Word counts and other distractions

Griffin Paul Jackson

I’ve wasted hours upon hours looking up word counts. Finally, I made a list. I want to share what I’ve found so that you won’t waste time looking yourself. Here are the numbers on highly-praised literary fiction, fantasy and science fiction. Now you won’t need to scour the web to find them again.

Literary Fiction

  • The Old Man and the Sea 27,000
  • A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – 28,000
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell – 29,000
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck – 30,000
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – 47,000
  • Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – 49,000
  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe – 50,000
  • The Bluest Eyes by Toni Morrison – 52,000
  • Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck – 55,000
  • As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner – 57,000
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy – 59,000
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding – 60,000
  • Their…

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Chapter 5: Stank You Jesus

Stank you

“Saints don’t stop praying. The Lord is nigh,” Sister Katrina sang softly as they all followed in unison. Marie had no clue why the Lord was nigh or what that even meant but she sang along anyway, “Saints don’t stop praying. He’ll hear your cry. For the Lord has promised, and his word is true. Saints don’t stop praying. He’ll answer you.”

There were at least twenty saints in the circle that night, all holding hands and singing along. Twenty was a pretty good turn-out at a Monday night prayer. But in comparison to the fifteen hundred that showed up on Sundays at Sanctified Apostolic-Pentecostal Church, it really wasn’t all that impressive. Robert had told Marie many times that only the faithful few came to services like this, and that he was of those few faithful. As head of the household, he made sure that “his” children followed suit. In fact, Marie and Jason didn’t miss a single service unless Robert was sick. He even went so far as to nickname himself Brother Faithful until Pastor Hartford bestowed on him the more prestigious title of Minister.

Robert took the appointment very seriously. Everything from the clothes he wore to the music he listened to had to be holy. However, he did watch movies and shows that Marie and Jason were never allowed to watch—mainly because of all the hardcore profanity and gorgeous naked women. When Yvonne got on him about it, Robert dismissed her saying that it was necessary for him to watch so he could “learn the enemy”. He made Marie and Jason, on the other hand, watch movies about biblical stories instead of regular cartoons, and when they were disobedient, he forced them to read the Bible for however many hours he saw fit. Soon both Marie and Jason grew to view the Bible as a punishment, and wouldn’t read it unless they had to. Robert even turned the phrase “Good Morning” into something to be avoided. One day he had gotten the revelation that “Praise the Lord” shouldn’t be exclusive to greeting saints at church—it should be said at home as well. Every morning, Marie and Jason were to say “Praise the Lord” to each other and to Yvonne and Robert. If they failed to do so, the punishment was a beating. Marie didn’t mean to be defiant, but the change didn’t come natural to her and she slipped up often. Even Yvonne couldn’t remember to say it all the time. Mercifully, Robert gave up trying to enforce that new policy and left “Praise the Lord” where it belonged—at church.

As Marie sang along with Sister Katrina and the others, she let her eyes wander around the sanctuary. She didn’t need to pay attention to the words in order to keep up, they sang that same song every Monday night so she knew it better than any other. She looked at all of the saints gathered in the circle. All the women, including Yvonne, were in baggy t-shirts and jean skirts that nearly touched the ground. The sisters never wore pants in church or any skirt that went above the knee or any article of clothing that was formfitting because it was a sin. The men wore jean pants and t-shirts with the exception of Robert who insisted on wearing a button-up—being that he was a minister now, he felt compelled to hold himself to a higher standard than a common brother. The only children in the circle were Marie and Jason.

Marie’s attention drifted up to the pulpit behind which were several rows of chairs for the choir and suspended on the back wall was a huge wooden cross shrouded with a purple sash. She hadn’t set foot on the pulpit since her mother’s wedding, only knelt down at the altar in front of it. She subconsciously loathed the altar as her eyes lingered on the stools at the foot of it. Robert made her and Jason kneel on those stools and pray every Sunday morning before service. Marie didn’t have a lot to pray about but she would stay there as long as she could stand the boredom. She knew that if she got up too early Robert would send her back to pray some more. She and Jason used to be allowed to pray next to each other, but Robert started separating them when he caught them laughing one morning. He had thought they were playing around, but Jason had been ripping some wicked farts before God and there was no way they were keeping a straight face during that.

“Do we have any prayer requests?” Sister Katrina asked as the singing died down bringing Marie’s attention back away from the altar and Jason’s farts. As usual, each person in the circle spoke at least one prayer request. Marie was always nervous when her turn came; she didn’t like speaking out in groups. But to avoid saying the wrong thing, she would listen to the other prayer requests and mimic some of the ones she thought were good.  Just about everyone prayed for the body of Christ so she made sure to include that in her requests. She didn’t know they were talking about the church when they said that. She always pictured the dead body of Jesus laying in a tomb somewhere. She wasn’t sure why they needed to pray for a corpse but she never asked.

Once every request was made, it was time for the group prayer. Everyone bowed their heads, closed their eyes, and Minister Franklin led them into the prayer. Minister Franklin was the loudest while everyone else whispered “Hallelujah” and “Yes Lord” and “Thank you, Jesus”. Then the whispers got louder and louder until they turned into shouts. Marie just sighed. This is going to be a long one. After about fifteen or twenty minutes, she opened her eyes to amuse herself by watching the saints around her. They all had funny looks on their faces. Some looked angry, others like they were in pain, and a couple looked like they were smelling stinky feet. But all of them were yelling and shaking. Four of them were swinging their arms like they were getting ready to skip down the yellow brick road, one brother was marching in place bringing his knees up so high and so fast that Marie was curious to see if he would end up knocking himself out, and Minister Franklin was spinning around in circles. She had seen this happening so often that it wasn’t scary to her at all, in fact, she and Jason had more to worry about trying not to laugh at the show. She had been told that what the saints were doing was called being in the spirit, and it was to be taken very seriously. Everything related to God was supposed to be taken very seriously or they would have Robert to deal with. In fact, they had gotten in trouble on the way to church that night for that very reason. Robert was playing one of his gospel CD’s and the man introduced the singers as the Red Bud Combined Choir. The only problem was: Marie, Jason, and Yvonne had heard them announced as the Red Butt Combined Choir. With the image of a choir full of red butted baboons flashing through their minds, Robert finally had to pull the car over and yell at all three of them to stop them from laughing.

The shouting and dancing went on for what felt like forever, until the group slowly began to disperse into various corners of the sanctuary for private prayers. Robert went and dimmed the light of the chandeliers that hung in rows along the high vaulted ceiling, and Sister Katrina took Marie and Jason into the study that doubled as a tarrying room. It was either that or pray at the altar where Robert would come and yell in their ears, “Cry out to Him!” He seemed to get angry at them if his command didn’t appear to make them pray harder. “Don’t play around with it, cry out to Him!” He would shout. In a desperate attempt to appease him, Marie would think of the saddest thing she could imagine to make herself cry, though she would pretend to still be praying. Robert bought it every time and would leave her be.

