“What’s it like to be normal?”
“What’s it like being you?” I took a sip of my coffee and refolded the paper. My quiet morning on the porch steps took a hike whenever Pipsqueak joined me.
She glanced up at me with a scrunched nose, all freckles, sleep lines on her cheeks, and messy pigtails. “I asked you first. You’re a teacher. You’re supposed to answer and teach.”
I snorted and rested my elbows on my knees. Sun was about to come up. Soon, the dew covering the grass and bushes in my front yard would glisten with the first rays of sunshine.
“If a teacher never asked questions, there’d be no quizzes,” I pointed out.
“That would be cool.”
She was twelve or thirteen, this neighbor of mine. At times, her logic belonged to that of a genius. She had Autism and tended to put things in a perspective completely foreign to me. But then, she was also a kid. Kids didn’t like studying for tests and quizzes.
“I’m going somewhere with my question,” I said patiently.
She whipped her head to the left, then the right. “Where?”
I smirked briefly at her way of taking things literally. “Just answer, you nut. Or I’ll tell your parents you left the house in your PJs.”
She huffed. “Fine. It’s weird being me, okay? I don’t understand humans.”
I nodded. “Most people go through that. Screw what’s normal, Pipsqueak. Don’t worry about others. You do you.”
“You could’ve just said that…”
There was no winning with this little hurricane. She was extra persnickety this morning, too. New school, new teacher. It put her on edge and made her ramble.
“Never said I was a good teacher, did I?” I emptied my coffee mug and checked the time. Summer was officially over. I had a week of faculty meetings, and then I’d be seeing new seniors. New students whose lives were just waiting to be fucked over.
“Do you have to go?” she asked.
“Soon. I might give myself a late start today.”
That made her sigh. “I can’t wait to grow up so I can do what I want.”
What could I say? The girl was in for a rude awakening. One day, those emerald green peepers of hers that were constantly filled with curiosity and wonder would dim and cloud with the shit life brought. She would grow up and lose her innocence. No longer a girl… Along the way, she’d lose her honesty, too. It was what women did.
“You know what I’ve noticed?” She turned to me, a serious expression on her face. “You never smile, mister. Not even today, and—and, and, it’s your birthday!” She tripped over her words. “I almost forgot. Happy birthday. How old are you now? Oh! Let me guess, please?”
I couldn’t even fake a smile. The times she dropped those tidbits of genuine reflection or observation, it felt like she was kicking me in the gut. Of course I never smiled. I had nothing to smile about. She’d learn one day. Or she’d meet a man who would get a taste of it. Perhaps she’d make her future son feel it. It…being this hollow void that somehow weighed a ton and dragged you down.
“Are you thirty?” she guessed.
I nodded. “Good guess.”
She snickered. “I remember you turned twenty-nine last year.”
Right. Well, it was time to face another hellish day.
“Do it,” I whispered.
I sucked in a breath and pressed the barrel to my temple.
Do it, do it, do it.
My reflection in the bathroom mirror caused my hand to tremble, and I promptly screwed my eyes shut. This could all be over if I only had the balls to pull the trigger. History would be wiped clean. I’d feel no more hatred. I would be gone. Erased. Would I find peace? Or would I just…fade into nothingness?
Do it, do it, do it.
A rushing sound thundered in my ears. My throat closed up. Fuck—it would be over. Wasn’t that what I’d craved for as long as I could remember? The rage wasn’t even the worst of it. This sense of confusion and loss, being lost, constantly wondering, was what I couldn’t live with. I didn’t fucking understand myself. I didn’t know who I was other than a box of crippling emotions. I had no identity.
You never smile, mister.
“You coward.” My eyes burned behind closed lids. “It would be over.” I tensed up as I brushed my finger over the trigger. “Do it.” You’re almost there.
But what if…
A strangled sound escaped me, and a tear rolled down my cheek.
I was caving.
You never smile, mister.
Two knocks on the door were followed by my wife’s voice. “Are you almost done? I have to shower.”
The air was knocked out of my lungs in defeat. Lowering my hand, I opened my eyes again and stared at my pathetic reflection. What was wrong with me? I clenched my jaw. Hating, hating, hating. It felt like I’d run a marathon.
“Yeah.” Exhaustion took over. Today wasn’t the day I killed myself, either. “Be right out.” The gun went back in the cupboard under the sink. It was time to get ready. A new day. I was driving down to Seattle for my monthly visit with my mother.
