A GOOD SLEEPER
by Keith Jenereaux
The condensation that crept from the bottom of the window was high enough to hide the small front yard from Holly. Any other time she would have wiped it clear with her forearm, dragging the sleeve of her shirt across the window until the glass was dry, but she wanted to stay hidden today, wanted to watch without being seen. She went up on her toes, peaking over the thin layer of water. Her vision was still distorted, blurred by tears, which she also chose not to wipe away.
She could see their breath as they walked to the cars, tufts of vapour being caught in the wind before disappearing. It gave her chills, reminded her of the cold, and she crossed her arms tight below her chest.
“He was fine,” she said, turning her head toward the other room.
No one answered.
Holly looked back at the window, up on her toes again. Miss Woodrow was opening the back door of her car for the officer who didn’t give his name, didn’t say a single word while he was in the house. Miss Woodrow had done all the talking. Holly watched as the silent officer bent over and put her son in the car.
“He always sleeps through the night. Always. Ever since he was born.” She didn’t look away from the window. “When I was pregnant, people told me to get ready. ‘Get your sleep now, cause your gettin none once the baby comes.’ That’s what Mom said. And Aunt Gert. And Mrs. Hiltz down at the pharmacy. That’s what everybody said. No sleep once he’s born. But they were wrong. Every single one of them. They were all wrong.”
The car door slamming shut made her flinch, as though she hadn’t expected the noise to accompany the action. Miss Woodrow said something, pointing at the window of her car and the officer nodded, tipping his hat before he went to the cruiser. Holly stepped away from the window when Miss Woodrow looked back at the house, scared of making eye contact with the horrible woman.
“Hateful,” Holly whispered. She waited till she heard the car door close before she looked again.
“He slept like a field stone. Even when he was a newborn. Dead to the world. Sometimes he slept twenty hours a day. Not a word of a lie – twenty hours. Mom said he was part cat. Said his daddy must have mud in his blood to make a baby that slept so much.”
The cruiser left first. It was on the road and pulling away before Miss Woodrow’s car started to move. A fresh tear warmed Holly’s cheek as she watched it back out of her driveway. She raised her hand and waved absently, then brought the hand to her mouth as the car disappeared.
“I’m sorry,” she said, still looking out the window. “I know you don’t like me bringing up his daddy.”
From the other room came the familiar snap of the television coming to life. It was followed briefly by the upbeat music from the children’s show Winston had been watching, but quickly changed to a jangle of mixed noises, too brief to be recognized. This continued until Billy settled on a show about fishing, and the quiet chatter of the men on the boat seemed to somehow suit the confusion. Holly kept watching the window.
“It’s been months since he got up during the night. Not since Halloween. You remember that? The night he threw up all over the crib? That was the last time he was up before dawn. Hell, before nine. That was the only time in a full year that he got up during the night. That’s it. Just once in a whole year. I never shoulda let him eat all that candy.” Nostalgia forced a grin to her face. “He just loved it so much.”
She heard the fridge door open, followed by the clink of a bottle being taken from the shelf. Footsteps dragging into the room made Holly turn away from the window. Billy held up a beer as he came toward her, a second one hanging by his hip in the other hand.
“Here.” He lifted his chin at the bottle.
“It’s only nine-thirty.”
Holly took the beer and watched Billy dropped hard into in the rocking chair by the wood stove taking. He took a long drink from the bottle before he set it between his legs. She turned back to the window. “I guess I gotta get a lawyer.”
“You can’t afford a lawyer.”
“Don’t they have free lawyers for people who don’t got money?”
Billy shook his head. “That’s just on television. No one does nothing for free in real life. You gotta pay if you want a lawyer. You gotta pay through the nose.”
“Maybe I could sell the car?”
Billy laughed. “You’d be lucky to get a hundred bucks for that piece of crap.”
He was still topless, had come out of the bedroom like that when Miss Woodrow and the officer were there. Holly wished he had put on a shirt. It might have helped if he had put on a shirt. Billy had tattoos. Several of them. The ones on his arms didn’t bother her, snakes and crosses and words in complicated cursives, but centred on his chest was a picture of a naked women with exaggerated breasts reaching a hand toward each of Billy’s nipples, like she was about to pinch them with her fingertips. It embarrassed Holly when he had his top off while other people were around.
“How much does a lawyer cost?”
Billy was in the middle of a drink and he didn’t lower the bottle until it was empty. “A hell of a lot more than you got,” he told her.
“How much more?”
A shrugged was his only answer.
Holly set her bottle on the windowsill. “I gotta call mom,” she said, and started towards the phone in the kitchen.
“She ain’t gonna be able to help you, Holly. She’s got less money than you.”
“I ain’t gonna ask her for money. I’m gonna ask her what to do.”
Billy followed her into the kitchen. “How the hell is she gonna know what to do? She ain’t a lawyer.”
