Aphelion Issue 262, Volume 25
June 2021
 
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Bellus

by Meg Smith




I love my Clara more than anything in this world.

I don’t care if she isn’t pretty. I’ve actually seen people glance after us in the store, with a look as if they’ve smelled food gone bad at the snack bar -- instead of the look of dreamy affection that follows other children.

Once, I even said to a woman, “I suppose your child looks worse. I see you don’t have her with you!” and she made a huffing noise and bustled off.

She was wearing a garish, flowery skirt. As she stalked off, two flowers on the back looked like the eyes of a furious, chewing praying mantis.

Clara and I both laughed. She knows I think beauty isn’t everything.

It’s certainly nothing compared to having an intelligent, sweet, funny child.

She is four years old. If only I could spend more time with her. I think of every moment of her growing, discovering, laughing, crying, believing, disbelieving -- and I know I’m only capturing some of them.

But I have to work. I work in a clothing store, Cummings. It’s a very nice store with the latest fashions, and I like the customers and the staff. I even get a store discount, though I seldom use it.

I have nowhere to go in a fancy outfit.

One thing I don’t do when I am at work is worry. I don’t worry about Clara, or her happiness, or safety.

I know she is in good hands with Bellus.

Bellus and I go way back -- to my childhood. There’s no treasure like a lifelong friend.

Bellus was there when I lost my first tooth, and when I cried because my cat Beebie got out and disappeared, never to return.

When I ran away from home, Bellus ran right along with me, and came home with me.

When I graduated from high school as an honor student, and made some dumb decisions -- having Clara was definitely not one of them -- Bellus stood by me.

Bellus didn’t say, “It’s not easy for a girl to get into college these days, and you had that chance!”

Or, “Men aren't interested in someone who already has a kid. I know it’s a new decade, but let’s be real.”

So it was only that when I had Clara, Bellus was the obvious choice to watch her. And now I think those two are as good friends as Bellus and I ever were.

I was lucky to find us a small apartment, in a duplex house with a tiny yard and a shed in back.

Our landlord, Mr. Barber, lives upstairs. He’s kind, gray-haired, and he lost his wife some years ago.

Although Clara and I have heard singing and talking, sweet and kind of sad, as if sometimes he thinks his wife is still there.

“But she isn’t there,” Clara whispered earnestly. I’m amazed how serious a child can be. I said, “Well, Mr. Barber is very sad. Maybe it makes him feel better sometimes to think she is still there.”

“But, mum. It’s bad to lie.”

“That’s true,” I said. “But this is not really a lie, because Mrs. Barber is still there -- she lives in his heart.”

Clara pointed to my chest. “Does your cat Beebie still live in your heart?”

This direct question caused me a stab of pain I didn't anticipate. But, I smiled. “Yes, sweets. She does.”

Then, Clara smiled. “That makes dying seem okay. It means you can live in somebody’s chest but be careful not to pop it open.”

“That’s true,” I said. I’m sure I’m not the first parent caught off guard by a child’s frank, visceral observations. Even if like most adults, I’ve had days when I thought my heart would burst from sadness.

I hold it together. I hold in my heart, for Clara’s sake.

In truth, I find it easy, most days. I come home from work to stories of how Clara and Bellus spent the day.

Now that spring is coming, and the weather is getting grudgingly warmer, there are more things to do outside.

Clara and Bellus spent one day in the yard. Clara put some rocks in a wheelbarrow Mr. Barber lets us use.

Clara said they pushed the wheelbarrow all around the yard, telling stories to the rocks.

“We picked up rocks but when they were in the wheelbarrow, they turned into babies,” Clara said. “I told them stories so they would go to sleep.”

“Did that work?” I asked.

“Oh yes!” Clara exclaimed. “When I put them back on the ground, they didn’t even cry. They just turned into rocks again!”

A little later, she was sitting at the kitchen table with a coloring book -- not really coloring, but making great starbursts of green, yellow and orange on the characters in the coloring book. People, and animals -- dogs, cats, horses.

While she did that, I went out into the backyard. There is a rotatable clothesline tree, and now that the weather’s getting a bit warmer, I like to hang the washing up instead of using the dryer.

I glanced back to the kitchen window, and felt a deep breath of reassurance as Clara sat coloring.

I glanced at the yard. I saw the rocks were put neatly in a row, against the wall of the next-door, three-decker house. I smiled.

The rocks surely started out just scattered where they were.

Now, Clara and Bellus, after putting them through a transformation from rocks to babies to rocks again, had set them in some state of order.

