Milk, the kids needed milk in the morning. That was why Linda was driving past nine at night, in the dark, racing on an icy road to get to the store before it closed in twenty minutes. They needed it for breakfast the next morning, otherwise they wouldn't eat at all. James and Anna were only capable of pouring bowls of cereal for themselves while caught in the sleep-induced miasma that took hold of their dragging bodies every morning, even something as simple as toast took extra inspiration in order to be made as it required the use of electrical machinery. So they needed milk.
James, the little smart ass, just like his father, just like Daniel. Fifteen minutes ago he comes out of the kitchen, wiping his face with the sleeve of his shirt, giving his mother that smug little smile that looks just like Daniel's, and he says: “Mom, either you're going to need to start buying more milk or just get us a cow to put in the basement and milk ourselves, 'cause we're out again.”
Little shit, she thought, Linda had been half tempted to tell the brat to go outside and start shoveling snow for the neighbors so he could buy his own goddamn milk. No, that would be wrong, she knew it, that was what Daniel would have said except with more vulgarity and added slaps to the face. She would be the good mom, she would go out and brave the elements to provide for her kids.
Two miles were all that separated her from Manny's Food and Liquor, two treacherous miles of small streets still yet unploughed by the city. This wouldn't have happened at the old house, she thought, feeling her tires slip a bit as she maneuvered around a large hump of snow left sitting right of center in the street. At the old house, there had been a drug store only three blocks away, three short blocks, you could see it practically once you turned that first corner. Even in a blizzard she wouldn't have hesitated to send James with money to take a walk and get the milk himself. But no, they didn't live there anymore. They couldn't live there anymore, not since Daniel moved out, lost his job to the recession, and started stiffing her on the child support.
Linda turned onto a bigger street, less than half a mile now from her destination, her car nearly taking a full spin as her back tires hit a solid patch of ice. With teeth biting into her lower lip, muffling the string of curses leaving her throat, she carefully turned into the direction that the car was pulling, managing to keep the vehicle facing forward on the road. Another car, she saw, had not been so lucky on that same turn. It had spun out all the way across to the other side of the street, coming to rest when the vehicle ran sideways into the traffic light pole, crunching what was hopefully an empty passenger side inward.
The thought of getting out of her car to see if the occupants of the accident needed any sort of help didn't even cross Linda's mind until Manny's was well within her sights. Even then it was only a passing doubt, hardly a worry. After all, it was ten minutes to ten and any delay would have hindered her ability to make it inside the store's sliding door before it was shut off.
Florescent lights glowed with a fading quality inside the tiny corner store, giving its contents a strange, almost a grainy visual. It was as if Linda were walking through the narrow aisles while viewing the stacked shelves through a dirty camera lens. Moving past rows of pre-made, boxed, and processed food, Linda remembered a distant time when she didn't have to rely on such conveniences to feed her family.
There had once been a young woman, naïve and full of hope, who could take one look at the beautiful baby boy she had created and fall in love, each and every time. A woman who enjoyed coming home from work to take up the shared duties of cooking and cleaning with a man she once loved, a man who would wrap warm arms around her smaller frame to kiss her forcefully after they were apart for anytime longer than an hour.. That was a young woman who had made baby food from scratch, who had taken two young children to parks and zoos and the beach with a smile on her face as she watched the joy unfold across those of her babies. As Linda pulled open the glass door holding the gallons of milk captive, pulling one out from the cold space where they lived, she wondered where that woman had gone to and just how long she had been dead.
The young man behind the counter only looked up briefly from the phone held firmly in his hand as she brought the cold, clear plastic jug filled with its sloshing white contents up to his attention. She watched as the boy quickly gave her the once over with his eyes as he rung her up, seeing the small smirk that pulls his lip up by the corner on his dark face as he hands her back her change. He was a handsome boy, just like Daniel had been, he'd make some girl weak someday, make her fall into his trap. She'd come to love him, depend on him, and then watch as he transformed from a passionate man, who pushed himself inside of her with force as they rubbed sweat and naked body grease across bedsheets, tabletops and carpets – down to another fat and emotionally unstable, apron-grabbing child.
Outside there were more lights than there had been before, even from just outside Manny's she could see the reds and whites from the ambulance beaming up and down the street. Linda wondered if someone had died, visions of bloody sheets of ice illuminated by headlights passing swift through her mind. Driving slowly past the scene of the accident she caught the sight of paramedics carrying something broken-looking on a stretcher. A car horn behind her pushed her on, down the smaller, darker street that would take her back home, the liquid companion in the backseat swaying wildly in its container as she made the wide turn.
How easily that mangled body back there could have been hers, all for a gallon of milk. All for a thing she could once supply her children with free of charge from her own insides. Then where would they be? With their father? Linda didn't want to think about it, glancing furtively through her rear view mirror at the sloshing stuff nestled so securely in the backseat, protected like the prize that it had become. For a moment of blinding insanity, Linda envisioned herself waking up early the next morning, like the girl she thought used to exist many years ago, and go down the stairs to quietly make her kids a hot breakfast of eggs, bacon, and buttered toast. She'd make them sit at the that breakfast table so they could look straight into her smiling, well-rested face as they ate their meal made with love.