“She’ll know.” The phone wasn’t on its base. It was never on the base. In this house it was always in the couch or under the covers or on the back of the toilet. It was never on the base unless the charge was spent. “She knows stuff like this. She used to work at the Sally Anne’s.” It wasn’t under Billy’s hat off. “People were always coming in with problems like this.” It wasn’t on the counter or in the drawer of seldom used utensils. “She woulda heard things like this. She woulda heard how to fix it.” Holly looked in the same spots again, picking up items that couldn’t possibly hide a phone. “Where is the damn thing?”
“Working at a thrift store ain’t going teach ya how to get a kid from social services. You’re talking crazy.”
“Which of these make the phone beep?” She started pushing buttons on the phone’s base until a muffled chirping started in the other room. The sound led her to recliner.
“You can’t call your mother now, it’s the middle of the morning. Rates are through the roof.”
Holly was already dialling. “But I need her help.”
Billy took the phone from her. “Nothing’s going to change between now and tonight. Wait till ten.”
“Six. It gets cheaper at six.”
“Yeah, but it’s even cheaper at ten. If you can wait till six, you can wait till ten.” Billy fell into the beat up recliner, tossing the phone to the couch on his way down.
There was a moment of thought, a reflection on the phone itself. Her mother had given it to her the day she left, a parting gift that served as a hint. Holly sat down beside it on the couch. “In a way, this is all her fault.”
The television had absorbed Billy’s attention.
“If she hadn’t of moved back to the island we woulda had a sitter. She watched Winnie all the time when she lived on Aldred Drive.”
“Don’t call him Winnie. That’s a girl’s name.”
“I wouldn’t a left if he was awake.” She looked away from the phone. “It’s just he sleeps so good. He never wakes up during the night. That lady, that Miss Woodrow, she wouldn’t even let me talk. Wouldn’t let me explain. She didn’t have to be so …” Tears slipped down both sides of her face. “She doesn’t know Winston. She doesn’t know how good he sleeps. She didn’t even know how old he was. Kept saying Winnie’s eighteen months. He’s not eighteen months, he’s only sixteen. Not even. He’ll be sixteen on the twenty-first. Or is it seventeen? Wait …” Holly started counting under her breath, her fingers moving as she did. “Oh my god, Billy.” She covered her mouth. “He is eighteen months. Winnie’s gonna be a year and a half on the twenty-first.”
Holly took in a deep breath. “I’m a bad mom.”
Billy said nothing.
She wiped her eye with the heel of her hand. “Miss Woodrow was right. I am a terrible mother.”
The only sound in the room came from the anglers on the television. Holly looked straight ahead, stared at the blank wall on the other side of the room as Billy watched the fishing show.
“I wish he cried.” She wiped her eyes again. “I wish he got upset when she took him.” Holly swallowed hard, then took a breath. “Why didn’t he holler for me, Billy? Why didn’t he yell for his mom instead of just sitting there grinning, smiling at that Miss Woodrow while she took him from his home? He was happy, Billy … Happy to get away from me.” She turned her head toward the window. “But I guess that’s because I’m a terrible mom.”
The anglers whispered in the pause that followed.
“How do you suppose she knew?”
“Who knew what?”
“How do you suppose Miss Woodrow knew we went to the Red Line last night? How do you think she knew we left Winston here all alone?”
Holly looked at the wall that separated their apartment from the one next to them. “Mrs. Dickson saw us leaving last night. I saw her peeking out from behind the curtain when we went past her window. She gave me a real dirty look too. One of those judging kinda looks. I bet she was the one who called Social Services. I betcha it was her.”
“You’re probably right. The woman’s a cow.”
Holly pounded the heel of her fist against the wall. “I know what you did,” she hollered. “I know exactly what you did, you bitch.”
Billy laughed. “Give er hell.”
She watched the wall, waiting for a reaction. When nothing came she turned and hurried out of the room. Billy stared at the television as the front door opened then slammed closed. He laughed to himself at the sound of footsteps stomping across the deck they shared with the neighbours.
The wind was bitter, blowing through the thin night shirt she was wearing, but Holly didn’t notice as she pounded on the door to the Dickson’s apartment. “I know what you did,” she screamed again.
The door opened carefully and a small woman appeared behind it. “Go away or I’ll call the police,” she snapped.
“I know you called social services Mrs. Dickson. I know it was you. Don’t try to deny it”
“I’m not denying anything.”
How casual the confession had been surprised her. She groped awkwardly for something to say.
“You left that poor child home all by itself. All by its lonesome. And it ain’t the first time either, I know it ain’t. You should be locked up, the two of you. You and that rotten one over there. You’re monsters, that’s what you are. They should lock the two of you up and throw away the key, that’s what should be done.”
“They took away my son, Mrs. Dickson. They took my baby.”
“Good. That’s the best news I ever heard. Now maybe that poor little boy will have a fighting chance, cause he sure as hell wasn’t going to get one with the two of you. Now get off my deck.”
The door opened further as Mr. Dickson appeared behind his wife. He was a big man – his wife only came to his chest – and Holly became frightened as he looked down at her. “You need to do as you’re told little girl.” He pointed toward the other apartment.
