Momma’s head hits the ground, bones crack, and then there’s blood. Blood and Play-Doh. You made that green Play-Doh horse in Mrs. Chlor’s class. The boy grabs it, laughs and laughs, and holds it up. You jump, jump, jump, and cry. He laughs. He throws it. It crumples against the wall. Against the linoleum and her lips are bleeding, a tooth floating in the blood, a tiny boat floating down the stream.
You tell this story, your hand resting on your belly, across the cement moon-lit room to Sally, lost in her books and never talks, and wonder, “Does she believe me?”
And then Daddy’s pulling Momma back up, by the hair, he’s got her by the hair and you’re sure that it’s going to come right off of the back of her skull, and then sure enough, there’ll be more blood. (There’s always more blood than you expected.)
It’s not a secret if you tell.
The stench here, looking out through the bars, is worse than you thought no matter how many times you saw it on Cops. His green arm is stroking your head.
You’re sitting on the hotel bed, and Joey, your husband, husband, husband (the word just sounds wrong, sticks to your mouth like peanut butter), husband of seven hours and fifteen minutes, washes in the bathroom. And his green arm is stroking your hair, your long brown hair, like straw, you so wish it was thicker, thick like gold. And your nose is too thick at the end and your ears are small against your head. And he’s stroking your head. His long fingers brush your cheek and the smell of tar and mint floats past. Balthazar, Melchior, Caspar, whatever he’s going by now, he’s told you so many names; he’s here. You’ll survive. He’s here you’ll survive. Heshereyoullsurvive. Your lips part and the words leak out, “What’s going to happen? Will it hurt?”
“No, no, no. Everything’s alright. Crawl under here. Shhh, it’ll be our secret.” Momma’s face is cracked and laying in the glass of her pretty shelves. Her baby-dolls are slumped around her and Daddy’s watching TV. He’s wiping his hands and watching TV and she’s laying in glass with the baby dolls with the moving eyes all around her. And the voice comes from under the table. He’s sitting there, butt on the ground, knees touching the bottom of the table and his long fingers asking you to come near.
You wait outside the store and the clerk keeps watching you. You let him. Katie’s coming around and if he keeps watching you, she’ll be safe. Or that’s what he says, and he’s never wrong. His green hand holds yours and you know you’ll do this right. You’ll do this right and a bottle of Shnapp’s waits for you. He squeezes your hand, “Keep smiling. Just keep smiling. And now, walk away.” Of course, you do. You walk away and the clerk’s narrow almond eyes watch you and Katie walks the other way. You’re drunk that night in her basement. The five of you, Katie, John-Stevens, Ang, Roland with the red hair who you so want to do more than kiss you tonight your legs tense as you look at him please lets walk away by ourselves you loosen a button brushing your hair but you know if he has you you’re still not good enough not good enough, the five of you cackle in the glow of the Shnapps. And your green friend, Lacelegs, Shortribs (so many years, so many names), you asked one day for his name, and he wrote them all down on your notebook, dressed in a simple yellow shirt, he’s stroking your hair and helping you loosen a button.
His knees are so long as they touch the table. You duck your head and sit down next to him. You’re meeting him tonight for the first time and he’s your best friend before you look up and he tells you just that. “You like Elmo? I do too. Right now, Elmo’s all that matters. His red fur, funny smile, and new tennis shoes. Imagine Elmo in here with us.” And Elmo is all you think about. Red furry Muppets with new shoes. Your brother’s sobbing, Bo and Luke Duke “yahoo-ing” from the tv, Daddy’s snoring, and Momma’s muffled moaning just don’t seem to be that important. You talk to Muppets as he strokes your golden hair with his thin green fingers, and he watches on through his cup-shaped eyes. “Emma, your daddy will leave tomorrow. Don’t talk about tonight with your momma, it’ll just make her cry once the doctors have made her all better. Starting tonight, you’ll need to lock your bedroom door, every night, and don’t ever let your brother in, no matter how hard he knocks. And me, I’m your little secret.” You say yes and leave the kitchen far behind for Sesame Street.
“Sally, are you listening?” you ask.
He grabs the Play-Doh sculpture, the small horse with its beautiful mane and coat, you named it Emerald, and holds it, and laughs and throws it. You pick it up and there’s nothing of what you made but a single leg, just a mass of green Play-Doh.
