The narrator finally has enough money to buy the tea set she’s coveted—but at what cost?
I should have felt excited, but I didn’t.
My mom slid into the driver’s seat and started the engine. I didn’t look at her. I couldn’t. I knew that if I did, all of my bottled-up guilt would come pouring out.
“Y’all excited?” she asked me and my brothers.
“Yeah!” my four-year-old brother, Thor, replied.
“Ma-ma,” my youngest brother, Scott, said in broken-up syllables. He was newly one and had just begun to learn how to speak and toddle around.
“Mm-hm,” I said. My eyes fell to my lap when she looked at me. I fidgeted in my seat.
“I still can’t believe you saved up your money this quickly,” she said to me. I couldn’t help thinking I didn’t.
Throughout the car drive, my palms grew sweaty and clammy. I was caught between crying and bursting into nervous giggles. The two-minute drive felt like two hours. I couldn’t speak for fear of letting my secret out.
When we arrived at the toy store, Thor was wiggling in his seat and screaming “I’m gonna get the best toy before you!” Scott was completely oblivious to where we were and why we were there. He rocked back and forth in his car seat, sucking his thumb. My mom patiently unbuckled his seatbelt and then moved on to her own.
“I’ll wait for you at the checkout counter, okay?” my mom said. “You go get that tea set while I watch Scott.”
I nodded, careful to avoid her eyes. I walked into the store, turned the corner, and stopped. I had seen the tea set so many times, but I hadn’t had the money for it until now. I walked up to it and double-checked the price tag, even though I had memorized what it said the moment I first saw it. Twenty-one dollars and ninety-nine cents.
Twenty-one dollars and ninety-nine cents I hadn’t had until a couple of days ago.
All at once, waves of guilt and remorse crashed inside me, and their blow was harder than anything I had ever felt before. There was nothing I could do to stop it. I remembered how stealing the money felt. I remembered cautiously reaching my hand to the back of the drawer, my fingers clenching around the thin paper. I remembered the guilt
I felt as I counted out ten dollars. I remembered peeking around the corner to make sure the coast was clear. I remembered how the guilt consumed me as I slipped the money into my wallet.
Didn’t I pay all that money? And for what? The tea set was mine. I had paid for it. Hadn’t I?
I looked again at the tea set. It was complete with pink-and-white cups, saucers, a teapot, and even a sugar bowl, all in a small wicker basket, perfect for carrying anywhere. How could a six-year-old girl like me not want it? But then again, how could a six-year-old girl like me stand knowing what she had done to get it?
I gritted my teeth and picked the tea set up, excitement, fear, and guilt burning like a raging fire in my stomach. I told myself to put it back, but I couldn’t. My greedy, excited body turned toward the cash register, and my stubborn feet started to walk. My guilty hands put it on the checkout counter. Everything was in slow motion as my mother counted out twenty-two dollars and the cashier put them into the cash register.
“Boys, time to go!” my mom called over her shoulder. Everything sped back into regular time. I walked in disbelief back to our car. I had gotten away with it. I had actually done what I had never dreamed of doing. The tea set was mine. The twenty-one dollars and ninety-nine cents had been paid. The funny thing was, I didn’t seem to want the tea set anymore. I shook my head. Don’t be silly, I told myself. The tea set is yours! You still want it, don’t you? Didn’t you save all that money for this tea set, and now you don’t want it?
That one question rang in my head. Didn’t I pay all that money? And for what? The tea set was mine. I had paid for it. Hadn’t I?
No. I hadn’t. That tea set was not mine, and only I knew it. All the way home, the secret bubbled up inside me, up and up. Every time it bubbled up, it was harder for me to push it back down again.
When we reached home, I picked up the bag the tea set was in. The plastic felt cold and unforgiving against my warm and sweaty palms. I tightened my grip and told my feet to move. My guilt propelled them forward, making me move faster than usual. I needed to get somewhere where I could hide alone, just me and my guilt. I wanted to stuff the tea set under my bed and never see it again. But that would seem suspicious. Usually when we got new toys, we played with them nonstop until bedtime. What would my mom think if she saw me not playing with it? What would she do then? What would I do then?
