by Yvonne Smith

“Jeff, honey, I need to talk to your mom right now.”

I recognized Auntie Lynn’s voice through the phone but it sounded too fast and squeaky. I shrugged. “Okay, sure. I mean—one moment please.” My brother, Dallas, rolled his eyes as I stretched the phone cord to my mom. “It’s Auntie Lynn.” She wasn’t really our auntie, she was my mom’s best friend.

Mom took the phone and pulled back on the cord. Careful, she mouthed and moved closer to the wall.

I sat and twirled strands of spaghetti around my fork as big as I could make it and shoved the whole thing in my mouth. Dallas and my little sister, Bobbie, hunched over their plates, spaghetti sauce spattering their cheeks as they slurped up the long strands. I proudly displayed my puffed up cheeks then tried not to choke as we all started to laugh. I loved spaghetti night.

Mom hung up the phone and turned back to us. She looked pale and her lips quivered as she smiled at us. I knew something bad was coming.

“Okay, kids, we have to pack up and go, right now, we have to go.”

Dallas and I glanced at each other and he slammed his hand on the table. “Goddamn!” He rubbed his mouth with his sleeve.

“Dallas! Don’t talk—”

“But I’m hungry, Mom,” Bobbie protested.

“I know, honey,” Mom said as she pulled Bobbie’s chair away from the table and wiped a napkin across her face. “I’ll get you something to eat in a bit. Now go, get your jacket, and your mitts. Go!” she said, then smiled to soften the urgency in her voice. “Boys, move it. We don’t have much time. Auntie Lynn said she—” Mom’s voice cracked and her hand shook as she touched her lips. “She couldn’t call sooner, they were right in the kitchen, just staggered in and hunkered down at the table . . . then he started pushing Dean around.”

My throat felt tight as I pulled two sleeping bags down from the shelf over the basement stairs. Uncle Dean was his boy, his brother, his henchman; when he started roughing him up, you knew trouble was coming. Shit.

“What the hell?” Dallas hollered. “It’s been over a year since he drank. Damn him! When is this going to stop?” he demanded. He pulled the water cooler from the back porch and set it in the sink then turned on the tap full blast and stomped out of the kitchen.

“Dallas . . . please,” Mom called after him, as she pulled the canvas supply bag from behind the panel she had rigged up in the pantry. I was hoping we’d never have to use it again.

Dallas carried on with his yelling and swearing and Mom told him to stop, Not in front of Bobbie, she mouthed. That seemed to settle him a bit and he scooped our little sister up in his arm.

“Go now, go!” Mom said and pushed us all out the back door.


The air was fresh and cold as it hit my face. I could see our breath, rapid puffs of air, as it left our mouths. We headed for the side gate towards the station wagon when sounds of a vehicle driving too fast roared up the street and headlights illuminated our driveway. Mom’s eyes grew wide as she bit her lip. She’d gotten too comfortable, hopeful, like the rest of us. There was a time she never would’ve parked in the driveway, always on the street.

“Quickly—to the playhouse,” she ordered, and we ran silently across the grass to the A-frame structure in the pitch-black corner of the yard.

The truck door slammed and we all jumped. Mom fiddled with her key chain then inserted the key into the large padlock and ushered me and Bobbie inside. Dallas took the key. “I’ll lock you in and come in through the window,” he whispered then pulled the door shut and clicked the lock back into place.

I pushed open the small window, desperate to get him in there with us. He pulled himself up on the window frame; I could hear his feet slipping as he tried to get some leverage on the sloped roof. My heart thundered against my chest as I reached my arms up under his, pulling as hard as I could. Finally, he got enough of his torso in and fell through onto the floor. I latched the window shut and closed the curtain.

We sat huddled together on the floor. In the quiet night, we could hear the raging going on inside the house. He knew by now that we weren’t there.

“I’m scared,” Bobbie cried and wrapped her arms around Mom’s neck.

“Shh, shh,” Mom soothed her, “we’re okay.”

“Mom,” I turned suddenly towards her silhouette, “my project . . .” I’d left it on the living room floor. “He’s gonna wreck it, isn’t he?” I whispered, “He’s gonna rip it up like it’s garbage! What do I tell Mrs. Donovan?” Hot tears welled in my eyes and I pressed my fists into them.

Mom squeezed my shoulder. “Shh, Jeff. I’ll talk to your teacher, honey, don’t—”

“Gail!” My dad’s voice boomed through the night air. The back floodlight came on, seeping around the curtain and beneath the playhouse door. I pictured him, the lopsided grin, eyes bulging with drunk delusion, thick hands clenching and unclenching. The door banged shut. “Gail!” he demanded. “Kitchen’s a goddamn mess! Dallas!” Sounds of something hitting the house cracked through the air—loud, louder with each strike. “You little shits . . . fucking selfish, rotten little shits!”

Bobbie burrowed deep into Mom’s chest and Mom pressed her in close. She wrapped her other arm around my shoulder and pulled me towards her. “It’s okay, we’re safe,” she whispered, her calm voice a blanket against the barrage of insults. I squeezed my eyes shut and pulled the string of my hood tight around my face. I heard a click, then the sharp intake of Mom’s breath. “Dallas, no!” she croaked.

I peeked out from the cocoon of my hood and my mouth went dry.

Dallas sat with his arms stretched forward, resting on bent knees, a gun grasped in his hands and pointed straight at the door. His face was steely, determined.  “I’ll kill him. I’ll fucking shoot him if he comes through that door.”

“Dallas, stop! He’s your father!” Mom begged in a hushed voice.

“I don’t give a shit. He comes through that door he’s a dead man.”

My heart raced as Dad’s ranting moved closer. I squeezed Mom’s hand and held my breath.

“Dallas, please!” she pleaded one last time before the sound of Dad’s heavy boots hit the wooden step.

“You in here, you little shits?” The door rattled against the jam as he tried to open it. He picked up the padlock and rammed it back and forth.

Dallas sat trance-like, unmoving from his position. Mom squeezed me and Bobbie tight, I could feel the desperation in her grasp: Quiet! I reached for Bobbie and clamped her small hand in mine.


Dad made his way around the structure pressing his face up against the window, cursing the curtain that obscured his view; I could almost feel his heavy breath on me, smell the sickly sweet stink of it. I jumped as Dad pounded the plexi-glass window with his fist.  A small whimper escaped Bobbie’s lips and I cringed. Then the door shuttered as Dad threw his weight against it. I buried my face in my knees, unable to process what lay ahead. Boom! . . . Boom! He threw himself again and again. But the lock held and the door held and the power in his fury began to dissipate. Finally, he gave the door one last kick and stumbled away, muttering.

The back door slammed shut on its frame and I held my breath in anticipation, wondering what he would do next. My heart pounded in my ears and I was afraid to move. We sat like that, silent, for I don’t know how long. Then strains of Johnny Cash carried through the autumn air from inside the house. His smooth, deep voice a precious sign that, for now, we were safe. My body turned to jelly as a wave of relief washed over me.

Dallas remained locked in the same position.

Mom unfolded Bobbie from her lap and set her down in mine. I pulled her close and pushed back her curly hair where it tickled my nose. I watched as Mom crawled the short distance to Dallas and gently lowered his arms. She pried his fingers off the gun, then clicked the safety into place and slid it across the floor.

Dallas’s face broke then, crumbled like ash. Mom wrapped her arms around him as he fell against her and sobbed.

My own throat burned as I watched the tears run down his face, the heartbreak of a boy pushed too far.


Art by Steve Johnson. Follow him at Patreon.