But Marie and Jason were not just there to pray that night; they were on a mission: to tarry for the Holy Ghost. They had been trying to get it for years. Sister Katrina had explained it all to them. In order to go to Heaven they had to repent, get the Holy Ghost and be baptized in Jesus’ name. Because they were so young, the pastor would not allow them to be baptize until they first got the Holy Ghost to make sure that they were truly repentant. And the only way to prove that they had the Holy Ghost was if they were able to speak in tongues. Not stammering or stuttering, but a fluid language that came from God. And Marie knew better than to make one up, because Robert had told her that his Holy Ghost could tell whether or not her language was real. Marie and Jason had the option to either say “Hallelujah” or “Thank you, Jesus” over and over again until it turned into that holy language that they couldn’t understand. Whichever phrase they chose, they were instructed to say it fast, because the Holy Ghost wouldn’t come if they repeated the phrase slowly and annunciated every syllable. Marie didn’t question this at the time, but years later she would experiment and find that God also accepted speedy repetitions of “hot potato” in exchange for his holy language.

So almost every Monday night and many times at home she and Jason had tried to speak in tongues. To Marie, it was easier at church because Sister Katrina was always right there to keep them motivated and focused. At home, they were pretty much on their own and their minds tended to wander. Many times Yvonne had to come over and correct them because “Thank you, Jesus” had drawled into “Thank you, Juice” and “Stank you, Jesus”.

“You have to be sincere,” Yvonne would remind them, “Don’t just repeat empty words or else God won’t give you his spirit.” But not long after their mother’s admonition, juice was getting thanks again and Jesus was stank.

Once inside the study, Marie and Jason took their seats at the long wooden table—the same one that Marie first sat at the night her mother married Robert. After a brief review from Sister Katrina about what they were doing and why, they bowed their heads and started repeating the words. They had done this so many times before but they always came with the expectation that this would be the night where God’s magic would happen. This time it was—for Marie at least. All she could remember was saying “Thank you, Jesus” over and over. She didn’t know how much time had passed before the words changed.

“Marie.”

She heard her name but she couldn’t answer.

“Marie.”

It was Sister Katrina’s voice. Marie felt her hand on her arm so she opened her eyes. They were the only two people in the room.

“Do you know what you just did?” Sister Katrina asked her.

“I spoke in tongues,” Marie said having become conscious for the first time that night of the foreign language she had been speaking.

“Do you know what you have?” Sister Katrina asked.

“The Holy Ghost,” Marie said smiling then. “Can I go tell my Mommy and Daddy?”

“They already know,” Sister Katrina told her, “They came in and heard you a while ago.”

When Marie came out of the study, Yvonne and Robert were waiting for her in the foyer. They both looked so proud of her, which was a rare thing—she couldn’t even remember a time before that that Robert seemed that pleased with her. Both Yvonne and Robert hugged her.

“Can I be baptized tonight?” Marie asked eager to complete her transformation.

“Of course you can,” Robert smiled.

Marie walked with her mother, Robert, Sister Katrina, and Deacon Scott to the Hartford Hall. The hall was used as an overflow room on Sundays, a classroom on Wednesdays, a banquet hall on special occasions, and a baptismal room seven days a week. Jason was already there when Marie went inside. He was seated at the front of several rows of chairs that had been left there from Sunday in the arms of one of the sisters. His cheeks were red and when Marie smiled at him, he just stared back at her, his eyes puffy.

“What’s wrong with Jason?” Marie asked her mother.

“He cried so hard because you got the Holy Ghost and he didn’t that he threw up,” Yvonne told her. Marie felt sorry for him, but it wasn’t enough to dampen her excitement over finally getting what she had prayed for all those years. Yvonne took her up the stairs onto the front platform, and into one of the changing rooms so she could get ready. She took off her little black dress with the apples and rulers and pencils on it and Yvonne got her into the light blue gown, swimming cap, and white socks. When Marie came back out onto the platform, most of the base panels had been removed to reveal the huge in-ground pool. Deacon Scott was dressed in the customary t-shirt and rubber overalls that all the deacons wore when they baptized people, and he was already waiting for her in the pool. As she stepped down the stairs into the water, she felt her legs and arms instantly get goose bumped. It was freezing in there. But her nervousness at that moment outweighed any other discomfort. When she met him in the middle of the pool, Deacon Scott showed her how to position her arms across her chest, told her that she could pinch her nose if she wanted to when the time came, and explained that he was just going to dunk her under really fast and bring her right back up. She didn’t like the idea of being pushed underwater, but she wasn’t backing out now.

“I now take great pleasure in baptizing you in the precious name of Jesus Christ,” he said gripping the back of her gown and placing a hand over her arms, “Upon the confession of your faith and for the remission of all of your sins.”

Then he looked her in the face and nodded. Marie pinched her nose and shut her eyes. In one swoop she was dipped backwards into the water and brought back up just as quickly. She could hear the claps of everyone that was watching, and caught a glimpse of Robert taking her picture. As she started back up the stairs and out of the water, she felt the chill fade quickly to warmth. She thought it was God’s magic. When she told Robert about it, he said that it meant that she was now on fire for Jesus.

It was the happiest moment Marie could remember up until then. She was tired of being in sin. Tired of being the bad little girl that was always so disobedient. She was saved now. And she just knew that her Holy Ghost would make her do all the right things so she wouldn’t get in trouble. Daddy won’t have to spank me anymore. To Marie, that thought alone was almost better than the idea that, as of that night, she was no longer on her way to hell.

Chapter 4: Please Don’t Come, Mommy

don't come

Marie sat in Mercier’s backyard chalking tri-colored daisies on the pavement, trying not to think.

“It’s almost night time. Maybe she’s not gonna come today,” Jason said scribbling circles in the square of pavement next to her.

Marie just nodded keeping her eyes on her artwork. The sunlight on her flowers grew dimmer and dimmer making her think that Jason might be right. Maybe Yvonne wasn’t coming for them.

This was the most dreaded day of the year for Marie—the last day of summer vacation. Granny and the aunts may have lost the right to every holiday, but they demanded that Marie and Jason stay with them the full three months of every summer while they were out of school. For Marie, that was three months of complete paradise.

She’d wake up in a real bed every morning to the warm glow of the sun pouring through Maddie’s sheer, apricot curtains. Then she’d get the savory aroma of Granny’s sausages sizzling in their cast iron skillet. She’d find Mercier busy in the den with her bowl of grits, picking out the black ones as a favor to Granny. And Jason, well, he would have been running around naked for at least the last half hour already. Granny and the aunts made sure Robert never found out about that little bit of debauchery.

Neither Marie nor Jason had any chores to do, although they loved helping Granny repot and water her daylilies, and helping Mercier raid the nectarine and cumquat trees. Their only real responsibility was to have fun—all—day—long. They watched cartoons—real cartoons that didn’t involve Moses or the Ten Commandments. They were given so many toys and games, they couldn’t find time to play with them all. They laughed out loud with no one telling them to shut up. They danced to Prince and Michael Jackson without getting spanked for “sinning”. They even enjoyed Mercier’s Spanish, piano, and reading lessons, because, unlike Robert, Mercier never asked them if they were stupid when they messed up.

By the afternoons, Marie would snuggle up to Mercier and Granny’s fluffy frames to watch Oprah and listen to them gossip and slurp on peppermints. By the evenings, she would devour Granny’s fresh cut fruit and steak dinner, Mercier’s famous vinegar and oil salad, and an assortment of sweets from Maddie’s loaded candy jar. And she would finish off her nights with a warm bubble bath and cuddle into bed with her stuffed animals, thrilled to do it all over again tomorrow.

Being with Granny and the aunts was like being in another world; Marie’s own personal Disneyland. She wished it were her life all the time. So free and happy every day. But that only made it that much harder when the time came to leave.

