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“Hey, Mom,” I call from the front of Pearl’s Pawn Shop and Liquor Store. My mom is Pearl. I’m thirty-two years old, and I’m not even embarrassed to admit that I’m a momma’s boy. No one would ever guess it by looking at me, but it’s the truth. We’ve been through a lot of shit together, so it is what it is.

She’s handing over a brown paper bag to a customer as she looks my way. “Hey, Ozz!”

Walking toward the counter, I see she’s helping old man Tate. He’s been coming in as long as I can remember, and I’m sure he’s drinking the same Jack Daniels that he always gets. “How you doing, Mr. Tate?”

He holds up the bottle. “Good. Good, son. How you doing?”

I laugh as he opens the bottle before he even gets out of the store. “I’m good. See ya later, Mr. Tate.”

I’m smiling as I get to the counter, and it doesn’t go unnoticed by my mother. “Well, there’s that smile that I like to see. I don’t get to see it a lot, so let me get my camera.”

“Har, har, Mom. You’re funny.”

“Well, it’s the truth.” She’s shaking her head like I’m still a little boy instead of a grown man that towers over her. “So what’s the smile about?”

I hold out the envelope to her. “This. Paid in full.”

She doesn’t hold her hand out, which she never does. I always have to force her to take the money. Money that is rightfully hers.

“Let’s not do this again. Just take the money. I don’t want to argue with you about it.”

“Ozz, I don’t want your money. Can’t your old mom just do something nice for you?”

But I’m already shaking my head. If it was anyone else, I’d be pissed off, but I know with my mom, I have to take it easy on her. She’s dealing with a lot of misplaced guilt. Guilt for something she didn’t do and wasn’t her fault.

“Mom, you do stuff for me all the time, but this is different, and you know it. You loaned me the money so I could go into business with Duke. It’s been three years, and here...”—I force the envelope in her hand—“is the final payment.”

She puts her hand down on the counter, and the anguish on her face is enough to gut me. She’s been through so much from me and my brother. I can’t make up for the past, but I can sure as hell make it a good future for her. “You don’t have to do this,” she huffs.

“I want to. Now I’m going to start looking for houses. I can’t live over the shop for the rest of my life.”

She raises the envelope. “See? You need the money. Take it.”

Holding my hand up, I laugh and shake my head. “I’m not taking the money. Plus, I’ve got enough for a down payment. I’ve been doing really good at saving, and the shop is doing way better than I ever dreamed.”

She tries to hand me the envelope. “That’s good, honey. This can be your housewarming gift.”

Instead of taking it, I wrap my arms around her. “Thanks, Mom, but I want to do this on my own.”

She’s shaking her head as she pulls away and starts straightening the already straight bottles on the shelf behind her. I know what she’s thinking, and she’s wrong.

“Mom, we’ve gone over this. Me going to prison was not your fault.”

She turns with the dusting towel in her hand and waves it around. “Well, it sure wasn’t your fault. I’m the one that kicked your no-good dad out the door when you and your brother were young. You didn’t have a father figure, and I’m the one that always told you that since you’re older, you should take care of your brother. I put that on you. And look what it got you. You’re a convicted felon.”

All I can do is listen. This isn’t a new argument for us. We have it at least once a month. She acts as what happened was her fault, and that can’t be further from the truth. Whether she wanted me to or not, I would have done anything to protect my little brother. He was nineteen and got mixed with the wrong crowd. When I told the cops the drugs were mine, I had no idea I would face a felony charge and three years in prison. My brother was in a lot deeper than I thought. There are so many things I’d do differently now. But who would have thought that while I was in prison, my brother would get so hopped up on drugs he’d get arrested for armed robbery? He’s serving time over at the Syn City Penitentiary, and I haven’t gone to see him since I got out three years ago.