She looked at me as if to say
forgive me, I’m sorry.
I promised her she’d done no harm.
She begged me aloud, over and over,
forgive me, I’m sorry.
I tried and tried
to reassure her
but it wasn’t enough.
I understand that you’re hurting,
that you think you’ve done me wrong,
but I promise, I swear,
you’ve done nothing.
Nothing to be sorry for.
Nothing to forgive.
He came home.
I saw the look on her face.
And I understood.
“Crying won’t help you, just shut your damn face,” she screamed down the stairs without bothering to round the corner and check on the children.
This was not an unusual occurrence; in fact, the children had already spent their combined eleven years of existence avoiding their own trouble without the assistance of the mother who didn’t care whether or not they survived.
Christina’s spindly little legs quivered as she pushed the chair against the side of the counter with all her might. She was determined not to let her little brother Charlie fall. He was only concerned with whether or not he was going to be able to reach the Cream of Wheat, and determining whether or not the three of them would eat today.
Carlotta was almost two; she was the one hungrily crying the corner of the kitchen. Neither of the big kids had been able to reach any food yesterday, and their current father figure had yet to return from his latest ‘business trip.’
“Come down for a minute, Charlie,” Christina called. “I’m going to see if I can stack that phone book on top so you can reach it. Hold on, Carlotta, it’s gonna be okay, I promise. Here, Charlie, use my hand.” Christina was quite the director of schemes for only having just turned five last month.
Charlie stepped atop the phone book that Christina had discovered the night before, and his fingertips brushed the corner of the orange box. “I can almost get it, Chrissy. Almost…got it!” His voice overflowed with delight and pride. Christina caught the box when it slipped from his tiny grasp, and she sighed with relief that it hadn’t hit the floor and burst.
Charlie jumped down and danced over to Carlotta, who he swung up into the air with all the strength he had. “See, we told you it would be okay, baby girl.”
Christina was already filling their bowls with water and Cream of Wheat, prefatory to putting them in the microwave. She was still too young and inexperienced to wonder why the food would be locked away or placed too high for tiny hands to reach when the microwave and oven were perfectly reachable.
The creak of a footstep on the stairs, and all three faces dropped, their eyes widening in fear.
It was their mother.
“Well, isn’t this delightful?” She asked, rhetorically. “Who said you could have my cereal, you little shits?” She bent at the waist, leaning forward to sneer in their faces. “Because I sure didn’t. And your daddy’s still out with his whores.” She straightened back up and crossed her arms, angular elbows framing pointed breasts.
Carlotta took the moment of silence and began her wail anew. Christina’s eyes grew even wider, a nearly impossible feat, and she quickly reached over to cover her sister’s mouth.
It wasn’t soon enough, and their mother took affront as never before, swiping the box off the counter and tearing open the microwave.
“So you want to eat this? You want to eat, you screaming little bastards?” She swept the bowls from the microwave, smashing them against the cabinet door behind the children. The only saving grace was that Christina didn’t have the chance to start the microwave, so the bowls and their contents were still lukewarm .
Carlotta stopped crying, and Christina thanked the powers that be for that, at least.
Karla looked across her former workspace at the scattering of dried and once-fresh flowers and assorted scraps of paper. Everything in the tiny closet of a room was exactly as she’d left it eighteen years ago, as far as she could tell. She reached out a hand and caressed a petal as it crumbled to dust, and a tear slid down her cheek.
Running away had been her best choice, her only choice, but that didn’t mean that it didn’t hurt. That didn’t mean she didn’t grieve for the family that might have been. The fairy tale that everyone else had.
She was thirty-two now, and happily pursuing art two states away, but of course there was no one else to come clean up the mess when her grandmother died. Karla didn’t know her parents’ names; she’d lived with her grandmother and her uncle until she was fifteen and couldn’t take it anymore.
The years of agonizing psychological torture seeped from the walls like a greasy stain. She hadn’t been surprised when her uncle shot himself when she was nine, and she hadn’t been surprised when her grandmother forced her to clean up what was left of him after the body was gone. There was no funeral. Grandmother scoffed at the unnecessary expense.
