In response to the flash fiction writing challenge at Chuck Wendig’s phenomenal blog.
The first time, the slap comes out of the blue. One minute he is shouting about how the boy is useless, the room is a disgrace, it’s the same story time after time. Then his arm flies up and out before recoiling in on its parabola and smashing across the back of the boy’s head. “Fucking useless!” he whispers and swings again. Churned saliva flies out of his mouth and lands in the boy’s eyes. Tears well up around the impurity.
Dad sits on the beanbag and asks the boy which story he wants to read tonight. The boy selects Dad’s favourite, the one that always makes him laugh. The boy sits between Dad’s legs. Warm. Protected. Happy. Dad begins to read. The boy is happy. He listens to the shape of the words in Dad’s mouth. He feels the throb of Dad’s heart, punching through the layers of vest, shirt, jersey, dressing gown, pyjama top. He looks up at Dad’s face. The love he feels is all consuming. So much that it hurts.
Dad looms above the torn artwork that the boy had brought home from school. He is shouting. The room is a mess again. Toys, books, clothes have been left lying on the floor. Something’s broken. Dad says that if the boy is going to break things, then he’s going to do the same. He shreds the painting the boy has worked on all week at school for father’s day. A boy, his dad, a story.
In the park. Dad kicks the new football to the boy. The boy laughs as Dad falls over. Until Dad shouts at him. In that voice. This is not home; this is the park. There are other people here. They look over and then look quickly away. The boy knows that this is not good. He feels embarrassed. No. He feels ashamed. Of himself. He does not know what to do. He stands there. He feels his bladder go.
The boy’s seventh birthday. Dad wakes him up early and takes him downstairs. Dad has made his favourite breakfast. Pancakes and maple syrup. Freshly squeezed orange juice. Dad sits there and watches him eat it, smiling. The boy is tense. The moment is special. The house is quiet and time and space are shared only between him and Dad. But at the same time, the moment is fragile. One dropped fork, one fallen crumb, one sticky hand on the table. This is all it takes. The boy knows this. The boy knows this so well.
Wednesday. The evening meal. Dad has made an effort to get back from work to join them. Food is put on plates. Tonight they eat in silence. All of the boy’s toys are in the attic. Which is what happens when children don’t tidy up. They are dragged out of bed and beaten with a slipper. And at the weekend, everything tis bagged up and put out of reach. Everything. Then they are shouted at again. Hard hands are raised in threatened blows and small hands are raised as defensive shields. Tonight they are eating fish. The boy hates fish, but he eats everything. He knows what happens if he doesn’t. If he forces the food down, it doesn’t hurt. If Dad has to force the food down for him, he squeezes his jaws so tight they feel as if they are going to crack.
The boy likes school. At school, nobody hits you. Nobody swears at you. Things that cause big problems at home do not seem to be so serious at school. The first time he’d wet his pants when he knocked the paint over. Nothing happened. Sometimes this confuses the boy. Sometimes teachers ask the boy questions. Is everything OK at home, they want to know. The boy wishes everything was OK at home, so he says yes. Everything is not OK at home. Because he cannot behave properly. Because he makes life so difficult for everyone. His face crumples. With shame; with sadness.
The boy is against the wall. His feet are above the floor. What is holding him against the wall is Dad’s hands. They are around his throat. The boy is trying to understand what he has done wrong. But Dad is shouting about one thing and then another. The boy is crying. He cannot breathe. The tears roll down his cheek and splash on Dad’s shirt. They pool out in the fabric like fireworks. He sees sparks in his vision. Someone switches the sound off, but Dad’s mouth is still working. The spittle splashes the boy’s face. His head is exploding. They are hard slaps.
Dad is saying sorry. It is a long sorry. Very long and the boy is terrified of moving. Thick mucus inches out of his nose. He shudders as it comes back in. His breathing is almost asthmatic. Dad doesn’t mean to get so angry. Work and money. It’s just really hard. Dad says the F word. The boy feels so bad. Dad’s life is so very difficult and he is not helping. Dad gets so angry and does these things. The boy hates himself for putting his Dad through so much. He wants to say, “No. I’m sorry!” He’s frightened to speak.
Dad is really angry this evening. He stands at the top of the stairs and calls for the boy to come up. Before he even says anything, the boy sees the tight lips, like a bloodless welt across Dad’s face. The boy does not know what he has done. He is only seven. He is really scared. Dad doesn’t even speak. Just waits for him to reach the top, then hits him across the face. The boy falls back. Down the stairs. Dad screams, “Get back up here.” The boy cannot move. Such intense pain in his back. His neck . Then nothing. Dad holds him in his arms. “Now see what you’ve made me do,” he sobs. But the boy no longer hears.