I carried that image with me the next day when, on my lunch break, I decided to go to Big Pete’s Coffee Shop. It’s a coffee shop with a formica counter, some vinyl booths, a small convenience store, and a laundromat.

It’s also perfectly situated, a short walk between both my work and my home.

Only today, as I sat at the counter, nursing a coffee, I got some unwelcome company.

Charlie came in and sat next to me, causing the vinyl-covered stool to make an awkward squeak.

“It’s just the stool,” he insisted.

He reeked of nicotine and dirt, and Razzles. His favorite candy. I think it’s all he eats these days. The sugar-sweet smell. Goes great with that blond, shaggy hair now running to white, and those bleary blue eyes.

To think, I was once the long-haired, cute chick next to the long-haired, blond guy, and we’d been the perfect hippy couple living in an orange VW microbus.

I turned away, and slurped at my coffee.

“Hey,” he said indignantly.

“Mmm-nmm,” I mumbled through a mouthful of coffee. Later, I’d berate myself for not shouting at him to leave me alone. Instead, I kept my back to him, and then rummaged in my bag for a small book of crossword puzzles.

I saw Pete, standing behind the counter, glance unpleasantly toward Charlie. “I don’t think she wants to talk to you,” he said.

“Stay out of it,” Charlie barked.

Pete dropped a spatula he was holding on the counter with a noisy clang that made a couple of customers look our way.

I sighed. I didn’t want to be noticed like this.

But I turned, slightly, so I could see better. Pete was leaning a bit into Charlie, and smelled of oozy grease and bacon.

“Listen, Gerber baby, this is my establishment,” Pete said. “I don’t like people harassing my customers.”

“I’m a customer!” Charlie barked.

“Then order something and shut up,” Pete growled.

I snickered a bit. My break was almost over. I got up to leave and paid my bill. Loudly, I said, “Thanks, Pete, you’re the best.”

As I left, Charlie started to get up, and then sat down again.

Outside, I shivered. My friend Marcie thinks I should go right up to him and tell him to get lost. Or call the police. Or drop a bucket of bricks on his head.

But what does she know? She has a nice house, a nice husband.

She shells Avon at home and holds Avon parties where everyone comes, drinks wine, and maybe buys something and maybe doesn’t. Either way doesn’t seem to cause her any anxiety.

She’s always making these pronouncements about how to be strong to people who actually have to be. She makes me think of my mother saying “paved with good intentions.”

She doesn’t have the father of her child sneaking around, showing up accidentally-on purpose at your favorite lunch counter, or in Bett’s Park when you take your child to the swings.
<
“I handle him,” I insisted to her one day when I came over to order my favorite lipstick and nailpolish -- my one, monthly indulgence.

“You’re letting him run your life and he’s not even in it,” she said.

We were drinking some wine. Good thing I walk everywhere.

The newest Avon catalogue was open in front of us, on the gleaming wood coffee table.

She has a thick, shag rug. It’s like walking on a cloud.

“Pfft, I do not,” I insist. “I have my own home, I pay my own bills.”

She gave me a look that was sort of ugly. Great, I thought. She thinks I’m insulting homemakers like her. “Sorry. I wasn’t judging you. I’m saying I’ve got things under control.”

“Not as long as he keeps showing up,” she said.

“Well, I can’t kill him.”

We both laughed at that.

“He wants to see Clara, and I won’t let him. He’s not paying for her upkeep, so why should he?”

“Haven’t you talked to a lawyer -- “

“You know I did. We’re not married, and never were married, so.”

She let it go, then. I feel like we have some version of this conversation every time we meet.

As I turned the catalogue page I was suddenly captivated by the sight of a fragrance with an exotic-looking bottle.

“Timeless,” she said, as if she’d created it. “It’s new.”

I felt a rare rush of impulse. “Order me a bottle,” I said, breathlessly.

“You’ll be the best-smelling woman on the block,” she promised me.

“Yeah, there’s a goal.” We both laughed again.

When I came home, I felt a great longing for Clara and Bellus, for stories of their day together, a longing so deep it hurt.

Marcie always talks about kid-free Avon parties, but this feeling is so alien to me.

She has time to volunteer in school, lead her daughter Zena’s Daisy troop -- she keeps urging me to sign up Clara, but somehow the idea makes me anxious in a way I can’t explain.

I only know that when I’m apart for eight hours each day, I can’t wait to get home. And today that feeling was like an avalanche from a mountain into a busy road.

Hold in your heart, I told myself. I brushed tears on my sleeve before opening the door.

“There’s my girl!” I called, reflexively leaning down, and thrusting my arms.

