Four | Sinner | Bryan Howie


For three weeks, Grace comes over in the morning and we make breakfast. Eggs, waffles, sausage. Everything I’ve ever heard of having for breakfast, Grace knows how to make and she shows me. Then she makes Gramma eat.

Then she makes Gramma do her exercises while Gramma drinks gin. When Gramma slurs her yells, Grace says she can take a nap for a bit. That’s when I get Grace to myself. We go for walks and Grace shows me the different flowers and bugs. Grace explains different trees and bushes.

We walk for an hour, but it feels like a million years and ten seconds at the same time.

When we get back from the walks, Grace turns on soap operas that Gramma hates and leaves the controller out of Gramma’s reach. I make lunch while Grace watches and tells me little bits of stories about meats and bread and whatever else I use to make lunch. What I have for lunch, Gramma will have for dinner. Grace leaves soon after and I wait for it to be night time so I can go to sleep and see Grace again in the morning.

Momma stops by between shifts and brings me cold food. There is a man waiting in her car most times. Sometimes the guy with the ugly cigar. Sometimes a man with a beard.

One works at the restaurant, one works at the bar. I don’t remember which is which. There is a third man, sometimes, but I never see him up close. When it’s the third man, Momma never tells me to get the food out of the car. She remembers to bring the Styrofoam container in on those times, and I pick the congealed cheese off the lid as I look out the window and wonder about the shadow in the car with the long, hooked nose.

Then Momma kisses me on the forehead. “Not much longer, Michelle.”

And I bury my head in her hair, smelling grease and something that burns my nose. “I love you, Momma.”

“I love you.” Momma gets in her car and drives off. It’s dark, and Gramma gets up for her last glass of gin and to pray with me before we go to bed.

I go to bed with tears in my eyes and my hands on top of the sleeping bag. The floor is clean, washed weekly and swept daily. I feel safer in a clean room.


In the morning I get my second period, Momma calls from the hospital. “It’s okay, baby. Everything is okay.”

I rub sleep from my eyes, standing in the kitchen barefoot and cold. My stomach walls push together, and bile burns my throat. “What is it, Momma?”

“It’s fine. I just need a few days.” Momma’s voice breaks. She sucks in a loud breath, which escapes in a stutter. “Momma just had a bad night.”

“A headache night?”

“No, Michelle. I told you I was done with that. This was an accident. Just a little hurt, but enough that I had to see a doctor.”

The sun is breaking over the ridge of the mountains. A long beam of soft light coming through the window casts a square of light on the kitchen floor with a cross in the middle. “Are you going to die?”

“God, Michelle. No. God doesn’t want me, yet.” She swallows. “God don’t want me.”


“I got to go. You be a good girl. Take care of your Grammy and I’ll call you later. Okay?” There’s a beeping in the hospital, which makes me think of all those TV shows where people’s hearts stop and that beep turns into a loud, single note that means death. Momma says, “Okay?”

“Okay, Momma.” I close my eyes. “I love you, Momma.”

The phone goes dead.


When Grace shows up, I am still standing by the phone. The square of light has moved a foot from where it was when I hung up the phone. I haven’t stayed perfectly still the whole time. I went to the bathroom. I walked over to the sleeping bag, thought about lying down, but instead I rolled it up and tied the blue string around it and put it away in the corner. I got myself a glass of water, dumped it down the drain, and then walked back to the phone.

“Mish? What’s the matter, Mish?” Grace says as soon as she walks into the kitchen. A plastic bag of groceries hangs from one hand. She sets it on the floor. “You’re still in your nightshirt.”

“I’m fine. I’m waiting for a phone call.”

Grace purses her lips and wrinkles her forehead. “Mish, you’re holding an empty glass in your hand and you’re not wearing any panties.” She steps toward me. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

I tighten my grip on the glass and look down. My nightshirt covers most of me, but there’s a white string tickling my thighs. Grace brought the tampons for me last month. I don’t remember putting one in. I hold a hand palm-out to Grace. “I’m fine.”

