14 comments

Sad Fiction

CW: domestic abuse, mention of self-harm

I was five the first time I saw it happen. My eyes confirmed what my ears begged to deny and from then on, the assurance he was just yelling at the game was a lie I had to work harder on delivering to my brother. He was only three at the time and the few words that penetrated the barrage of thick walls and closed doors between us and our parents didn’t make their way past his skull. 

We had just spent the day at the Mall of America. As always, I had insisted on making a full round of all four floors, each the size of a Saturnian ring. As always, Mom picked us up a bagel and cider from each of the Caribous we passed along the way. And as always, our happiness tasted like ambrosia, sweetened by the guarantee Father wasn’t around the corner. We had stayed till the mall closed, passing the time in stores where the cheapest thing cost our weekly food budget, staring at families squeal on rollercoasters until their adrenaline saturated the air and seeped through our skin. 

When we returned, my brother and I were to head straight to bed, the five blueberry bagels we shared our sustenance for the day and we were young enough to prefer it that way. My mom was to hand an everything bagel to Father and hope that with each opiate bite, he’d forget she promised to be back a half hour earlier. 

But the bagel didn’t get its chance to work its doughy magic. He knocked it out of her quivering hands and she joined it on the floor soon after. I’d nearly reached the bottom of the stairs when I caught her watery eyes. She firmly shook her head and the air stirred enough with each jittery shake to push me upwards into the room where my brother’s wispy snores would be our white noise for the rest of the night.

I was seven the first time I worked up the courage to tell someone. I mean, really spell it out: my dad needs to go to prison. I thought I was more strategic with my choice of confidante, too. There’s no way he’d react like my friends did when I’d complained about Father; relating because their dads had called them a mildly embarrassing nickname when the boy they’d eyed across the playground was within earshot. 

Thomas was Father’s only friend. Mom used to have plenty more but not many resurfaced from the sea of foundation. It was the Maybelline SuperStay Long-Lasting Full Coverage Foundation in the shade Cappuccino. It was always available at the Walgreens a block away. It was the liquid component of the elaborate act Mom would have to put on each time she left the house. It was “I’m good, just a bit tired” in a 30ml bottle. 

They were in Madison for Father’s mother’s funeral. I would call her ‘grandmother’ if I’d ever met her. We were in a house for the weekend where a father returned and life didn’t shrink away but leapt into his arms and tiptoed into his lips. So surely he would understand, right?

The day after I confided in Thomas, I waited by my window for a glorious tsunami of red and blue to sweep Father away. They’d knock on the door and he’d be furious but this time he wouldn’t be able to do anything. Not then, not anymore. But nothing ever came; not even a wave, not even a ripple. 

I was nine the first time we tried to leave. Father had just worked the night shift, enjoyed his Budweiser breakfast, and promptly dozed off on the duct-taped La-Z-Boy, its groans whistling out through the holes that hadn’t yet been covered. We tiptoed behind, mentally marking our path to the door with all booby traps: the weary floorboard that had absorbed too many of Mom’s falls, the matted runner where years of shattered bottles braided its once-fleecy tresses into tangled snares that never failed to hook onto my brother’s unlaced shoes as he darted to the honking school bus. Once outside, we trod noiselessly like a cheetah stalking an antelope, only we were the antelope and the cheetah was the neighbor’s nuisance terrier who, if he were awake, would’ve barked our departure like a hundred alarm clocks ringing at once.

We didn’t permit ourselves to let go of the breaths we held in, that with each mile we put between us and the house threatened to poison us with hope. We didn’t say a word when the Minnesota State Patrol officer let us off with a warning, instructing me to watch the speedometer always hits an invisible boundary at 65. We didn’t smile back at the Border Services officer who gave us our first taste of Canadian hospitality. We spent our first night in the motel immobile as relief finally leached into our bloodstream, dripping as from an IV bag that had emptied by morning.       

The next three days were among the best I’d ever experienced. Our joy summited higher peaks, unburdened by the fear of being knocked off at any moment by the avalanche of knowing that your refuge is only temporary. I thought of those days when we were forced back into our shackles, like the prisoner who stares out of the cell window enough to pretend, even for a moment, there are no bars separating the clusters of stars in the sky. I thought of the vending machine that ate our dollar that first night, so we learnt where to strike to get it to spit up more than that. I thought of the park across the road, where the jungle gym was held together by chewing gum and cigarette butts and the smell of sex left behind by the teenagers who feared neither the autumnal chill nor the battered runaway who yelled she had two young children with her.  

Mom was pushing us on the rusting swings, our shrieks silencing its ancient creaks, when she noticed the motel owner pointing us out to two men in black wide-brimmed hats. We didn’t have a second to recover from the whiplash of a sudden stop or the rupture of a bubble that had been floating us ever higher before they set off in pursuit. 

