The following morning Eva’s eyes opened slowly and focused on the glowing white hands of the clock on her nightstand: 5:18 a.m. The man Dwayne had sent into her room the night before was long gone, but the stale smell of him was everywhere: beer, marijuana, cheap cologne, dried semen.
She touched her face and the stinging pain was immediate. Instantly, she pulled her hand off the swelling. Lying naked under her bed covers, she stared upward at the cracks in the ceiling. They reminded her of an intricate, spider-webbed network of rivers and streams one might see on a map in a geography book. The explorer’s choice of which river to travel, she thought was crucial to the speed, success, even the survival of the entire journey. How do you choose? How do you know?
Eva listened intently for any sound. Nothing: absolute silence. Her little cousin, Tina, must still be sleeping. Her aunt was not stumbling around in the kitchen making coffee. Dwayne was not snoring on the couch. The television, oddly, was not blaring.
She put on her robe, pulled the sash tight around her waist, and slowly opened the bedroom door. Barefoot, she crept silently into the living room.
The television screen was a tableau of millions of white dots, but the sound had been muted. Dwayne was sprawled on the couch, fully dressed in his Kiss My Ass t-shirt and a pair of filthy blue jeans covered with construction dust. His brown work boots, equally dusty, were off his feet and standing on the stained coffee table next to the open pizza box. A solitary fly, deciding whether or not it was safe to land, buzzed around the one pizza slice left in the box. Next to the pizza box was the mint tin in which he kept his stash of cocaine. Dwayne’s tattooed arm (“Born to Raise Hell”) hung limply off the couch, his hand wrapped around an empty beer can. Five other empty companion beer cans were carelessly tossed on a dirty, carpeted floor that was a green sea of food crumbs, soda and beer stains, and brown cat fur.
Eva tip-toed into the kitchen, being especially careful not to wake Dwayne. He was eternally surly and mean, but even more so with a beer-bourbon-cocaine hangover.
On the middle of the kitchen table sat Maxine, the brown, one-eyed cat that had moved into their home six days earlier. Maxine stared at her and then yawned, stretched, and lay comfortably on her side. Dwayne hated Maxine, but Eva appreciated her. She appreciated a cat that earned its keep by killing the mice and cockroaches and spiders that also lived with them. Stretching again, Maxine pushed something with her paw, and for the first time Eva noticed the long white envelope in the middle of the food-stained white table.
It was a standard-sized business envelope, and although nothing was written on the front Eva knew that it must be for her. Dwayne was nearly illiterate and Tina was barely three. She stared hard at it, wondering what message it contained, who it was from, when it was written, dreading to open it, afraid not to open it.
Sitting, Eva carefully took the envelope in hand. It was not sealed, simply tucked closed. She removed the paper soundlessly. Maxine watched her with mild curiosity. It was a folded piece of notebook paper probably taken from Eva’s own school notebook. Unfolding the note, her eyes briefly scanned the handwriting and then quickly darted to the signature: “Love, Loretta.”
Nervously fingering the edges of the note, Eva felt empty and frightened. Her aunt had never written anything to her before; not a note, not a letter, not even a greeting card. Eva only recognized Loretta’s sloppy handwriting from the occasional shopping lists she had seen her scratch out.
Mouth dry, hands trembling, Eva read the note.
I hope someday you can forgive me.
I just couldn’t take it anymore.
And now that he started doing it to you too, I can’t stand to watch it.
I wish I’d had the guts to cut his fuckin’ balls off, but I’m not strong
enough to stand up to him. You’re stronger than I am. You always were. Take care of Tina honey-bunch.
Eva swallowed. Her throat felt like sandpaper. The note was a sharp punch to the stomach, and momentarily she thought she would vomit on the kitchen table. Staring out the dirty kitchen window over the sink, she looked at an orange sun just beginning to peek over the large weeping willow tree in their front yard and her eyes were moist. Taking a series of deep breaths, Eva ripped the note into tiny pieces and walked it over to the garbage can underneath the sink.
Eva didn’t blame her aunt for leaving; Dwayne was an abusive, alcoholic and coke-addicted asshole. But she did resent Loretta for not taking her, or at least her own daughter, Tina, with her. Now what? With utter clarity, Eva understood she could no longer stay there either. She would not live one night alone with asshole Dwayne
Sitting at the kitchen table gently stroking Maxine’s fur, Eva considered her choices. Dwayne was still sleeping it off and would not be a threat for several more hours. But when he woke and found Eva’s aunt gone, he would be furious. He would be a lunatic, and he would strike out at anyone available; Eva would not be that person.
