A young woman must deal with secrets, more especially those from her childhood
Secrets, Damn the Bloody Secrets
Author's notes: Word count = 3570, before Pictures, formatting and notes. This is a contest entry for "House Of Black & White " Prompt # 44: Kids discover the old man Joe's secret. 1000 points, In the spirit of full disclosure, I am bound to admit that when I saw this prompt, I remembered something from a review I did for a new WdC member K.V. Foster a gifted writer whose work inspired this piece
We all have secrets, that’s what my mother once told me one time when I was a kid. I remember that conversation now, twelve years after the fact. I was eleven and helping her drag in the groceries from the car. We were pulling everything out of the bags and setting it on the counter when I asked her if secrets were bad.
“Oh, I suppose not all secrets are bad. It depends,” she said.
“Depends on what?
“Well, it depends on why you are keeping something a secret. If it is something serious, then we should always be cautious about what we keep under our hat. But if you are worried about trying to keep the party we are planning for your father under wraps. Then, no, I don’t think it bad to keep that a secret.”
“But isn’t why we have it trickery? I mean everyone knows he’s been in the hospital a long time. And even though you and Aunt Jennie didn’t tell us for months. Jacky and I knew about the Cancer. Yet, you wouldn’t say even when we asked.”
“I know darling, and I am sorry. But in the beginning, we didn’t know what the outcome was going to be, and we were concerned that with all the pressures of the new school, it might be too big an issue for you and your sister to worry about.”
“What about the people coming tomorrow? Do they all know the truth?”
My mother finished putting the eggs away but stood silently staring into the open refrigerator for a long pause before she said, “I think most do, there maybe some who don’t know, or at least are not admitting they know.”
“And that’s okay? Is there anything more serious than life and death? I mean if there are things that have happened or things that we have done that… Well, that doesn't seem right, is it okay to keep them secret just because they might get us in trouble?”
“Oh, this conversation isn’t about your father then is it.” She said as the last stacks of the paper plates were pushed under the cabinet. She stood up and put her hands on the island counter and focused on me. Her left eye brow rose ever so slightly, and I knew she was waiting, I had her full attention
“Well, yes and no, I mean I am trying to understand when it’s okay to keep a secret and how bad it is if you tell someone something they were not supposed to know. How much trouble is there if you keep a secret from someone that you think should be aware of it. But you have been told not to say anything because it will cause them trouble.”
Mom’s head took that little tilt to the side as the corners of her mouth pulled tighter toward her dimples. “Maybe, you should give me an example of what you are talking about.”
“Okay, how about this party for dad. If it is going to be the last one he may…” I couldn’t finish the sentence, it was like someone had stuffed an entire bed sheet in my mouth and then punched me in the stomach.
My mother almost jumped around the corner of the kitchen island. She knelt and pulled me into her arms crushing me in a deathly hug. I just stood there with the tears running down my face trying to breathe.
“Oh my God, sweety it’s okay. What is this about? Did you tell someone about your father? This is not easy for any of us. And no one expects an eleven-year-old to make all the right decisions. It's up to us grown ups to deal with the complicated issues. It’s perfectly alright if you let the cat out of the bag. Is that it, you told someone you were not supposed to about your father’s condition? Who was it?”
“It’s Uncle Joe” this is sorta about him, I have wanted to tell you for a long time, but he said I shouldn’t say anything. Even Jacky, she said, no she ordered me, to keep my mouth shut. She told me you had enough going on, and if I said anything about Uncle Joe to you that she was going to beat the shit out of me, cut up all my clothes and throw me outside in the yard naked”
“That’s just your sister being herself, she’s almost thirteen and thinks she is more your mother me. And I’m sorry that these last few month it might have seemed like that was true. But I am coming to grips with our situation, your father and Aunty Jen are doing a great job in helping with that. No matter what Jacky says she is not going to do anything to harm you.”
“I’m not so sure you didn’t see the look on her and Uncle Joe’s face when I said I thought you should know.”
