Frayed faded curtains blew in the cooled night air. She remembered her room, but she could not get relaxed. Something told her danger was coming. She couldn’t speak.
As a child, Pearl slept with the window open. She felt the flies and mosquitoes that came in through the window with no screen. But, she also had the cheerful lightning bugs bouncing around the darkness when they visited. Further, she welcomed any stifling swamp breeze in the hot, stuffy room. Pearl coughed from her asthma in the heavy, humid air. Her momma yelled, “Stop your hacking, I can’t afford no fancy medicine.” Pearl contained as much as she could, smothering the noise into her flattened well-worn pillow. Her lungs and ribs became sore from struggling to stop herself.
Pearl learned to keep her ails to herself. If she was so sick she couldn’t stand the thought of school, she pretended to go, instead walking to the woods to sleep away her pain. It took all her strength some days to make it the distance to the closest refuge. Occasionally, her momma had aspirin in the house and Pearl snuck a few to keep hidden in her dresser drawer. As long as Pearl didn’t ask her mom for much, they got along just fine. The horribly deviated life became Pearl’s personal challenge to defeat. She awaited the day when she wasn’t so small and helpless and could not only defend, but take care of herself in every way.
She finally calmed the hacking and allowed her little body to relax one limb, one joint, one muscle at a time. Relief flooded her when she heard no more noises coming from behind the thin walls. Pearl might be spared this particular evening. The quiet might mean her mother’s party had broken up early.
However, inevitably, sadly, horrifyingly, the door to her room opened and a shadowy figure appeared. No reprieve and nowhere to go, trapped like an animal, Pearl pulled the covers up to her nose. He stumbled across the room before finally settling on the edge of her bed with a wallop. He lost his balance, falling backward against her legs, covered only with a thin worn sheet. As he clumsily removed his shoes he finally spoke, “Yore momma said I could sleep in here. Yours is the only bed left.”
Pearl’s stomach quaked. She pushed as close as she could against the wall the bed butted up against. She looked for the lightning bugs that took her away from the nightmares. She watched them rebound, flying across the room in erratic patterns. She imagined being one of them. Pain overtook her small frame and wormed into the core of her emotions. She cried hot, silent tears in the small bed he invaded, taking her innocence. She looked desperately for lightning bugs, but couldn’t find any. All she saw was blackness. The atmosphere smelled like stale booze—and it felt like calloused hands—and the desperation burned with a searing permanence into her midsection.
She finally screamed.
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