Defining Moment
Jennifer O'Neil
Jennifer O'Neil is completing her Master's degree in English at EIU. Her story "The Definintion of Fear" won the James K. Johnson Creative Writing Award in Fall 2009. —JDK

he’s screaming at me. She’s always screaming at me. I don’t even know what her problem is today, but it’s dark outside and we’ve just arrived home from her sister Connie’s house a couple hours away. On the way home, she got so angry she kicked my dad and me out of the car to walk on the side of the highway, only to come back and pick us up about 20 minutes later. Now I’m standing outside listening to them arguing about me in the house. Something feels different. She’s angrier than usual. Whatever they’re arguing about, I can hear my dad trying to explain to her that I’m only 12, I didn’t know any better, she should take it easy on me.

“She’s a little bitch is what she is! I’m going to beat the shit out of her. She needs to learn, Robert.”

I’m scared, but I’m used to that by now. I know that whatever she has planned for me is gonna be bad, but there’s nothing Dad or I can do about it. If he can’t talk her out of it now, nothing will stop her. I huddle down next to the doghouse in the front yard and wrap my arms around my knees. I’m not crying. I learned long ago that it’s only worse if I cry, so I don’t shed a tear. Max, our Rottweiler, is inside, barking at the argument. I want to call him to me, but I’m afraid of drawing attention to myself. I hear a smack as she hits him and he yelps.

“Oh, Necia, don’t take it out on the fucking dog, for Christ’s sake!” my dad yells at her.

I tense. I don’t want her to hit Max because she’s mad at me, but I don’t want her to hit me, either.        

Max pushes the front door open and runs down to the doghouse I’m squatting against. He always knows when I’m scared or hurt, which lately seems to be more frequently than usual. He sits down beside me and leans into my shoulder. I hug him to me and try to listen harder to what my dad and step-mother are saying.

“Well, if you wouldn’t spoil the little bitch . . . you let her get away with murder!”

“She’s just a kid! What do you expect?”

I can hear them stomping around the house, through the different rooms, still yelling at each other. Most of their words are muffled by the thick house walls, so I’m blindsided when Dad rushes out of the house with two small duffle bags in his hands.

“KayLynn! Come on, get in the truck, now!”

I scramble to the front porch and he grabs my arm hard and pushes me toward the driveway.                   

“Go!” he yells. We’re both running toward his panel truck now. I’ve never seen my dad act this way before and I’ve certainly never seen him run; his multiple sclerosis has gotten too bad.  Now I’m really worried.

“Dad, why are you running?” I ask, but he ignores my question and opens the driver’s side door and shoves me in, pushing me across the seat.

“Stay down! Get on the floor!” he yells as he slides behind the steering wheel.

My step-mother has disappeared into the back of the house.        

“What’s wrong? Where are we going?”

He slams the truck door shut and the engine makes me jump as Dad turns the key in the ignition. He jerks the gearshift into reverse and floors the gas pedal. Gravel flies up from the ground as he speeds backward down the long driveway and into the street. He’s about to shift into drive when I pop my head up from my place on the floorboards to see Necia burst out the front door with my new puppy Stubby in one hand, and Dad’s .38 caliber pistol in the other. She’s running down the driveway, waving the gun between the dog and the truck. This is nothing new. She’s pulled a gun on my dad and me before. I know she’d never actually shoot at us, but I worry that she might actually get away with shooting my dog. She’s yelling again.

“I’m gonna kill your dog, you stupid bitch! You’d better come get him or I’m gonna fucking shoot him!”

Dad tries to grab the back of my shirt, but it’s too late; I open my door and jump out of the truck, running toward my step-mother and Stubby. I’m about a yard away from them when I stop and reach for the dog. She drops him four long feet to the ground and he lays there whimpering. My eyes are on him, and I’m leaning down to pick him up when I feel something cold slam into the middle of my forehead. I hear my dad yelling in the background, but I’ve somehow forgotten how to interpret language; his words are garbled, muted. I look up into her furious eyes, her right arm extended in front of her, the .38 pressing hard into my forehead. Waves of heat and cold run through my body as I try to understand what’s happening. My eyes immediately fall on the gun’s safety switch. She never takes it off when she threatens us— she just wants to scare us.

This time it’s off. I barely have enough time to think oh, God before I see her finger twitch on the trigger.

All those movies that show the moment before someone dies in slow motion have it right, except the only thing I have time to think of is how it’s going to hurt more than anything she’s ever done to me. The fact that she is about to become my murderer does not surprise or scare me. I’ve been ready to die for a while, if only to escape her.

She pulls the trigger all the way back till it hits the metal of the handle behind it. I even hear the metals click together. And then I hear nothing except a louder click that resonates deep into my ears through the bones of my skull. Confusion floods her face. She pulls the trigger again. Again, it only clicks. By the time she’s ready to pull the trigger a third time, Dad is there grabbing the gun away from her. She swings at him with the loaded gun and he wrestles it away from her.

“Are you fucking crazy?” he’s screaming at her. “You just tried to kill her! You’re not getting out of this by flashing your badge, not this time.”

“Thaaat’s right, I can get out of anything because I work at the prison. And for all the shit this fucking whore puts me through, I should have every right to shoot her in the face.”

She turns to me and I instinctively back up a step.

“You bitch, I’m gonna fucking kill you! You’re worthless, I hate you. Your whore of a mother should’ve aborted you.”

“That’s enough, Necia. I’m calling the cops.”

“Oh yeah, you do that. Let’s see how well they listen this time. No one’s going to believe that little lying sack of shit,” she says, nodding toward me.

“Get back in the truck, KayLynn,” Dad says.

