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Before: The Barbecue (Liz)


Liz Stocking could tell when her mom, Alexandra, was going to hit her. After consuming enough alcohol to knock an elephant unconscious, the signs would come in small doses: a barked comment here, a hot glance there. On those nights, Liz would hide in her room and cross her fingers.

Last night, her mom watched TV in the living room while doing some ironing, a miracle Liz was reluctant to interrupt. Her mom showed passing interest in home-making, at best, and the day-to-day duties often fell to Liz.

She wondered how much of her mom’s anger had always been there, waiting for the right combination of events to bring it out. It hardly mattered. When Alexandra Stocking got to drinking, the world was her enemy, and overwhelmingly, drinks made Liz look like the world. Ever since her dad died, it had been getting worse, and she should have known better than to provoke her. That many drinks in, any conversation with Alexandra was fraught. But her mom was watching an old rerun of Seinfeld, a show that her dad had loved, and seeing it made Liz stupid and sentimental.

“Wasn’t this one of dad’s favorite episodes?” she had asked.

Her mom turned, and Liz’s bladder almost emptied. Alexandra’s vacant eyes struggled to focus, filled with a distance that meant she was drunk enough so that any conversation would be dangerous. The best of her mom had checked out hours ago. Liz should have paid more attention or stayed in her room like she did most nights.

“What do you know?” her mom snarled.

“Nothing.” Liz put her head down and tried to walk away. Sometimes, if she made herself small, she could escape, but not this time. Her mom’s hand darted out and grabbed her by the wrist.

“I said, what do you know?” her mom pulled her close, exhaling foul alcohol breath into Liz’s face.

“Nothing, mom, I didn’t mean anything, okay?”

It was too late now, and Liz braced herself, hoping she’d get away with only a punch or a pinch. It was rare that her mom hit her in the face or did anything too damaging. So, when Alexandra pressed the burning iron to her forearm, searing away multiple layers of skin, she didn’t see it coming.

What do you know!” her mom yelled, while Liz screamed and fought against the pain. She smelled her skin melt, filling her nose with the odor of hot-popping fat. She cried, wrenching away and falling to the floor with a thump. Her brain barely registered what was happening. Her legs, however, didn’t have the same problem, and they lifted her to her feet and carried her up the stairs, into her room, where she locked the door behind her. Her mom yelled, calling her an ungrateful little bitch.

After a few minutes, the yelling stopped, but the pain stayed. It hung like a flashing neon sign only inches from her face, making it impossible to do anything. She buried her face in her pillow, biting at the fabric, trying not to make any more noise. That would attract her mom’s attention, and she’d had enough for one night.

With a shaking hand, she pushed back the fabric of her shirt to survey the damage. Already, the skin was lobster-red, with tiny white blisters poking up across her forearm. Thankfully, she had a private bathroom and could put water on it without leaving the safety of her bedroom.

Still crying, she wrapped a damp cloth around her arm and crawled into bed where she pulled the covers over her head. It was a trick her dad taught her when she was little. Monsters couldn’t get her through the safety of the blankets. Now that she was older, she knew the truth. Unlike the imaginary horrors of her childhood, real monsters didn’t play by the rules. But being enclosed made her feel safe.

She debated texting Pete, her boyfriend, but she didn’t think she’d be able to make it through a conversation. He asked questions about the bruises that would periodically appear on her body and seemed less and less satisfied with her answers. How many times could she say she fell into a doorknob? But she couldn’t tell him, none of this was her mom’s fault, not really. Since Dad died, both she and her mom still mourned, and her mom was taking longer to process her grief. That’s all. It would pass.

That night, she only managed a light doze, the pain keeping her awake. By the time morning came, her arm was a ruin of crabby red blisters. The outline of the iron stood out against her skin with the potential to turn into a scar that would cover most of her forearm.

She left her room on timid feet, but she could have had a marching band behind her. Alexandra snored, passed out on the couch, with one leg hanging over the side. Her shirt was hitched up to her chest, and the underside of her faded beige bra peeked out the bottom. A thin line of drool ran from her mouth. Alexandra wouldn’t remember any of last night, and Liz wondered if she’d sober up enough for tonight’s dumb street-wide barbecue.

She tried to find herself in her mom’s face. They both had brown hair, although Liz wore hers shorter. People said she favored her dad, with her sharp chin and deep dimples that appeared when she smiled. There were fewer reasons to smile now.

I could stab her, Liz thought, the idea coming from nowhere and startling her with its intensity. I could get a knife from the kitchen, pick it up, and drive it into her eye. She stared at her mother, breathing hard, imagining the moment. How the knife would feel in her hand and how easy it would go through her Mother’s head. Would the bone of the skull slow it down? She didn’t think so. She could do it.

Hot bile splashed into the back of her throat, and she ran to the bathroom and vomited, only burning stomach acid coming up. She hadn’t eaten hours, and there was nothing inside to throw up.

I was going to do it, she thought, flush with guilt. What kind of daughter was she? What was her mother turning her into?

Before meeting Heather in the treehouse, she grabbed a bunch of stuff from the bathroom: a tensor bandage, some skin cream, and a face cloth. It was difficult to carry everything with one hand. Her other arm was useless, so she threw everything in a bag. Liz hoped Matty or Abby, the Cutler kids, weren’t there. They were okay, but she didn’t want to see anyone else today. She might snap.

The treehouse, a permanent fixture in the neighborhood, sat six feet off the ground, with stairs leading up on one side and a hanging rope for climbing on the other. Shingles covered the roof with a runoff for water and everything. She wasn’t sure who built it, it had always been there, a relic from earlier neighborhood inhabitants.

