Hi guys! I’ve been working on finishing my novel about a teenage girl who conceives a harpy after her brother rapes her. The family is front-and-center in their little town, and Hayley, the main character, is just trying to maintain, all the while becoming monstrous herself.
The next time I wake up, I’m lying face-up in the middle of the kitchen floor, my arms and legs splayed wide.
My head is alive with pain, and it takes me a minute to get my bearings. I sit up slowly, propping myself up on my elbows. I rub my eyes–wetness—and look at my hands. There’s a dark, viscous liquid all over my fingertips. All around me, too, there are wide, reddish streaks on the white tile. I look up and blink. Above me, the ceiling spins, its square fluorescent light leaving harsh arcs of brightness in my too-sharp vision.
No, Mark, please, I almost cry out, thinking of being back in the Bronco with him again, of seeing, through the back window, the yellow light in our driveway bobbing in time with the jerks of my body. But this is different. I’m alone. A fleeting terror spikes within me; blood, that is blood on my hands—the baby. Is this what miscarriages look like? I wonder. But when I check, my stomach and legs are clean, my clothing intact. I put a palm to my stomach. I don’t know what I’m expecting—it’s not like I would be able to feel the baby moving yet–but the action calms me, makes me feel like I’m being responsible or something. I mean, it doesn’t matter, I still don’t want to keep the baby or anything. But I don’t know. I guess I just feel like I should be nice to it while it’s here. It has a lot shittier life than I do, after all. At least I’m not deformed. At least people actually got to know me before deciding to hate me.
The now familiar feeling of nausea bubbles up again, hot, insistent. I lean over, choke it out. But instead of bile, I spit up dust and feathers, and finally, a brown pellet, almost the size of my palm. The effort is excruciating. It makes no sense. Clearly this is a dream, a full and painful dream, yes, but a dream nonetheless. I wonder what Brooke is going to think when I tell her about it. I wonder what Brooke is going to think of all of this. I try to close my eyes, change the dream—sometimes I can do that—or at least wake myself up, but it’s no good. Looks like I’m stuck in the creepy B-level horror movie version of my life for now.
I turn onto my side and poke at the pellet with a fingernail. A small, avian skull comes loose and clatters on the floor.
I wait until I feel normal again—coughing up the pellet hurt like hell—and then I get up and clean up the mess with a dustpan and broom. I have to clean everything up so that Mom doesn’t freak out. I grab the Lysol from under the sink, some extra strength paper towels. I try to stay quiet—I don’t need Mom or Dad waking up to me cleaning up a bunch of dried blood in the middle of the night. When it’s done, I double-bag the trash and step outside to toss the mess into the garbage can.
It’s barely morning, and in the dim half-light of pre-dawn, I can just make out the outlines of the garage, the far-off fence, the swing set, and closer, the solid light grey of the paved patio. But then I notice that the patio is dotted with smallish, dark shapes. Then a terrible smell hits me. I do my best not to gag. I breathe through my mouth, but then it’s like I can taste the stench. It smells like the zoo. No. Worse than that. Like the bird cages at Petco. I lean against the back door, and flip on the light switch next to the grill. Light floods the pavement.
Scattered on the ground every few inches or so, are dead starlings. A whole flock of them, probably forty in all.
I cover my mouth and nose; my stomach roils. Breathing as shallowly as possible, I creep closer to the massacre, squat next to one of the dead birds. Some of the birds have been chewed in half, others are whole, their sleek, green bodies motionless, curled up on the concrete.
Again my head throbs. All this mess. I think about picking one of the birds up, examining it, but then I remember that small dead animals carry diseases. I remember the blood on my hands, the bird skull in the pellet I coughed up earlier. My stomach churns. I push the thought from my mind. I don’t have time to worry about that right now. Right now what I have to do is get rid of the birds.
I go into the garage and grab a shovel from its hook on the wall, and one of those giant black trash bags Dad uses for grass clippings when he’s done mowing the lawn. I stand the bag up against the side of the garage and get to work, scraping the birds’ bodies up off the concrete and dumping them unceremoniously in the bag. As I work, I wonder how they all got here. I’ve heard of birds killing themselves from flying into glass doors, but never a whole flock at once. And these birds look like they threw themselves directly at the concrete patio. I think of the skull, the pellet, the floor of the kitchen.
