Mother’s hands were like two raw pork chops: moist, flappy, and cold. With one meaty hand she dragged Janey out the back doors of Higgbee Elementary and into the faculty parking lot. The school security guard glared at the pair from the doorway, his gruff handprint still red on Mother’s arm. Loose chunks of blacktop crunched under Mother’s flip-flops as she stomped between the cars. Janey scuttled right behind, her six-year-old body puny and drowned amongst the folds of Mother’s denim muumuu.
Janey’s too-small dress was wet—she’d peed in her chair for the third time that week in Mrs. Krick’s kindergarten class. Mrs. Krick notified the social worker, Mr. Lyons, who’d asked Janey to explain. Janey mumbled that she didn’t know why, but she lied. Mrs. Krick had a big, pock-marked nose just like Mother. Janey was scared of Mother, and Janey was scared of Mrs. Krick. Since school began two weeks ago, she’d tried to control her bladder until lunch, when nice Ms. Pollozo would lead them to the bathrooms, but too often she failed. Mr. Lyons called Mother. Mother and Mr. Lyons yelled in the kindergarten hallway, and security was called. Mother said that they’d “never be back to this dump.”
Now, Janey’s soiled underwear were bunched in her red plastic lunchbox, which banged against the sides of parked cars as the two barreled towards home. She wanted to say goodbye to nice Ms. Pollozo, and whisper to her that she didn’t want to go home with Mother ever again, but security escorted them straight out of the building.
“Why are you so bad,” said Mother as she pushed her sweaty bangs off her forehead. “What did I do to deserve this? Did you see what they did to my arm? Handling me like I’m a wild animal.” Mother looked back at Janey for acknowledgement, but Janey stared at the sidewalk below. “It was your father that done it. Messed you up, messed me up.” A fuzzy image of Father flashed in Janey’s mind. All she could muster from distant memories was a face like a teddy bear with the eyes and nose ripped off.
“He ruined everything,” said Mother. She stopped, panting in the heat, under a large oak tree with roots that busted the sidewalk into jagged pieces. She breathed heavily from the fast pace. “Don’t you have anything to say for yourself?”
Janey stared at her black school shoes and mumbled, “Sorry.”
“Say it to my face, Janey. Look me in my eyes and tell me you won’t be bad anymore like your father was.” Mother put a finger under Janey’s chin and pushed it upwards. Their eyes met. “Say it.”
“Sorry. I won’t be bad like my father.”
Mother flicked Janey’s chin free and it sunk back into her chest. Mother then huffed, and puffed, and shook her head like a bull ready to charge. “Oh, and I’m sure you mean it. You may be a little thing, but you’re just like your father. Out to ruin my life!” She stomped her flip-flop down on one of the sidewalk cracks. “Step on a crack, break your baby’s back.” She laughed. “If only.”
Mother stepped on every single crack on the way home. With each clomp, Janey envisioned her own spine as a thick pretzel rod that Mother pulverized. Snap! Crunch! Janey’s heart beat hard against her ribs, which might be made of pretzel as well, but Janey wasn’t sure. She wrinkled her nose and focused on tuning out the song, but Mother’s voice boomed through the neighborhood, sending all the squirrels running.
Mother jangled the keys and swung open the front door of their cramped, two-bedroom house. The smell of Mother’s vinegar sitz bath still hung in the air. Janey ran past Mother and into the living room, where she jumped up onto the floral sofa and began plucking the stuffing from a hole in the cushion. She’d made a habit of caressing the soft, fluffy stuffing to help her heartbeat slow. Mother closed the door with a click.
“You’re a bad girl, Janey,” she said, sauntering up to the couch like a schoolyard bully ready to fight. “I’m going to make you listen to me this time.” The wooden floor creaked under her feet as she stepped around the cluttered coffee table and closer to the couch.
Janey wasn’t listening. She’d found a dull penny in-between the couch cushions and was trying to clean it with the edge of her dress. With a groan, Mother swooped her up like a bear catching a fish. The penny went flying out of Janey’s hand and clattered onto the floor.
“My penny,” she cried and reached out, but Mother was already pounding across the living room and into the kitchen. Janey’s belly bounced on Mother’s shoulders and her hair fluttered into her open mouth.
“It’s happening to you just like it did to your father,” said Mother. “You’re back talking, embarrassing me in front of your teachers, not appreciating the stuff I do for you. Just like him.” With Janey still in her arms, she opened the door to the cellar. A blast of damp, stale air hit both of their faces. Janey began to squirm. She’d touched the doorknob to the cellar door before and was promptly smacked—it was off-limits. Mother set Janey on the first step and blocked the exit with her body. “You’ll stay down here until you appreciate the things I do for you.” She flipped on the light switch and a series of bulbs lit the old, low space. Janey tried to climb between Mother’s legs to get back to her couch and it’s soft stuffing, but Mother shuffled from side to side.
“Here,” she said, dipping her hand into a cloudy Tupperware bowl on the adjacent counter. “Fetch.” She threw the pennies, nickels, and dimes down the stairs. Their sharp noises rang out like the tinny jingle of an ice cream truck. Janey reacted instantly, chasing the treasures down the stairs. As her little feet hopped off the last step and onto the cement floor, Mother slammed and bolted the cellar door.
Janey sat in the center of the cellar with a handful of jingling change. Around her were fieldstone walls soaked with moisture from the ground outside, and slick with mold. Piled along the walls were heaps of junk collected from Mother’s flea market scavenging. A rotting loveseat was tossed on its side next to stacks of cardboard boxes spilling over with mildewed clothes. Janey had no idea how long she’d been down there, but her stomach growled and she had to pee. She knew she’d be in trouble for peeing in her dress again, but she had no idea where to go in the cellar. Her bladder ached and she began to cry.
