By Patricia H. Aust
Luminis Books Copyright © 2014 Patricia Aust
All rights reserved.
Sunday afternoon is good until Dad comes home in Dictator Mode.
It's always the same.
His truck guns up the driveway blaring hard rock so loud the entire neighborhood knows he's home. Three seconds short of smashing the garage door, he stomps on the brake and screeches to a stop with six inches to spare.
By the time he pulls into the garage, my heart is pounding like I've done fifty pushups. Then I have to wait while he checks to make sure everything's exactly where it's supposed to be.
That's because he's assigned every rake, shovel and tool a special spot on the garage wall. Anything with wheels has its own parking space on the floor marked off with black tape. If you use something, you'd better return it to the same place you found it — or else.
Most days, he gives us a list of what we have to do. That way, nobody in our house gets to say, 'Sorry, I forgot' or 'Oops. Didn't know I had to do that.'
Nope. It's all written down for us in his perfect, square handwriting.
No problem when Dad did the lawn work. But when I turned fifteen (a week ago) this became my responsibility.
I'd already had my breakfast wrecked this morning when Dad said, "Miguel, I want you to do the lawn while I'm out. It's a forty-five minute job, max."
Big smile. "Let's see how long it takes you."
Just for that, I'll do it in forty.
I cut the grass like a wolf's nipping at my butt. Keep the lines straight. Clip the edges, sweep the sidewalk. Takes me fifty minutes.
Okay, Dad's still faster, but five minutes over his time is good for my first try. And no fun whatsoever, it's so hot and humid. Before I finish two turns around the back yard, sweat's dribbling down my temples and neck.
Then the allergies kick in. My eyes itch and water and I sneeze pretty much non-stop. But I do the job and do it well. When it's done, I'm beyond hot and tired. I grab my tee. Wipe off my sweaty stomach, face, and neck.
Jump when my cell rings. Hope it's not Dad checking up on me.
Nope. It's Billy, my best friend since fifth grade.
"Whatcha doin'?" he asks.
"Hey, great day for working outside."
"Ya think?" I push the mower toward the garage. Need lunch and a shower, bad.
"Mom said I could have some kids over for a swim. Joe and Sean are on the way. You interested?"
"Sure! I'll finish up and see ya in twenty minutes."
I put the lawn stuff away and run inside. Guzzle a half-gallon of water and wash my beet-red face. Then I slap together a ham and cheese and go looking for Mom. Find her in the cellar doing laundry.
"Can I go to Billy's for a swim?" I ask, swallowing the last of my sandwich. "His mom said it's alright."
She stops folding clothes and stands still. "I don't know ... Dad's not home yet."
"Please, Mom. I did a good job, honest."
Fear and worry ripple across her face. "You know that's not the problem."
No, Dad's the problem. He expects you to wait until he inspects your work before you go off and have fun or something.
Mom grabs her phone off the folding table. "I'll call his cell."
She lets it ring a while. He doesn't answer. Maybe his phone isn't on or maybe he just doesn't feel like talking to Mom. I hold my breath and wait.
Finally, she sighs, slips her phone in her pocket. "Okay, you can go. It's awful hot and you worked a long time. Just make sure you're home by five."
I run up to my room, peel off my wet clothes and throw them at the hamper. Miss by a mile but step over them and grab a towel. Dad won't check our rooms until tonight. I'm outta here.
I jump on my bike and five minutes later I'm cruising into Billy's back yard. The guys are splashing and yelling. I take a running dive smack into the middle of them. They dunk, shove, and half drown me before I can get away.
Best time I've had all week.
A couple hours later, I go home, where Mom's frying plantains. The smell makes me drool.
"Did you have a good time?" Mom asks.
"Oh, yeah. Billy's got a new water game. Where's Ellie? Gotta tell her about it."
My sister loves to swim. She's sixteen — a year older than me, but way smaller. Five-foot-one, maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet.
"She's babysitting, should be home any minute."
