Friday, October 8, 2021

An original short story: Dreams of a Better Life

This is a 2500-word story I wrote earlier this year. Trigger warning - violence/rape/language.

Dreams of a Better Life

Mama stood at the stove, her back to me. Her shoulders were shaking with silent sobs. Daddy had hit her pretty hard. I’d wanted to run out of the kitchen from my seat at the table, but she shot me a look and I knew it meant stay put. So I stayed put, moving my fork from the plate to my mouth, even though I couldn’t swallow a bite. I couldn’t do anything except try to make a getaway in my mind. I pictured the meadow behind our house. I was flat out running, not stopping until I reached the tall oak tree with the hollowed out part. I crawl into the opening and feel safe…in my mind. But in my body I was frozen to the seat, afraid to make a wrong move. To breathe. To do anything to set him off again.

I’m Abigail. I’m twelve years old. We live on the edge of Moss Point, Mississippi. It’s not much of a town, more like a wide place in the road. Mama says our nearest neighbor is a half mile down the road. We haven’t lived here very long. We used to live in Jackson, on a street with lots of other houses. But there was always trouble when Daddy was drinking. I think somehow as the liquor pours into him that hate and anger pours into him too. Because when he drinks he always wants to fight, and even though mama and I stay out of his way, he’ll make us come to him.

It usually starts with a question…something like, “Abigail, did you take out the trash like I told you?”

“Yes, Daddy. I put it in the garbage can outside.”

Then he’ll make a big show of finding trash on the floor at his feet, usually a bottle he’s just dropped. He bends down and says, “Well damn, girl, looks like you missed some. Get over here and pick up this trash.”

By this time I’m shaking in my shoes and Mama is telling him to sit down, that she’ll get the trash and throw it out. But it’s no use. You can see the flash in his eyes; he’s wound up tight and, by God, he’s got to teach us a lesson. That’s when the real pain begins. 

When we lived in town and Daddy would get on a tear, the neighbors would call the police on him, That’s when Daddy decided we needed a house with some land. So here we are. No one around here to stick their nose in his business.

Mama does the best she can. She scrubs the house until it’s spotless and her knuckles are red and raw. She cooks all the foods Daddy likes. She talks in a low, calm voice to soothe him. But every day, I see her tense up when we hear his truck coming up the drive. I know, because the same thing happens to me. I hold my breath when he comes in the door, waiting for his first words, because that lets us know how things will go from there.

Sometimes, it’ll be all right. “Hey Sugar, what’s for supper?” She relaxes and smiles and tells him what he wants to hear. And I feel the muscles in my stomach unclench just a little as I put on a smile too.

But then sometimes, like tonight, he comes home loaded for bear. He hit Mama because she was too slow getting his supper on the table. But, even if she’d been faster, he would’ve found another reason to knock her around. Already she’s got the beginnings of a black eye that’ll just get worse as the night goes on. I feel completely helpless. Impotent. I learned that word in school and it’s a good word, a perfect word for me, as I sit here pretending to my supper. Our old dog Lucy is laying under the table and I’m passing bites of food to her, and it looks like I’m eating the food off my plate. So hopefully I’ll be okay there. Of course, there was the time that he knocked me to the floor and kicked me in the stomach because I was being a glutton and a pig. He said he was going to bring a trough into the kitchen and from then on I’d eat from that, like the true piggie I was. So food is a tightrope I try to walk. There are so many tightropes and the truth is, no matter how careful I am, if Daddy means to find fault, he finds fault.

But as bad as it is on me, it’s way worse for Mama. I asked her once why she’d married Daddy. She’d looked at me a long time, then sighed and told me that she was young and didn’t have a good home life. She said Daddy was charming. Charming. He’d made her feel safe, promised to take care of her forever. And for a while, he did what he said. He found a good job and a little house to rent. She said they laughed over her early attempts at cooking but, little by little, she learned how to make the food he loved and keep the house like he wanted. They were happy.

But then, everything seemed to go wrong. Mama got pregnant and, about the same time, Daddy lost his job. They had to move because they got behind on their rent. Mama said they ended up in a boarding house where roughnecks loitered around day and night. Daddy tried to find good work, but couldn’t. Eventually, he took a job as a bouncer at a local bar. He got his drinks for free, which started him down a very bad road. He left Mama alone every night and she was afraid to be in that place by herself. She said she’d cried and begged him to quit the job, to find something else – anything else – where he could stay home nights, but by that time Daddy was already changing. He’d told her she was getting hysterical over nothing, he was keeping the job because it was the only thing putting a roof over their heads, and she should just shut up about it.

And then it happened. One night two men broke into mama’s room and raped her. I’ll never forget the look on her face when she told me that…like her face was suddenly carved out of stone. She said she lost the baby, which turned out to be a boy. Mama said it was like a switch flipped inside Daddy. And even though eventually he found a better job and they were able to move to another house, things were never the same. She said Daddy blamed her for losing his son. He said terrible things to her about the night of the rape and she told me she’d never forget his words, that they hurt as much as the rape did, as much as losing her baby.

Eventually, she got pregnant again, this time with me. She said Daddy was nicer to her during her pregnancy, but when he saw me, disappointment flooded his face. I wasn’t the son he wanted. My earliest memory is of Daddy standing over Mama, yelling right in her face that she couldn’t do anything right, couldn’t give him the son he wanted. That she wasn’t worth a shit.

