My mom and her husband are doing it in her bedroom. I listen to her bedsprings squeak and their hushed, heavy breathing. I need to pee, but if I get up they’ll hear me, and that sudden, conscious silence would be worse than the sound of chimp squeals and hyperventilation muffled by our hollow bedroom doors and the three feet of hallway in between. At least she’s not screaming, Oh, God, like I’ve seen in movies. I chew the slippery skin on the inside of my mouth and wonder if it’s still a sin to take the Lord’s name in vain during sex, or if then, it is like a prayer.
It is Terrance’s first night out. For two years my mom has saved her nice voice for his collect calls, driven the hour and a half to Vacaville every Thursday afternoon and Saturday morning to see him, waited expectantly for his twenty-page letters full of shaded hearts pierced with arrows, poems wrought with adolescent angst, and fantasies I can never, ever, repeat out loud. His dark penciled writing is frilly with curled loops and a childlike slant. I only read the letters because Jaime made me. “Why would he want her to do that thing with the marshmallows?” she asked after she found the envelopes, dozens of them, in a pile under our mom’s nightstand. I told her I’d rather not think about it.
Water sloshing and soft moaning sounds radiate from Mom’s bathroom now, and I start to wonder how they can both fit in the tub but, gross. When Terrance arrived at the apartment today he said, “I know you don’t like when I hug you, but I’m going to anyway!” He scooped me up in his arms and spun me around like I was a toddler while I stayed straight as a corpse. Mom snapped a photo and giggled. He set me down but held me close to his chest, the pressure of his splayed hands across my lower back kept my hips against him. He breathed in my ear, “I missed you.”
“We’re so excited you’re home,” Mom said, taking another picture. “Aren’t we, Liz?”
“Not as excited as me,” Terrance said. His fingers grazed the sides of my breasts as he released me, and if he hadn’t done it before, I might have thought it was an accident. He wagged his thick black eyebrows at Mom and they haven’t left her room since.
If Jaime still lived here, I’d be lying along the outer edge of her bed, singing or cracking jokes, but alone, I stuff Kleenex in my ears and fold my body until my limbs are wrapped around me like a shell.
“Check it out, Liz,” Terrance says in the morning, turning his back to me. He wears only boxer shorts, his thin legs dark with long black hairs. Above the waist he looks like a bodybuilder, his back and chest divided into chunks of muscle that twitch with each of his movements. I wonder if he will continue to lift weights now that he’s out of prison, and the Grape-Nuts in my mouth turn to sand.
“Very, um”—I cough, clear my throat—“muscle-y,” I say, getting up.
He beams. “Thanks,” he says, “but, no, look at this.” He blocks my way and points at his left shoulder blade. “My tattoo.” It’s a six-inch King Arthur sword with detailed braiding on the gold- and-black hilt, an almost silver blade stuck through a red heart. The heart has a white ribbon running from top left to bottom right with my mom’s name in delicate cursive. He says, “Don’t you want to touch it?”
I have promised Mom that I will be nice. Last week she said, “This has to work, Elizabeth.” After she’d bought him two new pairs of Levi’s jeans and a Forty-Niners cap, after she’d gotten a second TV for her bedroom and ordered the cable package with extra sports channels, after she’d moved Noah’s crib out of her bedroom, she said in a whisper, her blue-green eyes dark and too wide, “It has to work this time.”
So I don’t ask Terrance if one of his prison buddies inked it, or what he had to do in return, or what happened to the tattoo of his first wife’s name. I don’t cringe or gag at the thought of touching his bare skin. An older tattoo of a cross covers his right shoulder, this one the veiny blue-black you’d expect from BIC ballpoints and safety pins.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Mom says, coming from the kitchen carrying a plate of pancakes. She widens her eyes at me and nods at Terrance. Please, she mouths, her features tight. She says to Terrance, “Sit, babe.” She rubs his back and pushes him into a chair, kisses his neck. “Eggs are coming.”
