Times being what they were, I had a healthy fear of my mom and, when I misbehaved, the looming apportion of swift retribution. Don't get me wrong—I was a terror. In many cases, I deserved punishment. I lacked discipline and culpability, and when I stole pocketfuls of gum and candy from the butcher on the edge of town or ran away and hid in the racks at the clothing store, my mom was right to be pissed, to exact penalty.
What do you do with an impertinent child?
Spank them. Smack them. Beat the holy hell out of them. It's not something you mull or even think about, really, you just do it.
Speak out of turn? Smack.
Push the neighbor kid down? Whip them until those cheeks are bright red.
Is it excessive? Unreasonable? Where do you draw the line that, once crossed, leads to physical penance?
Mom's line moved all the time, and almost always closer to me. Like I said, it's not like I didn't do anything to deserve SOME kind of punishment. But between the belt, the wooden spoon, and the yard stick—initially after the open hand hurt too much, they became preferred method—it was less about message received and more how far under the bed I had to crawl to overextend her reach.
I made the best of the situation. I understood there were consequences to my poor choices and loved my mom regardless. I knew deep down she wouldn't hit me so hard if she didn't feel the same way. And while Dad never raised a hand to me, I knew in standing by as Mom did, he loved me too. His voice was softer, but if I listened close, I could hear it clear as a pitch pipe.
All that aside, I wasn't stupid. I spent a lot of time out of the house, to which Mom seemed relieved, and rarely reluctant to allow me to do so.
"Just don't go so far you won't hear me yell."
And most of the time I didn't. There were plenty of cool and interesting places in my neighborhood to while away an afternoon. It seemed the longer I spent away from home, the less Mom was quick to anger. Unless I stayed out too long, which never ended well. The longer she had to yell my name from the front porch, the more hot water I'd have to swallow.
Winter was the worst. There wasn't much to do outside and when there was snow, I wasn't allowed to leave the yard. Almost no kids my age lived on my street, and since I went to school in the city, I didn't really know any of the ones who did. I tried to spend as much time with Chaz as possible, but when you only have one friend, heedless to circumstance, even he gets sick of seeing you day in and day out. So I spent a lot of time at home, to my chagrin. Mom was getting sick of me too.
"Go play in your room."
"I did that earlier."
"Play in the basement."
"I don't like the basement."
"What's the temperature?"
"Uhh-- says it's twenty-six degrees."
"Bundle up and play outside."
"There's nothing to do out there. Snow's all melted."
"Then sit there and shut up."
I sulked. Mom watched her stories and I concentrated on keeping quiet, but thinking that hard about only one thing—one thing I didn't really want to do—made me move around a lot. I changed position, crossed one leg over my knee, then the other leg, then both. I propped my elbow and leaned my face against my hand and let out a loud sigh. Mom's stories were boring and farty. It was always pretty women arguing with old, mustachioed men over love and money and babies. There were no spaceships, lasers or weird looking aliens. I wished it was late so I could watch Buck Rogers, or even Magnum P.I. Sure, he was an old, mustachioed man, but at least he had a cool looking car and broke the speed limit. I poked my tongue through the hole where my front tooth used to be and imagined it was a moray eel hunting up some Cheetos or whatever it is moray eels eat.
"Mom, do moray eels eat Chee--"
I slid off the couch and traipsed back to my room. When I got to the bathroom doorway, I heard something coming from the end of the hall. I craned my neck, trying to see. Both bedroom doors, to my sister's and parents' rooms, were shut.
My stomach lurched, and I could taste acid, leaving a scratchy sensation in my throat. I stepped into the bathroom and turned on the faucet. Over the rushing water, I heard it again.
I leaned forward and threw up all the contents of my stomach into the basin. I gasped, heaving, and gripped the edges of the sink. That time was nothing but acid.
I felt dizzy, my throat raw, as I slid to the floor, trying to calm my churning stomach. The faucet was running and I was faintly aware of tiny, cool drops of water hitting my arms and face.
Then I blacked out.
Mom and Dad hovered over me with patent concern when my eyes opened. I had no idea how long I was out, but my mouth was dry and my stomach muscles felt like Sugar Ray Leonard used them for a heavy bag. I tried to sit up, but it hurt too much and I laid back with a groan. Mom frowned and Dad’s eyebrow furrowed.
