I’ve been afraid of certain things — loud noises, the dark, the boogey man — but you learn that those things don’t touch you, hurt you, or hate you. That everything that scares you about them is what you don’t know about them — not what you do. I learned too soon the only thing I feared was hearing my dad open the front door after I was in bed.
For a long time, I thought if I lay there quietly and pretended to sleep he wouldn’t bother me. I would spend hours practicing pretending to sleep. My sister would watch me and then I would watch her. We’d assess the other’s performance like inept drama teachers unsure of what we were looking for from the other.
In the hours after my mother turned off my bedroom light, I’d concentrate on the vertical stripes of my bedroom wallpaper, imagining that if I could step between the stripes I would go to my sister’s room next door and we’d escape through the back of her closet to somewhere nice. I didn’t know what that place would be, but it would be better than that house at night. It was childish, but we were children.
The sound of his heavy steps moving up the stairs made an ominous beat — one, two, three — till he had ascended all twenty-two steps and then there were the fifteen steps to my room. He’d open the door and sometimes he would be completely engulfed in shadows appearing as a dark and unfamiliar form. Other nights the moon coming through my window lit half of his face and I was denied that short moment of disbelief. But I could always see the bottle in his hand.
He’d come near me, pause, then sit on the bed and roughly pat me on the stomach. Sitting there quietly in the dark he’d stare at the wall and his scent would violate my nose. I used to think that was just what he smelled like, like gasoline or the cleaning stuff Mom used.
“What’s Joe DiMaggio hitting?” he’d slur out.
I’d think quickly then answer slowly so he would understand, “381.”
“Good, good, slugger,” then he’d rub my hair and walk out, leaving my door hanging open. It was the same test and different players every night. I learned not to fail. Eleven steps to my sister’s room and then I’d fall asleep.
So many years later and I don’t know where he is anymore. After a week of nights of not hearing that door open, I’d thought my worst fear had just gone away. But things like him don’t die so easily.
After a late night at work, I come through the front door and go upstairs to my son’s room. I am so angry with him that my fists are shaking. That day, he had thrown a baseball through window with the glass still down. Seeing the window as I walk up the porch, I can tell how much his impertinence is going to cost me. At his door, I can hear how heavily he is breathing. He is so scared and trying so hard to not let me know.
It is in these moments that I hear those footsteps again. I see my mother’s bruises and the tears streaming into my sister’s mouth as she tells us what happened on those nights. And I look into my son’s room at his rhythmically rising back. It is a choice that seems so easy to make when made concrete, but life is organic — it’s hard to see the patterns.
I close his door and go to take a shower, letting the streaming water take away everything I don’t want.
Charles Kirby is an English major studying at Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma. He writes short stories, poems, and essays.