She busted out her big ho outfit yesterday when she went to pick him up: low-cut V-neck green tank top, black miniskirt, and black strappy heels. This morning she is wearing a new nightgown with major cleavage and I think one of her giant boobs might pop out as she follows me into the tiny kitchen with her anxious twitchiness. Her eyes plead with me while she takes my bowl and says, “I’ll do that for you, honey.” She hasn’t called me honey since I was five. “Go, or you’ll be late for school.”
I walk past Terrance and roll my eyes at his back as he shovels undercooked pancakes into his mouth. Mom watches me, her face strained, frozen in that imploring smile behind his head and I sigh. She relaxes her face, her lips quivering as they descend. She knows me too well.
“It’s a pretty cool tattoo,” I say, and she smiles. Thank you, she mouths. I grab my backpack and head out the door.
Rachel meets me for lunch at our spot by the dried-up fountain in the old courtyard near the parking lot. Blue tiles line the bottom of the pool, but it fills with brown and orange leaves as the gnarled oak trees go bare, and I brush some off the concrete edge before sitting.
“Are you going to homecoming?” Rachel asks. I just look at her. “What?” she says and pulls out her lunch. “It’s our first high school dance.”
“Homecoming?” I lift one eyebrow at her. “Really?” I frown at the peanut butter on bread I slapped together.
Rachel hands me a fruit roll-up and some Cheetos. “I thought you might want to get out of your house for one night,” she says and takes a bite of the roast beef sandwich her dad made her.
“My mom probably won’t let me,” I say.
“You could ask,” Rachel says.
“If I can get her attention,” I say. “Last night—”
“You can try,” she says and scoots closer to me. “C’mon, it’ll be fun.”
“Dances aren’t really my idea of fun,” I say. I doubt Mom will buy me a dress and I don’t want to find a date. “At last year’s ‘dance’ people just head banged to Nirvana all night,” I say.
“But this is high school,” Rachel says. “It’s different now.” I scrunch my nose in disbelief. She says, “For me?”
I sigh. “Okay, I’ll ask.”
She hugs me. “So what happened last night?” I open my mouth and she grabs my arm. “Oh! He got out last night! I’m so sorry, how was it?”
As I tell her, deep gray clouds roll across the sun and I pray it doesn’t rain. I have to walk home.
For two years Terrance called our house almost every day after school. A mechanical voice said, “You have a collect call from an inmate at a California state prison,” and we pushed two to accept the call and patched Terrance through to Mom at work on three-way. I’m not sure what Mom told her coworkers at the abuse victims’ organization about her husband, but she writes grants to help women assaulted by men like Terrance so I doubt anyone at her office knew the truth.
Jaime discovered early on that if we held down the mute button after we clicked Terrance and Mom together, we could hear them talk and they had no idea. Jaime listened every day. “He always asks what she’s wearing,” she’d tell me, or, “He gets jealous if she mentions another guy.” Jaime collected information and we used it to gauge Mom’s moods. If the prison went into lockdown on a Friday—which meant no visit Saturday—the dishes were done, the TV off, and dinner on the table when Mom got home.
One afternoon about a month ago, Jaime came into my room and put her head in my lap like she used to when we played house and I was the mom. “What’s wrong?” I asked, putting down my book and stroking her hair.
“Terrance is getting out next month,” she said and started crying. “Mom’s really excited.”
“Fuck,” I said. “It’s too soon.”
“I called Dad. He said we can come live with him and Crystal.”
I sighed. “He’s not sober.”
“So? At least he doesn’t lie.”
“Mom’s not going to lie us into a ditch on the way to school.” I touched Jaime’s hairline at her right temple, where a V-shaped silvery-white scar is etched into her skin under the blond strands.
“It wasn’t a ditch,” she said, shaking her head and brushing off my hand. “It was an accident.”
I eyed the raised and shiny reminder of the cost of letting my guard down for even a second. I said, “They’re not accidents when he’s drinking.”
Jaime pulled her bangs over her scar the way she does when she catches me staring. She sat up. “Crystal told me this wasn’t Terrance’s first time in jail. That he didn’t deal drugs like Mom said.”
