I think you’d better stay put till it happens. I’ll be right outside this door, I promise, and you can ask me for whatever you need. I brought your pillows downstairs. There are blankets in the tub. It might be a good time to get some rest. Make yourself comfortable. You’ll be safer in there.
Remember that cat we had? That one you found under the porch and pulled out hissing like a demon, that hid behind the couch and the door between feedings, that left dead mice in pieces for mom to find? How she fought you off of everything but feeding her? Dad said we could keep it, even though I think mom hated him for it, because he said he wanted us to learn for ourselves that some things won’t be loved.
We tried. I know you tried. It’s a wonder you didn’t scar with all those bites and scratches. Damn thing nearly ate you alive. You were determined, and whenever you’d manage to get a good hold on her and she’d go limp, lying in wait for a wrong move, you’d get this little satisfied smile. It’s the same smile you have in that picture on the mantle without your front tooth, the one you make when you think you’re winning, the one you make right before you lose.
When she started slowing down, getting bigger, you thought you’d done some good, that she was warming up to you. But she’d just let herself get caught and held long enough for kittens to come. They told us we were going to keep one and get rid of the cat. It was supposed to teach us compromise, I think, or unfairness.
Do you remember that night? When you snuck downstairs and curled up on the bathmat in case they came? Mom and dad were already asleep, so I sat with you. When I decided we’d been there long enough, I lifted you, dozing, from the floor and held you while I checked on the cat. Through the door crack, I saw blood soaking into the towels. She had the last one limp between her paws. It didn’t seem to be breathing, but I couldn’t be sure. I watched her devour it, head and all, as if it weren’t her own. You were awake enough to see her face, calm and brutal and bloody. Your scream woke them and mom went off, so I waited with you in your bed till you drifted back to sleep, whispering all the while it had only been a dream.
I told you the cat ran away, back to her family, probably, but mom, when she saw what happened, threw that thing in the back of the car and took her to the reservoir and drowned her. She said it wasn’t anything worse than what it did to her own. “Revenge is natural,” she said. “That’s survival of the fittest.” Her idea of living was always struck through with malice.
We belong together. It’s safest by ourselves with no one interfering. I’ll sit with you, right outside this door until the time comes. I’m not going anywhere. Are you comfortable? Do you need anything?
I’m worried about what she’s been teaching you up there ever since I left. When the fighting came to blows and they decided mom would stay upstairs and dad would stay downstairs and we’d be free to go as we pleased, I knew you’d end up with her. Dad was always the weaker one. He’s faded into the couch or the walls and all but disappeared. If he speaks, it’s whispered as if from a distance. The way he lives is like a memory, like he only exists when you’re thinking about him, and even then, vague, colorless, fuzzy around the edges. I don’t miss him like I thought I would.
Once mom was settled, she wanted so badly to keep you with her in the stuffy old attic with her TVs blaring like all that noise would keep you company. It’s nicer down here. I got worried when you stopped leaving her room. When I’d call up for you, you wouldn’t answer. Could you hear me? I always hoped you did, but I know how your mother was, and what it was like when she wanted to get her way. I was afraid if I went after you, I’d never get back out. That’s why it took so long for me to come up and get you.
I didn’t realize just how bad it had gotten, until I saw you curled up at the foot of her bed, small, and frail, and sickly from all the smoke and no sunlight, while she sat up in front of the drawn curtains, lit only by that television, neither of you talking, I grabbed you and took you downstairs and washed your face and fed you and put you to sleep in my bed, where it was warm and clean and I knew you were safe. I shut the door to the upstairs and locked it. I can hear her banging on the floor, like she’s trying to crash through the ceiling instead of walking down the stairs. She is as much of a force as he isn’t, but we’re not theirs anymore.
I’ll stay out here, in case he changes his mind, or she comes down after us. I don’t think she will. I’m not even sure if she remembers how to use the stairs. All I know is that I’m stronger, and I’m armed, and I’m gonna sit right here outside this door until it’s safe for us to leave.
I remember when I saw you at the hospital, all fat and red and screaming. You were behind the glass with all the other babies in their display cases, and even though it was hard to find you at first, it couldn’t have been anyone else. Dad held me up to see your smushed up old man face and your crazy hair and your tiny fists raised up to the sky. This? I thought. This is it?
Mom was outside on the smoking patio in a robe, dragging an IV. I had only ever seen them attached to sick people, and she wasn’t looking so great. You probably can’t remember, but she used to be pretty. Not like how she is now, like a skeleton stretched across with old skin. After you were born, she still had some light in her, but she got tired and then mean and then whatever she is now. That day, her hand hung by her mouth like it was heavier than it should’ve been and the smoke surrounded her and I was scared even to touch her. Dad made me climb in her lap, but it felt wrong. He didn’t argue with me about it when I asked him in the car on the way home, but he didn’t agree with me either. Something got lost that day. I knew then that it would be my job to take care of you.
It’s like I told her the last time I spoke to her, when I came and pulled you from her bed while she watched like I was taking her plate away at a restaurant, while she stared at me, glassy eyed and silent, when I asked if you’d eaten, her fingers fumbling idly with the fringe on the blanket she’d spread across her lap while you shivered in my arms, while I rocked you slowly back and forth till you finally stopped crying and clung to me. So when I said it, it was sternly, but quietly, so even though she nodded, I’m not sure that she heard me. But what I said, what I said before I carried you downstairs, before I dried those tears, before I sad beside you as you slept in case your dreams got dangerous, in case you cried out in the night, in case I was wrong – which I wasn’t. Which I’m not. What I said to her, what I meant then and mean now, what I said because it’s the only thing I’m sure of, that I’ve ever been sure of, what I said was that I’ll protect what’s mine and you’re what I’ve got left.
Jaime Fountaine was raised by “wolves.” Her work has appeared in PANK, Pear Noir!, and the Burrow Press Review.