By Melissa Darcey
If she squeezed real tight and lay stiff as a board, she’d be all right. He hadn’t been the first visitor, his stringy black hair tickling her ear as he leaned in close to see if she was really sleeping. Standing upright and retreating to a chair in the corner, sitting and staring like the others before.
Eyes shut tight! Legs tight! No movement!
When you open your eyes, they spook.
Didn’t mean to scare you, they’d explain, even though they’d been the frightened ones. Thought I’d check on you. The way to your mom’s heart is a father figure, am I right? they’d chuckle to an unresponsive audience.
This one breathed harder and louder than the others; his heavy breath was gin-soaked and the smell stung her nose.
Tight as a clam!
She’d heard someone say that before. Nights like these required such a position. Locked legs, arms folded into her chest. She imagined a clam sitting on a sandy beach, focusing on the image until whoever was there that night stumbled out and back to Momma’s bedroom just a few blurred steps down the hall. Their two-bedroom house was plenty big for two but overcrowded with the arrival of a third.
Lately it had been the same man who came around—the heavy breather with a soft spot for Gordon’s London Dry. They usually never lasted this long. But he stayed the night and then another night and then all the nights after for what now had been several weeks.
“His name is Ray,” Momma told her. “You leave this one alone, Tara,” she warned with a glare.
Ray was one of the few Tara had ever officially met. He was smaller than most of the others. She sized him up and estimated he was no more than 5’9” and 165 pounds at most. His neck was slender like a dancer’s, but the comparison ended there. He had a tattoo of a bleeding rose on his left arm, the stem twisted into a “S,” which Momma said was from prison.
“He was in jail, but only because he was defending his sister,” Momma assured her. This was before she’d met Ray and it was still just the two of them, intertwined like two halves of a pretzel on the couch. “He’s not like the others. You’ll see when you meet him.”
But Momma always said that.
“Tara, you’re a pretty one,” he said when they met, hand extended for a handshake she didn’t accept.
Ray had the ability to speak fast but draw out each word slowly. The more he spoke in one breath, the more the words knocked into each other, tumbling forward down the line until they all knocked over like bowling pins after a strike.
“Just like your Momma, of course,” he added.
“I’d like to think I’m prettier than a 12-year-old who’s barely hit puberty…” Momma trailed off, pausing to give Ray a chance to snatch the bait.
“You are, darlin’.”
Good boy, Momma smirked. It did all the talking sometimes, revealing more in one swift upturn of the mouth than any combination of words.
He didn’t come to her room those first weeks; never even tested the door handle to see if it was unlocked. Tara almost believed Momma was right about him. But a month in, Ray and Momma had their first fight—a screaming match that seemed to last for hours—and things shifted.
Tara had already been in bed for hours, but Momma still made it to her room to say goodnight. Only on the really bad nights did she forget their ritual.
“You still have to sing it,” Tara begged, only partially awake.
“You aren’t even awake,” Momma half laughed, wiping a tear from her cheek—the last remaining evidence of her fight with Ray.
“I am,” Tara assured.
“Fine,” she cleared her throat and lowered her voice to a whisper.
“I met a man on Sunday,
He began to scold on Monday,
Bad was he on Tuesday,
Meddling was he on Wednesday,
Worse was he on Thursday,
Dead was he on Friday,
Glad was I on Saturday,
To bury him on Sunday.”
Tara giggled. She always did at the end, no matter how many times she heard it.
“It shouldn’t be funny,” Momma nudged her. “I only ever sang it to you in the first place to hush you up and put you to sleep. It was the only damn song I could think of.”
“But you sing it so nice,” Tara cooed.
“Sleep tight,” she kissed her forehead, slipping out of Tara’s room and into her own, closing the door firmly behind her as a coded message to Ray.
That was the first night Ray didn’t go to bed with Momma when she did. He stayed on the couch watching TV, flipping through channel after channel until late into the night. Eventually, he turned off the television and the house went black. He stumbled over an empty gin bottle on the floor and crashed into the wall, cursing under his breath. Tara, now awake, heard the bottle break—a quick snap of its neck and the scattering of shattered glass across the laminate flooring. He made his way to Momma’s room, opening the door but not entering.
