Her thin, delicate hands pressed hard for some kind of purchase against the smooth, cool porcelain of the stark white commode. She was in the second-floor bathroom and retching into the toilet as quietly as possible. Two thick, stiff ponytails shiny with strawberry scented pomade bobbed at odd angles on either side of almost twelve-year-old Laura Gaye’s’ face (Laura would be twelve years old next Tuesday. Her mother had promised her—if she was a good girl—that she could have her birthday party at the Mighty Mountains Mini-Golf Course off base and invite some of the kids from school.). The sour smelling, lumpy stream of barely digested lunch forcefully splashed into the clouding water. Laura had hastily excused herself from the downstairs kitchen table moments before, leaving her mother sitting at the table as she ran upstairs in a churning mass of skinny, dark brown legs and scraped elbows. Her green cotton dress billowed as she nearly tripped at the top of the stairwell. Her right knee painfully banged the corner of the pea soup colored plaster wall as she turned to the open bathroom door. Laura had heard…no, that’s wrong. She had feltthe car, a month-old ebony 1995 Pontiac Grand Prix- as it pulled into the long driveway of their on-base housing complex. Knew it was there before the brief toot of the horn. Knew he was home before the solid, heavy thud of the big car door slamming shut.
Standing up from her kneeling position in front of the toilet, it took a moment before a wave of dizziness passed and she knew she wasn’t going to fall. Laura wiped the mixture of sudden sweat, splashed toilet water, and vomit from her face with a wad of crumpled bathroom tissue. She dropped the sodden mass of paper into the ugly colored water and pulled the small lever down to flush it. It took two more jerks of the handle before the weak water flow cleared the bowl. Laura listened to the soft gurgle of water as it filled the basin. She also heard the sound and felt the vibration of the back door to the kitchen closing. (It was located directly under the bathroom where she was standing). Laura stood rigid in the middle of the bathroom listening to the muffled voices. Two grown-ups talking.
Daddy’s home. The nightmare was back.
Taking a last look at the now calm water of the toilet, Laura turned to the linen closet next to the freestanding washbasin and opened the thickly painted door to the bottom cabinet. Pushing aside bottled cleaners and wrapped bars of hand soap, she extracted a can of Lysol disinfectant. She set the can down on the ledge behind the toilet, parted the sky-blue curtains, and pushed the small window open several inches. Laura picked up the can and sprayed the air around the room several times before she stopped and sniffed. After she sprayed the room one last time, she put the metal cylinder back into the narrow cabinet and closed its door.
Picking up an old copy of Ebony magazine from the desk-like rack against the wall opposite the commode, she fanned the air in broad half circles in the direction of the open window. Laura stopped the waving of her arms for a moment and sniffed the air again. Most of the heavy scent of vomit was gone, replaced with the hospital smell of the industrial strength disinfectant.
It still smells like throw-up, she thought.
Laura wrinkled her nose and signed. The sound escaping her slightly parted lips was one far too hopeless for someone so young. She smoothed the magazine cover and carefully placed it back in the rack with the others on the side of the small desk (Daddy was home now, and they needed to make sure things were in their right place, ‘cause if they weren’t, he would get mad.). Nudging the stack of magazines into a tight square of paper on top of the coffee table-like polished mahogany surface, she stared at the pile of heavy, slick paper to make sure it was perfect. Best that she could tell for now, it was.
She turned from the table to the washbasin and glanced over her refection in the early afternoon light that filled the open window. She leaned closer to the mirror over the sink and saw that several small pieces of her regurgitated lunch had splashed onto her thick braids. Sighing, Laura turned on both the hot and cold water in the sink and mixed the flow until it ran warm. Dampening a washcloth plucked from the nearby towel rack, she gingerly dabbed at the spots. Finishing up quickly, Laura centered the washcloth back on the rack near the lockless bathroom door (For as long as she could remember, at every place they had ever lived, her father had never allowed any locks on any of the rooms of the house except the outside doors.). Her large dark brown eyes scanned the dark chocolate contours of her narrow face. Her lips (they were a shade lighter than her skin tone and full like her mother’s) had two thin strands of toilet tissue stuck to them. She picked them off, bent her tall frame down, turned on the cold water, and slurped from the running spigot to rinse out the bile aftertaste.
