You Don’t Have To Feel It

You Don’t Have To Feel It

You Don’t Have To Feel It 1900 1267 Sara Hills

The first time Mama told us she was dead, we didn’t believe her.

It was Saturday morning, beginning of summer vacation, and Jezzy and me were staging the ultimate battle showdown: her Malibu Beach Barbie against my Strawberry Shortcake doll.

“I’m gonna suffocate you with my strawberry smell and then bake you in a pie!” I shouted, twisting Strawberry’s head back and forth in my fist.

“Nuh-uh. I have sharks,” Jezzy said, using her Barbie voice. “They’ll rip your stupid, freckled head off.”

“Barbie doesn’t have pet sharks.”

“She lives on the beach, Alice. Of course she’s got sharks.”

I threw Strawberry’s puffy pink hat to magically ward off the sharks, and that’s when we heard Mama moaning—a low, hollow sound coming from her room.

Mama was deep into one of her long sad spells again; it was worse this time since she stopped taking her medicine. Uncle Carl said anti-depressants was going against the will of God, but I figured it couldn’t be any more against God than his fighting with her all the time.

Jezzy and me weren’t supposed to go in there, especially after Carl had come into our room that morning and told us to leave Mama be if we knew what was good for us.

He usually didn’t have to tell us twice. But after Mama started moaning again, we dropped our dolls, ran to her bedroom door, and listened. No more sounds came out, and Carl was gone with the car, so Jezzy and me cracked the door.

Mama was lying in the bed—eyes wide open and not moving.

“Mama,” Jezzy called. “You okay?”

She took no notice of us, so we pushed the door open further and made careful steps toward the bed.

“Poke her,” Jezzy whispered.

I put my finger out and pressed it gently into Mama’s arm. “Mama, wake up.”

She turned her head real slow, and we saw the bloody gash across her cheek and a dark bruise spreading out under her left eye. Jezzy and me started crying, but Mama didn’t try to hush us like she normally did. She didn’t say: I bumped my head, or Carl didn’t mean to. She didn’t say nothing, just turned her eyes back to the ceiling.

“Get up, Mama. Get up!” I shouted, pulling on her arm.

But Mama didn’t look at us again. She didn’t even move.

“What’s wrong with you?” Jezzy pleaded.

Her voice was barely a whisper. “I’m dead.”

I stared at her real hard until I could see her stomach moving up and down with each breath. In and out, like a living person, but I didn’t talk back.

While Jezzy braided strands of Mama’s hair, I stroked her arm with my fingertips, like she’d do for us when we were sick in bed. But nothing we did could coax her out.

We stayed with Mama until we heard the hiccupping sound of Carl’s muffler in the driveway. Then Jezzy and me ran back to our room and shut the door. We picked up our dolls to finish playing but, like zombies, their movements were jerky and their voices stilted. Mama’s death talk had taken the life right out of us.


Uncle Carl wasn’t really our uncle, or Mama’s kin at all.

He was younger than Mama. Jezzy and me saw it on his driver’s license one morning after he came to stay with us—before we knew he was staying for good. His jeans had been dropped in a heap on the living room floor, wallet spilled open like a box of Cracker Jacks.

I remember seeing his birth date, and the address said he was from Tallahassee. In the picture, his hair was longer and he had a mustache like the handlebars on Jezzy’s bike.

“Lemme see that,” Jezzy said, taking the card from me. She hadn’t even looked at it for a full minute before Carl stepped out of the hallway and saw us, his voice barking like an angry dog.

“Are you going through my stuff?” He snatched the card from Jezzy’s hand and shoved it into place in the dark leather. “Hey, Lureen! I just caught your kids pawing through my wallet.”

Carl’s underwear bulged out at the front, and reddish hairs prickled up and down his pale legs. I couldn’t help staring as he gathered up his spilled wallet before jamming each leg into his jeans and zipping up.

After three cups of coffee and a plate of pancakes and bacon, Carl apologized for yelling at us. Mama stood behind him, her crimson cheeks set off against her dark hair, smiling like a rainbow had just exploded in her eyes.

She wore her pink bathrobe and held a plastic spatula in one hand, the other resting on the back of Carl’s chair, fingering his shirt collar. The sunlight streamed in through the back window and lit up her edges like something out of a Jesus painting in one of Carl’s books.

She looked so happy that my pancakes did cartwheels in my stomach to celebrate. It was the first time I’d seen her eyes shine like that since Daddy died.


When Mama finally got out of bed, her feet dragged on the carpet like they had no will to lift themselves higher. She didn’t bother to get dressed or wash, but stared in the mirror and pulled at the skin on her face, as if she thought it would come off.

“Stop being so damn morbid,” Carl told her. But Mama ignored him and kept pulling.

