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Nightmare Jack

by Tamara Podella


That night Dad grinned all through supper. When we were stooped over our fruit salads Mom reached out tenderly to touch his cheek and said, “Are you smiling, darling?”

My spoon knocked against my teeth like a warning and my body braced itself.

Dad’s hand darted for hers like a chameleon’s tongue snatching up a fly. Mom’s knuckles cracked. She winced. He dropped her hand and she buried it quickly in her lap.

“Don’t touch me again, Poisonwife,” he said through clenched teeth. “Firstborn has the cure now. He is in love.”

Now Mom and Dad both stared at me, she in confusion and he in wild fascination. “But...” Mom began in a quivering voice. She started reaching for his untouched cup of blood.

He grabbed her neck and banged her head on the table. Once. Twice. It happened so fast Harry and I couldn’t keep from gasping.

In the seconds Mom needed to recover a fly buzzed onto the rim of my dessert bowl, slipped and fell into the sticky fruit soup.

“Paul, dear, go and get the equipment,” Mom said, pressing her napkin to her forehead.

Harry jumped up and raced upstairs. I sat there watching the drowned fly. Dad had never treated Mom this brutally in front of us and now that he had, it was my fault. She gave me a reassuring smile and put a finger over her lips even as silent tears streamed down her cheeks.

I rubbed my knuckles against the side of the table. What if I picked up Harry’s Ketchup bottle and smashed it over Dad’s head?

Mom’s soft eyes followed mine. Imploring. Don’t do it. He’s your father!.

A heavy bottle like that would have to knock him out, wouldn’t it? But then what? Then what. Then what. And then Harry came scuttling down the stairs and it was too late.

I had to draw my own blood because Mom’s hands were too shaky. When Dad had gulped it down still warm he laughed and pulled me close by a leg of my chair. I could smell my blood on his breath. “Good son,” he said. “Now tell me, what is your sweetheart’s name?”

I shook my head.

“Tell me her name, Firstborn.”

“No.” He was still holding on to my chair, so tightly that I thought he would crush it any second. “No!” I screamed right in his face.

And suddenly Harry was there supporting me, his hand gripping my shoulder. “Please, Dad, stop it! Promise you won’t hurt that girl! I don’t want to leave here! I want to stay in Cape Town forever!” he said.

Dad rose like a giant dog, blood foaming at his mouth. I got up and took a step backwards, protecting my brother with my body. But it was the wrong move because Dad wasn’t coming for us.

He took it all out on Mom.

* * *

When Harry was in bed and I had heard the sound of Dad driving off into the night in that slow way of his that raised my neck hairs, I made a cup of chamomile tea, got the ice-pack from the freezer and a cigarette with matches from a tin atop the fridge and carried everything upstairs.

Mom’s bedroom door stood ajar. Through the finger-wide opening I glimpsed her standing in front of the mirror. Her face was grey. The bruise on her forehead was scarlet. The mouth of the gun she held to her temple was black.

The teacup, ice-pack, matches and cigarette fell to the floor, bouncing on the carpet with a muffled slap, thud and rattle she didn’t even hear. My mouth was open but I couldn’t call out to her. I couldn’t even push against the door with my naked toe. It was like in one of those dreams, where you’re running and running but the monster’s teeth are already sinking into your neck because no matter how fast you are you’re not going anywhere.

Then Mom grabbed the gun with both hands and pointed it at her reflection, pale lips moving. What was she whispering, her eyes like rocks in the rain? And still I was frozen.

Suddenly she turned away from the mirror and for a second our eyes met. Slowly, she wrapped the gun in one of her nightgowns and stowed it in the bottom of her underwear drawer.

Ten minutes later I brought her a fresh cup of tea and watched her smoke her cigarette while she held the ice-pack to her temple and smiled as if she’d rather be sitting there on the bed with me than anywhere else in the world. She didn’t say anything and I didn’t ask.

* * *

After that night I returned Ramona’s Nightmare Jack and tried to avoid her, but she stuck around no matter how rude I got. She didn’t mind that I couldn’t go out after school. Let alone invite her to my house.

One time bunking up in the woods I noticed a shadow across a gnarled root not far from us. A long, human shadow. She asked me what was wrong and I said nothing. She studied me with those magical, serious eyes. “You need a diversion,” she said. Then she took off her blouse. Underneath she was wearing a purple Pearl Jam t-shirt. “Eff school. We’re going to spend the rest of the morning in town. Got any money?”

I nodded. Form the corner of my eye I was still watching the shadow.