A shudder. She had been here too long. He would come up looking for her if she didn’t go downstairs soon. She tugged the thick, ugly itching fabric of the dark green flower print covered dress her mother made her wear for her father’s homecoming (When he was in country, she wasn’t allowed to wear her favorite clothes—tee shirts and blue jeans—’cause he thought they were un-ladylike.). She stepped back from her reflection and was mildly annoyed that none of her lunch had made its way to the front of the dress. Looking down, she bent forward slightly at the waist and with both hands pulled the front fabric of her knee length dress back a bit. She tilted her head down and looked for any signs of ash on the dark skin of her legs. None. Her shoes—brilliantly reflective black patent leather—glowed against the blinding white elastic ankle sock she wore. Stooping down, she flicked an imaginary piece of lint from the top of one shoe (At five foot seven inches tall and growing like a weed, Laura towered over all the other girls in her school, Ashland-Davey Jr. High, right outside the back gate of Maguire Air Force Base in Wrightstown, New Jersey.). She adjusted the folds of her socks to even them out, then stood and listened to the sounds coming through the ductwork of the house.
The muted voices of her mother and father drifted up from the kitchen beneath her. Laura couldn’t make out the words but could hear her father’s deep voice as he answered her mother. He suddenly laughed at something her mother said, and the muscles in Laura’s stomach clenched painfully before releasing. She looked in the mirror over the sink as she nervously smoothed the front of her dress with both hands, stopping at the sore mounds that were becoming her breasts. Tugging the fabric taut, she released her hold on the cloth and dropped both hands to her sides.
He had been gone TDY (Temporary Duty Assignment) for the last two months, and now he was back. And Momma would be going to work at the Base Exchange in a couple of hours. He would make sure of that. He always did. Laura turned away from her reflection and moved across the small room, opening the well-oiled door to the bathroom. Stepping into the hall to the top of the stairs, she hesitated as she looked down the steps to the landing beneath.
It will be okay for a little while, she thought. Momma’s still here.
Timidly, she began descending the light gray carpet covering the stairs to the landing below.
Maybe momma won’t go to work tonight.
Even as the thought cleared her mind, she knew it to be a lie. Daddy would make her go. He always did when he got back. Laura stopped on the landing, turning around the banister to face the last seven steps—the steps that lead into the foyer immediately off of the kitchen. Unconscious of the effort, Laura started to slow her pounding heart and calm her breathing. She wiped the cool sweat on her palms onto the back of her dress and quietly moved down the last few steps into the foyer.
Please Momma…don’t work no overtime tonight.
With that thought, the girl turned the corner and walked into the kitchen.
* * *
“You’ll always be Daddy’s special little girl,” Captain Joseph Gaye said softly as he rolled his thickly muscled nude body across the king size bed and away from his daughter. He stepped away from the bed and walked across the darkened bedroom to the tall six-drawer cabinet on the far wall of the master bedroom. He squinted his eyes to see better in the dim light and fumbled his hands across the surface of the furniture until he found the half-gone pack of cigarettes and small brown paper bag he was looking for. Grasping both, he made his way into the small bathroom off to the side of the room and set both items down on the back of the toilet. He removed the rubber he was wearing, flushed the toilet twice, then retrieved both items before making his way back to the bed that held his trembling, sheet-covered child. Sitting on the edge of the mattress, he roughly removed several layers of covers that Laura, now facing away from him, had managed to bury herself in. He caressed the shoulder he had cleared and pretended not to notice the slight shivers that emulated from her body as his hand began to roam. Laura knew better than to resist. He held up the small package in his free hand as he spoke.
“I got you something, Peanut. I got it for you in Germany.”
Turning on the small lamp that sat on the nightstand next to his and his wife’s bed, Joseph opened the satchel and extracted a fist-sized circular black box. He placed it on the bed between them and reached for some matches on top of the nightstand. Lighting his cigarette, he took a long drag before he spoke again. Laura—save for the arm he had cleared—still faced away from him and was tangled into a tight ball in bed coverings, her eyes clamped shut.