“Well, he did that, too,” I said and wondered how much of the police reports Crystal had shown Jaime. Some of that stuff was not for kids. Living in Crystal’s filthy two-bedroom trailer was not for kids, either.
“I’m scared, Liz.”
“Scared enough to live with Dad?”
“He said he’d love to have us,” she said.
“He’d love to have us take care of Crystal’s daughter for him.”
“You’re not scared of Terrance the pervert?” She looked at me and I marveled again at how our eyes could be the exact same color blue, like seeing my eyes in her face. “Did Crystal tell you what he does?” she said. She sniffed and wiped her nose on her sleeve. “It’s freaky and gross.”
Crystal had seated me at her always sticky kitchen table and read me dozens of pages of eyewitness accounts, police summaries, and victim statements that provided details of his crimes I didn’t need. I’d already noticed Terrance’s wandering eyes carried the same restless look as cheetahs and tigers pacing in their zoo cages, instinct contained but not eliminated. “Yes, I’m scared of Terrance,” I said. I’ve stopped wearing shorts to bed and I get dressed in the locked bathroom. “But I’m scared of Dad, too.”
“Dad would never hurt us,” she said and hugged me. “He loves us at least.”
He hurts us all the time. “You know that doesn’t matter,” I said. “He loved Mom, too.”
Then last week, Jaime went to school one day and didn’t come home. She didn’t tell me beforehand, just called from Dad’s and said she wasn’t coming back. Mom didn’t want to talk to her. “If she’d rather be there, then fine,” Mom said, smiling wide enough to show the pearl-gray tooth behind her left incisor. “No need to have a big argument about it.” Her glasses reflected the light so I couldn’t see her eyes, but she walked away with her hips swinging to the bass thumping from the new stereo she’d bought for Terrance.
I told Jaime that Mom was too upset to talk just yet, but I think she could hear Mom’s throaty versions of Journey songs in the background. Mom sang, “You make me weep, and wanna die,” her and Terrance’s favorite make-out-on-the-couch tune, as she tried on outfits for his release day. Each of them was low cut, or too short, or both. All included heels. “Lovin’, touchin’ squeezin’.” She’d had time to exercise while he was locked up, a Jazzercise tape Jaime and I did with her sometimes, and was ready to show off curves where there used to be layers.
“How long are you going to stay with Dad?” I said to Jaime.
“I think I’m moving in,” she said.
A bomb detonated in my gut. “For good?”
“For a while.”
“Where are you going to sleep?” I said. “How will you get to school?”
“Don’t worry, Liz,” she said. “I’ll be okay.”
“You know not to get in the car with him if—”
“Crystal says Dad has been better,” Jaime said. “She makes him go to meetings.”
“How does she know he’s actually going?”
“How does anyone know anything?” she said, in a perfect replica of Dad’s flippant responses.
“Come on, Jaime. This is serious.”
She mimicked me, high-pitched and nasal, “This is serious,” and then sighed and said, “Dad wants me here, okay? Mom only cares about her pervert husband.” Jaime sniffed. “She just wants to have sex.”
“Did Dad tell you that?”
“What is Mom doing right now?” Jaime said.
She was trying on a black spandex tank top with a denim miniskirt, holding Noah, and dancing around with him in her bedroom, but I didn’t tell Jaime that. Noah bubbled spit as he laughed, and I wondered if Mom had smiled at us like that when we were babies.
“It was better for a while,” I said. “When he was gone.”
“You could come live here, too,” she said.
Jaime can’t always tell when Dad’s been drinking. She would have kept the secret of the six-pack under his passenger seat if not for me. She cried for two hours when he forgot her last birthday, but still begged me for money so she could give him his favorite Old Spice cologne the next month for his. She doesn’t know the worst of what he’s done, and I’ve worked so hard to shelter her, she probably wouldn’t accept the truth anyway..
I said, “You’ll call me if he scares you? If he’s mean?”
“He’s been nice,” she said.
“That usually means he wants something.”
“He’s so right that no one believes him.”
I closed my eyes. There’s a reason for that. “Just be careful.”