In the next days it only got worse; Mama ghosted through the house in her nightgown, barely noticing any of us. She unplugged the clocks, turned the pictures over, and refused to eat. One afternoon she pulled her hair out in clumps, scattering the long brown strands on the bed around her, saying it had fallen out because her body was decaying. Rotting from the inside out.

Carl said the devil had crawled inside Mama’s soul and taken her over. Jezzy and me had to get down and pray every night until the carpet prickled our bare knees, but no amount of praying seemed to help. Mama only got worse.

She came into the kitchen while Jezzy and me were washing dishes and grabbed the cheese grater off the counter. I figured she’d finally got hungry and was going to make some food, but instead, she rubbed her fingertips into the metal and started grating.

Jezzy screamed, and Mama dropped the grater. It bounced, leaving red marks in its wake. She held her hand up to the light, admiring it like it wasn’t a part of her, blood flowing straight down her arm.

“Jesus, Lureen. What in the hell?” Carl grabbed a towel, wrapped it around her hand and held it tight. He turned his round eyes on us. “Get out of here! Go to your room. Now!”

We ran and I buried myself under the blankets, trying to push the thoughts from my head, but it only made me think about Mama more.

When the air got hot and stuffy under the covers, making it hard to breathe, I poked my head out and asked Jezzy, “What’s wrong with her?”

Jezzy sat on the floor between our beds. She pulled pieces of tape out of the dispenser, broke them off, and pasted them onto her leg in crisscrosses. One after another, piling them up.

“Maybe she’s broken.”

“Do you think she’s missing Daddy?”

Jezzy shot me a look. We weren’t supposed to bring Daddy up because Mama thought she’d killed him. She’d been driving the night the car skidded in the rain and landed in a ditch. Since then, any mention of Daddy made her feelings wobble like the training wheels on my bike.

After the accident, Jezzy and me spent six weeks in foster care while Mama was in the hospital healing. Social services tried to get Mama’s family to take us in, but they said they couldn’t. Jezzy asked if it was because we were brown, like our Daddy, but the social services lady didn’t answer.

Mama brought us home after she got out of the hospital, but she wasn’t the same. Even with the medicine, she went through crying spells. Her mood bounced up and down more times than a rubber ball until Carl showed up on the doorstep selling Bibles and sweet-talked her back into the light.

But it didn’t last.


After Mama cut herself with the grater, Jezzy and me stayed in our room for the rest of the night, too afraid to come out. We heard Carl’s heavy footsteps down the hallway and figured he was taking Mama back to bed. He paced and yelled, but not once did we hear Mama’s voice talking back. After a while, even Carl went quiet.

“Do you think they’re dead?” I whispered.

Jezzy only shrugged, so I tried to push my thoughts of Mama down to where I kept my memories of Daddy, but they wouldn’t go. Maybe because Daddy was taking up all the space. Instead, I shut my eyes real tight and let myself think of Daddy’s wide smile and his voice laughing at something funny. The way he’d wrap his arms around me like a warm blanket, his heartbeat filling up my ears. How his calloused hands rubbed the tears off my cheeks.

I got so good at pretending Daddy was there holding me that I jumped when Carl started hollering again.

“Dammit, Lureen. I’ve had enough of this crazy business. You ain’t dead, you hear me? It’s not funny—cutting yourself up. Acting like you don’t hear nothing or feel nothing.”

Something smashed on the other side of the wall, and Jezzy and me startled.

“You still want to play it this way? Fine. I’ll teach you to ignore me.”

I stared at the wall, figuring Mama must still be alive and hoping she would yell back some of the things we heard her say before: Screw you, Carl or, better, Get the hell out of my house. But she didn’t.

Silence followed, then we heard weird grunting noises. Jezzy and me snuck over to the bedroom door and peeked in. Mama was lying on the bed, as still as one of our dolls, while Carl was hovering, pushing himself into her again and again.

Mama said nothing, did nothing, not even after Carl cried out like he got bit. His eyes rolled back in his head for a second, like some of Mama’s death crept inside him. Then he whipped his head around and started screaming at us.

“What the fuck are you doing in here? Jessica! Alice! I’m gonna beat the living shit out of you!”

Jezzy and me ran, but we weren’t any match for Carl, even with his exposed thing hanging down, flapping against his legs as he chased us. He caught Jezzy by her dark hair and told me he’d shave it off if I didn’t follow them back to Mama’s room. He made us pull down our panties in full view of Mama while he snapped the belt in his hand.

“Stop him! Mama, please! Uncle Carl, don’t!” We cried, but Carl brought the belt down on us, stinging at our backsides. And still, Mama lay there and did nothing while he hit us again and again.


Mama had stopped, like when you wind up a toy too far and it breaks—the spring popping inside, slipping off the track.

When she messed herself in the bed, Carl started sleeping in front of the TV. Jezzy and me tried to make ourselves as small as possible, eating cereal out of the box and staying in our room.

