This story is by Alan Kennamer and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It’s been six months since Da and Becky, um, moved on. I miss them so much. Ma ain’t the same. She’s pissed off all the time. Even ripped up one of my journals. My private thoughts, destroyed. I had to create fake ones, hide the real deal. How could she do that? Doesn’t she know I’m sad too? Can’t talk to her. Been by myself for so long I don’t even know what real people say to each other anymore. I have to do something. Before it gets worse.
Daylight filtered through Jonah’s dirt-encrusted window, casting an eerie glow on his cluttered floor. The room surrounded him, stifling his will. What should have been a perfect time in an eleven-year-old’s life had become one of constant suffering. Toys and clothes strewn everywhere, an unmade bed in the corner, the sheets filthy, smelly. And the half-eaten plates of food Ma left for him, the odors mixed together. Bile surged in his throat as he hid his journal.
Jonah held a picture of his Da, remembering when they used to go on family trips every year. An infrequent smile crossed his face, momentarily stopping the tears that threatened to drown him. Da, showing off at the beach, Ma calm, laughing, and Becky holding Jonah as he shivered from the cold ocean water.
Now, Ma wouldn’t even let him outside, wouldn’t let him go to school either. She told all his friends to stay away, and if they showed up, Jonah would pay the price. He couldn’t escape from her overt hostility. Stuck in the house. No way out.
Footsteps thudded in the hallway.
Tears welled up in his eyes as he clutched the remaining framed picture of his Da. The one thing he could look at and feel somewhat whole again.
The door slammed open, hitting the bumper and making an awful reverberating noise. With her face doused in shadow, Jonah’s Ma strolled in, a lit cigarette dancing in her plump fingers.
“Whatcha got there, you little shit?” She shuffled forward, leveraging the wall for support.
Jonah hugged his dad’s image against his chest. “Um, nuthin’, Ma. It’s just—”
“Don’t back-talk me!” She inhaled the ciggy, the embers burning in her eyes. “Gimme that! Dontchu look at him!” She reached for the picture Jonah cradled. He moved away, keeping his precious treasure just out of her reach. Her eyes widened as she lunged toward him. She ripped the frame from Jonah’s tiny hands, raised it above her head and smashed it on the floor.
“No! Please!” Jonah’s scream tore through his dimly lit room.
“My house, my rules. Clean this shit up, and keep it down. Brad’s here and we don’t wanna be disturbed. Oh, what have we here…” She flicked a dollop of ashes onto the floor and grabbed one of his decoy journals. Smiling, she turned and quietly closed his door.
“I miss Da…” he pleaded, but she had already left, shutting him in once again.
Shards of glass pierced his bare feet as he cleaned up the mess. Jonah salvaged the only photo of his father, placing it over his bed.
“Da,” Jonah began, wiping the constant flow of tears from his eyes. “Please, help me.”
At eleven, he could thrive in the world. He had been through so much. From Da getting killed by that drunk driver. To Becky drowning at her friend’s pool-party, both on the same day.
To the way his Ma would take what he loved and destroy it.
Her actions hurt the most.
Da’s and Becky’s passing, while tragic, wasn’t personal. But Ma… She took pieces of what made Jonah, well, Jonah. Little things at first: the toy he won at the carnival, a school notebook he had begged her to buy, his lucky socks. But over time, her vengeance became more targeted, more intense. Deliberate.
During tonight’s drunken binge, she read his fake journal to her new man. Laughing, calling Jonah a ‘pretty little girl’ for writing down his whiny thoughts. Their laughter careened through his closed door.
She staggered into his room soon after, a cup of her fun-juice in one hand and the shredded pages of his private, albeit fake thoughts, in the other. She flung the pieces into the air, the ragged strips floating like thoughts in a breeze.
She then did the unthinkable, the event that pushed Jonah to his limit.
“You did this to yourshelf, you dirty li’lll monshter.” She grabbed the last remaining image of his father from its place of honor above his bed.
“Don’t take it!” Jonah yelled, scrambling toward her.
He reached for the picture through tear-blurred eyes, clawed and pulled at his Ma’s baggy sweatpants. Her drink spilled, booze splattering on his head, pooling on the floor by his feet. His cries intensified as the alcohol dripped into his eyes.
“You bashtard! Look whachoo made me do!” She threw the partially full plastic cup against the wall and, in the same motion, smacked the top of Jonah’s head.
He jerked backward, tripped over a pile of dirty clothes mixed with shredded paper and wiped his eyes against his sleeve.
She reached into her pocket, pulled out a ciggy and plopped it into her mouth. Helpless, he could do nothing as a lighter appeared in her hand, which she lit with a practiced gesture. She stared at it, then at the photo of his Da, her own dead husband. Then at Jonah.
“Thish’ll teach ya.” She smiled, the unlit cigarette bopping up and down between her lips as she spoke. She held the flame near one corner of the last-of-its-kind image. It burned quick, so fast that she dropped it. Sky-blue with hints of yellow plumed on the alcohol puddle where the photograph came to rest.
Jonah grabbed his blue blanket and threw it on the fire, dousing it in seconds, but leaving a burn mark in its wake. Her rage sated for the time being, she staggered into the hallway and slammed his door, humming some melody under her breath.
Jonah recovered the picture, the edges scorched. His father’s face remained pristine. He cut away the burnt section and saved what remained.
Tonight’s the night. I can’t do this anymore.
Ma and Brad would pass out soon. He hoped they would leave him alone until then. They watched TV, just beyond Jonah’s closed door. Over time, their voices grew silent.
Night penetrated Jonah’s room, every surface becoming its own shadow as he prepared for what would come next. He crawled inside and closed the flap of the makeshift tent crafted from his blanket, the small blackened section standing out like a beacon. Child-sized hockey sticks interlaced together kept the structure upright.
Once inside, he lit a flashlight and spread out some supplies. His remaining journals and a pen, a jacket, and the charred pic of his Da. Resting against the wall lay an oversized backpack, bursting with his clothes and the little money he had. He stuffed the remaining items into it and turned off the light.
Time to go. Jonah peeled back a corner of the blanket and stood, donned his jacket, and balanced the backpack on his tiny frame. He paused, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. After a few moments, he climbed onto his bed.
He reached for the window and pushed up. At first, it didn’t budge. His hands shook as he shoved again, harder. It opened a few inches, a squeak echoing in his ears. So loud! He froze in place, eyes wide, his breath caught in his chest. If Ma heard him…
After timeless seconds, not detecting any noises from outside his door, he let the trapped air escape from his burning lungs. His heart pounded in his ears.
He nudged the window again, slower this time. It edged up a bit. Then a little more. Until it reached the top. Beads of salty sweat burned his eyes, but he wiped the annoyance aside.
One leg out. He dipped his body to allow the backpack to clear the opening. It caught on the frame above him. He stumbled and reached out to steady himself, a soft grunt escaping his clenched teeth.
He lowered himself further and eased out into the front yard. As his feet touched the ground, he turned and tried to reach the open window, wanting to close it, to lock that life away forever. His tiny arms could only reach up halfway.
Oh well, didn’t matter.
The night beckoned him onward as he breathed in the cool air. The smell of jasmine caressed him, offering comfort, peace. So many unknowns lie ahead, but the taste of the freedom he had won was enough.