Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ephemeral Chapter I

Chapter One

My black leather boots sloshed through the deep, cold puddles as I made my way home. Dwelling on the idea of the shoes being ruined was the last thing I should have been thinking about—but these were my favorite boots. The closer I came to the cul-de-sac up ahead, the harder my heart pounded and the thoughts of my footwear completely faded. Of all the places in the world, one would think that my house would be the last place I would hate to return to at the end of a long day.
Even from here—at least twenty feet away—I could see the red ember hovering in front of the house. I hesitated for a moment, standing stock-still while the rush of water splashed at my feet and soaked into the soles of my shoes. I contemplated turning around and running in the opposite direction, but I had nowhere else to go to this hour. I had barely begun my job at the library and wasn’t expecting a check for another week. There was no money for a hotel. I inhaled deeply and resumed my walking, knowing that tonight would be scarcely any different from any other.
Thunder rolled across the dark gray sky, and I shuddered as the breeze picked up; the weather was perfectly reflecting my emotions. I could see him now, sitting on the stoop of the beige-painted house. My eyes quickly glanced at the cigarette resting on his bottom lip, then slowly rose up to meet his dark, blue eyes—their bloodshot lines seemed to underline his thoughts.
“Where’ve you been?” he asked in a slurred voice, standing up and wobbling slightly to the left, evidence that he had carried on with his nightly routine.
“I was at work, and then I stopped at the hospital to check on Mia’s mom,” I said, staring down at my soggy boots and grimacing.
“Yer way past yer curfew, Vicky.”
I hated it when my dad referred to me by that awful nickname. I didn’t have the energy or interest to bother mentioning that I hadn’t had a curfew in almost three years. It amazed me how the time and year seemed to disappear in his drunken state—I wasn’t sixteen anymore, how didn’t he see that?
“Do ya hear me?” he grunted and reached to hold onto something, but there was nothing within his grasp.
I reflected for a moment on a time when there used to be a metal arbor that arched over the stoop, decorated with recently blossomed roses that my step-mother had grown. It had been nearly fourteen years since Brandy divorced my dad, but only a few years since he tore down the arbor in a drunken fit. He wobbled dangerously close to the edge of the stoop but managed to balance himself enough to avoid tumbling over into the wet grass.
“Dad, I’m tired… and I know you are, too…” I began, but he turned toward me with an angry glare and I paused.
“I spent the whole day,” I noted how he exaggerated the ‘o’ sound in ‘whole’, “workin’ at the lumber mill, and I expected to come home to dinner—but you weren’t here. I work my ass off for fourteen hours a day, and you… you don’t even care enough to make me food!” He paused for the briefest of moments before scoffing. “You’re damn right I’m tired!”
Opening my mouth to respond was easily the worst mistake I had made this evening. Before a single word made it out, I had felt my dad’s calloused hand swipe across the side of my face. The warmth of the burning mark left on my cheek barely fazed me. Images swam through my head as soon as our skin touched—my father, lying limply on our ratty old sofa, a cigarette hanging loosely between his fingers. The cigarette falling to the carpet and flames slowly climbing the sides of the couch and onto his unconscious body. I could feel the smoke irritating my eyes, nose, and throat, and I gasped for air.
“Vicky? Oh, Vicky… I didn’t mean-” my dad’s voice called to me and pulled me out of the vision.
It’s always the same, any time we touch—the couch, the fire, the uncontrollable feeling that I’m choking on my last breath as the smoke consumes me…
Shaking my head at his apologetic look, I ran past him, into the house and ignored the furious voice calling after me.
My bedroom was my haven, the only escape I had from my dad and life in general. Our house was small, but big enough to hold a two-person family. There was only one bedroom, one tiny bathroom, a cramped kitchen, a sad excuse for a living room, and nowhere for a dining room table. The place that I called ‘my room’ was an unfinished basement under the house.
As soon as my feet met the cool stone floor of the basement, I tugged off my soggy boots and threw them at the base of the stairs in anger. My cheek burned but it wasn’t just that, I hated it when he touched me at all. I hated the suffocating vision it plunged me into.
