The Price of a Soda

We tried to have a semblance of a normal childhood in desperate circumstances.

by Alice Zong

Credit: Hitra via iStock

It’s quiet in the house and my sister and I are sound asleep. There’s a blue tint coming in from the window; this morning light rests over our eyelids and slowly wakes us from our dreams. We share a bed, and when she starts moving around I begin gaining consciousness. Shortly after, the strong but muffled hum of our alarm jolts us up. My sister quickly turns off our shared phone, placed strategically between our pillows.

“It’s 5:30?” I mumble, trying to fall back asleep.

“Get up, get up! We only have a few minutes.” My sister shakes me awake. 

“I want to sleep some more.” I sluggishly whisper. 

I can feel my sister getting annoyed at me. She pinches my leg hard, and I shoot up off the bed with tears in my eyes. She’s 10 years old and I’m 7, but she acts like a younger sister.

“Okay asshole, now I’m up. But you better watch it, cuz I might just let you get caught on purpose.” 

I limp into the kitchen, where our parents sleep. It’s the only space in our small house for another bed. I’m on guard duty, which means I need to make sure our parents don’t wake up and catch my sister rooting around in my mom’s purse. 

In the early morning light I can see shadowy figures on the kitchen counter. They’re roaches, and they’re running around in the hundreds. I see them crawling all over the pots and pans, leaving their excrement wherever they please. I should never eat at home; I’m basically eating roach sh-t over rice, I think to myself, disgusted. 

My sister interrupts my thoughts by waving a few bills in the air. She whispers “Let’s go!” and we slink back into our bedroom. She divides the cash into two and sticks the bills in our coat sleeves, carefully placing them so they can’t fall out, and we head back to bed to catch some sleep after our stressful heist. Around 40 minutes later, our regular 6:30 alarm rings throughout the house. 

We steal in the morning because Dad randomly checks our rooms at night to see if we are hiding anything. 

Junk Food, Here We Come

“We’re going now!” I see my mom’s head lift up, and she glances at us before going back to sleep. As soon as we close the front door, my sister and I start grinning uncontrollably. We practically skip our way to school. 

Today, our prize is not the school’s free breakfast of cardboard waffles and cold eggs. We walk past the school gates, heading for the deli at the end of the street.

A windchime jingles when we open the door, and the cashier looks over at us briefly before burying his head back into the morning newspapers. Running through the aisles, my sister and I quickly make a pile of junk food in our arms. We are most excited about the bottles of peach soda. 

“My friend Ada says these change color when you open them,” my sister giggles to me. 

“Nuh uh, you’re making that up,” I say, but I had heard the rumors before and now I’m also smiling with excitement. We usually drink tap water in cups riddled with roach droppings.. Our Dad won’t let us replace the moldy and smelly sponge that we’ve been using for over five years now, so we don’t exactly trust freshly washed cups either. 

We get to the cash register, and dump our pickings out on the counter. We count out the money in front of the cashier, in an embarrassing attempt to flaunt our wealth. 

“That’s five 20-dollar bills. 5 times 20 is 100, so it’s $100 in total.” I say proudly to the high school cashier, with a dopey grin on my face.

“I know,” he says flatly, before sighing and checking out all our items. Our total comes to $32, much lower than we expected.

Keep the Change (!)

At 7 years old and with almost no common sense, I tell him “keep the change.” My sister whips her head to glare at me, but it is too late. The cashier quickly takes the money and ushers us out of the shop. 

Standing outside the deli, my sister covers her face with her hands before yelling “WHY DID YOU DO THAT?”

I’m also upset, and I start to cry. “I don’t know. I just wanted him to think we were cool,” I say between sobs.

She takes the bags of snacks out of my hands. “These aren’t for you.” She’s too angry for me to talk back to, so I just walk behind her in silence as we make our way back to the school entrance. 

I drink a carton of milk from the cafeteria as I watch my sister open the peach soda bottle. The liquid changes from clear to a dusty purple, but neither of us comment on it. We are not smiling anymore. She drinks it, then puts it away in her bag with the rest of the snacks. Without saying a word, she heads to her class and leaves me at the cafeteria table by myself. I feel sick to my stomach.

My day goes by in a flash. I don’t have the energy to talk to my classmates, and I’m afraid of the 3:15 dismissal bell. What if my mom has noticed the missing money? What if she tells Dad? My hands and feet go cold, and there’s no saliva in my mouth. This is our biggest heist yet; we’ve taken money from our mom’s purse before, but we were careful not to take too much out of fear of getting caught. Her money was always our golden ticket to getting sugary luxuries like Push Pops and Airhead Rainbow Belts. 

This time, my sister took all the money she could find, and there was no way my mom wouldn’t notice that if she looked in her purse. I can only hope that she hasn’t gone near it today. 

Arriving at our house, we knock on the door. “It’s just Mom today, I think” I say in a low voice. My sister doesn’t reply. We hear footsteps, followed by the jangling of three separate chain locks being pulled off. Our house was always like a prison to us, since Dad was the only one with the keys. Not even my mom was allowed to touch them or make a copy. The door opens; it is our mother.

“I know about what you did,” she says. We haven’t even walked through the door yet, and we halt in our tracks. What’s the plan? Should I play dumb or should I confess? My mom decides for me. 

“I checked my purse today. I thought I was losing money but I didn’t know if I was imagining it.” We hang our heads in fake shame, hoping she will go easy on us if she thinks we are sorry.

Get Away Money, Squandered

There’s water dripping on the floor. Confused, I look up. My mom is crying, something I hear her do often but never really see. Real guilt hits me, and I feel discomfort. I know my sister is feeling the same way—I can see it on her face.

“Please, you two took the money right? Please give it back.” She sobs.

