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.

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.