Author’s Note: The Rudder Turns Leeward was written in 2015. This was the first literary short story I wrote and a fantastic adventure in exploring writing outside the realm of fantasy/adventure.
Daddy doesn’t mean it when he hits Mama. That’s what she always tells me whenever I ask her before bed. She says when she’s a bad girl he punishes her, that he really does love her. I don’t think Mama’s all that bad, though, especially as I look at her sky-colored eyes while she pets my hair. She doesn’t seem to do enough bad stuff to be in trouble as much as she is, if that’s really the truth. I know adults lie too; it’s not just us kids. I never hear about Tommy’s mom getting punished. I think Mama sticks up for me, and that’s why she gets hit, ’cause when Daddy gets mad at me she yells at him and ends up getting a beating from him. Sometimes he really scares me.
Today, as I’m getting home from school, Mama opens the door for me like she always does. She bends down and kisses my hair, putting her hand on my shoulder. I feel like throwing my arms around her and squeezing her tight, but Daddy is watching in the window so I don’t. She takes my backpack from me, my shoulders hot and stiff from carrying it around. It’s almost as big as me it seems. She makes a funny face when she tries to lift it, like it hurts her, but she pretends a smile afterward. Then that scary feeling comes as she opens the door and I know we have to go inside.
At dinner, the three of us sit around the table, and I stay quiet. I think about getting home from school, going over every detail, especially getting to see Mama after a long day. No one else is talking really, so I just ignore everything else.
“Stop poking at your food like that,” Daddy grunts.
I look up from my plate as his voice pulls me from my daze. I stab my fork into a stub of broccoli, placing it between my teeth. I look at him, but the way his forehead is pressed together scares me, so I look at Mama. She’s very pretty. Even though she has a purple spot on her cheek, she’s the prettiest lady in the world. That’s probably why Daddy married her.
“Steven, when you’re done eating your dinner you can start on your homework,” she says to me.
“How are you doing in school?” Daddy asks after taking a big gulp of his brown bottle.
“Okay,” I say, but it doesn’t come out very loud as I poke at the chicken breast sitting on the boring, white plate.
“Speak up, Son.”
“He’s doing just fine,” Mommy answers.
“I was asking the boy.”
“I like school,” I say real fast, hoping he isn’t going to punish her.
Daddy chews his food for a little, staring at me with his droopy eyes. “Good. I don’t wanna hear that you’re not keeping up with your work,” he says.
I stick another bite of food in my mouth, though its flavor is lost behind my thoughts. All I want to do is leave the table, but I watch how fast Mama is eating so we get done at the same time. I don’t like leaving her alone with him. I don’t know why, she never seems as scared as I am, but I don’t think Daddy likes to punish her in front of me very much.
Just as Mama takes her last bite, I shovel a few into my mouth, pieces falling out because there’s too much in it. I brush the crumbs from my jeans, letting them fall to the ground. I look down, pretending I see a dog by my seat who loves to eat the scraps that are by my feet. Tommy from school has a dog that eats the food from the ground; he always tells me about it. His daddy got it for him for his birthday. His daddy also takes him on boats and they go sailing by the docks and go fishing too. Sometimes I wish Tommy’s daddy was mine, and maybe he would teach me how to sail. When I told Tommy that he laughed at me, ’cause I guess he thought it was a joke.
“Go do your homework now,” Mama says to me. She stands up, grabs each of our plates, and carries them to the sink. Daddy gets up, going to the couch and turning on the television. I grab my homework from my backpack before going upstairs, though I can’t help but take one last look at Daddy to make sure he’s not thinking about getting up to hurt my mama.
It feels like my homework is taking me forever, but at least it’s something to do besides the chores Daddy makes me do. Math is getting harder all the time, the numbers becoming more confusing. Mama always tells me I’m smart, but Daddy says I’m stupid. I think I believe him more because he’s a lot scarier when he talks to me. Mommy says he’s good at convincing people of things that aren’t always true, that not everything he says is real. I try to believe her.
