IT WAS 101 DEGREES outside, and Madison was sure this was the kind of neighborhood with a pool in every backyard. She could hear muffled splashing, the vibrating aftershocks of a diving-board spring. She imagined girls inside their houses, girls who were fourteen just like she was, putting on new bikinis and getting ready for a summer swim. The jealousy of this burned inside her until it was stifling, until it was hotter than the August air, until it clamped down like a sweaty palm on the back of her neck.
Once, in their old neighborhood in Mississippi, a girl down the street had invited her over to swim in their above-ground pool. Madison had lain on her back and felt the water hold her like an embrace, had watched the bugs land for a moment on the surface and then bounce off again. But that invitation had been only once, and looking back it seemed like a mirage, like maybe she had imagined it, a childhood fantasy she had wished for so much she thought it real.
It had been over 100 degrees every day for the past week in Houston. Two nights ago, they had slept at her mama’s friend Gabby’s trailer, Mama on the couch, she and her sister Stella on the cool floor. But last night they had been in their car, which had never cooled down. Even at four in the morning before the sun rose, Madison could feel her clothes sticking to her with the glue of sweat, shorts to thighs, bra to back. She had felt overheated for days. She wanted to stand underneath a cold shower with all her clothes on. And now their mama had brought them to a neighborhood where Madison could hear individual kids splashing in their individual pools.
They parked their car on the second street of the subdivision, in front of a house with the blinds closed, a small fountain gurgling in the front flower bed. This neighborhood was the perfect target for her mother, a suburban street nice enough to have money but not elitist enough to lack empathy. Two-story homes with Spanish-tiled roofs, vines up the walls, all distorted mirrors of one another. They would probably be able to get through a handful of houses before someone vaguely threatened to call the police.
Once they were parked, everything was routine. They covered their scattered belongings with a blanket. They brushed their hair. Mama stood at the trunk readying the box of products while Stella clung to her leg. Madison counted out the brochures, made sure they had enough. Gabby had helped her mother make them, had walked Madison’s mama through the design process on the computer and then generously printed out color copies. Madison and Stella had folded them into thirds. Madison thought they looked rather convincing. There was a sleek logo on the front, professional-looking pictures of cleaning products inside, all taken from an internet search. The brochure listed countless benefits to their cleaning product, all of which were unfounded.
Stella still bought into it fully. She stood with their mama at night filling their dollar-store spray bottles carefully with water, scented oils, vinegar, soap. She watched carefully while Mama adhered labels to the front. She tried to slide air bubbles out with the tips of her tiny fingers. When someone bought a bottle, on average one a day—sometimes up to five if Mama pushed Madison to use a hypothetical school fundraiser in order to garner sympathy—Stella watched carefully as Mama pocketed the cash at each house, helped her count it out at the end of each day. They had been at this for three weeks and had made almost four-hundred dollars profit.
They used to run an even more nefarious con, using an old school brochure to sell cookie dough, asking for cash at each house which they kept without any intention to return with the promised product. But when her mama came up with the cleaning solution idea, she told Madison and Stella she felt better about it, more moral, like they were doing something real now.
Sometimes Madison wondered what her mama’s first scam was. She wondered if her mama started in school, if she collected dollar bills from friends on the playground to perform some meaningless trick, if she promised girls in high school she could get them name-brand jeans and delivered knockoffs instead. Even when they lived with Madison’s grandmother in Mississippi, her mama was always running some kind of scheme. And when they followed her mama’s boyfriend to Houston, even after he left them, she had somehow tricked him into leaving her his car. Sometimes, when Madison complained about their lifestyle, her mama would snap at her. “One day you’re going to be a woman and then you can worry about all this. Just see how well you do trying to find a way to make money.”
Today Madison was sure Mama would push her to be the school saleswoman. She was proficient in all the potential customer questions, from explanations for why they had never heard of her school (it’s on the other side of the city) to what she would receive if she sold enough (a class pizza party or, more preferably, the ability to keep the school’s music program).
