Sunday, 17 January 2021

Torn

 

by Sharon Overend

bitter lemon 

I snap to attention as my teenage daughter charges toward me, a pair of garden shears clutched in her hand. Head spinning tantrums are nothing new in our household, but the introduction of sharp objects is new.  

Blood rushes from my limbs and my hands tingle like when I wake from a nightmare. I’m on my knees. Two bags of black soil and a bouquet of four potted chrysanthemums crowd the flagstone walkway. I’ve just finished raking the first of the autumn leaves and pulled out the last of the summer flowers.

Her charge stops inches from me, her weapon held waist high, parallel to my face. She’s breathing hard, her chest rises and falls in quick spastic jerks. Her cheeks are blotchy and tear-stained, her eyes wild.

“What’s wrong, Cassie?” I ask. My left hand grips the side of the empty planter, my right hand curls around the handle of a semi-submerged trowel. I’m surprised not only because of the shears, but also that her face is tear-stained. She doesn’t like to cry. Even when she was little and fell, her chin would quiver and her Adam’s apple piston up and down as she fought to swallow back tears. I’m a crier and nothing drives her crazier than when my voice chokes.

“I want my phone back. If I don’t call them, my friends will dump me.” The autumn air is cool, but she’s wearing shorts. Her leg muscles are tight, and like a horse in the starting gate, she shifts her weight from side-to-side.

“Your friends aren’t going to dump you,” I say and bring one hand to my forehead to shield my eyes from the glint bouncing off the blades. A halo of yellow surrounds her head.

Her eyes narrow and the shears follow my movements. “How would you know?” she asks. Her right eye turns in, the way it does when she’s tired or manic. The scents of her lavender shampoo and a freshly turned garden hang in the open air between us. “You don’t know anything about me, or my life.”

I stare at her in disbelief. I know this child, my dramatic child, my middle child, the one we planned, the one who hadn’t been an oops. I know each of my daughters. My eldest is quiet, studious, a deep thinker. The youngest is an athlete, the golden girl. And this child, the one wielding garden shears, the one always on the verge of hysterics, is the difficult one.

I leave the trowel upright in the dirt and push up from the ground.

“Put the shears down,” I say. She’s three inches taller than me, and I’m forced to look up into her face.

The tantrums began in her first months of life when colic robbed her of the comfort suckling at my breasts should have provided. Maybe her baby mind had concluded it was my milk, my breasts, her mommy, that made her belly cramp.

“I bet you wish I would.” 

Brat. Drama queen. Manipulator. Mental. Wounded. Words others have used to describe her, words I’ve used to grab her attention, needles pushed through a pincushion.

 My fingers coil into a fist. Loose, dirt-encrusted garden gloves fold and bunch inside my palms. I’ve been working in the garden, the early autumn sun beating on my bowed back, for a long time. I’m tired and thirsty and definitely not in the mood for yet another of her over-the-top outbursts.

I lower my voice and speak slowly. “Someone’s going to get hurt.” It sounds like a promise.

“That’s the point, Sue.” She never calls me Mom anymore. I’ve told her if she doesn’t want to call me Mom, then she doesn’t get to call me anything. She knows where the button is that makes my arms, legs and mouth flap. I inhale deliberate, measured breaths—one Mississippi, two Mississippi. She angles the blade tips toward me. “It’s your turn to be hurt.” Heavy chunks of strawberry-blonde hair hang outside her chaotic ponytail.

I stagger back. The pain I’ve tried to hide from her kicks back against me. So that was it. She needs to hurt me, her protector, because she doesn’t know, because I’ve hidden my true feelings too well. I’ve never told her how it felt to find her blacked-out drunk on the living room floor, what it was like to hide her shoes each night so she wouldn’t sneak out, or that I vomited when a police officer knocked on our door to say she’d been found beaten and raped the one night I forgot to hide her shoes.

A muscle twitches beneath my eye.

A gaggle of geese squawk overhead, a feathery platoon of drones. The rumble of a postal truck reaches us, and I worry the mail carrier, or a neighbour, or the geese have clued into what is happening. What would an assault charge do to her future?

