It was too hot to sleep. The air was so still in the bedroom that sisters Cora and Emily had shared growing up that they decided to move to the screened in back porch, praying for the slightest breeze. They hadn’t spoken in months. Their father’s funeral had drawn them both home, but only for a night. In the morning, they’d leave, continuing on opposite paths.
Hours later, they were still awake, and restless, when Cora began to recall a memory. Their father, tiptoeing out of the back door in the middle of the night, venturing to the covered bridge that bordered their property. He would emerge an hour or so later, wearing a mysterious smile.
Barefoot, the women tiptoed through the dewy grass in their nightgowns, giggling, their arms around each other. “It was really dark those nights, but I’m pretty sure this is the place,” Emily said as they looked around for their father’s secret treasure. They easily found the shallow hole he’d dug. Inside – a half-empty bottle of his favorite bourbon. Emily dusted it off and took a long swig as she sat in the dirt, passing it to her sister who followed suit.
They leaned against the dirty wall in silence, as a cool breeze began to encircle them.
She told her mother she was taking a walk. She barely looked up as Rebecca walked out the door, busy with Rebecca’s father and brothers, homework questions, dinner prep, chores. It was a loud, rowdy home. Rebecca had no place there. She served no purpose besides being in the way.
She sat on a bench and looked out at the city skyline, her teeth chattering as a bracing, cold wind whipped around her. Despite the temperature, she unzipped her baggy hoodie, desperate to see it. Her secret. She peeked at her belly, a round orb, pulsing with alien movement. She had no way of knowing if her child would be male or female, but she imagined a little girl. She and her daughter, holding hands, swapping secrets, living in their own shared world. This was her purpose.
Another chapter in the neverending saga of Paul and Alexandra, Katie thought as a perfectly good wine glass shattered against the far wall, red wine streaming down the stark white paint like blood. Alexandra, the glass-thrower, screamed at Paul that he’d never loved her, that no one wanted him there because he was an awful person. Paul retorted that Alexandra was over-the-hill, desperately, pathetically, trying to hold on to her youth and failing miserably. Katie stood, throwing her hands in the air.
“ENOUGH!” Katie shrieked, rattling the windows.
Alexandra and Paul immediately quieted, turning to face Katie in shock.
“Haven’t the two of you ruined enough family gatherings?” In the preceding years, Katie and her siblings had gone to ridiculous lengths to keep their bickering parents separated, and she was fed up. She turned to her mother.
“I invited dad here. I’m getting married tomorrow. He has as much right to be here as you do.” She faced them both sternly. “Both of you should be ashamed. Your children are embarrassed of you. If you behave this way tomorrow I’m having the both of you thrown out on your butts and you can argue in the back alley like a couple of hillbillies. This nonsense,” she swirled her finger between the two of them, “is over. Do you understand?”
Her parents stared back at her in stunned silence. She stepped closer. “I said – DO…YOU…UNDERSTAND?”
Paul and Alexandra looked at each other, then responded in unison. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Let’s play hide and seek, mommy,” Cat said, half covering her eyes with her pudgy hand. Ashley knew that Cat was afraid and wanted to delay her bedtime as long as possible. Her father had been the one that banished the monsters and other imaginary creatures that went bump in the night. But she only saw him twice a month now.
“How about we sing instead?” Ashley scooted so Cat could sit next to her on the piano bench. She played a few notes of Cat’s favorite lullaby, whispering the lyrics in her ear. She could see her daughter’s eyelids getting heavy.
After Ashley did the best job she could ridding Cat’s room of monsters, she tucked the little girl into bed and kissed her goodnight, wishing her sweet dreams.
She tiptoed to her own room and turned out the light. The bed seemed to swallow her. Alone in the still darkness, she had to admit, she was afraid too. Sleep seemed so far away. Why is this so hard? She considered turning on a light, or the television, letting white noise fill the quiet, but decided against it, falling back against the pillow. Slowly, her eyes began to adjust to the dark.
Kayla listened to the sharp, raised voices downstairs and shook her head, climbing higher and higher until she reached the attic. Her siblings had done nothing but argue about her father’s will since the funeral and it was shameful. She was moving away, far from the dysfunction of her family and the disappointing path her life had taken in this dead-end town. The stop at the old family home would be her last. Her father had left her something.