Balancing on one leg at a time, I struggled to pull the wet fabric of my socks from my feet without falling over. I steadied myself against my dresser, then finally threw the socks toward my seeping boots. They made a squishing sound as they landed. Carefully, I pulled my messenger bag from around my shoulder over my head and placed it on the dresser. I hurried to open it, dreading to see what the rain had done to the contents. I pushed a couple of wet library books out of the way and grimaced at the thought of having to pay for the ruined texts. My paycheck would probably be small enough already without these being taken out of it. I smiled, however, when I saw that my prized possession had managed to avoid anything more than a few drops on its casing—my camera. It was something I took with me almost any time I left home, just in case I came across something worth taking a picture of. It was also the only way I could touch people without seeing more than I wanted.
I wiggled out of the rest of my clothing, which took more effort than it ought to due to the rain. Once I was dried off and in a comfortable pair of cotton pajama shorts and a T-shirt, I fell backward onto my small mattress and let out a heavy sigh.
Crying wasn’t something I often did—even after all of the things I had been through in my short nineteen years of living, it was something I avoided. But tonight, it would seem that I didn’t have the will to hold back the flood of tears. I usually tried to make it home before my dad did in order to avoid any confrontations with him, but seeing my best friend Mia’s mom was far more significant to me. She had been in a coma for the past month and a half after experiencing a sudden, severe seizure that left her unconscious on the kitchen floor. She suffered some bad head trauma and the doctors were worried that there may have been some memory loss. Mia always wanted me to go with her to see her mom. I didn’t blame her, and I knew she’d have done the same for me. If I still had a mother.
I carefully swung my legs over the edge of my mattress and climbed the stairs that could potentially lead to another argument. Waiting outside the door, I listened closely for any sign that my dad was awake. The golden sound of silence reached my ears, and I slowly slid the door open. I rushed across the living room and into our tiny bathroom. Tiny… what a poor choice of a word to describe the bathroom in that house—minuscule was more suiting. It was so small that it would make a claustrophobic person panic as soon as they entered. The toilet was cramped up against the wall, giving you barely any space to move around while using it. There was a sink barely big enough to wash your hands, and the tiniest excuse for a shower I had ever seen.
Grabbing a plain white wash cloth, I soaked it in soap and water then ran the warm fabric across my face, wiping away the mess of mascara my tears had made. I winced when the cloth touched the spot my dad had hit, having briefly forgotten it was even there. I stopped to examine the mark in the mirror—it was bright red and already swollen. I would be getting plenty of questions about it in the morning. I quickly brushed my teeth, ran a comb through my wavy, cherry red hair, used the restroom, and washed my hands before sneaking quietly out and back down to the basement.
Sleep didn’t come easily, but it was rare that it did. I could hear the rain pounding loudly against the shed in the backyard, followed by a tree limb scraping against the tin siding as the wind rustled through the branches. The air was chillier than usual, so I gathered an extra blanket off of the floor that I usually discarded at night. Wrapping up in the thick cloth, I thought back to when Mia’s mom knitted it for me when I was sick with pneumonia two years ago. The fabric was soft and colorful, contrasting against my otherwise black bedding, and it easily warmed me through the cold.
When I finally fell asleep, it was well after three AM. It seemed like only seconds before I was startled awake by movement and a silhouette sitting on my bed. It took me a moment to comprehend that the blanket was over my eyes, and the figure was that of my dad. I tore the fabric away from my face and stared blankly at the disgruntled man before me. He wasn’t aware that I had woken up, his face was turned toward the ground and rested in his palms. Stubbles of graying hair marked his tan skin; his hard life was causing him to show age sooner than most. A trait, like his complexion, I hoped I would never obtain—my skin was as pale as a ghost, regardless how often I was outside in the sun. I shifted slowly into a sitting position and took a deep breath.
“Dad…” I started, but he quickly interrupted me.
“Vicky, I’m sorry, for everything. You deserve so much better… so much more than I can give you.”
Typical. I had heard this from him enough to recite in my head what he would say next.
“Don’t worry about it, dad.”
“It’s just… ever since Brandy left, things’ve been so hard.”
Brandy… now there was a name I would gladly have forgotten. It wasn’t that I disliked Brandy—she was a good woman, a good wife, and I would even go so far as to say she was a good step-mother. That is, had she not divorced my father and left him to raise a six-year-old by himself. I couldn’t blame her entirely, though. When my dad got together with Brandy, it was more out of desperation than anything. He was a single parent, barely making it by on his own, and that is where Brandy fit in. She became the babysitter I would have for six years and refer to as ‘mom’. They had nothing in common, and as far as my dad goes, he felt nothing romantically toward her. Or at least, that is what he had said ever since she left.
