When Tock the cat came to visit, she made me do mean things. Mama said to ignore Tock, that she wasn’t real, just in my head. But how could I ignore something ten feet tall and purple all over that yelled at me to hit things?
And really, I didn’t want to ignore Tock ’cause she was fun to play with. Boy, could she make me laugh. She made Minute Hand and Second Hand, the two rats that lived in the wall behind the cook stove, do all kinds of funny stuff. Like dance on the table while we ate supper. ‘Course, it wasn’t very funny when they tramped through the potato salad. Yuck! Who wants to eat potato salad that rats have tracked in? Not me. And I didn’t want Mama to eat any either, so I pitched the bowl with its squishy yellow footprints out the back door.
And that made Mama mad.
She got mad at me a lot. Daddy did too before he left with “That Hussy,” and “Lord only knows if he’ll ever come back.” That from Mama.
Then it was only Mama and me and little Joey.
Joey was just two and didn’t talk to me. Mama watched soaps all day and drank Coke and rum and was wasted again in Margaritaville, and didn’t talk to me either.
But Tock talked.
She told me stories about all kinds of stuff. Like the snakes that lived in the place where water came from, how at night they squiggled and wiggled through the pipes and squeezed out the kitchen faucet and curled up in the sink and slept. One morning I got up and saw them, maybe ten, looking like a whole sink-full of slippery, scaly loops of rope. Mama ran water in the coffee pot right over them snakes while they squirmed and hissed and she never even seen them. Tock said that only special people like me could see them.
Sometimes I didn’t like seeing things. Sometimes I didn’t like being special. Sometimes it was nice to be just plain old Shasta Jane Sweeten, like I was when I got up this morning. I felt so good that while I ate oatmeal I sang along with the radio. “Oh oh oh, Denise, scooby-dooby-do, I’m in love with you, scooby-dooby-do.”
“It’s not polite to sing at the table,” Mama said. She put Joey in his highchair and slid on the tray, then plopped a bowl of oatmeal down in front of him. She pulled out a chair between us, and while me and Joey ate, she drank coffee and smoked Winstons that taste-good-like-a-cigarette-should.
Denise-scooby-dooby-do went away and the news came on. I didn’t like news. All they did was talk. Talk, talk, talk. Singing was better. So I sang—but only in my head so I didn’t bother Mama. Her eyes were all red and scrunched up and her hair was a brown frazzle, sticking out this a’way and that a’way. When she looked like that and I made too much noise, she always said: “Be quiet, Shasta, I have a headache.”
Now me, when my head hurt, I thunked it against the wall till I knocked them two old ladies who lived across the street out of it. Mama didn’t like me doing that. It made her cry, especially if I started bleeding. But there wasn’t no other way to get Miss Delia and Miss Lucy to leave me alone and quit poking around in my head with their long, skinny knitting needles. It wasn’t like I could reach in my ear and pull them out, or something.
I heard the toot-toot of a horn and looked out the kitchen window. Between the half-open yellow curtains, I saw the school bus screech to a stop and a bunch of kids clomp up its steps. This morning they were just kids. Most of the time, though, they were big, giant cockroaches and ants and flies that got on the bus and headed off to school.
I couldn’t go to school no more. When I’d tried to squash one of the cockroaches—I think it was Lizzy McDaniel ’cause it had curly red hair—with a rock a while back, Mama and Daddy had come and got me and I haven’t been back since.
And that’s when they had started fighting all the time. Daddy told Mama I was kitzo-something-or-other. I thought that was some kind of disease and I needed to go to a doctor, but Mama said I just had a good ‘magination was all. I guess Mama must have been right ’cause I didn’t feel sick.
Now, Mama asked: “Are you finished, Shasta?”
I saw that my bowl was empty. “Yes, all done.”
She mashed out her cigarette. “Would you take Joey to your room and play? I think I’m gonna lay back down for a bit.” She stared into her cup of coffee.
Poor Mama. She looked so tired.
I slid out of my chair and went around the table and patted her on the back. She raised her head and smiled at me, then lifted her hand like she was gonna touch me, so I stepped back. “I love you, Mama.” That got a bigger smile.
And right then I did love her. But later when Mama was asleep, Tock crawled in my bedroom window and told me how Mama was gonna slice me and Joey up and feed us to the snakes, and I didn’t love her no more.
“You’ve got to get rid of her,” Tock lisped around her pointy yellow teeth. She plopped on my bed, her big, purple butt right on top of Snow White’s head. “She’s tired of taking care of you and Joey. She wants to get rid of you. If you don’t do something, you’re gonna wake up one morning and you’ll be fish bait. Joey too. She’s gonna whack-whack-whack with that big old butcher knife, cut you up into itty-bitty pieces.”
“Like a chicken?” In my head, I saw Mama cutting off wings and legs and splitting breasts. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I bet it hurt awfully bad to be cut up. Not the chicken, ’cause it was dead and when you’re dead you don’t feel anything. But when you’re alive…
A while back, I had been out in the backyard with no shoes on and had stepped on a broken beer bottle out in the tall grass next to the fence. It had stung a little, and when I looked at it and seen all that blood, I had gotten sick at my stomach. Later, after Mama had bandaged it up, it’d throbbed every time my heart beat.
