I don’t want to go inside. I know that once I go inside, five minutes late, he’ll come at me. He’s probably had a half bottle of Jose Cuervo by now, droplets clinging to his brown, unshaven face. I know that scent. Hot, heavy, alcohol and sweat. The bile bubbles in my throat.
Time keeps ticking, and it will only get worse the longer I stand outside this double-wide. My home. There’s not even a proper step up to the front door. It’s a pile of cinder blocks. Dirt grinds between the cement cinder blocks and my pink sandals.
“Daddy, there’s a spider in my room,” I hear my seven year-old sister Jamie say to my dad, who’s probably slumped on the green and brown sofa, half of the upholstery worn away.
“Is that my problem?” my dad retorts. I hear him slam a bottle down onto the floor.
I finally open the front door, knowing he’d start going after Jamie if I didn’t cut in. I have to protect her like Mom used to, before she passed. I can hear my heart thundering underneath my white tee-shirt.
“Where the hell have you been, Haley?” he asks, fists clenching, mouth smirking. He’s been waiting for me.
It’s not even worth it to get defensive anymore. I set the clear plastic bag, heavy with a gallon jug of milk and box of Wheaties, onto the wobbly linoleum kitchen counter.
“I was at work, Dad. We got out late and I stopped at Wal-Mart before coming home so that Jamie can have something for breakfast tomorrow.”
Jamie inches next to me, clutching her one-eyed brown teddy bear close to her chest, and rests her head on my left hip. She strokes my hair, the same amber curls as her own.
As I set the milk on a shelf of the refrigerator and the box of cereal onto the counter, I hear him get up off the couch. He huffs and groans, his years of alcohol consumption weighing him down in his gut. When he bumps the table with his hip, a plastic cup of pens and markers crashes to the floor. A pair of long, slender, red handled scissors glides across the linoleum. I turn away from him and towards my bedroom, ushering Jamie in front of me. My heart still thuds in my chest. I’m sure my cheeks are flushed from anger and restraint.
“The hell you think you’re going?” He clamps my elbow. The calluses on his palm grind at my skin. My feet stop moving. Jamie skitters into the bedroom, her Mickey Mouse nightgown swishing at her ankles.
“I’m going to put Jamie to bed and then I’m going to bed, too. Tomorrow is Monday. Senior year starts tomorrow.” I don’t turn around. His face is much too close. I can feel, smell his breath. His other hand clutches my waist.
“Gonna get all smart, are ya? Become a fancy businesswoman. Isn’t that right, Honey?” He inches closer. My muscles tighten.
“I’m going to bed.”
“Haley, are you comin’?” Jamie calls to me from the bedroom.
He lets go of me and walks back to the couch, knowing he can’t get away with it when Jamie is awake. He slumps down with the bottle again. “Goodnight, Sweetie,” he calls to my back.
I release my muscles, stomp into the bedroom and shut the door. Jamie waits for me under the pale blue comforter of our full-sized bed. Her eyes are wide, her hands still clutch her teddy bear.
“Did Daddy get mad at you?” she asks as I walk to our dresser.
“No. Everything is fine,” I lie, pulling an oversized purple sweatshirt from the second drawer. I turn to face the wall opposite the bed, strip off my tattered jeans and tee-shirt, and yank the sweatshirt over my head. It falls right above my knees.
“Did you say there was a spider in here, Jamie?”
“Yeah, behind the closet door. It’s scary. Will you get it?” she whispers, pointing and shutting her eyes tight.
Spiders used to scare me, as much as they do Jamie, but they seem as harmless as daisies these days. It’s so small, I almost feel bad about killing it, but I engulf it in a Kleenex and throw it into a wire waste basket next to the dresser.
“There. All gone,” I say.
As I step over to the bed, I take a wad of bills from the pocket of the jeans I wore to work and place them into an old Quaker oatmeal container under the bed. For the past year, I’ve saved almost every paycheck and all of my tip money. After graduation, I’m taking Jamie away from this place.
“Are you all ready for first grade tomorrow?” I ask, as I slip into the cool covers of the bed.