“We can’t,” I whisper under my breath. She hears it and cries harder. “What do you mean you can’t? Please, I won’t get upset, just give my money back!” She stresses “my” with such intensity that I start to get scared.

We live on the first floor of a shared house and we see a neighbor approaching the door. Mom quickly ushers us in. Sitting on my parents’ bed (which doubles as a bench) in our kitchen (which doubles as a living/dining room), she tells us about how that money was all she had, and that our dad controls all the money for our family. We kind of knew the second part already, but we figure it’s best not to say anything while we’re still in trouble.

“I was saving up. Your father pays for everything in the house; I can’t live on my own because I won’t be able to pay for anything.” She says this quietly now, almost as if she doesn’t want to hear her own sentence. 

How cruel could this be? We stole the money my mom was saving up to escape my dad and I had given it all to a stranger. I feel a painful tingle in my eyes and nose, and my heartbeat grows louder. I start to cry, but I stifle the noise. It feels like I don’t deserve to cry right now. My mom sees my tears and seems to agree. 
“Why the hell are you crying?”

Mom Wants to Shop 

Two days after my mom’s confrontation with us, she does something nobody expects. 

My dad is getting ready for his Saturday grocery run, but before he can put his shoes on my mom stops him at the door.

“I would like to do the shopping today,” she says, not with confidence but not with weakness either. 

“Why?” My dad shoots back with suspicion. Our house’s unspoken rule is that only Dad can move in and out of the house freely.

“I think it would be nice for you to have a break. I can do it. I just need a list. I will give you all the extra money back.” I feel grossed out hearing my mother feign niceness. I can tell my dad feels the same, because he immediately says “No.” 

Mom looks upset for a moment before saying “I want to go outside. I need to go outside. A human will rot internally if they are confined to a small room everyday.”

Dad sighs.

Two hours later, my mom returns with plastic bags aplenty. This is surprising, to say the least. We usually don’t get this much food when Dad goes shopping. He is also surprised, and rushes over to check the contents.

“No!! You dumb bitch-no!!” He howls, the sound vibrating in my heart. I take a peek at what he’s holding, and it’s a pack of bacon.

Bacon! 

How long has it been since I ate bacon before? Have I ever eaten bacon before? 

He is clawing through the bags, finding more things that weren’t on his list. There’s chips and crackers, and a couple of sodas. There are also some of the groceries he had instructed her to buy. My sister is drooling just looking at the goodies.

Our happiness doesn’t last long, because my mom is immediately slapped. The sound echoes throughout the house, and her glasses fly off her face.  My dad often hits my mom, but this time I run to her side. This has never happened before. I can see my sister also coming over, and we are hugging our mom, who is now on the floor. Dad is screaming for her to return all the groceries. 

“Just stop.” My sister cries. 

“Yeah,” I say with a cowardly quiver, “You can’t return groceries, you know that.”

Dad’s face is beyond red, and his eyes are wild and twitching. Between clenched teeth he says “You are not allowed to eat this. Nobody is allowed to eat.”

“Thanks, Mom”

Mom gets up. She goes to wash a pan; the roaches scurry off before they get hit with tap water. 

“What the fuck are you doing?” He pulls her hair, and she hits him with the wet pan. My sister and I run back into our room and lock the door. We plan to wait out the fight as usual, but we change our minds when we hear my dad stomping, and things being popped. Quickly, we realize he is stomping on the groceries. My sister and I rush back into the kitchen, grabbing what we can salvage. 

After Dad exhausts himself out, he goes into the bedroom and leaves us alone in the kitchen. Mom gets up, watching my dad from the corner of her eye. My sister pulls out the bacon that she saved. I pull out the chips, but they have been crushed into crumbs. My dad hadn’t stomped on the sodas, but they have dents in them from being thrown. 

“Thanks mom,” I say. It feels weird coming out. I don’t think I’ve ever said that to her before. We don’t really express gratitude in my family. I’m not sure why she decided to buy this food for us. She says nothing, and takes the bacon from my sister’s hands. Mom begins to cook. 

Tonight for dinner we are having plain rice with a fried egg and some diced up bacon. There are no other ingredients, but the bacon is enough to flavor the meal. Before Dad can smash our bowls, we grab them and vigorously chow down. He is staying quiet, as is my mom. I drink from the dented soda. It is just a common Pepsi, and not the cool color changing peach one from earlier. I don’t care though, I’m just happy to taste soda.

Dad doesn’t let Mom go grocery shopping again unless he is with her. I can tell what groceries in the bag were my mom’s influence. Sometimes we get yogurt, sometimes we get juice. It doesn’t happen often but my mom tries her best to go shopping with my dad. I don’t know what drives her to do this; her impulsivity makes her difficult to understand. I can tell that this is her way of trying to do something nice for us. The bitterness I feel about my family’s situation is dulled by the sweetness of the soda my mother buys.

Escape Is Bittersweet

Over a decade has passed since this incident happened. In the years that followed, I began to tell other people what was happening in my home, and eventually I was placed into foster care.

I live on my own now, and I don’t drink soda anymore. Maybe it’s because the sugary goodness no longer appeals to me as an adult, but I like to wash down my meals with tea. The comforting drink pairs well with the quietness of my new apartment.

I often sit facing the window in my kitchen with my mug in my hands, watching the pedestrians walk by. In these moments I wonder how my parents are doing, but I never dwell on the thought for too long. My mother still lives with my dad, and my sister (who was too old to be put in care when I did) is likely going to be homeless after she graduates college. Even after 10 years, my family’s troubles are not easy to outrun. For now, I enjoy my drink.

Alice is a sophomore in college and studies animation. When she’s not drawing, she practices the art of writing.

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