Epic, by Jeannine A. Cook

They weren’t dead, but they were almost dead. Brenda was the one I wished would die first. Her hair was cornrowed down to her neck. She’d slap gel and poop and piss between her braids. When Grandma couldn’t take her client Brenda’s shenanigans, Grandma would stuff a dirty tennis ball in Brenda’s mouth and cover it with duct tape. Grandma used to be a nurse so she knew how to tie Brenda’s arms to the bed with ropes. She was the reason we kept locks on the refrigerator. I laughed at Brenda when she got tied up. She laughed at me when she got free. I hated Brenda.

And then there was Kitty. Kitty had one arm and no legs, but she’d talk to me until I napped at her feet. She told me to never ask what happened to her. Just remember this is what happens when people try to get away. I told Kitty everything. She knew how much I wanted my mother. I’d draw pictures of what I thought she might look like, but Grandma threw them away. If I got caught speaking about my mom, Grandma tied me to the bed tight. I had pain. Kitty had a more pain. When she was hurting her eyes went big and her skin went tight. Her short curly hair filled with sweat. Grandma said Kitty talked too much. ‘The pills made her shut the hell up and stay the hell still.’ But the more pills we gave her, the crazier Kitty got. 

“Epic. Epic. Get grandma. Get your graaaaaaandma. Tell her I’m hurting. Tell her I am in pain. Help me, Epic. Help me.” She scream-whispered down the hall. The pain made Kitty talk through her teeth. She’d spit on me when I got too close. “Epic. Epic. Can you hear me, Epic? Can you? I need help.” She spoke fast and slow. 

“Grandma, Kitty needs pills,” I’d say. Grandma would pull out a baggie of multi-colored pills. 

“Make sure she takes them all.” 

I stuffed them in Kitty’s mouth and fed her water. I hid a few for later. In case Kitty needed them.

“And tell her to shut that mouth or she’ll get the muzzle,” Grandma screamed through the walls a few minutes later.

I didn’t like watching Kitty cry. She was my friend. She was a Scuba Girl. She had the tshirt and gloves to prove it. Kitty hollered for another hour even after I gave her the pills.

I hate Brenda’s stupid hyena laugh. Once, when she still could talk, she grabbed me while I was walking to the bathroom, and tried to make me sit on her lap. 

“Sit on me, Epic,” she said. “Play with me.” I peed right on her feet. She pointed at her pee covered socks and laughed. She got tied to the bedpost for that and I got tied to the bedpost too. Even though I hate Brenda, her laugh reminds me of my mom.

Grandma came out of her bedroom in a towel and slippers agitated. Her boyfriend waved at me from the room when she opened the door. I didn’t wave back. He flashed the middle finger at me as he left. I flashed the middle finger right back. 

“Dinner time,” Grandma sung. Forced the blue pills down Brenda’s throat with her fingers and followed it with duct tape. She gave me orange pills and spanked my butt with a hanger. ‘I spank you for what you might do. Get your ass in that bed.’ We all went to sleep.

I woke up coughing in a room full of smoke. When I opened my eyes, Brenda was pointing at Grandma’s room with both hands and laughing. Duct tape hung from one side of her mouth and she had a lighter in her hands. When Brenda gets out of bed, we all have to get the water board. 

“Go back to bed, Brenda. You ugly stinking, asswi….” I started. 

Brenda kept laughing. Doubled over even. And then I couldn’t catch my breath from the fumes. I shoved Brenda trying to run to find my Grandma. Brenda shoved me back and I noticed the ashes and cigarette butts in her hair.

“Grandma,” I called out before the smoke stole my air. 

“Grandma,” Brenda mimicked me jumping up and down not letting me by.

“Stop it, Brenda you ole fat stupid dum…,” I managed before my chest overheated. 

On my way to Grandma’s room, Kitty called out my name. 

“Epic, please help me first,” Kitty coughed. “Crawl to me, Epic. Get on your knees and crawl to Kitty. Don’t inhale the smoke. Grandma will be ok. Come help Kitty.” 

I got on all fours holding my breath like a diver. Deep breath from the bottom of your lungs like Kitty always said. Brenda did what I did only laughing wildly.

“Hold your breath, Epic.” Kitty hollered from her room. 

“I am coming…” I started to crawl when ugly nasty stinking Brenda snatched my leg from under me. She held it in one hand and wouldn’t let go. She held it high and low. I tried to turn over and hit her in the face. But she wouldn’t stop. She yoyo-ed me up and yoyo-ed me down. The more I fought, the more she laughed, the more I cried for my mom. 

