July 15, 2004
I laugh at the grin on her face, the kind only little sisters have. Dad found the book for a dollar at some garage sale, but Gale doesn’t care.
” ‘Ella!” she squeals, dropping to her knees as she opens the creased hardcover, hands plopping over the pictures of mice, pumpkins and a silver-blue dress. Mom watches from the couch, a tired smile on her lips, her eyes always watching Dad with devotion. He is the only one who has ever been able to keep her sane through her manic-depressive states. She is the only woman he claims constantly challenges him to be a better person. A balance of sorts. Dad leans over Gale, eyes bright.
“Would you like to read it?” he asks her.
Gale bounces with excitement. “‘Ella!”
Dad sits on the carpet, putting Gale in his lap. She snuggles into his shoulder, calming as he puts the book across their knees. I scoot closer to them, pressing against my father’s side to look at the pictures. The pages are worn, but still bright.
“Once upon a time there was a young girl…” Gale is wide-eyed as Dad reads the fairy tale and I know she is soaking in every word. I find more comfort in his deep voice, the humming warmth touching me as I drift.
“Roxanne,” his whisper wakes me from glittering dreams. “Time for bed.”
“What?” I ask, dazed.
“I need to put Gale in her room. Brush your teeth and I’ll tuck you in.”
Blinking, I notice Gale still in his lap. Curled-up, thumb in her mouth. She looks so fragile. I struggle to my feet, noticing that Mom is no longer in the living room.
I clean up and crawl in bed, leaving the lights on as I wait for my dad to come say goodnight. Hearing Gale’s door close gently, I listen to the even pace of Dad steps, squeezing my eyes shut and pretending to have fallen asleep.
“Oh, I guess my favorite ten year old is just too tired tonight for a hug. Too bad, I had a gift for her too,” Dad whispers by my head and I can’t keep a straight face. Smiling I jump up and wrap my arms around his neck as he laughs softly at our game. “She is awake! Amazing.”
“You have a gift for me?” I ask.
He pulls something from his pocket and I gasp as he shows me a necklace with a small skeleton key. “Do you like it?” The cheap silver chain is a little stained, but I love it.
“Yes!” I take the necklace, feeling the shape of the key. It is about the size of my thumb.
“I thought you would. It’s so you always remember that you have the key to solve any problem.” He pokes me gently in the heart. “No lock is unbreakable.”
I screw up my face at him. “Dad, you are being serious again.”
He laughs, bringing our foreheads together. “Sorry, Roxanne. You are right. Too much seriousness for before sleep.”
Kissing my forehead, Dad takes the necklace from my hands and puts it on the table by my lamp. “For the morning.” I snuggle back under my blankets, smiling as my dad tucks the sides tight around me. “Good night, don’t let the bed bugs bite.”
January 9, 2007
It is all the world has left to offer me.
My mother wails at my side, eyes swollen with tears, cheeks slapped mercilessly with the howling winter morning air. Frost crunches beneath my feet as I shift my weight, trying to feel something while listening to the words of the pastor as he speaks of the devoted good nature of my father over the shadow of headstones and a fresh grave. Most of the mourners I have never seen before. Perhaps they had known the janitor, a struggling father and husband. But he had been more than that: strong, passionate, loving, unyielding. We may have lived everything second-hand, but for my father, family had been his wealth. I look down at my side, Gale’s tiny hand in my own. At five, I am still not sure if she understands what is happening, but her expression behind the swell of her stained pink coat is solemn. She had seen the police officers when they stood on the doorstep, telling my disbelieving mother of the accident that had mangled my father beyond recognition. They would not allow us to even see him for identification, using dental records for confirmation. In some ways, I knew this added to my numbness, the inability to believe his giant form filled the coffin before me. He had been invincible, invulnerable. He had always been here.
Gale leans into my leg, clinging to me. I pick her up, shifting her weight onto my left hip as she buries her face in the fraying scarf at my neck. “Watch out for them, Roxanne,” my father’s voice whispers in my head, the joking tilt of his tone exactly as I remember it, the wink and smile as he turns out the door, his usual farewell. His last farewell.
The pastor ends his litany with a snap of the bible, his hand reaching out kindly to my mother. She falls into his arms, knees crashing to the ground as she keens, nearly toppling the man with her. Her body quakes under his soothing words and I image the earth breaking beneath her form, swallowing her grief and sending her back to her love as the people in attendance respectfully look away. Watching the shifting crowd I try to cry, to release the pain simmering inside, but the numbness holds me frozen. The skeleton necklace seems to burn under my clothes, a sharp pain digging into my heart. Gale hides deeper in my arms, her hands gripping my coat for protection. I am the only one watching as the coffin lowers, the slow descent like the rock dropping in my stomach.