She realized that she could not leave Tina behind even though bringing her along would, inevitably, impede her getaway.
First, however, she decided that she needed to slow Dwayne down in case he tried to follow her. Tip-toeing back into the living room, she spied Dwayne still sleeping soundly on the couch. He had not moved a muscle. Eva carefully scooped up his drug tin and brought it into the kitchen. Reaching under the sink, she found the can of rat poison. Using a fork, she mixed rat poison with the remaining half bag of coke, closed up the tin, and returned it to the table next to the pizza box.
Once back in the kitchen, she opened the refrigerator and found the half-empty bottle of Dwayne’s root beer. She opened it, spit a huge amount of her saliva into the bottle, replaced the cap, and returned it to the refrigerator. Momentarily, she considered peeing into the bottle as well, but decided that would take more time than it was worth.
Eva dressed quickly, blue jeans and a plaid shirt. She would have packed a suitcase for herself, but they did not own a suitcase. Instead, she found a shopping bag, stuffed some of her clothes into it, and made her way toward Tina’s room. For the first time that morning, she heard Dwayne stirring on the couch. His smoker’s cough came from someplace deep inside his lungs. Eva quickened her pace and entered Tina’s room as nimbly as Maxine might have. Noiselessly, she closed the door.
“Wake up, Tina,” she whispered, kissing her gently on the forehead.
Tina blinked her eyes opened, saw that it was Eva, and smiled.
“Come on, honey,” Eva said, “Time to get up.”
Tina stretched forth her tiny hand toward the purple bruise on Eva’s face. “Owwy?”
“Yes,” Eva said, “I have a little owwy on my face. It will be all right. Come on now, honey, get up. We have to leave.”
“Leave? Going bye-bye? What about Mommy? Where’s kitty?” Tina’s round, little face wrinkled with confusion, and she gazed around her room looking for her mother and Maxine, the cat she had named after her favorite doll.
“We’ll see them later, honey.” Eva said comfortingly. “This is a surprise trip.” “Surprise!” Tina’s eyes sparkled.
“That’s right,” smiled Eva. “A big surprise.”
Eva dressed Tina quickly, but let her pull on her own socks when the little girl asserted her independence and protested. “No, me do it,” she said, immensely proud of her ability to manage this task.
“All right,” Eva said, “you do it, but hurry because we don’t want to be late.”
Kneeling in front of Tina, Eva was eye to eye with her. “Shhhh when we leave. We have to be very, very quiet, honey—no talking, no making any noise. Okay?”
“Because we don’t want to spoil the surprise, honey. We don’t want to wake Uncle Dwayne. He’s still sleeping and we don’t want to wake him, do we?” At the mention of Dwayne’s name Tina scowled, gazed at the floor, and viciously shook her head.
Taking Tina by the hand, Eva crept into the living room. Dwayne had rolled over, but he was still sleeping. His snoring had become louder. On the top of the television set Eva spotted Dwayne’s wallet and car keys. She knew how to drive Dwayne’s pick-up, having done so on several prior occasions when he and Loretta had been too drunk to drive themselves. Motioning for Tina to stay put and not make a sound, Eva crossed the room and grabbed up the wallet and truck keys and put them in her shopping bag.
With Tina holding one hand and her shopping bag in the other, Eva made her way out the front door toward the pick-up. After depositing her shopping bag and Tina on the passenger side, Eva slid behind the steering wheel. As she put the key into the ignition she noticed the single, dim bulb burning in the garage at the end of the gravel driveway.
“Wait right here, honey,” she told Tina, “I’ll be right back.” Eva placed her finger over her lips to signal Tina’s silence and sidled out of the truck. Is Loretta in there, she wondered. She walked slowly toward the paint-chipped wooden door that was slightly ajar: Who’s in there?
Without warning the pick-up truck’s horn began blaring, shattering the early morning silence like a fog horn atop a lighthouse. Oh my God! Eva turned to see Tina pushing on the horn, something Loretta had taught her to do because it made them both laugh. Eva streaked to the truck, threw open the passenger door, and yanked Tina’s hand off the horn.
“Tina, what are you doing?!” Panic-stricken, Eva looked toward the front door to see if Dwayne was there.
“I don’t like sitting here alone,” Tina whimpered. “It’s dark.” Eva saw the tears on her cheeks.
“Alright, honey,” she said, kissing Tina on the forehead. “Don’t worry; we’ll leave right now, together.”
Eva silently eased Tina’s door shut and scurried to the driver’s side. Without turning on the headlights, she soundlessly backed the truck out of the driveway and drove forward into her next life.