January 6, 2023
Third Place Winner - CWA First Chapter Contest - “I Swallow the Sun”
By Lydia Rogers
Jaxon’s round, tear-drenched cheeks stick to my palms as his blood-curdling screams rip from his throat.
“It’s ok, it’s ok. Just look at me, Jaxy. Stop, it’s ok,” I whisper.
He doesn’t stop. I pull him to my chest and rock him back and forth, his fragile frame shaking in my arms. I look at my closed bedroom door and cover his ear with my hand in an attempt to muffle out our mother’s shouts from the living room down the hall. Manny screams back at her, both their voices slurred.
“You think I don’t see how you look at her?” Mom yells. “Like all your other little whores?”
“I ain’t ever fucking touched her, and you know it,” Manny yells back.
“You don’t have to, you’ve already fucked her enough with your eyes!”
Jaxon thrashes in my arms and I tighten my grip on him.
“Jaxy, stop. Stop, please.” Tears stream into the corners of my mouth.
“I’ll give you something to look at, motherfucker.” I hear Mom storm past the door towards her bedroom at the end of the hall.
“You ain't gonna do shit, woman,” Manny calls from the living room.
I can taste the dread in my mouth, dry and sour, as I release Jaxon and step over to the door, pressing my ear against it. My stomach turns to concrete. Beneath Jaxon’s wails behind me, I hear the light clink of metal against metal, keys against a lock box. Each muscle in my body locks into place as I listen to Mom stomp back to the living room.
“What the fuck?” Manny shouts. “You better put that down right now. I'm calling the cops if you don’t quit it.”
“You ain’t calling nobody with all the shit we got in here.”
“I don’t give a fuck. Let them see it. It ain’t mine, anyway.”
“Fuck you, you cheating motherfucker!”
“Hey, hey! You better stop that!”
My muscles finally unlock and I grip the door handle.
“Stay here,” I order Jaxon.
I leave the room, closing the door behind me, and rush to the living room. Mom waves the gun in the air, stumbling back against the TV on the stand behind her. Manny stands across the room, eyes wide with his hands held out in front of him.
My heart beats outside my body as I look back and forth between them. Time comes to a crawl and every hair on my body becomes a sharp, microscopic needle pricking the skin beneath it. As I watch Mom’s finger move over the trigger, I know we’re crossing over into something permanent, only seconds away from breaching the line that separates us from the irreversible.
The first memory I have of my mother, she was standing over me, unblinking, while ash from her cigarette collected in a small mound on the brown carpet. She didn’t speak. She didn’t smile. She only stared. At the time, I had no way of knowing what that look in her eye really was, but it was enough to make my stomach hurt, to make me not want to play with my toys anymore.
The first words I ever remember hearing her say were, “Why couldn’t you just make room?” I didn’t understand what she meant, but after that, every time I saw her, I wished I could make myself smaller.
A tall, bald man calls my name from the doorway and looks around at the other kids sitting around the room. His face turns up into a friendly smile when his eyes meet mine. I stand, slinging my backpack over my shoulder, and meet him at the door.
“I’m Stanley Thompson. You can call me Stan.” He reaches his hand out to me and I shake it.
“I’m going to be your caseworker. If you’d like to follow me, we can go to my office and get to know each other a little better.”
His voice is smooth, but it rings off in my head like an unintended music note trapped in an echo chamber. I follow him out into the hall, swallowing down the lump forming in my throat as I step into the next unexpected chapter of my life.
2 Years Later
My nail beds throb, but I continue to pick them to shreds anyway. With each sliver of skin I tear away, a new tiny fire ignites, searing me then quickly fading. A delightfully painful pattern I have no intention of disrupting. The room becomes a haze of muted fluorescent light as my eyes defocus on my faint reflection in the half-height glass partition wall.
The words spill into my right ear from my headphone, and my pulse quickens when I realize I’m approaching one of my favorite passages.
“I guess I should have reacted the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn't get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.”
