The Good One, The Quiet One
fiction by Tonja Matney Reynolds
Since I was little, Mom always referred to me as her “good one” or “quiet one” as if good and quiet were synonyms. That changed the day I turned fifteen and dyed my blonde hair green. My stepdad Jerry grinned at me from the kitchen. “Wow,” he said. He was drying the dishes slow and easy like he always did, as if every dinner plate and glass and fork needed extra care that the dishwasher’s heat-dry cycle couldn’t provide. Jerry had a really good job before the open-heart surgery. Now he did the dishes, but he didn’t seem to mind. “Go show your mom.”
I peeked into Mom’s office, which used to be our dining room before she got the job as a pharmaceutical rep. Mom glared at me and crinkled up her forehead. She tapped her headset, which meant I needed to be quiet and wait for her to be done with her call.
When she came out of her office, I did my best Hulk impersonation, showing my muscles and making an ugly face. “I’m starting to feel angry.”
Jerry laughed. “That’s not the line—”
Mom started hollering at me, saying I’d ruined my beautiful blonde hair. Before then, she’d never told me my hair was beautiful. Not even once.
The dye was temporary, guaranteed to wash right out. I had to do it—I was dressing up as a girl-version of the Hulk for a Halloween party. I tried to explain it to her, but she wouldn’t listen.
“You’re an embarrassment,” she said. My older brother Tyler had gotten into real trouble when he lived at home, and she’d never said anything that mean to him, especially on his birthday.
The next day, I dyed my hair for real.
Things escalated pretty quickly after that. I learned how to do my hair in dreadlocks from YouTube videos, so she took my laptop and grounded me for three weeks. She said I should study and make the most of my grounding, so I studied Marilyn Manson while painting my nails black.
When my grounding ended, Mom refused to drive me to go see Tyler. I put on my gym shoes and walked, but Jerry picked me up before I got out of the neighborhood. I thought he’d convinced mom I needed a ride, but when I came home later that night, she was still pissed at him and me in equal parts. The sight of me only made her angrier at Jerry. I stormed up to my room and slammed my door. Jerry came up later to smooth things over, same as he did after Tyler got caught selling mom’s Viagra samples on the school bus. Tyler thought it would get people high, but it was pretty obvious when it didn’t.
Jerry looked terrible—the skin under his eyes was saggy and his face was pale. I’d heard him and Mom arguing after midnight almost every night for the last three weeks. Mostly it was about money or Tyler, but it always turned to me. I knew Jerry had been sleeping on the couch, but I didn’t let on that I knew. Mom and Dad used to yell at each other when I was little, but my memory of it was borrowed. Tyler told me about it so many times it felt like it was real, and it sounded just like Mom and Jerry fighting, except they tried to hide it and Jerry never yelled back or punched the wall.
“For my sake, would you tell your mother you’re sorry?” Jerry asked. “You don’t have to mean it one hundred percent.”
I nodded, and we shook on it. I was ready for a détente. The green hair was getting old and the dreads were starting to itch. I gave Jerry a hug. “You smell like cigarettes. You promised Mom you’d quit.” I grabbed a washcloth and the bottle of Febreze from the linen closet and sprayed his clothes with Spring and Renewal scent. I handed him the washcloth. “Get it wet and wipe your hair.”
He lowered his jaw and raised his eyebrows, asking without saying the words.
I ignored the question, kind of pissed that he thought I was dumb enough to smoke. Tyler smoked, not me. I kept trying to get him to stop. I even threw out his lighters and cigarettes.
Jerry pulled a pack of wintergreen gum out of his pocket and offered me one.
“I’m good,” I said.
I figured if I cooked for Mom, the apology might be implied or she might say it first, but all I could make besides cereal was grilled cheese sandwiches. When I was little, like four years old, I used to stand on a chair in front of the stove and make grilled cheese with Mom. She always said I was the cook, but she only let me put the slice of cheese on the bread and tell her when to flip it. When it was done, she’d cut the sandwich into two triangles and let me pick the one I wanted. We’d eat it right there at the stove with me still standing on the chair. Mom would ooh and aah like it was the best thing she’d ever eaten and tell me she loved it. It, not me. Never me.