"Oh, okay." I check the pot on the back burner. "Hey, chicken with rice." Not one of my favorites. But tostones — fried green bananas — are.
Before she can stop me, I grab a couple slices off the plate and chew fast.
Yum. A little sweet. A little crispy. A little greasy. Perfect.
"Thanks, Mom. These are the best."
"Glad you like them, but don't eat any more, okay?"
That's when Dad comes home and roars up the driveway.
My heart pounds. I better have done everything he told me to do or I'm in trouble. I pull out the waterlogged list of chores he gave me this morning.
Put The Recycle Out With The Garbage.
Return Outdoor Furniture to Deck After You Sweep.
Mow The Lawn And Trim The Edges.
Put The Lawnmower Away Right.
I look at Mom. "I think I did everything he told me to."
She frowns. "I hope so. You know what he's like when he's in a bad mood."
Five minutes later Dad storms into the kitchen. Stares at my spiky, wet head and damp cutoffs. "I see you've been swimming, Mike. Guess you had time for fun, but not for careful work."
His Dictator Mode involves a certain stance — tight ass, eyes narrowed to slits. Muscle pulsing in his clenched jaw.
Hi, Dad. Just once I'd like him to say, "Hi, how's it going?" before he lights into me.
I wait for the verdict.
"You didn't clean up the grass you tracked into the garage or top off the gas tank. You missed the lawn edge left of the front door and you parked the mower a quarter inch over its line! Very sloppy work. You're grounded for three days."
"Sorry," I mumble. Sorry for not being perfect.
"You should be sorry! You could have avoided this by waiting for me to inspect so you could fix the job before you took off."
Right, and by then swim time would be over.
But what did I expect anyway? That he'd come home and say, "Wow, good job for your first try!"
Not in my lifetime.
So now I'm in trouble and so is Mom. I shouldn't have pushed her to let me go to Billy's. I should have waited for Dad, missed all the fun.
I stand up straighter. "I'll make it right, Dad."
"You'd better or there will be no more pool this month," he says, each word hard as steel.
I want to yell, "Why? What's so freakin' horrible here?" but I'm not suicidal.
I say, "Fine."
"And what are you doing, letting him leave before I checked his work?" Dad asks Mom.
She frowns, turns off the burner. "Miguel worked real hard in this terrible heat. I thought he deserved some fun."
Dad steps close to her side. His voice is soft but his finger punches out every few words an inch from her eye. "First of all, Mercedes, his name is Mike, not Miguel. Second, this is the third time this week you've questioned my rules for the kids. I told you they go nowhere unless I say they can! What don't you understand about nowhere?"
Mom's hands shake as she covers the plantains with aluminum foil. "You weren't home when Miguel — I mean, Mike finished working and Billy invited him over. I called your cell, but you didn't answer."
Shit. Don't argue with him, Mom!
Dad leans closer, his voice so soft and mean I don't want to be there. "And your point is?"
Mom shrinks away from him. Says nothing.
"We'll discuss this later, Mercedes." He yanks open the back door. Slams it so hard the table shakes.
Mom jumps, blinks away tears.
My stomach curls into a rock with sharp, gritty edges. There won't be any discussion later. To me, discussion means Dad gives his opinion and Mom gives hers.
Not to Dad. He thinks discussion means he informs Mom how she messed up and he takes it from there. Physically.
Happens all the time. Sometimes he calms down, doesn't hurt her. I hope this is one of those times, since it's my fault he's mad at Mom.
When Dad's like this, it's hard to remember he can be nice sometimes. There are plenty of nights we play soccer or practice my Tae Kwon Do hyungs, patterns.
That's when he's more like Billy's dad. You can kid around with him. He's more like a dad than an Army sergeant.
"I'm really sorry, Mom. This is my fault. I shouldn't have gone to Billy's."
She sets the tostones and chicken on the table. "Yes, you should have, Miguel. I made the decision. I wanted you to have some fun."
"Dad said to call me Mike," I remind her softly.