We peeked in on Mama when we thought Carl wasn’t watching, pulled on her thin arms and tried to wipe the crust from the corners of her mouth.

One night she looked so bad I asked Carl, “Is Mama going to die?”

“Shit. Your mama thinks she’s already dead.”

“Aren’t you going to do something?” Jezzy asked him.

Carl laughed and took another swallow of his beer. “Your Mama is crazy, you hear? Ain’t nothing I can do about it.”

“Can’t we call an ambulance?”

Carl put his beer down and grabbed Jezzy by the wrist. “We ain’t calling nobody. Not no ambulance, and sure as hell not the police. You get them up in here, they’ll slap your Mama in a looney bin so fast your head’ll spin. Then there won’t be no one to take care of you.”

“But—,”Jezzy said, trying to squirm away.

“But nothing.” Carl pulled her close enough to taste his breath. “No one can help your Mama but God. You understand?”

“Yes, sir,” Jezzy said.

Carl didn’t let her go. He stared into her eyes for a full minute and used his free hand to gently brush the dark hair out of her face.

“Get to your room, Alice.”

“What’d I do?”

“Don’t you back talk to me, young lady. I said get to your room.”

I stomped off down the hall, looking back over my shoulder once, and slammed the bedroom door behind me.

Jezzy came in a while later, moving slowly, her hands shaking and her eyes red.

“What happened?”

Jezzy wouldn’t meet my eyes, so I knew it was bad. We had to do something.

“We’ve got to get Mama better,” I said.

“No, Alice. He’ll find out.”

I tugged on her arm. “Come on. We don’t got a choice.”

We snuck across the hall into Mama’s bedroom, and I filled up a cup of water from the bathroom sink.

“Help me prop her up.”

I pulled at one arm and told Jezzy to grab the other. Mama felt like skin and bones, and the smell of her soiled body set Jezzy off choking, but I shushed her through clenched teeth.

I held my breath and put the cup up to Mama’s lips. “Drink, Mama. Take a sip. Please. Don’t you die on us.”

Mama was like one of our dolls. Eyes open, but nobody home. Her skin so pale it matched the bed sheets.

I put a finger in the side of Mama’s mouth and pried it open, spilling the water onto her face in the process.

Mama didn’t swallow, and the water dribbled back out onto her dirty nightgown. “Drink, Mama, please!” I said and poured again, nearly emptying the glass.

Mama sputtered this time and for a second I thought she’d swallow, blink her eyes, and come back to us. But then she shuddered like an electric jolt had run through her. Mama started coughing and making jerking movements. Jezzy and me dropped her arms and jumped back. We screamed, watching Mama’s frail form crumple back against the bed, eyes rolling up in her head, until her shoulders slowed and fell still again.

Her eyes were open, but this time, her stomach didn’t move up and down. I backed up into Carl, standing in the doorway.

“What in the hell’s going on in here?”

Jezzy opened her mouth, but no words came out. Carl pushed me out of his way and ran over to the bed.

“Lureen!” he shouted, shaking her by the shoulders. “Dammit! Stop it with the fucking games. Wake up!”

But Mama didn’t wake. Carl screamed some more and kicked at the nightstand with his boot. I thought he was going to kick Mama too, but instead, he reached down and picked up the cup I had dropped on the bed.

“What the hell happened? What were you girls doing in here?”

He grabbed Jezzy and knocked her hard against the wall. “Answer me!”

“We just gave her a drink of water, is all. And then… and then…” Jezzy’s face scrunched up, her mouth twisting itself into the saddest shape, and Carl let her go. She slunk down against the wall, held her knees and started sobbing.

“And then you killed her,” he said, finishing Jezzy’s thoughts. “You fucking killed her.”


It’s been three weeks since Mama died. Every time I close my eyes I see her, shining in the light of the kitchen then twitching on the bed, like she’s haunting me for killing her. Jezzy and me don’t talk about it. We don’t talk about anything, but I reckon Jezzy sees her too.

Carl said social services are going to sign papers giving him legal custody. I heard him whispering it to Jezzy in our room last night, as he pawed with his meaty fingers up the hem of her nightgown. I pretended to be asleep, peeking through the cracks of my eyes, and watched him move on top of her.

I knew Jezzy was awake, but she lay as still as a corpse. Carl was pushing into her so hard he looked like he was trying to break through to the other side. She didn’t cry. Didn’t so much as whimper.

It’s worse when you cry. But when you’re dead, a person can do anything to you, and you don’t have to feel it.

We learned that from Mama.

After Carl left the room, Jezzy didn’t stay dead for long. She rolled onto her side and I slipped from my covers and lay next to her. I stroked her arm like Mama used to do, feeling her breathe in and out.

In and out.

# # #

Header photograph © J. Bish.

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