But today Madison wanted nothing to do with it. Today she wanted to be able to sit in the car with the windows rolled all the way down until it got too warm and she had to move to crouching on the curb behind the car’s shadow. She wanted to watch the neighborhood drive by, the suburban moms in the S U Vs with children in the back being carried to swim lessons or baseball practice or computer camp. She wanted to imagine that she was just a kid in the neighborhood, someone who belonged, who was hanging out exactly where she was supposed to be.
Conveniently her stomach was not feeling particularly well this morning, and she suspected it was cramps, the initial sign of her more dreaded week of the month because there was never enough bathroom predictability in their lives.
She walked around to the trunk of the car where Mama and Stella were loading bottles of their solution into the faded plastic wagon they had once found on the side of the road.
“Mama, I need to go to the bathroom.”
“No, you don’t,” Mama said without looking up from her work. “Not until we get through this neighborhood you don’t.”
She scooted closer to her mama, placed her hand on her arm to stop the motion of another bottle being loaded. “Please, Mama,” she said. “It’s an emergency.” And then she leaned just a bit closer and whispered into her mother’s ear, “My period.”
Mama rolled her eyes, kept moving. “I ain’t got nothing with me,” she said.
“I know,” Madison said, even though she hadn’t. “Can we go get something?”
Mama blew air through her lips, letting them vibrate loudly, so absurd was the suggestion. “Madison. No money. No time. I saw a gas station down the road and over one block. You can go see what you can find there.”
Then the trunk was shut, the wagon of plastic bottles wheeled away. Madison leaned against the car, watching it all go. She would have at most an hour before they returned, likely less. She opened the door and dug through the cup holders for loose change, scrounging up a total of five pennies and two nickels. She slid them into the pocket of her shorts, locked the car, and began walking down the road, out of the neighborhood.
The gas station was farther away than her mama had led her to believe, and the heat radiated off the pavement, rising in circles that could be seen in the distance, waves of misery. By the time she entered the convenience store, the bell ringing overhead as she opened the door, she was so grateful for the air conditioning that she almost forgot her mission. She wandered the aisles for a minute, and then, still not sufficiently cool, opened a refrigerated drink case and stuck her head as close to the bottles as possible, trying to appear as if she were examining them, perhaps making a decision.
When her back clenched though, a pain emanating from her pelvis, she remembered.
In the bathroom, she did not have enough money for the dispenser. She sat on the toilet and carefully folded some toilet paper, stuffing it into the bottom of her underwear, covering the small spots of blood that had collected. Then she wrapped it underneath to prevent what was already there from soaking into her shorts.
She stood up and moved around a bit, made sure everything was going to stay in place.
Outside the restroom, she relished the cool air for a few more moments. She found the tampons. There was one small box that cost two dollars. Surely her mother could spare this. She thought about taking one, wondering how easy it would be to slide her finger through the box lid, pull one out and hide it in the waist of her shorts.
But when she looked up, the clerk, a middle-aged woman with red hair and full cheeks, was looking right at her. Madison gave the woman a faint smile and then left, walking back the way she had come.
WHEN SHE RETURNED to the car, there was a boy circling it on his bicycle, pedaling while standing up, gliding around the car as if he were waiting for her to appear. And when she did, he didn’t slow down or back off. He kept riding, shirtless, navy blue swim trunks printed with small lobsters hanging from his waist. He looked to be a few years younger than Madison. She approached the car as he whizzed behind her and resumed her station leaning against the trunk, belonging, ignoring.
“Whose car is this?” he asked, riding in front of her, angled for another pass.
“Mine,” she said, arms crossed.
“Pshhh. You’re not old enough to drive.”
“I’ll get my permit in a few months,” she said, rounding up. “How old are you?” she asked, eyes narrowed in attempted mockery.
“Old enough to not be impressed by that.”
She made a show of rolling her eyes. Paying attention to every sensation between her legs, she adjusted her stance, hoping and praying nothing would come dripping out. She felt her abdomen clench again, so she chose to ignore the boy while she unlocked the car, opening the back door. She rustled around and found the bag she was looking for, dug through it. It was her mama’s purse, and she hoped there might be a spare pain pill that had escaped and made its way down to the bottom with the crumbs and gum wrappers.
Behind her she could feel the boy slow down his circle every time he passed her.
