A Short Story by Melissa F. Kaelin
Literary Fiction; About 1,700 Words
Blackness surrounds the night after a soaking rain. The storm has cleared, but the air is locked with tension as yelling continues inside the house.
Out of nowhere, neon blue and red lights flash through the bay window, shading the living room wall with the hues of the authorities. The sole light on inside is down the hall, in mother’s room, where she picked up the telephone and spoke in a raspy voice. Father only yelled louder, his verbal shackles loosening long enough for her to place the call.
“Put the phone down.” His voice ricochets in the narrow hallway.
His youngest son hides under the dining room table. Not one of us is asleep in bed.
A thud on the door brings the house to silence. It’s followed by two more.
Mother rushes to open the door, father not far behind her, only to be greeted by a man in uniform. The policemen, his eyes scan the house, catching mine. The youngest’s eyes flicker underneath the table.
“Sir, I need you to step outside.”
Escorted firmly by the arm, father walks out the front door onto the small lip of concrete, laid in front of the house. The single story home stands next to the railroad, where the tracks are now illuminated in two blue and red lines. Father gestures wildly, shouting one thing after another, and turns to point at the house. But mother isn’t standing there. Mother is shut inside.
His wrists meet the handcuffs. The metal clamps together. With a thrust, the policeman opens the door to the back seat of his car.
“We’re taking you in,” he says, finality in his voice.
“Daddy, don’t go!” A small voice rises above the concrete, and it must be one of us. It must be the sound of someone who is watching, eyes fixed to the scene. “Please, daddy.”
There are tears, and the choked sob of fear, and the hollow sound of hope as it falls flat on the cold cement.
“Don’t worry, honey.”
He uses the word, but it doesn’t sound sweet.
The night appears blacker. The whirl of patriotic lights grows brighter. The rain doesn’t start, but the puddles in the street reflect the vivid pain of the scene. They match the flag that hangs from the front of the house. It looks exactly like the flag at mother’s work, except that one is taller and larger—it hangs above a barbed wire fence where the inmates take recess. Three flags hang in all, and they dominate the view where mother works. One is black and white. The other is for the state of Ohio. It must be the only state with so many prisons. There’s a prison for the women, a prison for the men, and the one they call the federal prison, and all three of them are close to home. That’s why mother works there.
It’s late. The sirens don’t sound, but the squad car pulls away. The lights turn the corner at the end of the street, relieving the houses of the strobes, but now everything is worse.
The lights are out. The air is cold and damp. A child stands alone.
. . .
Emptiness fills the morning.
No one wants to speak. Cereal makes it to the kitchen table, but hardly anyone eats. Eating helps, maybe, and some of us try. We leave the bowls on the table, half full of wheat and 2 percent milk.
Shoulders low, mother walks back to her room.
The oldest stomps into the living room. He wants to take his anger up with father, but father is not here. He turns to the nearest person and pinches their skin so hard it leaves a welt.
“Why did you do that?”
It stings, the sensation increasing every second. This sucks, but it’s not real pain. It’s the kind of thing that passes.
The oldest leans forward and swipes a journal away from one of us. The leather-bound book isn’t full, but the pages carry a lot of ink. The words are fragile. They are tender ideas under lock and key.
“Give it back.”
This is not the first time the oldest acts out. He breaks the rules so often, it’s expected of him. But it’s the wrong day for this. The weight of the night before binds the mood. Some of us are already yelling.
Mother storms into the room, where the air is thick with July humidity. The muscles in her face pull tight. She moves directly toward the oldest. Mother grabs him by the elbow and turns his forearm, forcing his body to move with it. She twists him into a headlock.
He struggles, unharmed but clearly trapped.
She lowers the oldest to the floor, his body contorted in her agile arms. Their knees sink until they touch the floor, and his head is held still in her vice grip.
“Mom,” he says, his voice even. The pitch in his voice bends. “Mom, you’re hurting me.”
To anyone else, she looks like a menace. But I don’t blame her. She trains in self-defense at the prison every year. She knows how to put a man in a headlock.
She releases her grip on her son. He breaks free and runs far away from her. It’s the end of the torment for the day. Everyone leaves the living room.
They put up their guard.
. . .
Longing marks the time, as months pass by.
Shadows get taller in the evening, and the days are shorter. There’s a silence in the house most days, that no one dares to penetrate. Even normal chatter is barred, but some of us have to breach the invisible wall.
“When will we see him again?”
“Not for a very long time.”
Mother busies herself with solitary tasks. She still has some of us, but she focuses on control and discipline. Her time is taken with housework. When she finishes her tasks, she isolates herself in her room. But it’s obvious she doesn’t want to be alone.
School starts up again, and everyone rides the bus to class. Mother gets rid of father’s things. She goes to the courthouse a lot. Sometimes, she brings some of us with her. There are wooden benches to sit on, and the meetings with the attorneys and judges take a while. Everyone has questions, and they study people closely when they’ve just met. The people in suits repeat a lot of the same words. Divorce. Restitution. Alimony.
After some time, the courthouse trips slow down. A quiet house feels normal now. There’s no laughter and play observes set boundaries. There aren’t any surprises, until one day, when mother takes everyone to a picnic. She brings the children to a park by the river.
Not long after that, mother introduces everyone to the security guard. She met him at work. He doesn’t wear a uniform, but he looks like a guard because he is so tall and serious. She likes him, and she thinks some of us will like him, too.
“We have a lot in common.”
The security guard comes to the park with everyone to play basketball. He comes to dinner at a restaurant, and he pays for the bill. He comes to the house by the railroad tracks. The security guard visits so often, he starts sleeping where father slept. He starts to talk the way father talked.
One night at the house, the oldest son takes something out of the security guard’s wallet while he’s not looking. The oldest is angry, and he wants someone to recognize how he feels. Only, the security guard doesn’t notice until the next day.
When he comes over to the house, he yells at the oldest.
He yells at mother, too.
“How could you raise your children like this?” He follows her to her room, while she retreats further into the walls of the house. “What are you teaching them?”
Mother promises to serve justice and keep the peace. She vows to take disciplinary action, and to order the oldest to return what was stolen.
“He will put everything back the way it was.” She walks into the narrow hallway, looking for her son. She calls back to the security guard. “Where is your wallet?”
“Here.” He has his wallet with him, and he hollers down the hall. “When I’m not in the prison, I keep my belongings on this chain.”
Mother sends the oldest to his room, recovering the items from the young thief and assigning him one hour of solitary confinement. The youngest hides under the table for security. Some of us stay out of the way. The security guard is so angry he storms out of the house, leaving everyone else behind.
Some of us can still be found on the inside, our arms unbound and open to mother. But mother is on lockdown, and she can’t see a way out of these confines. She walks back down the hall, toward her room. She pauses to lean against the pale blue wall.
Mother clasps her hands behind her back, tightening her fingers around her wrists, and lowers her head.
. . .
© Copyright 2019 by Melissa F. Kaelin