“Open the windows.” June grunts. She waves her hands in no particular direction, “It’s a furnace in here.”
“They’re already open.” I say, trying to turn the camper’s window hand cranks further. “They all stop half way.”
“S***…” June slumps back into the Airstream’s pullout bed. The afternoon sun pours in through the open blinds, falling in long lines over her face. Her cheek is a pink, swollen mass and there is a large purple blot where the black molar is attempting to burn it’s way through. “Open the door then.”
Grace looks at me, sweat dripping from her nose. After an hour in the camper, the scent of her perfume, everyone’s perspiration, and what can only be described as universal desperation has melded, becoming an penetrating stench. Breathing through my mouth hasn’t helped.
“The door is open,” Grace says, wiping the sweat from her nose, “the screen door too.”
June closes her eyes and says nothing.
“Do you need more Tylenol?” Grace opens a half-empty bottle and offers it. Two other full bottles sit in a Walmart bag in the kitchenette along with a tube of Orajel and some reusable ice packs made useless by the camper’s busted mini-fridge. “They seem to help.”
June looks at her then looks away. “I’ve had half a bottle today. My kidneys want to run away and die.” Her voice has changed, losing the gruff undertone of a chain smoking old man and becoming childlike, “They give me a serious case of the s**** anyways.”
“My mom says that you should be able to get on Medicaid or something.” Grace continues. Her mother, a medical coder at Southwestern Regional, should know the nooks and crannies of the American health care system. “Poor kids like you can get on it pretty easy. She says that even Republicans can’t stand the thought of sick kids.”
Grace smiles at this last part, showing her own pearl white teeth. She’s as red as I am, we’re Republicans through and through, the children of Reaganomics and a “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. Still, seeing anyone sick, even illegals, is like putting needles under out fingernails.
“I went with Mrs. Rodriguez yesterday and filled out the paperwork for her.” June says. She’s divorced the term “mom” from her vocabulary, preferring instead to refer to her mother like a substitute math teacher, some stranger who’ll never have any real part in raising or caring for her. “It’ll take time for it to go through.”
“We’re is Mrs. Rodriguez?” I ask. The air tastes like Sour Patch candy on my tongue, both sweet and terrible at the same time.
“When will she get off?” Grace asks, “You might have to go to the emergency room to get some antibiotics.”
“Emergency room?” June turns to her with a leer like 40 grit sandpaper, “Punta, you think this hasn’t happened before?”
Grace looks at me and then at her shoes, a new pair of $150 Timberlands. She sounds like an asthmatic squirrel as she cries.
“Dios hace calor!” June shoots upright, pulling her shirt over her head and throwing it across the camper. It lands on the broken AC unit protruding from the back window. “I can’t breath in here…” She slumps back, her two large breasts lay flat like Jell-O molds under her sweat stained bra. Her ribs and heaving brown belly are covered with dark bruises. Before we got the better of him, with June pummeling his stained face with her ham hock fist as I held his legs, Deshawn Cannon laid into her midsection as if it were a punching bag.
“How are your ribs?” I ask, running my tongue over my damaged lip and tasting a few fresh drops of blood. My black eye has fared better, fading from the original deep purple to a subtle green. “Nothing broken?”
June utters something unintelligible, primal, and lays her forearm over her eyes. Her armpits are forests of black hair.
I run my tongue over my lip again, having learned to enjoy the medium rare savor of Type O negative.
Mom believed my I ran my bike into a tree story, hardly blinking the evening I came home battered. I suppose that’s what happens when you’re a hospice worker, you grow thick, rino skin. She once told me, tearful after a particularly rough day, that if anything I’m crying about is non-terminal put a Band-Aid on it and thank my lucky stars. Earlier that afternoon she had an eleven-year-old autistic boy die in her arms. He had brain tumor the size of a plum and filled his Paw Patrol diaper to dripping when he coded.
