by Brittany Balin
I slathered two slices of toasted rye bread with organic unsalted peanut butter. Fresh cherry preserves went on the other two slices. It was the crack of dawn and Nathan, my husband, expected to be awoken to breakfast in bed like any other morning. Breakfast was the same as usual. It consisted of peanut butter which was a staple in our household. Nathan worked at the local peanut butter factory in town and got free jars of the stuff to take home every week. He didn’t like spending money on food so we had to make due with the free goods he got from work. Breakfast involved peanut butter. Lunch involved peanut butter. Dinner involved peanut butter. We went through a jar of peanut butter a day in our house for the four of us- Nathan, myself, and his illegitimate fraternal twins from a previous relationship, Arthur and Phoebe. When God was rewarding us and money was good, we got peanut butter sandwiches. When God was testing us and money was tight, we got peanut butter and cream crackers or peanut butter and bananas. The past few weeks had been going well for us so Nathan had instructed me to pick up some fancy bread from the supermarket to make proper sandwiches.
I poured hot water from the kettle to make Nathan’s tea. He loved tea and hated coffee. Every morning, I prepared a large mug of piping hot spearmint tea with two and a third tablespoons of brown sugar. It had to be exactly two and a third tablespoons of brown sugar. Any Balin 1 more or less meant that I could look forward to Nathan smacking the mug out of my hand and scalding hot tea splattering all over my face and chest. Things had to be done and they had to be done correctly. There was absolutely no room for failure in this household.
“Clover, where the hell is my breakfast? Are you stupid or something? It ain’t that hard to make a sandwich,” Nathan’s voice boomed through the house.
“Comin’!” I surveyed my appearance in the hallway mirror to make sure nothing about me was out of place. My frizzy auburn spiral curls were pulled back into a side ponytail. My sepia brown skin glistened in the overhead fluorescent light which caused it to appear greasy. I swiped at it, but that did nothing besides further muss my already wild, bushy eyebrows.
“Don’t raise your voice at me, whore! I pay the bills in this house. Don’t you ever forget that. I’ll slap you and your ugly face back to Bonaire where you can live in your own hut. Understand me?” He scratched at his long, scruffy beard. His gray almond eyes burned a hole through my face.
“Yes, baby. I’m sorry,” I bent over to set the plate on his nightstand, but he snatched it out of my hand before I had the chance to. He then proceeded to snatch the mug of tea out of my other hand as well.
“Get out of my face and wake the two little bastards up,” He growled.
I took six steps to the left and kicked the blow up mattress on the floor as hard as I could to wake Arthur and Phoebe. Nathan instructed me to kick once to wake them up. If they didn’t budge, I was to kick again. If they still didn’t wake up, I was to douse them with scalding hot water from the kettle. They hated being doused with hot water so they were sure to bolt awake before I could kick the mattress a second time. Arthur gazed at me guardedly through his own gray almond eyes. He looked so much like his father that sometimes it scared me. When I looked at him, it felt like I was looking at Nathan. The only difference was that I answered to Nathan and Arthur answered to me whenever Nathan put me in charge of him and Phoebe. Arthur knew this. He knew our routine so I did not have to verbalize what was on the morning agenda. The newspapers we provided for them to use as blankets were to be stacked neatly and placed underneath the blow up mattress until it was time to go to bed again. They were then to bathe and dress themselves before coming to the kitchen for breakfast. After that, it was off to school and I was a free woman until Nathan came home with them at four o’ clock.
I sauntered back to the kitchen to prepare their breakfast and lunch. Breakfast was peanut butter mixed with garlic powder spread over the linoleum kitchen floor to spell out the word “bastard” in large capital letters. Nathan wanted them to know what they were. The garlic powder was my own addition. I thought it would be more pleasant for them than the cayenne pepper Nathan had told me to mix into it. Cayenne pepper was too spicy for children and at the very least, even illegitimate children should be allowed to enjoy a good meal. “Get in here, you little pieces of trash. Clover made your breakfast. You better eat it all or else you won’t be getting dinner tonight,” Nathan said as he pulled a navy blue wool sweater over his head. He was barefoot and I could see that he had a fresh blister one inch in diameter on his heel. His work boots usually caused him two or three blisters a week. The extra money we were forced to spend on food for the children really should have gone towards buying him a new pair of work boots instead.
