“Ready or Not” Chapter 1

Original artwork copyright 2011 Liza E. Paizis

Alongside a white Iowa home in 1985, a voice groans from a flank of pine trees. A stout eleven year-old girl emerges into an early spring evening. No—she is pushed from deep inside the boughs by someone moving between the needles and the house siding. She has a fist-sized bruise on her dirtied face and her pants and panties are at her ankles. Her inner thighs are red. Brown pine needles stick to the flesh. Her arms reach into the nothing of air for balance. Her legs fold, her spine arched; she spins in place and drops. Now she rolls like a pencil onto the sidewalk. She is still. Her knees are together at last. A moan escapes her soil-crumbed lips. Her girl’s voice begins to sob. There is a sound like skritch. Above her rears the house: it is very white and very oblivious as its wall-flanking pines shudder to give up a dark form that skirts away.

In a moment the hump of a girl puts out her arms and stands. She pulls hard at red jeans and hobbles forward, whimpering. Smears on the concrete attest the incident. The coming rain will wash them away. The house will catch its share of rain and its wooden siding will advance the march of decay inside its latex seal.

Eddies of wind sway and move the tree branches. This is a Mississippi River town and, as it is small, so these trees and this house are surrounded by hundreds like it that take on March wind to dupe the movement and the noise. Their branches seem to duck and parry the wind like boxers’ arms. A storm front is marching across Iowa: Council Bluffs, Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Elkader. Each gets its share. Although small towns cannot match a city’s exposure, their provincial skins are thin for tragedy. Beyond them America offers little protection.

Ronald Reagan had begun his second term. “Material Girl” was a pop sensation. A screening test for HIV was approved to protect the nation’s blood supply. Women Against Pornography cited a Pig Award to a diaper TV ad that had “crossed the line between eye-catching and porn.” Someone named Gorbachev had succeeded Chernenko in the U.S.S.R.

One hour earlier inside the home of Dave and Carol Garrison in Dunleith, Iowa, their guest, eleven year-old Ann Lambert, had run laughing from the kitchen into the living room. Mary Garrison and her younger brother John chased her through the single-floor house.

“You like him! You do!” screamed thin, fair-haired Mary, laughing.

“No no no!” shouted Ann over her shoulder. Her trots bounced unstyled brunette strands into her face. The children stopped in the living room to catch their breath between laughs. Ann gripped the back of the room’s only couch, a patched vinyl beast of untold age. Yet its dated red color suggested more comfort than hard times. The two siblings giggled opposite Ann.

Ann Lambert’s red jeans and the red vinyl upholstery melded into a single impression; the coincidence might suggest she were some sturdy pioneer from the previous century or, more likely, a time that never was. Her face shone with good cheer. Her breath was quick—more like her friend Mary Garrison’s little brother John.

As for him, the five year-old dirty blonde jumped and spun in place: “Ah ah ah!” He shook his finger in Ann’s face. “You said it! You said you liked that patrol boy! Yeah yeah! I heard you, I heard you!” He hopped in place. “I know why, I know why! This video! This video! Of your mom’s, you know? Coming to town,” and John buzzed, striking an air guitar’s power chord. “It gots you—gots you all boy-crazy!” Jumping John added a whoop.

Grade school friends Ann and Mary had settled their breath. Ann caught breath and spoke carefully. Her irises bounced as they tracked the five year-old.  “Aw c’mon, now. What did I say? You kidding? Here’s what I said, that—”

“—we heard what you said,” said Mary.

Ann faced Mary’s raised eyebrows and took in her bright blue eyes: “Now listen, okay? Just listen once, all right? Jeesh—now I gotta explain myself to you and this baby.” She laughed with Mary. “Okay, okay—I said that that guy, you know, whoever he is, that patrol boy guy over on 9th—heck, I don’t even see him ever. He’s always way over. Opposite of where I go home, you know? But—he is a nice guy. Kinda—you know . . . ” Ann was losing the argument to Mary’s giggles. “ . . . kinda protective looking? You know what I mean? A real—”

“—a real husband boy, right?” Mary burst into laughter. Ann slipped off. Mary and John jeered and gave chase. Ann led the pursuit through the kitchen, ducked under Carol Garrison’s arms, and entered Mary and John’s room. The three bumped into each other and squealed. On a whim, Ann side-stepped and doubled back outside to the hall and found herself entering Dave and Carol’s bedroom. John circled the two eleven year-olds once and left without a further word.

Good. The boy child was gone. A dramatic Ann stooped to once more catch breath at the foot of the double bed. Then she pretended to faint by falling to the seat of her red jeans. Mary planted a foot in her belly and shoved Ann’s back to the bare floor. Ann grabbed at Mary’s leg. “Help! I’ll drown!”