The cold was obvious now, the wind tearing at her bare legs. She felt it, felt the uncomfort, but it seemed so trivial to the situation. “He’s a good sleeper,” she said. “He never wakes up in the night.”
“You get on home,” Mr. Dickson said.
Absent thoughts of her son came to her suddenly, song enough to take her away. Holly pictured his big, dopey grin, the corners of his mouth cutting into his oversized cheeks. She loved the way he closed his eyes when he laughed, the way his whole body shook with the effort.
“What kind of people are you anyway?”
She spoke quietly at first, still caught in what she had lost.
“You think you have the right to go messing with someone’s life?” She saw them now, huddled in their doorway like a fox protecting her den. “You think you’re God or something? Is that it? You think you gotta punish people who don’t live just like you? You’re the monsters. Both of you. You’re the ones who can’t just mind your own damn business and leave me the hell alone?”
Mr. Dickson pushed past his wife as he stepped onto the deck. “You little bitch.”
She was not fast enough and Mr. Dickson had a hold of her arm before she could step back. He squeezed as hard as he could. “You want to know who we are? We’re two people who give a damn, that’s who we are. We’re two people who aren’t afraid to do the right thing, how about that?”
“You’re hurting me.”
Holly didn’t know what had happened as her head snapped back. She didn’t figure it out till his hand came up again.
“We’re two people who spent our whole lives trying to get the very thing you treat as a burden. An inconvenience. We’re two people who think a kid isn’t something you gotta run away from every chance you get.”
He slapped her again, the fingers catching the end of her nose. The taste of blood came to the back of her throat.
“You’re garbage, that’s what you are. A piece of trash.” He brought the back of his hand across her face and Holly felt his knuckle rip her lower lip. “You’re a whore. A worthless, two-bit whore,” he screamed.
His hand was up again, ready to strike, but Holly had turned away, trying to hide from the blow. She didn’t see the anger suddenly disappear from his face and she didn’t hear the crack until afterward, after he folded, after his posture melted in front of her. He let go of her shoulder and his hand slid down her arm as he collapsed on the deck.
The top half of the mop handle had flung off the porch with the impact, disappearing in the loose snow that had fallen during the night. The bottom half was still in Billy’s hand as he stared down at the old man. Short, thick puffs of steam came from his mouth with every quick breath, and his bare chest rose and fell in perfect rhythm.
“Morris!” Mrs. Dickson hurried to her husband.
Billy watched the woman cradle her husband’s head. He noticed the broken mop in his hand, stared at it for a moment before he tossed it to the corner of the deck. “Come on.” Taking Holly by the arm he pulled her into the apartment and dragged her into the kitchen. “Sit down,” he said, pulling a chair up to the sink.
Holly sat down carefully as Billy disappeared into the bathroom. Her breathing was short, hurried, with terrified gasps interrupting it. She watched the front door intently until Billy stepped back into the room with an old towel. He said nothing as the water ran, kept quiet while he soaked the towel, squeezed it, then shook it open, letting the loose water drop into the sink. Holly watched as he went down on his haunches in front of her, the tap still running behind him.
“That may need a stitch or two.” Billy dabbed carefully at her lip. “How’s your nose?”
“It hurts,” she said, and sniffed. The taste of blood came back to her.
Billy touched her nose with his finger tip and Holly moved back from his hand. “I don’t think it’s broken.” He returned his attention to her lip, using the towel to remove blood from the edge of the cut. “We’re going to get a lawyer.”
Holly looked at him, but Billy didn’t meet her eyes. “For Winnie?”
She brightened. “He’s such a good boy, isn’t he?”
“Yeah, he’s a good kid.” He stood carefully, pressing the towel against her lip. “Hold this.”
The freezer was in the porch, and from the far end Billy could see the porch through the window. The wife had disappeared, but Mr Dickson hadn’t moved. It would have been unsettling had Billy allowed himself to consider it. Instead he grabbed a bag of peas from the freezer and went back to the kitchen.
“Lift your head. Let me see that lip.”
Holly obeyed. When she closed her eyes she felt a throbbing in her nose, but she kept them closed in spite of it. “Is he dead?” she asked.
“That old bastard?”
Holly gave a slight nod.
Billy touched her cut, watched the deep wound open as he pushed her lip to the side. “It was just a mop. You can’t kill a guy with a mop. The wood’s too thin.”
Holly nodded again.
Billy wrapped the towel around the peas.
He was quiet at first, focused on the peas, but silence forced him to answer. “Yeah?”
She licked her lip carefully, then swallowed. “I’m going to be a good mom from now on. You just wait and see. I’m going to be a real good mom.”
Billy nodded. “I know,” he said.
He placed the towel gently against her lip and held it there, listening for the faint sound of sirens to come.
About the Author:
Keith Jenereaux had no ambitions aimed at becoming a writer. A former child care worker, his first novel came accidentally while he was trying to record one of the stories he told the children, and since then plots and characters have pestered him constantly. He lives in Nova Scotia with his wife and daughter.