Authors: Rebecca Berto,Lauren McKellar
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Domestic Life, #Contemporary Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Family Life
Copyright © 2013 Rebecca Berto
All rights reserved.
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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
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ISBN (eBook): 978-0-9874566-3-2
ISBN (paperback): 978-0-9874566-4-9
Cover copyright © Rebecca Berto of
Lauren K McKellar
E.M. Tippetts Book Designs
y six-year-old daughter, Ella, is making my bowl of cereal this morning. She does most days. She measures the cereal, and pours the milk slowly so it doesn’t arc out onto the counter. She shoves in a spoon and pushes it my way, then throws away the box. Pulling out another bowl, she begins on hers.
I stare at my pre-made meal, willing myself to take a mouthful and mumble, “Mmm, this is so, so wonderfully scrumptious!”
But I can’t. I’ve been perpetually sick for every moment of every day for longer than I can count.
Instead, I look at the stupid painting on the wall behind Ella. It has fire truck red petals and kryptonite green leaves, and was picked up for a third of the original price at a discount home store by the man I killed: my husband, Paul.
These days, the painting hangs on its wall, all smug and sucking color, so this room and everything we stand in is a gray abyss void of anything.
Ella twirls her spoon in her cereal and mumbles, “Mommy?”
She points to my bowl. “I’m not very hungry too.”
She pokes a clump of cereal and it bobs under the milk. It floats back up. “Do you miss Daddy?”
Acid rises in my throat. It feels like chlorine when it stings my nose.
Maybe I could say Daddy died sometime in the last four months, as my mom constantly reminds me. Or I see him nightly. Both are true.
I want to shake my head out; that doesn’t even answer the question.
Leaning over the counter, I still can’t see what face Ella is making; her shoulders hunch over her bowl, her face shadowed behind blonde ringlets. Paul’s face would hide behind that same type of tight, blonde curl too. He’d look through his hair, if he let it grow too long, and that’s what I hate remembering. This is one on an endless list.
My daughter is still a mini-Paul, as she’s always been. Those little ribbons of her silky hair that I used to wrap around my fingers are now the source of the guilt weighing me down.
I turn to look at her again, see those blonde ringlets. She’s still staring at her cereal, which is out of character. Me, I’m a whirlwind of uncertainty, but her—she’s steady.
I walk to the garbage can and flip open the lid to peer in, but my hair falls in the way. I hold it back in a messy bun—not that wavy hair like mine needs to be messed further—and tie it up.
Peering back in the garbage, I see a cereal box on top. The label is just as I thought. Of course I wouldn’t have bought a no-name brand. She hates that.
“Ella,” I say, resting against the counter on the opposite side of the kitchen, which means there’s little more than an arm-span between us. “Are you okay?”
She huffs, writing-off another of my questions.
The sight of her pouty lips has me at her side in a moment. I bundle my fingers and brush her cheeks. As my fingers slip from her face I trace her chin, remembering how I used to pinch it to tease her.
Ella looks up and says, “Nana asked if I wanted to stay at hers more.”
I steady myself by locking my hands on the counter. “Oh, really?”
Count: one, two.
“Nana loves me. She says she misses me.”
Ella never lets the “proper” brand get soggy.
I don’t know why I think that. The cereal doesn’t matter anymore, not now that my mom wants to take my daughter off me again.
I shouldn’t be surprised. She must feel like she finally has authority over me, compared to the attempt she made when Ella was just a baby and she was crazy, pre-psychologist. It’s just like her to pressure me to abort Ella when I was pregnant and then spend the next six years of her life thinking up attempts to take her away from me.
Just because I had Ella at twenty-three and my mom had me at forty doesn’t give her any right to administer control over my life, especially over the one love I have left: Ella. I’m sure taking Ella from my volatile life is Mom’s plan.
My daughter’s all I have left.
I lost Paul. If I lose her too . . .
I tuck my arms into each other around my ribs, then untuck and re-tuck before I speak. God, aren’t I starting off well?
Just stay still.
“She sees you every week,” I say.
Ella shrugs, inspects her bowl and pushes it away.
Being winter, it’s gray outside and gray inside. That color-sucker hanging on the wall isn’t helping either. Everything is watered down.
“Did she,” I clear my throat, and continue, “did Nana say anything else? Has she spoken to anyone on the phone about keeping you there more?”