Marie looked up from her tri-colored daisies when she heard the hum of an engine and the sharp hiss of breaks in the driveway. Her heart dropped into her stomach when she saw from beneath the yard gate the tires of what she knew had to be a red Saturn. She looked at Jason, and not a word needed to pass between them for them to know what the other was feeling.

“Marie. Jason,” Granny called out from the porch, “Your mother’s here.”

Marie dragged herself up from the pavement and helped Jason pile all the chalk back into its bucket. When she finally came in the house to greet her mother, Marie tried to smile at her but it shaped into more of a grimace. Next to Robert, Yvonne was the last person Marie wanted to see. But Marie was grateful that Yvonne agreed to stay for dinner; that would afford Marie at least two more hours in paradise before she had to go “home”.

When the time did come to say goodbye to Granny and the aunts, Marie was no less than devastated. Her eyes started to blur with tears the moment Yvonne pulled out her car keys. Jason snuggled up under Mercier as if he hoped he might get left behind if Yvonne didn’t see him.

“Oh you’re going to see them all again for Thanksgiving,” Yvonne cooed attempting to mask her embarrassment, “Don’t cry.”

Marie just wailed louder, and Yvonne had to pry Jason’s death-grip off Mercier. Granny whispered something to Maddie who nodded, her brow furrowing. Yvonne took both children by their arms, whisked them over to a corner, and squatted to their eye level. Glaring at both of them she said in a low and barely controlled tone, “You shut this crap up now, or you won’t spend another summer here again. Do you understand me?”

Marie and Jason nodded sniveling and stifling their moans.

“Now kiss Granny, Mercier, and Maddie goodbye,” she said rising back into her chipper coo.

The children did as they were told, hugging each of the three dears as long as they could without another cutting glare from Yvonne. Marie made her way to Maddie last. As she hugged her, Maddie hid her lips in Marie’s hair and whispered, “Is Mommy or Robert hurting you?” Marie hesitated as Robert’s warning reverberated in her mind: What happens in this house stays in this house. You are disobedient, you get spankings. Period. Don’t let me find out you’ve been running your mouth. You think we abuse you? I’ve never “beat” you. But I can.

“No,” Marie whispered back. Maddie pulled back enough to look her in the eyes, her concerned gazed repeating the question. Marie just shook her head.

“Okay munchkins,” Yvonne sang, “Time to go.”

Once strapped in the car, Marie forced a smile at Granny and the aunts waving on the porch until Yvonne pulled out of the driveway. Marie knew Yvonne was livid. She didn’t say a word to them the entire forty-five minute drive home.

When they arrived, it was like stepping back into a nightmare. The shack was dimmed and stank of mold and herbal tea. No bed, no cartoons, no toys or steak dinners.

“What they do now?” Robert barked the minute they came in the door and he saw the look on Yvonne’s face. Marie knew this act. Yvonne wanted Robert to ask that question and exact the punishment that made her feel better about herself.

“They only cut up like that because they have to come home to rules,” Robert barked when Yvonne told him what happened. “Just mad cuz they can’t watch TV and eat ice cream all day. I’m telling you that mother of yours spoils them. That’s why they pretend like they forget how to act when they get back here. We gotta train ‘em all over again after every summer. I told you, they don’t need to be down there the whole three months.”

On and on he went ranting on everyone’s conduct—except Yvonne’s and his own of course. Because they were good parents, and they were in the right.

“What did I tell you would happen if I got another report of you acting up Mercier’s?” he said finally focusing his rant on the children.

“We’d get a spanking,” they whined in unison.

Robert nodded towards the bedroom as he loosened his belt buckle. Knowing resistance was futile, they shuffled passed him silently and took their usual positions bent over the bed. Marie lay there shaking and forcing her mind to go back to her paradise. She wondered what Granny was doing at that moment. Watching the news in the family room sitting in her favorite rocking chair. Maybe sipping her black tea as Auntie Maddie gathered up the last of Marie and Jason’s toys into boxes to await their next visit. Mercier had probably fallen asleep in the den with a copy of Reader’s Digest in one hand and a magnifying glass in the other. Marie shut her eyes as tears streamed down her cheeks. She prayed with all her might that when she opened her eyes she would be there snuggled up under Mercier. That this nightmare was nothing but a dream. Then she opened her eyes and looked up just in time to see Robert raise the black belt and bring it down on her behind.

Chapter 3: The Grinch

the_grinch_by_keith_quintanilla-d4ld6kg

“I would take an ornament and put it on the tree and you would come right behind me, pull it off the branch and put it back in the box. Then on Christmas morning, all we heard was ‘Open it up’,” Maddie would say imitating Marie in a baby voice. “Half the time they weren’t even your presents, but you handed everybody a box and told them to open it up. And don’t let somebody tell you ‘no’. You would throw yourself on the floor and have a tantrum. You wouldn’t stop until old cousin Tia got on the floor and started hollering with you. You looked at her like ‘wait a minute, lady, you’re stealing my show’ and then you got up and stormed off like an angry midget.”

Marie would have given anything this particular year to have spent it with Maddie, Mercier, and Granny, but instead she and Jason were spending it with Robert—well sort of. He had closed himself up in the bedroom saying that he was in too much pain to come out and spend Christmas with them and Yvonne. Marie and Jason just considered that another one of their presents.

Yvonne had had the house decorated since November with her little figurines of Santa and Mrs. Claus, the nativity, nutcrackers of all sizes, and snow men—which were her favorite. She had a tree that she let them decorate with about fifteen or twenty ornaments, because the tree was only about three feet tall and they had to leave room for lights and garland. But Yvonne liked it anyway and nicknamed it her Charlie Brown tree. She had done her best to make the house feel as cheerful as the holidays had been when they had lived at Mercier’s house. But there was no competing with Auntie Maddie’s ability to turn a house into a winter wonderland.

In addition to the six-foot, lit and elaborately decorated tree, Maddie had everything from a train to a carousel to moving and talking Christmas characters to a completely lit village with little porcelain people standing in front of all the buildings. She hung wreathes and bows on all the doors and stockings with everyone’s names on them over the fireplace. She even left milk and cookies for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve that magically disappeared by the time they got up the next morning.

But this Christmas Marie and Jason were still grateful to have the cheer that came from their mother opening her famous Café Poopoo, talking in her French accent, and serving them a hot breakfast with sprinkled cookies in the shape of Christmas trees. Almost every TV station was playing some holiday movie or cartoon, and she let them watch while they ate.

When they finished, she let them open their presents. They had only about two or three a piece, but Marie didn’t mind. She knew Granny, Mercier and Auntie Maddie would more than make up for that the next time she and Jason visited them. Maddie knew that those three sweet ladies would buy her and Jason toys and clothes and books all throughout the year and hide them in their special places until the week before Christmas when Auntie Maddie would gather them all into her room to wrap them. But she would only bring them out on Christmas Eve when she was sure that Marie and Jason were asleep to give the illusion that Santa had brought at least some of them. Maddie even went so far as to sign a couple of the tags on the presents as being from him. But the one year that Marie could never forget was the one in which Granny and the aunts had bought them so many presents that they all couldn’t fit under the tree. Instead, Maddie had to organize the presents into two piles that nearly touched the ceiling with a piece of construction paper that had Marie and Jason’s names on them taped to the center of each pile so they’d know whose mountain of gifts belonged to whom.

