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The Mark On My Cheek
My Sister sends me to the store for waffles. I ask Why Me and she says Because I Said So. She stuffs a crumpled twenty-dollar bill into the front pocket of my overalls and nudges me toward the front door.
“Can’t you come with me?” I ask, tugging on her cotton sleeve. “I’ve never gone to the store by myself before.”
“Please,” she says, tracing her finger along my soft jaw. She lifts my chin with her index until my wide eyes meet her red ones. “Please, I’m so tired.” The skin around her sunken orbs contracts and crinkles like candy wrappers. Her breath smells like cigarettes and vanilla.
“Okay. You rest. I’ll go." I answer, scurrying out the door.
A hidden stretch of railway connects the house to the store, lying crackly and abandoned under the swaying redwoods. Nobody in the neighborhood knows about it but me, according to the meticulous research I’ve conducted during secret afternoon strolls when Sister is at school and dad is at work and mom is passed out on the living room couch. I usually avoid the tracks—Sister’s horror stories about joggers who’ve met their bloody fate on the wooden sleepers are enough to keep me at a meter’s distance—but today, I take the risk.
Stepping onto the steel rails, my tennis shoes awaken decades of untouched history. The habitat stirs around me as my rubber soles leave rusty imprints on the hot metal. A gentle rustling, the sound of ebony crows taking flight from tall branches, ripples through the warm California breeze. The sun looks down upon my shaky silhouette, creating a soft radiance from my tanned skin. Sweat prickles my forehead, but I keep following the tracks, my arms outstretched and quivering, parting the forest like the Red Sea.
Dark pavement interrupts my reverie. Emerging from ancient ruins of steel tracks and battered rocks, I stride across the store's dirty parking lot.
The store interior is dark and vacant, except for a very tired man flipping through a celebrity magazine and another very tired man standing behind the cash register. I catch sight of the Frozen Meals aisle behind two towering displays of Crackers, Cookies, and Candy. Scanning row after row of lurid cardboard-packaged breakfasts, I finally locate my target. I swing open the glass door and eagerly grab three boxes of Kellog’s Chocolatey Chip Waffles, lingering in front of the freezer for a few moments to let the cool air dry my sweat-stained skin.
The boxes plunk onto the cloudy checkout counter. The cashier mechanically scans my items as I rock on my tiptoes, peering at the wide assortment of tobacco products and pregnancy prevention pills on the shelf behind him.
“Can I have one?” I ask, pointing to a pack of Marlboros.
He chuckles. “What? No. You’re too young.”
“My Sister’s young, too. She likes them.”
“They’re good for her,” I add, chewing on my fingernails. “She says they calm her down.”
The cashier’s face drops, his cheeks like overripe fruit or funny red water balloons. Disapproval pervades his expression. “Don’t listen to your sister. Smokers never tell the truth.”
What? I peer up at the man in incredulity. He must be exaggerating. My sister wouldn’t lie to me. She never lies to me.
Then he hits me with another blow. “They’re killing her, and she knows it.”
Kill. Kill. Kill. The harsh syllables reverberate through my ears, creating an abrasive ring in my cranium. My palms dig into the sides of my head, but the ringing only intensifies. The cashier’s words blend into a whirlwind of unintelligible sounds, fading in and out of my consciousness
She wouldn’t lie to me. Would she lie to me?
My vision focuses back on the cashier, gripping onto the Marlboros so tight he might crush the box completely. “Hello? Do you hear me, sweetie? These little sticks are evil. They've already got her, and you had better not let them get you too. Do you hear me?”
A yawning cavity in my chest swallows my words before they get a chance to leave my mouth. I nod meekly.
The cashier sighs, an air of pity brushing against my furrowed brow. “$9.42.”
I pull the money out with shaky hands.
The sun burns harder on the walk home. I curse the dreadful redwoods for doing such a poor job of sheltering me from the blistering yellow orb taking unlawful residence in the sky.
My Sister stands on the front porch, a new cigarette dancing between her fingertips.
“D’you get the waffles?”
Dried grass crumbles beneath my feet as I cut across the front yard. At the porch, the nauseating tobacco fumes coat my throat like hot wax, searing scarlet letters into the whites of my eyes.
She grabs the boxes and turns to face me.
“Are you okay?” She asks, cupping my cheek with her palm and studying my bloodshot eyes. The crimson veins running through my sclera look just like hers, thin rivers of blood littered with cigarette smoke and crumpled twenty-dollar bills and artificial happiness. Her gaze draws salty tears to my eyelids. I bat her hand away.
“Go wash your face,” intones the blurry figure.
I run to the bathroom, tracing my fingers over the mark on my cheek where the damp end of her cigarette pressed into my skin.