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Guess the Song
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“You girls are going to miss the Rose Parade if you don’t get out of bed.”
My mother’s voice, throaty from forty years of cigarette smoking, pulls me awake, and I groan and mutter into my pillow, “Welcome to 1971.”
I peer at the bedroom door through slitted eyes, but Mom has already disappeared. Across the room my older sister burrows deeper under her blankets.
I squint at the clock on my bedside table.
In fact, we’ve already missed the Rose Parade. But through the miracle of television we can watch it re-broadcast again and again all day long. And my mother probably will.
I have never known Mom to actually attend a parade, but every New Year’s Day she watches the Tournament of Roses, captivated by the floats and the celebrities. Her daughters, on the other hand, find the whole ritual a bore, so although every year Mom invites us to join her, every year she watches it alone.
“Are you getting up?” I ask Kate. No response. She’s asleep, or faking it.
I wish that I could slip into unconsciousness again, but my brain is too busy.
The last time Mom dragged us from sleep was on Christmas morning. It was barely light, but her voice was sharp and urgent, so we scrambled from our beds and followed her into the front room to gape out its wide window in surprise.
The neighbors’ massive cedar tree lay across our lawn, a victim of the storm that the radio newscaster would claim was the worst to hit Southern California in a decade. Up and down the street, broken tree limbs lay scattered like matchsticks, but only the cedar had been upended, its roots snaking skyward.
Mom said we were lucky that it had missed the house and none of us had been hurt. But I know, even if my mother won’t admit it, that we weren’t all that lucky. Something else had broken that night along with those mangled branches; and it wasn’t going to be easy to fix.
Pulling up the bedclothes and turning over on to my back, I stare upward and follow the familiar crack on the ceiling that runs from the light fixture above my bed to the wall where it dives behind my bureau. On top of the bureau, just where the crack disappears, is a little wooden music box. It was a gift from my father, although Dad wasn’t there when I opened it on Christmas morning.
Not that I wanted to open his gift or any others that day. I said as much to Mom and Kate, but as I’m only fourteen and the youngest, what I want never seems to count for much.
“I don’t want to wait,” my sister protested. “It’s Christmas.”
“When do you suggest we exchange our gifts, Jessie?” my mother asked. “Will you feel more like it tomorrow, or the next day, or next year?”
I opened my mouth to point out that this was a grim, grey, ugly Christmas and we might as well skip it, but Kate was glaring at me, silently warning me to keep my mouth shut. So we opened our gifts on Christmas morning, but it felt more like a funeral than a celebration.
The last present I unwrapped had a tag that read, “To Jessie. She reminds me of you. Love, Dad.”
Inside was the music box with a picture on it of a girl with prim, delicate features that looked nothing like my beaky nose and wide mouth. She had a cascade of wild red hair, though, that looked a lot like mine.
Sitting on the floor in front of the Christmas tree that morning, I raised the box’s lid and heard a string of tinkling notes, so bright that it took me a while to recognize the melody.
The music sounded wrong though—it was too quick and lilting. It certainly didn’t fit my mood, and anyway, it was a song that was meant to be slow and sad. Mournful, not happy.
My vision goes blurry as I lie in my bed, staring at the little music box and thinking about my father and what happened on Christmas Eve.
Maybe if Kate had been home that night things would have turned out differently. She could have distracted my mother with stories about her roommates and her classes and her divine English professor. But she had to take an exam, and she wasn’t due home until very late; so it was just me in the house to keep Mom company and help prepare dinner.
It hadn’t gone well.
The day had been sunless and dreary, and by late afternoon the promised storm was moving in. I stood at the front window and watched, mesmerized, as the branches of the trees that lined our street whipped sideways in the wind.
“It’s like Wuthering Heights out there,” I reported when I joined Mom in the kitchen. She didn’t respond. She was too caught up in some inner storm to pay any attention to the one outside.
For weeks—months even—she and my father had been waging a silent, undeclared war. Her anger was always simmering just beneath the surface; and my father’s usual pre-dinner whiskey and soda never stopped with just one drink, or even with two. Kate was never there to see it, but our house had become a battleground studded with emotional land mines that could be set off with the merest word or glance. I didn’t know what had started the war, and I resented having to live right smack in the middle of it.
Mom had been wearing her sour face all that day, and I’d tried to lighten things up by tuning the radio to a barrage of Christmas music, and by dragging a couple of holiday aprons out of a drawer for us to wear. Mom’s was green, and with her short, salt and pepper hair she looked like an elf—a very angry elf. We were working together at the kitchen counter, and I could feel suppressed fury radiating from her like a fever. As I sliced carrots and hummed carols, trying to ignore Mom’s grim expression, she suddenly snapped “Jessie!” so sharply that I nearly cut myself.
