Ask Your Mom

Fiction by Kristi Ferguson

Leah stepped through the automatic doors and breathed in the cool air with a sigh of relief. She gave a self-conscious smile to the teenage boy who muttered “Welcome to Walmart,” as he handed over a shopping cart. Sweat dripped down her neck and frazzled hair escaped a makeshift bun. She was painfully aware of her ill-fitting outfit—she’d put on twenty pounds and her old maternity top was all she could fit into.

She pushed her embarrassment aside, gripped the cart, and steeled herself against the bright lights and noisy commotion as she entered the second set of doors. She mentally reviewed her shopping list. Cheese, ham, and bread for sandwiches. A new notebook for Sy. Maybe, if she had time, she’d go by women’s clothing.

Leah turned left through the produce section, inhaling the smell of fresh fruit and veggies. They’d rot before she could cook them. She gazed at the tubs of pre-cut watermelon, wondering if the boys would eat them if she left them in the refrigerator. Then she dismissed the thought. It wouldn’t last, the pieces already looked slimy in their plastic prisons.

She continued from produce, through bakery, and towards the frozen meat section. She glanced through hams and settled on sliced turkey. Turkey is healthier. She was eyeing the freezer bin of whole chickens and ribeye steaks, daydreaming about a real meal—fresh salmon or a roasted brisket with buttery potatoes, charred carrots, and sweet parsnips—so it wasn’t until she neared the dairy cross-aisle that she saw them. The girl’s hand loosely gripped the bars of the cart. Her mother was pulling a gallon of milk from the refrigerated shelf to settle among her many groceries.

Leah wanted to run, to turn around and walk down the center aisle away from the crisp, open periphery of the store. To go to the next item on her list and forget she’d seen these apparitions. But she couldn’t remember what she needed next; all she could think about was last winter.


The first snowstorm had come earlier than forecasted, and Leah was excited at the news that city schools were closing early. The college had also canceled afternoon classes, urging students and staff alike to get home safely before the roads got too bad. Leah felt comforted that Brian could walk the three blocks home from his high school. As she expected, leaving campus was chaos. By the time she pulled into Thomas Elementary’s pick-up lane, Silas was the only child waiting.

“There you are!” Sy said as he climbed into the passenger seat. The snow packed on his shoes scattered across the carpet.

“How was your morning? Happy school’s canceled?” Leah turned on her blinker and headed away from the parking lot.

Sy nodded vigorously. “Very happy.”

Leah was two blocks away, half-listening to Sy talk about the impact of algal blooms on ocean ecosystems when she saw a small figure too close to the curb, trudging through the swirling snow. She slowed down, and Sy looked out the window.

“Hey look, it’s Josie.”

“You know her?”

“We’re in class together.”

Leah slowed to a stop and pressed the button to Sy’s window, then leaned across her son. “Josie.”

The little figure stopped and looked towards her.

“Would you like a ride home?”

The girl started to shake her head but then saw Sy waving her over.

“It’s okay Josie, it’s Sy from school, we’ll take you home.”

It took the better part of ten minutes for Josie’s teeth to stop chattering. Leah was relieved she had spotted her. She couldn’t imagine the girl walking all the way home in the fast-falling snow. Once she’d warmed up, Josie was cheerful and talkative.

“Thanks for the ride. My mom would have picked me up, but Daddy took the car.”

“He did?” Leah said absently, focused on navigating through the snow. 

“Yes. Mommy said he’s gone to find a new job in Columbus, but he’ll be back for my birthday in March.”

Leah pulled in front of the apartment Josie pointed out to her, the only one without lights shining through the windows. It occurred to Leah that Josie’s mother might not know school let out early. 

“Is your mom home?”

“She should be soon, but maybe not yet.” Josie unclicked her seatbelt and heaved her backpack from the floor. “Thanks for the ride!”

“Of course.” Leah paused. Josie couldn’t be older than eight. “Maybe Sy and I can wait with you till your Mom gets home?”

Josie smiled. “Sure. Sy, want to watch TV?”

Inside the sparse, cold apartment, Leah sat on the couch while the kids watched cartoons. She didn’t want to pry, but couldn’t help but notice the pile of last notice envelopes on the kitchen counter. A piece of yellow paper titled “Final Notice of Eviction” was partially hidden under the envelopes.

When Josie’s mom came through the door, Leah realized she knew her from parent-teacher meetings. Amy always came alone, but she was friendly and talkative, like her daughter, with soft brown hair and cheerful green eyes that matched those of the little girl on the couch.

