Most of All You

by Mia Sheridan

PROLOGUE

ELLIE

I didn’t want to go. “Please, Mama, can we go tomorrow?”

My mama didn’t answer for a minute, pushing her blonde hair away from her face and wiping at the sweat that dotted her forehead and upper lip. Her cheeks were bright red with fever again, and her green eyes looked dull and shiny at the same time, like the surface of the puddles in the parking lot at our apartment complex after it rained. “We have to go, Ellie. I feel well enough today, and I don’t know if I will tomorrow.”

Mama didn’t look like she felt well. She looked worse than I’d seen her in weeks. Even worse than the day she’d found the paper stuck to our door and cried and then got back into bed for three days. It scared me how sick she looked, and I didn’t know what to do.

I used to knock on Mrs. Hollyfield’s door and ask for help when she still lived in our building. She would come over with chicken soup and sometimes a box of Popsicles, and she’d talk to my mama in a quiet, soothing voice while I watched cartoons. I always felt better after Mrs. Hollyfield left, and it seemed like Mama did, too. But Mrs. Hollyfield didn’t live at our apartment complex anymore. Something called a blood clot had happened to Mrs. Hollyfield, and they took her away on a white stretcher.

After that, some younger people who I’d never seen before came and cleaned her apartment out. When I heard them arguing about who was going to pay her funeral costs, I knew she was dead. My mama cried and cried and kept saying, “What am I gonna do now? Oh, Lord God, what am I gonna do now?” But I didn’t cry, even though I wanted to, because once, when my mama was at the doctor’s, Mrs. Hollyfield told me that when you die, you fly away to heaven just like a bird. She said that heaven is the most glorious place any person could ever imagine, with gold-paved streets and flowers in colors that didn’t even exist here on earth. So I tried to be happy for Mrs. Hollyfield even though I was going to miss her hugs, her laughter, the red Popsicles that were my favorite, and the way she made my mama smile.

“Pick up your feet, Ellie. I can’t drag you.” I walked quicker, trying to keep up with Mama. She was walking fast, and I almost had to run to stay at her side. “We’re getting close to your daddy’s house.”

I swallowed heavily, a dizzy feeling in my head. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to meet my daddy or not, but I was curious. I wondered what he looked like—if he was handsome like the soap opera actors Mama watched. She seemed to like them a whole lot, so I knew that was the sort of man she would have picked to be my daddy. I pictured him in a suit with thick, wavy hair and big straight teeth. I hoped he would think I was pretty despite my ragged clothes. I hoped he would like me even though he’d left us before I was even born.

We got to a small house with peeling paint and a shutter that was hanging crooked, and when my mama stopped in front of it, she squeezed my hand. “Lord, please give me strength. I have no choice, I have no choice,” my mama murmured before she turned and kneeled down in front of me. “Here we are, baby.” Her eyes were watery, her lips were shaking, and I was alarmed at how sick she looked. But she smiled so sweetly and looked right in my eyes. “Ellie, sweetness, you know I love you, right?”

“Yes, Mama.”

She nodded. “I didn’t do a lot of good in this world, baby. But one thing I did perfectly was you. You’re such a good, smart girl, Ellie. You don’t forget that, okay? No matter what, you don’t forget that.”

“Okay, Mama,” I whispered. I felt even more scared, and I didn’t know why. My mama stood and then adjusted my sweater with the missing buttons and unraveling hem. She frowned at my shoes, her eyes staying on the hole in my toe for a few more seconds before she straightened up, taking my hand and leading me toward the door of the ugly little house.

Mama knocked, and I heard a man shouting on the other side of the door. He sounded angry, and his voice scared me. I pressed myself into my mama’s side. She put her arm around me and we waited. Mama felt so hot, and now her whole body was shaking. She leaned into me, and I worried we both might topple over. I knew she needed a doctor, but she’d stopped going to the doctor months ago even though she didn’t seem to be getting any better. Weren’t doctors supposed to make you better?

After a minute, the door opened, and a tall man stood in front of us with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. My mama gasped. I peeked up at him, and he stared down at my mama and me. “Yeah?”

My mama ran her hand over my hair. “Hi, Brad.”

The man was quiet as he sucked on his cigarette, and then his eyes widened and he finally said, “Cynthia?”