“Yes, Mom,” she said, the “o” drawn out and sarcastic. “You’re so paranoid.”
I looked at our mother, squeezed into an outfit two sizes too small, black lined eyes and clumps in her mascara, wine-colored glossed-in lips, shaking her ass and belting out lyrics she had also sung with our dad before we were born and said, “Well, someone around here has to be a grown-up.”
Terrance can call Mom from our house for free today, but I still have to talk to him as soon as I walk in the door. “What’s Mom’s work number?” he says before I shrug my shoulders out of my backpack. He rests his new variable-weight bar on its base, sits up on the shiny black leather weight bench he set up in the middle of the living room. “She told me, but I forgot.”
“Nice weights.” I walk past the bench and try not to inhale.
“Yeah,” he says, wiping sweat off his chest with a towel Mom spent a Sunday evening cross-stitching a garden scene onto. “I went shopping.”
“With your money?” I say.
He scrunches up his eyebrows and says, “I don’t have any money.” Duh, loser. Get a job. Pulsing greenish veins running up his forearms to his shoulders protrude a centimeter above his skin and look ready to burst. He sees me looking and flexes his biceps. “I’m pretty ripped, huh?” he says and rubs his chest with both hands. “Wanna feel?” I tell him Mom’s number and flee to my room.
I can hear his voice through the walls but I can no longer see his sweaty dark skin or big-toothed sneer and I let myself pretend he’s not here. I pretend Jaime still is, and Mom is still gone Saturday mornings and I make Mickey Mouse–head pancakes and scrambled eggs and hash browns for the two of us. We play Super Mario Brothers, and I end up giving Jaime some of my turns because she dies too fast. We sit next to each other on the floor and talk about how maybe Terrance will try to escape and he’ll get shot by the guards or ravaged by German shepherds. Mom will cry but she’ll get over it, Noah won’t have to be raised by a pervert, and we can have our mom back. The mom who sang songs she made up with our names in them as we fell asleep, who played crazy eights and gin rummy after work, and promised she wouldn’t marry anyone we didn’t like.
Suddenly Terrance’s voice is louder and he opens my bedroom door without knocking. “Liz, Mom said for you to order a pizza.” His bare chest chunks bounce as he crosses my room.
“You can’t order a pizza?” I say. Green veins still bulge under his naturally tan skin, darker for the summer spent lifting weights in the prison yard. I close my eyes and visualize his blood vessels popping.
“She said you can call in time for her to pick it up on her way home.” He stops in front of my bed, extends his arm to give me the phone. “You know when she gets off work.” He skims my hands with his warm, greasy fingers and leans toward me. “I just know when she gets off,” he says and laughs his hyena-ish cackle. Like Dad, Terrance only makes inappropriate jokes when Mom’s not around.
He puts one knee on my bed and I press my back into the plaster behind me. “You can’t tell time?” I say, looking to my right, away from his sweaty skin, his sagging jersey shorts displaying his hip bones, his beady eyes that follow me like an eerie painting. He edges closer and I picture ruptured arteries, his heart shredded and leaking.
“I want pepperoni and sausage and green peppers and, mmm, how about a supreme combo or something?” He licks his lips. “Order something I’ll like,” he says and pats the top of my thigh. He winks at me as he turns, and his parading butt crack leaves my room.
I slam the door and call Rachel. “He doesn’t wear shirts,” I say. “He invades my personal space like it’s his hobby.”
“Isn’t it?” Rachel says.
“I wish my door had a lock.”
“Are you practicing your visualizations?” Rachel’s mother, who lives in Reno, is an active Wiccan. She left Rachel’s dad a few years ago to “pursue her destiny,” but I think mostly she reads tarot cards for tourists in a casino hotel lobby. Her suggestions often work, though, and no one else is offering me any advice.
“Yes,” I say. “But he doesn’t seem to be bleeding yet.”
“You have to really focus or it won’t work,” Rachel says. “My mom just won a thousand dollars.”
