UPDATE (10/8/18): My short story “Be A Good Girl” was originally published in Cold Creek Review’s Issue 3 (September 2017). Since their website is currently down, I’m posting the full story here for you to read. If their website is reactivated, I’ll post the appropriate links. In the meantime, enjoy my story!
Be a Good Girl
by Cameron L. Mitchell
Kate woke that morning with a start, haunted by a single thought: there are some things you can never take back. Things that happen in the deepest, loneliest part of night, when everything is so perfectly still and quiet that each creaking sound the bed makes is like a gunshot ringing out in the dark. Things you can’t forget, no matter how hard you try – a story untold, trapped in your fingertips.
She jumped out of bed and ran to the crib, looking down at her sleeping child. “No one will ever hurt you,” Kate promised.
Today is an important day, so of course she’d wake up thinking about the past. She and her sister Beth will be together again. These family visits occur so rarely. Kate dreads it, actually, and considers pulling over at the next exit to turn around. She tries to shake it off, to think of something else. She’s a good girl, she tells herself, transformed by motherhood in a way no one expected. That has to count for something.
When she first learned she was pregnant, a moment of panic took hold. She hadn’t been kind to her body over the years – she hadn’t been kind to it over the last few days. Could glass after glass of red wine do much damage in the first trimester? What about the cigarettes and occasional joint? The only thing that managed to slow her racing heart was the fact that she’d given up the really hard stuff months before. No more cocaine nights. She had the boys to thank for that. With their twenties winding down, they suddenly felt too old to be sitting in a circle on Friday nights snorting lines from the small mirror Kate had taken from her bedroom wall. Greg wanted a quieter life, one that didn’t involve turning into a dried-up coke-head. “You gotta know when to stop,” he said. Joe agreed, and Kate followed their lead, as she often did.
Soon, however, the boys disappeared. It’s funny how life swallows up friends. A few months into her pregnancy, Greg decided to move across the country to be closer to his family. He needed a change, something big. Joe stayed behind, never bothering to find a new roommate to help cover the bills. Their relationship was always hard to define. Joe withdrew more and more. It must have been hard to see everyone in their old gang except for Greg, the one who mattered most.
So for most of the pregnancy, the boys weren’t around. They would have been proud to see what a good girl she’s become. Well, Greg is proud, or so he says in an e-mail here and there. “No wine?” he asked during one of their occasional phone calls. “None at all?”
“None,” Kate answered. “The day I found out, I bagged up what I had and took it downstairs to Mike.”
“And no cigarettes either?”
“Nope. I flushed them down the toilet.”
“Wow, that’s great,” he said, somewhat unconvincingly. “I can’t imagine you without a glass of red. It seems so wrong.”
“It’s not like I’m an alcoholic or something.”
An awkward silence stretched between them before Greg finally said he had to go.
She showed them. She gave it all up. Maybe she went overboard with soda and coffee, but she heard caffeine was bad for the baby. As for pick-me-ups, she allowed herself an occasional mug of green tea in the morning, but nothing else.
It wasn’t so hard, not for Kate. In a way, she feels she cheated by trading old addictions for new obsessions. She fed on the need to do right, giving up all vices for the baby growing inside. In those early days, she closed her eyes and laid a hand across her stomach, imagining the tiny life swimming inside her womb: she could see the limbs expanding by the day, the oversized head getting larger, and its thin, translucent skin glowing in the darkness. It was her little peanut, her sole creation – a life’s work made possible by the sacrifice for something good.
If only it was her sole creation. She had Tom to thank for helping with the conception. Though she found him silly and ill-equipped to be a father, she could never be angry with him. It’s not like he asked to be a parent. And it’s not like she ever pictured them getting married and being a family, even though he did ask. He thought it was the right thing to do, but Kate didn’t see the point. Her relationship with Tom was never that serious.
Her phone suddenly rings beside her. “Hello,” she answers.
