by Ann Baker
It was Sandy's eleventh birthday, and Momma had planned a big party for him. We were going to have it in the back yard, and all the preparations had been made. The Superman cake was waiting to be served, along with homemade ice cream. All the makings for a festive day had come together.
As he bounced out of the bedroom that morning, Sandy was grinning like a big cat. Three of his friends were going to sleep over, and I was going to sleep on the couch.
I don't know how Sandy made it through the day, he was so excited. He was always one to get all worked up when something fun was coming up. It was something I couldn't understand, and still don't. Perhaps it was this day that started making me suspicious of celebrations.
As the guests arrived, Momma placed the gifts and cards on the concrete picnic table. It was an old Florida style table with embe dded tiles, the benches matched. All of us kids were having a high time on the Slip-n-Slide. The South Florida sun was frying our small, white bodies like pieces of bacon on an iron skillet, as we dried off on our towels in the grass. Childlike chatter filled the air, everyone was having fun. Then Momma called us to the table, and I rose to go, taking my towel with me.
Out of nowhere, a sense of danger came over me. It felt like a fist hitting me right under my ribs. I remember being nauseated and hot, as bitter water rose up in my throat. I looked over at the beautiful cake with eleven lighted candles. Unable to hear the singing, let alone force myself to sing, I stood frozen under the Live Oak tree in the middle of the back yard, not breathing.
It was exactly like the still heaviness I had felt when the eye of a hurricane had passed over our house and Pop had taken us outside to experience it. The birds seemed to stop singing as the leaves stopped rustling, and the crickets went silent. There seemed to be a vacuum in the air and I'm sure the air pressure dropped, because my ears were ringing. From then on everything seemed to happen in slow motion.
The cake and ice cream had been served and gift opening time came. First, Sandy opened my gift. He looked around for me. As his eyes searched for mine, panic welled up in my throat. He would know instantly something was wrong. But what was wrong?
I looked up into the tree so he wouldn't see my eyes, but he sensed something too. This was certainly a foolish way to ruin his birthday party, and I began to cry.
It has always been that way for me - deep dread preceding tragedy. I have never gotten used to it though. Even then, I felt like running far away, but of course I did not.
Sandy opened my gift. It was a Vac-U-Form. We had always wanted one. Momma had helped me pay for part of it because my savings had been a little short. Sandy let out a pleased gasp when he saw what it was. He threw it on the table and ran to hug me. As he looked deep into my eyes a quizzical look came over him.
"What is it?" Sandy asked.
"Nothing," I said, "it's nothing." But my face betrayed my words.
He gave me a quick hug, and whispered a heartfelt thank you in my ear. Turning his attention back to the gifts on the table, he glanced over his shoulder to have another look at my face.
Nausea became overwhelming, and I ran inside to wretch. When I was able to reappear, I was slightly more composed. Momma, Pop, and Sandy were standing beside the picnic table with the others.
Momma reached for the envelope from Aunt Grace and handed it to Sandy, still sealed like it had arrived. He tore it open eagerly as the pounding in my head increased exponentially. It was not a birthday card inside, but a carefully folded letter on stark-white stationary.
Sandy began to read aloud:
My dearest Sandy,
It gives me great pleasure to give you a special gift on your eleventh birthday. I know you may have preferred money, or even a book. You always loved books. I prefer to give you a gift of much greater and enduring value, and that is the truth.
It was at that moment I noticed my mother's face had turned a peculiar shade of pale. It was as if all the color drained from her. Her knuckles were white as she gripped the handle of the barbecue grill. The illusion of slow motion remained.
I am well aware of the falsehood you have been told. The one about your father being killed in an accident . . .
We never heard the rest. My mother tore the letter from Sandy's hand and ran inside with it. Pop followed.
Suddenly, my mind was racing, thinking of far too many possibilities of what the rest of the letter contained. Sandy's stunned face, mouth agape, was burned into my memory at that moment. His friends looked at one another, equally confused, as the shouting began.
At first it wasn't very loud, rather muffled. Before we had time to react, the shouting gave way to screaming. The back door burst open, slamming back against the wall. Momma came running out, still screaming, and there was blood running down her face. It seemed to begin above the eyes, because I remember seeing the white of her eyes, surrounded by blood.
I tried to run to her, but my legs wouldn't move. I'll never forget the sound of the scream inside me, but when I opened my mouth, no sound came from my throat.
After a while - I don't remember how long - I must have regained my senses. I know that because someone told me later I was the one that called the police. The ambulance arrived after Pop had gone. They said Momma would be fine, and that she should rest and keep ice on her forehead. She ignored their advice to go to the hospital for stitches. These instructions would become more familiar as the years progressed.
For the moment there was peace. Sandy's friends were sent home, and it goes without saying, Sandy was completely humiliated.
I went to bed early as a means of escape. Sleep was never to come that night, however. For a long time I could hear the soft murmuring of Momma and Sandy as they shared secrets I would not learn for many years. I longed to go to him and comfort him, but did not.
At last, he came to our room. Dropping on the end of my bed like a rag doll, he clasped his hands behind his head. Staring silently at the ceiling, he didn't move. I put my head on his chest, my tears making a wet stain on his shirt. Still he did not speak.
The front door opened sometime around two in the morning. Pop stumbled into the house. There was blood on his shirt and a gun in his back pocket. His slurred speech was unintelligible. Sandy and I huddled near the door to listen. My mother was crying softly as her footsteps came toward us. We scrambled into bed and pretended to be asleep.
"Sandy," she whispered, "get up, quick. I need you to get some clothes together for you kids. Don't forget shoes. We have to leave."
Sandy rose dutifully, somberly obedient. I continued to feign sleep.
Momma returned in a few minutes and lifted me out of bed. She was crying as she held me close to her. Sandy followed behind and Momma put her arm around him, urging him forward in front of her. With the two of us in the car, she went back in for Mike and returned with the sleeping baby in her arms.
Before we had left the house, I had glanced into the kitchen. I could see Pop asleep at the dining table. His head was resting on the edge of his plate and his food was scattered on the table all around him. Below him, on the floor, was a pool of vomit.
I don't remember where we slept that night, or how many days went by before we returned to the house. When we did go back, Sandy didn't come with us, then or ever.
For months, I was completely devastated. He had been my closest and only friend in the world. Now, I only saw him on the weekends that I was fortunate enough to spend at Mamaw's apartment. Even then, it was never the same.
What I had not known at the time, was that Momma was pregnant again. Even if I had been aware, the significance would probably not have occurred to me. If it had been a struggle for her to support two children alone, there was no hope of taking care of four children. She was resigned to remain, if for no other reason than mere survival.