I felt my mama relax, and I looked up at her. She had a big smile on her face. The one she used when she was trying to convince Mrs. Gadero to let us pay our rent late. I took another peek at Brad, my daddy. He was tall like the soap opera actors, but that was the only thing they had in common. His hair was long and sorta greasy looking, and his teeth were yellow and crooked. But we had the same blue eyes and the same color hair—golden brown, my mama called it.

“Well, I’ll be damned. What are you doing here?”

“May we come in?”

We went into the house, and I looked around at the old furniture, no better than the furniture Mama and I had at home. I heard my mama take a deep breath. “Is there somewhere we can talk?”

Brad squinted his eyes and looked back and forth between my mama and me before he said, “Sure, come on in the bedroom.”

“El, you sit on the couch, sweetness. I’ll be right back,” my mama said, seeming to weave slightly before she caught herself. The red spots on her cheeks were even brighter.

I sat down and stared at the TV in front of me. There was a football game on but the sound was muted, so I could hear my mama and daddy talking from down the hall.

“She’s yours, Brad.”

“What the fuck do you mean she’s mine? You told me you got an abortion.”

“Well, I … I didn’t. I couldn’t. I knew you didn’t want her, but I couldn’t get rid of my baby.”

I heard my daddy swear, and a big lump formed in my throat. My daddy hadn’t wanted me. At all. He hadn’t even known my mama kept me until just now. He hadn’t even known I was alive. My mama hadn’t told me different, but in my mind, I kept hoping there was a good reason my daddy had left. I kept hoping that when he saw me, he’d take me in his arms and tell me everything was going to be okay, and that he was proud to have me for a daughter. Like my mama says to me all the time. And then he’d find a doctor who could make my mama better.

“She’s a really good girl, Brad. You see how beautiful she is. And she’s smart, too. She’s real sweet and well behaved—”

“What do you want, Cynthia? Money? I don’t got no money. I got nothin’ for you.”

“I don’t want money. I need you to take her. I’m … I’m dying, Brad.” Her voice lowered so I almost couldn’t hear it. “I have stage four cancer. I have such little time—weeks, maybe just days. We’ve been evicted from our apartment. I thought a neighbor would take Ellie … but she’s gone, and I don’t have anyone else. You’re all Ellie has in this world now.” My heart tightened inside my chest, and as the room spun around me, a tear ran down my cheek. No, Mama, no. I didn’t want to hear this. I didn’t want this to be true. I didn’t want my mama to fly to heaven like a bird. I want her to stay here. With me.

“Well, I’m sorry to hear that but take her? Goddamn, I didn’t want her seven years ago, and I don’t want her now.” I grimaced, picking at the skin around my fingernail, feeling small and ugly just like the scrawny cat Mama never let me feed.

“Please, Brad, I—” I heard shuffling and the squeak of a bed as if my mama had sat down. She asked for a glass of water, and my daddy came out of the room looking mad. He shot me an angry look, and I sunk down into the couch. I thought I heard a door open and close at the back of the house, but I wasn’t sure, and then my daddy came out of what must be the kitchen with a glass of water in his hand and went back down the hall.

I heard him swear. I heard him calling my mama’s name, and then he came rushing out to the living room and threw the water at the wall, the glass shattering. I screamed and curled into a ball.

“Well, isn’t that a fine thing? That slut just up and left. Snuck out the back door. Bitch.”

I blinked, my heart racing. Mama? No, Mama, don’t leave me here! Please don’t leave me here!

I jumped up and ran down the hall where I found a back door, throwing it open and rushing out into the alley behind the house. There was no one in sight.

My mama was gone.

She hadn’t even said goodbye.

She hadn’t even said goodbye.

She’d left me here.

I fell to my knees on the ground and sobbed.

Mama, Mama, Mama.

Brad picked me up, and the harsh sting of a slap across my face made me gag on my own tears. “Shut up, kid. Your mama’s gone.” He dragged me back inside, where he threw me on the couch again. I clenched my eyes shut, fear racing through my body like the little needle pricks I felt when I’d been sitting on my foot for too long. When I opened my eyes, Brad was staring at me. The look on his face scared me even more. He made a disgusted sound in his throat and then turned away and left for what felt like hours. I stayed curled up on the couch, rocking myself slowly, as the day turned to night.