So that’s our life. As lives go, I think ours is pretty bad. I know I’m supposed to be thankful for my blessings, like a roof over my head and clothes on my back and food to eat. But if I’m being honest, I don’t feel thankful. I feel … cheated. I wish mine and Mama’s lives were different. I wish my family wasn’t painted red with rage and despair. With pain. I wish we could be washed clean and set down in a place with fresh air and room to breathe, to be happy. But it’s just a dream. And dreaming too hard can cause its own pain. Best to not expect anything. Best to just get through the days with my head down.

After supper, I’m allowed to go to my room. I’m really tired, but my stomach is still shaking and it takes me a long time to go to sleep. I can hear raised voices, but nothing else, no furniture breaking or anything hitting the wall. I finally fall asleep. I don’t dream. I wake up around six and hurry to get dressed and go downstairs to help Mama with breakfast. She never asks for help; I just want to be there with her when he comes down.

The morning goes fine. Daddy eats and pronounces breakfast ”good” and we breathe easier. Then he’s off to work and I start upstairs to get my books and jacket to walk to the bus stop. But Mama stops me.

“Abigail, I need your help today.”

“Sure, Mama, let me just—” The look on her face stops me cold in my tracks. “Mama?” She’s looking at me so strangely.

“Abigail, I’ve always been honest with you – maybe too honest – about our life. About Daddy and how he became what he is…how we ended up here.” She paces from one side of the kitchen to the other, then back to face me.

“The fact is, if we don’t do something he’s going to kill me. Lord knows he’s told me that a hundred times…sometimes with his hands around my neck, sometimes with his pistol aimed at my head…but always with a cold dead look in his eyes. He’s telling me the truth, Abigail. One of these days he’ll do it. And where will that leave you?”

I know she’s right. I’d seen him threaten her life more times than I can count, and I’d seen those same dead eyes look at me while he slapped or punched or kicked me. There’s not a doubt in my mind that she is speaking the truth. I take a deep breath.

“What are we going to do?”

Mama looks at me, tears shimmering in her eyes. “I’ve thought this through a million different ways, but 99% of them just don’t work and we end up worse off than we are right now.” She takes a ragged breath before continuing, “The only way is for us to eliminate the source of our problem. I’d do it alone, but I can’t. I need your help”

I feel my eyebrows arch straight up. “Are you – are you saying…?”

“Yes, honey. It’s the only way.”

I look out the window for a minute and try to make my brain process what she’s saying. I try to think about the life I’ve dreamed of – a life without him in it – but I can’t picture it. Instead, my brain feels like a ping pong ball – thoughts bouncing around all over the place. My vision suddenly narrows to twin pinpricks of light and it feels like I’m swimming underwater. What is happening to me?

“Abigail, sit down. You’re white as a ghost. Here, honey. Drink some juice.” Like a robot, I do what I’m told and, little by little, the room comes back into focus and my head clears.

“I’m sorry, Abigail. I expect too much from you. Are you feeling better, honey?”

“I’m fine Mama. I – I’m the one who’s sorry. I don’t know why that happened.”

“It was just too much of a shock to you. I should’ve never even brought it up. ”

“Mama, it’s all right. I’m all right. Please, finish what you were saying.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

We spend the rest of the day going over the plan time and time again, searching for all possible weaknesses and making adjustments. It’s hard, but we know the stakes. To succeed means death. And to fail means death. Now, it’s just a matter of whose.

Daddy comes home in a tolerable mood, which is good. When he asks, I lie and tell him school was fine, we’re studying the Civil War. He talks about how that war pitted brother against brother and what a shame that was, that families could be torn apart. Mama pours him a large whisky and he smiles as he takes the first sip.

She and I keep that glass full as the evening goes on, agreeing with everything Daddy says, even when he starts slurring his words. As Mama helps Daddy upstairs to bed I move the lighted candle to the windowsill. Such a brave little light shining against the big dark night. A little close to those curtains, though. One little flutter and that could be disastrous.

And just like it was meant to be, it happens. The curtain catches, then the books on the shelf next to the window. Then the bookcase itself.

“Mama?”

“I’m here, Abigail. You ready?”

“Almost. Here, Lucy.” The old girl ambles up and I grip her collar. We walk out the front door as the carpet whooshes up in flames. Now the stairs are fully engulfed.

“Is it time?”

“Let’s give it another minute.”

The window at the top of the stairs explodes. “It’s time.”

We start jogging to the nearest neighbor’s house – a half mile away – and when we get there I’m hysterical, beating on the door, tears running down my face. “Please! Call 911! Our house is on fire! My daddy—” I break down, sobbing.

By the time the fire truck arrives, the house is gutted. There’s literally nothing left. Our kind neighbors have loaned us jackets and shoes, since we escaped wearing just our nightclothes. Eventually, a police officer takes us to the little motel in town and gets us a room for the night. She tells us someone from the Red Cross will come by tomorrow to help us figure out what’s next. 

At last, alone in our hotel room, we look at each other. We hug for a really long time. Finally, Mama holds me at arm’s length and says, “Abigail, I love you.” I swallow, hard, and tears fill my eyes.

“Mama, if I live to be a hundred years old I will never doubt that. I know you did this to give me a better life. And I’ve been thinking, I can quit school for a while and try to find a job to help out. We’ll need every penny we can get to make it on our own.” Mama holds her hand up.

“You just hold it right there. You’ll stay in school and you will excel in school.”

“But how will we live?”

“You don’t have to worry about that. There’s insurance on the house and on your Daddy.”

“Insurance?”

“Of course. It’s not a fortune, but we’ll be all right.”

As I hug her again, I find that the dreams for a better life that I couldn’t see before are suddenly getting clearer. But first, I’m going to sleep – really sleep – tonight.

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