“Turn around a sec,” she said.

“Okay.” I walked towards the shadow, my heart crouching in my throat. I rounded the tree, ready to face my father’s bloodshot eyes. Nothing. Just a rock that must have stood there forever.

All shaky in the knees I tried to stroll back casually. She had turned her school skirt inside out, the inside being purple as her t-shirt. “I got the trick from Girls just wanna have fun.”

She grinned and looked so proud again that it made me feel funny and light inside. The next day I bought an old cell phone off a classmate, breaking one of the Sheldon Family Rules. We phoned each other before we went to sleep. Ramona told me jokes and I thought up nightmares for Nightmare Jack to hunt. She never asked questions. It was as if she knew.

Several weeks passed. Harry and I rode home together afternoons right after school. Something had changed between us. We had become true brothers. While he let off steam on his trampoline I swam my rounds in the pool. We watched Bruce Lee movies and played computer games in my room.

Harry thought I had a plan. I didn’t, but when I listened to myself telling him that we were going to stay in Cape Town forever I believed what I said. All I had to do was find a way to prevent Dad from messing things up again.

* * *

“My Dad used to hit my Mom,” Ramona said one Friday. We’d been perched atop a walnut tree for some time, just listening to the wind as she called it. It could get boring at times but she had so much fun and I loved to see her happy.

“Did he hit you too?”

“Once. When she saw that she finally got up the courage to leave him.”

I felt her solemn gaze but didn’t turn to her. Through the shivering green leaves I studied the colours down in the valley. “Do you miss him?”

“No! Are you mad? Although...” and her voice trailed off until it was lost in the rustlings of the leaves.

I wanted to laugh hysterically but only coughed for a bit. Would Mom change if she saw Dad hitting me? And if so, what could she do? If she went to the police and confessed, they would both go to gaol. She was guilty of faking 32 passports and turning a blind eye to Dad’s deeds in a dozen garages. And Harry and me? We’d be orphans.

Even so, I couldn’t stop thinking about what Ramona had told me. I lay awake nights, racking my brain for ways to make Dad want to hit me. But even in my imagination he anticipated my every move, laughing in my face with his blood breath before going for Mom; and sometimes, which was infinitely worse, he even went for Harry. And in my dreams I saw my mother holding the gun to her temple. How could she be so weak? I couldn’t hear what she whispered until her voice grew louder and louder and all at once she was screaming He’s your father, he’s your father, he’s your father!

* * *

On a hot day in February Harry and I were busy pushing our bikes up the last windy Capetonian hill to our house, when a black limousine with tinted windows passed us ever so slowly. It turned onto our property and the driver’s window rolled down, revealing Dad’s hawk-nosed profile as he pointed the remote control at the gate. We pedalled like mad to make it inside before the gate closed and prepared ourselves for trouble.

It came at supper. When we entered the kitchen she was sitting with her back to me, next to Dad. Long black hair. Purple t-shirt. Two dishcloths tied around her head: probably as blindfold and gag. A huge carving knife gleamed next to Dad’s plate. Harry started hiccupping and clutched my hand. Mom placed a silver pasta dish in front of Dad, who had tucked a white napkin into his shirt collar the way he did on Christmas Eve.

“Mathew, Paul, do sit down,” Mom said, about an octave above her usual pitch.

I had to think fast as I nudged Harry towards his seat. “Aw, spaghetti! I’m still in my school shirt. Be down in a sec,” I said, hurling myself up the stairs before Dad could turn and see the lie in my eyes. And with every second that passed as I ripped out Mom’s drawer, dug for the gun and checked that there were really bullets in the magazine, I wasn’t praying. I was willing life to obey me, to hold still. Guarding myself against the sound of Ramona’s scream as he plunged the knife into her heart.

When I returned to the kitchen Mom and Harry were pretending to eat. I walked right up behind Dad and held the gun to his left temple. I believe I spoke calmly. “Harry, help Ramona and run to the neighbours. Tell them to call the cops and wait there.”

From the corner of my eye I saw Harry jump up and help Ramona to her feet, not even stopping to take off the blindfold, and Mom press one hand to her mouth. I didn’t want to look at Ramona. I didn’t know what I would have done if I’d looked at her. I was staring at the blue snake that was my father’s vein, which pulsated under the pressure of the gun.

I was prepared for him to jump up, but not for how fast he would be. Growling like a dog he pounced through the air, elbowing me out of the way and launching himself towards the door Harry and Ramona were just exiting. My brother made it, giving me a last scared-to-death look, then hurtling out of sight — safe, Harry was safe! — but Dad caught Ramona by her jeans. There was a sickening crack when her head hit the bare kitchen tiles.