“How many times do I have to show you how to hold a knife properly? Do you want to lose a finger?”
Nervously, awkwardly, I adjusted my grip on the knife handle. But a moment later, reaching for a bowl, I knocked a glass tumbler from the counter. It shattered on the floor at my feet and Mom gave an exasperated huff.
“Sorry, Mom. I’ll clean it up.”
“No! I’ll do it!” She slammed down her knife and crossed to the broom closet. “You go set the table. Your father will be home any minute.”
I was picking my way carefully over glass shards when I heard her mutter, “He should have been here half an hour ago.”
So that’s what’s wrong, I told myself. Dad is late and she’s angry about it. Fine! But why take it out on me?
I left the kitchen, relieved at the prospect of escaping, however briefly, from my mother’s evil mood. But because I was wary of breaking something else and in no hurry to rejoin Mom, I set the dinner table practically in slow motion. Finally, when I decided that it was appropriately festive, covered in white linen, gleaming with Mom’s best china and the crystal wine glasses, with grandma’s silverware and two tapers that I’d placed in slender candlesticks and lit, I couldn’t think of anything else to keep me out of the kitchen, and back I went.
The aromas of roasting meat and yeasty bread should have put anyone into a good mood. Not my mother, though. As the minutes passed with no sign of my father and no phone call to explain his absence, Mom’s lips grew thinner and thinner until they made me think of a rubber band stretched to the breaking point.
I busied myself with preparing the salad, careful to hold the paring knife properly and glancing occasionally at my mother for approval. She never looked at me; every few minutes, though, she threw a murderous glance at the clock.
I thought back to previous Christmas Eves, when Dad had hurried home from work early, his arms full of brightly-wrapped boxes. Sugar plums for his girls, he called them. There were two identical boxes for Kate and me filled with chocolate creams and mints. Mom’s box was always enormous and filled with every kind of chocolate imaginable. Dad would present it with a special Christmas kiss.
When had those kisses stopped, I wondered. I couldn’t remember.
By seven o’clock Dad was more than an hour late and Mom decided it was pointless to delay our dinner. There was no telling when he’d get home. We sat down in candlelight while the rest of the house was smothered in shadows. Even the Christmas tree was just a black smudge against the living room wall.
I didn’t eat much. It was as though we were both waiting for something to happen, and the tension made my stomach ache. I was afraid that my father might have had an accident, but Mom wasn’t worried. She was just furious.
Finally I asked, “Why don’t you call Dad’s office? Maybe there’s a good reason why he’s late.”
My mother picked up her wine glass, and the knuckles of her fingers were smooth and white as she gripped it.
“Your father is late, Jessie,” she said through clenched teeth, “because of the company Christmas party. They’ve probably all been drinking since noon.”
I began to think that Dad might be better off if he didn’t show up until really, really late, when we were already in bed; but that’s not what happened.
We heard his car when we were in the kitchen washing the dishes. Mom snatched a towel to dry her hands and went outside. She left the door open behind her, and as she stalked up the driveway her high heels on the pavement sounded like pistol shots. The wind carried her voice back to me, shrill and angry, but I couldn’t make out any words. I could still hear her shouting when my father came in, and I jumped when the door slammed shut behind him.
He was dressed the way he always dressed for work, in a conservative dark suit and tie suitable for a company executive. His thinning gray hair was combed back off his forehead, untouched by the gust of wind that was rattling the door. But he was looking at me with the eyes of a stranger. They were red rimmed and watery, and there was no recognition in them when they met mine. They were just unfocused and vacant.
The blank expression on his face scared me. I’d never seen him like that before, but I knew instinctively that he must be really drunk.
“Dad? Are you okay?”
“I’m putting a stop to it.” The words came out thick and slurred, and he thrust a finger at me. “Yer a witness.”
He pushed me aside and made for the back of the house, toward the bedrooms. I stared after him, frozen, not sure what to do and bewildered by what he’d said.
Witness to what?
Glancing out the kitchen window I saw my mother behind the wheel of Dad’s car, slowly navigating it up the long, narrow driveway toward the garage. She must have realized that he was incapable of doing it himself and ordered him out of the car. Maybe that was what the shouting had been about.
Still curious about what my father had said, I went after him, switching on lights as I went. I found him in the long hallway outside my parents’ bedroom, weaving his way toward me. And I thought that this really couldn’t be my dad because he was holding a gun, and my dad didn’t have a gun. Yet, there it was, and there he was. And there I was, facing him.