“Ellen?” he whispered. “You up?”
Momma responded with a sharp snore. She was out cold, like most nights. She always joked she could sleep through a farmhouse slaughter. Another short creak followed and then came the slow whine of the door closing.
Tara’s ears perked up like a deer hearing a twig snap. He was no longer in Momma’s room. There was a pause in his footsteps and then four steady strides toward Tara’s room. She watched the doorknob turn. Before the door opened, she turned away from the door, tightening her body and shutting her eyes. When it was someone new—someone she had to study—it took her a moment to settle her breath.
Not knowing what to expect was harder than anything that came after.
As quietly as he crept, she heard his every footstep on the dense carpet. He inched toward her but didn’t sit down. She was certain he was standing, watching. He leaned in and she felt his heavy, hot breath. He was exploring her face, looking for signs of life like an astronaut on the moon.
Eyes shut! Legs tight! No movement!
Ray didn’t stay longer than a few minutes and he left as swiftly as he’d arrived. The opening and closing of Momma’s door meant Tara was safe again.
The next night and every night after, he visited her bedside. She felt his stares and his hot breath as he watched her sleep. After a few minutes he left, closing the door slowly behind him and slipping into Momma’s room. They all had their own patterns they fell into and Ray’s was uniquely his. He was less threatening and she almost felt sorry for him.
But it was always worse when Momma fought with them. They were always braver after a fight. After a particularly bad argument with Momma, Ray didn’t just watch. Tara half expected it, stiffening as the door opened. He didn’t walk in as slowly this time. She could feel the confidence in his steps as he made his way around the bed to the side she faced.
He poked her shoulder but she didn’t respond. Her body was so tightly clenched she still didn’t move after a second, more aggressive poke. He leaned in, his nose barely an inch from hers. He sat down at the edge of the mattress and combed her hair with four of her fingers. Momma had curly hair, rough from bleach, but Tara’s was smooth and easy to brush without knots to derail the strokes.
“Susanna, little blonde Susanna,” he sang under his breath.
As surprisingly gentle as Ray’s touch was, she still didn’t like it. Nervous excitement radiated off his body. He was like a boy on Christmas morning stealing sips of eggnog when no one was looking, his belly warm with brandy and hiccups. His fingers levitated above her covered body, a thin blue sheet her only shield. He drew on her upper arm, following a trail down her shoulder down to her elbow. His touch vibrated against the sheet.
Then nothing. His hand left her body as he stood and disappeared from the room.
“Momma, when’s Ray leaving?” Tara asked at breakfast the next morning.
“Why the hell would you ask that?”
Tara shrugged, stabbing her pancakes with her fork. She knew what she’d said would upset Momma but she didn’t care.
“Let me tell you something, Missy. Ray’s not going anywhere. Forget what’s in that head of yours. He’s not like the others; he doesn’t deserve you bothering him.”
“You always say that.”
“This time it’s true,” she shook a syrupy finger at Tara. “I love you darlin’ but I need a man in my life. If you love me, you’ll let me have Ray.”
“You have me,” Tara pouted.
“Of course I do and I’ll always have you. But I also need Ray. We need a man around here. He can protect us.”
“You know, bogeymen.”
“I’m not scared of monsters.”
Momma rolled her eyes, smiling.
“Well, then I guess I have you both to protect me.”
When Ray returned home late, hours after dinner, Tara hid in her room. Momma was arguing with him in the living room. Both had been drinking so what they considered a whisper was more of a soft scream. Tara pulled the covers over her head in an attempt to drown out whatever they were yelling about this time.
“She should call you ‘daddy.’ It’s about time, seeing how things are going.”
“Ellen, I don’t want that girl callin’ me that!”
“Well, why not?”
“Because I’m no one’s daddy.”
“She kinda looks like your sister. You know, in that photo you keep in your wallet.”
“Stop. Just stop there,” he snapped.
“Don’t see why it matters much,” she trailed off with a mumble.
