Warning: This short story adult language, themes of domestic violence, bullying, physical abuse, suicide and violence. If any of these topics trigger you, please find something else to read. This, or any other story is not worth risking your emotional health. Be kind to yourself always
The cold concrete sidewalk with its familiar cracks and chips glided under the boy as he trudged to school, his feet dragging and his mind numb with fear, cold, and the dread of another day at school, which was almost as bad as being at home with him. The sharp wind blew down his torn shirt collar, cooling his neck and armpits. He clutched at the tear in his shirt as he crossed his arms and hurried past the last house on the block, a small house with pink shutters and strange animal figurines in the garden. He didn’t notice someone looking through the old, dirty glass at him, watching him fight the inevitable dreariness of another day.
The boy thought of what to tell his teachers when they asked where his homework was. Another day of public school. Another round of bullying from the kids in the hall. Another day of facing their silent and not-so silent judgments on his clothes, his hair, his worth. Another wobbling worm of dread wheedling its way into his ragged heart, making its nest along with the other worries he carried.
Ethan was 15 when his dad had finally done it. After 15 years he had finally crossed a line that Ethan didn’t know existed. All his life he had watched his dad beat his mother when he got drunk. And sometimes when he wasn’t drunk, but just hungry. Or when his favorite football team lost a close one. Or just because…
The Night It Happened was an unremarkable Tuesday. It was the second to the last day of 8th grade and Ethan had worked hard to finish up his art project, a football sized clay sculpture of a lion with a crown. He was excited to show it to his mother after Mrs. Dennis fired it in the kiln. It was too heavy to put in his backpack; he was afraid it would rip the threadbare fabric, so he cradled it on his lap on the bus ride home, secretly proud of the looks his sculpture got from the other kids.
When he got home, he showed it to his mother who genuinely smiled when she saw it. “That looks like it belongs in a museum, Ethan!” she exclaimed as she carefully held it and inspected it. Ethan proudly told her of Mrs. Dennis’ promise to put the piece in a school display case next year. She moved a vase off the vanity table in the entry and put the ceramic lion in the best spot in the house.
“There, that should give us all something to talk about all Summer!” she declared as she found a new spot for her vase by the sink.
“I like the way it looks in the house. It kinda looks whimsical.” Ethan said as he tasted the word on his tongue, admiring the lion as it seemingly stood guarding their home. If only it could, Ethan thought with a deep sigh.
An hour later Dad was home from work, stumbling into the house in that familiar way that promised violence. Ethan was conditioned to dread the sound of dad’s truck coming up the driveway. He was familiar with every sound that piece of shit truck made, from the growling engine to the squeaking frame. The grinding brakes skidding to a halt inches from their chain link fence, then the scree of the driver’s door as it opened and shut caused Ethan’s stomach to tighten into knots that would baffle a coroner.
Every time he heard that truck his body would automatically tense, and he quickly hid anything that he didn’t want broken. One time, Ethan had forgotten to hide a drawing of a goose he was working on, and dad had burst into the house and saw him holding it.
Dad seemed to fixate on the thing that brought Ethan the most shame, and predictably, his piggy eyes lit on the drawing before Ethan could hide it.
“What’s that? Give it here” Dad said stretching out his greasy hand expectantly.
“It’s just some homework” Ethan said.
“Boy, why you drawing a dumb ass duck when you got shit to do? Lookit this dump!” he waved at the sink of dirty dishes, and tore the picture out of Ethan’s hands. He sneered at it, then with one hand he crumpled it and threw it on the floor. He didn’t even bother to fully destroy the picture, and later when Ethan was feeling brave and uncharitable, he would tell himself that his dad couldn’t even do that much without screwing it up.
Ethan only got a shove from the old man that time, but was cautioned to do “that lazy shit” on his own time after his chores were done. Ethan’s mom worked hard to keep the house clean, the dinner ready and problems swept under the rug. Anything could be a trigger, so he and his mother worked in concert to control what little they could and sweated out each evening hoping dad didn’t erupt like a hops filled volcano.
“Cheryl!” Ethan’s dad snarled as he slammed open the front door, immediately extinguishing and the joy and warmth that Ethan and his mom were enjoying, replacing it with a thick, misty cloud of apprehension that followed him into the house.
“Hi Dave. I’m glad you’re home, because we need to talk about the lights again. They’re flickering and I don’t think it’s the bulb. You might have to check the breaker or something” Mom said, instinctively standing between Ethan and Dad. Ethan wondered why Mom was so unaware of dad’s angry moods.