February 16, 2007
I find the letter tossed on the table when I get back from school, my mother curled on the couch, unconscious. An empty bourbon bottle lies on the floor, two last drops struggling to escape near the rim. Gale sits in the corner, playfully mumbling to her Raggedy Ann that is more raggedy than Ann, a bald spot and torn dress marking where Gale pulls on the doll when she drags her around the apartment. She doesn’t even look up when I come in.
“Gale?” I ask, walking over to my mother with the letter clutched in my hand, checking for a pulse that still pounds weakly. I try not to be angry with her, with the world. It has been six weeks now since the funeral and my mother is out of her lithium pills and still grieving. I will always be grieving. I am just thankful that Gale has not asked when father is coming home. “How long has mama been on the couch?”
Gale does not even look at me, just continues talking to her doll in the small voice of a child making their own reality. “Buttons, slow down. It’s too hot to drink.” “I’m thirsty.” “You burn your mouth.” “I’m thirsty.”
I sigh, letting her be.
I return to the small kitchen, throwing the crumpled letter on the table again as I sit in the only chair that doesn’t tilt towards one corner, burying my face in my hands. The letter is a notice that our rent has not been paid for the month, including the escrow for heat and water. Somehow we had always managed to get by before, but without my father’s paycheck, my mother’s refusal to return to work, and the little bit of savings we have left still going to funeral costs, we simply don’t have the money to live.
Furious, I push away from the table and the letter, chair legs scratching. I search the cupboards and fridge for something to make for dinner. My mother leaves the apartment only for alcohol so all that is left to eat are a can of chicken broth, a rotten lettuce head, some Swiss cheese and enough off-brand cheerios for a bowl barely large enough to feed Gale. Mouse droppings have appeared in the dish drawers, piles like dead ants. I pound my fist on the counter, welcoming the added pain as I throw all the silverware into the sink to be washed. We don’t have any good cleaners so I just slam the drawer shut, reminding myself to clean it out later. I try to think of a way to get rid of our invisible plague, but every idea involves money. Always money. I will have to ask around tomorrow if anyone can pay me to do some work around their home. We should not be living in such filth and we cannot afford to be evicted, even if the landlord cannot kick us out until the weather warms.
“I’ll watch out for them, Dad,” I mutter bitterly.
“Zanne?” Gale says softly, her name for me dragging a small smile to my gnawed lips. Both my father and my mother used to laugh about it, treasuring their growing daughter. I don’t expect I will hear my mother laugh anymore. I take a deep breath, unclenching my fists as I turn, expression softening. “Zanne, I’m hungry.” Her doll hangs limp from her hand, face turned from the living room as if it could not bear to look at where my mother lay.
“I know, Gale. Would you like some cereal?”
“Have Donald’s?” she asks hopefully. I watch her, wishing things weren’t so hard. If my mother didn’t climb from her depression soon, we would have no money for groceries, let alone fast food. We would keep falling behind on rent, with no money to pay for the heat we need to get through the rest of the winter. Alcohol might help my mother forget the cold, but not Gale and me. My father had taught me to save what I could of my own money, pointing out that a family like ours never knew when a little extra would be needed. Still, the eighty-three dollars I have in my room is hardly worth noting. I glance over Gale’s little form towards the couch, sighing.
“Sure Gale,” I say in a cheery voice that only fools children. “Go put your shoes on and we’ll walk to McDonalds.”
October 31, 2010
I open the door and carry in the plump plastic bags, anticipation thrilling through me. Chances are if my mother even notices anything outside her alcoholic fog, she will be furious that I spent my money on Halloween things. But I have spent the last month taking extra hours at both McDonalds and the bait shop, saving what doesn’t need to go to bills for something special for Gale. The last three years she has missed out on trick-or-treating and I couldn’t bear to see her face again as she asks why she can’t have a costume. She deserves to experience her childhood.
Not daring to leave my purchases in the kitchen, I quickly scurry to Gale’s room, avoiding my couch-ridden mother who shows no indication that she has even heard me come in. It’s better that way. When I open her door, Gale is talking to herself, playing tea party with her mismatch of dolls and animals that seem to be carrying on a conversation about how any creature is beautiful in a dress. Smiling, I close the door quietly and watch her for a moment before she realizes I’m there.
“Zanne!” Gale barrels into my legs. I laugh, loving that she still calls me Zanne, even though she has long been able to pronounce my name properly. She notices the bags. “What’s that?”
“I brought you something,” I say.
“Really?” Her eyes light up. “What is it?”
I hand her the plastic bags and she dumps them on the floor. My efforts earn a squeal of delight that melts my heart. “Cinderella!” Without even bothering to take her clothes off, Gale puts the ensemble on. She is glowing.