“Truth or dare, Ann.”

“What? Now?

“I gotcha. Why not?”

Ann did nothing but smile with trust. Her hands gripped Mary’s calf and thereby locked her friend’s foot onto her abdomen just below her slight breasts. Ann thought absolutely nothing of the contact.

“Now this patrol boy. We’re dealing with this. Right now. What about him?”

“Oh, nothing. Nothing! All that stuff. He’s just a boy, Mary.”

“Truth?”

“Sure. My turn now.”

Ann angled her elbows to the floor to rise but Mary nudged her back down: “Nuh-uh. From there. You ain’t going nowhere.”

Ann relaxed. She fairly hugged at Mary’s calf and her eyes held affection for her first and best good friend. “Do you really like my brother?”

“Gar . . . ” Mary’s eyes drifted. “Geez, what a hunk.”

“My own brother. So it’s true.”

“What can I say? What can I say? Dudenick city.”

Ann shook her head at Mary’s effluence. “You ain’t alone. Gets me sick. You and about ninety other girls. Phone never stops at our house. I don’t understand it.”

“Believe it. What a cutie!”

Ann rolled her eyes as any sister might at the thought of her brother the heart throb.

“What’s he—a junior, right? What’s he like? Does he like—you know, go right by you in his robe and everything?” Mary squealed.

“Oh Mary, c’mon, like I’d care. Him and Dad are the same to me. All right, pretty much.”

“All right? That’s it?”She lightly ground her heel into Ann’s abdomen.  “Mr. Hunk-babe is just nice? And you throw him with your dad?

Ann could not smile anymore. She dropped her hands from around Mary’s calf. “’Course! They’re my family! What else am I supposed to think?”

“You ain’t thought much, have you? That’s a truth, now.”

Several seconds ticked by. Ann did not understand what Mary was getting at.

Duh! About Gar. You know, Gar the sex-symbol.” Mary’s voice had dropped an octave.

“What do you want? There’s only one answer. He’s just all right.” Mary frowned and her foot lightened. “He’s family, see?” persisted Ann. “Don’t you get it? Family! Goll, the third degree!”

Mary thumped her foot to the floor and smirked. “I guess. Nothing juicy could ever come from you.”

Ann stood. “What do you call juicy?”

Mary puckered and made kissing noises. Then they heard an airplane. In ran John with his arms extended. “Rrr! Patroool boy! Patroool boy! Coming for Ann!” He made kissing noises as he circled them. Ann and Mary laughed.

“Were you listening, brat?” said Mary. “You got a license?”

“Yeah. Where’s your license, bratnick?”

“Right here!” yelled John. He reached high into a squat keepsake chest atop the Garrison’s dresser drawers. He flipped out an official looking document and rrr’ed out of the room, arms perpendicular in best Boeing fashion. They chased. John ran smack into his mother.

“Hey!” shouted Carol Garrison. “My diploma!” The rarely heard thunder of this woman’s voice froze the three children. Carol deftly flipped the paper from John and hustled it back into its place in the chest. The three kids followed her, silent, drawn by her angry wake. Ann was puzzled at these emotions from an otherwise calm woman. She seemed regretful. Even ashamed.

“Now just leave the diploma alone, do you hear? Got that?”

“You went to college, Mrs. Garrison?”

Carol Garrison smiled. Ann suspected it was because she liked being called Mrs.

“Yes. That’s my degree.”

“What’s that? I mean I know, but what exactly?”

Carol started to answer but John yelled over her: “Means she’s expert in something, right Ma? You’re a star expert, ain’t you?”

Carol threw Ann a knowing look and thereby shared her love for her son with her guest. Ann felt touched, deeply. “Yeah. Big star expert. That’s me. Astronomy. Listen: all I got was a bachelor’s degree, and it was all math and algebra and—”

“—she knows all the stars, Ann. You should hear her outside!”

Ann liked the glow in the woman’s eyes. “Why stars, Mrs. Garrison?”  (Again that smile at Mrs.)

“Everything is—it’s just simple under a nighttime sky.” She looked to the drawn bedroom curtains. “Especially when you’re alone. I love it alone. Even better, with Dave. We—”

“—stars!” burst John. “Esk-lations, Mom! Let’s go see them!”

“Oh John. Constel-lations. I wish we could, but not in this weather. It’s way too cloudy.”

“She had a job too, didn’t you Ma?” said Mary.

Carol Garrison sighed. The smile flickered, too. Then the woman regarded her two children. Her mother’s hands twirled at locks of her children’s hair. “I have a job right here,” she said. That seemed to end the discussion.