“Where are you?” Beth asks.
“On the interstate.”
“Well I’d hope so, but where?”
“Passing through Statesville.” She’s actually about twenty minutes from Statesville, but she hopes this will shut her sister up.
“I thought you’d be here by now,” Beth says. “If you’d left first thing in the morning, we could be having lunch.”
“I know, sorry,” Kate says. “But Grace was cranky this morning.” She looks in the rearview mirror at her wide-eyed daughter.
“Don’t blame the baby,” Beth says. “I have two kids and still manage to be on time.”
“I’ll be there soon.”
“Meet me at Mom and Dad’s.”
“Can I stop by your place first?” Kate asks cautiously.
“Well, if you’d left earlier.”
“I’m coming straight to your house,” Kate says. “We need to talk.”
“You always need to talk.”
“So you’ll be there?”
“Fine,” Beth says. “Just hurry.”
“Alright – bye!” She hangs up before her sister can change her mind. It’s important that they have time to talk before visiting their parents. Beth can be difficult, but Kate needs her this time. She doesn’t understand why they don’t get along. As little girls, they couldn’t be separated, but something changed as they got older. The classic overachiever, Beth had to be a part of everything, from cheerleading to the debate club, while Kate slouched her way through school. Settling in with the goths and wannabe hippies, Kate wore loose denim overhauls and flannel shirts, hoping to disappear in the crowd. Beth, on the other hand, tried to stand out as the shining star of the family. It’s just too bad she always seemed annoyed by everything Kate did.
Beth isn’t all that bad, though. She’s just different. Since high school, they’ve each had roles to play, and they continue playing them to this day. Even though she’s the younger sister, Beth is the one their parents have come to depend on. Beth went to a nearby state college so she could visit home almost every weekend. After graduating, she moved back to their hometown and got a job teaching at the same elementary school she attended as a child. She even married her high school sweetheart and popped out two perfectly adorable kids. Everything happened right on schedule. When their mother had the mastectomy and all those nightmarish rounds of chemo, it was Beth who stayed with her night and day. Kate visited a couple of times but mostly stayed out of the way.
After finishing high school, Kate traipsed across the state with a girlfriend, wanting to get as far from her family as possible. Since moving to a place like New York seemed unrealistic, Kate settled on Raleigh. She partied a lot in those days, but she always supported herself, refusing to ask anyone in her family for help even when she desperately needed it. She lived on ramen noodles and whatever free meals she got while waiting tables. Eventually, she got a decent job at a department store in Chapel Hill and decided to move there, leaving her high school friend behind. Before long, she became manager of the women’s department and is still amazed she makes more money than her sister ever will as a teacher. No one expected that.
Kate has done well for herself but wants to do even better now that she has Grace. Raising a baby alone is hard. This trip home is a way of testing the waters. She really needs her family’s support but isn’t sure she can leave certain things in the past. That’s why it’s important for her to see her sister alone, though they haven’t been close in some time. What remains of their relationship depends on the things they don’t say. Still, Kate has so many questions. She needs Beth to fill in the blanks. She needs someone to tell her why.
As she pulls into the driveway, her sister emerges through the screen door holding a dish towel. Kate grins at her through the windshield, noticing that Beth has put on weight. While not exactly obese, she’s filled out and seems broader. Standing on the porch with her legs spread wide, she looks as stout as a bull.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Beth says as Kate pulls Grace out of the car seat in back. “I’ve gotten fat.”
“No you haven’t,” Kate says. “Besides, you’ve had two kids, and you’re not a teenager anymore.”
“Where are the kids?”
“I dropped them off with Mom,” she says, gently taking her niece out of Kate’s arms. “How are you, baby doll? Aren’t you just the cutest thing ever?”
“She’ll probably nap. Long drives put her out.” Kate grabs her diaper bag and follows her sister inside the house. It’s odd, she thinks, how they never hug. They never really touch at all.
