“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Eli startled at the sound of his mother’s anger. He reluctantly turned his gaze from the graffiti covered buildings. Eli stared back at his mother, wide eyed at having been caught. Even if he had a reason why it seemed like a good idea to lick the window, he was unable to answer.
”You would never lick a window at home, why would you think it’s okay to lick a subway window? Windows have millions of germs and now they’re all over your tongue. Don’t even think about putting that tongue back in your mouth. Turn around and sit on your butt like a decent human being.”
She kept his cheeks pinched as he slowly turned around and pulled his knees from beneath him. She released his mouth but glowered at him and his stubby, pink tongue. The boy wrapped his lips around the base of his tongue and kept his eyes on the ground while his mother decided which stop to get off.
The subway car slowed and jerked to a stop and she grabbed his arm and escorted him onto the platform.
“That dirty tongue better stay out of that mouth.”
His mother stomped down the stairs with him dragging behind. At street level, she ran to the nearest Deli and Grocery crumbling on the corner. There were scribbles on the walls and windows and this alarmed the boy because the corner stores on his block didn’t look like this. She pulled him up and down the short aisles before finding a small bottle of mouthwash for $2.49. She pushed him against the glass candy case at the counter.
“Tongue.” She pinched his cheeks again, forcing him to stick his tongue out further.
“This is all. I don’t need a bag.” She pulled three one dollar bills from her wallet and didn’t wait for the change before grabbing his arm once again and yanking him back out the door. If Eli had been able to speak, he would have expressed the pain in his arm.
Outside the door, she turned him to face her, kneeling down without touching the ground and pinching her knees together so her skirt stayed closed.
“This is mouthwash. You’re going to swish it around in your mouth to kill the germs.”
The boy reached for the bottle, anything to be able to put his tongue back in his mouth. It was cold and numb and rubbery.
“No, let me show you first.”
She opened the bottle and poured a small amount in the cap. She threw it back like a shot, swished it around in her cheeks and spat to the side.
“Now do it like that. Swish it. Do not swallow it. It will make you sick.”
She poured a cap full and handed it to him. He swished it like his mother had demonstrated but she hadn’t prepared him for the burn. It crept upwards where it tingled between his gums and cheeks. It filled his nose, making him want to sneeze, and making his eyes water. He spit, but he didn’t turn to the side. The used mouthwash hit his mother solidly in the face.
She didn’t move. He stared back into her disbelieving eyes. Her hand struck out fast. The sting was immediate. More tears filled his eyes before he had a chance to decide not to cry. She wiped her face and, once again, grabbed his arm. No one on the Brooklyn sidewalk paid any attention to the mother dragging her crying child behind her. He struggled to keep his sobs quiet and his cheeks dry. The sting on his cheek burned more than the mouthwash ever did.
Emily Coleman graduated from Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa and moved to New York to pursue a career in editing. She has been published at Postcard Shorts and has been regularly writing reviews for the Blue Flame online magazine. Recently she has started her own editing services called M.E. Editing; firstname.lastname@example.org.