When my mom gets home, we eat pizza from paper plates at the dining room table. We usually watch sitcoms or game shows or sports with dinner, the TV on in the living room a few feet away. Terrance taught Noah the NFL theme song and how to howl like Tim Allen in Home Improvement. I have kept my promise to be nice and refrained from asking if he sees anyone he knows on COPS or America’s Most Wanted.
Terrance is glued to Wheel of Fortune tonight. “Dairy Queen!” he shouts at the screen.
“Ice cream!” Noah says, slapping his hands in the smeared cheese and tomato sauce covering his plastic high-chair tray.
I say, “Dairy Queen is not a person.” I pick all the sausage off my pizza and take a small bite.
“Noah, honey, eat your food,” Mom says. “More pizza, babe?”
“I sure missed pizza,” Terrance says.
“Babe,” Mom says. “Do you like your new workout equipment?”
He turns from the TV, his chin shiny with grease. “Yeah, babe, thanks.”
“I need new shoes,” I say.
“It’s way nicer than the weights they had when I was in where I was at,” he says.
“I’m glad,” Mom says and kisses him, soaking up some of the oil from his face. She wipes her mouth on her Pizza Hut napkin as Terrance turns back to the TV.
Terrance says, “Tampon opener!”
“That’s not even a thing,” I say, rolling my eyes.
“Hey, Liz,” Terrance says, reaching for his fifth slice. “You have a pile of turds on your plate!” He laughs and Noah laughs, and Mom chuckles, too. She laughs almost every time Terrance does.
I visualize the fake chandelier above the table falling on Terrance’s head as he leans over and breathes on the little pieces of gray-brown sausage on my white plate. “Are you gonna eat them?” he says.
I lean back from his open mouth and say, “All yours.” His dark hand grabs the pile of meat and shoves it into his mouth the way Noah eats Cheerios.
Terrance often takes Mom out after dinner, even on weeknights. They go to movies, to clubs, to bars, and then come home after midnight, my mom spewing sorority girl giggles that sound surreal escaping from her forty-year-old lips; scary, too, since I have never before seen her drink more than a glass of wine. Sometimes she can’t hold herself up and Terrance carries her, her lipstick on his face, her skirt hiked up her thighs, once missing a shoe, both of them laughing too loud.
When they wake up Noah they ignore his cries, and eventually I lie down next to his midget-sized body covered in Bananas in Pajamas pajamas, and pull the bunched Barney sheets up from around his tan feet, and massage his face even though he inherited Terrance’s dark skin and eyes and is sleeping in Jaime’s bed. I rock Noah and sing nursery songs the way Mom used to for Jaime and me until his breathing sinks and his neck relaxes, and I always wish someone would sing to me, too.
“They’re disgusting,” I tell Rachel.
She says, “Sex must be great.”
“Not when it’s your parents,” I say. “Or gross people.”
“My parents never did it,” she says. “I can’t wait to.”
“I think I’m scarred for life,” I say.
“It’s what I’m visualizing,” Rachel says. “Sex on the beach.”
I shudder. “After listening to my mom and Terrance, I don’t think I can ever have sex in water.”
“It’s a drink, too, you know,” she says. “I want to try both.”
“Let’s move to Mexico,” I say.
“We hella should,” she says. “Just you and me and all those hot guys.”
Most days when I get home from school, Terrance is watching talk shows in which the woman’s baby daddy is sleeping with her sister, or the transsexual comedian with anger issues apologizes for attacking a man who called him a faggot. “What a fag,” Terrance says and I wonder how true the rumors about prison are. Once I painted Noah’s fingernails blue and Terrance made him cry washing it off. “My son is not a homo,” he yelled.
Sometimes Terrance plays the acoustic guitar he bought with Mom’s money. It’s a honey-colored wood, classy, and he offered to teach me to play when he found me holding it in my lap and strumming randomly. He sat next to me on the couch, scooted until his thigh lined up against mine. “I’m a good teacher,” he said, tilting his head toward my neck. The iron smell of his breath, like warm blood, made my stomach churn.
“You can’t really play,” I said. I pushed the guitar at him, trying to force him back. “You only know two chords.”