While Beth busies herself in the kitchen, Kate changes the baby’s diaper in the living room. “So,” she calls out, “how’s Mom?”
“She’s fine. Excited you’re moving back.”
“I’m not sure about that yet,” Kate says.
“You know it’s for the best.” Beth continues talking without turning around. “I have Jerry here, Mom and Dad down the road, and I still drive myself crazy.”
“That’s just the way you are.”
“Well, in my defense, Jerry plants himself in front of that TV almost every single day after work,” Beth says. “You can imagine how much help he is.”
It’s amusing to watch Beth clean her dishes so fastidiously, holding each one up to the light as she scrubs away spots and smudges left behind by the dishwasher. Grace has already fallen asleep, as Kate expected. She looks around and sees a crib in the corner. “Can I put Grace in your crib?”
“Of course,” Beth says. “That’s why I got it out. When you move back, you can have it.”
“I already have one.” Kate tries to ignore Beth’s assumption that she’s made up her mind about the move. “What, no more kids for you?”
“Lord no. I’m done.”
Once the baby is down, Kate heads back to the kitchen. She stares at Beth, unsure of how to start.
“What is it?”
“I need to ask you about something.”
“Dad,” Kate answers, standing behind one of the wooden chairs, gripping its back with both hands.
“He’s fine,” Beth says. “Doesn’t get around so well these days. Mom survived cancer, but he wouldn’t make it a week without her.”
“Do you ever leave the girls with him?”
“Sure,” Beth says. “I leave them there all the time.”
“Do you ever leave them alone with him? Just him?”
Holding a glass in midair, Beth drops her gaze down and shoots Kate an icy stare. “What exactly are you getting at? If you just came to stir up trouble, you shouldn’t have bothered.”
“I didn’t come to start anything,” Kate assures her. “I just, uh, wanted to talk about some stuff. About us growing up, things that happened.”
“What things do you think happened?”
“Do you have anything to drink?”
“I thought you quit.”
“I did,” Kate answers.
“Still like a glass of red?”
“That’d be great.”
Beth walks over to the counter and pulls the cork from a previously opened bottle of wine. She pours them both a glass and sits down at the table, nodding for Kate to take a seat.
“We both prefer red wine,” Beth comments. “Isn’t that funny?”
“Red,” she says, dangling the glass in front of her face like she’s hiding behind it. “Just like your hair.”
Kate takes a sip. “Yes, I still keep my hair red.”
“Ever since your sophomore year,” Beth adds. “It looks nice.”
“Thanks.” Kate’s unaccustomed to compliments from her sister. Then again, her family seems to think she’s finally turned a corner in her life. As for her hair, anyone who didn’t know her when she was a little girl has no idea red isn’t her natural color. It’s because of her green eyes and the spray of freckles dotting her face. Her true hair color is a dull and somewhat mousy brown. Looking up, she’s surprised to see Beth staring at her so directly, waiting for her to continue. Usually, Beth is more than willing to fill such awkward silences with mindless chatter. Kate takes a deep breath. “Remember how none of our friends wanted to come to our house? Don’t you think that’s odd?”
“Your friends were freaks,” Beth answers. “And my friends were too prissy. They had more money than us, cars, bigger houses.”
Kate glances down. “They didn’t want to come over because of Dad.”
“Dad? He had nothing to do with it.”
“Maybe your friends were more discreet,” Kate says. “Remember Angela?”
“That girl with the nose ring?”
“Yeah. She told me our father was a pervert. She said he constantly stared at her and was always finding a reason to touch her.”
“And of course you believed her,” Beth says. “You would believe anyone over your own family. That’s just the way you were.”
“I’m not saying he raped little girls,” Kate continues. “But, come on. Remember the way he was with us? When you first started cheerleading and had your brand new skirt, green and white like our school colors? He just had to sit you down on his lap. He was basically drooling.”
“That’s disgusting,” Beth says, pushing away from the table to go over to the fridge. With her back to Kate, she asks, “Do you want a cigarette?”