“It’s okay darling we didn’t tell him before because, like the rest of us, he has enough problems of his own. We, your father and I, were afraid that knowing about your dad’s condition would send him off the deep end again. And frankly, they were right, the last thing I need---what any of us need, right now, is having to deal with that drunkard being any more of a bastard.” Now it was my mother’s turn to smear her makeup.
I took in a deep breath, grabbed several tissues from the box on the counter and I handed some to her. “I’m sorry mom, I didn’t mean to make you cry, I really didn’t, I know this is hard.”
Mom wiped her face cleaning away the smears, then she touched up a spot on mine. She smiled and said the wildest thing I could have ever imagined. “Thank God this conversation was about your father’s cancer, I was almost sure you were going to tell me about the two bras you stole from your sister and have been secretly wearing to school.”
Oh for Shyte sake, I almost pissed my pants. I remember the color on my arms, they turned as red as the tomatoes on the counter next to me. But that was it. Mom got up, and said, “Put those chips in the pantry, and go help Jacky and Aunt Jennie finish decorating the patio.”
The breath frozen in my chest escaped as slowly the sensation of my body’s weight returned to the ground and my legs. I turned to run out of the room, but just as I got to the door, Mom called out to me.
“Katie, I am sorry I have not been able to spend as much time as I should with you. But I promise everything is going to be alright. Tomorrow, after the party, and once we have your father settled in. I’ll take you to the mall, and we’ll buy you some bras that fit. Wearing one of Jacky’s old coats is one thing, but nobody should have to wear hand-me-down underwear.”
That maybe one of my best memories of my mother. And God knows they are important. Dad made it three weeks past that party. And we struggled on for several years.
Uncle Joe was around on and off for a couple more years before the liquor finally killed him too. I wasn’t surprised. I think it was his death that sent Jacky off on her wild tangent. After all, it was she who found him that morning. She might have been the only one who knew his heart had gotten that bad. Maybe that is why she got so mad the night before when she saw me leaving his house.
I can remember her screaming at me “Stay the away from him, I mean it. He’s not fucking good.” I thought her rampage odd until the next day when she found him. I knew something was going to blow up. I felt like something was going to blow up, at his funeral, no one was crying. Not a single tear. And Jacky was acting weird. I remember her arms and face were broke out like she had been dipped in a vat of fire ants.
Jacky, even though, she was older, that didn’t keep her from derailing like a Mosaic phosphate train crossing highway 60 at rush hour. What a mess she became. At 15, She ran away from home with some guy in a rock band. But now, after twelve years, six boyfriends, and four kids. She has gotten married.
With Jacky gone, that left mom and me alone at home. Mom managed to keep things going and got me through high school and junior college, even though it took me three years to complete the last. I should have gone on to finish my bachelors, but after her car crash, it was all I could do to get out of bed each day and not slit my wrists.
There you go, more secrets. Mother said, we all have them, and I seem to have plenty. Like, I can’t find a steady boyfriend for myself. Oh, I meet plenty of guys. But as soon as they snuggle up and start whispering in my ear that they love me, it's like they were dipped in Shyte. I kick them to the curb and never see them again.
Oh, I know, that’s not much of a secret. Okay, how about this one, I didn’t tell you that I thought my old boss was the hottest man I’d ever seen and that every time he stood next to my desk I wanted to undo another button on my blouse. And no, didn’t matter that, in spite of the fact, he is married, I still would catch myself imagining us naked on a beach somewhere.
Secrets, everywhere there are secrets, yes, some are small. The ones we keep to spare someone's feeling. But then, there are the unhealthy ones, like my thoughts about my old boss. Yes, I know they could lead to real trouble. But then that’s another of my secrets, I didn’t care, perhaps that’s why trouble had no problem finding me no matter where I went.
Here is another secret, if it were not for Aunt Jennie, I have no doubt I would have jumped off the Skyway Bridge. Yes, I had thought of it more than once, I even picked out the rocks I was going to load my pockets with, in case the 200-foot fall didn’t kill me.