When she opened the presents from her mother, Marie always made sure to be grateful and act surprised even if she wasn’t. This year was a bit harder, because she already knew what she was getting. That was because Yvonne had taken Marie and Jason with her when she bought some of the gifts and told Marie that they wouldn’t get the items until Christmas. And with Marie and Jason’s larger gifts that Yvonne had bought in secret, there simply wasn’t enough room in the house for Yvonne to hide them that well.

In addition to their gifts, Marie and Jason each had a card signed by “Mommy and Daddy”. In Christmases past, Robert would at least scribble his signature next to Yvonne’s, but judging by the handwriting, Marie knew that her mother had done it for him this year. Either way, she didn’t want to make Yvonne feel bad. Seeing her mother sad because of something Marie had said or done was almost worse than getting a spanking from her.

Marie and Jason played with their new toys and had them meet some of their old ones. Jason was happy that Marie had gotten a Barbie since he had been wanting one to go along with his GI Joe. Robert had hit the roof when Jason had asked for a female doll. Robert said he wasn’t going to let Jason end up turning gay by playing like a girl. But neither Robert nor Yvonne knew the real reason Jason wanted girl toys. Marie did though. She and Jason understood a bit more about sex than their parents realized. Being devout Pentecostals, Yvonne and Robert felt it was better not to discuss such topics but rather focus the kids’ attention on the Bible. However, when the two of them were able to play under a little less supervision, Marie and Jason both knew GI Joe was going to help Ballerina Barbie out of her leotards.

Yvonne laughed out loud as Marie and Jason put on plays with their new toys and made them do all sorts of silliness. Soon Yvonne was in tears and digging through her purse for her inhaler. She took two puffs when she found it, then sat back to watch the children continue. Marie loved seeing her mother put a hand to her chest with her huge smile and her face ruby red.  Marie performed to the pinnacle of goofiness just to hear her mother’s bursts of laughter that trailed into breathless wheezes the harder she laughed.

Then the bedroom door opened.

“Keep it down, I’m trying to sleep,” Robert said glaring down at Marie and Jason even though their mother had really been the loudest one.

“Oh, don’t be a Scrooge,” Yvonne rasped to him still trying to catch her breath. He turned his glare on her.

“I’m hurting!” he said, “These pills aren’t working.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, “We’ll try to be more quiet.”

He turned and lurched back into the bedroom slamming the door behind himself. Marie looked over at Yvonne who stuck her tongue out at the door as if Robert were still standing there. Marie and Jason both stifled a laugh. They tried to resume their play quietly but Yvonne decided to join in this time. She was the master of goofiness. She made GI Joe sound like Donald Duck and Barbie like a drunken hillbilly. And before Marie knew it, she and Jason had forgotten all about Robert, and they were laughing twice as loud as before.

Suddenly the bedroom door flew open so hard that it hit the wall.

“I told you kids to shut up!” he said his face as red as Yvonne’s then, “Get on the bed!”

“It was my fault,” Yvonne said no longer smiling, “I was making them laugh.”

“Stop trying to cover for them,” he said, “They need to learn to do as they’re told.”

Yvonne opened her mouth to protest again, but Robert ignored her.

“I said get on the bed!” he hollered.

Marie and Jason scrambled up from the floor, ran passed him into the bedroom, and bent themselves over the bed. Marie watched as he came in and shut the door behind him. He did that a lot, especially if he didn’t want their mother to interfere or if the beating was going to be long so that the neighbors wouldn’t hear them screaming.

Robert took the black belt from the hook. Marie knew that one very well by now. The leather had so many cracks and tattered threads from being used on their bottoms so often that Robert couldn’t wear it anymore.

“Your lives would be so much easier if you would ever learn to just do what you’re told,” he said with an eerie calmness as he formed the belt into a loop.

Both Marie and Jason were shaking and crying by now. No matter how many beatings Marie got, she could never get used to it. It was terrifying every time. As Robert came to stand behind them and raised the belt, Marie saw Jason put his hands over his butt.

“Move them!” Robert ordered.

“No,” Jason whined. So Robert whipped the belt across Jason’s hands forcing him to snatch them back out of the way.

“In fact,” Robert sneered, “pull your pants down. Both of you. Underwear too.”

They stood up and did as they were told, crying a little harder then. They bended back over the bed, and Robert started on Jason first. But after only about five swats he had to pause to tell him to shut up. Jason was so loud that Marie’s ears were ringing like the screams were coming from the blare of a stereo with bad speakers. When Jason went silent, Robert started up the beating again. Marie counted the swats. There were eleven so far without counting the first five. They were coming so fast Jason didn’t seem to be able to catch enough breath to scream as loud as before. Marie looked up at Robert.

“Put your head back down!” he said. He never let them look at him while he was beating them. Marie heard him hit Jason with two more swats then nothing. She turned her face a little to see if it was her turn. It was. Robert had the belt raised and was staring down at her behind. She buried her face in the bed and tightened her butt cheeks. The first blow came down so hard it knocked the wind out of her. Her mouth flew open but she couldn’t scream. It felt like a boulder being dropped on her behind then came the stabbing and burning sensation.

He hit her again and again and again. The pain seemed to worsen to more unimaginable levels every time. When she could get up enough breath for a scream, it was muffled by the blankets her face was still buried in. She thought maybe he didn’t think she was hurting badly enough yet. So she lifted her head with the intention of screaming louder. But it wasn’t a normal cry that came out. It was a word. Mercy. Marie hadn’t meant or even thought to say it, yet it came out of her mouth over and over again. Suddenly, she realized she couldn’t feel the belt anymore. She could still hear it hitting something, and thought maybe Robert had started back on Jason again. So she opened her eyes. Jason was looking at her confused though still crying. The belt wasn’t hitting him either. It was hitting the bed frame. Every time she yelled out “mercy”, Robert missed her and hit the bed. Finally he just gave up.

“You both stay on this bed until I tell you, you can get up,” he growled, “And while you’re there, pray to God to help you learn how to be obedient.”

Marie watched as he threw the belt into the closet and stormed from the room slamming the door behind him.

“How did you do that?” Jason whispered to her as they started easing their pants back up over their throbbing behinds.

“God saved us.”

Chapter 1: Unholy Matrimony

Wedding bands Marie sat sighing periodically as she stared into the long wooden table. It was so glazed that she could see her own reflection in it. She drew on it with her fingers watching the smudges her natural clamminess created on the polish. She and the other flower girl were the only ones bored and the only ones sitting. Marie’s mother, Yvonne, Yvonne’s older sister Madeline, and several other women from the church were all rushing around trying to get Yvonne ready in her white dress that she had purchased a month prior from the local thrift shop. Yvonne had a seamstress friend of hers add about a foot of lace to the bottom so that her ankles wouldn’t show. Marie especially liked the veil that dragged the floor behind Yvonne. It looked a lot better now that the holes in it had been patched up with white flowers. Marie had never seen her mother look more beautiful.

Marie had been all dolled up in her little white dress with frilly white socks and matching shoes with her first pair of wedged heels for at least two hours. Her hair hung in loose curls down her back. She and the other flower girl were the only ones besides her mother allowed to wear their hair down.

“It’s time!” Sis. Paula, Pastor Hartford’s secretary, announced as she hurried into the conference room, “Deacon White is waiting right outside.”

Fathers are usually the ones to walk their daughters down the aisle Marie had been told, but she had never seen her mother’s father before, and that day was no exception.

The rushing around was kicked into overdrive as boxes and bags and bits of material were tossed around on the already cluttered table and Sis. Natalie put a final curl in Yvonne’s flipped bangs before misting her down in hairspray for what must have been the hundredth time.