Clara walked toward me, slowly -- smiling, but there was something deliberate in her gait. She put out her arms.

I enfolded her and pleaded, “What’s wrong, peeps?”

“Nothing, mum,” she said, and she smelled sweet -- of crayon wax, cookies, and a little bit of earth, from playing outdoors. I inhaled deeply, as if to keep that moment within me forever.

“Okay, are you sure?”

“Yes, mum,” she smiled. And I realized, with a chill -- she’s learned that from me. To cover up her feelings and snap on a smile.

“Well, if something is wrong, you know you can tell me,” I said gravely. I put my hand to her forehead. It felt cool, soft, normal.

I cupped her face in my hands, and she squirmed slightly. Her face, round, and like mine, a little lumpy around the cheeks.

Her eyes are a muddy-gray, not blue and sparkling. She has a crooked front tooth that slightly covers its mate in the front. I know I should think about getting it fixed.

I also know we can’t afford it.

Her skin is slightly gray -- not creamy-white, as her kindergarten teacher had the nerve to tell me at a parent’s conference for the upcoming school year. “Please don’t tell me every child in this class has to be white,” I’d snapped. “Creamy or otherwise.”

Some of the other parents gasped, but some of them smiled and a few even nodded.

How is this person teaching kindergarten in 1974, I’d wondered on the walk home.

Lying in bed that night, random thoughts swirled through my head. Should I get those stick-on, rubberized flowers and feet cut-outs, to put in the tub? To make it safer for Clara?

Mr. Barber wouldn’t mind if I did that.

Charlie, his grubby face, the stubble along his chin pocked with gray, his stupid Razzle sugar-fruity-smelling breath and cigarette smoke.

Me, smelling like Timeless -- whatever that smelled like, because I hadn’t actually smelled it yet -- but a damn sight better than cigarettes and Razzles and white-stubble despair setting in already. What was he, all of 30?

And always, floating through the darkness, Clara, her crooked tooth, her serious eyes, her gray skin, all a little unreal, a little magical to me.

And, a slash of terror, with fear flooding through my chest. What if something happens to me. Something dumb. Like stepping in front of a bus or getting a shock plugging in the Cumming’s store Christmas tree.

Cold, cold tears were pooling in my eyes, and I didn’t even notice right away.

And then, I heard my door creak, just slightly.

The soft, odd, ungainly padding of beloved feet.

Bellus.

Bellus often slept over on the couch, or even on a fold-up, spring-loaded, hide-away bed my mother insisted on gifting to me.

“I’m all right,” I whispered, my voice all wet and mewling.

I breathed deeply, and in spite of myself, I smiled, in the darkness. “You always know.”

It was then I was able to sleep.

When I woke up the next morning, I felt disoriented. My mind flashed with the idea that it was Saturday and I didn’t have to go to school, and then that it was Monday and I was going to be late.

I sat up in bed and looked up at the ceiling, blinking at the dingy white, and the curled bits of peeling paint. I remembered hanging over the side of my bed as a kid, and looking up at the ceiling, upside down, pretending that the ceiling was the floor.

I rubbed my eyes. “I’m back in Adult Land,” I said softly, out loud.

It was my day off, my one day off a week.

I had a weird urge to phone there, and ask if anyone had called in sick, and did they want me to fill in.

My one day, my one full, perfect day with Clara, and Bellus, and it was like I didn’t want to face it.

“We’ll tell some stories to the rocks together,” I said, again aloud, to myself.

I looked around my small room, the yellow-and-brown wallpaper with a pattern of flowers -- round flowers with circular petals.

I slipped out of bed, and threw the covers back to place, a little haphazardly.

I don’t think I’ve made a bed perfectly since before I became a mom.

Still in my pajamas, my feet bare, I came out to the kitchen. Bellus and Clara were there.

Clara was in a white undershirt with thin shoulder straps, and flowery pajama bottoms.

“Mummy!” she exclaimed. She had her coloring book open in front of her. I leaned over to see -- more brightly-colored, atomic starbursts gracing all the characters.

“It’s my day off, Tulip,” I said, kissing her on top of her tousled head. She closed her eyes.

“Ow!” she shouted, and laughed. “Who turned off the lights?”

“You did, silly!” I said. It was a game we often played.

Now, all three of us were laughing.

“I think I should make us all breakfast,” I said. “Scrambled eggs!”

There were “yesses” all around. One thing I can do well -- toast bread, and make a mean scrambled egg.

We were all sitting, eating contentedly, when there was a knock at the door, the back porch door.