“What about Stubby?” I ask.

“Leave him. Get in the truck.”

“But . . .”

He whips his head around to glare at me and I run back to the truck. A few seconds later, he returns to the truck with the gun, turns the safety on, and tucks it under his seat. Necia picks Stubby up by his throat and stands holding him like that in the driveway, smiling at me. I know she’s going to kill him.

My dad shifts gears and drives away from the house as I continue watching Necia out the back window. I watch her stand, unmoving, till we turn a corner and she’s no longer visible. When we’re a few miles from the house, Dad pulls the truck over, takes the full clip out of the gun, and puts both the clip and the gun in the glove box.

“Don’t touch that,” he says to me.

“Where are we going, Dad? What’s gonna happen now?”

“I don’t know, kiddo. You okay?” In one of his rare moments of open affection, he reaches over and strokes my hair. I can tell he’s trying not to cry. I’ve never seen him cry before, being an ex-Green Beret, but I know that the very few times in his adult life that he has cried have been over me.

“I think we’re gonna go back to your Aunt Connie’s. We’ll stop somewhere and call her in a while. You hungry? We didn’t get around to dinner, did we?”

I shake my head feebly. “I’m sorry, Daddy,” I say.

“Sorry for what?”

“For jumpin’ out of the truck. You think she’s gonna kill Stubby?”

“Nah, she won’t kill him. He’ll be fine, don’t worry.”

We drive on for a while in silence and almost complete darkness. Finally I ask, “Daddy, what happened with the gun? Wasn’t it cleaned good? Why’d it jam?”

Dad inhales sharply. He doesn’t want to talk about this.

“I don’t know, KayLynn. I cleaned it last week after we went to the range.” He hesitates. “It shouldn’t have jammed.” I can almost hear the words he isn’t saying: But I’m glad it did.

“Anyway, don’t worry about it. You want some food when we stop?”

I shake my head again. “No, I’m not hungry. Thank you, though, Daddy.”

He looks at me, searching my face. Finally, he says, “‘Kay, well how about you try to get some sleep then? I’ll wake you up when we get there.”

He pulls the blanket from the back of the truck seat down around my shoulders.

“Love you,” he says quietly.

“Love you, too, Daddy.”

Early this morning at Connie’s house, Dad calls the local police for our town and tells them what happened last night. Two officers go out to our house to talk to Necia, who tells them she has no idea what they’re talking about, that she doesn’t even own a .38 caliber pistol and invites them to look in our gun cabinets as proof. By now, she’s already hidden all the .38 ammunition.

She explains to them that she is an officer at the penitentiary in a neighboring city and they end up talking more about being cops than her trying to shoot her 12-year-old step-daughter. She convinces them that nothing of the sort happened, and shows them that Stubby is perfectly alive and healthy to satisfy my “lie” about her vowing to shoot him.

She even tells them that my father is molesting me, when it is actually her. I explain this to the cops over the phone, and many times in person. I explain that my dad has never laid a hand on me, not even to spank me when I was little. But she has the badge, not me, not Dad. This is the third time Dad has called the police on her, and the third time that they have left without solving anything. I’ve begun to hate cops by now.

We stay with Aunt Connie for a couple of days to let Necia cool down some before making the long trip home. In these couple of days, I beg Dad not to take me back, for us to stay here, with Connie, until we can figure out somewhere else to go. I beg him to divorce her so that he and I can move somewhere together and not ever go back to her. After a long phone conversation with her, he tries to convince me everything will be okay when we go back. She’s sorry for what she did, she wishes she could take it back.

“She even cried,” he tells me, says she misses us, misses me.

Of course she misses me, I think. She has no one to violate, no one to take her anger out on. Yeah, she misses me alright.

If only Dad were in better health, maybe we could leave. But he’s too sick and can’t work anymore, so I have to stay, too. I imagine that I could mow lawns or wash cars to support us so we wouldn’t have to live with her anymore, but she’d find us anyway. Dad tries to protect me, I know, but he’s just not strong enough.

The day we go back, I walk into the house trembling, anticipating whatever punishment she has concocted for us running away from her yet again. At first, I don’t see her, which both relieves and frightens me. At Dad’s prodding, I go to my bedroom and start unpacking my duffle bag and sorting out the clean clothes from the dirty. I take the dirty clothes into the laundry room and suddenly I hear her raspy voice call my name. I put my clothes on top of the washer and go into her bedroom, where she’s lying down with a cold washcloth on her forehead. She smiles weakly at me. Another trick.

“Come 'ere, baby. I’m sorry, honey. Come see Mama.”

Relieved that she’s in a rare good mood and thinking that maybe she really is sorry, I take advantage of it and crawl into the bed next to her and hug her tightly. I know this will only last for a day or so, and I need to get on her good side while I have the chance. She kisses my forehead and rubs my back and all past transgressions are once again forgiven. We lie there like that, my head on her chest, for several minutes before she asks if I’m hungry.

 “I bet Aunt Connie fed you well, though, huh?”

 I panic. If she thinks about Aunt Connie, she’ll remember we ran away from her, and she’ll remember that she has to punish me. Under my hot cheeks, I feel her tense slightly, then relax.

 “Let’s go make some dinner for your dad, huh?”

She seems to have forgotten and I am safe, for now. I know that within the next day or two, I will bleed at her hands. But right now, I’m content to live in the moment because I am not in pain, I am not bleeding, I am not afraid. I feel more love for her than is natural because she has spared me, if even just for a day. I just want to be near her, to make her happy, make her proud of me. Tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that, I will hate her, so I revel in being able to love someone, anyone, and in being loved back while I still have the chance.

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