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Picking Battles

While they trudge along the sidewalk, the girl continuously glances from the path ahead of them back to her brother. He still has his hands in his pockets like he’s trying to force a hole through them, face shoved deep into his scarf. He’s purposely dragging his feet loudly just to let her know that he is in fact, still upset and definitely not over the topic thank you very much. The topic being what had happened not but 10 minutes ago.

. . .

Mauve is forced to bring Billy along with her to get some groceries for her mom, she’s been so busy working lately even shopping takes up too much time. They had just finished up, forging through the lint in their pockets for any extra change they might have to pay for the produce. Everything’s going as normal as any day, until they step outside.

When they entered the A&P a dozen or so minutes before, the only person outside was Mr. Hendrickson, the elderly man who owns the toy shop next door grumbling to himself about bratty kids or what not. Seeing as how cold it had gotten lately, it’s not a surprise most people are avoiding the outdoors when they can. Though, now there’s another man leaning against the grocery store building with a foot nonchalantly propped up against it. From what they could tell he was in his late fifties, his eyes are sunken in with deep purple bags underneath them paired with sallow skin-- he looks exhausted. He’s sporting an old cheap looking suit with his thinning salt and pepper hair styled back with an overly enthusiastic amount of oil. Billy whispers to her that he looks like some crappy Vito Corleone for hire. Mauve smacks a hand over the top of his head, but doesn’t disagree.

They’re about to start their cold trek back home, but Mr. Corleone is shouting at them now. Shouting at her. His voice is thick with phlegm, every word he barks out sounds like it’s battling with his own throat trying to keep him quiet, and honestly, Mauve wishes his throat had won over. He’s coughing out some sleazy comment about her legs and to Mauve, the words feel oily enough to grease a pan. Risking a quick glance to the left of the storefront where the man is stationed, his eyes seem to be shooting molten tar at her, melting her cool facade. Mauve thinks he must be able to see right through her because her stomach feels heavy with the tar now too. From what his haunty expression says, he’s satisfied, even proud of the words he’s spouting. He’s smiling at her, but to Mauve, it looks more like a snarl.

Forcing her now burning face towards the ground, she grabs Billy’s arm and yanks him to quickly walk along the path to the right of the grocery store. It’s the long route home, but it’s remote, and Mauve wanted nothing more than to disappear in that moment, not to be seen by anyone.

. . .

The pair are just outside the town’s abandoned car repair shop. The store, Mr. Hendrickson, and the man completely out of sight.

“Out of sight, out of mind,” Mauve thinks to herself, but it feels more like a sales pitch than anything else. She hates how it feels to be put at the center of attention like that, to feel the scorn of other people in town. Her mom is good enough at that already, Mauve doesn’t need anymore of it directed at herself. There’s a proper way to behave and if you don’t act that way, you receive nothing but hatred. It hurts to think about this situation getting out to the people at school.

“What,” the teen heard behind her, “was that.” Turning her head, she realizes Billy has stopped walking completely, face still downturned into his scarf. His muffled voice is shaky like it gets when he’s frustrated from overthinking something. Mauve rolls her eyes, turns her head around and props her mother’s fabric grocery bags back up her shoulders and continues walking, successfully ignoring Billy. If she can forget about the “Mr. Corleone” situation so can he.

Getting more frustrated by the second, even more aggravated by Mauve’s apparent disinterest, he forces his way up to Mauve and shouts.

“Why aren’t you answering me!?”

“My response,” she inspects her cuticles, “is taking a rain check.”

“Well the bank called and said the check bounced.” The girl only scoffs in reply, too entertained with her current nail inspection to even spare him a glance. Her brother deflates a bit, but remains unwilling to drop the topic without some kind of an answer.

“But seriously Mauve,” he speaks in a voice barely louder than a whisper, “why’d that man talk to you like that?” He clenches his fists, “why don’t you even care?”

Willing to throw a dog a bone, the older sibling sighs and agrees to give her brother some kind of answer. She doesn’t have any business telling off grown men Mauve tells him, but the angry grip of Billy’s fist doesn’t relax. His face is screwed up tightly like the time when he tried eating a handful of those sour lemon candies from the market. Except this time, there’s no look of mischievous satisfaction that follows. Mauve looks down and shakes her head in resignation, knowing Billy to be nothing less than perpetually upset about everything and anything. She can’t fault him for that she supposes, but truthfully she just wanted to forget the situation happened at all. They went to the store, got the groceries, and walked home. Nothing. Happened.

She’s about to start walking again, until she notices a wet spot burst onto the pavement. Examining closer she realizes more droplets are falling near her water ruined suede boots. In surprise the girl looks up to find her brothers ruddy face completely silent, still screwed up, but now soaked with tears. Without looking his sister in the eyes he finally stutters out some words.

“T-there was another man too Mauve. You saw him, the old grumpy one that runs the toy shop. He yells at everyone already, why didn’t he yell now? Why did he do nothing? He saw, but he kept walking!”

“It’s not their job to defend me, I have to pick my own battles Billy,” Mauve tells him and begins to walk again, but her hand is yanked back by her brother. He’s looking up at her face now, making the first bit of eye contact since the incident.

“Then I’ll fight the rest of them for you,” the boy states firmly.

And in that moment looking down into her brother’s face, snot running from his nose, smooth cheeks red and splotchy with a scabbed over cut across his forehead from being a bit too friendly with the cat, she sees her mother. Though, not exactly from his face, but rather in his eyes. An occasional tear still falls from them, but even with that, they can’t hide the look of determination shining behind their current glassiness. There’s a maturity she sees despite the snot, the cut, and the baby fat filled cheeks. Mauve knows Billy will hold to his previous statement. She feels ashamed. What she is so ashamed of she can’t pinpoint, but flashes of her mom come up in her mind.

Flashes of memories from years ago, of other mothers in town pointing at her own mother and whispering behind their hands. Their spiteful whispers are lost on young Mauve. All she can see is how the diamonds on their wedding rings dazzle even in the fluorescent shopping mall lights. Tearing her eyes away, she looks back at her mother's own ringless finger. Mauve finally noticed the whispers. She was sure her mom did too, but she kept on smiling and the smile reached her eyes as well. Her mom always fought her own battles, sometimes without saying a word.

“So why can’t I?” Mauve thinks scornfully at herself.

A hand wiping across her cheek takes her out of her thoughts. The girl doesn’t know when she started crying, but her brother, her too observant younger brother is removing the tear stains from her face. Looking down at him all she can see are her mother’s eyes looking back at her.

“I know you’re scared of what people say about us, about mom but-” he licks his dry lips nervously, “what the other people say is stupid. Mom is the strongest person I know, and you’re just like her and I don’t want you to let bad things happen to you just bec-”

The young boy finds his speech stifled by rough tweed. Mauve has her arms wrapped tightly around her little brother. After the initial shock he’s quick to wrap his arms around his sister. It seems like months since the last time they’ve shown any real affection for each other, and that fact digs into Mauve’s mind like a knife, but that’s going to change. There’ll surely be snot on her knockoff coat she works so meticulously to keep clean from the way Billy is nuzzling his face into it, but she couldn’t spare it a thought. She squeezes Billy to her, holding him close and thinks of her mom.

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