Something crashes to the floor downstairs and shatters, making me jump in my chair. As I jolt, my hand slips and makes my pencil press a dark line across the paper. I frown at the mark, flip my pencil over, and scratch the eraser over it. The floor creaks downstairs, the sound creeping up the walls. I recognize it as my dad’s footsteps going to the kitchen. I freeze. My heart beats faster. My shoulders scrunch up to my neck and I tilt my head to see if I can hear anything else. Daddy starts talking, his voice angry. Mommy tries to say something, but he interrupts her.
“You reckless little-” my ears turn hot at the sound of the word he uses. I don’t know what it means but I know it’s bad ’cause Dillon tried to call Ava that one time and the teacher sent him to the principal.
“I’m sorry!” Mama says. I can hear her start to cry. Suddenly she screams and I shut my eyes. It reminds me of the ugly face Daddy makes when he’s mad, and the memory makes my chest hurt.
“You’re not sorry, you’re never sorry! You’d do better if you were sorry!” A slapping sound echoes all the way up to my room.
I squeeze my eyes together even more, clasping my hands to my ears. I begin to cry, pushing my chair back and rushing for my closet. Mommy told me that’s what I need to do when they start fighting, that I need to close the door and sit down and think of happier things until they are all better. I slam the door to my closet behind me, dropping to the carpet and pressing my back against the wall. I look around at my clothes in the dark, staring at my football on the floor that I’ve never even played with. Tommy gave it to me for my birthday because he thought my dad would play catch with me. I asked him to play with me once, but he said no and that I needed to shut up. I never asked again.
As his voice gets louder every second, I try to shut him out, and I think crying harder might cover the noise. It doesn’t, and now I can’t stop crying. “Stop it!” I say through my tears. If anyone had heard me they probably wouldn’t have understood it, my continuous sobs breaking the words up into stuttered bits and pieces. I try to say it again a little louder, but instead it doesn’t even come out. I make a weird noise when I try to force the words out, like a frog almost. Mama would’ve made me laugh at it, she would’ve told me how silly it sounded, but she’s not with me.
I try to push myself back into the wall, wishing I can disappear and come back as someone else. Most of their fighting is my fault I’m sure, being that he always says something about me. I remember Tommy and his dad, and how they always go sailing by the docks. I tuck my head into my legs, pulling my knees to my chest.
I begin to pretend I’m on a boat, the sun bright and the water shining. Seagulls fly back and forth over my head, squawking freely. I put my fingers on the wood of the boat, staring up at the big white sail that’s rippling in the warm wind. It feels good to be sailing, like I’m free from everything there ever was or is. If only I could do this all the time, if I could just sail away and be whoever I want to be and no one would yell at me or try to hurt me. I’d take Mama away with me of course, and I’d make sure she gets all the prettiest things. It isn’t real though, but it’s nice to pretend.
“Steven… Steven you need to get up, it’s time to get ready for school.”
I peel open my eyes, groaning as the bedroom light hurts them. I sit up, confused at first but then realize I fell asleep in my closet. I look at Mama, her face purple and her lip split. Once, I saw a boy at school with a fat lip like that because a third grader punched him. He hit him so hard it knocked his tooth out. I feel my throat go tight, and I know that means I’m about to cry.
Mama frowns, making a little sound and putting her hand on my face. “Don’t cry, Baby,” she says. “It’s not so bad!” She squints as her lip pulls apart and starts to bleed.
“I don’t like when he hurts you,” I say. “I don’t like him.”
“Hush, Steven, he’s your daddy. You just have to remember that he likes things a certain way and sometimes I’m not very good at keeping things that way.”
“I don’t want to leave you alone today,” I say. A tear falls from my eye and lands on her hand.
Her lip quivers as she stares at the tear on her skin. She looks at me, her mouth twitching as she spends a couple seconds thinking. “I suppose you can stay home, since your daddy is gone for the day. Just don’t tell him, okay?”
I nod. I can’t help but smile, wrapping my arms around her waste. She rubs my back, and I can tell I’ve made her happy for now. I look up at her, and under all the bruises and lumps I see her smiling, brighter than anything in the world.
“Now, what should we do today? Perhaps you can help me clean a little and then we could work on one of your puzzles or build more of your little models.”