He would come home, his body radiating rage and frustration and there was Mom, asking him something ridiculous that was sure to set him off. Bruises often followed along with broken appliances and new stories to tell the neighbors about how slippery the tub was or a broken step. It was only later that Ethan realized mom was baiting dad to keep him and his flailing anger focused on her and not him.
“First thing outta your mouth, every damn time!” dad raged at mom. She stoically braced for the barrage of fists, but instead, he lost his balance and staggered backwards, foot catching on the rug and fell into the end table that the lion sat proudly on. The lion clattered to the linoleum floor, and miraculously did not break. Ethan glanced at it briefly, but did not move to pick it up. Dad got up off the floor, face red and started towards mom. Ethan was conditioned to wait until mom curled up on the floor and dad went into the bedroom after the beating. He had to watch because if he moved, shifted, breathed loudly, dad would turn his anger on him and then moms beating would be for nothing.
Ethan hated his dad, the greasy hair and the rancid breath, the stupid look on his face when it scrunched up with anger. He hated the beatings, the half-assed apologies the day after and the stories he would tell their friends and family about how much he loved his family. Everyone at church thought dad was hilarious, and charming. He was almost voted onto the board a few years ago. Ethan rolled his eyes at the dumbasses who were either blind, stupid or just didn’t know to look deeper. He hated that dad fooled everyone, even the people who were supposed to see through his shit. No one ever had.
But what Ethan hated the most was himself. He was weak, and selfish. He should be taking the beatings. It should be him curled up on the floor, icing his ribs at night and applying superglue to the gashes on his lip. He was the one who caused most of the problems that made dad angry. And he hated that he was absolutely helpless.
As dad went on the attack, Ethan felt something new bubbling inside his soul. Maybe it was the resigned look on his mother’s face. Maybe it was the fact that they ran out of band-aids and hydrogen peroxide months ago, and they were too broke to get more because dad drank all their money away. Maybe it was something simple like the fact that he had spent months on that damn lion, and that jackass almost broke it because he couldn’t navigate a rug in his own home. Whatever the cause, Ethan became angry in a way that scared even himself.
Dad had mom pinned against the fridge, his arm cocked to piston his fist into her stomach. He always started with the stomach to keep her from screaming in case he wanted to do more. She waited for it and closed her eyes; it was better to not see it coming, trying to relax as much as possible and think of not thinking.
She tensed, despite trying not to, dreading that familiar breathlessness that came with having the wind knocked out of her. Instead, she heard a loud thud. It sounded like someone dropping a watermelon. The hand around her throat relaxed, and she opened her eyes. He dumbly stared at her, as though he had a new thought in his head and his brain was working out what to do with it. Then she saw past him to Ethan, his face splattered with blood and gore and his eyes as big as a spare tire.
Dad dropped to his knees, letting mom go altogether and toppled over. He began convulsing, his feet kicking. Ethan stood stock still, holding his lion sculpture, now chipped and dripping with blood. A jagged shard was still embedded in the back of dad’s head as he lay on the floor, flopping like a fish on the deck of a boat. It came loose and the blood squirted on the floor. Ethan and his mom stared at the bloody one-man pageant until dad finished his death dance and lay still on the floor.
Ethan dropped the statue and sat on the floor. Mom was the first to snap out of her daze and leaned down and checked dad’s pulse. She looked at Ethan, eyes wide and full of grief. Not with sorrow for her dead husband, but sorrow for the weight that Ethan would have to carry for the rest of his life. What little of Ethan’s childhood that hadn’t been beaten and abused away was forever lost in the tragedy of being this man’s son.
“Mom?” Ethan croaked out.
“It’s okay hon. Shhhh. Go sit on the couch for a minute” mom said, as the expanding pool of blood gushing from dad’s head crept toward her bare feet.
“Mom… I killed him.” Ethan struggled to get out. “He’s dead!” he panicked as he started to think about all the implications that came with that.
“Hush now Ethan!” Mom said sternly. Ethan was surprised at her tone, but knew it wasn’t anger in her voice. It was fear. He felt it too, as his mind spiraled with the possibilities of lawyers, a trial, juvie, prison, and the death penalty.
Mom stood up after what seemed like hours. Ethan looked at her, and felt a new pang of fear. He had watched his mother all of his life, and thought he knew every look, every mood, every facial expression she had. This was a different look though. It was determination.