 “This isn’t the end of the world,” I say.

“Oh my god!” Like a toddler, she stomps her foot. “Give me my phone.”

 “No,” I say.

The smartphone had been a peace offering, her reward for surviving three weeks with underage prostitutes and drug addicts. As we signed the admission form, the director of the youth treatment centre held my shoulder and suggested Cassie’s problems were bigger than her father or I could manage. As though we were leaving her at the babysitter, he insisted our goodbyes be quick. Except these babysitters would not be taking her to the park, or reading her Dr. Seuss books. Her chin trembled and she battled me away when I tried to hug her. I cried for twenty-one days, but not during parents’ night.

If she breaks your house rules, use a currency she understands, we’d heard at our parent support group.

Less than twelve hours into her phone prohibition, and she has already resorted to physical threats, to garden shears. I square my shoulders.

“Dad caught you texting at two this morning.” Violation of house rule #26—no phone calls or texting after eleven. “If you pass your math test, you’ll get your phone back.”  

I chase a look up the street. Although I pray no one is watching, I hope to see one of her sisters coming home.

“I need to talk to my friends.” She points her hip at me. The cold look on her sullen face slips and the lines around her mouth soften. For a fleeting moment the little girl who played dress-up with her cat is back. “I won’t text after bedtime. I promise,” she says, deep dimples appearing on her cheeks.

I sigh and my fists unclench. I’d thought we were good parents. I gave up my career to stay home with my girls. Their father worked sixty hours a week to provide a good life for us. She never had refined sugar before her first birthday cake.

She doesn’t get it. “I’m not giving it back. A cell phone is a privilege, not a right.” Maybe she’ll never get it.

The sweet child vanishes. “It is my right.” Oversized hoop earrings bang against her neck. “I have every right to say goodnight to my friends.” She kicks at a chrysanthemum pot, the red one, and it topples. Blood red petals and moist black earth splay away from us.

“They’re your friends, not your family,” I say, my voice louder than I intend. Last night, I knocked on her door and she told me to fuck off. I put my mouth to the door jam and wished her goodnight. She threw a shoe and the wood panel bounced against my face. I turned the knob and she braced her body against the door. I pushed back. Her feet slid and a sliver of space opened. I sandwiched myself into the gap, and she pressed harder. I avoided looking at the line of bruises on my torso when I showered this morning.

“No, they’re my family. You’re the people I’m forced to live with.” When the therapist asked her younger sister what would be the one thing about our family she’d like to see change she’d answered, that Cassie wouldn’t hate her. Her father stays late at work most nights, then every weekend disappears downstairs. He says if he gets too close to Cassie, he might say or do something he’ll live to regret. “Give me my phone.” She stretches her free hand toward me.

I shake my head.

Her hand and the shears wave between us. “Give me my goddamn phone, right now.” My gaze fixes on her and my heart pounds, not because I fear the waving shears, but because I realize, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she really and truly doesn’t trust me. I reach for her.

“Don’t.” She drops her phone-empty hand and jabs her weapon at me. “Don’t you dare touch me.”

I pull the garden gloves off, drop them to the ground and surrender my palms to her. Cool air brushes across warmed skin, and the hairs on the back of my hand stand on end.

“Why not help me tidy up this flowerbed?” I ask.

“You don’t think I’m serious. You don’t think I’d cut you, do you?”

“I think if you hang out here with me, we can talk through what’s bugging you.”

“I told you what’s bugging me. You’ve got my phone, and I want it back,” she says but does lower the shears to her thigh.

I pull the trowel from the dirt and sweep it over the garden. “I thought I’d put these flowers along here, but if you’d rather, you can help me turn over the soil.”

“I’m not touching your disgusting muck.”

 I again stoop to the ground and gather up the gloves. “Put these on,” I say.

She considers me a moment, then the gloves. “Then can I have my phone?”

“Maybe,” I say.

She places the shears next to her foot, the blade tips pointed away from both of us. Our fingers touch as she takes the gloves. I watch as her doughy soft hands fill first one, then the second deflated glove. “I hate this shit,” she says.

