One Friday in early summer, I don’t feel like eating pancakes for supper. I hate how the smell sticks to my clothes and hair. How it makes the already hot air in the kitchen thick and heavy. We eat meatless every Friday. Even when it isn’t Lent. Maman says it makes us good Catholics—but I know it’s really because meat is expensive.
There is a code of conduct at our kitchen table. Don’t talk before you swallow your food. Keep your elbows off the table. Eat everything on your plate. I’m not very afraid of disobeying because Maman can’t threaten Papa’s spankings anymore. Elbows on the table, I rest my chin in my hands so that Maman will see me pout. But when she raises her eyebrows and points at my uneaten pancake, I know she means business. I start chewing.
Later that night, my little sister knocks at the bathroom door. Maman always says, “If someone needs the bathroom, finish quickly so nobody has an accident.” Of course, she says this in French because we aren’t allowed to speak English at home. I turn the tap full blast and pick up the little brush next to the bar of Zest. I scrub every speck of dirt caked under my nails before I open the door. My sister is in tears. I bite my cheek to keep from grinning. I hope she’s peed her pants, at least a little, because it isn’t fair that she gets to be the pretty one. She and my little brother are perfect. They aren’t fat like me and don’t have red hair like my older brother, Lynn, so the kids don’t make fun of her at school. Papa hates me and he is mean to Lynn.
Before bed, Lynn makes fun of my belly. Just like Papa does. So I throw a Childcraft book at his head. Maman stands between us and says, “Can’t you just be kind to one another?” But I grit my teeth because if I were a boy, nobody would fuss if I punched or threw things when my insides heated up. Her eyes sink like bright blue marbles at the bottom of swimming pool as she adds, “We’ve all suffered enough for this lifetime.”
I try to forget all the yelling before we moved and how Maman’s face would swell. Now, it’s only every other weekend when we have to visit Papa that I have to be afraid and remember to hug the walls. When I grow up and fall in love, I’ll pick a husband who won’t treat his family like garbage.
Before bed, Maman prays with me and my sister by our bunks. Her large sorrow-filled eyes swim in her pale face. She looks as pretty and sad as the statuette of the Virgin Mary on my dresser. I promise God that I’ll make my bed in the morning and won’t miss the bus at all next week. Gas is expensive.
After Maman kisses me on the forehead and leaves our room, I can’t fall asleep. Through the thin wall, I hear her praying with the boys. On the bunk below me, my sister softly snores. Then Maman goes into the kitchen. Clank-clank-clank the dishes go back into the cupboards, and ting-ting-ting the utensils go into the drawer. When the trailer is quiet, I picture her at the kitchen table, smoking and sifting through bills—trying to figure out how to make ends meet—until I drift off to sleep.
When I wake up, it’s Papa’s weekend. If we aren’t lined up in the driveway when Papa arrives, his eyes become kryptonite. When he gets out of his truck, Maman forgets how to speak. Sometimes, I’m afraid she’ll crumple to the ground after we leave. She might not survive without us. Days at the farm are blurred and groggy. I forget to breath from the time we leave until I leap from Papa’s truck Sunday night and run into Maman’s open arms. Each time, I tell myself I’m never leaving her again.
One weekend in late summer, when Papa is almost at our trailer, I tell Maman, “I’m not going with him.” I jut out my chin and cross my arms across my chest so she knows I’m not budging. I have to tuck on my hands into my armpits so she won’t see them tremble.
Through the window screen, I watch Papa step out of his truck. Maman’s lips quiver, but she locks her eyes with his and says, “Rachel isn’t going.”
His face screws up and he clenches his fists like he’s about to punch her, but the neighbours are outside. Electricity zings up my legs when he yells, “You fucking bitch!” His pickup spits gravel as he speeds away with my brothers and sister. I float outside to hug Maman. I’ve never felt so safe—he cannot touch me if I’m not there! I’ve never felt more scared—because who will take care of the kids? And somehow I know this power I feel at having won is probably how Papa feels when he hurts Maman—which means maybe I am like him.
That night, it’s just me and Maman and the slow tick of the clock. Without my brothers and sister, the hands forget to move. After supper, Maman plays her Beatles records while we do the dishes and tidy the kitchen. After we pray, Maman kisses me and turns out the light. There’s nothing waiting for her in the kitchen, so she goes into her bedroom and softly closes door.
Stillness swells around me yet it doesn’t fill the empty bunk below me or in my brothers’ room. I cannot sleep without the melody of my sister softly snoring below, the broom swish-swishing across linoleum, the glub-glub of coffee into cup, the scritch-scritch of Maman’s lighter. The noise in my head won’t shush and my heart pounds like it’s a footrace at track and field day. Maybe Maman always looks so tired after we’ve been gone because there is no hum to hold her tight until she drifts into dreams. I squeeze my eyes shut against the lull of silence, but a thousand fireflies prick holes in the dark.
Rachel Laverdiere is a writer, potter and instructor from the Canadian prairies. Her writing is widely published in journals such as JMWW, Atlas and Alice and Bending Genres. Most recently, Rachel’s flash CNF was short-listed for CutBank’s 2019 Big Sky, Small Prose Contest and appeared on Wigleaf’s 50 Shorts of 2020 list. She is a CNF editor at Barren Magazine and a regular contributor at Entropy Magazine. Visit www.rachellaverdiere.com to read more of her writing.