We Live Here Now
My kid sister Phoebe stood in the doorway of the cheap motel staring into the dimness. Cubby, her stuffed bear, dangled from her five year old hand, his butt hanging a fraction of an inch above the crinkled gray paint of the outdoor hallway. It’s one of those indelible moments that will be forever painted on the inside of my eyelids.
“S’this?” She asked.
“Our home,” I said.
I channeled every possible sentiment of good nature I’d ever witnessed, but never felt. I squeezed past her and ran my hand up and down the wall until I found the switch. The warm orange glow of the table lamps didn’t seem to make her feel any better. Phoebs took a few reluctant steps into the room. She was still wearing her scuffed pink slippers. The dingy fake fur at the ankle was worn into a threadbare fold. She hugged Cubby to her chest, his button eyes regarding me suspiciously.
“See,” I said.
“It isn’t a home.”
“It sure is,” I said, “it’s our home. It’s yours and mine and Cubby and Mama’s.”
Ma was out at the van grabbing our bags. Suitcases clattered on asphalt, and I could hear her cursing into the evening humidity.
“It’s not even a ‘partment.”
“It’s just like an apartment,” I set my duffle bag on the floor, “In fact, it’s even better than a ‘partment.”
Mom thumped up the steps, the metal railing pinged as the suitcases hit it. I picked Phoebs up and half-flung her onto the far bed, where she bounced to a stop without ever letting go of Cubby. Ma appeared in the doorway suitcases dangling from each hand. I may forget the day of the week, or the name of the place, or whether the soap was in little rectangular packages or little round packages – but I will never forget that image of her.
“Great,” she said.
“Is there more?” I asked.
“Phoebs, brush teeth.”
“Want me to get anything else from the van?”
“This isn’t even a ‘partment.”
The door stood open to the late summer and the heat came through in waves, shimmering the street lights into blurred halos. The suitcases were piled on the carpet at Ma’s feet. I picked up Phoebe’s pink roller suitcase and dug out the Ziploc with her toothbrush and glittery toothpaste.
“Listen to Ma,” I said.
“I’ll be back,” Ma said.
“Where are you going now?” Phoebs whined.
“I’m going to the store.” Ma was looking at me but talking to Phoebs, “Carl can grab you a snack from the vending machine.”
“I’m ‘posed to do teeth.”
“Pick something out. Then teeth.”
Ma fished a crumpled wad of cash from her wallet and held it out. As I grabbed the bills she held them fast and pulled me close. With our faces inches apart she mouthed: I don’t have to tell you.
And she didn’t.
Down in the parking lot I heard the van start and pulled back the heavy curtains in time to watch Ma ease onto the otherwise empty street. She’d be gone a while. She wasn’t going to the store; she was going to get blind drunk.
Phoebs sat on the bed with her arms around Cubby. I looked at the wad of cash in my hand. I’d seen a row of glass-fronted vending machines on the ground floor next to the rumbling icemaker. I hoisted Phoebs to my hip and walked down the stairs. The staticky sound of cicadas electrified the middle distance. I set Phoebs in front of the machines and she examined her options. The stink of industrial cleaners and melting tar loitered among the cars.
“Peanut Butter cups.”
She pointed to another.
“Milk Duds,” I said, “Carmel with chocolate on the outside.”
I looked. “Yeah, they have Skittles.”
I lifted her up and she fed the dollar into the machine and punched the buttons. The thunk of the package made me wince. Phoebs squatted in front of the machine and I pressed back the plastic door. She peered into that pocket of darkness and grabbed the package. Back in the room she curled under the blankets as I opened the package for her and found cartoons on TV. She looked miniature on the king sized bed; the wrapper crumpled as she fished out several Skittles at a time. Cubby sat beside her, the shadow of the two of them morphing into a glob of round bear ears and little girl ponytail. The smell of stale cigarettes and dust had been ground into the carpet. The AC chugged along behind me, prickling Goosebumps along my arms and neck. I stared down at my backpack and gently nudged it into the corner with my toe.
The room was one more unfamiliar place in a growing chain. Everything was a rental for us: apartments, falling apart houses, motel rooms. Other than a long winter we spent with Mas parents, we’d never lived anywhere long; never owned anything other than two cars and our clothes. North Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee. We’d lived a dozen different places before Ma landed a job at the hospital in Virginia. That spring we lived in a brick rambler, tucked back off Grandin Road. By mid May the heat settled in, pressing humid hands down on our shoulders. Ma’s worked nights, opposite of Pops, and most days she left right after he got home. If she left before he got home it was no doubt because of the argument I’d heard through the bedroom walls the night before.
Going into the basement was verboten. Pops disappeared down there for hours at a time, often right after dinner. Thin wooden stairs that led down into the basement seemed as if they’d barely support you. It was a late weekday afternoon when, mostly to escape the heat, I ventured into the smell of mildew, spilled beer, and sweat. At the bottom of the stairs a chain dangled from a single bare bulb. Along the far wall was an old workbench. Tools and faded porno mags littered the scarred wooden surface. Behind the workbench, tacked to the wall, was a tattered Rebel Flag. Off to one side an old rag covered something bulky.
I grabbed a corner of the cloth and folded it back. Underneath was a pistol I didn’t know Pops owned. I sat down on a barstool near the workbench to examine the thing. It was heavier than I expected. The dull metal shined in the stark light as I turned it over in my hands, running my thumb along the crisp edges.
I hadn’t heard his truck pull up or the front door open. Through the opened door I could hear the TV playing. But there he was, standing at the top of the stairs with a beer in each hand.