As she wiped her nose across her forearm, the mighty furnace that squatted in the right corner of the cellar began to rumble. The furnace was ancient, and looked like an octopus sitting upside down with six tentacles reaching into the air, taking heat to different areas of the house. It wasn’t cold outside, however, and this metal monster had no business burning oil, yet it had already begun to give off heat.
A voice sang out. “Step on a crack.”
Janey looked back up at the door. Was Mother standing there? Had she opened it? No. It was still locked tight.
“Break your mother’s back.”
Yikes, thought Janey. Those weren’t the right words.
“Janey,” called the voice. A burning orange glow from within the furnace brightened the cellar.
“Hello,” she called out.
“Hello,” the voice answered. “What nice coins. Come closer and show me.”
Janey remembered the jackpot gripped in her fist, and wanted very much to show and tell someone. “Where are you?”
The metal grate of the ancient furnace seemed to grin at Janey with a square mouth full of thin teeth. She approached slowly with her coins shaking in her hand.
“I’ve been waiting so long to tell you a secret,” cooed the furnace in a deep, warm voice. “Come closer.”
Janey scooted as close to the super-heated furnace as she could bear. The smell of burning fuel made her nose itch. “Are you a monster,” she asked. “Please don’t eat me.”
“Step on a crack,” the furnace sang. “Break your mother’s back.”
Janey felt a sting in her gut, like a bee let loose in her belly. The words to the song were wrong, and if Mother ever heard her sing those words, the pork chop hands would cover Janey’s mouth until she shut up. This secret was too dangerous.
“Sing it and Mother will never be mean again. Get ready, get set, go.”
Janey couldn’t picture what a nice version of Mother would be like, but she did begin to imagine more time with nice Ms. Pollozo. The bee in her belly stilled. Mother wasn’t near. Maybe if she just whispered the secret song, Mother would never know. She sang the words under her breath.
The furnace grate bent and twisted to form a wide smile. Dials moved along the metal surface to form a nose and sympathetic eyes. Rusted levers bent and groaned to find their place as eyebrows. “Good job Janey!” said the fiery face. “Now get ready.” The furnace braced itself as its rivets trembled. The once smiling grate was blasted open by thick tentacles of flame. The blaze moved with a purpose and concentrated its energy onto one spot in the floor. Janey followed the flames with her eyes, even though it hurt to look at their brightness. A deep fissure burrowed into the cement floor. It made a sound that Janey likened to the crunch of a thousand crackers. The crack glowed with the hot blue light that rooted the furnace’s flames.
Janey looked back at the furnace for an explanation. It offered none. It only said, “You know what to do.”
Did she? Did she dare?
“Step on a crack,” she sang. She moved closer to the new crack until the tips of her shoes were aligned with it. “Break your mother’s back.” She took a little hop with both feet and landed on the crack.
“Harder,” yelled the furnace.
Janey heard a thumping from behind. Someone was stomping down the basement stairs, making each board groan.
“What have you done now,” Mother yelled.
“Harder,” yelled the furnace.
Janey heard Mother’s footsteps clunk onto the basement floor. Janey covered her face with her hands and blindly dug her feet into the crack as she’d seen Mother do on the sidewalk.
“Step on a crack, break your mother’s back!”
Mother stomped past the loveseat and came into full view. She was draped in her flannel night muumuu emblazoned with sleeping brown bears wearing nightcaps. She’d taken off her bra, and the printed fabric peaked where her nipples sensed the basement’s chill.
Mother chuckled from deep within her throat. She pointed at the rumbling furnace. “You found Father,” she said, the light from the flames making her eyes glow a deep blood orange. Her slippered feet shuffled closer. “Do you want to burn too?”
Janey’s eye peered wide at the furnace’s face. Father?
“Do you want her David? Do you want to take everything from me?” Mother’s lips curled back against her teeth and she screeched, “Take her then! Take her you sonofabitch!” Mother’s jaw swung open and she howled as she lunged towards Janey. The little girl didn’t have time to react. Mother’s wet grip was around Janey’s neck and she was shaking her daughter.
Janey couldn’t breathe. She kicked and pulled at Mother’s nightgown, but the woman was too strong. Janey peed, and the warm rush of liquid invigorated her legs. She kicked and stomped on the crack beneath her feet with desperate fervor.
It sounded like a pretzel snapping in two.
Mother’s tight grip loosed around Janey’s neck. Janey fell to the floor and sucked precious air into her lungs.
Mother toppled over, her heft thudding against the cellar floor. Janey pressed her hands over her ears to block the clatters, crunches, and snaps.
This crack was deep and sharp and it echoed off the walls. Mother stopped moving, and the bears on her nightgown stilled into their long–awaited slumbers. Janey shimmied out from under the weight of Mother’s leg and ran to the furnace. She looked up at its dial eyes. A terrible stillness crept into her mind and she felt like all of the sounds in the world had hushed, and all shapes laid down flat, and the world became blank like a piece of paper.
“You’re a good girl,” said Father. The furnace flames withdrew and extinguished, leaving the air heavy with the scent of burnt oil. From the open grate emerged two skeletal hands, followed by bony arms. They were drawn together without muscle. Father’s bone hands reached out towards Janey. She saw the skeleton and gasped.
“Don’t be scared. It’s me.”
The skeleton arms clattered against the metal as they reached to embrace Janey. When the two made contact, Janey felt the warmth of the heated bones, and the soft patting motion Father’s hands made on her back.
“Come with Father now. Climb inside, and I’ll hold you until you fall asleep.”
Janey’s whole body lit up with excitement. Father! She couldn’t crawl into the furnace fast enough. Her little shoes were the last things to slip through the grate. The door squeaked closed behind her. Father’s bone hands cradled her. She saw his skull face, and it smiled.