“No!” I shouted.
After that everything seemed to happen in slow motion, like in a movie where the director wants to drag out the scary part. Dad stopped dead, startled, I guess. I didn’t wait to see what he would do next because all my instincts were screaming that I had to keep him away from my mother. I flew back to the kitchen where Mom was just opening the door to come into the house.
“Dad has a gun,” I said, physically turning her around and pushing her back outside. “Go to the neighbors. Stay there until I come for you.”
I must have sounded calm, but I didn’t feel calm. I felt like every nerve in my body was on fire. I shut and locked the door while my panicked brain was howling: Get to the phone. Call for help.
When I turned around, though, my father was right there in front of me, holding that gun, and I couldn’t get past him. He didn’t seem angry or upset—just confused and kind of helpless. As though he’d made up his mind to do something, but couldn’t quite figure out how to go about it. It was time to shoot his wife. Why wasn’t she there?
“Where’s yer mother?” he asked in that awful, slurring voice.
“Mom isn’t here. Put the gun down, Daddy,” I begged. “You’re scaring me.”
My voice wasn’t calm any more. It was shaky and broken because there were tears rising in my throat. I tried to hold them back, but Dad was gazing around the kitchen, looking for my mother with those vacant eyes, and I lost control. I started to cry—the kind of wild sobbing that comes up out of the pit of your stomach and takes over your whole body. You can’t stop it. You just have to try to survive it.
I don’t know if my words got through to him or if it was my tears, but all of a sudden he closed his eyes and his arms went limp at his sides.
“Dad,” I sobbed, “Give me the gun. Please.”
I wanted my father to be my dad again, to hug me and tell me that everything was okay. But I knew he wouldn’t do that because this wasn’t really my father; it was just some man with a gun.
He looked down at his hand, and his face registered surprise, as if he’d forgotten what he was holding. For what seemed like forever we just stood there, him staring blankly at his hand and me sobbing, open-mouthed, my nose running and my face wet with tears.
Finally he said, “Don’t cry, Jessie,” and his voice was sober and sad—my dad’s voice again.
He turned around slowly, and went into the dining room, to the table that was still covered with its white damask cloth and a setting for one. I followed him, still crying, and as I watched him remove all the bullets from the gun barrel, expertly, as if he’d done it a million times, I remembered that he’d been a soldier once. And it dawned on me that he must have been trained to handle a gun, and maybe that was where this one had come from. Military issue.
I’d known him all my life, but I didn’t know anything about that part of his. And it occurred to me that there must be a million things about him that I didn’t know; that none of us did. That no one could.
He placed the bullets and the gun next to the empty dinner plate, and I held my breath, waiting for him to say something—to explain or apologize. But he never said a word. He didn’t even glance at me before he retraced his steps down the hallway toward the back of the house.
As soon as he was gone I scooped up the gun and the bullets with trembling hands, took them into the kitchen, and wrapped them in a paper bag. I climbed up on the counter, and just as I finished stuffing the bag way into the back of the very top shelf of a cupboard, the phone rang.
When I answered it, Mom’s voice on the line was shrill and frightened.
“I’m okay,” I told her, “but don’t come home yet.” I didn’t say, you’re the one in danger. You’re the one he wants to murder, not me.
Before I hung up I heard a click. Dad had been listening on the extension in their bedroom.
That’s where I found him, tossing clothes into a suitcase. He was still wearing his suit, but the tie was gone and he’d thrown on an overcoat.
“There’s a taxi on the way,” he said, but he didn’t look up.
“Why? Where are you going?”
“I don’t know yet. I’ll know when I get there.”
He wasn’t slurring his words any more, but he still wasn’t making any sense. He slammed the suitcase shut with more force than was necessary, and I shrank out of his way as he left the bedroom. I trailed after him to the front door, the one we rarely used except for company. When he opened it the wind nearly blew it out of his grasp.
The rain that had been threatening had finally arrived, and he halted in the shelter of the porch, buttoning his overcoat before turning to look at me. His expression was sad, but he didn’t say anything, not even goodbye. And I felt like I was already part of a life that he had decided to leave behind.
I watched him climb into the cab, and after it drove off I sank into a chair and cried until my head ached.
I can feel those sobs clutching at my throat again now, and because I don’t want to wake Kate I swallow hard to keep the tears inside.
“What are you blubbering about?” she would say. “The world hasn’t ended, and nothing happened, really.” Just what she had said when she finally arrived home on Christmas Eve.
But she hadn’t been there. She hadn’t seen the look on my father’s face when he left the house—as if somebody had died.