“Gardening can be cathartic.” I hand her the trowel.

When she and her sisters were younger, I’d squared off three sections in the garden and let each girl decide what to plant in their plot. Cassie asked if she could plant a peanut butter tree. She sulked when her father laughed and told her peanut butter didn’t grow on trees. I crouch beside her and begin pulling weeds. The sky changes when a cloud passes above us. With the sun blocked, the air feels more authentic, cooler, more like fall. I tilt my head slightly, just enough to watch her as she works, but not enough that she knows I’m studying her, a sly sideways look. She pays no attention to the goosebumps that have appeared on her arms and legs. She digs a hole, then raises the nearest chrysanthemum, the orange one, out of its pot. The plant leans away from her. The hole is too small, and half the root ball rests above the ground. A groan gurgles in her throat. She brushes loose dirt toward the flower and stands.

“There,” she says. “I’ll take my phone now.”

“You can do better than that. Just set the plant to the side and make the hole a bit bigger.”

“I did what you told me to do. I helped you plant your stupid flower. Now give me my phone.” The trowel clatters to the ground.

“I’m not giving you the phone unless you finish what you’ve started.” I’m on my feet.

“You lied. You said I could have it if I helped.”

“I don’t lie.”

“Ha,” she says. Like an enraged hockey player, she shakes off the gloves.

“Cassandra.”

She notices me notice the way her hand is shaking. Fresh tears swim across her eyes.

“You’re not perfect. I’ve heard stories. I know who you really are. I know you did drugs, and I know you were a slag. You’re not better than me.”

Her words echo through me. I’ve been found out. When I was seventeen, I’d run away from home. Booze and drugs, plasters to help stop the bleed. Sleeping with every boy who groped under my t-shirt, the only way I could convince myself someone wanted me.

I raise my hand shoulder height. I want to slap her, to stop her from saying anymore, to stop her the way I’d been stopped. My mother had used a wooden spoon, my father a leather belt, an ex-boyfriend, his fists.

She steps closer. “Try it,” she says. Her breath puffs into my face, coffee and peanut butter.

I lower my hand. I’ve never slapped any of my kids.

“Wonder what the neighbours would think about you if they knew the truth?” she asks. Gleeful satisfaction sways across her face. She knows she’s rattled me.

My throat tightens. She’s too young to understand. She’s had an easy life. All the bad that has happened to her, happened because of the poor choices she’s made, not because we ever mistreated her, not because we ever rejected her. “I’ve never used drugs, and I sure never let any boy use me.” One day, when she’s older, I’ll tell her what kind of man her granddad was.

“Liar.” Her voice is loud, her words wild again. “I’m done talking.” She grabs the rake I’ve rested against the house. “You don’t give a shit about me.” A flip of her wrist and the rake is upside down, each metal tine aimed at me. I don’t want her to think I’m scared, but for the first time that afternoon, I am. I’m scared for both of us. “You sent me away and I hate you,” she says.

She doesn’t hate me.

“I love you.”

A moment of stillness. The point of return.

“Bullshit,” she hisses. My gaze remains steady, unwavering. “Bullshit.”

Her facial features twist together, her brow, her lips, her jaw, her eyes. She moves, urgent, crazed, frenzied, a dog lunging for a rabbit.

The point of no return.

My feet won’t move, but my torso does. I curl away and fold into myself.

A low whoosh of air as it separates and bangs back together. The tines of the rake catch my sleeve. The tearing sound stops her.

Inside the split-second pause, I glance over my shoulder to see where she is, where the rake is, then it’s coming toward me again. Hot pain sears my cheek. My hand covers the opening gashes each tine has made. Her face unfolds and my pain flashes in her eyes. Sticky red seeps between my fingers, blood red. Then a moan, outside of either of us, ascends.

The sound of metal and wood explodes against stone.

She drops to her knees.

I drop to the flagstone.


About the author 

SHARON OVEREND is an award-winning author whose short stories have appeared in Canadian, American and UK literary journals and anthologies. Originally from Toronto, Sharon and her husband recently purchased a country property where she plans to let nature inspire many more writing projects. www.sharonoverend.blog

 

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