A Mean Heart
by Aleyna Rentz
The first thing Sophie noticed was the punch bowl. It looked like a stained glass window filled with blood, she thought. Aunt Hilda had made the punch herself — she’d bought ginger ale from the dollar store and mixed it with strawberry Jell-O.
“Didn’t need no recipe book, neither,” Aunt Hilda said, smacking her lips.
There were little cupcakes from the Piggly Wiggly bakery aisle, frosted orange and black because Halloween was just last week. An orange sale sticker had been left on the container — “Special! $1.99.” There were little sandwiches, cut into crude triangles and stabbed with multicolored toothpicks, stacked on a platter. Somebody named Great Aunt Carol said she fixed them up just this morning, and it took her a whole jar of mayonnaise to do it. Sophie passed over the sandwiches warily because she only ate peanut butter and jellies. She didn’t even know that she had a Great Aunt Carol, but Mother said you better be polite when they talk to you and not squirm away if they try to kiss you on the forehead, even Great Aunt Carol. Sophie had never seen these relatives before her daddy’s funeral, except for at a family reunion in Arkansas when she was three, but she was too young to remember that, anyways. Frankly, she preferred for them to stay a blurry memory. But there they were, rumpling Sophie’s hair and squeezing her hard and Uncle Nelson shaking his head and saying little girls ought not to wear black dresses.
“Only eight years old,” he sighed.”It just ain’t right.”
But this meant nothing to Sophie because she had never seen Uncle Nelson before. She hadn’t seen punch bowls before, or triangle mayonnaise sandwiches, and even if she did like cupcakes, she didn’t like Halloween too much: She remembered last year when a zombie with a chainsaw chased her through the haunted forest at the local YMCA, how she ran so fast that she tripped and tore the lace on her Cinderella gown. The jack-o-lantern sprinkles on the cupcakes were laughing at her, she knew it.
The second thing Sophie noticed was the door. It looked liked any old door, its paint chipped and its knob covered in scratches. But it was a special door: all the adults said that door led to the no-kids-allowed place. When Sophie’s mother noticed Sophie’s hand grazing the crooked door knob, she jerked a violent thumb at the window. There was a swing set and a merry-go-round and a dented metal slide behind the church.
“Go out there and play. That’s the kids’ place,” Mother said. “But you gotta promise you won’t rip those tights.”
Sophie solemnly held up a pinkie and ran out the door.
You could see the whole world from the top of the slide. There were ten steps to get to the top — Sophie had counted. She made sure not to scuff her black Mary-Janes on the way up, lest Mother yell at her later. She smoothed out her black, velvet dress and sat at the top of the slide. She felt like a princess taking her throne. She looked out at her kingdom: Two red-headed boys were pushing the merry-go-round as fast as their khaki pants and church shoes would allow, running round and round in endless circles, their victim shrieking for them to slow down. There was a small child, her hair tied up in pigtails, aimlessly skipping the perimeter of the yard, singing an old hymn to herself. By the swing set, Sophie noticed an older girl, maybe ten or eleven, who was pushing a baby in a swing, trying to quell its crying. It wouldn’t shut up, no matter what. It wasn’t even wearing any clothes, just a diaper.
Something was wrong with that baby, Sophie thought. Something was wrong with all of them down there — they were animals, primitive and stupid. Sophie decided she was the princess of the forest, and they were the creatures who ate grass and didn’t use toilets and licked themselves instead of taking baths, but only so they could get swallowed up by an anaconda later. Sophie was above them because she knew a secret that they couldn’t know. She smugly smoothed out a wrinkle in her dress.
From where she sat, Sophie could clearly see the steeple on the church. It had a cross at the top of it. There were bird drippings running down its side. Nobody was ever going to climb up there and clean it, either, Sophie thought. Those bird drippings would just stay there forever.
“You gonna go down, or what?”
Sophie looked behind her and saw a pair of hard, black eyes squinting up at her. A scrawny boy stood at the foot of the ladder.
