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"Are ya criticizin' me?"
Lank rolled over on his bed and wrapped his pillow around his head. He pushed the pillow tightly over his ears to shut out his father's voice. His father's shouts sounded like they came from the kitchen. Lank knew what would follow.
Lank couldn't bear to watch his mother cower away from his father, her bloodshot eyes filled with fear. What had she done to upset him today?
Smack! Smack! Smack!
Lank pressed the palms of his hands harder against his ears. He could feel the pressure against his eardrums. He could hear the steady beat of his heart, which pounded out the words stop, stop, stop. Lank hummed softly to further block out his father's angry voice and punches.
Lank stared at the second hand jerking slowly around the clock's face. One more minute and he could release his hands. He always waited two minutes--no more, no less. But he wouldn't leave his bedroom. He would stay where he was until he heard the front door shut when his father left for work.
His father, Jack Burton worked third shift at a convenience store that was open 24 hours a day. He left the house around 8:00 PM--even though his shift didn't start until much later--and he didn't return home until around 8:00 AM. Those were the good hours ... the quiet hours ... the relaxed hours.
The second hand indicated two minutes were up, and as if in slow motion, Lank lifted his hands from his ears. His ears felt like they were smashed to the side of his head.
No sound. The house was quiet except for the faint sound of his mother's whimpering.
Lank picked up a music magazine and flipped through the pages without really seeing thepictures. He felt the pain whether he or his mother were hit. He didn't have to witness what his father did to his mother to know the agony that it caused. When he was younger his father demanded that he watch. "To teach ya respect an' what happins if ya don't," he had said.
Lank knew his family wasn't typical. His family was unique. His best friend Cain didn't have a family like Lank's. His parents didn't hit him or yell at him.
But Lank had learned to live with his situation and keep his mouth shut to anyone else. No one in Capital City knew what happened behind the Burton's closed doors. Nothing good would have happened if anyone did know. His mother and he depended on his father's income, no matter how small his paychecks were. Yes, keeping their mouths shut was the only way for them to live.
Lank looked at himself in his broken mirror. For fifteen years old, he was tall--six-foot and one-inch tall, to be exact. He was tall and thin. He was lanky, hence the nickname "Lank." At first the kids at school had called him that as a put-down, but the name stuck and no one seemed to remember that his real name was Julian. Even his teachers at school got confused sometimes. Except for Mr. Avery. Mr. Avery never forgot.
Wearing his hear spiked up made him look even taller. When he colored his hair purple and pierced his eyebrow, Mr. Wallace the school counselor, talked to him about the appropriateness of his style of dress in Capital City High School, but Mr. Wallace never asked Lank to change his hair back to its original color of brown or take out the earring. Lank respected him for that.
"I'm leavin' if'n anyone of yous care," his father hollered before the front door slammed shut. Lank's window rattled from the impact.
Lank slowly counted to ten. He didn't want to leave his bedroom, but he knew he had to check on his mother. He had to see what damage might need to be repaired--to his mother or to the house.
Lank inhaled deeply, opened his door and crept down the narrow, dark hallway into the kitchen. He found his frail mother huddled in the corner, her face wedged between the cracked yellow wall and the dented refrigerator.
Lank counted to ten again. He didn't want to have to deal with the repercussions of this situation. Why was it always him that had to clean up after his father? "Mom? Can I get you anything?" he finally asked. He stayed perfectly still beside the small kitchen table littered with empty beer cans.
Lank barely noticed his mother shaking her head. "No," she said weakly.
"Are you hurt badly enough that I need to call a doctor?" Lank asked. He took one step closer to the small heap on the floor.
"No!" His mother shouted in a strangled voice. She turned her frightened looking face away from the wall and brushed her brownish-blonde mussed hair from her face. "We can never call the doctor! Never!"
Lank knew that was true. He would never call the doctor unless it was a real emergency, because then the doctor would call the police and his father would be arrested. And Lank and his mother both knew that there would be consequences to pay when his father returned home. His father had made that very clear years ago.
Lank stared at his mother. Her eyes never completely focused on his. "I'll help you up,
Mom." Lank reached for her bony arm and lifted her easily off of the floor.
His mother's thin cotton dress, which was much too large for her petite body, hung past her knees. The hem was frayed and the short sleeves had become see-through.
"Get me a cold washcloth, please," his mother whispered. "I've got a headache."
Lank saw the gash above her right eyebrow and knew her headache was from the cut and also from the alcohol, but he said nothing.