Jamie slinks under the comforter, until only her nose and eyes are visible.
“Good. Get some sleep, you want to be all rested so you can play with your friends.” I close my eyes, exhaustion spreading over me, coaxing me into a welcome sleep. My mind immediately escapes to a time four years ago, before Mom’s car accident on her way to pick up Jamie from ballet class. Before Dad started turning to alcohol to cope with her death.
“Okay,” she says, closing her eyes. “Haley?”
“Do you really think Mommy is in heaven? Like an angel?”
My eyes open suddenly. “Of course.”
“Is she keeping us safe?”
“I know she’s watching over us. She left me in charge of keeping you safe.”
“Okay,” she murmurs.
I close my eyes again.
“I love you a lot.”
“Love you too.”
It felt like I was only asleep for ten minutes when the bedroom door opens.
Not now. Not tonight. Please, not tonight.
This was how it had started. Come into my room. Tuck me in goodnight. Hold me close for much too long. Caress my newly budded breasts. Slide his hand in between my legs. He would tell me he was just checking to see I was wearing my panties. Good girls wear panties. I knew there was something wrong with what he did, but it was the only love I ever knew from him, but I was crushed, cold, weak every time he did it.
There’s no point in risking Jamie waking up, so I slide out from under the covers and face the doorway.
“Haley, honey, help your Daddy to bed.” He creeps into the room, but I push on his chest with all my energy to get him out of Jamie’s vicinity. Once we’re out of my bedroom, he throws his hairy, sweaty arm around my shoulder.
“Dad, you need to go to sleep.”
“I just need some help, okay?”
I pull him to his bedroom, probably more forcefully than necessary, because he starts to get angry.
“What the hell’s the hurry? Can’t move that fast.”
“I’m tired, Dad. I was sleeping. You woke me up.” I yank his elbow forward.
He grabs a handful of my hair and my head snaps backwards. He forces me to look at him.
“Y’ungrateful little piece of crap. I put a roof ova ya head and ya can’t be nice to me?”
My eyes shut tight. I can’t stand to look at his reddened cheeks, forehead and his grip on my neck makes my eyes water.
“Dad, stop. Let go of me!” I grab his sweaty fingers and pry them off my neck. He wobbles in his drunken stupor. He regains his balance and takes two booming steps towards me. I back into the wall. His hand grips the side of my ribcage, thumb caressing the side of my breast.
“Don’t git fresh with me, honey,” he breathes.
My hands creep up my chest and force him away with a shove. He trips on the edge of his bed and falls into it, smacking the back of his head on the white plastic nightstand. He’s out cold.
I dart out of the room, close the door, and slide back into my own bed. Sleep doesn’t come as easily as before.
“Here, let me help you, Jamie,” I say, abandoning my bowl of cold cereal when I see her putting on her blue polka dotted shirt on backwards. I step over to her, standing in the doorway with her shirt askew around her neck. I adjust the folds of cotton and tug the shirt over her head.
“What is it?” I ask.
“My necklace is caught.”
Mom’s delicate silver heart necklace hung on her neck with a tiny piece of blue thread entwined in the chain. I grab the pair of red-handled scissors from the floor and cut the thread away. The heart dangles free.
“Welcome. Ready to go?” I hear Dad grunt behind the closed bedroom door.
I grab her hand and head out the door as soon as another one opens.
Jamie entwines her fingers in mine as we walk up to the front door. Dried, brown oak leaves crunch under our shoes. The blinds on the window of the door are askew.
“Jamie, Jamie! Come and see! I found a bird’s egg!” Jamie’s friend, Tara, yells, waving one arm wildly, her other hand cradling the delicate white egg as she runs. She stops in front of us with a jolt. Leaves scatter. Her short brown hair flies around her freckled face.
“Wow!” Jamie looks down into Tara’s hand.
“Wanna come help me make a nest for it? Mamma gave me a bunch of old washcloths and a Tupperware container.”
Jamie looks up at me, wide-eye pleading.
“Sure, have fun.” She loosens her hand from mine and departs.