I leaned over to peer out. I dropped my fork with a clatter.

Clara glanced fretfully at me, and then to Bellus. “Daddy,” Clara announced.

A flash of cold struck me. I don’t think I had ever, ever given her any inclination that this stubbly, raincoat-wearing jerk at the back door had any paternal claim to her, at all. I had taken great pains to make sure she never saw him directly.

Is there anything kids can’t puzzle out? I felt dejected.

“Bellus, please,” I said, mustering some authority into my voice. “Take Clara to her room.”

“I want to see him,” Clara insisted, and I did not expect this.

“Not now,” I said sharply.

“I want to!”

In all her young life so far, Clara had never erupted in a tantrum, or showed defiance. I was flummoxed.

“Go to your room, now!” I shouted, and the wounded look on her face lashed at my heart. “Just go, please. Mommy will explain later.”

More thumping at the door.

I forced open the creaky window. “Cut the shit,” I shouted out at him.

I know I should have called the police, and snuck us out the front door, or called Marcie and asked her to please take Clara, or something.

I was alone in the kitchen; Clara and Bellus safely in her room.

All I could do was react. “God, dammit,” I breathed sharply. I shoved my feet into some clogs under the table, and opened the door. My big plan -- I’ll punch him right in the face and then he won’t come around here.

“You’ve got some fucking nerve,” I said.

“Me?” he howled. He looked absolutely stupid in that coat.

I could see that he must have been wearing shorts underneath it, because his shaggy legs poked out, and he was wearing sandals that made me think of seeing “Jesus Christ, Superstar.”

“You’re in my face,” I said. I pushed at his chest. He stumbled back. “First, you could call,” I snarled.

“I don’t have your number.”

“Then what did you do -- follow me home?”

“Follow you!” His eyes bulged from his head.

Did I feel fear? Yes -- and at the same time, struggled to focus on what a cartoon of manhood was accosting me.

“I know what goes on here!” he snapped.

“Oh, do you?” I hissed. “There’s nothing much to see. Just a single mom breaking her ass at work while her friend watches her kid!”

“Like hell!” he shouted.

A window was opening above us. Mr. Barber.

We both looked up. “Hey,” Mr. Barber called, in his hoarse voice. “What’s going on? Hey mister. Get off my property!”

I felt great, deep, triumph. Charlie was trespassing. He had to go.

Charlie just looked up at him, with a peering stare, like someone trying to see a bird from far away.

“You heard him,” I said. “Get out of here.”

Charlie jabbed a pointing finger at me, and I stepped away. “This woman,” he said, his voice gravelly and pompous. “Leaves her kid, my kid, alone, every day!”

“That’s nonsense!” Mr. Barber yelled. “Her friend watches the kid! Now, get --”

“Her friend?” Charlie laughed cruelly. “You mean her made-up imaginary friend? It’s a wonder that kid hasn’t burned herself to death or drowned in the tub!”

Mr. Barber was gone from the window, and I could hear him thumping angrily down the stairs.

He was now storming around the side of the house, carrying an axe.

“What?” I blurted, helplessly.

“You get out of here now, or we settle this like men,” Mr. Barber growled.

I could hear crying inside the house. “Oh, god, Clara!” I shouted.

“You go inside, dear,” Mr. Barber said. “I take care of this.”

Charlie was stumbling down the porch steps toward Mr. Barber, who did not waver. He gripped the axe grimly.

I stood, frozen, my breath heaving. “Um, gentlemen -- “

“This is my business now!” Mr. Barber said, holding the axe handle with both hands, and pushing it at Charlie.

“I’m the father and it’s my business!” Charlie shouted. “She’s neglecting our child! She leaves her alone, every day!”

“That’s nonsense!” Mr. Barber shouted. “My wife and I hear the child with the friend!” Named Billy!”

My head was throbbing. What in hell had I just heard. Mr. Barber just said his wife, his deceased wife, heard Clara and Bellus.

“Mommy!” I heard a splash. “Ow, Mommy!”

And, crying.

“Shit.” My paralysis was broken. I stumbled in through the door, almost falling in my clogs. I kicked them off, and they both skittered across the linoleum of the kitchen floor.

“Owwwwww!” Then, a high shriek. “Mommy!”

I went first to her bedroom, which was empty. Of course. The bathroom.

I kicked the door in. Clara was caught in a frantic dance of pain, and the tub was overflowing.

I wrenched the taps off, grabbed a towel from the bar, and thrust her into it. She screamed again with the pain. “Mommy, you’re killing me!”

