Fiction, Writing

Salt Meat: Part Five

Honey I’m home and I had a hard day
Pour me a cold one and oh by the way…

Becky wipes suds from a plate before placing it in the drying rack. From the window overlooking the small sink she can see her daughters playing in the backyard. They’re laughing, smiles so big she can almost see their tonsils. She smiles to herself and for a moment she believes she really did make the right choice coming out here. They seem happier now, the circles that used to darken their eyes nowhere to be seen. Becky reaches out and turns the radio up a little, singing along as she moves around the house picking up scattered toys and crayons, pausing to read the beginnings of a short story Jessie is working on.

In this house at the top of the hill, they’ve found some kind of peace and routine. Even as the months pass, Becky still expects to see Charlie stumbling up the driveway leaning heavily on whichever drinking buddy dragged him home.


Kayla put powder on my face today. She put enough to make me pale, pale, pale, like a vampire. She dug around in Mom’s makeup case until she found a shade of lipstick convincing enough to be blood. She put some on my neck in the shape of bite marks and French braided my hair. We pretended to be children of the night and stalked around the house in our tablecloth capes and fake plastic fangs until the sun went down and we could safely go out into the front yard without catching fire.

She’s fun.

She used her Barbies to show me what sex is. Sex is when boys and girls take off all their clothes and lay down and rub together. I’m not really sure why they’d want to do that, it seems ICK GROSS YUCKY, but maybe it has something to do with the way HE looks at me when Mommy brings me to his house. Maybe that’s why HE always makes me sit on his lap while HE puts his hands in weird places. I hope HE doesn’t want to do sex with me. HE’S family and Kayla tells me that’s wrong.

I wish HE would just stop. I don’t like it when HE does it.

I like it better when my Barbies are doctors and teachers and rock stars. It seems like much more fun than sex.


The house isn’t much to look at. The beauty is in the land. Winters with the windows wide open have done all they can to destroy the inside of the house the girls used to call home every other weekend. It would have been the perfect place to rebuild, start over, maybe build a dock and land a boat. But not now. The girls are long gone, never to set foot in the home that shaped who they ultimately became.

Sometimes there’s just no use looking back.

Fiction, Life, Writing

Salt Meat: Part Four

Oh God.

No.

No, no, this isn’t happening, it can’t be.

He’ll calm down, relax his hands and uncurl the fists he keeps hurling at my face.

I swear to God, he’s not a bad guy.

He just gets emotional.

And jealous.

He thinks I’m cheating on him.

If I lay still enough with his hands around my throat, he’ll realize what he’s doing and stop.

What if this is it?

What if they never find me and I become just another missing persons ad floating around bus stations and curling at the edges?

Some people are never found.

Maybe if I don’t fight back he’ll calm down.

He’ll remember that I love him.

I love him.

I do love him.

I love him, right?

Sometimes I’m not so sure.

He tells me I’m a terrible person and maybe he’s right.

Maybe I deserve this, deserve everything.

I hope not.

I saved a butterfly from dying once upon a time,

too young to understand the concept of karma.

Too young to understand that what goes around doesn’t always come around.

Sometimes what comes around is worse.

I might be passing out now.

Am I passing out?

At least then the pain will stop.

My mouth is bleeding.

Please make it stop.

I’m sorry.

They find her in a bus stop with flowers in her hair. It wasn’t supposed to end this way, not like this. Not in bits and pieces and flashes of a life that started out right and ended wrong. A little girl whose smile shone so bright and was snuffed out by the darkness that sought it out like moth to flame.

I read her story over my morning coffee with the TV telling me the day’s weather in the background. I swallow the lump in my throat and remember that I once found myself in similar places, surrounded by similar darkness. Even now, far removed from the faces that once haunted my dreams, I distinctly remember the metallic taste in my mouth as it filled with blood drawn forth from someone else’s hand. The sensation of breathlessness as someone else wraps long fingers around a soft throat and squeezes until the air left inside the lungs has turned rancid and the need to inhale becomes desperate.