“I’ll do anything you want,” I say.
“How about a nice breakfast first?”
We sit down after she makes pancakes and eggs and bacon, eating plenty and washing it all down with a glass of milk. Chocolate milk is my favorite, but we can’t buy it since Daddy doesn’t like it. I shiver, trying to not think about him at the moment. I want this day to be all about me and mama. We do this every once in awhile, just take a day off of school and spend time together like best friends do. I suppose she is my best friend, even better than Tommy. I don’t fight with her like I do with him.
The next little while we clean the house, but not like my normal chores. We do it our own special way, and it turns into a lot of fun, just like games. We clean my room. Mama pulls shirts over my head and ties them around me, then tickles me until I fall over. After my room looks better we move on to the bathrooms and mop the floors with towels and use our feet, scooting around and looking like funny penguins from the zoo waddling around. In no time at all everything’s perfectly clean and we’re able to sit down for a moment. We admire our work, Mama sighing.
After a little rest, we move on to different activities like putting together puzzles and starting a new car model. It’s a lot harder than it looks though, so we aren’t able to finish it at once. We go back to the puzzle. Mama’s really good at finding where the pieces go. I stare at the box top, observing the beautiful picture of what the finished puzzle will look like. It’s dozens of sailboats out in the ocean, the sun rising just above the distant horizon line of glimmering water.
“I want to be there with them,” I say as I poke my finger at the boats.
Mama looks at the picture and smiles her little smile she makes when she’s thinking of nice things. “One day you will get to be on your very own boat.”
“You’ll be there with me, right?”
“Of course I will.”
Just then the doorbell rings. At least, that’s what I guess it is. I’ve never heard it go off before since no one really visits too much. “Can I get it!” I exclaim. To think we might have a guest for the first time that I can remember in all my life struck a beat of excitement in me.
Mama looks concerned, leaning in her chair to try and see out the living room window. “Why don’t you peek outside before you open it?”
I jump from my chair, poking my head through the blinds and squinting to see. “It’s Mrs. Leeward, my teacher!” I say. Before Mama gives me any kind of response, I open the door and smile at her. “Hello, Mrs. Leeward,” I say as politely as I can think of.
“Hi, Steven, nice to see you,” she says in her kind voice. “We missed you in class today!”
“Mama and I decided to spend a day together since we don’t get to very often.”
“I see. Is your mom around for me to talk to? I just have a quick question for her, if you don’t mind,” Mrs. Leeward says with a smile.
“Hold on,” I say. I turn to go back to the kitchen, but Mama isn’t there. I go through the doorway to the laundry room and find her there sorting through dirty clothes. “Mrs. Leeward wants to talk to you.”
“Steven, I-” she stops, huffing. I start to feel bad because I think I might have made her mad.
“I’m sorry,” I say. All the happiness I’d been feeling seems to go away, and I think maybe the sun isn’t rising on that puzzle, but it’s setting and taking all the good things with it.
“No, Baby, it’s okay,” she says, petting my hair. “I’ll go talk to her, it won’t take very long.” She leaves the laundry room, going out to greet Mrs. Leeward. I follow behind, staying far enough away that I don’t look like I’m intruding.
“Mrs. Rudder, how are you?” Mrs. Leeward says to Mama.
“Fine, and you?” Mama says back politely.
“Good. I came by to make sure everything’s all right. Steven is one of my best students and since I hadn’t heard anything I wanted to check up on him. Are you sure everything’s fine?”
“Yes, everything is just great, really. Thank you for your concern.” Mama grips the edge of the door and moves it a little toward Mrs. Leeward, like she wants to close it.
“Mrs. Rudder, I… I don’t mean to pry but if there’s anything wrong you really should report it.”
“I’m not sure what you mean?” Mama’s voice cracks as she’s talking, her arms folding over her stomach. She does that when she’s worried, I’ve seen it before when a policeman came and talked to her.
Mrs. Leeward frowns, looking back at me and then back to Mama. “This in’t just about you; it’s about your son as well. Think about what will happen if something isn’t done.” She stands quietly for a second, then goes on to say, “I’m sorry to interrupt your personal time. Have a good afternoon.” She leaves, not rudely, but somewhat suddenly. I was hoping we would have more company for our activities, but I still don’t mind just me and Mama.
