They were meeting that night for a mothers’ group at the First Baptist Church downtown — the one by Laramie’s Drug Store, not the one off Laurel Ave. Percy’s mother had never met these women before, and though they were the type she used to deride for limiting themselves to what she called “lives of servility,” she insisted on propriety; she couldn’t show up both late and without something for the toy drive.
On her rush out of the apartment, Percy’s mother lunged sideways into her daughter’s bedroom and extended a haggard arm just far enough over the bed to pluck the plushy toy at the top of a pile. She figured she could buy her daughter a replacement for whatever she’d taken. The girl did have more stuffed animals than she needed, and even if she couldn’t get a new one, it would be a good lesson in not being materialistic. Children shouldn’t be so absorbed in stuff. We all have to grow up at some point.
Percy, on the other hand, was busy filling out her school spelling worksheets: hard words like quiver, hatch, and wintry. With the clunky dexterity of an 8 year old, she dragged the pencil laboriously over each letter, hunching over a dining room table that, due to their not having a real dining room, left ugly dents in the carpet along the living room wall.
Percy did her homework here, hoping her mother might join her or, better yet, ask her about her new school or if she’d made any friends yet. She stared down at her homework, pretending to memorize her multiplication tables, while actually counting the steps of her mother’s bare fleet slapping on the linoleum floor: 16 from her mother’s bedroom to the kitchen, 20 from her mother’s bedroom to the front door, and five from her mother’s bedroom to the bathroom. Percy sometimes liked guessing how many steps it’d be to her homework table or to her bedside. Thirteen? Seven?
This time, however, she happened to peek, alarmed to see her mother stride toward the front door with something familiar in hand.
Percy leapt from the table toward her mother. The worksheets fluttered to the ground. The table’s weakly assembled hinges and loosely fastened bolts rattled like a jackhammer.
“Momma, what are you doing to Sophie?” The girl demanded. She clutched Sophie’s plushy torso with two hands tightly enough to protest her mother, but lightly enough so as not to harm her friend. Percy’s mother meanwhile had Sophie by the trunk.
Percy first saw the elephant a few years earlier on a shelf behind a stand on the town’s boardwalk. Percy walked hand-in-hand with her momma back then, and that night, the two of them played and cheated gloriously together.
Under the apathetic watch of the teenage game clerk, the two eschewed the padded mallet and used both hands to whack at animatronic moles. When Percy’s slaps were too light for the game to register, her momma followed-up with a definitive slap of her own. And even when Percy was a bit too slow, barely tapping the mole on its way back down, Momma slapped at the vacant hole and said, “Oh, sweetie, we almost had that one!” Everything about the game was fun for Percy: the mole’s fixed face in cartoon panic, the overly dramatic audio recording of “Ow!” every time it got hit, and her momma’s seemingly limitless energy. Percy could have played there with Momma for hours.
When their turn ended, the clerk, with the sincerity of a teenage boy performing a task beneath his station, offered the two laughing ladies their pick of the creatures on his shelf. There was a whole row of baby blue elephants, Percy’s favorite color and her favorite animal. On the end of the row, there was the one exception to the uniform herd — a poor creature with a blemish on its baby blue fur, some manufacturer’s error, an ugly gray blob that extended across half its trunk and face. Percy put a hand to her own face, as if she could feel the discoloration in her own skin, and pointed gleefully to this elephant different from all the others. For the rest of that summer, Percy and Sophie could not be separated.
“Percy, I need it now. I’m sorry, but you have plenty of toys and there are children more needy than you.”
“No, Momma, no! Not Sophie!”
“I don’t have time for this Persephone, I’m late!”
“No Momma, please. Let her stay… Please.”
“Let go! I can get you a new one.”
“Stay! Stay! Stay…” was all Percy could manage through her sobbing as she tugged with all her might.
Her mother, having never seen her daughter as inconsolable as this, even through the divorce, only felt her guilt and frustration mount. This conflict now, the apparent end of the mother-daughter ceasefire, only reinforced her need to find some kind of respite in this shithole suburb that her ex-husband had moved them to, where petty town gossip was currency and where her opportunities for full-time work, having been home with Percy for the last 8 years, were scant. And now, seeing her daughter’s face, she knew she’d been a shitty mother these last few months. She knew it.
All she wanted — all she needed — was something different, even if it meant spending time with this podunk town church mothers’ group.
She pulled harder.
The cotton seams ripped like thunder. Sophie’s fluffy insides scattered the carpet like snow. Percy stood for a moment, clutching the remains before running to her bedroom and slamming the door. Percy’s mother, frozen, surveyed the carnage. Sophie’s innards were everywhere in the living room of this tiny, two-bedroom apartment. It was too late now to go to the meeting. It was too early to try to talk to Percy. So she crumpled to the couch next to the dining table and closed her eyes.
About 30 minutes later, the pair, still unmoved from their respective retreats — Percy in her bedroom and her mother on the couch, heard a gentle knock on their front door. Unaccustomed to visitors of any kind, the knock triggered a much needed curiosity for the pair. Percy peered around the corner. Percy’s mother dusted the feathers off her body, wiped the moisture from her face as brave adults do, and opened the door.