She sighs. She and Dad were both born in Puerto Rico but Dad won't speak Spanish. He won't let Mom call him Roberto — his real name, either, and insists we speak English all the time.
So I do. Mom and Ellie do, too — until he leaves. Then they speak nothing but Spanish, like it's a game — The Girls against The Boys.
The Girls have black, curly hair. The Boys have brown, wavy hair. We all have light brown skin and brown eyes except for Dad. His skin's white and his eyes are green.
I asked Mom about that when I was little. Was Dad better than us because he's "lighter"?
"Of course not," she said. "It doesn't matter. We're all Puerto Rican."
Maybe, but it always feels to me like he thinks he's better than us, smarter than us. We have to do everything he says, exactly as he says to do it. His way is the only way. Our way is stupid.
I go up to my room and change back into work clothes. My head aches like crazy and all the fun feelings left from Billy's pool are gone like I never went there.
I think Mom's supper is great, but Dad starts out with, "The plantains are overcooked, Mercedes!" Followed by, "Where'd you learn to make chicken and rice — at McDonald's?" And, "Love your earrings, Mercedes! You been hitting Goodwill again?"
She says nothing, so he picks on Ellie. "I don't like that top. It's cut too low. Don't let me see it on you again, you understand? And where'd you find those shorts — the whore store?"
Mom and Ellie stop talking to him, won't even look at him. Are they trying to make trouble? You don't ignore Dad.
And then I remember how strange Mom's been acting lately. The minute Dad leaves the house, she runs up to their room, shuts the door, and talks on her phone for a long time.
In fact, the last couple weeks, she and Ellie have both been acting weird. They're always huddling together, talking softly. If I walk into the room, they shut up like I'm the enemy.
They've been pissed at Dad a lot, too, and sometimes they don't even pretend to submit to him. I think they're planning something, but it's a waste. Nothing they do will change Dad, so why try?
I've given up. When he's in a good mood and we're kicking the ball around, we have fun. But this meal is not a good time. In fact, Dad has such a death grip on his fork, I'm waiting for it to bend.
I try distraction. "Dad, did I tell ya Boys' Soccer just got a new assistant coach?"
He ignores me. Asks Ellie, "How's your team doing this week? You'd better not miss a game or they'll lose."
Ellie made Varsity Soccer last year and she's good. I know she likes it when Dad brags about all the goals she scores and she gets bummed if he misses a couple games.
Not tonight, though. No smile. She ignores his compliment. Looks down, picks at her salad.
Dad's face turns red. He's got the tic in his jaw that means, "Watch it!" and he's not eating.
Mom takes a sip of water. Her hands are shaking. She drops them in her lap.
Me, I can't swallow. Dad's about to blow and the tension at the table is turning my brain to sludge.
Dad shoves his plate away and stalks outside. Throws something against the house. It clatters to the deck. Probably a flowerpot.
A sharp stick twists through my stomach, jabbing as it goes.
"Dinner's over," Ellie says and clears the table.
"You got that right." I grab my half-full plate and follow Mom and her to the kitchen.
Ellie and I load the dishwasher. Mom slams pots and drawers. Mutters, "That's it. I've had it."
"Me, too," Ellie says. "He's always making me feel bad, but now I'm a whore? It's gotta stop."
"Right. And you're gonna stop it?" I ask. "How?"
Ellie narrows her eyes. "I guess you'll have to wait and find out."
Now I'm mad. They are definitely planning something but they're acting like I'm on Dad's side. Keeping me out of the loop.
Nobody's on Dad's side. Don't they know that?
An hour later, Mom, Ellie and I are watching a movie on TV. The Girls are sitting close together on the couch. I'm on the floor playing with Moochie, our little dog.
Dad walks in and grabs the remote. "I've seen that piece of crap twice," he says. Changes the channel.
Mom sighs. "Robert, the movie's almost over. Please switch it back."
"No way, I'm watching the game."