Yes, Aunt Jennie, she’s our savior, she was the one who insisted we use Mom’s insurance money to pay off the house. Which is cool for Jacky and the kids. They have a place to live while she and her new husband get their lives figured out.
And for me, without her pushing, I would not be going back to school to finish my degree. Luckily FSU gives priority admission consideration to undergrads who have their AAs from Florida Community Colleges. Wow, I never thought I would be going back, much less looking at a BS in nursing.
That's what we were doing today, setting up my new apartment just a couple of blocks off campus. We had unloaded almost everything from the trailer, and I was trying to unpack a box of stuff in the tiny kitchen when Aunt Jennie brought in the small end table.
She said, “Hey, look at this, come tell me what you think?” and she carried the double tiered, brown wooden table into the bedroom. “I thought it might work in here.” She said and sat the table next to my bed.
I followed her into the room, and couldn’t take my eyes off it. The gnawing in my gut churned and twisted my bowels into a knot. It was like I was standing in the middle of the street knowing a huge bus was coming, I could hear it in the background, but no matter how hard I stared, it somehow stayed invisible.
She plugged in the lamp, and I pushed the bed back in place. Then tucked the rest of the lamp cord behind one of the table’s back legs.
“Aunt Jen, why is this thing so damned nagging, it’s Déjà vu. Where did it come from? Was it Mom’s?”
“No, dear, it was Uncle Joe’s. I thought it's simple lines would match the rest of your bedroom. Anyway, we need to empty out his storage locker, and Lord knows, your new apartment could use a little more filling.”
“Well thanks, I do need…ha-ha, just about everything. But there is something about this thing that seems…I don’t know…foreboding.”
“Ha, the nightstand was about the only thing left fit to use. Men are such pigs, and your uncle was one of the worst. I am sending that bed of his to the dump.”
After a nice cup of Earl Grey, Aunt Jennie asked, “Kattie, baby, are you going to be alright here by yourself? You know I can stay the night, even longer if you need me. I know, I am a poor substitute for her, and it's not the same, but I swear, I love you as much as she did.”
“Thanks, Aunt Jen, but I’ll be okay, the campus is just down the street, I can ride my bike there in less than five-minutes. And there are a hundred stores, shops, and restaurants going down West Tennessee Street. Not to mention, the Student Union it has a ton of stuff going on.”
“Are you sure darling? I have to admit I am a little worried, you know the reputation they have here in Tallahassee for being the biggest party city in the south.”
“Haha, that’s just the Gator BSing because they can’t put together a team good enough to beat the Noles. There you go, one more thing to keep me busy. Doak Cambell is almost across the street from here. I’ll go to the games if for no other reason than to wear one of Dad’s old shirts in the stadium. It will almost be like I’m taking him there.
“Oh baby it’s one thing to wear those old things like a night gown, but you can’t go out in public in one. There is still enough money left to buy a few new ones. I don’t think he will mind if you just wear one of those nasty hats. Though, I suppose, if you put the new shirts and one of his hats in a plastic bag, over night, it will make the shirt stink just like he had worn it.”
We had a few more laughs before she gave me a long hug and went home to Tampa. I returned to my unpacking. But try as I might, every time I stopped, the image of the little table popped back into my mind.
It was a horrific dread, the unnerving anticipation like when you go to the doctor and are told you needed a shot in the bum. You stand there bent awkwardly over the end of a padded bench, waiting with your pants at half-mast. Every muscle in your legs screaming in stress, your back aching as your vertebrate fuse together to hold you steady. Waiting, and waiting, afraid to look back, and thus admit you are about to piss your pants if the nurse doesn’t poke you soon. It seems like it takes an hour even though it’s only 20 seconds.
I tried to block it out, even more so when I realized I was crossing my legs at my desk, resisting the trip to the bathroom. “Oh, for shyte sake, this is ridiculed,” I said to the empty apartment as I ran past the end of the bed. I didn’t notice that I closed and locked the bathroom door behind me.