I hardly realised that I had shot him until I saw his trousers turning dark with blood at the back of his thigh. Ramona was lying on her stomach, limp and silent. Dad pushed himself forward spider-like, dragging the hurt leg. One hand clawed at the back of her neck. In the other he held the knife.

I must have dropped the gun because I had both hands free when I pulled back his hair and kicked him in the ribs. He hurled out a fist that caught me on the side of the jaw and sent me sprawling against the table. As plates, glasses, spaghetti and a beaker of my blood crashed onto the floor I searched frantically for the gun but couldn’t see it anywhere. It didn’t matter. Dad had stopped hurting Ramona and was coming after me and there was still a chance she would wake up again.

As I pulled myself up he leered at me, his eyes so sick I almost welcomed his fist in my face.

I couldn’t have been out for more than a few seconds. When I opened my eyes he was struggling to drag Ramona towards the door, hopping on one leg. Dazed and desperate I sort of wildly scrambled towards them, shouting something, probably a pathetic “Leave her alone!”

He grinned at me, flipped her over and drew a small cut into the side of her neck, his tongue flicking. The knife gleamed. His hands were perfectly calm.

Her blindfold had come off. “Be very quiet, Firstborn, unless you want to watch me kill her here.”

My heart stopped beating and my knees grew weak. She had black hair and a fringe and wore a purple t-shirt, but it didn’t say Pearl Jam and it wasn’t Ramona.

He probably took the look on my face for fear. “That will teach you to betray your Sire. Poisonwife, go upstairs. Firstborn will carry her into the garage.”

A shadow had fallen over the girl and we both looked up. There was Mom, the gun in her hands. Her lips were moving just the way they had in front of the mirror in the bedroom. The words she was whispering were the words of a Hail Mary. “Get out, Jack,” Mom said then.

Somehow I lifted the girl and dragged her out of the kitchen before the shot rang out.

I was sprawled on the cold lounge tiles, my breath coming in rasps. I couldn’t hear the ticking of my swatch. Time crawled by. Then, bang, a second shot rattled my bones. In the deafening silence that followed I walked towards the kitchen, stiff as a Zombie just risen from the grave. I fixed my eyes on the door. Any moment now one of my parents would be coming out.

I knew it was foolish of me to just stand there, but I had to know who it would be. I decided there and then that if my father came out, I would fight him. It was easy to picture it. He would be drooling and grotesque, blood dripping from the hand that held the gun.

Easy to picture myself ramming my head into his stomach and kicking the gun out of his hand just as the cops arrived to handcuff him. It was harder to imagine my mother opening the door. Would she be able to look me in the eye? That prayer she had whispered. And Jack. For the first time in five years she had called me Jack. Yes, much harder imagining Mom coming out. But any moment now.

I swallowed, tasting blood. Gradually, the violent thumping in my chest subsided. I could feel something warm run down my cheeks. At first I thought it was blood, but then I realized I was crying. I glanced down at the swatch and saw that ten minutes had gone by, but it was only when I heard the wailing of a police siren that I was able admit to myself that neither of my parents would be walking out that door, that I had known this all along and done nothing to prevent it. I, Jack.

My mother left her last will in the tin can on top of the fridge. It contained an account of our family’s murderous journey across the globe; our birth certificates and the printout of an email exchange in which a certain Sherman Maggle promises to become our legal guardian.

Mr Maggle turned out to be big-haired, bell-bottom ‘Uncle Shaggy’, our next-door-neighbour back in Maine, when my father had only been a bank employee who loved pot roast and the Red Sox. Uncle Shaggy ended up falling in love with Cape Town just like Harry and I had, and it only took him a year and a half to move his Shiatsu studio, ten dogs and the two of us back there.

But before all that, while we waited for him to arrive, Ramona did something that stands out in my memory bright and sure as a lighthouse. We were stretched out on the floor of the hotel room the cops had taken us to. Harry was asleep on the bed. “By the way,” I said, trying to keep my voice from trembling like a dork’s, “my name’s Jack,” when she leans over and kisses my eyes, her raven hair falling round us like velvet night.

“Thanks for saving me, Jack,” she whispers beneath its silky, secret cover.

“Uh, technically it wasn’t you I—”

And Ramona kisses my mouth, just as though I’m the reason she was born.

Copyright © 2011 by Tamara Podella

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