Saturday, August 27, 2016

Short Story: Playing Chicken

Mama folded her silky things and stuffed them into her largest suitcase. She didn't pay me any mind as I stood near her bedroom door, too anxious to ask questions. My stomach tied itself in knots at the site of her mismatched set of luggage she'd placed on the bed, open and ready for filling. I bit my lip, knowing what it meant, and tried to steady my insecurities.
After she walked into her bathroom, I peered into each suitcase, wondering if this time she'd saved room for me. My hands carefully sifted through the piles of clothes and shoes, but not even the smallest part of me remained.   
She hurried out of the bathroom, her arms cradling a blow dryer, curling iron, and a giant can of aerosol hairspray. "Go get your bag." Her head jerked toward the door.
My heart leapt with desperate joy, and I couldn't help but smile. "Where are we going?"
"You're going to Nan's for a while." She didn't bother looking at me as she crushed my short-lived happiness with a few measly words.
I wanted to throw myself onto the ground and scream for her to take me with her, but too much experience and disappointment sent my feet racing down the hall and into my room. I collapsed onto my bed and scooped up Clementine, the stuffed elephant my father had given me during our one and only visit three years ago.
"I hate her," I whispered into Clementine's large floppy ear, but she already knew that.
"Fifteen minutes." Mama poked her head into my room. She pulled her brassy blonde hair back into a ponytail, doing her best to smooth out the tangled mess. "Damn it, Kellie. You haven't even started."  
I stared up at the ceiling above my bed and pretended she wasn't looming over me. Fifteen minutes before the landlord came, most likely. Chasing evictions. Burning bridges. Story of Mama's life. Her life would never mirror mine. I was going to make something of myself, and I wouldn't rely on my tits to get me there, well, when I grew tits anyway. Some eleven-year-olds at Jefferson Elementary already had them, but I was still as flat as flat could be.
"Fifteen minutes," she said again, but with crisp insistence.
"Fine." I grumbled and sat upright.
My validation was apparently enough. She hurried out of my room, leaving me to pack what little I had. I crammed a sport's duffle with the clothes that fit me best, Clementine, my journal, a Rubix Cube, and my memory box. The box was filled with things Mama had saved from when I was a baby: newborn cap, hospital tags, rattle, scrap of cloth, photos, and ceramic cast of my fist. I found it in the garbage two apartments ago. Maybe it was a mistake that she'd thrown it out. Maybe it wasn't. I didn't focus on the reason why she discarded it; I was just happy to know it existed at all.
I kept my head held high as I carried my things to our rusted out piece of crap Oldsmobile Cutlass. No matter what, I wasn't going to let her know I cared what she did—at least when she could see me anyway.
She started the car then glanced in the rearview mirror and wiped at the black sludge under her eyes. The consequences of her night out at the bars, probably spending what little rent money she had, no doubt. "Why are you looking at me like that?" She turned to face me, her expression filled with mock-hurt.
"I'm not looking at you. I'm looking through you," I said.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
I shrugged and stared out the window. "Nothing. It means nothing."
The ride to my grandma's farm stretched into an eternity. I wondered where she'd gotten the gas money for the three-hour trip, especially since the only food I'd had in the last two days was a couple bologna sandwiches, a toaster waffle, and a can of New Coke. Each bounce and bump stirred resentment in my empty gut. Resentment for being Hazel Petty's daughter. Resentment for not speaking my mind. Resentment for calling 9-1-1 the last time she took too many sleeping pills.
"Nan bought three new calves. She said you're big enough to help feed them now. Doesn't that sound like fun?" Mama wrapped her lips around her cigarette and sucked in the poison as if her life depended on it, then tossed the butt out the window.
I waved off the smoke, turned my head, and stared into the vast yellowing fields stretching for miles. When I felt her hand at the back of my head and to my shoulder, my eyes instantly closed. Why couldn’t she just love me a little more? Hadn't I been helpful? Quiet? I wasn't a whiny baby. I was old enough to take care of myself.
Maybe she'd sensed my disappointment or simply felt her own stabs of guilt in her selfish heart and thought she'd better act like a loving mother. She was a horrible judge of character, and she usually showed no remorse for leaving me, so of course it had to be about her.
"I'm doing this for us," she said, eager for sympathy. "It's been hard since Axel left. I can't do this alone. I need…."
I counted the rolls of hay sprinkled across the landscape and let her words fade to nothing. Axel wasn't my father. He was another somebody in a long line of somebodies pretending to be my old man. He started off okay; they all did. The way to a man's heart was through his stomach, everyone knew that. But for a single mother, the surest way to a woman's heart was through her kid. Love the kid and you were in. He spoiled me with attention and presents for a little while, but he lost interest as soon as Mama started acting all emotional. He went on his way, like the rest of them.