“Sure. I didn’t know you smoked.”
“I don’t,” Beth says. “These are Jerry’s.”
Kate peeks at the crib in the living room. “Should we go outside?”
“No, I’ll open a window.” Once she returns to the table, she hands Kate a cigarette along with a lighter. The first puff is harsh against Kate’s throat, making her cough a little. She watches as Beth lights up, inhaling a deep drag. For someone who doesn’t smoke, she appears perfectly adept.
“Why do you think I stopped wearing dresses? He always had to see you up close, with those giant, rough hands on your thighs,” Kate says, surprising herself by being so blunt.
“Would you stop it? We had a fine childhood,” Beth insists, looking off to the side. “You stopped wearing dresses because you always had to be different. Sad and mopey – starved for attention.”
“Do you leave the girls alone with him?”
“They weren’t perfect,” Beth says, “but neither were you.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Because,” Kate says, searching for an explanation. “I don’t want him near Grace. I don’t want him to ruin her like he ruined us.”
“How exactly is that supposed to work? What, we go over there, but you’ll insist on Dad being locked away in the bedroom like some criminal? Or better yet, why don’t we just call him now and tell him to leave? That you can’t have him ruining his own grandchild? How’s that?”
“I know this is hard to hear –
“You don’t know a damned thing!”
Kate doesn’t know what to say. She reaches out to touch her sister’s hand but quickly withdraws it without making contact. “I wish things were different, I do.”
“Just stop it,” Beth says, smashing her cigarette out in the ashtray. “Please.”
“Do you leave the girls alone with him?”
“No, ok? Mom’s always there, and if she’s not, I stay away.” Beth takes a moment to catch her breath. “Are you happy? Is that what you came here for? To rub it in my face, our family’s … dysfunction? To brag about how you got away? Well here you are, crawling back, so it couldn’t have been all that bad.”
“I don’t want him near her.”
“They’re expecting us.”
“We could call,” Kate suggests. “We could have Mom come here.”
“We could do a lot of things.” Beth stares out the window. A dark shadow has fallen across her face. Kate wonders whether she should have said anything or not. Beth pulls a strand of hair behind her ear, reminding Kate of that night years ago, before either one of them were mothers, when they were simply sisters – two young girls, sharing a bedroom.
In the middle of the night, Beth crawled into Kate’s bed. They hugged each other at first but quickly broke into a fit of giggles as one of them started a tickle fight. They squealed, begging each other to knock it off. Panting, lying face to face, they stared at each other and started playing another game.
Well, you’re growing up fast, Kate said in her deepest voice. She ran her hands through Beth’s hair. Let Daddy get a good look at his most favorite girl.
Beth giggled. But Father, I thought Kate was your favorite?
Daddy can have two favorite girls, Kate said. Both of my girls are special. And only special, sweet girls get to sit on Daddy’s lap.
Awkwardly, Beth rubbed Kate’s shoulder. The only light came from the window between their beds. Unusually bright, the moon cast a bluish tint across their room. Kate reached out and caressed her sister’s blue, alien face. Giggles gave way to an uneasy silence. Hands crawled over bodies, inching across legs, pressing the crusty scab on one knee. Whose knees are these? Kate might have asked.
The roaming hands had a mind of their own. Nightgowns were pushed out of the way. Little was left unexplored as small fingers poked and prodded, tracing circles across skinny thighs. Minty toothpaste breath was blown back and forth as hands warmed what was once cold. Soft and paper-thin, there were pieces so delicate they almost begged to be gripped harder. Desperately, they held on tight, afraid to let go.
Before they quite understood what was happening, it was done.
Beth jumped out of Kate’s bed and crossed their room, looking over her shoulder one last time before hopping into her own bed. The sad, startled look on her face is something Kate will never forget. It makes it hard to look at her, even now.
