He doesn’t see me. In an ideal world, my existence is non-existent. It never happened—I didn’t happen. Had he always felt such resentment and bitterness? What did I do to make him hate me?
I made him a card with his name on it, left it on the mantelpiece alongside his favourite drinks from the fridge. He entered the living room, topless and barefoot, belt buckle hanging from his slackened jeans. Scraggly blond hair irritating his brow, he tears through the envelope and anticipation sparkles in my stomach—he didn’t read the poem. Cracking open a can, he sipped thirstily, bubbles trickling down his chin. Relaying orders to my mother, he curled my letter into a tight fist and cast it aside, stomping past me, straight to the kitchen.
Why don’t you see me, Daddy?
He sees her, though, my sister, Kathy.
Why does he lock the door when entering her bedroom at night?
What’s that helpless look in her eyes?
What is she trying to tell me?
I don’t understand, Kathy.
I don’t know how to make you happy again.
Inside the bathroom, Mummy cleans the wall-mounted mirror, scrubbing tirelessly to remove dirt.
I told her it’s clean; she didn’t believe me.
Spraying bleach onto the sparkling glass, she doused a rag cloth with cold water, scrubbed until her raw, blistered fingers became too sore.
Relaxing in the bath, wiggling my toes beneath the water, I squirted soap onto my palms and cleaned the grass stains from my knees.
She opened the cabinet, chewed a handful of her favourite sweets. I am not allowed to touch those, she warned me, recapping the bottles, storing them high, out of reach.
Rechecking the door was locked, she uprooted a phone from her jeans pocket and tapped the buttons. I don’t know why the phone made you happy, Mummy, though, when you smiled, I smiled, too.
Kathy joined me out in the garden today. She is moody and annoying me. I love my sister; I don’t like that newfound attitude Mummy claimed she stole from those ill-behaved juveniles down the street, though.
When Kathy’s in trouble, although she tells me it’s not my fault, she lashes out at me. It’s me who listens to her complaints and frustrated ranting. It’s me who has to pretend she’s not angry at the world or threatening to run away all the time.
Please don’t leave me, Kathy.
Kathy didn’t come home last night, and our mother said she is worried sick. Roaming around the supermarket, holding a shopping basket, Mummy selects ingredients for dinner tomorrow. She found Kathy’s favourite chocolate cake, wondering aloud if my big sister preferred cream or custard.
I wanted a magazine. It had sticker assortments and colourful makeup stuck to the cover.
Mummy wasn’t paying attention, but that didn’t stop my petulant demands. I stomped my foot, shook the basket on her arm, told her that I wasn’t her friend any more.
What’s that look? I thought, seeing a bashful shade darken her cheeks. Her hand toyed with the bangles on her wrist, something she instinctively does when nervous.
“You look beautiful,” that guy whispered so that I didn’t hear, but I got good ears, Mr Salad bag. And I am incredibly nosey. “Can I see you tonight?”
Why does he want to see her tonight? He’s talking to her right now.
“I don’t know,” she said in a meek voice, aware of her hectic surroundings as she entered another food aisle. “He’s due home this evening.”
Returning the salad bag to the shelf, he adjusted his ball cap, put a hand on Mummy’s lower back. “I worry about you.” His eyes briefly locked with mine. “And your girls.”
“He doesn’t touch them,” she whisper-shouts, and judging by the exasperation in her tone, I sense they argued about this matter before. “Honestly, Tony. I’d never let him hurt my babies.”
“You let him hurt you all the time.”
“How is it different?”
“Because I am a grown woman,” she retorts, absently shoving an orange juice carton in my hand. “I can handle it.”
Tony, she called him, looked unhappy. He glanced over his shoulder, leaned into my mother and lowered his voice. “You shouldn’t have to handle it, Adaline. You are worth more than an unfaithful marriage and vicious backhanders.”
I don’t recognise those big words.
