I run through the woods. Branches slap me in the face. Lifeless leaves crunch underfoot. My breath comes in harsh bursts as the bitter acidic taste of adrenaline coats my mouth. I feel her inexperienced mind racing. I’m an observer helpless to do anything but watch the reiteration of this slow-mo video. I hear her thoughts and feel her feelings because she is me and I am her—a twelve-year-old child.
I push pause and rewind back to when this blink and blur starts. Dad’s drunk, mom’s upset, and baby brother cries. He’s one and wears those white saggy synthetic diapers that make his little legs look like toothpicks. His mouth yawns violently—like a wide giant sinkhole—his face turns red, and the piercing scream from that cavernous hole reverberates through every nerve ending in this body. After five minutes, he lowers the volume, restores energy, and begins anew.
Baby brother—the typical oops child, born of fire and feud—slipped by the boundaries of a disastrous tubal ligation. The reversal surgery sent Sheridan into a pale shadow of her own. Distraught and drawn on a tight web of abuse, she births the sickly unhappy male child and a year and a half later, he falls victim to the croup and almost dies in the hospital. The haunting narrative of baby brother’s time spent in a hospital crib darkens Sheridan’s eyes as she relays the tale again and again of how his sunken chest and pleas for help torments her nights: “Mommy, help me. I can’t breathe.” The doctor’s shameless dismissal of her as she begs him to please help her son leads Dad to physically drag the doctor into baby brother’s room to help save his small life. The harm, however, is done and baby brother tainted forever with breathing problems and the barky cough of poor inadequate U.S. healthcare.
Baby brother’s life mirrors the maelstrom he’s delivered into—born of fire and feud.
I’m twelve, eating dinner at the table that sits crowded in the small combined living-dining room, and kitchen in the crude four room house. Mom and baby brother cry; dad screams; I watch, shoveling spaghetti into my mouth; my eyes alert and wide, I’m desperately chewing and swallowing. My lips slap together, manners forgotten—or never taught. Marinara sauce smeared across my face like blood from an open lip. Tension blankets the room like the dark endless vacuum of an ocean abyss; the weight of dread forces the air out of me, suffocates me, pushing me down shutting me into a saltwater coffin without any means of escape. I sit silent and stiff panicking. My heart beats faster, my eyes continue to dart back and forth, the pressure increases, and my mind starts frantically lurching from one thought to the next: How do I stop this from happening? How do I stop them? What can I use? Where do we go? What do I do? How do I save them? Can we run now? Before it happens? Why why why? My heart continues to beat like a bat in flight. The imaginary sheen of cold sweat shudders me away from complacency as my anxiety rises and I impatiently wait for what’s about to happen scrambling from one thought to the next on how to prevent it all the while knowing I cannot.
Screams from my mom at my dad in a language I know, but cannot understand. Shouts from my dad to my mom in a language I know and fully understand. She moves to the sofa with a crying baby brother on her lap. The sounds fade and I hear the thump thump of his fist hitting the palm of his hand in a threatening dare like the escalating beat of those hypnotically noxious caveman-like war drums. I jump to my feet a second before the first fist flies. I see it in slow motion, like one of those B horror flicks: my arms straight, fists clenched, mouth hanging open, spaghetti dangling like a loose wire, as I scream ‘noooo!’. A closed-fisted sucker punch to her jaw a few inches away from baby brother’s small pale head. Her head lurches. Dad throws her to the floor. She bounces and baby brother flies into a chair leg. Blood starts seeping from his little towhead like liquid red paint flowing across a white canvas. He whimpers and shrieks; another one of those terror induced screams that curls metal and breaks glass—except this time the cry wavers with a sick puppy-like whine.
Short jerky movements on the living room floor knock down the hoarding of magazines and newspapers and filth flowing out from the dirty untouched corners. Mom grunts and gasps dad’s name between the sad sickly sound of fist hitting skin and pleas to stop.