“Never,” Sophie decided. She hadn’t thought about it until then, but it seemed like a good plan. She’d stay up there forever. She didn’t have anywhere better to be.
“It ain’t your slide,” the boy told her.
Sophie considered this.
“It ain’t yours neither.”
The boy considered this.
“Oh,” he said.
Sophie felt the slide begin to shake. She knew that meant the boy was climbing up the ladder.
“Get off,” she told him, gripping the rails until her knuckles turned white.
“This ain’t a seat. It’s a slide,” he explained. “Ya go down it, not sit.”
He was just like the others, a thoughtless animal.
“I said get off,” Sophie said. “I’ll push you down that ladder.”
The boy was on the seventh step. His foot was raised to climb to the next, but he stopped.
“You wouldn’t do that. You’re a girl and everyone knows girls are cowards.”
The boys who had been playing on the merry-go-round trudged towards the church and went inside, panting like dogs. Sophie haughtily watched as the boy who had been riding the merry-go-round dizzily staggered through the door.
“Don’t make any difference whether I’m a girl or not. I got hands and I can push you just the same as any boy can.”
The boy was deeply impressed by this statement. He climbed another step.
“I’m Josh. We’re cousins, ya know.”
If this revelation stirred any emotion in Sophie, she refused to show it. She crossed her arms.
Josh was persistent. “We never met except for when we were three or so, is what my dad said, so you probably don’t remember me.”
Sophie looked at him for a moment, trying to picture what his squinty, charcoal eyes and thin nose would look like on a baby, and then, disgusted by this mental image, turned away.
“Wouldn’t’ve wanted to remember you.”
“Came all the way from Are-can-sass by car,” he stated proudly. “You know where that is?”
“I go to school. I know where Arkansas is,” she corrected him. “I even know where Rome is, and the pyramids, and where the Pope lives, and — ” She realized she was yelling, and brought her voice down to a fierce whisper. “I know lots of things is all, and I don’t want you thinkin’ otherwise.”
Josh climbed another step, and then stood quietly, waiting for Sophie’s reaction. But her eyes were fixed on the steeple.
“I know stuff, too,” he persisted. “Your name is Sophie, and your daddy’s dead.”
The baby had finally shut up, and the older girl was lifting it out of the swing. The only sound in the churchyard was the little girl singing. Sophie wished she could tell that girl to hush.
“I’m awful sorry about it,” Josh said quickly. “He grew up next door to my dad. My folks took it pretty hard.”
Sophie didn’t say anything. Neither did Josh. They both stared blankly at the empty playground and listened as the little girl continued to sing:
Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father,
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not
As Thou hast been Thou forever wilt be.
She sounded like a baby bird. Sophie had never heard a baby bird before, but that’s what she thought of anyways. She had never heard a baby bird before because the only baby bird she’d ever seen was one that Georgina attacked. Georgina was a stray cat that Sophie’s daddy used to throw the leftovers to.
She remembered the day as if it were only yesterday. Her daddy had grilled ribs for dinner, but her mother, after one bite, decided she wouldn’t eat them.
“Too much fat,” she said, gently pushing her plate away. “You know I don’t like a lot of fat.” But Sophie’s daddy only smiled, collected the untouched plate, and said at least Georgina appreciated his cooking, and that was good enough for him.
“Wanna help me do the honors?” he asked his daughter, and she happily scampered out the back door after him on her small, bare feet.
Summer sunlight flooded the evening, and the oak trees cast odious figures on the lawn. Sophie and her daddy stepped under one of the cool shadows and he handed her a rib.
“It’s sticky!” Sophie squealed. She would always remember that, that sticky sauce coating her sweaty hands, she and her daddy standing together under the shade of an oak tree, a sudden screech ripping through that quiet evening.
Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided—
“Great is Thy faithfulness,” Lord, unto me!
Sophie looked up at her daddy with questioning eyes, but he was all the way across the yard, yelling at Georgina and shooing her away.