I contemplate rewinding to listen to it again, but I don’t want to pull my fingers away from their dutiful mission. The excitement fades anyway when Stan walks through the hallway behind the glass talking to a woman who’s a few steps behind him. He opens the door and steps aside to let the woman enter the room.
I recognize the look in his eye as he flashes me a pathetic smile from the doorway. He wants me to be nice. I keep my eyes on him as he closes the door then gets his phone out and sits down in a chair out in the hall. The woman is sitting across from me now, and I feel her eyes pouring over my face. I let out an audible sigh, press pause on my CD player, then look at her.
She’s smiling at me, but her lip keeps twitching like she’s trying to restrain herself. Her dark brown hair is glossy and wavy, just a shade darker than her large, eager eyes. She smells like flowers that you would want to taste.
“You must be Jett.” She extends her hand out to me. “My name’s Monica.”
I glance at her hand but don’t take it. The longer I look at her, the redder her tan complexion becomes. She draws her plum-painted fingernails into her palm and retracts her hand. As she shifts in her seat, her eyes scan the table between us.
“Um, what kind of music are you listening to?” she asks.
“It’s not music.”
“Oh. Is it an audiobook?”
I nod and her smile returns, wider this time, revealing a slight dimple nestled into her left cheek.
“I like that. I love listening to audiobooks, too. Gives a whole new meaning to multitasking.”
She watches me expectantly, but I don’t say anything.
My jaw reflexively clamps shut and I have to force myself to unclench it.
“The Bell Jar.”
She raises her eyebrows. “Oh! A modern classic. Sylvia Plath was such a beautiful writer.”
I struggle to prevent my eyes from rolling as she appears to relax in her seat.
“Well Jett, I’ve really been looking forward to meeting you, and—”
She scrunches her eyebrows. “What?”
“Why?” I repeat.
My blood begins to heat beneath my skin while I wait for her to answer.
“I guess I’ve just… I’ve heard what you’ve gone through. And it really moved me, so I thought—”
“You can’t be serious.”
Her mouth hangs open and her face is red again.
“I’m so sorry. I should not have worded it that way.”
“Is this going to be a fulfilling little project for you? Check off a box on your personal goal list so you can feel better about yourself? Strengthen your multitasking skills?”
Her eyes begin to moisten, and she sits back in her chair.
“That was insulting. I didn’t mean to offend you like that. I’m sorry, Jett.”
I scoff and turn away from her, pressing play on my CD player. The words flow like a gentle stream, but I don’t hear them over the raging river in my mind. Monica sits there for another moment, then gets up and walks to the door. Stan stands to meet her, his face twisted with concern. Through the glass, their voices are muffled, but I still hear them over the book playing in my ear.
“Try not to get discouraged,” Stan tells Monica as he guides her away. “Sixteen is a really tough age, but I’m still confident that this will be a good match.”
As demeaning as it is, it’s almost liberating to be at this junction again, easy even. Free of responsibility while everyone else figures out what to do with me, who to pass me off to next. I empty myself out through my pores and the seams beneath my fingernails, giving myself as much space as possible before I’m soon compacted again by the constraint of a new stockade, or home, as Stan likes to call it.
This can only go on so much longer, switching back and forth from void to prison cell until I outgrow them both. And even after that, even once I’m free of this torturous system, I imagine I’ll just leave myself to the elements, slowly let them grind me down until I’m dust and atoms that disperse throughout the air, melting into the ocean or dissolving into the lungs of those who breathe me in.
My finger begins to turn purple, taut with blood as I wrap the cord of my left headphone around its tip. The exposed wires prick my thumb as I press down where the speaker cover used to be. Sylvia’s words cycle through my head and Monica’s chocolate eyes look at me through the glass, tentatively watching me like I'm a wild creature she intends to lure out of its enclosure, to pet.
My gut churns as she steps into the room. I don’t attempt to mask my displeasure that she’s returned this week, and I’m annoyed by the pleasing scent she carries in with her again. We face each other at the table and neither of us speak. I don’t intend to.
“I got you something,” she finally says.