When we finally pulled into the long graveled driveway of Nan's farm, I'd settled into survival mode, and in my mind, I'd already said my goodbyes. I focused on the barn and out buildings on Nan's property, plotted new adventures, and remembered the old. Adventures I'd always taken alone.
I didn't say a word as my mother kissed the top of my head and gently tugged on one of my braids. Plus, I knew how my silence rattled her so.
"Tell me you love me," she said in a coaxing way. When I didn't look at her, she forced my chin upward. "Tell me… you love me."
I stared into her eyes, those beautiful blue eyes I'd longed to truly see me. "I love you," I said the words, clear and cold. As long as she had the words to cling to, she didn't seem to care how I said them. Either that or she was ridiculously stupid. Sometimes, I wondered.
Nan come out of the house and onto the porch of her doublewide mobile home. I liked to think she hung back purposely because she was disappointed in her only daughter, but I sure could've used her support right then. An arm around me to show that I wasn't a burden, that if Mama didn't want to fight for me, she would.
As I trudged up the wooden steps, weathered and in disrepair, to my grandmother's home, I stopped. I usually didn't like to see Mama pull away or feel the finality as she did, but for some reason, I turned for one more look. In the past, she would've waved and smiled. This time though, she paused at the end of the drive, her hand tight around the steering wheel. She stared back at me, her face solemn. I willed her to come back, to take me with her, but the longer she stared I knew I'd probably never see her again. As horrible as that assumption was, I had to prepare myself for something far more challenging—Ernest.
When I caught sight of him in his tatty green recliner, I gripped the handle of my duffle bag a little tighter and held it in front of me. Nan had married Ernest Klinger when Mama was teenager. He was cold, aloof, and hid many secrets behind black, horn-rimmed glasses. One couldn't meet the man without getting a heavy case of the hebbie jebbies. Mama warned me about Ernest long ago, his moods, his temper; so, I avoided him the best I could anytime I'd visited before. He'd left me alone for the most part.
"You're mom up and left ya again, huh?" He forcefully folded his newspaper and tossed it on the side table next to him. He didn't want me there, no big surprise.
"Leave her alone." Nan scowled and pulled me in for a hug. "Kellie's welcome any time, ain't that right?"
 "Just stay out of my room," he grumbled.
Nan kept an arm around me as she led me to her sewing room that also doubled as a small guest room. "Ignore the old grouch," she said. "You and I are going to have so much fun. Did your mom tell you about my baby cows?"
I nodded and managed a smile, which quickly faltered as I caught Ernest watching us walk away.
Ever since Mama left, I tried my best to avoid Ernest. I decided I wasn’t scared of the putz or let his words bother me. I mostly hated the way he looked at me, part judgment and part interest. I hadn't had much of a father figure in my life, except for Larry, husband number one who was a bit touchy feely if you know what I mean. Then there was Bill who got a kick outta playing "let's see how fast it takes you to get me a beer." John. Kent. Axel. What a bunch of jackasses.
All Mama's relationships failed. After she sucked them in with what she proclaimed the sexiest ass in town, they'd follow her anywhere.  Once her insecurities decided to surface they'd bail, leaving her feminine wiles behind, and leaving me with Ernest.
Every night after dinner, he retreated into his office. The lazy rat didn't work, so I don't know why he needed an office, or why he locked it. I tried peeking through the windows once, but the small crack in the curtains didn't do much but tick me off with what I couldn't see.
I'd waited until Nan was out playing pinochle with her church ladies and Ernest MIA to put my plan into action. Not that I had a plan, just an unquenchable case of curiosity. I had to know what was inside that room.
An hour shot by while I tore through the house looking for a key or something to jimmy the lock, but all that accomplished was making my insides boil over with more contempt. Damn Ernest. Damn my mother.
With my patience running amuck, I uncoiled a couple of paperclips and forced one into the lock, twisting just so, then popped in another one. I didn't know what the heck I was doing, simply motoring on instinct. Supposedly, my real father mastered the art of the break-in, so it should've come naturally. I mean, I should get something more than a stubby nose and a stuffed elephant from the sperm donor, right?
"What in God's name do you think you're doing?" Ernest said.
Busted. Dang. My hands dropped from the doorknob and sent the paperclips into the gold shag carpet at my feet. I took my time standing, no point in running from the firing squad. They'd come soon enough. I gulped then turned around, feigning as much resolve as I could.
