I have seen it a thousand times: my mother’s face screws up in a snarl as she barks at the phone. Her shouts are fireworks, blasting across the living room as she paces and frets. She swipes a napkin off the table with the edge of her cardigan.
I imagine the police questioning me after she finally snaps. I am not the target; I am always the target. Yes, it has always been this way. No, she has never been physical. Yes, I dream of leaving home. Would I cry, I wonder? No, I would not.
I sit in the darkest corner of the room, watching the day's remains fall on the far wall in bursts of yellow. I slow the groaning rocking chair with the toe of my sock, flipping the carpet from dark to light, stirring up a storm of cat fur. It sticks to the fibers of my clothing.
My mother slams down the phone after a final, decisive shout and collapses into a chair. I can imagine how she resists the urge to move, like a child on the edge of sleep, ignoring growing pains. The cat creeps up to sniff her, alarmed by her sudden stillness.
I watch the cat hair storm settle and wait for the echo to diffuse. The little slip from quiet to whistle triggers in my ear. Finally, my brother perks up behind the television, screwdriver in hand like a lightning rod.
“Any luck?” he asks, as if he hadn’t heard enough to know.
“No,” she huffs, “they were supposed to come hours ago. I can’t believe this.” She rubs her hands over her eyes and hair as if she could wash the conversation off with ink-stained hands. The darkness gathering around her makes her look small. She still hasn’t noticed the fallen napkin, or she just doesn’t care.
“You sure you don’t want me to try it?” my brother asks. He believes he can with everything he has. I can see it in his eyes, sparkling in the last embers of sundown, ready to make it right. Man-of-the-house syndrome, I call it.
“It won’t do any good,” she replies, “They said we have to replace the whole heating system. Let’s just hope they get here before the first frost.”
We all look out the window. A gust of wind pulls more leaves to the ground.
“If only we could hibernate,” I say.
“What?” She turns to me with wide eyes like I just said something obscene.
“I just said it would be nice if we could hibernate. So we didn’t have to live through the winter.”
“Oh.” She gazes out the window again, the sun’s last rays flickering over the ceiling. I’m shivering, I realize. The muscles in my jaw start to quiver like a child on the verge of tears.
I move to light the fireplace, but my brother bounds over before I can open it halfway.
“Let me get that,” he says.
I watch him in silence. He takes the lighter from the mantel and begins to blow on the tiny flame struggling through the logs, his spit hissing as it turns to steam. His hands grip the edge of the brick like he might launch himself into the flames.
The fire goes out after a moment of struggling, too small to take on the bulk of the logs. My brother sighs.
“Get me some cardboard or something,” he says, staring into the fireplace as if the little flame might spring up from the ashes again.
What’s the magic word? The question echoes in my mind, but I stand to leave without a sound.
My mother still has her head in her hands when I pass her, as if she could take its intrusive presence from her body. I wait for the bite of her words to come again, but she has exhausted herself.
Shoes fill the entryway, upside-down and on their sides like a pile-up on the interstate. Mine lie near the edge, navy blue flats I found at the thrift shop with a friend a few months ago. They sat on the shelf in near-perfect condition.
“It’s like they were waiting for me,” I said.
“The thrift store always knows,” she replied.
Always knows what? I wondered. I didn’t ask, afraid to break the spell by admitting my ignorance. Always knows when you’re looking for flats? Always knows when you’d rather be anywhere than home?
I open the front door to a gust of chilled air. The street lamps cast uncertain light on the pavement, leaves drifting like ghosts through the silent suburban road. The recycling bin sits at the end of the driveway, ready to be collected in the morning. It never was when Father had the job. He would scramble out of the car before work to push it through unshoveled snow, knocking ice off protruding boxes with a gloved hand.
“If it were up to me, we’d be living on a beach right now,” he would say, rubbing his hands together for a glimpse of heat when he clamored back into the old, red sedan.
Now, inside the recycling, there is only one small box. They will ask if there are any more, and why didn’t I grab those, too? I will apologize and tell them no, there are no more, and feel their disappointment as it slides onto me. I shouldn’t have tried to start the fire.
A leaf catches in my hair as I stand at the end of the driveway, almost in the road. I don’t worry about being hit. No one will come. I pull the leaf out of my hair and let it drift to the ground. It crackles when I stamp on it, the perfect dryness of November.
My uncle will cut the turkey this year with his chest puffed and arms flexed; he is finally the oldest son. The tension between my mother and her in-laws will stand uncertain, flipping between blame and sympathy. They will tell me to help in the kitchen, where I will chop one vegetable before I become a nuisance.
“Too many cooks in the kitchen!” my mother will announce, smiling too widely, ushering me away to stand alone. I am too young to be an adult and too old to be a child. I will not be asked to comment when my father inevitably poisons the conversation. Have you heard from him? Have you? No, no, always no. He just needs time.
But time passes more quickly than I can count it. I am on the edge of graduation, and then I will enter college or find a husband, but I will find a husband. I will have two or four children with him, and when he comes home later every night, I will not complain because at least he came home. I am sixteen, but I might as well be sixty.
The sky is black except for the constant moon and the lights from the city. They grow brighter every year. Only the Big Dipper is visible now, but when I was six, the purple shadow of the Milky Way still shone down. I used to gaze at it through the telescope I got for Christmas when I was convinced I would work for NASA someday. It sits in storage now. Another gust of wind pulls the winter in. My hands are red and swollen.
As I turn to go inside, I realize I have walked into the middle of the road. An owl sits on a nearby lamppost, watching me with gaping eyes. It waits for me to make my move, to run to safety. I look both ways, but I know no one is coming.
Annika Johnson is a 16-year-old girl from somewhere in the world who hopes you know she loves her mother very much, despite what the stories say. She has always been passionate about devouring books in one sitting and entering other worlds. Her favorite writers include Donna Tartt, Virginia Woolf, and the Bronte sisters. She has aspirations of teaching English and writing as much as possible.