Sleepy Chris will be awake before the hour’s up. I watch from the safety of the hallway while he pleads his case before you. You only pretend to listen, peripherals still trained on the television. The dawn stirs threateningly in Chris’s eyes; his ability to speak, his urgent gaze, a twitch of life in the hooks of his locked knuckles. Chris will wake up all too soon, and only you can put him back to sleep.
“So you don’t have my money?” The sandman is unsympathetic, Looney Toons mirrored in the reflection of your glasses.
An apologetic, “Please,” Chris bows his nodding head and his jaw slackens. I can see a dry, pale tongue digging at the gaps in his molars.
The expression on your face doesn’t change; the same drunken apathy that you’ve been washed in since early this morning. One hand disappears into the seat cushion, fishing for the remote. You aim it at the cartoon and fire; it’s not until I hear the dying electric wine of the blackening screen that I acknowledge what is about to happen.
“So you ain’t got it?” You take your glasses off, resting them on the coffee table. There’s a swelling inside of me, a nervous excitement that forces me up onto my toes and stretches my neck for a better view as he stands up. I tighten my grip on Baby; she’s only four, too young to be trusted not to run out into the living room and interrupt.
“Second month in a row,” you remind the junkie, reaching up almost gently to take his chin in his hand. Daylight slithers in skinny bars through the drawn shades; it’s barely noon, but the booze has already hollowed out your soft, girlish face.
Sleepy Chris’s half-lidded eyes rise to meet yours, like he doesn’t understand what you are saying. A little bit of drool runs down his lip, the slow trail pooling where your thumb digs into the sharp face.
“You’re crushing me!” Even Baby knows enough to whisper. I don’t let up.
“You don’t even got part of it?” Behind the veil of dark hair that falls around his face, I finally see your expression harden.
“Please,” I wonder if Baby can feel it yet, the shameful, hungry need to watch our brother play God with these skeletal sub-humans. I always look forward to the first of the month; it’s good for you, I think. You don’t get to feel strong very often after the robbery.
“What’d I say I was gonna do this month?” you ask. “What’d I tell you last month was gonna happen if you didn’t pay up on time?”
Chris, trembling, offers up his left hand. You swat it down, and demand the other one.
“Please,” there’s a rare awareness in Chris’ tone as he rests his hand palm-up in yours. Your fingers curl up like a carnivorous plant with the weight of it, prodding at the webbing between Chris’ digits where little pink freckles mark each and every time that sleepy Chris tried to stave off the sunrise. You run your thumb up each elongated form, over the curves of the knuckles where they thicken like a freshly-fed snake, over the rough swirls of his fingerprints.
The noise isn’t a snap or a pop, but a nice clean “click” when you crank one of them back and acquaints the nail of it with the starting line of Chris’ arm hair. In time with the click, and the change in the junkie’s breathing, and the sudden rattling of the shades against the open window, my heart quickens.
Chris opens his throat and squeezes out an air raid siren, filling the room with his opaque squawking. I wish, now, that I’d remembered to put my hands over Baby’s eyes. She doesn’t look bothered, though. To her, the reaction is cartoonish. She giggles.
“If you ain’t got it tomorrow,” You speak loud and even over the noise as it dissolves.
Chris whimpers, eyes as wide as quarters. He opens his mouth in an infantile babble, a glassy spit bubble bulging when his lips part. The offending finger and the shaking hand attached come up into view, the mangled appendage twisted like it’d been put on backwards.
“Listen to me, man,” You reach out, gently guiding Chris’ wet chin, tilting the junkie’s head to make the smaller boy look you in the eye.
“Tomorrow,” you say patiently as Chris squirms. “You’re gonna come back with my cash, or I’m sending my guy out to you,” you pause and motions toward the finger. “And he’s gonna do that to your whole fucking arm. You got me?”
Then you motion over at us, and with the first real hint of irritation that I’ve heard all morning you say, “You fucking junkies is gonna be the reason my pretty little sisters over the starve to death, you know that?”
