THE PROTECTOR - CATHY ROGERS
In the darkness of his bedroom that he shared with ten-month old Bella, Cord braced himself for the sounds he dreaded to hear as they seeped through the wall almost every night.
Unsettling and disturbing, he knew he was not supposed to hear, but he was too embarrassed for his mother to tell her. Before Dad moved out, he guessed that he could not hear anything because his room was the furthest away. Mom had moved him into the room next to hers, telling him she worried about him being so far away at night that they could not hear each other in an emergency. No emergency happened, but she was right about hearing each other.
Since his Dad had moved out, he had tried to be a good boy but it was not easy. At first, Mom had cried all the time, stopping only to yell at him for anything. Walking into the house after school, his stomach churned waiting for her to yell at him for something he did or did not do wrong. As time went on, she got better until she was almost like the mother he remembered. By this time, he had helped her with chores around the house that he was strong enough or tall enough to handle. That seemed to make her happy. With weeks left before Bella came, life was starting to be normal again.
Seeing his Dad every weekend, he could have told him what went on. Instead, he talked about his school grades and the track team, and avoided talking about Mom. Any mention of her brought pain to his Dad’s face that hurt Cord to watch. Wanting to avoid hurting his feelings even more, he had decided it was best to keep his problems at home to himself. For the most part, the problems worked themselves out anyway. That was before. Now it was different.
Hearing Bella’s breathing, he smiled at the subtle congestion he thought of as a baby snore. While he loved his little sister now, he had known from the first that she was the cause of the problems between his parents. They did not think he understood, but he did. He knew that he was his Dad’s son but she was not his Dad’s daughter. She had invaded their family as the unwelcome visitor that never left, like when Uncle Len stayed for weeks when he broke his toe in the basement. Now that he had time to get used to her, he felt sorry for Bella more than resented her.
On the weekends when he went to live with his Dad, he felt safe. Even when Dad was sad about Mom, he pretended he was happy; he made him feel loved. Dad knew everything, too. Every weekend, he taught him how to use a new tool or how to repair something, and through all of that, they talked. Hearing about his war experiences and about the other soldiers he knew, Cord felt like he knew them too. But after Bella came, Dad had told Mom that he did not want anything to do with her. Cord felt a little guilty leaving her, but Mom had said that, after all, his Dad loved him and wanted to be with him and that he was not to take that for granted. Ever.
She is still a baby, he thought, but when she was older, she would see it. She would never know his Dad’s strength and kindness as he had all his life. Even if eight years were not a long time, he had so many memories. Remembering how safe he felt sitting on his Dad’s shoulders, and how secure he was as they hiked through the woods on camping trips. She would never know that and he felt sorry about that, but he did not feel bad enough to want to give up his time with his Dad.
Staring out his window, he remembered the time his Dad had sent him to his room because he wanted to talk to Mom. They had never known that he always left the door open a crack and listened to them. This time, he had opened the door and kept alert for their voices. Feeling something different in his father’s manner that scared him, he strained to hear. Unsure what it meant, he heard Dad say,
“Did you think I wouldn’t figure it out? Were you going to pass off another man’s bastard on me?”
Crying, his Mom said, “I made a mistake. I’m sorry. I wish I could take it back, but I can’t. Do you expect me to have an abortion?”
“Yes, I do. Do you expect me to look at that child every day, a constant reminder of how you betrayed me? I couldn’t begin to try to start over with that bastard in the house.”
“Well, I won’t do that. It's a mortal sin. I refuse to murder a baby to make your ego feel better.”
“Then you go to its father for help. And don’t think you’re going to take away from my son to compensate, either.”
“Please don’t do this,” she said, her words coming out in gulps.
“You’re the one that did this, not me. If you know nothing else, know this: I will never forgive you.”
All he heard after that was the slam of the back door and Mom crying. From the pit of his stomach, he felt the sickening ache that told him his life had changed forever.
Life did change, he thought, but what he held onto was the short time between his Dad’s return from Iraq and the time he moved out. Those memories he concentrated on hard to keep them fresh in his mind. Walking and bike riding in the evenings, the road trips on the weekends, trips to the hardware store, times he felt complete and proud. He had listened to the stories between Dad and his friends about the war while Mom and the other wives served picnics in their back yard. Even if he were at school or playing with his friends, he felt that his Dad was his guardian angel always with him. When he was still in Iraq, he had Skype’d them when he could. Being able to see him and talk to him then, it never felt that he was far away. Now, the calls on Fridays to say he was on his way to pick him up were those times when Mom just handed him the telephone without comment. That made him feel disconnected from his Dad until he saw him in person again.
