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excerpt > Abby Shaffer > Children of the Country

Sheri pushes her lips into a pout, reveling in the feel of the satiny layers of Miami Samba coating her lips.

She says it aloud, Miami Samba, loving the smooth, waxy taste.

Her sister, Kelly, older by two years and nearly twenty six, is more accustomed to getting fixed up of an evening, so she applies liner to Sheri’s lips, conferring the tube as if passing on the Olympic torch. Kelly gives her the once-over, nods, then retreats to the kitchen, clattering supper pans and opening cupboards. Sheri turns her gaze back to herself, feeling almost giddy. Kelly is right about a heck of a lot, even if things don’t always come out perfectly. Sheri sucks in her stomach for some breathing room and thrusts her shoulders back. “Like I’m gliding,” she says, daring a little exit twirl, the swish of chiffon cool on her legs. Kelly lent her her best jean skirt, the one with the peachy-orange chiffon trim, and even though the waist is a bit tight—they had to forego the snap for a safety pin—Sheri loves the way it sets off the turquoise tank top. She fingers the rhinestones running along the top’s heart-shaped neckline to where they meet in a v at her chest. Her fingertips feel cool on her warm skin.

She pauses in the hallway. As always, Cindy Rae’s door is open barely a crack. She taps the door just enough to open it a few more inches. Ever so carefully, she grasps the handle and pulls it nearly closed. She repeats this action several times then pokes her head inside her niece’s room. It is a game Sheri thinks of in her head as peek-a-boo-door, and one she’s played with Cindy Rae since before Cindy Rae could walk. At five years old, Cindy Rae has yet to speak a word. As a baby, she seemed to respond slowly if at all, eyes fixed not on her mama, brother, or aunt, but rather on inanimate objects like the toaster, the rocking chair, the rug. She can stare for hours at the swinging kitchen door, transfixed as it snaps and flaps.

Sure enough, just as Sheri suspects, there sits Cindy Rae, legs folded under and staring at the door, eyes alight. What, Sheri wonders, does she expect to pass through? Sheri, careful not to twist her skirt, sits down beside her, leaning her back against the rickety twin bed and wrapping an arm around her.

“How you today, sugar beet?” Sheri is met with a satisfied quiet, knowing, as usual, Cindy Rae did all her talking with peeka- boo door. “You ever going to say squat to your Aunt Sheri?” No audible response, just filled silence. She accepts without fully understanding the flow of Cindy Rae’s feelings. Somehow the little girl, born in a caul, speaks on invisible threads. Sometimes, in the silence, Sheri swears she hears a tinkling, a birdsong or hum, the rippling tumble of a tiny, magical stream. Or a garbled rush on Cindy Rae’s upset days, like all the feelings crash together and come out in no order, bumping around like moths on a street light. Today, Sheri thinks she hears birds singing.

“I expect not. Someday, maybe. It’s okay.”

Cindy Rae snuggles into Sheri’s side, eyes locked on the door. They stay that way for a time, until the restlessness, the tugging feeling in Sheri’s gut, makes her feel twitchy, move her legs. She kisses Cindy Rae’s forehead, smoothing back the pale, baby-fine ringlets, and proceeds to the TV room.

She peers around the door frame and steps into full view. Walter, Kelly’s live-in boyfriend, tears his attention from the umpteenth re-play of the Arkansas Derby, as does Sheri’s eightyear- old nephew, Ricky, who is messing with a cricket in the corner.

“You look like a crazy sausage!” Ricky shrieks, erupting in giggles.

“Ricky, you shit!” Walter makes to get up from his chair and Ricky darts away, cackling and singing “Crazy sausage! Crazy sausage!” until the door slams shut behind him. Walter won’t make eye contact. With her toe, she scratches a bug bite on her ankle. She feels like the room starts to sway, like she needs some balance. She starts to turn away, and Kelly springs from the kitchen.

“Oh sugar, no. Don’t pay him no mind. You look . . . lovely.”

Walter shakes his head. Sheri eyes her suspiciously. “Really?”

“Really. Those boys at the Red Hawg won’t know what to do.” Kelly grasps her hands. “Let’s go. Walter, you’re on supper duty for once. The hotdogs are nearly ready for you boys, and so’s Cindy Rae’s veggie soup. Bread’s in the bin.” Kelly grabs her purse and before Sheri can object, leads her to the car.

Cindy Rae gazes out her bedroom window to watch her mama and aunt totter to the car. Aunt Sheri looks like a queen. Cindy Rae leans against the smudgy window, presses her hand to the glass. “Flower,” she says, the birds tweeting sweet and high.

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Abigail R. Shaffer earned her MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. Her work has appeared in Crab Creek Review, SLAB Literary Journal and other journals. With roots in the Ozarks, she lived for several years in Arkansas. She's also earned an MSW, teaches writing and resides in the Midwest. Learn more about Children of the Country.

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