I led Carson and Lucy into the back room by their tiny hands and turned the radio up so they wouldn’t hear the screams. It was already an hour past their bedtime and in minutes they fell asleep huddled on the moth-eaten, orange couch. Leaving them in a peaceful slumber, I crawled the length of the hallway and made myself comfortable in my reserved front-row seating in the shadows of our small shack. Light flooded the stage. “Fuck the kids,” I heard him stammer, “I’m done.” He left, slamming the front door, and I prayed to God he wouldn’t come back, and so of course he did. “Encore,” I felt my lips mouth the word. But this wasn’t acting.
It had been like this for months. We ate cereal for every meal because we couldn’t afford much else. My father was an electrician. What he didn’t spend on shots of whiskey at the bar downtown he spent on his other women. It wasn’t a secret. One of them called our house looking for him last week. I answered and her fairy-like voice made me sick to my stomach. I hung up on her. He hit me hard in the face and locked me in the back closet.
Every time he walked out I prayed for it to be over. But every time he kicked open the screen door and came back. This time he entered holding something under his jacket and pulled my mother’s trembling body into the other room. From behind the closed doors I heard her eagle shrieks. At least she was alive, I thought. At least he wasn’t carrying a shotgun.
Finally he disappeared into the black night, stumbling recklessly out to his truck. I knew I had time because I heard the engine start and the noise of its gurgling trail to nothingness down the road.
I walked over to her side but she didn’t see me. She looked through the middle of me with dead eyes. Her acid tears drew pink lines down her cheeks like hot streams through a desert. The mirror behind her reflected the same pink pattern on her bare back. He had beaten her with an extension cord from the pickup lent to him by his electric company. She rocked while cradling her chest with folded arms. She held on to herself so hard that her fingernails dug holes in her shoulders and she bled. She had to hold on tight because otherwise she would lose herself as she had everything else in life. She was my mother. I was only fourteen and I already knew everything love wasn’t.
The quiet scared me so I left. I trudged outside and picked a bicycle off the dry, golden grass and started pedaling. It was dark. I didn’t know where I was going I just knew I needed to keep pedaling. I wasn’t going to stop until I got somewhere. The trees bowed their heads and moaned longingly in the wind. They asked me for answers I didn’t have. I sped up to escape their cries but the gears on the rusty, old bike buckled and crunched to an abrupt halt. I flew over the handle bars and my head came down hard on the gravel below. I sat up and watched the back wheel of the pathetic bike whir ferociously until surrendering to silence. The constant pounding in my left temple where I had hit the ground was a small comfort from the near total numbness that overcame me.
Since I was already halfway there, I decided to bike to the park at the edge of town. When I got there I leaned my bike down against the nearest bench and sat staring for a while. My head still hurt from the fall and it felt like my brain would push my eyes out of their sockets. In the distance I saw headlights approaching and fear seized me as the shape of a pickup truck sharpened. My heart was already pounding from the strenuous bike ride and now it started hurtling itself at my ribs like a caged animal. My breath came back and my body went limp as a bunch of older kids piled out of the truck. They were trailed by a cloud of smoke.
The kids sat down in a circle on the cold grass and toked up. One of the girls with strawberry blonde hair looked like my mother except for her fiery blue mermaid eyes. She pulled a brown paper bag from the torn front pocket of her low rise jeans and removed from it a bunch of skinny, brownish-white things that from my distance I would have mistaken for cigarettes except for their irregular shape. She caught me staring and whispered something to the girl sitting on her right before beckoning me over like an old friend.
“You wanna try?” she asked. “Alright,” I replied without hesitation even though I didn’t have the slightest clue what I was supposed to do with whatever she placed in my outstretched palm.
My friend Tim’s dad let us ride his tractor in their apple orchard for fun and I had smoked with Tim a few times past the last row of apple trees but I’d never gotten high and I hadn’t tried anything besides grass. Inexperienced, I stood their holding the thing awkwardly until my audience started giggling. But the girl kept a straight face and with a glassy gaze offered, “It’s a mushroom. Just eat it.” Eager to please, I swallowed the whole thing in one bite. The rest followed suit and two of the boys moved aside, making room for me in their circle.
The older kids resumed their conversation, talking about people I didn’t know while I sat and uprooted the weeds growing near my feet. I had started listening too late to understand what had been so funny, and before I knew it half the members of the circle were buckled over laughing uncontrollably. One of them started coughing so hard tears began to drain from his eyes.
“You feel it yet?” she asked me, smiling. My hand had fallen asleep from leaning back on it and it burned as I changed positions on the grass. “No,” I said looking up to meet her ocean eyes. Her gaze had changed from blue to purple and her oval face expanded and contracted in unison with my pounding head. I shut my eyes and tried to picture what she looked like before, but all I could see were swirling rainbow patterns like in the kaleidoscope my friend Ben had won at last year’s county fair. I felt the world spinning outside my eyelids so I laid face down on the earth and grabbed fistfuls of grass so I wouldn’t float away.
Her laughter sounded like music, “Turn over. Are you ok?” she whispered in my ear, pronouncing each syllable delicately as if it would break should she not cradle it with her tongue. Her hot breath on my neck gave me chills. As I rolled over, the ground morphed into the shape of my limbs and breathed underneath my body. She put her hand on my stomach but it sunk in like I was made of sand. I pulled up my shirt and looked at the impression she had left on my skin. “Let’s go for a drive” she suggested. Yellow yarn floated from her mouth when she spoke and I followed the unraveling threads of her angelic voice to the pickup truck that was so much like my dad’s.
I loaded in my bike and we drove away, leaving her other friends in the park. The fog was red through the windows. “Where do you live?” she asked me. “I can’t go back, my dad’s a fuckhead,” I replied.
“Is that why you were at the park so late at night?” she inquired. My stomach sank. “No, I left just like he did. I’m a fucking pansy, I couldn’t help her.”
“No you’re not. We all need a night at the park sometimes,” her voice caressed my cheek. “Where do you live?” she asked. “The green one up there on the right,” I directed her to Tim’s. I wasn’t ready to go back and I knew Tim would have room for me on his couch. She pulled over.
“Do you think I could get some more of those mushrooms?” I asked. The girl started laughing, and I laughed with her. Our harmony was a song. Then she leaned over and kissed me goodnight. Her lips were velvet. It felt like my whole body was inside her mouth. “Just come back tomorrow and I’ll have some for you,” she whispered as she pulled away. I got out of the pickup and lugged my bike from the trunk, then wheeled it along beside me in the dirt.
My father didn’t come back this time. He had left on a bus and we never saw him again. I thought my mother would get stronger without him around but her eyes remained as dead as they had been when she looked through me that night in the back room. I tried to give her one of the mushrooms to make her feel better but she refused. We couldn’t look at each other without cringing at a reflection of shame.
She spoke to Carson and Lucy but hardly murmured a word to me. I think I frightened her. She was reminded of him when she looked at my face. I didn’t blame her. I spent more and more time at the park and less and less time with her at the house. I decided the best thing I could do to help her forget was to move out. First thing I bought with the money I’d saved up from reselling the drugs was a beat-up red pickup. That’s how it all began.