“Just sit tight. We’ll get you something to drink.”
I gulped down the glass of Pepsi like it was my job, swallowing so fast some of it went into the wrong tube and I choked.
“Slow down there, son.”
I gasped in between swallows. The carbonation burned going down, but the syrupy sweetness was its own heaven. Feeling better, I managed to sit back on my elbows and my tongue went to work, swirling around the hole in my front teeth as I tried to remember what happened.
“Was it long?”
“About an hour, kiddo. How are you feeling?”
“Did the pop help?”
“I was-- going to my room. Then I heard something.”
Mom put her hand on mine.
“What did you hear, honey?”
“I dunno. It was weird.”
“It was like-- the sound my shoes make when--”
“--like when I, umm,”
“Like what, honey?”
Mom rubbed my hand, trying to be soothing, but it hurt. I rolled onto my side, away from her, and sat up. Dad stepped forward, putting a hand on my head.
“You can tell us, son.”
“-- like when my shoes get stuck.”
“In the mud.”
“That-- sucking sound.”
Mom looked at Dad, frowned slightly, and Dad met her stare without turning his head. There was a silent communication going on between them only moms and dads could hear; the parental hive mind.
“Let’s get some supper in you.”
I ate chicken nuggets and fries until I thought I might pop. The way Mom and Dad fawned over me made me think of Hansel and Gretel, but they were several weeks overdue being nice for the sake of it and I chose to take it in stride. My fingers were greasy and I wiped them on my shirt, cheeks full, chewing. Being pretty much back to normal, they decided I didn’t need to see the doctor. Of course, I was told to get them immediately if I felt at all ill or uncomfortable. I promised I would and headed to my bedroom, unbuttoning my flannel.
Sleep was blissfully dream free.
But things would only get worse.
Chaz was absent from school the next day, but there was a bug going around, and with several other kids out sick, it didn’t register as odd. I asked some of the others, even a couple of teachers, and no one seemed to know anything different. They assumed he had a cold and would be back on Monday. It’s sometimes difficult to imagine what life was like before the advent of cell phones, or even the internet, and how waiting or being forced to wait was a hell all its own. I had trouble concentrating that day, keeping mostly to myself. I was interested in only one thing: the day being over so I could go home.
Mom was waiting in the car like any other Friday after school. I opened the back door, tossed my backpack on the seat, and crawled in. She was smiling.
“What are you hungry for?”
I watched her eyes in the rear view mirror; they looked tired.
“How about a cheeseburger?”
I shrugged. I wasn’t thinking about and didn’t want to think about food. I could eat after I figured out what was going on with Chaz. Mom was undaunted.
“How about Burger Chef?”
Now she had my attention. I was like any other kid my age in my love for burgers. But I had what could only be called an unhealthy obsession with Burger Chef. I like Burger King and McDonald’s and Wendy’s, too, but to my six year old mind and palate, Burger Chef reigned supreme. I couldn’t even tell what it was about them, except to say there was something that happened between the mustard and pickles that was magic in my mouth.
Sorry, Chaz. Six year old loyalties only run so deep.
I found out halfway through my cheeseburger Mom needed meat from the butcher and a few additional odds and ends that would take at least a couple of hours. I was being bribed, but presented with a delicious burger and a milkshake, I knew I'd been bought. I thought of Chaz, but only in passing. Perhaps it wasn’t unreasonable to assume he came down with a cold. I just hoped he wasn’t throwing up his guts.
The next morning, Dad made pancakes. I briefly wondered if there was a special occasion, but it was the end of February, Valentine's Day come and gone, and no birthdays, so nothing came to mind. Then I thought about Grandma. She'd be gone well over a year and Mom hadn’t so much as mentioned her in weeks. Being a part of any other family, this might have bothered me more. But we weren't one that explored our feelings or had any real mechanism to deal with grief beyond the tried and true method of burying it as deep as possible.