It’s strange when I read the stories of the ones who didn’t get away. They remind me of butterflies who never got the chance to escape the jar. They remind me of the girl who once looked back at me from a grimy bathroom mirror with fatigue and resignation shining in her eyes, thoroughly convinced that there were no other choices than to remain and wait for the end to come.


Smoke curls its way up to the ceiling as the teenagers recline on ratty pillows. The floor is cold and a bit damp, but it’s nothing the dehumidifiers running at full speed in the basement can’t take care of. Passing the pungent joint back and forth, they go from silent and serious to giggly and rambunctious in very little time. One of them tells a story of when there were frogs in the basement and one jumped on her and she did the splits in an effort to escape her amphibious attacker. The other laughs until she chokes on the smoke she’d been valiantly trying to hold within her lungs. Great plumes of gray erupt from her nostrils as she laughs at the idea of her rigid sister doing painful splits while screaming about frogs.

It’s the only way they can cope with the reality that awaits them outside the confines of the basement. It’s another small town, another stepfather, another family that barely functions upstairs. Watching the mother that fought tooth and nail for them whittle herself down into someone so small she’s barely visible has brought the sisters together, a united front against the advancement of the Evil Stepfather. It’s a familial game of chess and there can be no winners.

The crunch of tires on gravel signals the return of their stepfather. Quickly snuffing out any remaining smoke and turning on the fans, the girls run upstairs to continue washing the dishes he’d left for them. The lists of chores grew longer the more he insulted their mother, as if giving the girls plenty to do would somehow distract them from the blatant emotional abuse.

The only time they bond is when he’s drunk, a delicate balancing act that both girls learn to do well. Keep things lighthearted, never insult or jibe, go along with drunken jokes that fall flat on sober ears or risk invoking the alcohol-soaked beast within. Faking laughter long enough to forget how to actually smile. Neither of them discuss the transformation of their mother from amazon to wallflower.

Some things are better left unsaid in the name of survival.


I was fascinated with the books lining my grandfather’s shelves. Great tomes devoted to all sorts of delicious subjects, each one bound in leather and adorned with gold lettering. I couldn’t always read the titles. Some were in languages I had never learned. He would lock himself inside his office with his books and spend hours drifting away. I liked those times the best, because they meant I could sneak past the living room almost undetected. On the rare occasions he would leave the door open slightly and take a walk down to the beach, I would poke my head inside and try to figure out what exactly made him tick. Try to discern what made him do the strange things he did to me in the living room when my grandmother wasn’t looking.

Sometimes I would watch her through the window as she hung wet clothes up on the line while his callused hands worked their way under the hem of my shirt and up over my back. I would mentally cry out for her to come back inside so he would stop before he reached around to my front. My sister, seated on his other knee, told me years later she would stare at the clock on the wall and try to read the time even though she was still too young to have learned it yet.

I learned how to keep secrets long before I really knew what they meant.

When the police came to our house to question us, my sister and I locked eyes and lied for him. The hold he had over us, telling us what he did was secret and good girls would never tell, was too strong to be shaken even by female officers with kind eyes. Accusations put forth by other family members only got him five years in prison. I still wonder what would have happened if I had told the truth.

(To be continued.)

Read previous parts here.

Fiction, Life, Writing

Salt Meat: Part Three

PART ONE | PART TWO


She says it’s a game. He’s asleep, he won’t notice if we take the remote from him and watch YTV. Baseball is boring and he started snoring fifteen minutes ago so it must be safe. So we crawl across the living room, our matching track pants loudly scraping the carpet, and reach the edge of his recliner. On either side of him, like bookends, we peek at each other over the arms of the chair. His breathing remains steady, with a soft snore every couple seconds. My sister smiles, signaling that it’s time to make our move. She reaches up over the arm and wraps her fingers tentatively around that all-important piece of plastic and batteries. I giggle and try to stay quiet as she begins to tug at the remote and it stays snug in Grandfather’s hands. His snoring stops and a smile breaks out on his ancient face. He cracks one eye open and says, “Betcha thought you could pull a fast one on old Gramps, didn’t ya?” and guffaws. His belly rolls and rumbles and my sister and I collapse in a fit of giggles on the carpet. He only makes us watch one more inning before he concedes control of the TV and lets us watch cartoons on his floor model.