I scoop and dump, scoop and dump, and soon, the sun has risen. I throw myself into my work—no way I want to have to explain any of this to Mom or Dad. I wonder how much time I have until they’re awake, and scoop the last of the birds into the bag. I’m tying it off when I hear a crash from inside the house.
I drop to the ground, and strain my ears. I think the crash came from the kitchen; at any rate, I can hear people moving around in there now. There’s a low-pitched, muffled murmuring at the sink–Dad’s voice. He must be cleaning last night’s dishes, talking to Mom.
“Ian, I told you, I was with the lawyer, going over the stuff for the appeal,” Mom says, her voice a sudden sharpness in the early morning quiet. I notice that the back door isn’t entirely closed—I guess I forgot to pull it shut behind me when I came out here. I’m glad; I want to hear what they’re saying.
“You didn’t even come home until midnight,” Dad says.
“We were building Mark’s case for the appeal,” Mom says. “Which you could be helping out with, by the way.”
Dad clears his throat, says something so low I don’t hear it at first. A dish crashes into the sink.
“What?” Mom spits at him. “Why are you attacking me?”
“We’re supposed to be a family.” Dad’s voice trembles a little, but I can hear the anger in his tone. “You have two children, Cynthia. Two. Not one.”
“Oh, that’s rich.” Mom laughs once, a sharp sound. “This from the man who has done nothing to support his son.”
“I’m serious,” Dad says.
“So am I,” Mom snaps back. “And anyway, if you ever came to any of the meetings with the lawyer, you would know that I’m building a case against the city of Wayne, Pennslyvania, not against Haley.”
“Bullshit,” Dad says. “You think this is Haley’s fault. You know it, I know it, and she sure as hell knows it. You’re always jumping all over her, disappearing on her. You don’t have to take it out on her. It’s hard for all of us to accept what happened.”
“I don’t jump all over her,” Mom snarls. “I just don’t think it’s quite so simple as you’d like to believe. She’s not totally innocent in this.”
“She was raped, Cynthia,” Dad says. “That makes her pretty damn innocent in my book.”
“So it’s all Mark’s fault then. Tell me, Ian, how is that not choosing one child over the other? Explain that to me.”
I shift my weight a little. My elbows dig into the concrete, and my toes burn from crouching like this. But I have to hear.
“Look, it’s hard for me to wrap my head around, too. I can’t say I’m entirely sure it was Mark,” Dad says, his voice quiet.
“See? You said it yourself!” Mom’s voice swings up and thins out, the way it does when she’s about to cry.
“But we don’t know it wasn’t Mark either, okay!” Dad says. “Regardless, it’s certainly not Haley’s fault. Jesus.”
There’s a pause. No one’s moving.
“My son isn’t a rapist,” Mom says, her voice deliberately level.
“Well, that doesn’t change the fact that your daughter is a victim,” Dad says.
When Mom speaks again, she sounds tired. “Don’t call her that. She’s more than that,” she says. “You sound like the fucking reporters. She doesn’t need her own father calling her weak too.”
There’s a crash from the sink. “I didn’t say she was weak!” Dad yells. “At least I was there for her today. And don’t try to tell me you were at work, because we both know that’s a lie.”
“I was at work,” Mom says. “And anyway, who do you think took her to the doctor in the first place?”
I hear Dad let out a sigh. I can tell he’s sick of fighting. I wonder how long this has been going on. “Look, it’s terrible what happened. All I’m saying is that pretending it didn’t happen isn’t going to help her either. Haley needs her mother.”
“Mark needs his mother, too,” she says. “And his father.”
“It’s not like you’ve been the pinnacle of parenting lately,” Dad spits at her. “Tell me something—what kind of mother doesn’t go to her own daughter’s ultrasound with her?”
“Listen, Ian, I don’t care if you approve of my parenting tactics. I am still the mother of your children,” Mom snarls. “You will treat me with respect.”