I’ve been pretty sure this whole time that you haven’t noticed us, that you’ve forgotten yourself in that perfect moment of delicate brutality. I’ve been pretty sure that you’d only allowed yourself to be scary because he didn’t know my sister and I were close enough to see and be frightened. You’re blind to us, and to the house, and to the good inside himself once your glasses are off.
You can’t see a thing without them.
“You don’t want that, do you?” you ask, and Chris shakes his head. Or maybe you shake it for him, fingernails leaving half-moons in the junkie’s jaw.
“So you’re gonna get me that money?” you make Chris nod, and then takes his hand away. A ribbon of spit and snot connects them, elastic liquid sagging into a smile shape before snapping. You call him a fucktard, and the goo catches the light of the single bare bulb overhead as he rubs it off on his jeans.
When Chris leaves, you put the glasses back on. You pick up the remote and sink back into the sofa, pale skin projecting the epileptic glow of cartoons. You’ll be there when the next show comes on, waiting for the next one to come in. You need this. It makes you forget how, after the robbery, you had a monthly blood of your very own. You wad toilet paper in the seat of your pants like a girl. That’s how we refer to what happened- “the robbery”. You started bleeding afterward. You can bleed more than anybody else I know. Every month you vomit blood all day for three days and lay paralyzed by the pain. An organ ruptures and you cry and gags and shits slugs of coagulated tissue from your windpipe. This happened after the bad thing.
you can’t sleep until every door in the house is locked. You put front-facing ones on the bathroom, on our doors, even a tiny padlock on the closet that Baby sleeps in. You lock them after you lock the windows. On the days when you sleep, you move all of your bedroom furniture in front of the door and make me swear that I’ll sit awake on the other side.
You do everything he can to avoid these instances, stinging powder and acrid smoke and destroyed sinuses. Your soul falls asleep days before his body, trapped between the teeth of a monster made of math and tight swirling lines that overtakes your inanimate flesh. You like to be that monster, crooked and gnarled with the piss-smell of a binge leaking out your pores. You like to feel his hands lock up into claws, feel those claws become blades and you’re a real horror movie monster with no thoughts of mercy; no thoughts of anything other than obliterating flesh.
I take Baby down the hall to her room. It was a closet before she was born, Mom used to keep the good towels there, and a spare tablecloth. She used to sleep in one of my little brother Frankie’s dresser drawers, but she was too big for that when we moved back in with you, and so we hijacked the Mattress from the crib that she slept in when we lived at Kimmy’s. She’s got some toys in there, too, shit you said wouldn’t plant any evil in her head. This is exactly why we don’t let her out too often; every time she gets free, the world does everything it can to poison her.
She’s not gonna turn out like the rest of us, though. That’s what you decided when you took us back, anyway. You said the damage is done with Frankie and me, but Baby’s still got a chance to be good. I don’t remember how she got out this morning; I think Frankie must have opened the door. Kimmy damn near threw a fit when Frankie mentioned she still wore diapers, but nobody has time to potty-train her.
“Play,” I tell her, and bop the on button on the night light that illuminates the windowless room.
She gives me this bugged-eyed verge-of-tears that works wonders with Nate but doesn’t touch me quite the same way. Her hands, two weightless fleshed spiders, grip at the bottom of my T-shirt. I brush them off and half-listen for their soft thud against the scratched wooden planks; I ain’t her momma, she ain’t my job. She erupts when I turn to leave, a volcano of snot and sadness, sobs sending shockwaves through her toddler body.
“Calm down,” I scold, but the slick magma keeps pouring from every opening in her skull. She dives back onto the bed, feet kicking and arms flailing in a tantrum, skin turning lipstick-red. It starts around her cheeks, slowly swallowing all of her as she screeches.
“Frankie will play with you,” I promise. And I’ll make sure he does, the little shit never does anything in this house. Baby doesn’t stop crying. I don’t get why she hates her room so much; she’s got all her toys and a nightlight to keep it from getting too dark, but she screams like we’re trapping her in a wasp’s nest whenever we have to put her away.
She’s not allowed to be outside for too long. You say you don’t want the whole town gawking at her. You don’t want those sinners turning her evil. You say the way people talk to little kids either makes them turn out evil or retarded and you’re taking care of one of each already.
we let Mom get so upset.