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Up in Arms (Winning competition entry)

It’s never quiet anymore.

Clamour has become the norm. The screaming, the crying, the sound of skin slapping skin, bone connecting with bone. The symphony of pain. A piano crescendo… fortissimo! There is no strength behind this noise. Only pain and hopelessness.

Aimee is suspended in the commotion coming from the bedroom, drifting through the walls. She is entwined in it, even though she sits in another room. The shriller the screaming, the more violently she pushes the buttons of the remote control. She is hardly aware of what is showing on the television, but uses the cheery voices of the plastic actors to try and mute the racket.

“Damn it,” she mumbles. A thumbnail’s black polish inevitably smudged onto the volume button.

And so she begins her ritual all over again. She calms down a bit to gently caress her fingernails with fresh polish, making them black. This rite relaxes her.
The accusations never change. “You’re despicable!” “You whore!” “You’re useless!” Aimee aligns her rhythm with the shouting – colouring herself black among the angry voices. Stroke, stroke, black.

It wasn’t always like this, she remembers. There was a time when her mother was strong and it was the two of them against the world. Her mother tried to explain to Aimee that love makes us do crazy things, but Aimee does not believe in that brand of love. Love between a man and a woman should never hurt like this.

Her back muscles tense up, giving the impression of horns wanting to pierce through her skin. Her nerves feel tense, like strings on a guitar, readying to snap. Her notes are sombre. Her tendons lament. Her muscles spasm between hope and hopelessness, with optimism fading more and more with each spasm. Becoming a discoloured memory.

For a moment she wonders how incredible it would be to turn invisible. To become the nothing she sometimes feels. She looks at her hands, and the black nail polish reminds her of evil women in long ebony dresses, with snake-like tresses.

“I’m a teenaged witch,” she whispers. “I can leave when I want.” She smiles then, feeling the strength of her murmured sentence. “I am a teenaged witch …” She repeats the mantra and rocks her budding body to the words of power.

In the back of her mind, she knows she is still too young to go off on her own, and completely at the mercy of her mother’s feelings for The Dark Lord Darius. And his lightning fists.

In the beginning, she understood what her mother saw in Darius. He was their prince – tall, dark and charming. Little Aimee felt so complete the first time he held her close. She fell in love with the way he carried her on his neck and the silly laughing games they played. It wasn’t long before she called him Daddy.

She knows there must’ve been a moment when it all started going wrong. But the change must’ve been so slow, the rot so gradual, she cannot wrap her head around a specific time.

All she understands now is that, thirteen years on, the pieces cannot be picked up. The smashed shards are so small and sharp that no amount of glue can make the fairytale whole again.

She hears a yelp and something shattering. Feeling old, she hugs her knees to her body and sighs. There is nothing left to break in this place, she thinks.

She tries to remember where she put the broom and scoop after the previous post-war clean up. She squeezes her eyes shut, anticipating the battle’s imminent ending.

The music accompanying this fighting dance is so familiar to her, like the smell of her own skin. Screams begin to reach their final pitch. Soon, she knows, Darius will storm out of the house and slam the door. Once the engine hums to life and the sound of screeching tyres dies away, Aimee will join her mother in the main bedroom.

So they will begin the cleaning ritual. First, her bleeding mother, and then the bleeding room. In complete silence.

Mother and daughter never talk while tidying up the signs of struggle. Aimee needs the stillness to convince herself that maybe love is not dead and old habits can be changed. Her mother will use the quietness to scam herself into thinking that the emptiness she feels inside is a hole left from Darius no longer being in the room.

Then – like a clap of thunder and a burst of unexpected rain, Aimee hears a sound she has never heard before.

A deep-throated roar crawls out of her mother’s bruised throat. Through the door of the main bedroom it rumbles through the hallway and into the lounge.

And just like that, Aimee’s silence comes early.

Her head snaps up, and her eyes shoot open. She turns the television off and looks around her, tilting her head slightly, listening into the terrifying calm. Her back is tense and erect. Her ears twitch like a cat’s. She hears nothing.

Instinctively, Aimee runs to her small room. She grabs a bag, throws some clothes and a brush into it and stands in the middle of the room, waiting. Her heart beats wildly. She trembles in the stark atmosphere of the room.

She feels a warm pulsation up and down her back, soothing her like a new beginning. It moves from shoulder to shoulder, making her muscles throb like budding butterfly wings wanting to unfurl.

With her bag on her back, she rushes into the passage. Her mother stands there, dishevelled and bleeding. Fresh scars cover up old ones. Her mouth is raw and puffy. Her eyes are bloodshot, the lids thick and black.

As Aimee remembers how beautiful and full of life her mother used to be, a lump rises to her throat. Her whole body aches for the once fully-fleshed form of the shadow now standing before her.

“We’re going,” her mother breathes through tears.

“There is nothing is keeping us here,” Aimee agrees. “Where’s Darius?”

“He won’t be hurting us again,” her mother says, and takes her hand. As they walk past the main bedroom, Aimee tries not to look inside, but catches a quick glimpse of her mother’s boyfriend sprawled against the side of the bed, blood dripping unceremoniously from his cruel face.

“Is he dead?” Aimee asks.

“No,” is her mother’s reply.

Aimee notices that her mother is taking nothing with her. That doesn’t mean she’s coming back, Aimee tells herself, but that she wants nothing to remind her of this painful place.

In the car, her mother calmly does her best to clean up with a grease-stained rag and some crumpled tissues. She turns to Aimee and gives her a semi-toothless grin.

“I’m so sorry baby,” she slurs. And to Aimee her mother is the most beautiful thing she has ever seen.

Smudged black-painted fingers caress a bruised eye. “Mama, you are all I have and care for in this world,” says Aimee.

Her mother takes her hand, brings it to her puffy lips and kisses each finger in turn. Then, she pulls Aimee towards her into a sturdy embrace. Aimee can feel the strength in her mother’s arms.

They sit like that for a while, trembling in the driveway. The moon is bright and the world has a silver glow to it. The gate in front of them pulsates with possibility. Even in the middle of the night, Aimee realises, life is not as black as all that.

“Where are we going?” Aimee asks.

“First, we’re going down the road to get an ice-cream,” her mother replies. “Then we’re driving all the way to granny’s house. When we get there, we’ll talk again.”


First published here.

Published inShort stories

One Comment

  1. Chan Chan

    Hauntingly beautiful…..

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