2014 Fiction- At Least, by E. Branden Hart

When I got home from school, I went into the kitchen, threw my backpack on the table, and asked my mother where my dad was.

“Upstairs,” she sighed. “He’s in his office…don’t bother him.” She punctuated each sentence with a sip from the martini glass in her hand.

“Is he watching porn again?” I asked. I untucked my polo shirt from my plaid skirt and walked to the fridge to get a soda.

“Now sweetheart,” she said, flipping pages in her cookbook. “You know it’s for the best. Since your father started watching pornography, he hasn’t smoked at all—not a single cigarette.” She slurred her words like a punch-drunk boxer.

I got out the milk instead of a soda. I’d noticed, lately, a tiny roll of fat oozing over the top of my skirt. I had to cut out the soda, candy, and hamburgers. Otherwise, the boys at school would start to notice my weight.

“How will he teach me to drive if he’s sitting around, watching porn all the time? My driver’s test is in two months.”

My mother took another sip from her glass, shrugged, then turned toward our open pantry. She removed every spice she could find and placed them on the island next to an open cookbook: saffron, turmeric, white pepper, dill, and coriander.

“What are you making?” I asked.

“Macaroni and cheese.”

I took my glass of milk and walked upstairs to my room, stopping at my father’s office to listen. There it was, barely audible—the sound of pornography. Haphazard moans and guys saying “Oh yeah” or “Suck it” or “I’m going to put it in your ass.” It was disgusting. A floorboard creaked as I turned to leave.

I cringed when my father called out from his office. “Welcome home sweetheart! Did you have a good day at school?” Without answering, I walked to my room and slammed the door.

That night, my father took his dinner in his office. The mac and cheese looked like a mad scientist’s experiment: wild, fungal tendrils of saffron spiked out from a mound of spicy brown cheese. I ate a few bites then I asked to be excused. My mom, already on her fourth martini, nodded as she stared down at her plate, fork midway to her mouth. It was a bite I knew she’d never take. She drank her dinners these days.

In my room, I sat in front of the mirror and combed my hair, analyzing every detail of my too-pudgy face, my barely-there breasts, and my mousy hair—God. Why did I have to be born with brown hair? Things would be much easier if I were blonde.

***

The next day at school, as I walked down the hall with my friend Jeremy, I asked him if he ever watched porn.

“Sometimes, why?”

When we turned the corner into the cafeteria, I wrinkled my nose. Everything they cooked smelled like stale french fries. “My dad’s really gotten into it recently,” I said. “I don’t get it. Why watch? Wouldn’t people rather have real sex instead?”

We walked up to the counter. Jeremy handed me a tray. “Well, yeah, of course. But real sex isn’t something you can get anytime you want it. It isn’t like Whataburger.”

Jeremy is a virgin, like me. I know because Jeremy would have told me if he lost his virginity. He’s very comfortable telling me all his sexual conquests. He tells me every time he fingers a girl, gets a blowjob, or feels a boob.

“What’ll it be today, kids?” The lunch lady coughed twice in her hand, then wiped it on her apron.

“Two scoops of the brown stuff, one of the green, and a dollop of the yellow on the side,” said Jeremy. She served it to him without blinking.

“And for you?” she asked me as she handed Jeremy his tray.

“Filet mignon with a side of grilled asparagus, one of your famous crab cakes, and a nice hollandaise sauce, please.”

“Sorry, we’re fresh out.”

“Oh, then two scoops of green, one of brown, and some of the gray.”

Over lunch, Jeremy admitted he didn’t watch porn for entertainment—he watched it when he wanted to jerk off. But he had friends who would get together with a twelve pack of beer and watch porn for hours.

“Do they jerk off in front of each other?” I asked.

“Sometimes,” Jeremy picked up the last glob of brown on his tray with his spork. “Kinda weird, if you ask me, but they call me gay when I say I won’t join them.”

That night at home, my mom and I were eating dinner—baked ziti with at least thirteen different types of cheese in it—when the electricity went out. Upstairs, my father screamed like a stuck pig.

“Oh no.” In the pale moonlight streaming through the window, I could see my mother grip the stem of her wine glass. “That’s it, your father will be smoking in no time.”

The door to his office creaked open. We heard his footsteps as he crept down the stairs. My mom held her glass just inches away from her mouth, ready to drink at a moment’s notice.