“Brenda,” Kitty called sternly from the other room– somehow knowing what was happening. “Brenda listen to me, let him go.”

Brenda beat her chest with one arm and held my ankle in the other. With my free foot, I cocked back and kicked in her top lip. Her head jerked back and her mouth bled. She smiled harder. Using the hand that was holding my foot, she stopped the blood. 

“Epic. You have to get me off this bed,” Kitty called again. 

“I am coming, Kitty. I am coming.” I crawled to her room.

At the same time, Grandma called out too. “Epic. Epic. Help me.” 

I put Kitty’s chair on the side of her bed, climbed on and pushed and pushed at her wiggling misshapen midsection until she was in her chair. When we both got to the hallway, I started towards Grandma’s room, but Kitty was going the other way. 

“You getting your Grandma?” She asked confused.

“Yes. I said.” 

“Give her these pills then,” Kitty told me. “They’ll make her shut the hell up for once,” and then Kitty used her lips to roll her chair to the front door. 


I stayed on all fours through the maze of a house. Through the kitchen, across the living room, down the hallway into Grandma’s room. 

Her eyes were filled with tears. She was staring at the sky gasping for air.

“It’s gonna be ok, Grandma.” I lied. 

“Grandma, I promise,” I lied some more. I climbed her bed and held her hand. Then sat above her on the pillow placing her head on my lap. I held her head as she stared at me.

I woke up to Grandma’s cold body jerking back and forth. 

Brenda had her hands around Grandma’s throat and she was laughing from her gut. Grandma’s eyes rolled back into his head. 

“Grandma,” I couldn’t shake her loose from Brenda’s grip.

“Brenda,” I mustered. “Brenda you doo doo hair wearing, french fry eating, fish butt smelling, dragon breath breathing…” On the word breathing I hauled my whole body at her neck. She landed on her back. I stayed on top her grabbing her hair and beating her head into the ground. She snarled and spit at me. I scratched her eyes and bit her cheek. When i was about to butt her in the nose with my head, the emergency workers burst in. 

“She was trying to hurt her,” I explained still kicking as they peeled me off of Brenda’s neck. “Brenda tried to choke Grandma,” I explained. 

My heart pumped blood through my chest. They adjusted Grandma. Checked for her pulse.  

Gushes of water spraying through our house puddling on the floors.

“Son, I am going to get you some help,”  the worker bent over to my eye level and picked me up. “No one should be living like this.”

They loaded Kitty, Brenda, and now me into a van. Brenda’s bloodied mouth snickered when she saw me. 

“Is there anyone we can call for you,” the officer faked a smile. “Do you have a mom or a dad we can contact?” He avoided everyone else but me. 

Kitty spoke up. “Officer this is his mother,” she said pointing at Brenda. The officer looked confused and so did I. 

“But how…”

“How wha?”

“Well ma’am, she, uhh…”

“She’s my sister,” Kitty replied. “I’m his aunt. And that monster right there.” She paused. “That’s my mom.”

When I looked to the right, I saw the emergency workers wheeling out a body covered head to toe in a thin white blanket. My Grandma’s manicured pink toes poked through.

“We did it,” Kitty said turning to the Brenda and then me. 

We did?” I asked. 

Brenda burst into laughter and opened her arms for a hug.

For the last 10 years Jeannine Cook has worked as a trusted writer for several startups, corporations, non-profits, and influencers. In addition to a holding a master’s degree from The University of the Arts, Jeannine is also a Leeway Art & Transformation Grantee and a winner of the South Philly Review Difference Maker Award. Jeannine’s work has been recognized by several national with and international news outlets including the New York Times, CNN, Ebony, BET, Barcroft TV and Daily Mail. She is a proud educator and mother  8 years of teaching creative writing in alternative schools. She recently returned from Nairobi, Kenya facilitating social justice creative writing with youth from 15 countries around the world. Jeannine has shared her “out of the box” approach to organizing through guerilla creative writing with over 1000 schools, neighborhoods, community groups, and organizations in Philadelphia. She considers herself a visual ethnographer because she often collaborates with hidden communities to recover a suppressed history. She writes about the complex intersections of single motherhood, activism, and community arts. Her pieces are featured in several publications including Mothering Magazine, Girl God, Mahogany Baby, Good Mother Project, Printworks, and midnight & indigo. Jeannine is currently producing an art installation of her writings deconstructed into paper art sculptures, collages, and calligrams called Conversations With Harriett.

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