Mama stands there for a little, staring at the front door with her arms still around her tummy. I begin to feel bad again, maybe because she looks sad. I want to run over to her, to hug her and tell her to be happy, but for some reason my feet feel stuck and I can’t move. “Mama,” I say, but that’s all I get out.
She turns, smiling her pretend smile. “Why don’t you watch some television or something now, okay? I have to start dinner before your Daddy gets home.”
I nod—or at least I think I do—I’m not really sure. My shoulders feel heavy, my legs still not wanting to move. I make them though, and soon I find my way to the couch where I slump against the old, stained cushions. I turn the television on, staring at the show without really watching it. I look over at my mom a few times to watch her cook. Today was supposed to be good, but Mrs. Leeward made her sad for some reason and I don’t know why. She’s sad a lot, but she tries to hide it from me. I don’t think she knows I can tell.
The door opens now, and in walks Daddy. The screen slides shut, squeaking along the way. Daddy kicks his shoes off, staring at the floor the whole time. I tuck my hands between my legs as I slide lower into the couch. He looks at me, but that’s all. I stare back, and even though he scares me I can’t look away from him. He looks away though, and goes to the kitchen. I smell his breath when he walks by me and it stinks, but he smells like that a lot. He grabs Mama’s shoulder, looking over her at the food. He leans in close to her, and when she tries to move away he grabs her harder. I see her flinch, and I know he hurt her, but she doesn’t do anything else.
“I like dinner to be ready before I get home and you know that,” he says. “What did you do to waste your time today?” He looks behind him, staring at the almost finished puzzle on the table. His face turns red and he turns back to her. “Is that what you did today?”
“Don’t lie!” he lifts his hand, and I can’t stop myself from interfering.
“Stop!” I yell.
Daddy looks at me, his hand frozen in the air. “What?” he says, his voice quiet. His arm lowers and he takes a step towards me, the only sound in the house being the noise from the television. He looks at it, then at me with distant eyes. “Turn that off.”
I reach for the remote, my hand shaking as I pick it up and press the power button. I try to swallow but my throat is too tight. I can’t look away from his mean eyes.
“You do this?” he asks me, pointing to the puzzle. He looks at Mama and says, “Did you keep him home today?”
She opens her mouth to try and talk but no words come out, just tears. She looks at me, and I feel like I want to cry now. “Steven, why don’t you go upstairs?”
“No, he stays!” Daddy says. “You’re both hiding something from me, I can tell. I don’t like when you keep things from me!” He pushes the puzzle with a hard swipe, the pieces breaking apart and spilling all over the floor.
I feel tears start to fall faster down my face as I stare at the puzzle mama and I worked so hard on, now shattered over the floor. I see a sailboat on one of the pieces, and I know it will never see the sun on the ocean. I jump to my feet without thinking, rushing over to the puzzle and trying to scoop the pieces up.
“Get up, Boy!” Daddy yells as he yanks me up by my shirt. My arms and legs flail and kick as I scream for him to let me go.
“Stop it!” Mama yells. “Leave him alone!”
“Shut up!” he growls, turning around and slapping her across the face.
I can’t keep from crying harder now, and our house becomes chaos. I’m crying uncontrollably, Daddy is yelling, and Mommy is moaning and crying too. I’ve always been scared of Daddy, but today I am more scared than I’ve ever been.
“Be quiet! Everyone just shut up!” he yells. I can’t be quiet. I get louder, choking on my sobbing. “I said shut up!” he throws me down on the ground again, kicking me in the side.
My stomach begins to burn with pain, but I don’t know how to react to it. I thought I couldn’t move earlier but now I really can’t. My arms are around where he kicked me, but I don’t feel anything, or maybe I feel everything. My head is spinning, the muscles under my skin throbbing, but I’m so scared of what’s happening that I quickly forget about the pain.
“Don’t you dare touch him again!” Mama screams. She throws herself at daddy, pounding on his back with her fists.