“Let me love you,” he said quietly, rubbing the chill from her arms. “Come to me, Adaline. Bring your daughters and let’s get the Hell away from here.”
“What about Daddy?” I asked; they didn’t hear me. “I don’t want him to be by himself.”
My mother righted her gold-framed sunglasses, wiping tears from her cheeks. “Why did you leave me, Tony? All this,” she said, balling-up tissue, “could have been us.”
“Please don’t do that,” he cursed, faking a smile for a passing shopper. “I already struggle with regrets, Adaline. You know how much I cared—how I still care for you and the girls.”
I sat on a delivery box of tinned tomatoes, helping myself to a bag of Haribo sweets. Of course, I was too young to identify the lines between Mummy and Tony, but that man, wherever he came from, she seemed to like him a lot.
“Must we trudge there?” he hummed, nudging her with his hip. “I thought we moved past all that nonsense.”
“You’re right.” Relenting, she curled a loose hair behind her ear. “You were so handsome, back when we were young,” she said in a low voice unrecognisable to my ears, and a chewy strawberry cleaved to the roof of my mouth. “You still are, very much so.”
“Ew, gross,” I muttered, nose creasing in disgust. I am so telling Kathy about this.
Tony grinned, fond of Mummy’s weird breathlessness. “Do you remember that time we broke into Mrs Paulette’s backyard to get to the lake?”
“Yes.” Mother giggled a rare, jubilant sound. “You promised me fireflies and caught a moth instead.”
Chuckling throatily, Tony shadowed us into the frozen food section. “If my memory serves me well, our romantic evening under the stars eventuated disastrously.” He pinched her cheek. “You were grumpy for over an hour, and I hated it.”
She stared at him like he grew another head. “You told Paulette I was dying, so she’d feel sorry for us, Tony. I feared she’d call my father and send premature condolences.”
I am so bored.
We reached the checkout lady. I sneakily put the magazine onto the conveyor belt while Mummy and Tony packed shopping bags.
“Eighty-two pound and thirty-five pence,” the cashier said, and Mummy thumbed through her purse, counting loose change. “Ma’am?”
“Two seconds,” Mother spoke, flustered, slipping purple paper in her hand. “I don’t know...” Confusion merged her eyebrows. “I definitely had enough.”
“Adaline,” Tony intervenes, giving the cashier a plastic card. “It’s fine.” His eyes rounded, a play-along type of glare. “We can square up in the car park.”
Rolling her eyes, the plump cashier printed off a receipt, tucked it in a bag and thanked everyone for “shopping with us.”
I skipped towards Mummy’s car, a blue rusted-old-dump, she called it, waiting for her to hurry up.
Tony carries our bags and sets them in the boot, scolding Mummy for trying to give him money. “I don’t want it, Adaline.”
“It’s not your job to take care of us, Tony. I am paying you back.”
For an odd reason, Tony seemed hurt by Mummy’s remark. “It’s like that, huh?”
“No, Tony,” she stuttered, hoisting a handbag strap over one shoulder. “Oh, God. Why must I always mess everything up? I just... It’s his responsibility to fund the children.”
I scuffed a pebble under my shoe, kicked it under the car.
“That worthless piece of shit doesn’t know the meaning of providing. As for the children? How many times have we discussed this? He’s an unfit father—”
“Tony,” she hissed, cupping my ears. “Not in front of Alexa.”
His apologetic eyes fell on me. “She’s not even listening, Adaline.”
He clearly doesn’t know me very well.
“It’s beside the point.” Opening the car door, she helped me climb onto the car seat, tugging a seat belt across me. “Bad mouthing him in front of his children is wrong.”
She closed the door,. I extracted the magazine from behind my back, tore the pink package. When I tried to twist the makeup, nothing happened. It’s plastic, I sulked, chucking it on the backseat.
Although I can’t hear Mummy and Tony talking outside, I watch them bicker from the window. Tony, angry and upset, lifted his ball cap and speared a hand through his dark hair. Mouth moving in a passionate lecture, he argues with Mummy, wildly gesticulating around the car park.