Sis. Paula took Marie and the other flower girl—whose name Marie could never remember—by the hand and led them out into the foyer. Keri, Yvonne’s best friend, and two other ladies Marie didn’t know were already lined up in matching purple dresses arm-in-arm with three men in white suits. Uncle Jake, Mr. Robert’s brother was the only one that Marie recognized. There was also a tall boy standing directly in front of Marie holding a white pillow with two gold rings tied to it with ribbon.

Madeline or Auntie Maddie as Marie called her, rushed out after them ripping open a bag of red and pink rose petals and pouring them into a white wicker basket.

“Now remember what we talked about in rehearsal,” she said positioning Marie and the other girl’s hands on the long handle of the basket, “Just walk down the aisle and throw all the flowers on it as you go, and when you get to the altar, go stand by Keri. Okay?”

She simply nodded as the other girl squealed and giggled, “I’m so nervous! I think I’m going to faint!”

She was annoyingly dramatic for a seven year old, but Marie remained focused on the mission—toss all the flowers on the floor and go stand by Keri. Got it.

Marie heard the music begin to play in the sanctuary. It was muffled by the closed double doors, but she knew the song well. It was supposed to be like the sound of angels singing and all they said over and over again was “Holy, holy. Thou art holy.” That was the cue for everyone to start walking. The double doors opened and the music rang loud and clear making Marie feel slightly nervous for the first time during that otherwise boring evening.

The first couple began their march down the aisle, followed by the second and the third. Marie could hear her mother and Deacon White lining up behind her but she kept her eyes on Sis. Paula so she wouldn’t miss her turn when Sis. Paula waved for her and the other flower girl to go.

“Stay together and don’t walk too fast,” Sis. Paula whispered to them as she gave Marie’s back a little push.

Marie started her way down the aisle trying not to look at anyone, but instead focused on the flower petals and not walking faster than the other girl. It was easier than she thought it would be—just grab and toss. She was barely aware of all the hundreds of eyes that must have been on her. Most of them belonging to people that she didn’t know. Most of them in jean dresses and t-shirts. They had come prepared for a regular Bible study not knowing that a wedding was to follow. Marie’s family knew just the opposite. Yvonne had been quite proud to have tricked her family into coming to church by telling them that the service started at seven. A service did start at seven so she wasn’t technically lying, but it just wasn’t the service they were expecting. She had warned Marie not to mention anything to the family about her plan, because she thought it was a clever way to do her Christian duty by making as many of her family members as she could attend at least one Bible study. She had been inviting all of them to come for years and this was the first time most of them actually did.

When Marie got down towards the front of the aisle, she looked up to see her family to her left all dressed up—her aunt Mercier most of all, wearing a big pink dress with a pink rose pinned to the top of it and her favorite fire engine red lipstick, but for once she wasn’t smiling. On the right was Mr. Robert’s family. They were a group of strangers to Marie except for Robert’s mother, Gloria—a fat little woman with white hair that always wore oversized moo moos covered in flowers like the one she was wearing that night. Whenever Yvonne took Marie and her little brother, Jason, to see Gloria and Mr. Robert, Gloria would kiss both of them, though Marie secretly wished she wouldn’t. Gloria always smelled like sweaty cheese.

Marie and the other flower girl reached the altar, and they started up the stairs to Keri who was smiling her warm, toothy smile at both of them. But Marie looked down into their basket and saw that there was still a ton of petals left. Auntie Maddie said to throw them all. So to insure that her mission was accomplished, Marie turned the basket upside down at the foot of the pulpit giving it a little shake to get every petal out. Then, ignoring all the laughter that had erupted behind them, Marie marched up to Keri tugging the other girl, who still had a firm grip on the basket handle, along with her.

Marie turned and looked at the back of the church where she could see something large and white adjusting itself behind the glass windows of the double doors. Then the “Holy, Holy” music stopped abruptly and a grating version of “Here Comes the Bride” replaced it. The deacons in the black suits with white gloves opened the double doors again to reveal Yvonne arm-in-arm with Deacon White. Everyone in the pews stood up quietly and watched them walk down the aisle. When they made it to the altar, Mr. Robert came down and took Yvonne from Deacon White, and walked her under the rickety floral arch where Pastor Hartford stood in a white robe with a gold sash.

Marie fidgeted with the frills on her dress as all the vows were said and candles lit and other such traditions performed that Marie found too uninteresting to watch. She would occasionally look down at Auntie Maddie who was now sitting in the front row with Jason. She waved and smiled at Marie every time Marie looked at her—when she wasn’t busy restraining Jason that is. Being only four years old, Jason was a year and a half younger than Marie, and Yvonne had decided that he wasn’t mature enough to carry the pillow of rings down the aisle. At the moment, he was squirming in his seat and tugging at his shoelaces. His hair was a wild bush of curls instead of the slicked down, side-parted style that it had been when Marie had seen him earlier that afternoon. Marie easily understood why Jason wasn’t in the wedding, but she didn’t understand why Auntie Maddie wasn’t.

“Why aren’t you one of Mommy’s bride’s ladies anymore,” Marie had asked Maddie during one of the rehearsals when Yvonne and Robert were out of earshot. Maddie wouldn’t tell her, of course. How could she tell Marie that she had gone to the Pastor’s wife pleading with her to stop Pastor Hartford from marrying Yvonne and Robert? How could she tell Marie that neither her mother nor Robert—whom Yvonne had only known for all of six months—had a job to support a family? Well Robert did clean the church for a salary but it was nowhere near enough to feed four people and still keep the lights on. However, Pastor Hartford knew that it was better to marry than to burn, and he felt in his spirit that Yvonne and Robert’s union was ordained by God. It also could have been that the deposit Yvonne paid to rent the church that evening was nonrefundable. But whatever the reason, not only had Pastor Hartford refuse to put a stop to the wedding, he had warned Yvonne and Robert that Maddie was trying to thwart their plans. Madeline just had to be jealous because Yvonne was on her second marriage and Maddie had never been married. Yvonne and Robert agreed and Maddie was no longer the maid of honor.

Marie liked Mr. Robert. There was no way she could have understood what Auntie Maddie was so afraid of. Living with her mother at Mercier’s—Yvonne’s aunt—house, Marie had never known what it was to go without. Yvonne’s mother, whom they called Granny, lived there too and she made sure that Marie and Jason always had everything they ever wanted for and then some. Marie had no idea how this holy wedding day would change the rest of her life and shape it into the nightmare that it was going to become. All she knew was that Robert was funny. He let her and Jason play in his hair—clipping in bows and all—when he came to Mercier’s house to take Yvonne out on dates. He gave them candy and toys whenever Yvonne took them to visit him. Marie couldn’t even remember a time that Robert had ever been angry with her. She and Jason couldn’t fault the man, but they didn’t know much better. Auntie Maddie would end up telling Marie years later that both Marie and Jason when asked by Yvonne what they thought of Robert had told Yvonne that it was ok to date him, but they didn’t want her to marry him. Marie didn’t remember having that conversation with her mother, but if in fact she did, she would soon come to wish her mother would have listened.

After the ceremony was over, the wedding party stayed at the church for at least another hour taking pictures. Mercier stood in for Granny when it came time to take pictures with the mothers of the bride and groom. She didn’t smile in a single one, but at least she was there. When Marie had asked Granny why she wasn’t coming, Granny had no problem telling her.

