Published on 2012/02/19

The Mattress Pea

Kimberly Karalius

Preshea used to be a sensitive child. Her parents held her with oven mittens so they didn’t bruise her skin. When she turned five, she cut her feet of daisy petals. When Preshea graduated from junior high, she couldn’t shake the principal’s hand for fear that the simple contact would crush her bones. Now that she was sixteen, Preshea had a better handle on her fragility. Somewhat. She still fell in love.

“Oh, dear,” her mother said from across the breakfast table. “You can’t be serious.”

“But I am.”

“Boys are dangerous creatures. They don’t know how to be gentle.”

Preshea pushed her mushy eggs around on her plate. She had a slight hunch to her shoulders. Her bangs were too long, often tickling her nose and sticking to her eyelashes.

Scraping grape jam on her toast, her mother continued: “Worse still is that a boy could break your heart. A heart is the most delicate thing any person can own.”

***

Preshea knew about hearts.

She witnessed a heart break from the cool distance of Steep Me, the tea shop her aunt owned. Preshea had been wiping the tables outside when, from across the street, an argument broke out in front of the mattress store.

Mr. King, the owner of King’s Slumberland, reddened under the sun as he yelled at a potential customer. He dressed as if he worked in a palace; he wore jewel-tone ties and shiny shoes. “Who do you think you are, falling asleep on my display?” Mr. King said.

The potential customer, a girl around Preshea’s age, cowered under Mr. King’s burning face. She held her pink purse like a shield. “But it looked so comfortable,” she said. “I couldn’t help but doze off. You sell mattresses. Don’t you want people to fall asleep?”

“Dad, she has a point,” said Theodore King, placing a hand on his father’s shoulder. His curly black hair looked messy this morning; he seemed to be growing sideburns. When Theodore lifted his hand to touch his father, Preshea saw the mark of tattoo ink on the inside of his wrist.

Mr. King pulled away from his son. “You put her up to this, didn’t you?”

Theodore’s expression blanked. His dark eyes lowered to his shoes.

“That’s what I thought. You’re terrible at choosing them,” his father replied.

If Preshea hadn’t heard these words thrown about on the sidewalk before, she would have been surprised. However, everyone on the block had noticed the strange pattern the King parents started concerning their son’s dating life. Theodore brought girls into the store from time to time, cute girls with silky hair and sparkling eyes. But whenever they rested on the famous King twenty-mattress display, either parent would chase the girls back out again.

Preshea knew that Theodore was being controlled by his parents who probably thought they wanted the best for him. Just as her parents stopped her from breaking or bruising by watching her carefully and, sometimes, making her sad.

She had seen Theodore’s heart break. It wasn’t losing the girl. It happened when his father gave him that disappointed stare.

Crack.

***

Lightning slashed a blinding light across Preshea’s soaked face. The streetlights flickered to life and made the rain glow softly. Preshea dashed down the street, trying to watch where her feet landed, until she came to the front doors of King’s Slumberland and pulled. Locked. Preshea blew water off her lips with an exasperated exhale. She knocked hard. Her knuckles stung.

Theodore sat near the windows on a children’s mattress, reading a car magazine; he tossed it aside when he saw Preshea. “Sorry, we’re closing,” he said, opening the door a crack. “Do you have an emergency?”

Preshea brushed her bangs out of her eyes. She stared up at him curiously and asked, “Do you have mattress emergencies?”

He laughed. “Not usually. Except for the occasional mother who can’t handle accidents.”

“Oh,” she said, smiling. “I see.”

Preshea had only seen Theodore from a distance, but she liked the way his lips curled in the corners and how dark his brown eyes were. She smelled the store on him, a faint, clean scent like drying laundry.

“You look familiar,” Theodore said. His eyes flickered over her face.

She felt her cheeks heat. “I work across the street. Steep Me.”

He nodded and said, “I thought so. You’re always outside.”

“Who do we have here?” Mr. King said, materializing behind his son. He flashed his brilliant smile at Preshea. “You must be soaked. Come inside. I think we have a spare umbrella in the back.”

***

Preshea shivered as the air conditioning kissed her skin, but she wandered to the twenty-mattress display with her jaw set. This was it. The thing that sent the other girls away. The top mattress almost touched the ceiling. The mattresses were in all different colors, some layers stuffed with covers like cake filling.

Mr. King caught her staring. He stopped his umbrella search to stand next to her with his hands on his hips. “It’s a beauty, eh?”

She nodded.

He glanced at her sidelong. “Would like to try it?”

“I would.”

Theodore rushed to her side, abashed. “You don’t have to do it.”

Preshea tugged at her wet hair. “I do, actually.”

“There’s no reason to.”

“I have a good reason,” she said.

Theodore sucked in his breath. She saw the question forming on his lips, making its way to his eyes and the tips of his eyelashes. Preshea touched his cheek to silence him. Then she turned to the ladder. Her shoes creaked on each step and the frame shook, but she left her fear on the floor below.

***

The top mattress felt cool against her cheek.

Preshea squeezed her eyes shut. Curled up. But something round pressed into her side. She groaned and rolled onto her back. Again. It stung like a bee.

“Comfortable?” Mr. King said.

“No,” Preshea replied. “I can’t sleep here.”

Mr. King frowned in disbelief. “Are you sure? I can turn on some ambient music or read you a bedtime story.”

“No, that’s alright,” Preshea said. She laughed softly and scooted to the ladder. She twisted so that they could see her back. Then she lifted up her shirt. “It really hurt,” she said. “I’m sure there’s a bruise. Can you see it?”

Theodore stared up at her in wonder. “You felt it,” he murmured.

Preshea let her shirt drop and stared at them quizzically.

Mr. King shoved his hand into the first mattress layer and pulled out something small and green. He held it up for Preshea to see.

“A pea?”

Mr. King grinned. “Not just a pea. A test.”

“A test for compassion,” Theodore said, in a tone that indicated he merely quoted his father, not really believing it. He climbed up the ladder.

“For a pea to bruise,” he said softly. “You must be so frail.”

Preshea sucked in her breath.

“But you came to protect my heart.”

“Yes.”

When he got high enough he leaned over and wrapped his arms around her. Preshea felt his cheek brush against hers. She waited for the hurt, the bruising, the sharp pain. Nothing came but warmth.


Kimberly Karalius is an MFA student studying fiction at the University of South Florida. She ironically dreads the Florida sun and instead daydreams about striped scarves and peppermint tea. Her work has appeared in Pure Francis and Cantilevers: Journal of the Arts.