Before Bella came, Mom had started giving him all of her attention again. After school, they ate dinner and watched television or played board games, talked about the baby that would join them soon or what happened at his school that day. She cried a lot, but reminded him that she and Dad still loved him and always would, but that she had made a horrible mistake making it impossible for things to ever be the same again.
Once Bella was born, he felt he did not have his mother anymore. Since the baby needed her all the time, he lost the feeling he could count on her. When he asked her to play a game, she had told him to learn to take care of himself while his sister needed her. When she was not cooking, cleaning, or taking care of Bella, she was sleeping or staring at the television. Always too tired to listen, except when she heard him opening a cabinet door or the refrigerator.
His Dad’s nearby apartment was clean, but Cord felt bad that his Dad lived alone with nothing on the walls and nothing in the refrigerator that Mom would allow them to eat. He wished he could live there with Dad all the time; he could make it nice for the two of them. He told his Dad that it would be great to spend all their time together like before, but his Dad had looked at him funny and had not said anything. Something about that look, hesitating and faraway, he knew that having him there all the time was not what his Dad wanted. It gave him tightness in his stomach. As if all in that moment, with that quiet expression, he knew that his world had changed into a dark void where his parents were strangers. The security he once felt was gone. He was on his own and he was scared.
Listening for the sounds through the wall, he looked at Bella again. Still sleeping. What a relief, he thought. The peace in her expression made him feel calm. Her innocence reminded him of their next-door neighbor, Bea. The old woman had been embarrassed when she realized he was close enough to hear her call Bella a poor bastard to another old woman who was visiting. Thinking about it, instead of getting angry with her, he had decided that she was right. Bella was a poor bastard; she was pitiful and illegitimate and she would never know how it felt to be loved as both of his parents had loved him and cared for him when he was smaller. That day was when he knew his job was to protect Bella.
Before that, he had considered her an alien, an intruder in his family and the cause of the destruction of his family. When he said his prayers now, he asked for forgiveness for those mean thoughts and promised he would be a good boy. Mom said he was a good boy when he agreed to let her put the crib in his room until she rearranged the office into a nursery. It was better than being in with Mom now.
When Bella turned six months old, Mom had a birthday party for her. He had never even heard the kids on television getting six-month birthday parties, but he guessed it was okay. There was a feeling of relief in the air. Mom felt better now and looked happy like she had before Bella was born. At last, he had looked forward to having her happy attention again. With the cake on the table and Bella in her high chair, they had started singing ‘Happy Birthday’ when the doorbell rang.
Mom had invited a man named Mike to join the three of them without telling him. Cord wondered how Mom knew him. Mike kept grabbing her around her waist and trying to kiss her on the neck when they thought he was not looking. Feeling the disappointment of not having the time with her as he had expected, he felt isolated and alone, but also resentful. He felt she could have at least told him and told her so later. She had scolded him and said she did not owe him any explanation and it was none of his business. So that was how it was now, he thought.
After that, Mike came over a lot. Cord had looked forward to spending time with his Mom once Bella was easier to handle. Instead, she spent that time with Mike. He said as much to her, but she said she had to find a new husband and he needed to understand that grown-ups have needs he would learn about when he was older. She wanted him to learn to look at Mike as a new dad. Cord studied her and thought that Bella was not the only other person in this house who needed protection.
Deciding his Dad would be hurt, he kept Mike out of their conversations when he saw him on the weekends. Not until this last weekend had either of them talked about Mom. When Dad had said he was proud of the way he was coping with having a new father, Cord had replied that he already had a father. His Dad corrected himself and said, stepfather, and that he wanted to see pictures of him in the wedding.
Realizing that Cord had not known when his eyes filled with tears and he started trembling, his Dad had called his Mom, yelling at her insensitivity.
“I know he’s just a kid, but he has feelings, for Christ’s sake. You can’t shut him out of every decision you’re making. I could understand it when you decided to go whoring around.”
The arguing went on but he had stopped listening. Stunned to learn this man would be there all the time, he lost hope of getting back his mother’s attention. This was not the first time he was scared, but now he felt panic for his physical well-being. The idea that Mike would be in their house making decisions about how they would live made him feel sick. Mike had talked about moving out of state; if he married his Mom, he could move them away from his Dad forever.
For the rest of the weekend, his Dad had watched movies and played video games with him, hugging him or messing up his hair once in awhile saying it was going to work out. He thought he must be pitiful, but he did not care. Unsure who he could count on and who he could trust, he was starting not to care about anything. Then, he thought of Bella and had told himself he had to care. He had to be around to protect her; he had to find a way to protect them both.