“Peanut, open the box.”
Without turning to him, she felt the bed beside her uncovered arm for the container. After several tries she located the box and pulled it to her cloth-covered chest. She made no move to unfurl from her nest or to open the box. Joseph knocked the ash of his cigarette off into the empty beer bottle on the nightstand and looked at her. When he spoke this time, the irritation in his tone caused Laura to open her eyes immediately.
“Open the damn box. Now.”
Laura straightened out as she turned over onto her back but kept the covers pulled up to her neck as she worked the top off the expensive-looking dark box. Taking the layers of pale tissue wrappings off, the thin girl held up the small cut crystal bumblebee to the light of the bed lamp. She forced a smile onto her lips because she knew that’s what he wanted to see. The grin her father returned was wide and far more genuine.
“There,” he said, “isn’t that pretty?” He reached for the cut glass and took it from her. Looking at it for a moment more, he re-wrapped it in the tissue and placed it back into its container. He then placed the unit on the nightstand and turned back to her. A frown quickly erased the smile on his face. Laura was back to the far side of the bed, curled into a ball underneath the covers and a pillow.
“What’s wrong with you? Come here.”
“Daddy…I feel sick. Can I go to bed?”
“No…not yet.” His irritation was making the sound of his voice rough and the tone higher. Laura’s trembling started again, more noticeable than before. The sight of his daughter shaking in fear as she looked away from him brought anger, hot and quick, to Joseph. Before she could move away, he grabbed her arm closest to him and dragged her the short distance across the bed toward him. Sitting her upright as she held the pillow in front of her, he looked her dead in the eyes as he screamed at her.
“What in the hell’s wrong with you?” He shook her twice before relaxing his grip slightly. Too scared to answer him, Laura started to cry softly. The grip of his large hand became vise-like, and the added pressure brought louder sobs from his daughter. He looked away from her long enough to notice the clock on the bed stand on his wife’s side of the bed. It read 9:09 p.m. His wife—Laura’s mother—would be home by 10:30 p.m.
He released the child’s upper arms and let her scamper to the far side of the bed, her tears flowing freely but her sobs quiet. He reached for his white boxer shorts and put them on as he spoke.
“I’ll deal with you later. Go to your room.”
Laura didn’t move from the tent of pillows and sheets she had managed to pull around her again. Her sobbing, though, had returned to its previously loud level. Joseph, now standing at the foot of the king size bed, turned back to his daughter, angry disbelief etching tight lines into the Native American and Black features he shared with his now wailing daughter. “I said get ready for bed, Laura.”
“I’m sorry, Daddy.”
He was screaming now as he pointed to the door. “Get the fuck OUT…”
“I think I’m pregnant.” The guilt in her voice was like glass breaking. Dropping the clothes he’d picked up from the floor at the end of the bed, he sprinted to the top of the bed, grabbing her as she tried to scurry away. He screamed at her as he shook her like a leaf in a storm.
“You been with boys, haven’t you? Don’t lie to me!” Laura started to hyperventilate as he released her left arm and began punching her free arm and her side. He stopped after several blows but still held her right arm in a death-like crushing grip. He pulled her up as he stood to his full six-foot nine inch height. The sheets fell away from her body, leaving her bare in his arms. She was too petrified with fear to notice her right arm was numb from his grip. He pulled her close enough for their noses to touch and snarled at her through clenched teeth.
“Who you been fuckin’?”
Wide-eyed with terror, she shook her head rapidly from side to side. She never saw the open hand slap coming. He hit her across the face, and her knees buckled under. It was his grip that kept her from falling more than a few inches. The sharp sound of the slap cooled his rage enough for him to release his grip, and Laura fell to the bed. An instant later, she was in a tight, bed sheet-covered ball again. Her sobs were quiet, muffled by the pillow in which she had buried her face. Joseph left her there as he went to the small bathroom off of the master bedroom. Fifteen minutes later he emerged through a thinning cloud of steam after having showered away his anger. He was wrapped in a thick black terry cloth robe as he stepped into the master bedroom, stopping a foot from the door through which he had just crossed.
