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The following is an excerpt from the title story of Home Remedies by Angela Pneuman, published by Harcourt.
When Lena gets sick, June, her mother, doesn't notice for two days. It's a Kentucky January, bleak and rainy with an occasional paltry snow, and Lena's father, Patrick, from whom June has been divorced one year, has just announced his plans to remarry in March. Lena hears her mother talking to friends on the phone, her voice cheery and capable. "Oh, well, you know, it was bound to happen. We're both moving on. Now, six months ago? I would have been shaken to the core." But off the phone, June shifts around the house, teary-eyed at irrelevant things she brings to Lena's attention: a greeting-card commercial on television, the few dead leaves still stuck to the branches of the sycamore outside the kitchen window, a lumpy ceramic turtle Lena made for Patrick in kindergarten, four years ago. To cheer up, June gives herself a home perm, and her hair turns frazzly, separating into kinky hunks with straight, brittle ends. "What do you think?" June says, holding up the back of her hair with her hand, lowering her head for Lena to see.
Lena squeezes a fistful, says it feels like the pink roof insulation in the attic. This sends June to her bedroom for an hour.
At school Lena sits at her desk, listless and warm. The glands at the back of her throat swell to the size of peas, and when her teacher takes the class to the bathrooms, Lena pushes past the other girls to the mirrors over the sink, where under the fluorescent light she tries to see. She opens her mouth so wide that the corners of her mouth crack into tiny grains of dry skin, but her throat lies in shadow. All day she probes the lumps with the back of her tongue, just to make sure they're still sore. She likes how her voice has gone husky.
At home June circles the wedding date, March twelfth, with a red pen on the calendar by the refrigerator. Since the announcement she's been talking to the pastor each week again, as she did just after the divorce, and has taken to repeating for Lena phrases he gives her: "You must learn to love yourself," and "All things work together for good."
"I want you to fully grasp that," she tells Lena. It's easy, she's said on the phone, to talk to Lena as though the girl is much older. It could have something to do with how Lena's eyes shrink behind thick glasses, how in sickness her skin has taken on a yellowish tint.
"Do you love yourself, Lena?" June asks, bringing her face so close that Lena can see every hair, every pore. This close, faces look like something else entirely, the nubbly surface of the planet Lena's seen on science shows.
"I guess," says Lena. She's never thought about feeling anything at all for herself, as though she were another person, but June seems to think it's important, which means it might be or it might not be. The problem with June, Lena once heard Patrick say, is that everything turns into a big production. A weepy federal case.
"What's that you're doing with your mouth?" June says.
Lena has been feeling her glands, and she bites her tongue to keep still. On her hot forehead, June's palm is clammy.
"You're burning up, Lena. You're hot as can be. Have you been feeling bad?"
"I can feel my throat," Lena says.
"You're sick," June says. "Lena, you're sick. I didn't notice and you didn't say. Why didn't you say? You have to say, Lena." June's fingers disappear into her stiff hair. She closes her eyes and says, "I feel like a horrible mother."
—From Home Remedies by Angela Pneuman. Copyright © 2007 by Angela Pneuman. Published by Harcourt. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.