I hear her breathing—a huffing and puffing of exertion. She's adding locks to the door. Locks that will protect me; locks that will keep them from coming to get me. I know she's been upset lately, worried. She makes me say it more often, but I don't mind. I like to say it. She's my mother. I love her.
That night, I peer through the slats of the wood, so that I can see the house. The light of the TV shines through the living room window, and I can see her, too. She stands in front of the TV and chews her nails. I can see she's worried, but I don't feel too concerned. Everything will be okay. Everything will be just fine. When she turns off the TV, she comes out to check on me. She strokes my hair, and she makes me say it. Afterward, she rocks me on her lap and sings. "Everything will be okay," she says. At the same time, we say "everything will be just fine."
In the morning, I wake early, long before the sun has stretched across the dirt floor to my cot. I blink into the darkness of the shadows, and for a moment, I feel afraid. I reach out and touch Dolly. Her braids are dirty now, but I don't care. I push her into my neck, and keep blinking my eyes. Why am I——
"Sarah," I hear. I sit up and listen.
The locks are rattling, the metal scrapes angrily across wood. Finally, the door swings wide and she steps in, takes me in her arms. Only then do I hear the noises that must have awakened me. Car doors shutting, low voices rising and falling.
"Mama, who's here?"
She places her hands on both sides of my face and stares into my eyes, inches from my face. "Say it," she says.
But I'm scared. The voices—
"Say it!" she hisses, and I flinch. I stare back into her eyes though the shadows keep me from seeing her expression.
"You're my mother now," I say. "I love you."
She kisses my forehead and grabs my arm. "We have to go, baby."
She pulls me off the cot, and I reach back for Dolly, but just miss her, her braid brushing my hand. "No," I say. "Dolly!" Mama grips my arm harder with her one hand and slaps my face with the other. "Be quiet!" she whispers. I whimper but don't protest as she leads me out of the shed and across the yard, toward the woods.
I look back at the shed, and my eyes fill up. Dolly was the last of it. The last of another time that I barely remember. Only fragments really. Fragments that I have to let go. I turn back to Mama and do my best to keep up. She's my mother now. I love her.
BIO: Sherri Collins lives and works in the foothills of east Tennessee with her husband and pets. Her work can be found in Writers' Bloc, The Oddville Press, and Flashes in the Dark, among others.