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Spoilage and Takeoff by Becky Neher




Em Seever palms the items in Mother's pantry. She checks dates, wipes down dust, mashes a roach. The motions dampen her awareness of faulty wiring in the space behind her eyes, above her throat. A mass of something soft and mealy, maybe poisonous, like rotting fruit. Threatening to decompose and seep from its container once and for all and ruin a countertop.

"Try it," says Sis that one time, extending Auntie's jar of strawberry preserves, tonguing a spoon.

Em eyes the jar.

"It's sooo good," says Sis. "C'mon. Just a little."

Em winces.

Sis huffs and rolls her eyes. "It's not even that kind of sugar," she says, thrusting the treat at Em. "It won't hurt you."

Globs of strawberry jam devour Em's imagination. She takes the spoon. Slowly, carefully, she scoops up a ruby-red dollop. She holds it in front of her mouth, cramped under Brin's stare.

The jam goes in. A sugary tang electrifies her taste buds. 

Delicious! 

She closes her eyes, savoring the last sweet-tart gooey morsel.

Together, they finish the jar.

That afternoon, Em holes up in her bed, blood sugar sky high, insulin taking its time. She has to wait an extra hour to eat dinner. Mother fumes.

"You'll feel better soon," says Sis, crossed-legged on the sheets, stroking Em's long brown hair. Em leans into Brin, picking the ear of a stuffed bear, wiping her nose, oozing guilt. "Don't worry," Sis says, hugging Em close, "I won't tell Mother it was your idea."

#

Em wipes a rag over a shelf. Sis is at the door. She strides in wearing a wildly oversized hat, huge bug-eye sunglasses, a purse like a trolley hamper.

            "Traffic was terrible," she says, slinging everything down.

            Em is unsure how to respond. A lifetime of saying wrong things. She frowns and slumps her shoulders. Brin gazes elsewhere, snatches up a rag and goes at the kitchen counter.

"Mother got so sloppy at the end," she says.

"I like your dress," Em says. Sis throws a smile over her shoulder. Em can't tell what it signifies--thanks? irritation?

She remembers that time Sis let her go out with her and her friends--teenagers!

Em spends the whole day picking an outfit. An hour in the bathroom. All done up, she peeks in the door. Sis waves her in. Em flushes. Sis tugs at her.

            "No,"--Sis shakes her head, turns Em around--"no"--she eyes Em side-on--"no." She stands back, appraising. Em feels hot. Her chest hurts. "I know," says Sis. She rummages in the closet, pulls out a dress.

A very lacking-in-material dress.

Em waves it back. Sis's smile disappears as she tilts her head to the side, lowers her brow. She holds the hanger by a finger, wrist and elbow bent in girly fashion, free hand at her hip. Em shores up under the microplane grater of her nerves, maneuvers into the small red affair. It squishes her tight. She is afraid to move.

"Amazing!" says Sis. Em peers in the mirror, trying out the idea. Sweat seeps from her armpits. She is fizzing and foaming over like a shaken can of soda. We're having fun, she thinks as Brin prances around the bedroom in a variety of sandals and earrings and shades of lipstick.

Sis's gang meets them at the corner under the flagging street light. The cool teenagers look at Em and snicker. Sis leans over and whispers, "They're just jealous." Em straightens up a little. Sis turns to her friends. She throws back her head at a good one and laughs with them down the street.

#

The boy isn't cute, but he's funny. He has a shrunken-apple head and acne, and a mouth like a tortoise.

            "You went outside in a thunderstorm and ate raw tuna?!" Brin bursts out hysterically. They are on the roof of Devan's parents' trailer. She tips over, unable to contain herself.

Em looks at the boy. She giggles in the most amiable way she knows how. A sunset turns the clouds into giant wads of chewed bubblegum. Vivid in color, lacking in flavor.

Devan sits with his arms astride his knees. He wears a plaid red and brown long-sleeve shirt and frayed jeans. His dark hair goes to his chin.

"The mercury," he says, "and the lightning"--he lets out a chortle--"they interact inside your, like, heart and blood stream"--here Brin really loses it--"and create this, like, concoction of charged energy."

Brin is a pile of mirth.

Devan chuckles, pleased.

Sis is one of those who can merely sit in a spot and seem like the fulcrum of the universe.

"Brin can light up a room," Mother would say.

Her hair shines in waist-long golden waves. Her teeth are straight. She has strong, cream-colored legs, and they are a picture on the dirty, rusted roof surrounded by house refuse and scraggly pines.

"But raw?" Sis pesters him playfully, recovering.

Devan grows serious. "I mean, you gotta throw it up at some point--it's poisonous!" This sends everyone laughing again. Em wonders if this time she gets it right.

#

In the pantry, Em spots an unopened bottle of cleaner behind an army of tomato cans. Wanting to joke, she holds the bottle up and says to Sis, "This had good intentions, at least." She smiles, thinks, That was pretty good. She then comes up with something really funny and says, "More than a lot of us can say." Then goes: Oops.

            Sis freezes, her back to Em, knife poised over the cutting board.

            "The cleaner, I mean," says Em, voice catching in her throat, realizing--too late as always--that every word she says makes things worse.

            Sis resumes cutting the fruit.

Em sets the cleaner on the counter, shuddering. It's the rot, she thinks. Always mucking it up. She has said so many things badly with good intentions, she doesn't know if she has any good intentions after all.

            "The mind can play tricks on you," Mother would say.

They wipe and slice in silence. Sis says, "Lunch is ready." She slams the knife on the cutting board and whisks two plates to the table, deposits them with a clatter.

Em narrows her eyes at Brin, bears a chunk of belly fat, injects her insulin. Sis has always hated this. The special treatment, the real need. Em waits to let the hormone work. To let Sis eat alone.

"You don't need to throw away a whole strawberry," says Em softly, referring to recent activity at the cutting board, "just because a little bit is bruised." She spreads some butter on a piece of toast.

Sis looks at Em mid-chew.

Em looks back, pinned. Regretting the silent aspersions, the simmering antagonism. Rotten, rotten, rotten.  

Sis carries on munching. "You can eat all the spoiled food you like," she says, wiping her mouth with a napkin. She gets up with her plate, dumps its contents in the trash--Em abhors waste--then snags up her purse as if it were the shirt sleeve of an unruly child, gathers the rest of her immense effects, and leaves.

Em braces herself for the upwelling of shame.

Instead, there is only a strange, dizzying emptiness.

She rests her head in a hand, grows very tired, gazes through the sliding glass door. On the other side of an ancient crust of pollen and grime, a wren trills his heart out. And there are other things: squirrels leaping cocksure over bobbing limbs; a spiderweb shimmering in and out of visibility; an early bloom; a patch of light; a knot in the trunk of a boxelder, from which nudges a bluebird who takes off in a flash.

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