“Respect,” Dad scoffs. “Yeah, I’ll treat you like a parent once you start acting like one.”
“You want to know why I didn’t go?” Mom says. “You want to know why I skipped the fucking ultrasound? Because I don’t want to support that kind of behavior. I want nothing to do with it.”
“What kind of behavior?” Dad laughs without humor. “Being responsible? Making informed decisions?”
“The informed decision to take a life,” Mom says darkly.
“She may not have a choice in the matter,” Dad says.
“Bullshit,” Mom says. “There’s always a choice, in everything we do on Earth. You choose to get pregnant. You choose to blame your brother. You choose to kill an unborn baby.”
“God dammit, Cynthia!” Dad says. I can hear him pacing back and forth. “How can you keep defending Mark like this? Your thirteen-year-old daughter is pregnant because of him, not because of some choice she made. We’re in this situation because he raped her. Rape, Cynthia. He raped her. There’s no choice in that.”
“No,” Mom says. I can hear her scrubbing down a pan. I blink back tears and do my best not to make any noise.
“No?” Dad’s voice cracks. “I can’t believe this. What do you think happened?”
Mom is silent.
“Answer me!” Dad yells. His tone makes the hair along my scalp prickle.
Mom shifts in her seat—I can hear the creak of the wicker breakfast room chairs.
“I just—I can’t accept that God would let something like this happen,” Mom says. Her voice is edged with tears. “Mark couldn’t have done anything like that. Rape is a sin.”
“Oh, so because it’s a sin, it’s suddenly impossible? I thought you said everything was a choice.”
“For someone truly walking in the path of the Lord, there is only one choice, and that is to glorify Him.”
“So what you’re saying to me is that if you believe in God, you’re suddenly perfect, just like Him,” Dad says. “I don’t know what religion you preach, but the Christianity that I introduced you to doesn’t believe that people are perfect in the eyes of God. God loves people because they are sinners. At least that’s how the God I worship works.”
“I didn’t say God was perfect,” Mom says.
There’s a pause. I can hear Mom start to cry, just a little.
“If Haley has to get another abortion, or if she decides to give birth to this baby,” Dad says. “Whatever she does, you’d better be there for it. Do you understand me?”
Dad is silent for a moment, and then he says, “God, I can’t imagine how terrified she must feel right now.”
“Yes, I imagine so,” Mom says quietly. “Whatever choice she makes, she’ll have to deal with the consequences.”
Dad is quiet for a moment. “Do you really think Mark is innocent?” he says, his tone softer.
I hear Mom run the water, set the pan on the counter.
“I don’t know,” she says, and lets out a deep breath. “I don’t know. I don’t really think Haley would decide to sleep with anyone. She’s too young, and anyway, she’s smarter than that. I know she is, I raised her. But I can’t—I can’t bear the thought that Mark—that some man would have forced her—“ She breaks off, takes a few breaths. When Mom speaks again, her voice is wavery, choked up. “I wasn’t there to protect her, Ian. I thought that God would help with that, but He let me down. And because I trusted Him, I wasn’t there. The point of being a mother is to protect your children. It’s a kind of promise,” Mom says. “If she was—“
“Raped,” Dad says, his tone flat.
“Yes,” Mom says. “If she was, then I didn’t keep that promise.” For a moment nobody says anything. I take a shaky breath, and smell the sour blood on my hands. A bird chirps in a tree somewhere.
“I don’t want to be a bad mother,” Mom says. Her voice breaks on the word mother, and I can hear a low moan, then wet, heavy sobs. “I don’t want to hate God, but how can I love a god that lets my children suffer like this?”
“Come here,” Dad says. “Cyn, come on. Come here. Come pray with me.”
“Praying,” Mom scoffs, her mouth full of tears. “Where has praying ever gotten anyone? You’re right. No perfect God would let this happen. No God at all.” She trails off. Dad clears his throat, the way he does when he’s not sure how to comfort someone.
“I just want my babies to be safe,” Mom says. “I just want to protect them.”