“My mom says y’all shouldn’t be here,” he said.
She stood back up out of the car, felt a small gush of blood fall onto the toilet paper. “How do you know we ain’t here visiting a friend?” she asked.
This time he was the one to roll his eyes. She thought about his mother. She thought she would be the kind who was watching them from the window, who would see him with a girl she thought didn’t belong and would come out at any minute to call him away. Who would see Madison’s own mother, her thin frame and faded shirt and too-short shorts, and call the police.
Madison tried to be busy. She walked around to the trunk of the car and opened it, began rummaging through the various plastic bags, still looking for medicine in places she knew it wouldn’t be.
“Don’t you have other friends to go play with?” she asked when he came around again.
“I’m just waiting for my mom and my sister. They just had to drop some things off for a friend.”
Her thin lie was met with silence.
She had sized the boy up and she didn’t feel scared; he was smaller and younger than her, and she was sure one punch to the stomach and a knee to the balls would do him in. But his teasing presence made her uncomfortable. She was in his territory. She was aching and bleeding. She was losing ground.
She looked up the road and saw only a woman in shorts and a tight pink top pushing a stroller. In the silence between the whir of bicycle spokes, there was a yell of excitement, the bounce of a diving board, a splash in an unseen backyard.
Then, while she was distracted, wishing herself into a pool, or at least in possession of a tampon, the boy was next to her, off his bike but still gripping its handlebars, looking into the trunk of the car that held all their belongings.
“Y’all got a lot of shit,” he said. Even she could tell the word felt heavy on his tongue, unused to being used.
“Everyone does.” She stopped her search and tried to close up the bags she had been digging in.
Before she could stop him though, his hand was reaching into the trunk, pulling out a small clear bottle with a teal label.
“What’s this?” he asked, casually interested, as if he might unscrew the top to investigate and then shrug regardless of his findings.
“It’s my mom’s,” she said. She tried to take it from him without making too much of a scene, without revealing the bottle’s importance. She didn’t want him to know it was a bottle of oils that cost her mama fifty dollars, that it was the most expensive thing in the car, the most essential thing for their business of conning people into cleaning products.
She watched him, her stomach diving further into the pavement, as he took off the lid and held it up to his nose for a sniff.
He raised his eyebrows as the scent hit his nostrils. “That’s nice,” he said, legitimately impressed and suddenly aware of his ammunition. “Is it perfume?”
Madison shook her head. She reached for the bottle again, but already the skinny boy was on his bike, and already he was testing her. He poured a few drops of the liquid onto the pavement, watching her face as it trickled down, precious. She reached for it again, feeling the desperation she couldn’t keep hidden. But he was already pedaling away. Pedaling away and laughing. She yelled out to him, cursed at him.
“My mom will like this!” he yelled back. She began to run after him, but he turned a sharp corner, cut up someone’s driveway and through a backyard, one hand steering, the other clutching the bottle casually as if it were a can of Coke.
MADISON WAS SILENT when her mama and Stella returned. She stayed ducked around at the front of the car, sitting on the curb pitifully, as if nothing unfortunate could have possibly happened because she was in too much menstrual pain. Bad luck wouldn’t have dared approach her.
But when her mama opened the trunk and she and Stella began putting away the unsold bottles, she could hear the start of a frenzied rustling.
“Madison. Where’s my oils?”
Madison didn’t say anything. She crossed her arms over her knees and leaned her forehead over them, pretending she didn’t hear the question.
“Madison,” the voice came again, louder and sterner. “I said, where’s my oils?”
Madison welled up some tears, initially as an attempt to garner leniency, but soon she could not stop them.
“Someone took them.” Her voice was so weak she wasn’t sure it could be heard.
“What do you mean someone took them?” her mama stomped around to where Madison squatted, leaving Stella wide eyed and worried at the back of the car.
“Some boy. I had the trunk open looking for some medicine and some boy on his bike came by and grabbed them before I could do anything.”
Her mama lunged forward, yanked Madison up by the elbow. “That ain’t true. That don’t make no sense! What happened?”
