Girls are stupid. Mary Beth can’t even lay down without crying. And she has to have the light on too. She thinks there are monsters in the dark. One time, she ran into my room, jumped up on the bed with me and swore there was a monster downstairs that was killing Mama. And, I mean, there was a lot of noise. Like, I wasn’t asleep either, even though I pretended she’d woke me up. There was a lot of screaming and stuff. I even heard something bang real hard against the wall. But it wasn’t a monster. I told Mary Beth that it was the TV, that Mama and Daddy had it up too loud. Mary Beth’s six, I thought she wouldn’t know any different.
“I ain’t stupid, Michael,” she shot back. Maybe not, but she was a baby. I mean her whole body was shaking. I could feel it because she’d crowded real close to me. She knows that I can’t stand crying, and won’t let her in the bed if she does it, so she wasn’t crying right now. But she was scared. I knewed she was. She had the cover over her head and she was begging me to go help Mama. “You gotta, Michael, you just gotta. The monster, he’s killing her.”
“Monsters ain’t real, Mary Beth, it ain’t a monster.”
“It is so!” she yelled. If she was smart, she’d know better. She’d know that it was Daddy. And she’d know I couldn’t do nothing bout it. But Mary Beth thinks I’m bigger than I really am. She thinks I’m a monster slayer. She thinks I can make it stop. Make the noise, the screaming, make it all stop. She thinks I ain’t scared. And I’m not, not really. I just don’t like doing it, is all. I just don’t like seeing it. It’s not about being scared. I mean, cops don’t LIKE having to shoot people, no matter how bad they are, no matter how many times they seen crazy dudes do stupid things. Real cops don’t wanna shoot nobody, they wouldn’t get all excited if somebody said, “hey, you can shoot holes through him right now.” Real cops would think of other ways to get the job done first. Not because they were scared but because shooting people is a bad thing. So I ain’t scared to go help Mama, I just don’t wanna do it. Like, part of me knows better than to get in the way. I been listening all night and, I mean, she DID ruin his best shirt. She said so herself.
The thing you gotta know about girls though is that they don’t give up. And too, they make you feel real crappy if you can do something for them but don’t. Mary Beth wasn’t crying, but I was starting to really wish her body would stop shaking. I rolled away from her, pulled the covers up to my chin and shut my eyes. If I was real still, maybe she’d go to sleep. Maybe she’d go back to her room. The stupid noise was a little quieter right now. Maybe I wouldn’t have to get up after all. My eyes opened. The quiet downstairs made me nervous. Why was it so quiet? I stared at my window. The moon shot rays of light through the curtains, and I could see three little stars. I thought, “nobody out there has a clue.” Sometimes, especially after nights like this one, I think the outside works like a TV show: the people aren’t real, the houses aren’t really real. It all looks so pretty. It’s summer right now and so everything is so green and there’s lots of flowers. It looks so colorful. It’s so different, it feels like the only thing that’s real is what’s inside our house. Our ugly house. I think–
The scream that pierces the house is deafening. Mary Beth jumps behind me and starts crying again. Her legs bend up, her knees hitting me in the back. Her sobs make her shoulders shake, which makes the bed move. She’s scared. And that was a loud scream. Mary Beth thinks Mama’s dying. What if she is? What if I stay in this bed, and then find out she’s dead in the morning? It would be my fault, cause I know how to stop it. I just don’t wanna. But then I remember: a good cop don’t want to shoot nobody but, when he’s gotta, he will. The screams and shouts have started back again. Something just broke. Daddy’s voice is loud. Mama’s screams are loud, but not as loud as before. My stomach hurts cause I know I just gotta do it.
I throw the Batman covers off and stand up. My legs feel cold and I wish my red and blue fire truck shorts were pants. “Stay here,” I tell Mary Beth. She doesn’t come out from under the covers but I know she won’t leave the room. She’ll still be under the covers when I come back. The hardwood floor is cold under my feet. The shouts get louder when I get into the hallway.
“My only good shirt for work and you can’t even wash it right! Are you color blind or something? How stupid can you be? Everybody knows you don’t put a blue shirt in with the damned whites!” A scuffle. Mama is crying. I hear the sound of skin being pounded. I think I’m the only eight year old boy in school that knows what that sound is, but I could recognize it anywhere. I’m almost to the stairs.
“And what the hell kind of shirt is that you’re wearing? Here I am, going to work and giving a lazy piece of shit my money to buy herself some clothes and she buys Dollar Store junk. What, trying to look poor so people will feel sorry for you? To hell with that. I bought it, give it back. If you want to look like a homeless whore, you’ll do it without my money.” Mama says she’s sorry, says she won’t forget again, but I hear more noises, ripping sounds. Another scream.
My heart is pounding like crazy. I put a hand on the staircase railing and look down. I can’t see them yet, though. I tiptoe down a couple more stairs, closer and closer. I can feel a whirring noise in my head, getting louder and louder and louder. My legs get shaky. I wonder if the cops feel this way right before a shoot out. I walk down more steps, quiet as I can. I see Daddy first. He stands with his legs apart, looking like a statue near Mama. I can’t see his face, only his back. I see Mama next. Except she don’t look like Mama. She looks like Mary Beth. She is on the floor, on her side, her legs curled up. She does not have a shirt on. She shakes like Mary Beth. I stand still on the stairs, my eyes wide. Daddy don’t see me yet. Mama don’t see me. I didn’t see it until it came down without warning on Mama, the belt. I know what it looks like, even though I can’t really see it right now. It has silver buckles. It is heavy too. I know that. Mama jerks. I do too. It makes me feel stupid, like Mama. She’s on the floor. I mean, if she stood up, she could get away. I never understand why she don’t get up.