The slap and thump of fist hitting skin is not a hollow sound nor memory. It echoes through your soul like an old dying pet’s last gurgling breath or that florid smell in a funeral home when the coffin clicks open and shut. The impressions weigh on you long after they fade.
I jump into action onto his back without pause, unconcerned with consequences, striking and clawing and pulling hair as he beats her; fists fly everywhere, arms left and right, rising and falling, followed by those sickly sounds, yelling at him to stop.
I hear a distant pounding. Daryl, the uncle and mom’s oldest brother, peers eyes wide through the small eye-level window in the door. I run to unlock it, but before Daryl enters, dad pushes me aside and locks it back giving me a hard angry look of the burn of betrayal and beyond that, hurt. He mumbles about ‘blowing us all to hell’ and goes towards the bedroom. Mom and baby brother take off out the door with Daryl disappearing around the corner.
I stand there looking between both unsure what to do.
Retrieving a sawed-off shotgun, he walks out the door pumping it expertly with one hand like a lackey henchman from an NRA ad with sloppy toxic machismo. Looking around undeterred, he avoids my eyes. I follow watching him as he walks in the opposite direction of mom. I stop and look behind me. Uncle Daryl gesticulates wildly while silently mouthing ‘this way’ from behind a vehicle. I look back towards dad while Daryl yelps ‘now’ to me in a loud corrosive whisper.
The irony of this scene has forever been burned into my psyche as it unfolds in front of me again in real time. My father, the alcoholic abusive undereducated thief and hard worker that spawns loyalty and friendship from high and low, brutalized by an abusive alcoholic father and doted on from a loving mother, scorches the earth with his deep unending anger, hurt, and addiction—and my uncle Daryl who will eventually get his own category of maleness. I turn to him, not in trust, but the weighing of danger. Who is the more imminent threat between these two grown white men? This from me—the twelve-year-old skinny little white girl. I reluctantly take off in the direction of mom, Daryl, and baby brother looking back over my shoulder at dad walking away, his back to me. I feel sadness and regret—and tears.
The choices one must make in life. In this, you will come to understand in time. In time, all will make sense. In life sometimes there are no good choices and can we even call them choices?
The branches, like fingers, cling and claw at me as we struggle to run up the steep hill. The dead leaves, damp underneath, shift and slide. I trip and stumble downwards scraping my knees and hitting my chin on the ground biting my tongue. Tasting copper, I push myself up and maintain my course, adrenaline masking the physical pain. I watch mom struggle up the hill above me with baby brother in her arms using one hand to push herself up when she stumbles forward. Uncle Daryl advances above her looking back occasionally to make sure we’re not followed.
Baby brother’s head oozes dark red blood down the back of his neck marring the collar of his small yellow happy-face-have-a-nice day t-shirt. Silent—except for the hiccups and shudders that shake his tiny body, eyes wide, fingers submerged in his mouth as he chews nervously, slobbers escape all sides—he watches me over mom’s shoulder. His eyes, in a sheen of glass broken by a calm of terror that escapes his comprehension, meet mine in a study of familiarity; familiarity means comfort. His fractured childhood becomes the clichéd road map for the rest of his dismal life. Few successes and celebrations split his timeline and I cry for what this small child confronted—his life so much harder than it should’ve been. Self-preservation takes so much the earlier it’s visited upon a child. I see in him all three of us: me, mom, and dad and my empathy is as great as his rage.
Where does that circle end?
The forest, silent of voice, doesn’t move. Our breaths pant and plunge as we trudge our way towards safety. We hear a loud bang behind echoing loudly throughout the valley. We stop and look back waiting for another, the dread coating us in a cold sweat, breaths held anxiously awaiting the safe silence. There are only the shy sounds of the nearby woods.
We continue, our pace faster, running towards a sanctuary we’ll never find and freedoms we’ll never feel.
Darkness, and I wake up hours later on gramma Lexi’s couch. My face sore and swollen. People walk by ignoring me avoiding the situation and the melodrama associated. I sit quietly in a corner of the sofa wondering if my daddy’s alright.
© 2020 Pamela Gay Mullins