After eating, I excused myself and headed toward my room. Dad still had to walk down to the bank and building and loan, and normally I went with him. Saturday was the day I got my allowance, something I immediately spent on a Mad Magazine at the drug store around the corner, but I wasn't feeling Mad that day, nor like walking downtown with Dad. As I entered the hallway, I involuntarily slowed down, listening. Mom and Dad's door was shut, but I noticed the door to my sister's room was open a crack. This was unusual; Mom always kept that door shut. Curious, I crept down the hallway and nudged it open.
It was no secret my sister left home for reasons other than school despite it never being acknowledged or discussed by our parents. In polite conversation, she was a golden child upon whose shoulders rode the privilege and burden of being the first in our immediate family to not only go to college, but graduate. The world in front of her was one of endless possibilities, an oyster or any other in a long list of clichés. In reality, it was just as much a bus ticket out of Crazy Town as it was a new chapter in her life. I wasn't old enough to know what madness befell her at the hands of our mother growing up, but if my own experiences were any indication, it was a story fit for Dante.
We didn't have much of a relationship, Haley and I. We were twelve years apart, and by the time I was old enough to notice, she was already moved out. My memories of living in the same house with her are few and fuzzy, snippets here and there, stills, like paintings and photographs: decorating the Christmas tree, eating the cookies she and Mom made, tossing bits of paper birch catkins in her bellybutton while she tanned on a chaise in the back yard summer sun. Our conversations would start out engaged, sympathetic, but always ended with her admonishing my youth or my tardiness to the soiree of life.
"That was before your time." or "You were too young to remember that."
The room was how it had been left; sterile. Everything was stacked, sorted or put away. But it hadn't made the transition to spare or guest bedroom: it was Haley's room and would never not be hers. It was unsettling how nothing about it, other than its contents, made it feel like it was ever lived in. Rooms, places people live, they feel a certain way. You can tell there's someone who cares, or in some cases doesn't, and the environment reflects that. It's not just what things are there, but where they are, why they are where they are. Every place where people live, really live, has its own presence, an undefinable tangibility that extends beyond the occupants. This was where she studied for tests, talked on the phone to her friends at two in the morning, made love to her boyfriend, but Haley's room had the distinct absence of feeling like one where a young woman spent the past six years of her life. Almost like someone, or something, had erased not only her memory, but her existence.
I could feel my heartbeat in my ears as I took a step inside. The air was stale and smelled like the inside of a closet. The shades were partway down, and despite it being sunny and clear outside, the light didn't want to push past the window frames. The bed still had the tiny green and white checkered gingham bedspread with a pillow shaped like a heart and a stuffed bear beside it. There was an ornate carved wooden jewelry box I liked to explore on the top shelf of the bookcase style headboard. Next to it was a gooseneck lamp whose shade matched the coverlet. The bottom shelf was my favorite, and I ran my fingers over the rack of eight track tapes as I silently repeated the titles to myself: Good Vibrations, X, Back in Black, Alice Cooper Goes to Hell...
I jumped back, turning. The door was as I left it and I could see the door to Mom and Dad's bedroom was still shut tight. I looked at the crack under underneath and saw the light shift several times. Either the wind was blowing through the trees enough to circulate the incoming sunlight, or someone was in the bedroom.
Or maybe it was
As far as I knew, Mom and Dad were in the kitchen. The hardwood floors creaked whenever anyone walked around, and I could tell who it was by the cadence. I hadn't heard anyone since I left the kitchen and figured they were still at the table.
It was coming from the other bedroom. My stomach quivered, but seemed okay otherwise. I didn't have the urge to hurl and was quietly thankful. I moved slowly toward the door, mindful of the noise the floor made when my weight shifted. It didn't seem too loud to me, but I didn't know who else was listening.
The floorboards in the hallway were louder, and the metal grate in the floor vent always shuddered as someone walked past. I took long, measured steps and stood before the door to my parents' bedroom.
I waited, listening.
Then I put my hand on the doorknob.
The spring mechanism creaked as I turned it and prepared to push.
Mom came down the hall toward me like a locomotive. I could see Dad behind her in the kitchen. He was watching.
"What are you doing?"
"Your dad is ready to go downtown."
"You're going with him, aren't you?"
"You're going with him, aren't you?"
"Make sure you bundle up."