The only reason that this woman’s name made me uncomfortable was the terrifying memory that came to mind anytime I thought of her.
I was right on the verge of turning six when she brought home an adorable butterscotch-colored rabbit from the pet store she worked at. At the time, I was thrilled—what little girl wouldn’t have been? That was until Brandy handed over the bunny… images flashed through my head: a dog leaping over the fence in the backyard, grabbing the bunny between its jaws and violently shaking it until the creature could no longer breathe. I could literally feel the terror of the animal, my heart raced overwhelmingly fast, and I felt a subtle burn along my abdomen as though I was sharing its pain and fear. Hysterically, I threw the bunny into my step-mother’s hands and ran to my room. She left my father not long after that incident, and at times I feel that it was my fault they broke up. I knew he felt that way too.
“We both know this has nothing to do with her,” I muttered and avoided looking at him. “I don’t want to get into an argument, so let’s just leave it alone.”
“I brought you something,” he said, ignoring my remark. “I know it won’t make up for anything… but, here. Just like you like it.”
“Thanks,” I laughed and wrapped my fingers around the width of a Styrofoam coffee cup. I took a long swig of the warm liquid—not too hot to burn my tongue, just right—and sighed contentedly at the taste of sugar and cream. “I’m going to need this today.”
“Didn’t sleep well again?”
I shook my head and took another gulp of coffee. “The wind was bugging me. We need to cut the limbs off that tree or something. It sounds like a gun going off when they get slammed into the shed.” I took another quick sip. “Sadly, I don’t think it’d look very good for the new girl to be dozing off on the job.”
“You could always call in sick and get some rest.”
While a nap sounded enticing, the more I worked, the more money I would make, and the sooner I could move out into my own apartment. “Nah,” I said as I slid the coffee cup onto my nightstand, beside an illuminated fish tank, and gathered a container from the drawer. I sprinkled a few pellets from the container into the small aquarium and watched my dark blue Siamese Fighting Fish swim up to the surface and nab a few. He was the only pet I would allow my dad to get for me—the man was insistent that I have some sort of companion to keep me company, and I refused anything that required physical contact—making Indigo the perfect pet. “I’m going to get ready to go to the library, thanks again for the coffee.”
My dad nodded, letting his eyes linger on me for a second before he climbed up the stairs and shut the basement door. I quickly checked my phone to see if I missed any important messages or phone calls—but there were few notifications, a text from Mia saying thanks for last night, and a bad joke from Eric. Eric had, without a doubt, one of the corniest senses of humor of anyone I had ever known—but he made an excellent friend. I was glad he was my manager.
I plucked one of my boots from beside the door and sighed before letting it fall back onto the floor. It was still soaking wet from the night before. I would have to settle for a pair of sneakers today.
After undressing from my pajamas, I pulled on a black and white striped T-shirt and a pair of dark jeans, then slid my feet into some lime green ankle socks and old sneakers that I avoided as much as possible. A spare set of boots was one of the first items on my ‘To Buy List’ upon receiving my first paycheck. I gathered the coffee from my nightstand and made my way up the creaky old stairs and to the bathroom to finish getting ready. I tried the best I could to conceal my red, puffy cheek. This was impossible with how light my skin was.
As I made my way outside, my eyes quickly scanned over the yard—soaking wet as usual. The beautiful black and silver motor scooter in the driveway made me forget all about the weather and even the lack of my comfortable boots. It had been a gift from my grandma Loretta for graduating high school—I promised her that if she got it for me, I would use it to apply for jobs around town, and I had kept my word. I spent two weeks after graduation riding around Hazel Grove applying everywhere that I could. There were some age restrictions here and there, like having to be over twenty-one to work in the convenience stores that carried alcohol, but I actually managed to get four interviews during the course of those two weeks. After what had seemed like forever, the library finally called me, and there was no way I was going to reject that offer.
Before straddling the bike, I swallowed the remainder of my drink and tossed the cup in the large green garbage can by the sidewalk. Water splashed off the closed lid as it swung back, landing dangerously close to yet another pair of footwear. I breathed a sigh of relief before squishing my black helmet onto my head. I didn’t know why I ever bothered brushing my hair before work; it always came out of that thing mangled.
