My finger circles a button in my jacket pocket as I walk across the parking lot, biting my lip. I thought of Mom when I found it hidden away in a dusty jewelry box. I hadn't seen her in a while, and it seemed appropriate that I should find this button just in time to go see her. Even in my adulthood, she stuck to me like sticky paper to a fly.
"Shit, did I forget to pack your lunch again?" Mom asked as I walked through the front door.
"It's okay, Mom," I said. "Jana shared with me."
"That cripple kid?"
"What does 'cripple' mean?" I asked as I pulled out from the fridge and cabinets the things for my favorite snack as a kindergartener, peanut butter and jelly.
"Shit, did I say that out loud?" Mom asked toward her room. Matt stayed there anytime I was around. Mom said it was better that way.
"How are you today, Matt?" I yelled into Mom's bedroom as I jumped on the couch. The apartment smelled spicy again.
"He's fine, Sweetie," Mom said. "I have a headache."
"Mom," I asked tentatively. "How long is Dad's vacation going to be?"
Mom looked at the television set, though it wasn't on. She scratched the ridge of her nose, went to the kitchen, and pulled a bag of crystals out from under the sink. Then she went to her room. "I have a headache," she said again as she walked away. I crinkled my nose as she left. The apartment would start to smell like old cats soon, and then Mom would light her incense, but that usually made it worse. When spicy smoke stopped pluming from under her bedroom door, I knew she was asleep, and I could open the windows to let the cat smell out without waking her. I wondered if Matt liked the smoke too.
The old cat smell and Matt had visited more often now that Dad was on vacation, though I had no idea where Divorce was and why Dad would want to go there. I thought Divorce must be a close place because Dad would come visit me every other weekend or so. One day I checked out the atlas from the school library, and when Dad came for one of his weekend visits, I opened its large pages and asked him: "Dad, where is Divorce?"
"Do you want to go to the store?" Dad asked.
We raced to the subway, and Dad took me to a beautiful Macy's with big red letters on the front. As I surveyed the collection of new, shiny boots and touched the silky fabric of the blouses hung along the aisles, I stopped at a mannequin of a little girl about my size and stood in awe of the display before me. Frozen in mid-skip, she wore a beautiful green coat with three silver buttons the size of quarters, and her father and mother stood on either side of her, holding her hands and smiling playfully.
My heart beat rapidly with envy. I wanted her coat. I wanted to wrap myself in its love. I wanted to rub the silver buttons like a genie lamp and make wishes like a princess trapped in a castle.
"Dad," I said timidly. "I want to have that coat."
He walked over to the display, picked up the tag, and furrowed his brow. "Not today, Sweetheart," he said.
I refused to hold Dad's hand on the walk to the subway or even look at him on the ride back. When we got home, I caved into Mom's arms. She stared suspiciously at Dad who shrugged and explained why my tears were folding into her blouse. He left, and Mom spent the rest of the evening stroking my hair and soothing me until I again asked her when Dad would come home from his vacation. She made me sit up, and then she stared into the empty television set. "I'm gonna go be with Matt now," she said after some time. She walked into her room and closed the door, but I could hear her as she began to argue. "I can't handle this. What did you do with it, Matt? I'm all out, and I know you took it," she said. "Get out," she screamed. "You're worthless. Piece of shit!" They fought through the night, but I don't know if Matt ever left.
The next morning Dad showed up with an oblong box tied neatly with yellow ribbon. Mom scowled as I eagerly reached for the box. She whispered harshly at him while I carefully tugged at the bow as I would to defuse a bomb. I tentatively pulled the tissue from the box to reveal the forest green coat with silver buttons.
"Thank you, Daddy!" I cried, racing to his knees and hugging them tightly. I ran into the bathroom to see how I looked in my newfound treasure. I pulled its sleeves on to my small arms and buttoned each hole with care, brushing my long hair out of the way. I turned in the mirror to see myself from every side. I skipped once, twice, and then stared intently at my reflection. I smiled, concluding I looked exactly like the little girl from the store.
I heard Mom and Dad arguing in the living room. Mom asked for money while Dad said he had none for her. Mom said something in a hushed tone I didn't catch, and Dad's voice became violent. I sank to the floor and wrapped myself tighter in my coat, rubbing the silver buttons. Mom and Dad said more things I couldn't make out. Then I heard the front door slam. Then the sound of Mom's door slamming, like an echo.
She didn't come out of her room when I left for school, but it didn't matter because my coat surrounded me like armor. The other kids didn't seem to notice my magical coat, but I didn't mind. When I thought of what had happened with Matt and Mom, I rubbed the genie buttons, sure that when I got home, all would be well.