The children crept into the kitchen as I turned my back to prepare their lunches for school. I toasted four slices of rye bread and layered them with peanut butter and cherry preserves. Nathan stood over me and grabbed the knife from my hand. He raised his foot to the sink and used the tip of the knife to poke a hole into the blister. I placed the plate of bread slices below his heel so that the liquid from the blister could be evenly distributed onto each slice of bread over the peanut butter and cherry preserves.
From behind us, Phoebe’s shrill whimpers filled the room. She was a weak-willed child and often cried over the most mundane things. I turned around so I could see for myself what was going on. Phoebe’s eyes teared up as she licked the chunks of peanut butter Arthur had scooped up off of the floor with his fingers to feed her. They were both seven years old but their relationship seemed to resemble one of father and daughter rather than that of brother and sister.
“Lick the floor clean,” Nathan smiled at them. “I know you’re both hungry as sin.”
Phoebe started crying and Arthur tried to hush her.
“Shut up, you ugly whore,” Nathan slammed his fist into the wall. “I want that floor licked clean.”
Arthur scraped up the last tangible bits of peanut butter off the floor and fed them to Phoebe. Then, he licked the floor making sure that all traces of peanut butter were gone. I tossed him a dish towel to wipe his saliva from the floor. I tried to keep the house as clean as possible just the way Nathan liked it. I waited patiently as he scrubbed the floor furiously and thought of what I needed to do for the day. The walls needed to be washed and the toilet scrubbed. Dinner had to be ready as soon as Nathan and the kids walked in the door. Today was Tuesday and I also needed to set aside time to watch reruns of Mork & Mindy. That show was so incredibly nostalgic to me and had captured my heart from the first time I happened to catch an episode on television. I would redo my nails as I watched the show to kill two birds with one stone. The glossy taupe color I painted them over the weekend had already chipped terribly. I certainly couldn’t walk around as Mrs. Nathan Gomez with chipped nails.
Nathan planted a kiss on my cheek snapping me out of my daydream. “Be good. Don’t leave the house and don’t answer the phone unless I tell you to do otherwise.”
“Yes, honey,” I said watching Phoebe sling her red knapsack over her shoulder and trail out of the house behind Arthur. She turned back to look at me, her eyes pleading for something that I couldn’t make out. Did she want more garlic powder in her peanut butter tomorrow morning? Less? Maybe she wanted ground coriander instead of garlic powder. I couldn’t read minds so I had no way of confirming what exactly it was she wanted. I studied her freckles. Today, they were more prominent than usual. They were cinnamon dots speckled across her tan skin matching her cinnamon colored mermaid waves. Her hair swished from side to side as she walked. It reminded me of a swinging pendulum that was ticking away the seconds until they all returned home.
Once Nathan’s blue Hyundai disappeared down the block, I snuck into his liquor cabinet and pulled out a bottle of good Napoleon brandy to have with my morning milk. All it took was three ounces of brandy added to eight ounces of whole milk to make my day. Suddenly, the sun seemed brighter and when I looked at myself in the hallway mirror, I saw a full bosom and curvy hips staring back at me instead of my usual flat chest and gangly thin frame. In this mirror world, I was an old money American girl married to an old money American boy. I was no longer the daughter of a Caribbean immigrant mother who had fled Bonaire with her ten year old daughter to escape an abusive husband. I was no longer a gawky giant with slugs for eyebrows. Nathan wasn’t two inches shorter than me anymore either. He had never gotten Holly Rahman pregnant with the twins at sixteen. Holly and her family had never taken off on a flight back to Jordan and abandoned the twins with Nathan to escape the shame of teenage motherhood. We were just perfect.
By lunchtime, the buzz from the alcohol had worn off and I was back to just being me again. I stealthily placed the bottle of brandy back in the exact position I had taken it from. I even replaced the lost volume of brandy with three ounces of water. Nathan did not take kindly to women who drank. He was haunted by memories of his alcoholic mother who would frequently run back to her home country of Switzerland leaving him to care for his disabled father. Mr. Gomez had originally come to America to receive treatment for burns that he sustained in an industrial fire back in Tijuana, Mexico. Due to his injuries, he had limited mobility and relied on his wife and kids to help him with many everyday tasks. Nathan believed that women grew lazy and disrespectful when they drank. The scent of alcohol on my breath would lead to me being thrashed into the wall with handfuls of hair torn from my scalp. I brushed my teeth, gargled with mouthwash and got to cleaning.
