This story is by Christy Brown and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Steam rises from the tub. My second bath today. Sometimes, Mama makes me take as many as four. Mama says girls like me are like dirty plates; we both get sterilized between uses.
I dip my toe into the scalding water and pull my foot back. “It’s too hot.”
“Stop being a crybaby, Tessa. You’re 12. Start acting like it,” Mama says as she shoves me into the bathtub.
Stumbling forward, I slam my chin on the white tile wall. I lose my footing on the slick porcelain and crash, back first, sending a tidal wave of water sloshing over the edge of the tub.
Mama glares through droplets dangling from her bangs. The orange glow of the cigarette hanging from her chapped lips has gone dark. Her palm covers my face, and Mama submerges my head beneath the water.
My lungs burn, and I squirm to free myself. Mama releases me. I gasp for air and latch onto the side of the tub, gagging. Laney, my seven-year-old sister, stands in the archway. Her tangled golden locks hang down the front of her powder blue nightgown with an image of a fair-haired princess.
Mama peers over her shoulder. “Why you out of bed?”
Laney’s lip quivers. “I heard a monster.”
“There’s no such thing. Get back to bed.”
“Go,” I mouth to Laney.
Laney disappears. Her bare feet smack against the tile until a door slams. Someday, we’ll get away from Mama. But I’m afraid my freedom will come on the inside of a body bag.
I bite my lip as Mama drags a loofah over my bright pink skin. The grainy sponge digs deep and feels like it’s tearing the flesh from my bones, but I don’t dare cry.
“Get out,” she demands.
I stagger onto the cold floor. Mama shimmies my body with a terry towel then pushes me down on the toilet. She waves the hair dryer around my head. The heat burns my scalp as Mama’s rough hands tug at my chestnut strands. I squint and try not to wince. Mama doesn’t like when I move. Her hands are fast, and punishment is swift when I don’t do as she says.
She tosses the hair dryer aside and spritzes me with cheap perfume. The mist assaults my nostrils, making me sneeze until I can barely catch my breath. Mama laughs as she observes her handy work, smoothing down rebel pieces of hair. “Good enough.”
Mama lights another cigarette, closing her dark rimmed eyes as she takes a long drag. She ushers me from the bathroom to the linen closet and retrieves a small metal box filled with rubber tubes, needles, and the poison that leaves red holes in her veins.
Mama shoulders me into a door at the end of the hall then presses on to the living room where she places the tin on our battered coffee table. Her cigarette rolls from the overflowing ashtray, landing on the dingy area rug. Mama presses her lips together, and her fingers twitch at the edge of the lid. But Mama won’t get high until she collects money from the man coming to use my body.
“Mama!” I say pointing to the burning tan fibers.
“Shut up!” Mama sneers as she snatches the cigarette from the carpet then motions to the door. “Well, go on. Your dates on his way.”
I stumble across the dark room whose only light comes from a single street lamp in the parking lot. My knees brush over crusted, dark brown stains as I crawl across the bare mattress. Each spot is a reminder of the men who hurt me daily. Pulling a thin blanket around my body like a cocoon, I hide from the cold air blowing from the vents.
The door creaks. I scramble into the far corner, quaking. But instead of a grown man, Laney slips through the opening and pads across the carpet. “Tessa,” she whispers as she leaps into my arms.
“You shouldn’t be here,” I say. Laney curls into my lap. I press my lips to her head and recoil from the putrid smell of sour milk. “Wow. You need a shower.”
She shrugs. “Mama doesn’t make me shower like you used to.”
I skim my hand over Laney’s hair. Laney’s too young to remember Mama before the poison consumed her. Sometimes I have trouble remembering as well. “Alright, time for bed,” I say.
“I don’t want to,” she says.
I sigh. “Because of the monster?”
Laney frowns. “That was to make Mama stop hurting you. Besides, I’m not afraid. I’m a monster slayer.”
I chuckle. “Since when.”
Laney shifts onto her knees. “Yesterday. Officer Rodriguez told my class if someone’s being hurt, you should tell. Mrs. Anderson said letting an adult know makes us heroes, like the monster slayer in the book we’re reading.”
My breath catches in my chest. “Laney, you can’t.”
“But Mama’s friends make you cry.” Her blue eyes glisten.
Laney’s words make me cringe. Mama made her swear not to tell. “Promise you won’t say anything.”
Her bottom lip extends. “Okay.”
The door opens, and Laney seizes my arm. A man, double my height, stands next to Mama in faded jeans. I close my eyes and press my forehead to Laney’s, avoiding his gaze.
“Tessa,” she says in a weak voice.
I force a smile. “Go back to bed and close your ears.”
She nods then speeds to the doorway. Mama catches Laney, one handed, digging her fingers into my sister’s arm. Laney yelps and her tiny body shakes.
The man licks his lips. “She for sale?”
Mama smirks. “Not yet. Maybe soon.”
I pull the blanket tighter around myself. I was ten-years-old the first time Mama brought a man to me in the middle of the night. Laney will be lucky to see eight.