When he returned with the damp washcloth, his mother was finishing another beer. Lank stood on the opposite side of the table and handed the wet washcloth to his mom.
Lank's mother pointed to the empty can. "For the pain," she said.
Lank didn't respond to his mother's lame explanation. "Are you hungry?" he asked.
"No. I'm fine. You fix whatever you want though."
"I'm not hungry. I'm going to my room." Lank left his mother as she pulled back the tab on another can of beer.
Lank turned his transistor radio to a rock 'n roll station and lay across his bed. A cool breeze drifted in from his open window. He felt his body relax. These were the stress-free hours. He didn't have to watch what he said or what he did until eight o'clock the next morning.
Lank woke to a quiet, dark house. He glanced over at his clock. Six o'clock. He had two more hours before his father returned home. He rolled over and covered his head with his pillow to block out the light that was just beginning to break.
"I should go check on Mom," he whispered into the darkness of his pillow. "Okay, on the count of ten, I'll go."
Lank counted to ten and put his feet on the floor. The summer air blowing through the window was already feeling humid. How he wished their air conditioner worked, but the box just sat in the living room window, useless.
Lank threw on an old T-shirt and opened his door. He listened for any sign of his mother being awake, but he didn't expect her to be. She didn't get up until she heard the front door slam, indicating Lank's father was home.
Lank found his mother in the living room, stretched out on the sagging brown couch. She was still in her ragged cotton dress. He looked at the rise and fall of her chest to make sure she was breathing. She was. Blood was dried on her eyebrow from the gash. A bluish color was beginning to discolor her forehead and right cheek. Lank picked up an afghan that was draped over the back of the couch and carefully placed it over her.
As with every morning, Lank wanted to grab something to eat before his father came home. Lank preferred eating alone to eating with his father while he criticized everything Lank said or did. Lank was never good enough for his father.
"Good grief," Lank said under his breath as he took in the sight of the kitchen.
The kitchen table was covered with beer cans. Lank grabbed a white grocery bag and scooted the cans off of the table and into the bag. Recycling the cans was the only income he had at the moment.
Lank turned to the refrigerator. Blood stained the wall where his mother had rested her head. Lank reached for a dishcloth and turned the faucet on. He let the water run until it was warm, then held the dishcloth under the water. He squatted beside the wall and scrubbed with intensity. Once before Lank had left the blood for his father to see what he had done. Lank had hoped that when his father saw the blood it would make his father rethink what he was doing to Lank's mother. But it hadn't. His father had yelled at him and his mother for not keeping the house clean enough. Lank wouldn't make the same mistake twice. He scrubbed until the wall showed no trace of blood.
Lank held his hands under the water and grabbed a bar of soap. He washed every trace of blood off of his hands.
"Now for breakfast," he mumbled.
Lank reached in the refrigerator for the milk and juice and grabbed the only box of cereal in the house. He looked at the clock. Seven o'clock. He could eat a leisurely breakfast and still have time to grab a quick shower before an hour was up.
Lank stirred the sugarcoated flakes around with a spoon in his chipped bowl. He glanced at the wet spot on the kitchen wall. Would his mother and he ever be good enough so the "obedience lessons" would stop?
"Lank? Are you awake?" his mother asked from the living room.
"Yes. I'm eating breakfast. Do you want me to fix you a bowl of cereal?"
"No. I'll eat later with Jack."
Lank washed out his cereal bowl and glass, and joined his mother in the living room. She was sitting on the couch, her head resting against the cushions. Her face looked as pale as the white sheet on his bed.
"I'm sorry, Lank," his mother said softly. She twisted a piece of her tangled hair around her slim finger.
"Sorry for what?" Lank asked.
"For your father ... and me. We're not the best parents and I'm sorry." Lank's mother's light brown eyes welled with tears.
"You're doing the best you can," Lank said. He meant every word. His mother had never raised her hand to him. She had never spanked him or spoke harshly to him. She had never given him an "obedience lesson."
"You're such a good boy. You always have been." His mother wiped at the tears starting to streak down her drawn face.
Lank shook his head forcefully. "I'm not as good as I should be," he argued. "I'm always making Father mad."
Mom searched his face before answering. "That's not true, Lank. It's not you at all. You don't deserve what you're getting here."
Lank knew what she meant, but he wasn't convinced. Lank vowed to change. He would make his father proud of him one day, if it was the last thing he ever did.