She stops, nods her head. “Yes.” She picks up the groceries from the floor. The plastic bag crinkles. Grace walks over to the kitchen table and takes out a bag of dark purple berries, a carton of eggs, and a half-gallon of low-fat milk with the green lid. She puts the eggs and milk in the fridge.

I put my hand back at my side and twine my fingers through the long, twisted telephone cord.

Grace takes a cup from the cupboards and fills it half-full with water. She brings it over to the table where she takes a handful of the purple berries and squeezes them a little before dumping the slightly crushed berries into glass. An oily film floats in the water.

“Marie, breakfast time. Are you up, Marie?” Grace walks down the hallway. “Eggs for breakfast? Does that sound good?”

The phone rings and I say, “Hello?” before I even have it to my ear.

“Hi, kid.”


“Yeah, Michelle. It’s your Momma.”

“You sound funny. Are you still in the hospital? Are you okay? Why do you sound funny?”

Momma shushes me gently. “Don’t worry, baby. Momma’s fine. I’m just tired. I’m outta the hop-sital, but I’m home now.”

Down the hall, Grace sticks her head out of the bedroom and smiles at me. She disappears back into the room. “Marie, come on and get up. No, not until after breakfast.”

“Momma, where are you at?”

“Shush, baby. Baby. Oh, Momma’s just fine.”

My eyes burn and a teardrop lands on my foot. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard Momma sound like this, and those times were bad times. “Momma, you said you—”

“I gotta go, baby. Is Grace there?”


My ears ring with the click of the phone.

“Momma? Are you still there?” My voice comes back at me through the handset. I hang it up, set the glass on the counter, and tug down my shirt to cover myself as I walk over to my bag in the living room and take out a pair of underwear and some pants. In the bathroom, I find my other underwear and the pajama bottoms.

I sit on the toilet and pee while examining the small smear of blood on the crotch of the panties. In the wastebasket, there is the pink, plastic applicator for putting in a tampon. I reach down and pull out the one inside me. It sticks as I withdraw it. I drop it in the toilet. I reach under the sink and pull out a new tampon. Three drops of blood fall from me and splash into the toilet, spreading out like an oily stain across the yellow water.

I put the tampon in, discard the applicator, and put on my clean underwear.

Passing the bedroom as I go to put the clothes in the hamper, I see Grace has Gramma sitting up in bed. Gramma has one leg in the air as Grace counts, “Eight . . . nine . . . ten. And switch. One . . . two . . . three . . .”

I put the clothes in the hamper and go back to the kitchen. I mix the eggs in a bowl. A bowl that Grace brought. I put in a little bit of milk. I stir it up a little more. I spray PAM into a pan and put it on the stove. The pan starts to heat up, so I pour the eggs in. The heat drafts up into my face. There are small trails down my cheeks where my skin stiffens in the heat. The tear tracks.

Grace’s hand is on my shoulder. “Step back, Mish. That’s a little close.” She tugs on me gently.

I turn with her hand, her small breasts lined up with my eyes, the feeling of warmth of her breath on my forehead.

“What’s the matter? Who was on the phone?” Grace exhales and it feels like a prayer.

“You’re not so smart,” I say. I push away from her, step back into the stove. My elbow hits the edge of the pan. A needle of pain shoots up my arm. I don’t make a sound, but a bundle of hot nerves in my stomach want out through my fists. I want to hit. Tears spill out of my eyes. “You don’t know anything.”

Grace is not gentle. She grabs the wrist of the arm I just burnt, spins me around, and twists my arm behind my back. “Not a bad burn. I’ll get some chickweed. It’s the plant with the tiny white flowers. You have some right outside your front steps. That’ll help.”

She lets go and I snap my arm to my side. I glare at her.

But she already has her back turned to me and is walking out the door. My fists buzz with the need to smash. My legs shake.

The eggs smell good. My stomach lurches and instead of almost puking, I have to squeeze tight to stop myself from pooping.

I’m in the bathroom, crying, when Grace comes back in. She rattles the pan against a plate. Slices. Gets more plates from the cupboard. The plates that Grace brought.

