The slap stung, like there were a thousand red lit poker sticks searing past his skin, and burning his soul within. He didn’t dare to look up, didn’t dare look at his mother’s angry face-tears down her hollowed out cheeks from the grief she was enduring, he didn’t dare gaze up to face his father’s disappointed face. Oh, the disappointment. It curled up into a ball and lodged itself into his throat, so large and so tightly would that if he were to open his mouth and try to form the words he so desperately wanted to say, nothing would come out. Not a sound.
From the corner of his eyes, he could see the guests stand up. Uncles and aunts and cousins he had known for as long as he could remember. They were-or used to be-his strongest support system. Now they stared at him. In anger. Humiliation. Disappointment. Every range of unpleasant emotions made itself known on their face, and in them he could see not one fleck on sympathy, not a single thing that he could use as comfort.
“How dare you,” his mother hissed in the harsh quiet. “How dare you stand there mouthing off what’s right and wrong in this world. How to behave when you yourself…” She ran her hand over her eyes. That’s right, he had forgotten. Tears were weakness. She glared at him, her voice climbing higher and higher, “you have no right to say anything. Any right you had of speech was gone the minute you turned away from the poor girl. Turned away and never looked back. How dare you.”
The clock ticked in the background. The lump was still lodged in his throat. He wanted to speak up, he wanted to defend himself so badly. But…what could he say? Everything that mother had said was true. None of it was made up. None of it was rumors that floated around this small town like a fire rampaging through a forest. True, true, true. Every bit of it was true.
Finally, I looked up at her. I could see the hatred burning in her eyes. And…sorrow. The sorrow for the son that she thought she had raised right and he turned out all wrong. The son who ruined the family. Forever.
“You know that’s not what I meant,” I whispered. “You know that when it happened I had no other choice, I had to do what I could.”
“What you could’ve done is fessed up, taken care of her like you knew anyone else would.” Father came forward and put his hand on mother’s shoulder in a silent sign of support. To me, it was a silent sign of submission. I held my tongue against the sharp remark that was begging to be spoken. I would only find another night locked in my room without any food had I dared to utter a sound.
Father started to help Mother to her seat again, supporting her frail hand as she supported herself on the back of the seat. And suddenly I felt anger. How can they stand there judging me, knowing that I did what I had to do to protect myself, to protect the family. Can’t they see that it would have come back later, been more trouble, made them resentful of the actions I had once taken in the name of respect, in the name of honesty.
“How do you know?” My voice came out strong, my anger pulsing through the words and lighting the tone of the mood in various shades of red.
Father turned around slowly to look at me. Almost as if he couldn’t believe I had dared to speak up, dared to defend myself against the crime that surrounded me every day.
“How do I know?” He spoke slowly, in disbelief I would guess judged on his expression. His hand clenched and he took a step towards me.
“How do you know anyone else would’ve taken care of her? Protected her? Given her a home? She might be gone but at least she’s safe from this town.”
People in the room gasped, my mother closed her eyes and raised her hand to her forehead. “God bless her soul.”
I stepped closer to my father, the tears blurring my vision, yet I wouldn’t let them fall. I would never let them fall. “How do you know what she wanted? What did you think would’ve happened to her if that baby had been born? The whole town would’ve turned against her. You stand here and you judge me and the next second…” I took a breath, “you would’ve turned against her as surely as you’ve turned against me today. I loved her. And I did what I had to do.”
“Get out,” Father’s voice penetrated the silent air. “You may have cared for her but you sure as hell did not care enough to save her. You did not love her. You don’t even know the meaning of love.”
“You’re right, because in this house you’ve caged everyone in. You and Mother don’t even love each other. You’re just like her little pet, following her around wherever she goes.” I scoffed. “Love. I know love better than anyone else in this room.”
Father threw the first thing he took hold of, a crudely put together tea cup and chucked it at me. The sound of shattering glass behind me made me flinch. “Get out! You’re never welcome in this house again. You don’t have the audacity, the respect that’s needed in this family. Don’t you dare step foot in this house until you’ve regained your honour. So I guess…” he smirked at me, “never.”
Mother didn’t try to stop him. Didn’t even bother to lift her head. She was murmuring prayers underneath her breath, God save us all, God save us all.
He pushed me out and slammed the door behind. No clothes, no trinkets. Not like I had anything anyways. I was always alone in this world.
I walked down the deserted street my hands clenched tightly in my pant pockets. They didn’t know anything. None of them did. They all walked around with their noses up in the air, exalted an air of confidence when in reality they were just as oblivious as everyone else in this world.
Only I knew.
Only I knew her.
I looked at the park bench as I passed it, her voice playing in my head. Leo! Leo! You’ll never believe what I found…can’t get it unless you catch me first! Her laughter rang in my head as she slid from one end of the park to the other.
As I passed the ice parlor I started to roll up my sleeves, hearing the jingle of the bell echo in my mind. I love this ice cream…we should come here every day and just stuff ourselves full of it…do you love me?…I got you a present…too bad you can’t have it!
As I ran my hands through my hair and fisted them. It wasn’t fair. None of this was fair. Hearing the shrill whistle of the train I turned my head sharply. There it was. The old sagging bar, surrounded by yellow grass that was long forgotten and different colored stones littered the dirt.
I approached it hesitantly, afraid I would see the ghost of Anne sitting on the bar. Her legs swinging back and forth, the blue ribbon in her hair moving along.
When nothing happened I watched as the train moved along, blowing back my hair and pushing my shirt against my chest.
I felt fingers brush against my arm and turned my head. Anne sat there smiling at me mischievously. Where are you heading Leo?
I saw myself leap up in front of her and take her hands. Away. Far, far, away. Let’s run away and never look back.”
She threw her head back and laughed, you’re so silly sometimes.
And now Leo and Anne were sitting farther away. Anne had her arms crossed around her chest, tears streaming down her face. Leo sat beside her, desperately trying to comfort her.
Come on Anne, we’ll figure this out. Please don’t cry.” Leo wiped the tears away.
She brushed away his hand. “How can I not cry Leo? I’m pregnant, and this baby isn’t going to survive this life. This town will have me out of here before you know it.”
Leo shook his head and stood, “No, not if we do something about it.”
“We can’t do anything!” She fisted her hands in her hair and sobbed.
Leo closed his eyes and looked out to see the oncoming train. He took a deep breath in, “we can jump.”
Anne turned her head up confused, “what do you mean jump?”
Leo glanced at the train and then back at Anne, quietly, “you know what I mean.”
“But…” She looked at the tracks. After appearing conflicted her face relaxed and she nodded in acceptance. “OK,” she whispered.
I grabbed both her hands. “Don’t be afraid, I’ll be right behind you, and we’ll never look back. We’ll be a family. A real family.”
Leo glanced at the train, “get ready…”
She turned to face the train and then spun back quickly and gripped his face, “don’t forget-I will always love you.”
I clenched my hand as the memory faded. After that, it had all been a blur. She had never planned to jump, never planned to run away with me. She had known that I had to stay here, that I would always be caged here. Forever. And while everyone else believed I killed her because I didn’t want the baby-in reality she killed me because she thought it would make me happy. She took my life away, my only love. And even though she’s dead, I will love her and hate her at the same time, for confining me.
Don’t forget to jump Leo. Anne whispered in my ear.
I closed my eyes and stepped onto the tracks. I could hear the grinding of the train as they frantically tried to slow down. But it would be to no avail.
I know this is the only way that I will restore my family’s honour. For they know that I can never exist without her, and I am nothing without her. I will no longer bring dishonour, but only peace. “Pray for me Mother,” I whispered, before everything went dark.