If You Steal From Here
by Erika Seay
Charmaine held the glass painting in front of her like a dance partner, studying the acrylic mermaid: her seaweed bikini, ocean-blown hair fanned behind her. “Look,” she told Meg, “it’s called ‘Mermaid with Lost Hair.’”
“‘Mermaid with Long Hair’,” Meg said, squinting to read the cursive at the bottom. “Not lost.”
Charmaine tilted her head, seeing it again. “I don’t have any cash though.”
Charmaine never had cash. But it had been her idea to go shopping. She wanted to get something for this married cop she was seeing, so they went to Jean’s House, which was actually Jean’s house. Her bedroom was her bedroom, but other rooms in the white shotgun doubled as works-in-progress and sales. The sun porch was clearance. The only customers, they stood in the living room under a handwritten sign: NO BAD CHECKS. NO CREDIT CARDS. IF YOU STEAL FROM HERE, YOU HAVE JUST STOLED FROM THE LORD, NOT ME.
Outside, statues of Jesus prayed over the yard and Mardi Gras lights blinked around a gazebo. Wind chimes hung from the rafters and painted wine bottles baked on the railing next to succulents in red clay pots.
“But do men like mermaid paintings?” Meg wanted her to think clearly. “Mermaid With Long Hair” cost three hundred dollars.
“Does it matter?”
“I don’t know. When do I get to meet this cop— Ignacio?” It had been over a month now, and that was a long time for Charmaine.
“We’re going on a date tonight, if that’s what you mean. A real one— he’s picking me up and everything.”
Charmaine lived in one side of the duplex, and Meg lived with her daughter, Darren, in the other.
The walls were thin.
“Maybe I’ll come back for her,” Charmaine said, putting it back. “I want to see the wind chimes outside, then we can go.”
“Okay, but then let’s really go. Darren’s home by herself.”
“Okay, Mom. Bathroom first. Then I’ll be right there.” She smiled, then disappeared through the hallway.
Meg walked the other way through the house to find Jean on the sun-porch, painting a mermaid on a diamond of Plexiglas. Meg said they wanted to see the wind chimes, if she came to a stopping point. Jean held the paintbrush up to indicate they’d go outside momentarily.
Meg felt the need to make conversation. “So, all your profits go to children?”
“Everything I earn is for the children,” she replied. Jean had white hair and carried a wooden cane with an elephant’s face on the handle.
“So, it’s a children’s— charity?”
“It’s all for the children.”
“But I mean, what, organization?”
“It’s for hungry children,” she said sternly.
Meg didn’t ask any more questions.
When they walked outside, Charmaine wasn’t there. Jean used her cane to point to several wind-chimes, explaining their artistic merit. Meg noticed some trashed ones, buried against each other on the ground. “What about those?”
“Those I couldn’t make work. Sometimes you have to kill your darlings, it’s a saying.”
She used her cane to unhook the wind chime Charmaine wanted. “Actually, it was my friend who was interested,” Meg explained, looking across the yard. Waves of heat blurred the air over the grass.
After a while, Meg went inside and checked the bathroom, then looked through its half-moon window. She saw Charmaine waiting in the passenger seat of the car, and she could see the painting behind the headrest.
Meg walked down the driveway. She could feel her pulse in her ears.
“Let’s go,” Charmaine said, when Meg slipped inside and shut the door. “Let’s go right now.”
“This is wrong.”
When Jean’s house was out of the rearview, and the highway ramp appeared, Meg looked over at Charmaine. Charmaine was beaming. “What?” Charmaine said, trying not to laugh. Hot wind blew through the open windows. “The Lord wanted me to have this.”
They entered their apartments from the shared porch. Prayer rugs covered the cement, and an upholstered fainting bench faced the road under some hanging ferns. It was the first place the sun hit in the morning. Charmaine liked to lie on the fainting bench backwards, with her dark hair falling over the flat edge and her feet propped on the incline. Charmaine could make things remarkable like that, memorable.
Charmaine wasn’t working now. She’d been in a wreck riding on the back of some guy’s motorcycle, and the road broke her collarbone. They operated on her, but she would never carry anything in her arms with weight— a child, for instance— and she settled for seventy-five thousand. A white scar ran over her shoulder like a beauty mark. It announced itself whenever she wore a halter that tied at the neck or sundress that criss-crossed.
Charmaine was Meg’s best friend. Meg worked all the time, so this was mostly by default. But Charmaine could be a lot of fun. And Meg believed that Charmaine could do good things.
Only lately, she was getting tired of mothering her. Last month, she adopted Charmaine’s cat — a stray she alternately doted on then ignored, finished her taxes for her, and told three separate lies to men Charmaine never wanted to see again.