“I already watched your mother marry one dummy. I didn’t need to see her do that twice.”

Unfortunately, that wasn’t just the spitefulness of an overly picky mother-in-law. Yvonne’s first husband and father to both of her children, was in fact a dummy. But that was by no fault of his own. He was only seventeen at the time, and Yvonne was twenty-four. She claimed to have fallen in love with him shortly after she was first drawn to him by his striking resemblance to a marionette puppet in her favorite TV series. They got married as soon as he graduated high school—and turned the legal age of eighteen. Being that he had no place of his own largely because he was unemployed, he valiantly carried Yvonne over the threshold of her mother’s house where the two of them ended up living for the next seven years. But two children and many fights later, she left him. Yvonne would go on for years blaming him for all his immaturity, drug use, infidelity, misplaced priorities, and so on. Although, Marie would someday come to question whether Granny had labeled the wrong person the dummy.

The reception took place at Robert’s mother’s house. It was so noisy and crowded with all the adults talking and laughing, Marie decided instead to give Mercier a private tour of where they would be living. Jason tagged along too. They each took Mercier by a hand and tugged her excitedly towards the condemned shack parallel to the garage behind the main house. Yes Robert still technically lived with his mother—at forty-one years old.

Mercier followed them silently to the house—if you could even call it that. They walked around the small porch that was nearly hidden by all the different sized planters in front, behind, and on top of it. Marie steered Mercier as far away from the plants as possible knowing that they were laced with cobwebs occupied by black widows and their equally frightening cousins—wolf spiders. The screen door creaked as Marie opened it and the corner of it scraped and stuck on the sidewalk. Yvonne had told Marie that Robert and his three brothers built that house when they were younger, only they forgot to build the foundation resulting in everything leaning a bit off center. Marie pushed open the large wooden door and turned on the main light in the living room. Mercier jumped back a little as something black scurried across the floor and out of sight underneath the futon couch.

“Don’t be scared, Sear,” Jason said pronouncing her name the only way he could, “It’s just a water bug, they don’t bite.

Still Mercier kept her eyes on the floor in front of her with every step she took as they showed her the rest of the house. There wasn’t much more to see though. To the left was the kitchen, straight ahead was the only bedroom, and down a narrow hallway was the only bathroom.

Jason pulled her over to a coffee table against the living room wall that was already lined with framed pictures of their family.

“This is where we eat,” he told her kneeling down to demonstrate. “Mr. Robert says we can’t watch TV when we eat cuz we might spill. But look it!” Jason said pointing at the photo album with the glass front with a picture of a mouse sitting on a crescent moon. “Mommy says if we look there we can see TV anyway.”

It was true. The television was reflected perfectly in the frame. Yvonne had taught them several ways to get around Robert’s strict rules in the few times they had come to visit.

“Where do you sleep?” Mercier asked peeping her head into the two doorless closets as if she was hoping to find a secret passageway that might lead to the rest of the house.

“On the couch,” Marie told her, “Mommy said it can turn into a bed at night.”

“Do you like our house, Sear?” Jason asked her waving his arms in every direction like he was proudly showing off the glamour of a palace.

It was almost comical to Marie later in life to think how much they didn’t realize the depravity of the situation…but less comical that her mother didn’t seem to either. Yvonne had talked so enthusiastically about moving in with Robert and having a real family. She made everything sound so perfect and to two preschoolers things may as well have been. Yvonne didn’t even seem to notice that the neighborhood was infested with drug dealers and drunks or that the schools were plagued with violence or that her children would no longer have beds to sleep in. Nor did she seem to care that the man she was marrying hadn’t seen his own child, though he always knew exactly where she was, since she was a baby after his first wife took the baby and left him—but not before she took out his four front teeth with a skillet. Yvonne had claimed that she was in love with him in spite of his circumstances and checkered past. When he got saved, all of that was washed away. Yvonne had thanked God for sending her a man that was willing to love her even though she came with the baggage of not one but two kids. And she had faith in Robert’s promise that they would build a better life together and move out of the hood soon. To her, it was just as Pastor Hartford had said, they were meant to be together and God was going to bless them.

Mercier just stared slack-jawed at the little imps looking up at her—their eyes sparkling with the simple thrill of being able to show off something new. Mercier never answered Jason’s question about liking the house. She just ushered the two of them back out of the house slamming the wooden door much harder than Mr. Robert ever allowed them to do. She gave no mind to the screen that was still wedged crookedly against the cement.

That night Marie and Jason went back home with Mercier so the newlyweds could have their honeymoon in the house all by themselves. Mercier never came back to visit their little shack. Maybe she was afraid of the water bugs or the bullet holes in the ceiling from Mr. Richard shooting at the rats in the rafters or the whole place in general. Marie didn’t know. But in two weeks Marie and Jason came to live there, and they soon found out what there really was to be afraid of—or whom rather.

The Road Not Taken

The Road Not Taken

By Robert Frost

Two roads diverge in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

 

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that, the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

 

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubt if I should ever come back.

 

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

 

 

Chapter 2: Spare the Rod

 

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“Time to get up!” Robert’s command ripped through the silence of that Saturday morning. Marie was suddenly very aware of the icy cold stinging her nose and the sweet stink of fresh brewing Chinese herbal tea.

“Get up!” Robert said louder causing Jason’s motionless little figure to jerk under the sheets. “Y’all got work to do, you’re not gonna sleep all day.” They were used to this gruff wake-up call by now. Mr. Robert—or Daddy as they were now supposed to call him—wasn’t that friendly stranger anymore. He was stern and strict and his once gentle face was almost always contorted into a grimace. Yvonne had told them that Robert was in a bad car accident years ago that left him with back problems that made him as cranky as he was all the time. Somehow this too ended up being among the many things she didn’t seem to notice while they were dating.

When Marie’s glazed eyes managed to clear enough, she was able to read the time on the Felix the Cat clock across from them on the kitchen wall. It was only 8 am. There was a religious program playing on the box television. It was a common tactic of Robert’s to put on a sermon or the news in the morning so Marie and Jason wouldn’t be tempted to waste time trying to sneak peeks at the TV.

Jason stumbled out of the bed and towards the hall to the bathroom. He fell halfway back to sleep on the way there and bounced with a thud off the door that led to the bedroom.

“Be quiet!” Robert hissed. “Your mother is sleeping.”

Marie nearly drifted back off to sleep herself but the rush of freezing air that hit her body sprang her wide awake as Robert wrenched all the covers off her and onto the floor.

“I’m not going to say it again,” he said glaring down at her, his eyes shrunken and narrowed through his Mr. Magoo glasses.

She leapt to her feet swooning a bit from the change in position and made her way into the kitchen. On the stove was the ugly, black oriental pot filled to the brim with dirt colored water swimming with pieces of bark and skins and leaves. Yvonne wouldn’t touch the stuff; she said her jaw would lock up at the sight of it. But Robert swore by its ability to cure all. On the burner next to it was a pan with one serving of oatmeal in it—Robert’s breakfast nearly every morning with a blackened piece of toast. Marie knew she and Jason were to eat cereal. They didn’t mind it though. Occasionally they got lucky and Yvonne would open “Café Poo Poo”. She would talk in a funny French accent and make them hot chocolate with baby marshmallows, scrambled eggs with chives and pepper, several pieces of bacon, and light brown buttered toast. Sadly, that day was not one of those days.