“Because it does.”
Momma stormed out of the room. She forgot to visit Tara; she didn’t sing her lullaby or even whisper, “Sleep tight!” Instead, she retreated to her bedroom and slammed the door closed, leaving an irritated Ray behind on the couch.
Tara waited, watching the hands on her wall clock rotate for the next hour.
Her door opened and then closed, right on schedule. Though Ray was silent, she knew she wasn’t alone in the dark room. He stood for a moment, waiting for his eyes to adjust before following his nightly trail.
Tara waited, lying on her side facing away from the door. She was brave enough now to peek at him. She relaxed her body and slowly—so slowly he didn’t notice any movement—rolled onto her back and peeled her legs and arms away from their previously clenched position.
By the time Ray sat down, she’d settled into her new position. Even in the dark, he could see the change and it frightened him. He froze. She opened her eyes wide, staring hard directly into his eyes.
Registering her awakened state, he jumped to leave but she caught his arm before he could escape. He didn’t pull away, in fear she’d scream. He turned toward her like a snake ready to strike. She, sitting up, and he, caught in a girl’s small fisted grasp, waited for the other to make a move.
“I know what you do,” she spat, her voice low and steady.
“You don’t know anything,” he grimaced.
“You all think you’re so sneaky.”
“I don’t know what you’re talk-”
Tara was no longer whispering.
“Let me go,” he snapped. Tara didn’t release.
“I know who you are!”
“Darlin’, you don’t know a thing about me,” he slurred.
“I’ve got your kind figured out.”
For reasons she couldn’t understand, what she’d said made him smile.
“You’re gonna keep your mouth shut because you don’t know anything about anything. I don’t know what you think I’m doin’ here but I sure as hell know you wouldn’t understand.”
All the talking had boosted Ray’s confidence. Tara felt her grip loosen as he sharply pulled away.
“Leave and I’ll scream!”
“Look, you just remind me of someone, is all. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“That’s a new one.”
“What makes you so sure I’m here to hurt you?” Ray cocked his head.
“What makes you so sure I’m not?”
“I’ll leave,” he threw his hands up in the air.
“I wouldn’t do that.”
She breathed in deeply with her mouth wide open, giving Ray the head start. He jumped on top of her as a scream attempted to escape her. His hand was so large it not only covered her mouth but her entire face. Her words and screams garbled; his hushes sounded like the grey vibrations the television poured through the stereo when Momma didn’t pay the cable bill.
Tara stopped fighting. The shaking stopped, as did the attempted screams and kicks and shoves. He leaned in closer. Her eyes were shut (when had she closed them?) and she looked peaceful.
“Shit,” he whispered.
Frightened, he wondered if he’d accidentally choked her or given her a seizure. His fingers trembling, and his mouth mumbling wet regrets of “oh no, oh no, oh no,” he reached to touch her neck, which he found warm and full of life.
Her eyes shot open and he gasped as a shock danced through his body. He grabbed the side of his neck where he found a large shard of crudely cut glass deeply lodged. He choked, struggling to produce a breath his body desperately desired, grasping at the glass but not pulling it out. Tara remained seated, watching and waiting for Ray to slide down to the floor like a runny egg dripping off the side of a griddle. It only took a few minutes before he succumbed. Tara skipped out of her room and into Momma’s, bouncing onto the bed and under the sheets. She stared through the darkness up at the ceiling; her mind was buzzing and her heartbeat echoed in her eardrums. A grunt from beside her broke the dark silence; she’d disturbed Momma.
“Shhhh,” Tara whispered, stroking Momma’s hair until she fell back to sleep.
Tara woke to an empty bed the next morning. She slipped out of the room and found Momma standing in the hallway and staring at Ray’s lifeless body, the shard of glass from one of Ray’s gin bottles still firmly lodged in his neck.
“Tara, not again.”
A deep sigh followed the whisper and Tara trailed behind Momma as she made her way outside to the shed to find the shovel.
Melissa Darcey is a writer based in San Diego, California. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, Gravel, Extract(s), Litro, Cease, Cows, and elsewhere.