“Shard of Glass” by Alaya Dawn Johnson:
That day, my mother picked me up from school, wearing the yellow sundress and shawl I remembered from our trip with Father the year before. She looked just like she did most days back then—a glamour queen, a movie star (“Just like Lena Horne,” my friend Chloe had once said, “only darker—oh, sorry, Leah!”), but today her beauty somehow had a harder, more defiant edge to it. I could smell the expensive Dior perfume as soon as I opened the door, which surprised me, because my mom was usually fastidious about not getting perfume on her clothes. She was wearing her bug glasses—huge dark things with lenses that bulged out like fly eyes and reflected my face like a fun-house mirror. She had tied a yellow silk scarf around her hair and was taking deep pulls on a cigarette held between two immaculately manicured fingers. Only I knew about the nicotine stains she carefully covered with her special order “forest sable” cream each morning.
Tiffany, a stupid but vicious senator’s daughter who I had the misfortune of sharing a classroom with, suddenly dashed from inside the school, her face flushed.
“Hello, Mrs. Wilson,” she called. Before my mother could respond, she giggled and ran back to three of her friends waiting beyond the door. I could hear them laughing, but I was glad I couldn’t understand their words. They were all fascinated with my mother—the black housekeeper who dressed like Katharine Hepburn and drove a Cadillac, whose daughter’s “light toffee” skin indicated that she might just like her coffee with a lot of cream.
Sometimes I hated those girls.
“Get in the car, Leah,” my mother said. Her already husky voice was pitched low, as though she’d been crying. That made me nervous. Why was she here?
“Ma, Chloe was going to show me her dad’s new camera. Can’t I go home on the bus?”
My mom pulled on the cigarette until it burned the filter, and then ground it into the car ashtray—already filled with forty or so butts. She always emptied out the ashtray each evening.
“Get in the car, Leah.” My mom’s voice was even huskier as she lit another cigarette and tossed the match out of the window.
I sat down and shut the door.
We rode in silence for a while. Despite her shaking hands and the rapidly dwindling box of cigarettes, she drove meticulously, even coming to a full stop at the stop signs. She never stopped at stop signs.
“Ma . . . is something wrong?” I asked hesitantly.
Her fingers tightened on the wheel until her knuckles looked even paler than my skin. “We’re going on a trip, Leah,” she said finally, jamming on the brakes at a stop sign.