“What’s wrong?” She called as she ran toward him. She saw what was wrong before her daddy could hide it from her: In a bed of red, sticky feathers lay a baby bird, its little eyes staring blankly at the sky his wings would never touch. But Sophie still believed in saving things: “We have to help him,” she told her daddy, tugging at his arm. “We’ll put Hopscotch in a shoebox and make him good as new.”
“Hopscotch?” Her daddy repeated.
Sophie nodded and looked down at the bird. It only had one leg left.
She ran inside the house and emerged with a shoebox. It was lined with a tattered wash cloth she had found under the kitchen sink. She watched, her fingers crossed behind her back, as her daddy placed the little bird in the shoebox.
“What now?” Sophie asked.
“Well — ” her daddy hesitated. “I suppose we pray for a miracle.” And a silent supplication to God ran through Sophie’s head as she watched Hopscotch’s little breast slowly rise and fall.
Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!
Sophie buried Hopscotch in the garden only two hours later. It was a funeral attended by three — Sophie was there alongside her daddy, and Georgina sulked under the back porch, watching the somber event from a distance. Sophie stared at the cat through blurry tears, wondering if the creature was at all moved by Hopscotch’s death, or by the song Sophie’s father sang as he packed dirt over Hopscotch’s grave.
“Shalom to you, ‘til we meet again,” he sang in a clear tenor. Hopscotch was hopping around heaven, Sophie decided, where mean cats like Georgina weren’t allowed.
“Daddy,” she whimpered, tugging on his t-shirt, “why’s Georgina gotta be so mean?”
“It’s not that Georgina’s mean, it’s just — ” He paused, staring for a moment at the cat’s brooding eyes. “It’s just how cats are. They aren’t mean.” He smiled wryly. “They’ve just got mean stomachs.”
Sophie lay awake on her bed that night, mulling over this revelation: She didn’t know a stomach could be mean, could make you kill somebody. She stared at her ceiling, filled with terror, as she imagined her own organs conspiring against her, making her do bad things. Not even a lullaby from her daddy could allay her fears and make her go to sleep.
Her daddy had a much better singing voice than that little girl, Sophie thought.
Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy —
“SHUT UP!” Sophie suddenly screamed.
The girl stopped singing. She stopped skipping. She looked down at her shoes, paralyzed for a moment, before running inside. The sound of the church door slamming boomed like a clap of thunder, and Josh thought for a second that it might knock him off the slide. He held himself steady.
“She wasn’t hurting nobody,” he said quietly.
Sophie wouldn’t look at him.
“How’d your daddy die?” Josh whispered.
“I’ll tell you who ought to’ve died instead,” Sophie said. “That Great Aunt Carol. She kissed me six times with her sticky lipstick and I don’t even know her.” Sophie surveyed the empty playground. Empty — it was better that way.
“You can tell me,” Josh said.
“He had a mean heart.”
“A mean heart?”
Sophie turned around and looked deeply into Josh’s charcoal eyes. “His heart attacked him,” she said with sudden vehemence. “It attacked him in the middle of the night, like a robber that comes in the window.”
Josh was startled by this, and looked down at his own beating chest as if he were staring into the barrel of a gun. He didn’t know what to say, and all he could manage was a muffled, “How come?”
“How come? How come anything? I don’t know how come nice people have meanness living right inside them, all sneaky-like. I don’t know how come.” She stopped there, but then added for good measure, “So you shut up, too.”
Josh’s lips puckered sourly, as if Sophie’s words had struck Josh in whichever organ contained his boyish pride.
“I was right. You are a coward. You’re too scared to push me down these steps, and you’re too scared to go down this’ere slide. That’s how come you’re just sitting up here, because you’re scared of Great Aunt Carol’s lipstick and all those people and — ”
Sophie wasn’t one to make empty threats. The grass below wasn’t soft. Tears leaked from Josh’s black eyes, but he wiped them away before Sophie could see.