He put his hands on his hips and glared at me. "Well, answer me. What are you doing?"
"Nothin'." My facial expression probably didn't convince him much.
He canted his head, wisps of black hair blowing upward from the breeze of the oscillating fan. I stared at those bobbing strands, up and down, up and down, while silence filled the space between us.
Ernest scratched the graying stubble on his chin. "You aiming to steal something?"
"Nope. I thought I heard one the cats meowing. Like it was trapped or somethin'." Nan had a crapload of cats, so it wasn't a farfetched idea.
Another clump of hair joined the others, bobbing up and down in some sort of dance. I couldn't help but chuckle a bit.
"You think this is funny? I bet your grandma won't think it's funny."
"I ain't done nothin'." I folded my arms and glowered through my furrowed brow.  "Like I said, I heard somethin'."
He bent over a bit and leaned in close; his eyes scoured mine more than they usual, but I didn't budge. He stared at me so long, I thought I might pass out from holding my breath, but then he stood upright and looked at me sorta like he was more amused than pissed.
He reached into his pocket, pulled out a key, and waggled it in front of my face. "Why don’t we rescue a cat, huh?"
I shrugged and nodded. "Oh yeah, great idea. I bet it's Pearly, she's a curious girl."
He twisted the knob and stood to the side, his arm made a sweeping gesture to welcome me into his sanctuary. I should've known better, trusted that faint voice telling me to walk away, but I didn't. I walked right into Neverland willingly, and it didn’t take me long to realize what a stupid mistake I'd stepped in.
Posters of naked women in precarious positions covered the walls. They were beautiful and gross at the same time. I couldn’t help but stare, spinning around the room, taking it all in. An old desk and a twin bed filled the space, which felt cold and lonely and nothing like a bedroom. For as much time as he spent in this room, it smelled musty and old. Two things I knew about from bouncing from one place to the next.
"No cat," he said, not that he believed there was one in the first place, I was sure. He shut the door behind him. His fingers pinched the lock on the doorknob, pausing for a moment before sealing my fate. I stood rooted in place, my eyes drifting from the contents of the room to the lock. He settled into his office chair and reclined back. He steepled his fingers while a suspicious smile pulled at his thin lips.
Instinctively, I started for the door. "Well…" My arms swayed back and forth out of nervousness and anticipation. "I'm just gonna—"
"Wanna see something?" his voice was low, but painted with subtle excitement.
Heck no, I thought. I needed to get the hell out of there, but then he pulled out a blue fabric binder with a bit of fraying at the edges from a desk drawer and held it in his lap, tempting my interest once again.
"Do ya?" he prodded.
I shrugged and inched forward, eyeing the folder. Once I got within a foot of him, he flipped it open and his face took on a quality I hadn't seen before nor could fully explain. His stare bore through me with an intense knowing, while his grin curdled the contents of my stomach. I forced my eyes from his, but couldn't tear myself from the contents of the binder. Picture after picture of little boys and girls about my age smiling, as if they were getting their picture taken for a class photo, burned through me. Innocence. Trust.
"Who are they?" I asked.
His grin broadened. "Old friends. Just like you and I are gonna be old friends." His tongue rolled over his front teeth. "Isn't that right?" He flipped the pages toward the back where a new set of photos emerged. Photos of the same children, only now fear drenched their expressions. Their pleas screamed at me, silent but ever-present. I can't describe what I saw. I don’t want to. Not to anyone. But let me tell you, it isn't easy breaking the spirit of children. Whatever he did, he accomplished just that.
He closed the binder, reached into his drawer, and pulled out a Polaroid camera and a knife. He place them on the desktop, next to one another as if they were as ordinary as a set of salt and pepper shakers, rarely seen apart. "I bet you're just like your mother, ain't ya?" His gaze travelled down my body.
"I'm nothing like her."
"Why don’t we find out, hmmm?" He went to stand as I matched his movement with a step backward. He wanted to hurt me, and I was dumb enough to let myself believe otherwise. Fear Ernest. Fear Ernest. My mama used to pinch my chin and prod it upward, insistence saturating her voice and settling deep in her eyes. "Stay away from him," she'd said. "Fear him!"
But she left me? She knew who he was and she left me here. I continued to match his steps backward until I'd bumped into the door. I searched for the lock behind me. He could've pounced, but he liked the chase I was certain. The smarmy look on his face proved that. I've never seen him happier.
My head thumped against the door as I withdrew from his imposition, his smell. I'd never imagined someone so disgusting could smell so clean. The over powering smell of Ivory soap clung to me, making me question everything, my thoughts, my fears, the complaints about my life and those filthy apartments I'd reviled, and of course, my mother: would she knowingly leave me with a dangerous man?