But Madison couldn’t explain any more than she already had. Her mother opened the car door, her hand a vice around Madison’s arm, and shoved her in. “How could you do that? You know that’s everything we have? You know how much that cost? Where do you think we’re going to get that kind of money again?”
Madison attempted an apology, but the words choked at the base of her throat. Mama continued to yell, and it was only when they heard another car coming down the road that she stopped. Their mother stood still as the car passed; they acted as if they were exactly where they were supposed to be. When it was gone, their mama whispered tight, “Everyone in the car.”
They obeyed without question.
THEY WERE BACK OUT on the interstate, driving toward a destination Madison was too afraid to ask about. In the backseat, Stella reached over to take Madison’s hand, looking like she might cry. Mama rolled the windows down, letting the air in like blasts of oven heat.
After a few minutes Madison thought they might be heading back to Gabby’s trailer and hoped she would have tampons or pads to spare. But they took an exit Madison didn’t recognize, or at least couldn’t identify. She was still a year away from driving, but she was always trying to memorize her way around the city, the interstate and exit numbers, the toll roads to avoid. She wanted to be able to find her way alone when she turned sixteen, or, more importantly, get herself lost. When the time came, she thought she might take Stella with her.
“I sold three bottles to the same person today,” Mama said suddenly, looking back to where Madison sat, Stella’s head now resting in her lap. “Same little old lady. Thought they sounded great. Bought three and asked for a card and everything.”
“That’s good,” Madison said.
“It’s more than good. You got to start learning that. One day you’re going to have to be able to figure things out for yourself. Figure out where the money comes from.”
Her mother’s eyes met hers in the rearview mirror, brown and deep and dark. The same eyes from her girlhood, the same eyes that must have looked around her Mississippi world twenty years ago and thought they would eventually be part of a different kind of woman. Sometimes Madison wondered what her mother’s dreams had been, if she had ever had any.
They pulled into a Walmart parking lot, crooked in the handicapped space. “You and Stella stay in the car,” Mama said. She left the car running, temporarily losing a flip-flop as she slid off her seat, cursing as she fished it out from under the car.
Madison could feel the question in her throat, sitting like a stone. But she said nothing, asked for nothing. She watched her mama walk into the store, and when she disappeared behind the sliding glass door into the cool oasis, Madison let her head fall back on the seat, sighing.
Stella didn’t move. She was breathing so lightly Madison thought she might be asleep. But then she whispered, high and sweet. “Mama’s gonna be mad at you for the rest of your life.”
Out the window, Madison watched the shoppers standing on the sidewalk, waiting to cross into the parking lot, carts full of groceries, toys, clothes. One woman, large and red from the heat, sweat pooling at the neck of her shirt, pulled two carts through the parking lot, so full it looked as if she must be stocking up for an apocalypse.
Stella sat up now; her statement seemed to have freed her from some kind of physical shackle. She was moving around, squirming like the kid she was, swinging her foot to the beat of a made-up song she was humming.
They waited for a long time, the air still blowing from the vents growing warm. Madison wondered how brave she would have to be to one day just get in the front seat and start driving with her mama still in the store. When she could drive, she thought, she would finally be a woman. She would finally be able to make her own choices, find a different kind of life. When she was little she used to dream about her grown-up life, what she would be. A singer. A movie star. Maybe a veterinarian. Already, at fourteen, she had lowered her standards. She just wanted to become something else, something other than the woman who lived ahead of her.
She was beginning to fall asleep when the car door opened, and before she could realize what was happening, a box of off-brand tampons was thrown into her lap along with a tiny bottle of medicine. Into the passenger seat her mother heaved a single bag of groceries. Chips, peanut butter, bread.
“You don’t use more than you need now,” Mama said.
She wanted to ask if she could run into the store to use a tampon, but the car began to back away, her mother clearly expecting her to wait until they got to wherever they would go next. Madison sat up, tried to read all the street names, memorize the turns. As they merged onto the interstate, she opened the bottle, poked the foil seal, gleaming in the sun, with her fingernail. She dug out one tiny red pill and swallowed it dry.
ERIN BLUE BURKE’s work has previously appeared in Hypertrophic Literary and Cleaver Magazine. She is from Huntsville, Alabama, where she lives with her husband and daughter.