Marie shuffled to the sink and took her toothbrush from among the other three that sat in a chipped coffee mug next to the dish drying rack, and obediently put only a dab of toothpaste on it from the tube kept in the window seal. By the time she finished brushing her teeth and washing her face, Jason was waiting behind her. If you haven’t guessed yet, there wasn’t a sink in the bathroom. There wasn’t a tub either, only a shower thats plastic walls were warped and pulling away from the wooden panels and a toilet that sat in front of the water heater with only haphazard boards separating the two except at the very base. There was a huge gap down there where cobwebs and an occasional eight-legged beasty were clearly visible. Nothing was funnier than the day that a fat gray rat strolled from behind the toilet and looked up at Yvonne while she was sitting on it. Her scream at that moment was enough to put Alice Faye to shame.

As soon as they were both dressed and had eaten, Marie and Jason made their way out into the yard to start their chores. Normally they would start with cleaning the inside of the house, but that day, Robert didn’t want them making noise and waking up their mother. So they walked in between the shack and the garage out into the full acre of backyard being careful not to slam the gate that was attached directly to the side of the house that was the bedroom.

They started their usual routine of watering the fruit trees. It was one of the chores they really didn’t mind too much. Just put the hose in the trench at the base of the tree, wait for it to fill up then move the hose to the next one. There were a total of about twenty of trees: apple, pomegranate, apricot, fig, avocado, boysenberry, and several others that never produced fruit so they couldn’t tell what they were. The only tree they never had to water was the walnut tree. Marie was convinced that thing wouldn’t die of thirst if she prayed for it to. It was the tallest most massive tree she had ever seen in her life. She could easily see it from the driveway towering over the houses. She used to imagine placing two houses on top of each other, and in her mind they still wouldn’t block that tree. Besides the boysenberry tree, whose fruit she and Jason loved to eat ripe or not, that walnut tree was their favorite and yet most hated. Some of its branches had grown down onto the dirt so they could climb on them and pretend that the shorter ones were horses for them to ride. But during the fall, it was their most hated enemy. It dropped thousands of raw green walnuts that were rotted on the inside and oozed black stickiness mingled with maggots. Marie and Jason were responsible for raking all of them up and throwing them away which might not have been so bad if the tree didn’t drop a thousand more for them to rake barely a week later.

There were also bushes in the far back of the yard that grew along the fence that Robert would have them use hedge clippers and pruning shears to cut down as much as they could. It was physically hard and boring at first until their little imaginations took over and their tools became dinosaurs eating away at the branches. They would even argue over which bushes belonged to whose dinosaur.

But this particular day, they were assigned to the most boring task of all—weeding. Robert came out there with them, but he was fixing the chicken coop. They lived in what Robert had told them was considered the Richland Farms area of Compton which is why they and the neighbors were allowed to have animals like chickens and goats and such.

They stayed focused on their work. Just because Robert was doing something else, didn’t mean he wasn’t watching them with the eyes in the back of his head—or the ones on the sides. The work was coming along fine until they got to the vegetable garden.

“What are you doing?!” They both jumped as Robert’s voice barked from behind them.

“Pulling up the weeds,” Jason answered.

“Does this look like a weed to you?” Robert asked holding up a handful of leaves and stems.

“Y-Yes,” Jason said.

“This is a tomato plant! Can’t you smell it?” he said shoving the vines up to their faces.

Jason stuttered some unintelligible answer. Robert took the only other thing that he had in his hands—the monkey wrench—and cracked Jason upside the head with it. “You two cannot be this stupid! You did this on purpose.”

Jason held his head, eyes shut tight, and mouth wide open. No sound came out for a few seconds as tears started streaming down his cheeks. Then he finally took a breath and let out a long sharp cry.

“What the heck is going on out here?” Yvonne’s voice called from the bedroom window.

“Go in the house and tell her what you did! And shut up all that crying.” Robert ordered. They did as they were told, scared all the while that Yvonne would be angry with them too because those were her tomato plants.

She was still in the big t-shirt that she had been sleeping in, and her hair was wild on her head when they came into the bedroom to tell her what they had done.

“We pulled up your tomatoes by accident,” Marie told her. Yvonne’s face instantly shifted from bewilderment to irritation.

“Those kids don’t pay attention to nothing unless it’s a cartoon,” Robert said coming up from behind Marie.

“Why is he crying?” Yvonne asked gesturing at Jason who was still red and wet in the face and sniveling.

“Daddy hit him on the head with a wrench,” Marie said before she could stop herself. Yvonne’s head snapped in Robert’s direction with her mouth open.

“I didn’t hit him! I barely tapped him. Tell your mother the truth!” he said turning his glare on Marie. Yvonne turned to look at her too, though Yvonne wasn’t glaring.

“I did tell the truth,” Marie said in barely more than a whisper. She could feel her heart beating in her throat and her palms beginning to sweat.

“So you’re calling me a liar then?” Robert said taking the black belt off the hook on the wall next to the closet. The clinking of the buckle made her stomach turn over.

“I’m n-n-not calling you a liar,” she stuttered.

“Then whose telling the truth?” he said smoothly moving towards her. She hesitated to answer, her tongue practically glued to the dry roof of her mouth. Robert made the belt into a loop. “You better answer me.”

You are telling the truth,” Marie said backing away.

“So you lied then?” he said looking from her to her mother as if to make sure that Yvonne was hearing this.

Marie hesitated again. He raised the belt. His face turned red and the look in his eyes was terrifying.

“Yes!” she yelped, “I lied!” That was the first moment during the interrogation that she actually felt guilty. She knew God hated liars, Robert had told them that so many times. But she justified it to herself. To Robert, the truth was a lie so she couldn’t be sinning if she told him whatever the truth was to him.

Robert grinned, handed off the black belt to Yvonne, and took a brown one off the hook.

“Take her in the bathroom,” he said nodding towards the hall, “I’ll deal with this one,” he said waving the belt at Jason.

Yvonne opened her mouth as if to protest but Robert didn’t even let her start, “These kids have to learn that there are consequences for being disobedient.”

So Yvonne did as she was told and took Marie into the bathroom locking the door behind them. Marie started to cry silently as her heart pounded harder in her throat. She knew this was going to hurt. Her mother never hit as hard as Robert but her whips still stung pretty badly.

“Pull your pants down,” Yvonne said—a little louder than she needed to.

Marie could already hear Jason screaming back in the bedroom. No matter how much they fought and drove each other crazy, the sounds of Jason being beaten made Marie hurt and cry even more for him. It was always worse when the belt hit their bare skin, like it was hitting Jason’s then. Marie knew Jason’s underwear was down solely from the noise the belt was making. It wasn’t the muffled thump it made against layers of clothes, but the sharp slap of leather on flesh. Marie’s hands shook as she pulled her own underwear down, goose bumps forming on her bottom as she turned it towards her mother—and the belt. Marie tightened her butt cheeks, closed her eyes, and waited for her mother to hit her.

“Scream,” Marie heard Yvonne whisper into her ear. Marie opened her eyes confused but just in time to see the belt hit the toilet seat. Then she understood and she screamed. Every time her mother hit the toilet seat Marie screamed. When Yvonne was done, Marie turned back around and smiled at her. Marie tried to whisper thank you, but Yvonne told her to hush.

“Don’t tell Daddy about this, okay?” she whispered, but for Marie that went without saying. Yvonne stared at the floor as she waited for Robert to stop beating Jason. “I wish I could have…,” she mumbled. Marie waited in the bathroom with Yvonne until Jason’s screams were reduced to whimpers and Marie could hear the clinking of the belt returning to its hook.