“Told you I’d do it,” she mumbled, not looking at him. She wasn’t speaking to Josh. She wasn’t speaking to anyone, except maybe herself. She needed reassurance. “I ain’t no coward.”
And she wasn’t a coward. Earlier, she had crept into the no-kids-allowed room while the grown-ups were outside visiting with one another, some hugging and crying, some drinking beers and staring off at nothing.
There was a crooked painting of Jesus on the wall, which was smothered in faded floral wallpaper. He was staring plaintively, or maybe without any expression at all, into a corner of the frame. Sophie wondered what was so interesting that Jesus would stare at it, but mostly she didn’t like that the frame was crooked. She tried to straighten it before crossing the room, but Jesus wouldn’t stay put.
The room looked like an overgrown, abandoned garden. There were flowers everywhere — tied in ribbons, stuffed in bouquets, their little seeds buried in pots and their sprouts overflowing onto the floor. Sophie thought about that as she walked towards the casket, how strange it was that when you buried a seed, it grew, and when you buried a person, it shriveled up. But then she remembered what a scrawny boy named Toby said at recess — that a dead person’s hair and toenails still grow in the ground. But Toby said a lot of things, and Sophie tried to forget about him as she waded through the garden towards the casket. She could barely see it for all the flowers. If they wanted her daddy in a garden so bad, they could’ve just buried him in a shoebox in the backyard, right beside Hopscotch.
That’s what would have been best, Sophie thought.
She stopped just before the casket. Fear took hold of her, and she suddenly wasn’t sure what she would see if she looked inside. She thought about a shrunken head she’d seen in a museum on a field trip once. It was the color of a bruise and had a pig snout and hair that looked like one of Georgina’s hairballs, just unraveled. What if they’d shrunken her daddy’s head, and that’s why this was the no-kids-allowed room? Or maybe his eyes would pop open, and he’d look like that zombie who chased her with the chainsaw. All Sophie knew was that her daddy couldn’t be in that coffin.
But a burst of fortitude pushed her forward. There he was, her daddy. He was dressed in a dull grey suit, with his shoes perfectly polished and his hair molded like Play-Doh across his forehead. A funny thought came to her — maybe she could sing the “shalom to you” song to him, but then she thought about the lyrics. ‘Til we meet again. It had been three years and Hopscotch hadn’t come limping out of his shoebox yet. There wasn’t going to be any meeting again. Her daddy wasn’t going to rise from the grave in the middle of the night and his toenails weren’t going to grow anymore.
He was just dead, and that was all there was to it.
“Sophie!” Her mother’s voice rose above the chatter of relatives gathering in the parking lot, where the relatives said their goodbyes and made jovial small talk as they loaded into their cars. “You come here right this minute.”
Her mother’s tone made Sophie nervous. She scanned her tights for holes.
“I didn’t tear ‘em. Look and see,” Sophie mumbled, avoiding her mother’s eyes.
“That isn’t why I called you over here. I want you to apologize to your cousin.”
Sophie jerked her head up. Josh had fresh tears streaking down his cheeks — he was clearly faking it, and doing a lousy job, too. She folded her arms. She wouldn’t apologize to that boy for a million bucks. She’d never speak to him for the rest of his life.
Sophie’s mother took in this show of obstinacy and let out a cry of exasperation. “I won’t have any of that stubbornness now. Not today, Sophie. Now say you’re sorry.”
Sophie heard a crack, a slight tremble, in her mother’s voice. She finally looked at her mother. It wasn’t just her voice that was cracked; there were red cracks running through her eyes, grey cracks streaking through her dark hair, cracks wrinkling the skin on her hands. She was hard to look at.
“I’m sorry,” Sophie found herself saying as she wrapped her arms around her cousin and pulled him close. Somebody in this world had to be nice, she decided.
Aleyna Rentz is currently enrolled in Georgia Southern University’s Honors Program and is pursuing an English/Writing double major. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have been featured in Miscellany and Black Fox Literary.