Ann felt pangs of jealousy. “Here I go!” she yelled to stop the hurt. The siblings resumed pursuit. They circled around and past Carol.

Dave Garrison had entered the living room, laid a newspaper onto the floor—the Dunleith Democrat—and set a portable, battery operated radio atop the newspaper. He was leaning on his knees and listening to a report: in January a jury had found that New Jersey’s terminally ill patients had a right to starve themselves; a man in that eastern state was pursuing this new freedom. Extended family members argued coercion on the part of a son who wanted to save money rather than care for his indigent father. Dead Chernenko of the U.S.S.R. was interred near the Kremlin Wall. The new man named Gorbachev had returned from Lithuania. The announcer spoke the premier’s name phonetically with a pronounced -chĕv. Dave Garrison twirled the radio volume down and physically pulled an analog ON button above the TV’s channel dial.

Along came three laughing and running children. Ann blurted a warning as the trio careened toward newspaper, radio, TV, and father. She planted a foot on a newspaper headline, slid two feet, knocked the radio into the wall and found her legs flipping towards the ceiling; momentarily airborne, she landed with a thud inside the arms of Dave Garrison.

Laughter, applause, and cheers erupted at the choreographed stunt. Ann blushed a thin-blooded red.

“Supergirl, daughter of Dunleith’s supermom,” said Mr. Garrison. His strong arms set Ann down. He flared hard eyes at his children. “How old are you two? Two? Someone’s gonna get hurt and then no one’ll be laughing. Knock it off or spankings are next.”

Mirth died to be replaced by fallen but respectful faces. Ann expected sassing, some disrespect of some kind from Mary or John. None! They were nothing like her brother Gar and even less like her eldest brother Dirk. Yet somehow it made sense, and she felt comfortable. It was right. She swept aside strands of hair from her warm face and offered Mr. Garrison polite thanks.

“Boy, Dad. You’re strong!” said John. “Ann is really heavy.”

“John!” said Dave.

“What’s wrong?” she asked to distance John’s comment. She was already self-conscious enough of her moderately portly features.

“I’ll tell you.” He righted the Ann-flung radio.  Ann was grateful.

Mary picked up with genuine curiosity: “Yeah, Dad, what’s wrong?”

“Listen!” Dave Garrison turned the volume down on the TV set, picked the radio up and pointed at the window. The girls lifted their chins towards the darkened curtains.

Rainless wind lashed through Dunleith’s streets. Gusts and slaps thumped the house walls. It was cool yet in Dunleith Iowa for March, but the waning day ought to have been brighter than this, even if it was overcast and only minutes after sunset.

Dave shoved the newspaper aside as he turned the knob of the radio. It worked, Ann’s gymnastics notwithstanding, though he could find no weather bulletins. A wordless Ann picked up her heavy jacket. The girl threw her arms into its sleeves and skritch’d up the zipper.

“I should be home. I should.” Her words were muted.

Mrs. Garrison appeared from the kitchen and propped her hands on her hips. “Maybe you better stay here, Ann,” she said. A damp green dish towel hung from her neck and its ends fell almost to her breasts like the stole of some sort of priestess. “Looks bad to me. You really ought to stay. Just listen to that wind!” she added, but she nodded towards the TV.  Eleven year-old Ann Lambert looked across the room into Mrs. Garrison’s green eyes that even in the failing light seemed clear. She felt a familiar thirst for them. When the woman retreated to the kitchen, Ann followed; she pretended to hunt something in her pockets to be near the woman a moment longer.

“I mean it Ann, you can stay. You’ll be safe. I’m just worried.” Sweet words! And Mrs. Garrison rested a palm on her shoulder. Her voice had softened in gentle confidence. “I know what it is.” Ann looked up: the woman’s face. Was Mrs. Garrison ashamed? “We bore you dead sometimes, Ann. I just work around the house. Dishes. Laundry. Houseclean—”

Ann stamped. “—stop! I like it here. I love it here!” She blushed and dropped her eyes. “You guys. You all get groceries. Like it’s this big . . . event. And you take John to the park, and—”

“—and your mom’s bringing a video to town.” Mrs. Garrison wore a face like a question mark.

“So? You cook so good. And you’re always here. And so sweet—” The girl blinked her heavy brown eyes and dropped them to the floor.

The woman tucked a gentle knuckle under the girl’s chin and lifted. “Hey. Is my husband a Lambert? In the A.Y. Lambert company? Did I get a band to promise to tape in town, right here in Dunleith? Am I ever in the paper?”

