Maggie dropped her book bag on the floor and slumped against the kitchen counter. “Happy birthday to me.” The kitchen looked exactly as she’d left it that morning before school. Fluorescent green plastic bowls, the ones she’d splurged on at Wal-Mart last month, sat on the counter with dried-up milk cementing scraps of cereal to the edges. The pan from last night’s pork chops soaked in a sink of murky water—suds replaced with globs of oil floating on the surface. A ragged dishcloth hung over the tap. Lime green monkey place mats—she loved monkeys—sat askew on the heavy oak table. A clay napkin holder that Tony had made in fifth grade sat in the center with one limp paper napkin collapsed upon itself.
No miraculously clean kitchen. No cake or flowers in sight. No balloons. No presents. Not that she wanted balloons or flowers, really, but something to commemorate turning sixteen would’ve been nice.
During the first years after her mother’s death, her father made an attempt to keep things normal. He bought her a birthday cake and hung streamers all over the house. At least on her fifth birthday. But maybe that was only because back then, Meemaw, her grandmother, was checking in on her and her brothers. Meemaw had said that the three of them were her last ties to her daughter and that they ought to live with her because she had no faith in their daddy raising them properly by himself. She said he had no notion of what to do with three babies. But her father stood his ground, and Meemaw eventually gave up and returned to Arizona. Since then her existence had faded into birthday cards, Christmas presents, and her annual letter sent on the anniversary of the suicide to remind the three of them what a wonderful mother they’d had.
Some kind of wonderful. Billy sauntered through the kitchen door and dropped the mail on the table. “Look, my skateboarding magazine finally came.” He slapped the magazine on the counter in front of her, pulled a huge jar out of a cabinet, and filled it to the top with apple juice. “How many times do I have to tell you not to drink the entire jug in one sitting? Save some for the rest of us. I can’t get anymore till next week.”
He gulped it down, left the jar and jug of juice on the counter, snatched up his magazine, and kept going. “I need some help with my math homework later, but I gotta go to Brad’s house to practice soccer first. Later.” The back door slammed behind him, rattling the tiny metal chimes hanging from the eaves of the porch.
Over the past couple of years, life had moved to a new level where her brothers no longer needed her in the sweet loving way they had when they were little. They seemed to need her more nowadays, but in a detached, demanding way. Sure, Billy still sought her help with homework once in a while and sometimes even asked her advice about things, but the hugs she used to get regularly now came fewer and farther between. She wondered how long it would be before he didn’t need her at all, like Tony, who expected just as much from her but no longer gave any affection in return. She sighed as she poured herself a small glass of juice and placed the jug back into the refrigerator before moving to the table to sort through the mail. Most of the envelopes were bills, but one was a card. “From Meemaw, of course.” She tore it open and ran her fingers over the rose embossed on the front. A grown-up card, not some kiddy picture like years past, as if she finally just matured today. Meemaw didn’t realize she’d been a grown up for as long as she could remember, responsible for her brothers and the house and everything else her father couldn’t handle. A fifty-dollar bill lay inside. She gasped. Fifty dollars! Meemaw usually sent ten, which the boys spent long before it arrived every year. So in truth did she. But fifty dollars changed the game completely. She wouldn’t spend it without really thinking through the purchase. There was a verse inside about her sweet sixteen, but the scrawled note caught her attention first: Margaret Ann, Today you are sixteen, a momentous occasion in a girl’s life, an official declaration that you are no longer a child, but a woman. Step wisely, dear granddaughter, for on her sweet sixteen, your mother, my sweet daughter, conceived you. Maggie’s hands trembled. She hadn’t thought of her sixteenth birthday in those terms. Her mother pregnant with her. Had she been scared? Scared to tell Meemaw? Scared to tell Daddy? The back door creaked open, admitting Tony and his friend Webb. Webb was in the tenth grade like her, and a year older than Tony, but since Webb lived at the top of the hill, the two boys had been friends forever.
Tony peered into the refrigerator, his long brown hair flopping into his face. “What is there to eat?”
Webb leaned against the wall. He wasn’t growing his hair out like most boys his age. It was just the right length, to his collar, and sleek black and shiny, not wavy red knots of hair like hers, or scraggily like Tony’s greasy mop. She noticed he had a bit of fuzz growing on his face, on his upper lip, and wondered when he would shave it off. Tony still had his head stuck in the refrigerator. “Crackers? I need some real food.” “That’s what was on sale this week, so that’s what we’ve got.” “Hey, Webb, how about a bologna sandwich?” “Sure. Whatever.” “The bologna is for lunch, Tony. Crackers or nothing.” He plopped the meat on the island and opened the pantry looking for bread. “I said no. Put it back.” “What’s it to you?” “We have to get a new washing machine. I told you that. So we’re cutting back on groceries. Now eat crackers or you can wear your clothes dirty the rest of your life ’cause I’m sure not washing them by hand.” “I’m hungry.” “Fine. Eat all you want. Just don’t cry to me when your clothes don’t get washed.” Webb leaned forward and slapped his arm. “C’mon, man, let’s go to my house.” “Whatever,” Tony said, following him out the door. “Don’t forget you have to practice guitar,” she hollered after him, “and you have that English paper due.” Maggie watched them go, watched Webb go, and fingered the card still clasped in her hand. My mother pregnant at sixteen, and I haven’t even been kissed.
Author of Six Novels CALA Winner Christy Award Finalist International Speaker Writing Instructor
Conference Keynote Magazine Editor
Email: Michelle at MichelleBuckman.com