Mom spent the long drive to St. Paul fruitlessly denying Father’s assassination of her character. My brother had to serve as her witness, confirming that what they believed was a kidnapping was in fact our daring escape. Through every assertion that they were doing the devil's bidding, the sheriffs remained stone-faced, their expressions as unchanging as the rural landscape outside. Looking back, I wonder if I’d known chances like these were few and far between, would I have pitched in? For then, I was content with the moment’s victory: Father was too lazy to retrieve us himself and I had a few more hours without him.

I was ten the first time I was afraid of myself. A family had just moved in next door and I had taken over a dozen cowboy cookies as an apology in advance for all the noise and - if they were better than our previous neighbors - domestic violence complaints they would want to lodge. Father concealed his insanity behind a smokescreen of suburban politeness, offering his painting services. Which were, of course, kindly declined at the fearful rate of someone who was actually trying to make a home worth living in. 

He did manage to eventually wear them down with repeated mention of his prior experience. (He said he painted houses to put himself through college but that just sounds better than admitting his ratty stepfather forced him to work from the age of 13 and he did not, in fact, attend college.) 

I watched him paint for days, smiling as though even a single cell in his body knew goodness, helping as though it came naturally to him and imagined over and over again “accidentally” walking into his ladder and screeching as it came down. I was even more afraid of how close I was to doing it when the ladder extended his evil reach to the second floor of their perfect house and I could be certain of a job well done. 

I was eleven the first time my own cheek felt his sting. It was my brother’s birthday and Mom was going all out. He’d had a worse year than usual and was finally at the tail end of his second suspension sentence. Mom had wanted me to talk to him, kid-to-kid. But neither of those kids knew the first thing about making friends or being excited about school. One’s anger was as vast as the other’s sadness and there was just no space in their tiny bodies for much else. 

I’d stayed home while Mom scoured the town for junk food and board games and the teriyaki jerky my brother had once called “interesting” at CVS. If I had a phone, I’d have warned her that Father had been seething for at least two hours before she honked from the overgrown driveway. We teetered under the weight of a legion of bags to the door, using the extra twenty seconds to prepare for what would follow. 

Not even a decade would’ve been time enough. 

Turns out he’d brought his gun home. Turns out fear was a longsword that’d only just been sharpened, the pain that it left as it seared through my chest entirely new to a girl who thought she’d long grown accustomed to it. 

With each plea that fell on deaf ears, he brought the gun closer and closer till Mom’s tongue could no longer move, pressed flat against the metallic barrel. She was at her own trial without representation and like a corrupt judge, he found humor in the miscarriage of justice, chortling at each non-word that drooled out of her mouth. I pushed myself between them and was as quickly pushed out by the sandpaper back of his free hand. 

There was a bump at the back of my head from our ghastly coffee table (I wish I’d at least broken it on my way down) but there were no holes at the back of Mom’s. 

I was thirteen the first time Mom’s life was in my hands. Father had just been promoted and with great power comes great pressure apparently. Even though the soccer-mom-cum-drug-dealer he was after was Mother Teresa compared to the man himself. Perhaps actual police work was simply that foreign to him but he’d cope, wouldn’t he, with the help of his favorite stress-buster. 

Maybe he was on whatever Mrs. Breaking Bad was cooking up. Or maybe he genuinely didn’t care that Mom had been unconscious for far too long. At first I just waited for her to wake up, sitting by her side and wiping each drop of blood as they fell from her nose until the paper towel was uniformly crimsoned. 

Father always only thought of himself. Only thought of how it would look if I’d called an ambulance. He didn’t think that she could’ve died either on the floor she scrubbed spotless everyday or in the car that was driven by a teenager who thought leaving the headlights off would keep the cop lights off as well. 

I didn’t believe in guardian angels until Mom was hoisted onto a stretcher. 

I was fourteen the first time I tasted freedom. Absolute freedom. Not the type that comes to an untimely end outside a dingy motel in Canada. 

We decided to head in the other direction this time - try our luck in Mexico or a Caribbean island. We hadn’t even made it out of the front door when he came bursting through it, holding out his service weapon as he holstered whatever freakish sixth sense alerted him to our plans. Maybe it was my brother’s fists drumming on his chest or the self-confidence emanating from within that sedated him. He didn’t react until the knife sunk in for the second time. 

Sometimes, I think back on that day and wish our elderly neighbor hadn’t been crocheting by her window. Hadn’t heard his car screech to a halt halfway across the sidewalk. Hadn’t felt our terror in her osteoporotic bones. Hadn’t called the police. 

I was fifteen the first time I ran away from home. My foster parents were good and stable and didn’t deserve it but they knew why I’d gone and searched for me the whole night. 

I’d taken only a hundred-dollar bill which I’d hoped would pay for the taxi to Shakopee (plus a bribe in case the facility’s visiting hours were over). My negotiation skills were subpar at best and the guard didn’t appreciate the crumpled five-dollar bill I’d sheepishly offered. Her expression conveyed her vexation as she informed me that bribing a federal officer would get me into the correctional facility another way. But her face softened when she heard who I’d hoped to see. 

