Finding a Voice of One’s Own

Jessi Wilson

One autumn afternoon, a breeze wafted the sweet scent of flowers, grasses, weeds, trees, and every growing thing into a yard. The sun shone merrily down on the inert bicycles lying on the ground, begging someone to come out of the kitchen door and ride them down the dirt road to the clubhouse out in the woods. The wind playfully spun the tire swing hanging from the grand old oak, which displayed the most vibrant golden leaves as if attempting to show all the other trees exactly why it had been chosen for such a privilege. Inside the small paint chipped house that owned this yard, a young girl huddled in her room scribbling at her math problems. The young girl steadily ignored the teasing ray of light that stole into her bedroom, and the wind, tiring of its pacing, whipped against the white garments sagging from the clothesline and then swept away to other more promising yards that it could sense waiting just over the horizon.

The girl pressed her back tightly against the square foot of wall between her bed and dresser. With her bony legs pulled up to her chest, she sat scratching down the algebra formulas relevant to problem number three. A tear formed in the corner of her eye and slid down her cheek. Her writing did not cease, but only trembled a bit as she jotted down the answer on her worksheet, and sped on to the next problem.

A little time later, however, something did halt her work. Her pencil hesitated above the page. But it was only a moment’s hesitation, then she was on her feet. Book, paper, pencil, and all were shoved in her bag, under the bed, and she leapt through the bedroom door, bounced through the rooms that separated her from the kitchen, and came to attention in front of a sink full of soapy dishes. As the kitchen door swung open, her hands plunged into the half-done pile.

“Are you still at those? Jesus, girl, you’re fuckin’ slow,” were the first words out of Angela’s stepfather’s mouth. He was just returning from his Monday afternoon trip to the fishing hole. He had “requested” that she wash the week’s mountain of dirty dishes before he returned. He’d been gone only a half-hour. Angela did not know why he’d returned so early, but the tone of his voice begged her to ask.

“Sorry, Dad.” was her only reply, keeping her eyes low, focused on the twitch of her hand’s scrubbing motion. She would not ask. She felt his glare linger on her for a good long minute. Part of her wanted to form a sentence, put words together, say something meaningful, but she strangled it. She would not give him a reason. Eventually, her stepfather shrugged his shoulders, rolled his eyes, and walked away. Moments later, Angela heard the TV click on in the other room, and the muffled sounds of “hey, hey, we’re the monkeys, people say we monkey around” brightened her day, before her stepfather quickly changed the channel. Even so, her muscles began to untense, as she quietly sang to herself, “to put anybody down.”

Then, the kitchen door swung in again to reveal a grinning six year old with a new toy in one hand and a half-eaten ice cream cone in the other.

“Hey, sis, looky what I got,” shouted Adam, Angela’s younger brother. Adam was her stepfather’s real child. She forced a smile.

“Very nice,” she said, turning to finish the dishes. But Adam rushed forward to show her all the “neat tricks” his new toy car could do. Wheelies, turn corners, back up. It was an endless list for him. From the living room, Angela heard the weather forecaster saying “looks like rain tonight, folks.”

* * * * *

Angela found her evening portioned out like the parts of a word problem in an algebra book. Problem #???: if a young girl spends x amount of time cleaning up the sticky mess created when her brother’s ice cream somehow explodes all over the kitchen. Then, she has to spend y amount of time reassembling all the board games she owns, because he went on a rampaging quest for a set of dice. And, y occurs while her stepfather sits by ignoring the bad behavior of his son. And, she only has two hours until bedtime. Then, how will she ever get it all done?

About nine o’clock, Angela rushed out mid-drizzle to collect the whites before they got soaked. As she was moving down the line unclasping clothespins, and letting the clothes drop into the basket, she noticed a sweet smell in the air. She glanced around as the wind swept up her long hair and tossed it about, playfully. Then, it took off across the grassy field back towards the woods, beckoning. Angela stopped and watched the way the tall grasses bent as the wind rushed over them, and longed to follow. She imagined herself as a long-limbed doe sprinting alongside the wind, keeping pace, her head tilted back. Then, a hunter’s gunshot echoed through the woods.

Her eyes blinked open. She hadn’t realized she’d closed them. A crash had come from inside the house, and the image of her brother dropping his favorite milk glass leapt into her head. She turned and hurried inside, but she told herself she wouldn’t forget what the wind had shown her. She wouldn’t forget.

