I waited. He had a morbid fear of the boogeyman. Being a little kid, Brother believed the family curse made him more susceptible to monsters and ghosts coming into his room at night. I was five years older and knew the curse usually came from somewhere you'd never expect.
"Breakfast, Auntie," I called as I pounded down the stairs. I set the oatmeal to boil and by the time Auntie came down, I had her apple sliced and her hot water with lemon ready.
Auntie squeezed my shoulder. "What a good girl," she said, bending near enough so that her wiry hair brushed my cheek, the closest she ever came to a hug or cuddle. As much as I craved to be near her, Auntie's love didn't come by way of touch.
I poured Brother and me two glasses of milk and as we settled down to eat, Auntie told stories, real ones about gruesome farming accidents, starving winters, rivers that made towns into lakes. Stories from before she came to this country and after. Long ago, before World War I, Auntie married Gramp's brother. She married into the curse, yet you wouldn't know it to hear her tales of woe. Still, her stories usually ended with the town paying some cripple's doctor's bills or repairing some widow's house. "It was a time," she'd say, always with a whistle of regret, "when everyone helped everyone. When things were getting better, not worse."
After finishing her stories, Auntie left to deliver a remedy to the Clarksour neighbors who'd nearly died from carbon monoxide poisoning while watching TV with the windows shutand minutes later, Ma and Daddy made their way downstairs. Barely awake, Ma didn't even nod at me as she passed through the kitchen to step out onto the sun porch for her first smoke of the day. Through the glass door I watched her, the pom-pom on top of her striped knit hat bobbing, her long stringy light brown hair snagging the watery February sunlight and shimmering golden. Golden was the color Ma said her hair used to be when she was little, the color I always wished mine was. Mine was a color neither blond, red, or brown. Mouse color, Ma said. But I would have done anything to have hair the rich brown of the field mice who darted through our cupboards.
Daddy sat on one of the wooden kitchen chairs with his bad arm resting on the table. When Daddy was young his arm got smashed in the Devil Jaw mining disaster and it ached him ever since. When I pictured Daddy in that disaster I thought of the tunnel as a gaping mouth and the chunks of coal jutting like teeth closing down on him. Daddy's brother was killed that day and Ma said a part of Daddy died with him. I used to like to think about that dead part of Daddy and what Daddy would be like if all of him was whole and alive the way he must have been before the disaster. Daddy rarely talked about dead Uncle Frank or the disaster but when he did his eyes darkened over like dusk fell inside them.
That morning Daddy complained about the cold, wondering when the government would give us the gauge meters they'd promised so we could monitor the gas levels in the house and not need to leave the windows open. Then he nodded toward the porch and said, "Time to get moving, princess." It was in everyone's best interest for me to get Ma's breakfast ready fast. Ma was a heavy smoker and could barely function till she had her first smoke, but she was already coming out of her haze, sharpening her tongue on the icy air.
"Don't go giving her no swelled head, Adrian!" Ma shouted. "She ain't no princess and the world won't treat her like one. You just make things harder on her thinking it will."
"Ah, what a bite on that Irish tongue," Daddy said, kidding because that tongue was nothing like it usually was, dulled by the nicotine coating her mouth and the exhaustion she always felt by the week's end.
Copyright © 2014 by Natalie S. Harnett
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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