by GWEN GOODKIN
I stick my hand inside my coat to unfasten my key from the safety pin, and I can tell by how quick the pin moves, how thin it feels, that the key isn’t there.
I cross the street in front of the school bus and make my way to my house. The cold makes the bones in my hands hurt. Fresh snow covers this morning’s dull snow. It looks stiff and tricks me into thinking I can step on it, but I drop through. The skin of my ankle is wet. The wind is an Indian burn.
I check the rock and—no spare. I’m on my front porch and I have to go so bad that I can’t hold it anymore. I grab a handful of pants and underwear and force it up my front so I can walk. I reach for the door and try the knob, even though I’m sure it’s locked. The knob turns. I pull my hand away, like it’s been burnt. I stand for a while, staring.
Did I forget to lock it this morning? I’m not totally sure because this morning seems like any other. But then, I remember – I was in a hurry.
I open the door a little wider. I stay very still and search the dim. The house is quiet.
About a month ago when Mom found me rinsing the hems of my pant legs in the laundry sink, she said, “Can’t you wait til you’re inside to go?’
“I do wait.” I sprayed stain remover on the hems and rubbed. “Sometimes I forget the key and I hold it for as long as I can, then I just can’t anymore. That’s when I go behind the bush.”
“What if someone sees you?”
“No one sees me.”
Then she said, “It isn’t that difficult, Dawn—to remember the key.”
She didn’t care about the key, really. She only cared that her boyfriend Mitch and the neighbors knew her kids did dirty things like pee outside.
When Mitch moved in, I complained to my brother that I didn’t like Mitch being there. Jimmy only shrugged and said he wasn’t home much anyway and he’d be out of here soon enough so what’d he care? But I knew my brother. Mitch and Jimmy pretended not to notice each other, but really they were like a pair of wrestlers circling, waiting for the first one to make a move. Then, one night, Jimmy called Mitch’s diet pop a pussy drink and Mitch jumped up from the chair, grabbed Jimmy by the T shirt and slammed him against the wall. I saw in Jimmy’s eyes he was going to beat Mitch to hamburger.
“Do it, Jimmy,” I said.
A few days before, I passed Mitch reading the paper at the kitchen table and went in the bathroom. Just as I was pulling up my pants, he opened the door. I dropped back and crossed my arms over my lap.
“Sorry,” he said, shutting the door. “I didn’t realize you were in here.”
When I came out, he was back at the table reading the paper like nothing had happened. Jimmy was at the sink washing a casserole dish and he glanced up at me for a second. He knew same as me it was no accident. He went back to scrubbing and I went my room.
So there we were, Jimmy and Mitch staring at me after I said “Do it,” and the two of them frozen mid-fight. Jimmy got an arm around Mitch’s shoulders, kicked his legs out from under him and slammed him on the ground so hard I heard the breath leave. Jimmy put Mitch in a headlock and started choking him and Mitch bucked backwards in quick jerks, like a dog trying to escape its collar.
Mom rushed in from the kitchen and smacked Jimmy’s head over and over, coming at him from both sides until he had to let go to defend himself.
If she weren’t our mom Jimmy would have punched her. He had his fist cocked like he was going to, but the thinking side of him snapped together and he realized it was his mom he was about to knock out.
I was watching them, held tight, and, all the sudden I whispered, “Do it.”
None of them heard me—the three of them were all shouting and arguing. Jimmy said if Mitch ever touched him again, he’d kill him.
After Mitch sucked in his breath, he yelled at Mom, “What kind of kids are you raising anyway?”
“He walked in on Dawn in the bathroom,” said Jimmy. “Tried to pretend it was an accident.”
“It was an accident.”
“No it wasn’t,” I said.
Mom told Mitch to get out of her house. And Mitch, said, “Yeah, your house. That’s all I’ve heard for months. Your house.”
Then Mom lost it. “I never once said it was my house. You said it. Over and over. Like a broken record.”
Jimmy disappeared up the stairs in three huge jumps. Mitch cleared out his stuff and slammed the front door so hard he shook the house.
A couple nights later I woke up to Mom and Jimmy whispering in the hall.
“What kind of noise was it?” said Jimmy.
“Like—,” said Mom.
I got out of bed and peeked through my door. Jimmy’s bedroom light was on. Mom was wearing her thin, blue nightgown, the one that shows her dark nipples. I wished she would give the nightgown away or throw it in the trash.
“A pop can opening,” she said.
Jimmy and Mom stared at each other. Mitch only drank pop out of cans. Every night after dinner, the TV then, sss-crack.
Jimmy held a knife. The handle was the color of my ugly garnet birthstone. The blade was curved and speckled with rust, which told me it was Dad’s, pulled from the deep of the basement.
Jimmy started towards the steps.
