The loud buzzer from the oven startled me, sending my pencil point carelessly across the page.
“Shoot,” I mumbled as I tried to erase it. Math wasn’t my friend and I was already confused, now I would add to it by erasing parts of the equations I’d managed to complete so far. I threw my pencil down on the table and went into the kitchen.
I turned off the blaring timer, then put oven mitts on and opened up the oven door. The scent of baking chocolate wafted over me and I couldn’t help but take a big sniff.
“Yum,” I said, putting the cake on the counter to cool. Then I picked up the wooden spoon and stirred the stew I had cooking on the stovetop. Stew was one of the meals I’d mastered in the last two years. It was pretty easy, but it always tasted like it was really difficult to make. Mom always loved when I made stew.
I returned to the kitchen table and tried to finish my math homework.
An hour later, Mom finally came home from work.
“Sorry I’m late, baby. Carla didn’t show for her shift so I had to stay until they found someone to cover her tables.” She ran past me, kissing me on the head before she went back to her bedroom to change. It was her ritual. She always stripped off her waitressing uniform as soon as she walked in the house because it smelled like grill. Like greasy, burned, fatty food. If she left her uniform on, the whole room she was in would begin to smell, so I never got in the way of her dash to her bedroom.
When she emerged from the back of our mobile home, I could see the bags under her eyes and knew she was tired. She left early in the mornings and worked in the bakery at a big box grocery store, then after she was done there, she was a waitress at a truck stop. Every once in a while she had a day off from one of the jobs, but it was usually a weekday, so I didn’t really get to see her. Besides, when she had time off, I tried to let her sleep. She’d been exhausted for two years, maybe even longer.
“Happy birthday, baby,” she said, placing a small box wrapped in paper with colorful balloons all over it and a big red bow in the corner on the table.
“Mom, you didn’t have to get me anything.” I was already feeling guilt wash over me.
“Nonsense, Kalli. It’s your birthday.” She kissed the top of my head again and walked into the kitchen. “You baked your own birthday cake.” Her words fell somewhere between a statement and a question, and I knew from the tone of her voice the cake was upsetting to her. “I was going to make you a cake.”
“It’s okay, Mom. I knew you wouldn’t want to come home from working two jobs and make another cake. It was just one of those dollar store boxes.”
“You made yourself a dollar store birthday cake?”
Crap. I could tell she was getting upset, and that was the last thing I wanted. I’d been trying to make things easier for her.
“Mom, how about we have dinner, then ice the cake together, and we can eat it while we watch Full House.”
“You made dinner too?” Now she sounded slightly panicked. “I thought you were turning nine, not twenty-nine.”
“It’s not a big deal, Mom. It’s only stew. I threw it all in a pot and turned on the stove.” I watched as my mom walked back to the table, sat in the chair across from me, and put her head in her hands. I stood up, went to her, and wiggled my way onto her lap. “I’m sorry I made you sad.” Her arms squeezed around me.
“You didn’t make me sad, baby. You’re such a good girl. I just wish I could have given you a better birthday. Made your cake at least, or thrown you a party.”
“I don’t want any more birthday parties,” I said quickly. The last time I’d had a birthday party my family had fallen apart. I didn’t have any extra family to lose.
“Come on,” she said, patting my back. “Time to open your present.”
I hopped up from her lap and went back to my chair, pushing my homework aside. I lifted up the colorful gift and shook it back and forth. It didn’t make any sounds that gave away what was inside, so I flipped it over and started tearing at the paper. When I could finally see what my mom had given me, I stilled.
“Mom, no.” I shook my head, and put the box down on the table, pushing it toward her.
“What’s wrong? Is it the wrong color? There were a few choices, but I thought red was the color you’d like best. We can take it back and exchange it if you want the blue one.”
“Mom, we can’t afford that.” My eyes darted down to the brand new Game Boy Color I’d seen in the store the week before. They’d had a display set up and I’d spent a half hour standing there playing it. I’d seen the price tag. There’s no way my mom could afford to buy me such an extravagant gift.