She isn’t hurting him though, and he only seems angrier. He grabs her hair, pushing her away from him, and yells words at her that I don’t understand. He slaps her again, and then again, and soon she falls to the floor. She isn’t crying anymore.
“You both disappoint me,” he says. He steps toward her, his teeth clenched together and lips open to show off the ugly growl he’s making. He kicks her, though not as hard as he usually does. He stares at her for a second, then backs up a little. “I’ll be back,” he says.
When he’s gone, Mama lifts her head to look at me. Blood drips from her nose and lips, her eyes puffy and red. “Steven,” she says very quietly, “I need you to-” she coughs and makes a strange sound like she can’t breathe, “go to my room and call-”
I hear Daddy’s steps coming from the other room. Mama’s eyes get big, tears falling from them. “Go!” she cries.
I jump up, almost falling again because my stomach hurts from where daddy kicked me. We must’ve been really bad today for him to do this. I run out of the kitchen, and when I look back at her she waves her hand at me to move. Just as I get halfway up the stairs I hear Daddy speak.
“Where’s the boy?”
“Leave him out of this,” Mama says.
“He’ll get his later.” I hear a loud SNAP, and I recognize that as the sound of his belt. She screams, followed by another SNAP!
Inside her room I rush to her desk. At first I fumble with the telephone, but I’m able to pick it up. She taught me the number for the police is 911, so I call that one. Nothing comes from the phone.
The line is dead.
I shut my eyes, dropping the phone and laying limp. I can’t cry anymore, it’s all gone, or maybe I’m too scared to do it anymore. I start to think about Tommy, about how nice his family sounds and how they always do things together. I think about their doggy and try to remember what kind he said it was. I don’t remember. I think about how they go sailing, and how much fun they must have. I try to pretend I’m on that sailboat, but in my mind the ocean is stormy and the boat is rocking. The sound of the thunder hurts my ears, and now I do not want to be alone anymore.
I try to close my eyes tighter, but they’re as shut as they get. My hands start to shake and I cover my ears with them. A small warm spot drips against my chest after sliding down my cheek, and I barely notice that I’ve started crying again. My chin quivers, but I can’t do anything to stop it. All I can do is try to block out the sound of him yelling, but no matter where I go in my imagination I’m scared. I start to rock back and forth, holding my hands around my head. I swallow a scream that tries to push its way out. As I hear Mama crying more and him yelling, I can’t take it.
I jump to my feet, throwing my closet door open and running down the stairs. I step into the kitchen, my stomach knotting up when I see her slumped on the floor and barely moving as he stands over her like a giant grizzly bear. Then, I realize something. I see that he is not punishing her for being bad, he is punishing her because he is bad. My mama didn’t do anything, and I hate him for doing this to her.
“Leave her alone!” I yell.
He stops yelling and freezes altogether. He looks at me over his shoulder with an ugly frown, as if I were a bug that ran into his ear and annoyed him. “Who do you think you are telling me what to do? You’re next you little-” he calls me a bad word now, but my ears only burn a little this time. I’m not scared of him right now.
“I don’t want you hurting her anymore,” I say, standing tall. “She isn’t bad, you’re just a liar!”
“Shut up!” he says. “Shut up now or you’ll get it!”
“No! I won’t shut up! You don’t love me and you don’t love Mama, and I hate you!” I say. I begin crying, but I’m not sad, so why am I crying? I’m angry, I’m angrier than ever before.
He makes a loud sound like a dog growling. As he stomps toward me he lifts his hand and before I realize it my face starts to sting. My cheek burns, and now I know what Mama feels every time he hurts her. I don’t scream or cry though, I just stare at him. I want to show him I’m braver than he is.
“You need to be put in your place, Boy,” he says. He lifts his belt, but I move out of the way. I trip, and this time he doesn’t miss. I yelp now, because it hurts a lot more than when he kicked or slapped me.
