Warning

Jen stubbed her cigarette out on the window ledge. The room behind her was quiet, her stepsisters still sleeping, lay twisted in the cotton sheet that barely covered them: Lucy faced north and Mary south, positions they had negotiated when they were six.

Hart Street was dark; there was only a hint of the morning sky. Jen looked over at her pack of Marlboro Lights. People should have warning labels: Dangerous to your health, Not fit for family gatherings, Unable to keep promises. She held the pack and counted the number of cigarettes left. If she didn’t have one now, the five would get her through the afternoon. The argument last night with her mother had kept her awake; if only her mother knew what she had to do today.

“You need to get away from him, you’re better than he is, don’t you know that?”

Jen’s mother, Maureen, was washing dishes while Jen slowly dried them. Mary and Lucy did their homework at the small table. The kitchen became too crowded when Jen’s brother walked in and opened the refrigerator door.

“You just ate, Billy,” Maureen said. She turned away from her daughter who was drying a glass and faced her son. “Look at you, you’ve grown two inches in the last month. I can’t keep enough food on the table.”

“Sorry, Mom, just wanted something sweet. Do we have any ice cream? It’s so hot tonight.”

“Not in the budget this week.” She looked over at Jen and shook her head.

“Don’t worry Mom, I won’t get fired. I told them I was sick, had the flu, and needed to be out for two days so I wouldn’t infect anyone.” She touched the bruise around her eye.

“Well, I hope they believed you, because you know….”

“I know, Mom. I know you need to cover the bills.”

When Jen’s stepfather walked into the kitchen, she turned so he wouldn’t see her face. If he had seen the black eye, he would have gone looking for Lewis, and he would have taken Billy with him. That’s what Maureen had told her.

“Having a family meeting without me?” He leaned over the table and looked at what the twins were working on. “You girls must be really smart to be able to answer all those questions with this noise.” He smiled at his wife. “I guess you two have learned to block it out?”

“I don’t think so, they keep one ear on our conversation,” Maureen said.

Lucy looked up at her father. “They call it multi-tasking, Daddy.”

“See, honey, I never heard of that, and yet, Lucy and Mary are doing it in front of me,” he laughed. “I’m going back to the game, come on, Billy. Let’s leave the ladies alone in the kitchen.” He motioned to the boy, who moved around the two girls at the table.

Maureen looked at the closed kitchen door. “He had a good day today, Jen. I’m glad he didn’t see your eye.”

“I know Mom, I tried. I can’t believe Billy didn’t notice it either.”

Maureen turned to the twins who were writing in their workbooks. “Girls need to stick together, right?”

“Right, Mommy,” Mary said.

“Lucy?”

“Right, Mommy.” Lucy said.

“There are lessons for them in this.” She turned back to Jen who was drying the last pot. “I never want this to happen to them.”

Jen looked away. She had been a disappointment to her mother. Getting the job at Zambini and Sons was the only thing she did that Maureen was proud of. The construction company was busy renovating houses in the gentrified parts of Brooklyn. Jen had to have it explained to her: “That’s when the yuppies move in, take over, and push all the poor people out. They fix up their houses and the next thing you know the hardware store is replaced by a cupcake shop. Can you imagine, Jen, a store just for cupcakes?” Mr. Zambini was a sweet man who had given her a chance at a job helping his secretary.

“I know I’m not a good example now, but I will be…I promise.” She walked over to her stepsisters, and looked over their shoulders to see what they were doing.

“Tell me what you talked about in school today.” Jen wanted to change the conversation. Whether the ten-year-old twins would learn anything from her black eye was a dispute for another time.

“We are learning about the war, the one Daddy was in,” Lucy volunteered.

Maureen stiffened and said nothing.

“What did your teachers say about it?” Jen asked.

“Well, they said it started in 2001, after September 11.” Mary looked up from her book. “We had to fight back, that’s what Mrs. Peterson said.”

“We told her that our father had some pictures he had taken when he was there. Do you think we could bring them to school Mom?” Lucy asked.

“No, and don’t ask Dad. Those pictures are just for us; I only showed them to you because…” Her voiced trailed off.

Jen looked at her mother who became silent. “Mom?”

“Because I thought it would help you understand your father.” She cleared her throat. “It’s good that they are teaching you about the war in school.”

“Sure, I wonder which version they are teaching ten year olds.”

Maureen shot her seventeen-year-old daughter a look, keeping Jen from saying what she really wanted to say about the war or what her stepfather had been through.

“It all happened before you were born, girls. Jen was just seven when your dad came home.” Maureen wondered what a seven-year-old could possibly remember. “Billy was a toddler.”

“And that’s when you met him, right?” Lucy said.

“And you fell in love with him because he was a hero,” Mary added.

“I fell for him because he was my hero. He saved me and he became a dad to Jen and Billy. A real dad,” Maureen added.