“That stuff don’t mean much. But—you know. There’s home and there’s—” Ann firmly slipped her chin off the tempting pedestal that was Carol’s hand and hoped the housewife was not offended.

“Really Ann, it’s okay. I’ll call your mom. You can weather it out here.” She stepped towards the phone.

Something ineffable seemed to sink inside Ann and her heart dropped with it. “I’m going,” she announced. When she reached the doorway exiting the kitchen, the children’s egress of choice, she shouted a farewell into the house at Mary.

The heavy door swung inwards effortlessly, but when Ann shoved at the outer storm door, a wall of windy bluster resisted. She shoved again. Her slightly chubby frame heaved against the elements and Ann’s feet trod the floor mat backwards. Carol Garrison leaned her weight against the door to help. Ann felt a gust of wind animate her hair. Strands seemed to reach for Mrs. Garrison face and shoulders.

“Run home! Run home quick, now, I think you can beat it!” Carol called. Ann Lambert the eleven year-old girl was gone. The storm door rushed shut. It closed with a final and glassy shudder.

Carol Garrison sighed in concert with the fingers of wind that subsided along the kitchen table, cabinets, coffee machine, stove. The cool air abated to smells of dish soap and supper’s brothy soup. A child’s fist-sized parade flag had dropped to the floor from a bowl heaped with bills. She scooped it off the floor.

Carol sat on the red vinyl couch before the TV to learn more about this impending storm that no one had spoken of as she shopped for groceries. She idled the pennant about her fingers. A young weatherman apologized for not being able to predict the inclement weather. He was especially bothered because hindsight showed meteorologists a luxury of data that left little else as a possibility.

“That fool couldn’t predict his own birthday,” quipped Carol’s lanky husband as he flopped down next to her on the taciturn couch. The couch creaked, but it held. She rolled her eyes at the cliché. He slapped her knee and she snuggled into his side. Then he held the radio to his ear. After a few seconds he clicked it off. “What do they say now?” she asked.

He and Carol discussed the situation. In ran the children. “My flag!” yelled John and clutched it to his breast. Dave tsk’d. “What is that—a year old and you still want it?”

“’Course!” laughed John as Dave tickled his ribs.

The family of four began aligning together naturally. Nearness was their strength. John, now curled securely atop Carol’s lap, shifted his gaze from the TV to the drawn curtains to his pennant. Mary stood before the TV rather still and tense.

Carol Garrison studied Mary. The bluish rays from the screen cast an unearthly phosphor to her face. Along her hairline and trailing back around her shoulders the unnatural color lost effect where the straw-colored rays of a table lamp threw its light. A commercial for a mattress blared. “Suitable for any occasion,” said a moist-lipped redhead as a man turned off a lamp. Carol reached to shut the off the TV with John still in her arms. She prayed a flitting, silent prayer for Ann’s safety.

“Well we better go downstairs with our candles for a while.” She set John down. The children found life. “A storm! A storm!” they chanted. “Hope its a big one.” “Funder! Funder!”

“That’s thunder, Johnny,” said Mary quite like her mother might. “You mean thunder. And lightning and everything!”

Dave widened his eyes to saucers: “Now don’t be scared . . .” His children laughed at his eyes. He poked their ribs. Mary laughed more and John squealed. Carol spread her arms and gathered the three of them into the basement of her home.

Ann had stood a few yards beyond the Garrisons’ back stoop. Warm, yellow lamp rays from their home filtered through the house’s hang-straight curtains and fell onto the scrubby back lawn as golden trapezoids. Someone jogged by and turned the corner—was it a large boy or a man? He certainly wasn’t wearing running clothes. Oh well. She walked swiftly in her red jeans.

The Garrisons’ lamp rays tapped on the nape of her neck such that she felt compelled—while the wind ballooned up her jacket—to turn from time to time to face the squares of light and gauge her increasing distance. She reached far and deep into her memories. An image from her toddling days finally surfaced, far-flung, faded, but completely happy. The shrinking squares of light in the Garrison home were like the eyes of her first, square-eyed jack-o’-lantern. She could smell its scorched insides, feel its candle-warmed rind, and see the peach-toned glow.

Ann shook the image after she recalled its sinister, saw-tooth grin. Gar had ruined it with an evil mouth. She turned her back on the squares of light.

The once stirring and living wind settled into a queer lull. Soundless lightning flashed spasmodically as if a deranged, cosmic strobe light were operating above the clouds. Soon the night would take complete hold. When she looked far forward, people—or was it one person?—ducked out of sight.

Ann listened to the tap of her footsteps. She tried to catechize her feelings as precisely as her footsteps fell.

Why hadn’t she stayed at the Garrison’s?

