Hand Me Down
A Few Selections from Chapter 1
My mom and her husband are doing it in her bedroom. I listen to her bedsprings squeak and their hushed, heavy breathing. I need to pee, but if I get up they’ll hear me, and that sudden, conscious silence would be worse than the sound of chimp squeals and hyperventilation muffled by our hollow bedroom doors and the three feet of hallway in between. At least she’s not screaming, Oh, God, like I’ve seen in movies. I chew the slippery skin on the inside of my mouth and wonder if it’s still a sin to take the Lord’s name in vain during sex, or if then, it is like a prayer.
It is Terrance’s first night out. For two years my mom has saved her nice voice for his collect calls, driven the hour and a half to Vacaville every Thursday afternoon and Saturday morning to see him, waited expectantly for his twenty-page letters full of shaded hearts pierced with arrows, poems wrought with adolescent angst, and fantasies I can never, ever, repeat out loud. His dark penciled writing is frilly with curled loops and a childlike slant. I only read the letters because Jaime made me. “Why would he want her to do that thing with the marshmallows?” she asked after she found the envelopes, dozens of them, in a pile under our mom’s nightstand. I told her I’d rather not think about it.
Water sloshing and soft moaning sounds radiate from Mom’s bathroom now, and I start to wonder how they can both fit in the tub but, gross. When Terrance arrived at the apartment today he said, “I know you don’t like when I hug you, but I’m going to anyway!” He scooped me up in his arms and spun me around like I was a toddler while I stayed straight as a corpse. Mom snapped a photo and giggled. He set me down but held me close to his chest, the pressure of his splayed hands across my lower back kept my hips against him. He breathed in my ear, “I missed you.”
“We’re so excited you’re home,” Mom said, taking another picture. “Aren’t we, Liz?”
“Not as excited as me,” Terrance said. His fingers grazed the sides of my breasts as he released me, and if he hadn’t done it before, I might have thought it was an accident. He wagged his thick black eyebrows at Mom and they haven’t left her room since.
If Jaime still lived here, I’d be lying along the outer edge of her bed, singing or cracking jokes, but alone, I stuff Kleenex in my ears and fold my body until my limbs are wrapped around me like a shell.
One afternoon about a month ago, Jaime came into my room and put her head in my lap like she used to when we played house and I was the mom. “What’s wrong?” I asked, putting down my book and stroking her hair.
“Terrance is getting out next month,” she said and started crying. “Mom’s really excited.”
“Fuck,” I said. “It’s too soon.”
“I called Dad. He said we can come live with him and Crystal.”
I sighed. “He’s not sober.”
“So? At least he doesn’t lie.”
“Mom’s not going to lie us into a ditch on the way to school.” I touched Jaime’s hairline at her right temple, where a V-shaped silvery-white scar is etched into her skin under the blond strands.
“It wasn’t a ditch,” she said, shaking her head and brushing off my hand. “It was an accident.”
I eyed the raised and shiny reminder of the cost of letting my guard down for even a second. I said, “They’re not accidents when he’s drinking.”
Jaime pulled her bangs over her scar the way she does when she catches me staring. She sat up. “Crystal told me this wasn’t Terrance’s first time in jail. That he didn’t deal drugs like Mom said.”
“Well, he did that, too,” I said and wondered how much of the police reports Crystal had shown Jaime. Some of that stuff was not for kids. Living in Crystal’s filthy two-bedroom trailer was not for kids, either.
“I’m scared, Liz.”
“Scared enough to live with Dad?”
“He said he’d love to have us,” she said.
“He’d love to have us take care of Crystal’s daughter for him.”
“You’re not scared of Terrance the pervert?” She looked at me and I marveled again at how our eyes could be the exact same color blue, like seeing my eyes in her face. “Did Crystal tell you what he does?” she said. She sniffed and wiped her nose on her sleeve. “It’s freaky and gross.”
