It was the last day of school and the day before my thirteenth birthday. The temperature that afternoon had hit one hundred. After dinner, in our one-room apartment, it felt like one hundred and ten. I sat perched on the side of my bed near the fire-escape window, trying to catch some air. Sweat collected along the edges of my scalp, crisscrossing my face and dripping into my eyes. My big brother, Otis, lay sprawled on the red pullout couch with his mouth hanging open. Ma, already in her pajamas, sat motionless at the table in the center of the room, staring at the bills. I could hear kids' laughter and the cracking sound of a stick whacking a ball in the street below. In the projects across the way, a boom box pumped out a bass beat with too much reverb and a barrage of words sharp as bullets. Wailing in the distance was a siren. The world was going about its business in spite of the heat. But Ma had kept us in. Ma believed that the city wasn't safe for a girl in the evening. Otis she usually let roam. But tonight Otis was cooped up inside, too, on account of his report card. I glanced at my brother's face. He glared at me.
"What are you looking at?"
I lowered my eyes. "Nothing." It would be just like my brother to get three D's and an F, and then try to take it out on me.
"You'd better not be looking at me," he grumbled. "You scrawny little roach."
"You've got the face of a roach," I said, not skipping a beat. We enjoyed insulting each other.
Otis smirked and rubbed his chin. "Well, if you ask me, your growth is stunted."
"So is your brain."
He stretched his legs. "You've been reading too many books," he said. "You're beginning to smell like a worm."
"That's ridiculous," I snorted. "Worms don't even have a smell."
"Look at this six-pack," he bragged, baring his stomach. "I'm made of iron! Go ahead, hit me!"
I rolled my eyes. "You're pathetic."
He shot up from the couch. "Midget!"
"Mental midget!" I shot up from the bed.
"You think you're such a smart-ass!"
"At least I don't eat my toenails!" I zinged him.
The hint of a smile curled at the edges of his mouth. He towered over me. "You do pick your nose."
"That's a lie!"
"You're so short, I could cook potatoes and eat them off your wimpy little head!" he said, flicking me on the forehead.
"Oh yeah?" I jumped back. "Well, you couldn't cook a potato if you tried. Know why? Because you couldn't read the cookbook!" I got up in his face. "Dumbbell!"
Otis's brown eyes bugged out. I'd hit a nerve. He pulled a cushion off the couch and held it up threateningly.
"What are you going to do?" I taunted. "Smother me?"
He whacked me over the head!
"He hit me!" I cried.
I scrambled past the table where Ma was sitting. Otis tore after me. We zigzagged through the one-room apartment, running past the painted dresser and Ma's bed in the alcove. We circled the bathtub, which stood on four legs, and skidded by the sink filled with dishes. Then, lurching past the red couch, I lunged toward the fire escape. Otis grabbed me by the hair. We were half angry, half laughing.
"Ouch!" I screamed.
"Take it back!" Otis said, yanking my ponytail.
"Take what back?" I said, digging my fingernails into his hands.
"You called me a dummy!" he said, tightening his grip.
"I called you a dumbbell!" I screeched. "Not a dummy! Anyway, it's not my fault that you got a bad report card!" He pulled my hair even harder and I let out a bloodcurdling scream.
"That hurts! I'm not playing!"
From the center of the room, Ma's voice came thundering. "LET HER GO, OTIS MOON!" Otis let go and I dropped to my knees. We glanced at each other and then at Ma. I'd never heard her yell that loud in my life.
"I can't hear myself think!" Ma barked. "That scream almost split my eardrums!"
"It's not my fault," I whimpered, rubbing the back of my head where my hair had been pulled. "Otis was trying to scalp me. Degenerate fool!" I muttered under my breath.
Ma slammed her fist on the table. "That's enough, Mahalia!"
"Yes, Ma," I said obediently.
"And get up off the floor," she ordered. "I didn't pay an arm and a leg for those jeans you're wearing in order for you to tear them up roughhousing."
Otis gave me a hand and I clambered up onto my knees.
"We're sorry, Ma," he said nervously. "Please don't snap out on us."
"Snap out on you?" she shot back. "You two behave like three-year-olds!" She stood up. My mother is short, like I am. "You listen here, Otis. Your sister is right. You are a degenerate. Because only a degenerate would disappoint his mother the way you did with that lousy report card. Three D's and an F! Only a degenerate would say he's going to get a job to help out around here and then spend all his durn nights playing basketball across the street in that durn playground in the project!"
Otis and I stole a look at each other. Ma really hated cussing. Using the word durn was a big deal for our mother.
"See this mess!" She pointed to the jumble of bills. "I have to take care of this, nobody else. Your father isn't around asking about the rent increase, or the camp that Mahalia can't go to because we don't have the money, or the trip we want to make to Disney World! Or those size-twelve sneakers we couldn't afford, either, but just had to buy for you, Otis. Instead of helping me out, all you two can do is Edisturb the durn peace!" She scrunched her face up like she was going to cry. She was so bent out of shape, she'd even mentioned Dad, whom we hadn't seen in years and never talked about.
"We didn't mean to upset you, Ma," I ventured timidly. "We didn't mean to disturb the durn peace."
"Nobody ever means anything!" she sobbed, collapsing at the table. "My boss at the hospital didn't mean it when she promised me the day off and then went back on her word! The landlord didn't mean it when he forgot for the umpteenth time to fix that cracked ceiling that any day is going to fall down and kill us! The president of the United States doesn't mean it, either!" She threw up her hands. "Give me a break, Lord!"
I stood there dumbfounded.
"Give us a break, Ma," my brother dared grumble. He slinked across the room and slammed his body down onto the couch, making the springs screech. "This is the last day of school," declared Otis. "We don't need no cryin' jag."
"And I don't need your disrespect," Ma countered, wiping her tears. "Nor do I need you to break the couch. So, if you don't mind, please don't throw yourself down on it next time. Please sit down on it properly. And while you're at it, you can locate the cushion that you hit your sister on the head with," she added, catching her breath.
"It's my couch," Otis muttered defiantly. "I'll do what I want with it. I'm the one who sleeps on it."
Ma's eyes watered. Otis was definitely taking advantage.
"Here's the cushion," I volunteered quickly. I picked it up, scurried across the room, and put it back into place. Ma had decided to ignore Otis's last remark. She blew her nose on a napkin.
"Someone could do the dinner dishes," she said with a little sniff.
Otis and I pointed at each other.
Ma's head dropped. "See what I mean?"
Copyright © 2002 by Sharon Dennis Wyeth. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.