***

Angela considered herself a good student. That is why she found her anxious thoughts continually drifting back to the incomplete math worksheet under her bed. Finally, though, she found time. Quietly, she crept through the living room, where her stepfather’s sleeping form snoozed in the recliner, and slipped unnoticed past her brother, sprawled on his playroom floor with toys radiating out around him in a vast hemisphere.

Later, as Angela neatly filled in the answer to question twenty-five, she heard the noise which had made her start earlier, the noise which now brought an instant and genuine smile to her lips, the crunch of wheels on gravel. Again, she leapt from her unfinished homework and rushed into the kitchen, but this time joy suffused her. The kitchen door opened to reveal a weary mother figure, whose eyes were dimmed by the difficulty of her own skirmish with life.

“Mom,” Angela squeaked as she hugged her parent.

“Oh, Angie, don’t be a pain, give me some room to breath. I’ve just finished a double shift. I need a few minutes to relax,” the mother figure replied, as she dumped her worn jean purse and plastic lunch bag on the counter, and poured herself a glass of brown fluid. Her frizzy hair formed a halo around the wrinkled, cigarette yellowed visage.

Angela graciously withdrew from her mother’s space bubble, but remained in the room with the excuse of whipping up one of the sloppy joe sandwiches she and Adam had eaten for dinner. Glancing through the doorway to the living room, her gaze rested on the remains of the turkey, ham, cheese, pickle, lettuce, and mayonnaise sandwich her stepfather had demanded she fix for him when he’d learned her choice for the dinner entrée.

“I wouldn’t eat that shit-cookin’ of yours to save my life,” had been his exact response to an offer she hadn’t made. So, it was with apprehension in the lines of her face that Angela watched the muscled arm hanging over the side of the recliner twitch to life.

“Is that you makin’ a ruckus in there, Joy?”

Angela’s mother sighed heavily, taking a swallow from her glass. “Welcome home to you too.” Her mother’s reply brought him straight up out of his chair, like he’d been bitten on the rear end.

“What’s your fuckin’ problem?”

The mother sighed again heavily, wearily. Angela knew her cue to leave, but a very real, palpable force blocked her exit, paralyzing her. She wanted to say something, to side with her mother, to protect her. But the force blocked her words as well as her exit.

“Did you find a job today? You promised me, you know?” her mother asked. This remark brought her stepfather striding into the kitchen.

“Don’t pressure me, woman!” he shouted, leaning over the opposing end of the battered wooden table, which brought another deep sigh from her mother.

“I’m not,” she replied patiently. “I was just asking a question.”

Angela could sense the waves of tension passing between them. So, she turned slowly, and busied her hands with silent, steady precision in the art of going unnoticed.

* * * * *

The conflict lasted for several hours. At some point, her brother rushed into the kitchen and began screaming. Angela, who had snuck off to bed around midnight, heard a loud “thwack” that silenced his screams, and then his footsteps as he ran wailing to his bedroom.

Finally, a loud “go to hell” emitted from her parent’s bedroom combined with the slamming of a door, and the house was suddenly silent. Angela had lain in bed for hours, listening to shouts, unable to sleep beneath the thin armor of her sheets. Now that her stepfather had been shut out of his bedroom, she wondered where he would go.

And then, there he was. One moment, she could see the dim outline of a teddy bear sitting on Adam’s dresser in the next room. She shut her eyes, hoping for sleep. Then, flicked them open again at the slight creak of a floorboard. His bulky frame filled the doorway, a dark shadow outlined by the faint light trickling in behind him from the living room.

“What the hell is your mother’s problem, anyway?”

Her voice caught in her throat. Angela did not know how to reply or if she should. She knew could pretend to be asleep. It might work.

But, she remembered a night not too long ago, when she had awoken to awful screams coming from her mother’s bedroom, and the looming shadow of her stepfather passing through the house. That night she had wished, more so than any other time, that she could do something. The morning light had fallen on the purplish lump of her mother’s face, and a pair of broken glasses. Somehow, her silence had let that happen.

“Well, haven’t you got anything to say?” The angry voice quivered. His clenched fist flicked the switch, blinding her with white light. Her heart pounding so hard she could barely hear herself breath, Angela raised her gaze from the carpet. She saw two bloodshot eyes glaring at her. But, she also saw the full moon shining brightly in the dark night.

“Well,” she considered her words carefully. His eyes narrowed a bit, and a bitter frown creased his face, awaiting her reply. “I guess you pissed her off, Dick.”

As his jaw dropped open, Angela heard the distant howl of a wolf praising the moon.