Troubled times send one home, noted Ann recently in the busy journal she kept in Mr. Saizey’s Language Arts class. The words had finished her fifty word daily assignment. There might be a good story in that title, she added, to sweeten the pot. At the desk to her left a boy drew guitars with razor-sharp necks. To her right a lipsticked girl laid her head on the desktop with closed eyes, blatantly asleep. Under her permed hair Ann spied her choice for fifty words: a a a a the the the an an an to to to to . . . She mentally clutched her own words: send one home.

Home. The Garrisons. She exhaled a mental sigh. Why couldn’t her family be like them? When she was with Mary she could forget herself: forget high school bearing down on her and even forget growing up—how she sweated these warming days!

Was she normal?

Gym class. Why did schools torture a girl like this? Ann had opened her locker and more or less hid herself in her ugly gray training bra behind the locker door. With relief she let fall a long jersey over her figure—really no more than a thick hourglass bequeathed from her father’s stocky gene pool. She noted: yes, most everyone had hair by now so she met that criterion. But the other bras! Look: Amy’s v-necked beauty. Delia and her lace. Schaefen’s French scoops. Did everyone have to look like they bought their stuff out of Frederick’s? Would her mother ever buy her something fancy? A little lace with a button-sized pink bow? That’s all she needed. That’s all it took. Then certainly everything would be so much better. Wouldn’t it?

The eleven year-old hung her head slightly. Her hard tennis shoes tapped and tapped. And tapped? Had she heard a second set of taps? She stopped. No. Tonight she was on her own. Lucky Mary! How she had smiled at the supper table as she looked into the faces of her mother and her father. And yet no awareness flashed in Mary’s perky blue eyes of how lucky she was. Mary had had a lacy bra for months and she didn’t even have anything. No matter. Ann loved Mary’s house because when she was there she could still be a kid. Card games. Board games. Barbie dolls still! They even jumped rope now and again. Truth or Dare was about as wild as they got.

Were the Garrisons the only family in Dunleith this cool?

Earlier, Mr. Garrison had relaxed on the red couch. A book balanced across one knee, one bare foot tucked under a thigh on the vinyl.

“You do that all the time? At home I mean?” Ann had asked.

“What?”

“You know. Read?”

Mr. Garrison seemed perplexed. “Well yes. Of course.”

Ann loved it. “I don’t think my dad ever sits and reads.”

“His loss, I say. What’s he do?

“Oh—works in the garage. He’s got this snowmobile. He’s always taking it apart.”

“In the warm months?”

“Hobby. And he fishes. And he hunts, like everyone else around here.” Ann nodded at the book. “What’s Mrs. Garrison say?”

“Carol?” Dave laughed and held the book aloft. “About reading?” Ann made out the words Civil War on the spine. He seemed to take a sober turn. “Carol doesn’t work. That is, for pay. She does housework all day.” He paused as though he were finished. Ann blinked, and John had taken the hint. “This is our arrangement. Our choice. She raises the kids. You know, Ann, once that’s all there was in this town. Staying home moms.”

“Yeah. I heard that once.”

Ann walked on. Soundless lightning continued to flash. How did “this arrangement” work, as Mr. Garrison had put it?

When Dave had driven home, he had thrown a lunchbox on the cabinet. He still wore his plant safety glasses. They enlarged his playful hazel eyes, so he exploited the moment to bug them at Mary and John and set them to giggles. “Hey Dad, look what I did at school!” John stood to attention. “First things first,” he had said as he bowed to peck his wife’s offered cheek. But Mrs. Garrison had turned and offered him her open mouth! Ann had to turn away; kissing, and right in front of her!

Mrs. Garrison! What a woman. So interesting. She dazzled Ann in loose sweats and headscarf as she went about doing housework. Where was the woman if she weren’t in the house?

Carol Garrison’s wooden spoon had kept time to her whistles when she prepared dinner. Ann so loved to watch! Mary and John took their mother for granted, so Ann devised methods to get the siblings to sit at the family’s metal dining table. Crazy Eights often succeeded. As Mrs. Garrison’s spoon splashed and churned a gestating dish, Ann had offered to help. Carol handed her the wooden spoon.

“What’s that? That song you’re whistling.” Ann couldn’t place such a lovely melody as Carol whistled being remotely akin to anything on popular radio. While she stirred a macaroni and hamburger concoction, Mrs. Garrison had sought a spice.

“Let me think. I don’t even know! Oh—it’s Dancing through the Gloaming. My mom loved that song.”

“Not exactly country or metal, huh?”

“Hardly.”