Those sounds were starting again. He put his hands over his ears, but knew they would fall away as soon as he relaxed his arms. He tried a pillow over his left ear but the space under the right ear allowed the sounds in. The sounds his mother made were horrible and frightening. He had no idea how to make it stop. Until now.
At dinner tonight, Mike had reminded Mom that he was leaving at ten thirty and asked if she would make a sack lunch for him.
“Where are you going this time?”
“Taking a load of beef to Springerville. Don’t know after that,” said Mike, turned and winked.
“Haulin’ swingin’ meat, eh, Cord?”
Cord always thought that sounded funny and grinned in spite of his mood, noticing his Mom was not smiling.
“I worry about that drive through Salt River Canyon. All those hairpin turns and steep roads. Isn’t there another way to go?”
“Only other way is out of the way. I’ve made that trip a hundred times. I’m a good driver; I don’t take chances. I’ll be fine.”
“If you say so,” said his Mom, giving him a concerned look that Cord found annoying.
“Gonna make my lunch again?”
“Sure. I’ll get it ready after I clean up dinner. The usual?”
“I sure love your cookin’, hon. Whatever you want to make for me is fine. My only request is my thermos of coffee.”
Grinning, his mother touched the top of Mike’s hand. Trembling from anger, Cord thought he wanted to make sure he got his thermos, too.
Now on the counter, the thermos stood next to the large plastic Tupperware container holding sandwiches, donuts, cookies and devilled eggs. Hot to the touch, the insulated metal thermos with its built-in cup gleamed like a beacon from the low-level light source of the microwave clock as it reflected on its surface.
Once he heard them go into the bedroom, he had sneaked into the kitchen and opened the thermos. With gloved hands, he poured out a third of it and replaced it with Everclear alcohol he had hidden behind the Vodka in the cupboard earlier in the day.
Seeing Dad use it on their camping trips, Cord remembered his Dad talking to Jed at the General Store near the campground. While they were talking about propane, Jed said that Everclear was great fuel to use for a portable stove, but tasteless and too strong for drinking. He had said his cousin had died from drinking it on a dare, choosing not to believe the potency of it. Dad had agreed it was not a risk worth taking. When Cord found it in with the camping gear while looking for his backpack, he knew what he had to do.
Watching Mike gulp down coffee all day gave him the idea to put something in the thermos. If Mike got a DUI while driving a company truck, maybe they would put him in jail and Mom would not marry him. He hoped this would get him out of here and away from his family.
“Cord, clear the table and take out the trash. Then, I want you to take a bath and get to bed. School tomorrow, you know.”
“Okay, Mom,” he said.
“What, no argument to play a game? What's gotten into you?”
“Nothing,” said Cord, looking at his Mom and giving a quick look at Mike.
Now back in his room, he hoped this would be the last time he had to hear those awful sounds. The clock blinked in red numbers that it was ten fifteen. Listening, he heard the whispered conversation, the footsteps in the hallway passing his door, the shuffling of suitcase and plastic bags of supplies, and the closing of the front door. Moments later, he heard the bare feet of his Mom walking past his door, sticky with sweat giving a faint pulling sound as each foot lifted off the floor.
The tractor-trailer roared as the ignition sent currents of life through the sleeping engine. Cord peeked out his window to watch the big machine move from its resting space in front into the middle of the residential street and turn onto the main road out of his view. Looking at Bella, he got back into bed with a sense of relief and fell asleep as soon as his head was on the pillow.
By the look on his Mom's face the next morning, he knew something bad had happened. Calling to him to feed the Bella, she told him he was staying home from school today to help her. Before she went to her room, she put her hand on his shoulder and said,
“Cord, sweetheart, I have bad news. Mike lost control of his truck last night and died in the crash. The police said it wasn’t his fault, but that he was trying to swerve to keep from hitting a car and the semi overturned and went over the guardrails. I’m sick thinking of his last moments. Please help me get through this, will you? If you take care of Bella, that would be a big help to Mommy. Will you do that?”
“Sure, Mom. I’m sorry."
“I guess it’s just us again. I thought I could make us a new family, but it wasn’t meant to be this time.”
Hearing her sigh, Cord watched her walk to her bedroom and shut the door behind her.
Bella was half standing, half leaning on the rails of her crib and smiled when she noticed him watching her. Picking her up and carrying her to the kitchen, and only then noticing the familiar, unpleasant smell from her diaper, he tapped her nose.
“We’re going to be alright, little sister.”
BIO: When she is not working in her accounting and tax business or polishing her novel, Cathy writes short stories in the arid climate of the Arizona desert where she shares her home with her two Bichon Frises, Whitney and Sophie.