She reaches into her purse and pulls out a small, white box. She places it on the table and slides it towards me. It’s a pair of new headphones. My cheeks begin to burn as I stare at the wildly inappropriate, yet painfully thoughtful gift. I force myself to refrain from reaching for the box and drag my eyes up to hers. I almost flinch from the expression staring back at me. She’s not quite smiling but something in her eyes twists the edges of my heart. I desperately wish to look away from her, but I can’t. Her dimple makes a brief appearance, then, without another word, she leaves.
This new bedroom is spacious, the most spacious one I’ve had to myself. Monica hangs back in the doorway while I step over to the full-size bed. It’s almost dark outside now, but the wide bay window casts a soft glow over the large, wooden desk beneath it, highlighting the array of toiletries, accessories and school supplies she set out for me.
“Obviously, you can change anything you’d like,” Monica says. “If the string lights are too much we can take those down. If there are any decorations you want…”
My fingers dig into the strap of my backpack against my shoulder as I trace the dim, amber lights lining the ceiling. I look back at her.
She smiles, then disappears from the doorway.
I set my backpack on the bed and unzip it. I stare down into my tangle of clothes and glide my thumbnail back and forth over my fingertips. The first time I fully unpacked my bag at a new home was also the last. Two years ago, when the memories of the Bad Night contaminated every inch of my mind.
I had pulled out all my clothes and stuffed them into the three side table drawers that were provided to me. I set out my two books that I had never returned to my old school’s library on the nightstand along with the wooden toy train, my reminder of Jaxon. I looked at it and smiled partially, devastated that we couldn’t be together, but relieved that at least Mom couldn’t hurt either of us anymore.
Two girls came into the room and sat on the bed next to mine. One looked to be my age, the other seemed older. I guessed they would be who I was sharing the room with. They smiled at me, but there was something wrong about the way they held their faces. The strain of putting on artificial smiles tugged at their lips and dulled their eyes. I tried to breathe through the chill curling down my spine as I continued to unpack, their whispers dancing behind my back.
“You’re too old to be playing with toys, aren’t you?”
I turned back around, and it seemed like the older one had asked the question. She twirled the end of her frizzy braid around her finger as she stared at Jaxon’s train.
“It’s my brother’s.” I kept my tone as even as possible, wary of what they intended to do with any of the information I provided them.
They exchanged a glance that forged a pit in my empty stomach.
“Cute,” the younger girl said.
Their smiles had transformed into something else entirely, something threatening. They laughed, then stood up and left the room. I picked up the train, zipped it into an interior pocket of my backpack, and pushed it under the bed.
Monica is already in the kitchen when I come downstairs, sitting at the center counter drinking coffee with her laptop open.
“Good morning,” she says. “How did you sleep?”
“Oh.” It’s obvious she’s trying to keep her expression from giving away her alarm. “Well, we have cereal, bananas, yogurt if you want. I would make pancakes or something, but the bus should actually be here in a few minutes.”
I walk over to the counter and pull a banana from the bunch. I’m not going to eat it.
“I could also drive you if you’d rather do that.”
“No, thanks.” I put my headphone in my right ear and zip the banana into my backpack.
“What happened to the headphones I got you?” she asks.
I shrug. “Got stolen.”
I knew they would be.
“Oh. Well, that’s ok. We can get some more.”
I’m ready to be away from her questioning eyes. I make my way to the door to head out to wait for the bus.
“Have a good day at school!” she calls before I close the door behind me.
Monica seems nice. Nicer than any other caregiver I’ve had before. Definitely the most well off. It’s obvious she isn’t just doing this for the money like the Hendersons had been. I can’t tell yet if this is worse. Stan told me about her. How she used to have a husband and a daughter, but they’re both dead. So, now she’s lonely in a big house in Santa Ana trying to fill her own void with good deeds and a replacement daughter.
I walk through the crowded hallway, looking at the number printed on my paper schedule, then up at the row of lockers. My locker is barricaded by a girl leaning against it, her back turned to me. Her long, brown hair swings behind her as she enthusiastically talks to the group of girls huddled around her.
