Adopting Mercy

by Michele Finn Johnson

It is the seventeenth time when I break. Funny thing is, I wasn't even close the sixteenth time, even though times twelve through fifteen were so close. And after it is over—time seventeen—after we bundle ourselves back together, me all inside out and itchy-seamed, I just want to get the hell home. You drive real slow and ask me if I remember time number one. Of course I do. I am not stupid. But my voice gives me away. I was stupid, after all, especially time one when you were sparkly-faced with the classic Adopt an Orphan bumper sticker on your forehead. No! I'd screamed a jungle-yell in the lobby when you signed me out for the afternoon. You were the first, my first, and it was our first, and it was miserable. Fuddruckers. Choose your meat. I am vegetarian. You looked terrified. I was, you said. I was, I said. Time two, less crappy, but crappy still. Times three through eight, you introduced me to Frappuccino's and so I knew you were rich. Time nine. Where's your husband? No husband, you say. Dead end, I think. Time ten I sleep over and your guest room bed sheets feel as soft as cake icing. I dream and I don't like to dream. Time eleven—Ernest. Almost. Blows it. She likes you, he says, underfoot like a stray cat. I try to burn him up with my stare, but he pulls my pigtails until I yell Mercy. That's our game, Ernest and me. Mercy. Figuring out who can hold out in more pain. Thing is, I let Ernest win all the time 'cause I hate to see him do his lose-cry. She likes you, he says again, releasing my pigtails. I see you smile big, filling up the lobby with your fluorescent teeth, and the thing about it is you look a little like my mom used to look, before everything happened. And so, time eleven, I am an asshole. Time twelve—before you show up, I pace the halls and think, no way you are showing. I flash back to time eleven—the Starbucks patio. I kick the iron legs of my chair until everyone looks at us. Stop! You say. You can't tell me what to do, I say. You are not my mother. I have a mother. You can never be my mother. I kick and flap so hard, my Frappuccino burps out its blowhole. You fast-drive me back to the abandoned kiddie home and we don't even say goodbye. I dream that night, hate that I do, because I see a giant balloon head in a Thanksgiving parade that floats up and away into the sides of buildings, and at first the balloon has my mom's face, but as it gets further away I can see that it is really you. And so, Time twelve, Ernest waits in the lobby with me and holds my hand; he doesn't even try to squeeze it off of my arm. No mercy? I ask him. No mercy, he says. Your MINI Cooper pulls into the visitor spot and I squeeze Ernest's hand until he yelps, Mercy.

Times thirteen through sixteen.

13. I meet your parents. Nice but they smell a little like peanut butter, and your mother kept patting wrinkles out of my clothes.

14. We go to Target and you buy the whole place out. You ask me my favorite color. I say blue—which is my mom's favorite color but I don't tell you that—and you buy a comforter the color of Ernest's eyes, and blue sheets too, and I want to ask you what this all means but I don't.

15. I sleep over again and you take me to the guest room, except you call it your room, and still I don't ask.

16. How would you feel? You ask. I want to say great, I want to say awesome, I want to ask Is it a forever thing, because that's what a mother is supposed to be, right? But I know that, since you're asking, my mother is not a forever thing, that she's a definitely never thing, and so I have no enthusiasm to offer when I answer you. It'd be okay, I say. And I can hear you deflate.

Time 17. You are taking me camping. Again, I'm in the lobby, certain I've blown it for real. So rare to get a match at your age, they tell me, the ones who watch over us. You drive us up and up a million hills. The MINI Cooper's windows chill and then fog over. We do not say much, until finally, you do. Do you know why I'm taking you camping? Your face looks frozen. No, I say. I couldn't face taking you back to my house again. You stare straight ahead at the road. I stare too. I'm not sure what's an appropriate adult response here. I am only 12. The silence goes on and on. I want to scream Mercy. End this game. The asphalt in front of us is full of chuckholes. You swerve to avoid the bigger ones, but we bounce around through smaller dips. This silence is giving me gas pains. I'll never be your real mother, I know that. More silence. My real mother—arson, assault, 30 to life. You don't want to be her, I think. I don't want you to be her, either, but I don't say this. I can't say this. If that's a problem for you, if you can't.... When you turn to face me, I can see you are crying. I can see snot flowing into the side of your mouth and you choking on the end of your sentence. I can see you need mercy more than me. I put my hand on top of yours on the steering wheel and I squeeze.

BIO: Michele Finn Johnson's fiction has been published in Necessary Fiction, The Conium Review, TheNewerYork Press, Boston Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. Her creative nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Puerto del Sol, Pidgeonholes, and the anthology Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America, and won an AWP Introduction to Journals Project award. Michele lives in Tucson, Arizona, with her husband, Karl, and is a member of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She tweets @artemisgroup and procrastinates blogging at michelefinnjohnson.com.