“Want me to turn in your homework tomorrow?” Grace dries her eyes, “Mrs. Tanner’s asking questions.”
“I haven’t done any.” A pile of text books and makeup assignments sit near the Walmart bag, forgotten as last year’s birthday cards.
The sun sinks lower and the bars of light creep up the camper’s walls, changing in hue from lemon yellow, to gold leaf, to rip orange within minutes.
Word around school is that June and I had it out, that’s why she’s been absent and I look like a Raggedy Ann doll thrown to a pit bull. Mrs. Jane even pulled me into her office and asked what happened. Her sleeves were rolled up like she was about to change a flat tire and her hair, grown out to shoulder length, was a tangled near-blonde bird’s nest. On her desk a pumpkin pie scented candle burned quietly, it’s long flame flickering in the slight breeze of the AC.
Well? She asked.
I stammered, stumbling my way through the rehashed story, the oak tree becoming a telephone pole with clumsy me riding my rickety 10 speed Schwinn (something I haven’t touched in maybe five years) into the side of it.
She didn’t buy it and only looked at me, her eyes like Mom’s on a bad day, deep as cavers and with a glint of pity and perhaps a half-pound of anger hidden behind them. I got out of there fast.
“I don’t think Deshawn Cannon will be bothering Sunny anymore!” I smile, “We got him good!” My words don’t fly with the enthusiasm I’d hoped for, but seem held down by chains of guilt and confusion. We’d won for sure, leaving Deshawn in the dirt, crying and bloody, his arms outstretched like the withered roots of some trunkless tree, but I’m having trouble sleeping at night. Is that still a win? Can anyone win in this world, or are all the moments just a different shade of blue?
“Nope. Never again.” June says absently. I might as well have mentioned the weather.
I run my tongue over my lip again, feeling the split that should’ve received stitches.
“You should go to the emergency room.” Grace’s voice is louder now, carrying weight. She turns to me. “Mable will drive us.”
“And then what?” June asks. Her voice is calm and low, willing to indulge the child. Even a rabid stray will grow to love the hand that feeds it, or as in this case, cares enough to bring it pharmaceuticals.
“They’ll take care of you.” Grace says.
“They’ll want to know where Mrs. Rodriguez is. Then Sunny and I will end up in foster care.”
Grace says nothing.
“And who’d want us?” June asks. The question hangs in the air like a tossed hand grenade no one wants to catch. “Maybe we’ll be the next Tuesday’s Child segment, huh?” Sarcasm seeps through like blood out of an old Band-Aid. It’s impossible to think of Local Channel 38 taking up June’s cause, offering her up to any willing family able to pass a quick background check and offer dental insurance.
“Hand me the trash can.” June says. She works something around her mouth and puckers her lips.
Grace hands her a small trash can, not for the first time today, and June leans over it. I half expect her to spit out a rusty nail. It’s a blackened piece of tooth and gum.
June leans back onto the bed, ginning. “Maybe I should collect all of those bits for the tooth fairy.” Her smile shows pink teeth, a lip stick stain of hemoglobin and platelets. “Podría ponerme un dólar.”
“Yeah, a dollar.” I don’t tell her the last tooth I lost netted me five and the new Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince I think.
“Imagine what I could do with a dollar…” June closes her eyes and becomes lost in a time fifty years past, where one-hundred pennies could almost buy you the world.
The sunset fades into a blue twilight. June begins to snore with the heavy rasp of a grandfather, not a sixteen year old girl.
Outside the camper, cars creep along the trailer park’s crumbling street, pulling into driveways or drifting slowly on, searching for who knows what.
I take Grace’s hand to keep it from shaking. I don’t tell her that my imagination is playing games with me, that the pullout bed June’s laying in appears to be the size and shape of a coffin.
“She said this happened before.” I whisper, hating June for giving me that molecule of hope, “Everything will be ok.”
Grace jerks her hand away and turns to the window.
“That’s ok.” I whisper, “I’m not sure I believe it either.”