“Excuse me, I need to get to my locker.”
The girl turns around and gives me a quick once over with wide, prying eyes. The other girls are looking at me too, mouths hanging open with curiosity.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry! Let me get out of your way,” the girl says as she steps aside.
I enter the combination to my locker, and it doesn’t open. Their eyes bore into my side as I try again.
“I’ve never seen you before. You’re new here, aren’t you?” the brown-haired girl asks.
She has on a full face of makeup with unnaturally long eyelashes. The mint from her chewing gum wafts into my face. I nod as I swing my locker door open.
“Aw, welcome to Valley Vista. I’m Alexis.”
“You have a name?”
“Cute. Nice to meet you, Jett. So, where are you from? L.A.?”
“San Bernardino.” I keep my eyes in my locker as I start unloading folders and books.
“Wait, really? I heard that’s actually not the greatest area, is that true?” She folds her arms across her chest. “Were your parents just looking to get out of there then?”
I don’t say anything.
“So, what do your parents do?”
I feel her eyes scanning me from head to toe but I still don’t respond. She looks back at the other girls.
“Wait, you guys can hear me, right?”
They nod and mumble in agreement. Alexis turns back to me.
“I said, what do your parents do?”
“Yeah, I heard you.”
“Oh, wow ok,” Alexis scoffs as she turns her back on me. “Yeah, so, I still don’t get why people always call me the bitch when I’m the one who gets blatantly disrespected any time I try to be friendly.”
I shut my locker as Alexis’ friends giggle around her. They all begin to walk off except for one girl who lags behind. I stare at her until her cheeks grow to match the strawberry hue of her short, blonde hair.
“Sorry,” she mouths before she follows the others.
I look after her as she disappears down the hall before turning to find my first class.
The girls from the first group home never apologized for what they did. Eventually, I learned that the older one with frizzy braids was named Nika and the younger girl was Abby. When I couldn't find Jaxon’s train in my backpack my third night there, I knew it was them from the sickening grins plastered on their faces.
“Did you take my shit?”
“Nuh-uh, bitch. Why would we take your shit?” Abby smiled.
“We don’t want to touch your funky-ass toys, little girl,” Nika said.
They continued to deny it, aggressively gaslighting me until they were red in the face. I knew I wasn’t getting the train back. By the time I went to bed, my fists ached from being clenched so tightly. And as they laughed and shuffled around in their own beds in the middle of the night, my fingernails only dug further into my palm.
When it suddenly became unnaturally quiet, I opened my eyes, only to be met with the shapeless darkness of the room. Then I heard the quick footsteps, and before I knew what was happening, something was on top of me in my bed. Abby’s full weight crushed me as she pressed on my chest with one hand and dug something solid into my cheek with the other. Something small was repeatedly pelted at my face from across the room. I forced Abby’s hands off me and strained in the darkness to see. She clutched Jaxon’s train in her hand, and as I struggled to hold her wrists back, I realized what must have been hitting me from afar. Each of the train’s tiny wheels had been ripped off.
The rage was like venom surging through my veins and pouring into my mouth. I reached up to her face, sunk my nails into her cheek, and tore down. She swore at me as she flinched back, giving me enough room to slip from under her. I pushed her onto her back and pounded her face with reckless abandon. My knuckles slammed down on her repeatedly, and she dropped the train as she moved to shield herself. I grabbed it off my pillow just as Nika gripped the hair at the base of my neck and swung me to the ground. I curled into a ball and resigned to let them kick me to death right there on the floor. One blow after another to my stomach, my head, my back. Air and blood left my body too fast. But it didn’t matter anymore. As long as I had the train.
I wake up panting, my face buried in the sweat-drenched pillowcase. I look around the room and blink through the panic as I attempt to get my bearings, the wheelless train clutched to my chest. The muted glow of the string lights on the ceiling reminds me where I am, and my muscles decompress as I catch the low rumble of Monica’s TV down the hall. I put the train under my pillow next to my CD player, then flip the pillow to the dry side.
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