I can’t tell how long it goes on, but it seems to be forever. I can’t say I am strong, the pain is more than anything I’ve ever felt. When I get a cut or a bruise I hardly notice, but this isn’t like that, not even close. Mama tries to get up and help, but she can’t move. I look at her, and I think I can see a tear slip from her half closed eyes. My crying and screaming just gets worse, and so does the nauseating pain. My back and my side and my legs, they all burn and ache. I start to see little black spots, my head dizzy. I think I am going to die.
Just as daddy goes to hit me again, the front door flies open. Someone grabs daddy, and he fights them. I look up to see a whole bunch of policemen in our house.They pull him away, and soon I see some men lifting Mama onto a strange bed they carried in. I try to get up to go stop them because they need to know she didn’t do anything bad, but I can’t move. Two men come over to me and start talking, but I don’t hear them clearly. They try to lift me onto one of those beds, but I manage a squeak and try to fight them.
“It’s okay, Son, you’re going to be just fine. We’re going to take you and your mom to a hospital. Everything’s okay now,” one of the men says.
After fighting a little longer I give in, falling limp and letting them put me on the bed. I turn my head, watching Mama being taken out of the house, and soon I’m following her. I see Daddy being forced into a police car, and I see his eyes looking at me. He’s yelling still, the cops being rough to him as they push him through the back door into the car. His eyes look at mine but I look away, not wanting to see him anymore. When I pay attention to where I’m looking, I see Mrs. Leeward watching, a cop talking to her. Why is she here again? I wish I could smile at her, but it hurts too much.
I get put inside an ambulance. I’ve never been in one before. I look around, but soon I begin to feel tired. It’s hard to keep my eyes open, even though I try. I want to know what’s going on. I feel like I should be scared but I’m too tired. Why are we all being taken from our house? Why did they come in so fast without knocking? It doesn’t make sense to me, but as I start to drift into sleep I think I realize what is happening. Just like I finally began to see that Daddy is bad, maybe the cops know he’s bad too.
I close my eyes, letting them rest this time and not forcing them to open, and I begin to think about a sailboat again. The water is calm, the sun is rising. I feel free to go wherever I want to now, and I finally feel safe. The ambulance starts driving, and I hear sirens all around. That’s all I remember before I fall asleep, dreaming of the sailboat.
Mama and I stand in line with a bunch of other people, waiting by a long dock. I can’t take my eyes off of the boat in front of me; Mama calls it a ferry. We climb the ramp onto it, and she finds us a spot along the rail so we can look out over the water. I look up at her, smiling as big as I can. The bruises on her face are gone now, and she is able to smile back. The sun makes her hair shine like honey and her eyes sparkle, and for the first time she is prettier than she ever was.
The ferry starts moving, and I grip my hands around the cold metal rail as I look around. Mama laughs, and I realize I had made a face when it started moving. I smile nervously, looking up at her and laughing too. A man across from us smiles, tipping his head to Mama and then to me. Her cheeks turn pink.
I soon forget the other people around me as the shimmering water catches my eye. The sun is golden, climbing up the sky so slowly. I hear a seagull, then another, and when I look up I see a whole flock of them gliding in the air. The cool wind blows against my face, and I can’t help but take in a deep breath. A grin spreads my lips wider than ever before. I’m finally sailing.
The ferry stops at a new dock across the water, and when Mama and I are off I look across the water and see where we came from now far behind us. I look around, never having been on this side before. She grabs my hand, and we soon get inside a yellow taxi. Mama tells the driver where to go, but the only word that stands out to me is ‘prison.’
“Where are we going?” I ask.
At first she doesn’t look at me. “We’re going to see your daddy.”
I feel my stomach harden and I’m not sure if my breakfast will stay down. All the memories of pain come rushing back, and for a minute I think I’ve just been kicked again. I feel like crying, but then the anger inside me crushes the tears and I feel like screaming. “I don’t want to see him.”
“Steven, this is the only time you have to see him, okay?” she says. “Just this once, and then you never have to even think about him.”
I cross my arms, leaning my head against the window and staring at the streets outside. It’s somewhat of a long ride, or maybe it just feels long because I can’t stop wishing it wasn’t even happening, but we finally get to the prison. I never knew people go to prison for hitting other people, but I’m glad they do. I’m glad he’s here.