Ellie folds her arms against her chest. Raises her chin. "See, Mom? I told you we need two TV's."
Mom nods. "Yeah, one for the girls and one for the boys." She stands up, heads for the foyer.
I give Ellie a "What's going on?" look.
She whispers without moving her lips. "She's sick of him, okay? Sick of everything."
Something in me jumps. I never think of our life that way — that it's so wrong it has to change. I don't see how we can change it. Dad's in charge. Period.
Dad runs after Mom. Grabs her arm before she can start upstairs. "Where do you think you're going, bitch?"
"Away from you," she says. Tries to pull her arm back but Dad won't let go. I know he's squeezing too hard from the look on her face.
Our dog, Moochie starts growling. We got him from Tri-City Rescue last year and he's no bigger than a cat. I pick him up, hold him close. "Shhhhh, quiet, boy. It's okay."
Dad's voice is scary-soft again. "You sure are doing great today, Mercedes. First you ignore my rules and let Mike leave before I get home. Then you try to justify disobeying me by saying he did a good job on the lawn when he didn't! And now you're telling me I can't change the channel in my own house? You're telling me you want your own TV?"
Mom yanks her arm away and rubs it. "Sometimes we like different shows than you. What's so bad about that?"
He moves closer. She steps back.
"Not that I have to answer such a stupid question," Dad says, "But here's what I think. If I buy another TV, you and the kids will watch yours in another room, out of sight. Then you'll bitch and moan about me, probably in Spanish. You think I'm gonna stand for that?"
Mom looks him straight in the eye. "Every family I know has more than one TV."
Dad's voice gets louder. "Are you questioning me again, Mercedes? Are you asking me to defend what I spend my money on?"
"It's my money, too. I work full-time." Her voice shakes and she takes another step back.
Bad move. She's trapped against the wall.
Dad stands over her, his face inches from hers. "You're dead wrong, little woman. Your money is my money, you got that? I make lots more dough than you, so I decide how it gets spent! I give you an allowance and house money, don't I?"
Ellie pulls the curls in her ponytail out so straight it must hurt. I need to crack my knuckles but don't dare.
"Big deal! You give me an allowance," Mom says, "and you take all the rest!"
"That does it!" Dad yells and punches her in the face. Her head snaps back against the wall with an ugly thud.
My stomach flip-flops and I swallow over and over so I won't throw up.
Moochie shoots out of my arms, barking like crazy. Ellie jumps up and chases him, but he nips Dad's ankle before she can grab him.
Dad whirls around, kicks Moochie like he's a football.
He yelps, flies across the hall. Lands on the rug at the front door. For a minute he lies absolutely still, eyes closed. I can't tell if he's breathing.
Taste acid in my mouth. Did Dad kill him? I look at Dad.
His eyes narrow, tell me, "Don't you say one word."
Ellie runs out of the room, head down and madder than I've ever seen her.
Moochie whimpers, lifts his head and starts shaking all over.
Mom stumbles over to him. He's panting and his head is lying sideways on his paws. What if his neck's broken?
"How could you do that, Robert?" Mom cries. "He's so little!"
She presses her hand against the back of her head, looks surprised and checks her fingers. There's blood on them.
"Mom, you're hurt! Your head is bleeding," I say. I want to get a wet compress for her but if I help her, Dad will get mad at me.
He is calmly straightening the rug at the front door. It's a little crooked from Moochie's landing. He pushes it around with his shoe until he's satisfied it's perfectly straight.
Then he looks at Mom. She wipes her fingers on her jeans, opens and closes her mouth a few times. "My head's cut, Robert, but I don't think my jaw is broken. Last time, I nursed myself. Not this time. If I think I have a concussion, I'm going to the hospital."
I can't believe it. Mom is threatening him! If she goes to the hospital looking like she does, they'll call the police. Then the cops will arrest Dad and someone will call the State. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Shelter by Patricia H. Aust. Copyright © 2014 Patricia Aust. Excerpted by permission of Luminis Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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