The blows kept on fucking coming. I dodged left, only to get a knee in the gut. Then I ducked right, and he was on me like a freight train. Jesus. I coughed, pain radiating from my ribcage.
“Pussy.” Darius grinned.
Wiping my forehead, I jumped up again and charged. Sweat poured down and caused my beater to stick to my skin. I welcomed each punch and did everything I could to return them.
I succeeded sometimes.
“Motherfucker.” He chuckled through a groan when I managed to jab him twice in the face. “You’re a good brawler, I'll give ya that. Bad day?”
“You could say that.”
I gnashed my teeth together.
“I don’t know why you keep coming here.”
Funny, I'd been asking myself that question for years. Leaving the doorway, I entered my mother’s room and eyed the new bed. The sicker she became, the more her home looked like a hospital room. According to her nurse, she couldn’t leave the bed on her own anymore. My mother was frail, and she pulled off seventy-five great for a fifty-six-year-old.
One of the two chairs by the window had been removed so she could sit there in her wheelchair instead. The round little table in the middle was littered with books and notes. As I took a seat across from her, I watched her highlight a paragraph in an old senator’s memoir.
“Imbeciles,” she muttered. “Seven typos in two hundred and sixty pages.” Glasses perched on her nose and a bag of lemon-flavored hard candy on her lap was a familiar sight that made my skin crawl. Then, everything about her made my skin crawl.
I wanted her to die.
Because of her, my upper body was covered in tattoos to hide the scars she’d given me.
I hissed and flew back, Darius’s gloved hand splitting my bottom lip open.
“I have work tomorrow,” I barked. Explaining a busted lip wouldn’t be a walk in the park.
He laughed, out of breath, and we took a break to get some water. “You’re something else, man. You’re shit at technique, but damn, you keep getting up.”
I leaned back against the ropes in the boxing ring and reached for my towel. I wasn’t bleeding too much.
When you’d been born on a battlefield, suffering was as natural as breathing. Darius’s uppercut, no matter how hard he delivered it, was nothing.
“You’re like a dog, Avery,” my mother noted. “Regardless of what I do, you’ll come crawling back. You need a leader to follow because you’re too weak to stand on your own.”
I stared at her, forcing a casual expression. The fury I carried for this woman was putrid and all-consuming, and it was slowly suffocating me. Yet, I did come back. Every goddamn month, I drove down to Seattle to see her.
I didn’t say much when I was here. Was there anything to say? She wasn’t going to wake up one morning and realize what she’d done. By the sound of things, she already knew. Either she lacked empathy for it, or she’d made sense of it in a way that absolved her from guilt.
“Good morning!” Pipsqueak closed the gate after her and trailed up the path to my house.
I eyed her, tired as hell. “Morning.”
The past few days, her mood had improved to the point where she was chirpy. I assumed school was going well.
She plopped down next to me and opened a bottle of lemonade. “Nana and I made this. Want some? It’s strawberry and pineapple.”
“No, thank you.” Fanning out the paper next to me, I studied the headlines. Getting back to work and keeping myself updated helped me focus and rid the remnants of the ever-present nightmares. There’s a good one. An article about Rupert Murdoch’s million-dollar contribution to the Republicans should kick off my communication studies class nicely today. I dog-eared the page after reading the piece and moved on.
“Why do people lie?”
I frowned, giving her my attention. “Who’s lying?”
“My uncle,” she replied frankly. “Mom says he’s lying to my aunt about something. They’re all sad.”
I had to admit I enjoyed it when Pipsqueak came over sometimes. It was strangely easy to talk to a kid, but to give her advice she might carry with her into adulthood was fucking terrifying. I couldn’t go there.
I could say one thing, though. “Don’t rush to grow up. Adults are ten times worse than children.” I pointed to her bottle. “Stick to dolls, school, and making lemonade with your grandmother. Because when you’re a grownup, all that is gone.”
And you were left with the thieves, abusers, cheaters, and liars.
They’d turned me into one who was just like them.
Title: Lemonade & Lies
Genre: Contemporary fiction/romance.
Age range: 18+
Word count: Work-in-progress.
Author name: Cara Dee
Why your project is a good fit: It targets a wide audience in which I'm confident about my abilities.
Synopsis: Work-in-progress, but it will be a novel about redemption, friendship, forgiveness, betrayal, love, and making peace when you can't find it.
Your bio: The full version at www.caradeewrites.com
Experience: Five years in indie publishing.
Personality/writing style: Straightforward, realistic, sometimes witty, always with as much focus on the plot as the characters.