• Katherine Qiao

GAME

SHORT STORY

Excerpt:

Twenty-One Years Ago -- Jay

I do not have a father.

We lived alone in a one-bedroom apartment at the edge of town. Half of the residences in the building were empty, so it was always quiet. Too quiet sometimes. Once, I asked Mommy, “When’s Daddy coming to live with us?” She had turned, looked at me with her piercing eyes, drew me in close so that her lips were inches away from my ear.

And then she screamed.

A lot of the words were incoherent. But I did pick out “ungrateful child” and “not knowing what’s damn good for you.” There were others too.

Those words made me cry, and I tried to jump back in surprise then, but I couldn’t escape the tight grasp she had on my skinny arms. The more I struggled to stop the oddly red of where her fingers gripped my skin, the tighter she held me close.

Too close.

I asked a couple more times; the words got worse each time, so I stopped after awhile.

Mommy’s always better to be around when she’s happy.

On normal days, after coming back from school, I would bounce on the backs of my heels as I struggled to skip every other step on the whitewashed stairs to the fourth floor where our one-bedroom apartment was. Mommy would always walk ahead of me, carrying a single paper bag of groceries.

There wasn’t actually that much good food in it. Just some cigarettes, a tall bottle of clear liquid with bubbles that rose translucently and undisturbed to the top, unlike the ones in the aquarium tanks at the pet store windows. Sometimes there were some apples, and a loaf of bread.

She said that there just wasn’t enough money for the kind of food Janet and David from school ate, so I had to be a good boy and do what I was told, eat what I was given.

So I would just count the bubbles in the bottle instead, before Mommy gulped it down. If there was still a good amount left, when she walked away to the tiny bathroom to throw up, I could keep counting. It always passed the time really well.

But today, I don’t get to do that, because she’s having friends over. She’s having a party, one where kids aren’t invited.

“Okay Jay, stay here. Be a good boy, and don’t make a sound. Not a single sound, alright?” My mother’s soothing voice warms me to the bone, even as I shiver a little at the coldness of the linoleum floor of the unfinished closet. I take in as much as I can of her face into my memory.

“Okay, Mommy.” She smiles, and the cigarette hanging from the side of her mouth bounces as she does. Jay, you’re such a good boy, I hear her faintly murmur under her breath. I feel myself puff up slightly with pride at her words. She always says that when I go to the closet, so I anticipate hearing this each time. Her face gets chopped up by darkness in vertical strips as she drags the closet door across the floor to close it.

And then there is complete darkness.

I wonder if she’s seeing something much nicer than here. I guess she must be; the noises of banging, rowdy shouts in deep voices, and the clattering of her favorite glass plates are starting again. Sometimes, there are so many voices that I can’t even distinguish hers from all the rest.

Sometimes, even when she doesn’t have friends over, I hear them too: loud, raucous, chiding, and always, always unaccompanied by a recognizable face. Mommy’s is the only one. So I try very hard to hear her out of them all.

I forgot to take a blanket with me here again, so I brace my back against the rigidness of the linoleum floor. But I tell myself that’s it’s okay. Mommy will come back soon, when the day is bright again, and the voices have left.

Probably an hour, then two, then four hours pass. I always lose count after four or five.

The voices are getting louder and louder. More and more raucous. I hear multiple bangs against wood, carpet, and a slight springy sound that makes me suspect something is bouncing off the mosquito screen door.

Did the glass vase in the corridor fall? Mommy’s scream follows immediately after the piercing shatter noise. I think so.

Mommy will be back soon. Mommy will be back. I chant this in my head as my head begins to throb at the ongoing noise.

Then, suddenly, I see light. It is glaring and blindingly bright. Mommy?

A burly, unshaven face stares at me, withdrawn and angry slits for eyebrows. No, not Mommy. Please leave me alone, mister.

He grabs me by the collar sleeve, draws me close as he stands up, still clutching a fistful of my shirt in his grasp. The rounded edge of collar fabric digs into my neck. Is that Mommy’s lipstick on the corner of his ear? Pink, red, magenta.

I bite the inside of my lip to keep from crying; I taste blood.

He drops me.

Six-year old me is weak, I know.

I no longer taste the blood, because my vision and world turns entirely black.

******************

The jolt back to the conscious world is jarring, I’ve learned.

A nurse stares inquisitively at me from a corner of the room. She smiles, like all adults do to children.

Never mind, I take that back. Not all adults.

“Are you alright, Jay? Do you want some water, toys, anything?” She begins bustling around with the tools in her hand and making a move towards a teddy bear sitting on an ottoman. “How do you feel right now?”

I stare at her.

From a very young age, I knew something was wrong with me.

Does the lady not know who her own patient is?

But I didn’t know what.

“I’m not Jay.”

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