As they run away into the maze of trailers, I meander up to the front door. A heavy, sickly sense of foreboding comes over me as I turn the door knob and step inside. Alone with him.
Predictable. Asleep on the couch, cradling an empty brown beer bottle. It’s not even 5 o’clock, Dad. I close the door as quietly as possible, turning the knob to retract the bolt so it doesn’t click as it springs into the bolt hole.
As I walk into my bedroom my foot finds the neck of a Budweiser bottle on the floor, barely visible from the dining room table. It slides across the floor. Collides with the metal leg of a chair. The cringing impact radiates through the trailer.
Adrenaline involuntarily shoots through my veins. My hands shake. Please, don’t wake up. Don’t wake up. My dad grunts and turns over, still clutching the beer bottle. I walk into my bedroom and slowly shut the door.
A few hours later, I stand over the two-burner stove. Water boils in a steel pot and elbow macaroni dances in circles. Jamie sits on a copy of Webster’s Dictionary at the kitchen table in order to reach the blue sheet of addition math problems. My dad still sits slumped over on the couch, watching a sitcom on television. He grunts with the canned applause and sloshes some beer around the bottle neck and down into his mouth.
“Haley, I need some paper,” Jamie says, swinging her legs underneath the table.
“I think there’s a pack under those magazines,” I say. I point to a small fold-up table next to the television stacked high with a year’s worth of Sear’s catalogues and free magazines from the library.
Jamie hops down from the chair. Her purple skirt sways and she hustles to the fold-up table. She tugs at the package of lined notebook paper pinned under the magazines, and as she yanks the pack free, the magazines tumble to the floor. Jamie looks up at me, her eyes apologetic. She bites her lip.
“Uh oh,” she says.
“Great. Frickin’ great,” my dad says, slamming his bottle down on the floor. “Can’t you do anythang without makin’ a mess?” He heaves himself from the couch and stomps over to where Jamie stands.
“I’m sorry, Daddy. I can clean it up.”
As Jamie squats to her hands and knees to collect the fallen magazines, he pulls her up by her elbow.
“Wha’ did I tell ya about makin’ a mess, huh?”
“Let go of her! It’s not a big deal. It’s not like she broke anything,” I say, turning the burner off.
“Don’t start with me,” he says, pointing a gnarled finger. Jamie’s lower lip trembles.
“Daddy, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I can put them back, okay?” Jamie reaches up and pats his arm. He slaps her hard across her face. She lets go and falls to the floor on top of the magazines. She whimpers. Her right cheek burns red.
My dad looks up at me, raises his eyebrows as if daring me to fight back. I rush over to Jamie and cradle her small, round face.
“Honey, please go over to Tara’s house, okay?” I say.
“You ain’t goin’ anywhere!” my dad says, starting towards us.
I stand up, barricading Jamie from his threats. I look behind me. “Jamie, please go.”
She slips out the door before my dad can stop her.
I look up at his face, moist and blushed from alcohol. “How dare you. How dare you do that to her! She’s only seven years old! It was an accident!” I try to keep my face as stern as possible. Teeth clenched and brow furrowed.
“Wha’ gives you the right to tell me wha’ I can do?”
“She’s my sister! I love her! Mom loved her!” His palm collides with my temple. I stagger sideways and clutch the edge of the kitchen table for balance. I blink away the dark spots dancing in front of my eyes.
The pair of red-handled scissors lies on the table. My fingers wrap around the handle. I turn, both shaking hands clutching the scissors in front of me. Sweat builds in my palms. I grip tighter. Don’t let go.
They don’t stop him. He doesn’t see them, guarding me. His stomach finds the sharp point of the scissors. They puncture. Hot, crimson blood flows over my hands, still gripping the red handles.
His eyes fix on mine. They say nothing.
The scissors slip through my hands as his weight pulls them to the floor. A thud and then silence. It’s hard to breathe. Hyperventilating. I can’t move. A warm, red river flows between my toes and around my feet.
Seconds, minutes, hours pass. Maybe. I’m not quite sure. I unglue my feet from the sticky floor and walk towards the front door. I step over him. I open the door, step outside. It smells like rain. Clean and moist.