Maybe it’s normal. They were young and curious, and maybe it had nothing to do with their father. Still, Kate feels a deep shame. She’s the older sister. She should have known better. The look of defeat on her sister’s face that night – it’s the same look she has now.
“Nothing,” Kate answers. “I was just thinking of Greg and Joe.”
“Those two gay guys?”
“Yeah,” she says. “We’d get drunk or high and tell our stories, trying to one-up each other.”
“Did you often win?”
“We were pretty evenly matched,” Kate says. She never told them about that night with her sister. She’s never told anyone. It would have shocked them, she thinks. She would have won the game once and for all. The idea of winning – it’s a funny thought.
Kate takes a deep breath and stands, heading into the living room to get Grace.
“Are you leaving?”
“No,” Kate says. “I mean, yes. We should get over to Mom and Dad’s.”
“Do you want another cigarette?”
“No, I’ll be ok,” Kate answers. “I don’t want to pick it up again.” As she returns to the kitchen, holding Grace’s head against her shoulder, she offers Beth a smile.
“Are you going to be nice to Dad?”
“I don’t know,” Kate answers truthfully.
They decide to take Kate’s car since it has Grace’s seat in back. Kate lets Beth drive. After pulling out of the driveway, Kate asks, “Do you ever feel like you don’t know what you’re doing?”
“All the time.”
“When we were little, I remember thinking Mom and Dad knew everything,” Kate continues. “No matter what, they had the answer. I couldn’t wait to grow up and be on my own. I thought being an adult meant that you’d always know what to do. But here I am, and I don’t know a thing. I still feel like a little girl waiting for it to happen.”
“Maybe they didn’t really know what they were doing either,” Beth says. “You just do the best you can.”
“Maybe.” After a moment, Kate adds, “I hate him. Sometimes I think I hate them both.”
Beth has no response. She keeps her eyes on the road ahead.
When they reach their parents’ home, no one comes out to greet them. The baby is a little fussy when Kate pulls her out of the car seat. “Shh, it’s ok,” Kate whispers, pushing the door shut with her hip.
Beth enters first, announcing their arrival. Her daughters push past their mother and surround Kate, reaching up to pet the baby’s legs. She promises to let them hold her later. She can’t believe how big her nieces have gotten. Kate greets her mother, who’s busy washing dishes at the sink.
“Have you girls been smoking?”
Kate and Beth look at each other, grinning conspiratorially.
“Don’t wait twenty years to quit like your daddy,” their mother says. “That stuff will kill you. I’ve been after Jerry to quit, at least for the sake of his kids.”
“Don’t worry,” Beth says. “Jerry will quit when he’s good and ready.”
“Mm-hmm,” she mumbles. “Kitty, go in there and show that baby to your daddy. I can’t believe he’s not seen her yet.”
No one’s called her Kitty in years. She hates the old pet name but doesn’t say anything. Mothers will always be mothers. “He could have come with you when she was born,” Kate says, quietly.
“Yeah, right,” she huffs, wiping her hands. She comes closer and pats Grace’s head. “He won’t move off that couch in there.”
Kate walks to the living room where Beth has already settled in the beat-up old recliner that’s been around as long as she can remember. On each side of their father sits one of Beth’s girls, all smiles and freckles and skinny, bare legs. The skin around her father’s neck looks droopy, and the lines across his forehead have deepened with time. Despite having gone completely grey, his hair is thick and shaggy. Looking at him with the girls, Kate feels like she might be sick. Her mouth has gone completely dry. She could still turn back, running away for good this time.
“Well hey there Kitty,” her father says in that deep, unchanged voice. “Bring that baby over here.”
Kate takes one slow, uncertain step at a time. Beth stares at her, nervously waiting for whatever happens next.
“Come on,” her father says, reaching his greedy hands up. “Let me see her.”
She passes Grace down. “Be a good girl,” Kate whispers, surprised she still has a voice.
He cradles the baby in his lap, beaming with pride.