I can hear the asphalt beneath my shoes, the shush shush of the rain, and the humming of cars on the nearby highway. I try to concentrate on those sounds—sounds that are my business. But something is whispering to me; it’s a cacophony of heart, lungs, and mind, topped by the anguished screams of a baby.
I follow the cries to the crack house. Not to the door, but to a window where I can see yellow light escaping from between the drapes. I know that Mo is beneath my feet, cooking meth in the basement. That’s what he does at night. Meth which he does not use, but sells, which is probably the smartest way to go about it. Except his baby is upstairs screaming, and he can’t hear him. Maybe the baby hurt himself … Maybe…
I press my gaze between the curtains; the sliver of space doesn’t afford me much of a look around the room. I can see a bed, and for a moment I feel relief. Little Mo is not alone. His mother is kneeling among the rustled sheets, her narrow back to me, a long braid trailing down her back. Her name is Vola. She is slender and exotic, Polynesian, Mo once told me. She is always screaming at Mo, and Mo is always screaming at her. Sometimes they take their screaming to the street; Vola always has the car keys in her hand as she threatens to leave Mo for good. Mo throws her clothes on the lawn in armfuls: yellows and purples fluttering onto the weed-stricken lawn, like confetti. He screams to get the fuck out of here, and that she’s a fucking slut, and that she’s going to fucking get hers if she tries to leave him. Her response is always silence. It seems more profound than Mo’s yelling, like she’s better than his cheap, slovenly used swear words. And Mo seems to get her message, because after that he starts to yell ‘What? You think you’re better than me, you bitch? Get out of here.’ Sometimes she leaves for a while. Goes to stay with her mother in Seattle. But the next week her car is back, and they’re groping each other in the driveway—his hand up her shirt, her grinding into him with such force it looks like she’s trying to wrestle him to the ground.
Vola is not from the Bone. You can tell. Mo met her at a bar in Seattle. None of us really know her, and she has no desire to know any of us. I tilt my head to get a better look at the bed. My breath is frosting the window. I wipe away the condensation carefully, and then steeple all ten fingers against the glass to steady myself as I lean in. Mo is playing music from the basement. It rattles the windows, but even that is not enough to drown out the cries of the baby. Maybe he’s sick. Maybe he’s…
At first I don’t understand what I am seeing. My brain takes a moment to catch up—sluggish, processing through thick confusion. And my view, so obstructed! I could be wrong. Then everything goes too fast: my breathing, my heart, my thoughts. All jumbled, slamming into each other ‘til I feel dizzy.
Vola’s head is bent over something. I watch as she lifts her hand again, and again, and again. She’s hitting something. A pillow, I tell myself. She had a fight with Mo, and she’s hitting a pillow. I’ve done that, exacting revenge on a pillow in the name of a school bully or my mother. Beating and beating until my knuckles were tender and my anger felt dry. But I know it’s not true, because I can’t see the baby through the slats in his crib. Vola leans back suddenly, and I can see Little Mo. He’s lying on his stomach, his head lifted, his face red from the screaming, wet from his tears. He cries so hard that he exhausts himself and stops crying, resting his head on its side and closing his eyes, his little back moving up and down as he takes big, gasping breaths.
As soon as his eyes close, Vola reaches out a hand and pinches him on the leg so hard, I flinch. His head rears up, and he starts again, his face shiny and swollen. I am frozen. I watch as Vola lifts a pillow and slams it into his head. His face bounces off the sheet, and he jerks up, his belly carrying the weight as his head and feet lift. He is shaking, and she is so calm. I don’t understand. I feel as if I am missing something, but there is nothing to miss. I am witness to something sinister. As soon as Little Mo has recovered from the pillow, Vola slaps him again, this time with so much force he rolls onto his back.
I can’t … I can’t…
I fall back from the window, gasping, my heart struggling behind my ribcage like a wounded animal. I hear a noise, and look up, trying to regulate my breathing. A crow is perched on the roof of the house just above my head. Its oiled feathers melt into the darkness of the sky, but I can see its outline, the sharpness of its curved beak. It’s looking at me, cocking its head this way then that. It caws at me as if to tell me something, then lifts its wings and flies away.
My soul reacts. It’s a deep awakening of something I thought was dead. My brain says: You’re going to lose control. You’re going to lose control. You’re going to lose control. And my brain may be right, but what do I care? How has keeping control ever benefitted me? Something else is speaking too. There is another voice—primitive, soft, foreign. The words don’t make sense, but then they also do. Go, go, go. It says. Do, do, do. Soul speak. I look for the crow to see what he says, but he is long gone. The longer I linger out here, the more she hurts Mo.
My heart roars. Lub dub, lub dub. I am at the front door. Lub dub, lub dub, lub dub. I test the knob. Why is it open? Lub dub, lubdublubdub. I step inside. Close it softly. Lub dub, lub dub. The baby’s car seat is abandoned on the floor, lying on its side, and her keys are on the floor next to it, like she dropped them there in a hurry. In her hurry, she forgot to lock the door—something Mo would not take kindly to. His business needed locked doors, and guns, and thugs. Where were his thugs? The house is empty. Lubdublubdublubdub. I walk through the kitchen. Messy counters: food, plates, cat hair. A giant spider scuttles up a bottle of vegetable oil and sits on its lid. The house smells like pot and cigarette smoke and mold. Same as the eating house, minus the pot. A steak knife covered in mayo lays on the counter. No. Too messy. I follow the hallway to a door I believe is Vola’s and Mo’s. I’m emotionless, calm. For a moment I stare down at the brass knob. I can see my reflection on its surface. It’s warm when my hand touches it. It’s smooth when my hand turns it. She doesn’t see me right away; she’s too focused on what she’s doing—beating the crap out of a baby.
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