When I dropped the buttered bread into the pan, it sizzled and my eyes watered up. I tried to force the tears back, but they wouldn’t stop once they started.
I must have set the heat too high or maybe didn’t use enough butter or something because the one side got charred. When I flipped it, the fire alarm went off.
Mom stormed out of her office with her headset still on. “I’m going to need to put you on hold for just one moment,” she said, her voice sugar sweet. She clicked the mute button then elbowed me out of the way and dumped the grilled cheese into the trash. “Open the window!” She stared at me like she hated me. “Would you give me a break just this once? I can’t work with all this noise.”
As soon as the alarm quieted, she clicked her headset and started talking in that sugar voice again about the number of samples needed at what dosages and when.
The next day, I got my belly button pierced after school.
Mom said I mutilated my body.
“I didn’t fucking mutilate anything.”
“Don’t use that language—”
“Fuck fuck fuckety fuck!” I screamed it loud enough for the neighbors to hear.
“Get out,” she hollered, so I did.
But I didn’t have anywhere to go. I walked to the park and sat on the swing until nearly midnight. Ever since I got the dreads, my friends detached from me—not all at once, but it didn’t take long before they all acted like I was invisible. That morning at school, the stoners had invited me over to their table at lunch. They offered me Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and said my hair was fucking amazing.
I laid low at school and home until after Christmas. On a Friday after fifth bell, a volleyball player came up behind me in the hall and pulled on my dreads and called me gay. I told her to shut her mouth, and she beat the crap out of me in front of everyone while people stared and called me a freak. Ryan, an openly gay kid from Honors English ran to get our teacher, but Mrs. Jones and Ryan were both too puny to pull the girl off of me.
The assistant principal suspended me for five days. He said I must have provoked it. People don’t just attack you for nothing, he said. I wanted to attack him for saying it, which kind of proved his point except I kept quiet and sat in my chair. “You used to be a good student,” he said and offered to send me to the school counselor. Then he asked me if I’d considered switching to online school.
While I waited in the office for my mom, a bunch of senior boys stared at me through the glass door from where they sat in the lobby at bar-height tables reserved for them like they were royalty. One of them pointed at me, and they all laughed. They were kidding themselves if they thought they were better than me. Most of them had bought the drugs from Tyler. He’d been expelled from school and went to juvenile detention for three months. Tyler had made a dumb choice—no question about that. But he plead guilty to keep my mom from being investigated. He went to jail to keep her from being fired. Nothing but boners happened to these jerks.
Mom turned to me with pure rage on her face. If she’d morphed into a green monster, at least it would have been entertaining. She pulled me up by the arm and didn’t let go as she headed to the door. I wasn’t having it. I shook her loose . . .
Ryan came over after school the next day. He told me to ignore that bitch who pulled my dreads. She called him gay all the time and he never got into a fight with her even once. Ryan wasn’t easily rattled, though, probably because of the weed. He came to my house pre-stoned. I might have considered getting high with him today if he had offered, but Tyler had told me how terrible juvenile detention was and how it fucked up his life when he got expelled, so I promised him I’d stay out of trouble.
“That might have been taking things too far,” Jerry said the next day. “I wish you hadn’t done that.”
The next Halloween on my sixteenth birthday, Jerry came up to my room. He handed me a small gift bag. “No costume this year? You’d make a good witch.”
Tonja Matney Reynolds lives in Ohio, but her family is from southwest Virginia. Her short fiction has appeared in Literary Orphans, Streetlight Magazine, Women Speak anthologies, and elsewhere. She served as a 2018 Peter Taylor Fellow for the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and was awarded the Michael Kenneth Smith Novel Fellowship at Porches. Find her on Twitter @TonjaMReynolds.