Mom caught him by the arm. “No. Don’t.”
He twisted free and moved slowly down the stairs. Mom followed. I looked behind me at my dark room and suddenly it was the best place for a bad person to hide. I got out of there.
The pop can was on the kitchen counter. Mom’s back was against the wall with the phone in her hand. “I’m calling the cops.”
“No.” Jimmy checked behind the couch. “Not yet.”
“The can isn’t open,” I said. Someone could have set it there and forgot. I picked up the can. “And it’s warm.”
He came toward me. His eyes were mean, like when I open his door without knocking. I backed away. He grabbed the can from my hand. “It’s diet,” he said. “Who drinks diet?”
I wanted to say Mom drinks diet, but I kept my mouth shut.
He pointed with the knife. “Next to Mom. Go.”
After school yesterday I went in the house and started homework right away. I do that when I have a key. Soon as I got up to make a snack, the phone rang.
“Guess who this is,” said a man.
“I don’t know,” I said.
I thought hard. “I can’t.”
“I have a sore throat. My voice is different. That’s why you don’t know who it is.”
I kept quiet.
“Now do you know who it is?”
He turned his face from the phone like he was talking to someone else. “Mitch?” he said. “No—not Mitch.”
“I’m hanging up,” I said.
“No. No, I’m just joking with you,” he said. “It’s Mitch.”
“You don’t sound like Mitch.”
“Like I said, I have a sore throat.” He laughed for no good reason, and then asked, “Do you ever get sick?”
I didn’t answer. It was a stupid question.
“Because when I get sick I want to feel better.” His breath was loud in my ear. “Can you do that for me, Dawn? Make me feel better?” His voice changed. He wasn’t joking anymore. “I know how you can make me feel better, Dawn.” He sucked in air through his teeth.
How did he know my name? He wasn’t Mitch and he knew my name. I made tight fists and tried hard as I could not to cry. I hung up the phone and backed into the corner and looked around the room.
The front blinds were open. I dropped to the floor and crawled. I tried not to cry but everything was coming out when I breathed. I reached for the cord and pulled the blinds closed. What if he was outside watching me? He saw me close the blinds and knew where I was. I tried to stop crying and I tried not to scream but I screamed and screamed.
“What’s going on?” The stairs shook as my brother ran down.
“You’re here?” I screamed.
“I came in the back,” he yelled.
“He’s coming to get me,” I screamed.
“Who?” he shouted.
I screamed and screamed. “The man on the phone is coming to get me.” I didn’t want to cry in front of Jimmy. He needed to know I was tough. “He said he was Mitch, but he wasn’t.” I took a breath. “He said my name.” A sob caught in my throat. “He knew my name.”
Jimmy’s face relaxed and I saw he wanted to hug me like when he was young. Then his eyes got mean. “It was him.”
“No,” I said. “It wasn’t.”
“One way or the other.” He pulled up the blinds and stared out the window and said, “I’m going to kill him.”
I wiped my eyes. “That’s the second time you said you were going to kill him.” My voice was flimsy. I hated the sound of it.
He looked straight at me. “You don’t think I could?”
“In hockey I was the enforcer,” he said. “You know what that means, right? It was my job to beat guys up. My only job.”
I pushed a hand against the wall to stand. “Go enforce then.” When Mitch came into the house, Jimmy gave him a chance. They watched hockey together and talked about football. But, little by little, Mitch started to act like he owned the place, like we were living in his house, instead of how it really was. First we couldn’t eat macaroni and cheese for dinner because Mitch didn’t like cheese, and pretty soon the only thing on TV was the news, then what I think really set Jimmy off was that he took Jimmy’s parking spot and Jimmy had to start parking off the alley in the back. “That guy on the phone – whoever he was – could do something bad to me.”
Jimmy turned his attention outside, searching.
Even though it’s winter and Mom calls herself the heat miser, Jimmy quit wearing shirts since Mitch left. Jimmy says he’s hot. I say he’s showing off the muscles lined up on his stomach like straight teeth.
This morning Jimmy and I were in the kitchen and his muscles were out. He pulled a box of cereal from the cupboard and poured in a mouthful. He went to the fridge, got the milk and opened his lips just wide enough to add some. I checked the clock. Six minutes til the bus. Jimmy ate and smiled, milk running down the side of his chin.
“Who needs a bowl?” A piece of cereal flew from his mouth and landed in front of my orange juice.
Then he said to me, “Whatever you do –” He chewed and chewed until he finally finished then jabbed his finger at the front door. “Do not open that fucking door when you’re here alone.” He wiped his chin. “Got it?”
“And don’t forget the key.” He jiggled the window to make sure it was locked.
I washed my glass in the sink and set it on the dishtowel.
“Dawn,” he said. “Watch.”
“I have to leave now or I’ll miss the bus,” I said.