Crystal had seated me at her always sticky kitchen table and read me dozens of pages of eyewitness accounts, police summaries, and victim statements that provided details of his crimes I didn’t need. I’d already noticed Terrance’s wandering eyes carried the same restless look as cheetahs and tigers pacing in their zoo cages, instinct contained but not eliminated. “Yes, I’m scared of Terrance,” I said. I’ve stopped wearing shorts to bed and I get dressed in the locked bathroom. “But I’m scared of Dad, too.”
“Dad would never hurt us,” she said and hugged me. “He loves us at least.”
He hurts us all the time. “You know that doesn’t matter,” I said. “He loved Mom, too.”
Sometimes Terrance plays the acoustic guitar he bought with Mom’s money. It’s a honey-colored wood, classy, and he offered to teach me to play when he found me holding it in my lap and strumming randomly. He sat next to me on the couch, scooted until his thigh lined up against mine. “I’m a good teacher,” he said, tilting his head toward my neck. The iron smell of his breath, like warm blood, made my stomach churn.
“You can’t really play,” I said. I pushed the guitar at him, trying to force him back. “You only know two chords.”
He leaned over the instrument between us. “I can play,” he said. He trailed his fingers down my forearm from elbow to wrist and rested the tips on my skin like he was taking my pulse. “I’m really, really good, Liz,” he said and wrapped his hand around the guitar neck right below my fist.
I retracted my arms and stood up, fighting to keep my face neutral. Our eyes met and Terrance smiled at me with his crooked mouth like he’d won something. He embraced the guitar I’d dropped, stroked the curved wood, and gazed up at me with heavy-lidded eyes. “You want to see?”
I ran and didn’t breathe until I made it to my room. “He’s so creepy,” I told Rachel from under my covers.
“Duh,” she said. “They don’t send normal people to prison.”
We sit at the table. “What’s wrong?” I say. A thousand gerbils run treadmills in my stomach.
“Well, Terrance’s parole officer called today.” Mom glances at Terrance, who’s not listening, just making smacking sounds as he chews. I imagine his face exploding. “Apparently someone called and stated their concern for the minor female living in this house given Terrance’s record.”
She takes a breath. “So the officer—what a jerk—made it a condition of Terrance’s parole that he not be allowed to be near girls your age unsupervised.” The gerbils hit double time. “That includes after school and sleeping in the same house.” She rolls her eyes and waves her hand as if they’re being ridiculous. “Since I can’t supervise while I’m asleep.”
“What?” Fiery tops spin in my head. I feel dizzy. “Does that mean—”
“It’s silly really,” she says. “There’s no reason for such an extreme response, but, you know, the system stinks.” She sighs.
I stare at her freshly cut and colored hair, her manicured nails. I think of all the food in the cabinets she bought for him: twelve-packs of soda and beer, doughnuts, Doritos, beef jerky, pork rinds, sunflower seeds. All the money spent on toys for him while she said she couldn’t afford to buy me shoes. I think about how she’s ignored me for weeks, gone to bars with Terrance and come home late, taken days off work to take him shopping, skipped church to stay in bed.
“But I was trying,” I say.
“I know,” she says, dropping her eyes to the tabletop.
I whisper, “For you.”
She whispers back, “I’m sorry.”
I think about how long she stayed with my dad; how she prayed for him every night kneeling in front of her bed, and every morning tried harder to please him through his hangover. The gerbils drop dead, and in my vacant stomach I know she’s made that choice again.
Mom opens her mouth, so I try to tell her with my eyes that I know what she’s going to say, that I don’t need to hear it out loud. But this woman sitting in front of me with my cheekbones and small wrists and wavy hair won’t look at my face. My eyes and throat burn like the room’s on fire and my ribs feel shattered under the weight in my chest, but she says without flinching, “You and Terrance cannot both live here.”
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You can also read an excerpt from chapter 3 with my commentary here at the Page 69 Test. It begins, “Her blond hair covered her face and she didn’t move. I couldn’t tell if she was breathing…On the floor at Jaime’s side, I swept her hair off her chilly forehead, pressed two fingers to her damp neck, and found a pulse.”