Nathan and the kids arrived home just as I had finished painting my nails and plated the peanut butter and cherry preserve sandwiches for dinner. I poured everyone a glass of milk and took my place at the table while they took off their shoes by the front door. My taupe nails sparkled in the overhead light to match my beaded taupe dress. They had been clipped and filed with the nail clippings tucked meticulously into the children’s sandwiches. I was a spoiled housewife at the tender age of twenty. I had it good, much better than my mother did after coming to America and having to work two jobs to support us. She never accepted a man into her life again and we suffered for it. The bills were never paid. There was no one to fix things around the house or take out the garbage. There was no one to protect us from break-ins and robberies. It was entirely my mother’s fault. She had abandoned her husband and middle class life for single motherhood and poverty in a strange new country. The only thing she accomplished was robbing us both of a stable lifestyle. I, on the other hand, was highly blessed and had no interest in changing the way things were.
Nathan gulped down some milk. “Let’s play a little game. I’m going to give you two little dunces forty five seconds to finish your dinner. Any leftovers go in the garbage, you understand?”
“That’s too short!” Arthur balled up his fists.
“Forty seconds,” Nathan smiled from ear to ear and glanced down at his watch. “And your time starts now.”
Arthur and Phoebe shoved their sandwiches in their mouths trying to make as much of it fit as possible. Nathan chuckled until Arthur started to hiccup as he tried to swallow the enormous lump in his throat. He coughed and gasped for air. Nathan laughed even harder as Arthur’s lips turned blue and he slumped over in his seat motionless. Phoebe began trembling and her eyes welled up with tears. Amber liquid leaked from her chair into a puddle on the floor. Instantaneously, she soiled the floors I had just worked so hard to scrub and polish.
“Nathan, Arthur isn’t moving,” I said.
“Get up, greedy hog,” He kicked the leg of Arthur’s chair. Arthur lunged forward at the table and then rolled onto the floor. His body was flaccid dead weight.
“Something is wrong,” I stood up. Nathan yanked at Arthur’s hair, but he still didn’t move. “Call an ambulance. This little bastard is going to cost us a couple hundred dollars. We won’t be able to afford bread for sandwiches next week.”
I ran to the house phone to dial for emergency services. They were at our door before ten minutes had passed. Arthur never got up. He wasn’t breathing and could not be resuscitated. He had choked to death on his sandwich. Phoebe was inconsolable. That night, Nathan had to clamp his hands down over her mouth to stop her wailing. It eventually quieted down from an eardrum shattering screech to a barely audible whimper as she stopped trying to push him off and fell asleep. I took the liberty of covering her with plenty of newspapers so she would at least sleep warm now that her brother wasn’t here to use his set of newspapers. Her hair was matted to her head with sweat and her skin was sticky to the touch. I examined her face and noticed that she was right between Nathan and I concerning phenotype. She could easily pass as our child unlike Arthur. In the three years I had been with Nathan, I had failed to fall pregnant despite trying so many times. I had never been on birth control and we never used protection yet it didn’t appear to be part of God’s plan to bless me with a child at the moment. Furthermore, Holly was out of the picture for good and was never coming back. She had abandoned the kids to save her reputation amongst her own community. Nathan was the one with the good heart who took the children in and provided them with housing, food and an education. We were meant to be a family after all.
Arthur’s death was ruled accidental as it should have been. Nathan explained to the doctors that Arthur often rushed when eating in order to have more free time to play board games. This time, his rushing took a fatal turn and ended with him choking to death. Only he and Phoebe were at the table at the time the accident took place. Once I got wind of what was going on, I rushed over to swat his back to help him cough up whatever he was choking on. However, I was unsuccessful and didn’t know how to perform the Heimlich maneuver. Left with no other choice, Nathan dialed for an ambulance. During the wait for the ambulance, Arthur fell unconscious and never woke up again. We received sympathy from everyone involved. Nathan and I were only twenty three and twenty respectively. We were doing the best we could, but sometimes accidents happened. There was simply nothing that could have been done to prevent Arthur’s death.