When I was growing up, Mom was obvious about her hatred for me, cutting up Paul’s hoodie because she thought it was mine. She even tried to keep me away from Ella’s first birthday party, so I’d miss the occasion. Asking Ella to stay over is about as obvious a hint as I’ll need.
Ella fiddles with a button on her school dress, bringing me back to the present, making the same shape around it over and over. I can’t help but wonder if my mom has made up stories to twist how things have changed, since what happened to her daddy, to make me look dangerous to her. But I’m not bad. I’m just trying to forget what I did to Paul.
“Do I get to see him again?” Ella says.
I clutch my chest, and suck in a breath.
She’s wants to know when her daddy’s coming home.
Mom’s voice interrupts my thoughts, automatically translating what she knows Ella means:
“Are you going to realize Paul’s dead, Katie?”
My throat won’t clear. I drink a glass of water but it only tightens, then burns, as if I’ve drunk a glass of bleach. Weirdly, it tastes like chlorine. Always the chlorine.
I slap the glass on the counter and gag like I breathed in alcohol through a wet cloth, which triggers the flashback of Paul’s face with the froth around his mouth, the blood spurting over him as if Mount Vesuvius had erupted from inside my husband.
“Are you dead, Mommy?” Ella pokes my arm across the counter.
Divert; it’s how I can continue to live without him. “Do you want me to make a new bowl?” It’s possible she’s sick of her breakfast. Possible my mom has only good intentions. “I think I know what you’ll like,” I say and walk the bowl over to the sink. “I’ll make some fairy bread instead.”
Draining the milk down the sink, I’m transfixed by the mush clogged at the drain. “But you need to eat.”
Ella’s voice rises an octave. “You still not answering me!”
I have an urge to correct her grammar, but that’s not the point. She’s clued on to something dangerous.
“Ella—what do you want me to explain? We’ve been through this.”
Her cheeks puff up and her eyebrows scrunch together. “I’m still confused.”
“That’s because this is a grown-up topic. Don’t worry so much.”
Her voice speeds up. Someone pressed fast forward—surely. “Is Daddy okay?”
“We’re all fine. Just fine. Now, eat up.”
“Daddy never said that. He said
is a ‘fat lie’. He said lies will make me ugly like a toad. Do you want to be a toad?”
Shaking my head I say, “Why do you say that, darling?”
“Daddy told me when people say they’re ‘fine’ they mean they’re sad. But you’re not frowning, so I’m confused.”
“Well I like toads so I don’t mind being one, and I
fine. Now, hurry for school, darling.”
“Please . . . tell me the story about the spider pole.”
Why a story? Why now? Can’t this wait, like, twenty years or so?
The spider pole. She means the Eiffel Tower ornament Paul had specially designed and engraved for me during our trip to Paris.
“Daddy bought that for me. You know that,” I say, smiling because I’m proud my words aren’t falling apart.
Surprisingly, Ella is frowning. “Is everything okay?”
“You mad from last night. I won’t touch the swirly one again.”
What a fool I am. She’s six; not stupid. And I was standing proud a second ago. Why didn’t I notice her knotting her hands together? I wonder how long they’ve looked hot and sweaty, if her mind is twisting, deducing some sort of meaning from my words.
Ella’s school-dress buttons and collar change color. They’re business-shirt blue and only three buttons are done up because Paul was lifeless, gone, by the time I got to him but Paul’s not really here and maybe Ella is. Maybe I’m not here, either.
I dig my nails into the laminate until I want to scream from the pressure of my bending nails. Okay, so I’m still here.
“What did I
?” Ella’s voice breaks, and it sounds as if she chokes on her last word.
Ella deserves a mother who will pull her into her chest at times like this and cry about how sad they both are. I haven’t cried since before Paul’s death.
At twenty-nine, I shouldn’t be waking up every day to this. I’d once thought widows only existed when people were old. Sure, I still have the brown hair with some type of wave to it, but I’m a shell with rotting insides.
Paul’s bloody body, dotted with partially digested chunks of his breakfast is suddenly in front of me. Then his dead body multiplies, replicating behind me, to my left, right. He is a cage. I am the prisoner. His blood stains the floor red, causing my breath to stagger. My head spins seeing the sickening chunks and lifeless body of the man I would have given my life for.
My daughter’s sobs fade, as if I’m being sucked away into a tunnel. The gray walls churn as if I’m in a kaleidoscope. Fire truck red and kryptonite green color blurs together to a spot in the distance. The end of the house is gone, replaced with a tunnel sucking me out of the kitchen. The choking, sobbing sound across the counter fades further.