When I jump, Daddy turns. He sees me. His face is red. His brown eyes are wide. His hair, blonde, looks like it needs a brushing. He looks strong. He is strong.
“Hey, Michael. D’ya mama wake you up? She ruined my work shirt. Gotta spend twenty dollars to buy a new one.”
I say nothing. I look at Mama. Her blue eyes are swollen, the whole right side of her face is a green, black color. She is not crying, but looks like she’s about to. She has a black bra on but one of the cups is about to come down. I can see a few bones under the skin. The last time this happened, Daddy called her a rabbit. She does kind of look like one when she’s all curled up on the floor.
Daddy leaned down and grabbed Mama by the hair. My eyes slide away but I hear him punch her. I wait for it. I know it’s coming. So I wait for it.
“You wanna turn, my boy? You’re man enough, right? Go head and tell ‘er what she’s done to you today. Show her what you think.”
I thought about this as I came down the stairs, cause I knew it was the way to end it. I knew he’d ask. So I already thought about it. The trouble is…. She didn’t really do anything wrong. She usually don’t. Least not to me or Mary Beth. I mean, sometimes my bath water is a little cold, I guess. But she says that before you can really get mad at somebody for something, you should tell them what it is that isn’t right. She says that’s only fair, cause people cannot read minds and don’t know something’s wrong less you tell them. And I’ve never told Mama that she gets the bath water a bit cold. So I don’t count that. If I don’t count the bath water… Mama almost never does anything wrong. I mean, she plays with us… Even if she won’t let me play that I’m shooting bad guys.
When I don’t say nothing, Mama’s eyes look up at me. They are swollen, and blue. She looks sad. But that makes me mad cause she’s a grown up. If she don’t like something, she should just change it. But she can’t cause she’s a girl. Stupid girls. I am quiet too long. Daddy kicks her in the stomach when she starts to sit up. Maybe that’s why she don’t stand up. Cause he won’t let her. And good cops help those that can’t help themselves, even if they are stupid sometimes.
“She didn’t let me play shooting.” My voice sounds hoarse, dry, quiet. My heart is pounding and I wonder if Mary Beth really stays hidden under the covers. I hope so.
“You tellin me she won’t let you be a boy? Trying to turn you into a sissy?” Daddy kicks her. She covers her face, but don’t make a sound. That always feels weird to me. She screams until I come down. Then she never makes a sound. Maybe she screams for me. Maybe it’s her way of asking me to come help her, help Mary Beth. That gives me courage. When Daddy holds out the belt for me, my hands and knees start shaking. I don’t wanna. I don’t wanna. She may be stupid but I love her. If I don’t, he will. Mary Beth won’t stop shaking. I try to think about the twenty dollars Daddy is shouting about. I try to think about taking a bath in cool water. I squeeze my eyes shut, as hard as I can, and bring the belt down. I feel it hit skin. I know it hit her. I felt it vibrate. Daddy starts laughing, tells me to do it again. If I say no, he’ll get mad. If I say no, he’ll want to teach me to be a man. So I do it again. My ears are ringing, my hands are sweaty, my heart is racing. I just want it to stop. After the third time, my arms start shaking, and I accidentally drop the belt. I don’t mean to, but I am crying. Mama is crying. Daddy turns and walks away. He’s done.
I can’t look at Mama. The floor is a mess. Broken pieces of a vase are scattered everywhere. Blood, too. Mama’s blood. She moves a little. She lifts her head, looks at me. She takes a breath, but I swipe my eyes. I’m not crying, it’s just sweat, that’s all. I don’t know what to say so I turn and run upstairs. I’m almost to my room when I see Daddy at the laundry room. He is putting clothes, all white except for Mama’s black and red church dress, in the washing machine. I race past him and into my room. Mary Beth is still in my bed, but not under the covers anymore. Her wide eyes look like Mama’s and makes me look away from her. As I walk to the bed, she says, “The monster’s stopped.” I get into bed, rolled away from her and say nothing. Mary Beth climbs out of the bed, her feet brushing my ankles as she climbs down. “Teddy’s in my room,” she says, then walks to the door. Before she leaves, though, she stops. “Michael?”
I don’t answer.
Then she’s gone. I lay, staring out my window. My teeth are chattering. My hands hurt. I clench them into fists, then stuff them under the covers and between my knees. I don’t want to shake but I do. I don’t know how long it is before I relax and my eyes close. I see a huge blood red monster. He’s turned away from me, but his back is full of lumps and green boils. He is tall as a tree, and he’s screaming. I can’t hear what he’s screaming though. There’s a dog in front of him. The dog is cute. It’s a white little puppy. It barks and the monster steps on it. It’s not a dog anymore, just a pile of yellow goop. The monster jumps on the pile and starts roaring like a lion. All of a sudden, the monster turns towards me and I feel myself scream: the monster has my face.
My eyes pop open, I am breathing really fast. There is someone kneeling beside me. Someone small. A warm hand brushes the hair off my forehead. It feels nice. It calms me down, keeps my breathing from going crazy. It is still dark in the room but, through the shadows, I can see Mama’s face. She smells nice. She always does. Like babies and flowers. I don’t say anything. I close my eyes real quick cause I don’t want her to talk, and I don’t want her to stop. She keeps brushing my hair back for awhile. Then she leans over and gives me a kiss on my forehead. She rests her cheek against my face for a minute. Her skin is warm and nice. She gives me another kiss and whispers, “I love you.” I keep my eyes closed as she stands and walks out of the room, clicking the door shut behind her. I finally breathe.
It is hard being the hero.