“It wasn’t right what they did to her,” she said. “Murder two? When it was clearly self-defence? Huh! That’s what we call a good ol’ fashioned cover-up.”

It certainly was easier to get rid of his gun than admit to all of the policing they’d wiggled out of for years. To throw away the bad egg and pretend it hadn’t hatched and roosted comfortably under their closed eyes. To imprison the victim and hide the criminal in their ranks.   

To make sure that even from the grave, he still wins. 

Honorable members of the Parole Board, there are plenty more ‘firsts’ I could mention. I could talk about the first time I left my brother at rehab. The first time I marked my skin with the pain of his memory. The first hundred times an acquaintance recommended therapy. 

The first time I considered robbing a bank when the lawyer I could barely afford said I’d need someone more expensive if I wanted my mother’s appeal to come through before her first parole hearing.  

I’m hoping today will be another first. The first time I saw the system work. 

***

“This is really good, Annie. Real powerful.” Jonah happily informs his older sister. 

“It has to be better than good, Jonah. This is our only chance. This is Mom’s only chance.”

“It’s great, okay? You’ll win them over, I’m positive.”

“I have to because we can’t wait till the next hearing. She’s already been in there for too long for something -” 

“Stop,” he interrupts. “You have to stop thinking like that.”

“I can’t. If we had just told the truth -”

“You don’t know what might’ve happened,” he tries to argue.

“But I do. She wouldn’t be in prison if they knew I’d killed him.”

July 16, 2021 20:05

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14 comments

Charli Britton
12:58 Aug 06, 2021

What the heck person. Can I just say, that you are an amazing writer? Your transitions were jaw dropping, and your plot and story line was crazy in the best way. Your description of the situation was self explanatory, and wonderfully executed. I felt as if I was actually there, crying with the poor family. I like the twist of the girl killing her father in the end, but how it semi backfired and her mother is in jail for it. Some spots I got a little confused; "Father always only thought of himself. Only thought of how it would look if I’d...

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N K
02:44 Aug 11, 2021

Thank you so much, Charli! This is definitely the kindest comment I've ever received about my writing and I'm so grateful. Sorry for the late response - I had taken a break from Reedsy for a bit. Come back to quite a few changes, it looks like. There's a submission fee now? On reading that line myself, I can totally understand how it would be a little confusing and require a re-read. So grateful for the feedback and looking forward to reading more of your work.

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Charli Britton
11:13 Aug 11, 2021

Thank You. :) I know, the admission fee is the worst, but I understand it. It becomes easier for the judges to weed out the... not as wonderful stories.

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N K
17:56 Aug 11, 2021

Oh yeah, that makes sense now aha :)

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21:28 Jul 21, 2021

Wow, what a powerful story! The reader empathizes with the main character throughout and the descriptive details make the story come alive. Loved the plot twist ending, well done!

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N K
02:41 Aug 11, 2021

Thank you so much for the kind words, Racheli! Sorry about the late response.

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Howard Halsall
07:32 Jul 20, 2021

Hello Natalia, I loved reading your story; what a roller coaster of a journey and a satisfying twist at the end. You’ve done a superb job maintaining the narrator’s voice throughout and painting an unrelenting picture of numbing domestic oppression. You also have an intriguing eye for atmospheric details; these two examples caught my attention: “SuperStay Long-Lasting Full Coverage Foundation in the shade Cappuccino,” and “Budweiser breakfast, and promptly dozed off on the duct-taped La-Z-Boy” You had me hooked after those two descriptions. ...

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N K
08:08 Jul 21, 2021

Hi Howard, thank you so much for your kind words. I'm so glad you enjoyed my story and took time to leave a comment. It means a lot :) Also, I saw on your bio that you had worked on Band of Brothers. Firstly, congratulations and second, I love that show. What was it like working on it?

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Howard Halsall
08:22 Jul 21, 2021

Hello Natalia, Firstly, I hope my comments were helpful and secondly, to answer your question, it was a demanding and intense experience working on that show, and a year of my life in fact. However it has been shown on lots of occasions and has stood the test of time. It still gets good reviews which can’t be bad. Howard :)

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N K
02:41 Aug 11, 2021

Hi Howard, Sorry for the late response. I had taken a break from Reedsy for a little while. Your comments were insightful and helpful and I'm grateful you took the time out to read my story and let me know what you thought. And for responding to my question! I can't even imagine how much work must have gone in.

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Beth Connor
23:07 Jul 18, 2021

Wow- this is really intense. You did an amazing job at showing how much weight was on her shoulders.

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N K
13:43 Jul 19, 2021

Thank you so much, Beth!

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Angel {Readsy}
16:11 Oct 27, 2021

Very sad story

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Angel {Readsy}
16:10 Oct 27, 2021

Keep writing

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