Thelma: An Excerpt

by Stephanie Fields

Thelma lets the tub fill a quarter of the way before placing little Joshua inside. He wiggles and cries and almost falls out of her arms in attempts to avoid the water. She locks her arms around him firmly. She is familiar with this battle.

“It’s not hot, see,” Thelma says, sticking a hand in. Joshua watches her suspiciously, but when she pulls her hand out and flicks the water at him; he laughs. Thelma takes advantage of the momentary vulnerability and places him in the tub. She then rummages around the cabinet underneath the sink until she finds the liquid bath soap. She pours a few drops in the water and lets the water run a bit more, creating bubbles to distract any plans of escape Joshua might be concocting. It works. It always works. When the water reaches Joshua’s belly-button Thelma turns the faucet off then sits on the toilet seat.

“You better hurry and get to washing before the water turns cold,” she says. Joshua stares up at her with his large blue eyes. He blinks his black lashes and goes to swatting at the bubbles he’s declared as enemies. Thelma sits and watches him half-heartedly. One can only watch the same event for so long before turning an apathetic eye to its monotony. His splashing and crashing noises fade and suddenly it is just her suspended in a space where time and responsibility does not exist. She is thinking nothing. She is quiet. She is feeling nothing. These moments are always rare and brief, but when they come she submits herself to it completely. The black quietude is interrupted by the appearance of two white scleras behind deep brown pupils. They are starring directly at her. She doesn’t turn away, though she is unnerved, she waits until the face comes into view. It is a boy. A little black boy with dirt on his face and an open wound on his head. The blood has dried, matting a section of his hair on the right side of his head. He looks young—five or six. His bottom lip is busted and one eye appears swollen. She doesn’t blink, she continues to look the wounded boy in his eyes. Then she hears his hoarse voice say, “Mama.” She jumps. Water hits her and quickly washes the image of the boy away. She turns and sees Joshua bouncing around in the tub, bubbles cover his body like another layer of skin. He is laughing as his blonde hair sticks to his forehead. Thelma quickly grabs a towel and sets it on the sink as she reaches for the boy who puts the same struggle he did to resist getting into the tub. When she finally has his tiny feet on the carpet, she roughly dries him and takes him to his room where she puts on his pajamas.

“Are you going to read me a bedtime story?” he asks

“No,” she answers more curtly than she would allow herself if she weren’t distracted. Joshua looks hurt, Thelma has never told him no or spoken to him so severely. She does not apologize. In fact, she can hardly bare to look the little boy in the eye. She quickly sets him in bed and pulls his blankets up.

“Goodnight, Thelma,” the boy says sweetly, but her ears do not hear the sweetness. His voice stabs her like a knife and she bolts out of the bedroom. She dashes into the kitchen and digs through the trash until she finds the morning paper Mr. Wallace carelessly threw away after his morning coffee. Right there on the front page is the headline:Thelma

“Five year old boy, mistaken for suspect, slain outside his home by officer.”

It was the headline Thelma had avoided all day long. She turned away from the man reading it on the bus. She ignored the women whispering about it at the bus stop. And she pushed all thoughts of it from her mind as she made the two mile walk from the stop to Roxbury Lane. All day she had distracted herself with making sure the Wallace house was in order: Nathaniel off to school with a bagged lunch, Mr. Wallace’s shirt pressed, Mrs. Wallace plants watered and home cleaned to perfection, Joshua’s oatmeal warmed. She allowed herself no time to think of that boy, whoever he was. Now she looked into those large brown eyes staring back at her from the newspaper. They reminded her of the eyes she saw every morning flicker open begrudgingly after being awaken at an inhumane hour. Eyes that were shut tight when being picked up at night. Eyes that she could never afford to spend too much time gazing into, marveling at the way they bent the light and made it twinkle. Now she knew some mother would never see the eyes of her baby boy again. The thought crushed Thelma and made her limp against the fridge. Right now her baby boy was probably crawling in her mama’s bed after spending all day in kindergarten. It was her mama who got to hear about how his day was, who his friends were, what he ate for breakfast and lunch. She never got to see her boy’s face light up at the sight of her. She was always here–bathing, feeding, rearing, caring for another woman’s children. Every morning she saw Nathaniel off to the bus stop and every night she read Joshua a bedtime story. All the while her own family were nothing but strangers to her. The boy’s picture in the paper could have been her very own. Thelma felt her heart begin to crumble and her hands shake. She had to be with her baby. She had to hold him. Feel him. Smell him. Listen to his breathing until it put her to sleep. She couldn’t stay trapped on the peripherals of someone else’s life, making sure they had all the props they need for happiness. She had to get home. Mr. and Mrs. Wallace were at a dinner party, she was to remain until they returned. She couldn’t. She clutched the newspaper to her chest and, without a second thought, dashed out of the front door. The bus ran every hour on the hour. She did not know the time, all she could do was pray she wasn’t too late.

"Thelma" is a short story excerpted from Flight: A Multimedia Collection of Short Stories. Check out the rest of the collection online.

Photo: Stephanie Fields

Stephanie Fields is a writer and visual artist whose interests are rooted in women studies across the African Diaspora. Stephanie earned her Bachelor of Arts in English from The Ohio State University. She is currently applying for her MFA in Creative Writing. She can be contacted at