I took off my coat only once that day because I didn't want it to get dirty. I hung it carefully on the fence around the school's playground so I could play with Jana while waiting for Mom to come and get me. I had learned a new word the day Jana and I had met: "Amputation," she had said, "because of cancer."
"I like your coat," she said, pointing to the fence with a nub lacking its hand.
"Thanks," I smiled.
"What does Matt look like?" Jana asked after a while.
"I don't know. Mom never tells me," I said.
We played through the afternoon, and Jana left. But when Mom came, my coat was gone. I frantically looked for it, climbing the trees and calling out for it as I would a lost puppy. Mom helped me look too.
After an hour of searching, I felt cold. Mom reached out for me. "Maybe a kid stole it," she said. I trudged to the car, slumped in the seat, and stared out the window as we drove home, hoping we would pass the thief.
When we got home, Mom called Dad. "I need you to watch her for a while. I have to go to the store. . . Well, I obviously got some didn't I? . . . Just tell me when you can get here." She slammed the receiver down with a plastic smack.
Dad came. Mom left. "Where's your new coat?" He asked. "I never saw you in it." Hanging my head, I told him. He frowned and reached out for me. "I'm sorry, Honey, but you have to be more careful in the future, okay?" I nodded, sucking up my tears, and we spent the rest of the evening watching the television and playing board games. I also told him about Jana's arm, and he frowned.
Mom came back late. She smelled spicy. Dad had me go to my room, and they started yelling. I searched about my room for comfort, finally fleeing to my closet. Dad yelled about Mom's smell. I yanked down my clothes, pulling everything off its hanger. Mom yelled back about money. I put every piece on, layering myself in warmth. Dad yelled about a coat, my coat. I pinched my eyes shut and reached for genie buttons, wincing when I didn't find them. My clothes weren't the same. They didn't have the magic to save me. I cried out. Dad's tone shifted into a hush, so I put my ear against the wall toward the living room.
"You did what?!" he said. "She's your daughter. She doesn't ask for much."
"We needed some more," She defended.
"I had to have some. I was going to die," She insisted.
Dad punched the wall then, and feeling the vibration, I bounced away. There were more words, some angry and loud, others muffled and harshly quiet. But I didn't try to eavesdrop anymore. Longing for silver buttons, I curled up in bed still under six layers of clothing and wondered what my parents' words had meant as I fell asleep.
The next morning Dad came to pick me up. "I found your coat," he said.
"Thank you, Daddy!" I said, putting it on and hugging him tightly as he knelt down.
"Don't let your mother have it," he whispered softly in my ear. "She might try to take it back."
I had suspicions the coat's magic was tarnished. But upon putting it on and caressing the buttons, I began to feel its warmth again. However, as I sat in class, a dread started to grow in my stomach as if a weed had begun to sprout. I itched my neck restlessly. My fingers found a plastic tag. Funny, I thought. Hadn't I pulled that off yesterday? I wondered why Mom would take my coat back to the store and why she came home smelling of spices. I wanted to keep my enchanted coat, stop her from taking away my wishing buttons and ruining everything.
I rubbed the buttons anxiously, buffing inspiration out of their smooth surfaces until I knew what to do. I scrounged through my backpack, searching for scissors. When I didn't find any, I dropped my backpack and wrenched off my coat. Furiously, I pulled at the buttons, yanked at them determinedly, using my teeth to weaken the threads. I tore each one off, throwing them into the depths of my bag so no one would know where to find them.
At the end of the school day, I walked to the playground and carefully hung my coat on the fence. I played with Jana until Mom came to pick me up. "Oh, Honey, you lost your coat again," she observed. I shrugged and got in the car.
Dad again came to watch me that evening, though begrudgingly. Mom came home earlier than the night before. She dragged herself up the stairs and through the front door. Tossing my coat at me, she groaned, "Matt found your coat." Her arms were all scratched up and her face gleamed with sweat. She robotically walked into her room and shut the door.
Dad looked at the coat and then at me, puzzled. Examining it, he asked in a hushed tone, "Why didn't she take it back?"
"She can't. It doesn't have the magic anymore." I smiled proudly. When he didn't understand, I got my backpack and rummaged through, producing two silver buttons, green thread still looped in them. He stared at me in amazement. "Grandma can sew them back on," I concluded, grabbing his hand. "Let's go." I put on my coat, folding it over me with one arm, and we left together, hand in hand.
Quietly I thought about divorce as we walked away from the apartment. "You're not on vacation, are you?" I asked after a few moments of silence.
"No, Honey," he said. "Divorce is different."
"Is divorce like Jana's arm?"
"For me and your mom it is."
"Will I have to go back?" He shook his head no. "Good," I said.
I never smelled the spicy smoke or the old cat smell ever again.
But I did see Mom a few months later in a hospital.