My father hunkered down in the shadowy hallway so we couldn’t see his face.

“Is it the whole neighborhood?” he whispered.

My mom didn’t move, so I got out of my chair and peeked out the window. All of the houses, up and down the street, were dark. Tiny pinpoints of light shone in the windows where people had turned on flashlights or lit candles.

“Yup,” I said. “It’s the whole neighborhood.”

My father moaned as he scurried to the garage door and grabbed his keys from the hook. Ten seconds later, his car backed out of the driveway.

“Is he actually leaving to find a place where he can watch porn?” I asked my mom. “Is that how bad this is?”

My mom was too busy finishing the last of her drink to answer. That night, I lay in bed and listened to the silence. Without the buzz of all our electrical machines, the world was quiet as a morgue.

***

After school the next day, I found my dad sitting at his workbench in the garage. A pile of CD cases tottered on the table in front of him. They were in that white protective binding the salespeople remove after you buy them. He was using a hammer and a chisel to break the bindings one by one.

“Hey,” I said. “That’s a lot of CDs.”

He nodded and continued working. “Got a couple for you in here, I think.” I noticed another stack of about twenty with the binding removed already. He reached for the one on top.

“Do you like Brother Ali?”

He held it up for me to see. The jewel case was broken and shattered, but tape still covered the edges.

“Not really.”

“Oh, come on,” he chided. “Don’t you like Christian rap?”

“Brother Ali is Islamic.”

“A black Muslim?”

“He’s white.” I unslung my backpack and put it on the ground. “Where did you get all these?”

He returned Brother Ali to the stack. “Record store.”

“Did you steal them?”

He nodded. “It’s easy. You just need a strong magnet. You rub the magnet along the protective shell, then you can carry them right through the door without setting off the alarm.”

“Where’d you get the magnet?”

“Stole it from the hardware store.”

I looked through the CDs he’d already liberated while he worked on the next one. There was a Citizen Cope I’d been meaning to buy and an early Old 97s I’d never heard before. I took both and went inside the house.

My mom was in the kitchen, staring into the open oven. She had set a tumbler full of her liquor du jour on one of the burners, where it bubbled and steamed like a beaker in a science lab. The kitchen was hot as hell. I turned the stove off and closed the oven door. She blinked a couple of times, then looked up at me with lost puppy eyes.

“Thanks,” she mumbled, reaching for the tumbler.

I slapped her hand away. “No!” I yelled. “No! Hot!”

She looked at me, then at the tumbler. “Oh!” She giggled and got a new glass for another drink.

That night, Jeremy came over to study. My dad had been gone for a couple of hours and my mom was passed out upstairs, so me and Jeremy were in the living room. We drank my mom’s vodka while we tried to figure out why anyone needed to solve differential equations.

“Have you ever stolen anything before?” I asked.

He shook his head, “Wait, does beer count?”

“If it isn’t yours, it does.”

He put down his calculus book. “But it’s like, the government is the only reason I can’t buy beer. If it wasn’t for the government and its stupid age restrictions on alcohol, I could buy my own beer and wouldn’t have to steal it.”

“Do you leave money on the counter when you take it?” I asked.

“Hmm. Never thought of that.”

I was leaning over to put my hand on Jeremy’s leg when my dad burst through the front door. “Hey kids!” he smiled. “Want some candy?” He pulled candy bars out of his pockets and tossed them at us. I caught a Milky Way—it was soft and misshapen from being in his pocket. He hit Jeremy in the head with a Snickers.

“Thanks Mr. Crane!” said Jeremy, always the polite boy.

“You bet kiddo! Say, why are you reading those books made out of paper when you could be reading on a Kindle?”

My dad unbuttoned his shirt and pulled out two brand new Kindle Fires, still in their boxes. He tossed one to me and one to Jeremy, then ran back out the front door. I heard his car back out of the garage and roar down the street.

“Whoa.” Jeremy turned the box over and over in his hand. “Is he serious?”

I’d already opened mine—I’d heard you could play Angry Birds on it. I was too nearsighted to play on my cell phone. “You might as well take advantage of it.”

“But…why?” asked Jeremy.

I hit the power button on my stolen Kindle and watched the screen light up. “He quit smoking.”

Jeremy nodded as if that explained it all.