We go through the door, and after the guards have us empty our pockets and mommy is asked to leave her purse, they take us to a big room. There are little round stools all in a line, and in front of them is a long wall with little windows and panels on each side. Daddy is sitting on the other side of one.
I turn around and try to run out, but Mama stops me. She grabs my hand, not in a mean way, but still firm. I look at her face and she looks as scared as I feel. I give up trying to leave, and the guard takes us to the window Daddy is behind. While Mama sits in one of the stools, she hooks her arm around my side and pulls me close.
Daddy looks different. His clothes are orange and his hair is short. His face doesn’t look as tired as it usually does, but his eyes are what’s most different. He looks sad, even scared a little; not at all like the cold, mean glares he used to give me. He stares straight at me, making me squirm in Mama’s arm.
“How are you?” he asks, and I wish it wasn’t to me.
I look down, running my shoe along the line of one of the floor tiles. I don’t feel like saying anything to him, but Mama pinches me a little as a way of telling me to respond. “Fine.”
“School’s almost over for you now I bet. Summer’s pretty close.”
There’s a long silence, so long that I look up to see if he’s still there. He’s crying. “Steven,” he starts, but he has to pause because he starts crying more. “I wanna say I’m sorry, I want you to hear those words, but I know you’ll never believe them. I don’t deserve to say them.”
I look at Mama. She’s looking away, her face not moving at all. I wish she would look at me, but she won’t. I lean closer to her.
“Son, what I’ve done to you and your mama is unforgivable. I’ve done bad things to you, and now I have to live with that forever. I just-” he chokes on his tears, “I just wanted to see you one time to tell you this, to tell you it’s all my fault and you never deserved any of that. I’m a fool, just like my daddy was a fool. Don’t you grow up to be a fool too. Don’t you grow up to be like me. You’re too good to be like me, and your mama needs you to take care of her.”
I stare into his eyes now, the anger I feel now going away. I look at him for a long time, thinking maybe he isn’t all that bad. The longer I look though, the more I remember of him. All the times he hurt Mama, all the times I had to hide in the closet and listen to her scream. He is a monster. I look away, turning my chin to the side.
“I won’t ever be like you,” I say, and when I finish I look straight at him, wishing my glare could be as scary as the ones he always gave me.
He sinks back a little, his lips turning down. “Good.”
Mama stands up, saying goodbye really quick and turning to the guard that’s close by. He leads us out of the prison, and once we’re outside I feel like I can breathe again. We get inside the taxi car that had waited for us, and the drive back to the ferry seems just as long. I want to get away from him, I want to get as far away as I can. Once I can see the ferry again I feel my heart skip. The taxi stops and I jump out of it, rushing Mama to get out and to take us to the ferry.
We get on board and I run toward the rail, leaving her behind. She chases after me, shouting my name and trying to catch up. I reach the metal bar, wrapping my arms around it and leaning in close. I shut my eyes, trying to forget daddy’s crying face. I try to forget everything he said to me, but his words swim around in my head and I can’t get them out.
She comes to me, putting her hand on my shoulder, and crouches to look me in the eye. “Steven, don’t shut me out now. You needed to hear him say that, all right? You needed to know.”
“I just want to forget,” I say, opening my eyes and letting the tears come out. “I just want to forget he ever existed. I want to forget he ever hit you, and I want to forget he ever hit me. I want to be normal, like other families.”
It’s hard to see through my own tears, but I think I see one slip from her eyes. She pulls me in close, hugging me tight. “We can be, Baby. We can be a normal family now, just you and me. No one’s going to hurt you like that ever again.”
I cry some more, feeling my warm breath against her shirt. I squeeze her tighter, feeling the rise and fall of her chest and listening to the gentle thump of her heart. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
I look out over the water, not back at the island where daddy is, but toward home, where Mama and I will stay together forever. I imagine my school and Mrs. Leeward, Tommy and his dog—which I remember is a golden retriever—and I think of how I can finally feel normal around them. I watch the water rippling beside the boat, the seagulls playing in the sky, and I feel as if the puzzle is complete now. I look up at Mama and I think to myself, it’ll all be just fine.