Ann’s eyes had lingered on Mrs. Garrison’s headscarf and sweat suit. The woman seemed to guess at her thoughts: “Not exactly a fashion queen, am I? Not what your ma wore today, I bet.”

“It don’t mean nothing. Least you know how to relax.”

Carol Garrison laughed at the concept of relaxation. “But listen: ‘It don’t mean nothing’ to me.” She took the spoon back but not before squeezing Ann’s knuckles. Ann had blushed.

Why was she such a kid about such things?

The lull in the wind became heavy, oppressive air. Always home. That’s how it worked. Ann’s brows moved closely together: Mary goes home every day from school and her mom is always there. Looking far forward again, shadows among trees and parked cars worked in and out as though someone played hide-and-seek. What was going on? A wind sighed and eddies of fall’s forgotten leaves swirled in circles as Ann passed through them. The lull settled heavily once more. The atmosphere was thick.

What about her own mother?

“Mine! I got it!” she had announced that day only a week past.

“Got what, Mom?”

“Ann? You’re here?

“Just got home. From school.”

“Never noticed. Anyway! Listen, Gar: I got it. The rock video will be filmed right here in Dunleith.”

“Shit, yeah! All right Ma!”

But complications had tripped at the heels of her mother’s news. At school the very next day Mary had information for Ann. “Them girls by the swing. You know, a grade down from us? You better get over there. They’re ripping your mom.”

“What do they say?”

“Some producer guy comes to town and goes to Ad Service. That’s where she works, right? They say it’s like—now, it ain’t me: your mom was like super sweet with someone to get the video here.” Mary raised her eyebrows at the word super. Ann had laughed. “They don’t know my ma. Too proud for that. And nobody’s been here yet. It’s all been phone calls. And a letter, and them faxes—”

“—tell them.”

Ann shrugged. “Forget it. It ain’t worth it. I know the truth. So there.”

Why had those girls said that? And why would they think anything different? The thoughts fell away till only a thick lump remained in the back of her throat. How much more soothing to think of life with the Garrisons while she still had this time to herself along an inclement walk home! She took a deep breath.

The Iowa air felt so tight Ann thought it might snap. Her ears buzzed and tapped as though another tread echoed her own. This time when she looked ahead no one was there, no shadows flitted out of sight. The mute lightning flashed as Ann strode regularly, metronomically to the song playing inside her heart. The air had become so heavy that even the streetlights seemed less bright, the circles of light below them dim.

A brilliant bolt of lightning lustered the neighborhood brighter than daylight. Ann braced herself for the thunderclap: there, like a length of heavy chain slithering off a tin roof to crash below, the thunder whissed and crackled and bottomed out into a blast that rattled her insides for seconds.

During the flash she had seen a familiar row of firs flanking the outsized wing of a white house. By daylight it was a friendly landmark, a pleasant dwelling that marked the last leg of her journey home. But how altered it had appeared in the brilliance, only to be hidden by shadows!

She shook her head to ward off fears. Why get skittish now? The firs. Had she seen something? The foot taps. Her child’s imagination took possession of her senses. She slowed. She watched her red jeans march her tennis shoes forward, forward. Her eyes yawned wide, her fingers clenching and unclenching. Another brilliant flash—!

She sprinted. As she pulled alongside the first fir, she leapt to hurdle a dark root that sprawled onto the sidewalk.

It rose to meet her.

In the interval of one second she gasped sharply, glimpsed a dark figure squatting in the trees like ugly truth, and fell like a shot. Her head slapped against the concrete, thundering, and her body somersaulted to rest like a rolling bean bag. Blackness and bursting stars fogged her consciousness. Her face rang as though an alarm clock had penetrated its right cheek.

She was aware of being moved and dragged quite quickly by the seat of her pants onto dewy grass. Then she felt prickly branches and a needley bed of clay. The ringing broke free of her face and flooded her head with pain. Ann’s fists clenched dry dead pine needles. She smelled clay. Where—? Darkness. And yet—yes. Although tears of shock blurred her vision, she perceived she lay on her stomach behind the row of firs. A fleeting notion that someone had come to her aid licked through her mind—but wait, the pants she wore felt loose and there was some sort of activity behind her. Disturbed birds in the tree boughs squawked like ravens as their wings skittered above her or behind her or—wait, her legs were cool—bare—and they were being lifted from behind . . . her thighs were clutched, forced apart or—wait, she tipped forward, her mouth took in pine needles, her legs far higher than her head, or—wait, what?

She gulped down a spasm of air. A new pain, a worse pain heaved up her bowels as blow after blow stabbed her from behind. Oh God, was she being stabbed? Forward and back her face rocked into the needles. The girl’s body stiffened and quivered. Stars burst in the corners of her eyes. Her temples rang—alarm bells—suffocation by pine needles . . . . Merciful blackness took her mind and her body fell limp.

