This story is by Lorraine Johnston and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Sonya ‘s fingers deftly fed the fabric through the sewing machine’s needle. Rita came home drunk again last night. Only this time, she had been so drunk she was sick. Sonya sighed. She was going to have to talk to her about it again. Remind her what would happen if she got caught by their aunt and uncle.
She glanced at the high window. The fall sunlight was too weak to find its way into the basement, making it darker than it should be in the middle of the day. “A good metaphor for their lives” Sonya thought.
At 16, she felt more comfortable being alone than with other people. It wasn’t that she didn’t want friends. It was just that she didn’t want to give her aunt and uncle any chance to embarrass her in front of them.
When they had first arrived from the farm – two little girls aged 8 and 9 – they had behaved as they had been taught – politely and with deference. The first lesson was quickly administered – a mouth washing with soap because they didn’t like the answer to a question. It didn’t take long for their aunt and uncle to escalate the punishment to beatings, banishments and hours-long lectures. Sonya still couldn’t understand why Rita and her had to leave the farm and the foster family they loved. They were happy there.
Sonya decided in the early days to tell her aunt and uncle what they wanted to hear. Maybe that way, she would avoid some of the beatings some of the time. They called her a liar and beat her anyway.
Rita had taken a different approach. She was defiant and argued with them. Sonya admired her younger sister’s spirit and hated her for it at the same time. Rita’s defiance made their aunt and uncle angry, which meant that Rita’s beatings lasted longer and were more brutal. Sonya had begged Rita to keep quiet. Rita told her she couldn’t, that what they were doing was wrong. From that day, Sonya lied to her aunt and uncle whenever they asked her about Rita. It was the only way she knew to protect her. “Look after your sister” was the last thing her foster parents told her and even though Rita made it tough, Sonya did her best.
Sonya pinned the sleeves in place. She heard Rita moving about in the bedroom. Rita grunted “Good morning” on her way to the bathroom and then headed upstairs for toast and coffee. Fifteen minutes later, she was back.
“That feels better.”
“Where’d you go last night?” Sonya asked.
“Party at Jason’s place. You should have come with me. I had fun.”
“I cut out the dress last night. They want it finished by Friday.” Sonya replied.
“Miss goody two-shoes. You know they’re just using you for your sewing.”
Sonya didn’t respond. They left her alone when they needed her to sew and to Sonya, that was worth the price.
“Thanks for not telling them I was drunk.” Rita said.
“No problem. I told them you had the flu. Rita, you know you’re playing with fire. If they catch you, I am not going to be able to help you.”
“They won’t catch me. I’m hardly here. Just to sleep. Besides, I’ve got you to cover for me.”
“I can’t tell them you’ve got the flu every time you come home and throw up.”
“I know that. Besides, last night was different. I’m going to tell you something and you have to promise me you won’t tell.”
“Who would I tell?” Rita looked at her. “Okay fine.” Sonya said.
“I tried Ecstasy last night.”
“What? Rita, you be careful. People have died from using that stuff.”
“I just did a little bit. Don’t worry so much.”
“Promise me you won’t do it again. You’re the only sister I have. I don’t want to lose you.”
Rita walked away. Sonya stared after her.
Three weeks later, Sonya was at the sewing machine yet again. Arguments with Rita were an everyday occurrence now. Two days ago, one of the kids at school died after a party on the weekend. Rita said she didn’t know the girl. They hung out with a different crowd. She was convinced that her crowd was more careful. Sonya wasn’t so sure.
Sonya knew that Rita was using more. She had come home a few nights talking fast and bouncing all over the walls. Sonya didn’t know what time Rita went to bed. It had to be late because she couldn’t get up in the morning.
Rita hadn’t come home at all last night. It had happened before and even though it was worrisome, Sonya wasn’t really scared for her. That was before the death. Sonya pricked her finger. Rita could be lying in a hospital and she wouldn’t know. She didn’t want her sister to die. Rita could be frustrating, no doubt. And yet, she couldn’t imagine a life without her. Sonya needed to talk to somebody who could help Rita. Because if she didn’t do anything, death was most likely in Rita’s future and she couldn’t live with that.
She ran through her limited list of adults she knew. The priest was useless. He’d proven that when they had gone to him for help a year after they had arrived. He told them that they had to be better girls so that they wouldn’t get punished so much. Lois, the neighbor she babysat for, told her that she would listen to Sonya but she wouldn’t get involved. She was out. That left her aunt and uncle.
Maybe, just this once, they would help. Who was she kidding? Their solution would be to beat the crap out of Rita. Sonya thought that if she begged, then maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe, just maybe, they would save her little sister. Could it be that a beating would scare Rita enough to stay off drugs?
Sonya slowly rose from the sewing machine and made her way to the stairs. Her heart beat faster as she climbed every step. Her aunt was in the kitchen. Sonya tentatively entered and said “Can I talk to you?”
Sonya waited for something to happen. Rita had come home the last couple of nights. Sonya, feeling like a betrayer, had tiptoed around Rita. Rita never noticed.
Then, Rita didn’t come home. Sonya waited for her, growing more terrified with each passing day. Her aunt and uncle certainly weren’t telling her anything. Five days passed before Rita came back accompanied by a lady Sonya had never seen. The lady stayed with the aunt and uncle while Rita packed.
Sonya hugged Rita hard. Told her she had been terrified for her. Rita said that she was going into foster care. Their aunt and uncle had gone to court and told the judge that they couldn’t care for her anymore. They twisted everything so that it looked like she was a monster. Rita wasn’t going to fight them so she didn’t answer any questions in court. The judge put her in foster care. He issued strong warnings about drug use.
Sonya, with tears streaming down her face, confessed to Rita what she had done. Never, in a million years, did Sonya think that they would separate them. Her and Rita had always been together. Sonya felt betrayed. All she wanted was for Rita to get help.
Rita finished packing. She told Sonya not to worry and that she loved her. Then she was gone. Sonya sat for a long time on the bed.
Any pretense of a relationship with her aunt and uncle disappeared that day. Sonya made sure that she only slept there. Without Rita, there was no reason for her to be at the house.
The enrollment officer at the Armed Forces had been really nice to her last month. He said they were hiring new recruits to start in September. The enrollment papers should arrive next week. Sonya could hardly wait.