Matthew's Choice

By: Patricia Bradley

CHAPTER ONE

“NOAH, COME DANCE with me.”

His mom’s voice floated like a feather from the tiny living room to the equally tiny kitchen, where Noah searched the bare pantry for something to eat.

“Not now, Mom.” Bleach from the big pan on the stove made his eyes water. He had to remember to take his socks and stuff out before he went to bed.

“Noah! Get in here this instant!”

His stomach twisted. He closed the pantry door and trudged into the living room, where his mom waltzed around the room to music playing on a CD player, her skinny arms crooked as if she were being held. She had that “look” he’d come to dread. She barely missed the small cedar tree with its paper ornaments and cardboard star on top. Dry needles lay scattered on the tile floor. He’d have to drag it to the street tomorrow. New Year’s Day. His shoulders dropped. Then school would start back again next week.

His mom stopped when she spied him. “There’s my boy. C’mere. You’ll be a teenager before I know it, and you need to know how to dance. Those girls are gonna be knockin’ our door down.”

“Aw, Mom, do I have to? I won’t even be ten until next month.”

“No-ah...”

He sighed and let her lead him around the room as she sang to the music.

“Did you know I could’ve been a famous singer?”

“Yeah, you told me.” Over and over she’d told him that a big producer in Nashville had wanted to sign her, but she’d gotten sick. And he knew what kind of sick. She twirled and then guided him around the room again. At least they didn’t have to worry about bumping into any furniture. Unless a worn-out couch and wooden crates counted.

“You’re gonna be a lady-killer, you know.” She chucked him under the chin.

Finally the waltz ended, and she released him.

“I’m gonna fix you some supper now,” she said.

He frowned. “I don’t think we have anything. Maybe I could go next door to Mrs. Adams. She said anytime we didn’t have anything to eat she’d—”

His mother shook him. “Don’t you dare go beggin’ for food. We don’t ask anyone for anything. And you’d better not forget that.”

Noah broke free and stumbled back.

She caught him and dropped to her knees. “Oh, Noah! I’m so sorry.”

He wrapped his arms around her, her bony shoulders sharp against his hands. “It’s okay, Mom. I think I saw a package of ramen noodles. I’ll go fix ’em. Why don’t you rest on the couch?” Her eyes searched his, and he nodded, willing her to do it. “Okay? I’ll bring you a bowl.”

She smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “You’re a good boy. You deserve so much better than me.”

“I love you, Mom.”

“I don’t know why.”

He stood still as she steadied herself and stood, and then he helped her to the couch. “I’ll be right back.”

Her eyes drooped and she murmured something he couldn’t understand. He waited a few minutes longer, until he was certain she was asleep. In the kitchen, he turned off the stove. When he returned he’d get his clothes out of the pan and hang them up to dry. Noah shrugged on his thin jacket and eased out the back door. He knew a place to get food without asking for it.

Noah slipped through the dark streets, shivering in the chilly air. At least it wasn’t freezing. It’d been unusually warm for December in Mississippi. Everyone in Cedar Grove said so. It hadn’t seemed like Christmas at all.

He passed the jewelry store where he and his mom had stood Christmas Day, picking out gifts they would give each other if they had the money. She’d picked out a watch for him—he didn’t even know jewelry stores had watches for kids. He’d picked out a pearl necklace, and she’d almost cried. It’d made her sad to leave the ones her mom had given her at Joe’s Pawn Shop last month. But the rent had to be paid, she’d said. He didn’t want to think about this month.

Loud music boomed to the sound of an electric guitar at the bar on the corner, and he crossed to the other side, keeping in the shadows. Two blocks later, the First State Bank sign blinked the time and temperature. Mike’s Café was across the street, dark and shuttered. He groaned. A Closed sign hung on the door.

It’s New Year’s Eve, dummy. The owner had probably left a long time ago, and any food he threw away would be gone already. Noah wasn’t the only one who knew about the food the man threw away. Perfectly good food. He didn’t understand why the guy didn’t just use it the next day. He went behind the building just as the back door scraped open and a man exited with two black bags in his hands.