Waving a dismissive hand, she made a lackadaisical attempt to pass him. Tony caught her wrist, wrenched her into his arms, face hiding on her shoulder.
Sobbing inconsolably, she hugged him back, mouthing something unreadable in his ear. He cupped her cheeks and whispered her tears away, forcing her to accept a key. Nodding curtly in response, she leaned in and kissed him diffidently.
I felt a hot tear on my cheek.
Mummy forced herself to leave his side, and when she slid behind the steering wheel and waved goodbye, Tony remained at the front of his car, watching us drive away.
Turning on the seat, I looked out the rear window and slowly fluttered my fingers as his tall frame distanced into a state of nothing. “Who was that man, Mummy?”
From over her shoulder, she glanced at me, returning her framed eyes to the road. “He’s no one, sweetie.”
That night I gazed out of my bedroom, seeing stars twinkle in the sky. Teddy rests on my thighs, a white blanket over him, keeping me company.
I pulled the curtain back. Near the bus stop, a big truck parked-up, headlights beaming down the street. Kathy opened the passenger side door, putting a heeled boot on the ground. Her friend gripped her hand and kissed her fingertips.
My eyes grew big and full of wondrous accusations. I knocked the windowpane, and Kathy’s head jerked up, eyes briefly connecting with mine. Leaving a kiss on the guy’s cheek, she jumped out, sprinted across the road, opened the trash bin by our wall and dumped a carrier bag.
I climbed down the upholstered window seat, sending strewn sequined cushions across the floor, opened the bedroom door and carried Teddy to the stairs.
“Where the fuck have you been?” Daddy screamed, and I hesitated atop the stairs, my stomach cramping. “I don’t want to hear your excuses. Is this acceptable, Adaline? What the fuck is she wearing? I bet she doesn’t even have underwear on under that fucking skirt. You rinsed-out harlot—good for nothing whore just like your mother.”
“Dad, please don’t,” Kathy cried, and our mother’s shouting misted my skin in tiny bumps. “Mum—” He silenced her, a loud crack repeating inside my head. “Dad—”
“Fucking running around town with those good for nothing Wesley boys—spreading your whore legs,” he barked, the snap of his belt, lashing across her flesh. “I’ll fucking teach you.”
“Patrick, stop!” Our mother’s frenetic voice urged me to stay in the shadows, to sit on the stairs and wait until it’s over. “Stop hitting her!” Through the tinsel ornamented guard rail, I see Mummy attack him, laying into his back, hard, brutal slaps. “Get off her!”
Crawling across the floor, Kathy slapped a palm on the wall, pulling herself off the floor. She licked the blood from her busted lip and beelines the front door.
With a brutal slap, Daddy hurt Mummy’s face, tossing her to the ground. He powered towards Kathy as she fumbled with the door handle. Fisting her long hair with heartless strength, he heaved her twisting, shrieking body to the stairs.
“Dad, please,” she begged, wriggling in his unrelenting, tight hold. “Dad—”
His hand on her hair tugged, retching a painful howl from her throat. “Stop talking.”
“Don’t touch my sister!” I cried, stamping my feet. With a sudden stop, his angry eyes found me, blood-shot and soulless. “I won’t let you!”
“Alexa go back to bed.” Kathy, suddenly too calm, implored me to leave. “I’m okay,” she lies, tears fresh on her cheeks. “Please.”
Snatching in a harsh breath, Daddy, red-eyed and swearing, threw Kathy down the four steps, seized my nightgown and hoisted me into his arms.
“Mum...” Groaning in pain, Kathy rolled onto her side, and through hooded eyes, she watched Daddy carry me up the stairs. Her pink cheeks turned grey. Screaming words—one’s that made him stiffen—she mustered gallant strength, swaying to her feet. “If you touch her, I’ll tell everyone, dad. I swear to God.”
