I called my own answering machine to hear my mother’s voice. She’d run away again, this time, with the woman who taught science at my school. They had been going at it for a while, my mother losing count of the nights spent concussing her skull on the car’s headboard. I waited without much faith for her to stop, but one day, she was gone.
And people talked. There are no secrets in a small town.
I missed her something extra today. In a town of two thousand people, I was still alone.
Being home alone was warm and sticky like mosquito summer, and we lived too remotely for next door neighbors. With a leather journal in my hand and a few dollars in my pocket, I made my way down the one road, alongside the lurching trees.
My feet moved, going towards the field where garbage burned, past cobblestone and tree, without a lick of interaction with a human being. Thirty-five minutes each way, several paces could kill the day until my mother was out of my mind.
I passed gas stations and pool halls, tackle shops, and Baptist churches; every so often, an unfamiliar car passed over the one road. The notebook in my hand kept a log of their colors because there was nothing else to note. Three checks for three black cars. Five next to the color white. Only one red car, because those are too rich for this town.
New column for a silver Buick. I paused for a second.
It wasn’t my mother.
My legs took flight the more I lumbered around, taking the place of the ache that usually formed. I did this day in and out, paced the town, kept track of the passers. I didn’t enjoy this task much. The town burned its waste, and the smell carried like a thick coat of rancid smog. And my sandals were falling apart – gold straps held together with tape. Still, I did this thing. I walked and noted cars. Nothing else to do on a day like this when you’re sad, alone, and motherless.
Foolishly hoping she comes back.
On my third roundabout, I went out to the furthest edge of town. A small well that sat by a bright orange bus seat and a sign that read “Tangerine: Est. 1901.” It shone brighter today like it was repainted recently.
The pastor sat on the bench with a book in his hand and the murmurings of Jesus on his lips. Reverend Yates wasn’t the only pastor in town, but he was my pastor, or he would have been, had I regularly gone to church.
People like him didn’t make my mother feel too welcome in this town.
His daughter and I were friends, before my mother’s “sickness” was outed. He recognized me without hesitation. “Hello, Shelby,” he said.
I bowed my head but said nothing in return.
He said, “What are you doing out here?”
His hand raised to block the sun from his face. “I can see that. Where are you walking to?”
“Nowhere.” Then I changed my mind. “Somewhere.”
The Bible on his lap shifted as he did – awkwardly. No one ever knew what to say, with me being the only bastard child for miles. Maybe there were more, but nobody talked about it. And now my mom was having affairs. As far as I knew, no one was allowed to talk to me anymore. Most of all, his precious darling Gabby.
I was surprised when he kept going and asked why I was going ‘somewhere.’
“I don’t know,” I told him. “Nothing better to do.”
He nodded at that, looking up to watch another car pass. I made note of its color before tucking the book under my arm.
“Why don’t you sit down?” he said. “You’re sweating something fierce.”
I hesitated for a moment but felt there was no other choice. It would be rude to walk away, and I was feeling pretty tired. Settling in, I placed my notebook on my knee, adjacent to his Bible.
After a few moments of silence, he said, “You’re looking a little lost.”
I snickered. “Is this a Jesus thing or just a general observation?”
“Can’t it be both? I am working overtime as a pastor and a father.”
The tension in his words wasn’t missed by me. At one point, this man had been like my father. Until something went and ruined it – my mother’s promiscuity, the town’s backward thoughts, or maybe me.
Despite myself, I couldn’t help but ask, “How is Gabby doing?”
Reverend Yates spoke like there was no rift. “She’s alright. Up with her cousins in Wekiva Springs for the week.”
A pain involuntarily clenched my stomach shut. I used to go on that trip with her every year. My sadness went unnoticed. The reverend wouldn’t even look at me now. He did keep talking, though, about what Gabby was doing next: going to hunting camp, then to a spa with her mother.
“Speaking of…” The reverend trailed off, pumping bullets into the loaded question. “How is your mother doing? We haven’t, ahem, seen her in a while.”
I knew what he meant and didn’t like it one bit. I got up and prepared to walk away, saying, “You all talk like that’s my fault.”
He stopped me with his hand. “Shelby, I didn’t mean it like that.”
“You sure said it like that.”
He took a deep breath, looking up to me. Until then, I’d forgotten I was standing.
“You know how your mother can be,” he said. “I’m sure she’ll be back with her girl…I mean, Mrs. Wells soon enough.”
I didn’t answer him. I sat down instead. “I don’t think so. She’s been gone for a whole month. And I can’t say I blame her. There was more life for her elsewhere than here, dating a woman.
Reverend Yates didn’t say much because he didn’t know how to talk to me now. The sun hit his eyes, the colors rearranging like the pixels of a double exposure camera, and I realized, even if he asked, what could I tell him? That my mother had become disposable as a camera, full of memories to be lost in a bin under the dresser. That I wanted to hear her voice in the halls of our house again so I could have my friends and my life back, minus the controversy. That her leaving cemented me in this town because my heart waited for her like the bucket in the brick well behind me. I was fifteen and fatherless and furrowed into this town like the hairs on an eyebrow stuck together in the middle of an argument.
I didn’t want to say any of this. The traffic picked up, denying me the opportunity to do so. A silver and a black car came fast, with no trace of its rider. Then an orange passed in a storm of “Roses for Mama.”
“I know you aren’t church people, but I was actually just working on my sermon for next week.” Mr. Yates sat forward, flipping through his sticky note filled Bible. “A little number about the lost sheep being returned to the ninety-nine.”
I mimicked his movement, sitting upright. “Let me guess? My mom’s the lost sheep.”
He turned to me, and I knew I was the one.
“I’m not one to pass judgment–”
I cut him off and said, “Homophobia counts as judgement.”
It was the first time I’d said the word aloud. It sat between us, a fat, elephant-like guest undeniably between us now.
He rubbed then folded his hands, the two index fingers pointing up to form a steeple. “You’ve pulled away from all of us. We would never push you out.” He paused, then said, “Tangerine is your home.”
After a minute, I inched across the bench, putting a stretch of space between us. “I’m not in the mood for prophesizing.”
“Alright.” He pointed to the town’s welcome sign. “Are you in the mood for some allegory? Because tangerines symbolize wealth, happiness, good fortune.”
I leaned forward and picked the dirt from my toes. “Isn’t that ironic?”
“I’ve heard from the man running the garbage mill that you’ve been pacing up and down the streets for days. Looking for your mother?”
“I told you, I’m not going anywhere.”
I got up and stood at the edge of the sign; I anticipated him coming up behind me. Hand on my shoulder, he squeezed it and said, “If I remember correctly, you said you were going somewhere.”
Another car came by just as he walked away. I didn’t note the color because I’d left my notebook next to his Bible. I stood there for a good minute, trying to find my mother’s voice in the wind, or the end of the road here. I didn’t hear anything, and for now, that was okay.
I stepped forward, towards the road, away from Tangerine and towards the next city. As I walked away, the back of the wooden sign called out to me, ‘Don’t forget to come back home!’
Anastasia Jill (she/they) is a queer writer living in the Southeast United States. She has been nominated for Best American Short Stories, Best of the Net, and several other honors. Her work has been featured with Poets.org, Pithead Chapel, apt, Minola Review, Broken Pencil, and more.