He leaned over the instrument between us. “I can play,” he said. He trailed his fingers down my forearm from elbow to wrist and rested the tips on my skin like he was taking my pulse. “I’m really, really good, Liz,” he said and wrapped his hand around the guitar neck right below my fist.
I retracted my arms and stood up, fighting to keep my face neutral. Our eyes met and Terrance smiled at me with his crooked mouth like he’d won something. He embraced the guitar I’d dropped, stroked the curved wood, and gazed up at me with heavy-lidded eyes. “You want to see?”
I ran and didn’t breathe until I made it to my room. “He’s so creepy,” I told Rachel from under my covers.
“Duh,” she said. “They don’t send normal people to prison.”
Mom is home today when I get back to the apartment and she and Terrance are giggling in the kitchen. Terrance is even wearing a shirt, though I’ve stopped expecting him to. They notice me and quiet. “Hi, Elizabeth,” Mom says. She tries to smile but her lips spasm like little electroshocks and it just looks ugly.
“What’s up?” I say, my pulse revving.
“I”— Mom says and looks at Terrance, nods her head—“we. We need to talk to you.” She reaches out her left hand with the gold wedding band she paid for, but her arm drops as she touches my sweatshirt.
“Do you want a sandwich?” Terrance holds up a display of salami and jack cheese. I stare at him. He says, “Man, I missed sandwiches.”
We sit at the table. “What’s wrong?” I say. A thousand gerbils run treadmills in my stomach.
“Well, Terrance’s parole officer called today.” She glances at Terrance, who’s not listening, just making smacking sounds as he chews. I imagine his face exploding. “Apparently someone called and stated their concern for the minor female living in this house given Terrance’s record.”
Mom takes a breath. “So the officer—what a jerk—made it a condition of Terrance’s parole that he not be allowed to be near girls your age unsupervised.” The gerbils hit double time. “That includes after school and sleeping in the same house.” She rolls her eyes and waves her hand as if they’re being ridiculous. “Since I can’t supervise while I’m asleep.”
“What?” Fiery tops spin in my head. I feel dizzy. “Does that mean—”
“It’s silly really,” she says. “There’s no reason for such an extreme response, but, you know, the system stinks.” She sighs.
I stare at her freshly cut and colored hair, her manicured nails. I think of all the food in the cabinets she bought for him: twelve-packs of soda and beer, doughnuts, Doritos, beef jerky, pork rinds, sunflower seeds. All the money spent on toys for him while she said she couldn’t afford to buy me shoes. I think about how she’s ignored me for weeks, gone to bars with Terrance and come home late, taken days off work to take him shopping, skipped church to stay in bed.
“But I was trying,” I say.
“I know,” she says, dropping her eyes to the tabletop.
I whisper, “For you.”
She whispers back, “I’m sorry.”
I think about how long she stayed with my dad; how she prayed for him every night kneeling in front of her bed, and every morning tried harder to please him through his hangover. The gerbils drop dead, and in my vacant stomach I know she’s made that choice again.
Mom opens her mouth, so I try to tell her with my eyes that I know what she’s going to say, that I don’t need to hear it out loud. But this woman sitting in front of me with my cheekbones and small wrists and wavy hair won’t look at my face. My eyes and throat burn like the room’s on fire and my ribs feel shattered under the weight in my chest, but she says without flinching, “You and Terrance cannot both live here.”
Melanie Thorne is the author of Hand Me Down, a debut novel in the tradition of Dorothy Allison and Janet Fitch, named a Kirkus Reviews Best Fiction Book of 2012 and a 2013 YALSA Alex Award nominee. Melanie earned her MA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Davis, and has been awarded the Alva Englund Fellowship, the Maurice Prize in Fiction, and a residency at the Hedgebrook Writer’s Retreat. Born and bred in California, she currently lives north of San Francisco. You can find her online at www.melaniethorne.com or on Twitter @mthorneauthor.
Adapted from Hand Me Down by Melanie Thorne. Copyright © 2013 by Melanie Thorne. With the permission of the publisher, Dutton Adult.