The library was peaceful and comforting—even with the occasional rowdy child making lots of noise and getting dragged out, kicking and screaming, by their parents. It was the place I felt the safest outside of my bedroom. The staff was a tight-knit group—me, Eric, Amy, and the seldom seen William. Will was what you would call a slacker. He had become a member of the staff about three days after I had, and he rarely showed up for work. I didn’t expect him to have the job for much longer. I couldn’t have been more right.
“Good morning, Tori!” Eric greeted me with a wide smile. He had a beautiful grin with pearly white teeth, although a couple of them were crooked. I was always envious of his good mood, but that’s what you get paid for here, friendly service.
“Hey,” I replied with a brief smile, doing my best to avoid letting him see the welt on my cheek. “Any sign of Will this morning?”
I asked the same thing every work day; it was kind of like a joke amongst us, to see just how long it would be until his job here ended.
“Matter a fact,” Amy butted in, coming from the lobby with a handful of print-out coloring pages for kids. “He finally called in to say he was quittin’.”
My jaw fell in shock. “Really?”
“Yep. We’re hopin’ to find someone new to fill his position soon.”
Will’s position was an easy one. He was a library aide, mostly responsible for collecting the books from the drop-off, sorting the shelves, and sometimes he was needed to monitor the computer labs. I mentally noted that I should suggest that Mia apply, although she seemed to be satisfied at her cashier job at the supermarket.
There was no need for many more staff members than the four—now three—of us, especially with the recent addition of the computerized self-checkout system. It was better this way, with a tight-knit group that was familiar with each other. The only reason I was lucky enough to be hired on here was because the person I replaced had moved out of state. I didn’t get specifics on why Sarah left, but I could vaguely remember seeing her from time to time when I would stop in to check out a book. It always felt like someone was moving away from town.
I heard a long, heavy sigh from beside me and cringed when I saw Amy looking directly at the spot on my cheek. Quickly, I covered it with my hand and glanced away, even though it was too late now—she’d already seen it. She gestured for me to follow her into the lobby, shaking her head sympathetically.
“Tell me your daddy didn’ hit you, Tori,” she said in her thick Southern accent after we were in the lobby.
I’d only been here a week, and Amy and I were already pretty close. The second day I came into work, I had a black eye, and she was at my side at once, asking questions and I couldn’t stop myself from blurting out the whole story. She was a mother of two boys—one starting middle school and another a little younger—and despite how short of a length of time we had known each other, she was more than willing to offer me a place on her couch. It was a tempting offer, but I always declined.
“It’s not a big deal, Amy,” I muttered, letting her inspect the wound with her eyes. I had the staff convinced that I was obsessive-compulsive about others touching me, and they respected my wish not to be touched.
“Don’ ya be tellin’ me it ain’t a big deal, young lady! Ya don’ deserve this kind a nonsense, an’ if ya don’ call the police soon, I will.”
I shook my head. “I really wish you wouldn’t. It’s fine—really…I can handle it. Just a few more weeks here and I can start looking into moving. It… it was more my fault anyway.” As soon as I had said that, I wished I hadn’t.
“Oh no it damned well wasn’t! Unless you up and attacked him or somethin’. ‘Course I wouldn’t blame you if you did.”
“No… nothing like that. Like I said, I’ll be out of there soon.”
“Yeah, and I hope it ain’t in a body bag. Now like I’ve told ya before, come stay with me an’ the boys, we’ll take care a ya until ya find a place.”
This was the third time she’d offered since I began working here.
“I don’t want to be a burden, Amy. I’ll take care of it.”
She sighed in defeat and went to wrap her arms around me, forgetting my ‘illness’. I feigned a cough and narrowly escaped seeing the woman’s death. I wouldn’t be able to handle such an image. Amy was someone that I hoped would live to be a hundred or more, a great grandmother who had lived a long, fruitful life. She would be surrounded by family and friends when the time came…I couldn’t bear to witness the reality of it. Even if it was something as natural as dying in her sleep, it was something I wanted to put off knowing for as long as possible—forever, even.
“Don’ let Eric be seein’ that. He’ll be real mad.”
