This story is by Michael Guishard and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The two children sat, hand in hand, huddled together in a dark corner of the basement. The girl began squirming, in obvious discomfort. She had to use the restroom. They both did. She said she was ‘OK’, but her brother could tell by the perspiration on her hands, the need was becoming quite urgent. They heard the lock snap, just before the basement door was suddenly yanked open, letting in a shaft of dim light.
A woman walked down the stairs quickly. She placed a jug of spring water and a box of cheese crackers on the floor before them, “Here’s dinner” she said, turning to climb the stairs again.
“Ma,” the boy said, now on his feet, “We need to pee”.
The woman shuddered as though hit by an electric shock. She turned sharply to face him.
“What?! What did you call me?!!” she seethed
The boy lowered his eyes, withered by her glare.
She loped toward him, and he braced himself for a coming blow.
“There, in that corner, is my bathroom” she pointed to the opposite end of the unlit room, “There are no lights on down here, and I swear to God, if you piss on my floor…” and with that, she turned and stomped up the stairs, slamming the door with such force that he scarcely believed it could ever be opened again.
They held hands again, Abel and his twin sister, Ida, and together they groped around in the unfamiliar darkness until they came upon the bathroom. Despite there being no power, they were relieved to find running water to flush the toilet and wash their hands.
With their fingers still entwined, they stumbled back to the corner where they had been before, as the small window there was the only source of light in the otherwise pitch black room. Ida tore open the box of crackers, and she made sure her ‘little brother’ got the first fist full. She was older by about 11 minutes, but despite that, Abel generally took the lead. Later, when they were much older, Ida would speculate it was because he still had to fight to make it to the world she had already been safely born into. Struggle had been his first teacher, and, along with his dear sister, his most constant companion.
Their parents had divorced amicably when the twins were toddlers, and shared joint custody with no issues. During the Fall and Winter, they lived with the mother primarily, but split weekends and holidays with the father, who, at 6’7”, 230lbs was an imposing figure, but loving and gentle. Dad also kept them for most of the Summer. That arrangement had worked from Pre-Kindergarten through first grade, but in the beginning of the current school year, the mother had begun to change. She had started locking the children in their rooms when they came from school, neglecting to feed them, or clean their clothes. She would fly into a rage at the sound of their laughter, and lately, even their voices seemed to provoke her.
The father noticed that she seemed more and more agitated when he came to get the children on weekends. She would send them off shabbily dressed, with bags full of filthy clothes. The breaking point came when he picked them up for Labor Day weekend. The children hurried to the car silently, dragging behind them their suitcases of dirty laundry. When he’d driven around the corner and the mother’s house faded from view, they both burst into tears. Apparently, she had threatened to kill them if they ever soiled her bathtub again; as a consequence, they hadn’t bathed that entire week. The father vowed that was the last time they would ever set foot in her house.
Then came the storm of court battles, with confusing terms like ‘emotional abuse’ and ‘unfit mother’ swirling about the children’s heads.
“What do they mean mommy is ‘unfit’?” Ida had whispered to her brother
“I think they mean she needs sommore exercise” Abel replied
“Oh” she said, both of their small faces creased with worry.
They sat on a sofa in the attorney’s office, wearing their Sunday’s best, holding each other’s hands tightly as they often did during times of uncertainty.
The father had explained that the mother was feeling “…really sad right now”, but hopefully she would be better soon and find her way back. “Y’all know she loves you very, very much, right? And she’s gonna try really hard to get herself better, OK?” they stared up at him, then nodded in unison.
“But you know what?” he stooped down to be closer to them, “Now you guys get to stay with me and your Grandma all the time. That’s gonna be cool, right?” he said, a weariness behind his smile. “Yeah” the children replied quietly, and then wrapped their tiny arms around the gigantic man’s neck as he hugged them tightly.
In the weeks that followed, the twins started settling in to their new life, living with the father and his mother. Grandma took care of them until the father came home from work in the evening. She made sure they ate, were clean, and that they had playtime, with one rule: “…laugh as loud as you can”.
And even when the mother showed up one stormy night, cursing and raving, Grandma still made sure the twins clasped their hands, and included ‘God bless Mommy’ in their prayers before settling down to go to sleep. “She’s just tryna find her way back, babies.”, Grandma said “And she will, with God’s help”.
The twins were about to turn 8 years old. The father and grandmother were planning a birthday bash for them. All their friends would be invited to the party planned for Saturday; that Wednesday, the mother came to the house, pointed a gun at Grandma, and took the children.
Ida and Abel rode in a car trunk for what felt like forever. The faint smell of gasoline was becoming unbearable, when the car stopped. She led them into a house they’d never seen before, their little feet crunching leaves on an unusually warm Autumn evening. It was dark outside. It had been dark in the trunk. And now there they were, huddled together, in the dark basement.
The father sat dazed as a flurry of activity took place all around him. Grief had drained the color from his face, and he couldn’t bring himself to look at his poor mother, who was, herself, a puddle of tears.
Police officers and plain-clothes detectives asked him questions his mind couldn’t register, and after countless hours of this, he couldn’t recall if he’d ever left that chair at the kitchen table.
Relatives saw to it that Grandma ate and rested. They had thought to try with him too, but it was clear he wouldn’t. He was lost in his frightful thoughts, agonizing over the fate of his children.
The lead detective advised him to get some sleep, after assuring him the police “…wouldn’t rest until his children were found and home safe”
“Then neither will I,” the father said, voice hoarse from exhaustion.
He sat alone at the kitchen table, watching from the window as the last squad car pulled away.
The house was a tomb of silence. The ticking of the kitchen clock felt like a hammer striking his head. Each ‘tick’ signifying another second that he couldn’t hold his babies. Babies the fertility doctors gave them no hope of ever having.
It was just past midnight on Friday. He recalled that was when the mother had gone into labor with the twins almost 8 years ago. He cupped his hand tightly over his mouth and wept bitterly. Tears streamed down his face as he suppressed a wail – in effort not to wake Grandma.
At that moment, his cellphone vibrated, a call from an unknown number
“Martin?” it was the mother
“Yes, Shelley where are they?!”
“Martin, I’m – I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’m doing” she was sobbing
“Tell me where are you” he pleaded
“They did this to me – to us. I thought I had to punish them, because I knew you wouldn’t,” “But now, I – I don’t know…” her voice trailed
“Shelley? Where are the babies?! Shelley!!”
Sunlight filtered in through the basement window. Ida and Abel had taken turns using the bathroom, and were hoping the mother would arrive soon with something for them to eat. It had been a couple of days since the crackers and water.
Upstairs they could hear what sounded like multiple people running around.
After several minutes, the basement door lock clacked, and the door opened.
“Down there” they heard the mother say
Someone was slowly descending the stairs.
“Daddy?” Ida said before Abel looked up. The giant man ran to them, fell to his knees, and scooped them into his arms.
“Happy Birthday” he said, before wiping their tears and kissing their faces.