And there loomed the front door of her house, the Lambert home. It were as though she were in some machine gun-edited movie: walk, attack, horror and blackness, and her front door. The girl stood on the porch steps sweating, shaking, and blotted with stains of red and brown. Her eyes were wide and formless like a Teddy bear’s, her hands like its fingerless stumps floundering at the door knob. Instinct told her: mailbox, key, enter. No one was home yet. Was she sleepwalking? Perhaps she—

—the bathroom. Yes, the bathroom. Her feet found the way. Automatically she dropped her red jeans. Ann stood alone in a circle of light in the middle of a vinyl floor. The incongruous sounds of her lungs’ respirations in a bathroom of unnatural plastic scents roused her. She threw her eyes down at herself. Then she screwed up her eyes at her reflection in the vanity mirror. It swayed drunkenly, steadied some, and became clear.

She tried to wonder out loud what it was she saw framed by lighted orbs like some grotesque marquee monster, but her throat caught a pocket of spit and all she could say sounded like “I?” A fir needle dropped from her lip. Her right cheek, though only scraped some, was black-blue with a sallow, yellow fringe as wide as a fist print. Her knees fibrillated. Dried blood smears patched whole regions of her inner thighs. Her groin throbbed: her heart seemed to have dropped to that region. A headache roared. Beneath the bruise and the dirt her face was goalie mask white.

“I?”

Bath. A bath. The all-curved scoop of a tub. Warmth. Foamy softness. Suspension and protection—she yearned and she acted. She was back, so she became naked. Ann rolled her filthy clothes into a ball. Completely nude, she walked to her room and shoved them far under her bed. It seemed essential. Returning, she drew the bath water and poured in bath soap. She listened for a moment to the steady rush of waters. One white buttock rested naked and chilled on the tub rim. In another moment she ceremoniously lowered her trembling body into the tub.

Never before had a bath felt so wonderful. She would be able to recall this moment for the remaining months of her life.

Ann was startled—she had dozed—and heard her parents and brother bustle into the home.

“She’s here,” said her mother, whether in relief or irritation impossible to tell. Her pumps thunked closer across carpet. “In the bathroom, of course!” She struck the bathroom door. “Where were you, Ann? We went out to eat, remember?”

Ann was about to speak but her mother continued. “Get outta there, quick! I gotta go!” Her pumps thumped down the carpeted hall. “One bathroom!”

Ann’s headache swelled and pounded. She sank deep inside the tub and tried to lie as still as possible in the now milky, lukewarm soap water that rose and fell as she breathed. Only her face protruded above the waterline, blanched and drained. Her eyes were blanks. The bruise had fast become a collage of blue, yellow, and crimson, a flowering isle of reality. The water surface rose and fell with her respiration and quivered minutely as the body within radiated vibrations.

Under the water line, Ann’s ears received her home’s noises. A television set’s tinny audio cast a backdrop against which a brother’s thumping stereo music throbbed. Trampling atop the media were the bumps and shuffles of family footsteps.

“Forget,” she said aloud. The house noises continued. “Forget,” she whispered. She tipped her fingers downwards and pushed against the tub floor to suspend her body. She pictured herself dissipating into peaceful limbo. Her fingers weakened. Then she allowed her entire body to immerse: face, ears, hair, everything. At the instant of immersion the stereo’s muffled thuds synchronized with her vaginal throbs. They met and pulsed as one and this frightened her. She gave up the fancy and emerged into light and noise.

“C’mon, c’mon, I gotta go!” shouted her mother. She knuckled the door. Ann heard a wind gust bump the outward facing bathroom window. She rose and she stood to drip. “I’m coming,” said Ann at last. Not today, she thought. Not this family. Just for that. I will not tell them what happened tonight.  A draft moved through the room and her body began to tremble again. She quickly dried herself off. Her jaw became hard and her small eyes tightened. The last thing she expected to be was angry.

When she emerged from the bathroom, robed, pale, the kiss of color splashed on her cheek brilliant and, at the same time, enigmatic, her mother was nowhere in sight. The girl’s legs were steadier now, but she had to walk softly and slightly bow-legged as achy echoes still kneaded at her groin. The hallway seemed to thud in time to her brother Gar’s stereo. She walked towards the front of the house and she thought of the tale she withheld from him and her mother both, and fiercely proud determination gripped the eleven year-old’s face.