When I came out, I stood and stared at the table from the foot of the bed, but there was no answer. My glance turned to my reflection in the mirror, “You are either really tired or going crazy” I said aloud to break the stillness that seemed so suffocating me, no, the sense haunting me was more of that urgency you have just before you come up for air after diving off a three-meter platform.
I went into the other room and spent the rest of the night at my keyboard. Awhile later, I looked at the clock on the microwave, and it read 1:30 AM. Damn, I got to get up in five and a half hours.
I got undressed in the bathroom and started to go to bed naked like I usually do, but when I pulled back the covers, a shiver took hold. I took out one of my dad’s old FSU tee-shirts they were three times too big for me. But Aunt Jennie was right the shirts did make pretty good night gowns and having something he wore so close seemed to make things better.
I crawled into bed but sleep would not come, I tossed and turned flipping over a dozen times, until, I gave in, opened my eyes, and let out a mournful sigh. The beam from the streetlamp outside shone through the window, and like a cop car spotlight, it focused on the bedside table.
I just lay there staring at it. Then its smoky brown finish came to life, it crawled in circles like a snarl of serpents that pulsed with my every breath. Then, it happened, in the nook, that space between the upper tier with the lamp and the bottom table base. I could see it; a large crystal ashtray, it filled to overflowing with a thousand silver coins.
A bulky darkness settled in, pinning my arms and legs as a building paralysis crushed the air from my lungs. The scent of Old Spice and beer washed over me, so pungent, it burned my eyes. My tears, now a steady rivulet, streamed over my cheeks collecting in my ears.
I laid there, unable to move, my eyes bound to the coins, I was counting them to determine how much money there was. I was going to take it all. Yes, run, run away as far as it will take me.
The room rocked with the intensity of a California quake until the mass on top of me rose up like a whale breaching the ocean surface. A Roman candle shot off, and the fireballs chewed at my lower stomach like a rabid Pitbull. I screamed and sat up.
Looking around the room there was nothing, it was empty, nobody there. My nightshirt was drenched, my sweaty hair matted to my face covering my right eye like a leather pirate’s patch.
A chill rushed over me from the wake of the squeaking ceiling fan. I turned and looked at the nightstand, gone was the ashtray, there were no coins, nothing there, but the lamp and my alarm clock, which read 4:30 AM. But it didn’t matter I knew now why the table haunted me.
I kicked the covers off my legs, they fell onto the floor. When I rolled out of bed on top of them, it was like hammers had smashed my knees when they hit. But I gave the pain no mind. Standing, I snatched up the table by one leg letting the lamp and clock crash to the floor, their cords were still plugged into the wall.
I ran for the apartment front door, ripped it open, the knob smashed into the wall, and held the door open. I didn’t stop running until I was beside the apartment complex’s trash dumpster. I tossed the table in as my other hand pressed the button to start the compactor motor. I watched as the massive ram slowly crushed the table, smashing it into splinters.
And for the first time since my Aunt Jennie had come over, I drew in a breath that didn’t taste of seaweed and salt. I collapsed on the curb as the tears started again, only this time, I remembered where they came from.
As I sat there a blast of cold raked over me as if I had sat on the floor of a restaurant's walk-in freezer. The goose-bumps rose, and my teeth began to chatter, and it had nothing to do with the actual temperature or that the only thing I was wearing was one my dad’s old tee shirt.
“For Christ sake, Jacky that’s why you ran … How could I not remember, why did you leave without telling anyone, didn’t you know that only left me? Oh, damn you all, how could you have let it happen. I was just a little girl.”
I just sat there as the sick memories crash over me. Each rerunning over and over again, until the picture focused on Jacky’s arms and face that morning after Uncle Joe had died. The image froze the frame of the show because that’s when I remembered that the only other time I had ever seen my sister break out like that, was when she had picked a bunch of Castor beans from the woods at the end of our street. Castor beans the thing s they get Ricin from, the poison that makes it look like you had a heart attack.
That was the night I truly learned about secrets, there are just too many fucking secrets. But now, I had to decide whether I could keep just one more. not mine but my sister's.