Summer days in the house my grandfather built for his wife were spent playing with the horses next door and flinging army men with plastic parachutes, flying shopping bag kites in the brisk Atlantic air, stacking rocks together to form pretend computers and using cinder blocks as mailboxes. My sister and I never went into the shed, we weren’t allowed to play anywhere near the power tools so we’d pretend the shed was home to an evil, child-eating demon. If we so much as caught a glimpse of him, he’d devour our souls in one gulp. Sometimes we even believed it.


“The phone had plastic-covered keys that shone in the late afternoon sunlight. I squinted against it and tried to read the numbers. I had just started learning about numbers and could count from one to ten. On the small television, an episode of Land And Sea about the S.S. Kyle was turned down so low I could barely hear it.”

Jessie takes a breath and her pause goes on long enough for the others gathered in the room to wonder if she would continue speaking.

“We heard him coming up the driveway. Muttering, crashing into things – the drugs he was taking combined with the alcohol he’d drank at the bar had turned him into a mess. He stumbled into the house and lurched past the living room. I turned my attention from counting the numbers of the phone keys to him and called out, ‘Daddy! I love you!’

“He turned back and walked slowly into the living room, smiling but cold and unfriendly. ‘Oh yeah? Well… I don’t love you.’ Blinking, he headed back down the hallway to his room while I stood on the couch and wept with everything I had in me.

“What do you do when your own father tells you he doesn’t love you when you’re four years old? The thought buries itself so far into your head and adds itself to the cacophony of discordant voices inside that you no longer recognize it for what it was – a bad trip and too much to drink.

“So you find yourself wandering dark alleys long after midnight smoking too much and drinking just enough to keep the feelings crushed somewhere underneath your rib cage. For awhile it works out all right and you’re able to keep yourself going with a cocktail of caffeine in the morning and alcohol at night, but eventually the rug under your feet wears out so much it’s threadbare by the time life rips it out from under you. Finding beauty in the world or even a reason to get up at all is too difficult to try.

“Finding love is impossible, because who would want to love somebody unloved by her own father?”

The tears that threaten to spill over are not self-pitying, but burn with a rage that has stoked for twenty-two years. Jessie swallows hard and takes her place in the hard wooden chair. She surveys the room around her as she brings an unlit cigarette to her mouth with shaking hands.

She swore she’d never become a smoker. Not like him. But in group therapy, nobody dares to judge her.


“It’s a butterfly!” Becky held the pickle jar up to the porch light and peered inside. The grub Jess and Charlotte had been looking after all winter had shed its former skin and clung to the lid of the jar, tapping gently as if politely asking to be let out to fly around.

It was the first summer in the house on Neck Road. The winter had been cold and all the lights had gone out so Becky and the girls dragged their mattresses into the living room and shared the heat provided by a creaking and ancient kerosene heater. Jess kept trying to close the window that had been left open for ventilation so Becky had to sit her down and explain that without the window ajar, they would all suffocate and die. That did the trick and Jess satisfied herself by sitting furthest from the window.

Once the frost had melted and the power returned, they had waited out the rest of the winter in relative comfort. Eventually the ground had thawed as well and then Jess had made the tearful discovery of her little grub at the bottom of its jar, nothing more than an empty husk.

The storm door gave a mighty groan when Becky opened it and hustled the girls outside. She bent down to Jess and asked her if she was sure she wanted to set her friend free. “Yes,” the small girl answered resolutely. “Butterflies don’t belong in jars.” So she twisted the lid and opened it, letting the viceroy out of its glass prison. It flew high in the air before circling back to the girls. It circled twice more before taking off into the blue skies of a bright June Newfoundland morning.

Jess would talk nonstop of butterflies for the next couple of years, and even save a couple more from certain frozen deaths more than fifteen years later. Good deeds sometimes come in cycles.

(To be continued.)

Fiction, Life, Writing

Salt Meat: Part Two

READ PART ONE HERE.