Slowly I climb out of bed and as I pull on my robe I look at my sleeping sister. She is nearly twenty, but lying there with her blonde hair tossed about the pillow she looks like a little girl. And I realize that some part of me now is ever so much older than she is.
Before I leave the bedroom I run my finger across the top of the music box, and one of the lines to its song runs through my head.
… a place to hide away.
Maybe that’s where my dad is—hiding away somewhere. I envy him. I wish that I could run off somewhere and hide. Instead I’m stuck here, forced to choose a side in a war that isn’t mine.
I make my way to the den, wondering if Dad will come home on this first day of a new year. I doubt it. But even if he does, what will it matter? Nothing in our family will ever be the same as it was before.
In the den the television is blaring and Mom is sitting on the sofa, a coffee mug in one hand and a tissue crumpled in the other. I hesitate, because this isn’t where I want to be or what I want to do. Not really.
My mother catches sight of me, swipes the tissue across her eyes and flashes me a smile, but it’s obvious that she’s been crying. I take a deep breath, and I smile back.
I sink down onto the sofa beside her, and together we watch a repeat of that stupid, boring Rose Parade.
© Patricia Bracewell
Did you guess the title?
The Beatles : Yesterday
Patricia was born and raised in Los Angeles. In college she majored in English Literature. Shadow on the Crown is the first book in a trilogy, with the sequel, The Price of Blood, released in 2015. In 2014 Patricia served as Writer in Residence at Gladstone’s Library in Wales and has been a panelist at writing conferences in the U.S. and the U.K. She has spoken to numerous book and school groups about her novels and the research behind them. Currently she is working on the final novel of the Emma of Normandy Trilogy.
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I did not see THAT coming! Real psychological depth to all the characters in such a short story - brilliant. And a reminder of the pressure on so many youngsters at Christmas :( Failed again with the song ' was obsessed by 'New Year's Day.'ReplyDelete
Me too JeanDelete
Thank you, Jean. (I rarely get the songs. I think I've guessed only one so far!)Delete
Pat, what an emotional ride! Families at Christmas, emotions stretched to breaking point, simmering resentment finally bubbling over, and the toll it all takes on younger people... I was riveted, not knowing how it was going to pan out. Fabulous story, thank you. I did guess the song, but only with the brief lyric 'need a place to hide away' and then it all slotted into place.ReplyDelete
Ah - should have got that!!Delete
Thank you, Annie.Delete
Throat still aching while I'm absorbing the intense emotions you have so graphically described, Pat. That poor girl; she'll never forget it her life long. Terrific writing "she stalked up the driveway her high heels on the pavement sounded like pistol shots." What glorious foreshadowing!ReplyDelete
I didn't get the song (I'm generally useless at this sort of thing), but goodness, isn't it appropriate!
Thank you, Alison. Now, forget this sad story and have a lovely Christmas!Delete
All of the above! So very tense an a scenario that must have been endured by far too many teenage children. I thought I'd got the song - ignored the big hint as I thought it was a red herring and went for Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi (took away my old man) because Helen had put a yellow frame around the picture! Thank you Helen!!! Never mind - a great storyReplyDelete
I'd like to be smug and say that was intentional Richard 'fesses up ... it wasn't, it was the only usable pic of a taxi that I could find!Delete
Lol! I got suckered either way!!Delete
Thank you, Richard. Big Yellow Taxi is a good guess, as I'm a HUGE Joni Mitchell fan. But Yesterday was floating in my head while I wrote this, so I set it in the early 70's.Delete
Intense emotions and beautifully done. Perfectly captures the impact of parental strife on children. And a Christmas setting too to make it even more poignant.ReplyDelete
Thank you, Clare.Delete
Hi Everyone. I'm always very late to this wonderful party because of the time difference, but I've been enjoying and sharing all the stories. I'm so grateful to you, Helen, for inviting me. This story was my first attempt to write in the first person p.o.v., and I wanted to capture a voice that was much younger than I am and put it into a story that was poignant but not tragic. The words and the minor melody of that lovely Beatles song really spoke to me. I've always loved it.ReplyDelete
My pleasure, Pat - the story was thoughtfully written, and from the feedback I've received, thoughtfully read!Delete
Tissue warning galore! What a gripping, emotional story.ReplyDelete
Not sure how many boxes we've got through between us for some of these stories! :-)Delete
I didn't guess the song again, too wrapped up in the fabulous story telling! Great writing.ReplyDelete
This struck a deep chord in me. It reminded me of the undercurrents in our home growing up and although no one resorted to violence, holidays were especially a vulnerable time. I've been thinking of this story all this time.ReplyDelete