When Lacie was three, she swallowed her mother’s mood ring. In spite of ipecac syrup, copious quantities of laxatives, and even a hospital visit, the ring never reappeared. Eighteen now, Lacie imagined it illuminating her belly with the changing colors of her moods, or perhaps, even, controlling them.
The surprise of the chicks, scratching now at the fresh, fragrant mulch, made her feel yellow, worked where nothing else had that week—not the azure waves lapping at her feet, not the briny breeze, not the posh beachfront resort, the skin-clearing sun, or even her first (legal) passion fruit daiquiri. No, until Lacie, walking well ahead of the others, stumbled upon the clutch of tiny black and lemon-yellow chicks cheeping and chirping and scrabbling after their coal-black mama, ring around the rosie through the resort’s pristine flower beds, the mood ring somewhere in her belly glowed a constant, peevish vermilion, one shade shy of Veruca Salt red.
A phase, Dad said, consulting his phone. Ungrateful, Mom hissed, grinding her teeth. Separation prep, Grandma coughed out in a cloud of illicit Newport smoke. Bitch, said her younger brothers, when they thought she couldn’t hear them.
Lacie knew she wasn’t a bitch. She just hated the beach and said so, hated everything about this trip, this stupid, fake, aren’t-we-just-one-big-happy-family-sending-our-daughter-off-to-college-in-style bullshit.
She knelt to watch the chicks now, her back to the sea; she ignored the sidewalk burning her knees. Mama Hen circled the main shrub, flinging scarlet mulch from the manicured bed. The chicks followed her around and around, little yellow and black fluff balls, scratching and pecking for dinner in the muddy soil exposed by their mother’s wake. They took no notice of Lacie, which was fine. She sat in the middle of the walk, buttery yellow curlicues caressing her skin as she watched.
A lobster-red couple stopped beside Lacie, also drawn to the chicks. The man spoke. Well, would you look at that? Aren’t they sweet?
Lacie ignored him.
The woman squatted and snapped pictures with her phone. Mama must not like that mulch, she said.
Lacie rolled her eyes. She wanted to say, “She’s just moving the mulch so her babies can dig for bugs and stuff,” but mostly, she just wanted them to go away. Soon, they did.
The rooster’s shrill crow behind the shrubs startled Lacie. One of the khaki-garbed groundskeepers was chasing after it, swinging his rake wildly. He stopped short and smiled when he caught sight of Lacie. He walked around the end of the bushes, and a spray of moldy chartreuse swirled up in her gut.
“I just put all that mulch down this morning,” he said. “And look at her, making such a mess. They’re like rats, dirty rats with feathers.” The Caribbean blue of his cadence couldn’t disguise the Paris green beneath his words.
Lacie smiled, too, hoping friendliness from her might afford kindness for her chicks, but the man just nodded and said, “Good day, ma’am.” She watched him retreat to the maintenance shed, then returned her attention to her new little friends. It was the most yellow she’d felt in a long time.
Her family’s shadows caught up with Lacie first. What are you doing, weirdo, one of her brothers asked. Those little peckers ran loose all over our farm, her grandmother said. They crapped everywhere. You know they’re all going to die, right? her other brother said. The resort cats will get ‘em. Aren’t you hungry, her mother wanted to know. Her father consulted his phone, but abstained from participation.
Lacie wished the ring’s colors could shine through her belly button; the jolly yellow was already fading, and her family never even saw how it could shine. She followed them in to dinner, hoping to see the little hen and her chicks again in the morning before they left for the airport.
Later, a clattering somewhere off their balcony startled her awake. Careful not to disturb her brothers, spooning in the other bed, she slid open the balcony door and stepped outside.
The moon, full over the water, hid nothing. The groundskeeper’s rake struck the ground again and again. The man hopped left and right, lunging at one or two of the chicks, which ran but were caught. Beating Mama Hen into stillness took four swings, and the man was panting when he finally lowered the rake; she could hear his breath, even over the surf. Dark, ragged shapes peeled away from the shadows and slunk closer, yowling.
“Here you go,” the man said. He plucked a tiny crushed body from the ground and tossed it to the cats circling his feet. He must’ve heard the noises coming from her throat; or maybe he saw the colors flashing from her stomach, the crimson and fuchsia and white and black and black and black catching his eye, drawing his attention upwards.
She stepped back into the doorway when the cats below began snarling and hissing, fighting over the tiny scraps. She waited there, in the dark, not a single color shining from her abdomen until she heard the man turn the hose on the cats and begin spraying down the walkway.
When she wheeled her suitcase past the perfect flower beds the next morning, she searched for signs of the little family. Not a shred of the too-vibrant mulch was out of place.
I told you, the cats got ‘em, one of her brothers said, noticing her notice their absence. Hard life for soft little things like that, her grandmother said. Short life, you mean, said her other brother. Her father said, Flight’s on time. Everybody have fun? Lacie reached her free hand out to her mother, hope rising pink from it like steam, and waited for her to take it.