“I know,” Dad says. “I know that. We just have to stay together on this, okay? Like you said in church last weekend, we have to have faith that things will turn out alright in the end.” He’s trying to flatter her, his go-to when Mom is upset. I can’t tell whether he actually believes what he’s saying.
“Don’t mock me,” Mom says. “You don’t know what I’m going through right now. You don’t know how I feel.” I hear the screech of chair legs on tile, a body being pushed into the wall or the fridge.
“How dare you assume that your feelings are somehow more complicated than mine?” Dad says. “I know exactly how you feel. We’re in the same boat here.”
Mom says nothing, but I hear her cross the kitchen. A cabinet opens, and there’s the sound of glass jostling against glass, the slosh of liquid. Another cabinet opens and shuts. I hear the trickle of liquid into a glass. A bottle set down. Mom winces audibly, breathes out.
“Whiskey at 7:30 in the morning. Beautiful,” Dad says with disgust.
“It’s a Saturday,” Mom says.
Then suddenly there’s a scuffle, the splash of spilled liquid. Mom lets out a cry.
“Let go of me!”
“Give me the glass, Cynthia.”
Then there’s a thump, and the unmistakable sound of glass shattering.
“Look what you did,” Mom says. “It’s everywhere. Broken.”
There’s a small pause, then Mom starts to cry. I hear the little tinkle that means someone has started to gather up the glass.
“No!” Mom yells. “No. Just leave it. Leave it broken, like everything else. I want it to look real.”
“Shut up,” Dad says, and keeps cleaning.
The slap of a palm against skin. Dad gasps.
“I said, leave it,” Mom says.
There’s a moment where no one speaks. I hold my breath. Then I hear the crack of Dad’s bad knee as he stands up.
“I can’t live like this,” he says. The sound of his receding footsteps tells me he’s left the room.
My breath catches in my throat and tears well up in my eyes. I listen for Mom, to hear if she’s crying, but I can’t tell. I don’t think she is. I sit there for a long time, waiting. The sun rises high enough in the sky that the skin on my arms starts to warm, then burn. Finally, I hear Mom gather up the glass in a plastic bag and get to her feet. Without a word, she places the bag in the trashcan and sets her cup in the sink. Then she retreats into the depths of the house. When I hear the creak of the stairs, I know she’s going to Mark’s room.
A strange emptiness opens up inside of me, and the guilt I’ve felt ever since that night with Mark, the guilt I felt for all of us, for allowing everything to get so fucked up, pours into the emptiness like lead. When I breathe in again, my breath is ragged and thick—my whole body feels weighed down, impossible to lift. I get to my feet, and drag this bag of dead birds to the garbage can.
I’m almost to the trash can—the bag is way heavier than I thought it would be—when I hear Dad’s footsteps getting louder. “How long has this been open?” he says. I hear the door squeak wide open on its hinges, and Dad coughs. “Ugh, what died out here? It reeks.” He spits, then starts to close the door.
I manage to heave the bag of bird carcasses into the garbage can with a heavy thump. Dad comes running outside. When he sees me standing in the driveway, I wave.
“Morning,” I say. My voice cracks a little, but I play it off as early morning dry mouth.
“Haley,” he says, rushing over. “Bear, what are you doing up? It’s 8 AM on a Saturday.”
I nod toward the garbage can. “Couldn’t sleep,” I say. “Thought I’d get a jump on some of my chores.”
Dad looks worried, probably that I heard him fighting with Mom. “Sorry I left the door open. I was jamming out.” I pat the pocket of my sweatpants like my phone’s in there or something. “New playlist from Brooke’s band,” I say, and smile. He seems to buy it.
“Well, you know, you don’t have to do chores today, in your condition,” he says.
“I know,” I say. “Where’s Mom?”
Dad raises an eyebrow. “Forget it,” I say, and head back into the house, exhausted. In the hallway in front of their bedroom, I stop, listen. I hear her humming. I hear the shower hiss to life, followed by the little creak of the clear plastic shower door closing. For a moment, I think I hear her crying, but then I realize where the pained sounds are coming from. Me. Mine are the only tears in the house.