Maybe this wasn’t what it seemed.
Ernest reached for his belt and loosened the clasp.
Fear Ernest.
"Anybody home?" Nan bellowed through the small house.
My body slackened at the sound of her voice—my hopeful freedom. Ernest held up a finger to silence me, not that he needed to; my words had long since vanished.
"Yeah, I'm here," he said with a calmness as pristine as his scent.
"Well, get yer ass out here and help with the groceries, will ya?"
He scowled down at me, a look of warning burned through my soul. We walked out of that little room without saying a word. He didn’t have to say anything, I knew. As I watched him close the door and ensure it was locked, I couldn’t help but feel like I'd left something behind.
The moment I was able, I dashed through the back door and ran for the pasture. I didn't look back. Even when Nana yelled after me, I kept running. I shimmied through the wood fence and tore through the fields. Nan had five acres and a lot of junk, which made for endless hiding spots. I made my way to the rusted ol' bus, climbed inside, and hunkered down between two rows of seats. Ernest wouldn't come looking for me, at least not right away. He probably expected me to hide, which would give him time to wrangle some story to tell Nan.
I wasn’t sure what to do. Nan married the son of a bitch. Didn't she know what a freak he was? Or what he did to my mother? Those kids? Thoughts twisted in my head, images of Mama and Ernest. I hated her more than ever. I clenched my arms around my knees, squeezing away the mental torture ripping through me. Stop feeling sorry for her. Hate her.
Fear Ernest.
My heart thumped wildly, so much so I struggled to breathe. Tears filled my eyes, but I quickly forced them away. I had no use for them, but no matter how hard I tried to curb them, they crashed down my hot cheeks and clouded my vision. The loss of sight did nothing to obscure the images from their relenting pursuit.
The day my mother left me burst through the other crap pummeling my mind. It was front and center—my crux to bear. I played the moment over and imagined words I'd feared saying but should have. Each scenario grew bolder, angrier. Pained thoughts spurred me forward, begging me to act out what I should have long ago.
Show rage. Show power.
Fear Ernest.
Fire lit through me as I bolted off the bus and straight for the barn. I reached up on a rusted nail and pulled the hatchet from its cradle. The splintered handle scratched at my palm, but I didn't mind. The more pain I felt, the more courage brewed within me. Before stepping from the barn, I closed my eyes, took a breath, and wiped my eyes. No turning back. No fear. Not anymore.
I walked slowly, one calculating step after the next though the field and back to the house. The sun dipped into the horizon, painting the sky in a brilliant red. I stopped to appreciate the view, the colors. The peace. I didn't know what would happen next, but I trusted my instincts.  
I made my way to the house and stopped near the back door. Nan must've recently scattered chicken feed for her noisy brood of prized hens moments before. I bent down and picked up Molly, the fattest of the bunch. I stroked her back, smooth and warm against my palm. As my hand smoothed over her feathers, I hummed the only real tune I knew. Some lullaby my mama had sung to me at one time, but the words were as lost as I was.
The chicken clucked and struggled in my grasp. When I couldn't hold her anymore, I brought her to the chopping block. Then slowly, to savor the delicacy of the moment, I raised the hatchet into the air and thrust it down on the chicken's neck. I cocked my head in wonderment, as the chicken's body didn't simply collapse. It sputtered and moved, its nerves causing spasms and feigned life.
I swept my hand across my shirt, leaving a bloodied path in its wake. I'd never killed a living thing before—besides an insect or a spider. Killing Molly relieved something within me. I don't think words existed to describe how I felt in that moment, except calm. Utter and complete calm. A tear cascaded down my cheek as I stared at Molly. I brushed it away and silently thanked her, thinking briefly that the tear should've been for her. But it was for me—my celebration.
Nan called out to me again.
I reached down, picked up Molly, and carried her and the hatchet back into the house, to the kitchen where Nan and Ernest sat at the table for dinner.
"Oh my God!" Nan grasped and stumbled back against kitchen counter as she saw me standing before her in a blood-covered shirt, carrying the hatched, and her prized hen. "What have you done?"
I glared at Ernest, who looked on with shock so delicious it triggered my smile.
"What have done?" Nan screamed again.
The pieces of Molly and the bloodied hatchet fell on Ernest's plate in a glorious thud I'd never forget. Blood spattered his face and the dancing wisps of hair. I settled onto a chair and began dishing up meatloaf and potatoes. Nothing further to say. My game of chicken complete.