Marissa Maldonado heard the sound in the distance but continued walking toward the lights of home. Choir practice had run late and Papa was drinking again. One more year and she would get her permit and be free of her life as a pedestrian. Taking the shortcut along the edge of the swamp was her usual routine, but she’d never walked so late before. The willows swayed in the brisk autumn wind, leafless branches rattling together. A storm was coming. She held her wool coat closed with one hand to keep in the heat because the two top buttons were missing. She carried her book bag over her other shoulder gripped by her other hand.
“Oh great! Now I’m gonna have to walk to school in the freezing rain tomorrow! Could my life get any worse?”
This time she jumped and increased her pace. The sound seemed far off yet getting closer as she walked toward the small summer cottage they called home. She smelled a metallic odor she couldn’t place as she drew past the old swamp oak with its tire swing and hornet’s nest. Some good and bad memories lay there. Papa would be at Frankie’s Cabaret until after midnight if Marissa were lucky. Mama worked at the emergency room as a nurse until then. Marissa and Mama were at a détente and were on speaking terms but wouldn’t discuss some of Marissa’s complaints despite their true urgency.
As she came closer to her home and could see the large picture window, Marissa noticed the drawn blinds. Backlit by the flicking blue of the television she saw somebody sitting upon the couch.
“Oh, man! He’s home. Why can’t he just stay at the bar like every other drunk? Now I’ll never get my homework done,” she whispered to herself, lest he overhear her.
There was little chance of that, because the wind had started whistling between the trees and dangling vines. Papa became a different person when drinking, somebody she didn’t want to know. She hated him just as much during that repentant stage after his binges where he acted sad faced and bought her gifts. Mama wouldn’t listen, but she never did – nobody ever did! Marissa had to take care of Marissa.
She went around the back of the cottage and opened the storm door hoping its rusty hinges wouldn’t creak. She had to struggle with the wide door against the rising gale. Slipping into the basement, she groped around for the light and found the dangling string. She then went back to the open storm door, closed it with utmost care, and threw the lock.
“If he wants to roam the house, then I will just stay down here for the night,” she thought to herself. “Everyone will just assume I’m at Juanita’s.” Creeping up the stairs leading to the inside of the house, she threw the lock to the inner door so he couldn’t come down. She then flopped onto an old mildewed couch, put her headphones on, and listened to Nelly Furtado while she read her History assignment. Marissa worked hard to get good grades because the alternative was too horrific to consider. Her plan in life was to get a scholarship to a good university so she could escape Podunk-villa and its dirty little minds, once and for all. Her first year in high school was harder than middle school so far but she was adapting as she’d done with so many other problems in her life.
She must have been more tired than she thought because she woke up to a disturbance upstairs. Papa was dragging what Marissa guessed was the couch across the room, which made dust filter through the floorboards, along with making quite a racket. Removing her headphones for a moment, she listened intently while he did whatever crazy things his liquored up brain told him to do. Lots of grunting, stomping, and other sounds of effort accompanied Papa’s activities – almost as if he were wrestling a bear instead of moving a couch.
“¡Santa María! Now, he’s taken up redecoration!” she thought to herself. For a moment, she was tempted to bang the broom against the ceiling to get him to stop but thought better of it. There wasn’t any point in drawing attention to her presence. The house quieted after a few minutes with the exception of the perennial television. Replacing her headphones, she set her player to loop all night, pulled the string to the light bulb dangling from the basement ceiling, and laid down on the mildewed couch to sleep.
Marissa woke with a start. In her sleep, she had heard something loud that had awakened her, something so terrifying that her body shook of its own accord. While she questioned whether it had been just a nightmare, the sounds she had heard in the swamp resumed.
This was not out in the swamp – this sound was upstairs in the house. To keep from screaming, Marissa put her own hand over her mouth and sat in the darkness afraid to breath. Something dripped through the floorboards into the cellar near her.
“Drip, Drip, Drip,” it went slow and steady.
“There was that smell again,” she thought to herself. She still couldn’t place it. While she lay on the couch trying her hardest to be silent, she heard Mama’s car pull up into the driveway.
“Thump, squish, thump, squish, thump, squish, slam!” she heard as Papa ran to his bedroom. She then heard the ticking of the old Dodge’s engine as it cooled and Mama walking on the sidewalk with jangling keys in her hand. Mama would be tired from her twelve-hour shift and in no mood to tangle with Papa. He knew she would call her brothers Carlos and Juan over to teach him a lesson if he ever laid a hand on her. Marissa wondered why such protection didn’t extend to their niece.
The door opened and Marissa heard Mama enter the house and close the door behind her. She’d seen her do it so many times she knew exactly what Mama did when she came home. She would close the door, go to the kitchen, pour herself a cold glass of milk, and go to bed, without talking or seeing anyone. As far as Mama was concerned, problems could wait until morning. However, Mama did not follow the script.
“Aaaaaiiiiiiiiii……” went the primal scream of Mama in horrific shock.
“Thump, squish, thump, squish, thump, squish, CRUNCH!”
A deep and heavy breathing and nothing else followed Papa’s running sound, if it was Papa in the house above her.
Wide-eyed and terrified, Marissa sat up trembling all night in the dark, as the dripping sound of blood resumed, unable to sleep and unwilling to make the smallest noise.