Jen didn’t remember her father. When her mother told this story, as she often did to the twins and Billy, Jen always felt sad.

“Now you girls do your homework; your sister and I have to finish our conversation.”

“Mom…I really don’t want to keep talking about Lewis.”

“What you wanted didn’t turn out so well, did it? We are going to talk about what you need now.

Jen pushed away from the window. The alarm clock on the night table would ring in ten minutes; there no sense to try to go back to sleep. As the light filled the room, she heard her mother start the morning routine: coffee, shower, making sandwiches for lunch, followed by a call up the stairs. Jen waited, sitting on the edge of her bed for the bathroom to be free. She was in charge of making breakfast for the family and getting Billy out of bed.

“You’re on duty now, Jen, don’t let Billy oversleep, have a good day!”   Maureen shouted just loud enough to disturb everyone’s dreams.

By eight-thirty it was so quiet in the house that Jen thought she was alone. She couldn’t remember if this was the day her stepfather worked for the Parks Department or slept in. As she blew the smoke of her second cigarette out the window, Jen touched the side of her head and winced. When the door to the living room swung open she tossed the cigarette to the street below.

“You know that will kill you, don’t you?”

“Oh, sorry, Mike. I thought you were still asleep and well…I was blowing the smoke out the window and….”

“It’s hard to quit. I still want one; they smell so good even after six years. Strange isn’t it?”

There was a long pause. Jen had turned around so fast, she forgot how her face looked without makeup.

“What happened to your eye?”

“Nothing.”

“That would be a Billy answer. Come in the kitchen with me and we can talk about it over breakfast.”

“I tripped and…”

“And that answer would be a?”

“Lie,” Jen paused. “Mom, didn’t want me to tell you and…”

“Your Mom is at work now, isn’t that where you should be too?”

The small tremor in Mike’s hand became obvious when he was upset. Jen had only seen him shake violently twice in front of her. The last time was when Lewis had come to dinner.

“Don’t you have work today?” Jen hoped his schedule would shorten their conversation.

“No, I’m free all day.” He smiled and stirred the leftover batter. “Do you want some pancakes?”

‘No, I ate earlier.”

“Don’t want to take that black eye to work, huh? What excuse did you use?”

“Flu.”

He started to laugh and stopped himself. “You know, there was a rule my mother gave my sister, Ellen, about men. One raised hand, one strike and he’s out. That means one time only.” Mike looked into Jen’s eyes, he seemed to know everything that had happened.

“It was my fault. I needed him to be with me today. I never thought it would make him so angry. I just kept pushing him.”

Mike interrupted her. “Excuses might work on the job, Jen, but what Lewis did, well, there is no excuse. How are you going to break it off with him?”

“I can’t. I promised after I…”

“I’ll go with you, don’t worry…I won’t tell your mother.”

“Mom was afraid you would go after Lewis, and beat him up or worse. She thought you would take Billy.”

“Your mom doesn’t know everything.” Mike turned the pancakes over. “She doesn’t know everything about you. Does she?”

Jen watched him as he shook the pancakes free from the frying pan. She tried to think of a response that would appease him.

“Well?”

“No…not everything. But that’s the way I’ve wanted it to be.”

“I understand. Everyone needs to keep some things private, or they’ll go crazy. Right?”

“Something like that, I guess. I’m not a kid anymore, you know.”

“So what are you going to do about Lewis?” Mike didn’t wait for her answer. “I’ve known people like him, the army is full of them. Lewis is a waste of time. They think they’re tough, too smart for their own good. They don’t want to follow rules. That’s how people get hurt. It’s how people die.” Mike stood up from the table and put his hands in his pocket.

“This is my problem,” Jen said softly. “Sometimes people need to make mistakes to learn about life.”

Mike ignored her. “We think we can go into a foreign country and change people. Hell, why would anyone follow us or believe us?”

“I should have been more careful,” Jen whispered.

“Yeah, more careful,” Mike raised his voice. “We shouldn’t start things we can’t get out of, right? I mean where was the plan? What was the five year plan?” He waited, seeming to want Jen to answer his question. “Do you have one?”

“Me?”

Mike took a deep breath. “I’m your dad, Jen.”

“I know, Mike. Please don’t get upset.”

“I’m not upset, not with you,” he sighed.

“I can start over tomorrow, things will be back to the way they were, right? Just like nothing happened.”

“I can’t promise you that.” He sat down and started eating without looking at her. When he finished what was on his plate he looked at her. “You want to do this?”

She didn’t answer.

“It’s your decision not his, you know that. It’s something you will have to live with.”

“I just want things to be back the way they were. Just want to wake up and not feel so out of control.”

He looked at her. “It’s what we all want.”

***

This story was previously published in The Avalon Literary Review – Fall 2015  It is part of a completed set of thirteen linked short stories.

Photo image: hidlight via deviant art

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