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Like Blood for Ink

When he was three, Jacob got his first skinned knee.
I was in the backyard, trimming the raspberry bushes, while Derek moved wood chips in the front and Jacob rode his scooter up and down the sidewalk. Then a high-pitched squall cut through the podcast in my earbuds and I went running.
The wheelbarrow had tipped on one side in Derek's haste to collect Jacob. He sat on the sidewalk with my poor baby between his knees, hugging him and trying to make him laugh. Jacob only paused in between sobs to look up at me. "Mama kiss it?"
"Oh, baby, of course." I bent down, but stopped before I could deliver the promise treatment. His denim pants had soaked up the blood: not a dark red stain, but pure black. Not blood at all, but ink. As I stared, the dark lines wicked into readable words: I EATED THE LAST COOKIE BUT I TOLD MAMA TILLY EATED IT. I TOUCHED THE SHARP KNIFE. I HATE MRS SCOTT'S BAD DOG.
"Yes, baby. Sorry." I dropped a quick peck on his shin, just below the ink lines, then struggled back to my feet. I couldn't see to meet Derek's eyes. "There are Band-Aids in the kitchen cupboard."
"I know. Honey, are you--?"
But I was already inside the house, the garage door slamming behind me.
In the bathroom, I washed my hands and my face. Hot water and soap failed to wash away my puffy eyes. I sat on the toilet lid and leaned my head against the cool, daffodil-colored wallpaper. Deep breaths. Deep breaths, until you can say what's wrong. What was all that therapy about, all that rehearsal, if everything fell apart at showtime? A sad, lonely square of toilet paper clung to the roll; I poked it listlessly. I'd known all along there was a fifty-fifty chance, but actually seeing it--
My pocket buzzed; I dug out my phone. U ok Jess?
It should've been easy enough to just type it out. Instead I swiped my fingers a few times: im fine
My phone let me know Derek had read my message, but he didn't answer. His voice issued from the kitchen, on the other side of the bathroom wall. Too deep for me to make out what he was saying, and Jacob filled the silences in between with a jumble-tumble of squeaky three-year-old lisping.
I closed my eyes, but even the darkness was overlaid with a wild kaleidoscope of lines and colors from how hard I'd rubbed them.
A knock at the bathroom door.
"...Come in." I jumped up and grabbed the towel off the rack, saving it from its wadded-up state with a vigorous refolding. "Just tidying up a bit."
Derek opened the door and sat on the counter. "You can tell me if you're mad at me. I should have been keeping a closer eye on him."
My reflection had gotten less puffy-eyed. I wiped a tiny fingerprint off the corner of the mirror. "Little kids get scraped knees. It's no big deal."
"And yet I feel like it might be a nonzero amount of big deal. What's going on?"
"I said nothing." I pulled open the drawer under the sink and took out a new roll of toilet paper to replace the old one.
"I know you said nothing, but--"
"I said nothing!" I slammed the drawer--too fast, too hard. The bottom of the cupboard sheared the skin off the back of two fingers. Pain sidled up a moment later, only after I saw what I'd done. I stuck the fingers in my mouth.
Not fast enough. Black blood had already dribbled onto the stacked rolls of bath tissue, leaving lines in a tidy cursive: I JUST DIDN'T WANT HIM TO BE LIKE ME.
The bathroom doorknob jiggled.
I wrapped my fingers in the hem of my shirt. They stung, with the sweat soaked in. "Get him a snack or something. Please. I'm fine."
But Jacob hadn't gotten his patience from Derek, either. The door cracked ajar and he peeked in, clutching a half-eaten cookie. He took in the black-stained toilet paper, my hidden hand, my face. He pursed his lips. "I kiss it, Mama?"
I couldn't say no. I couldn't say anything. He shoved the rest of the cookie in his mouth to leave both hands free, and pressed his lips to my bloodied knuckles. "Mwah!" I wiped ink and cookie crumbs from his chin, and pulled him onto my lap, rocking us both back and forth.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, September 13th, 2021
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