Mama tosses her aside, slamming her spine first into the hallway wall. “Get out of my sight.”
Laney buries her face in her little hands and runs. I let out a breath; she’s safe.
Mama retrieves a clear plastic container from the corner and holds it out. “You know the drill. Can’t have you damaging the merchandise.”
Like airport security, the man pulls his belt from the loops then drops his keys and a silver-handled blade, with diamond-like stones, into the container. He unlaces his boots and tosses them into the hall then begins to undress.
Mama shuts the door, and the enormous man’s feet land heavy as he crosses the room. The mattress bounces as the man collapses on me, knocking the air from my lungs. There’s pressure then pain. I stare at the plain wall as warm tears trickle down my face pooling in a spot on the material. I used to pray to God to make it stop, but he never answered. So, I pretend it’s not happening. Instead, I’m a kid, up past her bedtime, afraid of the monsters lurking in dark places.
Mama groans in the living room. The drugs are in control. Bare feet slap against the tile. The apartment grows quiet again. Quick footsteps run through the hall. There’s high pitch whine as the bathroom faucet bulks and water splashes into the sink. Laney’s bed time water. Mama forgot.
Breathless, the man moans and quivers, until he grows still. He rolls off me, leaving the stink of his sweat and cologne on my skin. He slides into his jeans then walks across the room without a word, leaving me in a heap, weeping.
“What the…” the man shouts. He grunts. Crash! The apartment shakes and wood snaps. Keys jingle, and the door slams.
I creep across my room, hunching over. My insides feel torn. A new smell burns inside my nose. Smoke! I inch out to the living room. Mama’s limp body slouches on the sofa. Blood spreads across her tee-shirt like spilled ink, and amber flames dance across the faded cushions and up Mama’s arm. A trail of red dots leads from the splintered pieces of the coffee table to the front door.
“Mama,” I croak. I wrap my arms across my chest, shoulder to shoulder, hugging myself. Mama looks small. Peaceful. She was as mean as they come, but she was still my mama.
Smoke rises from the couch, burning my eyes and lungs. Laney! I race down the hall, my heart thumping in my ears. “Laney, get up.” Laney sits up, rubbing her eyes. Her pink nightgown twisted from sleep. I throw the covers back and pull her to her feet. “We gotta go.”
My sister breaks free and swipes a nightgown from Mama’s bed. “Here.”
Mama can’t keep me naked anymore, but I hesitate, feeling the ghost of her hateful eyes as I wiggle into the flannel nightshirt.
Laney glues herself to my hip, and we dash into pure blackness. Running my trembling palm along the wall, I use the familiar corners and archways as a guide. Laney buries her face to my waist as we pass Mama’s glowing remains.
Outside, fire trucks invade the parking lot, dragging long hoses across the pavement. Streams of water douse the apartment building whose flames light up the night sky. I sit on the curb on the far side of the street, with Laney in my lap. I feel lighter as if I can breathe for the first time. Laney and I are alone, but we’re free.
A uniformed officer drops down next to us and squints at Laney. “I know you. Mrs. Anderson’s class.”
“You live here?” the officer asks.
“Yes,” Laney says in a meek voice.
She pulls a folded paper from her pocket. “I planned to visit your school when my shift ended in the morning.” The officer hands me the paper. “You must be Tessa. Mrs. Anderson gave this to me. I wasn’t sure if you were real but was worried.”
Drawn in crayon, is a picture of a chestnut-haired girl, with tears running down her cheeks. The name Tessa spelled out at the top, and the words, ‘Help me,” written below.
The back of my eyes sting. “Laney?”
“Mama said I couldn’t tell, so I drew a picture,” Laney says.
The officer smiles. “Your sister’s lucky to have you.” She narrows her brows. “Where’re your parents?”
Laney drops her chin. “The man that hurt Tessa stabbed Mama. She burnt up on the sofa.”
The officer’s eyes grow wide. “Stay put. I’ll be right back.” She rushes off to a cluster of blue and red flashing lights.
Laney lays her head on my chest as I comb my fingers through her knotted hair. “You don’t have to be scared of the man.”
“I’m not afraid. I made it up.”
“Made it up?”
“Yep, I slayed the monster. Now no one will hurt you.”
“That’s just make believe.”
Laney’s face pinches. “Is not!”
“You were in bed.”
“I snuck out.”
I frown. Laney couldn’t have killed Mama. All my muscles stiffen. Laney was wearing a blue nightgown, and now it’s pink. And someone was running through the hall earlier. I shake my head. “No, you got up for water.”
“Uh huh. That’s when I saw the dagger in the plastic box. It had shiny stones like the one the boy used in the story.” Laney slides from my lap. “Monster slayings messy.” She holds up her palms. “But look, I washed my hands without anyone making me.”
Numb head to toe, I stare at my sister. Laney did it; she killed Mama. A shiver runs through me. I’m unsure if Laney is the monster slayer or the monster.