How would it feel if you got cut up in pieces—I’m in pieces, bits and pieces? Would every chunk sting and throb and feel like throwing up?
Tock splayed the claws of her left paw and looked between her toe pads. A fat tick the size of a marble was wedged between the middle two. She pulled it off with her teeth, then spit it on the floor. “Something like that…but smaller pieces.”
Keeping my eyes on the tick as it flailed around on its back like a turned-over turtle, I asked, “How many pieces?”
Tock shrugged. “You do the math.”
And I did. In my head, I multiplied all the whacks as they twoed and foured and eighted, making smaller and smaller pieces of me, and kept on until I was in chunks small enough that a snake could swallow. How many? Somewhere around nine-hundred-ninety-nine-thousand-nine-hundred-ninety-nine best that I could figure.
That sure was a lot of pieces. I didn’t think I could stand that much stinging and throbbing and puking.
The tick righted itself and began waddling across the floor toward Joey, who was backed up in the corner sucking his thumb, his blue eyes all big and round and fastened on me and Tock. He was afraid of Tock, though I didn’t know why. Tock had never hurt him. But the tick might. It might give him a disease.
I stepped on the tick and it squished like an overripe tomato. Red gunk oozed up between my toes. Yuck!
I gagged. Tock snickered. Joey whined.
I snatched up the bedspread where it made a big fluffy vee at the corner and wiped my foot on Grumpy’s frown. Hi-ho, hi-ho.
“Do it now,” Tock said.
“Do what?” I pushed folds of the bedspread between my sticky toes, soaking up tick blood.
The bed springs squeaked. Tock’s shadow fell over me. I looked up from cleaning my tick-bloody foot, looked up, and up some more, to Tock’s grinning face. “Get rid of her.”
She wanted me to do something bad to Mama. I saw it in her inky-icky black eyes. And though I didn’t love Mama right then ’cause she was gonna feed me and Joey to the snakes, the thought of hurting her made me hurt. Sort of. But I knew better than to argue with Tock. She always got what she wanted. One way or another.
“What do you want me to do?” I asked.
With a purple paw the size of a basketball, Tock smoothed back my hair, leaned over and whispered in my ear: “Smash in her head. Smash it flat. Hit her in the head, and don’t stop hitting till it’s as flat as a pancake.”
My stomach did a somersault. “That would…”
“Kill her. Yesssssss…”
Kill Mama? Not just hit her like I had the redheaded cockroach? Or the big old fat fly dressed up in Jerry Walker’s clothes?
Tock pranced across the floor to the closet, leaned over and poked her head inside. Her tail swishing back and forth, she slung out clothes, she slung out shoes, she slung out books and games, and finally she stopped slinging and turned around. In her paw was the baseball bat Mama had bought me a year ago when I was nine and had played softball with the Mulberry Wildcats—for two whole weeks before I’d smacked Willard Jones in the knees with it and was thrown off the team.
Tock held out the bat. “Take it.”
I didn’t know if I wanted to. It was heavy and hard and had made Willard cry really bad when I’d hit him with it. I didn’t want to make Mama cry like that.
Tock thrust the bat under my nose; I could smell the wood. “If you don’t kill her, she’s gonna cut you up.”
I still couldn’t make myself take it.
I looked over at my little brother. He had scrunched himself up into a ball and was pressed as tight into the corner as he could get. His unblinking eyes stared out of the shadows.
He was little; he wouldn’t stand a chance against Mama with a butcher knife.
My fingers closed around the bat.
“Good girl.” Tock padded on her hind paws over to the door and opened it wide. She turned back to me and grinned her pointy, yellow grin. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
But I couldn’t get the show on the road. I couldn’t move. My feet were stuck to the floor.
Tock snorted. She stomped back to me, her tail twitching with every heavy step, and got behind me and shoved. Out the door and into the hall we went, and there was Minute Hand and Second Hand. Chattering something that sounded like “Hit her, hit her,” the two rats danced circles around me and Tock as she pushed me down the hallway to the closed door of Mama’s bedroom.
Everybody stopped. Tock stopped pushing, I stopped walking, and Minute Hand and Second Hand stopped dancing.
Tock reached around me and slowly pushed the door open. A shaft of light spilled into the dark room, ran across the floor and jumped up on the bed where Mama lay on her back. Snoring.
Tock’s paw spread between my shoulder blades and nudged me forward. “Do it,” she whispered.
I moved slowly across the gold shag carpet. Each step was hard, like trying to walk in rubber boots that were plumb full of rain-water. I didn’t want to do this. I didn’t want to hurt Mama.
Then I heard Joey’s voice, teeny-tiny and far away, call out my name: “Sassa…” And I gripped the bat with both hands, squeezed till my fingers were numb and white. He was little. I was big. I had to protect him.
Photo from Pixabay