The rest of the weekend was a lot more of the same and for the first time I can remember, I was looking forward to going back to school. It was snowing when I got there on Monday morning and the forecast showed there would be plenty more to come. Everyone was wearing their moon boots or moon boot replicas and I had cheap, clunky velcro ones. No one teased me to my face, but it didn't matter, I already knew they thought I was a turd.
Again, no Chaz. I didn't bother asking anyone that day. Between the silent, pervasive scorn of my peers and a mounting fear for my friend, I was all but struck dumb. My answers were monosyllabic and my attention span insubstantial. By lunch, I was practically incoherent, my heartbeat resonating like a gong in my head. My teacher, Mrs Switt, appeared concerned and, after feeling my forehead and seeing I felt warm, called my mom to come pick me up. The school wasn't allowed to administer any form of medication to the students even with parental consent, but she gave me an orange ice pop to keep me hydrated and hopefully alleviate some of the fever.
I was always either sick or pretending to be.
Forty-five minutes later I was in the back seat, head propped on my backpack, on the way home. Mom made me take children's aspirin and gave me a warm can of Pepsi to wash it down. Most days I had to determine if she would be Jekyll or Hyde. That day it was both.
"Why didn't you tell me you weren't feeling well this morning?"
"I didn't, I mean-- I felt okay."
"Well you better hope you don't have whatever's going around. And cover your mouth when you cough-- I don't want your germs."
"I don't have to cough."
"Then don't touch anything."
"Chaz wasn't at school today."
"Which one is Chaz?"
"There's only one."
"What about that Bashika? Or-- what's that crippled kid's name?"
"He's got other people he hangs out with."
"Well woopdy fucking doo."
"Don't talk back to me."
"See? Talking back."
"YOU'RE SICK. GO TO SLEEP."
I put my head back down on my pack, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't go to sleep. Mom drove like she was possessed, cursing and muttering to herself, the other cars and Dad's name. As much as the fever dulled my senses, I still felt like every time she hit the brakes we'd just keep going and crash and die. I wasn't cold, but I shivered where I lay in the back seat, and tried to block out the sounds of the other cars, the wind rushing past on the highway, and most of all, Mom's voice.
I spent the next two days in my pajamas, either in bed or in front of the tv, eating soup and drinking pop or juice. The only time Mom ever bought Squirt or ginger ale was when I didn't feel well. It was something I came to expect with being under the weather, and, in a way, made it a little more manageable. Campbell's was the mainstay: either won ton or chicken and stars or curly noodle if they were out of the other two. Sometimes she made grilled cheese with it, but only if my throat didn't hurt. Tuesday it felt like someone scraped it raw with a wire brush, but by Thursday, the pain had almost entirely subsided and I was coughing up the last of the infected mucus. Mom gave me a travel pack of tissues to keep in my pocket before we left for school. She'd determined I was both fit for class and she'd seen enough of me to last until the New Year. A dose of that hideous red liquid children's decongestant and a hot bowl of cream of wheat with honey and raisins and we were on the road.
There was snow still on the ground, but the roads had been cleared and the walks shoveled and salted. Most of the kids had their tennis shoes on, but Mom insisted I wear my boots "in case I play outside". I found myself wishing I kept an extra pair in my locker, but being that I didn't have a lock for it, they would most likely end up stolen. All of this ran through my mind as I opened the exterior door and wiped my feet on the soggy doormat. I was putting my coat away when I looked over and saw Chaz sitting at a table by himself. I slammed the locker, catching a coat sleeve in the door, but I didn't care. I ran over and sat down next to him, forgetting all about my ensemble woes.
Chaz looked tired and distant. There was a large, white bandage on his forehead.
"Oh-- hey Whisker."
"Where ya been?"
"Were you sick?"
"Uhh, what happened to your head?"
"What kind of accident? Did you fall?"
"It was a deer."
"You hit a deer?"
"My dad hit a deer."
"Did he kill it?"
Every question took longer for him to respond and I could tell he was agitated. He refused to look at me, even when I moved my head so he would.
"Is everyone okay?"
"Whisker, why don't you come with me."