“Mommy! Sy’s mom brought me home!” 

“I’m so sorry to intrude,” Leah began, but Amy gushed her gratitude.

“Oh, thank you for driving her. I was so worried. They got out early, and with the snow, the bus was running late. She usually walks, but not in weather like this.”

Amy was pulling off her boots and taking off a thick but worn coat. “Please, can I get you something? Would you like some water, some tea?”

Leah knew she should be getting home, but the young woman was so eager to have her stay, she accepted a cup of tea. While the water boiled and the children played in the living room, Amy told Leah about her troubles, keeping her voice low. Josie’s father was gone and good riddance, but he’d taken their only car and all their savings. Amy learned he hadn’t been paying their bills. He’d managed both their incomes, but the rent hadn’t been paid in six months.

“The only reason we still have electricity is because the energy company said I’d qualify for LIHEAP. They said they’d wait on shutting it off but to try to keep our usage low.” Amy smiled wryly. “What’s that they say about the love of a good woman? I always wondered how much love or goodness it would take.” 

Back in her own warm home, Leah couldn’t stop thinking about Amy and Josie. Even after she’d told her husband Jake about them, and he’d frowned and shaken his head, she couldn’t dismiss the image of the yellow paper, the pile of bills, and that little girl in the snow. Over the weekend, she made up her mind and asked Jake to think about it. She pressed him again Tuesday evening.

“I saw Amy and Josie walking home again today.”

Jake gave the risotto a final stir, the rich scent of white wine and tender, salty lamb filling the kitchen.

“You know, Josie is just Sy’s age.”

Jake banged the wooden spoon against the side of the pot. “Yes, you told me.”

“Jake.” Leah halted her pacing and stared at him until he stopped and gave her his full attention. “They have nowhere to go.”

Jake sighed, a deep sigh, from the pit of his stomach. “You know they can come here. You already think that’s best. Why do you need me to say it?”

But she did somehow. Leah knew her own mind, but she wanted Jake to agree that her thoughts were good and right. Now that he had, she softened. She came close and squeezed his arm.

“Thank you.” She smiled, and he smiled back at her. An indulging, adoring smile.


Before Leah could turn around, alter direction, Josie saw her. The little girl released the cart in a quick moment and ran from her mother’s side. “Auntie Leah!” she squealed in delight, reaching up and flinging her arms around Leah’s body.

Leah couldn’t breathe. She wanted nothing more than to tear the girl from her, to have never invited her into her home, to have never seen her trudge through the snow, to have never known her. Still, she didn’t mean to flinch.

At the movement, Josie pulled back in alarm. She looked up at Leah in confusion, trying to identify what she felt but could not understand. “Auntie Leah?” Her eyes searched Leah’s as though perhaps she had confused a stranger for a friend. “What’s wrong?” 

Leah stared down at Josie but could not see her. What had gone wrong? She’d asked herself that question a thousand times, searching for what she’d missed. There must have been cracks in their relationship, a fault line Amy’s presence had turned into disaster. Now though, all she could think of was the empty kitchen. The frenzied afternoons picking up the boys, making them dinner, washing the dishes, learning to mow the grass that grew too high, too fast. The mortgage on the spacious house she now cursed. The image of Jake in the guest room, leaning against Amy’s naked back, kissing her neck. The divorce papers, still unsigned, sitting on her kitchen counter. All she could feel was the persistent emptiness in her stomach that cheese and turkey sandwiches could not fill.

Leah jolted back to reality, to the face of the girl before her. She raised her head to look at Amy, three yards away, still clutching the gallon of milk. Leah didn’t know Jake anymore, maybe she never had, but Amy might know what happened. Maybe she could see clearly what Leah had missed, what she would never understand. Why don’t you ask your mom? was all Leah wanted to say. But when she looked down again at Josie’s upturned eyes, something shook in her, rattled and broke or came back together, and she decided she would have a real meal. She forced her face into a semblance of a smile. She touched her hand to the child’s shoulder in a way she hoped was comforting. Then, she pulled the cart back and headed for the butcher counter.

Kristi Ferguson

Kristi Ferguson is a researcher and writer. Originally from Brazil, she currently lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband. Her fiction and creative nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Litro Magazine, BULL, Fabula Argentea, and elsewhere. Connect with her on Twitter @KFergusonWrites.