Charmaine got ready for her date while Meg walked inside her own apartment to find Darren sitting Indian-style on the sofa, eyes trained on the TV. The Casey Anthony murder trial was underway in Orlando, and she was hooked on the live coverage.
Casey Anthony: twentysomething, single, accused of killing her two-year old daughter. Caylee decayed for several days in the trunk of her white Sunfire, mouth shut with duct tape. Later, she was found in a garbage bag in the swamp behind Casey’s parents’ house. The theory went that she did it for her freedom. She wanted her life back, so she killed her daughter. Afterwards, she entered a Hot Body Contest.
Darren was fourteen, but since getting her braces off, she walked around like she was twenty-five. She idolized Charmaine, who was twenty-five. Her summer had just begun. She was a teenager, and she was beautiful, and summer had just begun — Meg tried to remember this feeling.
Meg asked if she was hungry for dinner.
“Sure,” Darren answered. She’d drawn a beauty-mole beside her mouth and her lips were stained in white-pink gloss.
“I could do spaghetti, tacos, sandwiches. Or that soup you like —”
“We could order —”
“It was an idea.”
Darren shook her head in disbelief. It wasn’t the time to ask, it wasn’t, but Meg wanted her daughter’s attention. “Speaking of summer — what do you think you want to get involved with this year?”
“What are you even talking about?”
“Summer. I’m not wild about you staying here all day by yourself.”
She shrieked with emotion: “I’m too old for a babysitter!”
“I didn’t mean that. What about doing swim team again, like last summer?”
“I literally literally hate swim team. I’m perfectly capable of staying by myself. Charmaine’s home all day, anyway.”
Meg turned this over. “We could talk about it. Maybe. But there would be some rules —”
“I know, you don’t have to tell me all this.”
When Meg walked into the kitchen to heat water on the stove for pasta, Darren turned the volume up to watch the murder trial. The anchorwoman stood outside the courthouse with a microphone to her lips, explaining the newest rumor: Casey may or not be dating her star attorney, Jose Baez.
The same facts were repeated over and over again in the news loop: when Caylee was alive, Casey claimed to work at Universal Studios, giving tours, but really she lived off her mother’s credit cards and stole checks from her best friend’s checkbook. And when she slept over at her then-boyfriend’s, she put Caylee to sleep with chloroform.
Meg had just told Darren to come eat when Charmaine knocked, then opened the door herself and came in. Darren said, “Hey, Char,” from the sofa, touching her hand as she walked inside. Charmaine kissed her cheek, then walked into the kitchen, her eyes wet with tears.
“What’s wrong?” Meg asked, sliding a sheet of garlic bread from the oven.
“Ignacio has to patrol tonight, after all.” She sat down and threw her arms across the kitchen table, two wrists of gold bracelets jangling on the finish.“What if he’s lying?”
“Do you think you can ever really … trust Ignacio? You know what I mean?”
“Yes and no.”
“Ignacio is Argentine. Argentines are Italians who speak Spanish and act French.”
Meg passed her a Kleenex.
“He was going to fix my sink tonight.”
“What’s wrong with your sink?” Meg asked.
“Oh nothing, the kitchen, it’s leaking. Flooding, leaking, what have you.”
“Men are worthless,” Darren told her, pulling up a chair, as if she knew yet.
“He has nice veins,” Charmaine said.
“I think you should quit having all contact with him,” Meg said. “I have a bad feeling about him.”
“Me too — I kind of love it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know, Meg. What do they say, the human heart is a dark forest.”
Darren said, “Can Char stay for dinner?”
Charmaine and Darren picked at their food while they talked in fast voices about the Casey Anthony trial. Meg did not understand the obsession. Why this woman was famous, she couldn’t understand. Mothers, unfortunately, kill their children every year — what was special about this one?
After dinner, Meg cleaned up while Darren and Charmaine watched highlights from the trial with a carton of ice cream between them, legs quilted against the air from the forever-running air conditioning. Meg liked fans, but Darren liked to walk around shivering with the a/c on high.
She listened to them talk and talk about the trial. She hated that she felt left out, jealous. She sat at the kitchen table, flipping through her Anthropologie catalogue. She considered the dark-wash ankle jeans.
She turned in her chair to face the hallway mirror. What was the use? At thirty-six, she already felt old. If only she didn’t have to work all the time. But Darren’s father did not send checks. After she was born — named Darren, after Darren — he disappeared. The bags under her eyes seemed to spread to her hands. Would ankle jeans make a difference?
She ordered them over the phone. She told Darren and Charmaine goodnight.
She lay in bed, listening to their soft voices float through the hallway. She tried to marry the words into sentences.
She wanted to ask Darren why she had said that men were worthless. She had many questions, few answers. What kind of boy was Darren interested in? She wanted them to be closer, but didn’t know how. She went back into the room where the TV flashed and reminded Darren to clean her room tomorrow.