“It will hurt, but you’ll be fine,” he says as he strokes your hair. Heshereyoullsurvive. “We’ve done this before, but this will be worse. Remember Elmo?” You do and you wonder, “Why worse?” But then he’s on top of you and his breathing’s strong and he’s hitting you. Heshereyoullsurvive. The green fingers stroke your hair as Joey’s fists bury themselves in your jaw, pounding you like Play-Doh, you feel like Play-Doh, thrown against the wall. The thin dragon tattooed up his right arm winks at you as you pull away from each blow. Your ears are swollen so Joey’s words are muted when he speaks, “GET IT RIGHT, RIGHT AWAY. THERE WILL BE NO QUESTION, EMMA. I WILL ALWAYS GET THE FINAL WORD.”
Heshereyoullsurvive. And Elmo’s there too, holding hands with Mr. Sheepshanks, yellow shirt, green legs arm hands eyes dark wet sparse strands of hair and saucer eyes, “Just a minute longer. We can do this.” And then he’s pushing himself into you. You’re not good enough, you think. Joey’s fists aren’t swinging but his warm, harsh breath is in your face as you celebrate the first act of marriage. And his green fingers keep stroking your thin, straw-like hair.
“Do you believe me, Sally, with all your books and you never talk?”
You peak out under the dining room table as the morning comes, Daddy slams the door, the motorcycle starts up, and Momma’s still laying in the glass. “It’s over now. Just stay calm. You can get up now. Go wash yourself and call the police. And don’t tell anyone about me. I’m your secret.”
You stand up and walk to the phone. You remember Elmo. And his green hand is holding yours (it feels so good for someone to touch you) and helping you pick up the phone. You look back at Momma, at her face, the babydolls with the wandering eyes, the glass, the linoleum, the blood, and the reflection in a piece of glass of a green hand stroking her head, stroking Momma’s head.
Joey finishes. Sits up. Slaps you twice and walks to the shower. There is no gold; only straw. “It’s over now. Just stay calm. You can get up now,” as he squeezes your hand with his green fingers.
You’re standing looking at yourself in the mirror, your blood is flowing down your breasts and your face is like Play-Doh, you’re like Play-Doh, on your wedding night just eight hours since I Do and you’re bleeding again, and in the reflection his green hand is stroking your head. Will he stroke your daughter’s hair?
You want to do more than survive.
So you get out the small revolver you packed, knowing, knowing, knowing you didn’t want to know this, but knowing, knowing what tonight would paint. You paint in green and red as Joey walks back in the room, you pull the trigger and his face is spread over the walls. His green arm is stroking you, his tall legs and green body stand next to you.
But you want to do more than survive. You call the police. The stench here, looking out through the bars, is worse than you thought no matter how many times you saw it on Cops. His green arm is stroking your head.
Heshere and all you will ever do is survive. You put down the piece of glass you found under the mattress. You call the officer, and you talk, as his long green fingers scratch into your skull. “I’m your secret.”
You talk. You talk. You talk to the officer, the doctor, the nurse, the judge, the priest, and you tell them all about him. He’s desperate now and he keeps talking about Elmo, “I’m your secretsecretsecret.”
Not if you tell. You talk about him. Him under the dining room table, him in the basement with Roland who you want to sleep with you so want to be with him (your first first first), him in the motel room, him outside the store, him after the concert, him the night your brother broke into your room and held you down, him the night Daddy came back and beat you beat you like Joey, him stealing the needles, him talking talking talking. He keeps scratching at first but you know he’s just doing it cause he’s scared. You’ll miss him. Oh. Miss him like a limb and now he’ll be gone. Miss him. Secretsecretsecretsecret.
And one night, as your hand rests on your growing womb, the moon peering through your cement room, cold with white sheets, the room you share with Sally, whose stuck in her books and never, never talks, behind your locked door with the hinged window to talk to the nice man in white outside, one night in this room, he strokes your hair, brittle like straw, one last time, pulling at skin so hard you’re sure it’ll come off the base of your skull. You pick up the Play-Doh, between the sobs, as the boy laughs walking away, walk to your desk and start to mold the horse named Emerald again.
He’s not here and you’ll live.
Jason D Batt is a recovering high school English teacher currently pursuing a PhD in Mythological Studies. I also serve as the Creative and Editorial Director for the 100 Year Starship and am the founder and organizer of the annual Canopus Award for Excellence in Interstellar Writing.