Mom’s posture had changed. Her shoulders no longer sagged, and the worry lines on her forehead seemed to disappear. In fact, to Ethan, she looked years younger. There was no crying, or weeping, no looks of accusation at Ethan. No emotion at all. Instead, she set her jaw and looked at Ethan.
“Ethan, honey. Here’s what is gonna happen next…” and she gave him a series of instructions that seemingly came from a stranger. Before tonight, he did not know the depths of strength that his mother carried in her, the hard armor he had always known her to wear. He had always thought she just took abuse from his father because she didn’t know any better, and that neither of them was strong enough to stand up to him.
Ethan looked at his dad, the weak, small man who had tried to extinguish the soul of a woman so strong that she kept her power hidden to protect her son. That necessity was gone, along with any reason to fear for her son’s safety.
“Son, look at me.” She said with a steely resolve. “Look me in the eyes because I want you to hear what I’m going to say.”
“Okay mom” Ethan said shakily.
“I should have killed that man years ago. I’m so sorry you had to do it. I had at least three ways I was going to do it, and I never did. I’m sorry.” She trailed off. “Still. He’s dead and we have a choice. We can stay here, call the cops, and tell them our side of the story and hope like hell they’ll believe us. Or. We can run.”
“Mom, where would we go? We don’t have any money!” Ethan exclaimed. He didn’t know much, but he knew they needed something to start with if they were going to move. “We would have to sell the house and... do something with him.” he said as he looked again at the body.
Mom smiled like a cat that just got extra treats for being clever. She went into the bathroom and came back out with a stack of twenties and fifties. Ethan looked at her as though he was dreaming, and genuinely thought about pinching himself to see if he was. “Your dad didn’t drink it ALL away. I knew we was going to have to run someday, I was just hoping to save up more. But this is enough.” She waved at Ethan to get moving, and stashed the cash in her purse.
Two hours later, Ethan and his mom were driving out of town, bags packed and trunk filled with the few things that didn’t stink of him. “He’s not going to ruin the rest of your life, Hon.” Mom told Ethan as she ground the clutch into 5th gear and pointed the car to a destination a million miles away.
It was the next-door neighbor that noticed the smoke coming out of the house later that night. He called the fire department and stood on his lawn with the rest of the neighbors as the house went up like a sad, smoky campfire. All the neighbors gathered on their porches and lawns tsking that the house went up like it did, and that dumbass never got around to doing much to keep it up.
The newspaper the next day reported that a house burned down and that there was thought to be at least one victim of the fire, and possibly more. The local police and the fire department investigated, but after the coroner determined that the fire was the main cause of death, the search for Ethan and his mom dwindled as time went on. Faulty wiring was eventually found to be the source of the fire and the case was quietly closed.
When the boy got out of school, he headed home along the familiar streets, eyes cast down and marking his progress by the familiar sidewalk chips and cracks. As he neared his house, he looked up and recognized that there was something going on, because there were trucks and lights flashing along his street. His heart beat faster as he got closer, hoping that whatever happened wasn’t his fault and that he wouldn’t catch hell from the Old Man.
As he neared the house, his throat tightened as he watched the fire fighters hosing down the kitchen through the broken glass, spraying into his house and destroying anything that the fire hadn’t already gotten. A fire fighter saw him, and recognized the look of a person who just saw that his house burned down.
“Son, do you live here?” the fire fighter asked as he bent down on one knee to get at eye level.
“Yeah, that’s my house. Where’s my mom? Is she in there?” the boy began to panic, hyperventilating. His mom was the only thing keeping him from completing suicide, and she couldn’t be in there.
“Son, the woman who lives here was taken to the hospital by an ambulance. The paramedic says she inhaled some smoke but she is going to be okay. We’ll get you over to the hospital now so you can be with her. Just one thing.” The man glanced away, unsure of how to proceed. He cleared his throat and took a deep breath. “I have to tell you something else though son. It looks like there was a man at home. He...He died in the fire. We can’t let you see him and I’m so sorry to have to tell you this.” The fire fighter looked close to tears at having to break the news to such a young man that his dad had just died.
“So... Dad is dead?” asked the boy.
“Yes. I’m afraid so, Son.” Replied the fire fighter.
The boy stared at the burned husk of his house, at the busy fire fighters and the concerned neighbors. He took a step back, and looked around at his familiar neighborhood and tried to process things. His eyes were drawn to the house with the pink shudders and the strange lawn ornaments. It’s funny what people notice when they are in shock, but the boy could have sworn he had never seen that chipped lion on the lawn before.