Robert sent them back out into the yard for the rest of the day. They continued the weeding extra slowly to make sure they didn’t have any more accidents. At three o’clock, they waved goodbye to their mother as she got in the red Saturn Mercier had given her to leave for nursing school. Yvonne was taking evening and night classes for her vocational nursing license. It was always hard for Marie to watch her mother leave them, but on days like this it was even more difficult. Robert could truly do whatever he wanted when Yvonne wasn’t home, and Marie wasn’t entirely sure if Robert was done punishing them for that morning.

But Robert didn’t say a word to them until he called them in for dinner. They came inside and took turns washing all the dirt from their hands. While Marie was waiting behind Jason, she got a look at what was on the stove. There was a pan of meat loaf that Robert had made—she knew it was his doing because it was smothered in ketchup which Yvonne hated. Beside the pan was a small rusty pot filled with a mix of corn and peas, and next to that was a pot of yams. There were hardly any dishes Robert made that they really liked but there was no food in all the world Marie and Jason hated more than his yams. Robert knew it, but he didn’t care. Yvonne usually wouldn’t let him give them the yams, but she wasn’t there to save them this time. As Marie washed her hands, she hoped against doubt that Robert would be merciful and leave the yams off their plates.

They sat down on the floor in front of the coffee table with all the picture frames and waited for Robert to bring their dinner. The album with the mouse on the moon that had acted as a reflector for the TV was no longer there. Robert had moved it as soon as he discovered their use for it even though neither of them had ever spilled anything while looking at it.

“You have thirty minutes,” Robert said setting a plate down in front of each of them. Both plates had a heaping pile of yams. Marie and Jason set to work tackling the meat loaf first, then the mixed veggies, before finally beginning to nibble their way through the yams. In addition to being a picky eater, Marie didn’t do too well with large meals. Most days that Robert gave them a time limit that Marie knew she couldn’t meet, she would wrap her excess food up in her napkin or beg Jason to eat it for her. Yvonne had taught her how to do it smoothly so she wouldn’t get caught. But with so many yams and Jason barely being able to keep his down, she was beginning to panic.

“Five minutes,” Robert called out from the bedroom where he was laying down, his face hidden behind the Bible.

“Please Jason, I can’t finish them,” she whispered inching her plate of remaining yams closer to his. He had only one piece left to go of his own yams and shook his head hard as he stared at Marie’s plate. She was almost in tears by then. She couldn’t imagine trying to shovel all the yams down in the little time she had left. And she was deathly afraid of vomiting. A few months prior she had had a bad experience doing that in the middle of the night. Her mother had heard her retching and had gotten up to see if she was ok. Initially she was. She had vomited a little pile in her hands, and only one kernel of the corn she had for dinner managed to end up on her pillow case. Yvonne had her wash up, then she left Marie with a small trash can that she told her to use if she had to throw up more. Not long after her mother had gone back to bed did Marie start vomiting again only this time she couldn’t breathe. The pasty mass had gotten caught in her throat. It wasn’t until she managed a cough that she was finally able to bring it up. The experience lasted maybe only a few seconds, but that was enough to make her dread throwing up forever after. The idea of being out of control of her body—not able to breathe or call for help; she couldn’t go through that again even if it meant a beating from Robert.

“One minute,” he called from the bedroom.

“Please!” she whispered to Jason, tears free-flowing now.

He stared at his sister for a moment. Marie knew that he hated to see her cry, even if only in moments like this when they shared a common enemy. Jason grimaced down at the yams before shoveling all of them onto his plate.

“Thank you,” she whispered genuinely grateful to him.

He started eating them as fast as he could. But he wasn’t fast enough.

“Time’s up,” Robert called from the bedroom. Marie could almost feel her heart slam against her ribs as she heard the slopping of the waterbed and the shuffling of Robert’s feet as they found their way into his slippers. She looked at the yams. There were way too many left. She looked at their napkins. They were filled to bursting with the yams they had already hidden in them. She looked at Jason.

“Why aren’t you finished?” Robert barked standing over Jason.

“I’m full,” Jason moaned.

“That’s a lie,” Robert said, “You could eat like a pig if I gave you cake and ice cream all day like your grandmother does. Finish your food!”

Jason picked up his fork again and put a small piece of yam in his mouth.

“Don’t play with me!” Robert yelled, “I said finish it!”

Jason took another piece almost as small as before. Robert reached down suddenly and snatched the fork from him. Marie scooted away terrified of whatever Robert was about to do. He stabbed half of the remaining yams onto the fork, grabbed Jason’s cheeks forcing his mouth open, and shoved them all into his mouth.

“Eat it!” he yelled.

Jason’s face was completely red, his cheeks were bulging and stained with tears. But Robert just stabbed more yams onto the fork and shoved them into Jason’s mouth before he even had a chance to chew the others.

Marie couldn’t watch anymore. She closed her eyes and covered her ears. But she could still hear Robert’s muffled yelling. She was crying by then. This is my fault. Daddy’s doing this to Jason because of me.

“Clean that mess up!” Robert yelled after he yanked one of Marie’s hands away from her ears. She looked up to see that the table and Jason were covered in slimy chunks of yams mingled with partially digested meatloaf and mixed vegetables. The look on Jason’s face wasn’t accusatory or angry when our eyes met, just sad. Marie wanted so badly to tell him how sorry she was but that was impossible with Robert still in ear shot.

“When you’re done, both of you take your showers and go to bed,” Robert commanded as they hurried back and forth getting paper towels and old rags to mop the table.

It was five o’clock in the evening when Marie and Jason were all cleaned up and lying on the futon that Yvonne had taught them to pull out into a bed. Robert had closed himself up in the bedroom so he wouldn’t have to look at them. Marie stared out into the kitchen that was still bright with sunlight gleaming through the window over the sink. It was so quiet in the house that she could hear other children outside playing and screaming with laughter, the mariachi music of their Mexican neighbors, and the chirps of the sparrows outside the front door in the bird houses Yvonne had made for them out of hollow gourds. It was like there was a whole other world outside that gloomy house. Marie just wished she was out there.

When she was pretty sure that Robert wasn’t coming back out of the bedroom anytime soon, she turned to Jason.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

“It’s ok,” he said still looking miserable.

“Let’s see if we can stay awake until Mommy gets home,” she said knowing that would make him smile. Whenever their mother had class, they would compete to see which of them could manage to wait up for her. Most days Robert sent them to bed at seven or eight so they only had to lie bored in the dark for a few hours before Yvonne got home. Marie imagined how funny it must have been for her mother to walk in the door in the middle of the night and see two little munchkins that were perfectly faking sleep pop wide awake and start waving at her. Their efforts were always rewarded since Yvonne would let them watch TV with her until they fell asleep for real. Occasionally, Robert would come out of the bedroom. But Yvonne had taught her children well. They knew not to make any sudden movements—besides snapping their eyes shut, of course. And if Robert called their names, they weren’t supposed to answer the first time, just groggily stir a little the second time, and only answer slowly if he called a third time. When done correctly, her teachings always worked well to fool him.

“I can stay awake,” Jason whispered back to her and they both turned to face the Felix the Cat clock on the wall. They had about six hours to go before their mother got home. So they just watched the tail and eyes of the cat swishing back and forth with every second, listened to the laughter of the children outside, and together they waited.