“So you understand, right? Why you have to go away for awhile?” The softness of his voice betrayed the hard granite of his eyes as he watched the two young children in front of him crumple their faces and cry. He knew exactly what he was doing and why. The only thing that mattered to him in those days was where to get his next fix. Doctors, the street, he didn’t care. Coming home at three in the morning with broken bones and bloody noses, screaming at the top of his lungs that if he wasn’t sleeping, no one would. Radios on full blast, tables flipped and dinners scattered, doll clothes tossed out the window to float on the coldest wind until they too reached the ocean where Ronnie had been reclaimed. All this juxtaposed with the man who would play dolls with his daughters and feed them candy until their mother complained about all those ruined dinners.

Boxing up the house was the hardest part, wrapping plates and cups into dish towels and fitting as many as possible into a single box. Jessie packed and unpacked the forks until her mother snatched the cutlery from her grubby fingers and dumped them unceremoniously into a plastic bag. “We don’t have time for this, Jess,” she sighed. “Go pack your toys.”

Two days later Jessie’s father stood in the kitchen doorway and watched Becky zip the girls into their coats and usher them toward the door. The house was barren apart from the few dishes left behind for Charlie. His hands shook as he felt the beginning grip of withdrawal and all he could think about was getting them all out of there so he could sink into his high. Colors only he could see would bloom in his eyes and the constant pain that made it near impossible for him to move would abate long enough for him to fall asleep. It was the only thing that mattered. The girls were young enough that in time they would forget him.

Breaking her mother’s grip and running back into the house, the older girl flung herself at her father and wrapped her arms tightly around his neck. “I still love you, even if Mommy doesn’t,” she told him. He peeled her little arms from around him and held her hands. “Go with your mother,” he said, and turned and walked down the hallway to his darkened bedroom. He shut the door behind him and effectively shut himself out of her life simultaneously.


It was the fucking chip fryer that did it. Coming home with Jessie to find Charlie sprawled on the couch, mouth open and spittle just beginning to work its way down his prominent chin, with Charlotte alone in the kitchen playing next to the plugged in empty fryer. She had been furious, had woken him up by whacking him with her purse. Becky knew he’d been into the fucking pills again, had taken them from her purse and swallowed them down with water straight from the bathroom tap. It was probably when he’d said he was taking a shower that he’d done it.

Jessie was a good girl. Whenever she caught him digging around in her mother’s purse in search of his favorite bottle, she’d run out to the deck and let her know. Whispering, as if she knew she was telling a secret, she would tell Becky exactly what she’d seen and where Daddy was. The last time she told on him, he’d grabbed her by the cheeks and screamed straight into her face, “SO YOU’RE MOMMY’S GOOD LITTLE SPY, NOW ARE YAH?!” Jessie had batted at her father’s hands as he berated her for speaking up and Becky had stepped between them, daring Charlie to raise his fists. He never did, but would turn around and grab the staple gun from the garage and staple his hand to the kitchen chairs. The cheap fake leather would crack around the stapled skin and his blood would seep into the stuffing. Afterward his pain would be so bad, he would crawl into Becky’s lap and tearfully ask her for just one pill, maybe the Vicodin, or the codeine if she preferred – anything to stop the burning pain in his hand.

One time, he took Charlotte into his lap and twisted her leg until she cried out in pain, bringing Becky running into the kitchen yelling and throwing the bottles at him, telling him to just fucking take them until they killed him, he was too far gone for her to save.

Her children learned how to cope with chaos before they had learned how to spell.


HE DOESN’T UNDERSTAND. I DIDN’T SWEAR.

The book was glossy and the pages slipped between my fingers. They had been protected against the inevitable spills caused by small children, but I knew better anyway. I was careful with my books because they meant so much to me. I never ate while I was reading.

Forming the words I saw with my eyes by using my mouth like teacher said was harder than it had seemed. With every correctly pronounced word, I felt a small sense of pride growing bigger. I was GROWING UP, I was turning into a BIG GIRL, and soon I’d be able to read the thick books I loved looking at in the library.