Mummy, dazed and sweating, floated to the stairs, blood dripping from her temple. “Please don’t hurt my babies,” she whimpered, falling twice as she tried to reach me. “Please don’t, Patrick. Not my babies.”
One angered look we shared before he dropped me. My head clipped the guard rail, and I rubbed the ache away with small fingers. He stomped down the stairs, yelling in my mother’s face, spittle spraying from his gnarled lips. They argued, pushing and shoving, but I worried for Kathy, who sits in the corner, crying on her hiked knees, tugging clumps of dark hair at the roots.
“Fucking worthless.” His vociferous condemnation fell on deaf ears. Nobody listened to his cruel, spiteful rants. He finished a beer, crushed the can and lunged it at my mother, who cowers on the sofa. “I hate my life,” he muttered under his breath, yanking on a coat and headed for the door. “I wish...” The door slammed.
“We need to get out of here, Mum.” Kathy rushed to our mother’s side, striving to console her, but Mummy sobbed too loud. Her agonising screams ached my ears. “We can pack a bag and catch a late-night coach—”
“Not yet,” Mummy hiccups, shirking off Kathy’s hand from her shoulder. “I need time. Your father will calm down. He just had too much to drink.”
“Why do you excuse his behaviour?” Kathy stood and followed Mummy around the living room. “He’s an animal, Mum. It’s not money or alcohol problems. I might be young, but I am not stupid. That disgusting, vile human was born this way. He’s not going to change, not for you or us. Please, Mum. I am begging you.”
“Stop it, Kathy.” Mummy caught a whimper in her hand. “Help me fix the tree so that Father Christmas can deliver Alexa’s presents.”
“Who gives a flying fuck about Christmas!” Kathy seized the evergreen branches and pushed the tree, dismantling trinkets and lights. Baubles rolled across the floor as she heatedly tugged pearl-like beads, snapping them, furious and beside herself. “It means nothing! All this,” she signalled around the room, “means nothing, Mum. Not in our house. Stop pretending that how we live is normal! Nothing about our situation is normal!”
Mummy wanted to help my sister. “Kathy, please—”
“He rapes me!” she cried with bitter scorn, and our mother flinched, staring wide-eyed for an imperceptible pause. “If you can’t leave him for yourself,” she whispered, eyes pleading with Mummy to listen, “then do it for me.” Respiring a shuddered sob, Kathy shouldered past Mummy, swung open the front door and didn’t look back.
Studying the spot where Kathy once stood, Mummy released a howling sound, knees buckling beneath her. Head laid to the floor, scraped her fingernails into the hard, polished wood.
Daddy ruined Christmas.
I didn’t know how to fix us.
Mummy stared out the window until sunrise, distressed over Kathy. Pacing back and forth, she lifted the laced net, surveyed the street. Unscrewing a bottle of clear alcohol, she splashed liquid in her coffee, chewed more sweets: one heap, two heaps, three heaps, four.
Our tree, damaged and unadorned, dominates the corner of the room, sporadic fairy lights adding pretty colours to our darkness.
I sat cross-legged on the sofa, admiring the piled parcels on the coffee table. Metallic golds, reds and greens, Santa’s elves wrapped gifts and finished them with bows, name tags and glitter. “How did they get here?” I asked, but Mummy, vacant and tired, remained at the window. “I didn’t see Santa, yet we stayed up all night.”
Mummy recoiled, patted down her jeans and checked her phone. “Tony.” Accepting the call, she sat in a chair, watching cars pass outside. “I know, Tony.” Her voice broke. Something about that man comforts her. “I already packed. Yes. Yes, it’s ready, so what time shall I meet you?” There was a long pause. “Nine o’clock by the dock. Got it.” She bolted upright. “Oh, thank God.” Another quiet moment. “No, she’s here, Tony. She came back. Yes, yes, yes,” she prattled, laughing at whatever he said. “I love you, too, so much.” I witnessed another rare smile. “I’ll see you then.”
