Susan hid deep in the back of the closet, behind the shoes and the baskets filled with dirty laundry, burying her quivering self under piles of closet-things, breathing hard into her mother's long dresses. She didn't recognize the deep voice of the man who had entered their kitchen this morning, interrupting the cinnamon toast and Cocoa Puffs breakfast she was having while her mother, tired but smiling at the other end of the table, drank coffee from a jelly jar.
She had school today and, for once, she was going. Her mother had promised, and had even gotten up to braid her hair and wash a bowl and spoon to make her breakfast. Susan normally ate whatever she could make for herself on Monday morning—a piece of bread, crackers, cookies if she could find them, with water that she could get from the tap. The milk jug was still too heavy for her to lift.
She never went to school on Mondays, but today was the holiday party, and her mother kept her promise, grumbling only a little instead of yelling when Susan had pushed and prodded her off the couch. Susan's heart thudded in her little chest, her breathing just beginning to slow and normalize as she strained to hear a sound, anything beyond the walls of the closet. Everything was muffled from here, kind of like when she held her breath and slipped under the water in the bathtub.
Would he hurt her? Susan's breath went away at the thought.
He had filled the kitchen, blocking the sunlight he'd let in when he entered. She could still see her mother's face, drawn and pale, her mouth meshed into a thin line at the sight of him filling the doorway.
"You owe me, Jennifer," was all he said in that rough voice she didn't know.
Susan knew there would be no school again today when her mother said: "Go to your room, Sue, and don't you dare come out. I mean it or I'll get the belt, I swear I will."
So she went, hiding in the closet behind her mother's clothes. Her own clothes filled the dresser next to the twin bed she and her mother shared sometimes—although more often than not, her mother slept on the couch.
She remembered everything; although she would claim then and years later that she saw nothing.
First, she heard the scream, shrill and fast, almost as if it hadn't happened at all. Fear kept her there a moment, and then concern for her mother made her creep out of the closet on stocking feet.
She remembered the smell of cinnamon toast, the feel of the wall on her hand, cool and rough, as she made her way down the hall toward the living room.
She remembered the angle of the doorway to the kitchen and standing next to the sofa that her mother had been asleep on less than an hour ago. Susan could see only their heads as they lay on the faded, dirty linoleum, his face obliterating hers, his teeth clenched, his eyes closed, one of his hands holding both of hers above her head.
He was moving on top of her, making small noises, but her mother was silent beneath him. Susan was afraid to stay, afraid of being caught there seeing something strange, something she knew she shouldn't be seeing. She was more afraid to go, and she stood there with the longing to see her mother's face, to know that she was okay.
He cried out, a low, grunting noise, and stopped moving. She strained to see past him, around him, to glimpse her mother's face, needing to see her to reassure herself that this was okay, that she was all right. Susan held her breath until he lifted his head. For the rest of her life she would wish she hadn't seen the blankness in her mother's eyes that looked up at the ceiling, past him, past anything in this world.
He was gone from her line of vision then, and it was just her mother, lying there motionless on the floor, a trail of blood running from the corner of her swollen mouth. Susan wanted to go to her, and would have, threat of the belt or no, if he hadn't laughed then.
"Pretty good, Jen," he said, and something landed next to her mother's face with a sickening thud. A small paper bag. "Here's a little something extra. See you next week."
Susan heard his boots on the linoleum and scrambled under the covers on the couch, settling into the indentation made by her mother's body in the night. She peeked out to look, her mother still on the floor, curled on her side now, staring at the bag. She heard the kitchen door slam, and her mother sobbed, picking up the bag and throwing it through the doorway into the living room.
Susan ducked under the covers until only her eyes were showing, waiting, watching. She would always remember the way her mother sobbed as she sat up, not bothering to pull her robe together as she stood. Tall and pale in the early morning light, her face was smudged with mascara and blood. She stood, head down, trembling and quiet for a moment.
Then her mother turned and headed towards where Susan lay hidden beneath the covers on the couch. Afraid her mother would yell and bring the promise of the belt, she held her breath, paralyzed. She would remember forever her mother swearing, bending down to retrieve what she had thrown, and peering inside like a kid into a bag of candy. Her mother squealed and laughed then, heading toward the bathroom.
Susan was never discovered by her mother on the couch that day. She crept back to the closet and fell asleep, awakening to her mother's voice calling her, asking her what she'd seen. Nothing, nothing, I swear it, Mommy, can I go to school, now? No, it was too late for school, but they could go to the park, and they did. Susan would also remember forever the feel of her mother's hands on her back as she pushed her, higher, higher, on the swings. Give me under, Mommy, give me under! And her mother would run under the swing, laughing through a mouth still swollen and beginning to bruise.