“The squirrel…. goes… CHIT CHIT CHIT!” I yelled, impressed with my ability to finish a sentence with minimal stumbling.

I was instantly shaken when a voice boomed from the kitchen.

“YOU CAN’T SAY THOSE WORDS IN THIS HOUSE!” My father screamed. He stormed into the living room, where I had set myself up with a blanket on the floor. My mother stepped in, eager to defend me. “She’s not saying SHIT, Charlie! She’s saying CHIT, like a squirrel!”

But my father would have none of it. He was enraged that I had dared to defile his house with my prepubescent profanity and I would therefore have to be punished.

It was a long time before I would be able to read aloud again.

(To be continued.)

Fiction

*FICTION* More Often Than Not.

The obnoxious hum of the air conditioner first alerted me to the presence of morning. With the comforter wedged up around my face and neck, my legs were naked in the breeze and freezing. Next to me, I thought I felt his body stir as he fought his way back from the land of dreams and I quickly closed my eyes.

Sometimes when he woke up he’d turn to me and nibble on my earlobe. He’d run his callused hands up and down and everywhere I liked and we’d welcome the morning with our bodies. More often than not he’d get out of bed to avoid touching me and commence his smoker’s morning cough routine in the bathroom while I decided whether or not to put my clothes back on before he returned.

More often than not, I did.

I would stand there, fully-dressed and anxious in the bedroom until I heard his footsteps fade into the kitchen. For a moment after he bypassed the door, I would wrestle with the decision to follow him or remain frozen until he fetched me. Eventually, before my inner voices could finish battling it out, he would come to the door and rasp, “There’s coffee if you’d like some.”

As the sun bled into the sky over the horizon, we would stand in the cool breeze and drink our coffee on the balcony. My heart would bleed while I watched him bring his lips gingerly to the cup, gently blow on the steaming liquid, and sip. In those moments I wished he would be behind me, hands on my stomach and lips in my hair, and whisper that he loved me; that he would someday love me.

More often than not, he didn’t. He would talk about his other girls with such affection and adoration. His favorite was a drug dealer who loved whiskey as much as he did. She smoked cigarettes and wasn’t afraid to role play with him. I was shy and rigid, a flower decades away from blooming, and in my past experiences role play led to rape. I thought he would understand, and protect me, keep me safe and help me heal. More often than not, I saved myself and he remained passive and distant.

When he had finished extinguishing his cigarettes, he would take my empty coffee cup to the kitchen and rinse it. We would leave together and take the bus to the subway station. As we mounted the stairs, side by side and wrapped in silence, we would sometimes hug before parting in opposite directions. More often than not, we would part without speaking.

One morning was different. Instead of performing his coughing ritual, he sat upright and addressed me.

“We need to talk.”

A thousand thoughts raced through my mind, all toward the same destination. My heart grew tight and restricted in my chest and I forced my breath not to expel. Those four hateful words have never resulted in happy tears and joyful sex. I knew what would be said before he gave voice to the words.

He told me very gently he was in love with one of his other girls. He wanted to remain friends but would no longer share his body with me. He felt, for the first time in his life, as if he was in love. I sat very still with a face of stone as he quietly broke pieces off my heart and destroyed them. I wanted to be happy for him and willed myself to appear sincere as I congratulated him on the thawing of his heart. I smiled understandingly when he told me she would be moving in so I wouldn’t be welcome anymore. I gathered what was left of me and departed without weeping.

When my frantic knocking brought him to the door last night, I shouldn’t have been so wounded by his surprised expression. I had known I wouldn’t be invited inside the apartment, so when he opened his mouth to tell me to leave, I hit him across the face with a tire iron. I felt a wonderful sort of emptiness as I watched his face crumple on impact and his body hit the door frame and fall to the floor, leaving a trail of blood in its wake. Each subsequent iron kiss brought forth a sanguinary eruption from his beautiful face.

 Fully awake and aware of the cold tingling in my legs, I rolled over and shut off the air conditioner. I welcomed the morning by myself with his rigid, frosty body laying next to me.