***

That night, my father got arrested trying to steal a Porsche from the local dealership and spent the night in jail. By the time I got home from school the next day, my mother had bailed him out and called a family meeting.

“This is very serious,” said my mother.

“Very serious,” repeated my father. “I still get cravings, you see. That sweet nicotine, so tempting.”

“I know, I know,” said my mother.  “And stealing things helps you fight the temptation.” Three shot glasses sat in front of her, each filled to the brim with a different-colored liquid. She sipped from each of them, then reached her arm across the table and put her hands on top of my father’s.

“So we have to think of something else,” he said. “Now think!”

We sat in silence for several minutes. I pulled out my Kindle and played Angry Birds.

“I’ve got it!” My father snapped his fingers, which made my mother jump. She bumped the table so hard one of the shot glasses fell over.

”Oh my,” she muttered, then bent over and slurped up the liquor pooling on the table.

“I’ll be back!” My father ran to the pantry. He grabbed a handful of trash bags, a roll of paper towels, and a knife.

After his car puttered off down the street, I watched my mom lapping up alcohol like a dog. When that got boring, I went back to Angry Birds and got my highest score ever.

***

Later at Jeremy’s house, I told him I wanted to have sex with him. We were in his bedroom, so it was the perfect place to say it, just in case he agreed.

“I—no,” he said. “You’re like, my best friend.”

I looked down at my mosquito-bite breasts under my polo shirt. “Would you want to have sex with me if my breasts were bigger?”

He shook his head. “It isn’t that,” he said. “It’s just that, having sex with you would be like having sex with another guy, you know what I mean?”

I assured him I did not.

“What I mean is, you’re my friend. I don’t want to get involved in a romantic relationship with you.”

I told him I wasn’t talking about romance; I was talking about sex.

“You mean, like, we have sex, but we can still go on just being friends?”

I nodded and left him to think about it. On my way home, I stopped at the convenience store and bought some condoms, just in case.

When I walked in the front door of my house, a metallic smell filled the air and all the lights were off. I walked into the kitchen, set down my backpack, flipped on the lights and immediately wished I hadn’t.

The door to the garage hung wide open, and a trail of thick, wet blood led away from it, like someone had dragged a sponge through a slaughterhouse and used it to mop the floor. The blood wound through the kitchen and out into the hallway, where my mother crouched on her hands and knees, using paper towels to wipe it up.

“Hi honey,” she said. She picked up the bottle of Jack Daniels sitting next to her and took a long pull before continuing her work. “Be careful—the floor’s wet.”

“I see that.” I stepped over the worst of it to get to the fridge, grabbed the orange juice but then decided, screw it, I’m having a Pepsi.

As I lay in bed that night, I heard my dad out in the garage, at his workbench. He was using a circular saw to cut something to pieces, ramping up the RPMs whenever he hit something hard. I put on my earphones and listened to music while I played Angry Birds. By the time I fell asleep, it was past midnight. My dad was still out there, sawing away. I woke up a few hours later, when the scream of approaching sirens drowned out the sound of the saw.

***

By the time I got to school the next morning, everyone knew my dad was a murderer. It was all over the radio. A couple of teachers asked me how I was doing. I told them I was okay, all things considered. At the end of the day, you gotta do what you gotta do, right? They looked at me with concern, but I knew they’d chalk it up to the emotional trauma of being the daughter of a deranged sociopath and probably wouldn’t tell anyone what I said.

Jeremy sat across from me at lunch. He stared at his tray, looked around the cafeteria, then back at his tray. Finally, he said, “Sorry your dad got arrested again.”

“Thanks,” I said. “He kind of had it coming though. I mean, shouldn’t you get arrested when you kill a defenseless, ninety-year-old woman?”

Jeremy picked at his food—there was a special on brown that day. He had three scoops of it. “Are you, you know—okay?”

I nodded, and used my spork to take some of the yellow off Jeremy’s tray. “I guess so. Have you thought about my offer?”

“You still want to?”

“Yeah, I think so,” I said. “I mean, if you’ve got to try something for the first time, it might as well be with a friend.”

Jeremy shifted in his seat, started to say something, stopped, then said, “Your dad’s a murderer. Wow.”

I stood up and slung my backpack over my shoulders. “It’s not a big deal. At least he quit smoking.”

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