Queenie is eight when her mother makes her walk up and down the white-stone stairs of the city library with two borrowed books on her head. If Queenie falters and they tumble to the ground, she has to brave the steel in her mother’s face, then do it twice more. She feels people staring, maybe laughing, and her face flames in secret beneath her skin. She climbs, eyes straight ahead, lifting each sneakered foot with deliberation, as if wearing glass slippers.
Queenie becomes an expert in the weight of books, for she has to read aloud whatever she chooses. Fantasies are easiest to balance, although sometimes harder to read. Weeknights, she sits at the rust-flaked kitchen table, swinging one leg, reading about winged girls, glittering lands, as her mother reheats mac and cheese before heading to the evening shift at the diner. Alone in the apartment, Queenie’s voice rattles like dice.
Queenie feels ashamed of her relief when her mom loses her job. Cutbacks. The word slices her tongue; tastes of metal. Her mother starts reading to her at dinnertime, but makes her eat with a book on her head.
Queenie is almost nine when they move into their car, a dented Ford Fiesta, the pale red of an unripe cherry. Her mother sleeps in front; Queenie has the back to herself. They scrub their underwear in the tiny sinks at McDonald’s. Her mother wears her steel face; says this ain’t but a moment Queenie you hear me. They continue the library ritual, adding more books until Queenie can glide up and down the stairs balancing a stack of seven. At night, Queenie dreams she can fly with a tower of books on her head. She sleeps very still, chin lifted.
“Balance,” a finalist is the 2023 SmokeLong Grand Micro Competition, was originally published in FlashFlood, 2021.