She found her father sitting before a television set watching a basketball game. A stars-and-stripes hung in a coliseum and great digital numbers blazed a bank of zeros: the national anthem roared. Clark’s arm lay slack across a TV tray parked to his right. To either side of it were overturned fast-food packages, all empty. Ann’s groin surged pain as she realized that while she was attacked the rest of the family dined out, her whereabouts be damned.

“Finally!” It was her mother back in the hallway. The bathroom door slammed shut and the slide bolt clicked. Clark Lambert had started at the noise and he turned to notice his youngest child and only daughter for the first time that day. “Ann!” His large head sank backwards into the recliner. “Cripes! What happened?”

What was this? His brown eyes were huge with concern. Ann found her resolve to withhold information being tested as quickly as she had resolved it. She blinked misty eyes. Aches urged her to confess. But her father turned his eyes towards a husky voice: a television commercial featured undulating women that twirled and spun. The mist in her eyes evaporated.

“I fell down,” she said. He gave no response. She studied him as if for the first time: the man’s mouth hung slack and looked rather ridiculous, like the acne-pocked pubescent boys she and Mary Garrison thought to be so stupid at school. She stared at his massive, curly-haired head.

“Well—” he flustered, shaking the head and staring at the television screen. “—well that’s what happens young lady.” He seemed in danger of forgetting his words even as they dropped off his tongue. “If you’d . . . gotten home from school right away. . . right away, now—” He could not complete his sentence. The ad concluded in a skin-toned flourish. He shook his head as if to clear the image and he shrugged. “Get a bandage. You better clean it up.”

A trace of enjoyment appeared along the right half of Ann’s lips as she strode back up the home’s central hallway and opened a closet door, ignoring what the straight, broad strides wreaked on her torn body. How easy he had made her decision after all! Someday soon, someday soon, she thought: they’ll know. She stuck a gauze square to her cheek with medical tape knowing how absurdly ineffective it would look with the blue-blacks and yellows spilling out around it.

The toilet valve hissed, the bathroom door opened, and her mother stepped into the hallway. “Ann!” she cried.

Tammany Lambert—Tam to everyone but her three children—still wore the red dress she had worn to work that day. A recent, highly fluffed permanent erected her hair ceilingward. It was formed into a wind-blown effect after a soap opera siren she admired. She wore black eye liner and was among only a handful of women her age in Dunleith who justified the trend. In the hallway it was quite black and caught brilliant highlights. Her lipstick and nail polish were a reddish orange. Any male would have appreciated the sight. And two chins below Mrs. Lambert stood her daughter in her white cotton robe: pale, thick-set, some would say homely. She had planted herself squarely on her feet.

Somehow the mere sight of her mother put Ann in complete control of her pain. A strange and trivial observation surfaced and she almost spoke the words: she knew where her mother’s wrinkles were and where her body wore subtle sags. Only now she knew she knew.

“I fell down, Mom.”

Tammany regarded her daughter. A manicured index finger lightly brushed Ann’s pathetically covered wound. She cocked her head slightly, her eyes askance; it was a typical pose of hers, a non-verbal message of calculation.  “I see,” she said. “And where were you?”

“At Mary’s. The Garrisons, you know.”

“Don’t you know you should’ve been home sooner? If you wanted to eat out, that is.”

Ann did not answer but she did not turn away from her mother’s stare. How doubly easy it was to harden in front of her, to lie, to hold this trump card! And her mother took the silence for admission of blame. Silly woman!

“Well as for supper, if you want something you’ll have to get it yourself.”

“Yeah, I know that.”

Tammany walked away.

Ann retired early. Nobody questioned her even though it was shortly before eight o’-clock. In her room, in the darkness, on her bed next to the window, her blood-and soil-stained clothes directly under her bed on the floor, she watched lightning flashes and heard the sighs of moist but turgid breezes as they eddied around neighborhood trees. Her cheek still stung and her body ached and throbbed. Only her headache had subsided.  No one to defy. No one to hide the truth from here. The girl’s resolve lowered, her eyes flooded, and her pillow grew damp to either side of her face. She did not really want to hide the truth and to carry this burden around with her. She just wanted the right kind of world to let it out into. When should she play the trick—tomorrow? A few days? A week? When the family first treated her like a human being? When would that be? A trump card held in reserve is a burden until it is played.

So bad. I feel so bad, she thought.

She sank into merciful sleep while a great March windstorm began. When it peaked Ann Lambert did not awaken from her dreams.

[END chapter 1] Click here to purchase the remainder at Amazon. If you don’t have a Kindle, click here to get a free app for your device/computer.

Click here to review cover illustrator Liza Paizis’s other beautiful work.

One thought on ““Ready or Not” Chapter 1

  1. Pingback: Exposing Myself | Todd Ehlers – Author Site

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