The bed they had lain in was stripped of sheets, the pillows also void of cases. At the base of the bed were fresh replacements for all. Joseph smiled when he heard the sharp click of the washing machine knobs being turned downstairs. He glanced at the clock while he made the bed. 9:34 p.m. There was plenty of time. Joseph finished the bed and then dressed, putting on a black cotton sleeveless undershirt, worn green fatigue pants, and light blue flip-flops. Seeing the gift box on the nightstand opposite him, he walked around the base of the bed to get it. He left his bedroom and crossed the hall to Laura’s room. Entering it, he opened the box and, unwrapping the fine glass from its cloud of tissue, gently placed the bee on her dresser amidst more than a score of cut glass figurines. He tossed the empty container onto her stuffed animal-covered bed and left Laura’s door open as he walked to the landing in front of the stairs. Turning, he headed down the steps to the first floor.
* * *
Laura held the wet washcloth to her face as she poured soap powder into the open washing machine. She closed the lid with her free hand after she set down the plastic measuring cup and turned the knob to start the wash cycle. Wearing the same outfit (minus the shoes and socks) from this afternoon, she looked at the clock over the refrigerator across the kitchen. 9:34 p.m. She knew she had to hurry to finish washing the bedclothes before her mom got home. Walking to the sink in the middle of the kitchen, she ran cold water onto her washrag while lightly touching her still tender face. More than anything else right now she wished she were big and had a job. She would take her mother and run. Run to anywhere but here. She only tensed slightly when she heard her father coming down the stairs. He got what he wanted for tonight. He wouldn’t touch her again. Not tonight, anyway.
She turned from the sink to look at her father. He was standing in the kitchen doorway. Her face was partially masked by the drab cloth she held to it.
She hesitated for only a moment before moving slowly across the space that separated them. Laura halted about two feet from him and stared up at him with one uncovered eye.
I wish you were dead, she thought. Fortunately, her blank expression didn’t give away her desire.
“I’m…sorry I hit you…you made me so mad. You know what happens when I get…upset…”
Why can’t you just stay gone? Again, her true thought never crossed her blank face.
“Yes, Daddy.” Neither moved to close the space between them.
“What makes you think you’re pregnant?”
“‘cause I’ve been sick in the morning. A lot in the past week. You told me to tell you if that happened. I made sure that I was quiet, so momma wouldn’t hear, just like you told me to…I didn’t mean to make you mad…”
Joseph broke the stalemate by stepping closer to his daughter. Slowly he reached for the wet cloth that covered half of Laura’s face. She didn’t resist as he took the now tepid rag. He eyed her slightly swollen face before handing the wet cloth back to her. She covered the tender bruise with the rag.
“I want you in bed before your mother gets home. I’ll finish up here. We’ll talk more about this tomorrow.” He walked past her toward the washing machine. She didn’t turn around when she replied to him.
Walking out of the kitchen into the foyer, she turned and started up the stairs to the second floor. Laura stopped on the first landing and looked up to the landing above her before continuing to the top floor. Her eyes, though misty, didn’t allow any tears to fall. Wiping her eyes with the now warm washcloth, she continued across the hall to her bedroom. She removed clean nightclothes from the bottom drawer of the crystal-covered bureau and carried the bundle to the door before stopping in the hall and doubling back to her room. Seeing the box that the crystal had come in sitting on her bed, she-with a swipe of her hand- knocked it off the bed to the carpeted floor. She grabbed the nearest stuffed animal from atop the bed and took the brown teddy bear and her bundle into the bathroom, quietly closing the door behind her. Turning on the room light with a flick of the wall switch she set the bear and clothes on the floor, then opened both spigots full blast into the old tub. Plugging the drain with the stopper that hung from a chain on the hot water faucet, she lowered the lid on the toilet and sat down heavily. She watched the water fill the tub for a full minute before she reached for the scruffy teddy. Laura sat by the filling tub and held the animal tightly to her face. The thick, pillow-like cushions of the doll sufficiently muffled the sounds of her bawling at the top of her lungs…