The assistant principal, Mrs Greer, someone whom I had come to trust because she was pretty and nice to me and tried to help me when I had problems, took my hand and led me into the kitchen area next to the cafeteria where we kept our lunchboxes or anything that required refrigeration. She stood me in front of her, hands on my arms, and bent down so her eyes were level with mine. I watched how her nylons ran up her legs into darkness under her skirt. She wore a necklace with a gold seashell that nestled in the space between her breasts. She looked me straight in the eye and spoke softly; her breath was sweet and smelled like coffee.
"Are you feeling better?"
She smiled with her mouth.
"Good. The reason I brought you in here is I wanted to make sure you knew some things, and being a good friend to Chaz, you might try to help him through this difficult time."
"Chaz was in an accident last Friday. His family hit a deer and he was in the car with his mom, dad, and younger sister."
"Are they okay?"
"Chaz and his sister both had some cuts and bruises and his dad hurt his leg, but physically they'll all be fine. What I want to talk to you about is his mom. She was hurt really bad and had to go to the hospital."
"The doctors did everything they could, but she was hurt too bad and she passed away. Chaz is having a hard time and what he needs right now is support. He needs you to be a good friend."
"Can you do that for me?"
"Good. I knew you would. Thank you, Whisker. You can go back to class."
I walked slowly back to my desk and sat down. I ran what Mrs Greer said to me through my head several more times and didn't know what to think other than Chaz must feel like I did when Grandma died. I then wondered if instead of it feeling like his stomach was a bunch of knots and crying it was just a big, empty hole inside with no tears at all. I was sad when I thought of Grandma, but it was grown up sad. It's okay for kids to cry; it's what they do. But grown ups have their own kind of sad where their faces look like stone and their mouths make funny shapes. Sometimes they cried, too, but I always thought it was because they remembered what it was like to be a kid. I figured one day that would happen to me. In the meantime, I was practicing my stone face. After seeing Chaz, it looked like he was too.
It snowed a lot that day, but was done before it came time for school to be out. Chaz stayed inside during recess. I tried to stay with him, but the recess monitor, Mrs Straw, said I couldn't since there was nothing wrong with me. I asked her how she could know and she threatened to keep me inside the rest of the week, separate from Chaz. I sulked all the way out the door. How could I be a good friend if I wasn't even allowed to be around him?
This dilemma bothered me the rest of the day, and yet again, my concentration was nonexistent. Mrs Switt kept giving me funny looks, like she was trying to decide if the horns I'd sprouted were supposed to be there. Normally I would reduce myself to a quivering puddle of distress over her potentially unfavorable opinion of me, but that day it was her problem. I was far too preoccupied with Mrs Greer's request to bother with Mrs Switt. She called on me several times to answer questions, but I pretended I didn't know the answers, eliciting arched eyebrows and denigrating frowns. By the end of the day, she was taking notes.
Woopdy fucking doo.
The roads still weren't completely clear when Mom took me home. She cursed and screeched at the other cars the whole way home, convinced we'd careen into an oncoming car or sail through the guard rail from an overpass. The 'bridge may be icy' signs were basically taking up space eight months out of the year, but this happened to be one of the other four, and Mom's shoulders looked like a linebacker's every time we crossed one. She knew how many we had to go over, having driven me to school so much, and she kept count out loud.
"That's Three. Just two more. Two more and we're home. Just two more."
"Chaz was there today."
"Wh-what? Oh? Good."
"He had a bandage on his head."
"Oh my god really? Is he okay?"
"I think so."
"What happen-- STAY IN YOUR OWN LANE ASSHOLE."
"He had an accident. His dad hit a deer."
"That's terrible. Two more."
"Two more. What?"
"What? What else? Jesus fucking GOD these drivers are crazy."
"One more thank God. What about his mom?"
"She, umm. She died."
"OH NO. Is he okay? Oh my God. That's terrible. Is he okay?"
"I don't think so."
"We should-- Oh my-- call him when we get home."
"One more. We'll call when we get home."
Dad parked his car on the street and was shoveling the driveway when we got home. He stopped and waited while Mom drove up and parked in the garage, and resumed once we were past. Mom made sure she unlocked the door so I could go inside and went back to the car to get some things.
