At night Josh heard sounds coming from their room. A whimper, a moan, a stunted groan. He would have loved the luxury of pleasuring himself, matching his rhythm with theirs, climaxing with them, and then feeling disgusted in the moment of self-awareness when he realized how and what they were doing and what it meant to his own existence. But those sounds were never of pleasure, nor were they natural. The sounds meant that in the morning his mother would not look him or his sister in the eye if she even came down the stairs. They meant that he would get the cereal box down, make the lunches and get Janie to school. He would then do the dishes, hunched over the sink like an old man, water soaking his clothes, soap making rainbow patterns as it drained. He would be late to school and the teacher would look at him with a stern eye, but never ask questions.
He went to school every day in the normal uniform, rock band t-shirt, jeans, checkered Vans on his feet. He was quiet, but distantly popular with all the girls in his classes, his blonde hair shining, his painful smile stirring their young hearts making them wish to touch his face and ease him somehow. He somehow wished that he could let them touch him, let them into his life, but he knew that would taint them, poison their lives like his had been. He longed to feel their hair, the silky touch whispering against his cheek, the smell of their shampoo caressing his senses.
Josh was a good student, getting mostly A’s. He wanted to escape, to go away to college and knew that good grades were his best chance. He wasn’t a fantastic athlete, and was unable to play music, so he studied, deftly moving from one subject to the next. His father would try to get him to throw a football after he came home from work, but Josh would ignore him. Everything about his father made his stomach clench, but he could never let him know that.
Everything must appear normal.
His only concern was for Janie. She was small even for her age, her dimples quick to appear when playing with her Barbie or looking in on him while he was studying. She shone through his heart, expelling the dark places that had taken root. His father had yet to visit her room as he did Josh’s but Josh knew that he would, especially if he were gone. He couldn’t figure out a way to take her with him when he finally left, but he kept trying.
He crept home that day, dreading the void face of his mother. He knew that she would be sitting in her chair in front of the TV, smoking her long thin cigarettes, watching the Lifetime Network. She always seemed to like the movies about women who empowered themselves, living through beatings and rapes to become successes. Her favorites were the ones where the woman gets revenge, killing her husband, hunting down her rapist, finding her husband’s adulterous love letters. She seemed to get no joy from anything but those movies.
Janie was already home, coloring a picture of Abraham Lincoln at the kitchen table. She smiled at him quickly and returned to her homework, already knowing to be quiet on days that mom was watching Lifetime. Josh went upstairs, placed his backpack neatly next to his desk and took out his homework for the night. He organized everything, math (his least favorite subject) on top of the pile so that he could get it over with. Science on the bottom, ready for after he made dinner. Lifetime nights meant that he had to make dinner or today would be repeated indefinitely.
He took out two boxes of macaroni and cheese, put water in a pot to boil, and got a salad bag and some hamburger out of the fridge. He wondered why his father never said anything about hamburger and macaroni nights. Mom was a good cook, most of the time. Those nights that Josh cooked were obvious. While the water boiled he set the table around Janie and sliced onions and tomatoes for the hamburgers. He toasted buns, and set out dressing, catchup and mustard, setting the table with the napkins on the right side of the plates , and arranged the knives and forks. He checked the freezer for ice cream. His father always insisted on a dessert, regardless of the weight he carried around his waist. He timed dinner to be ready for when his father got home. Cold dinner was disastrous.
His father insisted that they all sit down to eat together. His mother would come to the table on Lifetime nights slowly, shuffling her feet, a smile painted on her face. She would ask about everyone’s day, and Janie always had a story to tell. Most of the time it was about her class’s pet hamster, Henry. Josh liked stories about Henry. They were safe. But that night she told a story about Abraham who picked his nose in class. Josh started to cringe, not wanting to look at his father’s face knowing that he would be seething, nostrils flared. He knew what subjects were acceptable and which ones were not. He tried to kick Janie under the table, to give her a signal, but she just glared at him and continued on.
“And he looks at them for a really, really, really long time,” she said, with wonder in her voice, a mystery that she could never understand.
Josh kept his face down, looking at his plate. He knew he had to stop her, had to save her from her innocence. He frantically wished for an earthquake, a hailstorm, his father to have a heart attack, anything. Finally, he looked at his milk glass (his father insisted they drink milk at every dinner), and deliberately spilled it. He watched the glass tip, balancing on its thin edge as if were resisting its fall, finally surrendering and spattering all over the sparkling mahogany table. He ducked down further in his chair, waiting. His father turned to him, neck snapping around, eyes malevolent. Josh got up from the table without a word, going to his room to sit on his bed. He heard Janie’s smaller, lighter steps on the on the stairs, heard her door close, heard her singing I’m a Little Teapot. He could hear the chair scrape back from the table, and the heavy tread of his father. He heard his mother move back into her chair in front of the television, the squeak of the springs of her warm place of refuge. The steps groaned under his father’s weight, and Josh counted as he father rose. Ten steps up to the landing, five steps down the hall, six more until his room. He heard his father stop at his door, pausing for a long moment. Josh dug his fingers into his palms, his spine curved, his arms around his knees, hugging himself. He watched his door, waiting for the sound of its creaking hinges as his father slowly opened the door, rolling up his sleeves.
The door never opened.
He heard his father move on, and for a moment Josh thought that his father had come to realize that he was killing his only son, that he had killed any love that Josh had ever had for him. He got slowly up from his bed to look out his door, and felt his belly let loose as he saw his father at Janie’s door, sleeves already rolled up.