I laughed for a moment and contemplated the idea of Eric being mad. He fortunately wasn’t on shift the day I came in with the black-eye, as he’d been on vacation for half of the week, but I still couldn’t picture him being angry. He was the kind of guy anyone could feel at ease around—light-hearted, funny, and childlike. He fit perfectly in the library, and I admired him more than once indulging in story time with the children. I had a hunch he may have liked the silly stories as much as the little ones. He was an animated person, skilled at making even the dullest of kid’s books seem entertaining. It surprised me that he didn’t have kids of his own, but maybe there was some underlying reason for it. As far as I knew, he wasn’t in a relationship, but I’d never really taken the time to ask… it didn’t feel like it was my business. For all I knew, he was incapable of having kids or was happier being surrounded by other people’s children in the workplace and not having to worry about the duties of actually raising them.
“I’ll try my best to make sure he doesn’t notice… we’d better get out there before he comes to see what’s going on.”
Amy nodded in agreement, and the two of us hurried out of the lobby. Eric was on the other side of the library, assisting an elderly woman reach a book from a high shelf. I recognized her quickly as Mrs. Drewitz, the oldest living woman in Hazel Grove. Her husband was the mayor for twenty years, making her name and face easily recognizable throughout town. The mayor had unfortunately passed away years ago. I watched them for a moment before turning my attention to the counter. A young boy was waiting for help, and Amy was nowhere to be seen.
“Good morning,” I said calmly as I situated myself behind the desk. “How may I help you?”
“I wanna check out this book,” he said and handed over his library card and a picture book with a dinosaur on the cover. I was very careful not to touch his hand during the transfer.
With a quick swipe, I ran the card through the system and scanned the book. It was pretty shocking to me that so few people bothered to use the automated checkout stand. More often than not, the customers came to the desk. I assumed it was because they were all nervous about trying out the new machine. Every now and then I would see someone bravely approach it and nervously make their own transaction, and it was admittedly very funny.
“There you go,” I offered the book back to the boy.
“Thank you, ma’am.” he said politely and ran out the automatic doors.
“Well done, Miss Aldrich,” Eric commented as he strode over and stashed a couple of books on the cart of items that needed re-shelved.
“Hard to believe, huh?” I commented, turning my head so that he couldn’t see the mark my dad had inflicted.
“Only five days of working and three days of training and you’ve already mastered it,” he grinned. “Not that hard though, huh? Haven’t mastered the scenery around you yet though I guess.”
My eyes followed the direction of his pointer finger, and I gulped. Surely enough, there was my face staring back at me on a large mirrored glass. “Oops.”
“Amy told me about the eye, too,” he stated and turned his attention to an approaching woman.
I tried to slip away before he was done with the transaction for the woman, but he had the books and a receipt passed over to her before I had a chance to make a move. “If I had time this morning, I’d have covered it up with makeup…”
“You can’t spend your life covering things up, Victoria. Something needs to be done about this. I know he’s your dad, but he’s abusing you and things are only going to get worse.”
He was right, of course. I knew for years that I was living in a poor situation that I needed desperately to get out of, but there was nothing I could do about it. Grandma Loretta did what she could to support me and to keep me safe from my dad, but it wasn’t enough. I spent more time in her house than my own, but there was always something that made me go back—especially on days like last night. She lived all the way across town, which she kept telling me was no longer a good excuse now that I had my scooter. The more I thought about it, the more I knew why I always went back to him in the end—I felt like I needed to help him, despite what he put me through. Without me, he’d have no one to feed him. Without me, he’d be lonely. Without me there would be no one to stop the fire.
“He needs me,” I muttered aloud, completely to my surprise.
Eric gave me a stern expression that one would expect from a parent. “He doesn’t need you, Tori, he needs a doctor. He needs help in ways that you can’t provide. And if you’re worried he might hurt himself or something—well then you ought to see about turning him in somewhere.”
I had thought of this before. Without me with him, there would be no telling what he might do to himself. I’d heard enough suicide threats from him to know that he wasn’t likely to go through with anything, plus I knew just how he would die, but something kept me from letting him be alone.
“I’ll be out of there once I can support myself, I promise.”
What would make abandoning him any easier then, than now? It was times like this that I wished Brandy would make an appearance in our lives again. He wasn’t such a mess until after they divorced… but there was no counting on that. Not after fourteen years. I didn’t even know where she was now; I could barely even recall what she looked like.
“If you’re not out of there by the end of the month, Amy and I will be getting you out. One way or the other.”
I stared glumly at my reflection, tracing my finger along my cheek. “I won’t stop you,” I replied and returned to my false happy exterior as the old lady from earlier approached the counter.


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