There was a grading system, one with rules. It had to be followed. This is what my mother always said about her English classes. Every student earned what she deserved, no more, no less. No extra-credit. No late papers. Daughters were graded like this, too, and the day I went hunting I started out with an A. By the time my father flipped over the kitchen table it was an F. My mother often talked about students who dropped her classes. The broken sugar bowl, saucers, and glasses were evidence of an even worse than failing grade.
“Goddamn it!” My father’s yell was slow and loud, like the PA system at school. I heard him in my head at night.
“Clean up this mess!” he roared, and I did, which moved the day to a D. Not failing, because at least I was doing something. The broom gripped in my hands, I pulled the invisible shell I’d made years ago over my head. Who knew what else would fly around? Cutlery. Phone books. Lamps.
My sister Eva cried and shook in her high chair, her face shiny with snot and tears, the metal legs of her chair rattling as my father stomped around the room, boom, boom. Now his hands were on the shelving unit, also metal. I could hear the screws loosening from the wall, the screaming creak of the back being torn away. Back to F. I pushed the broom over lumps of pottery and a spoon.
“She’s just a child,” my mother cried.
But I’d tidied up before. I knew how to make sure the glass was picked off the floor before Eva walked across anything with her bare little feet.
Every day, my mother tried to not do the wrong thing, but this morning, she’d dropped her briefcase and her books on the kitchen table while my father was reading the newspaper. Her leather case and Twelfth Night were the objects that started everything. Worse, she was going to the college, leaving my father home with us. Eva was sick, and I talked too much, said the wrong words, the things that made my father’s hands fly out and slap me.
Those were F seconds, leading to F hours, sometimes days, especially the ones where my mother was at a conference and left us home alone with him. Last time, my father whirled like a tornado through our bedroom, ripping our beds off their frames and tearing our clothes off their hangers. My older sister, May, ran away to my Aunt Jane’s house and stayed there. I imagined her days were always at least B-pluses. We weren’t allowed to see her.
The metal cabinet groaned and plunged to the floor, crashing and spewing salad bowls, placemats, and punch glasses. Eva screamed. I clutched the broom, closed my eyes, felt the power of my parent’s bad marriage in my bones, the hate pumping as fast as my heart.
My father was a blind dinosaur, a wild boar, a wooly mammoth, the kind from the books at school. He hulked through the kitchen banging and whapping into my mother’s body, sending her flying against the basement door, which flew open, exposing the stairs to the concrete landing below.
I grabbed Eva out of her chair and ran to my mother, the day impossible to grade now, off the scale. There’d never been a day this impossible to understand. The cool air from the basement rushed up the stairs like a grasping hand. I could already feel the way the flat cold slab would feel as we hit it, our soft bones no match for that monster.
“No!” I yelled, my eyes closed, the animal of my father hulking close, his breath fetid and sour; ripe and rich with the marsh, the bog, the jungle, the terrible place that he came from. The house tilted with each step, one, two, three. Closer and louder.
I wrapped my arms around my sister and my mother, pulling us to the linoleum. Glass crackled under my shoulders. Eva sobbed in my ear, her snot slick on my temple.
“Oh, no. Oh, no,” my mother wailed. The blood from above her eye smelled like the inside of a tin can, like yesterday and all the other days I’d breathed it in.
“No!” I looked the beast in the eye, the way the books said to do when it was too late.
the way it happened was like a diagram I could work out later in my sister’s big crayons. The shaggy, howling animal lunging toward us, tusks sharp and white and hard. My arm thrust out, extended, aimed for his heart, pushing back. A big foot slipping on orange juice or milk, the animal canting left, off balance, and then forward, my arm pushing it over us. Everything in my arm. Every bit of strength I’d imagined and practiced. I flexed at night on the bottom bunk, my sister May no longer on the top because she was sleeping elsewhere in her better life. It was up to me, and now, I used it, gritting my teeth. There. There, and then the beast lurched forward and then fell down, down the stairs.
The house rumbled its thanks, banging its gratitude on each step. In pain, the animal howled and then was silent. The concrete held up cold arms and grabbed. I felt my mother and sister hush, and then shallow breathing. None of us moved, all three of us waiting.
Jessica Barksdale’s fourteenth novel, The Burning Hour, was published by Urban Farmhouse Press in April 2016. A Pushcart Prize and Best-of-the-Net nominee, her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in the Waccamaw Journal, Salt Hill Journal, Little Patuxent Review, Carve Magazine, Palaver, and So to Speak. She is a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches novel writing online for UCLA Extension. She holds an MA in English Literature from San Francisco State University and an MFA from the Rainier Writers Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.