A seed is an escape pod. A plant egg detaches from its mother from the start, Jody says as she presses two speckled brown beans into each of our palms.
Jody used to just be our babysitter, but now she’s Dad’s girlfriend. “But don’t go asking your dad about it yet,” she says. “You know how he is.” She makes her voice low and stiff. Says, “Eat every pea on your plate, Laney. I’m serious. Eat those peas!”
How this came to be and what that makes Jody to us is confusing, but we like Jody. The lobes of her ears are decorated with rainbows and stars. She lets my little brother, Sam, and I style her hair and paint her eyelids with one of the eyeshadows Mom left behind. We brush the pink powder across her lids over and over so we can watch those spidery hairs flutter.
Also, she answers our questions. When we asked Dad why Mom left, he said, “Heck if I can explain that woman.” When we ask Jody, she says, “Because she’s got a disease. It’s called selfishness.” She says her own mother was the same way. Then she puts her finger to her lips and says we shouldn’t talk about this around Dad, either.
The lucky seeds drift away with the wind, Jody says, as we bury the beans in tiny pots filled with dirt. Or they sail streams or rivers or oceans before putting down roots. Or they hitch rides on cats’ backs, bears’ paws, or birds’ beaks. Or they get swallowed. They travel through the foul, bacteria-ridden bodies of animals.
“But fuck if they care,” Jody says.
My brother’s eyes sparkle. Cuss words spoken without hesitation or shame is another reason we like Jody.
Jody says the seeds that escape don’t mind traveling through the godawful intestines of animals because, at the journey’s end, they’re released far, far away from their mothers.
“What about the unlucky seeds?” Sam asks.
“What do you think?” she says.
“They fall down?” he says.
“That’s my boy,” Jody says.
Sam smiles, but those words, “my boy,” stick messily in my head, like the globs of glue, grayed from the grime of the day, that I’m still prying from my fingers hours after we made macaroni sculptures. We used the fancy red and green pasta Mom bought from a farmer’s market then never cooked.
“The unlucky seeds’ escape pods don’t work. They’re born in their mothers’ shadows,” Jody says.
We stare at the dirt, wondering if anything is happening yet.
When our bean seeds push up through the soil and split their shells in two to wear them as capes, Jody says they look poised to rocket into the air like Superman.
Sam grins, lifts his pot, and pilots it around the kitchen.
“But flight will not come,” Jody says. She looks wistfully out the window.
I look, too. What I see are the hard, green balls dotting the limbs of our orange tree. When Mom left in March, there wasn’t any fruit yet, only white blooms that she clipped and arranged in a juice glass.
When Dad calls, Jody takes the phone into our parents’ bedroom. She whispers to us, “Girlfriend/boyfriend time.”
We listen at the door, ears pressed against the cool wood. We hear Jody say, “Sure thing, Mr. Hayes. They’re in good hands.”
When she opens the door, she’s got a shimmery green neck scarf Mom left behind tied around her neck like a bow. She says, “Your dad’s going to be away an extra day. Important business stuff.”
Jody scoops us into her arms. “That’s OK, though, right? We’ll survive without him, won’t we?”
We spend the afternoon in bed with a pile of books. We admire how Jody contorts her voice in so many different directions.
So much can go wrong for any seedling in these early days, Jody tells us, as we water our little bean plants. When a seedling is small and weak, one injury to its flesh can ends its life. One day without water, and the seedling may crumble. Not enough sunlight, and the seedling may yellow and limp.
But for those born in their mothers’ shadows, Jody says, the biggest threat is Mother herself. If resources are scarce, she will not ration. She will not sacrifice for her offspring.
Jody removes a pan of cupcakes from the oven. Vanilla cake with chocolate frosting, both made from scratch. “The right way,” Jody said, after I pointed out that we had boxed cake mix and a tub of frosting in the pantry.
She tells us she taught herself how to bake, just like she taught herself everything else she knows. “It’s hard having no one to help you and teach you,” she says. “It’s so fucking hard.”
Jody takes off the red oven mitts, stacks them on the counter smudged with frosting. The mitts were my present to Mom last Christmas. Mom said they were too beautiful to risk dirtying. She hung them on a hook on the wall.
“But better to struggle alone than the alternative,” Jody says.
She explains that if little seedlings growing in their mothers’ shadows die, then as they rot and decompose, their mother will gobble them up, too.
She divides the cupcakes between us so that we each get to frost six. Then she says, “What do you think? Two for me and five for each of you?”
Sam’s eyes widen. He slides five of the six cupcakes he frosted closer to his chest.
I locate the dingy blue oven mitts still in the drawer next to the oven, yet another thing Mom left behind.
As Jody and Sam lift frosted cupcakes to their mouths and bite, I drop those old mitts into the kitchen wastebasket with the brittle shards of cracked eggshells.
Michelle Ross is the author of the story collections There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, winner of the 2016 Moon City Short Fiction Award, and Shapeshifting, winner of the 2020 Stillhouse Press Short Fiction Award (and forthcoming in 2021). Her fiction has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Electric Literature, Okay Donkey, The Pinch, and other venues. Her work is included in Best Microfictions 2020 and the Wigleaf Top 50 2019, among other anthologies. She is the fiction editor of Atticus Review and was a consulting editor for the 2018 Best Small Fictions. www.michellenross.com
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