruddy face.

"Are you the missing daughter?" he asks.

His nameplate reads Sheriff Colby.

"I'm not missing, I'm right here," I stroke Mom's head. "Momma, why'd you call the cops?"

"I didn't call them!" Mom wrangles her face from my hands and jabs a finger at Sheriff Colby. "But now that they're here, they can do something about finding Mercy."

"Old Thatcher there called us." Sheriff Blueberry explains, hooking his thumb in the direction of our neighbor's yard.

I take in the the broken-brick, two-story house next door. I'd figured the house abandoned with its drawn curtains and sloping porch. A curtain rustles in the downstairs window.

"He told us a black woman was going crazy on Shannon Dawson's lawn," Blueberry continues, "ripping her clothes up and kicking leaves."

I glare at Mom.

Really? Again?

"You have to excuse her," I say, wiping my hair out of my face so they can get a good look at my hazel-green eyes filling with tears. "She hasn't been right since my sister Mercy died."

"Don't speak for me!" Mom sucks her teeth. "And don't talk about Mercy like she's dead."

"Momma, Mercy did die. How many times do I have to tell you this?"

I'm not prepared for the venom in Mom's eyes. "Why are you out here like this spreading lies in front of these men?"

"Does someone here want to start explainin' what the hell is going on?" An exasperated chortle escapes Blueberry's lips.

"Not much to figure out," Sheriff Colby says, tipping his hat at me. "Sounds like we have a grieving mother."

"Mercy isn't dead!" Shrugging me off, Mom kicks at more leaves and balls her fists.

It would be laughable if I saw this on YouTube or Cops, but seeing Mom take a swing at Colt's dad isn't funny at all. I scream when Mom's fist connects with Sheriff Colby's chin.

"Momma, no!"

Wedging myself between her and Sheriff Colby, I plead with her with my eyes.

"Ma'am, now I understand that you're having a rough go at it, but I'm gonna have to haul you in." Sheriff Colby rubs his chin and motions to Blueberry. "You can't be out here assaulting officers."

"Sheriff, please don't arrest her," I cry. "She needs a doctor, not jail. We're still getting used to Oklahoma and it's all so new..."

"I don't need anything but my daughter, Mercy!" Mom lunges at Blueberry, her fingernails clawing at his face.

But Blueberry contains her easily, clinking handcuffs on her before I can protest anymore.

He has to drag her away like a sack of potatoes because she's so busy spitting and cursing, she won't stand on her feet. I've seen my mom in the back of a cop's car before. It always feels the same, as if the world has been torn from my fingers.

I make to run after her, but Sheriff Colby holds me back, swooping me into his arms, whispering, "I know, Moriah. It's gonna be OK now. You don't have to be afraid."

I want to fight, kick the leaves, and howl like Mom. This feeling of uselessness is becoming all too common. I can't save Mom, couldn't lift a finger against Ethan Morales, and was brought to my knees by Bella Hardgrove. I'm losing it.

Blueberry quickly backs the Sheriff's car out of the driveway, sputtering dust up in his wake. He swerves to avoid Cherry which is idling in the middle of the street.

"Ssh, don't cry," Sheriff Colby murmurs in my ear. His breath smells like peppermint tobacco. "Since your kin, Shannon Dawson, was a personal friend of mine, I'm gonna make sure your mama gets the help she needs. Besides, my son, Colt, said some nice things about you."

How does this Colt Colby know anything about me?

I break the embrace. "Sheriff Colby, please..."

"Don't you worry. Your mama's in good hands. I'll send Colt by to check on you later. How's that sound?" He pats my head and doesn't wait for an answer. "And why aren't you at school anyway? Do I need to bring you in on truancy?" A smile hints at the corners of his mouth.

"No. The nurse sent me home," I lie. "Cramps."

The smile is quickly replaced by a wince.

"Well, go on and lie down. Drink some ginger ale. That seems to help the missus."

"Should I come down to the station? Make sure everything's alright?"

But Sheriff Colby is already making his way back to his car, shaking his head. "Your mama'll be home before you know it."

Before throwing his car door open, he pauses, purses his lips and tosses a look over his shoulder to the house cloaked in shadows next door. "And one word of advice, Moriah. Keep an eye on that neighbor of yours, Thatcher. Especially if you're in this house alone. There ain't a lick of good in that man."

"

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