A loud screech stops my crying in its tracks. “Grace, where’s my drink? I need a drink. I don’t want no eggs. I want my medicine.”


I let Grace put the crushed up chickweed on my burn, but I don’t eat breakfast and I don’t help make lunch. I go outside and sit on the steps. The sun makes the whole world a little whiter than it should be, and sweat breaks out on my forehead and under my arms. The air is thick, but a breeze is enough to make it all right.

I run a fingernail beneath a rusted nail-head. I pry at it, but it doesn’t budge. A red crack runs from the nail to the end of the board.

When Grace comes out, she stands behind me. “Do you want to go for a walk?”

A solitary ant crawls through the black gravel. It stops and lifts the front segment of its body off the ground. Little antennae wiggle in the air. I say, “Nope.”

Grace steps past me. “Feel better, Mish. Call me if you need anything.”

Her footsteps crunch in the gravel, her truck whines as she puts it into gear. The ant settles back down and stays still as Grace drives away. The tires must feel like an earthquake to it.

The grass tickles my feet as I walk into the field across the driveway. The creek echoes through the swaying of the long weeds. Every breeze creates a chorus of hums. The white heads of the weeds part with each sway and uncover the green stalks beneath.

I take off my shirt, pull down my pants, and walk into the water. Sharp stones bite into my soles. There is a long shadow of an elm tree that cuts the creek in half. I walk into that shadow, sit down cross-legged, and wait.


When I come back to the house, my stomach is burning with hunger. My throat is parched. I didn’t drink the water because of beaver fever. I open the door and the darkness of the house blinds me until my eyes begin to adjust to the sudden shift in light. I have to rub my eyes to make sure I’m not seeing things.

Gramma is sitting at the kitchen table, smiling. She has a ham sandwich and a glass of milk across from her at the other seat. “Come here, dear. Have something to eat.”

“Huh?” I don’t move.

“Come sit with Grammy and have some dinner. You poor thing.” She motions to the other seat. “Sit. We can talk.”

“Okay.” My hands curl into fists the moment after I shut the door. I walk over and sit down. The sandwich, I’m sure, was from Grace, but the milk has beads of sweat on the glass so Gramma must have poured it. “What do you want to talk about?”

Gramma reaches out to me, but her hand lands on her wheeled walker between us. The curtain on the window casts a red light around Gramma. She curls her hand around the metal rail of the walker. “We could talk about your mom.”

“Why?” I say.

“I talked to your Mom. Now, I don’t know what she told you. I bet you’ve got a lot of questions.” Gramma taps her fingernails on the metal. “You’re too young for all this sickness, but you need to know.”

“I don’t think there’s anything to talk about,” I say. “Momma got sick again.”

“It’s not the same sick as last time, honey,” Gramma says. Her eyes have small white spots over the brown parts, like dust on a window. “This wasn’t another overdose.”

“Momma said she didn’t overdose. Momma says she got bad drugs.”

Gramma’s lips part, curl upward. “Your mother says a lot of things, but I’ve known her a lot longer than you. She’s a sinner.” Gramma puts her other hand over her heart. “I pray for her, but she’s still lost. And now she’s had an accident and she needs us to-”

“Accident?” My hands ache as they unclench.

“Yes. Not drugs this time, honey.”

“I heard her. She was high. I could hear it in her voice.”

Gramma puts both hands on the table. “They’re giving her pills for the pain. Your mom is in a lot of pain. She has sinned and is paying the wages of sin. She got what she deserved, but maybe if we pray hard enough, God will help her turn this tragedy into an opportunity for change.”

“What are you talking about? What happened to Momma?”

Gramma says, “Raped.”

The room swims. Gramma’s face is red in the light from the window. My hands go numb and if I thought my mouth was dry before, now I know what it is to feel thirst. I swallow, but the sides of my throat stick together.

Gramma reaches down to her lap and pulls out a familiar, long stick. She says, “Now drink up, honey. We’ve got a lot of praying to do.”


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