Minutes later, Kayla returned to the van, breathless, loading the large crate into the moving van with her brother’s help.
It was only her second time even meeting his kids. All five of them. There they all were, lined up in a row, each holding a sign. Together they spelled out a question – WILL YOU MARRY OUR DADDY? Her chest tightened when she realized what was happening. Maybe it wasn’t exactly PC to say, but she wasn’t even sure if she liked all of Jay’s kids – that little one seemed like he’d be a handful. She needed time.
Before Jay could get on one knee, she put her hand on his arm.
“Can we speak privately?”
The Moral Mondays prompt this week is: Don’t Take On More Than You Can Bear
Nicole stood on his doorstep, shivering, but not from the cold, the telltale marks still visible on her scrawny arms. He knew the routine by now – she would tell an elaborate story about how she needed cash for groceries, or rent, or some other dire expense. So many times, he’d given her the last of his meager funds, knowing exactly how she would really use it. He could never say no to her, until now.
He saw the shock register on Nicole’s face as he shut the door quietly, ignored the banging and angry pleading that followed. He would no longer be his daughter’s enabler.
“Who in the world could that be?” Samantha wondered aloud, her face scrunched. She and John had been in the middle of complimenting their daughter, Violet, on the remarkable improvement in her attitude and behavior. She’d gone from a sullen, silent teen hiding away in her room to a delightful kid who practically begged for work to do around the house, particularly yard work, in a matter of weeks. Just that weekend alone she’d pulled all the weeds, helped cut the grass, swept the porches and even cleaned the gutters. John and Samantha had decided she deserved a raise in her allowance. Their unexpected visitor had interrupted before they could tell her the good news.
Samantha followed John to the door. “Can we help you?” John asked the short, red-faced man on their porch.
“Yes! Teach that daughter of yours some manners! My son tells me she’s been looking in our windows…”
“Now, hang on a second!” John yelled back.
As the men continued to argue, Samantha thought about the family who’d just moved in next door. The handsome son who was about Violet’s age, maybe a year or two older. How Violet’s interest in yard-work had coincided with their arrival.
She heard the familiar sound of Violet’s angry footfalls on the steps, culminating with the loud slam of her bedroom door. It appeared things were back to normal. Samantha sighed. It was nice while it lasted.
Patty stood at the post near the end of the dirt driveway, red dust billowing around her ankles as a pickup truck sped by. She was waiting for her father. Her mother, her aunts, her uncles and cousins were all gathered inside, wailing, having already decided her father was lost forever, a casualty of the dark, murderous Mississippi night. She knew the stories, every child had overheard their parents whispering them – cowards hidden under sheets, lynchings, bombings, crosses burning. But, her father was brave; she knew he’d come back.
“The boys miss you so much,” I say, twisting the edge of my shirt sleeve.
“I miss them too,” he says as he returns to the table holding two steaming cups of coffee. My palms are warm and damp. My arms shiver. No turning back now. I have to make this right. I look at the man sitting across for me and can’t imagine today how in love I was with him a few short years ago. That love had quickly turned to a consuming hatred during out contentious divorce. Now all that was left was fear.
“I realize, that I was wrong…so wrong…to keep you from them…”
“The things you said about me to the judge…”
“I know! I was awful. There’s no excuse. I know you would never lay a finger on either of the boys. You’re a wonderful father. They cry for you every night, you know. It breaks my heart.” I dab at my eyes with a napkin as my voice breaks. It was the boys that had convinced me to come today, to grovel to my ex, to beg his forgiveness. I couldn’t stand it any longer, watching them suffer, wondering if their father had abandoned them. I never thought the judge would order him to stay away from the boys. I thought he’d at least get supervised visitation. All I wanted was to hurt him a little. Or a lot. The same way he’d hurt me. “I want you to be a part of their lives. I’m so sorry, for everything.”
He says nothing as he watches me take a long sip of my coffee. I feel it immediately. It all slipping away. I stand and try and get to the door, but my legs give way underneath me. I crumple to the floor, struggling to take a breath.
“I’m sorry too,” he says as he stands over me, watching.