Even now, after so many years of therapy, Karla was amazed that the younger version of herself had enough personality left over to spend collecting wildflowers, carefully pressing them, and gently decoupaging them into beautifully individual greeting cards. The box still waited patiently under a single folded bath towel.
Grandmother must have deemed cleaning out this room another unnecessary expense. She probably never set foot in it again when Karla never came home from school that Friday afternoon.
Karla knew on the drive here that opening any other doors in the house would be an unnecessary expense from her bank of emotional stability. Without touching anything else in her room, she closed the door behind her and retraced her steps back to the front porch. She sat down down the stairs and pulled out her smartphone to begin googling local liquidators to clean the entire house out. Anyone who would accept the contents as a fee would be acceptable. Karla didn’t need a single thing.
Her second phone call was profitable enough; he promised to be there within the hour. Karla reminded him that she would be leaving in exactly one hour, and he reiterated his promise. She hung up, and prepared to watch the sun set as she waited.
It was only twenty minutes before he arrived, and Karla walked to the street and handed him the set of keys. He stuttered, holding his hands up in refusal. “Don’t you want to do a walkthrough with me so I can give you an estimate?”
She met his confusion with a shake of her head. “No, thank you, it’s fine. I don’t need any money, I just want to be done with everything here.”
He was even more taken aback at that, and rifled through his pockets to offer her the $481 cash he found. She took it.
“The house is yours too. If you need me to sign anything, you have my number, but the deed should be in one of her filing cabinets, along with the receipt for every single item in there. Good luck.” Karla began to walk away, but paused to ask one more question. “Where’s the nearest bar?”
He pointed down the street. “There’s one about a mile down there. Just take a left on Third Street.”
“Thanks,” she nodded.
She told him that only she loved him.
Frances angrily stubbed out her cigarette in the overflowing ashtray.
“Kid! Get in here and do these damn dishes like I told you to yesterday!” she screamed down the hall.
A small, dirty boy peeked around the corner of a doorway coated in chipped paint. Seeing that she was alone in the living room, he came out and went into the kitchen. He pulled his stepladder up to the sink and turned the hot water on. He knew it would be a long time before the water actually ran hot, so he climbed down to get a cleaner towel from the cabinet under the sink.
“How many times do I have to tell you to do something before you get it in your stupid head to listen?” Frances was still screaming at him, even though he was in the kitchen, doing what she’d ordered.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. Please don’t hit me again, he knew better than to say aloud.
“I know you’re sorry, you’re always sorry. Sorry, sorry, sorry. I’m so sick of hearing that crap!” More screaming.
He tuned it out as he carefully measured out the tiniest amount of dishwashing detergent that would get the dishes clean. He had no way of knowing how long this bottle had to last, or even if there would be food to dirty the dishes again today.
He didn’t cry. He hadn’t cried in years. This was the way life was, and crying didn’t change anything.
Nothing changed anything.
Frances was done screaming at him, for now. She was lighting another cigarette with her yellowed, tobacco-stained fingers, her eyes glued to the television. They only got four channels, but Frances didn’t care what she watched as long as it was moving. Right now it was news.
The boy wiped plates and glasses in the kitchen. He stacked silverware in the drying rack, then tackled the burnt crust of last night’s Hamburger Helper from the bottom of the only skillet in the house. He wished he could wash the dishes when they were easier to clean, but Frances hated him being out where she could see him. She wouldn’t let him outside, either. He spent most of his time on the stained, sheetless mattress that lay on the floor of his bedroom, drawing with his finger on the dirty window above his head.
He dropped a fork from his soapy little fingers, and it clattered on the linoleum. He cringed, knowing that Frances wouldn’t be happy with him.
She started screaming anew.
“I should have known better than to think you could do anything right, you stupid idiot! Can’t even wash a damn dish without throwing it on the floor.”
He heard the creak of her recliner as she pushed the footrest home and stood up. Then footsteps coming towards him. Frances loomed in the kitchen doorway, menacing and frightening, smoke curling around her head in an unholy halo.
“You’re so stupid. I can’t believe you made me get up. Do you know how lucky you are? Do you understand that nobody else in the world wants to put up with someone as stupid as you are? Don’t you know I’m the only one who loves you?”
He knew better than to look her in the eyes.
“I’m sorry.” Always a whisper.
In his mind, always a scream.