He put an arm behind his back and did some quick push-ups against the table. Then he switched. He was blocking me. I could’ve gone around, but if I did, he’d get annoyed and tease me and then I’d really be late. He stood up and flexed. He was smiling huge.
I looked at him like I couldn’t have been more bored. “Big Gym test today?”
I push the toe of my shoe in the space of the door and wait for Jimmy to answer from his room upstairs.
“Jimmy?” I say again – louder. If he’s home, he’s in his room. After Dad died, Jimmy shut himself up in there, like if he stayed inside, he could make life stop. He could close the door and everything would stay like it was and never change and the bad stuff couldn’t get in. But now I know—better than Jimmy, even—bad stuff always finds a way.
Jimmy doesn’t answer and now my body knows a bathroom is close.
I step through the door, out of the cold. The heater starts, and a breeze of air flows through the vents. I climb the stairs still holding my pants and barely make it to the bathroom. Just before I walk into the hall, I stop myself and listen. I wait a few seconds then move toward Jimmy’s room. His door is almost shut, but not latched. I push it open, holding my breath.
He isn’t here and I’m sure I’m alone, so I go to his closet and sit on the floor with my knees pulled in high. All I can think is that tomorrow I’ll have to come in by myself again, wondering. Even if I have the key.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Jimmy’s hockey stick. He stopped playing a couple years ago, right after dad died. Just put his stick in the closet and never got it out again. I reach for it and slide it toward me, letting the handle knock against the wall. It’s bottom-heavy and weird to hold because the stick is square, not round, and all corners.
I step out of the closet and swing it, hitting an imaginary puck. The stick clips Jimmy’s lamp and a chunk of ceramic lands on the nightstand with dust crumbles around it.
The stick rights itself in my hands, the toe always wants to point down. I stare at the gap in the lamp—and then I swing. I’m smashing the lamp to pieces and I can’t stop. The lightbulb, the shade, the metal ring at the top. I’m breathing heavy, realizing what I’ve done and adding up how mad Jimmy’s going to be at me, for being in his room alone, for breaking his lamp, for daring to pick up the stick, for being alive, because, really, that’s what he’s mad about, that we’re all alive, especially him, when the door creaks open.
The blood pulses in my cheeks and suddenly my head feels like it might pull away from my body and float away. I cannot pass out.
I push my back into the corner and hold the stick as tight as I can. I check the window and calculate how fast I can get it open and jump out.
“Dawn,” he says. “I want—” He’s searching for the right words. “I’m here to apologize.” He moves a step toward me.
“Don’t come any closer.” I lift the stick so I can swing it like a bat.
“A buddy of mine—not even a good buddy, just a guy I know really—thought it’d be funny to call you and mess with you,” says Mitch. “Last night he told me what he did and I—” He lifts his hand. It’s taped and two fingers are puffy and purple.
“How did you get in?” I ask.
“The door was open,” he says. “I knocked, but no one answered.”
We stare at each other. I haven’t moved an inch.
He lifts his hands and says, “That’s it.” One hand is bandaged and the other is holding something with the last three fingers. He takes a step back like he’s surrendering or something and Jimmy comes up behind him and gets him in a chokehold. He grabs for Jimmy’s arm, but Jimmy isn’t going to let go this time and he’s pulling Mitch backwards towards the ground. Mitch’s eyes close and Jimmy lets him drop.
“Is he dead?” I ask, panicked.
“No, just passed out.”
Jimmy looks like he used to before Dad and everything else—boy eyes and a standstill jaw that’s quit the constant flexing. I’m sure he’s going to hug me, and it makes me happy that my brother is back, the one who used to play games with me, the one I used to watch cartoons with on Saturday mornings, just the two of us, quiet, eating cereal. I’m proud that I know my brother better than anyone else.
“Give me the stick,” he says.
“Why?” My breaths are coming fast. I’m scared of what he’s going to do. “He said he didn’t do it. He said he beat up his friend, that’s why his hand is like that.”
“Don’t be stupid, Dawn,” he says. “Give me the stick.”
“No,” I say. “Just drag him down the steps and leave him outside. Or throw him out the window.”
Jimmy bends down and picks up something from the carpet next to Mitch’s hand. He comes toward me holding it straight out in front of him until it’s practically on my nose.
I remember now. Yesterday. I put the spare back under the rock before I went inside.
“He’s a liar, Dawn,” says Jimmy.
Outside the snow is falling big, like the ground is pulling it down faster than it wants to drop. I expect Jimmy to snatch the stick out of my hands, but he lifts it so easy and light, like we’re on the moon and nothing has any weight.
Gwen Goodkin’s work has been published by The Dublin Review, The Rumpus, JMWW and others. Her story “A Boy with Sense” won the John Steinbeck Short Story Award.