Once I got inside, I sat down on one of the kitchen stools. The cold metal pressed against my thighs, sending chills through my body. My hands gripped the sides of the stool, and I rocked back and forth. My eyes were glued to the tea set sitting on the island. I pushed down tears and forced myself to keep breathing. I tried my hardest to breathe normally.
My mom walked past me into the office. I peeked around the corner and saw her open a drawer. The same drawer I had “borrowed” ten dollars from a week ago. She pulled out a pack of bills, all ones, together one hundred dollars. Well, one hundred dollars before. Now, ten dollars less. My heart rate quickened. Did she know? If so, how did she know? Had I given anything away?
I pulled myself back around the corner as she started walking back to the kitchen. I could’ve sworn she could hear my heart thumping in my chest, it was so loud.
She pulled out a stool from under the island and sat down. Without saying a word, she started counting the bills. She counted them multiple times, each time shaking her head as if something was wrong, her brow furrowed. And something was wrong. There were ten less bills than there had been before. I had suddenly gone from having half the money for the tea set to having all the money. I knew what she must have been thinking How is this possible? I also knew what I was thinking: How can she not realize what I’ve done?
One tear trickled down my cheek. Once they had started, I couldn’t stop them from coming. They ran in streams down my face as I let out sob after sob. My mother looked up from the bills in surprise, and then confusion, and then concern. She walked over to me and put her hand on my back. The warmth of her hand contrasted sharply with the cold, unforgiving shame I was feeling.
“Just take deep breaths,” she said in a calm voice.
I inhaled slowly, my breath quivering in the way that it did when I was crying. I repeated this over and over again until my breath had lost some of the quiver and was more steady. I gazed up into my mother’s warm blue eyes. Her eyebrows were furrowed in concern, but her voice was steady when she spoke.
“Are you ready to tell me why you were crying?” she asked, and I nodded my head in response.
“I-I-” I stuttered. I burst out into tears again. She continued rubbing my back.
“Just cry it all out,” she said. So I did just that.
After crying for a few minutes, I looked my mother in the eye.
“Okay. I-I think I’m ready,” I said. She nodded patiently.
“I-I stole your money,” I said, bursting out into wrenching sobs all over again. This was it. The moment I had dreaded. The moment where my mother would yell at me, send me to my room, and hate me for the rest of my life. The moment I could never think of again without crying. I couldn’t look at my mom. But I had to keep talking.
“I just loved that tea set. I just couldn’t wait a whole month to save up enough money for it. And when I found that money in the office drawer, I d-didn’t think you would notice if I took only ten dollars. B-but I was wrong,” I sobbed. “You did notice, and now you’re going to hate me for the r-rest of my whole entire life!” The tears came in streams.
“Louise, you need to calm down,” my mom said. I noticed she was still rubbing my back. “I will never hate you. Do you know what unconditional love means?” she asked.
I sniffled. “No,” I said, wiping my nose with my sleeve.
My mother looked down at me with a love in her eyes that only a mother could have.
“It means that no matter what you do, no matter what you say, no matter how you feel, I will always love you. Look, it says ‘unconditional love’ inside my wedding ring. It means that Daddy and I will love each other forever, no matter what. And Daddy and I love you, Thor, and Scott the same way. Unconditionally,” she said.
I gazed up into her eyes. “D-does that mean you aren’t mad at me?”
“No, I’m not mad at you! In fact, I’m really proud of you,” she said.
I looked at her in disbelief. “Really? Why? I did something bad! Why are you proud of me? That doesn’t make sense!”
“I’m proud of you because you told me what you did.”
My tears stopped.
“It takes a lot of courage to tell somebody what you did. Especially when you love that person a lot, and they love you back. You’re scared to lose their love. But Louise,” she said, “I will always love you. Always. No matter what. Remember that.”
“What are we going to do with the tea set?” I asked.
“Well, it depends. Do you still want it?” she said.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Okay . . . I think I’ll keep it in the wrapping paper room until you have enough money to pay back for it. Does that sound good to you?”
I wrapped my arms around her and exhaled shakily.
“Mama?” I asked.
“Uh-huh?” she said.
“I love you.”
My mother looked down at me with a love in her eyes that only a mother could have.
“I love you too.”