When she climbed inside, Heather was already there. A scrunchie held her thin blonde hair back, and she wore a grey t-shirt and sweat pants. Liz assumed she’d finished a jog. Heather was always training for something. Her friend sat in a beanbag chair, one of the few pieces of furniture, flipping through a magazine.

“Oh my god, Liz, wait until you hear what happened with Matty Cutler today.”

Liz opened her mouth to respond but instead started to cry. Not little weeping, but big, racking sobs that shook her body and collapsed her knees. In less than seconds, Heather came to her side, enveloping her in a hug.

“What did that bitch do this time?” No need to mention who the bitch was. They both knew.

Liz only shook her head, and they stayed that way for several minutes, Heather trying to comfort her and Liz crying out all the fear and anger and pain from the previous night. She sniffled and wiped her nose on her shirt. With shaky hands, she pulled back her sleeve to show Heather the damage.

Heather sucked in air through her teeth but remained silent. She took Liz’s arm, being careful not to grip too tightly, and looked at the damage. “You should have gone to the hospital,” she said. “This will scar.”

“I know,” Liz said.

Heather didn’t rage or yell or scream or do anything to show it bothered her. Some kids at school found her remote. She had the best poker face out of anyone. You wouldn’t think she was angry, but Liz knew better. Heather breathed through her mouth, and two red dots of color appeared in her cheeks. She spoke in slow and measured tones. This was Heather in a crisis. No hysterics, no screaming, only calm solutions.

“I’ll put cream on it and tape it up. It will hurt. When we’re done, we’ll go to my house, and you’ll eat all the Aspirin I have.”

Liz looked away while Heather went to work, and she was right – it hurt. It hurt worse than the actual burn, and Liz needed to bite her other sleeve so she wouldn’t scream. Heather didn’t stop but murmured words of encouragement. By the end of the procedure, Liz’s short, brown hair stuck to her head.

“What set her off?” Heather asked.

“I don’t know,” Liz said, but she was lying. It had been the TV show. It reminded Alexandra of her dad, and when she remembered him, things got bad. Liz should have known better than to interrupt. This whole thing had been her fault.

“We need to do something about this, Liz. I’m telling my mom.”

“No!” Liz grabbed Heather by the arm. “You can’t. Don’t tell anyone.”

Heather bit her lip, frowning.

“You don’t understand,” Liz continued, “this isn’t my mom’s fault. She’s been off ever since my dad died. If you met her before, you’d see what I mean.”

Heather had only moved to the neighborhood a few months ago, but she and Liz formed a friendship almost overnight. Heather was the most driven person Liz had ever met. Within a week of arriving, she had already joined both the basketball and volleyball teams. She jogged five miles every day and nailed straight As. What did she even have to worry about? She didn’t understand what it was like to lose a parent. Still, she was a reliable shoulder to cry on, and Liz welcomed her friendship.

“We can’t do nothing. It isn’t right. Have you told Pete about any of this?”

“Sort of.” Liz looked at the floor. “He knows my mom can be a shitty drunk, but it’s not always like this. There’s the occasional bruise he’ll ask about.”

“I’ll go to the police if she does anything like this again.”

“You can’t. She might come after you.”

Heather smiled with no trace of warmth. “Good.”

They stayed in the treehouse for another hour, passing the time talking about dumb things like school and boys. Nothing important. Just being around Heather helped, and they stayed on safe topics. Heather told her the funny story about Matty Cutler puking on himself while trying to run-flirt with Kate, and Liz laughed. It felt good to smile with her friend; it pushed back the fear and sorrow.

At one point, Heather ran back into her house to get a bottle of Aspirin. After a dangerous number of pills, the fire on Liz’s forearm had shrunk to a muted buzz. By now, enough time had passed that it would be safe to go home. She hugged Heather before she left.

Alexandra was up when she ventured back into the house, puttering around the kitchen in her bathrobe. Liz suspected she remembered nothing of the previous night because her mom only hit when she got blackout drunk. Today she’d be hungover and in a bad mood, but nothing Liz couldn’t handle. ‘Day After’ Alexandra was nothing to worry about.

“Tonight’s the barbecue, isn’t it?” Alexandra looked at the calendar that Liz kept updated on the fridge. Liz kept her mouth shut. It was tough to tell when she wanted a conversation versus an audience.

“I wonder if Mr. Fancy-Pants will tell us all about whatever new barbecue equipment he’s gotten this year?”

Liz wasn’t sure which neighbor Alexandra was referring to. They all contributed toward the day’s festivities, and her mom hated them all equally. “Do you mean Mr. Cutler or Mr. Keene? Or someone from further down the street?”

“You’re so literal, Elizabeth.” Alexandra stopped and fixed Liz with a critical eye. “Is that what you’re wearing today?”

Here we go. Liz was wearing comfortable jeans with a tank top underneath a long-sleeve shirt. She had a feeling long sleeves were going to a permanent fashion choice going forward. Regardless, she hadn’t put much thought into her outfit.

“What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”

“Nothing. Even when you’re wearing something casual, you make it work. My beautiful baby.” Alexandra walked over, gave her a one-arm hug, and pecked her on the top of the head. “I’m hard on you, baby girl, but things will be different now, okay? I’ve been reading books on getting through loss. They’re helping.”

“That’s great,” said Liz, looking at the floor, thinking about the burn on her arm. Positive and upbeat Alexandra would sometimes show up after a bad night, mostly to confuse Liz and make everything harder.

“I might not even drink tonight.”

Liz had heard this story before. “Sure,” she said. “I’m going to hang out in my room.”

“Okay. Love you, kiddo.”

“Love you too, Mom,” Liz said, surprised when her eyes filled with tears. Alexandra fucking Stocking. She’d get you every time.

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