Suddenly, the kitchen fades to an image of my closet. Last night, I found Ella there, her fingers skimming along the circle she made of Paul’s ties. For minutes, I stood behind her in the doorway of my closet. It had been the first time in my master bedroom in months.
Ella bopped on her knees, her feet tucked away under her bum. She’d laid out all of her favorite colors. One with Disney’s Tasmanian Devil printed on it, another in Cadbury purple. Ten or more lay around the circle. Her favorite tie had a pink and blue swirl twisting down its length, right in front of her knees.
She stroked each tie once, her voice a steady hum. When she brushed the swirly tie, her hum reached a staccato and stopped. She picked it up in the same manner as she would her favorite doll and stroked it against her chest.
Outside, the Melbourne rain had climaxed from gentle taps on the windows to angry thumps, making me jump.
“Oh, Daddy,” Ella mumbled. “Can I really have it?”
A flash of me from months ago rushed to her side, knowing to fold her legs and prop her in my lap as we sat together. That version of me plucked all her fingers, and Ella chuckled and snorted simultaneously.
Instead? I said, “No. Ella. Out.”
Ella spun around at the same time as a clap of lighting shook the carpet under our feet. She squealed and clamped her arms by her side, her back ramrod straight. “I want the swirly one. M—my doll needs it.”
I held myself up on the doorjamb of the closet, my arm against the wall easily blocking out the bed and the far side of the room where no one had scrubbed out the stain. “No more. You’re not allowed in here. No one is.” My lip shook almost too much to choke out words. “How could you . . . do this? You know how naughty . . . it is to . . . to come here.”
couldn’t go in the master bedroom. Haven’t since what happened until now.
The crumpled sheets can’t be moved. I leave the stains. Everything must remain the same. I don’t straighten my hair anymore, or sleep with a pile of pillows, or wear my comfortable jeans. No one can be in here so nothing will change.
What if Ella found the box under the bed? If she went through it?
Maybe not ever.
I promised myself that I wouldn’t look under the bed. There’s too much finality in looking through that box.
Shaking my mind back to present-time I think,
I know too much
I hate Paul for leaving me to fend against Mom when he knows I can’t do it by myself.
I hate him for being selfish and thinking that I can live without him.
Most of all, I hate me for hating him, since it’s my fault he isn’t here now.
Ella? She wants
to know. Something. Will he come back? Does he love her?
My mom used to say things like, “It’s your fault, Katie. You hear me, Katie? You ruined my tummy, Katie.” Then she would come close enough to smell the fear coating my skin. Always, I’d gasp and try to run away. She’d grab me and yank me back by my flimsy wrist. Her voice was low and steady. Low so I wouldn’t get lost in her hysteria; steady so my mind would store this information forever.
“You killed your brothers and sisters. They didn’t make it out of my belly because you jinxed me. You know that, right?”
Now, in this kitchen, Ella smells a lot like that fear.
• • •
rummage through discarded food wrappings, pens with no ink and keys that can’t lock anything from the bowl on the entry counter. After a minute-long search, I finally fish out my car keys. As we walk out the door, I look down and cringe at my worn jeans and oversized sweater, not remembering how they got there. It’s too late to change now.
Don’t be ignorant
, the Molten Man voice says from inside my head. I don’t know if it’s worse that he’s imaginary or that I’ve given him a name. He sounds like he’s breathing fire, like he’s melting everything, such as how the speed of lava incinerates anything in its breadth.
You should be looking after Ella. Show her photos of her father or something, you stupid woman
, he says.
, I think.
Keep your mind here
. If last night hadn’t been so . . . I squeeze my eyelids together then curse under my breath because they should be open when I drive. That strange woman’s screams from some of my dreams drown out my ears. When she stops, my ears are ringing, accompanied by Paul’s pale, waxy body lying distorted around the bed.
Most nights—multiple times a night—it’s the same.
Last night I was cooking. I looked between the container of rice and the fresh packet of egg noodles in the fridge and decided on the noodles. I placed them to the side of the cooktop while I chopped the veggies. Once they were done, I prepared the slices of beef and put them in their own bowl. I chose a sauce and spices, to get the last things together. I threw them all in, mixing and stirring, while I heard noises from our bedroom upstairs.