After the funeral, we treated Phoebe to breakfast at the local diner and told her she could order whatever she wanted. I smoothed out my pleated chiffon skirt as I took a seat next to her. It matched my nails which were a beautiful juniper color. Phoebe had been dressed to match me, too. She had two pigtails with juniper ribbons on the ends and wore a juniper choir dress. We looked like mother and daughter to the public eye with our family patriarch sitting tall and proud in a freshly steamed suit.
“Would you like to try the country fried potatoes with gorgonzola cheese? You can have a stack of blackberry pancakes, too,” I reached over to pat her head.
Phoebe’s body stiffened and she looked at me with wide eyes.
“Do you want to tell mommy what you want or are you not hungry?” I tried again. This time, Nathan cleared his throat.
“I want the potatoes and the pancakes, please,” She said in a barely audible voice.
"It’s please, mommy,” I corrected her.
“Please, mommy,” She repeated with glazed over eyes.
I smiled and waved at the closest waitress. “Hello, miss, we are ready to order.”
The waitress, who appeared to be a few years older than me, studied us curiously. “Look at those gorgeous clothes. Are y'all coming from a little get together or somethin’?”
“A funeral, actually,” I corrected her. “Our son just passed away.”
“Well, I’m sorry to hear that,” She frowned.
“That’s alright,” Nathan interrupted adjusting his tie. “He’s in a better place now.”
The waitress opened her mouth, but no words came out. She tucked her platinum blonde hair behind her ears and stared down at her notepad. “So what can I get y'all to eat?”
“Our little girl will have a stack of blackberry pancakes and the country fried potatoes with gorgonzola cheese to go with it. My husband and I will also have a stack of blackberry pancakes each, but bring us two slices of banana bread and two poached eggs as well. We’ll all have orange juice. Thanks, dear,” I smoothed out my skirt once again.
“Sure thing, ma’am,” She collected our menus.
I watched her disappear behind the double doors to the kitchen before turning to Phoebe.
“You’re having a good time, aren’t you?”
Phoebe’s bottom lip quivered. “Yes.”
“Yes, mommy,” I tapped her shin with the toe of my silver kitten heels.
“Yes, mommy,” She said.
“Do you want me to be a nice mommy or a mean one?” I asked.
“A nice one,” She said.
“Then you have to be a good daughter and do what I say. Good things happen to good little girls and bad things happen to bad little girls,” I clasped my hands.
“Okay. I will be a good daughter, mommy,” She sniffled.
I reached over to pet her and she flinched. I knew it was going to take more work to train her. We could be the perfect family if she got her act together. Now that Arthur was out of the picture, she would be much easier to subdue. She could sleep with us in our bed to get more comfortable with the idea of me being her mother. Holly was never coming back and I was not going anywhere. Phoebe could easily pass as my daughter with Nathan and I had no issue with mothering her for the foreseeable future until God blessed me with my own child. I was certainly ready to fulfill God’s intended role for me as a mother and homemaker.
Note To Reader from Brittany
This story was written to explore the mindsets of people who abuse children. Concerning the protagonist and stepmother Clover, I took the angle that she witnessed her mother being abused by her father as a child which established such behavior as normal to her. The fact that her mother financially struggled after leaving her father made her believe that women could not survive in the world without support from a man. She is desperate to be taken care of and even though she still lives in poverty, she feels safer now that she doesn’t have to work and she has a husband to take care of her. She is desperate for love and security and sees Nathan’s children, who are also desperate for love and security, as her competition. Concerning Clover’s husband Nathan, I took the angle that he resents his children for being born and forcing him to take responsibility for his actions after their birth mother abandons them. He also takes out the trauma of his childhood on his wife and kids. One issue I ran into while writing the story was the conundrum of making such monstrous characters appear human with their own trauma and insecurities. I find the actions and attitudes of both characters in the story to be reprehensible. I certainly do not condone such atrocious behavior.
My name is Brittany Balin. I am a student at Stonybrook University and an English major.
I enjoy writing as it is one of the few areas in life I feel comfortable expressing myself. Prior to this wonderful opportunity to publish a short story, I have published poetry in my University’s literary magazine Spoke The Thunder. I have always dreamed of being able to contribute to the literary world but wasn’t sure if it would come into fruition. I am happy to say that even though it may not be easy, pursuing one’s passions should never be put on the back burner.