Then she reminded Charmaine to call someone about her sink.
They both said sure, eyes stuck on the TV playing images of Casey Anthony dancing, Casey Anthony diving in a pool with sun on it — this, while her daughter slowly disappeared in the swamp. Eventually someone found the skull, the jaw locked into place with duct tape.
Every day Meg came home from work to find Darren and Charmaine sprawled on the floor, propped on their elbows with their legs crossed behind them, watching the murder trial. They might have little bottles of nail polish out, painting and repainting each other’s nails neon-yellow, or black, or retro-white. They’d have the air conditioner running with the front door wide open. The cat ran away.
When Meg asked if they were hungry, they’d say no. But if Meg fixed something for herself, they came and got plates. She had two daughters now — Charmaine’s clothes were everywhere, makeup everywhere. She couldn’t tell which things were Darren’s and which were Charmaine’s. Darren had started answering Meg’s questions with: “Does it matter?”
Meg had trouble sleeping. One night, twisted in the sheets, she woke up startled. She’d been dreaming the same thing every night. There were dead babies in the swamp, but they were still hungry. She lay there staring at the rain-mark on the ceiling, then went to Darren’s room to check on her the way she used to every night when Darren was small.
She opened the door and saw Darren’s dark hair strewn across the pillow in the hallway light. A headband the color of forsythia kept her bangs from her eyes. There was something different about her room, something new. Her eyes moved above the iron framework of the bed. “Mermaid With Long Hair” was hanging on the wall. She kept blinking at it. If you steal from here, you have just stoled from the Lord.
She tiptoed across the carpet and climbed on Darren’s desk. This was a child’s desk, Meg realized, and she wanted to buy her a new one. A nice one. When the desk creaked, she looked at Darren, afraid, but Darren didn’t stir. She lifted the painting off the nail.
Charmaine never locked her door at night, although Meg had told her a hundred times to deadbolt it. She found Charmaine awake on the shared porch instead. She was lying on the fainting bench with her legs propped on the incline and her hair falling over the flat edge, reading a magazine. “You can’t sleep?” Meg asked. Steadying her resolve, she said, “You have to take this back.”
“I never go to bed before two,” Charmaine replied, sitting up. “Why?”
“I don’t want Darren to have this stolen thing in her room, if that’s what you mean.”
“Oh god— that. Really, you act like I committed some huge crime.”
“I’m her mother, and I don’t want your stolen property hanging in her bedroom.”
“Wow, Mom.” Charmaine rolled her eyes. She stood up and took the painting.
She hated when Charmaine made her feel by-the-book, petty. “Maybe I’m overreacting but you have so much influence over her. She looks up to you —”
“I said I’ll take it back. I just wanted to do something nice for her.” She pushed her door open and walked inside. “What does it matter, anyway? Jean is a fraud. Ignacio told me— she invented some children’s charity but actually keeps all the money for herself. How do you think that sun-porch got built! Ignacio knows, you know. He’s onto this kind of thing.”
“But, it’s the principle…” Meg started to say, following her inside the kitchen. Water was everywhere. Towels soaked the diamond-checked tiles and Persian rug. “Charmaine, how could you let this …”
“Oh, I’m going to call someone about the sink tomorrow. Don’t worry.”
“But I do worry. I do worry.”
“Poor darling,” Charmaine said. “You worry too much.”
In the morning Darren told Meg that she was a terrible mother, that she didn’t appreciate Meg stealing her stuff although she wasn’t surprised. She spooned the surface of her Lucky Charms while Meg stood there in the doorway, shocked. It wasn’t what she said, so much, as the chilling poise with which she executed it. It was un-Darren like. “Anyway, Jean’s a criminal,” Darren said.
“Who told you that?”
“Does it matter?”
“It’s not about Jean — that really has nothing to do with it. It’s about right and wrong. It’s about living by a code. It’s about … look — when I get home tonight, we’re going to sit down and have a long talk about what we owe each other as family, as human beings.”
But when she came home from work, a police car was parked in the driveway.
Meg killed the engine and walked up the stairs to the shared porch. She paused by the fainting bench and listened through the siding.
The lace curtains were parted enough to see Charmaine, Ignacio, and Darren on the sofa, watching the murder trial. Ignacio was in the middle, gold pins shining off the chest of his uniform. Fireflies blinked and sagged at the screen. Darren was wearing nothing, basically — a tank-top and small cutoffs with long white fringe.
She wasn’t even angry with Darren — that was the thing. She just wanted rightness between them. She felt that all their problems stemmed from some basic misunderstanding that only needed to be cleared up.
Charmaine was wearing the dark wash ankle jeans from Anthropologie. They had finally arrived today, apparently. She could see, perfectly, Charmaine saying to Darren this afternoon: Your mom wouldn’t mind, would she? It’s not like we’re going anywhere. I’m just going to try them on.