I took my boots off and left them on the back porch, careful not to step on any snow in my stocking feet. I went straight to my room where I threw my coat and backpack on the bed and pulled off my sweater. It crackled with static electricity and my hair stuck to it as I pulled it over my head. The hair on my arms tingled. I threw it in a wad next to my coat and shut my door.
I heard Mom come in the back. She was talking, but I couldn't hear what she was saying. Another, deeper voice answered. That was Dad. He must have finished the driveway. Mom's voice was excited, loud. Dad's was how it always was: low and measured. I looked out the window at the snow outside and saw how it laid perfectly across the front yard. I watched outside and heard two creaking sets of footsteps come through the kitchen, into the hallway and past my door. They disappeared into the bedroom across the hall and I heard the door shut.
It was perhaps the worst possible day to have after being sick. I had no idea how long Chaz was back in school, but I decided it was while I was out and a big part of me wished I'd been there the day he came back. Mrs Greer asked me to be a good friend and I planned to. Mom said we should call and make sure he was okay. He might not be home from school yet, but it seemed as good a time as
My head hurt. It didn't feel like any headache I'd ever had; more like I was in a speeding car toward a brick wall speeding toward me even faster stopped only with my skull. There was one spot on my forehead that felt like something cut it open, but I quickly touched it and found no blood.
It was the bedroom again. I heard them go in there, but I couldn't hear them talking or moving around. Only that awful, wet, mudstuck.
If this was the snoopy dog, or worse, something else, I had to make sure Mom and Dad were okay. After Grandma, and hearing about Chaz, death was becoming very real for me, and the thought of losing one or both of my own parents charged every terrified bone in my scrawny six year old body. I grabbed my flashlight from the shelf and held it like a club. It was plastic, but the batteries were big and it was all I had.
I entered the hallway and stalked to the closed bedroom door. A quick glance revealed Haley's door cracked open again, something a slippery memory of going to my room earlier contradicted. But my immediate problem was behind the door to Mom and Dad's bedroom, so it would have to wait.
I listened carefully as I reached for the doorknob and
Static discharge left the tips of my finger partly numb and I jerked my hand back, shaking it, trying to make the sensation leave. The whole thing tingled and I let out a huge breath. I quickly tapped the knob and nothing happened. Steeling myself, I grabbed it and pushed forward.
It was empty.
There was nothing out of place, as if no one had been there just moments before. I looked to the dresser and saw the snoopy dog was in the same place it always was. The smile was still too big, but it was otherwise unchanged, and, to my relief, stationary.
I turned out of the room and shut the door behind me. My head still hurt, but it was reduced to the same dull pain that resonated through my shocked fingers. My thoughts were hazy and my body decided I need to lay down, inconsiderate of the fact Mom and Dad were still
Haley's door swung wide and my young eyes fixed upon a scene hatched from the squirming, smothering wombs of Hell's forsaken holes.
Mom was on her back at the end of the bed, legs in the air, as Dad stood between them, shoving.
Mom moaned and cursed and licked her lips in exaggerated, profane circles. Her hands were on the edges of the shirt she'd pulled up to her neck, bra torn away, and her breasts bounced with every heave like the eyes on a Kit-Cat clock. There was a smear of blood on her stomach and I saw Dad's hands, his entire torso, were again caked with it. His hair was wild, on both his head and groin, and grew like thin, gnarled roots over his neck, hips and pubis. His open mouth was a glistening black mine shaft full of short, crooked prongs.
He turned toward me and pointed away with a nod.
"Go stand in the corner--"
"-- while I--"
"-- teach this whore--"
"-- some manners."
My eyes followed his gaze and I saw Haley there, barely conscious. She was naked except for a pair of striped tube socks, blood smeared between her legs, over her chest, around her mouth. Her gaze was fixed, half-lidded and glassy, but I could tell she was still breathing.
I looked back to Dad, then to Mom, petrified. I was dimly aware the front of my pants were warm. And damp.
Mom fixed me with her upside down gaze; her eyes the only living things on her face. Even though her tongue still moved in slow, gut-wrenching infinity, it looked like a chunk of raw meat scouring a toilet bowl.
"Go on, Whisker."
Into the mud.
It wasn't the mud.
Mom's tongue quivered.
"Be a good boy and maybe I'll have something left for you."