The dress is a tiny replica of the ball gown; puffed sleeves, wide skirt, long gloves, even the silvery sheen of the tulle matching the pictures in Gale’s book. It had taken me hours to find the right shoes to match, getting the color and the material as close to the glass slippers as possible for what I could afford. Her socks make them look like her feet are squished into a contortionist box. I’d even found a tiara she shoves on her head that isn’t plastic, though I’m sure it will tarnish quickly. Laughing, I pick up the candy she has ignored. I’d stretched my splurge in order to get a bag of the mellocreme pumpkins, my favorite non-chocolate seasonal. I can’t remember the last time I spent so much on something not necessary to survive.
“Gale, if you want to go trick-or-treating, you will have to take off your shirt and socks.”
“We get to go trick-or-treating? Really?”
“Yup, we’re going to go celebrate this year.”
Eagerly, Gale strips and redresses, bouncing from foot to foot so much that I fear she will twist an ankle in her shoes. My admonishments will go unacknowledged, however, so I don’t say anything. Grabbing the bags as she shoves her coat on, I check the hall to make sure my mother is still oblivious. Assured, I usher Gale quickly out the apartment, knowing even if we are gone only an hour or two, I run the risk of jump-starting my mother’s wrath. Regardless, Gale’s skipping dance is more than worth it.
Trick-or-treating is just as I remember from when I was a child. Carved pumpkins and little squash everywhere, designs from the stereotypical jack-o-lantern to a limerick, fake spider webs and annoying motion-sensor skeletons laughing and dancing with every passing child, a bale of straw holding up a stuffed ax-murderer making my nose itch. Costumes are as creative as ever; witches, princesses, superheroes and masked unnamable’s that teeter on the ridiculous. I found the teenager dressed as a crab the most amusing, her stuffed claws so big and floppy that she dropped her bag of candy at nearly every door, her effective motor functions deadened by her transformation.
I keep Gale within the apartment complex and those in the immediate surround. The neighbors are friendly and generous, even those I know for a fact can barely afford what they give. Most acknowledge me as they would any other adult and I am only offered candy from those who do not know me. With thanks I eat the Milk Duds and Snickers, but drop the rest into Gale’s stash.
On our way back to the apartment, I let Gale run around the little park just a block from our complex. There is a struggling pond, only the stoutest fish able to survive the daily waste dump, but if the McDonalds trash and cigarette stubs can be ignored, it is a slight relief to the cityscape. I sit on one of the benches, holding Gale’s candy as she dances in the sunset and a rare eagle overhead distracts me.
“Zanne, look at this!” Gale shouts, bending over something near the water. She is not the best swimmer, so I hurry to her side.
“Gale, don’t get so close to the water.”
“But look!” she says, using a twig to poke at a decomposing fish. The bones are starting to show and the stench mixed with the trash makes me gag, but Gale seems unaffected.
“Leave it alone, please,” I say.
“Does it have a wishbone?”
“No, fish don’t have wishbones. That’s for turkeys.”
“Oh.” Gale looks disappointed. “Can I have a turkey?”
“What?” I say, trying not to laugh. “No, we can’t have a turkey in the house.”
“Can I have a fish?”
I smile. “Sure, Gale. We can look for a fish for you. But not this one, you have to leave this one here.”
Gale pokes at the bones again, pouting. “I know.”
“We should go back now,” I say gently, watching the sun. Gale knows what I mean.
“K.” Grabbing her candy from me, she races towards our apartment, her longing apparently forgotten.
“Where the hell were you?!” the drunken demand greets us as I shut the apartment door. Gale looks at me and darts past our mother, shutting her bedroom door with far too much understanding.
Crossing my arms defensively, I face her calmly. “I took Gale out to celebrate Halloween.”
“Spending money on shit?” She lurches as she tries to advance on me.
“A celebration of culture and tradition is more valuable than your alcohol.” I still wonder how she manages to afford to be drunk all the time. The money I make is never shared with her and I’m pretty sure her savings ran out long ago.
“Ungrateful bitch.” I can smell her hot bourbon breath and it reminds me of the rotting fish. Her eyes are unfocused, but the spark of rage is one I know well. My back is against the door and I have no room to move around her, I can only wait with a skipping heart. Smack. I refuse to let my hand rise to press against the smarting mark on my cheek, to give her the satisfaction. She starts to wind for a second slap, but her tilting reflexes make it easy for me to lightly shove her off balance. Ignoring her obscenities, I stride to my room and shut the door, putting my chair under the handle, knowing Gale has already done the same, as I taught her. I sit on the edge of my bed, fists clenching and unclenching as I take deep breaths. Several minutes later my mother makes it to my door, her fist haphazardly pounding as she screams for me to let her in. Focusing on controlling my heart beat, I tune out her insults.