The jeans were loose on Charmaine’s thighs, but Meg knew they would always look better on her, and that she would remember that every time she stepped into them.
“The bitch is guilty, everyone knows she’s guilty,” she heard Ignacio say. His voice was deep and he had a slight accent that she knew Charmaine probably liked. “She’s hot though.”
They laughed. They laughed at everything Ignacio said.
Meg turned away, but Charmaine’s laugh stayed with her.
Meg hadn’t laughed — really laughed — in forever. Sometimes she would do anything to go on a date and laugh. What was the Marilyn Monroe line — if you can make a woman laugh, you can make her do anything.
But she had a daughter to raise. That’s how she felt about it and always would. Darren was her responsibility.
“But she’s a murderer,” Charmaine said, putting her arms around Ignacio. “She killed her kid,” she continued, but Meg recognized the strange affection for Casey Anthony in her voice.
“When this is all over with,” Ignacio said, “I bet she poses for Playboy, bet you anything.”
“I kind of want to pose for Playboy,” Darren said. She looked around for a reaction, then laughed. “Just kidding.”
“You could,” Ignacio said earnestly. “You could in a minute.” He put his arm around Charmaine, and Charmaine said something about Casey’s attorney, and then he was rubbing her shoulders.
Meg wanted to burst inside — this was her apartment — and make some kind of scene. But what could she say that wouldn’t make her feel worse?
When she did open the door, the three of them looked up and stared. They looked almost surprised — as if she were the guest, and they lived there.
“All right, everybody,” Meg said. “This party’s over.” She hated the way she sounded, but she was relieved when Charmaine and Ignacio were gone, relieved even when Darren shut herself in her room.
She had to do something. She decided that she and Darren were moving out.
Finding another place was easy, but it was mid-month before she got everything boxed and ready to tetris into the yellow Penske. Darren took the news with silent and disapproving resignation. She was cool as a metal railing. She no longer spoke to Meg, but wore a constant dead-pan expression around her.
Before they pulled out of the driveway, Meg hugged Charmaine on the porch. She hadn’t wanted to, afraid of missing her. She watched Darren hug her, clutching her back with something like love. “Don’t be sad,” Charmaine told Darren. “Think about this. Let go over a cliff, die completely, then come back to life. After that, you can’t be deceived.”
Meg considered this. Let go over a cliff. There was one thing Darren had forgotten, she informed Meg the night they settled into the new place, a clean space on the second floor of an old Victorian sectioned into long-windowed apartments. That was “Mermaid with Long Hair.”
Darren explained that the painting rightfully belonged to her, that Meg had stolen it from her, and that she wanted it back and was going “home” to get it.
“You’re not going over there,” Meg replied. But after some thought, she said, “if you want it that much, I’ll go get it myself. I’ll do that for you. Okay?”
Meg drove over there late the next night. She found Charmaine on the shared porch. “Hey, Mom,” Charmaine smiled. A silver chain Meg had never seen before shimmered around her neck when she stood and hugged her. The painting was leaned against a post on the porch. “Darren texted me you were coming.”
“I see you’ve already got new neighbors.”
“They’re sweet. John and I forget her name. But she’s a missionary and he’s some kind of mechanic. She travels a lot. She’s going to Asia or Africa or something on Friday for six weeks. Can you believe that?”
“Did you call someone about your sink?”
“John’s coming over tomorrow to look at it, if that’s what you mean.”
“Ignacio! God, I don’t know. He said he loved me. I hate when they start being so … nice. The excitement was gone. Over.”
Meg turned to leave. “Take care of yourself.”
“Have fun,” Charmaine replied.
Meg backed out of the driveway for the last time, the sky washed in a starless black. She was losing Darren, she knew it, and she felt powerless. Every day Darren was crossing lines, turning into someone else.
With each turn she checked her rearview to make sure of the mermaid in the back seat. If you steal from here, you have just stoled from the Lord. The passing lights threw shadows over her glass face, disfiguring her body and haunting the eyes.
Let go over a cliff, die completely, then come back to life. Maybe it was true, Meg thought, maybe there was something to be said for going to the end of the earth and back. She turned on the radio for noise. The murder trial was over. Stations replayed the not-guilty verdict while Casey Anthony’s attorney waited outside the prison for her in the middle of the night, a thousand flashbulbs flashing. The women with JUSTICE FOR CAYLEE pins cried in the suburbs, and all the bars in Orlando turned their TVs back to sports. She was free.
Erika Seay lives in Richmond, Virginia. Her stories have appeared in the Colorado Review, Meridian and CutBank, among other literary journals and magazines. She received her MFA in Fiction from the University of Arkansas, where she held the Walton Fellowship in fiction and taught creative writing. She is currently at work on a novel.