By Crystal McQueen
If you just ignore the hunger pangs, you can return to your dream. Your body feels sluggish as your brain tumbles out of sleep. You mentally argue with yourself. If you just ignore the cramping, it will go away. Your body takes no stock in such arguments and images of cinnamon rolls and tripled stacked pancakes and double-sized blueberry muffins roll through your mind. You flip onto your stomach with the hope that the pressure will suppress the gnawing pangs, but daylight creeps behind your eyelids, drawing you further out of sleep. But you don’t want to wake up. Not yet. You still feel so heavy, so sleepy.
Then, Pop-Tarts. Fresh from the toaster. The strawberry kind with icing, melted butter sliding off a browned edge. Your stomach turns, and you almost groan aloud. Last time, you slept too late, and all of the Pop-Tarts were gone by the time you made your bleary-eyed way out of bed.
You begged and pleaded with your mother to buy more on her next grocery run, but she insisted they were too expensive for breakfast and were gone in a day. A box of Lucky Charms cost less than one box of Pop-Tarts and would last three times as long. But what is money to you? You, whose life savings consists of $18.28, ten of which you found in the gutter as you walked home from the bus stop. So, you whined and complained that it wasn’t fair your sisters got some when you didn’t. It took most of the morning, but you convinced your mother to buy Pop-Tarts one last time.
So, you waited. You reminded. And you relished the moment your mother would come home from the grocery store. Two weeks of food for seven people filled her battered Cadillac to the brim and didn’t always last until the next grocery run. Four gallons of milk, half a dozen boxes of cereal, egg noodles, and mac & cheese pulled at the thin plastic as you heaved as many parcels as you can carry onto your bony arms, the handles digging sharply into your tender flesh. Your eyes roamed each sack, seizing your precious Pop-Tarts the moment you found them. But your mother forced you to wait until morning.
Now, the light insists you are wiling the daylight hours away. Still, you refuse, your bottom lip sticking out petulantly against your warm pillow. Reluctantly, you push yourself up, eyes resolutely closed, and feel your way down the metal ladder of your bunkbed. If you wanted the good stuff, you have to be quick. You can’t waste time sleeping when the sun is up.
You hold out a sluggish hand in front of you as toys bite at the soles of your bare feet like gnats. You stumble as you make your way to the door, the pale light highlighting the veins in your eyelids as you pass into the hallway.
Your hands trace the corduroy wallpaper on either side of you, some of the pastel strings loosening from the paper due to this very practice. But you like the way the texture massages your fingertips. Your mom says the hall is too narrow to carry anything straight, but you love it, the walls hugging you.
It’s darker in the hall, colder. The air conditioning raises gooseflesh on your bare limbs where your worn-out Beastie Boys t-shirt doesn’t cover. Its soft fabric is coming apart at the arm pits and fraying about your knees, but you love it anyway. Where it came from, you do not know. It’s yours now.
Slowly, you lay your head against the wall as you walk, your hair emitting a soft shush, your bare feet soundless vessels across the maroon carpet. The house is quiet. So quiet, you believe you must be the only one awake.
But, a creak of the recliner stirs in your ears, and you freeze. Your eyes fly open, a sliver of moon through the skylight exposes your folly, and your heart pounds. You wait.
The hum of the air conditioner vibrates through the silence. You hold your breath. Your skin tingles. You pray you misheard.
There was no sound, you try to convince yourself.
The recliner footrest slams into place, and a cough like ground up gravel echoes through the hall.
Your body trembles.
This is a mistake. A terrible mistake. You thought it was morning, but he won’t care. You’re out of bed. That’s all that matters. You want to run back to your room before he catches you, but it is as though the carpet has a hold on your feet.
You’ll say you were sleep walking. Or maybe you’ll say you had to pee. But, why hope? He won’t listen to your excuses.
The scent of whiskey precedes his heavy footfalls.
You close your eyes, regressing to that childish belief that if you don’t see him, he can’t see you. You swallow a whimper as he takes the corner too wide and thumps into the wall. You cling to your nightshirt, the fabric a crumpled mess in your sweaty hands.
You wait for him to jerk you out of the shadows. You can feel the ache in your shoulder as though it has already happened. His hand clenched on the back of your neck. The bone-rattling shake. You promise yourself you won’t cry this time. But you know will.
You want your mother, but even if she were here, it wouldn’t prevent the beating. But it would be less.
Please let it be less.
You hear the flip of a light switch, and you flinch, your eyes clenching tighter as blood pumps through your racing heart.
The bathroom door slams, and your eyes fly open. You stare in disbelief at that beam of light under the door. Your mind races, celebrating, screaming in relief.
He didn’t see you. He didn’t see you.
You hear his pee hits the toilet water and on the floor tile where he misses. You back away from the light, your fists still clenched in your shirt.
You don’t look away from that gleam until you slip into your room.
You are careful to avoid toys on the floor, the streetlight – your false sun – illuminating teddy bears, and building blocks, and half-filled notebooks that litter your floor. Any other time, finding a spot of carpet to step on would be a great game. Any time but now. You have to get back in bed before he finishes in the bathroom. Before he checks on you.
Your two younger sisters sleep peacefully in the bottom bunk, curled together like tiny dolls, blissfully unaware, and you envy them.
You step on the first rung and ease your body up, your mind screaming at you to both go faster and not to let the bed creak.
Again, you hear him cough, and you race up the last steps, flopping on your mattress. The bed, like the streetlamp, betrays you, jiggling long after his coughing fit stops.
You hold your breath, not daring to move. You wish you could climb under the covers, but you can’t move. Your muscles ache, your stomach twisted in knots as your breath comes in shallow spurts.
You wait. You wait and you hope, holding your little body as still as you possibly can.
Footsteps in the hall. Are they coming toward you or back to the living room? You can’t tell. He coughs again, a hacking cough, a cough you’d know anywhere. Closer than before. You wish you can turn away from the door. You try to relax your face, but spiders with their icy legs crawl across your skin.
Your chest hurts. It screams for air, but still, you don’t breathe.
You just want it to be over.
Let it be over.
And, then it is.
A familiar metal clanks from the recliner footrest, and your whole body relaxes. Your breath comes in and out in haggard gasps.
Still, you do not crawl under the covers. Still, you wait as your heartbeat struggles to right itself. Only when you hear the resounding snores do you allow yourself to draw your knees to your chest as one hand flings your wolf blanket over you and the other draws the pillow more evenly under your head. You promise yourself you won’t open your eyes again until morning.
Sleep eludes you. So, you sink into daydreams. Dreams where you slay dragons. Dreams where you are brave. In your dreams, you’re never afraid. You’re never a coward.
You lose yourself in these fantasies because anywhere is better than here.
Crystal McQueen lives in the suburbs of Northern Kentucky with her husband and two children. She attends classes at EKU’s Blue Grass Writer’s Studio, pursuing a MFA in Creative Writing. She finds inspiration for her writing through her passion for adventure – whether it be backpacking through nature, exploring the secrets of the city, or traveling to far off lands. For more information, please visit crystalmcqueen.com