November 3, 2010.
I look up quickly from my homework and my journal, fingers letting go of the skeleton key when I hear a crash in the kitchen of the apartment, a string of curses following as my mother complains about broken glass. Sighing, I close the notebook and slip my leather journal under my pillow, always protectively conscious of the last Christmas gift from my father and the record of my spiraling life after his death. Stepping over the clothes carpeting my floor, I cautiously wander to the kitchen to make sure that my mother doesn’t leave the glass on the floor for Gale to accidently step on.
Peeking unobtrusively into the tiny room, my mother’s wraith-like, leathery form is bent over, one hand on the counter, the other trying to pick up the pieces of a beer bottle with a dirty dish towel. When I see that she has enough sense to clean up the mess, I slink back into the shadowed hallway and start for my room.
“What are you doing, brat? I hear you sneaking there,” she spits accusingly, her loud words slurring slightly. I stop and take a deep breath, waiting for her to continue. “Come to laugh? Well laugh away.”
“Do you need some help?” I ask returning to the kitchen, trying to keep my voice down. I had just put Gale to sleep.
“You think you are better than me, don’t you?” she sneers as she nearly falls trying to stand straight. “Why don’t you clean up the filth that you bring to this house, whore?” She throws the rank towel at me, whatever glass it had picked up raining on the floor. I let it fall at my feet, fists clenched. I ignore the insults, but violent rage flickers through her eyes.
“Why don’t you go lay down?” I ask, willing her to forget her aggression. “Get some sleep.”
“I don’t need sleep and I certainly don’t need you telling me to do something!”
“It was only a suggestion.”
“Here’s a suggestion,” she counters with malice. “Why don’t you go suck a dick? Bring home some money to help out around here.”
I blink with shock for only a moment. Grinding my teeth I turn away, heading for my room. I have had enough.
“Don’t you dare turn your back on me!” my mother screams. I ignore her, but tension cords my muscles. “I am your mother, show some respect.”
“Respect?” I turn in a fury, suddenly unable to just walk away. “You think I should respect you? It has been over three years and you have turned into an abusive drunk. You booze your life away and forget about your family. What about Gale? Look at the world you are raising her in.”
“How dare you!” she screams, spit flying as she stumbles through the glass toward me. I wait for her, unwilling to give her my back. When she reaches me her eyes are burning. “I am your mother,” she seethes. Before I can react my ears are ringing with the force of her slap. A second sends me harshly back into the wall, my head bouncing. Something breaks in me. No more. I lean forward and swing wildly, over three years of built up anger fueling the strength of my punch. My fist catches her in the side of her jaw and she drops to the floor cradling her bleeding mouth. Her eyes are glassy with surprise, but she does not speak.
“You are nothing to me,” I whisper, clenching and unclenching my aching hand, ignoring the drumming in my ears.
Turning, I walk into my room and grab the emergency backpack that I always keep ready with things for both Gale and me. I add some extra clothes and my journal to the bag before stepping into the hall again. The drunken woman does not move even when I open Gale’s door. She is somehow still asleep, innocent peace gracing her pale features as she lies curled in her costume, which she has refused to take off at night. The minnow I brought home from the bait shop stares at me from the old vase I found, the glass decorated with stickers that Gale must have gotten at school. I silently add her copy of Cinderella to my bag and sling it over my shoulder before I bend over and gently lift her. She instinctively snuggles into me, a soft sigh escaping her lips even as her eyes remain shut. With my sister in my arms I walk into the hall and look at what is left of my mother. Blood has soaked into her shirt and her face has swollen twice its normal size, displaying the grotesque twisting of her mind on her own face for once. She has only moved far enough to prop herself up against the wall. Her flaming eyes watch me. She makes no sound as I open the front door and step out into the decaying hall of the apartment complex, leaving her for the last time.
Gale does not wake during the walk or the bus ride. She continues to sleep peacefully as I check into a cheap motel and tuck her into the uneven bed, springs groaning. I do not go to sleep. Instead, I sit up and marvel at her innocent form, her dimples deepening with a content smile that marks the kind of sweet dreams only children have. The necklace clutched in my fist imprints into my skin as I watch over my Cinderella. “We are safe now,” I whisper, wanting to believe.
And for the first time since before my father died, I drop my head and cry.
Kelsey Swanson is currently a senior at UW-Eau Claire double-majoring in creative writing and painting. As a writer, her interests primarily lie with fiction and poetry, but she experiments with various literary forms and genres, stressing metaphor, inquisitive emotions and personal interpretation.