"Mom's sick?" I asked as the elevator hummed. I polished the two silver buttons on my coat.
"Remember Matt," Dad explained.
"Yeah," I said.
"Well, adults aren't supposed to have imaginary friends," Dad said. "When they do, that means they're sick."
Mom sat in a chair with her neck craned toward the ceiling. Her eyes were grey, and she reminded me of a cocoon I had found once on the playground with Jana. I had been so excited to find the first butterfly of spring that I cracked it open. But nothing but spiders crawled out. I sat next to Mom hesitantly afraid spiders might crawl out of her.
"I found a job in Houston, and I want you to see her before we move away," Dad said to her. "I'm sorry you're not well. I wish things could have been different."
Mom cocked her head, mouth ajar. I watched her empty eyes follow the yellowing ceiling fan as it spun around lazily. A bulb flickered and finally fizzled out.
"He's taking her away, Matt," she whispered in a dry voice. Her skeleton fingers reached for a button on my coat. I flinched and so did Dad, but Mom didn't turn to look at me. She fingered the button carefully while staring at the dying ceiling fan.
"That's a beautiful coat," Mom said to me. "It looks magical. Can I have some magic too?"
"No," I said.
"What?" She looked at me, and her fingers tightened around the button. "You can't leave me without the magic."
Dad placed an arm between us. "Let her go. You're scaring her."
"Matt, he won't share," Mom growled.
"It's my magic," I said frantic.
"She's mine," she said. She grasped my coat and stood up, lifting me off the chair. "I'm her mother."
"I need help over here," Dad shouted. He stepped between us and grabbed her wrist. He yanked her hand away.
"No," she shouted. "I want her too! Matt, they won't share." Men in white coats stepped in to help Dad, and they took Mom away then. It wasn't until we got in the elevator that I noticed my coat only had one button left.
That was the last time in my childhood I saw my mother. Now I walk through the dried grass yard to the front doors of the home she's been put in by the state. It smells like old cat too, but that's because there are dozens of them living under the gray, crumbled building. I crinkle my nose as I walk through the gloomy the front door.
"Sign in," a nurse says without looking up.
I scratch my name with a pen that's running out of ink.
"I called ahead of time," I say timidly. "I'm here to see Louise Elmer. She's my mother."
The nurse points and says, "Down this hallway, forth door on your left."
I walk down the hallway, fighting my instincts to run as I smell bleach in the walls. I notice the vomit orange of the carpet and cringe. I reach her door and feel for the button in my pocket. It's still there, silver chips of paint threatening to flee its surface with another polish. I knock. The door swings open lazily.
Mom sits in a chair, staring at the parking lot through her window. She doesn't turn to see who I am.
"Hi, Lula," I say, rattled by the sound of my own voice. I feel like I'm out of my own body, watching myself stand in the doorway. "Do you remember me?"
"Matt, you told me she would come someday," she says looking at the chair across from her.
"Matt shouldn't be here, Lula," I say cautiously.
"He's not," she says looking up at me. "He told me when I came here that you would find me if I stayed here. So I stayed. How is Jana?"
I look out the window at my car. "I don't want to talk about her," I say.
"When I called, the nurse said that you aren't eating," I say.
"They poison the food," she replies frankly.
"Well, I brought you something that won't let the poison hurt you," I say. I walk up to her and place the worn button in her hand. "It's magic."
Mom stares at it in awe. "Thank you," she whispers. She brings the button up to her mouth and rubs the smooth surface against her chapped lips.
"You have to eat, or I won't be able to come on more visits."
"You're going to come again?" she asks, child-like tones in her voice.
"Maybe. But you have to eat," I say. My skin is starting to crawl. I can hear Jana whispering in my ear. "I have to go now. But I thought I would bring you some treats next time if you've eaten. What would you like?"
"Yes, of you, of everything I missed. And a pint of ice cream."
For the first time, I smile. "Okay," I say. "As long as you eat and take your meds."
She nods. I have the awkward impression I should hug her, but I ignore it.
"See you later, Mom," I say.
I reach the car in a blur. My hands are shaking as I wipe a tear from the corner of my eye.
"It's okay," Jana says, reaching to hold my hand with a nub.
"You have to leave, Jana," I say, wishing for the taste of tar to leave my mouth. I had kept her in the car because I didn't want Mom to see me with her, didn't want the nurses to see me with her. "Adults aren't supposed to have imaginary friends."
BIO: Mandy Alyss Brown earned a BA in English at Texas State University. She finished a creative honors thesis her last semester which she hopes to turn into a novel. Mandy currently works as a stay-at-home wife and mother in Central Texas and is a freelance proofreader and writing tutor in her spare time. She can be found at mandyalyssbrown.weebly.com.