“You piece of shit,” he said starting down the steps.
He was so focused on me he forgot to duck under a low ceiling beam. His head cracked against it and he tumbled backwards onto the steps. His beer cans skittered across the concrete as he groped for the railing, swinging one arm up to keep his balance. His hand smacked against the dangling bulb and the chain rattled as the light swung back and forth casting hideous shadows on the cement. It looked like someone turned on a red faucet above him. I never thought a person could bleed so much.
“Piece of shit,” he said.
One of his eyes was squinted closed. He looked from me to the blood on his hand, edging towards me like a drunk in a darkened room. I moved out of reach, backing up until I was against the brick wall. Pops placed one hand on the workbench and sat on the barstool. An entire galaxy of blood stretched across the floor.
“Get a towel,” he said.
I didn’t move. He was leaning forward, his hands pressed to his head as he grimaced. The tendons and muscles of his back stretched the black cursive letters of Donnelly Construction from shoulder to shoulder. Dribbles of blood curved down his cheek and neck. He leaned so far forward that the back legs of the chair hovered above the floor. I counted the rhythm as he rocked slowly forward and back. As he took deep breaths his shirt stretched and went slack. I took a step forward and hooked my toe under the crosspiece of the stool. I waited. The legs inched upwards. I kicked hard. The chair came out from under him and his chin smacked the workbench. His head ricocheted backwards. His body bounced against the concrete.
The light bulb slowed to a soft, lazy circle. The chair splintered beneath him, one of the legs snapped off and landed across the room. He laid there motionless. A bubble of spit and blood expanded and contracted on his lips. The silence of the basement settled in as I stared down at him, the gun gripped tightly in my hand. I backed up the stairs. In the kitchen I set the gun gingerly on the counter; the image the gun bent and distorted in the chrome finish of the toaster. Phoebs stood in the hallway; behind her in the living room I could hear the babble of cartoons.
“S’that,” she pointed to the gun.
“I want juice.”
My kid sister pulled back a chair and clambered up. Numbly I walked to the refrigerator and opened the door. The humming coolness of the refrigerator chilled the sweat on my forehead as I bent down. Phoebs hummed one of those kids’ songs from TV. I poured her apple juice and set it in front of her. Grasping the cup in both hands she tilted her head back, swallowed, and finally gasped when she the cup was empty. I listened to her slippered feet scuff down the hallway to the TV. She sat cross-legged in front of the TV with Cubby at her side. The gun sat on the counter and as I reached towards it I could see my hand shaking.
Each creaking step into the basement was louder than the last. I braced one hand on the low ceiling beam and ducked under. Pops was lying on his back in the middle of the room. The bubble of spit and blood had popped, speckling his lips with pink froth. He made a little groaning noise, but didn’t move. I took a few steps forward and crouched down, listening to his shallow breathing. I wasn’t sure if I was happy he was alive.
From the kitchen phone I called Ma at work and told her Pops had fallen down the stairs. She asked me if he was conscious, and if he was breathing. She told me to hang up and call 911. Phoebs came down the hall again as I stood there on the phone with the dispatcher. I hung up. I stood there in the thick, stale heat of the kitchen. The weight of the gun dragged me towards the ground. Without much thought I opened the freezer and set the pistol on a bag of frozen peas, pressing it down as the metal fogged over.
When they arrived I led the paramedics to the top of the stairs. The lights of the ambulance lacked urgency. As the two men trundled down the stairs with their boxes, my sister hid behind my arm, pulling it around her. Her tiny weight pressed against my leg; her clammy hands twisted around mine as we stood in the kitchen. The men bent over Pops and talked to each other in casual voices. Ma got home as they loaded him onto the gurney. She stood in the kitchen with her keys in her hand, her gray hair curled in heavy waves across her scalp. I could see the heavy lines etched into her face. She wanted to know how bad it was. She told them she was a nurse.
“He’s stable,” one of the men said as they wheeled Pops past.
Pops looked at me around the oxygen mask with nothing but shear and absolute hatred. Ma, Phoebs, and I stood on the front steps as they loaded the gurney into the back of the ambulance. We watched as they pulled away. Ma led us inside and closed the front door. The TV was still playing in the next room. She looked at the two of us there in the narrow doorway. Phoebs hadn’t let go of my hand since the paramedics arrived. Ma turned and walked down the hallway to the bedroom.
Over her shoulder she said: “Start packing,”
Phoebs fell asleep just after midnight. Ma wasn’t back yet, and I didn’t expect her anytime soon. I turned off the TV and tugged the edge of the covers over my sister. She hadn’t brushed her teeth, but I figured it didn’t much matter. I took off my shirt, the fabric was damp from sweat and cold from the AC. I shivered as I wrapped myself in the scratchy wool blanket. The floor was hard and the room was so dark I could barely see anything; light from the parking lot bled through the curtains. I could hear Phoebs snoring on the other side of the room. I imagined a hospital bed somewhere. Pops connected to a tangle and tubes and wires. Ma in a back road tavern with a Boiler Maker and a cigarette. A whole new chain of rentals. New states. New schools. Nothing would change. I stared at the ceiling and listened to the drone of the AC. Rolling over I reached out and placed a hand on my bag, feeling the contour of the pistol beneath the canvas.
Michael Overa was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. After completing his MFA at Hollins University he returned to Seattle where he currently works as a writing coach and is a writer in residence with Seattle’s Writers In The Schools Program. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the East Bay Review, Across the Margin, Fiction Daily, Portland Review, and Fiction Daily, among others.