Ending the call, she stuffed the phone in her pocket, opened the front door and captured Kathy for a long, emotional hug.
“I’m sorry, Mum.” Kathy gazed at me over our mother’s shoulder, the emptiness in her eyes did a knotting movement in my stomach. “I’m so sorry.”
“I’m getting us away from here,” Mummy spoke in that quiet voice again, thinking I wasn’t listening. “I don’t want to confuse your sister, so let’s enjoy the day for her, okay?”
Kathy nodded, wiping her nose with her jumper sleeve.
“Why don’t you both go apple picking?” Mummy hints, rushing to the kitchen with jerked strides. “I’ll make us a nice pie, babies. We can eat at the table and listen to music. What do you say?”
Kathy slumped onto the sofa beside me, laying her head on my shoulder. “Sure, Mum.”
“Kathy?” Mummy observed my sister, long and hard. “We need to talk later about what you said, okay? We’ll get help—”
“I don’t want help,” Kathy rudely interrupts, holding my hand. “I want to forget.”
“Yes, but...” I sensed that Mummy relinquished because I am here. “Kathy it’s not an avoidable conversation...”
“Can we please enjoy the day, Mum?” Kathy asked, avoiding our mother’s concern. “Tomorrow, okay? I promise.”
“Alright, then.” Giving Kathy one final look, she disappeared into the kitchen, knocking together a stomach-growling cooked dinner.
I changed into a pretty dress and met Kathy in the garden. “Come on, Kathy.” I churlishly scold, dropping apples into the bucket. Mummy said we must fill the entire bucket, or we don’t get any pie.” I collect fallen apples from the grass, rub the waxy layers on my clothes, removing mud.
Kathy lays like an angel on the floor, staring up at the sky. “Alexa, I don’t want to make a pie with mamma. I want to go down the river with all my friends.” She huffed out a bored sigh, throwing a tennis ball in the car, catching it. “Plus, Ben is down there. I wanted to see him.” Lips puckered, she whispered, “I need to say goodbye.”
I wonder if he’s that boy from the truck last night. “Who’s Ben, Kathy?” I drop another apple in the bucket. “Do you like him?”
She rolled onto her stomach, chin balancing on a clenched fist. “Ben is my boyfriend,” she admits, cheeks turning a dark shade of pink. “And he’s super cute, Alexa. Last week, before daddy grounded me, Ben took me to the movies and paid for popcorn. It was the best date ever. And...” she gnawed the corner of her lip, “we kissed.”
I feigned a gasp. “You kissed a boy!”
She pulled an ugly face. “Well, I don’t want to kiss girls, Alexa.”
“I am never doing that.” My nose wrinkled at the sickening image—gross. “Kiss is gross.”
“I am sure you’ll think differently,” she adds mischievously, grinning from ear to ear, “when you meet your Ben.”
“If I meet a boy named Ben, I am running far, far away from here.” Tossing one more apple in the bucket, I quickly counted to be sure there’s enough. “Plus, you can’t have a boyfriend. Daddy won’t like it.”
Compulsion etched across her twisted features. “Don’t you worry too much about what daddy wants and needs, Alexa.” Rising to her feet, she peered over her shoulder. “Anyway, the last one to the house,” she bolted ahead, “is a rotten egg!”
Kathy cheated. I don’t know why I play these games because she doesn’t give me a chance which guarantees her to win.
Before barrelling through the back door, my sister lingered by the concrete step, regarding a parked vehicle across the street.
Bucket handle tight in my hands, I watched Daddy rummage through his car boot, searching and cursing.
“Why is he here?” she asked, but the question wasn’t for me. “Shit.” Opening the back door, she headed inside the house. “Alexa, get inside.”
Daddy tugged on a beanie hat, swapped T-shirts and got comfortable in the driver’s seat. When he peered over, I waved, wondering if he’ll make everything okay again. He shook his head, manoeuvred the steering wheel and accelerated from the curbside.
Why didn’t he look back?