“Oh, God, honey,” I wailed. Then, “Where is Bellus?”

I grabbed up my child in my arms; she shrieked again and again with the pain, but I couldn’t let her go. “The phone, the phone.” I had to remember where it was.

Distantly, vaguely, I heard shouting outside -- and a thud, like rocks falling on the ground.

“Jesus mother!” A high, high, sickening, operatic voice, almost singing.

Charlie.

Clara kept screeching and now my own head was a jagged mess of pain.

I grabbed the receiver and dropped it. I lowered myself and my screaming child to the floor, the towel falling over both of us. “Mommy’s getting help,” I said uselessly.

My fingers shook so hard I could barely dial. I managed to wriggle a finger in the “0” get it to go a full, rickety rotation.

I didn’t wait for the operator to acknowledge me. I jabbered out our address, and “burned child,” and the operator informed me that someone had already called about that same address.

“Get an ambulance!” I shouted, tears flowing so hard I could barely breathe. “My kid is burning!”

“Ma’am, on fire!”

“No, hot water!”

“Turn on the cold water. Put her in cold water as fast as you can,” the operator said coolly.

“Oh, good idea,” I said meekly. I dropped the receiver. “Clara, honey, let’s --”

But she wriggled out of my grasp, running, her small arms flailing, to the kitchen.

I struggled to get to my feet, using my worn arm chair to help myself, and fell down again, crunching an ankle under my own weight.

I howled a jumble of swear words, tears spattering the rug. Trembling violently, I hoisted myself, weight on the armchair, although the arm itself threatened to give way.

I could hear sirens, some garbled talk over a radio, more high-pitching sing-shouting from Charlie.

And, Mr. Barber. “It was self defense!” he kept shouting.

I stumbled and staggered on shaking legs toward the kitchen, toward my screeching, scalded child.

It was only then I actually could focus on her with my full vision.

Her gray face and arms, slightly pinkish, but otherwise looking all right. Her undershirt and pajamas clung to her body, totally wet, the pajama legs flapping against her shins.

She stood steadily, as if the pain had left her suddenly, and she looked up at me, with the terrible look of a child grasping a terrible truth.

“Oh, sweetie, help is coming,” I said. I reached out my arms.

I had not focused so well that I could see what she had in her hand. I had left it on the table, when we were interrupted at breakfast. A bread knife. A bread knife to cut some untoasted bread from a whole, uncut loaf, for Bellus.

“Oh, honey!” I shouted. “Give that to mommy!”

“Mommy!” she shouted back. “I don’t hurt anymore!”

“That’s that’s wonderful -- “ I knelt down, my ankle still smarting, to be eye-level with her. I reached out toward the knife. “Give that to mommy, right now.”

“Bellus has to go. She’s getting out.”

The door opened behind us, slamming hard against the wall. Stomping feet.

“What the holy hell --”

I was walking on the ceiling, dancing on it, purple fireworks of pain shooting from my eyes, and scarlet trails that made me laugh and sing out loud. “Superstar,” I gasped.

The pain was like nothing I’ve ever known, except perhaps when I was giving birth to Clara.

Bellus was there with me, too; I called out, “Bellus, Bellus,” whimpering, then screaming.

One nurse held my hand, and coached me, encouraging me, “It’s okay, sweetheart,” but the other -- I remember her dour face, and I realized with a shock that this face was reserved for the unwed mothers.

“At least one of us got lucky,” I’d sputtered at her.

For a moment, I saw their faces; blurs, like the glare of light after looking at the sun.

They melted into the vapor of night. I called, as I had then: “Bellus,” and the pain stabbed me deeply, but it was not any cut. It was Bellus, fading, Bellus, dying.

“You have to stay,” I stammered. “Stay -- with Clara -- “

But Bellus’ shadow dissipated, like a hundred little dark islands, scattering across the sky.

My lifelong friend -- gone -- because I was going.

“Clara,” how I wanted my voice to stay strong, but it chattered. “C-clara,”

“You’re going now, mummy,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Bellus is gone, too.”

She pointed to her heart. “But you’re both staying here and my chest won’t burst. Ever.”



THE END


2021 Meg Smith

Bio: Meg Smith is a writer, journalist, dancer, and events producer living in Lowell, Mass. USA. In addition to Aphelion, her short stories and poetry have appeared in Dark Moon Digest, The Horror Zine, Dark Dossier, Sirens Call, Blood Moon Rising Magazine, and many more. She is author of five poetry books, and a short fiction collection, The Plague Confessor. She welcomes visits to megsmithwriter.com.

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