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It was the word that bothered me the most. Why did she have to use that word? Homo, spit out of her mouth like milk that sat in the fridge too long—bitter and thick and putrid. It burned across my face; a slap.

I peeked into the room. Rooney was sitting on her bed, staring at the peeling paint on the wall opposite her dresser. Our mother was a few feet away, holding up a paperback by its creased spine, brandishing it in the air the way Pastor Martin wielded his worn copy of the KJV on Sundays when he became particularly heated over a scripture. The only difference was, my mother wasn’t holding a bible. 

“You God damned homo.” She screamed the word again and Rooney’s face stayed blank. My sister must have caught my shadow in the doorway because she glanced over briefly, catching my eye, and gave her head the most imperceptible shake. Don’t you dare, the look said. Not a word. Like a coward, I sucked back into the hall.

“You bring this garbage into my house!? You all high and mighty-like with your job and your school and your friends and think I can’t sniff out the trash between my own four walls?” She hurled the book across the room, the pages fluttering wildly through the air until they were abruptly stopped by the neon lava lamp on the windowsill, knocking the old incandescent light to the ground. The lime green paraffin wax bubbles split and lurched and gurgled back to the surface, no worse for wear. The book lay beside it, splayed open to its cover revealing two girls holding hands, their fingers interlocked, overlooking a white sand beach that looked nothing like the trash lined riverbank of the Mississippi that ran through town a few miles from our park. In bold words beneath the title the book boasted a ‘contemporary romance and coming-out story.’ 

I disappeared a little further into the hall. Rooney didn’t move. 

“Your father’s gonna beat you blind! A fucking homo in our house, eatin’ our food, runnin’ the damn heater we pay for — all this time livin’ like one of them city types, bringin’ the devil in here! I got a mind to call Pastor Martin.” She paused, her toes curled into the shag carpet, bouncing up and down on the balls of her bare feet like a back alley prizefighter. “Or if that don’t work maybe your brother’ll bring Marky over—have him remind you what God meant you for.”

Rooney’s eyes flashed up to our mother, burning steel. 

Marky. Marky who’d snuck out of our house early New Year’s morning two years past leaving Rooney bloody lipped and crying on the sofa while our parents lay passed out with their Bud Light breath and crystal hangover. The next day our mother handed Rooney a morning-after pill at the breakfast table and told her to take it with her orange juice. She’d made Jeff—our brother—pay for it, was her consolation. Marky was his best friend, after all.

“That what it’s going to take, huh?” From my hiding place beyond the threshold I could see my mother lean her face down on eye-level with Rooney, her pock-marked cheeks sucked in, her fingers working at the matted fleece pajama bottoms that she’d probably lifted from the thrift shop our aunt worked at in the Wal-Mart shopping center. She was going to slap Rooney. Her fingers always clawed at her sides before she slapped us. I closed my eyes just before the brief silence was filled with the sound of flesh striking flesh. I was such a coward. Such a fucking good-for-nothing coward.

“You think Elma’s going to be ok knowing she’s got a Goddamn dyke working her store? Those sticky little hands in her cash register?” Elma was the manager at the Dollar General where Rooney worked. She’d never married and lived with her “sister” of no relation. I doubted Elma would care. 

Furious at Rooney’s silence, our mother continued. “You better hope you didn’t throw all them paychecks towards them school books ‘cause you’re gonna need ‘em for rent—you ain’t staying under this roof one more Goddamn night!” She was triumphantly pleased with herself. She’d never finished her freshman year of high school. She’d gotten pregnant and had Jeff when she was fourteen. She resented Rooney going to the local JC.

I thought about the state university acceptance letter hidden in the lining of my box spring. Rooney’d made me stash it there and we’d celebrated over All-You-Can-Eat pancakes at IHOP. “You’re getting out of here, Suz!” Rooney’d said, clinking together our plastic orange juice glasses. “One more year.”

That was seven months ago.

My mother crossed out of my view and a moment later there was the sound of the window opening. Rooney never moved from the bed. She never had been one to fight back. She just took what came at her in silence: Marky; Mother’s crystal high come downs; Father’s drunken pawing; Jeff’s scapegoat every time he cleaned out the ashtrays of our parents saved coins. She never said a word.

A shattering noise broke the brief quiet. Glass on cement. I peeked around the doorjamb to see the next load of my sister’s belongings getting tossed down to the concrete beneath the carport. The lamp had gone first. Now an armful of model horses; Rooney’s favorites. She’d collected them from the thrift shop for years. She’d wanted to own a horse all her life. The models were as close as she’d gotten.

“No!” I couldn’t take it anymore. “No, mama!” I ran into the room and Rooney jumped to her feet. “No, it’s—”

“—Get the hell out, Suzy, Goddamnit! Just get the hell out!” Rooney glared at me wildly.

“You shut the hell up!” My mother flung out a portable CD player, sending a Spice Girls disc clattering across the ground. “I won’t have you cussin’ at my baby like that!”


“Stay out of it, Suz!” Rooney growled, grabbing her old duffel that she’d used for high school PE and began to cram what was left of her life inside of it. “I wouldn’t stay in this shithole another night if ya’ll paid me!”

“Ain’t nobody goin’ pay you for nothin’,” our mother hissed, spittle sliding through her nicotine stained teeth. “Not when they can get all you have to offer for free!” She hurled one last painted plastic horse out the window with all the force of a first string starter before whirling toward the door. “Ain’t no one in this town goin’ to take you in when they hear you’re one of them carpet munchin’ abom’nations, you hear me? No one!” She stumbled over the raised linoleum of the hallway, cussing God and everyone before she righted herself and slammed the door behind her.

My heart pounded a heavy bass line inside my head.

“Roon—” I started, but tears sprang to my eyes and cut my words off. We didn’t cry. Never. Not for anything.

“Listen, Suz,” Rooney kept piling things into her bag, heedless of what they were. Mismatched socks, an old notebook, an Astro Planet burger wrapper. “You got a semester, that’s all.” She stuffed in her favorite Metallica t-shirt and a pair of flip-flops that said Class of 2018 in blue block letters. “Finals. Graduation. And then you get the hell out of here, you understand me?” She didn’t look up. I could see her hands were shaking. She zipped the bag and took a ragged breath, composing herself, before crossing to her closet. She rifled on the top shelf for a moment before coming out with a dozen envelopes stamped with the Dollar General logo that she pressed into my hand. I didn’t have to open them to know what they were.

“No, I can’t—”

“You will!” Her amber eyes found mine, challenging me to say no. “It’s not a lot, Suz, but it’s enough for your first semester. The rest you’ll have to figure out on your own.” She squeezed my fingers and this time a tear managed to find its way down my cheek, salty at the corner of my lips. 

“Where will you go?” I managed, brushing the back of my hand across my face.

She bent down and picked up the book my mother had hurled onto the floor. “I can crash at Carl’s for now.” Carl was her boyfriend. Or at least the guy she’d been dating most recently.

She glanced at the cover of the book before handing it to me. “Here, homo,” she smiled, taking all the sting out of the word. “Hide your shit better next time, you hear?”

I folded the book away into my pocket. It hadn’t even been a good read.

“Why, Rooney?”

She shouldered her bag and pulled me into a hug.

“Because I love you.”

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